One year of Ultras
Last weekend was my 1 year anniversary of ultra-running. I officially became an ultra runner in April of 2015, after running Diez Vista 50k.
So to celebrate I decided to go full circle and run Diez Vista once again.
The 2016 Diez Vista was my first race of the year.
Although it was more a “training” race than an actual “leave it all out there, and don’t walk for 2 weeks afterward” race, it was still very important to me.
It gave me the opportunity to monitor my progress and have a better idea of where my general fitness was at.
2016 is going to be packed with fun adventures and pretty serious races (more on that later), so how that race would go was going to be a good indicator of what to expect for the near future.
Back in 2015, my only goal for Diez Vista was to finish.
I didn’t really care about my time. All I cared about was to enjoy myself and get an idea of what running 50km felt like. (spoiler: if it feels great, you’re probably doing it wrong.)
I finished in 7h26m, which was an ok time for a first ultra. But as soon as I crossed that first finish line, I knew that there was room for a lot of improvement.
Looking back at that first race, I was able to identify areas that would be relatively easy to improve upon: I clearly spent too much time at the aid stations (mmmh soup!), I was probably wearing too many layers, and my nutrition was far from being on point. (which is probably why I needed the soup so bad.)
Plus, after getting injured pretty badly while skiing in 2014, I was still working on getting my right leg and lower back up to speed. Getting back in shape after a disc injury and nerve damage can take a very long time.
Fast forward to a year later and quite a lot has changed for me.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to spend a lot of time training with incredible runners with a lot of racing experience, which allowed me to learn how to better fuel, pace myself and generally train.
I got a few more races under my belt (Beacon Rock 50K, Squamish 50K and a second Hallow's Eve Marathon), which helped me get a better understanding of how to prepare for and approach an ultra.
I also became part of the Salomon West Vancouver Athletes Team and now have access to the proper gear for my needs and tons of priceless knowledge and advice from the Salomon West Vancouver Team.
On top of all the extra training under my belt, I also had a much better understanding of how to actually prepare for race day, which included a little “briefing” session with my “crew” (aka my better half Melanie) the night before.
Together, we went through what I should put in my drop bag, and when I would most likely need it, to make sure everything went smoothly on the day. Props to her for figuring out how to squeeze mashed avocado into a travel-size shampoo tube at 5:30am on race day.
And then, here I was, Saturday, 7am at the Sasamat Lake parking lot, 30 minutes before the start.
Major change since last year, I now knew 20 times as many runners as I did in 2015.
Crazy how small the Vancouver trail running community is. If you spend enough time training with different run crews, eventually you’ll end up racing with a lot of friends.
Another big difference was how my nerves felt that morning. I had run a bunch of 50k’s in 2015 so by then I had a pretty good idea of what to expect and I was cool as a cucumber. Pretty stoked to race, but not nervous at all about the distance.
After signing in, chatting with some friends, it was finally time to remove the puffy jacket and start running.
As per my usual, I started in the middle of the pack, not too fast (actually, probably too fast still but whatever.) not too slow (actually, probably not slow enough, but you know.)
I spent the first half hour running next to my buddy Greg, whom I had met though the Van Run Co running group. Greg was running his first 50K race.
For a moment there, both him and I were admiring the scenery. Sasamat lake looks pretty spectacular on a sunny day with the morning mist floating over its surface.
As soon as the first steep hill was in sight, I proceeded to slow down, waving Greg goodbye as he ran uphill.
Most of my experienced friends have told me: for the first half of a 50K, if you think you are going too slow, you should probably slow down even more (or something along those lines.), which is why I decided to slow down and let a bunch of people pass me on the first uphill.
I ran the next couple of hours with that in mind. I ran the flats and downhills, but relaxed on the uphills (unless they were clearly runable of course), making sure to monitor my breathing and heart rate (by feel, since I don’t carry a HR monitor) and trying to eat on the ups.
Although I was wearing my Suunto watch, I made the decision to not look at it during the race, not even once, focusing on how I felt, rather than constantly doing the math in my head. (Sure it was a race, but again, not my “A” race for the year)
Once my pace was in check, I had to make sure that my hydration and nutrition were also on point. So, unlike last year where I ate a gel every 45-50 minutes, this year I alternated between an energy chew (Clif Bloks) and 3 or 4 dates every 20 minutes, while drinking water and Tailwind. Turns out, this cocktail of solid “real” food and liquid calories worked really nicely for me. So much so that I actually flew by the “15Km” aid station (first major one) without even stopping, I waved, announced my bib number, gave the volunteers a big smile, thanked them for being there and kept running.
Last year, I remember stopping for a couple of minutes to refuel and chat. There’s 2 minutes I wouldn'’t have to work for this year. Take that 2015 Diez Vista!
