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Running a 100 miler in March in California – what a delightful idea!

Back in October, as B and I talked ourselves into signing up for the Coyote Backbone Trail 100 Mile event, these are some snippets of conversation that we exchanged:

What a great way to enter into spring! An early season ultra!

It will be a way to escape those last throes of winter!

We’ll miss some of March’s 140+ mm rainfall at home.

March in California brings to mind daytime heat and perfect nighttime running temperatures.

H’ard puts on a great race. I’d love to be part of any event that he organizes.

I fantasize about having to wear shoe gaiters and having foot issues like dust between my toes.

It is a stretch to picture myself wearing shorts and a t-shirt after months of tights, wool and rain jackets.

I can almost taste those freshly-picked, straight-off-the-plant, local strawberries that will be available at every aid station.

And don’t forget about the avocados that ripen right along the trail!

The views will be awesome. There will be incredible views earned with every climb!

Do I even need to mention the Ray Miller trail? That amazing trail will lead us right to the finish line.

Buoyed by these visions, we each entered the race and ramped up our training.

Me and B all bundled up for our New Year's Day fat ass run. I can't wait to show off my True North Strong and Free white legs in March!

Me and B all bundled up for our New Year’s Day fat ass run. I can’t wait to show off my True North Strong and Free white legs in March!

But soon, the reality of training for an early season ultra hit us hard. Two factors quickly reared their ugly heads.

First – the dark. We live a dozen miles south of the 50th parallel. We are treated to long, long days in the summer where it is light enough to be busy outside without a light until after 10:00 pm. At that time of year, we also get used to the early light of the morning where our rooster begins crowing around 4:30 am and blackout curtains are required for sleep (and earplugs too!).

But, in the depths of winter, it is dark on the way to work at 8:00 am and dark on the drive home at 4:30 pm.

This picture was taken on the Winter Solstice 2015 at 07:50 am. We have some pretty fearless hens!

This picture was taken on the Winter Solstice 2015 at 07:50 am. Our hens ain’t afraid of the dark!

We have never really gotten used to the fact that weekends are the only time we get to enjoy seeing more than those next 10 ft of trail. Although running in the dark is possible, thanks to many lumens of flashlights and headlamps, it does sort of suck the joy out of it. I am constantly telling myself that I will rock the night section of this race since my entire training has been done in the dark.

A typical post-work run

A typical post-work run – at least it is only raining!

Second – the wet. Here, on the Wet Coast of BC, we are awash in rain. It is wet all the time and sometimes it is very wet. But, on the upside for us running folks, you can train in the rain. If you can get yourself into the right head space, you can run probably 360 days of the year on dirt and take just 5 or 6 days off due to our two annual snowfalls.

To some, the idea of a snowfall might sound like fun but here, in our coastal paradise, it is no fun at all. To us, snow is what we call the stuff as it falls from the sky but, as soon as it hits the ground, its name changes to #%@! (I wish I knew the Inuit word for this #%@! kind of snow) It gets wet and heavy – sort of like wet concrete – and then, due to our typical near 0°C temperatures, it melts, freezes, re-melts and re-freezes, making it either slippery slurpee or blocks of solid, immovable ice.

Winter trail running wavers between fancy footwork and having your life flash before your eyes

Winter trail running wavers between fancy footwork and having your life flash before your eyes. It would be easy to go head first into this guy’s maw!

This pattern continues until the next torrential rain storm finally washes the #%@ away. Usually this happens all within a 48 hour time frame. But not this year.

Just last weekend, early January’s dump of snow/ice/concrete finally disappeared and we were able to actually run 30 km on dirt. It was a low elevation run with only minor climbs but it was still a trail run! But today, as we dig ourselves out for the fourth time in two months and prepare for yet another ‘snow day’, I really wonder if it will be possible to run 100 miles after having trained in 10 km snippets with almost no hill work. Almost all our plans for long runs have been thwarted by weather.

Yes, yes - we have opportunities to train in the snow but it is a stretch to go for more than 20 km in this terrain.

Yes, yes – we have opportunities to train in the snow but it is a stretch to go for more than 20 km in these conditions.

During the last dump of snow, I resorted to running 27 loops of our property in an attempt to get a few miles in. This is me, teetering on the brink of madness.

During the last dump of snow, I resorted to running 27 loops of our property in an attempt to get a few miles in. This is me, teetering on the brink of madness.

This is the hard reality of being a non-professional ultra runner who works full-time (in a job that I love and for which I am very very thankful!). But right now, it feels like I have been tapering for this race for more than 3 months!

I heard a saying that goes something like ‘you can suffer through the training or you can suffer on race day‘. Although I can attest to having suffered already through my pitiful training, I know that race day will take it to a new level. You can’t fake it for 100 miles.

So, until then, over the next 4 weeks, I will be motivated by pure fear and that long list of delights that I mentioned above. I sure hope they have plenty of strawberries for me!

Most of our imported strawberries come from Ventura County, CA, minutes from the finish line.

Most of our imported strawberries come from Ventura County, CA, minutes from the finish line.

“Strawberries, you say?! Are they at the end of this snow tunnel?”

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

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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