Race Report: Blackfoot

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.

Little Lives

Sunday Runday, and my morning run (though short) was a fast, local race.

Too often I discount and downplay the value of lacing up for a cause that isn’t just another tick on the tally of my own personal achievements. Yet a five kilometer fundraiser race, as far removed as it is from the epic half marathons and ultra trail races that seem to consume my training calendar these days, is a heartwarming reminder of my sports more enduring legacy in the modern running landscape.

Some backstory may be relevant here.

I often write and talk about my ”little run club” but the truth is that prior to the pandemic we were a crew that was often forty or fifty members strong. The last two years have whittled us down to less than half that number, and only time will tell if some of the folks who drifted away will return. Two years is a long time.

Between those who remain and those who have gone away, some of have been running together for well over a decade. Also, needless to say, some of our membership are not the young thirty, forty and fifty year olds that we were when we met and started running all those years ago. As years have ticked by many of our crew have transitioned from a running crew to a walking club, still keeping themselves woven in as part of the social fabric of this club. No matter, though, we all meet back at the same parking lot for chats and coffees. A decade or more and people have had rich lives swirled around this little sport, changing jobs, growing their family, moving too and fro, and even passing on.

Fair to report that not everything is good news when years pass and people change and stuff happens.

The story, as best as I know it, goes something like this. About four years ago, one of those aforementioned runners-turned walkers-became a grandmother, and as happy as that occasion should have been, it was shrouded with bad news about a huge complication: that her new grandson had a congenital heart defect and would require a transplant.

Daughter-slash-mother, a runner like grandmother, turned her grief into motivation and started an annual fundraising race. “Fundraiser for free-health-care Canada?” you ask. Well, there are plenty of costs outside of hospital bills that families need to account for, and our health care system has limited funds to contribute to things like research and family supports and outreach.

Those efforts, as announced as we stood at the start line for this morning’s edition of the 5k family fun race, runners bunched in around kids on bikes and tots holding their parents hands, has raised a quarter million dollars for the cause since its inception.

Now my friend’s grandson has spent a lot of time in hospital and will likely never be a kid free to adventure and play without restraint, and certainly may never be seen sprinting to the finish line at the lead of the race that he inspired. Instead, we all put our personal training plans aside and dash through the course for whatever bit of hope for a cure and support for that family that such an effort inspires.

Rich lives and a decade of running with the same small group tangles your lives together in a way that leads you to prioritize your actions and your thoughts.

I’ll be running a much longer race next weekend, a slogging ultramarathon through the rolling lakelands east of the city and for no other reason than to say I can do such things. But something tells me that even years from now I’ll remember little five klick runs for the good of little lives just as fondly as the big races.

Running into Spring

Sunday Runday, the first day of spring, and yet when we stepped out into the last few hours of winter air this morning it was blowing and cold as if winter was reminding us that we all lived on the Canadian prairies and we don’t get to simply up and decide that the chill has left for another year.

It had been nice all week.

Well… nice enough that warm hats became optional and the concrete of the sidewalks made a strong appearance as the layers of ice finally melted into chilly, slushy puddles that slowly drained into the storm sewers.

We’d gone for an eight klick run through a local ravine on Tuesday evening and returned with wet, blistered feet from sloshing through sloppy, water-logged melt still covering the aspalt trails.

This morning, avoiding the wind, we tucked into some suburban walking paths that wend their way along the back fences of a couple neighbourhoods that back onto the thawing creek. Where we’d been snowshoeing just a weekend ago was now a briskly flowing waterway the colour of milk chocolate twisting between the naked trees.

As we burst from the cover of the shelter paths and out onto the streets the wind was just starting to pick up speed and carried with it the hint of more snow.

And as we rounded the last corner towards the parking lot the hint of snow had turned into a very real peppering of icy sleet blasting our bare cheeks for the final push towards our coffee social.

It didn’t go unremarked that annually April is when our training proper usually begins. Longer distances. Hill repeats. Tempo runs. These start to populate our calendars as the snow melts and the sidewalks clear and the evenings offer a bit more daylight.

It didn’t go unremarked that April is only just about a week and a few days away.

I signed up for a short race in April in a nearby bedroom community after a friend suggested she’d like some company for a ten-miler and the first in-person she’ll have run in about three years. It wont be my first even this year, but somehow it feels like starting to be back to normal.

Back to the office in April. Back to local racing in April. Back to hill repeats in April.

Let’s just hope spring cooperates.

Turtle Power

Sunday runday and on my solo five klick shakeout I paused beside path to watch a turtle the size of a football basking in Florida sunshine.

Also, it was nearly fifty degrees celsius warmer than the last time I ran oudoors a little more than a week ago. I haven’t been that sweaty from running five kilometers since the heat of last summer. I could have taken a dip beside that turtle and …

The runaway train of vacation planning never actually found a means of slamming on the brakes and the next thing I knew I was boarding an international flight to Orlando with my face wrapped tightly in a N95 surgical respirator and wondering, sometimes aloud, at the bounds of my own sanity.

Back in the summer, when all things virus had seemed to be packing its bags and getting ready to move out of the basement like all uninvited houseguest should eventually do, we registered in a series of Disney World Marathon run events.

Then we eagerly booked a vacation around that … and waited.

It all went great from there, right? Well … no. We watched anxiously as a viral variant named Omicron washed a new wave of panic all across the world. Triple-vaccinated and packing a smuggler’s haul worth of PPE, we warily tracked the news and tripped over ourselves justifying taking the trip versus the stupidly high costs of cancelling it and just wallowing in pity at ourselves from the safety of our frozen house. A dozen times we came a turtle’s breath away from calling the whole thing off, swallowing the thousands of dollars of lost travel spends, and buying a big bottle of bubbly for new years eve to forget the whole thing and …

And.

And yet, here we are.

And here I am on a Sunday morning, looking out at a resort swimming pool after a five klick shakeout run, sipping a six dollar cup of takeway coffee, having spent the last four days wandering through the densely packed, pandemic-oblivious theme parks of Disney World and giving myself blisters and aches and pains and overwhelming anxiety and exhaustion in the process.

There are a number of smooth and flat walking trails just out the front door of our hotel, winding around lagoons and restaurants and wire-suspended gondolas, leading into and around and between Epcot and a make-believe Star Wars lands. As thousands of racers congregate here over the next few days for races starting later this week, I saw dozens of fellow runners out on the boardwalks and asphalts. I even saw some of the race crew flagging locations for aid stations and mile markers and marshalling points.

We have a couple days to cool off. A few more days of park-hopping and pool lounging. We pick up our race packages mid-week and run before the weekend starts in earnest. I’m wondering how I’m going to tackle a half marathon I didn’t really train for, on which I’m banking on residual fitness and sheer determination, plodding along at a turtle’s pace to finish the thing on pure willpower.

This morning on my tour of the hotel trails, weaving around families walking towards the park gates, and as I trotted by wearing my 2014 Disney Half Marathon running shirt, one of the race setup workers looked up, pointed and snapped a photo of me from his phone. I smiled. It was probably the only time I’ve been out in public this week without a mask so it took a moment to remember how. I guess if you see a sweaty forty-something guy smirking akwardly on the runDisney socials this week … maybe it’s me?

Or maybe I should have posed with my new friend the turtle. I’d bet we have more in common these days than we realize.