Friday, December 30, 2016

Dear 2016

We may have had some good times together, but right now you're like a drunken party guest who's overstayed their welcome. You're not making any sense, I'm too tired to deal with you, and the longer you linger the more stuff seems to get damaged.



Wishing you all a wonderful New Year!

Friday, December 23, 2016

Merry Confidence-mas

I'm a bit of a weenie about some things.

Way back in the summer of 2010, I tried running a local easy, non-technical trail after dark. My headlamp was only cranking out about 15 lumens (a sick glowworm probably sneezes out more light), it was 8c and raining, and I could barely see. I had intended to run it out-and-back twice for 20k, but by the halfway mark on the trip out I was petrified. I stuck it out to the far end, and on the way back my knight on shining mountain bike appeared in the darkness - Tanker the Wonder Sherpa had come to save me, and helped light my way as I scuttled back to the safety of street lights to finish up the run. 

Go toward the light..

Since that ill-fated evening, I hadn't tried running trail after dark again until a few weeks ago. A friend had admonished me for my lack of nighttime trail runs and invited me to come run with her at some point, but after buying a new (and much brighter) headlamp, I decided to head out on my own one evening in early November. I even went back to the same trail, and had much more success - I even enjoyed it a bit. 

Even if Tanker did take a "last seen wearing.." photo before I set out.

Fast forward just shy of a month and I felt like a bit of a badass for running another easy, flat bit of rail trail after dark without a headlamp for the first 9km, just because the moon was bright enough to light my way until I got into some coniferous forest that blocked its light. The next day I raised the stakes again, running yet another bit of rail trail through town after dark while a flurry of snow fell. Not enough to accumulate on the ground, but enough to give that neat running-through-hyperspace feel by the light of my headlamp.

I had, however, turned down the opportunity to go for a Saturday night trail run with some friends because I thought they would probably be running more aggressive terrain than I was comfortable with yet. A week later, winter had blanketed the region, and on Sunday night I went and ran the original rail trail in 4" of fresh snow while even more fell around me. This time I didn't use my headlamp at all for the 10km out-and-back; the sky was so bright from the clouds reflecting the glow of the city that I didn't need it.

It was enchanting.
Seriously one of the most amazing experiences of my entire life.

I still hadn't run anything technical in the dark, though (I don't count getting a bit lost in the Agreement Forest at dusk), and was somewhat dreading it. We got a big dump of fresh snow on Friday the 16th, and I knew it was supposed to freezing rain on Saturday afternoon and into the evening, so I wanted to make sure I got the 4hr ramble I had planned around Puslinch Tract done early in the day to avoid all that.

Because this seemed like enough of a challenge on its own.

Problem: we got home late from my company Christmas dinner quite late on Friday night, and were tardy rolling out of bed and down to the market. By the time we'd put our groceries away, had a bite to eat, and done all of the necessary prep work, I hit the trail in the first of the freezing rain showers with just an hour until sunset.


It was hard bloody work slogging through the fresh snow with the weight of the rain on top - while some fat bikes had been through some of the trails and packed them down nicely, it was knee-deep in other places. I got through about 1h45m before stopping at the car to refill my hydration pack with water (I didn't want to run out while somewhere inaccessible), then switched my headlamp on as I headed back out in the fading light. I managed almost another 2 hours in the silent darkness as the freezing rain continued to fall, occasionally catching my small beam of light and tricking me into thinking there was some other weirdo out there stumbling around in the snow.

Knees up!

It took me 3h40m of moving time to cover 27km, and by the end I was completely knackered. I had, however, finally run some technical trail in the dark - and survived! I'd also put in my longest training run prior to the Run4RKids 8-hour (just over 2 weeks away now) in some pretty tough conditions, leaving me with a welcome sense that I might just have made some fitness gains and recovered from the load of fall racing I did.

