2016 World Trail Championships in Portugal: Still Smiling, Still Foolish

On my first step, I fell in love with Porto. Jet-lagged, disoriented, it didn’t matter. Porto totally seduced me at any time of day. This was totally unexpected, as I had just come initially as a stopping point to run the race.

When we were introduced to Peneda Geres National Park on Wednesday before the race, it did not disappoint. On the northern Portuguese border with Spain, this park is full of ancient forts and ruins, tiny little villages, and lush green valleys capped with rocky granite formations. The running was a delight and full of surprises at each corner.

For the few days leading up to the race, we stayed in this area called Bom Jesus do Monte that was literally a sanctuary. Local Portuguese and tourist pilgrims hike up to Bom Jesus to visit the churches and the beautiful Baroque steps (which Julien uses to Strava-race) above Braga. I was lucky to hang out in this sanctuary with the 2016 Canadian team: Cassie Smith, Mallory Richard, Beverley Anderson-Abbs, David Jeker, Darren Seaman, Sebastien Roulier, & Roy Kok.

Last year I ran at the World Trail Championships in Annecy, and I became so nervous that it crippled me. This year, my plan going into this race was to just be confident, and pretend I was running an adventure run with Tara. I removed all stress, expectation and doubt and in their void came fun. Actually, pure joy! The first 55km of the race were pure joy, running through this beautiful park with inspiring runners from all over the world.

Of course, ultras are full of challenges. My big challenge came at kilometer 55, when the heat finally got to me and just roasted me alive. The race was 10 degrees hotter than expected, and a white girl without heat training does not thrive in an oven. (Always heat train!) It sounds strange that 55km could seem breezy and then suddenly, every step forward can take all of your might. But that’s what happened. Fortunately, quitting was not an option for me on this day, so I made tiny little goals. My goal was to get to the next water station 5km away. And when that seemed too far, my goal was to get to the next stream where I could cool off for 5 minutes. When the stream wasn’t appearing like an oasis, the goal became: get to the next trickle of water where I can dunk my hat. Eventually, I came out the other end of this suffering and finished the last 75-85km with a sense of happiness, gratitude and pure joy. Yes, 190th place and in the dark, but still, full of joy.

Beautiful Northern Portugal

Another amazing photo by Nadine Marie.

Thank you to everyone who made this experience possible for me. The wonderful people in Portugal, my team, our crew, and my sponsor RunGo. Until next time, Portugal! Keep it unbelievable…

Link to race results

Link to event Facebook page

2015 World Trail Running Championships: my first DNF

Hey there! If reading isn’t your thing, cut to the chase and check out my photo journal from Worlds. Otherwise, only read this if you’re interested in making a national team, interested in what it’s like to have a bad day running for that national team, or, in the case that I paid you to be my friend in miles, of course. Here’s my tale.

Saturday, around 7am in Annecy, France.

I’m running at the World Trail Championships, and instead of flying like a pterodactyl up and down mountains as I envisioned, I’m sliding backwards in gooey mud up a steep climb, going down, instead of up. An easy target for yet another Euro runner with poles. 

Getting to Worlds

You can qualify for the Canadian women’s national ultra team by running a sub-7 hour 50 miler, which can lead to selection for both the national 100k team, and the national ultra trail team. In my case, I ran the Elk / Beaver Ultras in 2014, which is 8 laps around the lake for the 50 miler. During my race, I was fuelled by a whole crew of friends who helped me reach my goal, including friends from Seattle who ran reverse laps in huge party frocks, and Ironman-inflicted friends who had biked all the way from Vancouver just to holler at me as I circled around each lap. With their help, I ran 6:58-something in my jean vest and qualified. Six months later, I got selected for the trail team, which was bound to run a beautiful course around Lake Annecy, in the French Alps. I couldn’t resist. The course was 85k in the mountains around the lake, with 5300 meters of gain and descent. It looked amazing. To help me get there, I was lucky to get supported by Bremner Foods, who have provided amazing support for my travel costs. And the best juice on earth! 

Opening ceremonies!

Opening ceremonies!

