Friday, February 19, 2016

The Oracle Trail 25k Winter Trail Race - Saturday, February 13th, 2016

More like 27k, but who's counting?

This is not a day that started well. I woke up after a repeatedly-disrupted sleep to the exact weather that had been promised - REALLY EFFIN' COLD. Like "holy crap is the car going to start?" kind of cold. As I munched on a bagel and got ready to go, I seriously contemplated just rolling back into my nice, warm bed because this was starting to seem mildly suicidal.

At the 25k start time.

I tried to be as ready to go as possible before we even left the house: I wore my New Balance WT1210 Leadville shoes, Smartwool socks & Smartwool NTS 250 weight merino wool longjohns over a pair of Patagonia Active hipster undiesCraft PXC Storm Tights as an outer layer for wind protection and warmth, Dirty Girl gaiters, a very old sample-only (I don't think it was ever a production piece) Icebreaker GT 200 weight merino wool shirt over my sports bra as a base layer, with a longsleeve polyester Horror Hill 2014 race shirt as a second layer under my Louis Garneau Powerblock jacket. For my hands I went with an older model of Icebreaker's Quantum merino wool gloves under a pair of Kombi Backyard mittens, and on my head I wore an old Saucony Velocity running hat with an Outdoor Research Windstopper Peruvian hat overtop, plus a Mizuno Breath Thermo headband because I don't take chances with my ears. As it was mandatory equipment, I threw a space blanket wrapped in a couple of elastic bands in the back pocket of my jacket, and put a couple of single-serve gels in one front pocket plus my flask of EFS Liquid Shot in the other front pocket. I hoped keeping them inside the outer layer and against my belly might keep them from freezing, and I elected to carry my hand bottle for hydration. I threw my big down coat on over all this gear, and off we went...against my better judgement.

Was a bit late getting on the road, but fortunately had no issues getting to the race site and even managed to use a WARM washroom at the gas station up the street before arriving (along with a couple of other racers who had the same idea). Had to park across the road from the starting area and then walk across with my kit, which turned out to be a bit further than I'd expected. I had elected to leave my down pants behind in the car to put on after the race, but nothing could have persuaded me to relinquish my down coat prior to the gun going off. As it was, my legs were almost instantly chilled despite my armageddon-y tights and wooly longjohns underneath. I was a bit concerned that the Smartwool socks I'd chosen (because they're good and thick, and I know they play nice with the shoes I'd decided on) left a gap of bare skin below the base layer, but I snugged my Dirty Girl gaiters up over the outer tights to try to seal in warmth and cut the wind...not to mention keep the damn snow out!

At those temperatures, though, everything frosts almost instantly. My toes were cold within minutes of exiting the car, and Tanker the Wonder Sherpa's face fuzz began to ice up immediately.

This is seriously under 10mins of exposure.

I consulted with the race director and one of her crew who had run the course the day before - he confirmed that the far end of the 25k course was definitely icy, so I'd be testing out my brand spankin' new traction devices (also mandatory equipment and purchased just for this race, but never previously run in) and needed to put them on before I headed out as they're difficult to don with even my liner gloves on, let alone mittens. Then my traitorous digestive tract decided that the stop at the Shell was insufficient, so I braved the on-site portajohn. Everything went ok until I was trying to get my leg layers pulled back up and heard a weird noise behind me - like a faint rustle and tiny splash. I finished getting myself re-dressed (priorities, people!), then looked behind me..

..and saw my emergency blanket - MANDATORY KIT, mind you - floating in the mess of "pre-race nerves" down the hole in the portajohn. It had apparently worked its way out of the back pocket of my jacket while I contorted myself trying to pull my drawers up, and of course it wouldn't just fall on the floor. Nope, that's not my luck.

Effin' fabulous.

Because I didn't have another, I fished it out. Yeah, that's right. Fortunately it was folded up tight inside the elastic bands and just sat on top of the horrors below, so I was able to wipe it fairly clean with toilet paper and stuff it back in the pocket of my jacket. I mean really, everything I was wearing was going to go in the wash as soon as I got home anyway, right? Suck it up, buttercup.

