Friday, October 20, 2017

Sticks n'Stones 50k(ish) Trail Race - Saturday, October 7th, 2017

Who expects 30+ degree heat and humidity in October? Yet, that's exactly what the day had in store for us at the inaugural Sticks n'Stones Trail Race.

Held at beautiful Christie Lake Conservation Area

Arriving at 17c with a bit of rain, I picked up race kit smoothly (before most other people arrived; it took less time to get there from home than expected) then got down to the usual pre-race business: lubing up some things, putting on socks/gaiters/shoes (successfully in that order!), and chatting with the multitudes of people I knew who showed up to race or volunteer. Being the first year for this race, it was largely word-of-mouth that got people out, and the huge 50k field reflected the race directors' involvement in the ultra community.

Pre-race announcements.
I know a lot of those butts!

At 9am - an eminently reasonable time - we were off, running clockwise 'round Christie Lake. I'd come to down to preview the course a month beforehand, but had apparently run it the wrong way and stuck too diligently to the shoreline. So, while not exactly unfamiliar, I was seeing the trails in a new way.

Off the start with Bogdan, Lucy and Lizzie around

Trailing Rob and Robin in the first leg across a field
From Sue Sitki's excellent photos

I also had no illusions of doing well at this race - being only 4 weeks after the Haliburton 50 miler and 2 weeks after my dance with altitude, I was a tired human that just wanted to get through the whole thing without getting injured or it sucking too much. Fortunately the course was conducive to just about anyone being able to run their chosen distance without too much difficulty - the wide, smooth trails were super well marked, completely non-technical, and had just enough elevation change to mix up your muscle engagement and not feel bad about walking some sections. In a complete surprise considering the year it's been and the rain, there wasn't even any real mud! Just a couple of minor slick spots you could easily avoid.

Across the footbridge after passing through the field

Gravel road past parking lots

A bit of pavement, but not too much

Past a stream alive with colour

I took the camera out for my 3rd lap to see if I could get some shots before the sun came out and washed out the colours, but the dreary drizzly morning muted much of fall's glory. When the sun came out a bit during my 5th lap, I decided to bring my phone along for the 6th loop to see if I could capture more of the beauty of Christie Lake. Thus, you'll get some dark and overcast photos plus some brighter ones.

To your right from the paved section

Looking back over your right shoulder along the length of Christie Lake

Another pretty footbridge nestled among the trees, on the left of the paved section.

Through a parking lot and into the disc golf course, which was bustling with players even early in the day. This section really gave you the first bit of woods to run through, starting with a lovely tunnel of brilliant sumac.

Being lapped.
This happened a lot.

Over a grassy hill that got harder to run as the day went on, then up another short rise to a flaming sugar maple and left into the tree-lined tunnel to the dam. This whole section climbs a bit overall, with a couple of downhills to keep the legs ticking over. There are a few roots along the way, but nothing like the agility course seen at other trail races - I could confidently run through it all without much fear for my taped-up ankle.

Red maple leaves not seen at their best in the morning gloom

The lushness of the foliage was incredible for early October

Mind the gates as you enter the dam structure - they're fixed in place and there's not much clearance

The concrete surface of the dam is rather unforgiving on sore feet, but it's flat and the views are lovely.

The long span

Looking left toward Christie Cascade

Looking right across Christie Lake

Back onto terra firma, you arrive at the only aid station out on the course (there is another just past the start/finish line) where Dion and his crew were wonderfully enthusiastic and helpful all day long. Offerings included water and Skratch Labs electrolyte beverage, plus all of the usual ultra buffet of cookies, peanut butter & jam sandwiches, gummy bears, bananas, even doughnut holes and pizza later on in the day.

Friendly faces and all the noms!

You reach the 2k mark just past the aid station, then head into the first of two substantial climbs on the course, ascending a little more than 20 metres over the course of a third of a kilometer to arrive in a landscape of brilliant sumac and lush greenery crowding the smooth doubletrack trail.

Up we go


Rounding a corner, you go up again to the section that came to be called The Cathedral in my mind - towering trees with vibrant red vines twining up their trunks.

I loved this section, which is about as far away from the start/finish area as you get on the course.

You spend the next kilometer rolling through the woods high above Christie Lake, passing the 3k mark before a sharp decline. If I recall correctly, the only mucky bit of slick trail was at the bottom of the hill.

Neat trees along the trail.

Markers at each kilometer were welcome, until you realized how long it took to get from 3 to 4.

Gentle undulations

Coming to the bottom of the descent at 3.5km, you're met with the second (and thankfully final) substantial climb on the course. It's only about 16m, but it's also only a quarter of a kilometer long...though it feels much longer, as you trudge up a washed-out, gravelly hill out of the greenery then turn a corner and continue to climb into a stand of pines.


Excellent trail marking signs (as well as a truly formidable number of flags) as you enter the piney section

The pine forest was truly lovely in the sunshine that arrived in the afternoon.

