Seaton Soaker 50k (Guest post)

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.

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Stephanie running 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!

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Kevin, Stephanie, and Casey before the race. Can you see the terror in Stephanie’s eyes?

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!

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Casey and Stephanie before the race. The matching purple shirts were coincidental, but turned out to be great fun as the volunteers would shout “here comes team purple!” when we came into view.

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.

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Stephanie and Casey fairly early in the race.

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.

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Crossing the river at 23k.

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!

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Stephanie devouring watermelon halfway through the race.

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.

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I love the medal! I also loved being finished!

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!

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Stephanie, Kevin, and Casey after the race.

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!

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Stephanie’s very muddy shoes.

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.

How I Accidentally Ran My Happiest Race (Guest Post)

 

The longest I had run since my last marathon in October was 18km. So I knew, on Saturday, that the 25km I had signed up for was probably not going to happen. If it was sunny, I might not have switched to the 15km option (in other words, I might have been not-so-wise). However, a chilly wet day sealed the deal in favour of the smarter choice.

The race was the Seaton Soaker. It’s a trail race that has a slightly surreal overtone, for me, as it starts and finishes at my old high school. To say I wasn’t a runner back then would be an understatement: I loathed running. And yet, for the third year in a row now, I’ve come here to run around in the trails behind the school. A lot can change in 10+ years!

In any case, to set the stage, here is a rundown of race morning: Kevin and I woke at 6am with the intention of being on the road by 6:45. Kevin, who had been training more purposefully for the 25km, had an 8am start for his race, and we would have to do kit pickup before that. As readers will quickly learn, I am not particularly a morning person, and it will come as no surprise to those who know me that we were a little late in getting out (particularly as I forgot both my coffee and my water bottle and had to run back to the apartment twice to retrieve them). On the drive there, Kevin realized he had forgotten his GPS watch…oops!

When I made the decision to switch to the 15km distance, I briefly thought about trying to beat my previous time on the 15km course from 2014, but I realized that it was unlikely to happen that day. Not only was there was the rain and mud, I was also battling a pretty raging head cold. So, giving up on any particular time goal, I offered Kevin my GPS watch.

When we arrived, I was pleased to discover that switching distances was straightforward. We picked up our kits and Kevin hurried out to make his start. The 15km didn’t start until 8:30, so I had some time to hit the bathroom and have a wardrobe crisis. What do you wear when it’s 8C and raining and you’ll be running for around two hours? I was in shorts and a tee, but looking around at all the other runners in their tights and shells and long sleeves had me second-guessing. I did what I always do in these situations, and texted my dear friend Mandy, who was also signed up for the 15km. After texting not only about what to wear, but also informing her of how many poops I had taken that morning (hey! it’s important!), I made my way to the starting line.

I decided I would try to track the race with RunKeeper on my phone, as I’m not sure I’ve ever run a race that I didn’t track with GPS. But when I opened the app, it informed me that I was actually down by the waterfront… in Whitby… Well, there went that idea. I would truly be running this one tech-free.

A couple of minutes before the start, I saw Mandy, and ran over to give her a hug. Seaton is a special race for Mandy as well — it was her first ultramarathon! Now, not only is Mandy a badass ultra runner, but she recently did another pretty incredible thing and grew a little human inside of her, who she brought into the world six months ago. Since then she’s been getting out with the jogging stroller, and her goal was to run about half of the race and hike the rest when she needed to.

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Mandy and I are frequent run partners. We even did 30km of my first marathon together! She’s been a constant presence as I’ve progressed in my running, but this was the first race that we had started together in a fair while. So when the race began, we just naturally fell into step, chatting as the pack set out.

The initial 2-3km of the course goes down a field, out by the side of a road, and then onto a narrow section of single track made narrower by the presence of a beaver dam this year.  The going was fairly slow to start because of the lack of passing room and the muddy footing.  That was fine by both of us, since I’d thrown my time goals out and Mandy just wanted to run as much as she was able. Pace wasn’t an issue. Still, when we got to one of the first hills, the track widened and we began passing people as we hiked up.

From then on it was mostly just the two of us, occasionally being passed, or encountering lead runners coming back in the other direction, but mostly remarkably quiet considering the number of participants out in the trails. We stopped for water at the aid stations and we walked/hiked up the larger hills. But mostly we just ran.

We ran and we talked and we marvelled at how much easier it all felt when we were running side by side. In no time we were at the halfway mark. I felt good. I checked in with  Mandy – she felt good, too. We decided to keep going on together, as long as we felt good!

