Each one of us has stories about COVID-19 and its impact on our lives, our goals, our mental well-being, but it is the emerging from the pandemic which currently holds my attention. How will I approach this sudden freedom to run, to travel and to set goals? Am I happy with my small, contained lifestyle which has been constructed to eliminate risks and challenges? Or do I need to burst out of the cocoon and aspire to those lofty plans from before?

On one hand, being comfortable is comfortable. Fat and lazy is new to me and it definitely has its draw. Although I have kept up some running and more mountain biking throughout the lockdown stages, I have also been quite content to stay at home, putter around with my flock and bake. Some pants no longer fit. I have enjoyed the lack of obligatory miles and the loss of that nagging voice that endlessly reminds me that I shouldn’t be relaxing or content. It has taken 16 months but she has finally toned it down to a whisper.

On the other hand, I feel a real void in my life. There is a deep hollow that needs to be filled. I’m pretty sure I could fill it with any number of hobbies but my fallback is mountains, trails and occasional suffering. I know how to run ultras and, with well-placed effort, it would come back. But it would entail a lot of hard work and I have only just recently realized that long-term comfort feels nice.

But who am I without those ambitions? That is the fork in the road for me. I have always known that my running is 100% goal-oriented. Without an end or a purpose, I am quite content to stay on the sidelines. But with a specific race date, I am the most committed out there.

I do actually have a race on the schedule but not until 2022. My hard-won lottery spot for Cascade Crest 100 2020 was generously rolled over twice due to COVID and ensuing cross-border travel restrictions but, at this point, it is still in the distant future and I have even questioned whether I will toe that line or not.

And so. Who am I and what am I doing with my life?

In mulling all of this over with FM, he let me in on a brilliant piece of running wisdom. He reminded me that I don’t have to win, place or even show, as the saying goes, in a race this season. I could enter a race and essentially plan on using every minute of the allocated time, racing cut-offs instead of racing. The concept instantly resonated with me. Imagine taking the pressure off but keeping the goal of finishing intact!

With my newfound inspiration, I hit <Register> and am now happily on the list of entrants for the Finlayson Arm 100km. This is a race that is dear to me. I have run the 50km twice and the 100km once and I have twice volunteered at the all-nighter aid station for the 100km. I know that out-n-back course so well and love all that it offers. And now I am allowing myself all 25:59:59 to complete it.

Run out then back and repeat
Do this twice!

A thank you now to Robert Frost for poetically rendering my feelings, to my dad for often quoting this poem and, above all, to FM for his wisdom in all things running and his belief in me.

The Road Not Taken by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

The Road Taken!

So there I was – hauling ass down the Puntledge Plunge after a post-work trail climb in Forbidden Plateau. The late afternoon light was fading and I had been motivated to leave work and make the most of it. A grueling climb on these tired, out-of-shape legs was exactly what I needed. As I descended, it was just dark enough in the forest to warrant my waistbelt light but it wasn’t yet dark. Pale purple sky was slowly giving away to starlit night.

Up ahead, a slight movement caught my eye. Was that a deer? No, the shape was all wrong. COUGAR! I froze in place and tried to confirm my suspicions. There was a softness, a roundness to this animal that didn’t quite match my regular forest creature encounters. A swish of the tail was enough to make me snap into fight or flight mode. This big cat had turned its head to look at me. No doubt now.

My mind started churning with the DOs and DON’Ts with cougars.

  • Don’t look in its eyes.
  • Back away slowly.
  • Hold your arms up so you look large.

I realized then that my waistbelt light was on, perhaps having the effect of eye contact. I fumbled to switch it off and began my slow retreat. I was trying to mentally map out the trail system behind me and figure out if there was another way back to the trailhead. I had no extra gear with me – to hold up or to wear – and soon I would be really cold as the sub-zero temperatures took hold.

Image result for cougar retreat

Not my photo. The last thing on my mind was documentation.

As my light extinguished, the cougar started – a slight jump of surprise – and it bolted off the trail. I waited. I listened. I tried to keep my mind from reeling. What to do now? I waited some more.

After three or four minutes, I decided to continue in the direction I had originally been going. The cougar had left in a hurry and there was no other way back to my car. I decided that I may have a short window of opportunity to get past the area while it was still spooked. I remembered that I had my (tiny) vial of dog spray in my waistbelt and gave it a test spray (more of a dribble really), thinking that it would really be no match for claws and jaws in this situation.

This is where I really entered unknown territory. Should I pass by quietly? Should I make a lot of noise as if a bear is around? I decided to yell and call out and sing. I figured that it knew exactly where I was so I may as well vocally expel some of my terror.