As soon as you crested the top, you started to descend quite steeply again. I actually found the start of this the most technical section of the entire course, as the roots of the pine trees necessitated some precise footwork at the top of the downhill in order to stay upright and undamaged. Still nothing even a rookie trail racer couldn't handle - I just happen to be clumsy as hell.


This part of Christie Lake also has a few mountain bike trails coming off the main thoroughfare that we were running - I'm going to have to come back and explore them sometime, as they look a little more interesting (read: much higher chance of me hurting myself) than the main lake loop. There were a few mountain bikers of all ages and levels of ability out during the day - thankfully all were very respectful toward the racers on course.

Back out of the conifers and into an overgrown section I came to call The Jungle.

I wonder why?

A bit more rolling through riotous deciduous growth, downhill through a natural archway in the woods, then you emerge at the tip of Christie Lake on a gravel road that takes you back to the same side as the start/finish area at last.


Out of the woods - crossing over the tip of the lake

Looking right from the road across the end of the lake

You'd think at this point it was all just a formality to get to the finish line, especially with the strong tailwind that picked up later in the day. The wide, grassy trail was deceptively tough, though - very little energy return compared to the hard-packed dirt and gravel in the woods, with just enough false-flat uphill to test your resolve.

Past 4.5k

More lovely fall colour along the way

Over a small hill right by the lake shore and past the Lakeside Pavilion, you finally come in sight of the finish area just before the main the bottom of just one last bit of a hill.

Rise with no shine...yet.

The finish arch is just to the left there..

Made it!
Now just do it 9 more times.

The total elevation change for the 5k (and a bit - it's more like 5.3km) loop isn't that much, but it adds up as the laps pile up throughout the day.

Apparently my Garmin also thought the hills got taller as the day wore on.

Round and round and round I went.
Full Garmin workout data is here.

 I had quite a bit of fun out there, though.

Photobombers on the dam during my 3rd lap.

Enjoying a downhill!

My race went better than expected given how tired I was going in. I made sure to stay on top of nutrition and hydration right from the start despite not feeling particularly hungry: all told I polished off a full flask of slightly dilute EFS Liquid Shot from 30mins in until about 3h30 (having a sip on each half hour, with real food at the top of each hour), 3 crisp rice squares (1h/2h/6h), a slice of bacon at the 3-hour mark, a cookie just before 4 hours, and half a turkey and mustard wrap around 4h30m. There were a couple of banana chunks at the start/finish as well. Past 5 hours with 2 laps to go, I broke out the jet fuel: dilute sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane gel, of which I took sips at 5h15m and around 5h40m. 

On a day that started warm and progressed to very hot with the humidex by early afternoon, hydration and electrolytes were of critical importance, too. I took a total of 8 S!caps starting at 35m, then around 1h30, 2h15, 3h, 3h30, 4:15, 5h, 5h30m and the 6-hour mark. I exchanged my hand bottle for a full one with Tanker - who was being amazing for all the racers at the start/finish area aid station - every lap, and would nearly run out of water by the end of each ~35m lap toward the end of the race due to the relentless heat.

I was a sweaty, drippy dork most of the day.

I think that taking the camera and then my phone out on course may actually have helped me finish reasonably strong: in the early overcast, I'd have to stop completely in order to get a photo with the camera in focus, so I'd end up running for less than a minute in between pauses as I attempted to capture every nuance of the trail.

Though I swear I did actually run, as seen here with camera in hand.
Photo by Sue Sitki

As the sun came out, I brought my phone along for my 6th lap just as the day really started to heat up. Since it seemed to need even longer to get a trail photo in focus, there were lots more pauses in between bursts of running.

But yeah, still lots of running.
Photo credit to Sue Sitki

There were also running selfies, because of course there were.

I wasn't sure how I'd like the 10-lap format for a 50k - I actually thought I was kind of crazy for agreeing to such a thing, but they suckered me in with the offer of a hoodie! I mean, I've done Horror Trail numerous times on a 2.5k loop, and Frosty Trail on a 2k loop, and even Run4RKids on a 232m track...but I thought the 5km loop might be long enough that each one wears you down without being long enough (like the 20k loops at Sulphur Springs) that you feel you've made significant progress by completing each one. As it turned out, it wasn't really too bad after all - the changing weather conditions actually helped, as the course looked a bit different every time I went 'round. It was also fun running into (not literally!) many friends on the course, both old and new. I feel so lucky to be surrounded by wonderful, friendly and supportive people while I attempt these stupid human tricks; even moreso in the case of those who introduce themselves to me with a "Hey, I read your race report from [insert event here] and it really helped me prepare for my first time at the event".

I aim to please!

