Friday, October 21, 2011

Finishing That Elusive First Ultra Marathon - Run Smiley Style

A view of Fanshawe Park close to the start line of the Vulture Bait Ultra Marathon

All I can say is, Wow what an experience, there is no other way to describe it participating and finishing your first ultra has got to be one of the most satisfying moments I have ever been involved in. Don't get me wrong, meeting my future wife, my marriage and the birth of my kids are tops in my books but holy crap this is way up there. A few years ago I couldn't even run a mile without falling over in pain, and here I am today finishing my first ultra marathon and barefoot to boot (or should that read shoe to barefoot?). Now, let me clear it has not been a smooth path getting to this point, more like a very rocky and sometimes frustrating one to say the least. If you were not aware this was our second attempt at finishing this race, last year both Nicole and I DNF'ed and it weighed on the back of our minds for the last year with the intent to rectify that wrong. Now that being said the both of us probably did not have the mindset nor the training to realistically finish last year, but it was still left a very bitter taste in the both of our mouths that we did not. I pulled my groin after 30 plus km and pulled myself from the race at 48km finally once I realized I could not go any further. Even though there was only 2 km left to finish, I did not feel doing permanent damage to my groin was worth it, at the time. Nicole was pulled after 25 km because she did not make the cutoff, she was having to much fun taking pictures and talking to everybody on the course that she lost track of time, so there were officially two wrongs to be corrected, not only finishing but proving to ourselves that we both have the ability and the drive to push through, and persevere the adversities to the ultimate goal of finishing.

It has been a year in the making, a lot of ups and downs for both Nicole and I as all our nicely laid out plans of getting an official 50 km ultra done this year was looking like a complete bust. First of all our first scheduled event in May, the Manitoba Trail Ultra at Spruce Woods, was rescheduled to August due to major flooding throughout Southern Manitoba. Then in August it was cancelled for the second time and for the year due to unsafe conditions as deemed by the Race Director and Manitoba Conservation. This is why it is so important to have a good race director, even though we were disappointed that the race was cancelled I do not want myself or anyone else to participate in a race that is deemed unsafe due to trail conditions. Also the Lemming Loop Run was also cancelled due to unsafe conditions, and finally we did not believe we had the funds to get back to Vulture Bait in London, ON to get another crack at finishing that one. But with some creative financing and some planning, we officially signed up on October 7th, for the race to held on October 15. Wow, it has been a year of late registrations, nothing like planning ahead, oh well what fun would that be right?

So the last minute preparations started in earnest, including flight reservations, hotel, car rental, sucking up to my sister so she will watch the kids while we are away (just kidding on this one, my sister is the best, she helps us out all the time with our crazy little adventures, sometimes I think the kids want us to go away more just so my sis' gets to watch them). The biggest challenge is to decide what running gear to take, the conditions were calling for cool and light rain, gear is always important in this type of race because you are out there for 5 to 7 hours, a lot of different weather conditions can happen in that time period. Oh well at least the footwear issue is taken care of, that would be none and my ZEMGear 360's as my emergency toe covers just in case. We were flying into Hamilton on Friday and then a short drive down the 403 to London followed by a quick dinner at Tony Roma's then hopefully some sleep. Well it was wishful thinking, but sleep was not going to come easy Friday night, to much anticipation and preparation of game plans swirling in my head. In total I think I managed about 4 hours, not a good thing because Saturday was going to be a long and draining day.

