What… a… ride!
Spoiler alert, I successfully completed all 50 km’s of my first ultra marathon! It’s still hard to believe that happened, and in the grand scheme of ultra running, went so well. I have no doubts in my mind Brian played a role in this race, carrying me through the lows and pushing me towards the highs. His spirit and energy kept me moving.
There’s so much I want to say about this race, but one thing stands out above it all. It was SO MUCH FUN! It was probably the most fun I’ve ever had in a race environment (and the Haliburton Forest 26k I did last year with Bri was pretty fun too). As I drove home from the race, I couldn’t help but just keep repeating to myself ‘I can’t believe I did that. I can’t believe I actually did that’. And even more so, that I actually felt okay. (Note: By ‘okay' I obviously mean everything from the ribs down hurt like hell, my legs were randomly spasming, radiating heat, and all I could think about was falling into a pizza coma) but in the grand scheme of life, I felt OK.
So let’s start at the beginning.
I woke up the morning of the race and settled into my typical pre-race routine. Coffee, deep breaths, and some general imagery on how I wanted the next few hours to play out. Luke had flown to the UK the night before and I would be joining him the next day, so for the first time I was going to be experiencing a big race 100% solo. This had actually been one of my draws to this race. I wanted to experience it completely alone without any external pressure. I wanted to see what I was capable of.
The apartment was quiet and peaceful as I sipped my coffee and slowly allowed my body to wake up. I had made sure to pack up everything the night before so there weren’t many logistical tasks to do. I spent those early morning minutes tuning into my breath, reminding myself about my reasons for doing this race, and accepting the pain that was inevitably coming my way. Somehow however, I still managed to lose track of the time and found myself scrambling to get out the door.
As I ran out the door, without thinking, I grabbed the keys to Brian’s car instead of my own. It was still parked outside my house as I had driven my sister and niece to the airport the morning before. It was an instantaneous reflex that lacked conscious reasoning or thought. It wasn’t until I was outside the car that I realized what I had done. I was already running late and couldn’t afford to run back upstairs to grab my keys so I took it as a sign and hopped in his car. Memories of driving this car over the past 3 months suddenly flooded back to me. Images of frantically picking up prescriptions, dropping off and picking up Davida and circling the city trying desperately to find organic grapes. Yes, organic grapes THAT would save Brian! Feeling so helpless and scared my heart began to race. I took a deep breath and then turned on the ignition. Al Green’s voice flooded the speakers, filling the space around me. 'Slow down, take your time' he sang. It was Brian's voice to the tune of Al Green. Instantly the fear disappeared and gratitude towards Brian ignited me. I took a deep breath, pulled the car out of the driveway and headed out of the city smog.
I arrived at the course with just enough time to sign in and get my bib. There were already a lot of people there and I could feel the excitement in the air. I was assigned bib 25 and knew immediately this was a good sign. 25 felt like a special number. Brian’s birthday was August 25th, I was 25 years old when I met my love, Luke, and Brian’s last day on this earth in physical form was March 25th. 2 + 5 = 7, One life cycle. The number of years Brian was a part of our life. The number of years I've spent with my love. These were no coincidences. Brian was with me, and he was going to make sure I finished this race.
I quickly used the toilet, went back to the car to get all my gear ready and headed to the start line. It was surprisingly cool that morning, bordering on cold. I wasn’t complaining though knowing that when the sun came out I would be grateful for the cool temps. There were a small group of runners at the start line, all extremely friendly. I chatted to a few different runners, most of them had run this race many times before and were excited that this was my first ultra. I realized then how special this moment was. Standing on the start line to my very first ultra marathon was an experience I would never have again. I took a deep breath and grounded myself in the moment. Before I knew it we were counting down.
The course is broken up into a 25 km out and back, which you complete twice. 12.5 km’s out, 12.5km’s back, repeated again. The course consists of a river crossing (hence the name Seaton soaker) which we would cross 4x total. Breaking the course up into these 4 quarters made the whole thing seem more manageable.