I slowly made my way to the point where it had been standing – about 40 meters – and I studied the muck for footprints, wondering how large a beast I had seen. I couldn’t find its tracks and I didn’t want to linger. I sauntered along, making sure that my vocalizations didn’t sound like a wounded animal (so much for my singing skills).

At some point, I decided that I needed to move more quickly as I was getting chilled and starting to shiver. It seems like a bad idea now but I began to run. I had about 4 km left to get back to the parking lot and darkness was rolling in now. You can only imagine how often I did a shoulder check as I made my way back. I do wonder what the longer term impact of this cougar sighting will be on my solo running pursuits.

This is my second cougar sighting, both having happened when I was alone on forest trails. In both encounters, I have come up behind the cougar, seeing it before it saw me. I know that cougars are all around these forests and there are often sightings. I am certain that I have been seen and have spooked cougars and bears countless times, unbeknownst to me. I hope that others realize that cougars will retreat if they can and if they are well-fed. I count myself privileged, not just because I am alive to tell the tale, but also because I got to witness the majesty of our own King of the Forest up close in its own territory.

I have cleared the schedule, hung up the shoes and found a new pastime. 2019 will be remembered as the year that ultras went on the back burner.

Last spring and summer, my running struggled along as I battled twinges and tweaks and resulting low motivation. My achilles injury forced me to forgo a bunch of races and it was really difficult to get the proper training in for my ‘A race’ of the season, the Mighty Quail 100 km. In the end, I got it done but I lost something along the way – the desire to push through.

For me, running long distances requires strong focus on a specific end point – usually a certain finish line – and that focus will pull me through the long hours of training. I really love being out in the forest, deep in the lesser known trails, reminding myself to eat and drink and watch my footing as I go. There is a purity and ease as I clock the kms but that ultimate race goal is truly what gets me out the door.

I have always been one to take time off from running once daylight savings ends but, last fall, I took it to the level of hibernation. I had no desire to run in the snow or rain, nor solo or with the group. Instead I read, became a homebody and allowed myself to get soft around the edges and it has been fabulous. I got a new-to-me mountain bike and have been learning to rip up the trails (a little). I ride purely for fun and usually in a group. There is no goal except perhaps to end the ride without any new bruises.

Last night, B and I were talking about his upcoming Tor de Glaciers race – a 450 km loop of the Italian alps in Sept 2019 – and reminiscing about our Tor de Geants race five years ago. I found myself wishing aloud (again) that I could have a re-do of that event. I believe I could have done it better. B was quick to suggest a number of other 100 mile and 200 mile races which would allow me to prove myself to myself.

As I scrolled through event pages, looking for an ultra race that would fit in my 2020 fixed summer holiday, I had to laugh at myself. Here I was, searching for that goal race, ready to click the ‘register’ button, despite the fact that I haven’t laced up my running shoes for weeks. But perhaps this summer of rest and relaxation has worked its magic. I knew I needed some time off – not to consider quitting for good but simply to come back with a thirst for that next finish line.DSCN0370

 

 

Mighty Quail 100 km race report – Take 2

I re-read my last post and was struck by the vanilla of it all. Was that really how my day unfolded? Although all of that race report is true, I think I failed to capture my moods, my tenacity or my stubbornness. I made it seem as if my injury and my lack of training were immaterial in the end and that a hundred kilometers is an easily attainable goal. If this blog is supposed to be a personal journal of my experience running, then I missed the mark and cheated myself in the end. So here is a more truthful rendition of the race:

I arrived at the start line with a lofty finish time goal of 14hr 30min. This was arbitrary but somewhat based on the winning time of last year’s first female. I didn’t have any grandiose ideas of winning, since I knew that the bar would be lifted ever higher during the first years of a race, but I thought the time could be attainable. I had pored over the inaugural year results and lurked through strangers’ Strava race profiles, even going so far as to make a cheat sheet of times to meet along the way, which I carried with me on race day.

In a way, this mental game doesn’t amount to much since I am able to abandon lofty time goals mid-race and re-focus on simply finishing alive and upright (as in TdG). I also had a look through some other racers’ UltraSignup results which is where the depth of experience among this cohort came to light but I knew none of the women entrants. I had a good laugh at my UltraSignup ‘Target Finish Time’ since I was targeted to finish in 18hr 54min, almost an hour over the race time limit. Thanks for the confidence boost, UltraSignup!

