Friday, August 11, 2017

The Long Game

I've been running since November of 2008 and ran my first ultra in October of 2010, but I didn't really dedicate my endurance sport training to ultrarunning until last year. While the adage from Greg LeMond about cycling - that "it never gets easier; you just go faster" (or longer) - holds somewhat true, I was given a very vivid demonstration this past weekend of how your body can adapt over time so it does actually get easier, too.

Have a seat - this may take awhile.
I headed North with Tanker on Friday afternoon to the Haliburton Highlands and set up camp in really dubious conditions at a private campground in West Guilford. We managed to avoid the tornadoes (!) that hit Huntsville just to the Northwest, but heavy, gusting winds prevented me from getting more than a handful of naps through the night - at least once per hour a roaring gust would sweep down as I tried to keep our campsite standing through sheer force of will. Fortunately we'd put some serious thought and effort into pitching our tent, tarp and canopy this time, and the web of guylines kept anything from going airborne.

So. Many. Guylines.

Nonetheless, when I emerged from the tent at 6am to (thankfully) find everything still rock solid, I was not feeling super energetic. That wasn't comforting, considering I was 3 hours away from leaving civilization behind for the day to wander through the trails of the Haliburton Forest Wildlife Reserve. It was the final training run for the Haliburton Forest trail races, and since I am registered for the 50 miler I thought it would be a decent idea to get a look at what I was in for. I planned to take advantage of the wonderful volunteers shuttling runners to the far end of the 40km/25mi course - which I'll do as an out-and-back on race day - then run back to base camp. At 28km I'd have the option to call it a day at 30k, or do the additional 10km loop around McDonald Lake; despite the rainy, windy conditions, I really hoped to do the full 40km.

Looks simple enough, right?

I chatted with Helen, Gary, Merle and Don in the Cookhouse while they had breakfast, got a ride with another runner's wife out into the woods, then the 20 of us who were running long (some other folks did out-and-back runs of shorter distances from base camp) paused for a photo before we took off to meet our fate.

Photo shamelessly lifted from Merle Tubman

As usual, I was dropped immediately. I had no illusions about keeping up with anyone, particularly after my restless night. I was, however, a little scared about how the day was going to play out. Exactly one week beforehand, I'd gone out to the Hydrocut for a fairly relaxed 2-hour run that left me absolutely shagged out by the end. I could barely manage to shower and have dinner before collapsing into bed. If I was that beaten up from just a couple of hours (during which time I covered less than 15km), how would I fare attempting a bare minimum of 30km, and preferably 40km...which I fully expected to take upwards of 6hrs?

They had plenty of opportunity to get away when I stopped to pee behind a tree in the first 5mins, too.

Things didn't get off to the greatest start. Apart from the rain and vicious mosquitoes, I discovered within the first mile that the map I'd dutifully printed from the race website was not as detailed as I could have hoped. I knew I had to turn left onto the King James Trail, so when I came to a junction that had a sign pointing left that said King James & to Dutton Lake (which was the direction I knew I needed to go), I took it...despite only being about a kilometer in and my map saying I shouldn't hit the turn until around 2k. I didn't know if maybe we'd been dropped off closer to the junction or my map wasn't accurate, and there was noone around to ask or follow. Off I went.

Trail was a rather generous term for what I spent the next few minutes traversing. I could hear some voices in the distance (though I couldn't tell which direction), so I didn't bother trying to turn back. 

The King James "Trail"

Apart from the thigh-high grass that hid ankle-turning rocks and ruts, I managed to find some thornbush saplings in about the only place I actually felt safe running.

If this match was to first blood, it would have been over just 15mins in.

So, now add some blood loss on top of the fatigue. Oh, and my taped up ankle and 6-day-old broken toe. Awesome.

I soon came to a T intersection, just in time to see a bunch of the other runners coming through from right to left - apparently I'd taken the wrong King James Trail (though I heard the proper one isn't much better), but at least I was back on track now. The far end of the course is mostly forest logging roads, many of which are gravelly and rocky or sandy. At least it provided excellent drainage, so there was no mud with which to contend.

