When I was young, my family was a skiing family. My parents moved to this part of the world primarily due to a love for skiing. Each year, we downhill skied almost every weekend that the ski lifts operated. For more than a decade of weekends, our winter days were spent carving turns on the hill and our evenings were filled with board games, reading and early nights.

This is one of the very few photos from those by-gone days before handheld devices. Me and Sandy hamming it up near the Roundhouse on Whislter - circa 1978

This is one of the very few photos from those by-gone days before handheld devices. Me and Sandy hamming it up near the Roundhouse on Whistler – circa 1978

One night at dinner, I proudly proclaimed that I had skied hard all day and had not fallen once. I still remember being taken aback by my dad’s abrupt response:

That just means that you weren’t trying.

Even at nine years old, or whatever impressionable age I was, those words hit hard and sunk in. I guess I had been fishing for praise but his words were a reminder that pushing yourself is the only way to improve. Not working hard was not praise-worthy. His demand for work ethic even flowed into leisure pursuits.

I am no longer a skier but I carry Dad’s message with me when I run. To me, running is my version of play. I play in the forest as often as I can. I take my play seriously and I work hard when I play. That can mean that I sign up for challenging races and work hard towards being ready to toe the line. It can mean that I refuse to walk a hill or that I push my pace faster.  And this week, it meant that I ran fast, tripped on a root and fell down hard and fast during a casual solo run.

With the wind knocked out of me and severely bruised ribs, I lay at the side of the trail, gazing up at the trees and tried to figure out how I came to be reclining in the moss. I thought about Dad.

Well, Dad, I guess I am improving.

 

 

This year on Valentine’s Day, I am looking forward to feeling my pulse quicken and becoming a little flushed as I head out on a date with my guy. But this is no romantic date with red roses and whispered sweet-nothings. This is a full-on forest chase!

Pulling away on the flats

Pulling away on the flats

Since moving to our peaceful island valley, my FM and I have made a pact to take advantage of the multiple trail systems which surround us, offering fast and flowy trail runs as well as steep and nasty climbs. Twice a week, we meet up at a trailhead for date night (more of a play-date, if you ask me). Sometimes our dates are orgies, including many other like-minded trail lovers, and sometimes our dates are intimate one-on-one affairs. In either case, we drink in the beauty around us in the fading light of day before igniting our headlamps for some subtle light. Often we are so caught up in the moment that no words can be spoken. Instead, we huff and pant in unison.

Pulling away in the dark

Pulling away in the dark

There is truly nothing better than flying along forested trails in pursuit of my husband. Being a far superior athlete than me, he is able to adjust his pace to keep me company or to leave me in his dust. We stick together as we start off, maybe debriefing about our work days or discussing which trails we would like to hit. But soon conversation ends and the narrowing trails force me to fall into single file. I keep right with him, step-for-step, thinking that I am feeling fresh and I’ll be able to maintain this pace.

Pulling away in the snow

Pulling away in the snow

But soon we hit a short, sharp descent and, like a light switch being flicked on, he pulls away. I see it happening and try to match his sure-footed steps. For a while, I hold on and feel myself at the edge of control. It feels amazing to fly like this with him. We are a streak of ribbon winding through the woods.

Pulling away on the ridgeline

Pulling away on the ridgeline

Although I feel like I am holding my own at this blistering pace, I notice with each twist of the trail that he is gaining distance. Soon enough, I catch sight of him only when the trail undulates a certain way. I focus my concentration on keeping him in sight. This time, I promise myself, I will stay with him.

Pulling away on the mountains

Pulling away on the mountains

When he has finally accelerated enough to be out of sight, my mind darkens with defeatist feelings and I begin to lose my determination. My pace slows to something more manageable and I try to gain control of my breathing. This is the hardest part. I am frustrated at my performance and disappointed that my goal will not be reached. It would be easy to give up and walk.

Don't do it. Keep going. Positive Mental Attitude. PMA PMA PMA PMA PMA

Don’t do it. Keep going. Positive Mental Attitude.
PMA PMA PMA PMA PMA

But then, I spy the dim glow of his headlamp and the chase is back on. Calculating how much longer our loop is, I weigh the speed against my leg strength and stamina. I can do this. I’m not that far behind. From nowhere, I push away the dark thoughts and my determination returns.

