This Saturday is the first one in months that I haven’t been out the door at the crack of dawn (oh, okay, 7:30 am is hardly the crack of dawn, but it’s certainly earlier than I leave the house on a weekday!) to go for a long run.
That’s because last Saturday, May 13, I finished the race that I had been training for since January: the Seaton Soaker 50k.
I’ve blogged about running Seaton before, but for shorter distances. This was my first time doing the 50k distance — my first time doing an ultramarathon.
I’ve done the Scotiabank Waterfront Marathon for the past three years, so I’m no longer a stranger to long distances and months of training. The last marathon was the first time I had a time goal in mind. I wanted to break 4 hours, 30 minutes, but a combination of undertraining and unseasonably warm weather meant that was not to be. I felt awful at the end of that race. Physically, I was destroyed. Everything hurt more than any other marathon I’d done before. Mentally, I was a bit bummed that I’d trained so long for no improvement on my time.
It was time to do something new. Enter Seaton.
I had actually signed up for the 50k two years before. I’d put in two months of solid training in January and February of 2015 before my workplace went on strike and my training fell to the wayside. This time, I hoped, things would work out better.
And they did. My partner, Kevin, signed up (he, too, had been intending to run in 2015), as did my friend Casey (read her race report here!). Both Kevin and Casey ran their first marathons in 2016, so I’d say they’re a heck of a lot braver than me to sign up for a 50k the very next year!
The three of us did a lot of training together, although Kevin is much (much!) faster than Casey and I. We ran through the snow in the winter and through the rain in the spring. We hit the trails whenever we could, including the Seaton trails where the race would be held.
Training went about as well as could be hoped for. Nobody got terribly injured (though Kevin struggles occasionally with Achilles issues, and I had the spectre of a calf injury rear its head on our longest training run of 38k). Nobody missed very many training runs.
On race morning, I was very emotional, but I didn’t quite pinpoint why until later. It had been three and a half years since I’d run a new distance. This was big!
The course is a 12.5km out-and-back, meaning that we could leave bags at the start/finish with snacks, a change of clothes, more water, etc. We stashed our things and set off.
Kevin started near the front, because, as I said, he’s fast! Casey and I were content to hang near the back of the pack. Our only goal was to finish, ideally before the cutoff time of eight hours.
About 2k in, we hit a beaver dam that we had been warned about. It was wet, messy, and muddy, with planks and pallets plunked into the mud for a makeshift pathway. Some runners tried to stick to the pallets – others forged through the muck, sometimes falling. It was a great example of the difference between trails and roads.
After that slowdown, the pack thinned out as people settled into their paces (most faster than Casey and I). We kept trucking along, hiking up the hills, flying down the hills, and slogging through the muddy patches. We tried to be mindful of the fact that we would be out for a long time, so we didn’t want to go out too fast.
We hit 12.5k at about 1:51, which was great pacing for being under eight hours, but not too fast to be unsustainable. The first leg is a net uphill, so it’s a net downhill on the way back.
I tried to be good about my nutrition, which is something I can struggle with on long runs. I ate my gels in the first half of the race because I knew that they wouldn’t go down well in the second half. My other fuel of choice is stroopwafels and Honey Stinger chews. The aid stations had a nice spread of food as well, from chips and guacamole and boiled potatoes to peanut butter sandwiches and gummy bears. The most appealing thing to me was watermelon, which I ate at almost every aid station.
On second leg (back to the start/finish, the halfway point), the course diverts so that runners have to cross a river (hence the name “Seaton Soaker“). There are firefighters and a rope to help people across. I love the river crossing! We shuffled right in to the icy water, which felt pretty good as the day grew warmer.
From the crossing it’s only about 2k back to the finish, or halfway point. We hit a big, deep, steep muddy culvert that was difficult to climb out of. I slipped and pulled my bad calf, but after walking it off for a minute I felt good enough to keep going.
We reached the halfway point at 3 hours and 30 minutes. My mother was waiting to cheer for us there, which was really great. She and a helpful volunteer (huge shoutout to all the volunteers, who were fantastic) helped us refill our hydration packs. I debated changing into a short sleeve tee, because it became clear that we weren’t going to get the rain that the forecast had called for and the sun was coming out. I stayed with my long sleeve mostly to avoid potential chafing issues. Changing socks/shoes was right out of the question – mine were caked on with mud!
We set out on our second loop, briefly making a wrong turn. A fellow runner corrected us, thankfully! We realized we were pretty much at the back of the pack, but that didn’t trouble us at all. We were just in it to finish.
We wondered whether we would see Kevin on this lap, and we did! He came hurtling down a hill as we were walking up it. Judging from the number of runners we had seen before, I shouted, “Are you in third?!” He said he was in fourth, and that he was feeling pretty good. Yay!
It started to feel much harder on the second loop, as expected. Our legs were tiring and both Casey and I tripped a few times on roots. Mostly we managed not to fall, but Casey took a pretty decent nosedive into some leaves and dirt at around 30k. She hopped back up and brushed herself off and took off like a champ. Casey is one of the most stubborn, determined runners I know. Running with her is very motivating!
At the turnaround, we calculated that we had about 2 hours and 30 minutes to make it to the finish — plenty of time! It was slow going, but we just kept running, usually only walking when we hit a hill. We knew that if we stopped, it would be very hard to start again.
At the second water crossing, the firefighters and rope were already packed up. We weren’t impressed with that, but we made it across safely and stayed to make sure another runner behind us was able to cross as well. (Edit: We contacted the race organizer the next day, and he didn’t realize the firefighters had packed up early. He promised to make sure it didn’t happen that way next year. The race really is a lovely, well-organized one!)
Our families were waiting for us as we came out of the woods to run up to the finish line, and Casey and I both started getting a bit teary and emotional from seeing them and from realizing we were about to finish.
We crossed the finish line in 7:32, well under the 8 hour cutoff! Casey and I exchanged our homemade medals that we had crafted for each other (this year the race opted to give out finisher buffs instead of finisher medals). We took very different approaches to making our medals, but we both love them! Mine is a unicorn barfing up a rainbow, and it reads “#1 Majestic Beast.” It’s perfect.
We discovered that Kevin had finished in 4:42, coming in 5th overall, and 1st place in his age group…not bad for his first 50k! We joked that he could have done a whole other lap in the time it took us to finish, to which he replied, “No, I definitely could not have.” He gave it his all!
Casey and I placed 9th and 10th in our age groups. That sounds pretty impressive, but it was out of 10 people! Hah! We were 71st and 72nd out of 76 runners (though I think about 80 signed up, so a handful of people may have dropped out before or partway through the race).
I was quite sore after the race, but not as sore as after my last marathon. I was also able to eat some food a couple hours later — a good sign, as long races usually destroy my stomach. The sore muscles mostly faded after a couple of days, and by Wednesday I was able to try a short run again. I made it 4km before deciding that my muscles just weren’t ready yet — but I don’t think I’d ever tried to run just four days after any previous marathon!
So would I do it again? Yes, I think I would. I love running on trails. It’s not as hard on the body, in some ways, compared to the repetitive nature of road races. Plus, the scenery is beautiful and the people are super nice (even the leaders would say “Great work!” to us as they passed us). The training is certainly a commitment, though. Maybe we’ll try to get faster one day… but hey, maybe not. Back of the pack isn’t so bad.
Stephanie is an astrophysicist, writer, photographer, sometime triathlete, and now an ultramarathoner.