On the way back, we turned a corner, and Mandy said, “I see flashes!” Considering the rain that had been off and on throughout the race, my immediate thought was, “lightning?” “No,” she said. “A photographer!” We have photos from the marathon that we ran together, looking like total goofballs. They’re some of both of our favourite race photos, because we just look like we’re having the best time, and we were. So we struck a couple of poses as we ran by!

And then, just like that, it was time for the river crossing. The water was lower than I expected, and although it was cold, it was fun! After the crossing, the finish is only about 2km away. We realized we were going to run the whole thing together, and I got a huge burst of tingly endorphins. I was bursting with happiness and pride for Mandy; she hadn’t expected to run the whole thing, yet here she was, doing just that, like a boss. And here I was, happy and thankful that this is a thing that I get to do, that this is a thing that my body can do, even if I’d filled an entire pocket pack of Kleenex with my snot (sorry if that sounds gross, but imagine how much grosser it felt!).

The 2km to the finish breezed by, although we were both getting a bit tired (I turned my foot on a root, and Mandy took a little tumble, but we’re both OK!). We crested the last hill before the field where the finish line stood. Together, we crossed the finish line smiling. Despite having run many races together, this was the first time that we crossed at the same time. Our amazing friend Emily was there to capture some truly fantastic photos of us (thanks, Emily!).

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Kevin also had a remarkable race – he finished the 25km course in a blistering 2:08, shaving 20 minutes off his time from last year and placing 9th in his age group (if he’d run with that time last year, he’d have placed 2nd!). I guess he really did need that watch more than me! Hah!

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And that’s it! Afterwards, Mandy told me that we ran a negative split – she had checked the time at the halfway point. I think that might have been another first for both of us!

I’m grateful to have friends like Mandy to run with. I’m proud of her for exceeding her expectations. She has never stopped being an inspiration to me, not even for a second. I’m also grateful to be able to go out and run for a couple hours on trails. And I’m surprised to find myself grateful to have run without my watch or RunKeeper, but completely letting go of the compulsion to track allowed me to revel in the pure joy of it all.

Stephanie is an astrophysicist, runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and sometime triathlete. This post was originally published at Sweaty & Hungry, where she and fellow athlete Megan blog about fitness and feelings.

First Marathon: Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon Race Recap

The day before the race

I met up with Megan and Mandy at the expo to pick up our race kits. I had a moment right before I went to get my bib where I nearly teared up a bit. My first marathon race bib! Megan got her half-marathon kit and was able to switch to a faster corral. She has been working with a coach and her dedicated training has definitely paid off!

The expo itself was crowded, and we soon found ourselves sitting off to the side, discussing our plans for race day. Megan asked if Mandy and I were going to run the whole thing together. Mandy and I both agreed that we would start together, and if either of us, for whatever reason, had to take off, we’d do so. Megan said she was getting misty thinking about Mandy and I crossing the finish line hand in hand. We had a good laugh-cry about that. (Admittedly we’re normally a gushy bunch, but pre-race jitters exacerbate that!)

That night, I carb-loaded with pasta (although nervousness made it difficult to eat as much as I’d wanted) and Kevin and I hit the hay with our alarms set for 6:30am. I had nightmares about the race, and each time I awoke throughout the night I was relieved to find that the race hadn’t started yet.

Race day morning

Our apartment is conveniently located right behind City Hall, which just so happens to be where the start/finish for the race was. (This was yet another reason why it made sense for this to be my first marathon!) Because of this, we offered the apartment for Mandy and Megan to use to keep their things instead of dealing with bag check, and also for last-minute bathroom breaks. We all got ready: I moleskinned my feet, filled up my hydration pack with cherry limeade Nuun, stashed a few Clif bars in the pockets, and pinned on my race bib. With the outside temperature a balmy 2 degrees Celcius, I decided on capri run tights, a short sleeve shirt, and a throwaway sweater to wear to the start.

Mandy and I said our goodbyes to Kevin and Megan. Kevin was in the red corral – he was aiming for a zoomy sub-1:40 half marathon. Megan was in the yellow corral, for a sub-2:00 finish.

We took our places in the green corral. I had put 4 hours and 30 minutes as my estimated finish time, but of course, I really didn’t have any idea what to expect. I sucked back a salted caramel gel at 8:50, readying my energy reserves, and at around 9am, we crossed the starting line. We were off!

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Waiting for the race to begin!

The first half

I told Mandy that I wanted to take the first couple of kilometres somewhat slow. That wasn’t difficult, given how crowded the field was. We naturally fell into a 6:30 min/km pace. Around 1.5km in, we had warmed up enough to shed our toss-away sweaters. I hadn’t put on my music yet – at the start of a race, especially, I like to enjoy the sound of all the footfalls on the pavement.

