The Fit Life: a kinda sorta race report.

42236113_1844017812383910_365359428918050816_nStats.  The intimate friend of every runner.  Two years ago, I ran a 16-kilometre really hilly trail race in 1 hour, 32 minutes.  I finished with the lead pack, 1st in category.  Last weekend, I ran a 20-kilometre really really hilly trail race in 3 hours, 20 minutes.  I finished at the back of the pack, just ahead of 7 other athletes.  The only thing that was the same between those two races was how I felt:  exhausted and awesome.

 

Having spent most of my running life in the mid-pack, a small portion of that time in the lead pack, and an equally small segment in the back, I feel I am well positioned to share three constant truths about racing at any pace.

Truth #1:  The only race that really matters is your own.

I am competitive.  I love the chase and being chased.  I’m driven to pass the person ahead of me and the next after that.  But, that is just the game.  The joy of the race has nothing to do with anyone else but me.  Beautiful surroundings, technical trails, pushing hard, breathing hard, challenging myself, leaving it all out there.  That’s my satisfaction.

img_5802If the podium is what you chase, missing it will leave you frustrated and empty.  If you have to beat your rival, you will feel defeated when a race goes sideways and they surge ahead.  If you need to be known as a certain type of athlete, you will feel sidelined and invisible when life hands you less than how others perceive you.  Don’t let yourself be measured by anything other than your own effort.

Not long after I started competing against quicker folks, I attended a small 50-km mountain race with tough elevation and even tougher athletes.  I remember standing among the fourteen females at the start of the race and thinking – “These are the fittest women I’ve ever seen.”   The first place finisher was a world-ranked athlete who had showered, changed, had lunch and a nap before I finished.  I came in third from the end, chasing cut-offs the whole way.  That was my first time in the back of the pack.  I dug deep, worked through some tough moments, and never let myself slow down or give up.  I still have that medal in my office, the only one I display.  Take pride in your own race.

Truth #2:  Data doesn’t tell the story42168923_329959577575794_6088994329748045824_n

We know this is true; otherwise, nobody would ever do a race report, right?  The report tells you what the data doesn’t.  Yeah, I ran a 6-hour marathon but it was in the mountains and – man – if you knew how many things went sideways and how tough the conditions and, also, I was recovering from a bad cold, plus blisters!!  The bigger the fish, the better the story.  I’m not judging that.  I like fish stories!  I have a few of my own.

Here’s the problem with letting data tell the story: data doesn’t measure significance.  Sorry, Strava, not even if you give me trophies and FKTs.  As a training tool, data can be a great resource.  That’s all it should ever be.  What counts more? – a fastest time ever in ideal conditions, or leaving it all out there in the worst conditions?  One builds fleeting satisfaction; the other, character and strength.

Last Saturday, my first race in two years, I started at the back of the pack and my goal was to pass 1, maybe 2, runners.  That was it.  With an ear-to-ear grin that said – “It’s great to be back!”, I pushed as hard as I’ve pushed at any pace  …50 extra pounds,  new kinds of chafing, breathing like my blood was on fire, walking every uphill – even the anthills…  What do I remember most about that race? –  a Mother Moose, glorious and immense, summitted a ridge above me and galloped across my path.  It was amazing!  The athlete in front of me didn’t. even. notice.  He was looking at his watch.  As I excitedly yelled and pointed, his earbuds blocked out the snorting beast and he missed that moment, convinced that the real story was on his screen.  Let your race story unfold in front of you and around you.  The race is the story.  The experience is the thing.

Truth #3:  The only person who will celebrate you the most is you.  

5k-10k-20kHorseshoe-48.jpgThere are a lot of great races that also do a great job of making the lead pack runners feel like a million bucks.  Perfect photos that rapidly join personal Instagram collections, fancy medals and even fancier podium prizes, full aid stations and the best finish line crowd.  There are very few great races that do a great job of making the mid-pack and back-of-packers feel as valued as the lead pack.  I’ve been a lead female coming into cheers and high fives.  As a mid-packer, my short frame was usually lost in the crowds.  As a back-of-packer, I’ve shown up to mostly-empty aid stations and one or two people at the finish line.