Yeah, super impressed over here.

Back out of the loo, the early start was about to go off, so I cheered on the amazing folks who were taking this race on either blind or blindfolded. I can't even imagine..

With a few minutes left to go before I went wandering off into the frozen woods, I got my hand bottle out of the little cooler bag I'd brought, threw a merino wool Buff on hood-style to seal up my neck, then kissed Tanker (who got zero photos because our camera froze up) and lined up to start while listening to the pre-race announcements. I also changed up from my giant super-warm gloves to my mittens (I'd kept my merino wool base layer gloves on the whole time, as my hands were freezing), and decided I'd keep the little chemical handwarmer packets I'd been using to try to keep my fingers from falling off into my running mitts. I hadn't done my proper warm-up routine and my legs were freezing - I actually wondered whether my toes would snap off once I started trying to run on them - but no time for that: off we go!

A bit of double track, then I followed the rest of the pack (most of whom were ahead of me) into the single track that wound through the woods, up and down hills, through switchbacks and sharp turns. The sun was shining, my toes eventually started to warm up (which was REALLY PAINFUL for a bit and then just ducky), and my hand bottle with a scoop or two of eLoad sport drink crystals mixed in was staying liquid - life was good. I couldn't access my watch to keep track of time, but I started sipping on my hydration whenever I had the chance since the course seemed to be mostly runnable but required attention to stay upright. That meant I couldn't really safely drink while running, but if we were walking up a climb, I drank. It was a really beautiful course, and I tried to ensure I devoted some mental run time to appreciating the scenery while I huffed and puffed and tried not to fall down.

Someone else's photo, poached from the Oracle Trail facebook page

My right thumb got awfully cold, and I finally remembered that it has a tendency to go a bit numb when carrying my hand bottle even in warm weather - I think the bottle puts some pressure on the blood vessels leading to it or something. I started trying to work it a bit to get circulation flowing, but it was pretty far gone. Hmm, this may have been a bad idea, especially since the bottle was already starting to freeze despite my hopes for the sport drink crystals (and specifically the sodium content) acting as an antifreeze. Ah well, if I stop somewhere I can probably just take the lid off and have a sip. I ran along to a junction of 3 trails, and was directed to the left. Like a good little lemming, I followed the people ahead of me and the volunteer's direction off to the left-hand trail, and thanked the kind lady like I did all the other volunteers on course.

What was weird is that there were no flags or strips of trail tape in the trees, and we'd been instructed that the whole course was marked. I ran along a bit more, then lo, what's this? I came upon a group of at least 20 runners all stopped at another fork in the trail, with no markings and no idea where to go. We decided we'd go back to the last junction with the volunteer there and ask, but when we got there the lady was gone! We all tried the right-hand trail instead, which quickly led us back to the start/finish line.

Not cool.

But gee, it looks so simple!

We weren't able to get any really clear direction from the race staff at the start area, so we ran back the way we'd come in, retracing our steps to the first junction with the amazing disappearing volunteer. Some people decided they'd follow a very off-piste section that led down toward the road, while myself and a few other people took the left-hand fork the way we'd been directed and tried to press on. I discovered that not only was my hand bottle frozen at the drinking valve, it had iced up sufficiently that I couldn't get the lid off. With it now useless, I stuffed it in the back pocket of my jacket (the one not occupied by sewage-dipped space blanket, that is) and tucked my poor frozen thumb inside my mitt, pressing it up against the little handwarmer packet to try to defrost. I think the smartest thing I did all day was stuff those little packets into my mittens.

