It was 4:45 am and 40 of us stood shivering inside a tent with goofy grins on our faces and tiny packs on our backs. Five centimeters of snow had already accumulated overnight, and the giant flakes showed no sign of slowing down. This end of September race was usually guaranteed crisp blue skies and vibrant leaves, but this morning, the scene was straight out of a Christmas Card. You know the ones, with pictures of people drinking hot cocoa around a fire in a warm and cozy house? And yet here we were, a bunch of fools about to flick on our headlamps and venture out into the snowstorm to run All. Day. Long. ‘What kind of Kool-Aid were they serving?’ You might ask. Fair question.
Rivers Edge Ultra offers several distances to race and I suspect someone was holding a gun to my head when I opted to sign up for the 100 km event. There were only four other women in the tent that morning and they were all running the 80 km race, which meant it was a war of attrition against myself. I was already mentally polishing my first-place trophy and wasn’t listening too closely when the Race Director began explaining how they had to modify the course due to the wild weather and slippery conditions. We all shuffled like a bunch of giddy drunks to the starting corral and off we went into the snowy darkness. It only took me about 5 km to decide this was the dumbest thing I had ever signed up to do and there was no way I could continue for another 95 km. It was cold, footing was terrible, I was being passed like crazy and then I fell into a ditch. Yep, an actual ditch. It sucked. I started thinking of excuses I could use to drop out; too cold, too slippery, my knee hurt. And as soon as I thought it, the strangest thing happened, my knee actually hurt. It had been a rough two months leading up to the race because my patellar tendon was pretty irritated. This meant my training runs were less then ideal. No big distances, no back to back runs on tired legs. Instead I had a lot of physio, strength and rest. I even did yoga. And I don’t ‘yoga’. I came to the start line feeling about 80% confident my knee would be ok, but as soon as I felt like giving up, it started to hurt. I took a deep breath and remembered the words my daughter had written in Sharpie on my forearms. Smile and Flow. I repeated that mantra and reminded myself to run my own race and not worry about the people passing me. I pulled myself out of the (literal and figurative) ditch and kept going. Leg 1 done. I set out on Leg 2 on pace with a guy running the 80 km. He seemed like the kind of stranger you could trust in the dark, so we started chatting. Let me pause to explain that trail runners are absolutely insane nutballs who drive to remote places to suffer for long hours in grueling conditions (and pay money to do it). But they are also a wildly interesting and amazing humans. This guy was no different. We passed the time telling race tales and discussing the ethics of forestry and Indigenous rights. Deep stuff.
By this time, I was about two hours in and it was time to empty the tank. Now, boys, you might want to check out for this paragraph…my ladies, lean in. Guess who I was met with in the porta-potty? Aunt Flo. Now, I knew this was a possibility, but thought for sure my uterus would take stock of what the rest of the body was busy doing and would hold off for the day, but no such luck. You see, we like to think that we can control her with our pills and our rings, but the reality is, the uterus is the sun around which all else revolves. And now she was flexing her mighty muscle and making my race day that much harder. Not quite the Smile and Flow I had in mind.
Beer and Boobies!!! Ok, boys, now that I have your attention again, you need to hear this about how amazing women are. I hustled back to the transition area and found a friend who was about the start the 50 km race. She gave me a hug and I whispered ‘hey, you got anything?’. She didn’t, but she mobilized the troops at a rate so fast that it made Napoleon’s head spin and I kid you not, in less then a minute someone was sneaking one into my hand and threw and extra one in my race bin. You see, women are like squirrels, we keep stashes of feminine hygiene products everywhere; purses, glove boxes, the moldy recesses of gym bags. And we totally forget they are there until one of our own is in trouble and then BOOM, we know exactly where to look, and someone will dig into the hidden zipper pocket of their jacket and pull out a tampon that they got from some drunk girl in line at a porta potty at a music festival three years ago. Who run the world?? (Girls)
Now that I had that problem solved I was ready to tackle Leg 3, excited to cover new terrain and find new friends. Turns out my new friend on Leg 3 grew up in my home town, so we spent a couple kms playing ‘Seven Degrees of Separation’ and climbing through barbed wire fences. Fun times. The aid station on Leg 3 is off the back deck of the race directors’ house where I was met with volunteers eager to offer me home baked treats and hot drinks, making it hard to not call it in and stay awhile. But no, I must stay focused. I pounded back a hot salted potato or three, a shot of coffee and me and homeboy were off again to the sound of cheering and cowbells, ready to finish Leg 3.
Leg 4 was another go-round of the same loop but this time I found myself completely alone. Time to turn on my carefully curated run playlist. Relentless, Run me like a River, Laura Palmer, &Run, 100 Miles and Runnin, it was just song after song of so much goodness. I rarely run with music, but put great effort into the perfect playlist for today and it sure was working for me. That is until I came up to two guys plodding along, just as “Its Raining Men” came on and I suddenly became very embarrassed of my blaring tunes. It most definitely was not the super sexy times that ‘The Weather Girls’ had in mind. But then Twenty-One Pilots ‘Trees’ came on just as I rounded the corner to the most breathtakingly gorgeous section of trail; snow slowly filtering down through bright yellow leaves. I got goosebumps at the intensity of the moment.
Round two at the back-deck aid station. More coffee. More potatoes. A meatball. More cowbell.