As anti-climactic as it can feel to finish a hard race with very little by way of recognition and applause, I’ve learned that my pride in my race is the best recognition.  Yes, I sulk for a few minutes, not gonna lie.  And then I let it go and tell myself – “good job, proud of you.”  More than that, at whatever pace I’ve raced, I celebrate every success from start to finish.  Nobody is cheering at the top of that crazy straight-up one-kilometre climb.  Nobody is paying attention when I fly down a gnarly technical section like I have wings on my feet.  Nobody notices that I never slowed down on that last climb even though my legs were on fire.  I am the best positioned to celebrate me.  That’s why I tell myself – out loud – “good job” or “you’re awesome” at every opportunity that I know I’ve earned it, throughout the race and especially at the finish.  Nobody else will appreciate my hard work more than me.  We don’t need reasons to critique.  We need reasons to celebrate.  Be your biggest fan.  Ten years from now, those who noticed you or didn’t notice you probably won’t be around.  You’ll always be there: be the one who cares the most about you.

These principles also apply to life.

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The Fit Life: what’s your excuse?

Many of us have heard the story of the rocks in a jar. A professor fills a large jar with rocks and asks his students if the jar is full.  Yes.  Then he fills it with pebbles.  Okaay.  Then sand.  Full now?  Ummm. Then he pours water into the jar.  I’ve often wondered what else he could have done.  What if he heated the water?  Isn’t steam and air filling up the spaces too?20180803_123953.jpg

The lesson is about perspective.   It’s easy to see the obvious:  The rocks.  The hurdles.  But is that all there is?  How do we focus on the unseen potential, the nooks and crannies that can be filled with a myriad of other things?

Last weekend, I hung out with some runners who live in the unseen spaces.  Literally.  A team of five legally blind athletes decided to challenge a 125-kilometre course of mountain trails that included three summits, multiple creek crossings, roots, rocks, and so much mud.  It gets better.  They were not trained for the terrain at all.  At. All.  (…I’m not entirely sure how a blind runner trains for this…).  But they finished.  Every one of them.  They fell, they swore, they laughed, maybe cried?  Even without meeting the cutoff for a medal, they never once considered stopping.  25 hours later, they crossed the finish line.

There were rocks:  literally, yes, but also…they couldn’t see!  So, that’s kind of obvious and hard to get around.  And that would stop most people.  Then there were pebbles:  they didn’t have the right terrain for training.  No, the Gatineaus in Ottawa – as picturesque as they are – no, they will not prepare you for the Rockies.  There was sand:  no trail gear and not much understanding of how to fuel or pace for mountain running.

But then there was water…five guides who poured their time and energy and enthusiasm and seeing-outside-themselves to be eyes for others.  Guiding is not easy.  It’s hard and taxing and work.  I’ve paced, not even close to the same thing but as close as I can figure, and there have been moments on those trails with a whiny, suffering racer that I’ve considered leaving him (Todd) for dead.  Still, the guides who have a much harder job than pacing – they keep positive energy and intent focus for the sake of another.  Water to fill the unseen spaces. IMG_20180805_074450_379

And finally, there was air.  So much air!  Good natured, high humoured, always adaptable, completely unflappable air.  Indomitable spirits that settled into all the spaces, filling each tiny crack with energy and potential.

I apologize that this blog has taken an unexpected poetic turn, not intended.  The words follow their own path and sometimes the indescribable is only found in art form.  What I know that requires no flowery prose is that there are no excuses.  None.  Our lives are not limited.  They are limitless.  We don’t focus on what we can’t do.  We find a way to do what we can.  My own life, which I thought had been lived beyond limits before my injury and then far too limited since then, has been redefined.  I am no longer interested in what I can’t do right now.  I am very interested in doing everything I can with what I have.  Life without limits.  There are no excuses.

