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Fourteen hours ago, the starting gun went off in Courmayeur, Italy. After at least a year of consideration, months of actively training for it, months of fretting over not training enough, weeks of injury recovery and the last few days of travel, acclimation and final race preparation, Bruce toed the starting line.

Bruce in semi-Euro gear. Incognito !

Bruce is embarking on his second Tor Des Geants race, a 336 km (208 mile) footrace through the Alps in north-western Italy. In the shadow of Monte Bianco (Mont Blanc), Monte Rosa and the Matterhorn, the famous Alta Via No. 2 trail will lead the 600 or so runners along  the south side of the Aosta Valley, up through high mountain passes and down into the deep valleys below. After 100 miles or so, at the far end of the Aosta Valley, the trail changes names to Alta Via No.1 and curves back along the northern side for 100 more miles, sending the runners back to where they began. The race is almost entirely on mountain trails and the total elevation gain is over 24000 meters (79000 feet).

Like other ultra running races, there are regular aid stations along the way, quaintly situated in rifugios (hostels) where you can get food, water, medical attention and moral support. At this race, there are also six life bases, housed in recreation centers or similar, where you can shower, sleep and access a duffel bag of your own gear.

But this race is different from the usual trail running fare that we are used to. After the starting gun, it is completely up to the individual how to budget his time between running, resting and eating. Some runners will run full throttle day and night, pausing only briefly to refuel and for occasional 30 minute cat naps. The winners have completed the course in around 80 hours – that’s a little more than 3 days – having allowed themselves only snippets of sleep along the way.

Other runners approach the race as a catered tour where they run and hike all day long, eat a hot meal, shower and then lie down for a full night’s sleep. With a seven-day time limit on the race, it is possible to do but you better not get too relaxed because the cut off times are strictly enforced and can be difficult to make, especially on the first day.

So far, I bet I have made it sound like I am an expert on the topic of the Tor Des Geants. Perhaps you even thought that I had completed the race myself, or at least made an attempt. Let me tell you that I have never been to this race. This is the second time that I have watched the race unfold from home. Although I am once again crewing from afar, it feels as if I am waiting at each life base, ready to answer whatever demand he may have. Clean socks? Hot drink? Retape the toes? Get out the way? But from here at my computer on the west coast of Canada, I anticipate his every need. From his check-in/check-out  times, I can almost read the kind of day he is having. But this second-nature feeling comes from deciding long ago to be an active part of his racing.

I don’t just stand aside and watch as Bruce takes on these unbelievable challenges. I am part of the decision, training and preparation that goes into a successful run. We spend time together on trails, insisting that our after-work run happens despite whatever our work days entailed or the weather. We talk about race day strategies and revisit prior results, weighing out the pros and cons. We rehash old mistakes and come up with mantras to get though tough sections. We go over packing lists and food plans. He includes me in his fears and also in his secret goals. I watch his mood and listen to his plans and try to be the realistic voice. This is the one time in our relationship where I am the rock and he is the bird.

Keep your chin up and look around!

How I would love to surprise him at Cogne, the 100km mark, by being at the life base when he comes through. But the reality is that he will have to depend on the Italian race organisation as his crew. I hope that they will applaud his arrival, make sure that he has everything he needs and then kick him out the door before he gets too comfortable. If I am lucky, he may give me a call from his cell phone (mandatory gear!) and let me know how he is feeling and let me remind him of a few of our mantras.

When you aren’t drinking, EAT!  When you aren’t eating, DRINK!

Keep your chin up and look around.

PMA (positive mental attitude)

You paid to be here. Enjoy it!

If you see some wildflowers, think of me – and take another drink.

And hopefully this year, there will be someone at the finish line yelling “Bravo! Bravo!” and even snapping a finish-line photo, unlike last time when there was no one (NO ONE!) around to witness his 2:00 am finish!

PS If you want to see some of his video coverage from the 2010 TDG, go to his blog http://lonerunman.blogspot.ca/

PPS If you want to follow his progress this week, look for racer #728 at www.tordesgeants.it

Tenderfoot Boogie 50 miler

This race took place on 15 May, 2010.  It has taken me 6 months to write a report, partly out of laziness and partly because it was hard to find positive things to say.  But, as I say at the end of the post, it was a day for learning.

The route from Squamish to Whistler is one that I have travelled many times yet I didn’t know of any trail system that linked the two cities.  My favourite running trails these days are those fabulous mountain bike trails in the Squamish area, so it seemed like a good fit for me.  The cherry on top was that my good buddy, George, was keen to run it as well.