As just one more little Christmas present to myself, I did a bit of basic math that has me feeling slightly less terrified about not being able to use trekking poles for the Sulphur Springs 100k next spring:

  • Dirty Girls had 2 major climbs per lap. I did 9 laps - 18 climbs - and only used poles for the last one. Thus, I climbed 16 times without poles.
  • The Fat Ass Trail Run BadAss 6-hour had 2 major climbs per lap. I did 7 laps - 14 climbs - and only used poles for the last one. Thus, I climbed 12 times without poles.
  • Sulphur Springs has 2 major climbs per lap, and I only have to complete 5 laps equalling 10 climbs total.
Now admittedly I've never run more than 72km in a day and I'll have to climb Martin Road at both 79km and 99km, but at least I can take some comfort in the fact I've already done more unassisted hills in a day.

Before I sign off for a long weekend that promises to be filled with Christmas cheer (by which I mean I have 8 million things to get done before my Mum arrives on the afternoon of the 25th to spend a couple of days with us), I'd like to wish every one of you a season filled with love, laughter, joy and light.

From Tanker the Wonder Sherpa and some dork.

Even if it turns out that the darkness isn't so scary after all.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Eight months

Eight months to the day between runs in the snow at Huron Natural Area.

The last time was a catalyst for so much that happened this year.

I abandoned the pavement for my long runs.

I let go of the mindset that walking and stopping weren't allowed during a training run.

I decided to take on the biggest challenge of my life

I found beautiful hidden places in forests that I'd never seen before.

I got much stronger as a runner, and feel like I might have actually arrived as an ultrarunner.

I have set even loftier goals for the future, while delving deep into my own mind to discover the reasons why they're important to me

I have frolicked like a deer through wind and snow, feeling both strong within myself and weak in the face of the incredible power of nature.

I'm facing my fears - trying to break their power over me.

And I wonder who I'll be in another eight months from now.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Seems Like Science: Cold Weather Coping Strategies

I don't know where you are, but around these parts winter has just made a sudden arrival. As if to compensate for its tardiness, it came howling down with all guns blazing: I went from running in knicks and a shirt on Monday to full-on windproof XC ski pants and a neck gaiter over my earband last night as I ran through an inch or two of fresh snow. While I know how to approach running in cold weather, I still have a tendency to freeze afterward.


As the weather worsens for most of us in the northern hemisphere, I thought I'd do another installment of Seems Like Science to share with you my cold weather coping tips for outdoor athletes. These are as applicable to cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or cycling as they are to running - good for anything that gets your heart pumping outside in the cold air and leaves you chilled once the adventure is over.

If you're one of those treadmill-or-trainer-'til-spring people, you can move along now. If you're made of a bit tougher stuff, read on.

1. Get Out of Wet Clothing

A mop can be helpful for cleaning up after..

The most basic thing you can do to prevent the post-workout chills is to get changed out of the gear you wore outside. Even if you weren't actively sweating, the fabrics will have absorbed some of the moisture that your body is constantly releasing and will carry the cold of the outside air. By ditching them as soon as possible for warm, dry layers, you'll prevent that moisture from leaching your body heat away - after all, sweat is how our bodies cool themselves naturally, but you want the opposite! Ladies, that means your sports bra needs to come off, too - it's actually one of the worst offenders, since it wraps around your ribcage stealing heat from the very core of you. Get it off, post haste!

Ideally, you'd be doing this in a heated area, where you'll then start to absorb warmth from the air as well. However, it's in your best interest to change even if you have to do so in a cold place like your car or an unheated washroom at a trailhead. The longest I'll drive to get to a warm area to change is about 10 minutes, and even then I'll probably get a bit of a hard-to-shake chill going as I move from the car to indoors. There are a couple of products out there (like this one - which I have owned for awhile and heartily endorse - and this one, which I'll be trying out soon) to help you change outdoors with a little more modesty and warmth than just stripping down beside your car.

That said, you do you. I've never shied away from a little parking lot nudity if that's what it took to get me on my way to WarmTown. All you really need to do is make sure you've packed some clothes to change into - even if they get chilly in the car while you're out getting your sweat on, you'll still be warmer just a few minutes after changing than you would be if you'd stayed in your cold, wet clothes. It's one of the first principles of treating hypothermia!

