Sunday, May 31, 2015

Sulphur Springs 50K Race Report

Summary:  I had a good race.  There.  Those in a hurry can skip to the bottom and read about the totem pole (Ridiculous Project #201505-32A).

About 12 years ago (age 45'ish) I would consider a 6 hour 50K to be on the margin of disaster.  For years I tried to run the Ganaraska 50K in under 5 hours.  Although long gone, Ganaraska shared some of the trails with Pick Your Poison.  Hills, then more hills, then for the sake of variety, some big hills.  I never did crack 5 hours.  5:15, 5:10, 5:09 and 5:06, if memory serves me correctly.  Today's reality on the modern version (PYP) is shooting for 6 hours.  I always add 15 minutes for the first long race of the year, so my "A" goal at PYP was 6:15.  I ran it in 6:24, which is close enough to be considered a healthy attainment of B goal.  But setting goals at Sulphur gives me heartburn.  Yes, it is a trail race and yes, there is some vertical, but if the trail is dry, it is a very fast trail race, borderline road racing.  And this is good for people who are trying their first trail race, as many do at Sulphur.  I chatted with a young woman who had never run a trail race,  In fact, the weekend before was her first run on a trail.  I mentioned that trail races are tricky, because you don't run based on your "race pace", but on your "race intensity".  This is something that a lot of road runners don't typically monitor.

So, there I was, lined up at the start, when I normally determine my realistic goals.  I can factor in current information on injuries, training, sleep and overall health.  I had no clue what would be considered an A goal!  I was not injured, PYP was 4 weeks in the past, I had slept marginally well and training was on the lighter side, what with 2 weeks of recovery runs.  No idea!  So I did what I normally do when faced with too many unknowns and set an arbitrary goal of 6 hours.

I also decided that I should push for 30K, much more than the 12.5K at PYP.  Sulphur 50K is a 10K "spur", followed by 2 loops of the 20K course.  For me, pushing on a relatively easy trail course such as Sulphur means hovering near  6 minute/K.  The first 10K was completed in 57 minutes, a bit too fast, but not a blow-out.  At 30K, the clock registered 3:13, which indicated an acceptable decay in pace.  Of course as soon as I noticed my 30K split, I started doing the math.  One tangible result of proper training is that you can continue to "dream" about your race result, even after running 30K.  In other words, I was no longer thinking 'the next 20K is going to be carnage'.  I had enough confidence that although I knew I would be slower, I could hope that my pace would not degrade exponentially.

One advantage in having run these silly ultras for so long is that when I encounter a rough patch, I know that there is a good chance things will improve.  This assumes I have trained sufficiently...  At 35K, I was getting tired, but still able to maintain an acceptable pace.  Quickly thereafter, things went south!  When we arrived at the race site, the temperature was 2 degrees.  By the race start, the sun was up, but it was still cold, trending to cool.  I started the race with fingers that I could barely feel!  Nearing 40K, it was starting to get warm, borderline hot.  I was still running, but not moving very fast.  I took another salt tab, increased my fluid intake and took a calcium tab.  The trick is to hold on to your pace and understand that eventually, you will get over the rough patch.

I don't know if it was because the finish line was getting nearer, or a modicum of recovery, but at 45K, I felt a bit better.  I had been having mild stomach issues earlier, which cleared up.  I was able to increase the pace and walk the uphills more aggressively.  About this time, I took a tumble on a steep root strewn downhill section.  I rolled, but hit hard nonetheless.  The runner in front of me stopped and asked if I was all right!  This is significant as he could not of seen me fall, but must of heard the impact.  Maybe it was because I cried out for my mommy.  Nothing more serious than a bruised shoulder, but it is incredible how long it takes to get back your rhythm.  It was at least 500 meters before I was running smoothly again.

Sulphur Springs has an elevation gain of 580 meters over the 20K course.  I would estimate that the 50K has about 1.2K of elevation gain.  This is considerable, even compared to my race (Creemore Vertical Challenge), which has 1.75K elevation gain over the 50K.  A sizeable chunk is at the very end, where you climb a big hill just before the finish line.  The hill is climbed 3 times during the 50K.  Each time, the hill gets bigger.  During the first 2 loops (the 10K and the first 20K) I ran the bottom and very top of the hill.  Walking hills is a good idea, giving the legs a much needed break and avoiding an undue increase in lactic acid.  You might be able to run the hill, but someone walking it beside you will take off at the top, while you struggle to eliminate the lactic acid in your legs and lungs.  On the third time up the hill, I had to walk most of it, which was frustrating.  At the end of a 50K, the ability to rationalize something as simple as walking up a big hill (hey, it won't affect your overall time by more than a minute) goes out the window.  I was worried that the 6 hour mark was fast approaching.  It wasn't!  I crossed the finish line in 5:42, my best 50K time in 5 years!