Around 3km we picked up the pace slightly, hovering around 6:10 min/km. We talked about the race, about training, about the signs that we saw people holding. We wondered how Kevin and Megan were doing in their half-marathons.

It’s hard to describe how I felt during this leg of the race. It was just so, so much easier and more enjoyable than I had thought it was going to be. Every time I glanced down at my Garmin, our pace stayed constant. For kilometres 3 through 19, we didn’t vary much more than 10 seconds per kilometre in our pacing. I have never before had a run, let alone a race, that incredibly consistent. But it wasn’t just consistent. It was pleasant. It was fun. It was joyous. It was beyond any of my expectations. Running with Mandy and Megan is always a pleasure, and almost always easier than running on my own, but this was something uniquely special.

Kilometres 7 through 10 were particularly fun and just flew by, because we spent them watching the race leaders run along the other side of the road, having already reached the switchback point along Lakeshore Blvd. We kept our eyes peeled for Kevin and Megan, and managed to see and cheer for both of them. Around 10km in, I made myself take another gel, even though I didn’t necessarily feel like I needed it, because I knew I would be sorry later on if I didn’t.

Around the point where the half marathon splits from the full marathon, Mandy started to have hip and knee pain, aggravated by the pavement and downhill portions. We stopped so she could stretch, and I suggested that we run the uphills and walk the downhills – not exactly a conventional race strategy, but one that would hopefully keep the pain from being overwhelming.

Km 21-30

After the half-marathoners turned off to their finish, it felt more like the “real race” began. I had expected it to feel lonelier. Indeed, the field of runners dwindled, though it wasn’t exactly sparse: there were still about 6000 people running the full marathon (although double that number ran the half!). I was all smiles for the volunteers and the faster marathoners who had already completed another switchback. And most people were all smiles back. At this point, most people clearly still had energy. Far from being lonely, it felt like I was joining in on a club.

Kms 23-28 had a number of little hills that I might otherwise not have dwelled on, but suddenly was hyper aware of because they clearly were doing a number on Mandy’s hip, even with the walking breaks. It was around this point that I realized that I was not going to be able to run the whole race with her. I was sad, and a little bit worried, knowing that I would have to say goodbye soon. But I was also just so immensely grateful to have been able to run almost 30 happy and fun kilometres together. Just before kilometre 30, I gave her my love and kept running.

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This is probably my favourite race photo ever. Mandy and I were silly whenever we saw a photographer on course

The last 12 km

Now the race felt different. Harder, yes, but I don’t think it was nearly as mentally tough on me as it would have been had I run the whole race alone. My body was beginning to feel the distance, and this stretch was a bit lonely, without much scenery or cheer stations. However, once I got into the Beaches, things perked up – there were lots of people cheering, including children who were giving out pieces of banana to the runners (I didn’t take any, but I did ask an obliging bystander to grab a Clif bar out of my hydration pack for me).

The toughest stretch for me was kilometres 34-38. My body was aching now. My legs were on fire. My hands were freezing from the wind (I’ll point out here that it was NOT sunny, as forecasted. I wished for long sleeves!), and my left arm was going numb from my Garmin. My left foot, the one that has been giving me trouble with numbness for a couple of years now, was not numb but in pain. The funny thing is, I was so grateful that it hadn’t gone numb, and also grateful that the pain hadn’t started earlier in the race, that I didn’t even mind very much!

Mandy had warned me that now was the time when stopping would be the most tempting and the least advisable. Every time I stopped, I realized she was exactly right. Walking then running again hurt so much more than just running. I texted Kevin and asked how his race and Megan’s had gone. I wanted another burst of happiness to ride, and I knew that would be it. I wasn’t disappointed when I saw that they had both achieved incredible PRs.

Buoyed by that, and firm in my knowledge that if I stopped again I’d pay in spades, I settled in to run the last four kilometres without stopping. And, somehow, I did just that. At some points it felt like I was limping rather than running, and I felt like the slowest person on the planet. (Yet, remarkably, I brought my pace down from 7:55/km to 6:46/km over the course of that last 4k).

In the finish chute, I was greeted by cheers from Kevin, Megan and Tim (her husband and a good friend of mine), my mother and grandmother. I crossed the finish line with a time of 4:46 – an automatic PR, of course!

Mandy finished a little bit after, in good spirits as well, despite the pain. I was glad of that, because I had been worried about leaving her. She’s now very confident that there will be more trail races and far fewer road races in her future.

