Friday, June 1, 2018

When failure is not an option

We were on our way out to Frontenac to go backpacking and I was scrolling through facebook when I came across the post: a friend had fallen and bruised or cracked a rib at Seaton Soaker, and was now unable to guide a visually impaired athlete at Sulphur Springs for lap 1 of his first 50 mile race. She hoped that one of her friends might step up and offer to guide in her place.

Through stunning Dundas Valley Conservation Area

I'm still injured, and not running much. I had taped my quads up just to get through the backpacking trip. First lap would mean getting up at 2:45am, and I've never guided a visually impaired runner before. I had every reason to just keep scrolling, but (after wandering the whole idea past dear, sweet, ever-patient Tanker), I put the offer out there that I'd attempt guiding for the first time if the runner was ok with me being a bit slow and inexperienced.

What can I say? I love Dundas Valley, and I was still smarting from having to back out on pacing a friend for 2 laps of her first 100 mile attempt at Sulphur. I'd had to tell her back in late April (to give her as much time as possible to find a replacement) that I didn't think I'd be good to go after messing up my right leg running through the ice storm, and I felt horrible about it - helping another athlete felt like a bit of vindication. We'd be done early enough in the day to still make it to our farmers' market (as we'd already missed a couple of weeks due to Seaton and the Frontenac trip), and I was reasonably confident I could do a single 20k lap on much less technical trail after managing 34km at Seaton Soaker.

Tim - the visually impaired runner who would be making his 50 mile debut - accepted my offer, and we messaged a bit over the week before the race. I was so incredibly nervous about this; what had I done? I'm injured, have never guided before, and don't have much in the way of run fitness.

But, it wasn't my race. It was Tim's, which meant failure was not an option. I did the best I could to ensure I'd be good to go on race day: I ran easy on Wednesday to keep my legs decently fresh while still giving my injury a couple of days to recover, tried to get some sleep, and then slapped on most of a roll of kinesio tape Saturday morning to try to hold myself together.


Up well before the crack of dawn, I had a bowl of oatmeal with some Pick Your Poison honey for whatever running mojo it might provide (it had worked at Seaton!), grabbed coffee and breakfast for long-suffering Tanker (who agreed to a 3:45am wake-up call for this. What an amazing guy!) at T Ho's along the way, and arrived at Dundas Valley by 5am. The usual pre-race things happened, including chats and hugs with friends out racing, crewing and pacing, and a portajohn stop.

By 5:30am, I'd managed to find Tim and we went over a few last-minute things, like introducing ourselves, sorting out a bib for me (Achilles Canada hadn't managed to get him any Guide Runner bibs, so I had to go find myself a pacer bib...which turned out to be very much self-serve at that time of day, since other racers wouldn't be allowed pacers until after 8pm), and learning a bit more about his visual impairment. He suffers from severely reduced peripheral vision, so he can see...but only as much as you would looking down a toilet paper roll, or less. As he put it to me: "If I look at your nose, I can't see your left eye".

Very happy Sulphur is mostly a non-technical course.


I said I wanted a photo before the start, when he didn't yet have any reason to hate me.

I decided to wear my hydration pack, as I knew it would let me carry enough water and fuel that I wouldn't need to stop at any aid stations on my single 20k lap - that way Tim could stop whenever he needed, but I wouldn't slow him down by having to fill my usual hand bottle at each aid station along the way. After getting Tim's drop bag settled where it should be easy to find, one more quick dodge into the trees to adjust my hydration levels, and flailing my limbs around a bit to get them used to the idea of moving, it was time to head to the starting line.

Tim told me not to be nervous. I laughed a little at that, since the prospect of having someone else's safety in my hands had me more twitched about that race than I had been for an event in years...and technically I wasn't even racing!

We lined up at the back of the pack, and at 6:01am the horn sounded. We were off!

Photo from the Running Rarebits

Guiding turned out to be less difficult than I'd feared, but I wouldn't exactly call it easy. Anyone who has ever talked to me for 5mins will know that I have zero trouble prattling on endlessly, but I also tend to wander quite a bit conversationally and can hardly ever remember what the heck I was on about 10 seconds ago if I get distracted. So, chatting with Tim was quite easy - he's a nice, quite cheerful fellow who makes for good company on the trails - but I had to keep myself on target with calling out roots, rocks, uneven sections (like potholes in gravel, or a step up to cross a road), and the inevitable piles of horse apples that are a somewhat unique feature of the Dundas Valley trails.

On the main loop, heading for the Monarch Trail

Because I'd have to interrupt myself every minute or two along the way, I'm sure I left dozens of conversations hanging simply because I couldn't recall what we'd been talking about before I had to mention there was a root left, horse poop right, or a root well - 8 steps up - in 3, 2, 1..

I'm not terribly shit-together at the best of times, and turn into even more of an idiot when I'm running. Frankly, it's pretty amazing Tim didn't just tell me he'd take his chances going solo on the trails - I can hardly put up with myself.

..and my terrible habit of taking photos while I'm supposed to be running.

As advertised: horse poop right.

Arriving at the Sulphur Creek crossover to the runners' bridge, we had the trickiest part of the course in front of us. While Tim and the lady who was to be his guide for the second lap had done a training run on the course a few weeks prior, they'd been unable to locate the narrow little trail that dives down a small ravine via a series of rooty, muddy steps. In the interest of safety I suggested that Tim take my elbow - his preferred method of guiding through technical sections when you're forced to a walk - and that turned out to be a very good thing. I was so busy trying to describe the tangle of roots and slippery mud that I forgot the all-important call of "DEATH TO THE LEFT". Tim stepped a bit off the trail, his left foot sliding away down the muddy 40' drop, and my heart leapt into my throat - we weren't even at 6k yet and I was going to lose him down the ravine! Fortunately his hand on my elbow enabled him to pull himself back up and get both feet on the trail, and we had fairly smooth sailing from there on in.

