The best learning experiences always seem to come from unexpected places, and at times when you least expect them. Sure, anyone should expect to learn a thing or two from running one hundred kilometers, especially on an unfamiliar course. What really came as a surprise to me during the Lost Soul Ultra in Lethbridge was where I found new perspectives.
Every challenge you face is different and you can never re-create identical circumstances – this makes every experience you find yourself in such an important opportunity to learn from. If you overlook a lesson, it will never present itself in the same way and you’ve now lost that avenue for personal growth. It’s unlikely anyone will be perfectly successful in taking away all the lessons presented during a given situation, but I’d like to think I was very successful in this regard during my 16 hours and 57 minutes on the Lost Soul course.
Long story short, this summer has been very difficult. Way too much on my plate and pulled in way too many directions (a topic for another post). Busy enough that my focus has been along the lines of “is this good enough to get by?” Not the most productive mentality, but it helped me survive the craziness.
With that said, here were my three race goals for the Lost Soul 100km. None of them time-oriented.
- Get my Western States 100 lottery entry – essentially complete the race.
- Keep a positive mindset for the entirety of the race.
- Run stronger during the second 50 km loop – finishing strong leads to a satisfying race.
One last thought I had leading up to the race. I may not have had as many training miles on my legs as my body would tolerate, yet I was extremely consistent this summer. My training was very, very productive and I was by far in the best shape of my life coming into this race. I accepted that whatever happened during the race was a result of my preparation and training, that I would own my performance. If weather was good and the race went well, I was convinced a sub-12 hour finish was possible – I would own this performance. On the other hand, if I broke down through the race mentally or physically, this would mean I obviously still have aspects of my racing to learn from. Thus, good or bad, my performance at Lost Soul is exactly how well I can perform at my current fitness and skill as an ultrarunner, first or last across that finish line. No ‘if only I did X’ or ‘if Y didn’t happen, I would have done better’. No complaining, no blame – whatever happens, this is where I am at.
Armed with what turned out to be an all-star cast of first-time crew members – my amazing girlfriend Shayne and my talented injury-prevention guru Sheena – I was on my way to starting what would be one of the most intense experiences of my life. Not sure I had any clue what was ahead of me, but either way I was as ready as ever for the day. Here we go!
Leg 1: The gun goes off, Greg Medwid and myself take the lead at 4:30 to 4:40/km pace, which was feeling very relaxed and comfortable. I was consciously making an effort to reign in the excitement and make sure my pace was sustainable. It’s nice to clean off a few miles quickly at the start but it can’t be done by sacrificing performance later in the race. I backed this pace off after a few kilometers, letting others take the front. I hadn’t run much of the course before the race and wanted to make sure I kept fresh legs for the second 50k loop. With my ideal race conditions, I was hoping to finish this leg around 37-38 minutes. Coming into the transition, I looked at my watch – bang on 38 minutes and I was feeling very strong. I said goodbye to this leg of the race as it’s only completed once in the 100km event. Now on to the big loop that I’ll be running twice.
Leg 2: This is where the coulees really start. I backed off even further. The climbs are what I expect, manageable but not easy. I needed to take care of myself or this was going to be a sufferfest. Again a few people passed me but I’m quite confident I am doing exactly what I need to do for a strong performance through both loops. I hit my splits exactly as I planned for my ideal day… I knew it was going to get hot, and a fast time is likely out of the question, but hitting my 12 hour splits early on while it was still ‘cool’ (read: under 30 degrees Celsius) was quite motivating!
Leg 3: I hit my first real transition, which was comprised of swapping out bottles and getting my cooling sleeves to start the heat management early in the day.
I felt really good, but I knew staying on top of the heat was crucial for success. Not long into the leg, I catch glimpses of Mr. Dave “driving to the race is for sissies” Proctor a few hundred
meters behind me. After heckling him in my dust for several twists and turns in the trail, he finally creeped up on me (super creepy-like…) and we exchange a few words before he left me in his dust. I guess the first hundred miles he ran while commuting to the race from Okotoks wasn’t a big enough handicap for me to assert running dominance over this man… who does he think he is… anyway… I’m still feeling strong and happy to now be done 20% of the course!
