July 20, 2011

Unreal - The Story Of My First Ultra Marathon

- Part I -

The morning was fresh and very sunny. It was obvious the day would be very hot. I was nervous, excited, jittery. After years in the making, this was it. This was the morning of my first ultra marathon.

We’d chosen the Limberlost Challenge, a trail run in the beautiful forests of northeast Ontario, for no particular reason else than their appealing web site and inspiring videos. We didn’t know much about the course or about ultras for that matter, as none but one of us had prior experience.

My friend Donald and I had been camping on-site the night before, so we were literally a couple hundred yards from the starting line. Gilles and Yves, our two other partners in crime, had stayed at a hotel with our support crew and head logistician, The Amazing Julie.

They showed up mere moments after Donald and I had popped out of the tent and started preparing. The atmosphere was electric. We headed out to the start/finish area, set up the tent and the equipment and lined up with the other runners. Everything was going quickly. It felt like 5 minutes ago, I was still asleep in the tent, blissfully obvious of what I’d gotten myself into.

In a normal race, you might get a little briefing or speech from the race director, saying basically welcome and have fun. This is not a normal race. The briefing we got was from a doctor, who said nothing about fun and spoke of acute dehydration, electrolyte shock and his unilateral right to boot us out of the race if we started to look too much like a medical liability. He handed the mic over to the race director who basically said “OK, so are you ready? 5, 4, 3, 2…”

Good god! Is he serious? He was!

In no time, we were moving along, with only the constant beeping of the starting matte to keep me connected with reality. As we went from a fast walk to a slow jog, I took a look at my co-runners.

Donald was already headed for the front of the pack. At 48, he’s slender, strong, handsome and has the willpower of a freight train. Type of guy who’s done sports all his life, and reaps the benefits. Loves to pull my leg. I scoff and smile as I see him go, reminding myself I knew there was no way I would be running this with him. I’m just not fast enough.

“He’s starting off strong”. That’s Yves, right beside me. The Coach. One of the most experienced runners in the community, he has not only a very impressive list of personal achievements, but also coached many athletes, some up to international levels. Decades of hard-acquired wisdom, packed in a strong, resilient body and a teenager’s smile. Think Clint Eastwood, without the attitude. In this very moment, I’m ever so grateful I have him next to me, and feel privileged. But I say nothing else than ask “Where’s Gillezz?”

Gillezz, that’s the sound I make when I call Gilles, our fourth runner. It’s actually his idea to run this thing. Months ago, while we were still running in the snow at EDLC, we started to chat and he mentioned he dreamed of running ultras. I said “So do I”. He asked me if I was serious, which I was, and asked if I wanted to actually run one, which I did. In less time than was required to realize what trouble we were getting ourselves into, we’d agreed to sign up for Limberlost. That sums up Gilles very well. Batshit crazy with an amused smile, a five-year-old trapped in a grown man’s body. He was trotting along a couple steps ahead of us.

The gravel road we’d started off on didn’t last for more than a couple hundred meters. Right away, we were signalled into the forest, along a beautiful soft trail of moist earth and green moss. I breathe. I know we’re going to be here for a very long time, so there’s no need to rush ahead. This lap, I’m thinking, is the first of four. I’ll spend it looking around and taking notice of the terrain. It’s my warm-up.

I got pulled out of my own thoughts rapidly by a strange feeling in my feet.

I was wearing Merrell TrailGloves, as part of a review process that had started a couple weeks before. I’d met a Merrell rep at a trail and road event while wearing my FiveFingers and we’d gotten into a conversation about their new line of barefoot shoes, more specifically why I wasn’t impressed with them and had doubts they could perform any serious running. Instead of getting pissed and walking away, he actually invited me to try out a pair and see for myself. I agreed, adding that if I was ever to trust them enough to race in them, I’d make amends and wear Merrell’s colors for the event.

So here I was, wearing not only TrailGloves but a Merrell Team jersey, suddenly rocked by a discomforting thought: “What if they don’t hold up?”. I look at my feet, wondering what the strange feeling is. While running, the back heels of the shoes are gripping on my achilles tendon and pulling down my socks. And since I’m wearing ankle-cut Injinji’s, it won’t take long until the socks are completely crimpled under my arches. Remembering advice from experienced ultra runners, I decided to stop right away and fix the issue, instead of toughing it out and deal with bigger problems later on.

I told Yves and Gilles to press on, thinking I’d likely catch up with them in a couple kilometres. Little did I know it would be a long, very long time before I’d see any of my friends.

Continue to Part II

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