After only a few specific workouts in August followed by decent back to back Time Trials, a 36:08 10 km Sept 12 and a 17:10 5 km Sept 19, it was time to shift gears and get on the trails to prepare for my first ultra. The idea of softer surfaces, exploring new routes, and learning a new type of running during the fall season was very appealing to me. I had planned to run the New York City Marathon so it made sense to keep an early November date in the calendar. Honestly, just having something in the calendar to train for, even if very different from past events, is what has kept me going since March.
Reid put together a good training plan and suggested I run my ultra on the Sulphur Springs Trail Race route for my unofficial debut. I knew I would head in the direction of ultras and trail running someday, and after 19 marathons on the road, it would provide an entirely different experience.
I had a modest average of ~125 km/wk for most of August and took a few lower mileage weeks of ~95 km/wk in mid September before increasing to ~160km/wk for my three peak training weeks before tapering. My highest mileage week was 165 km, which included a peak workout of 27 km at 4:00/km within a 42.2 km run on rolling roads and trails. I ran our local trails, some technical, and got out to Sulphur Springs once a week with friends, Tina, Scott, Dale, and Jodi who were very gracious to guide me in this new territory. I enjoyed getting to know them more, hearing about their wildest trail and ultra adventures, and making mental notes about how to switch from road to trail running. Jodi inspired me to work on my trail legs (hopping, skipping, agility), Tina took me out for my first ever Sulphur run, Dale inspired me as a previous 100 mile record holder, and Scott told me that overuse road injuries could be replaced by acute trail injuries due to falls. He once broke a finger on each hand in one race.
When planning for my ultra, during a time with no official races, my biggest concern was getting lost along the course. So when I heard that Connor’s Runners, a group from Oakville, was planning a supported 25 and 50 km run the same weekend, I contacted them. I learned that physical distancing and other covid19 protocols would be followed, the course would be marked, aid stations would be available, and they would be happy to have me. The only drawback was that the route would actually be 54 km with more technical footing and likely over 1,000 m in elevation gain. To put it in perspective, the Boston Marathon is considered to be one of the toughest marathons due to the hills – with a total elevation gain of 250 m. I would be up for an even bigger challenge but decided this was the best way to go.
My next concern, after getting lost, was how I would handle the roots, rocks and single tracks. I had a few falls in the summer and early fall, and up until about a week before the race, I had only run an easy pace on the trails. So when I did a short workout on the local trails I was pleased with the small amount of confidence I gained in handling the footing with a faster pace. I think having higher knees was the reason for this.
The few days before the race were fairly uneventful and predictable. I tried to stay off my feet as much as possible and consume the familiar diet of carbs, carbs, carbs. Due to much higher than seasonal temperatures for November, I made sure I was well hydrated and prepared a full amount of fluid for race day. I stuck with my usual concentration for my fluids, using eload hydration and eload fly for a total of 2.5 L (~2 cups per bottle x 5 bottles). Each bottle had an Endurance Tap gel taped to it and I carried an additional equivalent of 5 gels in a soft flask that I could consume between aid stations. Like I do in marathons, I alternated between consuming my fluids and gels so as to have a steady source of carbohydrates and minimize any gastrointestinal upset.
Race morning had me up at 4:00 am so that I could get in my usual plain bagel with honey and 2-3 cups of coffee before a 7:00 am start time. After arriving at the parking lot/startline, a mere 20 minutes from home, I chatted logistics about the run with Steve Connor who organized the day and was even more gracious to let me bring my own bottles. I did a short 1 km warm up, shedded a few layers of clothing, took in a few last minute tips from Jodi, Tina, Cynthia and Mike, and lined up with the 9 or so others who were doing the 54 km, including Steve Killeen. Scott Myers and Jon Kilmartin also started with us as they were kind enough to take Steve and I for the first 27 km loop. Unfortunately Scott had an injury that flared up so Jon took over. For the first loop, I stayed with Steve and Jon, enjoying their conversation as seasoned ultra and trail runners, while reminding myself to respect the run. As we say, “the marathon starts at 35 km”, Scott had once told me that the ultra starts at 42 km. We really didn’t know what pace I would run, mainly due to the unpredictability with how I would handle the course. So right from the start, I decided to only look at my watch for km markings in order to time my fuelling. We took a few wrong turns, which didn’t cost us that much, and actually provided some relief to further allow myself to just roll with it. Steve and I chatted a bit about our daughters’ hockey, and Jon provided tips and encouragement along the way. Eventually we made it back to the start where Jon left to take his kids to soccer and Reid would join me for the second loop. Unfortunately Steve had to stop a few km into the second loop due to a problem with his ankle. Reid asked me how it was going and we chatted for a bit before plugging away to my 54 km. I told him that I was benefiting from drinking the full amount of fluid I prepared but definitely noticed the difference in consuming ~500 mL every 10 km with this event vs ~250 mL every 5 km with a marathon. I have big respect