Friday, May 5, 2017

Pick Your Poison 50k - Saturday, April 29th, 2017

I was more than a little nervous about this one, but I stuck with my plan and had a great day!

All nice and clean before the start - best race logo ever! 

I was really concerned on Friday - my legs felt terrible all day, my glute/hip was sore, my back was whining a bit and my right knee had decided to play up a little (wtf?). I wasn't even sure I'd make it through a single loop! I felt a lot better when I woke up on Saturday morning (rest day Friday FTW!), taped up my damaged ankle, threw a whip of tape on my hip/glute, and decided to see how things went.

Don't worry - I won't include a photo of my taped up butt.

What things went, in fact, was up. A lot.

1,360ft of climbing per lap - total of over 5,400 vertical feet.

It was an overcast morning, but despite the cool air there was no snow on the finishing hill when we arrived at The Heights Ski & Country Club - a welcome change from my 2015 experience in the 25k. I'd got some sleep during the week (well, around 7hrs per night instead of my usual 5-6hrs), had some breakfast, and befouled the washroom at the Craighurst Esso station (SORRY) with the results of the Tim Hortons coffee I drank as Tanker the Wonder Sherpa drove us up to the race site. The new chalet at the Heights is lovely, and the volunteers were very efficient at handing out race kits - I was given a soft, cotton tshirt, a jar of Orillia honey and a couple of sample packets of Stoked Oats from the title sponsor of the race along with my bib. There was also a huge buffet laid out with big carafes of coffee and all sorts of muffins, pastries and other delectables if people wanted a pre-race top-up. The gents from Stoked Oats also cooked up some batches for people to try, but I try to have my last meal 3hrs before race time so didn't partake.

I'd have my hands full climbing this thing without any GI issues, thank you very much.

After chatting with a whole bunch of people I knew in the running world - I seriously started to wonder if I knew the entire 50k field! - I took another washroom break then did my warm-up exercises with just under a half-hour to go. I'd been drinking water since I got up, though, and needed another pee with less than 10mins to gun time! Fortunately there are lots of stalls in the new chalet, so I was able to get in & out in moments - I even had time to pull off my left shoe to dump some tiny bits of gravel out of it that could have led to some nasty blisters during the race, and still made it back outside with a couple of minutes before the 9am start. I was as ready as I was going to get, and headed for the very back of the mass of runners lined up and radiating nervous energy.

You all go ahead - I'll be here all day.

The plan was to go out super easy and just feel my way through. I wanted to spend at least 7.5hrs on course, and hopefully come in under 8 hours. Lap times of 1h50m-1h55m were what I was looking for, and staying on top of nutrition and hydration since I've had a bad tendency to under-eat and -drink on training runs through the winter. I also needed to be very conservative on the 4 major climbs that each 12.5km loop would bring; my left hip/glute and sartorius were incredibly painful while power hiking hills just 4 weeks prior, so I needed to keep things nice and easy and be prepared to DNF if it felt like I was doing any damage.

With the way I'd felt on Friday, I doubted my ability to make a single lap. Still, ever the optimist (or at least damn fool), I set off toward the back of the conga line through the woods.

Hard right off the jeep road into singletrack.

I've always loved this little footbridge over Bigelow Creek

The loop heads downhill from the start, through some packed dirt jeep roads before diving into a bit of flat, twisty singletrack in the woods. For about 3.5km you wind through very runnable trail - single and doubletrack - before the first climb up some switchbacking singletrack that leads to a wide, flat trail.

Turn left and up you go..

Big left hand curve on the wide, runnable trail.

You cross the face of a couple of ski runs (with a couple of muddy patches), and the side slope can be a little annoying for grouchy hips, knees and ankles.


The mud, on the other hand, is just plain old fun!

Up the steep, sandy slope past the lift to the first aid station, the turn right and climb up, up, up to the top of your first major climb.

Just when you think you're nearly there.. turns a corner and keeps heading up.
There were only 2 snow patches along the course, both of which were off to the side.

Diving back into singletrack, you come down a very long slope and turn back onto flat jeep roads through pine forest.

Down, down, down - watch the leaf-filled rut in the middle.

"Deer Pass"

After a big more singletrack past a big, fallen tree, you start to curve to the left into the next of the major climbs.

Squeeze on by..

Watch your footing in the loose rocks.