When we came to the second unmarked fork in the trail, I decided to try the left-hand way, and 3 others came with me. There were already some prints in the snow showing others had come this way, so it seemed like a good wheeze. We ran along for awhile, then met up with some trail markings again, climbed up this insane little scramble that had me using my hands to try to pull myself up but was definitely marked as part of the course, and followed the trail taped path...right back to the damn intersection where the volunteer had been. We tried taking the off-piste bit down through the long grass and grabby branches to the road, but didn't like this not knowing business, so we headed back to the start area via the right-hand trail again to gain more intel.

The blue line is approximately the first loop back to the start, the purple line is after we headed back out.

One of the people I had been running with for the second loop had a GPS watch and said we'd only done about 10km so far. Bob was frustrated and sounded ready to give up and go home, but I suggested that if we'd already done 10k we could just try to find our way through the 15k course and then that would give us the 25 kilometers we'd expected to run. I also grabbed a bottle of water from a volunteer and slammed most of it along with a shot of EFS gel, ditching the useless hand bottle on a picnic table to pick up after the race. The three people with whom I'd been running (Bob, Tiffany and a lady named Paulina who said she was doing her first trail race ever) all joined me as I headed out for a do-over, though we wondered a bit about our sanity as we did so - I think it was Tiffany who said "Only runners would actually decide to head back out on a day like today".

So off we toddled, 4 little ducks in a row, through the gorgeous forest under the bright sun. After a couple of second-guesses where I ran back to check and make sure I hadn't seen flags off in another direction at a turning (meaning I had to work very hard to catch back up since I didn't want to be left alone in the woods), we finally located the spot where we'd made a wrong turning. We had followed the flags for the 5k course instead of the trail tape for the 15/25k route...the difference between which was not explained until our 2nd visit to the start/finish area. Consulting with Bob's watch and noting we were getting close to the first aid station at 8k (which we'd never found on our first forays) and had already been out for over 2 hours, I pulled out my gel flask for some EFS Liquid Shot and discovered that it had turned into soft-serve ice cream in my pocket. I managed to get the cap off and squeeze out a chunk, hoping I'd soon have some water to wash it down.

We did finally reach the 8k aid station and I did get a couple of small cups of water, though they had already packed everything up and seemed to be about to leave. A fellow on a fat bike who was patrolling the course offered to act as a guide, which we gratefully accepted. We all remained resolute in our decision to follow the 15k route rather than try to find a shortcut back to the start, and set off with the fat biker at our tail. 

Bob's Garmin map - the rest of the data is here.

It seemed to get much colder for awhile, and not just because we'd spent a few minutes stopped at the aid station - perhaps we had turned into the wind, or maybe the trees simply weren't providing as much cover. All I know is that suddenly my face was freezing cold, and my toes were starting to complain again. We were climbing some longer hills and did some more walking than we had previously, really working through the geography of the Oak Ridges Moraine. My fellow hardy souls and I all seemed to be starting to feel the effects of the running we'd done as glutes and hamstrings began to protest. Still, we pressed onward and (despite some mis-direction from our fat biker) finally made it to the junction near the bell tower aid station.

We met a volunteer there who took our numbers and let us know we could take the left-hand trail to go to the aid station itself, or take the right-hand fork to continue on toward the finish - we had no intention of crossing the road into the Walker Woods section that comprised the extra 10km of the 25k course. Since we'd already done 22km by Bob's reckoning and noone wanted to go to the aid station, we all trundled off after a brief stop (during which I nibbled a bit more of my EFS soft serve) to the right to try to finish this damn thing. At least the trail conditions had been great for us all day - packed powder covered most of the ice, making my traction devices pretty much unnecessary, but the snow wasn't so deep that it sucked up too much energy. I was, however, SO ready to be done. 