The Aftermath

Several people asked me, “would you do it again?” or “what’s next?”. Perhaps I’m still riding the runner’s high, but I think I would do it again. Prior to this, a marathon seemed mythical – something that I really didn’t have much of a reference point for. Now I know that I can do it. It’s not easy, but it’s certainly attainable with training. I loved finding out that I am capable, physically and mentally, of toughing it out for 42.2km. I wasn’t even as sore as I thought I would be in the days afterwards (even my blisters were fairly minimal, all things considered!). There is a part of me that would definitely like to train smarter (not necessarily more!) and see if I can’t get closer to that 4:30 time that I guesstimated when I signed up. I think it’s attainable!

My mother asked if this was it – would I stop here, or would I want to go further? I don’t know the answer to that question yet, but an ultra-marathon is something that I at least have some frame of reference for now. I’m not signing up for anything just yet, but I’m also not ruling it out! But for now, I’m content to enjoy my accomplishment and the accomplishments of my friends.

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Happy finishers: Kevin, Steph, Megan, and Mandy.

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a triathlete, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and newly-minted marathoner.

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The marathon medal completes my set! Pictured here is the 5km medal from 2012, the half-marathon medal from 2013, and the marathon medal from 2014.

Training for my first marathon (Guest post)

A long run with marathon training buddies.

A long run with marathon training buddies

I’m about four days from completing my very first marathon – the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. I’m terrified and I’m excited and, to be perfectly honest, I’m finding it very difficult to put this whole experience into words. I’ve tried several times to write a blog post talking about why I decided to run a marathon, and every time I’ve gotten a few paragraphs in and scrapped the whole thing. The truth is, I’m not entirely sure why I’m running it – yet here I am, with less than a week to go!

My training has been rather free-form. I’ve aimed to do at least a couple of 5-10 km runs throughout each week and I’ve added on a couple of kilometres to my long runs on each weekend. I have also added strength training back in to my routine, and I am just loving that!

So how has it all gone?

Well. I’ve chafed in places I didn’t realize it was possible to chafe. I’ve also learned that there can be such thing as too much BodyGlide. I’ve gotten blisters on top of blisters, and sought out the measures I can take to avoid blisters (hello, my new friend moleskin!). I’ve become a connoisseur of energy gels (for the record: Gu Peanut Butter flavour is my favourite, followed by Salted Caramel. Espresso Love and Chocolate Outrage are tolerable but not preferable). I’ve discussed the finer points of electrolyte replacement beverages (Nuun is my go-to now). I’ve required more food than I ever thought possible. I swear, it feels like there’s a black hole inside me instead of a stomach! (“Some people,” my good friend warned me, “may ask if you lose weight during marathon training. You don’t. Because you’re eating so much. All the time.” This is truth.)

Legs after a trail run

Legs after a trail run

I’ve burst into tears while running on more than one occasion. My longest run, 32 km, was a disaster. Nothing felt “right”. My legs, stomach, and head were all conspiring against me. I ran it on a Monday afternoon instead of on the weekend, and as the day turned into night, my sweat turned cold. My stomach growled. When I finally made it to my neighbourhood, I knew I wanted a nice comforting burrito bowl. Guac and cheese? Yes, please! But I stepped to the door of the burrito place at 9:02, only to find they closed at 9:00. I cried on the short walk back to my apartment, hoping no one would see me and ask what was wrong, because I knew even in my run-addled state of mind that “The burrito place was closed!” was going to sound absurd to pretty much everyone. (Happy ending to that story: the Chinese place next door was still open!)

Most recently, I started a run this weekend only to be greeted with a foreign, burning pain in my knee. Panic set in immediately. What was this? What did it mean? Was I injured? What if I couldn’t run the marathon? I let out a full-on sob and alarmed a woman walking nearby, who seemed rather skeptical when I insisted I was okay. The pain worked itself out a few minutes later, thankfully!

Still, it definitely hasn’t all been painful. There have been some wonderful and joyful moments. I’ve been very lucky to I have two friends who are also running marathons this year to share much of the training with. Many of my long runs have been spent in their company, and I can’t express enough how much their support has eased the process. With them, I’ve run through trails and through the city, laughed, commiserated, listened to stories and told my own, and tucked into several incredibly delicious post-run brunches. Both of them are running STWM: one (my triathlon buddy) will be doing the half-marathon as preparation for her full marathon in November, and the other I’m fortunate enough to be running the whole 42.2 km with on Sunday!

