My first Mountain Ultra

Short Intro

I have always been drawn to mountains, long before I got to experience them. They always symbolized strength, courage, greatness to me; the ultimate challenge and reward. Running mountains was something I never though I could do, it looked crazy, and I seriously thought that people doing that were somewhat different. I remember messaging a friend I knew was running mountain ultras inquiring about that particular activity, basically asking “what is wrong with you?”.

Recently,  I participated in my first mountain ultramarathon – Trailstoke on Revelstoke on the 30th of August. As it took place already a few months ago, some details are blurred and lost, but the impression remains deep and strong in my head.

Before the Race

And there it is.. the evening before the race. I contemplate hard what to eat, and what not to eat, what gear to take with me, and setting five alarm clocks not to oversleep. The start is at 6am, and for me the major headache is to figure out how long do I need for the coffee to kick in. That night I barely slept – the excitement mixed with anxiety enriched with noises in loud backpackers and lack of air. I wake up a few minutes before my alarm clock – 4:30AM short of air, and feeling weirdly alert. I quickly make some breakfast and stuff my cereal with coffee with little enthusiasm – I know I need to get a good breakfast and that’s what I am trying to do.

I rush out into the silence of cool night’s air, and feel much better. I stand on an empty intersection in Revelstoke waiting for my ride. A few girls I met the other day nicely agreed to give me a ride to the race site. Great help indeed. Good to feel some support before such challenges.

I do not feel ready and have no idea how this will go. I pass through the quick gear check-up; we need to have a beanie, rain jacket and some water. And here I am standing at the start line. It’s dark and misty, and warmer than I expected. I quickly remove a layer, and dump the gear out with the same awesome girl, who gave me a ride. I have my 5th visit to the loo in half an hour, and step back to the start line.

The Race

And then they start counting, and we’re off. Everyone starts running into the mist, and it’s amazingly succinct and quiet. Complete silence just rhythmical beat through wet grass and moist ground. My head is clear, and I let the rhythm of the group pull me forward. The leaders of the pack  separate after the first few kilometers, and the pack spreads out a bit. I am running with a small group of men. This helps me a lot. I do not know how to pace myself in long distance runs yet, and having someone for reference makes it easier and more relaxing.

The Trailstoke race course
Trailstoke2015 Race course; taken from the 5Peaks website.

The first aid station is after 15 km of sustained uphill; we run most of it, and I leave my rain jacket at the top of it – it’s way warmer than anticipated. I do not take any food or water, and proceed running. Here I learn than I’m running as the first female. This completely overwhelms me, and gives some encouragement that I can actually do this, and am holding the right pace.

I start talking with the people around me and I learn more about the sports they do, and the races they have participated in. Each and everyone seems to be highly passionate about running and mountains, and it’s a pleasure to listen to their stories, experiences and passions.

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Last meters of climb before reaching the ridge. Photo credit: Bruno Long

We pass comfortable sustained uphill gravel roads,  swampy forest sections, and as the road continues to climb up – we start to rise above the bush line on a steep rocky path, and all the magnificent mountain beauty unfolds before our eyes. Suddenly all the struggle is worth it, and I completely forget it’s a race.

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All fatigue disappears once in the alpine; breath of fresh air, and some soul food of mountain beauty. Photo credit: Bruno Long

We get to see the race leaders on their way back – the last 3.5km are to be backtracked. The ground is very uneven, and I am starting to feel the effect of the last more than 20km of sustained climbing. My legs feel a bit wobbly, and the lack of a defined path requires more effort. “Lets stop at the turnaround point for some food and rest” – we agree with Pete, the guy, I’ve been running the last 10km with. Once, I finally reach the turnaround point – half of the race is completed, and it should be mainly downhill from hereon!

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Magnificent ridge we got to enjoy after a long climb. Photo credit: Bruno Long

I start running back, and again fail to stop for a food/water break I promised myself. I take out a Bounce protein ball, and try to chew it, but can only manage a bite; it feels chewy, and dry, I stuff half of it into my front pocket, have a few sips of water and start running again.

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On the way back; feeling the elevation of the run. Photo credit: Bruno Long

After the turning point, the route back-tracks the same alpine tussock, and dives steeply down the rocky path. I see people running forward, and know how far ahead of them I am. Some of the people in the crowd look unusually fresh and energetic – those are the relay runners, and it’s their 10th km max.

