Last September, I completed my first ultramarathon and ran the Haliburton 50 mile/80 kilometre course. Despite falling flat on my face multiple times, I had an incredible experience; running through the beautiful Halliburton Forest was cathartic. Even though the race was almost double the distance of a regular marathon, I found the soft trails easy on the joints and the uphill walking gave my body the breaks necessary to complete the course with less strain than road running. With all the added eating, the experience felt more like a long day in the woods than running a ridiculously long race.
As the new year starts to inch towards us, I always take the time to sit down and review my yearly goals; what I completed, what fell to the wayside, how I can improve and what I want to accomplish for the upcoming year. A good next step after running 50 miles might have been to strive for a 100-kilometer race in 2019, but I couldn’t find any 100-kilometer races in relatively close proximity (or maybe I didn’t look hard enough). Instead, I decided (very apprehensively) to jot down my goal of running the Haliburton 100 mile trail race. Just the very thought of this made me sweat more than I did at my junior high graduation.
July came rolling around and I still hadn’t signed up for the race, mostly because I was total chicken shit. After much contemplation, thoughts of vomiting and finally, words of self-affirmation, I decided to just do it. I pulled out my credit card, registered, and announced it publicly on social media (one of the tactics I use to keep myself accountable). The fear seeped in instantaneously. I knew for this race it wasn’t just physical training that I’d need to focus my prep work on, but I’d also have to finetune my mental strength.
While running the 50-miler last year, I got a bit lost/confused at the end of the race when finishing my last Normac Loop (more on this low point later). Since I would be running double the distance, and at night nonetheless, I envisioned the worst: getting completely lost in the forest, not able to find a stream/river to follow out, and dying in the Blair Witch’s cabin (may have watched too many horror movies).
Last year, I joined the Haliburton Forest Trail Facebook group, a community of ultra-runners and volunteers that have either previously participated in the race or planning to. When preparing for my first 50 ultra, I asked a series of questions (mostly surrounding chafing) and received some great advice, which saved my boobs from falling off last year.
I asked for any tips/advice on completing the 100-mile course and received an influx of comments mostly surrounding carrying extra flashlights, devising a wet clothing strategy, avoid sitting at ALL COSTS, and to be prepared for it to “hurt like HELL”. Once again, their advice helped mentally prepare me for what was to come, while simultaneously heightening my anxiety.
One of my biggest fears was getting lost in the dark so I decided to try and find a pacer to run the last 25 miles with me. I asked my friend Joanna, who was a volunteer at Aid Station 2 last year, and she connected me with another ultra-runner, Byron. Byron then introduced me to ANOTHER ultra-runner in Toronto, Mel, who became my saving grace. She agreed to pace me and I felt a huge sense of relief. We met up for coffee a few weeks before the race where I asked my most pressing questions regarding training, gear preparation, drop stations, nutrition, and where my crew should be at different points during the race.
Race day approached quickly. I felt ready, yet completely ambivalent as to how my body would react after the 50-mile point. The forecast also wasn’t looking so promising, which was giving me a mild anxiety attack. Saturday was calling for hours of rain and a chance of thunderstorms, which meant that the trails would be slippery, I’d be cold, and I’d look even more like a wet rat than originally planned. I registered and picked up my race kit at base camp late afternoon on Friday, and then went straight to the cottage to relax and get organized for the morning. I laid out and prepared my extensive line-up of running gear, which included salts, gels, chews, water bottles, clothing, chafe cream, headlamp, flashlight, and of course my race bib.
I’m a creature of habit and my favourite pre-race dinner is gnocchi with tomato sauce and ground turkey. Just for good measure, I usually make enough gnocchi to feed a family of five, but without a family of five. To round off my light carb load (lol…), I also finished with an extra-large Cookies and Cream Kit Kat – did you know that those existed? If not, then you’re welcome, but I also apologize for the extra five pounds of weight that will come alongside your new-found chocolate addiction.
Mel and her sister, April, joined shortly after dinner. A few days prior, Mel indicated that she had hurt her knee and April would be stepping in as my pacer. Upon their arrival, I found myself spitting out rapid-fire questions about the race to help ease my anxiety a bit more. I must have sounded like a broken record to Mel, because I had asked the same questions to her when we met up for coffee a week before the race. Mel – thanks for your patience, you’re the real MVP.
