Friday, June 22, 2018

Niagara Ultra 50k - Saturday, June 16th, 2018


You show up, and you try. It's all you can do when you're injured going into a race, and are too stubborn and stupid to sit it out.

Or if you just want to work harder than the average tourist to see this view.

I was just hoping it would never get to the point of me absolutely hating it and wanting to quit, or to have to call it to avoid major damage to myself. Simple goals, no?

Tanker and I had a lovely stay at the Residence & Conference Centre at Niagara College on Friday night in preparation for a very early morning on Saturday. It would have been earlier still if I hadn't dropped down a month or so ago from the 100k to the 50k due to my wayward fibula - the 100k starts at 6:30am, but I got to sleep in a whole half-hour later for the shorter distance.

Which gave me some time to try to tape myself together, and worry since my feet hurt from the moment I got out of bed.

We arrived well ahead of time in order to see some of the 100k racers before their start, and to pick up race kit (as I hadn't done so the night before). There was all the usual pre-race chatting, portajohn befouling, limb flailing, and general idiocy that one would expect from me.

Dainty as a rhinoceros with a hangover. 

Warmup done, pre-race announcements, then one final test: 3 bent-leg calf raises with my messed up leg. In an astonishing vote of confidence, I had no pain whatsoever - not even a twinge. With that to give me some hope, a smooch from my sweetheart for luck, and solid plans to simply try to enjoy the day, I set off at the horn promptly at 7am.


Knowing this was the best I'd look all day.

A short trot across a lumpy field had me worried I'd turn an ankle and wreck myself right off the hop, then a quick left onto the Niagara Recreation Trail toward the river.


I SEE FAST PEOPLE

I ran as easy as possible, knowing that neither my injured leg nor my fitness would let me tear up the course (even to the extent that I'd be able to if fully trained and healthy, which is...not much). I had 13.5hrs until the official end of the event, and a full 7 hours if I actually cared about notching some OUTRace series points.


Plenty of time to enjoy the lovely views.

I had wondered if I'd have the discipline to do a 5min run/1min walk pattern right from the start in an effort to pace myself and give my damaged leg a chance to recover - I'd told myself in the past that I'd do this in flat, non-technical races and it had never worked out, because I'd just keep on running for the first hour or 90mins while I was still feeling fresh. I'd heard that a friend was using a 5:1 strategy, though, so when I spotted Christa up ahead I put on a bit of a surge to catch her so I could have some company and perhaps even actually follow the damn plan.


Skirted ultra chicks rule!

I ignored the protests from my long-suffering tibialis posterior as it whined around the inside of my ankle and just focused on trotting along with Christa. We stuck together for quite awhile, chatting about various running and racing-adjacent stuff while taking our walk breaks more or less like clockwork.


5k aid station, through which we breezed - neither of us needed anything but to thank the volunteers.

Of course, it'd be much easier to stick to the intervals if I wasn't so easily distracted - I'd keep stopping to take pics, then have to catch back up again, sometimes missing a walking break or running much faster than I should in the process.


But pretty roses!

And amazing views of the Niagara River, with the Queenston-Lewiston bridge in the far distance!

I was grateful not only to have someone to tell me to walk periodically, but also to have the motivation to run - I was feeling very tired and out of shape, and honestly even the 5mins of running on the mostly flat pathway felt like quite a bit. I'm sure it had something to do with my lack of training and sleep recently, not to mention I was in a rather poor hormone phase for any kind of strength or endurance. It didn't help, either, that there were some significantly side-sloped sections in the first few kilometers that made my ankles and hips quite unhappy. Excuses aside, it was nice to have someone to kick my arse a bit, and especially someone who's as fun to be around as Christa.

Thanks for the great companionship!

I mostly managed to keep up through the first 12km, stopping at the 10k aid station to fill my water bottle for the first time as I was nearly empty. I had started taking in calories in the form of a sip of EFS Liquid Shot around 40mins in, and needed to stay hydrated for the long day ahead. I was starting to get a nasty hot spot under the base of my left big toe, which didn't bode well for the rest of the race. Of course, this is what I get for wearing shoes I'd never run more than 3.5km in with socks I'd just got (and had never run in at all) on Thursday night...simply because they matched my skirt.

Once we reached the Mackenzie Printery below Queenston, I had fallen quite a bit behind Christa and wouldn't see her again until near the turn-around. She's quite a bit stronger than I am, and I'm glad I didn't hold her back too much!


