Wednesday, July 22, 2015

My Ultramarathon Journey

Right after my first marathon on October 14, 2014 I was setting new goals.

I had fallen in love with trail running and wanted to do an ultra marathon. On November 1, 2014 I registered for the Sulphur Springs 50K and started my training. Unfortunately, due to an ITB injury which occurred in March, I had to switch that race to a 10K.

I decided to register for The North Face Endurance ChallengeSeries for July 18, 2015 at Blue Mountains, Ontario. The online 16 week training program I used indicated I had missed the first 6 weeks of training, during which I had been strength and cross training mostly. I increased my mileage slowly (the 10% rule) and listened to my body. I had built up my long runs up to 32K back in March. It was May 10 and I had 10 weeks to go. I did my training running various trails and roads around London. I continued with cross training doing various activities such as cycling, rowing, elliptical, yoga, and of course weights, kettle bells, and specific core strengthening workouts for runners. The result of my hard work was evident through my long runs as I had no glute, hip or knee issues. Although I was running at a much slower pace than before, running for 2 to 3 hours produced no pain or discomfort.

~ May 2015 - Komoka ~ 
I’ve become very good at trail running since I picked it up in May 2014. Sometimes I feel like a kid running through the playground and just zig-zagging my way through the woods. Getting closer to the race, I knew I could complete the race within 7 hours. But I remained true to my original goals of completing, smiling, and staying injury free.

I got to Blue Mountain Resort Friday afternoon after a 3 hour drive from London. I picked up my bib and had enough time to visit the beach before heading to a friend’s place 17 min away.
~ Northwind Beach ~

Linda, a seasoned trail runner herself had graciously offered a place for me to stay over the weekend. We had been connected through a running friend from London when I had sent an email out to find out if I could share a ride and stay with someone for the race. I had my craft dinner and pretzels to snack on. She offered lots of delicious food but I had to refuse as I did not want to take any chances the night before my race. It was great that she herself as a runner was aware of everyone’s specific routine and regiment. We chatted a bit about food, nutrition, running and London’s running community.

I was ready to hit the sack at 8. Although I knew I would not be able to sleep very well, I decided to call it a night as I was getting anxious a bit. I wanted to meditate and relax. Her place was perfect and quiet. My room backed onto a tennis court and the birds were chirping as I closed my eyes and was thankful for the generosity of this very kind woman. I drifted off and when I woke up I think it was past nine. I got up brushed my teeth and went back to bed again. Till 4 am I woke up many times but I was at peace. I was not anxious.

At 4 am I was foam rolling and did some active isolated stretches. I had breakfast and left the house around 6:15. I had told Linda if I was feeling well I would drive back to London. If I was sick I’d go back to her place for a 2nd night. We left it at that. She was expecting more guests arriving on Saturday as a number of them along with Linda were racing on Sunday with The North Face Endurance Challenge Series. I thought to myself it would be nice to go back the 2nd night and socialize and have some fun.

I drove to the race location and was happy to see lots of parking spaces were available despite the fact the 50 miler racers had started at 5 am! I dropped off my backpack at the designated tent which had my change of clothes for after the race. I had enough time to use the bathroom a few times, to relax, take some pictures, and eat my banana.

~ Blue Mountains Village ~ 

I could not drink my coffee and pre-race energizer drink. My throat was shut that morning! I am a coffee drinker but that morning I just could not drink it. My heels were feeling fine and there was no pain what so ever. My cold was masked by medication.

Closer to the start time I walked up to the starting area and there was a very nice photographer that asked me if he could take my picture and I shyly smiled and said yes! He was super nice and several times throughout the race we crossed paths.

~ Pre-race Photo ~

Before I knew it, the second wave had started and my dream of becoming an ultra marathoner was becoming a reality. Some of the runners took off really fast but I was in no hurry. I had come to the race believing in my goal that I would complete the 50K trail run and smile at the end. I was not competing with anyone and I wanted to enjoy every moment of my journey. My body took a good 3K to wake up and find its rhythm. I was glad that I took cold meds and was not coughing, sneezing, and did not have a headache. My heels were not aching. Everything was in order. I walked up the hills from the start. And I have to say the hills were right from the start and there was no end!

I passed a woman who was struggling and said “OMG! This is so different from road running” This was her first ever trail run! I wonder how far she got that day! I came across many people who had just decided to come to the race because their friends were coming or they had thought this was another obstacle course and they could just show up, have fun and celebrate with a beer at the end. But I was too polite to make any comments. Who was I to judge anyone? I could hear sometimes breathing on the back of my neck and I swiftly step aside and said please pass by it’s OK, I’m taking my time to go slow. I don’t know how many times I said that.

