Saturday, October 8, 2016

A Forest Ultra

Run for the Toad 50k – October 1, 2016

The voice in my head began speaking to me as I was about 20k into my run. “Sure,” the voice said. “You’ve gone almost a half-marathon – a decent morning’s run for anyone. But you still have 30k to go. You’re not even halfway there.”

And I had “the feeling.” I have experienced it before: once long ago at 10k of a marathon I had entered at the last minute. A sinking, missing-the-last-bus, alone, hopeless feeling in the centre of my being. A feeling that I have no business being out here, that I will never finish and may in fact be forgotten out on the course as the sun sets and everybody goes home. Luckily I ignored the feeling that day and went on to run a personal best for the marathon.

So as I passed through 20k of the Run for the Toad 50k – my first try at the distance – I was expecting that feeling, as I was waiting for the voice, and this day too I was able to disconnect both and keep running. In a few minutes I felt fine again.

Note to self: remember how you did that.

A year ago I did the 25k version of this event and loved it. A helpful and optimistic volunteer suggested I might want to try the 50k this year. With no good reason other than her casual encouragement, I set this as my goal event for the season.

The race takes place in the Pinehurst Lake Conservation Area, about an hour west of Toronto,  over a very user-friendly course comprising well-groomed trails through pine forests and grassy paths across open fields. Each lap is 12.5k, so, 4 of them for the whole 50. 

It was a cool overcast day with rain threatening but never really materializing. I ran cautiously but steadily. I encountered my friend the volunteer from last year in her usual traffic-directing spot and let her know that it would be all her fault if I crashed and burned, ending up as a helpless pile of mushed muscle and snapped sinews. This is the kind of lame humour I typically offer the volunteers as I run past.

Anyone who knows me knows how much I detest it when someone labels what I do as “crazy.” I have no time for these people. With all the truly insane things going on in the world, I ask, how is it crazy to have a dream, set a goal, make plans, and then take steps to achieve your goal? Why can I not be labelled brave, or determined – or at least congenial?

As my voice had reminded me, two laps, or 25k, would have been a good morning’s workout, an honourable end to the season. But I wanted more. I have run lots of marathons – more than I can remember in fact – but this time, like Nigel Tufnel’s amplifier, I wanted to see what would happen if I turned it up to eleven.

Did I have the strides to carry me into ultramarathon territory?

As I ran I couldn’t resist looking at the time, something I rarely do in a trail run. Because all trails are different, there is no point in comparing today’s race with the one you did somewhere else a month ago. But since even finishing the distance was going to be a total learning experience for me, I glanced at my watch as I made my way around each of the first three laps. I didn’t care how long I took, but I wanted the finish line not to have been dismantled before I got across it.

Got 'er done.
My body knew what it had to do; I had been training for this race since last winter and I had put in the requisite work.  When I got to the last lap – the last 12.5k – I knew I had it and I enjoyed every step. The field of runners had thinned out (as it does when you are at the back of it) and I frequently had the dark green, misty trail all to myself. As I passed the 5k marker for the fourth time (telling me I had run a total distance of 42.5 kilometres), I stopped in the middle of the path in the silent forest, raised my arms heavenward, and let the voice in my head tell me, “You’re an ultramarathoner.”

Amazingly, I managed not to trip or stumble; this is probably due more to luck than skill – not to mention my Hoka One One Speedgoat shoes – but staying upright is always a great morale booster. As usual, I felt stronger as I approached the finish line than I had all day. When I finished, I had been running for just under seven hours. 

This was the finale of my season, which began with Around the Bay back in April. I have grandiose plans to build on what I've learned this year. The next task is to teach myself to pace better, to become more confident running up and down hills, and to remind the voice in my head that each step is one more closer to my goal, and that I am indeed getting there.