When I started running I never thought about why I wanted to run, I just felt I had to. When I first learned of the existence of the Canadian Death Race (CDR), I remember feeling compelled to taking on that challenge. I never gave thought to how I would get to where I was going or what I was going to discover about myself. On my journey to Ultra last year, my first step was The Limberlost Challenge (TLC). It was here that I thought I would learn a thing or two in preparation for the CDR. What I rediscovered this year is that TLC is that it is one of those events where after the event, you leave having found something.
The event is a true trail and a real grassroots experience. You have a field in which volunteers, racers, and friends and family can camp out the night before and after the race. Of course there is the race itself which hosts in the neighborhood of 400 or so runners. Distances include 14k, 28k, 42k, and the Ultra at 56k.
I was finishing up in my basement where I was cleaning up the mess left over from updating the floor and painting the walls. My plan was to get out of the house by noon. 11 o’clock swiftly presented itself and I realized that I needed to get some purchases out of the way and I needed to pack up my gear for the night of camping and running. The thought was that I would get to the Limberlost reserve around 4 pm or so, well ahead of the majority of the campers.
After the 4 hour drive I pulled into the field where the tents were pitched and quickly realized that I underestimated what ‘early’ meant to other folks. I drove around the field and finally decided on a spot in between 3 young bucks and what turned out to be a husband and wife couple. I setup my tent and started and settled in.
I went over to the BBQ to cook my hamburger when the woman of the couple was looking around for water. She asked:
“Do you know where can I get some water?” I replied saying that she could find it the Gatorade coolers. The next thing that came up, and I am kind of hazy on how was that this woman mentioned that this race was a training run for her.
“Oh, what are you training for?” was my immediate question.
“The Grand to Grand” she said expecting to have to describe it to me.
“No shit!” I responded with an exuberance that clearly indicated that I knew of this one – a seven day, self-supported race through the Grand Canyon. Something I swear I will do – someday.
As our polite banter continued her husband strolled along and joined the conversation. Turns out he is running the Canadian Death Race this year as well. It really is amazing how small the world becomes day after day. So a real connection is made. We made it back to our camps and continued chatting. Low and behold I met a Canadian Champion boxer.
Last year I finished this race after 8 hours and 45 minutes. I remember running with this Irish dude and he called the trail a “grinder”. While the trail bed is nice and soft, a combination of rich soil and fallen needles, it challenges you because it is laden with tree roots and rocks. Always climbing up, running down, side step to the left, shuffle to the right. If your not shuffling, you are balancing on logs through boggy mud that you discover is more than knee deep if you misstep. On this trail run you never really get an opportunity to establish a steady pace.
As I have been getting more confident I started the race at the front of the pack instead of back. I could even count a few people I was on a first name basis with. I also realized that I have a nickname that seems to have stuck with me. It comes from a scene at the Creemore Vertical Challenge: I am endearingly known as “King Idiot” to some. Well, 8 am struck and we were off running. The first stretch of about 500 m is a dirt road and on this day we were a pack of about 5 or 6 people who made up the front runners. Then I noticed a guy that didn’t really appear to be an experienced Ultra runner, he didn’t sound like one either. As he passed me I heard him huffin’ n’ puffin’ and at that point I couldn’t help but think that the race just wouldn’t end well for him.
Coming up on the first kilometer I checked my heart rate and pace and decided I was going to settle in and try to hit my goal of 1h 30m per lap. No sooner than I decide to settle in and the longest and steepest climb was before us. Bye bye huffer n’ puffer. Likely a hard learned lesson for him, slow (breath) and steady (run) wins the race.
As I came up to the 1st aid station manned by youth volunteers representing the Trails Youth Initiatives which is supported by the proceeds from the race I knew there was a guy on my heels. It was early on in the race so I focused on keeping a steady forward pace. I kept reminding myself that if you are well trained (i.e. have been running lots in representative terrain) a simple strategy can get you in the top 10%. It is summed up in a few basic points:
- be patient
- people are their own worst enemy
Guy on my heels caught up to me and started chatting with me. He was quick to point out that he was happy to run with me because I was running at what he felt was his pace. I noticed at some points I found him pulling me forward as he got in front of me, then we would switch spots and I would slow the pace a little. We ran together until we caught up to a fellow that I think was one of the guys I let go early. I hopped up on a 3 foot ledge leaving the two competitors behind me and never looked back.
Picture yourself running through a Tom Thomson painting. You are running through the grandeur and serenity of the Muskoka. You are beneath the canopy of the black and white spruce, jack pine, tamarack, poplar, and white birch trees. You are by yourself, isolated but feeling no need to talk to anyone. Your worries melt away and stresses are behind you. As you run, the breeze teases you. It embraces your body. You feel it all over as it cools you off. You suddenly discover that you are aware of every inch of your body. Every nerve ending is celebrating. You stop thinking about your footing, your pace, your heart rate. Just run and loose your self in the moment. You discover what it feels like to free.
I would step out of the painting and back into the reality I was in: I am racing and I knew I was keeping a steady pace. Each time I came into the start/finish I would pay close attention and on the completion of the 3rd lap I was 4 hours and 30 minutes in, and average of 1 hour 30 minutes per lap. My split times were a mere minutes apart from each other, which I figure to mean that I found my stride. It was on this 3rd lap that my strategy rewarded me by the reality of me passing one of the runners I knew was ahead of me. I continued to focus on making haste slowly so that I would stay in front of this capable competitor. So I used every downhill to propel me forward a little faster. At every uphill I would remind myself “this is your strength” and I would power my way up never minding my heart rate.
I was on my final lap. I broke the last 14 km down by aid station. Trails Youth Initiatives, the one after a road crossing, the one with Coke, and the start/finish line. As I passed through each aid station, I knew that I was that much closer to the finish. I just needed to keep up the pace. I remember seeing the markers for 11km, 12km, and finally 13km.
With just one kilometer to go, I picked up the pace. I couldn’t see anyone behind me and I intended to keep it that way. I crossed the final footbridge knowing that there was literally 300m to go. Pushed a little harder and made a speedy dash across the finish line. 1st place guy shouts out:
“Congrats your 2nd in!”
I actually couldn’t believe it. Loudly and in my natural way I blurted out “No SHIT!” then flopped on the ground. Which by the way, the act of flopping on the ground actually worries people. Don’t do that unless you are actually in distress and you really can’t keep yourself on your feet. Being on the ground and having realized that some folks were concerned I let out a “Wooop” and stretched out my arms and legs to indicate that I was enthusiastically aware that I finished the race and in no need of medical attention.
It turns out that I finished 2 hours and 38 minutes ahead of my time from the previous year. A very gratifying result, but this event wasn’t just about the running. Here at TLC I fostered new friendships, nurtured existing ties with my fellow idiots and rediscovered the spiritual side of running, again.