Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Pain in the Park

Thursday after work, instead of doing my usual yoga class (or changing into pajamas now it gets dark at 4pm), I change into running clothes as soon as I get home. I grab my headlamp, do my hip exercises, and head out to meet up with 20 or so of my closest run friends to hurt a lot in the dark.

I run with VFAC (, coached by John Hill. We run out of Stanley Park and the Point Grey track (or at least, I've heard rumours of track workouts, but haven't attended more than two in a row since early March).

origin story
Four years ago, after writing my UFE exam, I decided that I needed to get a life. Or, due to my low alcohol tolerance and preference for early bedtimes, the closest thing to it - a run club. I took a break from reading celebrity gossip online, and instead thought about potential clubs to join. Several months earlier,
I had gone to a Wednesday John Hill practice with my friend Lucy. We did 2x2miles, and I remembered being both destroyed and happy. So, I figured that VFAC looked promising: Stanley Park was nearby and easy to get to, the evening times worked. The only downside: the fast times posted by the athletes intimidated the hell out of me. I e-mailed coach John. Instead of getting a reply e-mail, I got the hour-long phone call. Afterwards, I was still slightly confused, more than a little nervous, and committed to showing up at practice the next week.

One early October night, I jogged over solo to meet at Brockton at 6:15, as John as said. I was the first person there. Runners trickled in around 6:25. To run with VFAC means you need to have a flexible concept of time. There were people of all ages, and a very intimidating group of fast-looking women wearing kneesocks. Before I was too scared off, I met a couple girls my own age: Emily (who is now in NZ, and a new mother), Chessa (a trail runner / cyclist) and Heather (still running with VFAC!).

We warmed up for what seemed to be a really long time. The workout was announced: 4 miles, then 2x1mile. Holy shit. Before the workout could start, John had to do his rounds: First, to give everyone their times - the pace he estimated that they could run at. Second, to assign everyone to a pace group, and stagger the groups - slowest leaving first, fastest leaving last.

I started the 4 miles, and quickly realized the magic of VFAC: I hurt like hell, and I was still going. Having a group of other people - all with the same ragged breath and sighs - who weren't giving up made me not give up, either. I somehow finished the workout, nauseous and elated. And went back the next week.

off and on
The next couple years, I kept going to VFAC sporadically. I would go for a month, two months, three months during training for the 2009 Vancouver marathon. I did the occasional tempo. I would get a bit faster, then would get injured, or leave on a hike trip, or get busy with work.

What I did gain from the practices I showed up to was a glimpse at another community: people who woke up and ran, without excuses. People who raced hard on Sunday, and then showed up to run intervals the following Thursday. I gained girlfriends who were just as active as me: hike buddies, run buddies, even swim buddies.

I saw people who had joined after me get PB after PB as they followed the training plans John gave them every two weeks. I saw pictures (heavily edited, as I found out), of the Haney to Harrison relay, or post-race and post-workout drinks. I saw how supportive everyone was to those racing.

Finally, this January, I decided I wanted to be one of them. It's been a bit of a learning curve since.

the timing could be better
I started training seriously in January. Training seriously means Tuesday tempos, track workouts, trail intervals, long runs: week in, week out, no excuses. One week into training, I got sick. One month into training, my old live-in boyfriend broke up with me, and I was suddenly living in my friend's basement in West Vancouver. And here was the amazing thing: thanks to my teammates, I kept training for a marathon. I had Allison come drive to where I was staying and run 26k with me before work, in the rain, in the dark. I learned the special Park Royal meeting place to run over to practice. I had Brooke drive out of her way to give me rides home from track. When I moved back to the West End, I had Angela and Jackie to meet for early tempos. Some days, I felt like I could drift away, and VFAC helped to centre me.