Rain-washed gravel

Shifty rocks

Energy-sucking sand

The really nice part was that Helen and Merle were out on course in Helen's vehicle, and Gary & Don were out in a pickup truck - they'd stop at various road/trail junctions to offer directions and act as aid stations. I was doing a test to see if I could carry all the food I needed for the full 40km distance (as my food allergies prevent me from eating most aid station fare, meaning I like to be as self-sufficient as possible), but it was nice to be able to get a refill of water along the way as I had only brought 2 bottles along to simulate the race conditions as closely as possible. I had brought along my filter bottle as well, though, in case I needed to top up from a lake or stream along the way.

The most welcoming sight you'll ever see in the rain-washed forest.

I trucked along at my own pace, stopping to take photos when the rain allowed (as I only had my phone with me, and kept it sealed in a zipper baggie most of the day) or when I found something particularly beautiful.

Like this beautiful brook full of tiny stepped falls

Or the view from the Marsh Lake Observatory, which was my first glimpse of sun for the day.

Before I'd got halfway back to base camp, the forest roads gave way to increasingly technical trails, some of which were quite muddy.

Or blocked by deadfall

Or barely existent.

I had to watch my step carefully to avoid further damage to my ankle or falling flat on my face, and I did manage to stay upright until I stepped in a patch of mud on Krista's Trail and had my right foot go out from under me. Before I could even try to react I had fallen squarely on my right butt cheek, crushing my hand bottle under my right hand as I fell. Fortunately, I not only touched down on the part of my body where I have the most padding, I also managed to land on about the only part of the trail that didn't have a root or rock sticking out of it - just plain mud. I picked myself back up, made sure my bottle was ok, and immediately got bitten just above the knee on my left leg by a flippin' horse fly.

At which point all you can do is swat and laugh.

By some stroke of luck I hadn't even fallen hard enough to do any real damage to my glutes, so I had no problem getting moving least as much as I could, given the increasingly difficult trail conditions along the way.

Climbing over roots and rocks

Heaps of fallen branches that would snag your shoes and try to trip you.

I was further slowed by my uncertainty when it came to directions. My map did not include several of the trail names I was directed to take (notably Ben's Trail and the absolutely stunning The Pass), so I was forced to play Mantracker to make sure I was on course, looking for evidence of footprints on the leaf-littered forest floor.

At least the sun decided to put in an appearance.

Even the downhills were difficult to negotiate.
This is me holding on to a tree so I don't fall down some precipitous climb.

I very nearly ran out of water while traversing Krista's Trail and Ben's Trail - the longest section of singletrack on the course, and one notably without easily accessible water sources from which to filter. Had it been a hot, sunny day instead of overcast and rainy, I would likely have been in trouble.

No aid in sight.

I kept up calories and salt, though, trying to simulate what I'd be eating in the race. All told I munched my way through a full flask of EFS Liquid Shot, an Endurance Tap gel, a ginseng-spirulina Bounce ball, 2 slices of bacon, 6 S!caps, 3 of my homemade maple vanilla sea salt crisp rice treats, a coconut date roll and a slice of watermelon from Helen at the very first aid station. I still had gels and some more food (bacon, another date roll and some salted cashews) in my pockets when I finished, which is encouraging for my plan to be self-sufficient other than a single drop bag for the 50 miler.

Do not want to bonk out here.

I actually managed to navigate decently well, actually managed to pass a couple of people a couple of hours in, and even stayed upright apart from the one fall in the mud on Krista's Trail...though I nearly fell off the wooden footbridge on the Poachers' Trail, which a wet season and the day's rain had turned into the slipperiest surface known to man.

I went from wanting to get a photo to just trying not to die.

Sun and rain alternated, and the wind continued to gust. I worried about a branch coming down and hitting me as I heard many fall in the forest as I made my slow and cautious way along, but I came through unscathed in spite of the many obstacles on the trail.

Gorgeous root wells

A flat rock makes a bridge over another little stream

Another washed-out climb

I was about 4.5hrs in and still feeling ok when I reached the boat launch where most of the other runners were gathered with Helen, Merle, Gary and Don. I was offered refreshments - in which the other runners were partaking when I arrived - but said I'd intended to do the MacDonald Lake loop as well. Helen let me know that there were still a few people out on the loop, but I'd be unsupported from there on. I knew that would be the case, and gratefully filled my bottles to keep me going for the final 12km.