By my 7th lap, though, I was getting tired - the building heat and mounting fatigue were taking their toll, despite the rather leisurely pace I'd adopted from the beginning. Still, others were in far worse shape: as I ran what I could and hiked the hills, I saw more and more runners suffering as their race fell apart before their eyes. Cramping and even total muscular shut-down crippled some, and others - even those I know to be very strong, experienced ultrarunners - were disintegrating into shuffling zombies in the heat.

I would have counted myself among them if not for a couple of heat management strategies I employed to keep myself in the best condition possible. I already mentioned that I stayed vigilant about my electrolyte/salt intake with liberal ingestion of S!caps: even with a whiny, very tight right calf muscle that had been bothering me a bit (enough to throw a whip of tape on it both before this race and Haliburton 4 weeks prior), I never had any cramping, though my right hip flexor felt as though it might seize in the later portion of the race. I also had a cooling tubular bandana with me - I started the race with it around my wrist (where I generally keep a tubular bandana for all races and long runs), and finally put it together at the beginning of my 8th lap that it would do me a damn sight more good if I actually soaked it down and put it around my neck like I had in the heat at Limberlost in July and at ITT last August.

I pulled it off my wrist as I crossed the dam, then Dion was kind enough to soak it with water for me at the aid station near 2k. I felt better as soon as I popped it over my head and onto my neck, especially after using some of the fabric to wipe down the salt-encrusted sides of my face and under my jaw.

Finishing my 8th lap, finally with the bandana doing its job.

I also started dumping cups of water on my chest and back to cool myself - an old trick from my triathlon days that helped me survive some unbearably hot, sunny run courses. It came as quite a shock when I did it the first time, though - apparently Tanker had just poured that cup out of a cooler full of ice! Once I stopped squealing from the sudden chill, I delighted in the cooling it provided in conjunction with the stiff wind that gusted at my back on the start/finish side of the lake.

While it would have been easy to just coast in my last couple of laps, the carnage I was seeing around the course made me think I might just have a shot at an age group podium; I was passing people left and right, trying to offer some encouragement to the hot, exhausted bodies I saw struggling around me. My hamstrings were hollering something about cruel and inhuman treatment while my medial quads screamed they'd had enough of me pounding down hard-packed hills, and my left ankle grumbled a bit as I passed the 6 hour mark. I tried to ignore them and keep pushing, and was definitely aided in this during my 9th and 10th laps by the caffeinated gels I'd started to consume. They sharpened me up as I was starting to lose a bit of focus, and my ankle obliged me by shutting the hell up.

As I crossed the dam on my final lap, Race Director Jeff (while walking the course in reverse) kindly said I was running the fastest of anyone he'd seen in the last couple of hours. He was tactful enough to leave out the bit where all the fast people had already been done for 2 hours or more.

Thanks man!
Photo from Sue Sitki

Finally, as I saw the clock tick toward 6h34m, I made my way up the final little climb - that last sting in the tail - and through the arch to the finish and my awesome handmade medal.

Plus a hug from each of the race directors - you guys rawk!

Official time: 6:33:58 @ 7:52/km
5/8 W30-39 - 8/22 Women - 22/44 Finishers

Made it!
This certainly did not feel like a first year event: the organization from start to finish was perfect; race kit pickup was flawless; the course was so well marked that you'd have to make a concerted effort to go off-track; the aid station layout and offerings were fantastic; and the ancillary things like the DJ, awards, and even free high-quality digital downloads of photographs from the on-course photographers were top notch. The whole trail is very amenable to fast running - if it weren't for the extra distance in the loop, it could easily be a PR 50k course for many people. 

I wasn't in anywhere near "racing shape" due to lingering fatigue, but I was very pleased with my ability to run strong right through to the finish. There are no lap splits available from the timing company, but looking at the clock as I passed the start/finish each time showed I ran quite consistent 35-40min laps throughout, with my final coming in under 35mins as I went for broke. Because the top two women in W30-39 were 2nd and 3rd overall with no duplication of awards, I even made that age group podium I'd had my sights on toward the end!

Scored a sweet Happy Trails steel water bottle!
You'll notice that the other 2 AG winners had already left, though, having finished at least 30mins to 1hr before me.

Finished and knowing that Tanker was still obligated to stay at the aid station until the race cutoff at 5pm (and six seconds), I finally did what I'd been tempted to do for hours after staring at the cool waters of Christie Lake.

Oh this is going to be good..


My worn-out quads and hamstrings absolutely loved the refreshing bathe in the beautiful lake, though I'm quite happy I changed out of my wet top and into a dry t-shirt so I didn't get chilled in the powerful, gusting wind. It was cooling enough that I actually needed to throw on my new hoodie when I emerged, and even used it for a bit of inappropriate finish area nudity as I was too lazy to wander over to the washrooms to change out of my soggy skirt.

Despite it being in the building RIGHT BEHIND ME.
Some people's kids, I tell ya!

Huge thanks to the volunteers and race directors whose hard work made this race such a success - I can't think of a single thing I'd change, and I can't wait to give it another shot next year!