Monday, 25 November 2013

Sports Enhancement Workshop with Shannon Thompson (All I want for Christmas is to run really fast)

What: A kick-ass sports psychology workshop to get you fast and happy!
When: Tuesday, December 10th, 7-9:30PM
Where: 560 Cardero Street (in a meeting room, not in our living room...unless that is a popular request)
Cost: $20 (includes booklet, handouts, and planning for your 2014 season.
Host: Shannon Thompson....athletic highlights include a 37min Sun Run, a 1:22 half marathon...and putting up with me for 6 days in the Colorado Rockies.

Note: for those who want to discuss the concepts covered in Shannon's workshop further after the session is done, there is the option to come to our apartment and help drink the beers that have been in the fridge since Donovan's stag, and will likely be there for the next 8 months.

Here's the full deal on the night:

This presentation will discuss methods which have been proven to promote positive thinking, and lead to greater success and enjoyment in sports.

     Shannon Thompson has been an athlete in equestrian sport (eventing) at the international levels for 15 years and a coach for 10 years. She is also a competitive distance runner. She is working on a degree in psychology, with particular emphasis on positive psychology and its effectiveness in sport.
     The purpose of this workshop, is to help athletes identify their own optimal performance mindset, and create an individualized plan to attain that mindset consistently. The ability of an athlete to attain their optimal performance mindset consistently, in training and in competition , has been shown to have an incredible impact on the quality and consistency of performance. Such an ability can also dramatically increase an athlete’s enjoyment in sport.

The contents are as follows:

 Part 1: Goal setting:
  -   Athletes will identify outcome goals and create a step-by-step
plan to achieve these goals.
   - Training journals will be discussed, begun and encouraged.
   - The benefits of positive thinking and well-being in sport will be
introduced, as well as methods to improve positive thinking and
well-being in day to day training and competition.
  - The benefits of deep practice (pushing one's limits) and methods
to improve the quality of practice will be discussed.

Part 2: Optimal Performance Mindset
   - Athletes will do some exercises that will help them identify
their ideal performance mindset. Athletes will complete a
pre-competition and competition plan, as well as a refocusing plan for
when things go awry.
- Performance anxiety, nervousness, and motivation will be discussed.

Part 3: Struggle, Failure, Injuries and Setbacks
    - We will discuss the benefits of struggle and the reality of
injuries and setbacks, including ways to deal when one is struggling
or injured.


For more information please contact Shannon at

More info can also be found at

“Shannon, your Sport Psych presentation hit the mark perfectly with our young ski racers, as well as validated and reinforced the mental skills training that our older athletes have been developing over the years. Some great new tools and perspectives for our ski club athletes to refine and put to use in the many situations and environments encountered on a day to day basis!”
-Rob Boyd, Head`Coach Whistler Mountain Ski Club

“Shannon is excellent at adapting her talks to suit different age groups and maturity levels as well as adjusting to the specific needs and challenges of the group. She manages to convey tons of great information through an engaging mix of presentation techniques that promote inter-activeness, but also includes personal stories and analogies to keep everyone interested and focused. All of our athletes have come out of her sessions feeling motivated and confident that they can push forward to the next level. She is an amazing resource to have on your side.”
                                                                                                                -Jennifer Dober, Head Coach Delta Gymnastics 

“Shannon demonstrates to her audience how the power of positive thinking can be applied to many aspects of our lives.  Her warmth and enthusiasm is evident in her talk and helps us to consider the many ways in which we can improve and reach our own version of greatness.”
                                                                                                                  -Darren Mathison, McNeil Secondary Incentive Program

 "She got me much more hyped up on life and I feel much more positive now..."

-          Martan, 13 yr old cross country skier

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Best "Stupid Run" Contest

As I write this, I have just had my left ankle taped by superphysio Ramsey Ezzat. I managed to get a baby sprain this past weekend. The sprain didn't come from the 24km Phantom Run, (or, as I call it, the "Phantom walk slowly downhill") where I ran down muddy trails, along ice and snow covered boardwalks, and walked like a champ on a lot of the technical parts to finish 5th female. No, this sprain came 2km into my recovery run with Lucy the day after. I'll be back running in a few days (good news), which means that me and my uterus will have to brave a stationary bike for up to three days (terrible news).

So in the spirit of questionable run choices, I would like to have my blog's second contest (this was the first) for your story of your "stupidest"run. 

Note on the definition of stupid run
A stupid run is not bad - it is awesome. It absolutely, completely, did not go to plan. If you had a chance to travel back in time, some things would be changed. It could have taken longer than plan. The route could have been shorter. Maybe certain injuries / embarrassing situations would not have happened. And it was an awesome run that you are so damn glad you did.

1. Submit your story of your "stupidest" run by December 21, 2013. You can submit: in the comments to this post, in the facebook comments, or if you're shy, e-mail to
2. The person who submits the best story gets warmer feet, courtesy of a $50 FITS gift card, and a bottle of wine, courtesy of me.
3. In the likely but still embarrassing circumstance that nobody submits, the prize will go to either to Lucy (who promised me a story) or to Barry (who I'm pacing next year so has to enter) by default.

My own "Stupid Run" story
On the July long weekend this past year, a group of us ran part of the Squamish 50 course. This is the story of how we covered 28km in a blazing 4.5hrs.

As with most of these runs, everything started really promisingly. We had a great group: Allison and Ramsey, Mary, Katie, and Matt (who has relocated to Ontario because he can't deal with the shame of me beating him in the Sun Run 10k next year). Ramsey had planned our run route, along trails with promising names like "Angry Midget" and "Mountain of Phlegm." He even had a iphone app to help us navigate. Mary had printed out a course description. I think there might've even been a map, which looked like squiggles on top of more squiggles.

We all met on time, and started the run as on time as multiple bathroom breaks could do. The issue - I believe on-time was around 10am. On one of the hottest weekends of the year. It was about 30C by the time we started. As soon as we ducked into the forest, it was then 30C and humid. We climbed and climbed, then descended on still-slippery soil, flailing down mountain bike ramps and shaking down switchbacks.

The navigation was going pretty well - the guys and Katie, with superior downhill - had gone ahead to scout out the corners. Allison had the first wipe out of the day on a slick mountain bike ramp. We kept going. The day got hotter. This was a rain-forest, the trees closing in green and close and sweaty overhead. Mosquitoes buzzed around stagnant pools. We had climbs through grass, skirting flooded trails. At the top, we broke out to see trees surrounding us, mountains and low hills. I brought 2L of water, and after 3hrs, most of it was gone.

The first real wipe-out of the day happened on the way off one of the many summits. The trail app confirmed the way to the "trail" was down a very steep cliff face. Matt, who has very poor self-preservation skills, was first to go down the cliff face. Miraculously, he was okay. Ramsey went next....and was almost okay. Except for his elbow, which was bashed-up and bleeding in a potentially-not-okay way. We kept going.

By this time, I was completely out of water, and was drinking Matt's not-very-much-water. According to the maps, we were supposed to be getting close to the last 5-6km. This was great...until we approached a track of semi-dirt road which was supposed to have a turn-off to the right. The trail on the turn-off was going to take us to "Mountain of Phlegm", on which we would finish our run on one last summit, then do a triumphant downhill back to our car.

We went back and forth on the damn road. I remember that we ran into a stray dog, that Ramsey tried to return to its owners (Ramsey does not necessarily remember this part). Finally, we decided to go through the woods on a trail that looked sorta-right.

The trail brought us to a 3-way intersection. We looked at Mary's route description. We consulted Ramsey's iphone app. Then we went by navigation through process of elimination: we tried every one of the three damn routes, which seemed to take us up to a different summit.

By this time, we had all pretty much run out of water. It was hot as balls. Matt kept trying to sit down at every opportunity. Certain people who rhyme with "Smalex" were doubtful of Ramsey's iphone's navigation abilities. However, we kept going.

It turned out that the fourth try was the charm: the trail that seemed stupid, all rock along a cliff face, turned out to be the right one. We tried it, said no way, then ended back up again. The sound of the freeway has never been sweeter.

On the final stretch back to the car, we were all seriously hot and thirsty. We came across a small child with a lemonade stand - amazing! Until we realized that none of us had money. I had to be talked down from begging free lemonade / issuing an IOU.

We finished our run directly in the grocery store. By the time we reached checkout to pay, we were scanned already-drained bottles of chocolate milk, coconut juice, water, and coke. We were sweaty and way too muddy. Our planned time to do the run? 3hrs. Actual time: 4.5hrs.

Doing it all again
The next day, we were out for another 4.5hours, and were overjoyed to "only" get lost for about 15minutes.

Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Encountering Wildlife

Two weekends ago I went to Whistler. It was a last-minute decision: Donovan was having his stag, with a bunch of people over on the Saturday night. The Whistler 50 relay was on the Saturday, and my TRR teammates Chessa and Shannon, plus my FITS teammate Barry, plus the awesome VFAC teams, were all staying over. So when given the choice between my somewhat drunk friends, and Donovan's likely much more drunk (but very very nice!) friends...the choice was easy. I was very quickly convinced to crash in Chessa and Shannon's hotel room, mainly so we could go out dancing with Shannon on the Saturday.