We got to a downhill and afterwards upon reflection I believe this was where I made a crucial mistake. I wanted to make up for the lost time on all the hills and flew down and used the momentum to glide through some parts of the trail till I got to the next hill.

~ Light and Fast ~ 
The course constantly changed from green lush forest to woods, mountain, rocks, pebbles, gravel, a few roads, muddy areas, areas covered with hay, slippery slopes, and lots and lots of hills! Did I mention the course was hilly?I arrived at the first station and most runners were complaining about the heat. I was totally fine. I love the heat and had trained in the heat. Despite the fact I love the heat, I knew I had to take some measures to stay healthy and comfortable. I asked Josh, one of the volunteers, to dump some water on my head. He was glad to do it! 

~ Josh - One of many wonderful volunteers.~ 

For the rest of the race at every station I got water over my head and washed my face and arms. The flies stayed away as I was less stinky and it kept me cool. I drank Gatorade followed by water. I ate ½ banana followed by 2 more waters. Towards the end I started having Cliff shot blocks, some potatoes, and a few chips. I carried salt tabs, Eload tabs, and gels but I only used two gels. I preferred banana and potatoes. The stations were placed strategically and always showed up in the right place at the right time. The highlight of this event for me was the volunteers. They were the most friendly, happy, helpful, and amazing group of volunteers I have ever seen. They cheered, talked to us, provided support, and they were ready and happy to dump water on me. I just loved them!

~ More Friendly and Happy Volunteers. ~ 

There was a place in the woods where the path opened up and all you could see were tall green trees. The forest looked beautiful in the early hours of the morning with the sun trying to peek through. The fast runners had gone far ahead and the slow runners were way behind. It was just me floating smoothly in the most serene and calm area of the race. I was floating through the forest without a sound from my feet on the soft grass. I felt happy and content the way the journey was shaping up.

~ Photo Credit: With permission from Endurance Challenge
Photo by: Remi Bastier ~

I passed a runner at some point that I thought was in distress but learned she was trying to make a video for social media about her journey. I crossed paths with her again at the end under a very different circumstance. I passed her and kept going. I was doing really well. Everything was great. The scenery, the mountain, the views, the ever changing landscape of the Bruce trails, seeing Georgian Bay from high above, the blue sky, the sunshine…
~ Georgian Bay ~ 

I saw many friends who were running their 50 miler and we hi fived wishing each other good luck. I took pictures of racers with their camera and they took my picture too. I stopped and enjoyed the scenery. Although my 10 year old son scolded at me saying maybe next time you should not waste time and just run!

~ Refreshing Cold Crisp Water - Behind me was a water fall! ~ 
 It was around 18K that I started feeling a bit of stiffness around my left knee. It had happened during my training as well but had gone away after a short period of time. Then it happened! My ITB injury was aggravated by all the hills I had climbed. I was in the middle of a flat field on a narrow path that was covered on both sides by long grass and had to stop and catch my breath from the sharp drilling pain on the outside of my left knee. I panicked and started to think, I’m only at 21K! I still have 29K to go. I thought about using my cell to call for help or at the next aid station I will ask them to take me back to the village. I shook my head and immediately wiped off the idea of quitting! I was appalled at myself for thinking of those ideas. The negotiation between mind and body was under way. I took a deep breath to calm myself down. I remembered that morning before starting my car I had seen the bottle of Ibuprofen that had 8 caps in it. I had gone to the trunk to find a small plastic and put them in there and place them in my Jenny Vest just in case of emergency. I was grateful for my decision. I took one cap right away. At this time, I was walking believing that the rest and the pill would work and get me running soon. But deep down I could not believe my own story. Every runner that I had left behind started passing me one by one. I had crossed paths with a French couple a few times. I told them my ITB had flared up and that I was slowing down a lot. The gentleman said to look at it as an adventure. It is not a race. Hearing him was just what I needed to relax and let go of my anxiety.