This is by far the most technical section of the whole course, and most likely the steepest as well. The photo above only shows about that last third of the full climb, which completely and utterly kicked my arse in 2015. Fortunately I've put in a lot more work on technical climbs - I'd never seen anything like it prior to the 25k here two years ago - and was able to walk up it fairly easily. Heck, I used it as a great opportunity to get some real food into me!

For perspective, there are two people climbing the monster hill behind me in this shot.

Once you reach the top, you'll turn left then curve around onto a straight run of flatter singletrack that runs alongside the golf course and leads to the 2nd aid station. This is the closest the loop has to an out-and-back, as there's a parallel trail about 50 feet of forest to your left that leads away from the aid station, and in springtime there's not enough foliage to block your view of the runners headed the other way.

There's also a neat wall of big rocks in between the two trails.

Arriving at aid station number 2.

A couple of long, straight downhill runs on wide open singletrack after leaving the aid station, then you dive back into the woods for some more technical trails that roll all over the side of a steep slope. There are sharp downhills, switchbacks, climbs and some obstacles.

Couple of log piles, some of which I didn't like at all - very sloped and no good footing.

Winding on through

Popping out of the woods, there's another long, straight downhill stretch of wide-open trail past "Red Rocket", the whole of which used to be used as a descent. Instead, you now pop into another section of technical singletrack that spits you out lower down and gives you a fast downhill on wide open trail to the bottom of "Little Katie".

Over the hill and through the woods..

Let those legs loose!

Little Katie isn't. Little Katie is the third of the major climbs, winding up a dirt road with one really steep switchback covered in loose stones.

Hard right at the top..

Then up and around to the left.
A left turn back onto singletrack at the top finds you on more rolling technical trail, including some really steep downhills.

Some have switchbacks..

..but others definitely do not.

Another wide-open section brings you to a bit of pine forest where you'll make three right turns in quick succession, then head up the crest of a ridge that seems to go on forever.

Above the pines

Rockier toward the top

Almost there - see the red flags in the distance?

Left turn after the little dip at the top, then down a gravelly washout. You're about to lose a bunch of the elevation you just gained before your final push to the highest point of the course.

Steeper and sketchier than it looks here.

One more chunk of singletrack.

The final bit of technical trail is a bit hazardous, but also very beautiful. On Saturday afternoon the trilliums were just starting to open along the sides, and you're damn right I paused to appreciate them before popping out of the woods one last time.

One of the joys of trail running.

Best trail markings ever!

Turn right as you come out to the grass and the view of Horseshoe Valley, then steel yourself for one last climb to the top of the highest ski run at the Heights. You've already ascended about 1,300ft - time for the last 60ft.

Hope you saved some energy..

The view from the top is totally worth it!

Now you're just left with an incredibly steep downhill run to the finish. It'll take longer than you think, because the surface is not the smooth grass one would expect - there are deep gravel washouts and ruts, plus you'll traverse the hill from right to left (looking from the top) in a long switchback down to the finish chute.

Down to the left, past the clump of trees

Hard right down toward the chalet

Almost home!

If you're slightly foolish or merely insane, you'll go on to do that 3 more times.

My first lap was basically just exploring the changes to the course and feeling my way through it. I trotted along near the back of the pack through the initial flat section and kept my ego well in check when I reached the start of the climbing, just walking up the hills and letting anyone with ideas about going fast get past me. It was pretty amazing to see how much stronger I am at hiking than I was when I did the race two years ago; admittedly, I wasn't pushing hard at all, but I remember death whistling while power hiking up a lot of sections that I walked up with barely any shortness of breath. Despite cleaning out my shoe very carefully before the start, it seemed there was still a bit of gravel in there - maybe inside my sock? - but I decided it would probably be fine as I could only feel it intermittently. In an effort to eat a little more than usual, I started in on nutrition super early: I took my first sip of slightly (4:1) watered-down EFS Liquid Shot from my flask right around 30mins in and kept that up every 30mins.

Playing in the mud

I didn't need to refill my hand bottle until the second aid station, but while I was there I grabbed a small piece of banana just for fun. My hip/glute and quads were holding in ok and the worrying twinges from my right knee had gone away after everything warmed up (which took almost an hour - you know you're an ultrarunner when..), but my calves were feeling some strain from walking up the hills and my day has been saved by a magic banana in the past (no, really!), so I decided to do a pre-emptive potassium strike. Also: mmm...banaaaaanaaaa..

I'll stop drooling now.