Finally, because this is my first marathon, I wanted to mark the occasion by fundraising for a worthy cause. I have been raising funds for Oolagen Youth Mental Health, a centre that runs a city-wide walk-in counselling service for youth aged 13-18 years and their families. If you would like to support me, you can do so here: https://secure.e2rm.com/registrant/FundraisingPage.aspx?registrationID=2503535&langPref=en-CA

I have no idea what it’s going to be like to run 42.2 kilometres.The build-up is simultaneously exhilarating and terrifying. I have random moments where I let out an audible “eek!” to myself just thinking about it. But those who have already done it have told me that the feeling of crossing the finish line is like nothing else. I can’t wait to find out.

Trail running in Algonquin Provincial Park.

Trail running in Algonquin Provincial Park

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a triathlete, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and marathoner-in-training.

Guest Post: Tri-ing something new! (Toronto Triathlon Festival race report)

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Pre-race

The night before a race, I usually pin my bib number to my shirt and set out everything else I need so that I don’t have to think about anything in the morning. This is easy enough for a running race: shoes, socks, run shorts, sports bra, GPS watch, and maybe a running cap and a small bottle of water.

Adding two more sports on to that was a bit more stressful! I gathered my swimming things: wetsuit, swim cap, goggles, and put them with things I would need in the morning: BodyGlide (to lube up before jumping into the wetsuit) and plastic bags (they go over my hands/feet and make getting into the wetsuit easier).

Next up, the things I would need in transition: cycling shoes, running shoes, socks, GPS watch, water bottle, sport towel, plastic bags to protect from the rain. Oh yes, the rain – I’d been neurotically refreshing the weather page for days, hoping that prediction for “thunderstorms” on race morning would magically disappear – alas, they did not! Thinking about the rain, I grabbed my running cap as well. My partner, Kevin, suggested I put it on under my helmet for the cycling portion as well – professional cyclists do it all the time, he said. Good idea, I thought. More on that later.

We then went to remove the rear rack from my bike. It turns out that the rack was affixed by screws on the interior of the seat stays, and we had to remove the rear wheel to get at them. The V-brakes on my bike were unusually tight and difficult to release, turning a simple task into a frustrating endeavor. When I saw that it wasn’t going to be as simple as it should have, I wanted to say, “forget it,” and leave the rack on. I had wanted it off for two reasons: 1) I didn’t know how heavy it was, and it would be nice to have the bike as light as possible in case I needed to carry it up/down the hill to the mount line, and 2) I thought I’d look a little silly with a bike rack at a triathlon. But I also really didn’t want to mess with the bike the night before the race, especially because I just had it tuned up.

Anyways, Kevin said he could do it, so we persisted. We got the rack off but in the process messed up the brake alignment. Nothing too bad, but cue an increase in already-high levels of race anxiety.

Race day

I’ve learned by now that while I definitely need coffee to be considered a functional human being, drinking too much of it before a race is NOT kind on my nervous stomach, so I only had a tiny cup of coffee. Transition opened at 8am for the sprint distance, and I was going to meet my friend Megan there at 8:15. At 7:55 we got our bikes and headed off. As luck would have it, we actually ran into Megan on the ride to the race area – a good start to the day!

We set our transition areas up. Run cap and helmet went on the handle of my bike and everything else inside a plastic bag on top of my towel, which was on top of another plastic bag. It had already been raining in the morning, though thankfully it had stopped in time for our set up (the Olympic distance competitors were not so lucky).

We waited a lot longer to put our wetsuits on than most of the people around us. I realized that was perhaps a bad idea when it was close to my wave’s starting time and I wasn’t zipped up yet! Eeek! Megan quickly shoehorned my shoulders in and zipped me up, then bade me farewell – she was in the wave behind me.

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Swim:

I’m not sure what the water temperature actually was – I think they said around 15-17 degrees? – but I knew from trying out part of the swim course the day before that it was going to be frigid. I was not wrong. It was COLD. And due to the nature of the course, we didn’t have any opportunity to warm up. Into the water, and a minute later our horn goes off. Oof.

I positioned myself to the side and back, letting the stronger swimmers go out first. I quickly realized that many around me had the same idea. Most of them seemed as uncomfortable in the water as I felt. I tried to do front crawl, but every time I stuck my face in the water, I wanted to take it right back out again. I also had trouble exhaling. It’s funny because the whole time, I *knew* what the problem was. “Breathe out,” I’d think to myself, but for some reason I couldn’t make myself do it.

I later discovered that there might be a physiological explanation for this. It’s called “Mammalian Diving Reflex.” In a nutshell, when you stick your face into cold water, your heart rate drops and blood flow gets diverted from your extremities. Your body enters a state where it tries to conserve oxygen. Don’t breathe out, my body said! You need that! It was hard to fight.