Leg 4: As I came into the transition, I knew something was taking a turn for the worse. I still felt strong but my breathing became heavy as I stopped to refuel. I quickly threw a buff around my neck wrapped with ice and stuffed more ice in my cooling sleeves to keep my core temperature down. I left the transition almost shivering, but I knew this was a small amount of discomfort to help keep the harsh day’s heat under control.
This leg was what everyone referred to as the ‘North Loop’. The longest unaided section of the course, 16 km with a good chunk of coulees, so most people were out for 2 to 3 hours. The climbs began to indicate something was wrong, which I couldn’t quite place my finger on. My quads were burning more easily than they should have, and my breathing got too heavy to continue power hiking. I was reduced to a gentle hike on the climbs. And then it started really hitting – after the climbs, I’d have to stop and hold my head between my legs as I almost passed out at the top of almost every coulee. At this point, I was now reduced to walking. The climbs, the descents… the flats. Walking. Oh that’s a gentle downhill coming up? Walking. Everything was walking. Oh how I loathed… walking.
Around 5 km into the leg, I saw Jay Kinsella walking in the wrong direction towards me. Turns out his body didn’t take too kindly to racing 200 miles one month prior to racing another 100 miles at Lost Soul. I convinced him to turn around and walk with me to finish off the North Loop rather than packing it in immediately, just in case things turned around for him. After a half hour or so, he started feeling better and took off ahead of me.
I am at a point where walking and talking is challenging, and convince myself that there’s likely no way I can finish the race. If I haven’t completed 40 km and I can barely walk… even chasing the cutoff is going to be a struggle. I am 100% dropping as soon as I get to the next aid station. Not my day, I’ve got a few things to figure out, but let’s just call it quits while my body can still recover quickly from the shorter distance. I am okay with this, I’ve accepted it and am at peace with my decision. No Western States qualifier for me, which was upsetting, but it wasn’t in the cards.
I felt so powerless in this situation. I did not feel overly hot, I wasn’t overly-exerting myself, I was drinking more than enough fluids, and I was taking in more than enough calories. I wasn’t cramping, I could take deep breaths and didn’t appear to be affected by the smoke. From everything I could assess, I should have been right up at the front of the pack. Instead, I felt like I’d never ran a day in my life. I was now convinced that this sport wasn’t for me and this would be my last race – apparently this is what my ultrarunning rock-bottom looks like.
Joanna Ford catches up to me, and she wasn’t looking too fresh herself. Her asthma was being hit hard with the smoke so she wasn’t sure if finishing was in the cards for her either. She passed me quickly and again I’m left soaking in my own sweaty, salty, self-pity… all alone again.
The remaining 2 hours of this leg was comprised of walking and contemplating what was going on with my body. Every few minutes a racer would pass me and check to make sure I was okay. I was brought back to one year earlier, when I suffered symptoms of ketoacidosis at Fat Dog – a serious condition where my pancreas decided to stop working properly. The breathing issue was a repeat, but no other symptoms were present. I wasn’t 100% convinced this was happening again but it was showing enough of a resemblance that I was scared to push my body any further. This also made my whole world come crashing down – I had spent the entire year sorting out any possible nutritional issues to prevent another episode and I was now hanging in the balance of potentially being back to square one. My desire to finish this race was completely gone. I got to the aid station, prepared to hand in my race bib, and to my surprise that wasn’t going to be in the cards.
Leg 5: Shayne saw me as I approached the transition and took me over to our re-supply table. I am done. Done. Done. Done. No reason to continue. Why bother? I can’t run. I looked like shit and felt even worse. Shayne provided some gentle encouragement and attempted to draw my focus towards the next leg of the race. I look over and Jay was sitting down, he decided to pack it in. Then I see Joanna is hanging out as well, contemplating her own race. Matt, Joanna’s husband and crew, came over to see how I was doing. A couple of nurses stop by to assess my condition and tell me the only issue is that I’m overheating and my internal thermostat is broken. I’m not convinced, but I’m also not going to argue. Shayne and Sheena start cooling me off and make me eat some food. Tony Gordon comes over to give me some encouragement. I am clearly not ready to hear that my race is going to continue, so Tony reminds me that even if I want to drop, I’ve still got plenty of time so I should just wait it out a little while longer to see if things turn around.