But don't get me wrong: the club is full of quirks.

shirtless season starts in April
In April, when the evenings are (marginally) less dark, the workouts are on the Stanley park trails. The extra daylight seems to be some sort of signal to most of the guys, who choose to go shirtless. This would be fine if the weather was warmer. Or sunnier. Or even not mostly raining until well into July. Though the extra skin seems to attract more than an extra share of the Beaver Lake mosquitos, so perhaps I should just be grateful.

patience is a virtue
Or, as I call it, "social time". This is the time between the end of the cooldown and the start of the workout. This can last anywhere from 15 to 30 minutes (a good rule of thumb: the earlier / more important your post-workout plans are, the longer it will take for the workout to start). During this time, John assigns paces and arranges pace groups. He also will tend to any potential injuries or tight muscles of the group members. Pretty much any injury is tended to by John digging his fingers deep into your hip muscles - to a surprisingly high success rate. The longer team members wait for the workout to start, the antsier we get. I think this is a deliberate strategy on John's part: instead of dreading the workout, we actually are desperate to start it. (that, or with the increasing amount of members and injuries, it takes a while to assign times).

When I started VFAC, the waiting around bugged me. Now, as long as there isn't driving rain or a zillion mosquitos, it's a way for me to catch up with my run friends...and occasionally to recover from the warm up.

we fought the law...the law occasionally wins
In October through to January, workouts move from the track / trails to the Stanley park roads. The roads are pretty quiet - except for the tour buses and the Christmas train traffic. These vehicles don't always appreciate it when a group of runners, many of whom are wearing dark clothing and no headlamps, try to play chicken with them in the middle of the road. At the start of the workout, we all listen as coach John tells us: stay on the sdewalks, stay in the parking lane, DO NOT RUN IN THE MIDDLE OF THE ROAD.

Then our pace groups start. And, usually, I immediately fall towards the back as everyone opens into a fast pace. I know I need to find a sidewalk, but my run-stupid brain is convinced I will not get dropped, if only I stay exactly in the middle of the road, running just next another girl. Yes, there are cars trying to pass. Yes, some of them are honking. But I am hanging on! And feel like I could make a move to pass. And the only way I can do this is by disrupting all traffic.

As a result, when the group is standing (partially in the middle of the road), in an unlit section, giving John our workout times, we are occasionally visited by a police cruiser. This has happened several times.

The last time,  by our standards, went pretty well: the policewoman waited to talk to coach John until after we had all finished giving him our workout times. Some of the team members used this pause to try and persuade the policewoman of how fast she would become after a couple months of the VFAC training program. She remain unswayed, but our club now has a firm headlamp and reflective clothing policy (a good change from our old "black on black" dress code).

creative distances
I attempt to explain our workouts to other athletes. A typical discussion might go like this:

Non-VFAC-member ("NVM"): "I did hills - 8x3mins on with 2min rest".
Me: We do hill workouts too! I like the trail one. We do 5 hills.
NVM: How long are the uphills?
Me: We run from the trail intersection, up the hill, and stop just after the stump.
NVM: How much rest do you have?
Me: We jog down in groups. We do another interval downhill, from a different trail intersection to a signpost. Coach John sometimes yells at us if we go too fast.
NVM: ...

We have workouts with descriptions like: 1 mile 5/8th, 2k net downhill, "back half" (one of my favourite workouts). We have ways of orienting ourselves: "When you can see the ocean through the trees, you have 200m left", "At the trail intersection wiht the stump, it's 400m to go."

There is a quote: "Running gives more than it takes." For me, this is very true.

Running has taken my weekends, my early mornings, my ability to wear heels, my toenails, my after 9pm social life. It has given me a community of strong, inspirational, positive people. It has given me friends who think meeting at 5:45am to run a 21k tempo before work is a completely legitimate activity. It has given me teammates who come out to watch us run races and cheer us on. It has given me the chance to celebrate the sucesses of others: from my teammates who win races to those teammates who run marathons for the first time in their 40s. It has given me the thrill of achievement when coach John "likes" one of my trail running status updates on facebook.

