It was merely a week before the big event. After 2.5 hours of running the gnarly single track mountain bike trails in Copeland Forest, I broke out of the forest, and in one final push, I ran full steam toward my awaiting car, a couple hundred metres away, completely unaware there were a couple pairs of eyes following my every long stride. Arriving at my car, and somehow sensing I was being watched, I quickly surveyed my surroundings and then noticed them…. 2 young, rad, diehard, hard core appearing mountain bikers. They were getting ready to “saddle up”, and shred these trails, known to the local mountain bike community for their “epic riding”. As our eyes met each others, one of the bikers yelled out, “HEY MISTER, YOU FORGOT YOUR BIKE”!! Noting that he was referring to my empty bike rack on my car (which I don’t remove until winter), I laughed at his comment, and went over to say Hi. Then after a few minutes of chitchat, I proceeded to tell them why I was running those trails. My next event was going to be the “Creemore Vertical Challenge” (CVC), a 25k run, half gravel road, half trail, that climbs up and down the Niagara Escarpment twice, for a total of 836 metres (2743 feet) vertical up and down. There was silence. The 2 mountain bikers looked at each other, and one of them turned back to me and said, “MAN, YOU ARE CRAZY”
This was not the 1st time I had one of those #whatamigettinginto moments. Even the registration form for the CVC was worded in such a way, that it would discourage the unprepared, including an excerpt from a seasoned ultra runners blog, from a previous years race (with one word changed), “A few weeks ago, I ran the Creemore Vertical Challenge in oppressive heat. It was horrible. It’s the second time in a row that I stagger through 30+ degree Celsius weather while baking under the sun on those (blankity…blank) rural roads. This is it. I’m never going back. Even the joy of sitting in the river after the race felt wrong. It reminded me too much of the joke: “Why do you keep hitting your head on the wall? Answer: “Because it feels so good when I stop”. I love the people there, but enough is enough. One can only take so much character building”.
With my running this year, everything is focusing towards my full marathon in October. Running a couple of times a week, plus most days, a couple hours of different cross training. I have also been running at least an actual event a month. In August, there was not much out there for races. But I kept coming back to this one race, the Creemore Vertical Challenge, which was only 45 minutes away. My extreme fear, was this race was going to break me. Finally, desperate to have an event for August, with no training whatsoever in trail running, and with just over 2 weeks to go before the event, while shaking from head to feet, I registered.
The CVC is part of the Trail Runner Trophy Series. This is a points based series of 191 trail races in the United States and Canada. All events are divided into 2 categories: Non Marathon (races shorter than 26 miles), and Marathon and Longer (races 26 miles and longer). The race I registered for was the 25k, but the CVC also had a 50k, and 75k.
I arrived at the event 2 hours early of my 9:00AM start. I wanted to get the “feel” of the event, and hopefully calm some jittery nerves. The 14 runners that were brave enough to do the 75k, had already left at 6:00 AM. The 50k Ultra runners were arriving, I could sense a genuine camaraderie, and family like feeling among them. Watched and cheered the 50k’ers, as they started their race. These runners were SO fit looking, with leg muscles that looked like they could easily dig in and pull a bus around the block.
After the hour long wait, the 25ker’s were called to assemble. Somehow I ended up ahead of the middle of the pack in the coral, and feeling very anxious, I kept thinking, “I’m WAY too far ahead in the pack for this, I’m going to get trampled”. Before I could get myself further back, the starting horn sounded, and the race was on. The 1st 3 kilometres were single track, with very little opportunity for runners to position themselves. Once we all got onto the 1st gravel road, and the 1st major hill, the runners were passing and getting passed. I was so amazed that once those couple of kilometers were finished, where runners found their place on the course, the pack spread out. And for the remaining 20 kilometers, it was pretty much the same individual runners that I kept coming across. I loved connecting with them, when we came across each other on the course. After finding out where they were from, it became a bit of a game, where we would call each other by the place we came from. For myself, I was “Hillsdale”, and interesting enough, everyone else I was in contact with, came from a further distance than I did.