After I was alone again I started pleading with the higher powers saying I just need to do this for me. Just let me finish. Going home with a DNF is not an option for me. So, the hardest part of my journey began. I was limping even when I was walking. At this time, another runner caught up with me and asked if I needed help. I told her about my situation and she said “Take two pills and take them every hour! YOU ARE GOING TO COMPLETE THIS RACE!” She sounded like she was my coach and was telling me “Quitting is NOT an option!” She left and I was so empowered by her words I took 2 more pills but not every hour. Well, let’s say I took all the 8 pills during the race. Normally, I don’t take Ibuprofen that often. My body is so sensitive that taking one pill makes me dizzy. I’m shocked I did not collapse or get dizzy with an overdose of Ibuprofen that day. I got to the next aid station and said “Am I the last one?” and they said “God no. There are still people coming”

I thanked all the volunteers at every station and told them how much they are valued for their work. They replied thanks for racing and thank you for recognizing our work.

~ Great Volunteers Working Hard To Take Care of US! ~ 

I knew my personal struggle with pain would linger but I couldn’t let it ruin my whole experience. I continued interacting with the racers when it was welcomed. I kept talking to volunteers, I smiled when I was surrounded by people and in my loneliness I reflected and tried not to cry although I came close to tears so many times. I decided to stay strong and enjoy the journey despite the injury. I knew looking back at this day years from now, I wanted to say I’m happy the way I carried myself.   Only if they knew what was going on my head. I kept moving forward.

  "I walk slowly but I never walk backwards." Abraham Lincoln

I came across Mark who had come to this race with his friend but severe leg cramps had slowed him down. I offered him salt tabs but he said he got some salty stuff in at the aid station. I told him I have them if he needs them. I asked him if he had Ibuprofen as I may need them towards the end. He said he had one. We walked together through the woods for a while and then he took off. For the rest of the race we saw each other many times. And yes, I did take his only Ibuprofen.

I was running on pure determination. A lot of runners gave me encouraging words saying you’re doing great, keep it up, looking good, and you’ve got this. It meant a lot to hear those words, even though I was in a lot of pain. I also provided encouragement to other runners. Throughout the race, many runners asked me if I needed help but I quickly would say “It’s just my ITB. I’m going slow”. I saw a few runners who were sitting down to take a rest due to the heat. Their faces were red and they were panting. I’d ask them if they needed help and they’d say no thanks, just taking a break.

I had no fuel or hydration issues. I was fine with the heat and as a matter of fact, it wasn’t on my mind at all. My focus was how to maneuver through the course with my injured knee. I quickly learned how to use my whole body to carry my left leg. Downhills were the toughest part of the course for me as the pressure was too much on my leg. At some point, I became very emotional and I wanted to cry but the strong and tough side of me would take over and say “Mahnaz, you have a choice here to cry and be weak and let them come carry you away OR toughen up and pull that damn leg down the hill!” I pulled it down. I learned to go down side ways hopping short steps with the right leg and pulling myself down. One runner said lie down and roll yourself to the bottom of the hill. I don’t think I wanted to have other sorts of injuries! It works in the movies though! I started walking faster pumping my arms. I am a very good walker. Sometimes for relaxation I backpack through my town all day. My son says mom your walking is faster than my jogging! I started feeling a bit of pain between my shoulder blades. The vest I was wearing was comfortable but after hours of climbing even that was too much on my back.

 "You may encounter many defeats but you must not be defeated." Maya Angelou 

At 44K I was in a group of 5 walkers including myself. I don’t know if it was the ibuprofen or just sheer will and determination, I felt stronger and I pulled away from them. I kept walking faster and faster. I hopped and even jogged a bit. At 45K my Garmin beeped and went black. I work with MEC as their event staff. When I had told them my Garmin Forerunner 10 was not ideal for an ultramarathon, and asked for help they generously offered me a brand new Garmin 220 to test! I had no time to figure out what was going on with the watch. As I was going for a 2nd loop I started panicking. There was nobody in the woods. It was just me. I was sure I had followed the flags. Every distance was marked by a specific colour. 50K racers bib colour was blue and we had followed it all the way. But being the only one with not a sound in the creepy quiet woods, I was beginning to think I must have gone the wrong way. Why weren’t the other guys behind me? Then I saw a volunteer sitting on a chair and he had a red arrow pointing up for the 50milers and a blue arrow to the right for the 50Ks. I told him am I going the right way? He said “yes.” I told him I should be done by now my watch died and it seems I should have been at the finish line by now. He said only 3K down the hill and up. I continued on but got really scared.