A year ago, I never thought I would have girlfriends who would run 38k with me on a Tuesday morning before work as part of marathon training. I never thought that I would look forwards to gutting it out, in the dark, on the roads in Stanley park as part of late season training. Part of it is the endorphins. Part of it is pushing to the point where I want to quit, and still going. But mostly - it's the people. I like the long waits where I get to hear about everyone's week. I like working in a group, all of us going as hard as we can, and finding the energy for a bit more. I like the drinks after practice (ok, I like them less the following morning) and after races.

The great thing, to me, is how much club members support each other. We all have our own goals, and we are all working hard to achieve them. To some, it's winning races. To others, it's a PB. You have to be a little crazy to do the training we do, week in and week out. And I like that we're all a little crazy, together.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Fuck that, yes I can.

Two weeks ago,  I was injured (a bit) and tired (a lot). When my amazing training partner, Katie, got injured badly enough to have to pull out of the North Face 50 mile race - I panicked. A big part of my decision to do the race was based on how much I enjoyed training together: a five hour run is much less daunting if you can chat the whole way. The prospect of running for over 9 hours by myself on race day terrified me. I can't remember the last time I started a run of more than 10k on my own. I haven't done a long run on my own since January. In races, I usually tuck in behind someone, and use their energy and pace to help me.

At the same time - I am not injured. I have the race entry paid for, the plane ticket booked, and a lot of miles run up mountains. So last week, I did a 19k tempo. And then an interval workout. I struggled, mentally. And I finished fast. And I chose - and chose hard - to commit to the race, and commit to training for the last couple weeks as much as I can. The rest of the race will be in my head: to trust myself, trust my strength, trust my body to move through the hurt and keep going.

The good news: I don't have to be on my own yet. This past weekend I did a hell of a lot of running with a hell of a lot of fun people.

I went over to visit Meghan on the Sunshine coast. I left right from work on Friday, and arrived about an hour too early at the ferry, in time for a wintry sunset. Meghan lives in a suite of an old house, right on the ocean. The house has wood floors, huge windows, exposed brick walls...and a china / cutlery / glasses cabinet with leaded glass. It also has Meghan's amazing cooking.

ease in
I slept in Saturday...until almost 7:30am. Instead of rushing into compression tights and heading out the door, we had a pot of tea and watched the sun rise over the mountains. The plan was to powerhike up and run down Mt. Elfinstone, one of the highest mountains on the Sunshine coast.

we have discovered winter
I would have thought living in Ontario for four years would have prepared me for cold temperatures. Even with a toque, gloves, jacket, and one wool sock (almost laundry day) I was freezing when we started the uphill. The trail was steep, windy, virtually deserted, and gorgeous. After about 30mins up, what we thought was frost turned into a light snow. The ground felt bouncy - frozen on top, with give underneath.

There were some fun runnable sections on the way up. Ours were the first shoeprints along the snow. Meghan was out in front, scouting the trail. In one section, I was following her closely behind - a bit too close. I heard her yell - something - but couldn't quite make it out.

Until I went down, hard, on a patch of snow-covered ice. I managed to break my fall with my wrist/knee/chest. It hurt, but neither of my ankles were rolled, so as far as falls go, I was pretty happy.

As we got closer to the top, even though we were going uphill, it got cold. The rocks we scrambled up were covered in ice. We used branches to pull ourselves up across snow-covered roots to the final top of the mountain. The views made it all worthwhile.

dial in
When we started our way downhill, I was scared. The less-than-five minute break had me freezing. The sections where we had struggled uphill looked even more intimidating on the downhill.

This past week, when talking about her training plans, Katie had said to me: I want to put a sign on my wall that says "I can't". And every morning, I'll look at it and think "Fuck that, yes I can."

With that in my head, I started to granny-step my way down. The trail got easier, the temperature climbed, and we chatted as we wound our way down through roots and red pine needles. Meghan once again took one for the team by leading the way downhill and finding the slippery doing some of the most controlled non-wipe-outs I have ever seen.