Nic Browne organized a team for VFAC. We were one girl shy ofthe required 4 girls, so we raced as open men. Nic was an amazing team mom - not only did he have a phone tree going, but he even took the volunteer shift...and was definitely the most stylishly dressed on our team. Nic also generously offered me the fold-out couch in the VFAC hotel room (with Jono, somewhat naturally, taking the floor).

Barry kicks ass
A huge mention has to go to Barry Young, who rocked the 50-miler. He won first overall, and set a new course record in a balls-out 6:11. His time for the 42.2km split was 3:02, just to put in perspective how fast he was. I was racing a much shorter 7k leg. Barry was close behind me for his final lap. My one and only goal was not to get passed by Barry - which I achieved - barely.

Thanks to our very fast guys, the VFAC "open mens" team came 3rd! (Thanks Nic!)

Run Time
The rest of Saturday was fun, but Sunday was the real adventure. Despite not bringing a) trail shoes b) a backpack c) any type of water bottle, Shannon wanted to run up to Russet Lake from Whistler Village. This "run" is over 30k with 1600m+ of elevation game and loss - a 3-4hr endeavour.

Joining us for the run was Chessa, new friend Care, and Richard (a guy Shannon knows - she asked him, at the afterparty, after several drinks, to join us - he said yes. I hope he did not regret his drunken decision!). We started the run - five people and two backpacks, plus several water bottles. We made Chessa carry one of the packs, weighted down with 2L of water and filled to the brim with snacks and gear. Richard, wearing shorts even shorter than Barry's, gamely carried the other very full backpack.

For the first five minutes, it felt amazing to run without a backpack. I should do this more often! Then I realized that, yes, we were going to run up the whole damn thing right to the top. Shannon and I had done this trail in the summer with other trail friends. We had gel breaks. We powerhiked hills. We took pictures. Breathing was a lot more difficult this time around, with a markedly fewer gel breaks.

Chessa dropping us all

view towards singing pass

Despite a backpack full of extra weight, Chessa promptly dropped us after about 10minutes...and then stopped. A black bear was blocking her path. We yelled, and the bear shambled off. Nothing too scary. We climbed, then climbed some more. The trail was strewn with leaves, and offered glimpses of mountains through the trees. We hit snow, then more snow, then wide alpine views. We continued on towards Russet Lake, through deeper snow. Based pretty much on my bitching (and Chessa's dislike of running on sand, which is similar to running on snow apparently), we turned back just before the top of the pass to get to Russet Lake. To give background, the 15km uphill had me pretty wiped - I was looking forwards to an easy downhill.

Downhill and Coyotes
We spread out on the downhill. Not shockingly, Chessa took off ahead. Care and I wove down the mountain at an easier pace, and Shannon and Richard were a couple minutes behind. This is important - that we were all spread out.

It was beautiful - the afternoon shadows and low light, the occasional scrambling over a tree trunk, the loosening of my legs.

And then Chessa came running back up the trail towards Care and myself. "I saw a really big coyote - and it's following me!" With that, the three of us took off back uphill. A look behind us confirmed that, yes, there was a coyote following. Actually - there were two coyotes. Big ones. We kept running uphill. I grabbed a rock. Somebody yelled: "I don't want to die!". That might've been me.

There is a Far Side comic showing two guys and a bear. The gist of it is..."Bob realized that he didn't have to outrun the bear, he only had to outrun his overweight hiking partner." As my legs burned on the uphill, I realized: I was that overweight running partner. Of course, real life isn't like the comics. Although much faster, Chessa and Care waited for me. We ran, we yelled, and we eventually met back up with Shannon and Richard. Then there was five of us. We yelled, we carried rocks...and we all made it downhill safely. Oh yeah - we saw another black bear a couple km from Whistler Village.

End of Season
It's gotten colder, and it looks like the trail running season will move to a lower elevation. I can't wait for more epic days in the mountains next summer, but it'll be nice to have a bit more of an off-season. I got married last weekend - which was its own endurance event, and left me feeling just as exhausted and elated as a 50-miler. The upcoming wildlife in the next couple months will be (oh god I hope) small dogs on the seawall, and bigger dogs on the Baden Powell. It's time to rediscover yoga, re-learn running at a faster than 6min/km pace, and catch up on my sleep...and wine drinking.

However, anyone up for any snowy adventures (cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, yak-trak-running)...all you have to do is ask!

Thursday, 17 October 2013


Life is like running, and running is like life. There are good days – good runs – when I’m not so much moving as flowing along with my breath. Every stride is easy, and I just want to run forever towards the mountains in the horizon. There are bad days – hard runs – where my legs are heavy, my breath is ragged. On those days, on those runs, I just tell myself: just do this run, just do this kilometer, just do this breath. I tell myself, it’s not easy, but it will be easy again. And I tell myself, this is where the strength comes, the keep-going.

The last month was like this, in both running and life. I struggled. I went quiet for a bit. Days and runs were tough. It wasn't about fast, it wasn't about winning, it was all about the keeping-going.  The thing with running – and life – is that I learn more when things go wrong than when things go right. It took me three tries to run an ultra where I didn't get lost or get injured badly enough to take a month off – and when it finally worked, it was wonderful. And felt earned.

Like running (well, at least ultra-running), life isn't done alone, even if it can feel like it at times. When things got hard, I had people along the way cheering, and helping. When things got better, I had people to laugh with and plan adventures.

This past weekend, Thanksgiving, I realized how much I had to be thankful for.

I was thankful for the strength in my bones when I got out and had two lovely trail runs. The weather was hands-numb-at-the-start cold, and warmed to a wan autumn warmth by the end. The uphills were hard, but I found my trail legs on the downhills. I was thankful for my wipe-out Sunday on the upper Lynne loop, where I managed to almost-face-plant, and stop my fall with my left quad (on a tree trunk) and my right knee. I am grateful for getting up, walking it off, and finishing the run.

I am grateful for my friend and FITS teammate Barry’s race at the Sump Jump 50k a couple weekends ago. Barry overcame 35C heat, multiple ankle rolls, vicious stinging insects, and what sounds like some bruised ribs to finish the 50k race from hell. I am also thankful (I hope I’m not giving too much away) that Barry is tough, and positive, and wants to take on the San Diego 100miler next year, and I get the opportunity to pace him and GET IT DONE LIKE WE DO J this time around.

I am thankful for a Thanksgiving potluck with black bean soup, wine, many many animals all very upset we have taken their spot on the couch, and a half-hearted Settlers of Catan game. I am thankful that even when I’m not balls-out running, I am still a member of the running community.

I am grateful for my wonderful, quirky group of friends.  I had a wonderful, wet “stagette’ weekend hosted by Meghan on the sunshine coast. There were no penis necklaces, but we had a rain-soaked run on fallen leaves, through winding trails, then warmed up over Lucy’s homemade chili.

Me and Lucy (thanks for the photo Brooke!)

we were doing thumbs-up on the inside
this is what it looks like when your dog bonks on a long run

I am thankful for getting married in – holyshit – a week. (Despite missing a toenail, having now-bruised legs I am confident in the abilities of concealer and fake nails). I am so excited to celebrate with all my friends – those who are making a car ride, or taking a plane over.

I am thankful for second chances and for getting up when I wipe out. Like life, like running, the bruises fade (hopefully before my wedding...goddamn it...) but the strength remains. I'm not exactly sure what the rest of 2013 will bring for running - right now, I'm grateful for a healthy body and the ability to get muddy on trails, cruise around the seawall to the lights of the north shore, and fall over in crow position during yoga. I might not be as fast as I'd like, or as flexible as I'd like, but I can get up in the morning, every morning, and love what I do.

Monday, 9 September 2013

I am almost 29 and a huge pansy when I get sick

25 year old Alex - photo thanks to the amazing Ariane K!

I'm one day away from turning 29. A month ago I was worried about running in the Rockies for 6 days straight. A day ago (after not leaving my apartment on foot for over three days) I was worried about my ability to make it the 500m round trip to the grocery store.

I hate my body and my crap immune system
There is nothing like getting sick - real, balls-out, can't move, in pain, on hardcore antibiotics that preclude drinking until approximately November, pajamas as viable clothing sick - to appreciate my non-sick life.

I hate being sick. I treat getting sick with pretty much the same melodrama that being injured gets. Except, in this case, I have no family doctor (anyone have a referral) so I can't text the dude at the walk in clinic at 11pm at night when my symptoms flare up and I am convinced I will not get better, ever, and will have to lurch around the house and wear Donovan's pajama bottoms until pretty much forever.

I normally have a pretty 30-min walk to work each day through the west end. I had to call to ask for a ride home on Thursday. I almost DNF-ed my shower on Friday morning. And then, weirdly, my weekdays and weekend have all this extra floating time without the usual run and recovery.

Even more than being sick, I hate calling in sick to work. It's a couple things. I like the hell out of my job, and I like being at the office doing it. After 7 years of public practice, I also have The Guilt about sick days.

At E&Y, the guilt came from pretty much not taking sick days. Taking a sick day meant not getting your 50 minimum chargeable hours a week. Taking a sick day meant a bad review. It was, seemingly, much preferable to drag myself and my ability to infect numerous others to the office.

Birthdays in my 20s have hit me at such high and low ebbs. Looking back does nothing to smooth out the highs and lows that come with climbing through each year.