Approaching the printery, with the Brock monument rising far above.

I walked the whole way up the escarpment, starting with the road section past the printery.


It's not super steep, but it's a big hill nonetheless.

My hot spot was burning as I walked and munched on a berry coconut Bounce ball, and it was around this time I looked down to discover that my socks and shoes were barfing out some of the massive dose of Blister Shield powder I'd shaken into them that morning.


So that's a thing.

Climbing further up, I came to a road crossing - here's a wonderful example of just how well the course is marked:


Along with pink wire flags and yellow tape forming directional arrows - even a lemming like me could hardly get lost!

Back onto the paved pathway once more, we climbed through a beautiful forested section with stunning exposed sedimentary rock formations along the way.

This is more like it!

Just my luck: stopping to take that photo earned me a bite on the back of my left calf from probably the only blackfly in Niagara.


It's gonna hurt - why not be itchy as well?

Emerging at the top of the hill near the Queenston Heights traffic circle, we passed by the impressive Roy Terrace - the origin of Niagara falls.

Yes, I went off-course to the other side of the big flowerbed in order to get a photo of the full gates.

Trotting along on the flat now, my fibula seemed to be behaving itself but my massively undertrained right calf had waved the white flag of surrender. Firmly back in heelstrike town since my leg could no longer support my preferred forefoot landing, it became increasingly difficult to motivate myself to run for any meaningful length of time. So, I'd walk a lot and gape at some of the amazing sights along the way.


Like the great, green river below the Queenston-Lewiston bridge.

The floral clock across the road from the path

Or the incredible scale of the Sir Adam Beck Generating Station

How do you know you're moving slowly in a race? When a man in his late 70's is easily outpacing you. I spent a lot of the day chasing Ontario ultra legend and really wonderful man Hans Maier as he competed in his 323rd ultra distance race.

Seen here entering the 15k aid station just ahead of me.

I could occasionally catch him and exchange a few friendly words, but then I'd end up stopping for some silly reason and he'd get away again.


Pretty flower!
My hamstrings really hated me for bending down to take this photo.

Large portions of the trail were wide open and fairly un-interesting. There was a bit of high cloud cover, but the heat and solar radiation were still rising. The weather forecast had called for an overcast and showery period between 11am and 3pm, though, so I hoped to get some relief by the time I hit the turn-around.


More flat ground - you'd almost beg for a hill just to change up the muscle recruitment for awhile.

Running through the Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens was quite nice.

Totally need to go back and check out the Whirpool Adventure Course - I love elevated obstacle courses! 

I was still taking in nutrition and hydration, and as the day warmed I finally remembered to take some S!caps to keep electrolytes up not long before the 2-hour mark. The strategy was to take a swig/packet of gel on the half-hour and some solid food on the hour, or thereabouts. That meant more EFS Liquid Shot at 1h30m and a slice of the insanely delicious shoulder bacon we get from the Mennonite pig farmers at the Cambridge Farmers' Market. I hoped that maybe it would work some magic for me, as something in my left upper arm - not the shoulder, exactly, but something running down the front of my upper biceps - was feeling quite sore, hurting whenever it was jolted by my pathetically graceless running stride. Had it been the arm I carry my bottle with it would have made more sense, but as it was...who the heck knows what was going on there?


And yes, I stopped to take a photo of an interesting tree.

All I could do was keep trucking, though, reeling in the turn-around with every step I took. Fortunately the hotspot under my left big toe had shut the hell up so I could get on with things. I hoped that didn't mean that I'd worked up a giant blister and then burst it, but I had no intention of finding out until after I was done. The warm, summery air was filled with the scent of flowers all along the path - roses, bean trees, some late lilacs hiding in shady hollows, and numerous others whose names I don't know but whose fragrance painted the air with their soft, inviting colours. To my left, breaks in the foliage provided stunning views of the quiet, understated power of the Niagara River and the strata of rock out of which it had carved its bed over millenia.


Overlooking Whirlpool Gorge

By the time I hit the 20k aid station I was ready for a chunk of banana while I filled my bottle again, and was delighted that they had a bucket of cold water with chunks of sponge in it for cooling. I grabbed a blue piece (because where would one be if one's sponges did not match one's outfit? Standards, people!) and squeezed it on my chest, on the back of my neck, and over my head...then stuffed it in my bra and ran away. The poor thing's fate got even worse: after deciding it wasn't doing much to cool me in my cleavage, I stuffed it down the back of my skirt to cool my...uhh...lower back.