8:30 pm rolled around quickly and my unease was building. I migrated into bed at 9 but because my mind was running a mile a minute, I couldn’t fall asleep until after 11. I set my alarm for 3:45 am, but my internal alarm clock gave me a big “fuck you” and woke me up around 3 instead. I jumped out of bed with coffee being the only goal in sight. To my surprise, my breakfast – which comprised of steel-cut oats, banana, whey isolate protein powder, Vega protein powder, almonds and chia seeds – also went down well as I was able to get in close to 800 calories before my race. Mid-way through my meal, I felt my nerves kick in and my bowels give out. To spare you the details, I’ll give you the Coles Notes version of what happened next: I shit, a lot.
We got to the start line around 5:30 am, where “Emily Shits, The Sequel” happened. As the announcer called the runners to the start line, I gave my crew – comprised of my sister, Alex, and best friend, Kayla – a big hug and lined up. As I approached the start line, my nervousness did a total 180 and transformed into feelings of excitement; I was about to finally embark on this amazing and absolutely crazy adventure. As I observed other runners getting ready at the start, it sunk in how much of an amateur trail runner I looked like. While everyone had their pimped out running vests and camelbacks, I rolled up in my road runners and one single handheld water bottle. I looked like the kind of girl who would show up to a pool party with a winter parka: foolish and ill-equipped. But what can I say, I’m a minimalist – so my limited equipment was all I needed!
As I stood by the start line, I ran into another runner, Bill, who I had met online a few days prior to the race. Through the Haliburton Facebook group, I received a message from Bill who had indicated that this was his third attempt at a 100-mile race distance. I could tell by his demeanor that nothing was getting in his way of finishing this race, and let me tell you – nothing did. Bill finished the 100 miler with an awesome time (go Bill)! We wished one another good luck and took off as the gun sounded.
I plugged in my audiobook and started at a comfortable pace that settled around the 5’00/km mark. The first 6 kilometers is on forest roads so it’s a bit of a smoother start, which is a nice lead into the first Normac Loop. I know I’ve mentioned this Loop a few times now, so let me formally introduce you to this bitch of a trail. The Normac Loop (AKA the spawn of satan in topographical form) is deep in the forest and very technical. The Loop starts with a challenging incline up a 500m hill. After you’ve reached the top, the trail levels out for a bit, but then you’re met with another serious climb around the 8k mark. Overall, not a fun time.
Throughout the entire duration of my run, I tried to refrain from looking at my watch too often or I would feel overwhelmed by the daunting distance ahead. I had to break the race up into digestible chunks, taking it one aid station at a time. I forced myself to be completely present, taking one step in front of the other and enjoying the scenery that the Haliburton Forest offered. There’s something very different about ultra-trail running and long-distance road running. The former becomes a bit mundane, facing the same strip of road the entire race. With ultra-trail running, there’s always something new to observe.
Before I knew it, I was at the 33km mark and that’s when I met another runner from Ottawa named Savvas. He was completing his first 50-miler and almost at the half way point. After we chatted for about 10 minutes we parted ways, but it was super nice to mix up my run with a nice conversation on the trails. Soon enough I was at the 40k turnaround (25% done) and I was feeling good.
After another 20 kilometers or so, I started to feel a bit of leg cramping. One important part of my mental training was to reassure myself that whatever pain I felt, it would eventually pass. I just needed to be present with the pain and know that however shitty I may be feeling in the present moment, it’s only temporary. I stuck to Mel’s nutrition plan; ensuring that I was eating 100-150 calories every 30 minutes. I tried hard to consume whole foods at aid stations and gels/chews in-between stations. I stuck to PB&J sandwiches, bananas, and Nutella on white bread throughout my race.
The second Normac loop approached quickly and I was surprised to find that I was almost at the 50-mile turnaround point. That’s when it started raining. At first, it was light; a nice refreshing sprinkle. When I finished my second loop and started running the 2k towards the turnaround, it started POURING. I was not only soaked, but both my knees really started to hurt. I don’t know if it was because I was now running on a forest road rather than a soft trail, but the pain was bad. From a distance, I heard some cheers and the faint remanence of my name being called and it made me smile. Momentarily, I forgot it was raining and the pain subsided. It was so re-assuring to see Alex, Ryan, and Kayla.