Trying to keep up

Trying to keep up

As I reach the parking lot at full speed, he greets me warmly, looking like he barely broke a sweat, and I believe him when he comments about how fast we were today. I am realizing that this running game is not about speed and physical stamina. It is about mental strength and the ability to focus on the moment. I am thrilled to have overcome my demons once again. I can’t wait for him to put the hurt on me again next week.

And I'm spent! Let's do it again, lover!

And I’m spent! Let’s do it again, lover!

What does it take for a runner to move on to a longer distance? This question has long been one that rattles around in my head. I have blogged about it before (here) but I still don’t have an answer that satisfies. Here is Wikipedia’s definition of Long-distance running:

Long-distance running, or endurance running, is a form of continuous running over distances of at least three kilometres (1.86 miles). Physiologically, it is largely aerobic in nature and requires stamina as well as mental strength.[1]

While some runners break into a sweat at the idea of adding another 8 km to the end of a marathon, others think nothing of jumping from a 50 km to their first 100 miler. What allows one runner to constantly search for bigger challenges while another holds back?

I choose to enter races that my running friends organize or have successfully completed, thinking there is some kind of safety in that. Often I know a few folks out on the course which gives me some reassurance. Slowly, over the years, the distances have increased and my sense of adventure has grown with it. But I am still cautious in my selection of events and in monitoring my readiness for a longer distance, always wanting to read through results and blogs to know exactly what I am getting myself into.

IMG_0182

At C4P 2005, Canadian Club Smart Ass took Ventura County by storm because there was safety in numbers.

Most of us think that the marathon or even the 100 miler is the upper limit of possibility because we are unable to imagine anything beyond. But those distances are only known and accepted because someone broke out of the mold and attempted something unknown with dubious possibility of success. If you dare to do some research, you will find unbelievable events which fill to capacity with people who are able to open their minds to the endless possibilities out there. Once the bar is raised and a new distance is established, the flood gates will open with others wanting to try.

But, even more daunting than increased distances, I am amazed at runners who enter an inaugural race – a race that has neither stood the test of time nor had the wrinkles worked out. What if the water-drop gets put on the wrong mountain top or the distance is measured in nautical miles rather than those regular ones? (Don’t laugh – these things have happened!) A race’s long history is a sort of proof of its do-ability and that the organization has worked out the logistics. But this proof is absent in a first-time event and therefore it is not a race that I would enter.

Recently, Get Out There magazine published an article titled Going Long which featured two humble athletes who thrive on those kinds of races – the ones with no results, no blogs, no history. One of those featured athletes is my own husband.

tor de geants 2010

Inaugural year of 332km Tor des Geants 2010 – the great unknown in action

Those who read farther than Bruce’s extensive resume were treated to a glimpse into the philosophical thinking behind his leisure pursuit. These inaugural races of ultra-long distances, put on by unknown race directors, often in distant countries are the kinds of boundaries he aims to push. There is a purity in being completely self-reliant and, in some cases, self-sufficient, having to carry all necessary food and supplies or even having to acquire those enroute (in another language). There is also a thrill to being ahead of the curve – competing in an event that the media has not yet sullied as ‘the next great must-do race’. These events are not about the speed-work sessions you did, the number of Strava kudos earned or even the number of training kilometers logged. It is more about being able to filter out the noise and focus solely on the immediate present so that the next mountain pass can be attained. It is a great reminder that the finish line is arbitrary; the journey is everything.

No matter how far we aim to run, our limits are directly linked to restrictions we put on ourselves. If you say “I could never run that far”, then you can’t and you won’t. An open-mind and deep self-knowledge are the tickets needed to go longer.

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The Transpyrenea route follows the GR10 trail from the Mediterranean Sea to the Atlantic through the French

 Finlayson Arm 50 km Race Report

Despite the immense beauty, rugged terrain and innumerable mountain trails here on Vancouver Island, there has been a notable shortage of ultradistance races. I am aware of two ultras – The Great Walk (63.5 km of gravel logging road) and Elk/Beaver Ultra (5 or 10 loops of a 10 km flat, lakeside trail). This dearth of mountain trail ultra races is not a reflection of the ultra running community since each weekend, ferry loads of local racers sail to the mainland to satisfy their race appetites. Luckily, this year, two more Island trail ultras appeared on the radar but unfortunately only 6 days separated them. Although I wanted to support them both, I chose to register for Finlayson Arm 50 km which would round out my season of ultra races. The Snowden Trail Challenge will have to wait one more year.