With gratitude to Blind Team “now you see us, now we don’t” – Bronwyn and her husband/guide Adam, Peter with my husband/his guide Todd, Shelley with guide George, Richard with guide Rebecca, and  the ringleader/inspirateur Diane with guide Cheryl.  20180805_090011-01

 

 

 

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The Fit Life: how to finish a hundred miler.

I have never run a hundred miles.  I have never even run 100 kilometres.  Once, I ran the West Coast Trail in a day and we got really lost in the dark, so that was 80 kilometres instead of 75 kilometres.  Otherwise, my only real experience with actually running ultras is 50-kilometre races.  I’ve done lots of those, mostly in the mountains, and I can tell you that nothing about a 50-kilometre race will prepare you for a 100-mile distance.

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Brian McCurdy Photography

What I have that most ultra runners don’t have is raw objective data, lots of it.  As an experienced crew, I’ve supported racers from 100-kilometres to 100-miles multiple times, multiple types – from first runner in to last runner done. As a race director, I’ve been a close observer of each hundred miler’s journey at River Valley Revenge.  And when I’ve been hanging out for 24-plus hours, I’ve paid attention.  I’ve watched what others do.  Falling easily into my academic comfort zone, I’ve observed and taken notes and hypothesized.  And in all that, I’ve discovered that there are certain things that work and other things that definitely don’t work.  I can tell you how the top finishers at major mountain ultras hydrate and fuel.  I can speak to what the average racer generally does, and I can regale you with fascinating tales of epic fails.  So, if you still want to hear what a non-hundo has to say about finishing one, keep reading.

How to Run a 100-Miler

Know the difference between universal truths and individual truths.   b1You should seek – and will get – lots of advice.  Know the difference between what is a biological fact – you must consume a glucose-combination fuel at regular intervals in order to metabolize enough glycogen for energy – and what is a subjective preference – drink pickle juice at every transition.  There is value in both but for different reasons:  a universal truth – you better know that sh*t and have it built into your plan; an individual truth – interesting, maybe something to try on a training run, might work, might not.

Have a plan.  Break your race down into segments, usually done by transitions, and figure out what you need for each segment:  fuel plan, clothing plan, pacing plan.  Some racers have charts and graphs, others have notes sharpie-scrawled on their arms.  The details don’t matter and no plan should ever look the same – because y’all are unique! (remember that) – but if you haven’t planned to finish, you’ve planned to fail.

Be ready to throw away the plan.  Wait what?  Sometimes, the plan doesn’t work.  The Todd and Martyfuel you’ve trained with is now making you throw up, you caught a cold and your pace is way off, your go-to shoes are giving you blisters.  I have seen many athletes with the perfect plan – tried and tested – DNF because the plan stopped working and they couldn’t deviate from it.  Once the plan failed, they failed.  I’ve also seen athletes dump their fuel and switch to water after retching for the umpteenth time, or throw their GD shoes over a cliff and run into transition in sock feet to borrow a pair – and finish!  Essentially, they’re accepting that what they’re doing is not working and that they must do anything else but that. Can you change the plan if the plan stops working?

Spend your energy wisely.  Everything you do from Point A to Point Z will take energy from you: physical energy, mental energy and emotional energy.  Use all three wisely.  If you’re running up a mountain and you can power hike it faster, conserve your physical energy for when it will give greater returns.  If you’re heading into transition, rely on the qualified volunteers or your crew to take care of you.  Save your mental energy for when you’re fatigued and alone, navigating difficult terrain while trying to stay awake.  If the thoughts in your head turn ugly, get out of your head.  Find a mantra to disengage from stinkin’ thinking.  Stop running with someone who is depressing the hell out of you.  Find someone to share a few kilometres with where you can laugh and smile and relax.  If you’re alone, choose your focus.  One racer said that when she got lost, she’d be grateful for a view she wouldn’t have otherwise seen, or when she’d run out of water, she’d be grateful that her pack was light.  Your energy is a resource:  don’t squander it on what doesn’t serve you.