The first 30 km played out just as I wrote before. I was alone for hours, I focussed on climbing strong, I worried about Bruce’s ankle roll, I ate and I drank like clockwork and I wondered if our recent 500 km walk through Sweden would hinder or help me on this course. I also felt disappointed that the course had taken us up and over the eastern foothills and into a valley hidden from the Okanagan lake views. Beautiful views are a hugely motivating factor in my running and it looked like we would not get the wide-open views pictured on the website.

After making the high point of the day (33 km), I was finally near other runners again. “Stealthy Black” was standing at the side of the trail at one point, looking surprised to see a bunch of us pass her. In no time, we were all filling up at the 38 km water drop and we proceeded down a trail which I’ll remember as Bear Sh1t Alley. Between the very fresh, steamy (!) piles of bear poop were very fresh, mucky cow pies. It was sort of like an obstacle course for a few kilometers. Perhaps “Bear Bell” guy had the right idea after all.

Once we hit the logging road, we had 6 km of road running before aid station #2. This is where my race began. I could see runners far ahead and I worked hard to reel each of them in. I set my sights on the “Circus Gals”, two brightly-dressed women who looked to be close to my age, and pushed hard to pass them. They did not relent easily and they quickly shifted gears into chase mode after I passed. I could hear breathing nearby after and turned to see “Stealthy Black” making a strong push to pass me. All of this chick-jostling told me that I was probably among the female contenders (within our tiny field of 11!)

Upon arriving at 47 km (AS#2), I was told that I was the 4th woman with “Stealthy Black” in 3rd and the “Circus Gals” in 5th/6th. We had essentially arrived together so it was a race to see who could resupply herself fastest and get out ahead of the others. “Stealthy Black” won that race and I followed, after ensuring that I had everything required for the remaining 54 km and the upcoming night. The “Circus Gals” left soon after me and I could hear their chatter from the switchback below.

Along the dreaded Beaverdell Rd (remember – the gravel, the pick-up trucks, the relentless climb?), I tried to run everything. I tried to look stronger and faster than them by running when they were walking. In the process, I nearly rejected my recently swallowed PB&J, pushing too hard after consuming so much food at the aid station. I could see “Stealthy Black” way up ahead but sadly never again. When we finally reached the Ellis Canyon trails, I flew, knowing that my endless training on mountain bike trails would be a hard act to follow. But what is gained is so easily lost.

I needed nothing at the 58 km water stop – except the pit toilet (I blame that friggin’ PB&J!) so the “Circus Gals” retook their lead. They were out of sight when I emerged and I put myself back into chase mode. Losing a place is disappointing but losing two places really bothered me. “Cowboy Hat” and I descended through the deep sand together and both of us opted for wet feet as we forded the reservoir river which allowed us to easily gain six or seven places. During the steep ascent on the climb out of the reservoir valley, I could hear, then see, the “Circus Gals” but I was unable to overtake them until one of them stopped to remove her pack near the summit.

When we finally began to descend down Campbell Mtn DH trail, I hooked my invisible bungy onto the back of one of the “Twins” as they yahooed down the mountain bike trails towards aid station #3. I knew that one of the “Circus Gals” was just behind me so I tried to lengthen my stride with each step. It was one of those descents where I was huffing from the strong downhill effort. Of course, we all arrived at AS#3 (71 km) within seconds of each other. I chatted with old friends and tried to nourish myself well before heading out. This is where Lisa’s wise words about getting the same burger and same award at the finish helped me put things in perspective. It didn’t matter how we all placed. We were strangers who love doing the same thing and are well-matched to run together. In any other scenario, we would have laughed at our commonalities.

While I caught up with Lisa and Heather, “Cowboy Hat” and the “Circus Gals” quickly left the aid station and the “Twins” picked up their enthusiastic pacers all before I found the motivation to get going. I was dreading the next part. Greyback Mtn Road is the soul-sucking climb that would go on for 6+ km and would take me at least 1hr 20min to attain.

When I left the pavement and the grade steepened, I had time to start crunching the numbers. It was 5 pm, 11 hours into the race, and I still had 30 km to go. I was behind my secret time by 35 minutes which wasn’t too bad, but I was starting to feel the fatigue building in my legs. I knew that I wasn’t going to get any faster and that my longest training run (33 km) was not enough to pull it off. At my current slovenly pace, I was not going to see the “Circus Gals” again but I desperately wanted to catch them. As I was trying to re-calibrate my goals, I realized that each 25 km section had taken 4 hours. Surely I could run a downhill 25 km in less time. I waffled between optimism and defeat for this entire climb. It was the lowest point of the day.