20 and 21 were still lightweight rowing tryouts, with one too-sweet drink (I didn't really "get" alcohol until my mid-20s, much after I left university) and a hurried sleep before getting up at 5am to pull oars on our swampy lake.

22 was me brand new to Vancouver and translucent with loneliness.My close friend's girlfriend very generously threw a party for me. We had food then went to UBC to watch a movie on the grass in the warm disappearing sun. It was a wonderful gesture. Surrounded by people, from UBC, who all knew each other and had friends and lives to create made me feel even lonelier.

23 was that giddy unstable joy of drinks in a cheap Yaletown apartment and then Bar None. Earlier that day I had run 36km (by myself!) as training for my first marathon. I drank too much, danced to much with guys who weren't exactly the one I was dating. The next morning I went out to brunch with Lucy and realized, in true Alex fashion, I had locked my keys inside my apartment.

24 was the week before writing the UFE, a 3-day exam to become a Chartered Accountant. My old boyfriend was on a deadline. He came over, brought me an amazing lululemon jacket, took me to dinner, kissed me goodnight, then went back to work. It was lovely and a bit of a relief, as I wanted to do more studying. I was simmering with anxiety the whole day, an anxiety that I thought would end when I wrote the exam, then when I passed the exam, when I left E&Y, when one deadline was over, and another. It proved to be a bit more stubborn than than.

25 was a BBQ on the huge patio of my tiny west end studio. I was surrounded by more friends than the apartment could hold - so many that they sat on my bed, on the floor. IT was a soft late summer night and people stayed long and drank maybe more than they should. In a little over a month, me and my then-bf would leave for my first real trip - 3 weeks in Nicaragua. I remember feeling slightly tired, slightly drunk, and so lucky to be surrounded by the life I had built in Vancouver.

26 was spent working on a Saturday, strung out on audit. I got home around 6. I had made no plans for my actual birthday. I was so lucky to have my friend Emily Solsberyg invite herself over for dinner. Four months later, Emily and James left for New Zealand. She is back visiting now, and hopefully re-joining us soon, with a beautiful baby.

27 was a day spent with Raena, Rob and Karine out in Maple Ridge. We played in the river in Rob and Raena's property, visited Raena's parent's mini-horses, and drank blackberry sangria in the sunshine. The shadows lengthened, and we inflated a mattress on the lawn and all napped. The day before I had done a "long run" of 26km, training for the Victoria half-marathon. I ran a 1:36.

28 I ran the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim. That might trump all birthdays for a while. (I also did Victoria, again, in just under 1:26).

29 I have no idea how the actual day will be. Making it home today the whole walk home from work in the warm early autumn light, the first leaves fallen brilliant on the edges of the sidewalk is the best birthday present. Even sick, I spent hours on Saturday afternoon with Lucy, printing wedding invitations in the blind-slatted light on her kitchen table and having her 17-year-old stepdaughter help plan my wedding. Even sick, I wake up to the views of mountains and ocean. On my walk home, I look down Georgia Street to see the fountain spray from Lost Lagoon, backlit by a setting sun. I have old friends like Lucy and Craig who have been part of that second growing up, figuring out Vancouver in my 20s. I wake up to the person I love in the mornings.

Even in the harder days, there has been so much good. So now, sick, I tell myself the same thing I do during long races, long runs, when I'm tired, or sore, or want to quit, or everything seems unimaginably long:

I tell myself that maybe lie - everything works out. Everything is good, in the end. I tell myself - look for something beautiful. I tell myself - think of the people you love, all these amazing people who you got to know a little better every year. And I tell myself - remember this pain, this feeling, all of it, because next time, when things hurt again, you will get through it a little easier, a little faster. I tell myself - this is what being alive feels like, and remember how you can fall a little deeper in love with life each day.

I think it's going to be a good year.

Saturday, 24 August 2013

Transrockies Run 2013

executive summary
Holy shit, this post got really long. To summarize: team FITS Socks came 2nd overall for the 6-day partner open women's transrockies race. I got to know my awesome partner, Shannon, and we had a blast together (and are still talking!). I drank a margarita with Rob Krar and got attacked by leeches in an ice bath. I even had zero blisters after 6 days of hard running (thanks performance crew socks!).

a note on photos
I wore a sports bra with front pockets. So I would basically stuff gels on top of my breasts. This resulted in some photos where it looks like a) I am a C-Cup b) I have a third breast c) my breasts are seriously lumpy. My fiancee (I think) can confirm none of these are actually true.

two years ago
I first heard about the Transrockies Run almost two years ago, which seems like almost another lifetime ago. It was late September, a sort-of birthday party for myself. I was running, a little bit. Allison and Ramsey Ezzat were talking about how they had just registered for a race in Colorado - 6 days, 20,000 feet, 200km. At the time, I was barely running 50km a week. It sounded hard - the good, crazy hard - and the idea stuck to me. I asked my then-boyfriend about doing it together, but it never got off the ground.

one year ago
Things changed, and one year ago I found myself single with an almost-healed ankle and an itch to get into the mountains. I signed up for the race as partners with Katie, and we planned for a solid year of training to get there.

finally here
Things changed again. When it came time to pack up for the race, I was no longer single. The year of training had happened - with more ups and downs than I thought. While my body stayed healthy throughout, my head definitely had its share of issues balancing my drive to do well with my love of running, and the strain that put on friendships.

partner love
I came into the race healthy and about the right amount of crazy. I was even luckier to have Shannon Thompson as my partner. I didn't really know Shannon  until a few months before the race. Shannon comes from a road running background and is fast as hell. Our first run together, we went up Mountain Highway, then took a "shortcut" down. The shortcut led us down a technical, wet trail that popped out on the Baden Powell. During this unexpected detour, Shannon's kept smiling, with an only comment that she, too, had a tendency to get lost, so we would have to be very careful of the course during Transrockies. After that, I knew that we would be just fine together.

I thought that no-one, ever, can be that positive all the time. After several runs together, I started to question that assumption. And after a bit more time, I realized that, yes, being positive is a choice. I had a partner who woke up, day after day, just as sore (often more sore) as me, just as tired as me, and who chose to see the good in every situation and to be excited about what the day would bring. I tend to get a bit intense, a bit (a lot?) grumpy at times, and like I said, I was lucky to have someone who helped to keep it all in perspective.

"Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face"
The week before the race I drove my fiancee crazy and still somehow only packed at the last minute. I didn't check out the course details until the night before I left. The race took place between 8,000 and 12,600 feet. I had never been at elevation before, and had no idea how my body would respond. I figured it was useless having a plan until I got there and saw how bad the damage was.

Joining us on the trip were Chessa and Shannon Berardo, two amazing runners and cyclists / triathletes, respectively, who would be doing the 3 day solo event. Craig also came down to volunteer and cheer everyone on (and also wear spandex as casual apparel for 6 days - "It's just really comfy".).

How it works
Transrockies Run 6 is a 6-day run with or without a partner. It's basically running camp for adults, or for really lazy people. Everything (except the running) is done for us: tents are set up, food is made, trails are marked and marshalled. Every morning the runners get up and get to run a new, point-to-point route in the mountains.

Sunday, August 10
Shannon and I flew down on the Sunday, and got picked up by the TRR shuttle at the Denver airport. Our first indication of what kind of event this would be came when the transportation co-ordinator announced that the shuttles would be an hour late since they were stuck in traffic. Nobody really was upset - instead, everyone in the group introduced themselves and started chatting.

Denver was flat. (A concerned Shannon: "What is this, Trans-Prairies?") However, the van quickly started climbing into the mountains. After hard rain, the evening broke into a moody sunset. We arrived in Buena Vista just as it was getting dark. I booked us a tiny cabin for Sunday and Monday nights, and luckily Shannon shared my love of 1970s decor. We found a Mexican restaurant, ate about a pound of chips each, then crashed into bed.

Saturday, August 11
We both decided to sleep in. Sleeping in lasted until about 7:30am, when Shannon got up to make toast over the stovetop (the 1970s toaster didn't work) and put on coffee. We lazed around the small cabin in pajamas...lazing meant that Shannon did coursework while I looked up the effects of altitude on sea-level runners on wikipedia. I checked out the symptoms: headache (I had a big glass of wine last night, so not affected), flatulence (Mexican last night, not an issue), shortness of breath (I am always short of breath for my first hour of running)...Finally, we just decided to go for a test run to see what the damage was.

Everything was sort of okay, until we found some nearby trails and started to climb quickly uphill. Or tried to climb quickly uphill. Then tried to walk uphill. Then stopped,  and both waited for our nausea to pass. We decided we might have to adjust our plan for the race a bit. The plan would involve a bit more uphill walking than previously expected.

Later that afternoon, Chessa and her parents joined us. The plan was for Chessa to run for 3 days, and then hang out and watch us the next three. She brought her two amazing parents, her two whippets, and a very large van to accomplish this. Chessa is about 5'2", 90lbs soaking wet, with amazing tattoos and wears a boot (when not running) on her foot, which helps to support a sesamoid bone that has been broken for three years. As far as I can see, she is powered mainly by wine, coffee, and an intense drive.