30703733_10101334393687355_849081052637954048_nIt’s all about the pain cave.  Running a hundred miler is about managing suffering.  You can only physically train for so much mileage.  At a certain point, you reach the end of your physical training and the race becomes 100% mental.  A person’s willingness to accept the suffering, to acknowledge the pain without letting the pain define them or control them – it’s called mental toughness.  The battle is with your mind, not with your body.  One racer was sulk-hiking a tough section during the night, sore and miserable.  Another racer came up and said – “Does it hurt to run?”  – yes – “Does it hurt to walk?” – yes.  “Might as well run.”  You signed up to suffer.  Shake hands with it and keep going.

Never give up.  Never. Give. Up.  nevergiveup.  I have seen enough to tell you that there will always be a dozen reasons to stop, and sometimes no reason to go on.  Keep going.  A lot happens in 100 miles.  I have seen athletes have the worst race ever, to have the entire day turn around at mile 65 and finish 4th overall.  I’ve seen experienced racers blow up on a brutally hot day and the unknown waaay back there who just.wouldnt.quit win the race.  I’ve seen numerous racers pull when I knew they could finish.  I’ve observed the regret countless times.  And I have witnessed unbelievable moments where people had legitimate reasons to stop… but didn’t.  I don’t think I’ll make cut-off…made it by 9 seconds …I’ve thrown up 20 times in the last hour…crossed the finish line while they were still throwing up…my shoulder is dislocated…used their hydration pack to sling it for 70 miles to 1st Place.

I’m not saying be reckless and put your life in danger.  But, really, every race has medics and volunteers and crew who are watching out for you.  And isn’t the very definition of doing one hundred miles about testing your limits?  In my observations30726463_10101334399795115_7302776740709924864_n, most people’s limits are found just beyond the finish line.  Keep going. 

…and finally, but most important…

Have perspective.  It’s a race where every finisher gets a medal, not the Olympics.  Yes, you trained hundreds of hours for it.  That alone is a point of pride.  The moment isn’t just the finish.  Moments happen every day.  Every opportunity to live and breathe and challenge and press on is a gift.  The outcome is merely one tangible victory in a series of smaller, undefined, intangible victories.  I timed out at my first attempt at a big distance.  There are a list of things that could have changed that outcome.  They didn’t happen that day.  The victory was that I didn’t stop until they made me.  Find pride in every effort.  Learn from it.  Find someone who did more than you and congratulate them.  Help someone whose journey was harder than yours, make their load lighter.  Look around. Give Back.  See outside yourself.  Because ultra running and ultra racing can be a self-preoccupied sport if we let it.  Look at me!  Don’t look at me.  I finished!  I failed.  me. me. I. I.  Live a life greater than yourself and you will find your potential.  Perspective is everything.

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The Fit Life: Every adventure begins with a risk.

There are only two days to the start of a one hundred mile journey through an award winning river valley and here I am digging another thistle out of my hand.  This is what the trails give.  They tell their own story, we just give the trails a voice. 2017-08-24 18.49.49

Canadian RVR is a philosophical course, not one meant to make sense or have any measure of predictability.  The course changes every season, preserving the trails for years and generations of use.  It is designed to move you beyond the predictable and known, to make space for you to challenge yourself in new and different ways every time.  The race makes no room for PBs or FKTs.  You can’t chase last year’s time because it is rendered irrelevant with each iteration.  The distance is approximate, like the trails, not accommodating expectations or norms or rules.

We don’t make the trails or change the trails or even trim the trails.  The course is what nature has given us.  We are stewards and – sometimes grateful – participants in it.  We don’t fight the course.  We embrace it.  We accept it, fallen trees and gnarly roots and steep cliffs.  We believe that trails are meant to be explored, to be sought out and discovered, not conquered and dominated.