So I ended up doing a true medley of strokes: front crawl, back crawl, breast stroke, elementary back stroke, and side stroke. I used literally every stroke I knew to propel myself through the water. I kept trying front crawl, hoping I would settle into a rhythm. I found it very difficult whenever there was someone remotely near me (in front, behind, or to the side). I kept thinking, “I hope I’m not going too slow for the person behind me,” and “I hope I don’t crash into the person in front of me.” It’s a race, I know, but I’m just not used to swimming with so many people, especially with no lane ropes!

By the last buoy, I had finally discovered some semblance of a rhythm with my front crawl stroke. I honestly think that if I had 15 minutes to warm up in the water, my swim would have gone much more smoothly. Maybe if I do another tri, I’ll pick one where I can have a warm up.

Time for swim – 21:14

T1:

Well, this could have gone more smoothly! My time was the third slowest in my age group for the transition. I had difficulty getting my wetsuit off (I’ve never NOT had that difficulty, though, so…). I also took a couple of moments to ensure that I had everything in order, then un-racked my bike.

Cue race official. “Can you re-rack your bike please?”

Oh no oh no oh no what have I done wrong?!

“You have to take off your hat. It’s a safety issue.”

I honestly wasn’t aware that wearing a running cap under my helmet could be unsafe, but I certainly wasn’t about to argue with the race official. I took off my hat, then grabbed my bike again and set off to run up the ramp to the mounting line.

Time for T1 – 4:46

Bike:

The bike course started on a pedestrian bridge that took us into Exhibition Grounds. I knew that the bridge was a “no passing” zone, but I wasn’t sure at which point the “no passing” ended. There was a man in front of me going awfully slowly, and I just wanted to pass him and get going!

Shortly after getting on the Gardiner (we got to bike on the Gardiner!!), Megan passed me. I wasn’t surprised – although her wave was four minutes after mine, she’s an extremely strong swimmer. I had actually expected her to pass me during the swim!

I settled into a pace that I felt I could keep for 20km. I don’t have very much experience with being able to bike for 20km without stopping for traffic lights or small children dashing in front of me on the trail, so I didn’t exactly have a benchmark for what my speed ‘ought’ to be, and decided to do it by effort.

My rear brakes started rubbing somewhere just before we got on the Gardiner, and for the first half of the bike course I was woefully regretting removing the rear rack. They sorted themselves out just before the first turnaround point, which was a fairly sharp U-turn.

It felt like I was hitting a brick wall when I turned. It was only then that I realized we had had a fairly substantial tailwind on the way out – and now we faced a fairly substantial headwind. Grr, argh.

I wished at that point that I had a real road bike. The hybrid commuter that I ride is a very nice bike (on loan to me indefinitely from my uncle, after mine got stolen last summer). It’s pretty light and I’ve been told the specs are comparable to an entry-level road bike. But a road bike it is not, and I was envious of all the people around me who could get down low and alleviate some of the wind resistance. Maybe next year!

With about 6km to go, the skies just opened up. Now we had a headwind and a torrential downpour! Yikes! There was a second U-turn that we had to make before coming back onto Exhibition grounds, and I had the sense to brake well ahead of time to avoid hydroplaning or skidding in the turn. I was seriously wishing that hats were allowed, because with so much rain, I could barely see through my glasses. Definitely quite the weather for my first tri!

Time for bike – 43:38

T2:

We had to run down a ramp into transition with our bikes, and I remembered the advice that my friend Al gave me. He told me to take off my cleats before going down the ramp, especially if it was raining, to avoid falling. Good advice! My feet were so wet anyways that it didn’t matter that I was running in just my socks.

The second transition was much easier. I put on my running shoes and off I went. Forgot my running cap, though – and again regretted it, as I could still barely see through the rain. Megan was a minute or so ahead of me. “Come catch me,” she said as she took off.

Time for T2 – 1:58

Run:

I wanted to catch Megan. I really did. My legs felt so dead, though. Despite my brick workouts, I wasn’t quite used to the feeling of coming off of 20km straight cycling, at a speed faster that what I usually ride at. I was also just feeling generally exhausted by this point. I stopped to walk a couple of times throughout the run, seeing Megan get further and further away.

A woman ran up beside me when I was slowing to a walk and said, “I remember you from the bike course – we played leap frog a couple of times. Come on, it’s only 1.5km left, we can do this.” It was exactly what I needed to hear at the time. I asked her name. “Julie,” she said. Well – thank you, Julie. With her encouragement, I ran the rest of the way without stopping.

Time for run – 27:59

Finish:

At the finish line, I felt so many things at once. Pride that I finished. Relief that it was over. I may have teared up a bit. Okay I definitely did.