8 more kilometers before the next AS, I knew I still had enough to drink on me and plenty of dates to eat before I met Melanie who had the rest of my “snacks” with her, so I kept trucking along with a smile on my face.
During training I usually go for 20-25km at a much faster pace than that, so up to that point, everything was under control. No pain, no fatigue, just a nice run in the park.
After about an hour or so (I’m guessing. I have no idea about the actual time. Told you I wasn’t looking at my watch) I arrived at the 3rd Aid Station (Km 23) where Melanie was waiting for me.
This one is quite a blur because I was determined to get in and out as fast as possible. This was not a picnic after all.
After giving a big smile to the race photographer, I exited the forest running downhill, handed my pack to Melanie who, in exchange, handed me a Ziplock bag full of bacon strips, and the tube filled with avocado puree.
I took a few seconds to cram as much bacon as I could in my mouth while my pack was getting refilled with water and Tailwind. I then grabbed another hand-full of bacon, put the pack back on and started running again. I probably spent less than a minute at that Aid Station, shaving another 2 minutes off last year’s time, easy, without even having to work for it.
Sidenote - When I arrived at AS #3, Greg, who I started the race with, was right in front of me. It actually gave me quite a boost to see that, even though he had taken off on me earlier, I had managed to caught up to him just by running slow and steady.
AS#3 was the mid-race aid station, and this is where the “race” actually began for me.
From then on, I was going to run as many uphills as I could, while making sure nothing cramped up. And no matter what, never stop.
Forward motion is key. Slowing down is ok. Stopping is unacceptable.
About 3km later though, the first small cramp appeared. Nothing major, it didn’t even slow me down, but it was just a quick pinch that reminded me that I still had about 24km to go and that if I wasn’t careful, these 24km could really suck.
So I drank a bit more, and ate the avocado puree while running. Delicious!!!
These tiny micro cramps went on for a while, but unless they were going to physically lock my leg in place, I was not going to worry about them. I knew they were there, kept monitoring them and kept on running.
The beauty about running that race for the second time was that I realized that I was now running some hills that I was only able to hike the year before. This not only saved me time, but also gave me a pretty nice psychological boost. Again, take that 2015 Diez Vista!
The following 7km before the next Aid Station were pretty uneventful. I spent time putting my head down while trying to run most uphills, and running some of the long flat boring logging road sections around the lake.
I had decided to run without music but started questioning that decision at that point. I’m fairly sure some good old “Wham!” wouldn’t have hurt.
I eventually made it the 30Km Aid Station, still smiling for the camera. At that point however I was noticing that my right leg was starting to act a bit funky on the downhills, which kind of sucked because the downs are my favorite part and I am usually quite good at them.
So when my right abductor started to scream at me and my knee started to lock willy-nilly, I had to adjust my pace accordingly in order to keep going steadily.
The smile was now just a facade. I never really doubted that I would be able to finish the race, but it was definitely one of these “here we go again with the leg cramps” moment.
I should mention that after the ski injury in 2014, I lost a nice amount of muscle mass on my right quad and although it is now quite strong, my right leg is still not as powerful as my left.
I didn’t hang around too long at Aid Station #4. Melanie gave me more chews to put in my pack, I drank some coke, thanked the volunteers and off I went. (I always make a mental check list of the things I need before the AS and I knew that my pack was still full of water and that a little bit of coke would do the trick at that point. No food).
It was now time for the worst part of the race. The dreaded “Power line”. For those of you who are not familiar with this section, it sucks! Really, really sucks!
If I had to run it on fresh legs early morning, it would be alright. But running up and down a logging road covered in huge rocks that scramble when you step on them, all of this in the sun, with absolutely no shade for about 7km (3,5km out - 3.5km back) is rough.
But again, I knew what to expect so I kinda had an advantage there.
The thing with the out and backs is that, unless you are in first position, you are going to cross every single runner who’s in front of you. This can either be a good thing if you hit the turning point after only seeing very few runners, or it can be soul crushing if you see 150 people going back, while you are still going out.
Again, having raced Diez Vista last year, I knew when I first started to see the race leaders (about 30 minutes before I even made my way to the top of power line in 2015, aka no bueno.)
This year I only crossed the top 3 runners before the top of that section, which meant I was doing much better than last year. Boom psychological boost! You take what you can at that point.
I don’t mean I was in 4th place, very far from it, but it meant that all the runners in front of me were somewhere on that section and I was probably a good 30 minutes ahead of last year’s time so far.
The bad news was, that I still had to go through that section, and my right leg was not really having any of this.
I decided that the worst thing I could do was count the number of runners I crossed so I just smiled and gave every single one of them a word of encouragement as we crossed eachother’s paths (all of them returned the favor by the way. You gotta love that kind of attitude)
After seeing a bunch of guys, I eventually saw my friend Alexa who smiled, gave me a few words of encouragement and proceeded to run uphill in the opposite direction. (As I suspected when I first saw her at the start line, she finished first female of the race. Amazing!)