30738097_10101334393996735_2377085276724920320_nThe race does not accommodate.  There is no room for mediocrity here.  To succeed at Canadian River Valley Revenge, you must get comfortable with feeling uncomfortable.  Your limits are not the terrain or your training, neither are they nutrition or endurance.  Your only real limits are in your mind.

Our seasoned racers often try to get inside the course designer’s head, hoping that will give them a measure of redemption on race day.  To help you know the mind of Todd, here are his reflections:

Most of this course was run with no intention of the end result, except allowing myself to be in the moment .These trails that you’ll be running are always giving, then shifting, forcing us to explore something new, the path less traveled, goat trails, deer poop, coyotes and rabbits ( coyotes chase rabbits, rabbits make trails ). Ultimately, it’ll be just you and the course.  There is a flow to it.  If you quiet your mind, remember to breath, you’ll see stunning vistas, tree houses, trampolines, golf balls, trucks, an open pit (where dreams are buried), some gnarly single track, some stunning bridges and a beauty that is called The River Valley.  

 

 

It doesn’t start as an adventure.  It begins with a risk.  Thank you for taking a risk on us.

#seetheforestforthetrails #notjustabouttherun

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The Fit Life: a lifetime in a day.

This is not the blog I was going to write.  It was going to be about others, their stories, tales from the mountain trails.  But Life gives us opportunities to experience things out of our control and choose how they will affect us.  We can’t control much, except how we show up.  That is perhaps the toughest and the coolest thing I’ve learned as an adult.

Yesterday, for the first time in a long time, I was going to summit a mountain, running with my 3 girls together.  Fate took a turn by way of a very hot sunny day and 80 parched athletes on a mission.  I made a last minute decision to send the girls up the mountain without me, thinking that if I could coordinate the rest of the day well enough, I’d have time to climb Lady MacDonald before the sun set.  That was the summit I’d really wanted and if my girls weren’t too tired from Ha Ling, we could still go together.  Who knows – maybe Todd would be done his marathon of summits and have enough stamina for a fourth summit.  What was I smoking, right? The hot sun was making me delusional.

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PC: Danielle Brown

On the way up Ha Ling, my oldest daughter got lost, never reaching the summit.  I was disappointed for her as it would have been her first summit (she’d always been at soccer tournaments in past years).  I was frustrated for me because she wouldn’t have gotten lost if I’d taken her.  It was definitely an “I’ve let my daughter down” moment.  Still, my other two girls did the summit all on their own.  Afterward, hearing how my youngest convinced my scared middle daughter to go all the way up, I felt a little less neglectful as I could see their confidence and independence blossom.

Even more determined than ever to make Lady Mac happen for me and my oldest daughter, I knew that Todd was making good time on his summits and that if he could finish by 4pm, we’d be golden to head out.  Other things happened and plans changed again.  While Todd was finishing his Triple Crown, a friend was waving goodbye to hers as she was being heli-lifted from her second summit.   Meanwhile, at least 50 other runners were still slogging through their own relatively less but just as real suffering to 33091086_10101351501912335_2624161817412239360_ndoggedly finish the Triple Crown before time ran out.

As food was prepared and drinks handed out, I watched runner after runner arrive at the park exhausted and fulfilled.  Their weary smiles told a tale of adventures, one story weaving into the next. The last runners arrived at 8:30pm, their words and emotions tripping over each other to spill out how horrible and incredible their day had been.  The best adventures are usually like that.

I can’t say that I’m not disappointed to have missed out on writing my own mountain story yesterday, but it’s a minor detail in the greater scheme of community and, well, life.  I’m not injured.  I can go anytime.  That alone is a gift.  I’m already planning a trip with just me and my girls to finish what we started, together.  We might even bring along dad for a family summit photo, as long as I don’t have to keep up with him.  “Meet you at the top!”  While I didn’t get to run with any one person – bonding on a trail adventure of epic proportions – I did get to be a small part of every person’s experience as I witnessed their struggles and triumphs from dawn until dusk.  A lifetime in a day.

