Monday, October 28, 2013

Horror Hill 6-hour Ultra - Saturday, October 26th, 2013

It had looked like the day was going to be fat with suck, but I had no idea how bad it really would get.

Arriving. This was not in the brochure.

Starting line.

The long gravel driveway down to the aid station.

Erhm, at least it's technically above freezing.

So what do you do when you show up for a trail race and discover un-predicted snow? You skirt up anyway.

We'll call this choice "optimistic".

It was supposed to get up to 6c/43f and the snow couldn't last forever, right? The forecast had been for rain showers, so a little on-and-off moisture should be ok. I went through all the pre-race yadda yadda stuff (including getting my straw from Ron Gehl), but inopportunely had to use the facilities with just 5mins to go before the start. Since they'd closed the indoor washrooms just prior to me getting my skirt on - well timed, that - I had to scoot out to the portjohns in the parking lot and stand around in the snow and 40kph/25mph wind while I waited in line. I sorted myself out, jammed back through the Rehkopf building to do a dynamic range-of-motion ankle, leg & hip warmup inside, then ran out to join the back of the start just after the horn sounded at 9am. Pretty sure I was the last person across the line.

No time for second guessing now.

I had packed a small running store's worth of clothing, but opted to start in my skirt, the same long-sleeve merino shirt I wore last year, the Mizuno Breath Thermo gloves that have got me through a ton of cold, wet runs and a Brooks LSD Lite II jacket I bought the night before at a warehouse sale. Yes, once more tossing the "nothing new on race day" advice to the howling wind; it fit well and was feather-light, plus I could keep my beloved LG Power Block jacket dry as a contingency plan if things got really awful. I had a couple of heavier pairs of gloves in Tanker's backpack as well, along with my cooler bag full of water bottles, gel flasks and cookies. Lots and lots of cookies.

Pecan shortbread! Fudge sandwich creme! Chocolate chip! Oh my!

Down the hill, around the pond and into the woods - even the first lap made it clear that this year was going to be as bad as, if not worse than, last year's mudfest. The big stinkin' hill was impassable from the get-go; we had to use the left side, where there are some fallen branches and lots of leaves to provide some traction rather than the bare mud face. That's right - wet, fallen leaves actually provided more grip than the proper path. I did see some people make it up the main trail here, but they were few and far between. By the second lap the mud was as bad as it had been by the 3-hour mark last year, and I resolved that my best approach would probably be to run every single inch of the course that was runnable now in order to bank as much mileage as I could for when it became impossible to do anything but walk later on.

The small hill on the other side of the building was slick again, too, and despite the decent grip of my New Balance Leadville 1210s I was forced to use the same path up the right hand side that I'd taken to after falling face-first at that same spot last year. In the name of staying on my feet I picked my way cautiously, and wondered what kind of effect the conditions would have on my ability to hydrate; while I was carrying my hand bottle as per usual, the trail was so treacherous that I didn't feel safe drinking while I was running in the woods. I'd take a good honk off it at the bottom of the big hill and maybe another at the top, then grab another sip or so as I crossed the parking lot to the Western loop behind the building. Even the long downhill past the starting line to the aid station got iffy fast; the grassy section turned squelchy almost immediately, and there was a small stream running down the wheel tracks of the gravel driveway to the aid station pavilion. Just ducky.

And it kept snowing.

A lot.

As the day wore on, the trail only got more terrifying. The passage of feet dug deeper and deeper into the dirt, blending it with the relentless snow into a slippery glop that coated my lower legs. The woods provided a break from the freezing gale, but the temperature hovered near the freezing mark and everything became soaked. My new jacket did an admirable job of trapping body heat and keeping the worst of the wet off me while still breathing nicely, but there's nothing that will prepare you for looking down and seeing chunks of ice stuck to the bare skin of your legs. I had completely lost feeling in my toes, and was only in intermittent contact with my hands; I contemplated putting on warmer gloves on several occasions, but they'd always warm up to a tolerable level on the sections where I was able to run, so I never quite pulled the trigger on the change.

