My Experience Running 50-Miles Through the Woods

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This year, I set two major running goals for myself to improve; speed and distance. The first was qualifying for the NYC marathon and running a marathon time sub 3:13. I accomplished this goal in May, running a 3:10 at the Toronto Marathon. My second goal was to run an ultra marathon that needed to be at least 60 kilometres or more.

Last September, I was at a friend’s birthday party when I was introduced to another runner and life coach, Jenn. We started talking and she told me that she ran the Halliburton Trail Race 50-Miler. I was instantly in awe and had a million questions for her. She told me that goal-wise, it was completely different from a marathon; it wasn’t about the time, but just about completing it. She met some amazing people, became weaved into a community that overflowed with warmth and acceptance, and most importantly, had a wonderful time during the process.

I’m accustomed to running marathons, pushing myself so hard that I would feel sick at the end of the race. The thought of running that distance very slowly seemed daunting to me. However, the non-competitive aspect of the race was enticing to me, as it would help unload some of the pressure associated with the conventional races I’ve completed. In June, I decided to pull the trigger and sign-up for the 50-Mile course. There are 5 options: 12km, 25km, 50km, 50-mile (80km), and 100-mile (160km). In retrospect, I should have probably started at the 50km course since I haven’t ever completed a trail run in my life. Oh well…

I knew that a lot of preparation would have to go into fine-tuning my mental and physical state for this race. I not only read up online about training regimens, but I also asked Jenn to share her experience and advice for running the 50-miler in order to better grasp what I was about to embark on. She added me to the Halliburton Trail Race Facebook group; a close-knit community of runners that genuinely want to help, motivate and encourage other runners. It was there where I started asking my most pressing questions, ranging from salt tablet recommendations to the awkwardly-intimate questions regarding chafing and how mama’s inner-thighs and entire chest area could be rug-burn-free during a race. I received a plethora of responses and decided to follow up with quite a few of the recommendations provided by the group.

A month before the race, I committed to a long run one day a week while continuing my streak of 5 miles/8km per day 6 of the other days. The first weekend I ran 23km, the second I ran 30km, and the last weekend I completed 42.2km (a full marathon). I felt prepared, but also completely ambivalent simultaneously. Numerous sources kept reiterating how different trail running was from road running and naturally, I became worried that I wouldn’t be physically prepared for the terrain-related obstacles that the Halliburton Forest would produce.

I was worried about this race all summer, and race day creeped up on me surprisingly quickly. I rushed around all day and arrived to pick-up my race kit around 7:00pm. When I checked in at the B&B 20 minutes down the road, I laid out my clothes and gear and set my alarm for 4:00am. I passed out as soon as I hit the pillow, exhausted from my own paranoia. Before I knew it, the alarm went off and it was time to get ready. My first stop was to get coffee and down it as fast as I could; however, this was not for the reason you may initially think. Getting my caffeine intake was secondary to a more pressing motivation: I needed bowel movements asap. Gross? Maybe, but you know what’s grosser? Shitting your pants on the trail. Just kidding, but seriously, emptying my system prior to the race was one less issue I got to avoid during the race. With that horrific image in mind (sorry), I ended up downing 3 cups of coffee whilst trying to remember the million other things I needed to do before I left. These tasks included, but were not limited to, ensuring I had my handheld water bottle, salt tablets, energy chews, phone case, sunscreen, KT tape that I literally tapped all over my chest, back and nipples to avoid chafing, my drop bag and change of clothes that my girlfriend so graciously promised to deliver at one of the aid stations, and most importantly, since I would be running for almost an hour in pitch black, my tiny handheld flashlight.

I quickly scoffed down an almond butter sandwich, banana, and G2, and then proceeded to be out the door swiftly by 5:00am. My amazing girlfriend, Alicia, was once again right there by my side at an ungodly hour, driving my ass to yet another race without any complaints. When I arrived at the forest, it was freezing – like, nipples protruding through my tape freezing. It was 6°, but I stayed in the restaurant that was open to runners to keep warm until we had to make our way to the start line. Of course, I had to pee twice beforehand and while waiting in line for the restroom, I was able to meet another runner who indicated that she was running her first 50-miler as well. She was decked out in some suave-looking running gear and said she had done quite a few trail runs before. Hearing this was a bit deflating, as I hadn’t completed any trail runs prior.