The Finlayson Arm 50 km is essentially an out-and-back course with an extra loop tacked onto the front end and a gracious skirting of Mt Finlayson’s rocky summit on the return trip. Mt Finlayson is a large rocky knob just east of Victoria BC. As we drove towards Goldstream Provincial Park the evening before, the setting sun illuminated it and I began to realize that perhaps I had underestimated the course. This giant of a mountain was the lowest elevation of the five that we would summit and it looked like a monster of a climb.

Mt Finlayson - a 400 m high rocky knob at the foot of Finlayson Arm in Goldstream Provincial Park.

Mt Finlayson – a 400 m high rocky knob at the foot of Finlayson Arm in Goldstream Provincial Park.

After camping with seven other tents in the group campsite, Bruce and I walked about 100 m to the start line and collected our race numbers.

A pre-race photo of Bruce and me at the group camp site, 100 m to the start line.

A pre-race photo of Bruce and me at the Goldstream group camp site. A chilly start before a glorious, cloudless September day.

At 7:00 am, 56 racers headed into the trails. Right away, we were calf-deep in a creek crossing and then chugging along beautiful, rolling single track. The first 7 km took us up along the western side of the highway and then dropped us steeply down into a pitch black tunnel to pass back to the eastern side. That was the warm-up. Things were about to get serious.

I wish this sign had said: WARNING - don't go out too fast. This climb is only a teaser for you 50 km runners.

I wish this sign had said: WARNING – don’t go out too fast. This climb is only a teaser for you 50 km runners.

The next 1.3 km included over 300 m (1000 ft) of ascent. As you can imagine, this means that both hands and both feet were involved with a whole lot of panting and grunting too. The exposed rocks had smooth, rounded corners from the thousands of hiker footsteps over this popular route. It zigged and zagged to the summit, marked with race flagging as well as permanent reflective markers drilled into the granite.

Working up a sweat on the first climb. (photo credit: Randy Beveridge of www.flashinthepanphotos.com)

Working up a sweat on the first climb. (photo credit: Randy Beveridge of http://www.flashinthepanphotos.com)

I had been pushing myself up the steep and knew that I was going out too fast. I paused on an outcrop and let a group of four pass me so that I could re-boot at a more reasonable pace. I hit the summit just as my watch beeped my food reminder. Exactly 1.5 hours had already gone by.

The descent was not anything like the climb. We were sent down a wide, double track trail that dropped us somewhat more gradually. But even though we were descending, there were still countless uphill grunts that smacked us out of any mind-wandering trance. Eventually we popped out on a paved road where a sign let us know that we were entering the municipality of Highlands. We cruised this residential neighbourhood, entered the trails of Gowlland Tod Park and found our first aid station (approx 12 km).

The next section included an upsy-downsie climb up to Holmes Peak and then onto Jocelyn Hill. It was not as grueling as I had predicted from studying the elevation profile. Although it was generally uphill, there were many opportunities to run or shuffle along unexpected downhills. Holmes Peak (329 m) is graced with powerline towers and incredible views of the ocean below. Farther along, Jocelyn Hill (434 m) provides a more stunning view of the coastal fjords that we call home. Again we had climbed above treeline on this rocky outcrop and could enjoy the morning heat radiating from the granite surface. A group of volunteers were at the summit, recording race numbers, marking the turn-around point for the 25 km racers and enjoying the spectacular 360° view.

After some sweet downhill switchbacks and a few more unexpected uphill grinds, we dropped severely down to the beach at McKenzie Bight. Yes – the beach. Although the elevation profile says 17 m, I can attest to running just above the tidal mark on the beach trail. As I looked out over the water, I tried not to think about the 420 m (1360 ft) climb that lay ahead of me. I simply focused on shuffling up the almost runnable trail leading to aid station #2 (approx 24 km).