We ended the day - tired, but not injured - with a lunch in a Gibsons cafe, sunlight streaming in.

this weekend just got real
Sunday's run was a lot less technical...and a hell of a lot longer. Barry ( had come up with a good 50k training route. It had a runnable uphill, was accessible by car, and I wasn't at the risk of seriously injuring myself. The one drawback - the route was known to be boring as hell. After a couple months of views and sunshine, the two long repeats up the dirt access road on the backside of Grouse Mountain didn't exactly hold the same appeal.

like fun, but different
The clear answer was not to find a more enjoyable running route, or somehow change the weather forecast from 1C and rainy to something (anything) better. It was to friends to do the run with. Luckily, between our VFAC friends and trail friends, we knew some people with a somewhat different definition of fun. I asked Lucy, one of my oldest running friends in Vancouver, who taught me how to trail run. Her initial response - no. Then, she changed her mine. She explained to me: "I could do something fun, or pretty, like Norvan falls. Or I could run up and down the road with you." Turns out poor decision making is contagious. She was to come with us for our first repeat. Ben, a fellow VFAC member and marathoner, also said yes (to be fair, I didn't quite fully explain the run to him). He was joining us for the second repeat.

So,  armed with a strong coffee and about 20 gels, I was set to go.

fueling meet-up
Lucy met us at 7:55am - and promptly informed us that her injury wasn't quite rehabbed enough to do the 25k round trip #1. She did, however, drop off some kamut bars to help ensure we were well-fueled. We started jogging. The temperature hovered around freezing. I could feel my legs from yesterday - but honestly, it takes me forever to warm-up anyways. The trail switchbacked up through forest at a runnable grade. To pass the time, we talked. (At first, Barry talked and I sort of wheezed replies). In the first 12k to the the Grouse Mountain Lodge, we had discussed: relationships, work, how short marathons seemed. Nothing was off-topic - except, obviously, food. This could only be discussed in the final 10k.

we might have underestimated
As we neared the top of Grouse, it started to lightly snow. The sky was slate-grey. In several parts, the road was covered in ice. Barry took a bail on one particularly bad patch - our only wipeout of the day. One of our complaints about Mountain Highway: boring. This is due to both the views (or lack of them) and the non-technical nature. After negotiating our way along the first uphill and the ice / thin layer of snow, we agreed this run had become a lot more "interesting".

Ben hates us
We finished our first "repeat" at 10:31 - exactly one minute behind Barry's predicted time (Barry, you seem good with numbers - ever consider a career switch to accounting?). Ben was waiting at our meeting place, much too enthusiastic to understand what the run actually entailed.

At the start of repeat #2 - with blissfully ignorant Ben
 As we slowly jogged up the endless switchbacks a second time, Ben quickly came to realize this was a bit different than the usual long runs along the seawall. To further reinforce this, the light snow from the first repeat turned to heavier, more blowing-in-face snow for the second time up. We felt guilty - sorta - about duping Ben into coming along. The guilt faded about 30min later, as a warmed-up Ben helped to drag us uphill.

at chilly victory
As the top of Mountain Highway was cold and had diagnonal snow, we quickly headed back down after one picture.

Ben has now put his name in the 2013 kneeknacker draw

Ben, pumped from his successful repeat, started to fly downhill. I was definitely going in a downhill direction, but it took my legs a little longer to adjust to the change. 4k longer, to be exact. The final stretch, the guys were out in front, talking. I started to notice all of the aches and strains that happen after running a lot in a short amount of time. I told myself: just focus, keep moving - you can worry about it all later.

scary numbers on the Garmin
As we finished the last couple kms, Barry commented about how, in his ultra training experience, one of the weirdest things is "seeing scary numbers on your Garmin." This was the second time I had ever done close to 50k - and the first time wearing a GPS watch for it. I usually don't bother keeping track of stuff on trail runs, but here are some actual, honest to god numbers: 49.7k (like fuck I was going to run another 300m - I was DONE.), 5:03 (including all stops), about 1500m.

