I had a dream. I was at a race and had taken the female lead within the first five minutes. None of the women had tried to make a “go for it” so I had pushed a bit to get some distance between myself and them. I don’t like chasing and I hate being chased – I get way too stressed. I was following a pack of YoungBucks, a potential red flag that I was perhaps going too aggressively on this first loop of two, and this other guy that seemed to be at the same pace as mine, only stronger on the ups while I was faster on the downs; we kept passing each other. I liked having him there as it can get lonely on the trails – I called him MyBeacon.

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Pre-race briefing (photo: Nathan Karsgaard)

The dream seemed real as I had run the first ten kilometres of the course before and my mind was vividly repainting the hills of the start, followed by sweet singletrack along a ridge with stunning views, a crazy descent through tight switchbacks and a lovely trail winding along the shores of a trout-filled lake. I came to a junction where those who were running the 25k and 50k had to veer left while the 10k runners headed right, back towards the finish – left I went, into unknown territory, but I had heard enough warnings about how tough the course was that I could easily imagine the steep climb that followed (the YoungBucks gained ahead and disappeared) and the insane descent where I wondered if I had chosen the wrong shoes for this event. The trail flattened and I reached the “river crossing” that the race director had earlier mentioned.

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The “river” crossing (photo: Yvonne Kemeny)

More like 200m of unavoidable flooded trail, it was a nasty mix of mud and freezing cold water, lined with thick shrubs that forced you to get your feet wet. I figured I could gain time here as most folks with common sense would likely thread carefully through this, so I just went for it and ran at full speed through the centre of the path. It was slick and dirty. So much for the brand new shoes I had just pulled out of the box a few days ago… The water got deeper and the bottom more slippery but I was on a mission. Until my feet encountered “the hole” and I planted face first, my entire body submerging in the icy creek.

I woke up.

Well, more like had a “wake up” call that this was not a dream at all. I was ten kilometres into Nimble Bear 50, I was running strong and had the lead. Shit. 

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Trail runner on the Nimble Bear course (photo: Devin Araujo)

ThinksTooMuch (my brain monkey) instantly hopped on his wheel, determined to race his own ultra. You fool. You really think you can hold that position. You just went out too fast. They are right behind and will catch up in no time. One by one they will pass you and leave you in the dust of shame. I picked myself up and reached dry ground. The rubber of my soles was frozen stiff from the cold water and my feet were numb. Fortunately, Aid Station 1 (decorated as a Tiki Bar but sadly offering no Mai Tai’s on the menu) was just around the corner and I was happy to fuel up with watermelon, brownies and chips. First woman! they cheerfully greeted as they grabbed my flask to kindly refilled it with water. ThinksTooMuch wasted no time to add: You won’t be first on round two. You better eat fast and go. They’re coming for you. I thanked everyone and resumed my route, nearly choking on the chips I stuffed in my mouth. Run, run, run. Up and down, through rolling terrain, now along the back of the lake. I was soaked from my dip in the creek and could feel my clothing rubbing in various spots – I should have stopped to place a few band-aids but in my crazy frenzy to not lose my lead, I chose to simply ignore the problem and suffer the consequences later…

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Homemade apple pies baked by the Race Director and her family (photo: PACE Trail Race Series)

MyBeacon was within sight, slightly behind, but no sign of any women. I briefly let myself fantasize that maybe there was a chance that I could actually earn a pie (top 3 win a homemade apple pie). That was a mistake. The brain monkey began cackling non-stop in my head and there was nothing I could do to stop it. Dream on, and be disappointed, as they will pass you real soon, he snickered. Not a win, just a pie, I tried to bargain. This is so early in the race, so much can happen, you can’t hold it for that long. You’ll get tired and slow down, he reminded me. Two can pass me before game over, I insisted.  I just wanted a damn pie. And the third and fourth won’t be far behind and come steel it from you. May as well give up now and take it easy. I considered it as I began the longest and hardest climb of the course. I pulled my poles out and pushed. Go on, better go hard, because you know they’re coming for you. You walk most of your climbs, they will RUN them. Why bother, he laughed on.