Failing At Worlds

My first time representing Canada was for the World 100k Championships in Qatar, which was a mediocre performance I was really hungry to improve this time. At the start line, while jammed against all the trail runners from all over the world, I told my teammate Alissa… let’s make up for Qatar! And while I meant well, I didn’t know what was ahead. In retrospect, my mistakes are so clear and easily avoided… 

Race start.

Race start.

Early Signs of Self Doubt

I was in and out of the first aid station at Montagnue Du Semnoz in seconds flat, excited for the first descent. Downhills are always my strength, and I was excited to gain on people here. But I wasn’t flying away from people. I found myself traveling down the hill, at average pace, and with a lot of effort. I actually couldn’t wait for it to end, but I still had a thousand meters to descend— on this descent alone. I still had more than 4,000 meters to descend ahead of me! I was scared, and my composure started to crumble. I started to beat myself up for not being faster. One girl even had time to make out with a guy on the sidelines, then hop back on the course in front of me, which didn’t help.

The second climb to Col de la Cochette was steep, and muddy. At times I would slide down backwards, as girls with poles would dig in and fly by me up the hill. The negative talk continued as these Euros climbed the hills way faster, leaning into their poles and flying up the hill. Power hiking isn’t my strength, but I can usually swing it when I have a positive attitude. And here I was, clinging to the grass on the side of the trail, trying to power hike thousands of meters with a doubting attitude. I started to wonder what I was doing here, why Tara wasn’t here instead of me, and I couldn’t find any good reasons. 

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The course.

The Downward Spiral

And while I battled myself, I forgot to take care of myself. I guess I’m used to races with shorter distances between aid stations, where my boyfriend will bar me from leaving until he sees me devour a sandwich. 

But at Worlds, I had large swaths of time alone, eating a bit of dried mango here and there, but nowhere near the rate my body needed to propel me. Instead of focusing on eating every thirty minutes, like I normally do, I was focused on doubting my abilities, questioning my reason for ultra-running in general, and entertaining questions about life purpose. In this weird, cynical dialogue, I got way behind on calories. The bars I homemade for this race? Didn’t want a bite of them! I ate a few pieces of mango and delved into my deeper, self-doubting conversation. 

And as the thoughts got worse, the thought of remembering to eat seemed less important, I was sucking anyway. Sadly, I was on a downward spiral. Not eating enough led to more negative dialogue, which led to less eating, and more mental sabotage. 

I finally arrived at the aid station two, at 44K, and I already wanted to drop. Since a brief fun moment with Alissa and Mel around 12k, I hadn’t had another positive, even neutral moment since. But when I saw our team crew, I couldn’t admit to them that I already wanted to drop. They were still encouraging me in race mode, so I grabbed a piece of bread and cheese and left, uncertain whether I felt good enough to make it to the next station.

Alicia France

Down, Down, Down

The next parts of the race are a blur. There were some huge climbs, some steep descents, and a lot of general wanting it to end. It was bizarre: I was seeing the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen, alpine valleys with goats and huge jagged peaks and wonderful cheering French women, but I couldn’t shake my downward spiral. At some point, Alissa passed me moving really well, and I told her that I was thinking of dropping. I was now the 5th and last Canadian woman, I wasn’t adding any points to the team, (only top three times count toward the overall team time) and I wasn’t having fun. I couldn’t find any reason to continue. 

Around 55K, after more and more negative thoughts about ultra-running, I decided I needed to bow out. But there were still 15 long mountain kilometers to go until the aid station. I didn’t know how to drop otherwise, so I walked the 15K to the aid station. I spent the next two and a half hours death marching downhill, looking for other ways to drop, and finding none. 

At 70k, I told the team that I was dropping, and this time it was easy because I hadn’t eaten enough to continue, anyway. The team was absolutely supportive. They offered me the idea of finishing the last 15K as a “nice walk in the mountains”, with no pressure for any time whatsoever. At this point, I knew it wouldn’t be a “fun walk”, because I hadn’t eaten anything during the prolonged 15K death march. I dropped, and was welcomed off the course by our crew, Kevin, Ryne, and Hamish, making things end before they got way worse.

I was lucky to eventually complete that last climb, but on a different day, with my sister Melissa and with Alissa. We had a beautiful day on the last section, and I was so lucky to make it up there finally!

