Friday, May 1, 2015

Pick Your Poison 25k Trail Race - April 25th, 2015

I have had my chubby arse kicked by a ski hill.

Note: may not actually have happened.

You know how I said I was decently trained for this? Yeah, it turns out that wasn't really a thing. I'm sure the lack of sleep and half-assed taper in the week beforehand didn't help, but the fact remains I'm far too attractive to gravity and have too little mountain goat lineage in me for this race to have gone well.

Logistics and general race morning stuff were fine. We were a touch late leaving the house after I scarfed down a bagel & bit of cereal, but stopping for coffee went smoothly and Tanker the Wonder Sherpa drove like a bat out of hell through the sunrise to get us on site by 7:45am.

Sunrise over Kelso Lake

The thick layer of frost on the grass as we reached Horseshoe Valley was less than encouraging, as was the view from the chalet.


It was still right around the freezing mark, but the sun was lovely and warm as I headed inside the chalet at Heights of Horseshoe to pick up my race kit, which included the only race souvenir shirt I've ever actually wanted to wear and a jar of local honey - both of these are freakin' awesome. I said hello to a couple of friendly faces; had a portajohn stop; applied body lube; donned socks, gaiters, shoes; and did a bit of dynamic warm-up to get things moving.

Single-leg squats, heel drops, ankle circles, leg swings and hip openers - oh my!

I hemmed and hawed about throwing on my wind vest to keep my core from getting chilled, but decided to #TrustTheChub - after all, there's plenty of it at the moment. With about 5mins to go before the start, I headed outside to the crowd of runners milling around.

The 12.5k, 25 and 50k all start together.
With zero warning (that I could hear) or fanfare, a horn sounded to send us off to meet our fates.

The course began with a long, mild downhill on the resort's driveway, then plunged into a beautiful pine forest. The first 3km were almost all gently descending, with double and single track trail leading us through the woods alongside and over a pretty little stream. I felt pretty good and just jogged along easy, trying not to go too hard on the downhill as I knew it could wreck my legs for later in the race. Fortunately I had a mass of people in front of me whom it was nigh impossible to pass - I did make a couple of moves where it was safe to do so, but mostly just to get a bit of space in front of me so I could watch my footing. There was a lot of heavily rutted and washed out dirt that would make it easy to turn an ankle, and I didn't want my day to be over so quickly.

Hitting the first switchbacked climb on the mountain bike trails in between the ski runs, I was quickly reduced to a walk - all within the first 25mins of the race. I mentally checked off the first of the 4 major climbs the race website indicates are part of the last 9.5km of the 12.5km loop. I was feeling really warm, too - very glad I decided to forego my wind vest, or I'd have been overheating. I saw lots of people stopping or slowing to remove layers they no longer wanted, and was pleased that I wouldn't have to carry the extra weight of anything I didn't need. My only real annoyance was the way I'd pinned my race number bib to my skirt: it kept flipping up the fabric so the bottom right corner of the number (which was made out of a tough, waterproof plastic) would rub on my thigh, scratching me. While a fairly minor issue at first, I knew that over the course of 3-ish hours that was probably going to get unpleasant. I wasn't about to stop, though, so I just concentrated on pushing up the hills while trying to take in some of the beauty around me.

Photo from Joëlle Bergeron

Cresting the top of a hill, we ran down a steep slope with a big patch of snow. Most people chose to dodge to the left of it - myself included - running instead on the grass for better traction. There was another patch of snow lower down that was unavoidable, but the descent had flattened out a bit by then so I managed to stay on my feet. I did, however, have a problem - my right lateral quad was trying to cramp up on me, and I wasn't even 4km into the race yet.

Ow. Stop that.

The flat below the descent turned into a giant freakin' uphill on more singletrack through the woods. Having passed 30mins, I decided to pull out my first gel - a peanut butter Gu - and nibbled at it as I trucked (read: mostly walked) along. I was just thinking to myself that it was rather horrible having the switchbacks above you, as you could see other runners climbing and knew exactly how much suck there was in your immediate future. Then I made my way up the switchbacks and turned a corner, only to be confronted with what looked like a vertical wall.