Well, I found a tree in the river.  It is a 52' Eastern white cedar tree, 20" in diameter at the base.  Cedars in Ontario don't typically get that big.  I have always wanted to make a totem pole, so how could I possibly let this opportunity slide?  Step 1:  Convince friends with drawing talents to help out.  Stephan and Kinga Miklos readily accepted - the challenge is on!  More on the pole later, as it takes shape.


Wednesday, May 20, 2015


Sulphur Springs Trail Race is in 3 days.  It is a favourite on the Ontario Ultra and Trail series for several reasons.  The trail is not overly technical, which can be a blessing when you are approaching the end of your rope.  Technical trails are my favourite, when running 15K.  You run at a heightened processing speed.  Not sure how else to describe it.  At speed on a technical trail, your brain is processing information (terrain, camber, obstacles, wind speed, exertion rate, altitude) at a phenomenal rate.  After 30-40K, technical becomes "tricky".  That's a great word to describe why you are suddenly bleeding in 4 different areas.  Sulphur is technical enough that you won't fall asleep (100 milers excepted) but won't have to write up those annoying accident reports!

For me, the greatest aspect of running Sulphur is the varied starts and areas of 2-way traffic.  Although the course can be a bit confusing (am I the only one running in this direction?), it is a great chance to greet people as you meet them, overtake them, or they overtake you.  Being able to cheer on friends and fellow runners every few minutes can detract from dwelling on the rough patches that surface on occasion, during a race!

Before I move on to the topic of nutrition, an update on the pond.

I might be prejudiced, but Lee Anne had the easy part.  She watched me struggle to clean out the pond (I was responsible for the 3 months of rain we had last Autumn), then instructed me to fill it in.  Simple!  After 2 weeks, she asked me how long it would take.  I believe she thought it would take me 2-3 afternoons.  I flippantly replied "3 months".  Be careful what you say...

There is an amazing amount of work in filling in a pond.  Now try it without any land fill readily available.  No, I'm not going to order 30 truckloads of fill - that's cheating.  One job, after terraforming for 3 weeks, picking rocks, rototilling, picking rocks, raking, seeding grass and picking rocks, is to water 3,000 square feet of new grass.  I ran my well dry.  This was not as easy as it seems.  I bought a lawn sprinkler with a timer.  I set the timer for 30 minutes.  I then forgot to wait 2 hours before moving the sprinkler and setting the timer for another 30 minutes.  3 times!

Overall, the pond project is going well.  I removed and burnt the 2 wooden bridges in an impressive bonfire.  The upper 70 feet of pond is done, including a rock path designed to allow pedestrian traffic should water flood the pond area.  This is a very real possibility, as the pond was made on the old Mad river bed.  During floods, the water will naturally follow the pond's "valley".  The lower 80 feet I will leave semi-landscaped (yes, another new word...) and allow nature to determine what vegetation grows.  If it is all weeds, more grass seeding will occur next year.


Of all the components of running, there are few to match the difficulty of dialling in proper nutrition, when attempting a longer distance race.  To run a 5K race, there is no need for nutrition.  The body can manage adequately with the stored reserves.  Even running 10K does not always benefit from nutrition.  I would argue the time spent downing a gel is not worth the benefit.  I have skipped drinking while running 10K, in cooler weather.

At the half and full marathon distance, nutrition, fluids, electrolyte and salt can help delay bonking, hopefully until after the race is over.  At these distances, gels are optimal, as they don't require stopping to grab some food, can be ingested in seconds and provide the nutrients needed to continue running at speed.  My preference is Hammer gels.  As most gels are similar in nutrient value, I go for ease of operation and taste.  My favourite is Apple Cinnamon.  I like Hammer gels because I can get them open and eat them in the winter, before my hands freeze.  The Espresso contains caffeine, which is of benefit in the latter part of a long run or race.