Awesome day out after the race on the last climb, Mt Veyrier. Photo courtesy Alissa St. Laurent.

The ridgeline after the last climb on the course. Photo courtesy Alissa St Laurent.

Oh, the Lessons… 

What separated the winners in Annecy, was their attitude. The eventual winner, Nathalie Mauclair doesn’t even live near mountains, and to help she used mental training to prepare for the race. Meanwhile third place finisher Maite Maiora ran with a broken bone on Saturday.

I learned the hard way, the importance of being kind and patient during big goals, that bring tough challenges. With more self-compassion earlier in the race, I would have helped myself stay focused on the simple necessities, things like eating, and putting one foot in front of another, smiling and taking myself a little more lightly. I think this applies beyond running, and to life as well. If we really put ourselves out there for something big, we will be in deep, well above our heads, and it’s so easy to get frustrated and overwhelmed when we don’t see the results right away. But results take time, especially when we set an audacious goal that challenges us to the (current) limit. The only way to make it up to that huge goal, is to progressively work through it with small steps, and respect the process. One day, we’ll surely achieve that goal, but if it’s an audacious goal, it may take 10 years. This, I forgot in Annecy, when I expected top performance at Worlds at my first rodeo. 

I also learned the value of my normal approach, of running for fun, first and foremost. As soon as I made this race super competitive, I lost my usual guts, drive, and determination. I love to run for the adventure, and for me, the results come from there. I briefly forgot that in Annecy, and I lost my special power that day.

Also, I’m convinced that a mid-race French ice cream sundae intervention may have been a game changer.

ice cream french style

Merci, mon Amis!

I want to thank all of my teammates who raced hard, to our team manager Ryne, who kept us laughing for the whole week in France, and to our awesome crew— Stacey, Tiffany, Hamish, Kevin, Bob who flew all the way from Canada on their own dime to support their loved ones. I’d also like to thank Bremner’s Foods for supporting my journey, and for making damn-good berries, juices and wines without compromising on your values. I’d also like to thank french wine, fondue and sunshine and the beautiful Lake Annecy for an amazing trip. 

Overall, I had an amazing experience and I’ll for sure be back to run the same course and complete the beautiful traverse!

lake annecy

 

Photo Journal from 2015 IAU World Trail Running Championships

I wrote a big long race report about my experience in Annecy and the World Trail Running Championships, but I think it would be more fun right now to show some pictures that make me really happy when I look at them. Although it wasn’t my day out there on Saturday (I DNF’d at 70km), my experience at the event was really positive. These photos capture my experience other than the 12 (?) hours out on the course!

Team Canada

Team Canada was a fun team and I enjoyed every moment of our captivity together in the race lodgings. The team really had my back this year, and I’m excited to return the favour to them!

I ❤ Annecy

Annecy blew my mind… it’s beautiful old town, its crystal clear lake, its breathtaking and relentless mountains, and its friendly people…

 Post Race Chilling

It was really easy to relax in Annecy after the race, thanks to team mountain-top sleeping, hilarious gargantuan desserts, and fondue & wine sessions with my sister. Post-race chilling photos courtesy my sister, Melissa!

Thank you to my Bremner’s Team for supporting my journey to get to the event, and for making damn-good berries, juices and wines without compromising on your values.

My First Road Ultra: 2014 IAU World 100k in Doha, Qatar

On September 30, I got selected as one of the last team members to represent Canada for the World 100k, after running a 50 miler under the qualifying time of 7 hours at Elk / Beaver in May. The race was in 7 weeks, and it would be held on roads in a country I had never seen before in Doha, Qatar.  Although I hadn’t done any road running in two years and didn’t expect to thrive in a hot climate, I accepted quickly.

My life... Takes weird turns.

My life… Takes weird turns.

Training Adventure

And so began the conversion of a wild, arguably un-coachable forest runner. In the weeks before this, my “run training” consisted of adventures like canoeing to Anvil Island then run/hiking to the peak and back, or running and canoeing from Porteau Cove to Whistler. (Not a good idea.) Now suddenly, my runs became more structured, planned, timed. It was a big change, but it was the only way I could fathom showing up to an event for Canada, and an event I had never done before, by getting really OCD with the time I had. The race would entail twenty 5k loops on tile and tarmac, so I became obsessed with “scenic flat loops”. I ran Victoria’s Elk / Beaver Lake, Burnaby Lake, Beaver Lake. I found myself running a tempo run, 70 laps of a track on a Tuesday night.

