Pretty spontaneously, I decided to register myself for my first ultra.
Ultramarathons are anything greater in distance than a marathon, ranging from 50 km’s to 200 miles and beyond. Yes, that is crazy. No, I am not going to run a 200 mile race (yet…?). Ultra’s aren’t usually the type of thing you register for ‘on a whim’. They are usually carefully orchestrated and planned to a tee. They usually involve a dedicated training block, complete with taper and a nutritional plan. I mean, ultra’s are no joke, right?
I get it. There are a lot of reasons why I shouldn’t run this race tomorrow.
The last few months have been nothing short of a blur. 6 weeks ago, my brother in law passed away from a very aggressive form of melanoma leaving my sister and their 3 year old daughter with a whole new future they could never have imagined. It was only 6 weeks before that, he was diagnosed. Everything happened so quickly. With our world flipped upside down so suddenly I’ve been frantically looking for something to ground me.
During this time, running was my only escape from the stress and uncertainty of the life I was now a part of. It was equal parts an ‘escape’ from this emotional rollercoaster I was both a part of and witnessing and equal parts when I felt everything the most deeply. What I knew, was that at the end of my run, I was a different person. Whether it was a short 20 minute spin around the block or a 4 hour exploration through the forest I always felt better and somehow changed. I had processed something. Emotions and thoughts that were stagnant inside me were diffused and shifted and I felt stronger and more capable. When I ran, I felt like I could handle anything anyone sent at me.
However, the physical body’s needs and the emotional body’s needs don’t always line up perfectly. I started to increase my mileage, sometimes pulling double days if I felt particularly stressed. At first my body was handling it like a pro, but eventually old injuries and weaknesses started to show their ugly faces. Eventually my IT band started to act up causing some discomfort and signalling to me that I needed to pay some more attention to how I was caring for my body.
So basically what I’m getting at is I was running with no real plan or schedule, my body was starting to revolt and my first thought was ‘I know, I should do an ultra’.
Put that way it sounds like the most ridiculous idea, however a different perspective will show a different story. I’ve had my eye on an ultra for a while now, diving into the ultra community and learning about the sport before having actually completed one. Although I’ve never done an ultra, I have a pretty good understanding of what it looks like (says the person who’s never done an ultra… I get it).
Then, the stars aligned and a race that I’d had my eye on for a while became an actual possibility for me to run.
Beyond all the reasons that I knew I shouldn’t run this race (I hadn’t done a run longer than about 28 km’s since last year, I had only done about 3 real trail runs this year, and my IT band was acting up pretty regularly etc etc) a greater force was driving me to complete this run. Something I couldn’t ignore was pushing me to this race, and pushing me to run this distance. I had no choice but to listen.
I am genuinely curious to know what running 50 km’s feels like. It’s a hella long time, especially on trails with a pretty decent amount of elevation gain and loss. I’m equal parts excited and nervous. I’m going into this race with the thought that 50 km’s is the A goal. If I make it to the end, Wow, that’s amazing. I will have accomplished something pretty epic and feel great (well… I will eventually feel great. I hear in the immediate aftermath of an ultra you don’t feel all that hot). If at 30 km’s I decide that I don’t want to go on anymore , that my body has had enough then I just ran 30 km’s in the forest! That’s pretty fucking amazing on its own. If I get to 40 km, shit man that’s a marathon through the forest.
I have never felt such a deep love and appreciation for running, for being in nature and for LIFE. Experiencing loss of life, so close to the heart gives you this wild new perspective. When I think deeply about why I would chose to not do this race it all boils to fear. Fear of those dreaded letters (D - N - F... did not finish) coming up after my name on a webpage no one actually cares about or looks at. Fear of trying something and failing. Fear of reaching beyond my comfort levels and having to endure pain.
I am going in with no pressure on myself, hence why I hardly told anyone about this race. The past 3 months have been filled with enough stress, enough emotional turmoil .. ENOUGH. Just enough. This race is for me.
It’s for me to connect with the trails, connect with nature, and connect with Brian.