The 4.5 km climb from McKenzie Bight beach to the summit of Mt Work took me 50 minutes of hard effort. The trail surface varies from wide dual track with loose rocks to narrow, steep clambers to exposed granite ridge line. All of it was relentless. I was still pushing my pace here, knowing that I was the 5th women but trying to remind myself that the ‘race’ shouldn’t begin until the final quarter. Upon reaching the summit, the real work began. Flagging ribbon was difficult to follow since we were above the main tree line and there were so many small, off-shoot trails. I spent a lot of time standing around, searching for a ribbon. It was impossible to have any flow on this much needed downhill section. With so much climbing in my legs already, I dreaded the thought of adding more so I was extra careful to be certain of the correct route. Finally the steep descent eased and we had about 1 km of flat trail before arriving at aid station #3 (approx 29.5 km).

There were only 20 (+4) km left to go but I knew what was in store. There would not be a moment’s rest during any of this race. No easy miles. No ‘gimme’ clicks.

I love an out-and-back course since you get to see other runners, call out words of encouragement and receive them back. I exchanged words with every one of the racers as I returned to the summit of Mt Work and descended down the far side. In one steep, narrow gap, the tread of my shoe skidded on a light dusting of sand and I slid down a short face. In an instant, I was seeing stars due to a tweeked ankle. Passers-by and other racers stopped to ensure I was okay as I gingerly tested if it could bear weight. After a few steps and a few minute walk, I recognized that my ankle felt okay as long as my foot placement was flat. I wondered if I had seen any flat footing so far on course. I cautiously continued along and was eventually able to muster back some confidence in my stride.

As I expected, climbing up from McKenzie Bight beach back up to Jocelyn Hill was far more difficult on the return route. It was hotter, the legs were more fatigued and the climb was steeper on this side. Those 6 km took me 1hr 20min. And from there, the descent and climb back up to Holmes Peak really took a toll. At that point, I was out of fluids and course markings were becoming an issue. It seemed that the course had been flagged with an eye to the out-bound route. But, upon return, intersections would be flagged up until we reached them but there would be no indication of which way to continue at that intersection. With a lot of guesswork, some memory and sheer stubbornness, I pressed on. I reveled in the sulpher smell of the Cowichan Valley mill, knowing that the smell was only evident as we reached each summit.

When I finally arrived at aid station #1 again (approx 47 km), I was depleted. I had been without water for over an hour and I knew that I still had another huge climb ahead of me. I took a seat, drank almost a litre of water and watched as a young woman passed through, taking 5th place from me. I summoned up my strength to follow her for the final ~5 km of the course. Although we did not have to go over the top of Mt Finlayson again, the side trail still had a significant climb and steep descent. Luckily, I instantly felt better after my re-hydration and made a mental note to bring a third water bottle next year.

The 53+ km course was challenging right to the end. As I ran on rugged mountain bike trails alongside a golf course, I had no idea where the finish line would be. It was a huge relief when I finally spied our tent through the trees, still pitched in the group campsite and knew the finish line was right around the corner. As I crossed the finish line, I was greeted by RD Myke LaBelle who handed me my awesome finisher award – a Driftwood Brewery chalice.

The beer chalice has the Driftwood Brewing logo on one side and the Finlayson Arm logo on the other - a great addition to our collection.

The beer chalice has the Driftwood Brewing logo on one side and the Finlayson Arm logo on the other – a great addition to our collection.

This course is the most difficult, stand-alone 50 km I have run (except, perhaps, a certain Chris Scott-Ojai-C4P event). It has all the punch of a 50 miler, packed into 30 miles. Imagine if Mt Frosty, Squamish Chief and Mt Kusam had a love child – the love child would be Finlayson Arm 50 km.

Here is my Strava elevation profile. I have noted the aid stations in pink and the most significant peaks in black (Finlayson, Holmes, Jocelyn and Work)

Here is my Strava elevation profile. I have noted the aid stations in pink and the most significant peaks in black (Finlayson, Holmes, Jocelyn and Work)

Out of 56 starters, only 45 made it to the finish line within the tight 11 hour cut-off. Aid stations are few and far between since the route is so remote. Even so, in its first year, it is a stand-out event and I can’t wait to return to it next year, but I will prepare differently, knowing that it is a race with not a moment’s rest permitted.

Here we are at the finish, sipping Driftwood's New Growth Pale Ale (and White Bark Wit).

Here we are at the finish, sipping Driftwood’s New Growth Pale Ale (and White Bark Wit) from the finish line beer garden.

Finish time – 8:30:28

21/45 finishers; 6/11 women; 1/3 40-49 age group

And here is the local paper write-up: Victoria Sports News

The Happy Wanderer

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