This is what I wore heat training on the treadmill.

This is what I wore heat training on the treadmill.

In hindsight, I was acting rather nervous. It was going to be my first ultra on the road, and I figured it would be completely different from trail running, so I threw out my usual fun runs and hastily replaced them with a “plan”. I started doing 40-50k tempo runs, and the week before I left, I heat trained every day. I ran in full-on ski clothes on a treadmill, I sat in steam rooms for an hour at a time, and on one occasion, I got to run in a climate chamber at Doha’s exact conditions, thanks to some old friends. My work was amazing for letting me train when I needed to, and so were Julien, Mike, Tara and Nancy for joining me on some of the “fun”. These poor souls ran more laps than they could have ever predicted. Tara even did a heat training session with me for no reason!

Doha Meets Redhead Wearing Shorts 

The 100k organizers said it was okay for us to wear shorts in the race, even though it’s typically less than ideal for women to strut around in shorts in a Muslim country. I was doing great, wearing long black pants during the day, until one day I really screwed it up. When Julien and I arrived to our first hotel, we thought it would be fun to go for a gallop toward the crazy downtown skyline, which looks very Vegas-inspired. I waltzed out of the elevator in my typical hot weather gear– a tank top and shorts– completely forgetting that the rules also applied to running before the event. I didn’t get farther than the exit before putting a whole group of men into complete shock. They walked into the elevator toward me, and completely jumped, exclaimed something loudly, and smiled at me. It was like they had seen a naked woman covered in gold foil and handing out free flights.

Being good with full length pants!

Being good with full length pants!

Other than that, for most of the time leading up to the event I experienced a very sheltered lifestyle, holed up in a 5-star called the Torch Hotel, which served as the athlete’s village in the Aspire Zone. Julien and I had the weirdest daily routine at this point in time. We worked remotely through the night, our office a room where we could change the colour of the walls to suit our mood. At sunrise, we packed it up for the day, ate breakfast buffet, made friends, and then slept through the day. Come evening, we woke up and had dinner with athletes from all over the world, went for a run, and went back to work, into the night.*
*one day I slept double while Julien worked.

This is the crazy hotel we stayed at, Torch Hotel. You must go stay there! It's insane!

This is the crazy hotel we stayed at, Torch Hotel. You must go stay there! It’s insane!

The Canadian Team

My favourite part of this race was getting to know runners from all over the world, and getting to team up with a crew of inspiring people from my own country. I met our team manager Armand, women’s teammates Alissa, Dennene, and Kiriam, and men’s teammates Oleg, Dave, and Sebastien. They were all very inspiring people, some with kids to raise, one who didn’t start running until his 40’s, and all of them tough weirdos who train all winter in places like Edmonton, Calgary and Quebec. Although I’m a bit introverted and probably whined at some of the group photo shoots, I felt really lucky to hang around these guys for the week.

Team Canada for 2014 IAU World 100K

Team Canada for 2014 IAU World 100K

The Support Crew

I’m not sure how it all came to be, but I was able to recruit my sister, my boyfriend, and my friend Orso, to cheer and support me in Qatar. (!!) My sister Melissa came from England in a heartbeat. Meanwhile, Orso happened to be living and working there, including some work on the event I would be running. And Julien is just always up for an adventure, especially sports competition environments, and willing to work from Qatar to make it happen. These guys cheered for me throughout the race, and Julien/Melissa even joined Jelena as the Team Canada crew, helping all the Canadian runners every lap at the team’s own aid table. All together, we had Armand, Jelena, Julien, Melissa, and Orso to help us run laps through the night.

I also had a huge digital support crew from my work, RunGo. RunGo’s founder, Craig, was a huge supporter of this goal, sponsoring me to attend, encouraging me throughout training, and granting me tons of time off for the race. They were also leading tons of digital cheering during the event, and probably knew my pace even before I did!