6:00 am, Saturday morning came quicker then the both of us really wanted, it was a slow drag of our posteriors out of bed, organization and finalization of running gear to be worn, put on BRS shirt, take off, rethink what I was wearing, put on Bismark marathon shirt, assess, no this is not right, take off, put back on original shirt, realize that I forgot to glide the nipples (very important, don't want that rub, rub, bleed effect), shirt comes back off, glide, then shirt goes back on again. I think I am ready, nope forgot my shorts, put shorts on, find my hat, Northface jacket and gloves good to go. No, wait something missing, think, think, hmmm what could it be, oh yes must find 360's, can't go to breakfast with no shoes this early in the morning they might think I was weird or something. By this time I think Nic was all ready to go and was patiently waiting for me, wow this is kind of ironic, usually it is the other way around. After a quick really awful breakfast (thankfully it was free but I still almost considered asking for a refund), we packed up the car and checked out. The weather was not the best, off and on rain, about 5 degrees Celsius and a stiff north wind, it was going to be an interesting run, that much I was sure of.

I know I will regret this but I have to explain our drive to Fanshawne Park from my perspective, prior to Nicole attempts to twist things around. Nicole asked me the night before if I knew where I was going, of course I said yes no problem, because I was quite sure I would remember the route as we drove there. Just because I didn't remember the street names that we need to turn on really doesn't mean I didn't know how to get there right? Well withholding this tidbit of information apparently was not a good idea, as Nicole didn't figure she needed to set the location in the GPS to assist in getting us to where we needed to be, well as we drove towards downtown I haphazardly mentioned that the first street we needed to turn on started with a 'D', Dundas or something like that and the next turn would be at a street that I couldn't remember the name but there was a Brick or something like that on the corner. Well this did not go over so well, so as Nicole lovingly chastised me for not relaying this information earlier she starting frantically entering info into the GPS to secure directions. That was when I spot Dundas and cheerfully mentioned, "Oops that was the street we wanted, so I proceeded up to the next street to double back. Once on Dundas we headed east and I started picking out familiar landmarks from last year. Now more confident I would recognize the street to turn towards the park on, I mentioned that I knew I would be on the right road, because I remembered a particular monster truck that was parked as a display in a customization shop. Well once again this did not go over to well, I really didn't consider that the display that was able to be moved might not be there a year after I had seen it last, hmmm food for thought. Anyway as we got closer to the turn, I spotted what I was looking for, The Home Depot on the corner (yeah I know what your thinking, Home Depot is not the Brick, that was exactly what Nicole said, but it does sell bricks does it not). As we headed up the road I saw my monster truck and this little smile creeped across my face and Nicole just shook her head, I did not say a word. After that, it was smooth sailing to the race start.

Nicole and I 'Toeing the Line' Before the Run

We got to the start, parked and headed to pick up race kits, got some comments about my shoe choice (decided to not mention at that point that I was not going to wear them for the run) and just got prepared for the race to come, also would like to note that Nicole won a door prize this year to go with her early entry draw prize last year, and I won squat. After the explanation of the rules and the all the other pre-race info delivery, we started heading down the hill for the start line.

The Runners Making Their Ways Down To The Start
Nicole and I Prior To The Start
(Still Clean)

There was alot of anxious anticipation by the both of us to get going as we milled around more towards the back of the pack. With all that nervous energy I was looking around at all the different runners and checking out the reservoir when I notice a pair of bald eagles gracefully gliding through the air just over the water. Dipping and diving, obviously looking for breakfast, it was just what I needed to calm all the nervous energy that was building in me. Appropriately we had the best fly by that could be had to start a race of this type, it was very fitting, all we needed was a vulture to appear and the day was set. I just stopped and started watching them as they floated in the sky together without a hint of effort totally free of any apparent worries, just being together was all that seemed to matter. This became my goal for the day. I was going to start and finish this race with my wife with no care of time, just finishing with my partner in life, so we can enjoy every minute of it together. With this thought, all the nervousness went away, a smile creeped onto my face as I pulled off my shoes to get ready for the signal to go.

