This past weekend, I participated in the Haliburton Forest Trail race located in the beautiful and majestic Haliburton Forest. This was my second year running this event, last year completing the 12km race. Haliburton Forest has a special place in my heart. We’ve spent the last few summers camping there, and we have done some pretty spectacular hikes in the Forest as well. Located 40 minutes from our family cottage, it’s an easy race to manage logistically and has a warm and inviting vibe.
The race has a number of distances to choose from including a 12km, 26km, 50km, 50 mile and the big 100 mile. Last year, I made a last minute decision to run the 12km race and had an incredible racing experience. The people were friendly, the race was wonderfully organized and I knew I wanted to come back again this year and managed to convince my brother in law to accompany me on the trail. New into running, Brian is an absolute natural. So far he has found joy in running through the High Park trails, so I knew his heart would explode when he experienced running through the actual forest. When his birthday came around this year, I asked him if he would like entry into this trail race; he was in! We both decided on the 26km distance and before we knew it, we were all heading up to the cottage for a fun siblings weekend away.
The week leading up to the race was uneventful. I approahced this race differently than I approach most races, in that I decided I wasn’t going to ‘race’ it, but just think of it as a fun long run through the forest. Because of that I didn’t taper at all, in fact I had my highest mileage week ever in the week leading into this race. I also ended up having some late nights with poor sleep and one night I’m pretty sure I had popcorn for dinner. Suffice to say it wasn’t an ideal lead up to a race but I wasn’t overly concerned. Again, this race wasn’t for the ranks, it was for the soul. Or so I thought...
The morning of the race, we woke at the cottage to shockingly cold temperatures. Coming off an entire summer long heat wave, the dramatic change in temperature was a shock to the body. We had a quiet breakfast together, making sure not to wake the sleeping baby and then left our partners fast asleep in bed to drive to the Haliburton Forest. We arrived 30 minutes before the gun went off, exactly the amount of time we needed to get our registration packs, use the washroom and shed all the extra layers we were wearing. With a few minutes to spare we started jogging over to the start line. The cold air kept me shivering and both Brian and I rubbed our arms and jumped up and down to keep warm.
We huddled together with the small group of runners participating in the 12km and 26km races. Before we knew it someone yelled ‘one minute to go’ and everyone started moving closer to the start line. Cheers erupted and the count down was on 3 - 2 - 1 … we were off! Brian and I didn’t make much of an effort to get to the front so we settled in somewhere near the back of the crowd and started jogging down the gravel road. Meandering in and out of people, running at various paces we finally settled into a spot near the middle of the pack.
Before I continue, we need to talk a bit about Brian. Not only was this his first trail race but it was his first time racing at all. He also had just started running within the past few months and until about a week before was using his swim bottoms as running shorts. He rarely (ever?) mapped out his time or distance and just ran until he got tired and then stopped. Within weeks of running he was clocking half marathon distance runs without any understanding of what that even meant. It wasn’t until the week of the race that he even got a pair of trail running shoes and used the race as his way to break them in… basically what every runner is told not to do. Clearly, he is someone who was ‘born to run’ and it was exciting to be there to experience his first race!
Brian’s plan was to try not to go out too fast, and stay safe, but also to try and run it fast. With no watch or way of knowing his speed he was going purely off feel, at true purist. We ran the first km together, laughing and chatting about the course. until he started to push ahead. I made him promise he wouldn’t go out too fast and then we parted ways - Brian dashing off ahead and weaving through the runners as I stayed back, determined to maintain a conservative start. 26km’s is such an odd distance for a race so I was unsure exactly how to pace myself but knew one thing: I wanted to finish the race feeling good!
After about 2 km’s the course turns off the gravel road and enters into the forest to follow Poachers Trail. For the next 4 km’s the trail dips up and down with some real gnarly terrain. There are some muddy sections and some stream crossings to manage but overall it’s a very enjoyable albeit hilly path. I chose to hike all the steep uphill sections and run the flats and downs keeping the effort feeling light and easy. Although we were slightly more spread out than at the start, the trail was still pretty congested so I tucked in behind a man and woman who were running a similar pace. When they hiked I hiked, when they ran I ran. It was nice to not have to think too much and instead just follow. I had absolutely no concept of where I was in the group, only thinking to myself ‘I hope I’m not in last place’.