Maybe. But it was good.

I was sweating a fair bit, so zipped down the collar of my vest, but didn't want to take it off as the wind was still cold on the exposed sections of the course. In the name of electrolytes, I popped an S!cap at around 90mins in, as I wanted to keep all nerve signals firing as well as possible. I'd already caught my foot a couple of times, nearly bailing hard the second time when my right toe grabbed the end of a fallen log and stopped me dead. Since I was actually trying to run at the time, momentum threw my torso forward practically folding me in half over my front leg!

That didn't feel great for my back, but I was still moving ok. I just hoped that it wouldn't cause problems later, and I knew I had to be more careful. Some of the singletrack is so narrow and close to precipitous falls that tripping over one of the log piles, rocks or roots would surely result in me tumbling down a massive hill and landing in a heap at the bottom with every bone in my body shattered, so I needed to be on my damn game! I remembered thinking in 2015 as I did the 25k that I'd probably die if I tried mixing the sort of technical singletrack the course held with the fatigue of a 50k, and here I was trying to do just that...only with even more singletrack.

I am not a good decision maker. Oh well - onward..

I came through my first loop in good spirits in 1h50m, but needed to - ahem - lose some weight. I scanned for a portajohn in the parking lot by the chalet, but there was nothing; I had to go inside and DOWNSTAIRS to use the facilities. I'd be very happy if this didn't happen between laps 3 and 4..

Finishing up my first go 'round..

Back out for lap 2 with a fresh bottle, a fresh flask of EFS Liquid Shot (there was one little swig left in the first - not enough to be worth carrying), and 4 or 5 salted cashews stuffed in my face. The cashews rapidly became a source of regret as I developed a bit of a side stitch while running the initial flat 3.5km of the course - I'd have been better to stick them in a baggie in my pocket for consumption on one of the climbs, but that would have robbed Tanker of the opportunity to take a photo of me with my face stuffed full of nuts at the crew/drop bag area.

I went a little squirrelly..

As I started on the first climb around 2h5m I knocked back an Endurance Tap gel, knowing I needed to keep calories up and hoping the ginger in it (plus the load of water I was drinking) would help settle things down a bit. Fortunately, it worked, and I even ate a ginseng spirulina Bounce energy ball (a.k.a. Clay's Delicious Balls) as I made my way up the sketchy second climb. It felt early for real food, but I was already near 2.75hrs in, and after having a little chunk of banana at the first aid station my stomach GROWLED at me - my bowl of oatmeal with almond butter and maple syrup had been almost 6 hours prior, and it was a chilly morning. My body wanted NOMS!

The second lap was fairly uneventful. I had another S!cap around 2h30m, and kept taking in EFS Liquid Shot periodically. The crowds had thinned considerably, and I was mostly on my own except for a few very fast runners starting to pass occasionally from the 10 mile mark onward. I was going through more water in the first part of the course, having to fill my bottle at both aid stations from this loop onward. I ended up ditching my gloves as the cloud cover had burned off to a beautiful sunny day, but it was still quite chilly even past noon, and the wind was still viciously cold. On the bright side, it was actually a tailwind on the exposed I had that going for me, which was nice.

I also failed to die in the singletrack, which was also nice.

I was carefully making my way down the finishing hill - which takes some concentration when you're as clumsy as I am - when I heard a voice yelling "WAY TO GO K!" from above me. Lord help me, I couldn't look up to see who it was without risking turning into a human avalanche, but I managed to give a yell to Patrick (lapping me on his way to his first Pick Your Poison 50k finish) as I came through the crew area and stopped to re-supply. 2nd lap was 1h53m (total of 3h43m for 25k), which I figured wasn't too bad as it included my downstairs washroom stop.

This is the only time you will see me in front of the speedy Mr. Voo in a race!

I always figure that the third lap of a 4-lap race is the "tourist lap", so I picked up the camera from Tanker and took all the on-course photos you see in this post. There's an album with a lot more of them (156 to be precise, and even that's after discarding a bunch) in chronological order available here on Google Photos if you'd like a more in-depth tour of the loop.

I promise I'm only in one of the shots.