Trying to manipulate a zipper & gel flask with frozen hands.

Nutrition and digestion went ok - I was unfortunately dealing with some gas, and feel awful for having cropdusted some other runners on the trail. I'm so, so sorry you had to be exposed to that smell on top of all of the other challenges the day held! I think I really need to find myself a new pre-race breakfast, because I suspect having cut dairy out completely has lowered my tolerance for the milk protein in the meal replacement shakes I'm currently using, causing some flatulence. I'm sure my fellow runners would appreciate it if I worked out something that sits better for 2014! In-race, I started with a couple of slogs of EFS Liquid Shot at 35mins and 1h10, had a peanut butter Gu at the 3-hour mark, another shot of EFS Kona Mocha later on, and hit a power-up of Espresso Love Gu at 4h30 in hopes the 40mg of caffeine would see me through before taking one last, small swig of EFS around 5h30. The rest of my calories came from my gluten free cookie buffet: I started with a chocolate chip at 1h30, then had shortbread around the 2h15 mark, a fudge creme around 3h30, and one more chocolate chipper at 5 hours. Those cookies really were a ray of sunshine on a cold, wet day! My actually gut felt fine the whole way through - I was just farting a lot and I ended up hitting the portajohn to lose some ballast around 1h45, then again around 4h10m. The second time I needed to pee, too; it's tough for me not to over-hydrate a little during a long, cold race. 

Wheeee! *prrrrrpt*
 The situation in the woods just kept getting worse. The stairs (chunks of wood pounded into the dirt) on the second section of the main hill began to disintegrate and the mud on each step got soupy, making them hard to get up. I was trying to favour my niggly right adductors (having damaged them at Run for the Toad 3 weeks prior), so was stepping up almost exclusively with my left leg, leading to one rather sore quad the next day. My left ankle found a rock hidden in the mud and rolled a bit - while I was able to continue without pain at the time, it got sore when dorsiflexed (a requirement for running/walking uphill) later in the race and continues to be a bit puffy and sore now 2 days later. The ever-deepening mud did nothing to help; at times I was forced to almost swim my way through it, just keeping my feet moving as fast as I could to try to preserve some forward motion. My toes even hurt afterward from trying to dig into the muck and pull myself up little rises covered in squelchy slop, then my hamstrings tried to cramp on me a bit around the 4 hour mark from trying to push through the goop. Fortunately, other than a really weird sort of zing through my right psoas in the last quarter of the race, I was able to prevent any pain from flaring in my right groin by paying some careful attention to my stride.

Where am I going, and why am I in this handbasket?
My bib number gave up long before I did.
Surprisingly enough, I actually managed to stay upright through the whole thing! There were a couple of near-falls as my feet slid sideways on slick downhills, but I was able to windmill my arms like an idiot and keep from actually falling - my mid-back almost seized up on me later that night from my bizarre contortions to preserve verticality. I did have to reach down to pick up my straw at one point, though - a low-hanging branch kept catching on it as I came out of the Western woods loop and I kept thinking I'd lose it, but it hung in pretty well for the first hour or two. Then as I emerged once more, I felt for it and it was gone! I worried that I'd have bad luck from losing it, when suddenly I spotted it on the ground just in front of me; I guess I'd lost it on the last loop, and it had miraculously not been squashed into the mud by anyone. I managed to get it tucked back into my earband, and there it stayed for the rest of the race. I still caught crap from Ron for dropping it, though - he'd spotted it sitting on the ground before I managed to pick it up!