As I was approaching the 50-mile checkpoint, I saw the Race Director holding out a medal to congratulate me for finishing the 50 miler. After she got a quick glance at my bib number she realized I was doing the 100 miler, quickly pulling the medal back into her chest and instead pointed to the turnaround post. I remember the only words I could mutter in response to my crew’s enthusiasm was “this is fucked” – which was met with laughter from them, and a feeling of deep dread from me.
I passed Aid Station 2 again where I saw Mel, April and Byron who said, “see you again in 10k”. As I left, I had to remind myself to grab my headlamp and some more gels (I was running very low). I went on my way back into the forest in the pouring rain. The rain didn’t seem to let up, it was getting increasingly harder and even though I was in a densely forested area, I was still soaked. The trails also became very slippery and I cursed myself again for not learning my lesson from last year and investing in a good pair of trail runners. That’s when I saw a flash of lightning and a faint murmur of thunder. I thought “this is it, this is how it ends for me. Death by lightning strike in Haliburton. Such an unfortunate way to go”. With every step I took, I thought I was going to fall. Some of the descents felt like a slip and slide, minus any sense of childhood joy. The storm continued and when I looked at my watch, a few hours had surprisingly passed. I finally reached Aid Station 3 and that’s when I realized that something was wrong – I should have bypassed Aid Station 2 by now.
My water and all my gels were now gone and I was starting to feel my stomach rumble. I was beginning to have a mild internal freakout, but I kept my composure, reassuring myself that I would be back at Aid Station 2 shortly. Soon enough, I rolled up to Aid Station 5 and knew something had gone really wrong. Very confused and disoriented, I checked my Garmin and saw that I logged just under 100k so far. I asked the volunteers at the station where AS2 was and they replied, “oh, AS2 is like 2-3 hours back”. That’s when my mind immediately went into full freak out, “what the f” mode. I became frantic, wondering if I should go back to Aid Station 2 to finish the full course. One of the lovely volunteers, noticing how unhinged I probably looked, said “hun, do not go back, if you do, you will not finish. Just go out to AS7 come back and we will figure out what happened”. I had no race nutrition left so one of the race pacers handed me some gels to bring with me. The volunteer then guided me to my drop bag where I changed out of my sopping wet clothes and into a fresh sports bra and zip-up.
As I left, my mind went crazy and I started feeling a lot of anxiety. I tried to surrender to the circumstances and assure myself that we would get to the bottom of what went wrong. My body began to relax and my mind began to re-focus on the present moment. Just as I was getting comfortable with my pace and getting back into my groove, a thought came into my head and I felt my whole body tense up. I was supposed to meet my pacer at Aid Station 6 at 8:00pm and it’s only just after 6. I also didn’t have my headlamp and it was the brink of dusk.
AS6 was only 7 kilometers from AS5 and I got there pretty quickly. As the volunteers cheered, I proceeded to continue my mini-meltdown explaining what happened, still disoriented and obviously upset. One of the volunteers, Gary, thought that I had missed the third Normac Loop. He said it’s going to get dark soon and urgency in his voice galvanized me to get my ass moving to the next aid station. They said they would radio AS2 and let my pacer (April) know that I should still meet at AS6 and to bring my headlamp. As I ran to AS7, my inner monologue was still trying to figure out what could have possibly happened, but Gary’s theory made the most sense. Paranoid with my own thoughts, I got to AS7 as quickly as I could, only to see April – sweet, sweet April – standing there in her gear ready to go.
I can’t even begin to tell you how reassuring it was to see April’s face. She told me that the volunteers and Race Director had all been discussing my situation, trying to figure out the mystery of ‘what could Emily have possibly done wrong?’ Turns out that I did miss the third Normac Loop and there was a possibility that I wouldn’t receive a finishing time or be able to place due to being directionally challenged. I told April that all I wanted was to get in the distance; I came to run 100 miles and I wasn’t leaving until I got it done. After chatting, we came up with the solution that I would run the Normac Loop twice at the very end. I can’t reiterate how much I despise this loop, so the thought of having to do it twice after already running 140K made me want to punch myself in the throat for having missed it the first time. But once again, optimism prevailed and I pushed my negative self-talk away, instead of appreciating the fact that I would not only be able to finish the full 100 miles, but I would also get my official chip time.