Reaching the turn off Greyback and onto High Point Rd was awesome. I was able to run along the double track and I could see the orange colours of the sunset as the sun briefly made an appearance below the clouds. There were about 30 peaceful minutes of twilight running where I met up with “Cowboy Hat” and we stuck together until the headlamps came out. He mentioned that I seemed to have bounced back from a low point and I replied that sometimes you don’t even know you’re having a low point until it is over and you suddenly feel good again. We parted ways once our lights were on and I trucked on ahead and up the final steep grunt of the day.

I ran everything down to aid station #4, although caution has sadly become my downhill running style. I wanted to pull out my ipod and listen to some motivating tunes here but I dared not lose a minutes time in fumbling around with cords and stuff. Three long switchbacks kept looping us back and forth above the station so I could occasionally hear chatter or music down below. It was eerie and it took forever! When I arrived at the short out-and-back to the station, the “Twins” and their effervescent pacers were on their way back into the trails.

I was the only customer at AS#4 (87 km). A volunteer tried to direct me to a fireside chair and blanket which I declined but, as I started to dig into those delicious, fresh Okanagan apples, I simply had to take a seat for my second and third helping. Since I was now having a gag reflex every time I tried to swallow a gel, that crisp, pure taste of apple was exactly what I needed. I downed some Coke too. The clock showed 14 hrs 23min (remember – my secret finishing time goal) and here I was, sitting in a chair with 13 km to go. It was time to re-calibrate my finish goal again. I figured that I could run the last section in 90 minutes so I set my sights on sub 16.

Once back on course, it didn’t take long for me to find the “Circus Gals”. I could hear their chatter and see the glow of their lamps long before they saw me coming. We greeted each other again, as we had all day, and I could see that the downhill was taking its toll on one of their knees. I retook my lead and tried to look strong and confident as I scurried on ahead but, a few minutes later, I took my only tumble of the day. I caught a toe, flew a few feet and managed to right myself, jarring my wrist slightly. They both checked in on me and made sure I was okay before we re-assumed our positions and continued on.

With the frenzy of the fall and with finally being ahead, I got cocky and missed a significant turn just a minute later. I found myself on the far side of a creek, in the dark with no markers in either direction. I had to retrace my steps (uphill) and find my error. Of course, this put me behind the Gals again but now I was pissed that they had not called out to me when they saw me go off course. I berated myself for losing my concentration and vowed to really focus on the reflective markers. I figured that I would find the “Circus Gals” quite soon but it took over 4 km for that to happen.

The markers were fewer here and I kept doubting that I was on the right path. I stopped, searched and retraced my steps multiple times. I finally thought Screw It and plowed on where I thought the route was going and, sure enough, I found a marker a few minutes later. I had the same attitude when I came across a frisbee golf course full of cows but no markers. At this point, I could see Lake Okanagan and the lights on the far side and I knew that the trail section was almost done.

Just as I could hear traffic and see street lights, I came up behind the “Circus Gals”. They thought I was “Cowboy Hat” and seemed surprised that I had ended up behind them again but I reassured them that it was just me, “Skirt Lady”. We confirmed that this next section, the last section, was about 5 km on the Kettle Valley Railbed (KVR) and a final km down to the yacht club.

I made my final pass of these women and ran with full effort along this wide, gravel road. I was determined to put a big gap between us and I still had my sub 16 hr goal in mind. But all my bumbling around, searching for markers in the dark, had eliminated my time cushion. My quads were screaming from the long downhill trails we had just completed and the leg turnover was sad indeed. Somehow I managed to overtake another runner here but only because he had been reduced to a walk. The KVR was another part of the course that I had not looked at carefully since it was a gentle downhill grade. It was long and it was hard (said the actress to the bishop) and I searched endlessly for the right hand descent to the water. I only looked back once to see if I was being hotly pursued and thankfully there was only darkness behind me.

When I reached the yacht club parking lot, I was truly exhausted with the effort and I truly didn’t think I could run all the way across to the finish chute. And when I crossed the line, I had to stand with my hands on my knees and breathe for a couple of minutes before receiving my congratulatory hugs. I left it all on the course. The “Circus Gals” and I raced each other for 60+ km and traded placings over and over again. They arrived at the finish 6 minutes after me, having run every step of the day together.

They call these events ‘races’ but I have only ever entered to simply run. But today, this felt like a race all day long. Although it was a much slower pace than the winners, it felt like the three of us were playing some kind of strategic mind game. I doubt that I would have had my 16:08 finish time if they hadn’t been pushing the pace and offering the challenge all day.  Thanks, “Circus Gals”! May we meet again.

The Happy Wanderer

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