~ Bruce Trails - Majestic and Humbling ~ 

Then I saw the same woman who was trying to make a video during the early hours of the morning. I asked her if she knew what kilometer we were at and she didn’t know. I told her this is dragging on and we should be done by now. She said we are on the right track and that soon we will come to the aid station. The aid station was at the top of a very steep hill. We both pushed on. She was a bit ahead of me. I saw her stop with her hands on her knees bending over looking completely exhausted. I was in the same boat as her. I had my hands on my knees bent over and exhausted. I padded her on the back saying we can do it. You’re doing great, let’s go. The volunteers were encouraging us to keep moving and not to stop. One of them came down a bit to hold her hands. The other guy was telling me to pump my arms. I had no energy to talk back telling him I had pumped my arms all day and there was nothing left to pump any more at this point. There was a young girl she must have been 11 or 12 came with a cold face wash and ice. That was heavenly. I told her thank you and how proud of her I was for doing such a great job in a hot day like this. I got ready to face the hardest last 2K through winding and narrow wooden steps and steep downward hills in the wooded area that led to an open field at the end towards the finish line.

~ Most visited station and most wonderful volunteers! ~

As I got to the woods I saw the French couple going down. I got close to them and said “here you are my friends. We meet again.” I noticed the woman had slowed down and they were quiet. I got behind her and slowed down but she shifted telling me she didn’t want to slip. I nodded and moved sideways. The first time going down these steps it had taken me a long time while everyone was gliding through the air. This time I was using short quick steps to get through it as fast as I could. I kept pushing forward and I came to the opening. I told myself this is it. 

"If you are distressed by anything external, the pain is not due to the thing itself, but to your estimate of it; and this you have the power to revoke at any moment." Marcus Aurelius 

The mind over body negotiation intensified. I had imagined myself many times running through the finish line with a big smile. Something else took over. I started walking faster, I started to jog, and I started to run short quick steps. I was feeling no pain. I knew I was going to make it. Then a 50 miler zoomed by me saying “great job!” I said thank you & got faster. I saw the spectators to the right cheering. They cheered louder as another 50 miler zoomed by me. I got even faster…I felt tall…happy, ecstatic…I had told myself SMILE! You’re almost there! I crossed the finish line! No matter the pain and what I had gone through, this was a moment to be celebrated and be proud of! I raised my hands and yelled from top of my longs “I DID IT!”

~ Mind Over Body ~ 

I high fived a group racers who had gathered right at the finish line and I could not stop smiling. One of the officials checked my bib quickly making sure I had completed the race and I had all the permanent markers from all the aid stations.  I saw Adam my friend who had completed his 80K! I had randomly cheered him at Springbank a month ago and we became friends. We congratulated each other. His dad took a picture of us. I was overwhelmed with emotions. I was limping again but I didn’t care. I went to get a massage but they wanted me to wait around as there was a wait list and only four people were giving massages. I opted to go and place my feet in the ice cold water. There were some runners who had fallen a few times and they were covered in mud. Then I turned to the guy next to me and I saw his medal and remembered nobody gave me my medal! All I wanted was to sit there and not to move but I got on my feet again and went back to the start line and asked the photographer who’s going to give me my medal. She found someone and he gave it to me. She apologized but I said no worries, I have it now.

~ Earned it! ~

I was talking to another runner who I had crossed path a few times during the race. He had fallen and had glute pain. I was happy to see he had completed. As I turned around the French woman came to me and said listen I just wanted to say congratulations! You did it! I was overwhelmed with emotion and I said can I hug you and of course she said NO. LOL! We shook hands and I congratulated her as well.
~ During our joureny we crossed path a few times. ~

I got my backpack and headed to the bathroom to change when I saw my friend Patrick. He was the first runner on Twitter to follow me. He looked great after his 50 miler! We took a couple of pictures, chatted for a bit and parted ways. I also saw another great runner from Toronto, Aries.

Then I saw a couple and we smiled and I said congratulations on completing your 50K! She replied “you mean 55K!” I said what? You ran 55K? Why? She said we all did. The light bulb went on! I told her how in the woods I felt I was running more than I was supposed to! When you learn to run without your watch during your training you develop those skills and can guess your mileage. I made a mental note of that. It’s funny when I crossed the finish line I did not pay attention to the timer or the medal. I had achieved two out of three goals. I completed my first ultra marathon. I smiled at the finish line. But I was injured.

I changed in the bathroom and cleaned up. I decided to head home as I knew that the day after I wouldn’t be able to drive for 3 hours. As I sat on the bench to put my shoes on there was a family from India with lots of kids and one of the girls just stared at me and then I heard her telling her parents she has a medal for 50 kilometers. I got up, stopped in front of her and said stay active and start running and when you grow up you can run 50K too. She smiled with a twinkle in her eyes.