I changed again into a fresh compression long sleeve and my Nike windbreaker, grabbing some more gels, chews, and Stroop waffles while April mixed my Maurten sports drink mix. I put away my phone as April and I headed off to complete the last 50k of the course. We chatted and I was surprised at how good I was still feeling. Despite being sore, having my feet mangled and full of blisters, experiencing chaffing that made it seem like my vagina was built of sandpaper, I was still in positive spirits. We got back to AS6 where I saw the friendly faces of Kayla, Alex and Ryan. Having loved ones there to cheer me on was such a motivator. As I pounded back another full Nutella sandwich (my 15th full sandwich of the day), I joked that I had 3 marathons down and 1 more to go. We did a quick in-and-out at the Aid Station, and it wasn’t until shortly thereafter when my upbeat spirits started to migrate south.
April and I stopped talking for a bit and I was stuck in my own head. Between AS5 and AS3, the trails were the worst. A densely forested area with a lot of inclines, declines, rocks, sticks and huge puddles of mud. The trails were way worse because of the torrential downpour that happened earlier in the day. We now had around 33k left and my quads were beginning to get increasingly heavier and my mind was starting to get really tired. I couldn’t fathom doing another 30k in the worst part of the course.
For a short span of time, I started to get wrapped up in thoughts from the past. The beginning of 2019 was a really difficult time for me. I had just gotten out of a long-term relationship, my business was experiencing some serious cash flow issues, and I got into another relationship too quickly – which was deeply intense but didn’t work out, leaving me heartbroken. Yes, I experienced a bit of an unsettling emotional trajectory, but I was able to push through. Some blisters and sore legs weren’t going to be my downfall, and I used these experiences to push my mental strength to its absolute limits.
However, my inner-cheerleader quickly changed tones and I started seriously contemplating quitting. I told myself that I ran almost 130 kilometers, that’s a success in itself – right? Dwelling on the daunting thought of doing the Normac Loop twice made my whole body cringe. My mind got caught in a carousel of negativity; each thought feeding off the next. That’s when I told April I needed to plug in and get back in my zone. As corny and new age as this sounds, I brought one of my favourite audiobooks, The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, which I had already listened to in its entirety earlier in the day. Not only do I find Eckhart’s voice soothing, but the content reminded me to snap back to the present moment. Each step was painful as hell, but it gave my mind something to concentrate on and provided a burst of mental energy to keep moving.
Although the ground was slippery, there were parts of the trail that housed soft dirt, which felt like heaven on my joints. I consciously took the time to look up at the sky, soaking up the beauty of my surroundings. That’s when we entered moth city, and my headlamp’s 325 lumens was a real treat. Moth City is the worst kind of city. It’s where moths come to pray on runners, hitting them in the face and breaking them down; leaving them disgruntled and blinding them in the process. I remember telling at least ten moths to go fuck themselves, which is when I realized I hated this stupid forest. Not only was I being attacked by a low-rent version of a butterfly, but I was slipping all over the place from the mud-filled trails.
I must admit, I internalized a lot of my negative thinking, but on occasion, I would ask April some pressing questions.
Me: “April, my legs feel like logs”.
April: “That’s normal, Emily. You can swear if you want to.”
Me: “April, if we walk for a while, will it be hard to run again”.
April “Emily, if we walk, running again will feel awful”.
Me: “Yikes, okay.” *starts jogging very slow*
Me: “April, do you have any more chafe cream? My vag is going to fall off”.
April” “No, I don’t”.
Me: “April, I need to pee, but am worried that if I do, it will make the chafe even worst”.
April: “Emily let’s wait until we circle back to AS2 and you can lather yourself in Vaseline”.