Stuffing a handful of brilliantly salty Tostitos Rolls in my face as I headed out for my 3rd lap, I was really surprised by how well my damaged body was holding up. I'd rolled my left ankle once, but it felt ok, and everything else was staying pretty quiet after the initial grumpiness on the first lap. I continued to go through 3 bottles of water per loop, supplementing my own fuel with a banana chunk at the first aid station (where the volunteer flattered me by asking if it was my last lap - thank you, kind sir!) and then pulling out my secret weapon on the big, sketchy 2nd climb: a turkey & mustard wrap in a corn tortilla! Real food salty awesomeness right around 4h45m.

The fact I can climb a steep, technical hill while eating this still messes with me a bit.

I made my way around the course, being lapped by more and more of the fast runners, one of whom mentioned he had read some of my race reports and said some kind things (thank you!), but mostly meandering along by myself. It didn't bother me at all (especially when I stopped to pee beside the trail at the bottom of the ridge climb) - the sunshine was lovely, there were little wildflowers in a few places along the course, and the trails themselves were beautiful. Plenty of calories kept my spirits up (I finished off my 2nd flask of EFS Liquid Shot), though I did have a nagging fear that the wheels might come off at any time. I remembered all too well the horror that came after 37.5km at the Vulture Bait 50k in 2015, and knew that I was approaching the same point of the race. When I headed out for lap 3 I had Tanker get my brand spanking new carbon fibre trekking poles (he really does spoil me, guys!) ready in case I wanted them for the 4th lap, but as I climbed the final hill, popping another S!cap and scarfing back a chocolate coconut Gu Roctane gel I decided I was feeling strong enough to forego them.

I hoped it wasn't just the caffeine rush talking..

Coming through the third lap in 1h59m (while taking photos the whole way and with a stop to water the forest), I was starting to feel a bit sore, but I'd also been out on course for 5h43m and almost 38km - I felt like being a little beat up was legit, but it didn't seem like I was doing any damage and I didn't feel any of that scary weakness in my left leg or awful, painful grinding in my left hip that I had at the beginning of the month. Tank was overjoyed that I still had 2h17m to complete my final lap under the cutoff, and even moreso that I was feeling healthy enough to try it without the wimp sticks. He gave me a big kiss and sent me off with a kiss and another handful of Tostitos Rolls.

Tank giving me the biggest, most welcoming smile when I came in - he's the best!

Knowing I had time to spare, I didn't push things too hard on my last lap, but still ended up with a bit of a side stitch from the corn chips during the initial flat section. I was still running reasonably well, but would walk even the slightest uphill, including the sandy false flat jeep road that led into the still-blustery wind. The stitch subsided as I climbed to aid station 1 for the last time, grabbing another chunk of banana and thanking the volunteers profusely for their hard work on a cold day. I had my second turkey wrap on the second climb around 6h30m in, then realised that I'd taken a caffeinated gel at 5h40m and had no more caffeine on me.


This could be an issue, since the caffeine only lasts so long (about an hour) and then leads to a bit of a crash afterward if you don't re-supply. I resolved I'd grab a cup of cola (which I had seen on offer) from the 2nd aid station, arriving and slurping it down while thanking the lovely ladies for their assistance all day around 6h45m in.

You couldn't ask for better volunteers than they have at this race!

As I ran down the descent from aid station 2, I wondered if the cola had been a bad idea - it's not something I usually drink (maybe once a year, generally accompanied by a near-lethal portion of rum..), and it bubbled back up a bit giving me a nasty dose of heartburn. It felt like someone had lit a match just behind my sternum, but I was able to carry on despite the pain from it and the blister under my left big toe from that stupid bit of gravel in my shoe.

While I was still moving pretty well, I could tell my breathing was becoming more laboured on the climbs, and by the 7hr mark I finally started to feel tired. At the same time, though, I actually passed a small group with less than 4k to go; I might have been slowing down a bit, but I was still getting along far better than I could have hoped. The caffeine kicked in just before I hit the most technical bits of singletrack, keeping the potentially fatal fatigue at bay so I could safely pick my way through.

Even enjoying myself a bit!

On the last bit of singletrack, though, one of the girls I'd passed came around me with either much better agility or much less regard for her personal health and well-being. I knew I wouldn't catch her there, but as I tailed her up the last bit of ascent to the top of the finishing hill, I wondered if my -ahem - gravitational advantage might help me pass her on the way to the chute.

Up and over, then let the legs loose in the world's ugliest finishing kick..

(Edit: by which I mean I flailed my way down the hill like a jellyfish hurled down a set of stairs. It has been brought to my attention someone may have misinterpreted the above as referring to the full contents of the photo which follows)

I don't need my quads anymore, so feel free to just tear them off.

