But first – serious question: how has it been over a month since my first 50k? And how is it less than 3 months until Squamish?
This race report is a little overdue but I think the day is so well seared into my memory that this should still be a pretty accurate account.
I would like to give this race and its volunteers a solid A+ for excellent organization. We arrived at the Heights of Horseshoe and had no trouble finding (free!) parking right away. I headed in, grabbed my bib and race swag and then had an hour to kill before the race start. Luckily, the Heights had plenty of space to relax and kill time. I had my epic support team of my Dad and husband keeping me company and somewhat calm (?!) but was anxious to get going. I still hadn’t made a final decision on race day attire and kept waffling about whether to start the race with a jacket on. For days the forecast had been showing wind, rain and cold but race day morning felt comfortable so I opted out of the jacket at the last moment. Since the PYP 50k is a 12.5k loop course done four times, runners get the luxury of leaving a drop bag near the start/finish line aid station. I filled mine up with gels, blister shields and my discarded jacket (just in case).
Pre-race social media had informed me that the race director was out on the course the week before the race shovelling and chiseling snow and ice from the trail. Endless high fives and hugs to the race director and anyone else who helped accomplish that.
PYP is not an easy course. It’s at a ski resort in early spring so weather and conditions are a bit of a grab bag. This year we all reached in and pulled out snow, slush and mud with a healthy dose of wind. Even in beautiful conditions this is a course that keeps coming back for more. After the first 12.5k loop I remember shouting at my Dad (who was cowbelling by the finish as per awesome usual) that it was the hardest course ever. There are at least 4 major climbs, lots of steep, often slippery downhills (with bonus technical trail hazards) and a time cut off that would challenge me during the best of years. Runners have 6 hours to complete the first 3 loops and 8 hours to complete the course. After loop 1 I was already hearing the clock tick.
At the start of loop 2 I flew through the aid station stopping only to grab a few more gels from my bag and toss out empty wrappers. I headed back onto the course and, I’ll admit, was a little distracted by the too soon feeling of running from cut offs. I finished the first loop in around 1:48 but would have wanted to have created a bit of a bigger buffer at this point. I was less than a kilometre into the second loop when I noticed the girl in front of me stop, look around, and then start up again briefly before turning back to me and asking if we were going the right way.
We weren’t. We totally weren’t. I don’t know why I didn’t pick up on it earlier but as I looked around and saw no other runners I knew something was wrong. We both turned around and ran back, trying to figure out where the mistake was made. Oddly enough, I did see an orange ribbon on one of the trees and that threw me again before I realized it was older and dirty looking and probably not from the race. We made it back onto the course but I probably lost around 7 minutes and that certainly didn’t help my cut off time anxiety. I tried to speed up as best I could to make back time but there’s only so much that is going to do and, in hindsight, it may have done more harm than good. Lesson. Learned. Pay. Attention.
I don’t remember much else about loop 2 until I was about 19k in and my IT bands started acting up. Bands. Plural. Yes, both of them. Early on in my running life I struggled with IT band issues but this was the first time in almost two years that I had experienced any kind of problem. Obviously, this really worried me. After about a kilometre of this, part of my mind was telling me to drop after the second loop and the other part was just hoping it would go away.
The end of each loop takes runners down a giant snow covered ski hill and, as anyone with IT band issues knows, downhills are no fun at all. I managed to make it down and into the aid station and, although I complained to my husband and the lovely volunteers that “everything hurts”, I didn’t really think about stopping. I went out on loop 3 feeling tightness on both sides of my legs but not any actual pain. Looking back now, this should have been the first clue that my panicked brain may have misdiagnosed and/or exaggerated the issue. As I’m pretty familiar with IT band pain I know that, for me, once my IT band starts to bug me I have maybe a kilometre or two before the pain is extreme and yet, here I was 6 or 7 kilometres later dealing with discomfort and tightness more than actual pain.
The start of loop 3 wasn’t all that bad. I ended up chatting to a few other runners and to the volunteers at the first aid station (who remembered my name, what awesome people). Talking really helped take my mind off things and put me in a pretty good mood. The first 5k or so is more flat and uphill so I was relatively comfortable. The pain started back up when I hit the more significant downhill section and again it was hard to keep the negative thoughts out. I thought about quitting and worried I was doing actual harm to my IT bands. I would never advise anyone else to keep running if they thought they were doing actual damage but, here’s the thing – I was starting to realize that this wasn’t my typical IT band injury. It hurt but I could still run normally and it wasn’t getting any worse. I remember thinking that I didn’t come all this way and suffer through all the hills and descents and snow and mud just to drop out after loop 3. I knew I was cutting it close for the loop 3 cut off and I told myself that if I could get onto loop 4 before the cut off I would start and see what happens. Even if I had to hike it in, 50k is 50k.