As we made our way to the start line, it was only a matter of minutes before we took off on a long, unexpected, and hopefully bowel-movement-free journey. I handed Alicia my sweater, plugged in my audiobook and told myself to GO SLOW. Slow typically isn’t in my vocabulary when it comes to racing. As aforementioned, I typically push myself so hard that I’ve become accustomed to the sensation of puking once I complete a race. However, I needed to shift my mentality, breaking the cycle of vomit-familiarity (hope you aren’t eating while reading this blog post, because if so, then yikes…sorry). I for sure couldn’t maintain a 4’30/km pace running 80 kilometres and who knows what the trails would bring.

As the shot went off, I felt a sense of relief that my long journey through the woods was finally commencing. The first 6 kilometers was flat on a gravel road, but soon after, we turned into the woods that was full of rocks, hills, mud patches, and sticks; all obstacles that I was not used to, and could 100% break my ankles. I allowed myself to walk up all hills then proceeded to run on flat-ish surfaces. My pace was pretty decent to start – I was hitting a range of 5’22 – 5’52/km, but when I was deep in the forest it immediately dropped to 6’38, and then down to7’19/km. Screenshot pull from Strava below:

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I honestly was not expecting this and cursed myself for not coming up in August for the training run or at the very least, completing any sort of trail run! I was using my road runners and was constantly slipping on soft ground or rocks. I could have definitely used the traction…I told myself that I needed to continue running really slow unsure of how my body would keep up with such a tough terrain over 80 kilometers.

I found myself in a pack of around 4 people and trailed closely behind the girl that was leading the pack. Walking up hills, and then maintaining a slow jog on flatter ground. At around 16k, I felt a wave of panic as my ankle completely rolled over and I found myself hobbling for about 5 minutes. Luckily, the pain subsided and I felt back to normal after the next kilometer.

Through that forested area, I found myself tripping quite a few times. Not enough to fall (just yet), but enough to scare the shit out of me. When I hit the first aid station (AS2), I was so happy to see my friend Joanna, who was volunteering. I can’t even begin to tell you how reassuring it was to see a familiar face out there – a little spur of comfort and motivation flushed over me. I grabbed a few bananas, refilled my water and carried on pretty quickly.

I couldn’t believe how brutal the trails were. My legs were already feeling sore from all the uphill climbs, causing me to stress over how I would be able to complete 80 kilometers. The longest I’ve ever run before was 50 kilometers…on the road. Reflecting on the spurts of wisdom I read in the Facebook group (such as, “if you’re really hurting, you’re pushing yourself too hard”), I slowed down my pace significantly.

I was listening to another thriller audiobook, which I wasn’t really into, but found the narrator’s voice reassuring in a sense. After I hit the 30k mark, the trails flattened out and the runners started spacing apart. I was about 500m ahead or behind another runner at all times and passing the odd one every so often, and vice versa.

Then the strangest thing happened..I did a complete 180 and found myself actually enjoying the trails. A little smile even began to emerge as I ran mile after mile. I felt like I was really in my element and understood why ultra runners were obsessed with trail running. Being able to walk uphill gave my body the needed rest to continue. I never experienced that before; for all the years I’ve been running and racing, I’ve never once stopped to walk. If I was tired, I had simply slowed my pace down.

I passed the next aid station (A6) and grabbed some PB&J sandwiches on white bread and a few 1/4 pieced of banana and continued to the 40k turnaround point. I tried to avoid looking at my watch too often or the kilometres would crawl by. Instead, I focused on being present, becoming cognitive of my breathing, and my book. I listened intently to my body, as it was very vocal regarding how hard I was pushing it.

From my experience running marathons, I knew that my body gets really tight and sore, but then it will pass and I’ll have a second, third, and sometimes fourth wind. I felt more equipped with this knowledge that the pain wouldn’t last forever, and lo and behold, I ended up being right. There would be 10-15 minutes where my body would ache and scream at me to stop, but thenit would pass, leaving me feeling light and nimble.

I noticed that there were only a few other runners that were ahead of me and only one other girl. I was surprised by this, but once again, also worried that perhaps my pace was too quick. I did feel an ease of comfort though knowing what the trail would bring. I was half way there and knew that my goal was just to finish.

Before I knew it, I hit the 50k mark, arrived at the next aid station and pounded back some more food; this time I had a whole peanut butter and jam sandwich on white bread, bananas, energy balls, and watermelon. No matter how much I ate, I knew that I would have a significant calorie deficit. I tried to eat as much as I could at each aid station, but struggled stomaching too much food. I was very diligent about slowly sipping water with the Nuun salt tablets aiming to refill my bottle at each aid station.