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Rose Valley Lake at the heart of the race course (photo: Nathan Karsgaard)

And that’s how things rolled in my head for the next 15 km. My anxiety was building up and I was giving myself a severe mental beating. This was TrailStoke all over again. I was to run the second lap of three of an all-women relay team, the plan being that this would be a fun, casual day between friends. But our first runner, who is a remarkable athlete, propelled us to the front and I found myself in the female lead. That was new. I’ve earned age category podiums before, but never led a race. For over two hours, I ran harder than I ever ran before on such difficult terrain, agonizing in mind games and fear of disappointing my teammates and friends who, while volunteering, were cheering me on from aid stations. Of course, it was ALL in my head. The reality was nobody cared whether I came first or last – they simply loved seeing us have a great race. They were having fun – I was NOT. I was chasing I’m not sure what, and there wasn’t anything pleasant in the process. I began encouraging every single runner I crossed paths with on an out-and-back section of the course (I was returning down while they were heading up the hardest climb) needing to give some love and harvest that positive energy to keep me going. The “other” women I so feared would catch up never did and I eventually passed the “torch” to my other teammate who also ran a speedy leg to land us the win.

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Lisa and Liza on the TrailStoke podium post women’s relay win

I have fond memories of that victory. But I also said never again. It took way too much mental energy out of me and nearly cost me the joy of racing. The following season I went into my events with low goals and little self-esteem. No commitment meant no hurt. It took a marathon in the fall where I paced a friend and helped her reach a goal to make me fall in love with the racing scene again – not about performance, this yielded a true reward of accomplishment.

But I obviously hadn’t learned my lesson because here I was again. Why is it so hard for me to relax, pull back and just enjoy the ride? I have heard so may runners say that no matter how they had honestly planned to race ”easy” (recovering from injury, using race as training miles, more important goal ahead), as soon as the gun goes, the demons take over and there is no escaping the legs switching to a fast-paced mode. I realize that at the core, a RACE is meant to be competitive, but why can’t I sometimes just run them for the sheer enjoyment with no performance element. Lots of people can, and do. Truth is, I knew that morning when I lined up at the start that I was feeling strong and could do really well. Not necessarily a win, but I had solid training from my recent Grand Canyon trip as well as lots of hill work. I could nail this course. But why go mental? Why let the brain monkey turn my experience into the Ultimate Ultra of Self-destruction?  The Race Director had made us all pick a positive message card before we started and mine read “you don’t need the answer before you begin”.

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Inspiration messages (photo: PACE Trail Race Series)

For a brief moment I had relaxed and thought I’d just go with it and see where the day would take me. But brain monkey had other plans. I obviously still have lots of work ahead before reaching the race zen…  And that day, I was failing miserably at anything zen, OM or mindful.

The ascent was relentless but I gave it all I had, walking the steeper parts. MyBeacon had passed me and he was slowly gaining distance ahead, though I could see him walking the steep bits as well. We had caught up with the YoungBucks briefly but they were gone now too. One last switchback and I found myself face to face with two lovely ladies in superhero costumes – it was the summit checkpoint.

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Summit SuperHeroes and Jurassic Gummies (photo: Yvonne Kemeny)

First woman! Great job, they cheer. And I instantly replied: Won’t be me round two, again giving in to ThinksTooMuch’s beating. Would you like a dinosaur? One of them asked as she presented a bag-filled with gummy candies in the shape of Jurassic creatures. As if that wasn’t enough to make my day, they announced it was all downhill from here to the next Aid Station. Five kilometres of bliss as ThinksTooMuch relaxed slightly while I barrelled down the singletrack, knowing I was doing very well and regaining some confidence. My mind wandered to the folks who were starting the 25k at about that time.