I also really wanted that official finish. All PYP finishers get a lovely pair of finisher’s socks but it was never about the socks. I wanted an official ultra finish. When I finished loop 3, I was 10 minutes ahead of cut offs. Just 10. I never thought I’d be that close to being kicked off the course. I wasn’t in a particularly good mood at this point. I was still worried, I was exhausted and I had no appetite at all and was very under-fuelled. I remember thinking “ok, now go slay that dragon” and that was probably the most positive thought I’d had in hours.
I was only a few kilometres into loop 4 when EVERYTHING CHANGED. I’ve run enough trail races by now to know that Ontario’s trail and ultra community is made up of so many fun and friendly people who really treat this like a team sport. I ended up meeting two other runners, Rachael and Nick, early in loop 4 and, honestly, they completely turned my struggle bus around. Having someone to talk to and commiserate with is wonderful and both Rachael and Nick were friendly and encouraging as we battled that cut off time together. When my watch beeped for 43k Rachael turned around and took a picture of me at that exact moment when I became an ultra runner. How amazing is that?
I also need to thank the volunteers. The aid station one volunteers learned my name (I was too tired to properly thank them for this) and offered words of encouragement reminding me that all I had to do was run to the next aid station and then to the finish. No big deal. At the next aid station, the ladies encouraged me to eat when I said I was nauseous and made sure I left taking at least something (a sad, lonely fig newton) with me.
The last loop ended up being the most fun. Sure, I still felt terrible but, interestingly, my IT bands didn’t hurt quite as much. I was distracted by our wonderful ultra community and their support and also by the beeping on my watch. Every kilometre was suddenly a huge deal. 47. 48. 49. My watch hit 50k at the top of the final hill and I knew I had done it. I had time left and was going to make the final cut off. I ran down that mountain an ultra runner and official finisher of the PYP 50k.
The socks are wonderful, by the way. I still haven’t worn them. They are sitting on a shelf in my room and I look at them every single day.
I crossed the finish line to the sound of cheers from my fellow runners, all of whom I hadn’t met before race day. The race director handed me my socks and I think I said something along the lines of “I hate you” (in the most loving, appreciative way possible). He then reminded me that there’s a reason the logo for this race isn’t a unicorn. Fair point.
I cannot count the number of times I thought I couldn’t do this. I almost didn’t sign up for PYP because I thought there was no way I was ever going to be able to make an 8 hour cut off on a course with over 4300 ft of gain in early Spring. When I got lost, I thought it was over. When my IT bands started playing games, I figured I’d have to drop out.
And yet, I did it anyway. I have to give myself some credit for the hours and hours I spent out on snowy trails and the late nights at the gym. I became a tougher, stronger athlete because of this race.
I also learned a lot. I know now that what I was calling “IT band issues” likely wasn’t. It behaved nothing like the IT band problems I had in the past and was completely gone the next day. No trouble getting down stairs, no pain on my first run back. I am now convinced that this was more an issue of weak outer quads confusing my paranoid brain into thinking my IT band would completely give up. I’ll be stepping up my strength training to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
I’ll also be experimenting with eating differently. I had a hard time eating after loop 2 and the thought of more gels or sweet food made me nauseous. I only wanted chips and Heed. Time to reevaluate how I fuel and add more protein, fat and savoury foods.
Last but not least, this isn’t the first time I’ve had my race saved by another runner out on the trails. I call myself an introvert but nothing makes a race more fun than meeting people and supporting each other. Our community is amazing.
What I ate and drank: Uhm, not enough? Honey stinger gels, Cliff Shot Blocks, potato chips, an Oreo cookie, a fig newton, some (very dry) pretzels, Heed and water. DO NOT BE LIKE ME
What I wore: Brooks Cascadia 12, Injinji socks, Oiselle Go Joggings, Oiselle Wazzie Wool long sleeve, Oiselle Hi-ten Bra, Buff, Ultimate Direction Jenny Vesta, a cheap pair of dollar store gloves on loop 4 when it got super cold (FYI I suffered no blisters and no chaffing)
Do this race if: you need an early Spring challenge to motive you through winter training, you like hills, you like pain and suffering, you hate unicorns