Megan finished a few minutes ahead of me and was waiting to hug me at the finish line. She had a great race, smashing her time from last year. I’m so proud of her, and very grateful to have been able to train and race with such a fun, strong, and inspiring person.

My family asked me at the finish line if I would do it again. At the time, I wasn’t sure what to say. Now that I’ve had time to process, I think the answer is yes. I might like to do one where I have time to warm up before the swim, though! Although overall I’m proud of my finishing time, it’s very clear that there’s room for improvement in all of the events. And that’s okay by me – it just gives me something to work towards for next year.

Total time: 1:39:34

medals

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newly minted triathlete.

(Wet)Suiting Up! (Guest Post)

On Sunday, I’ll be racing in my very first sprint triathlon! My first two guest blogs here touched on cycling and running (though the running post isn’t specifically about triathlon training), so now I think it’s time to talk about swimming.

The swimming is definitely the part that I am most nervous about. I don’t have a very strong swimming background. When I was a kid, I took swimming lessons – this was back when the levels (by Red Cross, I believe) were colours instead of numbers. First was yellow, then orange, then red. I failed red because I didn’t like swimming with my face in the water. Even at a young age, I didn’t like failing things, so I quit after that. 

Those first few lessons were enough, though, to make me comfortable in water. I was never afraid of swimming. In fact, you’d have been hard pressed to drag me out of a body of water (pool, lake, or ocean) whenever we were on vacation. But splashing around and doing underwater somersaults doesn’t exactly translate into being able to swim for an extended period of time.

So, when the idea of doing a triathlon floated into my head, I signed up for swimming lessons at the athletic centre on my campus. After completing two courses, I’m now much more confident in my swimming. I’m still not fast by any stretch of the imagination (my typical swim workout is 1500-1600m in 50-60 minutes), but I’m quite happy with my progress.

The next step was wetsuit swimming. Besides keeping you warm, wetsuits have the added benefit of buoyancy. Weaker swimmers, I’ve been told, often have issues keeping their legs high in the water, which means they have more drag, which slows them down. Get a wetsuit and my swim will be easier, faster, I was told.

Several weeks ago, I ordered a wetsuit, making sure I would have some time to practice with it before the race. I have heard putting the wetsuit on being referred to as the “first event” in a triathlon. I can’t say I disagree – I definitely broke a sweat putting mine on for the first time! 

The first “swim” in it was very strange. I say “swim” because I couldn’t really call it an actual swim. I would do a few strokes of front crawl, then get completely weirded out by the way I was swimming. I think part of the problem was that the wetsuit wasn’t on quite right, and my arms were being pulled towards my back. I tried to do breast stroke – which was going to be my backup if I found myself getting panicked in the race – but quickly discovered I would need a new backup plan: my legs are so buoyant in the suit that it’s difficult to get them far enough down to do a proper whip kick! All in all, my first experience with the wetsuit largely consisted of me reveling in the fact that I could float vertically in the water with exactly zero effort. I happily realized that I probably couldn’t drown if I wanted to (and I don’t!). 

Admittedly, I was maybe a bit more nervous after that first wetsuit experience than I was before it. Friends assured me that wetsuit swimming would get better. Hoping they were right, I took the suit out again for another try. This time I went with my friend Megan, who  did the triathlon last year and will be racing it this year as well! She’s also a seasoned swimmer and all around awesome person. She showed me some tricks for getting the wetsuit arms up properly, which meant that I no longer felt like they were being pulled towards my back on every stroke. The second swim went much better than the first. It was still definitely very different from pool swimming. One major difference is that there are no walls to push off of every 25 or 50m. I found myself stopping in the water to catch my breath. I should probably note that part of the problem was that we went out on a fairly windy day, and I would get smacked in the face with a wave on every other breath! Megan reassured me that it would not be so choppy on race day, because we’ll be in a protected harbour – phew!

By my third wetsuit swim, I felt like I was actually getting the hang of things. Again, the water was very choppy and very, very cold. I’m hoping that practicing in those conditions will make the race seem “easier”, but I know that might not be the case. Instead of waves, I’ll have to contend with other swimmers – almost everyone I’ve talked to has had an experience getting kicked, elbowed, or otherwise smacked in the face during the swim. My goal is to stay calm during the swim, even if I get kicked in the face, so that I can set myself up for a good bike and run to follow, and hopefully finish my first tri with a smile on my face.

Stephanie left, friend Megan on the right:

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Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newbie triathlete-in-training.