A pair of eagles flying together over the reservoir prior to the start of the race.
(Who needs a plane flyover when nature provides one for you)

As the signal to begin was sounded there was the ever present slow movement of runners as the pack proceeded onto the trail. The conditions were going to add to the challenge of this run, with the cooler temperatures, the off and on drizzle and the gusting winds in the open areas it was going to be interesting to see what shape the trails would be in as the day went on. With a smile to Nicole, and a quick 'Are you ready', we headed off. I had some comments from some of the runners about my bare feet, but that was fairly typical at the start of any race. That was when I heard someone from the starter's area, chime in with this little dosey, "You are going to regret not wearing shoes for this." The only thing I could think of at the time was, "I would only regret wearing shoes for this." But I just let it go because nobody was going to ruin this day for me and we started to pass some runners. As the runners started to spread out, we were just enjoying the run, not trying to go to fast, but ensuring we were going fast enough. The intent was to finish the first 25 km in around 3 hours, because the cut off would be 3 1/2 hours at the half way point and if you were not finished the first 25 km by that point you would not be aloud to go any further. I was going to ensure that this was not going to happen again to Nicole.

The first 5km of the race was criss-crossing through some easy trails from one side of the access road to the other using a combination of different walking trails. The route at this point was pretty flat and easy to keep a good quick pace due to the easy terrain. The ground cover consisted of hard pack dirt, to grass, a little bit of gravel and a good carpet of soft pine needles. What a treat this was to run on, talk about varying the sensations to your feet, especially since everything was still damp due to the week or so of rain that the area had been getting. A prelude of what was to come later in the run presented itself as we entered the first real wooded area, it was a dirt single track (which turned into mud) with some areas of leave coverage. Lots of downed trees and branches littered the trail along with some good ups and downs. Let me say, after this run I have learned the importance of why to slow down to achieve good traction with barefeet, because if you go to fast you will end up skating everywhere with no control (I almost ended up going off a cliff at one point). Needless to say this area did slow us down a little bit, with gauging for traction, keeping an eye out for those ever jumping out to surprise you tree roots and rocks, and of course the occasional good hearted splash through a puddle. I had a couple more comments about my lack of foot coverings, which I quickly corrected them on by saying, "I've got a nice layer of mud developing here, does that not count." This got a couple of giggles and some strange looks, but darn it I was having fun.

A view of the damn from the first aid station

As we tromped out of the woods adjacent the dam we hit the first aid station, a rather busy place at that point with about 10 to 15 runners re hydrating themselves by grabbing water, Heed, Coke or an assortment of other good ultra sugar type treats.  The volunteers were working like a well-oiled machine, as a cup of fluid disappeared another one magically appeared, no one was waiting for anything. These volunteers were awesome, they did not miss a beat, but with them being so busy I was able to sneak in and out with a coke, a chocolate chip cookie and a hand full of chocolate covered raisins to help with the refueling process.
Nicole had a glass of water and a Gu to help refuel, I was personally leaving my Gu's till a little later as it was still early. As we were getting ready to head out of the parking lot and up the gravel road to the main road, all I hear is a 'Holy crap, he's got no shoes on!". I looked around with this look on my face, and said, "Where? Oh, you mean me? My shoes are right here", as I held up my shoes with a grin and we started heading up the road. We passed by a number of runners up the road, with a couple of "Doesn't that hurt", "Wow that is crazy" and " Your the man" comments, my responses in order were, "Nope, feels great", "Not really, quite natural really" and "Thanks, right back at you!"

As we pulled out onto the road to head across the dam seen above we hit our first bit of traffic, I was getting some weird looks from some of the vehicles and thumbs up by others. This was also our first encounter with the wind as it picked up to the point that it blew the hat right off of my head, luckily it did not go over the edge so I was able to sprint back and pick it up.

Nicole heading to the dam crossing making good time

As we continued down the road towards the front gate with some quick cuts into the woods for some more trails we were heading to one of my favorite parts of the run. Just beyond the gate, we turn into the evergreens and follow a path of soft pine needles that winds through the trees like a outstretched red carpet. It is the most surreal feeling as you enter this area, it's so peaceful you get lost in the beauty of it all, then you loose focus and trip over a outstretched tree root, bringing you back to reality.But it was nice as it lasted, but it also gets you prepared for the focus that is required for the trails to come which is the beginning of the technical trails.

