Sunday Runday, and I’m moving gingerly around the house this morning in recovery mode after a long, tough race yesterday.
After a two and a half year wait, and two covid-postponments, the Blackfoot Ultra finally crossed the start line on Saturday. A good proportion of the racers never showed up, obviously fallen out of training or enthusiasm after signing up for a race in 2019, but those who did — including myself — spent hours in the rolling parkland, baking under the spring sun, and plodding out our distances towards the finish line.
I had signed up for the 25km edition, the ”Baby Ultra”, and just a bit more than a half marathon. Road race distances are a meaningless comparison to trail running distances though. One kilometer in the woods can feel like a nature walk …or mountain climb. The mental focus of watching the terrain and adjusting to the trail is incomparable to running on asphalt in the city, and times can vary wildly based on a thousand factors that don’t even exist in an suburban run.
The woman who I had been training with for the last few months (specifically for this race) and the last two and a half years (in general) was one of those who did not reach the start line. Even as we were debating carpool options and pickup times and collecting our race packages, she stuffed a covid swab up her nose after some worrisome symptoms and withdrew due to a positive test less than twenty-four hours before the gun. A huge disappointment for her after such a long wait for just this one race.
I didn’t have any excuse.
And this would mark the third time I’ve run this race. I knew what I was in for… generally.
I ate my breakfast, and filled my water bottles and packed my trail running gear into my little black truck. I loaded up a group shelter tent to set up at the finish line and tossed a lawn chair in the back, and then drove for about an hour through and east of the city to a bit of medium-sized provincial parkland wrapped around a cluster of lakes and rolling landscape all traced through with trails and winding paths.
In the winter this is a popular cross-country skiing area, and the wide paths are groomed by a tractor-sized ski-track groomer that sets paths in the road-width nature path.
In the summer, the province mows and maintains the trail for cyclists, and hikers and runners, but it is still a rutted, rooted, muddy mess in places.
The longer editions of the race, those running multiple laps to clock in 50km, 80km or even 100km, had started in some cases before I’d even gotten out of bed and had been running for as much as six hours when I stepped to the start line. Even in our little running crew, about half of our contingent were doing the 50km double lap race, while a few of us tackled the more conservative 25km baby.
Even so, by 11am when our start time finally kicked in, the day still felt young though the sun was high and the skies were blue and the multiple cups of coffee I’d consumed leading into it all had well-and-good kicked in.
With an unceremonious countdown from five, a couple hundred of us were off into the woods for our crack at the trails.
I could detail thousands of bits that still cling to my memory now the next morning. The mud. The sunscreen sweating into my eyes. My running companion chatting away to me and the trees and everyone who we saw. Leaping over roots. Hearing rumours (and later genuine reports) of a bear on the trail. That tree that seemed ready to topple in the breeze, cracking and groaning as we dodged by. The glorious taste of fresh cut watermelon at the aid station. Taking off my shoe 14km in to bandage a small, fresh blister. Swatting away swarms of bugs. Or the hundreds of little micro conversations that were had as we passed or were passed by others.
It was a slog. A glorious, painful slog filled with three hours of unique experiences.
Yet, to be clear, I haven’t run more than a half marathon distance of 21km since well before the pandemic started. Twenty five kilometers, and trail kilometers at that, were tough. There are many mighty fit folks, lots of whom passed me as I forced my body up yet another hill, who cranked through multiple times more distance than I did and still looked fresh as the morning dew. I struggled, admittedly. I walked long bits of it willing my legs to achieve a speed faster than a brisk woodland stroll, particularly near the end stretch as the aches and pains and mental fog began to hurt everything about the experience.
Then we rounded a corner and there was the finish chute, a pathway between the tents and lawnchairs of the spectators and crews leading into the flag marking the finish line, everyone cheering and clapping and one couldn’t help but push just a little bit harder and finish the race strong.
And suddenly, after two and a half years, the whole thing was just done. I collapsed into my lawnchair and recovered my wits and my breath. Twenty-five kilometers of trail behind me, and for the first time in a very long time, not a single race on my calendar. As I sipped my water, and ate the bison smokie dog they handed me at the finish line, and waited for the other runners in our crew to finish, we chatted and relaxed.
I don’t know what is next, but I think I’ll rest my legs a few more days before I try and figure that out.