This went on for a bit, run down, right knee locks, turn my leg sideways, trick my knee into thinking it’s now all good. Run on flat, and try to run most uphills. Swear like a trucker in my head, smile at the other runners, trip on a rock, almost break an ankle, keep smiling.
What an interesting sport we do.
Eventually I arrived at the 37km Aid Station (#5) and this is where having a solid crew was key for me. I arrived, dropped my bag, gloves, sleeves and phone, and proceeded to drink some coke while Melanie was hand feeding me sweet potatoes. All I had to do was drink, and then open my mouth and wait for the potato. I kinda felt like a NASCAR at a pit stop.
I felt full after the first big bite but forced myself to swallow the 4 other big chunks that were being shoved down my mouth. The last 13 kilometers were not gonna run themselves, and I as my right leg was starting to fail me, I made sure I wasn’t gonna hit the wall, so I ate that potato!
Dealing with physical pain is one thing, hitting the wall because you don’t have enough fuel is a whole other story.
Potato in, gloves and sleeves off, no need to refill my bag as I was fairly sure I could make it to the finish (or close to it) with the water I had left and off I went again.
Home stretch, I couldn’t smell the barn yet, but it was now my turn to be on the “back” and to cross all the runners on the “out”, which always provides a tremendous psychological boost.
Less than 10 minutes after turning around, I crossed Greg who looked pretty happy to see me. I’m fairly sure he was suffering a bit too at that point, we all were. He gave me a high five and kept pushing toward the food as I ran in the other direction.
The next 30 minutes consisted of me putting my head down again, swearing inside while smiling outside, all the while crushing my right leg with my hand as hard as I could to prevent it from cramping. I sure as hell was not going to let the cramping stop me in the middle of power line. Nope! Not an option.
I had been through this type of cramps once in 2015 during Beacon Rock 50K so I knew that squeezing my muscle as hard as I could, albeit über painful, would probably delay the cramps quite a bit. And it did.
No wonder ultra-running is a sport of experience. A year ago, this type of pain would have probably put a serious dent in my race, whereas on that Saturday it slowed me down a bit but did not stop me.
I eventually made it back to the top of Power Line and by then back in the forest, which meant a nice downhill section in the shade. It was not as fast as I would have hoped since my knee kept locking, but I was still moving at a pretty nice steady pace, making good time.
At the bottom of the mountain I saw a couple of race marshals who got a kick out of seeing me run with my Ziplock bag full of dates. (every 20 minutes like clockwork). I waved at them, told them I was having lunch and kept going. 2 more kilometers until the last aid station. Which also meant 2 km before the last climb.
It sounds like a good thing. It kind of is, but it also means that at this point you have already run a full marathon and still have about 8 km to go, 4 of which are uphill. Steep!
I stopped briefly at the AS, grabbed a cup of coke, a potato with a lot of salt on it, thanked the volunteers and took off.
I knew I was less than an hour away then. Because my right leg had officially stopped racing about 5 km earlier, I actually climbed part of that section sideways, not super fast but pretty effective.
Even then I knew I could still run the flats and down so the race was in the bag unless I broke something.
I did trip on rocks pretty hard a couple of times, experiencing that nice feeling of everything cramping up while your face gets closer and closer to the ground, but somehow I pushed back up and avoided the face plant every time.
As soon as the last climb was over, I knew all that remained were about 4km of down and flat, so I just went for it, my right foot pointing left to trick my knee out of locking. That last section was pretty uneventful, it felt fantastic to finally see the road at the end of the trail with the race marshal and her big smile letting me know that I only had to continue along the lake before the finish.
I finished in 6h40m, which was 46 minutes faster than last year.
It was my first race of the year, and I used it as a way to test my nutrition and hydration as well as my pace. I am pretty happy with the result, but I will make sure to train even harder (and smarter) to delay those cramps and muscle fatigue as long as possible. Otherwise this year’s Knee Knacker is not going to be that fun.
Again, huge thank you to the race organizers and all the volunteers who did a fantastic job at keeping us hydrated and fed and cheering us all day.
Thank you to Salomon West Vancouver for the gear, my Sense Pro 2 behaved perfectly, no blisters at all. Incredibly comfortable shoes!
And massive thanks go to Melanie who crewed me perfectly, it is such an advantage to know that as soon as you show up at the aid station, someone is in charge of putting you back together and send you on your way.
You made the whole day much easier and I was always looking forward to seeing you at the following aid station. I can’t wait to return the favor.
Now I rest for a bit, but not for too long because there’s another one of these (even longer) in 6 weeks.