Back at the start line, we crowded together keeping warm as the start time inched nearer. We all counted together in a symphony of voices for the final 3 - 2 - 1 and the horn sounded. The pack started moving forward at a slow and easy trot and we headed down a winding paved road that would lead us onto the trails. With the gradual slope ahead of me I could see the long line of runners both in front and behind. I had this wave of emotion hit me at this moment like I was a part of something so much larger than myself. I could feel myself embarking on a spiritual practice with a community of souls that shared my love for these crazy events.
I was initially surprised by how slow everyone was moving. Wasn't this supposed to be a race? But as the trail merged into single track there wasn’t much I could do but follow in line. There was a comfort in this slow, single file start, as if the collective runners around me were carrying me forward with them. It is however, one of those races where if you want to RACE it, it’s best to start off near the front. We meandered through the trails, chatting and laughing, everyone in great spirits and happy to stay at this easy pace.
Three km’s in, we got to the first river crossing. The waters were high, as there had been so much rain in the weeks prior so the water came up above my knees. The cold water gave me a shock as it hit my skin, waking me up to where I was and what I was doing. The rocks under my feet were slippery and I was careful to hold tightly to the rope and slowly make my way across the rocky creek. When I emerged from the water my legs were numb but I was invigorated and ready to run. ‘That was SO fun’ I said to the runner beside me. ‘See if you’re still saying that on your 4th crossing’ he responded back! I filed his comment into my brain curious to see how I would feel on the fourth crossing. Curiosity fuelled me as I set off to see what was the limit of what my body could do.
On the other side of the river the path opened up a bit but I continued to keep my pace super easy hiking all the uphill sections and running the flats and downs. I made sure not to push too hard despite passing a few people here and there but only working within my limits. When I neared the first turn-around, I started to count the women coming back towards me. I like to do this just to get a sense of where I am in the pack. As I approached the quarter mark I only counted 4 or 5 women in front of me. I started to panic. “Shit” I thought. My mind started to race. This is way too fast. I’m totally going to be THAT person who’s new to ultras and goes way too fast in the first half and then falls apart in the second half. I tried to stay calm reminding myself that I WAS taking it easy, or at least what felt easy. I couldn't control anyone else's pace. I took a little break at the turn-around aid station chatting with the volunteers, grazing the buffet table and then headed back out onto the trails. One down, four to go.
The second quarter continued pretty uneventfully (which is what you want in the first half of a race). I continued to feel really good, keep the pace easy and take in the nature around me at every opportunity I got. I made sure to fuel with a gel every 40 minutes or so, snacked at all the aid stations and ingested a continual drip of water from my hydration pack. I approached the Forstream aid station at km 17 and ran into the previous Haliburton Forest race director. Wearing my Hali t-shirt we connected immediately chatting while I refilled my water and grabbed a handful of potato chips.
Heading out of the Forstream aid station there is a pretty steep paved hill that leads you up to a short trail along the highway. It’s the type of steep that you would run in a road race, but could also argue to hike in an ultra. Going down upset my knee and going up just hurt my soul. It’s also right by the road so I felt assaulted by the fast cars and harsh sounds emerging from the woods. I decided to hike the hill this time as I knew I still had a lot of trail to come. At this point I was cautiously optimistic. Things were feeling good but I knew we still had a long ways to go.
Before I knew it, I was back at the second river crossing feeling that cold water rush up my legs. 'Still feeling good' I thought, not quite knowing how that was possible. I continued along the trails and before I knew it I was back at the start/finish approaching the halfway mark of my race. I was pumped from the energy and music at the start/finish and forfeited a stop deciding instead to continue with my momentum and fill up at the next aid station. Out I went, to do it all again. 25 km’s on my legs and 25 more to go.