Craig and Shannon joined shortly after. Five of us squeezed into two small beds and an undersized couch. Shannon and I ate Mexican food at 4pm for dinner, then headed over to the opening ceremonies. We scoped out girls who looked strong, and spent the rest of the evening on athlinks and ultrasignup, doing "research". Based on this, we figured out that the team to beat in our category was the North Face Ladies. If by eat, you meant "keep up with". I had raced against both of these amazing women on different occasions, and on each occasion I had been comprehensively beaten. So, obviously, when Shannon decided our plan was to try to keep up with them at the start of the run, I said yes - what could possibly go wrong?

Day 1: 20.8 miles, 2,800ft climbing
We woke up to blue skies in a cramped hotel bed - our last for the next 5 nights. After a lot of coffee and toast we jogged over to the start. People streamed around us as the sun glowed brighter behind the mountains. Music played, and we had a neutral lead-out behind a car until we hit trails. Then it was happening - we were up, running in the mountains. We were right behind the North Face team on rolling uphills. We hiked a bit and ran a lot. The trails weren't very technical, and then we hit a dirt road on a gentle uphill - really not technical. To my surprise, we were still with the North Face women, who were in first place for the open ladies' team. Sure, I couldn't breathe and Shannon was doing all the talking with them, but those were minor details. The more we climbed the more spectacular the view got" red rock, spiny pine trees, and the rolling mountains. The sky was bigger here, the mountains looming. The North Face team got ahead of us when the trail got steeper. As planned, we let them go, and started to walk (power-hike?).

 At the top of the first and biggest climb we grabbed Gu and coke and really kicked on the downhill. To our surprise, what felt like a moderate effort had us catching up with the North Face team. The pattern continued: us catching up on downhill, them pulling away on the uphill. Time went funny, as it does on trail runs - somehow, 2.5hrs had already passed. We started the final stretch: 6kms on a false flat dirt road. Nothing makes legs feel dead like hitting dirt road from downhill, and it felt like we were going backwards - despite this, we still were gaining on the lead team. In the end, we crossed the finish line 30 seconds later.

Five minutes (and a bit of swearing on my part) later, we were submerged up to our waists in an icy creek while eating chocolate out of paper drinking cups.

Getting to our campsite was a bit surreal - a brown tent city spread out against the mountains. There were hot showers available, and as much snack food as we could eat. In my non-running life, I am a sucker for chips, chocolate, candy, and definitely nutella. In a cruel twist of fate, I had no appetite (possibly the first time ever for this). Still, I ate - we all ate - as we were getting it up and doing it again for 5 more days.

That night was our first experience with the "Running Camp" part of TRR. We had dinner - then awards - then a race briefing for the next day. The guy in charge, Kevin Houda, made us feel like campers as he detailed everything from bathroom etiquette to the day's mishaps.

That night was our first camping experience. I chose what I thought was a good tent - close to the washrooms. This was not actually a good choice. We were not-so-lulled to sleep by the banging of the porta-potty doors throughout the night. This night also lead us to discover that camping at 8,000 ft (and higher) is goddamn cold.

Day 2: 13.4 miles, 3,200ft climbing
After a solid three hours of sleep, Shannon and I reluctantly got out of our sleeping bags and into running clothes. As there were frost on the ground, we put a lot of layers overtop of our running gear. We had oatmeal and coffee and then got onto what Houda called "the eight crappiest buses in Colorado" (last year, one of these buses had its grill fall off at the parking lot). We would along a dirt road on the edge of a mountain, then stood in a very long porta-potty line. Then did our warm up into the avoid the porta-potty line again, mostly.

We set off on another dirt road, then started the long climb up to 12,600 ft Hope Pass. As decided, we took it easier on the climb. We got dropped by the North Face team on the first few switchbacks. People streamed ahead of us - mostly. Although I'm sure we could've gone faster, one of the men's team stuck with us the entire way. They were from France, and dressed Euro - with their Salomon compression socks, shorts, and top, they were wearing more spandex than either of us owned.

Cresting Hope Pass was unreal - the rising sun, the hard breeze, and the lakes spread out in front of us on the other side. Then we went down switchback after switchback - from loose rock to roots to packed dirt. When I tried to explain this run, I said Shannon didn't love the technical downhill. I was then corrected by Shannon, who said it was a blast and she had fun. Okay, so we did - but she also had two small ankle rolls on the way down. And, in typical Shannon fashion, walked for about 30seconds before announcing that she was fine to "keep hopping down."

After the big downhill, the trail rolled along a clear lake. Shannon was looking a bit tired. I used one of the pacing tactics I had learned about online: lying to the other person about how much was was left. "Only 1k!" I told her, as my watch read 2.5k to go. Finally, we broke out of the forest, trudged along one last dirt road, and were finished. We were 11minutes behind the North Face team.

We camped that night in Leadville - a cool 10,000 ft above sea level - in a soccer field. The Leadville 100mile race was on the same weekend. Shannon and I took our laptops to a coffee shop in an attempt to do "work". I answered about three emails and half-filled out a spreadsheet over 2.5hrs. The coffee shop was ground zero for the Leadville 100milers - I met Bryan Powell from and Tina Lewis (and saw  bunch of fit-looking bearded dudes who I assumed were fast ultra-runners, but I was too nervous to introduce myself).

The Colorado weather was a constant change: blazing hot from an exposed sun, and cold as soon as clouds rolled over. We had dinner that night in a high school gym, then did a quick trip out to get key supplies: sunscreen, lip balm, painkillers at a gas station with the actual name of "Kum and Go".

Day 3: 24.3miles, 2,800ft
The day started at 5am. Shannon and I woke up wearing every piece of clothing we had brought, pretty much. The 6am breakfasts didn't give us a ton of time to digest, so we decided to try eating in our tent. As we spread semi-frozen peanut butter on crumbly cookies, it dawned on us that maybe this wasn't the best idea.

We started the run from the Leadville main street, perched between historic houses and overlooked by more mountains. The start of the race was about 5km on roads, then a climb. The road part, at least, was perfect for us. We realized the day before that, problematic for a trail race, our strengths were mostly on the most runnable stuff: roads, logging roads. The plan was to push what we could push, and try not to get too injured on the rest. The uphill, as always, everyone passed us. We ran when we could, and rejoiced when we got an easy downhill through logging roads.

I felt okay on the steep ups and downs, but as soon as we hit the flatter stuff Shannon pretty much took off. After two days she had adapted way too well to mountains, and I tucked in behind her and tried to keep up. We passed a couple teams, but were pretty much alone on the trails for most of the four hours we were running. At one point, in the last 45min of running, we were gradually descending along a ride when I spotted a bench. I must've slowed a little bit, and looked longingly at the bench, as Shannon turned around, said: "Alex NO", and kept on going. The end, again, was on dirt road. We could see the finish line from a couple kms out. Shannon ditched the last aid station, and I just grabbed a quick coke. We could see people up ahead, and Shannon just kept pushing - we passed one team, then another team, and then grabbed each others' hands to cross the finish line. We were only 9min down from the top team, and it was one of he better runs we'd had.

The tent city was at Nova Guides, right next to stream-fed ponds. We got into the clear water as soon as we could - and were joined by a couple New Zealanders (one who took his shirt off and stood very close to Shannon). The afternoon was spent watching fast-moving clouds, watching a very amorous dog try to hump multiple other dogs, and eating a lot of chips and candy.

That night had a great awards ceremony - our friend Chessa had won the 3-day solo race for women, and new friend Amy had come second.

Day 4: 14miles, 3,700ft
Shannon and I woke up at 5am, again, and ate cold chicken, potatoes, and rice (last night's dinner) out of plastic cups. The night had been the coldest yet - the alarm went off to Shannon in a sleeping bag with a down jacket covering her head. Even with that, she was still cold. We had been lulled to sleep with the noise of someone having an asthma attack in the tent next to us. As a result, being cold and stiff and creaky was pretty normal.

We started the run, and were still stiff. The day would have a lot of climbing, and we both decided to take it easier in hopes of a fast downhill. After about an hour and a half of one of the steepest jeep roads I have ever been on we finally had some downhill. Unfortunately, Shannon was starting to have some pain in her arch. Even more, her IT was a bit more. Regardless, she was positive. She stayed positive as we got passed by a couple teams - still fine. And when we got to the about 1-mile section where we were basically running through an ankle-deep creek. The creek was bottle-green with sunlight sparkling on the rocks.

At this point, an older couple wearing matching running kilts passed us. Or tried to pass us. They were slowed the husband stopping to take pictures of his wife during the deepest creek crossings. That was when we realized we might not be having the strongest day.

Finally we had some road, where Shannon promptly dropped the pace to a 4:30/km. We crossed the finish line into the tiny town of Red Cliff. I actually got dropped at the finish line - I attempted to give high-fives to our four spectators (2 of whom were Chessa and her mom), while Shannon wanted to blast on.

We did our usual freezing creek ice bath, with a bit of a twist: the creek was extra cold, and there were leeches. Shannon didn't seem bothered by either of these things ("These leeches are tiny! The leeches were much bigger in Borneo").

The finish line was right next to Mango's grill, that had good Mexican food and even better margaritas. The whole trip (and the whole time I had known Shannon)  she had been dry - I figured that, unlike me, wine was not part of her much more dedicated training regimen.) That all ended when one of the guys from the top couple teams invited her for a drink. She was hesitant, but then he told her it would help her IT band. After that, it was only a question of what she would drink - she doesn't like beer (fair enough) doesn't like wine (whaaaaat?!) but does like sweet drinks.