Even though I was moving at a pretty slow pace, the first few km’s didn’t actually feel all that easy …in fact they felt the worst of the entire race. My legs were feeling heavy but the worst part was I kept getting out of breath on even the smallest hills. I was dealing with some allergies and I couldn’t really breathe out of my nose which I’m sure contributed. During this initial section I remember saying to myself ‘today just isn’t my day’ and I was totally okay with that. I had resigned myself to the fact that today was about enjoying the race and feeling good and not about how fast I was moving. In the end, almost the exact opposite result happened however perhaps it was the best thing to happen, as it kept me from pushing too hard at the beginning of the race ensuring I had legs to use in the final km’s.
At 6 km’s we passed the aid station where the 12km racers turn around and I lost my running companions. I carried on past the aid station towards the 26km turn around surprised that I was already 1/4 way through the race. Those first 6km's had just flown by. There is a short road section here with a gradual incline and I remember thinking to myself 'this will be really nice on the way back'. The trail from km 6 - 13 is beautiful with some nice long (relatively) flat sections and gentle downhills. My body started to loosen up a bit and my heart rate lowered. I started to pick up a bit of speed and get in the flow. I did inventory of my body starting at the bottom. Feet felt good, a little niggle in the left heel but nothing too bothersome. Knees were feeling great, hips level, no hint of any stomach issues! Shoulders were dropped, wrists loose and hands relaxed. The only thing that was wrong at this point was what was going on at the top. I was still in the mindset that today wasn’t my day but in reality all signs were pointing to the opposite. It was here that I decided to ditch the negative talk and open myself up to the possibility that today may turn out alright.
I tagged on to a man running just in front of me wearing a bright while shirt. He was running with a woman who was looking really strong. They were keeping a pretty good pace so I settled in behind them and once again followed. About 45 minutes into the race we were hiking up a hill and I decided to have my first gel. I was faffing around in my bag, trying to get the gel out and before I knew it my two running companions were gone. I wasn’t feeling like pushing this early so I let them go and when I got to the crest of the hill they were completely out of sight. How had they gotten so far in front in that short time? I slowly ate my gel flushing it down with some water before picking up the pace a little with the goal of keeping them in sight. Picking up the pace felt better than I thought on my legs and so I carried on. I kept picking up speed little by little power hiking the up’s and running the down’s both controlled but with intention. Km’s 8-10 felt awesome and were probably the best of the whole race. There were some nice long gentle descents and I started to move quicker down the trail. I was still really hesitant to trust what I was feeling because I knew I still had a lot of the race to run and a lot can change in 16 km’s. I held back hiking when the incline was steep and made sure to drink water every few minutes. I caught back up to the man and woman and ended up passing them on a hill I felt was runnable that they hiked. As the km’s clicked on, I continued to feel better and better.
It was somewhere between km 10 and the turn around that I fully decided not to accept my initial decision that today wasn’t my day. Instead, I wanted to be open to the option of today being amazing. I was still hesitant to light a fire with more than half the race still to go, but I made the deliberate decision to stay positive. No matter what happened, I vowed to not let negativity get the best of me and be open to the chance that something really incredible could happen. Leaping over rocks and roots I remember this section of the trail as the most joy-filled section. No matter what happened later on, the feeling of flying here and now was worth it. Without realizing it, I had a huge smile plastered on my face. I know this because I passed a man on the trail who yelled out ‘Look at that huge smile on your face’ and I responded almost immediately with ‘What’s not to smile about?” I was just so happy and exhilarated to be running through the forest.
At this point I had absolutely no idea where I was in the ranking, but knew the turnaround was coming soon so I could assess my place by seeing how many women ran past me. I also kept my eyes peeled for Brian, praying to myself that he was having a good time. A few men ran past me, and one super fast woman, and then I saw Brian. Looking back, this probably wasn’t the smartest idea, but I yelled out ‘BRIAN’ and he looked up from the trail (where his eyes were peeled). I gave him a high five, almost immediately regretted the decision, imagining I would be the reason he tumbled down the trail. I yelled after him ‘how are you feeling?’ and he responded ‘amaaaaaazing' as he flew down the trail!’. I was so excited to hear he was having a good race and he looked on FIRE. I counted 3 more woman pass me and then I saw the turnaround aid station in the distance. If my calculations were right and I hadn’t missed any women that would put me in 5th place. Wow 5th place female, that’s not too bad. I quickly grabbed a sip of water at the aid station and headed right back onto the trail with a new motivation. I would try and hold on to my 5th place position.