At least it was still pretty.
(Another photo poached from the Oracle Trail facebook page)

Somehow we couldn't even manage to follow the trail markings correctly from the bell tower and ended up off-course again. Finally finding a wide, main trail that led down to the concession road the parking lots were on, we met up with another fat biker and another couple of runners who directed us into the woods again. After running another loop and being spat back out onto the same trail (slightly closer to the road), Bob's watch was saying we'd already done 26km and I just wanted a way out. I ran down the trail to the road, hooked right, then ran along 7th Concession to the main tract parking lot, up the long driveway, and finally across the line where Tanker awaited after somewhere around 27km. I later heard that only tiny percentage of the people who ran the 25k actually made it through without going off course at some point (which was apparently closer to 26.5k anyway) - one fellow even said he ended up doing 42km! Most who got lost apparently ended up taking a shortcut back to the start/finish, though, leaving them with less than the originally intended distance. You'd have to be some kind of weirdo to want to run more than that in the Arctic chill, right?

You know it's cold when one of your pigtails freezes to your face.

Official "25k" time: 3:43:05
3/5 W30-39 - 13/23 Women - 36/50 O/A

Bob, Tiffany and Paulina had apparently taken a slightly shorter-but-slower route through the woods, and came through a few minutes after me. I had high fives for all of them, 'cause they were awesome and I don't know what I would've done if I'd been out there all by myself. I'd only managed to drink about 750ml of fluids and had about 200cal of eLoad and EFS in the 3.75hrs I was out there, so dehydration or bonking were real possibilities, not to mention the strong chance my clumsy arse would end up twisting an ankle or falling on my head and ending up a frozen lump in the woods.

Eventually, however, I made it! I even got my hand-knitted finisher's scarf and a bowl of chili to try to warm up.

Yes, while sitting in the car. In the sun.
Still shivering.

The outside temperature topped out at -23c with a windchill of -34c, and I was also seriously happy to have those down pants.

Huge thanks to the volunteers who endured horrific conditions in an effort to make this a great day for us runners. While the course marking and marshaling could use some work, I had a blast trotting around in the gorgeous Durham Forest for the morning and wouldn't hesitate to come back and race again. There are bound to be some teething troubles in the first year, and I'm confident the race director will get it all sorted out. The swag bag with a pair of chocolate covered Oreo cookies & some vanilla sugar scrub was a nice touch, and I love my finisher's scarf - have worn it every day since the race! 

The only unfortunate fallout from all of this fun is a bit of nasty frostbite to my left big toe and the very tip of my second toe - the big toe having been frostbitten last year during a 10 mile run in freezing rain - and a rather more alarming dose to the end joint of my right thumb.

Not awesome.

It's now 6 days after the race and my thumb is still sore, swollen and a bit numb at the tip, which is really inconvenient as it's my dominant hand and that impacts on more things than you could possibly imagine until you're forced to go through life with a less-than-useful thumb. I'm less concerned about the toes, which are still a bit numb but don't really affect my day-to-day life so much. I don't think there's any permanent damage (no blistering and nothing has fallen off yet), but now I know for next time - DO NOT USE THE HAND BOTTLE if planning to race on Hoth.

We honestly passed this on the way to & from the race site.
I would've happily carved one open and crawled inside.

I also suspect that the frostbite to my toes was partly a result of the gap between my socks and my longjohns. With only a spandex gaiter to trap warmth, I'm sure the blood running through my ankles on my way to my feet was losing a lot of heat there that could have prevented the freezing that occurred. Next time I'll need to either risk blisters with a different pair of (taller) socks, or figure out some other way to close up that gap.

Of course, some people might just decide that racing in ridiculously cold temperatures isn't something they'd risk again, but who ever said I was bright?


  1. Hey K - sorry to have missed you, but I got lost as well! The good news for me was that I finished up on the short side of 25k (about 24k) and the double-socks and plastic bag helped keep my toes toasty warm. The downside is that I had to boogie right after crossing the finish line and didn't score me one of those cool hand-knit scarves!

    Hope you heal up ok, and looking forward to seeing you out on the trails again in the spring sometime!

    1. Ah, such a pity I didn't see you - it was hard to recognize anyone with all the layers and face coverings! Glad to hear you made it through, and that even the fast ones among us could get a bit off track. Thanks for stopping by to read; will hope to see you around this season!


Go on, have at me!