2014 brought a new ultra race to the Ontario calendar, and right in my backyard in the Niagara Region. Unfortunately 2014 also brought Niagara a relentless winter that hasn’t really let spring do its job. What this translated to was race course with the potential for anything from snow and ice, to mud and water. Turns out we had all of that on race day.
The race start was at 5AM, which made for an early morning. Waking up just after 3AM turned out to be quite easy after a fitful sleep where I was waking up on and off every little while. Out at the race site at the Boy Scout camp in Short Hills Provincial Park, it felt slightly warmer than I had expected and the rains of the night before had ceased. Everyone stayed inside the big cabin/race HQ to stay warm until just before the starting
gun cannon went off. Yes, this race was run in conjunction with a training exercise for Army Reserve soldiers from the GTA… so they brought a cannon! With a loud bang, we were off into the dark to start getting muddy.
The course consisted of a ~25k loop to the east of Short Hills which is terrain I run all the time. This experience was a benefit as it saved me from having to stress too much about route finding in the dark. John McAlister and I settled into an honest pace and I was surprised that we were putting an expanding gap into the row of headlamps we could see at various points on the course. I was a bit worried I was going out too fast, but figured once we hit the real muddy and technical sections I would be forced to slow down anyway.
The next big section took us west out and back on the Bruce Trail. This was mainly technical singletrack, made even more difficult with the mud. There were even a couple of ice/rock climbing sections that took some skill to get up/down! This is a beautiful section of trail that was mainly new to me. I can’t wait to put a lot more time in on these trails once things dry out this summer. I was in the lead of the race at the 60km turnaround and was anxious to see how close the others were to me. I had about 10 minutes on second place which I knew wasn’t a lot given that we still had 40km to get back to the finish. I spent the rest of the day focusing on the mental part of my running. When I wanted to slow/walk because my legs were tired I kept reminding myself that of course they hurt after this much running, but they still work and can keep going. I also kept telling myself that when I was moving faster, there was less chance the guys behind me could make up time. Seems obvious, but its the kind of thing that helped me to push. As Ray Zahab says, its 90% mental, the rest is in your head!
Hitting the turnaround was a big boost, because from there every kilometre brought me closer to the finish. It was nice getting encouragement from the rest of the runners I passed, as well as some groups of hikers. Once back into the final Short Hills loop I knew I just had to grind out the last few rolling hills and I could win! I made the turn onto the finish line road at the Scout Camp and saw my daughter running back up towards me… definitely the highlight of the day! Manuela brought the kids down to watch me finish and it was awesome to have them there (even more appreciated after I predicted I would finish between 10-11 hrs, so they had an extra long wait for me!). My finish time was a couple minutes over 12hrs. I was relieved to be done with the mud, and shocked/amazed/elated to have won!
Again, it was great to have the Scout Camp for a warm place to hang out and enjoy all the food the Army was whipping up post race. Diane presented my (really nice) award and a couple of the age group awards. I was wishing I could stick around and watch some more of the finishers, but I couldn’t get warm and wanted to get home to change. I had to shower in my tights because the ankle zippers were welded shut with mud!
It was great to meet Diane the Race Director in person this weekend. She did a great job, and I was amazed at how calm she was at all times! She was always willing to stop to answer questions, provide information, and chat with people. All this after months of planning, and days of flagging, and nights of prep. Thank you Diane for bringing this new Ultra to Niagara.
The Army Reservists did a great job with a lot of the logistics. The only downside was in terms of the aid stations. I realized how much I value aid stations full of enthusiastic volunteers that really boost my spirits when I’m racing. The army folks had a great setup at each aid, but didn’t have the excitement that many stations have or the knowledge of what ultrarunners need when they come through a station. Obviously not something that was their fault, but it makes me appreciate aid station volunteers even more! An issue we did have was confusion about having our numbers recorded. I think this was because we were at the front of the race, and the aid station workers were almost always surprised to see us. We often had to stop and ask/remind them to take our numbers. Not meaning to complain just offer opportunities for improvement – these guys and girls spent a tough weekend in cold, muddy, windy conditions and the work they did is much appreciated.