Climbing at something like a 50 degree angle, this was about 100 metres of pure pain. It was strewn with rocks that would shift underfoot, but were impossible to see through the coating of fallen leaves. It looked more like a washed out creek bed than anything else, and I found myself death whistling as I walked (very slowly) up it. Just to make matters even better, the top of my left hamstrings started complaining about the treatment they were receiving.

Finally emerging from the woods, I found some runnable ground and got moving. This quickly devolved into a game of "just one more bit of trail tape" as I climbed the hill up to the first aid station - just trying to keep running until I passed the next wooden stake with orange ribbon fluttering from its top.

This hill.
See if you can spot the 3 runners.

Running as much as I could and walking the rest, I plunged onward through the snow patch that traversed the hill the first aid station was on (I didn't stop as I still had a decent amount of water in my hand bottle), then it was back into the woods after another short, sharp climb. Still, that was 2 of the 4 big ones done, right? I was actually a little disgusted with myself for having walked some stuff that was pretty steep, but had much steeper sections right above it that reduced me to a walk anyway. I resolved to try to push a little harder on the next lap. I was also trying to stop stepping on things that made me roll my ankles, though, which was perhaps an incompatible goal.

Aid station #1 near top left - runners continue to top right.
Photo from Joëlle Bergeron

The middle portion of the course was a mix of single track trail and some wider forest road where I could actually run. There was also a lot more walking up big stinkin' climbs, and some walking on the more treacherous single track sections - some of these were only a foot wide, sloping sharply to one side, and a slip of the foot would result in a tumble down a steep hillside filled with trees, rocks and pain. Speaking of trees, there were several down across the trail which had to be stepped or leaped over, a couple to duck under, and a few logpiles for the mountain bikers that I walked over because I'm clumsy as hell and didn't want to break myself. Despite the pounding they were taking from the hidden rocks, roots and holes under the leaves, my ankles seemed to be holding in there.

No-one warned me it was an obstacle race.

I stopped at the 2nd aid station in a lovely woodsy section (near where the above photo was taken) and got my bottle filled, somewhere around the 1hr mark. Departing that aid station takes you down a freakin' ridiculous descent - straight down a hill with a sign at the top that says "Red Rocket". I tried to take it easy on the way down as my quad was still being whiny, but the freight train that is my giant butt was not to be slowed by any means at my disposal. The best I could do was try to pick my line through the ankle-wrecking roots, rocks and ruts and attempt to keep my feet under me.

Around 1hr 15mins I ripped open another gel - this time a chocolate raspberry Roctane that I kinda wanted to use up since it expired in (unreadable month)/2013. Whoops. It tasted fine, and I got it into me without incident, finishing it up on a climb I figured had to be the last one before the end of the loop.

I've looked at this over and over and it still makes no sense.

Yeah, no such luck there. Apparently the "4 major climbs" about which we were warned have a couple of smaller siblings that the race directors don't feel are worth mentioning. Despite having completed 5/4 ascents, we were now headed back downhill (further wrecking my legs) and then up another big stinkin' lump of landscape. In the sadistic way of race designers everywhere, it turns out that you actually reach the highest point of the loop just before the end of it. Coming out of the woods one last time, I stumbled my way up the face of a ski slope, then over the top to see the chalet and the start/finish line at the bottom of a freakin' black diamond run.

That one over on the left, there.

Running down that hill would have been tough enough, but the big patches of snow I'd seen on arrival made things even more interesting.

Still illin'

I met Tanker about halfway down, and he gave me a heartening yell of encouragement as I continued my high-speed stumble to the end of my first lap. Having peeked at my watch, I told him I'd definitely be over 3 hours. This course was damn tough.

Pictured: the source of my downhill speed.

Still a ways to go.

To get some perspective on just how big this damn hill is, here's a photo of 3 runners coming down the top half, above where Tanker was waiting with the camera.

"Run at a ski hill" they said.
"It will be fun" they said.

