I laced up my shoes and pulled on my hydration pack. I then un-did my shoes and re-laced them again, just so. But I was still not happy that my laces were quite at that point of perfection, so once again I unlaced them, loosened them a little, and ensured they were double tied. Okay–let’s go, you can do this thing! Oh, you were thinking this was at the start line of the Chuckanut 50k this past weekend? Sorry, I should have said, this was before heading out for a 40k training run two weeks prior. I was as nervous as I’d ever been before a race. After all, if I couldn’t run 40k in training, then a 50k race two weeks later would definitely be a no go. And I really wanted it to be a go. Thankfully the 40k run went well, despite being a bit of a suffer fest. The various injuries held out and before I had a chance to doubt myself even more, I sent an email to [Chuckanut Race Director] Krissy Moehl and all of a sudden, my name was on the entrants list of an ultra. Yikes!
Roll on two weeks and I stood at the start line of Chuckanut. I was surprisingly calm. I’d already told my buddy that there was no way I was going to win this thing. Jodee Adams-Moore’s course-record time from 2013 is just insane so if she was going to run anywhere near that, then she wasn’t even going to be within sight after the first few kilometers. The aim of the game? Run steady, test the niggling injuries, and run a ‘respectable’ time–a sub-4:30 finish would be nice. If not, I’ll make it to that finish line in whatever time it takes–there is an eight-hour cut off. I can do this! If nothing else, it would be a gauge to see where I am at in terms of injury recovery and fitness.
The start line was a flurry of emotion. As I looked around at so many familiar faces that I hadn’t seen in so long, it was almost too much: too many hugs, too many good luck-wishes and welcome-back shouts from racers who I didn’t even know. This is why I love ultra trail running–the community. Keep calm, I told myself and with one last hug from Yassine Diboun, I got myself behind Jodee at the start line and before I knew it, we were off!
In my return to racing from injury, I’d raced a half marathon in mid February (1:18:28, a small PR) and I’d posted some solid times at my weekly interval workouts with my running club, so I knew that I was fit. But did I have the endurance? For this reason, I let Jodee, Becka Kem, and a stream of men whoosh past me along the Interurban Trail. I knew that I could run faster but as I saw a 4:12 kilometer on my Garmin, I knew that that was fast enough at this stage in a 50k race, especially given my doubts on my endurance. For the first time in many years, I’d been building up my long run from 20k, to 25k, to 30k and then ultimately 42k. In the past, I’d always bubbled along at being able to run 50k at pretty much anytime of year. Now I didn’t have that confidence behind me but I had to trust that I’d built up steadily and sensibly, with a focus more on quality rather than quantity.
As we hit the first aid station, we left the flat of the Interurban Trail for the climbing of the Fragrance Lake Trail and then the slog up Cleator Road began. This was the section that concerned me the most. In my return to running, I feel that I still need to work on uphills more than anything and I was convinced of this further still as a handful of men began to pass me. I started walking very early in the ascent up Cleator Road. I looked at the incline and knew I should be running but the legs just wouldn’t move. But I remembered my friend telling me that it was okay to walk, and so that’s what I did. Walk, run, walk, shuffle jog, walk, run. At least I had the steady pace of a new Vancouver friend, Jesse, by my side, he ran every single step but somehow I kept with him with my run/walk shuffle and it was motivating to feel I wasn’t losing too much ground.
I typically love the Ridge Trail but once again, men began to power past me. I stood to the side and let them pass. I began to wonder if the Ridge Trail had gotten more technical, so it was crushing to realize that the trail was the same, but it was me who had lost my technical-running skills. But in my return to running from injury, I’d only had a limited number of runs and a limited amount of time to work on my running. I’d worked on my fitness but maybe not had the time to work on my skills, so today I’d just have to work with what I had.
