I cannot say that I had a great answer for those asking. I wanted to push myself mentally and physically and this was my chosen path. Following several endurance athletes is something that has inspired me over the last couple of years but mainly from afar. Ethan Newberry (thegingerrunner.com) produces high-quality video content about ultra-marathons from a novice perspective. With his videos as inspiration, I signed up for my first ultra, the Squamish 50km. It was now time to put together my best guess at a training schedule.
After eight months of running parking garages for hill training, countless gels consumed, and self supported marathons in Ohio’s summer heat, we traveled to British Columbia to run further and higher than I ever had before. The drive north from Vancouver was along the Sea-to-Sky Highway, which could not be any more appropriately named. The scenery around Squamish, BC has a wonderful mix of granite faces and sea water encapsulating the community.
The few days immediately prior to a big race always provides an awkward feeling. Your legs are ready to get going but your mind represses their angst knowing what is to come. As I hung around the hotel room the afternoon before the race, Katie and Lindsay took to the streets of Squamish to explore. In a stroke of random, Katie met Ethan while walking around town. She explained to him, we were only in BC because of him and his amazing work. He seemed a bit nervous for me, wondering if an Ohio boy with little mountain training could finish. He could not have been more gracious to Katie and she was ecstatic to rub it in my face that she met him and while I laid around drinking gatorade.
Breaks in the canopy forced a pause in running to take in the views of Garibaldi Provincial Park.
4:30 am was certainly an early alarm, but it did not matter, I was already awake. The next hour and a half I simply wanted to get going. Driving to the start line in Alice Lake, checking in, walking with the other runners were all seemingly mundane tasks in the wake of what was looming. The Race Director; Gary Robbins, who has boundless amounts of energy and is a world class athlete in his own right; provided support, instructions, encouragement, and comedy in his pre-race talk shortly before sending myself and 363 other runners into the still heavily shadowed forests of the Cascade Mountains.
Trail races, specifically ultra-marathons, are not like any other 5k charity race or large road marathon I have ever run in. Each participant knows the collective effort which has gone into preparing for this single track trail. Seemingly there are no concerns for what place one is currently in and conversation generally consists of favorite gear or dream races. While power hiking un-runnable hills, there are plenty of minutes to chat about where runners have traveled from or what their goal times are for the day. The moments which are void of conversation are filled by sloshing water in hydration packs and the faint zipping of nylon between thighs.
Nearing the halfway point (16 miles), at Quest University, I was approximately fifteen minutes ahead of my goal time and feeling not only impressed that I was ahead of schedule but also that I had the largest climb behind me. The hour plus of power hiking I had found out everything I wanted to know about UAV surveillance from a navy technician based in Washington. Because I was ahead of schedule I missed seeing Katie and Lindsay at the aid station but I forced down several orange slices, a few pretzels, gummy bears, and water before heading out to the back half of the race. Not really knowing what lie ahead, I jogged off campus. The fantastic part about running a destination race is every single corner rounded exposes a completely new view or set of challenges. Thus allowing my own head to get out of the way, so I can enjoy the scenery and see what happens.
Well, something happened, at roughly mile 20. Following a few people which I had been running with for a couple hours, we headed through a fairly technical downhill section. The root or rock I caught a toe on certainly won. As I got up, a little shaken, I was more surprised than anything to feel around and not have any done any serious damage. Bit of flesh gone from a knee and a few stones shoved into a palm seemed to be the extent of injury. As I brushed dust and debris off I then found the worst part. My hydration pack had taken damage and water was flowing out the end of the tube. By the time I had noticed, nearly all of my water was gone. The remaining water was free to flow from the end of a tube now missing a valve. The only solution was to hold the end while running. For the next 5 or so miles that’s exactly what I did, treasuring each drop as I became dehydrated in the rising heat of the day.
The next aid station filled my pack with water and provided a length of duct tape that we fashioned over the end of the tube to help conserve as much water as possible, though I still had to run whilst holding the tube. From the last aid station to the finish was approximately 10 kilometers, simple, I run this several times a week. Unfortunately, since the fall I had not been following my nutrition plan. An energy shortage combined with the subsequent lack of water was starting to make its presence known.
Fast friends were made with a fellow runner, Adam, who was having a bit of a rough day. For several miles we discussed what brought us to this point in our lives, how important our partners are, as well as the concept of runcations. At other times we never spoke, but to hear someone else panting as much as I was, eased my mental suffering. Uphills with any grade brought me to a march, not because of muscle fatigue but merely a lack of energy. A deficiency in calories consumed (ideally 200 every 45 minutes per my plan) over the last couple of hours was haunting me. On the last climb, the race photographer was perched on a particularly steep section of sloped rock. As I tried to charge up the stone, he mentioned I was showing classic signs of photo guilt. He was right.
Pouring out the last ounces of energy out to summit the final climb above Squamish.
As I “ran” by the lonely railroad tracks through town I was somewhere between laughing at the thought of finishing my first ultra-marathon and sobbing at the thought of finishing my first ultra-marathon. I un-ironically high fived every volunteer in the last few blocks in Squamish. Upon entering the finish chute I caught a glimpse of Katie. She is the only one who sees me come home from Saturday morning runs dripping and starving, always at least outwardly showing interest in my negative mile splits, and provides words of encouragement. Her never-ending support, combined with my own feelings of pushing myself over the last 6 months topped out my emotional capacity and my chest started heaving. Gary Robbins provides each finisher with a warm embrace. I’m quite certain he did not know, and I tried to hide my emotion while he hugged me, but I was crying.