There was no doubt in my mind as I set out on lap 2 that I was going to complete this race. I was so confident and so sure this was my day. I would get through it no matter how hard it got. I was in fighting mode. I set off with this guy who’s name I’ve forgotten (sorry new friend!). He was a friendly fellow and we shared the next few miles chatting about the races we’d done, our favourite trails to run and what brought us here today. I would run a bit ahead and then stop to take a photo or two and he’d catch up. We’d run for a while together and then part ways organically when our paces weren’t compatible. Every so often I’d hear a whisper in my ear, Brian’s voice, reminding me to slow down and look around. To take in my surroundings, appreciate where I was and what my body was doing. My eyes filled with tears many times on this second lap but instead of the lump in my throat that often accompanies my tears, they were invigorating. They pushed me forward and kept me moving as the miles grew more and more difficult.
When I approached my third river crossing a couple guys had set up a bbq and were cooking jerk chicken and handing out cold beers. Although I was tempted by the delicious smell in the air, BBQ’d jerk chicken and cold brews hadn’t been part of my fuelling strategy and was far too risky for my first ultra. I thanked them for the offer and said I’d rethink it on my way back. With the waft of chicken in the air I made my way back across the river.
When I got to km 30, I was shocked by how good I was still feeling. I had been running for approximately 3 hours and 45 minutes and was feeling good? How was this possible? I reminded myself that even though I was 30 km’s in, I still had 20 km’s of trails to make it through. Lots can happen in 20 km's. Keep it paced.
And then, almost immediately 33 km’s hit and it all changed. I vividly remember thinking at this moment ‘holy shit, what have I gotten myself into? Ultra’s are fucking hard'. I continued to press forward knowing the final turn around was under 5 km’s away. I could make it to the turn around and then work the rest of the race out from there. The trails were familiar and I knew it was in my capacity to complete this. I pushed on.
The section of trail that leads in and out of the turn around is a really nice run-able section without any big climbs or descents. In the early hours of an ultra this is nice, but in the later stages, it means there are no excuses to hike. I forced myself to run the whole section convinced the turn around would come any minute but it felt like it never came. This stretch felt like it went on FOREVER. I was sure each bend in the trail would lead into the opening but just more trail lay ahead. Finally the trail weaved left and there in front of me was the grassy field that housed the turn around aid station. Relief washed over me. I took a short break at the aid station, ate some jelly beans and grabbed a handful of chips. I took a deep breath, regrouped and then head back off into the last quarter of the race.
Rejuvenated by my short rest, I clicked off some pretty decent running splits heading out of that aid station. By this point, my thoughts weren’t much deeper than ‘one foot in front of the other’. It’s funny. I had imagined that during these final miles of the race my mind would flood with thoughts. I was certain I would have my deepest most profound thoughts during these hours but in reality my mind never once wandered from what I was experiencing in that moment. I had a laser focused attention in a way I'd never experienced before. But I guess this is the definition of mindfulness. I was experiencing a focussed attention on the present moment. Right foot. Left foot. Keep moving forward.
I could feel myself slowing down in that last section. Running turned more into shuffling. But instead of getting frustrated I gave myself only one rule; Keep moving forward. I kept my mindset positive and kept the story in my head that I was feeling good when in reality the wheels were starting to fall off. There’s a fine balance between being aware of your body without letting the discomfort take over. During these long painful events you have to be able to shut off some of the physical discomfort you are experiencing . Yes, my feet were killing, my legs were burning and it felt like every time I lifted my foot I was carrying a piles of bricks. I acknowledged these feelings but then focused on how I was really feeling on a deeper level. I felt AMAZING. On a soul level, my body was on fire. I had to change the dialogue in my head from the superficial pains that I knew would heal with rest, and focus in on how my body really felt.
At 42.2 km's I acknowledged the marathon distance and how I was heading into un-chartered territory. Who knew how my body would respond to anything beyond a marathon distance. Curiosity fuelled me as I made my way past this point.
I got to the Forestream aid station at km 43 and knew even though I just had 7 km’s to go I needed a short break to re-group and refuel. 7 km’s isn’t much, but with 43km’s already under your legs, it feels like a marathon still ahead. By this point in the race, candy and chips weren’t looking so appealing but I eyed some crackers and guacamole on the table and decided to give it a try. I took one bite and immediately knew this was what I needed. I shovelled another cracker with guacamole into my mouth and then another. Bliss, pure bliss. This was what I needed to get me to the finish line. I wish I could tell you that with this new fuel I ran outta that aid station with jets under my legs, but guacamole can only do so much. The last 7 km's were still going to be a slog.