 

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The Fit Life: what matters??

As many of you know, a few years ago, I started a running group on my end of the city where there were no trail running groups.  See a need, meet a need.  About a year later, I was offered to take over a race, a trail race that I loved and that our community didn’t want to lose.  See a need, fill a need.

Then, the comments started.  Friends of mine – some close, others casual, mostly guys (can I say that?) – became contentious and difficult with me.  The laughs and jokes were replaced with caustic notes any time they thought that my group or race didn’t know its place – “taking over my trails” was one of their comments.  Another comment, most recently but not infrequently heard, was that I was “getting too ambitious”.  This was strange to me and confusing.  I mean, I was doing what others had been doing for decades, but they were not ambitious.  I was.   Hmm.  You can rise up, but not among your own, and if you’re a woman rising up, hells bells!

 

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Frequently, I was called egocentric and narcissistic.  Sometimes, I was called much worse.  Every time, it came always when something that I was responsible for had gone well.  Truth be told, things going well were 99.9% because of the amazing people who showed up.  If the longstanding community had been willing to welcome new people, they’d have met the same amazing people I met.  It eventually became our running joke at home that if something we’d done went especially well and got any positive uptake, “Brace yourself, Sheryl.  They’re gonna come after you for that.”  And they always did.

I’m not saying that I haven’t earned some of the barbs sent my way.  I am supremely flawed.  But, I step up and speak up and I do the hard work and the heavy lifting, even when I’m tired and when I don’t want to and when I worry about the impacts to me and my family.  I still do it.  How many will stand in those shoes?  How many would dare call that ambition or ego? Cowardice, I say!  (Pardon me.  I occasionally channel Winston Churchill.  Bold and courageous. Also flawed and sometimes scared.  We’re all the same.)

30729992_10101334393457815_6140588607938756608_nSomewhere in the midst of that, I began to actively advocate for the preservation of our river valley.  With the no-time that I had left over from everything else, I joined coalitions and stakeholder groups. I could see that if we didn’t raise the profile of our river valley among trail users, we would eventually lose it.  And now, I see people coming together, rising up in their own neighbourhoods.  Momentum is building.  It’s exciting.

So, when someone who walked in at the 11th hour simply cross-shares an event that I’ve sat on a committee to bring together, and everyone claps and cheers and praises them for “everything he’s done”, I’m not gonna lie:  I get annoyed.  Pride stirs and says –  if not for the hard work behind the scenes, the challenges and sacrifices…  And then I bite my tongue and check my intentions.  Because if others get all the praise but the river valley is preserved, and people come together to support each other, and community grows, and there are trails for me and my children and their children to enjoy, and lonely people find friends, and the disconnected find connection, that was always the point.  That’s what matters.

 

 

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The Fit Life: what if we had a choice?

Weekends have returned to my “run everything” time.  I now have the strength and stamina to do exploring runs anywhere, all weekend long. It’s a good feeling.

After one especially beautiful run, I got to reflecting.  What if I could choose my own after-life, my perfect paradise?  What would that look like?  Surrounded by the smell of new spring, I closed my eyes, trying to imagine my personal heaven.  Engulfed in the most stunning pictures of nature, I saw myself running, floating, along mountain ridges, chasing sunsets across oceans, soaring above rain forests and through fields of flowers.  I ran as hard as I could, never losing my breath or fatiguing.  And I thought, if this could be “faith”, life everlasting, I would pay to convert, any price.

Then I realized, isn’t that what paradise is supposed to be?  Something we crave so much that we would do anything to attain it?  And I was struck by an epiphany:  The life I would give anything to live forever is the life I live now.

 

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