2. Hot Food


You know you're supposed to have a bite to eat to help with recovery after a workout. When it's cold out, there's nothing better than something nice and toasty to nosh on just after you've changed out of your sweaty gear. With a bit of pre-planning, you can have a hot meal before you've even returned to your resting heart rate, even if you're at a far-flung trailhead when you finish. For a relatively small initial investment, a vacuum-insulated double-walled stainless steel food container is an invaluable source of post-cold-workout happiness: just fill it with something hot before you leave and you're ready to chow down as soon as you've changed out of your wet clothes. Heck, eat while you're changing if you can manage it - I certainly won't judge you. If you don't have anything capable of keeping food warm on its own, try wrapping a watertight container in a towel and putting it in a cooler bag; most vessels designed to keep food or drink cold will also help keep them hot, as you're just changing the direction you're trying to prevent the heat from moving.

If you can't have hot food, at least eat something - if it must be cold or room-temperature, try something spicy or with a high protein content, and lower in fat. Your body generates heat (known as diet induced thermogenesis) when you digest food of any kind, but the energy required to metabolize protein is higher than that needed to process carbohydrate or fat, and spicy foods like hot peppers have been shown to boost metabolism, which will warm you up as well. Endurance athletes should be replenishing carbohydrate stores after long workouts, but you can increase the thermic effect of the CHO by choosing complex carbohydrates that require more energy to break down than simple sugars.

My favourite things for post-trail run munching are soup and oatmeal: with their high sodium content to replace electrolytes and carbohydrate-heavy composition, instant noodles are actually a great choice here. I love these ones, but you can pick your favourite. Preparation couldn't be simpler, either: just boil some water, pour everything in, then seal it up and it's ready to go. It's equally easy to prepare the noodles or instant oatmeal at home, too: have the kettle ready before you head out, then switch it on as soon as you get back. Let the boiling water work its magic while you change, then add whatever you like to your oatmeal (I love some sea salt, maple syrup and almond butter stirred into mine) or noodles and slurp away! If you have some hearty soup or chili pre-made at home, all the better - pop a serving on the stove or in the microwave to heat while you change, then go to town once you're all changed up.

3. All the Clothes

And this is just to hang out in my livingroom!

Because I know I tend to get cold easily after a workout, I will typically put on clothing that is appropriate for at least 5c/9f colder than whatever conditions I expect to encounter. Basically, whatever you think you'll need, add one more layer. Bonus points if you have something cozy to wear that also makes you feel like a badass, like a hoodie from a favourite race. Also make sure you keep all the places where the veins and arteries are closest to the skin covered, like your wrists, ankles and especially your neck - you want to keep all of the blood circulating through your body from losing as much heat as possible.

4. Hot Shower or Bath

It's only the steam that prevents this from becoming crayon porn.

This is THE BEST. If you're running from home or can make it back there (or somewhere else that they'll let you shower, like a fitness facility at which you're a member or even an understanding friend's house), hop on it and let the hot water and steam work its magic. While moisture is your enemy when it's just sitting on your skin, wet heat is about the most effective way to warm yourself back up when you're cold. The bonus here is that you'll also wash off all the stank you worked up while you were out there sweating, and as long as noone does something inconsiderate like opening the bathroom door to let all the heat out (or chucking a big cup of cold water on you over the shower curtain - NO I HAVEN'T FORGOTTEN THAT TANK), you should be able to keep yourself warm while you use your biggest, fluffiest towel to dry yourself off and put on all the clothes (see point #3). Do make sure you get properly dry, though, otherwise you'll just end up shivering in your now-damp change of clothing.

5. Hot Drinks

Not the most effective way to warm up, but certainly pleasant - a big mug of something hot can be a great addition to the above strategies. I'll often make myself a big cup of non-caffeinated tea to sip while I make dinner after an evening run, but for those of you who get out earlier in the day, a hot cup of coffee (or caffeinated tea) can be just the thing to give you both some warmth and a bit of energy to get on with your life outside of sport. If you're not into tea or coffee, try some chicken broth (also a great pick-me-up during a long, cold race!) or a steaming mug of hot chocolate. A vacuum insulated double-walled stainless steel container of homemade cocoa waiting for you at the trailhead (again, put it in a cooler bag and/or wrap in a towel for extra insulation on those super cold or very long workout days) can make a huge difference in your happiness at the end of a chilly training session or race.