At this point I realize that I have barely eaten anything, and that my water is finished. I did not stop to fill up at the first two aid stations, and hence now I have to deal with devastating feeling of dehydration. Still have a few km to go until the next aid station, and am starting to suffer severely. Pete and I start talking about life and racing, and he encourages me to keep on pushing – surprisingly, I am still the lead female in this epic race. I tell him about my water shortage, and he generously  gives me a sip of his remaining water, telling me that my crazy debut inspired him. It is incredible to receive such kindness in this intensity, and it gives me a lot of strength and encouragement.

I finally reached the third aid station at kilometer 33, filled up my water, and started moving forward. The hoped-for downhill salvation was not there. After 15 minutes of running upwards, I realized that I haven’t seen any people for a while, and I immediately got paranoid that I took a wrong turn somewhere. I knew that Pete had to be just a minute or two ahead of me, so I started shouting for him, but could not get through. I kept on running forward almost praying to see someone which I did – a man far behind me, and I finally got the grand salvation -after crossing a large alpine meadow, the road finally started dropping down. Fighting with massive winds I took out my music player, and started making long quick steps down.

20 km to go, and it should be easy from now on. But of course, things cannot be all that smooth; a severe injury I had a few months ago wakes up, and my right knee is screaming in pain – every step pierces me through. I intensify the stride, and stop occasionally to recover from pain. “The sooner I complete the race, the sooner the pain stops” – I reason. As I keep on, I alternate my strides, trying to minimize  the pain, and spend  most of the time compensating with my left leg – making longer, stronger steps. Pain makes me a bit delirious, and I  have a small cry to myself. First – from happiness that I am able to do this, and then – from intense pain and this unfortunate circumstance. There is no one around, and surprisingly, no females are yet to pass me. However, around 10-15 km remaining until the finish line, I see Miranda approaching me – the first person I saw in half an hour or so. I ask her if she might have some tape; I am hoping to tie my knee. She immediately stops, despite the fact that I am her competition; takes out some tape, and hands it to me. I try to repair my leg, but the tape does not stick to my sweaty legs. I thank her, and tell that she is now the first female. She looks surprised, and we exchange quick best wishes, before she strides away.

I keep on stumbling down, until I reach the last stretches of a forest single track. Another excellent racer – James, running in a relay, catches up with me, and we spend the last few kilometers until the finish line running on an easy stride talking about mountaineering and climbing. He tells me that he already won against a friend of his, and so does not mind running with me with a slightly slower stride.

100 meters away from the finish line, I gather all my strength, and start a fast sprint – Finish ! as a second female !!! It’s only then I realize that the third girl was just behind me, and if I hadn’t spontaneously started sprinting the last stretch, I would have probably lost my place. Forgot to look over my shoulder :/.

The Race is finished, and I feel overwhelmed, partly due to pain, partly due to intensity; cannot believe this actually happened, and cannot believe I get to walk away with the 2nd overall female position in the most challenging run of my life.

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Awards ceremony: Miranda takes the first place, while I am celebrating my second place.

Miranda and her friends invite me over to have an ice bath and showers at her friends’ place, and we later head to dinner and reception, where we all sit in a friendly happy union.

The race was a very unique and meaningful experience for me. I have learned so much as a runner and a human; suddenly boundaries in my life got removed in almost magic way. I endured crazy pain, and was able to keep on moving, I ran the longest distance in my life, and realized I can be strong. It’s a very empowering feeling to face such a massive challenge, and cope with it. I now feel I can trust myself, and I know there are no boundaries.

I know I still have to learn tons about racing and training for ultras, nutrition, pacing, recovery and rest, but this post is not about practicalities, it’s about making a dive and having one of the best rides of your life. Before this race, I only tried running more than 15 km 5-7 times, and have only been trail running for a few months, but managed to do this.

This experience has been a lot about people for me. It did not feel like a competition, but more like celebration of strength and endurance – united group of mountain lovers out there in a great intense experience. I hope my path will cross again with these magnificent people.

Finally, thank you Bruno Long for capturing all this amazing event with his excellent photography; it is so amazing to see all this in pictures.

Wish you all lots of awesome running 🙂

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