I soon found myself alone on the trail. I’d lost the guys ahead but I tried to think positively that at least I wasn’t getting caught, and I’m not quite sure how given how slowly it felt that I was moving. I now resolved that really I was just ‘running’ rather than ‘racing.’ Jodee was surely miles ahead of me and I needed to just focus on one foot in front of the other and making it to the finish line. I split 25k in about 2:15. Hmn, maybe I would be a 4:30 day after all, and of course this was not what I’d secretly hoped for so it was hardly helping to lift my spirits. But, I tried to focus on the positive: I now felt that I would actually make it to the finish line, and if I did it would be my first ultra finish in 11.5 months, and even better than that my injuries were not flaring up. It had been a tough call to decide when I race my first ultra back from injury–too soon and I’d either not be fit or might risk re-injury, but equally I needed the motivation of a race to get me back out running with purpose and for the pure fun of it. After all, racing is what I love. It was hard, however, to be slogging along on my own, at what seemed like snail’s pace, and to think this is what I’d been looking forward to for months! I began to doubt if I was still an ultrarunner.
However, soon things began to turn around. Solana from Vancouver appeared mid trail cheering and clanging a cowbell, and as I descended to the aid station at the bottom on Chinscraper, Lars appeared full of pep and motivation. Normally I can motivate myself just fine, but as I lacked confidence in my abilities it was great to have this outside motivation. As I started to slog up Chinscraper with Yassine, we were both suffering but Yassine was still ‘racing’ and he definitely helped me make the switch from ‘running’ to ‘racing.’ It was just what I needed.
Once atop Chinscraper, things got mentally so much easier. The climbs that I knew I as not really trained for were all behind me and I’d survived them. I felt confident that I had tested my injuries enough in training that they would withstand the blasting downhill which I so love, and then I’d be on the home straight to the finish. I might actually finish an ultra!
Powering down the Fragrance Lake Trail was as sweet as it should have been. After months of pool running, the elliptical, short run walks, and then building my fitness back up, to blast through lush, green, forest trails with Jesse on my tail to push me a little harder, this is what I had waited and worked so very hard for.
As I’d hit the aid station at the bottom of Chinscraper, I’d heard that I was about six minutes behind Jodee. This had shocked me as I had already convinced myself that I was a good half hour behind her. Now, as I exited the final aid station for the 11k or so along the Interurban Trail, I felt almost deflated when I heard I was two minutes behind her. Darn, there was no way I could just run it in solidly now. It was feasible that I could catch her, so this was going to be one painful push to the finish! For the first time all day I realized that it was possible that I could actually win this thing, which was not something I had considered when I woke up that morning. Okay, I better try to see if I could remember not just how to run, but how to race.
I’ve been back training once a week with my weekly run club since the start of the year and there is nothing comfortable about those workouts. We hammer trail intervals as if our lives depend on it and until we can hardly breathe. Now I knew this is where this ‘quality over quantity’ training would pay off. So I put the foot to the floor and hammered it down the trail as I best could. It probably looked pretty ugly but having worked on my running gait a little, it hopefully looked better than it would have a year ago! Within a few kilometers, I could see Jodee’s bright shirt down the trail. I almost I let up the gas a little as I hesitated wanting to pass, fearing she might lay chase and push me harder still. But I soon flicked back into race mode and once past Jodee I looked back, and was thankful to see that she was not right on my shoulder. But I knew that the race wasn’t done yet and I soon found that maybe I’m not so bad at running hills after all as I managed to run the small climbs en route to the finish. I passed several men along the Interurban and less than a kilometer from the finish I passed one more. But he kept chasing and I kept pushing–I had a little self-respect to maintain here!
I think I hugged about everyone I had even the vaguest of acquaintance with at the finish line in a state of absolute joy. Back in about October, when I was over my fibula stress fracture but starting to work on jamming up my tibialis posterior nicely, I was running on the treadmill. I was in minor pain, in an overheated gym, with the view of a dark window. But even then, the word ‘joy’ just sprung into my head. To me running is ‘joy.’ There have been many times in the past 11.5 months that have been so very far removed from being joyful: the missed runs, the hours of boring physio exercises, that days on end of cross training, the return to running in a very unfit shape where it’s just plain hard work. But there were always glimmers of joy in the hard work and dedication. As I stood at the start line of Chuckanut on Saturday, I knew that I could make it to the finish line, but I had no idea in what sort of time or in what sort of state. So to come away with a solid time, a win, and no injury flare ups was a very joyful experience.