Coming out of that aid station we were back at that HORRIBLE hill. Its long, it’s harsh pavement, and it’s just annoying. At that point I started to do some math and make calculations in my head. I could probably make it in under 6 and a half hours if I maintained a decent pace from here to the end. It would be tight, but I could do it, and it would start with running this hill. But then almost immediately I laughed out loud and the thought came into my head. I don’t care. I honestly just don’t care. This race is literally just about having fun, and feeling good and if I try and really push it, it might ruin the whole experience. From that point in the race a switch went off in my head and I just stopped looking at my watch COMPLETELY. This disassociation from any time goal or expectation is what ultimately pushed me to the end. I ran whatever I could run, right until the very end. I didn’t walk any of the flat portions and hiked with intensity and vigour.
The dialogue in my head went as follows:
“Just make it to that tree up ahead”.
“Well done that was such a good stretch, now just try and make it to that tree ahead”.
“AMAZING, you made it! Let’s try that tree over there”.
Etc. etc. Positive reinforcement at its finest.
In my mind, I just needed to make it to the river crossing, then I knew I’d be okay. Once again, It felt like the river would never come. Those km’s were hard. So. Hard. I wasn’t looking at my watch so have no clue how long this period went on for. I never EVER considered quitting (how could I really… unless I wanted to sleep the night in the woods). Finally, after what felt like forever, I saw the river in the distance. I smelled the sweet smell of BBQ chicken and heard the rush of the water. My senses were so heightened I felt like I could feel the water on my skin, and taste the finish line. I approached the river and grabbed hold of the rope crossing carefully over the slippery wet rocks. Balance and agility had diminished over the past 6 hours I had journeyed through forest and field. Here I was, river crossing #4. Only 3 km’s from the finish. I took inventory over my body. How was I feeling? I wanted to find that guy from the start. I felt AMAZING. On a soul level I felt amazing.
Once past the river crossing I had 3 km’s left to go. Right away, there is a steeeeeep hill. It was so muddy from all the runners that had passed this trail I had to use rope to pull you up as you went. I thought to myself there is no way my quads could handle this. I very honestly thought they would give out on me halfway up. This voice inside of me started to roar in my head though. Just keep going, just keep going. It was gentle but firm. I’m certain it was Brian. He was making everything groove, and smooth and I felt so grateful to have him there with me and to feel so connected to him throughout the whole run. He was watching over me.
Those final km’s from the river crossing to the finish are kind of a blur to me. What I remember vividly is the moment the trees parted and I saw a clearing in the distance. A winding switchback paved road lay ahead ushering me to the finish line.
Emerging from the clearing I saw the same guy that I had left the aid station with ahead of me. He was walking and running and then walking and I just thought I’m gonna run it. I could see him see me and pick up his pace. I had no interest in catching him, I was completely focused on my own race and my own experience (At the finish line he told me that he was was worried I was coming to catch him. I assured him, I was not). Right foot. Left foot. The cheering got louder, the smell of the finish got stronger. I pulled into the final straightaway with every last ounce of strength. I couldn’t believe i did it. I couldn’t believe it was over.
I ended up finishing in 6:33:54 placing 5th woman (of 31), and first in my age category (of 14). My second lap was approximately 23 minutes slower than my first which is pretty common in ultra races. You can view my Strava data of the race Here.
I hung around the finish line for a while, chatting with some of the other racers and revelling in our accomplishments. I felt on top of the world. After some stretches and chats, I made my way back to the car to drive home. It felt like a lifetime had passed since I had gotten in the car and driven to the race. I felt changed. I knew it would take time to process and fully understand what I had accomplished, but for now I was just looking forward to a warm shower, a giant pizza and putting my feet up for the night.