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Fitzy, Erin and Houda from Canmore Trail Culture (photo: Canmore Trail Culture)

A bunch of people I knew from the Canmore Trail Culture run group were there, including a friend I had road tripped with to Kelowna to attend this event. I wished I could tell her about the “creek” and to proceed with caution… I silently wished them all a great race before my tummy brought me back to my own reality – in my uphill fury, I had failed to eat my Stinger waffle and now my tank was empty and this fast running was taking a toll on my body. I needed food soon. I passed MyBeacon and finally reached the Aid Station where I filled up with lots of goodies and took some for the road. The volunteers reminded me of my lead position, sending me up the final stretch before the halfway mark in the company of ThinksTooMuch, who was only too happy to resume tormenting me about how I should enjoy finishing loop one first because that’s the best I would see from myself today. I wanted to puke. I just wanted to reach the end of the first loop, dreaming that a “mama bear” would be there to greet and hug me, tell me I had done really well and that it was enough and that I could stop and that everything would be okay.

I could hear voices coming from the finish line and I ran even faster. If I could just get there, maybe this would all come to an end. But when I reached the tent and my drop bag, there was no mama bear. Just noise and frenzy. I was lost and just wanted to cry, but there were no arms for me to cry in. The nice volunteers, also dressed as superheroes (because they ARE) helped me switch vests, fed me and sent me on my way, unaware of my total turmoil, excited to see me carry on. As I planted my poles on the uphill trail, attacking the second loop, I heard the Emcee over the speaker say I was having a fantastic race. It was like a dagger of ultimate shame piercing my heart. Because surely, I would finish fourth or fifth and then everyone would wonder what had happened, why I had fallen back so much. It is absolutely insane the stupid thoughts we can fill our minds with. Inventions based on no facts whatsoever. Again, an unwarranted fear of displeasing. Nevertheless, I was mentally burned out and could no longer handle any of it. So I broke my rule.

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Chasing Pie (cartoon sketch: Stef Gignac)

I never run on the trails with headphones. I need to be alert and aware of my surroundings. But I had brought my iPod, as a backup, thinking I could pop in one earbud for motivation if need be. But as soon as my frozen hands managed to get those earbuds in, I turned up the volume as high as it took to drown everything around me, and I let the perfect playlist (created for an upcoming road marathon) take me to another place. The beat took over my pace, my mind detached, oblivious to my brain monkey’s comments – I buried him deep. There was silence within, at last. Crank up that volume, and if the bears eat me, I don’t care. Just let me be numb. And strangely, I finally focused and found the zone. I came alive. This was the second time around on the course, I knew everything that was coming ahead and played accordingly. I looked forward to the creek because I wasn’t going to fall in this time, and I embraced the crazy hill because there were superheroes with dinosaurs at the top, followed by a stunningly beautiful long downhill. At every Aid Station, there was a volunteer who smiled and told me they totally expected to see me roll in first again on this second loop – apparently I was the only one that day that had no faith in myself. My feet moved to the beat of the music and I began catching up with the back of the pack runners from the 25k that had started a few hours after us – it was nice to encourage each other.

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Finding my groove on round two (photo: Nathan Karsgaard)

I passed MyBeacon one last time on the big descent and just like he said I would, I fluttered down like a butterfly. I felt so free and remembered why I loved racing so much. These exhilarating moments when everything lines up perfectly and your stride opens up and you feel like you could fly. My iPod was blasting the song Chandelier – “I want to fly like a bird through the night, feel my tears as they dry”, damn right I will swing from the chandelier tonight, at the bar, if I can just reach that finish line!

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Swinging from the chandelier (cartoon sketch: Stef Gignac)

The best races I have done are not the ones I placed well. They are the ones I was aiming for a personal time goal rather than chasing other competitors. My Boston qualifier where I needed 3:45; the Boston marathon itself where I wanted sub 3:30; Broken Goat where I desperately wanted to finish under 3 hours… the brain monkey of course was ever present to challenge me, but not in the same way. I would much rather fight with myself than against others. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy doing well. There certainly is a fun satisfaction to step onto a podium, especially for someone who for most of their life was never much of an athlete (see my blog post Why I Run). But I don’t race to win; when it happens, it usually comes as a surprise, even if the odd friend or two tells me after told you so! I go hard because I tend to go hard on myself through life in general. I don’t want to disappoint. I fear what others might think even if in reality, they think nothing. An inner child misconception that if I am not good enough (at whatever) I won’t be accepted or loved.