Don't let the looks of the trail fool you, this is actually a treat to run on soft pine needles with the occasional stick or root to jab you in the foot just to keep you on your toes.

Once you exit this area, there is a short jaunt up an old jeep trail to another gravel road along the south part of the reservoir. This is another perfect spot to pick up the pace normally before you get into the ups and downs of the technical single track trails to come. Normally on a dry day the trails are challenging but fun because you can really fly over them, at least that was my experience last year. But this year with all the rain they have turned into a very muddy, slippery trail, especially with all the foot traffic that was trampling over it today (over 300 pairs of trail shoes and one pair of trail skin). Normally I attack the uphills and pick my way through the obstacles but with all the rain, I could not get any traction at all, so I had revise my running strategyy completely. Instead of running light and landing more on the midfoot with my toes slightly curled up, i had to had to be a little more heavy with the landing and dig my toes down in the mud to help stabilize my balance.This was definitely more of a challenge and having to concentrate more on footing and my balance through a larger twist into the run. When I mentioned skating earlier in the post I was not kidding, as my feet got muddier (at one point I had about an inch thick layer of mud on my feet) it was harder to get any traction at all and my feet continued to slip out from under me. So I went with it, where I found that the mud was the slickest, I started this skating motion with my running and concentrated on keeping my balance by utilizing my arms as stabilizing bars, it worked really well. That is until I got to a down hill portion of the trail, skating down a hill with barefeet over roots and rocks, not a good idea. This caused me to walk most downhills or find a path least travelled in the underbrush so I had traction. There was one hill in particular that led down to a bridge over a stream, last year I ran down it really quickly, this year it took me a couple of minutes to negotiate my way down. I was definitely using a lot of different muscle combinations to not only stay upright on my feet but to ensure I did not go sliding off the trail into trees or off the side of a cliff.

Me negotiating down a hill

This was a standard trail lots of mud but the
leaves actually helped with traction.

One of the hills up, this was a lot steeper than it looks
and lots of squishy between the toes mud

Last year I was proud to say I did not fall or trip once at this race, this year I was not so lucky. I hit the mud 3 times on the first lap as I tried to figure out my footing tactics, and it must of worked because I did not hit the ground again on the second lap, so what ever I did to compensate did the trick. I will admit there was a few times when it was pretty close, but I was able to keep my balance. We were still keeping a decent pace going back and forth with a bunch of runners including Raymond who was running his first 25km and Marcel our very optimistic Frenchman who keep telling Nicole, "You will finish, you have to believe you will finish!" This is very true advise, you do have to believe you can do it, any negative thoughts and that will play on you and odds are you will not finish the race.

Aid stations 2 (12 km mark) and 3 (18 km mark) were not quite as busy when we arrived, the majority of the faster runners were quite a bit further ahead of us and that was ok. We stopped for some water and some quick snacks and headed out as quickly as possible. The terrain between aid station 2 and 3 consisted of asphalt road, chip and seal, a little bit of gravel and more awesome trails. The trails were really messy, and I had to let a few runners by for fear of holding them up to much, traction was still a bit of an issue. I was definitely utilizing a different combination of leg muscles at every turn, trying to stabilize myself or keep moving forward, this was becoming one hell of a workout, but I was enjoying every minute of it. About the half way point between the second and third aid stations there is a crazy steep hill that you have to go down, normally I take it fairly slow due to the loose rocks that cover the entire single track length. But this time add the slippery mud and this was a really interesting challenge, I was actually contemplating sliding down on my butt, but I figured that would hurt more than if I tried to negotiate my way down. Once I was down I had to pick up the speed to catch up with Nicole again who scaled the hill like a mountain goat, I am still amazed at how she just cruises down all the hills with little to no trouble at all. We were still making good time, at the rate we were going we would come in at the half way point at about 3 hours, that would give us 4 hours to complete the second loop.