Yeah. Lower back.


I knew they wouldn't want it back after that.

I downed another S!cap for good measure, and kept on trucking as best I could. As you approach the tourist area of Niagara Falls the paved path peters out and you're left with unforgiving cement sidewalk. 


You also rather lose the lovely views of the river.

Plenty of chance to pick up all the tacky souvenirs your heart desires, though!

I actually thought I was starting to get a second wind around this time - I was running a little more consistently for awhile, despite hating the hard surface of the sidewalk pounding on my poor feet. The bit of cloud cover - contrary to the forecast, which had called for it to increase - began to burn away, leaving nothing but sunshine and blue skies as I ran past the rapids along the stone wall high above them.


Occasional glimpses of roiling water

At least there was some shade - for now.

Fast moving green water above the rapids.

Approaching the Peace Bridge

Into the final stretch before the turn-around now, it became increasingly difficult to run. Part of it was due to the solar radiation beating me down from above, but truthfully I was getting a bit different look at some parts of the Niagara Falls area than I'd ever had before.


I've been over this bridge dozens of times, but never under it.

Both sets of falls from a distance.

Much as I may complain about the sun's effects on my pathetic attempts to run, it was a truly beautiful day for seeing the jaw-dropping sights of the falls as I slurped back another swig of EFS Liquid Shot


The American side

Can you believe this is actually a race course?

The spray off the horseshoe falls felt magnificent.

Being just before 10am, I was fortunate to pass through the main tourist area with very little impediment from pedestrian sightseers. It was also lovely to have a fairly steady stream of people on their way back from the turn-around with whom to pass an encouraging word.


When the sights weren't robbing me of breath.

Just before the 3-hour mark I reached the final aid station, needing to refill my bottle and happy to be headed back to the finish. I figured with the building heat and my own lack of endurance, I'd be lucky to squeak in under 7hrs.

The volunteers at all the aid stations are absolutely wonderful - couldn't manage this without their kindness and hard work!


What has a red hat and is ready to get the second half done?
This chick!

THEY HAD ICE at the 25k turn-around. That might not sound like a big deal, but the difference between running in the increasing heat and massive solar radiation without it vs with it...well, let's just say I'm a person that DESPISES being cold, and yet I grabbed a handful and shoved it right in my bra.

OH HELL YEAH!

I also re-soaked my bit of sponge and put it back in my skirt, then it was time to scoot on out of there, telling myself it was mostly downhill from there on.

See full map here


Rollin' back downriver.

I stopped for one last idiot selfie with the falls, coincidentally catching a couple of seagulls cruising in the spray.


While soaking up one last bit of spray myself..

Then got on with it. I quickly realised on my way out of the tourist area - which was now packed with far more people than it had been even just a half-hour beforehand - that my "second wind" was actually a long downhill into town...which I now had to climb.


Most of the shade disappeared, too.

So, I walked. For like 10 full minutes. And posted stuff on Instagram, messaged Tanker (awaiting me at the start/finish) to tell him I was on my way back, and ate a freakin' delicious sea salt maple vanilla crisp rice square. I furthermore managed to figure out that I had a cooling tubular bandana on my wrist, where it wasn't doing me a lick of good. I unwound it, soaked it with some water I wrung out of my sponge (don't you judge me!), then put it around my neck.


Minus several thousand points for style, but any bit of cooling was welcome.

I eventually convinced myself to run again, once I found a bit of shade on the course.

These lovely spots were few and far between, but greatly appreciated.

After downing an Endurance Tap gel around 3h30m and another banana chunk at the 20k/30k aid station, I was ready for solid food again at the 4-hour mark, so pulled out my little bag of mini double chocolate cookies


I've said for years that the only reason to run for more than 4hrs is to eat cookies on course.

I'd also re-loaded my bra with ice, dumped a few cups of water over my chest and back, and filled the back zipper pocket of my skirt (right at the base of my spine) with more ice. Back along the Niagara Parkway in full sun, though, even all that cooling wasn't enough to make running possible for more than a minute or two at a time.

Back through the botanical gardens

Across the road to overlook the river once more.

They really didn't have to rub it in..

I was playing airborne caterpillar with a number of people out there suffering badly in the heat and sun. So much walking - so little running. It was taking me more than 40mins to plod along from one aid station to the next, and since I tend to drink more when I walk, I was in serious danger of running out of water before I reached the next opportunity to fill.