Overall, far too many people were concerned about me continuing, and I was the only one that appeared to be concerned about my health. Or at least, that’s how it looked to me at the time. All I was focused on was convincing everyone that I can’t go on, while everyone else was focused on convincing me that it wasn’t as bad as I thought, that it was all mental. This was so frustrating. No one saw what I went through on the North Loop, or what I went through last year. I was so upset with everything and I was completely powerless. The only control I had was with my decision to drop, and my ‘friends’ took that away from me.
Joanna comes over and invites me to tag along with her for the next leg. I figured if this was a worst-case scenario and I am having serious issues, at least I’d have someone keeping an eye on me if I decide to continue. This also would give me an opportunity to run down my body and show everyone that things aren’t just in my head. Maybe if I’m lucky, I’ll pass out just as I hit the next transition and then they’ll see… that’ll show them! There were some wonderfully spiteful thoughts going through my head… Oh the joys of ultrarunning!
Anyway, Joanna and I head off on a half-run, half-walk pace. I almost pass out once or twice, but otherwise we have an uneventful hour before arriving at the transition. I am still not confident things are going well, but they were an improvement from the North Loop so looks like I’m not getting any blessings to drop just yet…
Leg 6: We get into the transition and I have trouble finding my crew. After a bit of looking around, I see they are in deep conversation with other people. Such attentive crew! Once I got their attention, they were shocked at how quickly I came in, which I was thinking “really? I just walked half of the leg…” Really, I can’t blame them though, I took over twice as long as I should have to hit the last transition, so this was a fast pace for my current situation. Everything was made better as Matt handed me a beer.
Looking back, I feel this was the start of a turning point. Physically it was clear that my issues were related to overheating, now being addressed, but mentally I still wasn’t convinced that I was healthy. The heat of the day had passed and my mind was starting to come around to the fact that I might be able to complete this thing. Joanna and I head off towards the start/finish line and completion of the first big loop. This leg was mostly flat and we ran a good chunk of the leg, coming in looking stronger than I had for the past 6 hours.
Big Loop #2:
I made the decision that if I was going to finish the race, I wanted to give it all I had. This meant I needed to be 100% committed. The only way this was going to happen was if I was able to test my ketones to ensure my pancreas wasn’t giving me problems, so Sheena ran over to the nearest pharmacy and bought ketone test strips. Before I peed on the stick, I promised myself that if my ketone levels were dangerously high, I would drop, however if they were still at a healthy level, I would forget about last year’s troubles and give it all I had. For me, this was taking a leap of faith. This simple act of peeing on a stick symbolized my freedom from what was a critically serious issue one year prior. Yep, peeing… on a stick.
I was healthy.
Here we go!
I took off with a renewed sense of vigor. Everything about the previous 9 hours didn’t make much sense to me at the time, but now I had an incredible sense of purpose and understanding of how I got to where I was in the race. Shayne, Sheena, Tony, Joanna, Matt, and numerous other friends and volunteers saw things within myself that I had no capability to see at the time. They pushed me to keep going even though all internal signs pointed to dropping from the race. Up until this realization I had no interest or desire in finishing the race.
I was very emotional through the next hour where things became very clear to me. Why I was running, why friends and family are so important to me, the importance of community, and why it’s okay to reach out for help when in need. If I dropped three hours earlier, I would have come out with an incredibly shallow experience – one that created more questions than it answered. Now here I was, 60 km into the race and had all the answers I was searching for and more.
Turns out, a big issue for me was the low humidity induced by all the smoke. I was popping electrolyte pills throughout the first half of the race, but it wasn’t enough. I began ingesting even more salt, and my body started functioning like it should have from the beginning. I don’t think my body was able to hold onto any fluids in the extra low humidity and high heat, which the added electrolytes helped with.
I was now ready for business. I couldn’t wait to get to each transition, enjoy the company of friends, but get back out there and crush each leg one by one. I wasn’t concerned about my overall time, but I was focused on running strong, having fun, and coming out of the race stoked on my experience. This mentality helped me take care of myself at each transition and run fast on the course. My first two splits (without transition time) were only a few minutes slower than during my first loop, showing me I had a lot left in the tank.