The Tenderfoot race consists of 3 different distances – 28 km, 55 km and 50 miles – and an option for relay teams as well.  From my pre-race calculations, I knew that the shorter distance runners would hear their starting gun and be long gone by the time I arrived at those points.  There were only 14 people at the starting line for the 50 miler at 5 am, so I knew that it would be a pretty quiet day on the trails.  In the back of my mind, I expected to run with George only for the beginning of the day.  I was keen to run my own race on my own and let George do the same.  We both had different reasons for being out there and different goals to fulfil.  I would be lucky to see anyone out there at all.

The first section of the course was familiar since we had scoped it out during one of Gottfried’s orientation runs.  It all looked a little different in the early morning light, but we had no troubles figuring out which way to go at various junctions.  George and I ran together and were in pretty good spirits, knowing that the day would be long.  There were some long stretches of gravel trail on a river dike, beside the railroad and on the highway shoulder but there were also a few single track sections that were fun.  Since I knew this part of the course, nothing came as a surprise.

The first cause for worry was at aid station #1 (13 km).  There was a 10 litre jug of water and a 10 litre jug of something that looked like water.  In the crap-shoot, I lucked out and refilled both bottles with water.  George however was unlucky and ended up with two bottles full of some electrolyte drink that was quite undrinkable.  Even after adding a nuun tablet, we both found it unpalatable.  With knowledge of his common stomach issues, he decided to dump it and share some of mine until the next aid station.

At aid station #2 (28 km), we found that the 2 water jugs were now clearly labelled.  Gail was there with a cooler full of race treats for George and all the options for clothing and hydration that you could dream of.   We carried on and entered new territory of unknown trails.

The second cause for worry was just beyond aid station #2.  The course was sparsely marked with a translucent red flagging ribbon which was very hard for me to see.  Now is the time to mention that George is red/green colourblind.  Red flagging is his worst nightmare – especially this thin, clear kind. He honestly could not see any flagging.  At one point, I veered left when he continued going straight.  When he questioned me, I pointed to the ribbon and said:

The trail is this way.

He stopped and said:

Where is the ribbon?

I walked right up to the ribbon and held it out for him.  He still couldn’t identify it as a race marking.  He said that it looked like all the rest of the moss/trees/bushes and the only distinguishing feature was the long ribbon shape.  I didn’t have a true appreciation of colourblindness until then.  He was truly blind on this course.  The only option was for him to stick to me like glue and for me to do all the navigation.  To add to that, the markings were inconsistent.  Sometimes they were at trail junctions.  Sometimes they weren’t.  Sometimes they were on both sides of a junction causing us to take a 50/50 guess on which direction was correct.  It was like being mice in an endless maze.

Now I could go on about how difficult it was to find the route, but I will limit to say that there was a fair amount bush-whacking through some sort of imaginary trail and a few incredibly long sections of running right on Hwy 99 with cars whizzing past us at 100+km/hr speeds.   Due to poor markings, we ended up on Hwy 99 for a stretch of about 6 km, instead of the 2 km indicated in the race description.  When we finally reached Brandywine Falls parking area (52 km), there was no traffic marshal there to help us navigate the highway crossing.  Luckily for G and I, we had been travelling at a somewhat leisurely pace and still had our wits about us while we played real-life frogger.

At this point, things start to get foggy.  We knew that the aid station at Brandywine had been moved farther along, but from the pre-race emails, I thought it would be only a couple of km farther.  In hindsight, I can only guess that those were highway driving distances – not the distances that we runners would have to do on trail.  When we finally did arrive at McGuire (wherever that was) about 8 km later, there was nothing to eat.  The ‘loaded aid stations’ had been picked clean by the faster runners and relay teams who were awaiting exchange.  And worst of all, the aid station had no water.  Those 2 jugs that I mentioned earlier were now empty and Gail had dipped into her own personal stash to help other runners.  We took almost all that she had left, but left some for the runners who were still behind us.

With about 1 litre between us, G and I headed out to do the next section.  It was hot and we were moving slowly.  The new Sea-to-Sky trail was beautiful and easy to follow.  Finally I didn’t have to worry about trail markings.  There were still two more critical road junctions which had us wandering around and asking strangers, but mostly it was straight-forward.  But the fact was that George and I were out of water for about 1.5 hours.  It was hot and he was approaching a full-bonk , weaving and having to sit down every now and then.  He kept telling me to go on ahead and  leave him, but trail buddies just don’t do that.

At long last, we got to Function Junction (~70km).  Gail was waiting near the aid station with a meal and lots of water.  As we arrived, the aid station was shutting down.  The volunteer had to get to work.  Were we the final runners?  We had no idea.  G needed time to regroup and didn’t want me to wait around.  This last section was a popular mountain bike route and a well-established trail, so I left him.  This was the only real climb on the course and it went on for about 6 or 7 km.  But I felt strong.  I cranked the tunes in my ipod for the first time all day.  Once I reached the rock cairn at the summit, I began my downhill rip.  Was I ever surprised when I came across Margaret Paxton on the trail.  She had passed us hours earlier, but was being very cautious on this section of downhill.