<3 <3 <3
Earlier in December I embarked on a… well, a running experience. I’m calling it my midnight 30.
There were two elements to this running challenge. Firstly, I wanted to test out my endurance one month post marathon, and secondly I wanted to set out on a run with the specific intention of running into the night. The plan was to begin the run at a time when I would normally be starting to get myself ready for bed. Many a times have I gone on a morning run and watched the city gradually wake up, but never before have I experienced the city by foot in the dark of night. I didn’t have an end goal in mind, instead I wanted to keep running until my body told me to stop. I wanted to watch the city fall asleep. The whole experience was extremely enjoyable… until it wasn’t anymore, but I guess that was the point.
Let’s backtrack a little to what inspired me to do this late night run.
One of the things that draws me to running is the act of testing out the boundaries to what I'm capable of. I love the process of choosing a goal race and working through a training block to peak for that specific race. I did that with my Ironman 70.3 this year, and again in the build towards my first marathon. Working towards a goal and achieving that goal is hugely motivating but it also doesn't allow for much randomness or creativity in training. During these training blocks, everything I do is working towards this one goal. Sometimes, I just want to run to run! No goal, no plan, just RUN.
Since that marathon, a month ago, I’ve been in a bit of a limbo state; no new races planned for the new year but feeling pretty much recovered from the race. The past month I’ve been taking it really easy running only when I feel like I want to or when my body craves it. If I wake up in the morning and the thought of leaving my bed doesn’t sound enticing I don’t run. Because I genuinely enjoy running I still find myself lacing up more often than not purely out of joy but I’m not attached to any structured program. It’s been a good flow and I’ve been enjoying this less structured approach towards running. But one thing has maintained and that is my curiosity in the limits of my potential.
Sometimes, not being in a structured training program can lead to decreased motivation. The positive side though, is it’s opened up possibilities to do some fun and wacky things I’ve been thinking about for a while. Enter my midnight run.
For a while now I’ve been intrigued by the idea of doing a night run. I’m totally NOT a night person! Almost all my runs occur in the morning, only once in a blue moon will I run in the evening and it’s usually only due to scheduling. You’ll usually find me in bed before 10pm. Because of this the night feels like the unknown.
So why was I doing this? It’s a good question I’m not sure I have a really good answer to, other than a gut desire to do something that intrigued me and scared me a little. Ultimately, I was curious what it would feel like to be alone on the streets at night, my body tired and longing for bed. What would it feel like? What strategies would I use to keep going? What would ultimately cause me to stop? Would it be systemic fatigue ie. just a full body desire to stop moving, close my eyes and go to sleep? Would it be mechanical pain in my muscles and joints? If so, which areas would break down first? Would it be fear of being alone on the streets at night? I wanted to discover what would ultimately be the thing that stopped me.
This was meant to be used as a learning experience and as a way to see how my body and my mind responded to suffering. I recently heard ultra runner Courtney Dauwalter interviewed and in this interview she said something that really stuck with me. “No one ever became a worse person from trying something new”.
The first thing I asked myself and probably what many people would was did I think this was actually a dangerous thing to do? I thought about it, and the answer I came to was no. I believe Toronto is a very safe city, even at night and I decided to take the precautions that I needed to ensure I was safe. I decided to plan a route that stayed on main roads that were lit, and checked in with Luke regularly. I made sure I was visible wearing bright colours and carrying a light with me. I used the Strava Beacon feature so Luke could track me while I was running (until he fell asleep… ). I carried with me money, ID, and my phone in case I needed to call for an emergency uber!
I had a loose goal of making it past midnight. There was something about running from one day into the next that I was drawn to experience. Speed wasn’t important, instead I focused on time on feet. I rarely looked at my watch and instead focused on the internal cues my body was giving me. Upon completing the run, I took some time to sit down and reflect on the experience.
I finished with my last client at 8pm and was the last one left at work. I took my time changing into my running clothes, collecting the layers I had brought to ensure I stayed warm throughout the night. The temperature was hovering around zero, with some precipitation in the forecast. All day I had been mentally preparing for my evening adventure. I had slept in that morning, found some quiet time in the afternoon to rest and even close my eyes for a few minutes. I had a coffee at 6pm which is unheard of for me, but I figured if I was committed I might as well have a little help from my dear friend caffeine.