In the end, I didn't quite have enough, finishing 5sec back for a lap 4 time of 1h54m.

But still illin'

Official time: 7:37:06.9
Lap 1: 1:49:44.4
Lap 2: 1:53:49.6
Lap 3: 1:59:22.0
Lap 4: 1:54:10.8
26 / 30 Women - 91 / 99 O/A

The whole idea for this "race" was just to get a lot of time in on my feet and GO EASY, which I accomplished pretty well - I'm very pleased with the evenness of my lap splits and seemingly finally getting the hang of holding back off the start. I was also very pleasantly surprised by my energy and attenuation levels all day - I hadn't expected to feel so fresh past the 6-hour mark, nor to be able to focus to well on the technical trails in the later stages of the day when there was 5,400+ft of climbing involved. My Garmin data from the day can be seen here.

I did very well with eating and drinking, too, consuming approximately 6.5L of water and probably close to 1,700cal - I know I had 1,060cal of gels + energy ball alone, plus the banana chunks, cashews, corn chips, turkey wraps and that cup of cola. Other than the cola-induced heartburn and side stitches from eating solids just before a high-energy-expenditure section of the course, I had no GI issues; I'd eat the same way again, but maybe change up the timing a little.

Got my socks!

The best part is that I haven't even been terribly sore - I was walking up & down stairs without much trouble by that evening, and my rolled ankle was only whiny for a couple of days afterward. Even the pain from my stupid blister subsided quite quickly (yes, it did turn out the gravel was stuck inside my sock - grr), so I was running again by Wednesday evening and ran again on Thursday. I have a bit of a sniffle, but that's not unexpected after so many hours out in the cold wind and I can afford to take it easy for the next few weeks. I was, however, quite tuckered after the race - I didn't feel up to heading downstairs to the washroom to change out of my soaking wet kit, so did so right where I sat in the chalet. Yep, if you saw a lot more skin than you wanted to, that was my lazy butt (or boobs, or whatever). #sorrynotsorry

Really, this was exactly the confidence boost I needed for Sulphur Springs at the end of this month. The hills at Pick Your Poison are steeper and the trails are much more technical than at Dundas Valley Conservation Area, and there's more climbing per kilometer than there will be in the 100k (which has 8,700ft of elevation total), so it's nice to have this under my belt beforehand. Since I didn't taper for this race, it also gave me a peak training block of just over 129km in 8 days, so now I'm in recovery and maintenance mode until the end of May.

While I couldn't eat any of the post-race meal, there were burgers (both meat and veggie varieties) and giant cookies available for participants just to round out the excellent event they put on. While I wish they would bring in a portajohn for future editions, every other aspect of the race was excellent - the course markings meant even an idiot lemming like myself couldn't possibly get lost, the aid stations were fantastic, and the whole experience is one that exemplifies the wonderful, challenging world of trail racing.

Even the shirt doesn't suck!

Also a huge, HUGE thank you to Tanker the Wonder Sherpa. Did you know this guy actually agreed to get up just past 5am on the Saturday of his birthday weekend just to crew for me? You're the absolute best, babe, and I couldn't do these stupid human tricks without your hard work and relentlessly cheerful and supportive energy. All the smooches for you!


  1. Great recap and great work out there!! It's a tough course for sure, especially so early in the season. Always nice to see you out on the trails too!!

    1. Thanks so much Robin - it's always a pleasure to share a course with you, and I hope you have a great race at Mississauga this weekend!

  2. Woo hoo! Another phenomenal race report - I tell you that for anyone who is trying to scout out the real goods on any given race all they need to do is to check out an "Ill-Advised Racing" post!

    Thanks for the shout-out too! It's a privilege to be in the same photo as you. :)

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Patrick - you clearly excel at the running part, so I'll just hang back and stick with the documenting, right? Happy trails!

  3. Waaaay behind the curve on this one - I just found your blog for the first time! I was out there on the 25K course in 2017 and your descriptors of the course are spot on! Lots of great photos as well. You made me laugh out loud a couple of times - especially the illustration of kicking the tree (I kicked a small sawn-off tree stump and went fully airborne). I just signed up for my first 50K at PYP in 2019 and your blog was a great motivator!

    1. Thanks so much for reading, Jonathan - always happy to give someone a laugh! Best of luck in April; watch out for those pesky stumps, and have a blast!


Go on, have at me!