I can haz hydration plz?

Fortunately I was able to monitor what I had left due to carrying a hand bottle (rather than trying to judge what remained in a hydration pack), and each kilometer of the course was marked on the pathway, enabling me to ration my water so I could keep taking in calories and S!caps. Unfortunately, the cookies gave me heartburn - something I don't recall having happened in the past - and a really weird sensation when coupled with the ice in my cleavage, which of course I re-loaded at the 15k/35k aid station after filling my bottle.


Refilled with ice in bra, skirt pocket, and even the back of my neck bandana - much better!

I'd love to say the course felt shorter on the way back, but no - I just kept moving forward as much as I could, taking photos (175 total while on course) and looking forward to going down Queenston hill instead of climbing it. Despite refreshing myself by wiping my face down with the cooling bandana, I was really only running occasionally by this point; if I'd find a bit of a downhill, or a shady place that let me convince myself to work. It took a lot of motivating, though, even when the vultures started circling NOT HIGH ENOUGH above me by the generating station..

Yikes.
And here I am, full of cookies.

Finally past Roy Terrace and onto the blissfully shaded descent from Queenston Heights.

Yes, I stopped again to marvel at the beautiful escarpment rising above the path.

..then got myself moving again for the rest of the downhill.

Unfortunately, the pounding of the downhill seemed to do something that irritated the inside of my left knee - it was very tender as I plodded along. My left piriformis was tightening up badly, too, and pulling on my IT band a bit. With visions of my epic disintegration at Vulture Bait 2015 dancing in my head, I massaged my butt as I walked, trying to loosen things up. It seemed to work, which was a good thing as I still had about 12km to go. Emerging onto the road in full sunlight again was brutal, especially as the air seemed 5 degrees hotter at the lower elevation.


Ew.

I caught up with Andrew as he walked along, and hooked up with him for some company around the 12k mark. Neither of us was at all interested in running, so we walked and chatted, passing Brian - who had been leading the 100k race when I saw him last, flying back toward the start/finish before I'd even passed the 18k mark - laying on someone's lawn in the shade of a tree. I asked if he was ok, and he said yes, so I rambled onward.

Needing a lift and knowing I was into the last quarter of the race (now at the 5-hour mark), I decided it was jet fuel time - I pulled a sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane packet out of one of the leg pockets of my skirt, and washed its caffeinated goodness down with some water. Then for good measure, I had my other chunk of shoulder bacon.

SALTY DELICIOUSNESS

Another S!cap, and I was as good to go as I was going to get. When the aid station hove into view, I managed to convince Andrew to run the 150m or so to get there, and re-loaded my bottle and ALL THE ICE. With the stop to catch my breath while I did aid-stationy things and thanked the amazing volunteers, plus the caffeine starting to kick in, I was able to set off at a run with less than 10k left to go. It was, however, some of the hardest running remaining.

It's basically just all this until the last mile of the course now.

With one little diversion through a park

Back through the side-sloped sections along the Niagara Parkway, I was well past my longest run since last fall, and despite not hearing a peep from my fibula all day long, other issues began to crop up one after another. My damaged right tibialis posterior was positively wrecked from all of the over-pronation I'd put it through, in spite of the support from my shoes and insoles - which actually held up as well as I could possibly have hoped, given my lack of experience with them. The hotspot under my left big toe had faded away, but now my arches, hips and lower back were aching; my hamstrings were so tight and sore I'm surprised they didn't tear right off my body; and my hip flexors were completely trashed. It was all I could do to persuade my legs to move forward and take another step. My right ankle was angry all over from the pounding of heelstriking for so many hours, and while the muscle or tendon that had been grouchy in my left upper arm earlier had shut the hell up, my shoulders in general were feeling terribly sore from carrying my pack full of food. By the end of the day even the sides of my boobs felt bruised!

It's like someone chucked a voodoo doll of me down a bumpy slide filled with cacti.

Here's the thing, though: between the caffeine and the ice, I was actually moving much better than the people around me. Oddly enough, my quads weren't even sore despite the long downhill from Queenston. I walked for awhile around 5h30m so I could eat the turkey and mustard wrap I'd been carrying with me all day, and would pass other runners only to be passed back as I stopped to take a photo or another walk break, but eventually the person with whom I'd been playing airborne caterpillar would fade into the distance behind me. I saw one poor lady on the ground with another racer trying to help her either work out a calf cramp or set a turned ankle - I asked if she was ok and if she wanted any salt tablets (thinking it was a cramp), but she said yes and no respectively as the other runner assisted her, so I ran on.