for runners who carry full fluids with them in vests on non-supported runs. I had used my Saucony Haul Lite Pack a few times but wasn’t quite comfortable with it yet, and decided against using it due to the aid stations. I kept plugging away at the kilometers, up and down the hills, eventually following Jon’s advice to walk up the hill if you can’t see the top. As I was starting to fatigue and not lift my knees as high, I told Reid I was concerned about tripping. He would let me know of roots and rocks to watch out for and it wasn’t until an easy section when my mind wandered, that I had my one and only tumble for the day. Fortunately it was minor and I quickly popped up after doing a gentle roll, which was much better than tripping over a root and flying through the air when time seems to stand still and you hope you don’t land on a rock. Much like a marathon, there were parts of the run that felt better than others but for the most part I think I succeeded in giving a consistent effort that allowed me to feel pretty good in the remaining 6 or so km. I had twice completed two of the three most difficult parts, K2 and Three Sisters, and had only the second Martin Rd. hill to do, which is the final ~ 1km. I was grateful for the smiling faces of runners from our Bayfront Endurance and Paris Runners Den groups along the way and at the finish, and happy to not have to push for any particular reason to get across the line, particularly Martin Rd., my least favourite part of the entire loop. Steve C. gave me my “Connor’s Runners Be Awesome” medal and I was officially declared an ultra runner. We cheered for Reid as he reclaimed his Martin Rd. Strava segment after his 27 km warm up with me, and chatted a bit at the finish before heading home.
What I Learned
In road racing, with specific goal times, you can have the mindset to make up for time lost on turns, hills, and windy sections. In the early kilometers of my first trail ultra, thankfully I knew to toss this out of my mind.
Intake can go way beyond sports drinks and gels in ultra distances. From pickle juice for cramping to sour patch kids for variety, fuel and flavour fatigue, anything goes. Thanks for the tips, Mike and April. I’m sure I will use these in the future.
There’s even a special way you should tie your shoes on trails to prevent heel slipping. Thanks again, April. And thanks Jodi, for telling me not to tie my shoes too tight to prevent lace bite, which I did get in the foot of the shoe I had already tied before you suggested it to me.
I always wear sunglasses when running the roads. On the trails I used lenses in my Smith glasses that I flipped back and forth while in and out of shadows and the sun throughout the run.
While perhaps an obvious statement, a slightly heavier trail shoe over a lighter road shoe is a must for technicality over speed. I wore the Saucony Peregrine, a favourite among many trail runners.
Ultra running on trails isn’t easier, or more difficult, than road running.
The two are very different:
The slower pace on the trail decreases the physical intensity but you are running for that much longer.
The softer landing is easier on the body than the pounding of the roads.
In the marathon, you try to think about very little for as long as you can, waiting until you need to rely on your mental strength. With trail racing, your thoughts can wander a bit because you’re out there for so long, but you always have to be thinking about your footing.
In road racing, you can establish a rhythm, a steady pace. In trail running, everything is always changing. You get relief on a flat part for one moment, and then are working up another hill the next.
Yet they are the similar:
Fueling and hydration is key. You must plan, practise, and implement what works best for you.
The beating your legs take on the downhills is similar between trails and roads. At least, that’s what my quads are telling me today.
Long distance running is mentally challenging. Although the intensity or duration was not even comparable to that of childbirth, I found myself thinking back to it, about the longest amount of time I have endured a physical challenge.
My strengths and weaknesses on the road are similar on the trails e.g. I’m good on the uphills but sloppy on the downhills. Jon reminded me to not dig in my heels on the downhill, particularly with the leaves that could cause me to slip. I’m happy to learn.
Where they are different and the same:
The most common comment and question after a marathon,
“Congratulations! Enjoy the downtime. When is your next one?”
From the ultra runners, “Congratulations! Welcome to the club. So, when is the 50 miler?”.
Ultra runners are some of the kindest and most generous people. The community is very warm and friendly and I look forward to experiencing more of this once we return to official races with large groups of people.
I can’t remember the last time I felt this sore after racing. Although at a much different pace on the trail, ~2 min/km slower than my marathon pace, I have never run for so long on such a difficult route. My body is reminding me today of yesterday’s 5+ hour effort.
Reid, thank you for being a great teammate and now a great coach to myself and many others. I was grateful for your navigation and support in the second loop.
Dale, thank you for suggesting many years ago that I try to make the Olympic team, back when I shrugged it off as a long shot. Here I am, now an ultra runner, after you gently nudging and patiently waiting for me to try it when the time was right. Let’s see where this takes us!
I have so many more to thank as I continue learning from them, and enjoying more about this wonderful sport of running. I look forward to finally racing that 20th official marathon and believe I will always keep road runs in my routine but am also looking forward to that official ultra race on the trails. It’s exciting to be starting a new chapter.