Straight talk: this ain't easy even with fully functional eyesight.

Trail conditions - other than the mud on the rooty dive down to Sulphur Creek and a million small sticks and pinecones from the windstorm -were actually fabulous for race day. It was almost all hardpacked, and the rest of the course is mostly challenging due to the elevation change. It would, however, be made all the more difficult by the ever-increasing heat. I felt like a genius for snagging the first and likely coolest lap of the day to guide in spite of the ridiculously early wake-up. I made sure that Tim was taking in fuel and hydration, though I was pretty poor in that area myself - I only had 2 sips of diluted EFS Liquid Shot, a caffeinated sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane (near the end to keep me sharp), a couple of S!caps and a little more than a litre of water the whole time I was out there - call it 250cal total. Still, I only had the one lap, and would be done before the heat of the day really set in.

Probably why I could smile my way up the climbs while my runner was much more stoic

It was only in the last few kilometers, as we climbed to the top of the Headwaters Trail lollipop, that the heat started to become a factor. The morning's overcast had burned off, with bright sun shining down on the three sisters and the top of the loop.

The first sister

Here's where Tim's amazing outlook on life really crystallized for me. As the sun shone down through the trees he commented that he loves the dappled light in the forest, having grown up mountain biking, hiking and cross-country skiing the trails at Dundas Valley. I told him it was one of my favourite things as well, but that the only other visually impaired runner I know really hates it because it completely obliterates her view of the trail. Tim told me that it's very much the same for him - the shifting patches of light obscure any chance he has of seeing contours or obstacles - but that he loves it nonetheless. If that's not a beautiful statement about finding joy even while you struggle, I don't know what is.

Coming out into the open on top of the lollipop, our only reward was blazing sun as the last of the clouds ran away.

The last sister may be the smallest, but she still packs a punch.

Fortunately there was a self-serve water station with actual CUPS at the top; the rest of the aid stations had taken the admirable step of going cupless this year in an effort to be more environmentally friendly, but the cups allowed me to help Tim bring his rising internal temperature down a bit by pouring a cup of water down his back and over his head (after making sure he was on board with the idea first, of course!). Then we trotted along the rutted double track before the long cruise back down the hill we'd just climbed on the other side of the lollipop, and ran back out to Martin Road. 

Just one climb left to the end of the loop, but man - it's a doozy.

I still can't believe I did this 5 times in one day last year.

I was very happy to bring my runner in upright and un-damaged - I'd feared the worst before the start, and the slip-up on the Sulphur Creek crossover hadn't been very confidence inspiring, but other than a couple of stumbles everything seemed to go fairly smoothly. My ankle felt awful and had since about 30mins into the race, but I'd made it through ok by just ignoring it; failure was not an option. I knew that I was starting to lapse into silence more and more, mostly just because I'm generally a solo runner and tend to spend a lot of time in my own head while I run - I don't think I'd have been a safe guide for a second lap even if my ankle and run fitness would have allowed me to continue, as it was a bit mentally taxing to keep myself upright and moving (gawd knows I've gone down HARD both times I've raced Sulphur myself!) plus ensure I was calling all the obstacles. Tim was very kind, though, saying that if I hadn't told him it was my first time guiding he never would have known I wasn't experienced at it.

Whether or not that was true, it was sweet of him to say.

He'd originally said he wanted to come in around 3 hours per lap, so I was delighted to see 2h59m on the clock at the start/finish as we ran through the sea of pylons and across the timing mats.

Full lap data available here

Of course, I forget that the fluorescent orange cones marking the course may be obvious to me, but may not appear in someone else's reduced field of vision. Poor Tim nearly tripped over a pylon on the way to find the lady who would guide him through his next lap because I failed to warn him he was about to step on one! Fortunately he stayed upright; just like my dumb arse to nearly get him hurt right at the end of his time in my care.

We found Tim's second guide and directed him to his drop bag so he could refuel, then after a hug I let him get on with his race. Unfortunately some issues that sound horribly similar to my awful experience at Vulture Bait in 2015 robbed Tim of his first 50 mile finish - his knee got progressively more sore, preventing him from being able to run downhill and then finally locking up completely at aid station #3 on his third lap - but he's an amazing fellow and I know that he'll be successful in the future, because he clearly has strength and determination to overcome any obstacles.

For myself, I was grateful my injury still allowed me to run, and to be part of something bigger than myself. I was furthermore grateful to have the opportunity to tour gorgeous Dundas Valley on a beautiful day, to help a friend, and to make a new one. While I do treasure my solo time out on the trails, I would absolutely volunteer to guide again if I was asked, or if a similar need arose.

To commemorate the occasion, I even bought one of the 2018 Sulphur Springs hats (from the extras left over after all of the participants had picked up their race kits, which included a hat instead of a tshirt for this year), which I duly wore on my next run and will continue to wear with pride.

The only thing better than running a lovely trail is being able to help someone else while doing it.

As in my other experiences, the Sulphur Springs races were incredibly well organized and executed. We will miss Tim and Andrea as race directors - you have set the bar so very high for your successors, and we hope to see you out in the woods again soon!


  1. Great post and so thankful you stepped in!! Couldn't have asked for anyone better to take my place. Thanks again :) Glad you did so well out there and good thing about loop 1 you got to beat the heat!

    1. It was my pleasure Robin - glad you're healing up!


Go on, have at me!