Or rather 14km, since I managed to miss the turn onto the Normac Trail as I ran along the North Road. I had to backtrack, which more than made up for the half-kilometer I'd missed by taking the wrong King James Trail. I actually ended up with 41.5km on the day per my Garmin.

Back on track on the Normac Trail.

I even managed to catch up to another runner while I slogged my way 'round MacDonald Lake - it was one of the two ladies I'd passed on course, and I assume she got by me while I was off running on the North Road after I blew the turn. We ran together from about a kilometer before the end of the Normac Trail until she turned off at her trailer at the 2.6km mark from base camp, then I was on my own again to run it into the finish.

Angry-looking MacDonald Lake after a windy, rainy day.

Back onto the East Road

It was just before my companion departed that the exertions of the day and lack of sleep the night beforehand finally started to get on top of me. I'd been carefully monitoring my energy levels since I left the boat launch, as I always used to start to flag a bit after 4.5hrs - I remember it vividly from my first few 6-hour and 50k races. Today, though, it was a full six hours before I reached the point that I was totally ready to be done with moving myself...which still left over 40mins before I actually reached base camp again. Oddly enough, I was actually doing more running than I had for hours, even on some uphill sections - my legs didn't even feel that bad; I was just tired and wanted off my feet.

The sun came out again and some blue sky showed through the clouds as I ran the last kilometer back to base camp.

My glutes and quads complained about the final climb up to the gate, but it wasn't that difficult to break into a trot as I finally spotted Tanker, waiting patiently for me after a day spent hiking and fishing in the wildlife reserve.

Made it!

Some of the trails wanted to come home with me, though.

I know that even two years ago this same run would have been nigh impossible without a solid taper beforehand, yet I pulled this off as the cap on a 7-day block of almost 87km of running. I wasn't even as tired afterward as I had been the week before after 2 hours at Hydrocut, and while I think I can attribute some of that to the cool, rainy weather (the day at Hydrocut had been swelteringly hot), it still speaks to my body's increasing ability to work hard and recover fast. It was still only 4 weeks after running for 10hrs at Limberlost, so it seems my old rule of "1 week of recovery per hour of racing" can be adjusted down a little. I'm also very pleased with my ability to carry plenty of food to make it at least halfway through the 50 miler, and delighted with the condition of my feet afterward. While I usually end up with some fairly nasty blistering in wet, muddy conditions, I'd tried putting some BlisterShield powder in my socks as a preventative measure, and it worked a treat - other than the broken toe and some sore muscles, my feet felt great at the end.

Looks awful, but feels just fine!

We headed back to our campsite (which had only suffered a single wind-pulled stake on the tarp; all else snug and dry in spite of the nasty weather all day), and I jumped in a nice, hot shower...which would then suddenly turn ice-cold, so I used it as a contrast bath for my legs. A couple of hot-cold cycles later, plus some special attention paid to my thorn scratches, and I was actually feeling pretty good - my biggest complaint was my stupid horse fly bite, which made my left medial quad very sore especially when I had to walk up the hill from the comfort station. I made us dinner and lit a campfire as the wind continued to blow around us, and was actually still up at 11pm. 

I've never seen a fly bite bruise like that before - the result after the big, hard lump that formed initially.

Waking up the next morning, I was shocked at how mobile I was. I guess walking so much of the course has its advantages! I did take the day off running, but did an hour and a quarter of fairly hilly hiking with my sweetheart on the ATV trails in behind our campground. By Monday evening - after our return home - I was back to regular training, and while I can feel some fatigue from the long day in the forest, I'm really encouraged by how well my training has gone this week. My peak block is now in the books, and while I can't say I feel ready for the Haliburton Forest 50 miler yet, I do at least have a little more faith in my abilities and development as an ultrarunner. It's pretty amazing to see how far I've come in my adaptations to going long in the last couple of years - it gives me hope that I may be able to push my limits even further in the future.

And see more beautiful places along the way.

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