At the bottom I encountered some lads carrying fishing rods and tackle. How tempting to join them and escape the final leg. I had heard the lake was great for fishing. But the last Aid Station was within sight, and after fuelling up one last time, I carried on to complete the final stretch. This entire second loop, I had hoped not to pass my friend.

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My friend Marta at the start line of the 25K (photo: Gosia Kostecka)

She was so committed to her training this past winter and come such a long way. If I didn’t see her, it would mean that she was having a solid race and would finish under four hours, her goal time. Though I encountered a few more runners, there was no sign of her which pleased me very much – it would be such a better day if all my CTC buddies had also had a good time and felt satisfied with their achievements. Motivated and filled with positive energy, I plowed uphill in a last effort. There comes a point, low self-confidence or not, when you know you owned it and got ‘er dun. As I reached the final summit, I threw my arms up and yelled a woohoo of victory at the top of my lungs, before dropping down the final descent at my fastest speed of the day. F*ck you ThinksTooMuck, I got this. Where this strength was coming from, I had no idea (I better start trusting this thing I do regularly called training), and before I knew it, I could hear the crowd and see the finish line. MostAwesomeRaceDirector was there with her pompoms, to greet me with a big hug (oh my, a mama bear!), like she does for every single one of her racers. I cried, of course. Ordeal over. My imaginary “evil chasers” had never caught up. I get a pie, I smiled at her. I looked up to see the Canmore Trail Culture crew all around, with big smiles and more hugs to offer. Everyone had a great day, a few pie winners and some solid race results on board. My friend came under four hours, loved the course and had the biggest smile on her face. We were so proud of each other. Now I could finally find a spot in the grass, sit and process. What had just happened? I knew I was coming in strong that day, yet I failed to embrace it and got all caught up in self-destruction nonsense. My nutrition was bang on, my body was well trained. Why all this stress, all this ill treatment of myself. Why win? Did it matter where I placed and would it change my life? Absolutely not. The PieOfPride I called it. Nothing more.

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At the finish line with the most awesome race director (photo: Canmore Trail Culture)

One thing for sure is that I certainly felt like I had learned a lot of lessons that day. Including, on the lighter side, that one can carb load on a LOT of Okanagan Valley wine tastings and still do very well at a race. And that dealing with chafing right away is a must or Thou Shall Pay the Consequences. And fuelling while going uphill is essential as it is nearly impossible to do so when running full speed on the downhill that follows when you really need your energy and your tank is almost empty. But mostly, to not worry about what everyone else might think, what their expectations of you might be and to just be proud of what you accomplish at any time. Success is not to win – it is to try, give it all you got, be good to yourself and others and have a great time in the process.

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From my hotel, a 10k loop gave access to 6 wineries, all too happy to offer fabulous tastings

We went out for drinks later that evening and I can promise I did not swing from the chandelier – a 50k ran at a decent pace was bound to take a toll on my body. I was toast. There was much to ponder about in the days that followed. I have many more events lined up for the summer and though I plan to continue training and running strong, I need to find a way to let go of this fear of disappointing (myself and others) and run wild and free like I love it so much. I do enjoy racing, a lot. I like pushing myself, the challenge of the unknown, dealing with the surprises Mother Nature has in store. The energy of the people around me, the wonderful folks I meet on the trail. I just need to learn to “not care” about the outcome and simply enjoy the moment.

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Enjoying some pie on the road back to Banff

My next trail race is another PACE Trail Series event, the Wild Horse Traverse in early June and I cannot wait to be hugged at the finish line by MostAwesomeRaceDirector and her colourful pompoms. I will not be lining up at the front. It will be my buddy’s first ultra and I will run by her side the whole way. ThinksTooMuch will not be invited and life will be just fine.

And we will drink lots of wine.

*A very special thanks to Rene Unser and the entire Nimble Bear crew and volunteers for putting on a spectacular, challenging and fun event. And for baking such succulent apple pie.

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