Intro to Ultra – Part 2

Along this running journey I’ve met some fellow crazies, people training for bigger events than I could fathom and people who just love to be outside all day pushing themselves. In the spirit of an Everesting challenge, one of these long days came in the form of hill repeats…but up a mountain on foot instead. The target was to “run” six reps of Prairie (7km, 700m) for a total of 43km and 4300m. And that’s how I found myself at the Prairie Mountain trailhead at 5:30am…

Prairie Marathon

Frankly I had no idea what to expect going into this marathon day. My biggest day on foot so far had been 34km and 1600m. I’m sure this will be fine. I’m familiar with hill reps, of course, but never having done so much vert or descending on foot I didn’t know how the body would hold up. In typical Alberta fashion, we also got a fresh dump of snow the night before, so what had been a mostly dry trail just two weeks ago was now buried under a foot of snow with some patches of ice to keep things interesting. I was also running this in the company of three of the craziest runners I know, all of them having convincingly checked off the 100mi distance and had high-place finishes in other ultra events. It was go time.

We set off from the trailhead at 5:30am, hoping to make the summit sunrise of 6:24am. We needn’t have worried though. The fog up top was so thick it ensured there would be zero sun all day. Just perfect. Lap 1 rolled by uneventfully. Patrick (one of the weeknight running crew) had decided to one-up us by starting at 4am instead to sneak in an extra lap, so at least we already had a trail broken and were not having to post-hole in the dark.

I managed one summit photo before the phone went kaput

After Lap 2 for me, Patrick dropped off for dad duty having done three reps and a casual 2100m before 9am. Joanna, Chris, and I trudged on. Some others made it out too but set off at their own tempo, so words were only exchanged in passing as one person trudged up and the other flew down. Completing Lap 3 brought us half-way done. After some 4hrs on trail Joanna and I took the first (and only) break of the day at the cars to refuel and restock the packs. I reveled in the simple pleasure of switching to dry socks. Chris plugged on for one more lap before calling it a day after #4.

Joanna set off for Lap 4 having somehow done all of the pack restocking in a mere 5min (the ultra aid station experience was showing). I doddled for another 10min and was left chasing. And that’s how I would spend the next lap and a half. I settled into a hard but manageable uphill rhythm and clicked off the vertical meters as I tried to grind my way back up to Joanna. The downhills proved my undoing though. I could make up 5-10min on the climb but would lose 3min every descent as my legs slowly locked up with each braking step downhill. Not that catching her really mattered, we were all out here to push ourselves individually anyway, but that constant mental math of time gaps gave my brain something to focus on instead of the minutes and slow ticking of vertical meters.

At least we didn’t have any views to distract us from getting the reps in

After setting a fastest time of the day on Lap 4, I regrouped with Joanna partway up Lap 5 before she promptly dropped me on the downhill… again. By the grace of a stranger, she was waiting at the bottom of Lap 6 chatting. We set off for one final rep, feeling like it was our victory lap. Our math fell a little shy of the mark though, with each lap actually only tallying 6.5km. The 6 reps would put as at “only” 39km. To cross that marathon mark and to officially call this an Ultra, the final descent had to take the leisurely back-route down the mountain (aptly named the Knee Saver) which made for an easier run down but a lot more flat running.

8h and 49min after setting off in the dark, we walked it in back to the cars having racked up 44.5km and 4393m – just barely technically an ultra. Mission accomplished!

And so on…

While I’ve checked off these two big events, this is merely the beginning of this running journey. Both days served to be big confidence builders as I pushed myself beyond what I thought I was capable of and emerged not entirely broken – there’s still that limit to find. I have plans for some other long days as the warm weather slowly rolls in, but don’t worry, I won’t completely abandon bike stuff 🙂

As for lessons to take away from these shenanigans, there wasn’t any overly profound revelations, no sleep-deprived spirit journeys, but a few small takeaways to carry with you regardless of the challenge:

  • Let yourself be surprised. I didn’t know if I could complete these challenges. Approaching them with curiosity to see how far I can go rather than thinking I can’t do it because I haven’t done it before made the difference between fearing failure and actually enjoying the process. Sometimes you just might surprise yourself how much you can do or how fast you can go if you can only withhold judgment and give yourself the chance to perform.
  • Company is key. Knowing you have somebody to show up for can make the difference in motivation when it matters most. I wouldn’t have leaped out of bed like a bat out of hell at 3:50am if I didn’t know Lauren was waiting for me to show up to run.
  • Know your ‘why‘. Long days and hard challenges are not 100% fun 100% of the time. There will be dark times, there will be times you wish you were somewhere else. That’s part of the challenge. Knowing why you’re doing what you’re doing – whatever the reason is – will give you another pillar to lean on when you’re questioning quitting. Having that ‘why’ before starting is key because your brain will surely blank if you try answering that question in the depths of the pain

And with those nuggets of wisdom, now I need to go ride my bike for a while to balance things out. Happy trails!

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