I sent her my good wishes and carried on my way.  Finally, I hit the Valley Trail – a flat, paved bike path which winds its way throughout Whistler.  I know I was moving slowly, but I felt like I was flying.  There was Bruce walking towards me.  He whooped it up and joined me on the last km.  I was running scared, knowing that Margaret was hot on my heels.  It seems a bit funny to be lackadaisical all day and then begin a race at 81km.  As it turned out (much to my surprise), I was the first woman to come in.  I won, by some strange freak of nature.  I am proud to say that I hold the course record for the Tenderfoot 50 Miler with an astonishingly slow time of 12:32!  Let’s see how many hours get taken off that record next year, Ellie!

At the finish line, Bruce told me the trials and tribulations that he had encountered during his run.  He had much of the same story as I have told here, except that he was much faster and it seems that he was off course more than George and me.  He came through the finish chute in second place but, after hearing the race stories of the other top five runners, honourably declined his placing, having figured that he had been more off-course than they had been.  He accepted a placing of 4th overall and wins sportsman-of-the-year from me.  You can find his write up here.

George gathered himself together and followed me through the last 12 km.  He came in with good spirits, accompanied by Gail.  You could see his level of dehydration by looking at the salt stains on his shirt.  We had a long moment together at the finish line.  The day dealt out way more than either of us expected.  We only managed to accomplish what we did because of Gail’s tireless crewing and because of the strength we find in each other.

My eyes were opened to a few new things that day:

Firstly, colourblindness.  As a trail runner, it poses a far greater handicap than I ever realised.  RDs should avoid using red/orange/pink ribbon for course markings.

Secondly, back-of-the-pack running.  It was shocking to me how little food and drink was left for us at aid stations.  RDs need to be aware that the last runners will need the most aid.  Faster runners should only take what they truly need, especially if there isn’t very much there.  And, if you are a relay runner, step away from the table.

Thirdly, course descriptions. Don’t put too much faith in website descriptions.  Remember that ultrarunning is not marathoning and that there are a lot of unknown factors in store for you as the day unfolds.  Keep your wits about you and enjoy the adventure that you are undertaking.

Finally, victory. Keep on going, no matter how slowly.  You just might end up in first place.

Stormy 100 mile trail race

Aid Station #3 – Edith Lake

10 am start – Such a luxurious way to begin an ultra.  As Bruce and I pulled into the start/finish area, the runners were milling around, talking about the weather, checking out the unknown faces, catching up with old friends.  It is a scene that I love.  Collectively, the runners represent such determination, preparation and mental fortitude – and  that is simply what they bring to the start line.

With a few short words about flagging and drop bags, RD Wendy Montgomery sent the 23 runners on their way.  As soon as they had gone, the area began to buzz with activity.  There was much to do to get those 8 aid stations equipped.  We packed up the car with cookies, fruit, chips, pretzels and other goodies.  We jotted down the names of runners and their numbers.  We made arrangements for Brian to drop off a tent and water jugs at our remote station.  We picked up the radio and batteries.  And we headed down the highway.

Edith Lake is a little bit west of Alice Lake, off hwy 99.  Our destination was simply a junction of trails near a lake.  As the course is a 50 mile loop, our aid station is at 16 mi and at 66 mi into the run.   The BC Parks operators had unlocked a gate so that we could drive up the 5 km dirt road.  From the end of the road, we would have to pack our supplies in about 300 m.  We expected the first runners to arrive around 12:30 and there was a fair amount of work to do before then.

With Brian’s help, we were able to unload the car, set up the tent and get water ready.  Over the radio, we heard that the first runner has already gone through the aid station#4, the one which comes after ours.  How did we miss him?  We were here the whole time!  Did he fly by while we were making trips to the car?  Did he manage to get any fluids?  We eventually got answers to all of these questions.  Jason Loutitt had indeed flown by our station as it was in the process of being set up.  We must have been shuttling gear from the car when he made his brief appearance.  Luckily, he is a minimalist runner and didn’t need anything from us.  He was ahead of record-setting pace!

After that initial confusion, the rest of the runners came in steadily.  Most didn’t require much food or support at this point.  Many were excited to see treats like green olives and pickles on our table.  Within an hour, all runners were accounted for and we were done.  Because of the popularity of the trails, we had to dismantle our whole aid station when we left the area.  We didn’t want riders, hikers, off-leash dogs or bears to help themselves so we put everything back into the car, except for the water jugs and event tent.

Edith Lake Vollies

Edith Lake Aid StationVollies

We headed into Squamish and met up with Ken and Janet at Howe Sound Brewpub.  They were working the Alice Lake aid station which came immediately before ours.  We enjoyed some lunch/dinner and a tasty brew.  On our way back, we stopped in at Perth Road station where George and Gail Forshaw had set up The Bistro.  Runners would pass this station twice on each loop.  There, they would be treated to espresso, ravioli finger-food and home-made bread-pudding.  We dropped off a bottle of beer for them and said good night.