The second scariest number - the amount of bacon consumed by Ben and Barry at brunch afterwards.

The day after the run, my quads were a bit achy, but my body was surprisingly okay. My immune system, however, wasn't quite up for the challenge. I replaced Tuesday's tempo with trips from my couch to my bed to the kitchen to make more tea. Still - so worth it!

cups of tea consumed in 24hrs: 8
times I comtemplated out-loud moving to Sunshine coast: 4
trails that Meghan knew: all of them
gels I brought for Sunday's run: way too many
gels I actually consumed during the run: 3
glasses of wine consumed Saturday night, pre-run: 2
glasses of wine regretted Sunday, mid-run: 0
hours curled up in bed in fetal position Sunday afternoon: 1.5

Monday, 5 November 2012

Juan de Fuca Trail

This past June, Allison and Ramsey (the two fastest physios in Vancouver), myself, and Katie did the Juan de Fuca trail in a day. The Juan de Fuca trail is a 47k trail from China Beach to Port Renfrew with approximately 2000m of net elevation gain.
after-work drinks
We arrived in Port Renfrew on Friday night just as it got dark. The rain had fully committed. As we would be spending most of our time on the trail, we had opted for the most basic accomodation possible: Hiker's Huts. These came with four walls, a light switch, many many coat hooks, and bunk beds. The bathrooms were out in another building. There was no reason to linger in the huts, or on the front porches (watching the rain). Instead, we went to the Coastal Cafe - a restaurant right across the road. This was owned by Hanna's highschool friend and her husband. Inside was wood floors, a big board with the menu written on it, sofas - exactly the kind of cozy place that makes you want to call this whole run idea off and spend a lazy weekend day reading and drinking coffee.

Since it was Friday night, Katie and I immediately grabbed drinks. Ramsey joined us. Allison had a coffee instead. Somehow, between the four of us, one of the huge chocolate chip cookies was purchased and immediately disappeared.

As did the second drink that Katie and I ordered.

base training
I had done several hikes that lasted 8-10 hours. I had done exactly one 5-hr kneeknacker training run the week before. During this run, I managed to wipe out badly enough to take a decent amount of skin off my left hip, and roll my left ankle - twice. I was definitely ready to do a 47k long run on wet, rooty trails.

start strong
Hanna drove us to China Beach early on the Saturday morning. Low grey clouds hugged the coast. We were all very quiet on the car ride. Ramsey brought his camera and Katie brought her iphone to take pictures with. Although the forecast called for heavy rain, Katie decided not to use one of the 10 ziploc bags I brought to put our gear in.

The trail is divided up into sections: moderate, most difficult, difficult and (finally, at the end) moderate.

The first 2k on the trail were great: everything was (relatively) dry, and we took a nice downhill to break into our first ocean views. We had a drink of water. We took a lot of pictures.

Then the rain started, and the climbs started. Juan de Fuca is different than the North Shore trails, or the trails around Whistler - the climbs on Juan de Fuca are a lot shorter, but there are a hell of a lot more of them. It's not about getting into a steady uphill rythmn, but more about powering up to the top of the hill then dodging roots on the next downhill. As the rain increased, the downhill sections got muddier and muddier.

beach break
The trail had sections where we had to go along the beach, following buoys hung from trees along the shore. In warm, sunny weather, I can see these sections being a highlight. In the steady rain, we slipped over large rocks, steadying ourselves on huge logs, always a bit anxious to make sure we didn;t miss the small opening in the trees when the trail climbed back into forest.

moderate section
At some point, the uphills stopped being runnable. They stopped being walk-able, or even hike-able. Instead, we would pull ourselves up using roots and tree stumps that we hoped would hold our weight. The trail had markers every kilometer, and was well-signed (at least compared to the trails I had been running on the north shore). However, there was me and my ability to get lost in pretty much any situation - this must have been a bit contagious.

At one point, we were struggling up a nearly-vertical slope, covered in slick clay mud. We had to pull ourselves up an overhanging cliff using an especially dubious root system. After hauling himself up, Ramsey commented: "this is the moderate portion of the trail."