Me: “April is this a hill? We should walk”
At one point the chafing and stinging of my lower lady parts was so intense, that I asked April if she had anything I could shove down my crotch (ie. cloth, Kleenex, etc.). She handed me her bandana and without hesitation, I shoved it down my underwear and felt a sliver of relief.
We finally rolled up to AS2 to start our first Normac Loop. That’s when I popped a squat and peed on myself. Sorry for the lovely visual, I just want you to get the full experience. I lathered on the Vaseline, popped a few handfuls of trail mix, and April and I were on our way into the first 4.5 kilometers loop of trail hell. As we left, Mel took a photo and I laughed, telling April that it was going to be a very disturbing photo; full-on diaper ass with pee on my pants; a dream photo for the gram.
I took a moment to appreciate the stunning stars and shifted focus on getting this done. Only 24k left so there’s no quitting now. Each step felt like agony, but before I knew it, we were out of the trail and onto the road for the last 6 kilometers or so until we had to do the Loop again. We passed AS2, but this time I didn’t stop for refreshments or a snack, I was determined to get this done. Only 10 more kilometers then another 2k to the finish – I had the finish line on my mind. Almost as soon as we entered the death trail, I tripped over a rock and felt every single blister on my foot scream at me. That 4.5k felt like the longest run of my life, but once we finally emerged from the forest, I yelled “BRING ME HOME, APRIL”, and that’s exactly what she did. I switched over to some heavy EDM to get the blood pumping, feeling as if I was sprinting full speed (but really I was probably averaging like 8:00/km – April, my Garmin died, can you confirm?)
*Update: April confirmed.. we were actually pacing 8:30/km*
I was on the lookout for the flashing light, which guided me back to AS2, and then to the finish. As expected, that 6 kilometers felt like another eternity, but then I finally saw it. We passed AS2 for the last time and proceeded to go up the last hill to the final finishing stretch. As I jogged the slowest pace of my life uphill, I finally saw the pillars of the finish line.
As I inched closer to the finish line, it felt as if I was in a dream – wearing blocks as feet as the finish stretched farther and farther away. There’s a 100% chance I was getting delusional and going crazy, but as I vocalized this thought, April also was in agreement. Obviously we were both suffering from mild-delusion. I’m kidding, but as we finally got closer, I began to sob and slightly hyperventilated knowing that this journey would finally be over. I heard the familiar cheers of Kayla and Alex and as I took those last few steps over the finish line. I uncontrollably started crying. I never felt such an intense wave of emotion in my entire life. I looked over to see Kayla matching my tears, like the true friend she is. I hugged my lil’ crew, gave April a gigantic hug, and sat my ass down on the picnic table bench.
The wonderful Race Director, Tegan congratulated me and confirmed that even though I had a little course detour, I would still get my chip time and place. She handed me some late night eats: chicken with beets and sweet potato, which I inhaled. I was now ready to get home and go to bed. As soon as I stood up, I knew why the ultra community preached the motto beware the chair. Before entering the race, I was warned about the dangers of sitting down at aid stations. If I sat, I might get too comfortable and want to throw in the towel. Or my body physically wouldn’t let me get up. In this case, I couldn’t walk. I leaned on Kayla and Alex and managed an extremely slow waddle to the truck.
Luckily the cottage was only a short, 20-minute drive, but I couldn’t help to think how bad the chafing on my body was going to burn in the shower and how butchered my feet were. That’s literally the only thing I thought of the entire car ride home. When we arrived, it took me a long 5 minutes to get out of the truck where I hobbled to the cottage. When I sat down by the kitchen table, I asked Alex to take off my shoes and peel of my socks. My feet had severe maceration and blisters everywhere. It was indeed, a very frightening sight. Photographed below:
Despite the blisters, terrible rain, and mild anxiety attack from getting slightly lost, my first 100-mile experience was an unforgettable one. The aid station volunteers were fantastic, encouraging and helpful. Seeing my crew multiple times throughout the day (and night) gave me the emotional energy I needed to persevere, and April not only helped guide me in the dark (I 100% would have got lost if she wasn’t there), but was the support system I needed for that last 50 kilometers to get me to that finish line.
My time was 22 hours and 50 minutes and I placed first female and third place overall. Would I do it again? We’ll have to wait and see 🙂