At the ultra distance, nutrition takes on a whole new meaning.  Yes, you can complete a 50 miler without eating, but I don't think your body is going to thank you.  When running 50K and longer, eating real food is important.  It can provide your body with long lasting energy.  The problem that many people have with real food, is the impact on their stomach.  Running for 5+ hours while attempting to digest is not in the Homo Sapien owners manual.  Gels are a great option for avoiding GI issues, or to obtain much needed nutrition when experiencing GI issues.  Eating real food also takes more time than quaffing a gel.  Elite runners have posted impressive times (world records) while eating nothing but gels.

Whether you plan on using gels or other nutrition sources, it is important to manage your nutrition during ultras.  This does not simply mean taking a gel at every other aid station (although this is a reasonable plan), but to assess your body and translate the symptoms into a nutrition reaction.  I.e. perhaps you need to eat before reaching the aid station.  Perhaps you forgot to eat at the last aid station!

The same goes for hydration, salt, electrolyte, calcium, magnesium, etc., a future topic.  The important aspect is to understand that you need to manage your body's requirements.  One of the better Ontario runners, new to ultras, was not aware that taking salt during a hot 50K race was critical for a best performance, until Lee Anne mentioned it to him.  I'm not sure if he would like me to use his name, so I won't, but make a note to ask Mike.

Another benefit of having a nutrition management plan before going into a race is because at some point during the race, you might not be completely rational.  For 100 mile runners, pacers are a distinct advantage.  They are typically not allowed to carry anything for the runner (muling) or physically assist the runner in any way.  So, why is the pacer of any use?  After running for 18 hours, early in the morning, sleep deprived, exhausted and delirious, the runner has the mental acuity of a 3 year old.  The pacer plays Mommy to the runner, explaining that it is time to take a salt tab (I don't want one - they're yucky!) or refill a water bottle.  Although less severe, the same issue tends to crop up in shorter ultras.  Without a pacer, your nutrition plan becomes your mommy.

So, decide what you want to eat, drink and pop during your next race ahead of time, what works for you (note this implies you have tried product X during training) and what would be a reasonable schedule.  But also keep in mind that during the race, you need to determine if the plan is indeed working for you.  It is 30C and your finger are swelling.  You have taken a salt tab spot-on every hour.  Perhaps you need to take more salt than you did during your training run in 16C weather?


Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Pick Your Fish Race Report

It is very key in French restaurants to spell fish correctly,so that your don't order poison instead of the intended poisson...  If you are familiar with French waiters, this is a serious concern...

This RR is late because I forgot to write it.  There.  Some honesty!  I forgot to write it because I have been trying to complete a few items, including clean-up of the maple syrup equipment and lines, help build a shed in Toronto, help with landscaping at another house in Toronto, fill in my pond, cut firewood, prepare for the Creemore Vertical Challenge, Spring Clean-up, prepare the gardens and get in adequate training.  It's a wonder I was able to run the race!

Pick Your Poison is a trail race with significant vertical gain, the first race on the OTS and OUS schedule, but also the first chance to see if all that training is helping.  Lee Anne and I ran the 50K.  Please pay attention.  50K of ski hills.  Yes, there is a wonderfully gentle first 4K, then the course turns nasty.  Downright ugly!  The 12.5K course sucks an alarming amount of energy out of your legs.  Dialing in your salt, fuel, electrolytes and fluids is critical, unless you majored in bonking.  Let's get the real ugly out of the way.

Lee Anne did not enjoy PYP.  I had mentioned to her on 3,452 occasions that you need to run trails in training to do well at PYP.  I was speaking to the hand.  Lee Anne fell 4 times.  Impressively, she finished the 50K race on a sprained ankle.  The ankle turned an alarming shade of purple.  She also performed a category II face plant on a rock, resulting in a fat lip and a bruised nose.  Yes, her nose swelled and also turned purple.  Did I mention the torn quad?  She fell 4 days after PYP and tore the quad again, forcing her to DNS the Toronto marathon she was going to run 8 days after PYP.  I experienced a week of prolonged suffering.

During the last few years, I have not provided a comprehensive race report.  This is mainly due to having severe handicaps as a result of some injuries.  It makes no sense to describe how a lack of training resulted in a slow time.  It seemed too apparent!  For the first time in several year, I was adequately trained to run a 50K, even a monster such as PYP.  This race deserves a bona fida RR.

I accumulated 842.5K in training during the 4 months leading up to PYP.  This is actually less than the ideal amount, roughly 1,000K, needed to train for a 50K trail race.  But it was an immense improvement over previous years.  Instead of dwelling on the all too realistic possibility that I might have to pull the plug, I was looking at possibly pushing for a loop or two.  I did push a bit in the first loop, but nothing crazy.