The comment would have been funnier if, at the top, we once again saw the trail. Instead, we saw trees, and bushes, and glimpes of ocean. No marker, no trails. Back down the clay, hugging the cliffside, and a decent backtrack to find the trail.

chafing break
Hanna arranged to meet us at the Sombrio beach parking lot, about 29k into the trail. The parking lot where we would meet was at the end of a long beach crossing. By the time we reached the crossing, we had been running in the rain for almost 6 hours. Katie's shorts weren't dealing well with being soaking wet, and she was feeling a lot of chafing. To combat this, she had pulled up the shorts as far as they could go. From a couple feet away, she appeared to be running in a slightly baggy, bikini bottom.

While making our way across the beach, Katie met a woman, and was able to chat while holding up her shorts with one hand.

lost (again)
The Sombrio beach section was the busiest part of the trail. Backpackers were hunkered down under tarps, waiting out the rain. Day hikers in slickers were meandering along the beach. A normal person would have easily spotted the signs to the parking lot. However, having 4 run/hike-stupid people meant getting lost several times. We attempted to get directions from some campers, but they were too distracted by Katie's shorts / underwear look that we ended up going in the opposite direction.

Finally, we stumbled out into the parking lot, to find Hanna and her friend waiting with an umbrella, changes of clothing, mocha and a lot of boiled potatoes and trail mix. Between getting lost and being slow, we were well past the planned meeting time. They had started to ask people in the parking lot if anybody had seen four runners - and one woman had! She was worried: "one of tem had really bad chafing, too."

The new clothing we put on stayed dry for about 3 minutes - the time we needed to return to the trailhead. To keep morale up, we thought about people who were backpacking the trail over several days: at least we had food, beds, and dry clothing at the end of the trail - a mere 18km away. The last section of the trail was supposed to be moderate. I think, in dryer conditions, it would have been. We splashed through ankle deep water - in the good sections. In the final couple kilometers of the trail, we came across two stream crossings. Or what would be streams in the summer. We couldn't see through the milky brown water to the bottom. We decided to risk it - by sending Ramsey to scout the conditions. Once he had a secure footing, and moderate hypothermia, he helped the rest of us across. It was sort of a pre-shower to help get all of the mud and dirt off.

best sister ever
The final 1km of the trail was marked easy. By this time, we had been running well over ten hours. When I saw a woman standing by the 46km marker with an umbrella, I wondered who was crazy enough to voluntarily be out in this weather. It was Hanna, Ramsey's sister and our amazing crew member. She ran the last part with us, in gumboots, while holding an umbrella to shelter us from getting any wetter.

There aren't many pictures on this post. Ramsey's camera had a low battery sign about 15 minutes into the run. Katie's iPhone lasted a bit longer - we think. The waterproof case didn't live up to its name. The screen went dark, although a lone green light on the side was still on. Even after a lot of time in the rice jar, the phone never came back to life. My white compression socks are still several shades darker.

shoes - 47k later

the morning after: run hangover, recovery wine hangover

The next day, we woke up to a light, misty rain. As we drove back to the ferry, the sun came out.

postscript #2
One of my friends did the Juan de Fuca trail in early September. He complained that there was too much dust on the trail, since everything was so dry. That is like complaining to me there is too much delicious in a piece of cheese. To make me feel better, his group also took over ten hours to complete it: not due to rain, or lack of fitness, or poor navigation. They had run into a bear cub. They then ran into the mother of the bear club. Over an hour later, their beach "short-cut" got cliffed out, and they had to scramble to return to the trail (but at least they were dry!).

some stats
total time: 10.5hrs
finger pruny-ness - extreme
gels consumed - 9
cliff bars - 3
times katie complained about having to take the gels / cliff bars out of my bag when I was too lazy to take it off myself - 0
sea shanties sung by Katie - 2
times going "exploring" on "scenic detours" - 4