After months of lax training, the final week had arrived. I had originally planned on logging many more long runs in preparation; however, now I was entering race day only ever running slightly over half the distance and never for more than five hours straight. I had nerves amplifying each day, doubts in mind and feeling every little ache, tweak or strain in my legs a million times stronger than they actually were; I couldn’t have felt more undertrained. It wasn’t until a couple days before the race that I actually managed to collect myself and found some peace in what was to come. I was done putting unnecessary pressure on myself and decided it was time to just embrace and start enjoying every moment of it.
I arrived at Blue Mountain mid-afternoon on the Friday before the race (which had a 5am start) with a fellow runner; we found our hotel room which to our pleasure was only a mere 100m from the starting line. Once settled we went out for an easy 5k run to scope out the area and ended up at the beginning of the course’s first ascension known as “The Grind” (which is nearly 900ft of switchback trails). We familiarized ourselves with the trail markers and afterward we attempted to attend a pre-race Q&A. To no avail, we went back to the room and were joined by another fellow runner who was running the marathon distance. We packed up our gear bags and went to sleep… or tried I should say. It was a rather noisy hotel with thumping above us and people talking in the hallway, seemed like a pretty rowdy place but then again it was only 7:30pm.
I have never felt so awake and energized to the sound of my alarm before! It was 3am, leaving enough time to eat a reasonable breakfast (toast with peanut butter and a protein shake), have a hot shower to warm up, finalize our drop bags and gear up! After pacing around the hotel room for what felt like an eternity, we headed outside at 4:30. The temperature was perfect (14⁰C), the starting area was full of people and the announcer was going over race information. We threw our drop bags onto the pile and readied ourselves for the unthinkable. Having just finished reading 50/50, it was really cool having author (and experienced runner) Dean Karnazes give us a brief pep talk prior to the start. I hesitantly raised my hand when he asked whose first 50 miler this was.
With the race now underway it was an amazing sight, seeing a sea of headlamps in front and behind me racing through the trails. The first 2km, “The Grind”, felt never-ending; this stretch split runners into groups, with some disappearing into the darkness. Trying not to get caught up in a fast pace, I held with the pack until we reached the top. Now going downhill I remembered a friend of mine’s (experienced with ultramarathons) advice to use your strengths, such as downhills. I nearly went into an all-out sprint, bombing down the hill and flying by several runners before entering another trail.
Hills, trails, roads, talks, kms, minutes, hours all flying by under my feet. I had run with a friend up until an aid station at 33km. Upon entering that aid station we had finally caught up to some other runners; having not seen very many for quite a stretch I began to feel my pace picking up. At that point, my friend knew just by a look I gave him that I was going to pursue. I quickly found myself behind two other runners until we entered a technical downhill trail, “play to my strengths”! Increasing my pace to an all-out downhill sprint I was flying over rocks, roots and around corners. The first runner stepped aside to let me pass, then the second. Within minutes I had caught up to and passed two more runners, one clearly surprised to see me asking where the hell I came from. Leaving the trails, I passed two more runners on some steep downhill ski hills.
After the first loop (3:49 in and 40km down) I still felt really good. Now knowing the entire course and what to expect the second time around I felt grateful to know what was ahead, at least I did at that point. Reaching “The Grind” for the second time, I combined hiking the corners of the switchbacks while running the straights, passing yet another runner. Using the asphalt downhill I was able to pass one more; soon after that, I passed someone else on the trail. Getting caught up in a speed faster than my feet could physically keep up to, my left foot clipped a root that sent me down fast onto my right knee, cutting it open. Although I could now feel blood running down my leg, the pain immediately took my mind off of everything else my body was going through. I used the pain as fuel and picked up my pace. Reaching the next aid station the medical team was eager to try and fix me up but with a feeling as though I was being hunted; there was no time to stop.
I was now catching up to the 50km runners who started at 7am, but there were also a couple marathoners who started at 9am who caught up to me. I was reaching the 50km mark when I heard my name. I was very grateful to see that my friend (running the marathon distance) had caught up to me. He was only 10k into his race (with fresh legs) and I could feel his energy. I was grateful for it as my mind was beginning to tire. I didn’t expect it of him, and felt as though I was holding him back but he agreed to pace with me until the end (so long as we maintained a pace we had agreed upon). Feeling tired, battling several stitches and lung pains, I held. With him pulling ahead a few times and me thinking to myself, “You’re not getting away that easy” I pushed to keep up with him. Now dreading knowing what was still ahead he helped me break down the remaining distances into intervals, such as “5 more kms until the next aid station”. This gave the illusion that the next 30kms were much more attainable.
The aid station volunteers were absolutely amazing and were always waiting and ready to help us refuel at every stop. Fueling up on pb & j sandwiches early on, followed by bananas, oranges, skittles, and during the second half even potatoes chips (which I dipped, nauseatingly, into salt). I also made a point of ensuring my 20oz bottle was empty by the time I got to each station to refill with ice, electrolytes and/or water. At the final three aid stations, I was also drinking a couple cups of flat coke, which acted as an immediate yet temporary pick me up!
At 64km and after a long stretch of unshaded country roads, I began to feel the heat. The sweat was dripping and I could feel my core temperature rising. I vaguely remember mumbling for a while how hot I was while feeling my pace drop. It wasn’t until we got back into the shaded trails that I began to break through what I would deem as my darkest hour. After the second last aid station at 73km it was 5 more km of up and down ski hills, but knowing the end was near I felt somewhat energized.
Since I had begun the second loop, I was getting mixed in with 50k and marathon runners. With bibs distinguished by colour, I was being recognized as a 50 miler and the encouragement I received from the volunteers and onlookers gave me a boost of pride. They shouted things like “That’s a 50 miler” and “Go 50 miler!” With several of the other distance runners rooting me on as well, it made the thought of stopping unbearable.
With 2km left and reaching the top of the final ski hill, my friend was about 100m ahead of me when he turned and shouted “Mike! Pick it up!” I assumed by the tone of his voice that there was another 50 miler at the top of the hill. I turned up my pace the remainder of that hill and reached the top to find myself now running beside another 50 miler, after having been in pursuit for over 30km. With an immediate downhill stretch, I rode my strength and managed to pull a good 200m ahead through the trails. At the final aid station, I stopped for a quick drink before the final km straight down a ski hill.
I had previously proved to be strong on the downhills but after 79km and the decline of this hill, I was struggling. With my friend pulling far ahead, I glanced back to see the same 50 miler I had passed now less than 100m behind me and closing in fast. With my feet and quads on fire and my knees ready to explode, I took a deep breath and gave everything I had left. Instead of leaning backward while descending I was now leaning forward, and flying down the hill, my feet doing everything they could to keep up and prevent me from me falling on my face. I passed my friend just as we got to the bottom of the hill and opened up a full sprint (a post 80km sprint) and hit the finish line! Caught up in the moment I walked straight to the snacks and grabbed some oranges and water, before doubling back for my medal I had ran right past.
After seeing no other runners for so long and aid station volunteers unable to tell me the number of runners ahead of me, I had no idea where I ranked. However, I was very pleased with my time of 8:04:20. Shortly after I met up with friends and got post-race pictures I went to the results tent to find out I finished 5th overall and 2nd in my age group. I was astonished, going into this race feeling undertrained and having doubts of completion at such a pace, I couldn’t be more pleased.
Before the race, I had mentioned to some friends that I was trying to figure out if I liked running. Was it something I truly enjoyed doing? Or was I just doing it because I liked the competitiveness and sense of achievement I got when reaching goals? After 50 miles I’ve decided running’s not so bad, maybe I like it a little bit!