Starting at The Runner's Academy, where I treat Tuesday evenings, I zig zagged my way down side streets eventually heading onto Dovercourt Rd. I eased my way into a slow pace I could sustain, careful of the slightly slippery sidewalks. Loads of people were out on the streets, walking home from work, yoga class, or whatever they had been up to. It was a lovely night, the perfect temperature for an evening run - cold when I stopped moving but comfortable while I was running. I saw groups of people walking together, bundled up in their winter coats and happily chatting away. When I got down to Queen St. I turned East to make my way towards Yonge. Queen St. was at that perfect state of ‘busyness’ with enough people wandering around to make it enjoyable to people watch but not so busy that you were constantly dodging people on the sidewalks. My pace was easy and enjoyable - to be honest I was hardly thinking about it. When I got to Nathan Phillip Square I decided to stop to watch the skaters. It was magical down there with the Christmas lights and holiday energy in the air. I was shocked with how busy it was at almost 9 O’clock and then realized "riiiiiight, most people aren’t wrapped up in bed by 9:30pm every night". There’s a whole world out there in the evening!
I continued running along Queen St. turning north on Yonge St. I had my first little snack and then realized in all the planning of my night run I had made one big mistake. I had forgotten to bring water! Luckily it was still early, so I stopped in a Starbucks to ask for some tap water. Refreshed with energy and water in my system I continued on my journey past the bustling evening Yonge street crowd. I crossed over Bloor St. and for the first time in ages, noticed all the new developments that had gone on at that intersection. It had been ages since I had stepped outside of the Bloor-Yonge subway station and the intersection had really changed.
I zigzagged my way off Yonge until I was heading west along Dupont. The streets were getting quieter - it was almost 10pm by this point. As I turned on to Dupont a light flurry of snow started to fall. It was quiet and peaceful. I continued running along Dupont towards Ossington, realizing I had completed my first 'lap' of the city. I hit 15km and texted Luke to let him I know I was feeling good and rocking my run. I knew he’d be heading to sleep soon. Once I turned onto Ossington I put my headphones in and started a podcast of Bart Yasso being interviewed. It was wonderful to run to the voice of Bart Yasso, a man who exudes love for the sport of running. I was still feeling pretty good and maintaining a consistently slow pace, one I felt I could hold forever. I munched on a few more snacks and then turned left onto Dundas heading back east into the city.
By this point the streets were much quieter and Dundas had a bit of an edgier feel to it at this time of night. At no point did I feel unsafe in any way, the quietness of the streets allowed me to go more inside my body and actually enjoy the experience. I continued along Dundas until I got to University and then headed north again. North running was always the most challenging - the small but consistent incline along with a bit of wind increased my effort level. I made my way up to Bloor, past the ROM and then stopped for a short walking break. I was at about 20km here and was starting to feel an ache in my left hip. Hmmm. I knew I should also take in some fuel so took this as an opportunity to walk hoping a change in gait may settle my hip. I opened my bag and took out some of the dried apricots and banana chips I had packed away. I kept putting one foot in front of the other - even if it was slow I was determined to constantly be moving forward.
While running, I hadn’t noticed the cooling temperatures but as soon as I started walking my body immediately felt the cold. My fingers froze each time I reached into my bag to grab some dried fruit. I was shocked at how quickly my body temperature dropped as I had actually been feeling a bit too hot while running.
The snow was continuing to fall and the streets were now blanketed by a sheet of white. It was spectacular to watch. Feeling safe, I decided to change up my planned route and take some side streets. By this point it was just past 11pm and the roads were almost completely empty. I zig zagged through the Annex, a neighbourhood that holds nostalgic memories for me. One of my favourite things to do is run in the very centre of the road, something that isn't often possible to achieve in a bustling city. At 11pm at night however, I had the road to myself. I felt powerful and in charge of the streets. The city was quiet and peaceful and my body mirrored that.