One item that I normally don't consider significant is running the course ahead of race day.  I ran the course 5 days before the race.  The beauty of running a race course, even one you know fairly well, is that it allows you to peg goals and milestones along the way.  These stay fresh during the race.  I had forgotten (since last year) how much effort is required during the last 8K of the PYP 12.5K loop.  The course lulls you into a false sense of lassitude during the "flat" first 4K, then kills your legs over the remaining 8.5K, replete with monster hills, technical single track and the odd snow covered traverse.  Forget monitoring your heart rate, focus on staying alive along some steep and technical sections!

The plan was simple.  Start off slowly for 5K, then expend the nervous energy during the remainder of loop 1.  Settle into a fair pace during loop 2, keep it up for loop 3, then get loop 4 done.  It sounds so simple.  I had hoped to complete the race in 6:15, but that was before I ran a loop on Monday and realized I had little chance of pushing this course hard for 50K.  Loop 1 went according the plan, in a time of 1:25.  My "A" goal was to complete the next 2 loops in about 1:30, but it was not to be.  Loop 2 did not go according to plan.  I think the "reason" was because I have not really raced in a few years.  Although I completed loop 2 in 1:33, close to target, the cost of running loop 1 in 1:25 forced me to slow down and relax.  A good thing too, as I had even more difficulty with pace during loop 3.  I was tired, as most people were, after 25K of single track and ski hills.  I also needed to save something for loop 4.

That's the big problem with 50K races.  After 37.5K, there is another loop.  This doesn't seem fair during the race, but the alternative is to run the 25K.  So I conserved energy during loop 3, tried to recover and enjoy the race.  Loop 3 clocked in at 1:38, which was still quite decent.  I would not meet my A goal, but I would not be too far off.  Those of you who have run a 50K trail race will know that from 37.5K to 50K, all bets are off.  The "reward" for doing the final loop is that I would allow myself to walk whenever needed.  This is a wise plan as I was not going to make it to the podium, and wanted to enjoy what in recent years has been a death march.

Something very strange happened during loop 4 and I can only describe it as a benefit of proper training.  Yes, I had reached the point where energy levels were down.  I could no longer run the uphills (not even the little ones), but I had no trouble running the flats and downhills.  Power was down (Scotty, I need a report), endurance was failing, speed was a joke, but I could run.  I took 4 or 5 walking breaks, mainly to hydrate and fuel, but I was not playing that awful mental game of trying to convince myself that I could run to the next tree.  (Coach voice in head:  Come on Pierre, you could easily run to the start of the next hill, up ahead.  Go for it!)  (Evil Pierre voice in head:  Shove that ^#%^ Hill Up your #&&@ @ss and get me a &#^%$ ambulance).

I tripped once.  Due to back problems, I perform a flip instead of trying to stop myself with me hands.  The trick in flipping is to twist slightly, so you don't break your water bottle, if you are wearing a hydration belt.  I have not figured out an ideal process for camel packs...

The end result:  6:24.  Actually not bad for PYP.  Loop 4 was 1:46 (I truncate the seconds, in case you are wondering why the 4 times don't add up to 6:24).  I was tired, stiff and sore, but not injured or in need of medical attention.  An excellent result!

Above I mentioned that I am filling in the pond.  I enjoyed having a pond, but the reality is that it takes an enormous amount of maintenance, including building a dam in the river each year, cleaning out the sediment about every 5 years and re-buildig the spillway on occasion.  I can't swim in the pond as it is too shallow.  It grows weeds and attracts beavers, who (let's forget the carrots for now) chew down all the trees I plant around the pond, about every 5 years.

I have a cute little 36 HP Kubota tractor, which I am using to fill in the pond.  I used it when I worked for Dave Pease, back in 1975 when it was new.  Dave sold it to me for a stupidly low price a few years back.  I had no choice but to buy it.  In 40 years, I have NEVER been able to get it stuck.  See the picture?  I call it a cute little tractor but the back wheels are about 4 feet high.  Look carefully at the picture.  I had to stop and dig it out because the engine components (starter, clutch, rad, oil filter etc.) where under the level of the mud.

My neighbour, who truly has one of everything, dropped by with his excavator and pulled me out of the pond.  Of course he has an excavator.  He needs it for his gravel pit...