We approached the BC Parks gate, we discovered that it had been locked.  We headed down to the campsite entrance and had about an hour of stressful negotiations with a handful of park operators.  Bruce handled the situation so well and eventually managed to persuade Ben to unlock the gate until noon the next day.  The issue had to do with poor communication between different offices and bureaucratic paperwork.  It was really the only wrinkle in our whole day.

The set-up went much faster this time, since we had a clear plan for the site.  I even had time to head down to check on the reflective course-markings leading to our station.  We made up our turkey-avocado wraps and PBJ wraps and set them out with pickles, olives, tomatoes, grapes, bananas, oranges, chips, pretzels, chocolates, gatorade, pop, nuun and water.  We had hot soup ready in a thermos and hot water simmering for warm drinks.

106 km treats

106 km treats

Jason arrived at 8:40pm, having maintained his lead in the race.  This time, he grazed at our table and seemed pretty wiped.  It was just becoming dark and I asked him if he had a flashlight in a drop bag at the next aid station.  He simply showed me that he was wearing an e-lite around his waist.   Now, I have a similar one-bulb led attached to my keys.  That light will help you find your front door keyhole, but it won’t be much good in the heavily forested trails of Squamish all night long.  Within a few minutes, he had reloaded and scooted off with a sigh.  What an amazing runner!  He went on to win the 100 miler in 19:11 – lap 1 in 7:32; lap 2 in 11:39.  I heard that he wasn’t able to move as quickly in the second lap, partially due to lighting issues.

More than two hours later, the second place runner, Matt Daniels, came through our station.  For the next few hours, our station was quite busy with eight of the 100 mile runners and their pacers.  Although it was a warm night for running, there were many requests for soup.  The turkey/avocado wraps were not as popular this year and cookies were the food choice of many.  It wasn’t until 1:40 when the rush died down.

Around that time, we received a phone call from Ken.  Two of the runners had not shown up at the Alice Lake aid station yet the final runner and the sweepers had arrived.  He wasn’t sure if the missing runners were off-course or if they had snuck by his station when he briefly dozed off.   Sure enough, around 3:55, the two missing runners and one pacer came to us.  They regaled us with tales of being lost for over 3 hours and missing the previous aid station.  They had somehow skipped all of Alice Lake and had come up the Mashiter trail instead.  They were so relieved to finally be back on course and to have some refreshment.  Knowing that they had lost their way, they were very concerned about being disqualified for not doing the whole distance.  The option of sending them back to the Alice Lake station seemed unfair, since it would put them way behind cut-off schedules.  Instead, Bruce suggested that they add an extra loop near the finish to make up for lost miles.  After they were refueled, we sent them on towards Perth Rd and promised that we would get advice from the RD on making up the distance.

CREW = Cranky Runners; Endless Waiting.

CREW = Cranky Runners; Endless Waiting.

An hour later, the final runner and the two sweeps arrived.  Everyone was accounted for.  With no hesitation, Bruce and I crawled into our tent at 5 am and dropped off to sleep.  We managed to get one full hour of zzzs before the cell phone rang.  Wendy wanted to know what supplies needed to be restocked before the 50 milers and relay runners came through.  Minutes after that, three volunteers arrived to spell us off.  We jumped right back into the mode of preparing food and drink.  Since most of the aid station equipment was ours, Bruce and I couldn’t really leave and expect the new volunteers to clean up after us.  So we stayed and helped.

At 8 am on the nose, the first relay runner blazed in, tagged off and sent his teammate on his way.  The station became quite a hub of excitement for two hours as relay runners and 50 mile soloists came through.  Finally the turkey wraps were getting eaten!  We helped runners tape their feet, fill their hydration packs and get nourishment.  After a long slow night, this action was constant.  The “Stormy Vollies” relay team arrived and, with a few quick introductions, Bruce headed off to run two legs of the relay.

The craziness lasted until about 9:15 and then the waiting game for the final runners took over.  After the last runner at 10:00, we dismantled the aid station and loaded up the cars.  We were just about to head back to the start/finish area when the sweeps, Jackie Muir and Mike Palichuk, arrived.  They dropped off flagging ribbon and signs and picked up the last of the wraps and water.

After checking in with the Perth Rd station and dropping equipment off at the start/finish area, we were done.  Bruce and I headed for home.  It would have been a treat to stay and watch the final 100 milers come in, but we were exhausted and had a family celebration to attend that night.

This is such an awesome course.  The wide variety of trail types offers something for every kind of trai runner.  Congrats to all the runners and especially to RD Wendy for such a well-organized race.  See you at the same time and same place next year!  Come and try those famous turkey wraps!

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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