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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.

In 1998, I ran my first marathon and since then I have been consistently running longer and longer distances, taking very few breaks from running over those 20 years.

Where will this lead me?

This year has been no different. My running schedule includes all six races in the Vancouver Island Trail Series, the Marathon Shuffle, The Cumby, Kusam Klimb, Cedar 24 hour and The Mighty Quail. But it suddenly looks like none of those plans will be realized.

About two months ago, a series of unfortunate incidents began and have hobbled me. It started with an off-leash dog attack from behind, which tore up my hand, rattled my confidence in running alone and made me suspicious of all other trail users.

Next (and most significantly) I strained my Achilles tendon during a trail run. While crossing a bike bridge, my heel strike was in-between two boards which were fairly far apart. Although my toes landed on the bridge and took some of the weight, my heel dropped into the empty space and hyper-extended the tendon.

And then, while working around the yard, attempting to attach the flat-bed trailer onto the car, I missed the hitch and dropped the trailer onto my foot – the same foot, of course. My middle toe took the brunt of the impact, swelled up and turned blue. For a few days, I could not fit my foot into my running shoes. I don’t think I broke it but it is still swollen many weeks later.

WTF indeed! Why is this happening to me?!

I started seeking therapies. Chinese acupuncture helped me with a tight Achilles about 15 years ago so I sought out a local acupuncturist. I also found a physiotherapist who treated me with ultrasound and IMS and gave me a series of stretches and strengthening exercises to do. Between treatments, I still ran but I throttled back both in time and in distance and I stuck to less technical trails.

The final blow was during a warm-up run for The Cumby race. I stubbed the toe of my good leg against a root and landed with my full weight on my tender leg. Instantly, my calf exploded in pain, in the exact place where an IMS needle had been inserted the day before. Numbness took over my foot and my calf became immobile, rigid in full spasm. I was in tears from shock, pain and a deep understanding that I was now officially injured. It took over 45 minutes to drag myself back to town.

After more ice, more stretching, more therapies and even another gentle plod or two, I have finally come to the conclusion that I have to allow myself time to heal. Continual pursuit of my running goals is hampering the healing process.

But, as I sit here typing on a gorgeous Victoria Day long weekend, my mind subconsciously flits to the trails I might like to hit this afternoon. I have to keep reminding myself that I won’t be running today or for the foreseeable future.

Running takes me to some beautiful places.

Running lets me see some amazing things.

Running is a habit that I don’t want to break. Twenty solid years of training for long distances has had a positive impact on my work schedule, my leisure time, our marriage, our diet, our holidays and every other aspect of daily life. It will be a big adjustment that I am so reluctant to make.

Surely there is a silver lining somewhere out there.

So …. anyone wants to go riding?

This will heal me (as soon as I learn how!)

And so will they.

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?”

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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