There was Markham. There was Guelph. There was Whitby. There was soft spoken Toronto. She was an Ultra runner, who just a month earlier completed the North Face 50k Endurance Race in the Blue Mountains. She had leg muscles that could easily power her way up those steep hills. On one very steep singletrack, I had no steam left, and ended up walking. I looked over my shoulder, and saw her really coming up fast, and moved over so she could get by. But she didn’t, instead walking with me to the top, while patiently answering a lot of questions about her North Face race. There was Waterloo. Small but mighty, this speedy roadrunner, on her 1st trail run had a lot of grit, and a lot of wit. On the hills, the tall, lanky, long legged runners like myself would go past her. On the downhill’s, her legs would be going a “mile a minute”. She would roar past those very same runners, flashing a smile, giving a witty comment going by. She was an “encourager”, and had an AMAZING sense of humour. There was Thornhill (yes, that is a place). 🙂 Thornhill, like myself, was another runner in his 50’s , but he was SO much a kid at heart. At one stream crossing, when I was trying to maneuverer my way across on a few stones, (wimpy me, did not want to get my feet wet…LOL) he came up behind me, and without a thought, just sloshed his way across, giving me the most amused, “cheeky” look on his face. By the time I finally got across the stream, he was long gone and out of sight. I would catch up with him, and go by him, and we would joke around with each other. At the next water stop, I would linger for a couple of minutes to “refuel”. There was fruit, pretzels, gummies, as well as the regular water and Gatorade. Watermelon never tasted so GOOD. Thornhill, would come in, grab a quick drink, tease me for hanging around and eating watermelon, and was gone again.
I was expecting this course to be tough, and it really was. My 2 practice runs for trail running was really nothing compared with what I encountered. One gulley, I needed the aid of a fixed rope to pull myself out. And some of the downhill sections were so steep, you could barely walk, much less run. It was by far, my toughest race ever, and ironically, by far, my most enjoyable race. On one of the uphill climbs, I got up beside Waterloo, and said how much I appreciated her wit and encouragement. She said “You have to have fun, otherwise this race will eat you up.” Later on in the race, Waterloo called out to me, “We’re all idiots, may as well have fun being one”.
Guelph, Markham, Toronto, Waterloo, Thornhill, and myself being Hillsdale, we all ran our individual races. Soft spoken Toronto could power her way up the hills. Speedy roadrunner Waterloo could blast like a rocket down the gravel road hills. And Thornhill, this experienced runner, paced himself sure and steady. The finish of a race is always a wonderful feeling of accomplishment, this one was no exception. There were about 20-30 people waiting at the finish line. When I came in, there was this roar of cheering. It came from volunteers, and other runners who finished before me. It was SO INCREDIBLY LOUD. The runners I met with our town names connections, finished our runs within a 10-15 minute period. Interesting enough, on this course, I never thought about my time, yet my ending was just the place I started…..”just ahead of the middle of the pack”. Several of the “town name runners” finished ahead of me, Thornhill a few minutes later. We hugged, 2 guys in their 50’s drenched in sweat. Shortly after, Thornhill proudly introduced me to several members of his running club. Some though, were still on the course, one, being one of two female runners on the 75k course.
This was such a well run event, and I was like so many other finishing runners, no one wanted to leave. Had some pizza, loudly cheered other runners as they finished, cheered the winners in the 25k award ceremony, and had a refreshing foot soak in the river. Feeling very tired both physically and mentally (in a good way), I walked to my car to see if I could catch a sleep. But sleep eluded me. That statement from Waterloo kept going through my head, “You have to have fun, otherwise this race will eat you up”.
You see, all year I’ve been focusing on another race, the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM). Every event I have entered this year (the CVC was event #7), was to help get me there to reach a goal….the challenge of breaking a certain qualification time at STWM. A time that some other runners I follow have achieved at various qualifying races across North America. These runners then get to race in a famous race (sometimes called “the Holy Grail of running”), held in the United States. I am getting much closer to my target, but I am NOT nearly there yet. The problem is, I’ve been focusing SO hard on that time, it has been eating me up. Running has been losing it’s “funness”. And I definitely did not like the person I was turning into.
So I sat there in that car for the next 30 minutes, slowly sipping away at a litre of pure coconut water, I brought for my recovery. I thought of this upcoming Toronto race, and the race I just came off of. The leg burning hills, the deep, deep gulley’s, the bogs, the stream crossings and the sheer fun I had doing it. I felt like I was an eight year old kid again, like I was running through the forests and fields with my dog Laddie, without a care in the world. All of a sudden, the lustre of a Boston Qualification did not matter at all anymore.
It was SO quiet sitting in that car, in this beautiful country location. And then, a short distance away, I heard another enthusiastic ROAR of cheering. It could have been for a top 75k finisher, it could have been a 50k finisher, or one of many 25k finishers still coming in from the course. You could never tell the difference. The roar, and cheering was as loud and the same for all the runners. A HUGE smile erupted for that runner on my face, as I thought of the accomplishment he or she had just made. Then out of nowhere, the floodgates opened and joyous tears started flowing down my face. I was SO, SO frightened that this race was going to break me. It did break me, but in a VERY good way, and NEVER in the way I expected.
Thank you for reading! 🙂