The rest of the race consisted of enjoyable, positive transition stops, followed by a strong pace on the trails. Most notably being my entrance into the transition before the North Loop, where I hear Leo yell gleefully at me for actually making it back to his aid station, but more importantly he was concerned about his successes in buying all of us runners McDoubles. I was seeing a lot of shocked faces that I was not only still on the course, but how good I was looking and how many runners I was passing. I don’t think anyone seriously thought I’d make a comeback from what I went through earlier in the day. Just before arriving at the final transition at 95 km, I realized I passed somewhere between 20-25 runners on this second big loop.
A few hours earlier at around 70km, I gave Shayne the head’s up that I wanted to share the last 6 km with her pacing me into the finish. The support she gave me through the day is the reason why I had made it as far as I had, and finishing the race together just made sense to me. I wasn’t 100% sure if she was going to be comfortable running in the middle of the night, especially after what was undoubtedly a really tough day for her. Much to my surprise, when I arrived at the final transition she was ready to go! One of the volunteers gave her some gear to help run through the night, once again showing the incredible support we all benefit from through the ultrarunning community.
These were the most memorable 6 km of the course. I don’t think I’ve ever ran another race where I was more focused on enjoying and soaking up the experience of the last few kilometers, rather than thinking about how nice it’s going to be once I’m done. We passed a few more runners on our way to the finish. As we completed the last big climb, we took a short breather and then ran the last few hundred meters strong into the finish.
16:57, 17th overall and 5th in the male 18-39 age group. More importantly, here’s how I finished with my goals for the race:
- Western States Qualifier – Yes!
- Keep a positive mindset – I’m giving myself a pass on this one. Overall I’d say my mindset was positive through 80% of my time on the course, even in difficult situations. Those negative periods of the race were fleeting and overshadowed by my perseverance with the help of Shayne and everyone else who made an impact on my race.
- Run a stronger second half – Absolutely 100%.
Overall, I am way more satisfied with this race than if it were to have gone off without any issues. Sure, finishing up near the top would have been rewarding in itself, but now I’m a much stronger person and runner for going through what I did. Like I said at the beginning, this is where my current fitness and skill has taken me, and I was able to finish strong. I clearly have a lot potential that I haven’t been able to tap into, but hopefully these lessons will help open up the possibility for better experiences on and off the trails in the future.
Speaking of the future, I got invited to take part in a sold out race, the Mighty Quail 100k in Penticton… in two weeks… Why? Well, I didn’t get to run quite the way I wanted because of all the smoke and heat at Lost Soul, so I was able to convince the race directors to let me check out all the great single track in the area. After all, in a week I’m going to be moving out to the area for the foreseeable future, so I might as well get intimately familiar with some of the trails. Why not make my introductions through some seriously fun discomfort 🙂
Once more, I need to thank everyone who got me through this race.
Shayne – For everything. Just enough push to get me to continue without pushing too far. Without your help before, during and after the race this would not have been as memorable or as successful. Oh… and thanks for cleaning my feet… you are an angel that I don’t deserve.
Sheena – I’m glad I could introduce you to such an incredible community and for all your help with Muscle Activation Techniques through my training. The strong last 50 km would not have been possible without you.
Joanna – Thanks for dragging me along when I needed the push!
Tony – Every transition you had something to tell me that just made sense and helped me make it through one more leg.
Matt – That beer was great, even if I didn’t finish it. Thanks for keeping Joanna in it so I had some company on the trails when I needed it most!
Lauren – Those were some much needed mcnuggets that creeped up on me through the last half of the race!
Leo – I appreciate the McDoubles… even if I didn’t partake. Thanks for making an entertaining aid station!
Dave – Thanks for nothing. But I guess good work on crushing the 100 mile course record on tired legs, you animal. It was inspiring watching you pass by me twice out there. Good luck on your run across Canada next year, can’t wait to see all the good you do for others.
And anyone I missed, friends and race volunteers, you are not forgotten, there are just way too many people who had an impact on this experience and this post is already far too long. Thank you, thank you, thank you!
Now, two more weeks to recover and get prepared for my next race!