Coming through the start/finish line with a nearly empty bottle, I stopped to have it filled and grabbed a 1" piece of a banana for the heck of it, having been saved by a chunk of magic banana in the past. The grumbling from my quad and hamstrings had been manageable, but I was still only halfway done.

1st loop: 12.5k @ 1:33:47
7:30/km pace

The second loop was much like the first, but with added mud and soreness. The warm sunshine had melted the frozen ground, and there were places where your shoes would gain a pound with every step you took. I ran the whole way through the long downhill section that was the first quarter of the loop, chatting a bit with a couple of friendly faces on the course (nice to see you Robin & Ron!) and coming to the this-doesn't-count-as-a-major-climb first uphill through the forest after about 20mins. Fortunately my hamstrings had quit their complaining, and the descent on the other side demonstrated that my whiny quad had decided to cooperate. If anyone knows of a banana god, I think I'll go light a candle at their temple.

Playing "one more trail marker" on the way up to aid station #1

At the 2hr mark I cracked out another gel - a chocolate raspberry Roctane that was best before March 2015 this time. Seriously need to keep a closer eye on my supplies; apparently they don't even make that flavour anymore. In any case, I wasn't having any GI issues (and gawd knows I don't need expired gel for those to crop up), and my energy levels felt ok...I was just slow as hell, and had to walk a lot. For that matter, for someone with ridiculously long legs, my uphill walking speed is apparently glacial - people much shorter than me would pull away as we ascended at a walk, only for me and my giant momentum machine of a posterior to pass them on the downhills.

Walking uphill does offer a wonderful opportunity to stretch calves & hamstrings.

I made it back to the 1st aid station with about 1/3 of a bottle - not enough to make it to the next stop, so I got it filled again. The warm day was really making me suck back the hydration! I don't think I've ever gone through so much water in a race before, and I'd been ruing my lack of drinking on training runs so far this year - always arriving home with way more water in my pack than I should. Apparently I just needed endless, punishing hills to make me thirsty.

I can haz water plz?

Almost having finished my gel, I dawdled a little at the aid station to suck the last of it back, and clean out the pocket of my Vanderkitten tri top of empty gel packet detritus. A solid swig of water to wash it all down, then on my way again. I had no idea Tanker was nearby with the camera, catching all of my wasted time.

"Dropped my contact lens"
"Wait - I don't wear contact lenses"

This section was really exposed to the wind - as you can see by my skirt whipping around in the photo below - and I hoped I wouldn't pick up a chill. Fortunately the sunshine and my own efforts were plenty to keep me nice and toasty; I actually considered ditching my gloves, but it would have slowed me down (even more), so I just enjoyed the cooling of the breeze and got on with it.

All right, time to get moving.

More forest, more sunshine, more single track, more obstacles. Energy level was actually pretty good, and I think I managed to run some of the bits that I'd regretted walking on my first lap. A whole lot of "just one more bit of trail tape" on the uphills, and it seemed to be working - I was pushing hard and even passing some people, while still trying to be diligent about thanking all of the volunteers along the way.

More of Tanker's guerilla photography

I made it to the 2nd aid station by 2h30m, and needed my bottle filled one last time. I wouldn't have bothered, but I was down to 1/3 again (maybe 200ml/7oz of water) and knew I had probably 40mins to go on what felt like a very warm day. I also grabbed one more chunk of banana for good measure and paused to eat it & discard the peel in the rubbish bin at the aid station. I didn't think I'd need another gel, but it was nice to have something small just to ensure my energy levels stayed up. My poor leg was horribly chafed from where my bib corner kept scratching it and my attempts to fold it so it would JUST STAHP had been unsuccessful, but I tried to ignore it - I was nearly done anyway.

Still smiling!

As I traipsed through the forest on the way to the brutal final climb, I noticed that the sunshine had produced more than just mud - along the sides of the single track trail there were actually some tiny wildflowers just opening up in the growing warmth of the beautiful spring day. I may have been tired, wheezy and getting my chubby arse kicked by the hills (along with all the other racers), but spotting those flowers was like a perfect moment suspended in time. I wished - not for the first time - that I had sported a camera along with me to capture it, but I really didn't need anything else weighing me down.