The Race

Although I knew the heat wasn’t going to be my thing, the late race start-time sure was. At 6pm, I feel amazing for running, and I was excited to have a really chill day of zen before the run. My day consisted of sleeping until noon, changing the colour of the walls to green, visiting with my sister, and drinking coffee, and then some fun warm-up activities at the big indoor track & field stadium.

The race course actually looked pretty sweet when I first checked it out, dropping my food and water off at our team aid station. Palm trees were lit up in pink, camels were hanging out on plots of imported sand at the start, and a bunch of interesting tarps were set up, which we would get to run under.

Looks pretty sweet, right? This is right before the race.

Looks pretty sweet, right? This is right before the race.

We all gather over to the start line, and I took one last glimpse across the crowd to see Melissa and Julien, the last I’ll see them until the aid station. The race gets underway, and I start out doing a pace I think is about right by feel. (Everyone seems to have a watch on, but I figured I didn’t need one.) Luckily, I seem to be running the same pace as my teammate Alissa, which is awesome. I think to myself, how cool it would be to run the whole race and help each other! A couple laps go by, and I can already feel the heat making me feel subtly trapped, like I’m back in the sauna in Vancouver.

Maybe I shouldn’t have started out running beside Pam Smith.

I felt great for those first three laps, running free, without a watch. But by lap four, with only 20k in the bank, I could tell I was going to struggle today. I was already feeling strained, forcing it, not talking and laughing as much as I should that early. I’d see Ellie on the out and back sections, and I could tell she was way more relaxed, to the point she looked like she was out on a run, not a race. She was giving me lengthy advice as she’d go by, and chatting with the other women like a Sunday run, actively conserving. But I didn’t want to believe it.

And then this happened…

My sister, Melissa, at her first ultra. Yayyy

My sister, Melissa, at her first ultra. Yayyy

Let me backup.

Starting lap five, my pace progressively deteriorated from 23 minute range 5k laps, to 24, 25, 27, and by lap ten, 30… 33… 35! As I predicted, I hit a really weird physical state. At first I became dizzy and lightheaded, even though I was eating. Eventually, I became really nauseous. I was unable to eat anymore, and I started taking long breaks to cover myself in a cold towel every lap. I kept thinking about just making it around the next lap, and then I could sit and drape that cold towel all over myself once again. Finally, I puked mid-way into a lap. The worst part of it all is that my teammates were also suffering, even more than I was. Both Alissa and Dennene suffered from the get go, and there was a lot more nausea involved.

My splits from the run, highlighted in blue, are pretty funny. (Funny now, less so then!)

Highlighted are the splits around puking.

Highlighted are my favourite moments of the run, puking.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At this point, I started to see how it’s really done, as the first lead females came back to lap. Just as the best runners had held back earlier, I could tell they were only just starting to get serious now. Ellie flew by me on my 9th lap, and she had only just switched into race mode.

After dealing with my nausea, I felt the sensation of enjoying to run again, which was extremely uplifting. (See split around lap 15!) I started to think that maybe I could turn this around entirely. I wondered, could I get back down to 25 minute laps? I was totally motivated to try, but this only lasted a few minutes. Before long, my entire body started cramping, shooting pains unlike anything I had felt before. The new goal was just don’t walk / at least pick it up a bit when you see your supporters, who flew all this way. And even though my race wasn’t going to plan, I found enjoyment in sharing the experience with the very best runners that day, which will inspire me for a long time. Specifically, I will always remember watching Max and Ellie powering through their last laps.

Finally I found myself on lap 18, 19, 20. Those last few were as tough as I imagined, and I had to play mind games, visualizing each kilometer to make it through. Except for the last one. At kilometer 99 I was handed the Canadian flag, and it gave me this amazing energy. It was a unique experience, and one I hope to earn again.

Alicia Doha Finish Line

After wobbling in and out of the ice bath, I watched the rest of my female teammates come into safety, Kiriam not far after me, and then Dennene, and then the sunrise. And just like every other day, we finished the day of work with a breakfast buffet, before hitting the hay, a hard day’s work all done.

Doha's downtown skyline

Doha’s downtown skyline

Here are some links to peruse!

  • Overall results here.
  • Ellie’s race report here.
  • iRunFar’s race report here.
  • Wikipedia link – IAU 100K history here.
  • Let’s go next year… here!