The pain in my left hip brought me out of my state of calm and back into my body. I began to notice every little thing. The twinge I felt in my left hip on each push off. The way it travelled down my thigh and congregated into my left knee. It was like a little fireball that I could trace down my leg. I started to focus more on my gait, picking up my knees, driving my feet down under my pelvis and using my arm swing to gently allow my spine to rotate. I continued with this intension to move through the pain and sort it out while running. For all other purposes I was feeling amazing!
I continued down Shaw, until I got to College. I turned east through little Italy, a neighbourhood usually bustling wth people however at 11:30pm on a Tuesday night was deserted. A passed a few people but by this point I was more wrapped up in the sensations I was feeling in my own body rather than what other people were up to. I alternated between walking and running here trying to decide if the pain I was experiencing was manageable or if I thought it was doing damage on a deeper level.
In the end, I decided to call it a night when the pain in my hip grew to a point I no longer wished to endure. But looking back it wasn’t actually the pain ITSELF that caused me to stop - that I could manage. It was the fear of the damage I might be doing to hip that ultimately caused me to stop. It was fear. Not pain… fear.
Pain is a signal. It's our bodies way of telling us that something is wrong and we should take notice. Had this been a big goal race that I had worked tirelessly for months to get to I would have kept going. It would have probably put me out of commission for a few weeks, potentially months after, but for a goal race that would have been worth it. It wasn't worth it in this particular situation. The body is incredible and gives us so much information if we choose to listen. The key is we need to learn how to listen.
Fear ultimately was what made me stop. I thought it might be fear of the night. Fear of the dark. Fear of the city. Fear of being too tired. It wasn’t in the end. But it was fear of what might happen if I continued to run with this clear dysfunction in my running mechanic. Just past midnight, I called it a night having covered a total of 31.6 km's.
The next morning I allowed myself to sleep in and when I woke my body was tired and sore but I could move. I stretched and walked and stretched some more. I ate nourishing foods and reflected. Within the week the pain in my left hip/knee had lifted and I could run pain free. One of my New Year intensions for 2019 is to put more care into strength training and corrective exercise. Practice what I preach, right? I’ve been working diligently the last few weeks to correct muscle imbalances, restore my ideal gait and be mindful of my postural patterns.
I’ll take back to the streets at night - I'm sure of it! It was really a magical experience.
You can check out my run on Strava.
Wow wow wow! I did it! My first marathon is officially in the books and I have to say, it was incredible.
Two questions everyone have been asking me since finishing the marathon:
The answer to question 1 is surprisingly well! My legs were/are sore, as is to be expected but 3 days post race I am feeling incredibly good. I’ve been militant about rest and recovery and reaping the benefits. I’m feeling good enough to start asking that dreadful question "Could I have run it faster??"
The answer to question 2 is abso-fucking-lutely. There is no question in my mind. Now that I’ve gotten a taste at the marathon distance there is no going back. I'm hooked and already scheming my next attempt at the distance.
The race was incredible and I had the absolute best time. As usual, most of the race is a blur in my mind of one foot in front of the other, with a few intermittent breaks of water, gel, high fives and a lot of counting in the final few km’s. I’ll do my best to recount the experience.
It’s Monday afternoon, and in 6 days, I am going to be toeing the line at my very first marathon!
It feels like this day has been a long time coming. I've very slowly and progressively built up my distance and this weekend it will all come together when I run the iconic distance: The Marathon. I've never run anything close to this distance before (my longest run to date has been about 33km) so this day will consist of a first of many forms.
I love firsts and it feels like as I get older, firsts happen less and less often. You only have one first marathon. You only have one first day at school, first day at a new job, first kiss (sigh). The very act of doing something for the first time brings you into this state of unknown and while it can be scary it’s wildly exciting. As I make my way through this week, with all the feelings brewing inside, I'm reminded of the importance of continually trying new things in life to have that 'first time' feeling. With the last long run of this training block in my rearview mirror, all I can do now is sit back and reflect on this short yet exciting training cycle that has lead me to the start line of my first 42.2 km race.