Oh, the temptation to lay down and have a nice, long nap..

Blissful shade!

I was hurting, and contemplated messaging Tanker to tell him my foot was sore, but then I thought - what the hell would that accomplish? So, I sucked it up, made one last stop at the 5k aid station, then went out to get it done.

Which is not to say I didn't message him at all.

At the 6hr mark I scarfed back a chocolate coconut Gu Roctane for one last jolt of caffeine and calories (of which I had about 1,200 over the course of the race), plus one more S!cap to try to ward off cramps and sausage fingers, and ran as much as I bloody well could to get the damn thing done.


I also took a pic around 6h7m to prove I was still running even at the end.

With a mile to go, we crossed the parkway and headed through the fields in the blazing sun past Fort George, where I heard...automatic gunfire? YIKES! I mean, I'd have been ok with hearing muskets - some historical recreation is expected - but these were modern automatic weapons and I could hear ricochets, so they weren't all blanks.

You'd think I'd have run away from there like a bat out of hell.

You'd be wrong.

TOO. HOT.

I was, however, still pushing as hard as I could...and even still passing people! I finally came to a shady spot on the path and kicked it up into a run, telling myself I'd walk at the other end when I emerged into the sun again.

For now, though - courage.

Coming out the other side, I spotted the red finish arch at the race site - I hadn't realized how close I really was! So, no point in walking; it was time to finish this beast so I could get out of my salt-crusted kit and into a celebratory beverage.


You're damn right I ran.

Right in across the line!

Official time: 6:26:29 (6:26:21 chip time) @ 7:44/km
9/11 W35-39 - 40/64 Women - 96/144 O/A 


Full official results here
Garmin workout data here

Honestly, I'm almost happy to have been injured so I was under no obligation to attempt the 100k this year - out of the 52 brave souls who did, only 24 finished, for a 54% attrition rate. While I know it's just another 50k, and really no big deal, I'm both proud and grateful to have been able to not only finish, but finish fairly strong given my lack of fitness and ongoing injury issues. Really, the combination of the stability shoes and insoles, coupled with the ice and caffeinated gels in the last half, were the things that got me through - without any one of those factors, I might have had a very different day. I'm stoked that my vest and the giant pockets on the legs of my skirt let me carry all the nutrition I needed for the whole race: I finished with one Endurance Tap gel packet, one swig of EFS Liquid Shot in the flask, and two salted maple vanilla crisp rice treats in my pockets, so I could have continued for another couple of hours if I'd needed. The heartburn from the cookies was a little weird, but I didn't have any other GI issues all day, and no cramping. I'm furthermore overjoyed to report there hasn't been any real fallout from stupidly attempting an ultra on pavement while undertrained, either - I was actually feeling good enough to go out for a short run on Wednesday, and my fibula issue seems to be almost resolved. I'm thankful my body was able to absorb the punishment and that I'm still on the road to healing.

I'm incredibly grateful as well to the amazing race directors who put on such a well organized, welcoming and thoughtfully executed event, the wonderful volunteers who kept me going all day with their tireless work, and the friendly racers who were kind enough to offer an encouraging word or their companionship through the day.


Happy girl, despite the person who put my medal on for me bashing the heavy metal right off my upper lip!


I also need to give a huge shout-out to my long-suffering sweetheart Tanker - not only did he spend a day in the hot sun waiting for my silly arse to drag itself to the falls and back, he actually went out and picked up a cold cider to have ready for me at the finish, and even took my shoes off for me when my feet were too far away to possibly reach.

If that isn't love, I don't know what is.
He even gave me hit comfy chair to sit in while I drank my frosty beverage!

So lucky to have this guy!
I did give him my free beer and pizza from the post-race buffet.

Having got through without further injury, and even well under the time I expected without ever even having a terribly low point, I feel like I've got a huge confidence boost for the rest of my season. Hell, it wasn't even my slowest 50k - not even 3rd slowest! As I continue to work with my chiropractor and RMT to resolve the remaining issues, I have a few weeks to see how much I can improve my health and fitness before I go attempt something else utterly stupid and ridiculous.

Stay tuned for more idiocy!