So that's how we ended up drinking margaritas in the noon sunshine with Rob Krar and a bunch of the awesome people from Flagstaff. On one side of me, Chessa was talking through the ins and outs of raising quail in a cage on her balcony. On the other side, Shannon was deep into a discussion of philosophy and sports psychology. There were lots of nachos, and the creek and the alcohol had numbed whatever aches my quads were feeling. It wasn't heaven, but it was damn close to it.

After the margaritas were well-drained, Shannon turned to me: "Alex, I am drunk and sunburnt and I need to be taken home." Home, in this case, was back to the Nova Guides camp." We dropped further behind the North Face team that day - a tough 30-odd minutes to catch up.

Shannon became a celebrity at the dinner that night. Earlier in the day, she had requested a toaster at the finish line food area (she thought toast and peanut butter might be better than bread and peanut butter). When this request was announced to the camp, she then got the nickname "toaster girl".

Day 5: 23.6miles, a shit-ton of climbing (4,100ft)
Oh man, this day just went on forever. It had so many highs (literally) and a couple lows.

This was the morning we re-attended the breakfast with the rest of the group. On a run that was going to be this long, it made sense to just eat whatever we wanted, as our stomachs would be the least of our troubles. I woke up with a sore throat but fresh legs.

The run started just going up forever, pretty much. We had a 14km climb. We decided to accomplish this by having Shannon and I swap life stories (when we were "power hiking"). The climb basically alternated with very personal, heartfelt information - interspersed with me being an asshole, interrupting mid-sentence with: "Okay, we need to run now". We picked up listeners as we got closer uphill, with one girl confiding: "You know what? I haven't talked to my father in five years."

The top wasn't really a top, more of a break - we climbed along a ridge, broke out of trees, then climbed some more. Around here, on singletrack down, we realized that the margaritas had not healed Shannon's leg as much a we had hoped. Downhills were slow, and I could hear her going "Ow! Ow! Ow!" behind me.

Of all the places to go a bit slower, this was it - we hit alpine meadows, with views of mountains everywhere. Bees hummed across bright flowers, and the grass was the yellow and green I hadn't seen outside of tourism brochures. I got my only wipe-out of the trip: distracted by the views I took a bit of a face-plant.

Shannon was a fighter - whenever we got to an easier grade of road, she'd announce: "And now I'm going to run like Forrest Gump!" - and, swinging her leg out to the side, she'd trundle on. The final downhill into Vail took so long, and it was on rooty, windy singletrack. Shannon pushed hard and I knew she was hurting. We could even see the village, way down. Again, we got passed by the husband and wife team wearing kilts - a bit of a low point.

We passed the finish line just under five hours. I had never been wiped like that.

The morning's sore throat had become a full-on head cold. I made the executive and wimpy decision and got us a hotel room that night. We stayed at a cheap hotel with a dubious elevator and stained carpet in a sort-of suburb of Vail - and climbing into bed for a long nap was one of the best feelings ever. The TRR shuttle even let us pick up our gear and head to the hotel. As we were pulling out of the parking lot, Shannon saw a topless guy emerging from the mobile shower van: "Alex, I want to go back to camp!". By the time I had gotten up from the nap, she was already back there.

We were way behind first - about 50mins - that day, but were just lucky and happy to make it alive down those downhills.

Day 6: 21.7 miles, 5,200ft
I had my only real hour of grumpiness as we started our climb on the final day. I couldn't breathe through my nose. I was simultaneously thirsty and had to pee. And my hip hurt (because I had fallen on it the day before). Then, as seemed to happen more and more - I felt better. Anything wrong? Run it off. We were climbing through bone-white and dark grey beech trees. Both our bodies felt solid, and with the huge amount of painkillers, Shannon's foot felt better.

So we went hard. The uphills we hiked fast, or ran slow. Downhills we pushed. There was one area, maybe my favourite area of the face. We were just winding forever down singletrack, through endless fields. The field had nettles, thin nettles, with big purple bulbs. Like they were suspended in space. It was so beautiful and so unlike anywhere else I had ever been.

Then we were on our final climb, up on two rutted lanes through fields of grass. It felt like August should feel - the faded blue sky and fast-moving clouds. The radiating heat. The grasshoppers so loud it sounded like they would break with their own noise. It was what being almost 190k deep of running in 6 days feels: how, each day, layer after layer of real life is scraped away until there is only breath, muscles, and the top of each hill.

Shannon and I crossed the finish line together in the late-summer heat. It wasn't like anything I thought would happen: it was harder, and easier, and better.

Day 6.5: 2 glasses of wine, one margarita, 0.5 of a very girly drink
We shaved our legs, put on dresses, and went to the formal awards party. Then we went to the after-party. Everyone cleaned up very well, and it was great to spend a bit more time with our new friends. Chessa and I left at midnight, and Shannon stayed later.

I had one last early morning - 4:30am to catch the flight back. On the long trip home, I cursed the last drink, my inability to drink, and my lack of water.

Huge thank yous

To my partner - my girly-drink loving, small backpack-carrying (I carried most of our gear the first couple days until we both won new backpacks), psychology-studying partner. My make-friends-with everyone partner. My partner who had never run more than 32km at a time on trails absolutely killed it. She shows me that attitude is a choice, and the right way to live is to get up and celebrate life.

FITS - Team FITS came 2nd in 21:42! For the best damn socks. No blisters. I gave extra pairs away to people who were getting blisters, and my remaining 3 pairs didn't even small that bad. Thanks for all the support!

To Chessa, Craig, Shannon - who all stayed along after racing (and rocking races) to volunteer and cheer and support - you were awesome.

To my training partners - The Ezzats (and Cleo) for being the inspiration to do this trip, and our many other great weekend runs. Matt, for pushing me up Mountain Highway way too early on a weekday. Brooke, for getting me to do a fast grind. Katie, for bringing a joy and appreciation for the outdoors on your runs. Nathan, for planning amazing trips and being such a good photographer.

And, of course, Lucy for following me every step of the way. For the support when I had my downs and didn't know what the hell I was doing. For running, and showing me how to keep going and stay positive.

To Donovan - from freaking out about us going too fast the first day (legit fear?) to dealing with the random taper crying jags.

to everyone - I couldn't believe the amount of people who found and followed us online for our results. Even in Colorado, I felt a huge part of the Vancouver running community and I am so blessed.

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Hurts So Good

Shannon, me, Chessa, Nathan

This past Tuesday I did my usual round-trip 20k run up and down Mountain Highway. As it was post-Kneeknacker and pre-White River 50mile, it was a sparse group. We started our run at 5:15am, which is not a ridiculous time to a triathlete. To be exact, there were three of us - myself, Craig, and Shannon. Craig and Shannon are doing Transrockies Run 3, and are both excellent triathletes who have been logging some serious bike mileage, on top of other ridiculous workouts. However, I'd been doing a lot of trail running, and uphills, so I was feeling pretty confident in my ability to run well.

That confidence ended in the first 5 minutes when Craig dropped me decisively going uphill. Alright, well, Shannon was still behind me, still feeling good. Mountain Highway just goes and goes: an endless series or runnable and identical switchbacks. The first 7k is a steeper grade, then it levels out for a bit. At 5k, my head wandered: this was long, I was tired, my breathing was heavy. As my thoughts got less and less focused, Shannon blew by me. I tried to match her pace, but couldn't.

reality check 
As I trudged up the switchbacks, watching her blue shorts get farther and farther ahead, it hit me: this was how I'd been showing up in training the past couple months. Things hurt, I was tired, I felt slow: I thought this meant I needed to slow down more, was concerned something was wrong. The only thing wrong was perhaps my choice of hobby: putting in 100k week after 100k week of climbing and trails isn't exactly a relaxing exercise. My body was telling me I was fine, but it was my head that was trying to convince me that it wasn't. 

my warm up take as long as the second coming and need an equivalent amount of faith
I always take forever to warm up - well, forever to me is 45-60 minutes (redheads are impatient!). I used to be able to trust in my body at this point: it hurt, I kept going, the speed came, and I'd feel better. Somewhere along the way, though, I'd gotten soft. My long runs with friends had walk breaks, had gel breaks, had a lot of rests on the uphills. Which is fine - the runs also had great chats and amazing views. The issue was, the training didn't happen. The issue also was - I like pushing, too. When things get tired, when my breath gets jagged and my lungs ache, it's a choice: to stop, to rest, to feel safe - or to find out what's on the other side.

Mt. Hood 50
I raced a 50miler near Mt. Hood a couple weeks ago. I went down with my best friend Lucy, and my running partner Barry. The first 60km were enchanted: running along cruising, sun-dappled singletrack trail with views of Mt. Hood. I knew the course was flatter, so I ran pretty much every uphill. And then, with about 20km of mostly downhill to go, I started to feel very nauseous. I walked the last uphill – okay, it’s completely legitimate to walk an uphill. Then the trail flattened out, I tried to run. If anything, that made the nausea worse. I walked some more. The trail started on a lovely, gentle downhill. I walked that too. I remembered an article about throwing up – “stomach resetting”. That sounded promising – who doesn’t want a reset? I tried, and tried to make myself throw up in hopes of feeling better. Finally, it worked, kind of. I felt a bit better, and mostly still empty.