I hope these tips will help those of you who struggle with chills when training or racing in cold weather, and invite you to leave a comment if you know of any others to try - I'm always looking for new ways to hang onto the meagre bit of warmth I generate, and I'm sure Tanker will eventually get sick of me attaching myself like a barnacle to him in order to engage in a little body heat vampirism!

Stay toasty, my friends!

Friday, December 2, 2016

The long and short of it

An anonymous reader made a comment on last week's blog post about my intention to run 100 kilometers at the Sulphur Springs Trail Run next spring:

"This may be heresy, but what about challenging yourself to race SHORTER distances (but faster & more intense)?
I respect all events, but it makes me a little sad that people seem to glorify only the longest events and look down on the short stuff. everyone wants to "run" 100 miles; few of those people will ever test themselves with an all-out 1 mile.

Food for thought."

I left a response to the comment, but I'm going to address it more thoroughly here, because a) I didn't actually cover all of my reasons in the response and b) it's actually something I've been asked before, and even asked myself.

Often in the context of "WHAT THE HELL WAS I THINKING?!?"

Now, those of you who have known me for awhile will realise that I'm no stranger to short races. As I told my anonymous commenter, I have actually run an all-out mile - the Cambridge Classic Mile in June 2013. It's one of the hardest things I've ever raced, and I spent at least 30mins afterward practically coughing up blood - I swear there was nicotine from cigarettes I'd smoked in my teens coming out of me. I've also raced short course duathlon and triathlon as recently as two and a half months ago, and even ran a 5k trail race last June that had me deep in the pain cave.

In 2014, when I first became a Vanderkitten VIP, I actually challenged myself to take a year off from long-course racing to focus on speed. That plan developed a large kink when I was hit by a car in May, but I actually managed 3rd woman overall at a trail 5k in June, and by mid-July I actually put in a decent showing at the Belwood Sprint Triathlon - I clocked a faster run pace at the end of the race than my best open 5k time. Based on that, I decided to go for a 10k PR in November - unfortunately I missed that by about 30sec (just 3 stinking seconds per kilometer!), but I put in the focused quality runs and track workouts beforehand that let me get close. I deeply respect the intense work required to maximize your speed and push your VO2max to its limit.


My annual "let's go wander around in the forest to have fun with awesome people" at Horror Trail that's happened each fall since 2010 notwithstanding, I'm actually a relative newcomer to true long-distance racing. Sure, I've done a couple of half-iron distance triathlons (2013 being the most recent, and also the introduction of the stupid crayon art that now litters most of my blog entries) and ran my first 50k that same October, but I don't feel like I really arrived as an ultrarunner until just this year with my audacious entry into the Dirty Girls 12-hour. I never had any inclination to try a full iron distance triathlon - I simply don't have the time to train properly for one, because cycling and swimming are both very time consuming - and even last year was really supposed to be one of shorter-distance racing for me. I wanted to try some races I hadn't done before, but keep things fairly easy on the long-haul training. I entered the Seaton Soaker 25k in that spirit, plus the wee little Ontario Women's Triathlon, and was only going to race the 25k at Conquer the Canuck. Then, in early April, I went for a run with friends and found out that 2016 would probably be the last year for Dirty Girls. It was only then that I made the decision to try to run twice as long as I'd ever gone before, and changed my registration to the 50k at Conquer the Canuck to use it as a training day.

"Fifty kilometers is a training run now?"
- My Mom

There's a difference between the kind of pain one endures in short, fast races and the drawn-out suffering of going long. The former will make you feel like you were shot in the chest and turn your legs into lactic acid flavoured jello - the latter is more like being pummeled to death by a small but determined child. Both are admirable demonstrations of human fitness and determination - it's impossible to say that one is harder than the other, because they're both incredibly difficult in their own ways. More importantly, both will take you to deep, dark places within yourself where you have no choice but to face down the worst things about who you are as a person in order to continue and show the world the strength you carry within.