Halfway back to transition I came up behind Hiro, who is also running the 100 km, and suddenly my catchy alt-rock/pop mix felt wildly inappropriate on this sacred ground. If you have ever run an ultra anywhere in Western Canada you know the name Hiro. This guy runs everything. He’s like a Japanese Energizer Bunny always ready with a smile and word of encouragement, and Rivers Edge Ultra was his 99th completed ultramarathon. Have I mentioned that ultra runners are amazing? This guy is who we all sorta wish we were.
Back at transition to stuff more food into my face and change my clothes yet again. I pulled my shoes off to inspect a hot spot on my feet and that is when she appeared. The magical crewing unicorn. Don’t believe me? She legit wore a unicorn head for most of the day. I’ve only met her a few times before but know a bit of her story through social media. She, lets call her ‘The Unicorn’, is an avid trail runner and very accomplished ultrarunner as well as a personal trainer and run coach. This girl LIVES to run. However, a few years ago, a debilitating concussion left her unable to do what she loves most. She is tackling her healing journey with incredible determination and a big smile on her face and here she is, on this freezing cold day hovering over me as I pick at my feet. “What do you need?” She asks. “Uhhhh…” I stammer. “Moleskin?” She pulls off her gloves, opens up a fishing tackle box full of medical supplies, and sits down in front of me and works her magic. Five minutes later my foot is clean, taped and blister resistant. I looked up at her in wonder. I don’t even touch the feet of people I love, and here she is, taking care of me, a near stranger. I think you’re starting to get the picture; trail runners are extraordinary people.
Due to the course changes, we were supposed to do the last 12 km loop four times instead of two. However, even this last loop was modified to remove a section with a river crossing and its inevitable hypothermia. So off I go with about 50 km done and knowing things were about to get harder in the back half. Thankfully the trail was gorgeous. It followed the river for awhile, before heading up and over some rolling hills and then back through stunning single track through mossy forest and a babbling creek. I came up to transition area the same time as two other 100km runners and we all stopped dead with baffled looks on our faces. The supposed 12 km was barely over 6 km, there was no way we were done one loop already. The volunteers who were recording times were equally confused and the race director was nowhere to be found. I certainly did not need to stop at the aid station after only 6km so I just kept on going for round two. I hit a bit of a low point as the mental game started to play out this new uncertainty. I didn’t know if or how we would make up the lost kilometers and the cold and fatigue were starting to get to me and I walked far more of that loop then I care to admit. At the end of another 6 kms we had the official word from the race director that the course was shortened, and we were all going to finish with less distance then anticipated. In my now frozen brain, that plan sounded lovely because it meant I would be done within two hours and would be clean, warm and fed before dark instead of trudging along well into the evening. However, the news was also a huge disappointment. I know running 73 km in those conditions is still an accomplishment, but after having my sights set on the arbitrary number 100 for so long, 73 still felt like a loss.
No time to wallow in those feelings though. At transition I was surprised by a friend who has been very supportive through my training and I was so touched she drove all that way just to see me for a few minutes. My wonderful husband mixed up a batch of liquid oatmeal to warm me up, another change of clothes and I was good as new and ready for the last two loops. Another friend had just crushed the 50 km race (shortened to 34km) and wanted a few more kms, so he volunteered to pace me.
Being the nice Canadian I am, I played the “Are you sure? You don’t have to. I’m so slow by now and your so much faster” blah blah blah. Truthfully, I was thrilled for the offer of company and distraction. That was when ‘The Unicorn’ leaned over and said, “Go for it, never turn down company.” Hugs, high fives and off we went. ‘The Unicorn’ was right. The company made all the difference in the world and I couldn’t believe how many times I looked down at my watch to see we were running under 6 min/km. Now, if you read that and think “pffftt. That’s slow.” You are either:
1) an experienced ultrarunner and have my utmost respect
2) have never tried running a 6min/km when you’ve already been running for 9 hours.
I felt like we were flying. At the last transition, I tried to hide the desperation in my voice when I asked, “Are you doing the last loop with me?” then tried to sound all cool when he said he was happy having hit a marathon distance and was done. Ugh. Alone again. Time to dig deep and push through. A shot of coffee and I was off, motivated by the now growing crowd of friends and family who were waiting in the cold for me to come in. Amazingly, even without a pacer, I managed a few fast kilometers and passed four other 100 km racers. Now, I already knew I was getting some big hardware at the finish line, but winning because you were the ONLY female, is not exactly satisfactory. But beating those guys? Now that felt good.
Good being a relative term. Emotionally, I was elated it was almost over and things were still going so well. 80% of ultrarunning is the mental game, and other then the ditch incident early that morning, I had stayed mentally strong all day. I count that a huge win. However, my injury was starting to rear its ugly head and it felt like a knife was being wedged under my kneecap with every downhill step I took. Just a little further.
I was greeted at the finish line by a pickle and a ‘The Unicorn’ who were handing out medals (did I mention ultrarunners have a fantastic sense of humour?) and of course my husband and kids and a handful of running friends. More hugs, high fives, and I was awarded my first-place female prize, which was a massive chunk of engraved and painted wood. We all laughed when we saw the girl that was painted on my wood looked eerily like me. Am I really that much of a running cliché?
I went to bed with my heart full and my body emptied, which is exactly the best way to end a day. And while conquering a 100 km distance is still a beast waiting for me to slay, I could not have been happier with the incredible journey of Rivers Edge Ultra.