I finished the race in 8:20, 3rd place. Any race in a beautiful area where I finish uninjured is a huge blessing, and I am grateful. The final portion, though, was a struggle.

let's be honest
With every race that doesn’t go as planned, there are so many excuses: the heat, trying new gels, the longer climbs. In the end, for me, it was a couple things. I paced it wrong, going out hard and trusting my body to hold on. And, in my training, I had gotten soft. Where before, I had trained hard to have an extra gear in races, this time I didn't have one.

The rest of the weekend was amazing – in Portland with great company, spending hours in vintage record stores, clothing boutiques, and drinking in the lazy sunshine. Lucy took her first family-less trip to come down, and it was a huge honour that she chose to join our adventure! (Plus she was an amazing Portland tour guide and travel buddy).

Lucy and I in record-store heaven

I had some time to think about what I wanted out of training, and myselfIt made me respect that I need to actually take an offseason this year. It made me respect my body, and the strong bones I have. It also forced me to look at some uncomfortable things: I can only race as hard as I train.

I want to feel uncomfortable
Running fast to me can’t be about doing well in races – I want the clean hard hurt, the faint metallic taste and the shake that comes with riding the line of my abilities. I want to keep going when things get tough, and I want to chase faster people uphill, downhill. I want to do this as a way of giving thanks for the gorgeous area I run in and the power in my body. For the amazing people that get out of bed too early to do this with me.

So since the 50miler, I made a choice: on the right days, to find that joyful hurt and commit. And, on Mountain Highway, as I watched Shannon disappear, I reached inside myself. I remembered - I like doing this. I exhaled, I pumped my arms, I said a little prayer for the luxury of being out with friends, surrounded by trees and mountains with the beginnings of sunrise. And I worked, and worked some more, to catch her. And together, both of us finished the 10k uphill.

Power couple - they even colour-coordinated! 
let's do this
This past weekend I did two back-to-back runs. Saturday morning the thought of even one run seemed beyond me. I wanted to bail. Then, I showed up anyways. I turned off my head, and let my body go. We ran / hiked Coliseum on Saturday. The views were amazing, and the downhills were a joy. On Sunday, I ran the Garibaldi traverse (point-to-point, Helm Creek to Rubble Creek trailheads) with my Transrockies teammates Shannon and Chessa. The climb was hard, and
Chessa and our friend Nathan disappeared ahead. I didn’t get discouraged. Shannon and I took turns leading, and after about an hour, caught back up. After that, surrounded my far-off glaciers, a looming Black Tusk, and huge meadows, how my lungs were feeling didn’t really matter. I trusted my body, and my body trusted me back: I warmed up, and had an amazing run chasing two very fast ladies down to Garibaldi Lake, then down the trail to the parking lot. None of us had Garmins, and none of us really knew our time – we just knew the sharp joy that comes from jumping over logs, on top of rocks, and being on the edge of our limits. We finished dusty, sweaty, and excited for the next time. 

And the beauty is - I don't need a race, don't need a medal to feel this way. I need a clear head, some trail friends, and a beautiful place to explore.

Sunday, 7 July 2013

Sea Change

"....a sea change / into something rich and strange."

This past Friday morning Matt and I went out running in the North Vancouver forest. It's my taper week, so I told him I wanted an easy run. To his credit, parts of it were easy, and parts of it we were even able to run. He wouldn't tell me the route beforehand, just that we were going to see two really cool parts of the North shore.

We met up like we always meet up - at the highest legal parking area on the base of Mountain Highway. Matt gave more information: there would be some uphill, and it would be quite technical. I mentally cursed wearing my most lightweight trail shoes. We started to jog up mountain highway, as always, me gasping for breath and wondering how long until the grade felt easier. Then, suddenly, we took a side trail and were completely alone, surrounded by trees and pre-dawn quiet.

The trail was visible, but overgrown: littered with fallen logs, rocks, and deadfall in parts, and barely hikeable, let alone runnable. Other parts had us running on old cedar planks, half-covered by pine needles, with the milky pre-dawn light filtering in through gaps in the trees.

If there were birds, I didn't hear anything - it was just us and our footfalls. Matt looked like Spiderman, scrambling on top of deadfall, while I took the safer route - squeezing myself under the logs. At about 40minutes into the run, we were there: admidst the second growth forest, a huge old-growth cedar, looming quietly above us.

We kept going: across debris chutes, weaving up the mountain side following flagging to the sound of rushing water. Then - I could feel the temperature drop, and the sound of water became a roar. We had reached Kennedy Falls.

The cedar planks we had followed, 100 years ago, had been a logging road - we were definitely not the first ones here. However, surrounded by forest and water, it felt like we were so far away from the quiet residential road where we had parked only an hour before. It made me feel, a bit, like my normal life was just a skin: work and errands and cooking and seawall runs. Underneath, on the other side, only an hour away, were places like this - remote and wild and a bit terrifying with the aloneness and only the trees and water and sky to answer to.

We negotiated slippery rocks to the base of the falls. Matt, experiencing what I like to call "male hiker syndrome" scrambled up a steep, slippery rock on the opposite side, to reach the top of the falls. He stood at the top, looking down at me. I had a race in a week, and I wasn't moving. He yelled, and it got lost in the falls. Then he gestured and disappeared.

similar to one of the Lea family cats, Matt is good at climbing up but has issues getting back down

I was left alone, with the first shafts of morning light filtering through. The falls continued to roar, and there was no sign of Matt. I waited, and waited a bit more. Just as I was visualizing Matt lying somewhere with a broken leg, and mentally calculating how long it would take to get North Shore Search and Rescue involved, he popped back out of the bushes.

On our way back we forded Lynne creek, swatted away bushes, then popped out on the flat, groomed Lynne Canyon trail. It was so familiar yet so surreal at the same time. We ended the run in silence, at our usual parking spots, and made plans to co-ordinate our runs the next week as usual.

impromptu ice bath

get while the getting was good
The "run" we did was everything I like about trails: going to new places, sweating uphill, and the quiet of the forest, which sometimes causes the quiet in my head. It was great to have Matt to navigate the trail (he "found" the falls originally by running to the old cedar, then following the flagging until the end. At the same time, it was bittersweet - Matt is leaving at the end of the month to move across the country.

Matt has been a great run partner, and my Tuesday mornings will be that little bit emptier without him. He is the only person who could manage to convince me not only to race Seek the Peak (16k, 1300m) , but to then turn around, at the top, and run back down. And then, on the way down (20k, some "detours"), when both of us have no food or water and it is hot and we are tired, he is the only person who could charm two lovely female hikers into giving us not only most of their water, but a Godiva chocolate bar as fuel. He also gets recognition, after talking me into doing this thing, for grousing, 6km from the bottom: "Whose idea was this? Nobody else who raced is doing something like this." (for the record, it was his idea, and arguably not the best one, but we made it!).

walk through a door and keep on walking
Later on Friday, after I was showered, I headed in for my last day at my old job. My office was cleared of files. After four years there, my to-do list was finally done. My co-workers organized a goodbye lunch for me. Like usual, we all grouped by the elevators, waiting for the stragglers, to head down together. People ordered their usual drinks, and we talked about sports teams, clients, upcoming vacations. Then it was done, and most of the staff headed back to the office. One of the other partners, the senior manager, and I had one more drink. We joked about what we always joke about. And then it was really done - the bill signed, the other two guys heading back to work. My keys and passcard were already handed in. I said my goodbyes, walked out of the restaurant, and kept on walking.

Jobs come and go. Vancouver is a city where people move to, and move away from. Several of my close friends are contemplating moving away in the next few months. Some days it feels like my life is something that I woke up to, one morning, slipped on, and forgot to take off. It feels too new: sharp corners, awkward creases, and needs wearing in. The thing is: even if my life stayed the same, everyone else, around me, is changing. My friends are looking at new jobs in new cities, or moving to new places in this city, or having new athletic goals, or new relationships.

On Friday evening I went for a walk along the seawall in the warm light, with the water an impossible blue. I remembered, 10 years ago, coming to Vancouver with my parents. It was another sunny day, walking around a seawall with the ocean on one side, the lushness of summer on the other. I felt like a pain in my chest how much I wanted to live here. And now, I look out onto the ocean as I write this. I was on a run, earlier, with a good friend, running up the familiar route to Cleveland Dam and back. It could have been the conversation, it could have been the sky and stiff breeze or the flowering blackberries, or the view of the eddies and currents from the Lion's Gate bridge, that made it seem like this was the only place I wanted to be.

And the other side of beauty comes with that sweet ache of loss. Every day and every choice is a type of loss. In the end, I think of the old cedar planks - years and years ago they were were rocked by the weight of trees rolled on top of them, men sawing, with noise and metal and the shake of falling branches. Now - it's all quiet again, and the forest has reclaimed it. No matter how vibrant, how immediate or permanent life seems, in the end, every experience fades. That's not a loss - that's making space for something new to grow, for the saplings to sprout from trunks and for vines to twine over deadfall. It shows me - life, like the forest, remembers, and things circle back.