If you're really pushing yourself to your limits, you'll get to that place by either road - one is just much longer than the other.

"What's in there?"
"Only what you take with you."

I applaud anyone who makes an effort to train for and race at any distance - it's a challenge that a relatively low percentage of the population will ever take on, and holds rich rewards at every level of competition. Whether you're chasing a particular time, have your sights on the podium, or just want to see if you're capable of finishing what you've started you will benefit in many ways from the experience. The personal draw of ultrarunning for me is fourfold:

Assuming anyone is still awake & reading at this point..

1. Return on Investment

I'll use this to encompass both financial and logistical concerns. Flatly put, long course events tend to be more expensive to enter than shorter events, but cost fewer dollars per hour/kilometer of racing. Similarly, despite Southern Ontario being a hotbed of endurance racing, you tend to get a better ratio of time spent racing to time spent travelling for it. I still can't believe we spent 3.5hrs on the road to get to and from Ontario Women's Tri for just over an hour of racing - the 6hr round trip to Trenton was much better balanced by 6hrs of running up & down Batawa Ski Hill at the Fat Ass last month.

2. Venues

Short, intense races are usually held on road courses instead of in beautiful forests. Part of the reason I've decided that I'm setting aside triathlon for ultrarunning is that I'm sick of riding my bike through cornfields and running past a bunch of houses or buildings - I'd much rather lose myself (hopefully not literally) on a trail. Even if I was to do shorter runs on trails, it wouldn't be the same - I love to see the changing qualities of light throughout the day - it was something I delighted in at the Fat Ass last month, as the trail looked a little different every loop. The training offers more chances for adventure and exploration, too: you can't really do proper interval training on any interesting terrain as it tends to impose its own shape to the workout, and running tracks are seldom very picturesque. Shorter races also mean shorter long runs - it's highly unlikely I'd spend 4+hrs exploring all the Hydrocut trails for a fast 5k, and I quite enjoy spending hours in the woods.

This will always be more alluring than a stretch of pavement, cement or cinders.

3. Vanity

I'm not going to lie to you - there's a part of me that, no matter what other goal I may be chasing out there, still wants to place decently in the results. It's highly variable because you can only race whoever happens to come out on that particular day, but I know that I will never be fast enough due to my lack of physiological aptitude (combined with various other factors, like 19 years of smoking) to place well at short, intense races. I can, however, be stubborn enough to do ok at longer course racing...which is undoubtedly helped by the fact that ultrarunning fields tend to be much smaller than 5k and 10k races. Many more people are comfortable competing at race distances up to marathon length than beyond it, and it's way easier to be 3rd woman overall when there are only 5 women racing instead of 5,000. While I can honestly say I've never tried to cherry pick a race just because I thought I could podium at it, it certainly is a nice perk when I see my name near the top of the results sheet.

4. Discovery

I feel like there's not much left in the way of new experience with intensity: when I go to the well, I feel the same lung-busting, kill-me-now horror as always, because (with very few exceptions) I have always gone all-out in short races. Drenched in sweat, snot streaming down my face, legs screaming, heart trying to hammer its way out of my chest, wide-open mouth tasting pennies as my view narrows to just one small point and I try to pull the finish line closer by sheer will alone.

Oh yeah, baby - I'm a vision in spandex.

I know who I am when I'm pushing through the red haze, trying to wring every last ounce of speed out of my haggard, chubby arse. What I don't yet know is who I become after watching the sun rise as I run, then seeing it set again while I'm still running.

But I may very well find out..

Will I always feel the same way? I don't know. A friend of mine who used to race ultra distances found himself unhappy with all the training drudgery this year, and has found his mojo again by running 5ks throughout this year. Another friend who similarly was a long distance runner has decided in recent years that the best kind of racing is the sort that lets you get home in time for a nice, relaxing lunch, if not elevenses. I may look back on this post and laugh at my own foolishness at some point, but the beauty is that short course racing will always be there to come back to if I choose.

The short road to the pain cave is always open.