One last horrible slog up past the top of the Chalet Express lift, then it was down-down-down all the way home.

Kinda wished I had brought my snowboard.

Dancing on the snow

Final leg-wrecking descent to chalet level.

2nd loop: 12.5k @ 1:36:37
7:44/km pace
02:50 slower than 1st loop

Can I stop now?

Official time: 3:10:24 @ 7:37/km
24/38 Women finishers (40 started)
67/98 O/A finishers (103 started)
(Full results here)

So yeah, I suck. I knew that my hill training probably wasn't up to the rigors of running at a ski resort, but I had no idea how badly I would be humbled by it. The few successes I can take away are my lack of energy dips and GI issues, and my comparatively even splits. If I consider this just a training day for the Sulphur Springs 50k, then it's more or less a win - despite a bit of faffing at the aid stations on the second lap, I put in a solid effort throughout the race. Perhaps if I'd done a bit more actual tapering and got some decent sleep leading up to the day things might have gone better, but the idea was always just to train through this one.

It has, however, seriously made me question my fitness for Sulphur. While the hills won't be as extreme (I've heard there's something like 610m/2,000ft of elevation change per loop at Pick Your Poison, so 1,220m/4,000ft over the course of the 25k), there will be lots of them, and Backcountry Runner lists 1,173m/3,850ft of elevation gain for the 50k.

Not very promising. At least they give you 14hrs to finish.

There's also the minor detail that I've had more post-race soreness from this idiot 25k than I've had after some of the Horror Hill 6-hour races I've done. I swam, hiked and walked a bit Sunday and took Monday off completely, not even attempting to run until Tuesday evening.

It sucked. A lot. My heart and lungs complained about the effort almost as much as my legs, which never seemed to loosen up. I had no confidence whatsoever I'd even make it off our street, and the whole 6km was a brutal symphony of agony. I did a short swim afterward, too, and while that didn't hurt my legs so much (though pushing off the wall from flip turns..) it was pretty clear that the motor is as tired as the muscles are sore.

Gee, I wonder why?

Wednesday's easy cycling went ok, though, and seemed to loosen up my legs a bit. I wouldn't say I was totally back to normal - or as "normal" as I get - but I could actually enjoy running again despite some persistent ache in my quads and glutes. So, perhaps there's hope.

Despite the challenges of the course and my own poor showing, I really can't say enough about the wonderful race that the Pick Your Poison directors and volunteers put on - I'm happy to have finally got the chance to experience it, as this event has been on my radar for a couple of years now. Organization was top notch, the route was well marked, the aid stations were both well-stocked and excellently staffed by really friendly people, and the race swag was stuff I actually appreciate receiving. On top of the cotton shirt and honey that come with your registration, finishers receive a pair of DeFeet tech socks which I found marvelously comfy when I tried them on Tuesday's horrible run.

The sign halfway down the final hill that says "All this for a pair of socks?" did give me a laugh.


That said, it will probably be awhile before I consider doing this particular race again, and I'm virtually certain it would take a drastic bout of either amnesia or insanity to make me try the full 4-loop 50k here.

Oh, and the reason I took Monday completely off? It was an amazing guy's birthday.

This guy, I tell ya..

That's right - for the second year in a row my sweet, wonderful husband has rolled out of bed at stupid o'clock in the morning on his birthday weekend to put on his Wonder Sherpa act and wait around on my sweaty, smelly, hurtin' arse while I do my stupid human trick slowly and poorly. As if that wasn't incredible enough, he hugs me and tells me he's proud of me afterward, no matter how much I stink (both literally and figuratively).

I love you, sweetness. You're the best.


  1. thanks for your review of the PYP: i am doing the 25k in about a month's time, following sunday's ATB finish. wish me luck.

    1. Congrats on toughing out ATB - glad you guys stayed mostly dry!
      So you know, I've been told that the course at PYP changed a bit last year. I hear there's more singletrack now, and I'll be finding out in less than 5 weeks. Apparently that bout of amnesia happened after all, 'cause I'm using the 50k as a training race this year.
      Thanks for stopping by, and I'll see you there!


Go on, have at me!