One extremely important part of running and ultra marathon is getting enough salt. Exercise Associated Hyponatremia is caused by a sodium deficit and consuming excess water could potentially be fatal. This phenomenon typically happens to ultra runners after the 50 kilometer mark. The loss of sodium causes the body to lose the ability to absorb water and increases the total body water, resulting in blood sodium levels to be reduced.

I luckily didn’t experience any sort of dehydration and it was only one stretch between two aid stations where I ran out of water about a kilometer or two before the next one. I broke the last 40k into bite-sized 10k chunks and found that kilometers passed quickly. After I passed the 60k mark, my body felt surprisingly good, but my legs started feeling increasingly heavier.

I was not looking forward to going back into the forest that was full of puddles of mud, branches and sticks, and endless hills. The first 15-20k of the run was the worst. There were parts where I literally felt like I was hiking up a mountain. It was between the 60-70k mark where my running started to become sloppy. I tripped over numerous branches, which caused me to wobble and stagger a little bit, looking like your drunk aunt at Christmas dinner. The heavy legs combined with the rocky, rough terrain caused me to fall flat on my face twice. The first was a hard fall face-first into a puddle of mud, bad-sitcom style. It was at this point that I was miles and miles away from any other runners. I was completely alone. I peeled myself off the ground and tried to remove a bit of the mud that was now caked on to the front of my body, and then continued on my way. A few minutes later I stopped seeing the trail markers and in a panic felt completely lost. A surge of anxiousness sifted through me while I was scurrying around trying to find the trail. I started getting really worried…I hadn’t seen another runner for miles and I was running low on water. I had no idea where I was, was I going to be lost forever? Would this be another sequel to the Blair Witch Project? A few seconds later, I saw that bright orange flag and felt a huge sigh of relief.

I came out of the woods looking like a gorilla bush woman when I approached the next aid station. My audiobook had now finished and I switched over to music. Never spending more than 1 minute at an aid station, I quickly refilled my water bottle and continued on my way. I had reeled in about four runners between the 40-70k mark and hadn’t seen any other runners pass me since the half way point.

The kilometers started to pass by slowly and in my head, I was determined to finish. Despite falling in the mud and ripping my tights, I still felt positive. I was really enjoying this run..much more than a marathon, despite it being almost double the distance. I knew that the course would flatten out soon enough and then it would be just a few more easy miles before I crossed the finish line. But before that, I tripped over yet another branch and landed flat on the ground again, scrapping my hands. The terrain was soft and it was uphill so the impact wasn’t too bad. I was pissed though, and the gorilla-bush woman fully emerged again; I found myself literally yelling and cursing the stupid course while alone in the woods. Not my finest moment.

Soon enough I was at 75k with only 5k left! I was ecstatic to almost finish. Then I approached two entrances to the trails both marked with orange flags with no indiction on which route to take. Out loud, I literally shouted:”What the hell?” Similar to when I was in the woods, I began to panic that I didn’t know where I was goinng. There were no runners to follow, no volunteers directing me in the right direction. So I continued running straight for about a half a kilometer. before I approached a woman who had finished the 12km trail run earlier. She told me that I had to go back and go LEFT. I was so grateful that I ran into her, turned around and headed back. I was approximately 3 kilometers from the finish when this happened, and so this little hiccup could have set me back quite a bit.

Before I knew it, the finish line was in sight. The crowds were not the 100s of people I was used to at a marathon; rather, there was a small turnout of about 15 people. I crossed the finish line, and immediately ran to the table with the bagels. I downed a bottle of orange juice and a full bagel with cream cheese and jam. It was stale, but tasted like heaven.

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Bagel and OJ Consumption post-race

I was surprised how good I felt. My body was sore, but I wasn’t met with the same physically-sick sensation encompassing marathon runs. I felt much more stable, like I had just returned from a long hike in the woods rather than a 50-mile race.

My official chip time was 8:52:30. I finished second place female, and 8th overall.

Would I do it again? Hell yeah! I learned a lot about myself throughout the duration of the race and can’t wait for the next one. However, I will make sure I invest in both training shoes and a greater-awareness of the terrain next time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 Comment

  1. Emily, thank you SO much for sharing your experience! I really enjoyed reading it. I look forward to reading and following your next trail adventure! x
    Laurie
    laurie_runs

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