And for a few days, it was beautiful and sad to carry that ache with me, to make the rest of my life sweeter:  time with the people I care about, the fading glow of sun over the mountains, and, stretching out in front of me, this new life to break in. I believe in having a couple days that can break hearts - hearts are worth breaking, and often, so that there is space to let in all the world.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

Meet your Scotiabank 1:45 pace bunnies

I am very excited to be 1/2 of the pacing team for the 1:45 pace group for the Scotiabank 1/2 marathon (and its very bright and early 7:30am start).

How to spot us
I have very curly red hair. My pacing teammate, Donovan, has inappopriately short shorts and is very tall. We will also be carrying a big "1:45" pace sign. We will be in the RED starting area.

Our approach
We will be running the entire 21.1k distance (no walk breaks). We will be running at a consistent pace. The pace will be adjusted for both the downs and the ups, and will aim for consistent effort. We will be doing the thinking part of the run, so just follow us and you'll get 1:45 (or just under).

The route will be well-marked, and here it is below (just in case). We promise 100% no getting lost.

Pacer #1: me (Alex)
"Running" seek the peak

half-marathon cred: 1:24:16 PB, notable mention - a 1:25:28 with no Garmin when the damn thing died at 8k in.
half-marathon style: negative splits, focus on consistent effort, emptying it for the final push, and finding joy in the pain.
most recent pacer experience: miles 51 to 72 of the San Diego 100 mile endurance run (trail).
currently training for: Transrockies Run 6 (6 days, 200k, 20,000 ft elevation)
likes to talk about while running: cats, Ryan Gosling (or other topless males), times I have gotten lost or taken "detours" while trail running, relationships, Sandman vs. the Watchmen, Killian Jornet's white salomon spandex shorts in the 2011 Western States documentary "Unbreakable". I am open to all types of other topics that will inspire you!
favourite inspirational sayings: "What doesn't break you, makes you."
preferred recovery food: wine

Pacer #2: Donovan
all spandex, all the time

half-marathon cred: 1:17:30 PB, notable mention - 1:17:58 on pretty much zero speedwork.
half-marathon style: shorts that are actually underwear (oh wait, running style? go out aggressively, hang on, and a hard finish)
most recent pacer experience: 1:40 pace group at BMO 1/2 marathon (and has paced several other 1/2s - this guy is a PRO).
currently training for: Ironman Whistler
things to ask him about: how triathletes go to the bathroom during races, the ideal amount of spandex to own, his experience running the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim, Strava, buying things on e-Bay, how to rock a 70.3 (half-ironman) in 35C weather, anything about bikes, how he bonded with our robot vacuum cleaner.

FYI: Yes, I am engaged to my fellow pacer. No, I have zero say about his running wardrobe and it is often embarassing that a good deal of his running shorts are shorter than mine.

Any questions? I am so excited to help you guys rock a 1:45! If you have any questions before the race on anything please shoot me a twitter message or post here.

Also, be sure that you and your friends follow Scotiabank 1/2 on facebook so they can get updates as you run.

Friday, 14 June 2013

SD 100 pacing duty

Dusk was settling in over Laguna mountain. I was running on rolling single track across fields as the sky tinged purple. I was pacing Ken, a ten-time Western States veteran, for the middle 21 miles of his 100-miler. The pace was very easy – run slowly, walk quickly, keep moving. Ken preferred his pacers to run just behind him, so there I was, keeping my eye out for trail markers and matching his pace. The heat of the day was slowly fading. I found an easy rythmn of breath, and contemplated that life – and running – has taken me to some strange and beautiful places.

This wasn’t the post I was planning to write. It was all in my head, before it happened: Barry starting his 100miler in the soft morning light, descending into the canyons, then making a long climb out in the afternoon. At this point, it would be 44 miles into the race – where my work would began. I would help crew him at this aid station, and the next two: 51 and 58 miles in. At 65 miles in, I would strap on my (borrowed) headlamp, and together we would cover the final 35 miles in the dark, finishing just before sunrise.

The reality was somewhat different.

how it started
Last year both Barry and I attended the VFAC Christmas party. I had a great time surrounded by my teammates, and celebrated with many glasses of wine. The next morning, I woke up to a pounding headache, one shoe in the bathroom and one in the kitchen (I lived in a 400 sq ft apt, so not that bad). I was happy to have made it back, and congratulated myself that the only real repercussions of the night would be the very hungover rainy run with Lucy. And then Barry messaged me: "So when you said last night you would pace me if I did a 100mile race in June, was that serious?" In December, everything seemed far off and hazy and had six months to work out. Barry and I had just triumphantly completed the North Face 50 mile race – I felt like I could do anything after running for 8 hours in driving rain and fog. So of course Barry could train for 100miles and I could train to pace 35miles.

Barry selected the San Diego 100 race, around Mt. Laguna, as his first 100-miler. The area was at a decent elevation, and June can be hot in the area – but we had the confidence of those who had never raced, let alone a 100-miler, in the heat: Barry put in week after week of 100miles, while still racing shorter distances strongly. My mileage creeped up, and I stayed injury-free for the longest stretch ever. We ran the Grand Canyon three weeks before the race, and the heat that was supposed to meet us at the Canyon floor never materialized. We finished that run tired, dirty and a bit sweaty, but no injuries or heatstroke. Barry felt ready, and, I felt, if not ready, at least in one piece.

getting there

rookie mistake: 100 miles is goddamn far.

Fast-forward three weeks later, and we are meeting at the airport before 7am. I got us special t-shirts made, because what is a race without cheesy t-shirts? We leave Vancouver with the rain streaking against the airplane windows, and land in a cloudy LA. The plan is to drive from LA to Whole Foods (which somehow became a favourite in Barry's google maps no matter the location, still not quite sure how that happened), stock up, then drive to Laguna Mountain, the race location.

We drove past strip malls and condo developments with "Immediate Occupancy!" signs. We drove past telephone poles with cardboard notices: "Will buy houses FOR CASH". We saw the ocean over the freeway, through chain-link fences. The clouds melted  into blue. The hills in the background were  faded and looming against a sky that looked painted on. The freeway flowed metallic with lane after lane of cars all  squeezed together .

Instead of following the signs to San Diego, we took the I-8 east. The strip malls faded. We saw signs for "Viejo town" and for a Casino perched outside a half-finished development. Then the buildings faded away, and we started our climb into the mountains. It wasn't abrupt like the BC mountains: all wet rocks and the smell of earth and cool breezes coming from glaciers way up on top. These were brown and red, with spiky pine trees and yellow grass. The trees were smaller. Traffic thinned out, and, as we turned onto the two-lane Sunrise highway, it thinned out some more. The road twined around the edge of the mountains, then entered the Laguna area. We saw cyclists walking bikes up some hills. We passed by one building containing our motel head office, the post office, and a general store, with a large shaded porch. Then we were at the Al Bahr lodge - the race packet pickup and start/finish of the race.

pre-race briefing
It was just before five o'clock. There was no breeze - just constant heat. The shadows hand't started to lengthen yet. We were late for the race briefing, and the room was packed. We clustered outside on the porch with the rest of the overflow. Everyone looked fit and tough. I saw race shirts from other 100-milers, compression socks, sports sandals. People looked lean and tan.

Race director and one of the under-age volunteers

inside the race lodge

The race director was in his sixties and had a six-pack. I know this because, at one point in the speech, he lifted his shirt up and then had to stop for several minutes for the resulting wolf-whistles and applause. He thanked volunteers, organizers - then cut right to the chase. The race day, the next day, was supposed to be the hottest day of the year. He stressed personal responsibility, hydration, pacing, and again - the heat. One part of the race involved an 8-mile exposed climb out from one of the canyons. This climb occurred at mile 34 - most people would be hitting it around the hottest part of the day.

Dinner was served after, at 5:30pm, in the adjacent lodge. My legs were sticky and sweaty in jeans, even with fans whirring. We finished and headed back to our motel. To enter the motel, we banged on the door. A window opened above: "I'm coming!". The owner let us into the closed shop, looked at Barry: "So you're Mr. Vancouver." Our room had two tiny beds, a TV/VCR that only took VHS tapes, and a wood-burning stove, even though it was still south of 90F.

new friends
As we unloaded the car, I saw a man in very sweaty running gear letting himself in to the room next to us. I did what any runner would - offered him some of our pre-race wine. It turned out that he was a wine distributor, and not only did he have wine, but ended up giving some to us! His name was Bill, and he had also run Western States, the San Diego 100, and several other 100-mile races. In this race, he was going to pace Ken, one of his running partners, for the last 30 miles.

Ken's wife Carola was to join and help with the crewing. This was definitely not her first time at the rodeo, and she shared with me some of the inspirational sayings she would use to keep Ken going: "I tell him, this was your choice, you got yourself into this."

The sky faded into light blue, then deepened around the edges, against the black outlines of the pines. and I could feel the temperature drop. It was time to go to bed.
outside our motel room

early alarm
At 4am, the alarm blared on. Barry ate oatmeal while pacing around his drop bags. We drove to the start area. People wore down jackets and jeans - the desert night was that cold. As 7am approached, the temperature started to rise - quickly. The start was quick: the leaders of the pack surged ahead, while the back of the pack runners walked. It was, after all, 100 miles.

all race start areas should have mounted wildlife

Then it felt anti-climactic: while Barry was to be out, battling elements, uphills, fatigue, and possibly any wildlife...I would be back at the motel room, asleep. I got up for the second time before noon, checked to see how Barry was doing online (10th place), then checked the temperatures (hot). I drank a coke under the trees, ate the sandwich, then it was time to start my shift as a crew member.