The food provided were burgers with side salads. While eating, I ended up talking to a runner from the states who does TNFECS regularly. We walked through the square to figure out where they were giving free beers but there were none. We went looking for Repreeve socks but the person had left a sign saying be back tomorrow. I told the guy well, I’m blogging about my race and I have to be honest on my blog. I went to the area where some of the race officials (volunteers) were answering people’s questions and they said there was no beer and one of them, realizing we were leaving the village, offered to give us our socks. With that I started walking to my car. Evidently the food and drink after the race in the states are lined up and organized really well for the runners after race.

I headed to the tent where the ultramarathoner himself, Dean Karnazes, was interacting with all the race finishers. I told him about my knee injury briefly and he said “Mahnaz, you are a true runner.  You have the mental strength to get you through.  Congratulations!” I was all choked up with emotion and really want to give him a big hug and cry but just ended up shaking his hand and saying thank you.  

"Run when you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must; just never give up." Dean Karnazes

I drove back another 3 hours as I knew my mobility would be limited and I couldn’t drive the next day. When I got home, I unloaded the car, took a shower, did laundry, ate Edamame and sat on my bed uploading the Garmin. The Garmin showed 54.79 KM!!!

~ 54.79 KM in 9:33 ~

55 kilometers and 9.5 hours later with 3 new black bloody bruised toes, and a knee injury, I was now an ultra marathoner!

Race Review 

Would I recommend this race? Yes. As someone who is part of event planning for races and volunteering with many events in my community, I have some feedback that I hope the organizers will see as an opportunity to make this race one of the best TNF series!

*If you are coming to this race for swag and knick knacks, FORGET IT.  I personally don’t care for stuff as I am a minimalist. I would like to have a great experience after the race rather going home with stuff. The race gives you a decent technical shirt and your medal. There is a virtual race bag with some deals which is fantastic in terms of sustainability and going paperless.

* The volunteers and aid stations were the highlight of this race for me. They were simply the best. They had something for everyone and there was no shortage of fuel and drink. Although more shade for the volunteers and tables would be great.

* More volunteers towards the end during the last loop to reassure runners and provide that mental boost would be fantastic.

*Although things are placed in close proximity for someone who has been running all day it still seems like a huge task to walk around. It would be great to have the ice bath and massage tables closer to the lodge that had restrooms and food.

*A great idea to have massage therapists on site. It would be ideal to have more of them to shorten the wait time for many runners at the end. Especially for those who are headed home right after.

*The ice buckets were great but towards the end the water was dark and muddy. It would be great to give the runners who are coming in at the end of the day the same treatment as those arrived hours earlier. The water should be changed and the buckets kept clean.

*The emails should let the racers know that there is no beer at the end for Ontario and the food is just burger with side salad. This way, the runners can decide to bring their own food for after the race or purchase food. The emails were implying there would be a great option of hot and cold food at the end with a beer.

*Months leading to the race day, informative, supportive and encouraging emails kept coming. They are filled with tips and information. I printed a copy of the race guide and studied it religiously. Preparation and visualization of how you’ll be running on your race day should be a part of any runner’s training.

*Course measurements were way off. On the printed guide it indicates 50K exact. I’m not sure where the inconsistency comes in. I was with a group of 5 people at 44K and I left them behind. When I checked the results one of them had finished 15 min earlier than me. I did not see him passing me at any point after 44K. Did he go back to finish line realizing he was running over 50K? I ran 55K at 9:33. The organizers need to fix this. I had an injury and I was on the course for longer period of time for no reason. It is not fair when some people know when to head back while the rest of us thinking we can’t quit and need to finish 50K while in fact we are running longer. This to me is a serious flaw that needs to be fixed.

*This is a huge race that requires months of preparation and many volunteers to make it a successful race. The volunteers did an amazing job and the officials were super helpful and awesome. I would hope to go back one day to Blue Mountain and run it faster without any injury. If you are healthy, have trained well - train in hot temperatures ;) – you will enjoy this challenge tremendously.

2015-2016 Goals

My top priorities are recovery and healing. I need to get rid of the knee issue for good. I won’t be racing for the rest of the year.

I am going to learn how to swim and prepare for my triathlon next summer. I will continue with cross training, running short distances of trails, and strength workouts.

The next big goal will be an ultra marathon for the Fall of 2016. I will need to figure out where in the States I should book myself for a mini vacation.

~ Thank you to anyone who believed in my dream! I appreciate having you in my life. ~

For those of you who don't know my story, I was size 16 in 2008 and started running July 2013. Anything is possible!

~ Thank you The North Face Challenge Series - Ontario for making my dream a reality! ~

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