As bad as the trail got, I actually wondered around the halfway point if they might just call the race for safety reasons; lots of bits of me were frozen, the snow had progressed to near-whiteout conditions, there were deep puddles of standing muddy water on the path, and it was all I and other runners could do to keep our feet under us. I had even landed a bit heavily in some muddy slurry at some point, splashing it up high enough to coat my inner thighs, just at the point where "chub rub" is an issue. The chafing possibilities of this development didn't bear contemplating, since I didn't think there was anything I could do to solve the situation. I'm told I wasn't the only one who had qualms about continuing at this point; Tanker tells me than Karin McMillan (who was helping organize the race in the absence of its usual director - super nice girl and incredible runner!) had tried walking some of the trail and had nearly fallen several times herself, so speculated about calling an early finish. However, that's not the Horror Hill way - if we could run the inaugural Frosty Trail on the same course at -15c/5f and deal with 6 solid hours of rain at Horror Hill 2012, we could damn well finish 2013 with a bit of snow and slop!

Just a little.
This used to be a gravel path.

Despite all the whining about the weather I'm doing here, I was actually really pleased with how the day went: I kept eating enough to keep me from having any of those dark, grouchy patches that make for a miserable race (though I did grump at Tanker a bit for taking photos when I needed him to be handing things to me or taking them away from me - sorry babe!), and the time really seemed to pass quite quickly out on course. The first half gave me some cause for optimism - I was feeling strong and hit the 20k mark (half of what I'd managed in the rain last year) in 2h30m, which meant I could probably take a solid stab at passing 42.5km (17 loops) and actually making it an ultramarathon day. By 4hrs it didn't seem like the trail could get any worse, and I'd managed to put in 30k - I started to feel like I might even be able to hit 45km for the day, but anything can happen past the 4-hour mark in a race so I didn't want to hang too much hope on that and risk disappointment.

I didn't even know if I'd be able to see for much longer.

The snow did eventually tail off around 4h30 (1:30pm), and eventually after 5 hours the trail started to dry up a tad. It was still horribly muddy and slick, but the puddles of standing water disappeared and things got a bit stickier. The most petrifying downhill on the course - just before you emerge from the main woods loop and head up toward the Rehkopf building - got slightly less hair-raising, though I was still using the rock near the bottom as a pinball bumper to make the sharp right turn (much to the later chagrin of my damaged left ankle). I think the slippery conditions on the downhills may have worked to my advantage in some ways; because you couldn't really run down them with any abandon and the surface was so soft and squidgy, my quads didn't take anywhere near the pounding that they usually do in an even near the end my legs felt pretty good! Uphills I'd never been able to run past the 4 hour mark seemed runnable for the duration, though I can't claim to have been moving quickly - while they didn't really hurt, the ol' legs wouldn't respond with quite the vigour they had in the first few hours. Still, my lap times stayed quite consistent throughout, with a couple of aberrations where I needed to pause for various reasons.

The worst issue I really faced didn't come about until the last hour. As the trail dried out and my feet weren't being bathed regularly in ankle-deep puddles, I felt what seemed to be my socks bunching up behind the balls of my feet on the inside of each foot. As I came into the aid station for my final cookie around 5 hours, I stopped for a minute to try to sort them out, but it was clear as soon as I started running again that I hadn't succeeded in solving the problem. It turned out later that I had built up pucks of mud inside my shoes that were chewing away at my feet; I don't know if the puddles had helped keep it sloshing around instead of building up for the first 5 hours, or if my feet had just been too frozen to notice! It did warm up a few degrees toward the end and feeling did start to return to places that hadn't reported in for awhile. I was starting to hate the dual collars of my jacket and my shirt being zipped up around my neck - I considered ditching the jacket as I was feeling very warm, but I knew the wind was still bitterly cold and the dampness would cut right through me, so I stuck with it and just ran on.

This is after using a garden hose to spray as much mud as possible off my shoes.
I don't know if those socks will ever be clean again.

More chunks of mud that survived the hosing inside my gaiters.
The backs of my calves were covered about 3/4" thick with glop.