44 mile crewing
The Pioneer Mall 44mile aid station didn't officially open until 2pm. By 1:30pm, the parking lot was jammed with cars. I tried to pull in next to a large truck, only to be informed by the driver that no, she needed the extra space to open the doors, as she was planning her own mini-aid-station for her husband (who, by the way, was in fifth-place). After finding a farther-off parking space, I immediately returned to talk to her, as I admired her unapologetic type-A style...and, of course, she was an audit partner also (we know our own!) topping off a 100-hr week by crewing for her husband ("He just started doing these things, and then got good, so unfortunately he won't be stopping any time soon.").

The aid station was at the top of the exposed 8-mile climb out of the canyon. It was hot. Baking hot. Even with SPF 55, even in the shade, I ended up with a sun burn. The aid station was off the highway, and the ashphalt radiated heat. Spectators and crew members had set up lawn chairs in the patches of shade. I sat in an unoccupied folding chair next to a crew member who was losing the war against ants climbing slowly up his leg. The first runners were coming in. Some runners high-fived as the jogged up to the aid station. Some grimaced and walked, flanked by their crews. I saw one guy, one of the top finishers, hobble up towards us all bloody. He showed an almost-detached nipple with a bloody streak down his shirt. A circle of people gathered around him as he described the fall, then the next fall. He dropped at that aid station.

Based on Barry's time at the last checkpoint, I thought he'd be in around 2:30 - 3:00PM. Jeff, another Vancouver trail runner, was waiting at the station with me. He was helping crew and pace two of his friends - Hozumi and Jer. Just after 3, Hozumi clipped up the hill, looking sweaty but solid. Then I waited. I kept waiting. Runners came, each looking a bit more destroyed. Jeff packed up to go wait for Hozumi at the next aid station. I walked up from the parking lot, across the freeway, and looked down into the ridge where runners ascended from the canyon. I watched the first woman emerge, soaked through her shirt. People sat out on chairs, next to the highway, peering over. some, like me, looked every couple minutes. Others were settled in with books, magazines, coolers.

not good
My motel friend Bill was also at the aid station. Just after 4, he came to find me: he saw Barry coming over the ridge. I ran over and started yelling: "Move your ass! Looking strong! The hard part is over!" All that inspirational stuff. Because he was 1.5hrs behind schedule, it was still so hot, and I had no idea what else to do. Barry jogged along with me, and was pretty british about things: "Sorry it took me a while to meet up." It turned out that he had taken a wrong turn down in the canyon, which resulted in an extra 3 miles. He was talking easily, but looked pale. The first clue something was wrong, as we were running up a gentle incline: he mistook a camping trailer for the aid station. Second clue: as we approached, he asked "are we there yet? this aid station is far..." . Not good for someone with 56 miles left to go.

At the aid station, Barry stopped. He didn't want to eat, really. His pack was still 1/2 full. I persuaded him to have some watermelon. I gave him some water. He wanted to sit - that wasn't in our plan, our plan was for me to not let him sit - in the end, though, he won that round, as he went to the porta potty. I didn't know what else to do. Gary counselled me: he needed salt. I broke a capsule into his water, as he didn't want to take any. The aid station leader told me he wouldn't notice. The salt didn't dissolve, but instead stayed as a filmy surface. I tried to stir it - it just ended up clumping. So I added some gatorade - it tasted like grape salt.

In any event, he didn't get a chance to drink it. He had more water, and Bill and I convinced him to carry on. He started going, but said: "I might have to drop." Running has ups and downs, and 100-milers I heard had more than most, so I just figured he was going through a down.

51 mile aid station

The next aid station was at 51 miles into the race. It was huge - they had all types of food, a huge first aid tent, and (as further first aid?) margaritas. I watched as runner after runner came through. It was getting close to 5:30, but no signs of getting any cooler. If anything, it felt like the heat had solidified, settled in. Bill's runner, Ken, had come through the 44mile aid station just after Barry - he grabbed some food, filled up water, and kept on going. Gary and I settled in for what we thought would be a long wait. Except that, just a couple minutes later, Barry came up behind us.

oh no
He had gone a couple miles, and felt too exhausted and overheated to continue. He went onto the road and hitched a ride to the aid station. The race wasn't even half-over, but it was over. At the first aid tent, Barry drank water after water. He sat in the shade and slowly looked less awful. Bill suggested that, as Barry didn't need to go to a hospital, I help pace Ken, his runner, from miles 51 to 72. Barry agreed, and planned to help crew for Ken at the three aid stations we would pass through.

Carola, Bill, and me (team Ken)

plan b pacing
So, many hours earlier than expected, I laced up my shoes and started slowly. The heat was still there, and my stomach sloshed with all the water I'd been drinking that day. Bill told me the rules of pacing Ken: run behind, not in front, and don't talk too much. And it was okay to lie shamelessly. I did the first two, but didn't really have to do the second - whether jogging slowly or walking quickly, the guy was moving well. And, as for talking...well, I am a bit of a needy runner. We talked about his job (a nuclear physiscist), trail running in Northern California and their 100km, 15,000ft January 1st annual run, about running Western States, about running this race the previous year (it had gone less well). And then we didn't talk - it was all rhythm, and the growing breeze, and the outlines of runners ahead of us as the trail weaved.

58 mile aid station
We hit the 58 mile aid station as dusk was approaching - it was smaller and quieter, surrounded by woods. In the distance was the mountain we would be climbing up. After an Ensure and Red Bull, we were off. As we ran alongside a small lake, the sunset turned the water electric. We could see the headlamps of other runners, below us, as they climbed up the mountain. At the top was one bright line of orange on the horizon, and stars. As we descended, I cold feel the cool air flowing downhill with us.

64 miles
The 64 mile aid station emerged through the trees. Lanterns glowed overtop of a table with quesidillas, beer, candy, and hot soup. Ken sat down, drank an Ensure, and threw up. He paused, and ate some more food. His wife looked at him: "You better get up and start running now". So he did.

71 miles
The trail climbed and fell. I stumbled sometimes - not because it was too technical, but because the stars were so bright and close I couldn't help looking up. Some of the downhills had sharp, choppy rocks, so we walked them. Some of the uphills were long and gradual, and we ran. Sometimes the markings looked like they were impossible: veering off from the mail trail through grass, going down over a log.

We passed some other people and pacers: some struggling, some getting a second wind as the temperatures finally fell. And then we heard the cars on the highway, and saw the lights of the 71 mile aid station spread out.

post-run nutrition
By this time, it was 11pm. Barry had been up since 4am, and had crewed for 5 hours after running for 9.5 hours in the heat. Everywhere was closed. We ended up drinking wine out of styrofoam cups and eating chips for dinner.

tourist time
I slept in until almost 8:30 the next morning - some sort of personal record. A quick trip outside showed it was already baking. We went to pick up Barry's drop bags and saw people still running the race - amazing.

We drove to San Diego to stay in an awesome hotel in the middle of the gaslamp area. After eating my weight in brunch, I wandered around shopping while Barry went back to crash a bit (or whatever excuse he used to not be shopping).

totally manly

I DNF-ed on this sangria.

The next day, I pounded out my hangover with a treadmill tempo, then we headed back to LA.

Barry: "I like to wait to fill up the car." 1 mile left of fuel - legit buffer.

The early start gave us time to check out areas: the awesome, sun-drenched seediness of Sunset Boulevard and the women in leopard print with implants at Venice Beach. I loved it - the entire city was out there - too much traffic, too much make-up, too tight. I loved the vinyl stores next to the shiny news company tower. I loved the empty dirt lots across from Beverly Hills on Santa Monica Boulevard. I loved the too-bright pink flowers next to bungalows with faded curtains, the ultra-modern glass condos on Venice beach next to the wood porches. We flew back to Vancouver at 8, and I watched the city sprawl under the sunset as the first lights came on.

in the end
So we traveled a long way for Barry to not finish a race and for me to run 21 miles very slowly. Why do we do this? One of my very good friends sums it up: "Although I’m slow and unfit and I have a stupid hernia a tiny bit of me wants to do a stupid run."

The crazy is contagious. It is appealing. It doesn't always work out - which is why we do it. Racing long, racing big, racing in new places - it's a risk. And things don't and can't go to plan. This isn't a movie, and life doesn't stop at the end of a race, credits rolling at the finish line shot. I don't ever want to feel that I'm only as good as my last race. Barry left it all out there, and it wasn't enough. For the race, 56% of the people didn't finish, including several of the top runners. 100 miles are hard, and the one thing I took away is really respecting the distance, the training, and the shorter (50mile) distances I run and race. Things go wrong. Bodies break down. Nothing is certain. And in that the only real way to go is to keep smiling, try to help someone else, and look for the beauty in the situation.

In the end, I had a wonderful adventure to a beautiful place with a great friend. I really admire how positive Barry stayed, even though it wasn't the day he wanted, and particularly how he helped crew another runner in the evening. Things don't go as planned, but I know he has a great 100 mile in him and I hope I'm there when it happens.