Between Aide stations 3 and 4 there are some more asphalt roads, single track trail, a creek crossing and my favorite area for the entire race. That would be entering an area of pines that create a corridor or a canopy over your head its so quiet you could hear a pin drop or a shoad runner clomping away at least. It goes really quiet through this area and the ground is covered with red soft pine needles that make it seem like you are running on a thick soft red carpet absolutely awesome feeling on bare feet. Its like you are running down a aisle towards the front and everybody is watching you and silently cheering you on. It is a very surreal feeling, one that I quite enjoy. I was still finding that I was skating quite a bit, so I started running back and forth between the mud trail and the areas beside the trail to see if I could find a bit more traction. It appeared to be working cause I was able to pick up some speed and make my way by a few runners. There were quite a few areas where I had to slow down and pick my way through but for the most part I was quite happy with the pace that we were keeping through this stage of the race. When we hit Thorndale Road and crossed the bridge over the river, the rain was starting to come down a bit and the wind picked up. It was a bit of a challenge through that area until we reached the trail head again at the top of the hill. But once we got back into the woods again it was smooth sailing except for the mud. As we reached the creek crossing I just smiled, everybody was complaining about having to get their feet and shoes wet and the water was higher than last year, etc. I just did a quick look for the quickest path through and jumped on in and negotiated my way to the other side. It was great, very refreshing and I was able to get most of the mud off of my legs and feet at the same time.  The bigger challenge was getting up the hill on the other side to the trail because there was nothing left of the ground that would work for traction just mud, so you had to make your way into the brush a little bit to get a hold of some tree branches to help pull you up.

The creek crossing, last year you could see the rocks out of the water but not this year.
Note the mud hill on the other side not easy getting up.

This is the very scenic part of the trail, single track running along the river for most of it, including some areas where the ground just drops off towards the river. It was really interesting at corners here, because if I did not have my footing in check I would of just slipped and slid right off the trail and the cliff. So needless to say I made sure I was planting my feet on as solid ground as I could find.

By the time we reached the 4th aide station at 22 km we were quite excited because we knew the first loop was almost done and we were in great shape to reach our half way point goal. I took my first Gu at this stop because I felt it was important to start the energy boost now and not leave it to late. Everything was going good, both Nicole and I had lots of spring in our steps and were raring to 'Get er Done'. As we came out of the woods by the golf course, we ran into this volunteer who was screaming her head off, then she saw my feet and her eyes opened wide. I wasn't sure if she was surprised by my bare feet or that I was carrying a very clean pair of shoes in my hands. I was a little amazed that my shoes were still as clean as they were as well, but they were new and I didn't want to get them all messy unless I had too. There was a good group of us running towards the finish area and cut off for the next lap, and once again the majority of them veered off to the finish line, and only 4 of us veered to the left. I yelled 'Great run' at Raymond as he headed to the finish line, this was his first 25km run and he did fantastic. As we passed the mid point we were at 3 hours and a minute (plus or minus a few seconds), so I looked at Nicole and said half way there lets go finish this off. Nicole was estactic because she had made it past the half way point and she wasn't getting pulled.

With objective one done, we headed out onto lap number 2, we ran with a gentleman named Hans for the first 3 or 4 km of the second lap. What an inspiration, he is a 78 year old great grandfather who has been running numerous ultra marathons over the last few years. He was out here running the race with his grandson (who finished way ahead of us), and was going to continue to run for as long as he was able. He looked strong and had no signs of fatigue at all, I just hope I can do what he does at his age that would be awesome. The funny thing was he keep telling me he was in awe of me because I was running this barefoot, and I kept turning it back around to him, and he keep shaking it off like it was no big deal. I had the pleasure of meeting his family after the run including his wife, his son, grandson and great grandsons and they were a treat to talk too.