Clipless in the City (Guest Post)

stephKIn less than 10 days, I’m going to be running my first triathlon (sprint distance)! In preparation for the cycling portion of the race, I decided to give clipless pedals a try. As I’m sure pretty much everyone who reads this blog is aware by now, clipless pedals are a bit of a misnomer. Clipless pedals are actually pedals which involve you, yes, clipping in your shoes so that they stay on the pedal. The benefit is supposed to be more efficient power transfer. The drawback, of course, is that you are literally stuck to your bicycle.

Because I wasn’t sure if they were going to be for me, I searched online to see if I could find an inexpensive used pair rather than sinking a good deal of money into what is already a gear-heavy sport. As luck would have it, I found someone selling a pair of pedals and women’s cycling shoes with cleats in just my size at a great discount. I met up with her and asked why she was selling. She  told me that bought them for her first triathlon. They put the pedals on in the shop and she went to test them out in the parking lot – and promptly fell over and broke her wrist. She said she didn’t want to use them after that, and she just wanted to get rid of them. Yikes! Still, I bought them, reminding myself of all the people I know who ride clipless all the time and haven’t broken bones (at least not that I know of). 

My partner, Kevin, is a much more experienced cyclist. I recruited him to help me get the hang of the cleats and pedals in a dirt parking lot next to our apartment. The first thing he had me do was lean against a wall and practice clipping in and unclipping with one foot – then switch and try the other foot. Once I was confident I knew the motion of unclipping, I could try it in motion. 

“The key thing,” he said, “is to make sure you clip one foot in, then pedal a bit to get up some speed. Then you clip in the other foot – once you’re moving.”

Right. Got it. Makes perfect sense. Don’t clip in the other foot until I’m moving.  

I clipped in my first foot… and then promptly (instinctively!) plonked my other foot down on the other pedal.

As if in slow motion, I fell into Kevin, who was, of course, still standing right next to me. You know, since I hadn’t moved. D’oh!

Well, lesson learned – the next try went better. I got going, clipped both feet in, unclipped, and came to a stop. Victory! I wondered, though – what would happen if I needed to stop very suddenly? Would I be able to stop and unclip at the same time? Let’s try it in the parking lot! The answer is no. No, I cannot come to an abrupt stop and unclip at the same time. Once again I tipped over onto Kevin.

After my practice session I was determined to get some real experience. My first outing or two into Toronto traffic actually went fine. I unclipped well ahead of any lights and pedaled one-legged when I needed to.

But, I was warned, everyone falls with clipless pedals. Everyone.

My first fall came when I was turning right at a red light. The car ahead of me was stopped, right turn signal on. There were no pedestrians crossing. No sign announcing “no rights on red.” I slowed, wondering why the car wasn’t turning. I didn’t want to turn right and then have the car turn right over top of me. As I was wondering what to do, I slowly came to a stop – a stop I hadn’t planned on, of course. 

“Oh shit, oh shit,” I cried as I fell in slow-motion to the curb, helpless to stop myself. Some people at the curb gave me concerned and puzzled expressions. I pulled myself up and confided to the guy standing with his bike beside me, “You see, that’s why I’m riding clipless right now! To get used to them. Like this.” As if it were all part of my master plan. He smiled politely and I rode away, nursing a tender bruise on the knee.

My second fall wasn’t quite a fall, but it scared me anyways. I was filtering by some cars and came across a white sports car that was very close to the curb. I decided that there wasn’t enough space to pass, so I slowed to a stop without thinking much about it… and again, started to fall. This was shortly after reading a comment someone had written on Sam’s facebook about how they fell into a car and had to pay for damages. Realizing I didn’t have any insurance, all I could think was to fall AWAY from the fancy white sports car! I managed to get a foot out in time, so no damage was done, to me or the car, thankfully.

After I shared that experience with Kevin, he commented how resilient I was being, riding clipless in the city. I was proud. Yes, I was being resilient. I was conquering the clipless!

The third fall was perhaps the most embarrassing. It’s a situation that has been blogged about here before. I had unclipped one foot in advance of coming to a stop, just as I’m supposed to. And then I put my weight down on the side that was still clipped in. Down I went. Sigh.

StephKinjury

After that I decided I wasn’t really that resilient after all. I came up with a new plan. My bike has a rack and I have a pannier. In the city, I use regular running shoes. Once I get down to the trail where everything is less stop-and-go, out  come the cleats from my pannier and I go clipless. It may look silly, but for now it’s been a great compromise, and I have to say, it really is great fun when I can get going fast with the clipless pedals without worrying about traffic. And I haven’t fallen since. (Knock on wood!)

Stephanie is a PhD candidate in Astronomy & Astrophysics at the University of Toronto. She is also a runner, photographer, drinker of craft beer, and a newbie triathlete-in-training.