Coming through 40k with 5:17-ish on the clock and knowing I was averaging a bit more than 20mins per lap, I figured I might actually be able to break 45km if I was careful and applied myself. I had originally intended to grab the camera from Tanker after the 17th lap (42.5k) to get some snaps of the quagmire in the woods, but with the carrot of beating my 2010 distance (44.1km - my 1st attempt) dangling before me I put aside my photographic plans and decided to drop the hammer. I knocked back a last swig of EFS Liquid Shot to ward off the growing fatigue and focused on keeping my stride as efficient as possible, telling myself any time I felt like walking that it might make the difference between crossing the line and falling short. I got through 42.5km with 5:38-ish on the clock, picked up my bag of macaroni to mark the spot where I would stop when the horn sounded, and managed to juggle it into my jacket pocket while removing my gel flask. As I passed the aid station I handed off both my water bottle and the flask to Tanker; I wanted my hands free so I could have maximum balance and dexterity in the woods, plus bare minimum weight to carry, since I'd be cutting it pretty fine to get another full lap in.

I was pleased to discover that my legs were still ready for the challenge, and I actually started passing some of the people who are much faster than I am, but were suffering more. I felt fantastic as I trotted through the splurpy mess in the forest, happy to be climbing the horrible hills for the last time and confident I'd already soundly beaten any expectations I had for the day. I pushed into a higher gear than I had so far, panting as I chugged out of the woods and up the long hill toward the building. The clock showed 6 minutes to go as I headed for the parking lot, legs protesting that they'd had enough and just wanted to rest, but still hanging in there. Carefully through the slick parts, walk up the nasty little hill, trot around to the mud pit with the hidden rocks, then back to as full a stride as I could manage down the hill to the line, crossing with 2 minutes to spare!

Nothing else for it - down the driveway and past the aid station, this time I really did pick up the camera from Tanker to get a couple of snaps after the horn sounded to end the race.

O hai!

Minus one race bib; plus one leaf.

Still standing!

I had every intention of walking into the woods to get some pics of the wreckage they tried to pass of as a trail in there, but there was a problem: as soon as I stopped, my right knee flared into a gigantic ball of pain! It is definitely originating from my IT band, which I can only assume underwent stress as I tried to spare my damaged adductors on the slick, muddy surfaces - it had felt completely fine while both walking and running during the race, though (for which I'm very thankful!), and now it was all I could do to take a step! I have to wonder if my turn-and-burn on the last lap may have simply pushed it over the edge, as trying to hobble up the hill to meet Tanker at the aid station was excruciating. Now 2 days later, it has settled down quite a bit, but still grumps a bit when I try to walk up or down a hill. Edit: 3 days later it feels fine, though my ankle is still a bit messy.

I did finally make it up to the building to hose myself down and head inside for a post-race massage (from the same folks who offered them at Run for the Toad - they remembered my calf seizing up there!), food, awards and dry clothes. Of course the sun chose this time to come out - what right did we have to expect a nice day?

Official distance: 45.2km
4.8km more than 2012 (in worse conditions)

5/6 Women - 13/15 Finishers
Official results here.

Really satisfied with this!

Happy K is happy!
I'm super pleased with my performance here - I had no idea what to expect with running my first 50k only 3 weeks beforehand, but it seems to have worked out marvellously. Apart from my left quad being a little sore, my legs hardly even hurt - if not for my beat-up left ankle and the remaining niggle in my right ITB, I would have happily run the next day. Given that these were the toughest conditions I've ever seen at a trail race and I came within 1.3km of my Horror Hill PR (46.5km in 2011), I know I'm reaping the rewards of putting in my biggest year ever of run training - Saturday put me 186km over my prior highest annual total, and I still have 2 months left of 2013! I hope I can keep this rolling through the winter (after some appropriate recovery time for the damage I've sustained lately), as I have high hopes of making a solid attempt on Around the Bay next March.

Now if you'll excuse me, I'm not quite done stuffing my face yet..


  1. I’m running my first marathon, and my 16-mile run is this Sunday. I also have a half marathon the following weekend

    1. Good on you - hope it all goes well! Take care of your legs in between workouts and go crush it!


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