After finishing the Sulphur Springs 50 miler, I remember thinking: "That wasn't so bad!". I would be punished for this case of hubris. I don't remember ever sitting in a race. Before the end of this race, I would have sit at least 3 times, one of them on a rock between aid station 5 and 4 wondering how I as going to find the energy to finish.
I arrived at the race site Friday afternoon around 3PM. I got my kit and setup my tent. I hadn't been out of the car 5 minutes that I'd made new friends, all of them as or more excited than me about the upcoming race. One of them was proudly wearing his Haliburton 100 Miler belt buckle. I looked at it with a twinge of envy. No buckle for me this year since I was running the 50 miler. As I noticed I had forgot my pillow, he just ran to his tent and brought me one. Another guy was attempting to finish the 100 miles for the 5th time. Unfortunately, it wouldn't happen this year.
The whole weekend was like that, either meeting amazing people for the first time, putting a face to an online identity ("I'm RabidChipmunk", "Haaaaa! I'm JD!") or reuniting with people I'd met a previous races. Before dinner I found Derrick Spafford, who was bringing my brand new Dion Snowshoes, which I bought from him for the Rock And Ice Ultra.
Dinner was a blur of war stories from people sporting Badwater, Marathon des Sables or Himalayan expedition gear. The sense of community was overwhelming. After the traditional pasta and a few speeches, one by one, everyone stood up, introduced themselves and announced which distance they were going to run.
Then I was off to bed. I taped my feet, then I read "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakhauer until about 10 and went into a fitful sleep. My alarm rang. It was pretty cold, but I took my checklist out and started: nipples: check, Excedrins: check, Bodyglide: check.... Soon enough I was out of my tent and walking toward the start. There I met Chris Mcpeake, a fellow blogger, also running the 50 miler and his wife Kim who was racing the 26k later.
Then it was the prayer and the start. I was glad I had my Petzl head lamp. It was pitch dark. I just remember running, talking on and off with Chris. After a few miles Chris picked up and proceeded to run an amazing race which I'm sure he will write about on his blog. Given my Sulphur Spring time, I was expecting to run the course in about 11 hours. My right Achilles felt ok, but it was a bit tender and it would be for the whole race.
The first 25 miles, or 40k, just kind of happened. It felt like the course was rolling hills, rarely flat, but I saw no reason to push since I was making great time. At every aid station the volunteers were just amazing. The trail markings were perfect. At any given time you could basically see the next flag. I got to the turn around at 4:56, feeling fantastic because I had held back quite a bit and I felt like I could maintain the same pace till the end. Sub-10 maybe? I was exactly where I wanted, except for one thing: I had missed the Shrine and therefore had been unable to leave my offering to the forest goddess. It felt heavy in my pocket. I sat down, took some rocks out of my right shoe and took off toward the finish.
One thing about this race that was different from other races I had done, some aid stations are far apart, like 10k. At he pace most of us are going, that's an hour and a half, maybe even more. It's a long time when minutes start feeling like hours. And after a very short time, I realized that the course had not been rolling hills, it had been downhill with a few uphills. Even the dreaded "mulch" at Sulphur would barely qualify as a hump on this course. It was just ridiculous. The hills were unrelenting. You would climb forever in a gnarly trail full of roots, turn a corner near the top and then there was another one, even steeper. I did not remember going down those huge hills. I kept hoping it was over. It never was. Then fatigue set in and I started tripping over rocks and roots. Again and again. Where was all that energy that I thought I had in the bank?
I was devastated. Running a short out and back at 55k, a guy running in the other direction tells me theres a bear up by the turnaround sign. I just kept running making a bit of noise. As I got close to the sign, I looked around, didn't see anything, ran to the turnaround line and ran back to the aid station. This section, between AS 5 and 4, is about 10km and it crushed me. I swore in French, I swore in English. I heard a noise that sounded like a sob, but I was alone so it couldn't have been. It was as if the course was mocking me.
I was wondering what I had done wrong. Did I eat enough, too much, not the right thing? Maybe I didn't drink enough. Then again, maybe I drank too much? I was doubting every decision I had made.
Yes, I did sit down.
Picture by David Bohn
The only thing that told me that maybe, just maybe, things were not that grim was that nobody was passing me. There were a couple of guy which would pass me, then I would pass them, but never anyone new. I must not have been doing as horrible as I felt I was doing. After what felt like forever I got to AS 2. A loop around the lake. Kill me now. At AS 3, about 6 km from the finish, I drank, ate and then walked in the lake and submerged myself completely. It felt so fucking good. Then my thighs started to cramp and I got out of there pronto and started running. My mood was improving. I overtook a guy and we started talking. We got to AS 2 again and just blew out of there. I was getting excited, we're like a mile from the finish. We ran (yes ran) up a long hill, we turned and then we saw it. The finish. We picked up the pace and we basically sprinted (?) the last few hundred meters.
As I stopped running, I felt a sudden emptiness. Things went from total focus to being finished. A girl said something, there was a camera, someone put a medal around my neck and I almost started balling right then and there. I couldn't talk, afraid I was going to start crying. I turned around and this guy is coming to the line, looking at least as tired as I felt but his number is below 100, which makes him a 100 miler. He runs across the line, turns around and goes back out. I couldn't imagine it.
I sat down with a fellow and we talked about the race, yelling encouragements to runners coming to either finish the 50 miles or turn around for the 100. After a while, maybe 45 minutes, I felt ready for a shower then dinner, which I ate with Chris and Kim. We talked about the race and then I decided to hit the sack as it was getting dark, around 8. I started reading, hearing cheers when runners showed up at the 50 miles line. I would think about those runners, now running for 14 or 15 hours and my eyes would blur with tears. I went to sleep around 10pm. I slept fitfully, waking up whenever a 100 miler would finish.
Around 7:30 am, I grabbed my chair and walked over to the finish line, where a group of people were waiting for the next runners. We kept a kind of vigil, talking about the race, comparing blisters. A runner would show up, everyone would get up and cheer until they finished. I saw this big guy finish, walk away and stand there, tears just pouring out. Finally around 11:45, the last runner came in, his girlfriend waiting for him. He finished, went to his pack looking for something, dropped to his knee and proposed. The whole weekend has this dream-like quality about it.
It felt strange to leave, after the Awards Brunch. I might not see all those beautiful, crazy people until next Spring. My head was spinning for the whole drive home.
In the book I was reading, I read this sentence about mountain climbing. Jon Krakauer say that "climbing is like life itself, but it is cast in much sharper relief". I think this applies to ultra running as well. Last weekend was so intense. I learned so much about myself, about things I need to change.
Haliburton scares me because I know I'll be back. As someone said, it got under my skin and now I know I will have to come back and try the 100 miler. I have unfinished business there.