As we hit the first aide station again, we stopped for a bit longer as Nicole had to use the facilities and I started talking to the volunteers. One of them remembered me from last year as the barefoot runner with the kilt. It was interesting, it seems I was the talk of the course for going out barefoot again this year and with the conditions that were at hand to boot. So after some questions and answers, Nicole and I headed out up the gravel road to a bunch of good lucks and have a great run. I really like how all the volunteers are so friendly and appear to be having a good time. Its also amazing the selection of drinks and food products that they have available even this late into the run.

Everything was going great as we went along, we ran over the dam, passed the gate, ran the pine needles hit the dirt roads and boy was I smiling as we passed the spot where I put my VFF's on last year. My feet were feeling fantastic, no ill effects of running 35 kms without shoes, I could sense it I was going to finish this thing off without my shoes. That was objective two complete, now just one more to go and then the big finish, things were looking good and both Nicole and I were getting more and more confident as we progressed. Its funny one of the reasons that Nicole got pulled last year was because she was camera happy and taking to many pictures. So what do we do this year, we stop and take pictures, it seems to be a trend with our runs, we are out to finish but we are also out to just have fun, Run Smiley Style.

Nicole looking relaxed, confident and
 fantastic at 38 kms

The time slowly ticked away as we passed Aide Station 2 and then 3, we were still making good time but there were some areas where we had to walk up hills or down hills because the traction was not there. But I do have to say, other than forced walks due to conditions we did not walk very much at all. I was very happy with that, I felt strong for pretty much the entire run, my legs were finally starting to get a little heavy from all the extra muscle work near the end. The traction was a little better on the second lap as well on the flats, unlike the first lap where I was slipping and sliding everywhere, this lap I seemed to figure it out. Things were going fairly smoothly as we carried along the trails. I will say I did end up stepping on a couple of roots or stones that were hidden within the puddles on the trail but other than that everything went perfectly.

As we hit the 4 aide station, we had about 25 minutes to finish the last 3 or so km, so after a little bit of refueling we set off. This was objective three, last year I pulled myself out at this aide station because my groin would let me go no further, so the perma-grin attached itself to my face for the rest of the way. I was glad that there were no bugs out, because I would of been eating lots of protein with me showing all that teeth. So here we were at about 47 or 48 kms in, and only a couple more to go and we would be officially finished our first ultra marathon, who would of thunk it.

1 km to go, woo hoo!

As we hit the 1 km remaining sign, we had to stop to take a picture to commemorate the occasion, because damn it we were almost done. A little bit of gravel road, some single track and a grass run to the finish line and the nemesis that is the first ultra is done. As we broke out onto the grass to some cheering, all we hear is 'sprint the last little bit to the finish'. All I can think is, but I am sprinting can't you tell. As we got to the timing pad, Nicole and I finished like we started, we crossed the line at the exact same time, 6 hours 56 minutes and zero seconds (not the best time but for the conditions I will take it). So the last goal was completed to start together and to finish together, my partner in life and my partner in running. We did it, together, now how many people can say that, at least I know I can.

What a day, what a great weight off our shoulders, now we can move onto the next challenge.

Nicole and I after we finished, notice the nice shiny metals
and my nice clean shoes.

Better shot of my barefeet and yes we are tired but still standing.

Just a little bit dirty but the ZEM 360's are clean
They performed admirably sitting in my hands.

Vulture Bait 50 km done like dinner.


  1. Great race report!! A huge congrats on your first ultra!! I am hoping to do my first next yr!! Thanks for sharing! I am very impressed you did the whole thing bf!!

  2. Thanks Sally it was a blast to run. I really like the trail runs, so much more fun. I have a unsanctioned trail half marathon tomorrow in Northern Manitoba. Should be really interesting, wildlife is in abundance (from moose to bears). Hoping to get some great photos, also hoping they don't get to close.