The trail is quite technical in places so I had to keep my eyes peeled on the roots and rocks and really focus on picking up my feet. From the turnaround at km 13 to the aid station with 6km's to go, I kept a nice and steady pace never feeling like I was pushing too hard but also conscious of holding on to my potential 5th place spot. By this point I had passed a few struggling runners who had clearly gone out too fast. I continued picking off runners which was giving me confidence and adding fuel to my fire. A few minutes later, I saw a woman stopped on the side of the trail sitting down. I paused and asked if she was okay. She said she was fine but had a Charlie horse she was trying to get rid of. I asked if she needed anything and when she responded no I carried on running, and although I felt for this woman, I couldn’t help but think to myself one woman down! If my calculations were correct that put me in 4th now. Imagine if I passed one more woman, that would put me in 3rd. For the first time EVER in a race, I started to think about moving up in the field and actually racing to the finish.
I have to reiterate, I’ve never had this experience in a race. I’ve only ever done larger races where my goals have been purely based on my own time and I’ve never been in contention for top places let alone a podium spot. It was a really cool experience to start to change my thought pattern and strategize for the rest of the race. A runner who I had seen earlier in the race caught up to me in this section and we ran together for a few minutes, commenting on the nice trail conditions but also the gruelling hills. When we rolled into the aid station at km 19 he stopped for a drink and I carried on without a rest. I was feeling incredible and wanted to see if I could push for the last 6 kms.
These last few km’s on the trail were tough with lots of hills and technical trail. I made the decision that with less than 6km to go, I would try to run it all including the steep hills. The technicality really slows you down but I was pushing hard. These last few km’s on the trail were tough but I didn’t feel pain the way I usually do at the end of a race. It was exhilarating and energizing and I pushed exactly the amount I felt I needed to in the moment. When the trail section ended I turned back onto the gravel road and immediately thought about picking up speed. As you turn the corner a long road with a pretty descent size hill awaits you. I could see about 5 or 6 runners ahead of me speckled along the hill, most of them walking. I was definitely tired but I knew there was no way I was going to walk the hill with only 2km of the race left. I started picking up speed and a man commented “wow you’re running this!”, I said back “I’m going to try” and then pulled away from him. I slowly started to build speed passing 3 or 4 runners on the hill alone. Then, up ahead I saw a woman in a grey shirt walking the hill. If I had calculated correctly she must be the third place woman, and she looked like she was struggling. The thought of 3rd place was all the motivation I needed to continue moving forward.
As the hill crested, she began running and then turned left for the final straight away to the finish line. I turned the corner and saw her ahead. I knew we only had about 800m until the finish line but from what I could tell I was moving quicker than her. I started to time how far behind I was from the flags on the side of the road. I was 14 seconds behind her. The next time I checked I was 9 seconds behind her and that was when I knew it was possible. I saw the finish line in the distance and picked up speed into an almost all out sprint, passing her with about 300 meters go. I was lit up and exhilarated as I passed Mira and Davida on the side of the road cheering ‘Go Aunty Hannie”. I had no clue if the woman I had just passed was right behind me or not so I didn’t let go of my pace, pushing right until the finish line. I crossed it in a time of 3:08:52.
Once crossed the finish line I saw Luke and Brian, and my aunt and uncle who had come to cheer us on. Turns out Brian had run so much faster than anyone had anticipated, no one was there to see him cross the finish line. Something that he reminded everyone of multiple times for the rest of the weekend :) That’s what you get for being so fast!
After a bit of time had passed, Brian and I went to check what our official times were and that is when I found out for sure that I had placed 3rd female. It was such a great feeling! That meant we had to wait around for the awards ceremony which would be happening at 1:00. Brian had done incredible, finishing 12th place overall with a time of 2:50:53. Not only was that an incredible time but he had raced perfectly. I lay down on some grass and did some stretches while everyone else went to explore the forest and see the Haliburton Forest moose. We all gathered back at 1:00 for the awards ceremony where I got to go up and accept my little prize of a moose shaped wine cork!
We drove back to the cottage and spent the rest of the day lying around, eating and drinking to our hearts desire. We kept reliving moments throughout the race and dreaming about next year when we would come back and potentially do the 50km race. I would be happy if this turned into a yearly tradition!
Looking back, I went into this race not planning to race at all and ended up having the best race of my life. It was a real lesson to me not to make up my mind on a race before it had even begun. So much can change during a race in the drop of a hat and the most important thing is to stay positive with a good mindset and then let the race play out as it does. The other lesson I learned is that absolutely nothing brings me more joy than flying down trails, arms out to the side for balance, muddy shoes and crunchy leaves. In my mind, no road race can ever compare to the feeling of running through the forest in nature.
If you’re looking for a fun and challenging course with incredibly friendly people and wonderful volunteers look no further than Haliburton Forest Trail Race! 4 stars from this runner.