I registered for the Pick Your Poison 25k Trail Race way back on December 28, 2015. It was winter in Canada. It was dark when I would leave for work and dark when I arrived home from work. Although I was still going to the gym, my running was limited to a short run most weekends. With the event held on April 30th, 2016, just as the snow would be melting off the trails, I knew that even the 25k distance would be pushing it for me.
In the middle of middle of February, I had been messaging with my niece Caron about upcoming races. She was committing to the Goodlife Toronto full marathon on May 1st, and I mentioned about the Pick Your Poison race just the day prior. It really grabbed her interest. The more she thought about it, “Why go to Toronto and pay for hotels and all that, when she could run this practically right out her back door.” She got back to me to say she was running the Pick Your Poison and then added, “But I’m doing the 50k”. I was excited for her, excited we would be at the same event, but disappointed in myself for letting my training slip. The most I had run since my fall marathon over the winter months was only 5k. But my disciplined “Unstoppable Niece” Caron was prepared. She was in a #runstreak that was closing in on a year and was much more prepared than I was.
Caron’s reply was a wakeup call. My goal was to run an ultra-marathon later in the year. But this 25k I registered for had over 1/2 mile of elevation gain/loss. It was only a mere 10 weeks away. I knew I had better get training harder, but train smart. Greatly increasing mileage would spell disaster. My bad knees and ankle just cannot handle it. So, I increased my cross training on my bike and in the gym. This included an aquafit class taught by Kim, who is magazine editor of Simcoe County Total Sports, a class that increases strength, builds stamina, and gently tones every muscle group in the body. The weekend before my 25k race I ended up running a 15k. When I woke up the morning of the race on April 30th there was a mixture of nervousness and excitement, yet overall, I felt surprisingly prepared for this 25k race. My confidence dampened in the clubhouse when I overheard conversations between elite ultra-marathoners who were running the 50k talking about their centurion runs (100 miles or more) like they just walked down the street to get the mail. I was definitely NOT in this league! It even dampened more when I overheard other conversations about sprained ankles and other race related injuries on the course from previous years. All of a sudden, I felt very nervous and vulnerable.
I made my way out of the clubhouse and waited for Caron near the starting line. We saw each other in the distance and gave each other a wave. It was so good to see her. I needed this. As with most 50k runners she had come prepared with a drop bag that came with replenishing supplies to grab when you come in with each 12.5k loop. It even had an extra pair of runners 1/2 size bigger in case her feet were swelling from the course. As I had come prepared to run the 25k, I had none of this. Normally I don’t enjoy mass starts, but today was the exception. Everybody (the 12k runners, the 25k runners, and the 50k runners) were all starting at the same time. I was really excited to run these 1sts 25 k’s with Caron.
On Caron’s extremely well written race recap on her blog post she describes the course. It was really tough. My 2 loops of 12.5 k each for me were going well, but Caron, as she mentions on her post was losing her goal pace even on the 1st lap. She encouraged me to go on ahead. Observing her bonk this early in the race I had already made the decision I was going to stay with her, and I wanted to accompany her and support her through my 25-kilometer portion. I told her I did not care about my time, and I would pace with her any pace she needed. I really wanted her to achieve her goal of achieving this ultra-marathon trail race. She did not protest with me.
As we were running in the 2nd loop the massive leg burning hills, the mud bogs, the technical sections and the fast switchbacks were still there. However, one thing we both noticed was how the runners were thinning out after those who registered for the 12.5k distance had finished their course. And once I had finished the 25k distance I had registered for, the field of runners would thin out even more. Reaching the top of another hill, Caron turned around and said, “I’m going to miss you Uncle Carl. It is really going to get lonely for me after you finish”. I love my niece dearly and am so proud of her for her accomplishments. Personally, I don’t run with any electronics, but Caron had a Garmin and was calling out the distances after each kilometer completed. The same time I was subtracting that number from 25k to determine how much further to go until I am finished this thing……10 kilometers to go, 9 kilometers to go, 8 kilometers to go, 7….”I’m going to miss you Uncle Carl”. In my heart of heart, I knew what I needed to do, but with my longest run of 15k this year, should I even attempt. My mind was in overdrive making the calculations. My 7 k’s to go in an instant would now become 32k’s to go. The mental hurdles that awaited me were enormous. Could I possibly even attempt to run these entire 50 kilometers with Caron?
We continued to push on for the next 3 kilometers. Caron was not aware of the turmoil going through my mind. I could still finish my 25k, Caron is strong, she will finish, but at the next aid station while we were catching our breath the words blurted out that I was debating or not to say, “Caron, I have decided I want to finish this race with you. The words were now out. Little did I know that these next 30 kilometers I was committing to something probably tougher mentally and physically than any time since my mountain climbing days 30 years ago.
Caron was really moved by my commitment. It made me very happy and grateful and confident I made the right decision. The next 5 kilometers to the end of loop 2 were euphoric. I drank in my surroundings when it was not overly technical and became extremely aware of my body and the mechanics of every breath, every footfall, every heartbeat. It felt so good to be alive. I was experiencing what is known as a runner high. The downhill switchbacks were a blast, and my favorite section was a stretch of trail that sloped gently downhill and had soft cushiony ground. It felt like I was running on air.
It was a strange feeling completing my 25k, but now only STARTING what I had just newly committed to run. I declined the awesome pair of Pick Your Poison socks given out to every participant who completes the course they registered before the cut off time. It must have been very confusing for the race officials as I smiled and called out, “no thank you, I’m still running” (they could tell I was only running the 25k by my bib number.) The wonderful volunteers at the base aid station were also at 1st a bit confused at first but became excited for us as they discovered what was transpiring. With Caron feeling a bit “off” at this point my focus was to commit for the duration, whatever lay before us.
After starting loop 3 along a fire road, it turned into a beautiful, enchanted forest with a gurgling brook. It was calming and relaxing. Each and every time I went through here on this easy and gentle trail, I would let my guard down. My foot would catch a rock or small root and I had to quickly catch myself from ending flat on my face. It happened 4 or 5 times on the course, all around the same spot.
I’d comment this to Caron, and we shared a laugh. It was the easy parts that were causing me trouble. I was enjoying my surroundings on this part of the trail just too much. Reminding myself to pick up the feet and concentrate we carry on. For Caron her 3rd loop was her most difficult. I knew I made the right decision to stay by her side and gently support and encourage her. Sometimes we would talk while we were running. It might be about our families, or about running. And we are honest with one another when we were bonking, or the race was taking its toll. There was comfort and security being in each other’s presence. I felt so comfortable running with Caron. Sometimes there was long periods of silence where each of us were pushing ahead in our own thoughts. Yet there is never any awkwardness in those times.
It was during one of those silent periods halfway through the 3rd loop that the pain hit. Each time my foot landed; it created a searing charley horse like pain permeating throughout my calf muscles as they tightened up. As I lifted that foot up my muscles would release, but when the other foot landed the other muscle would tighten up. Left, right, left, right, it was extremely difficult to keep going with the pain. I was desperately trying to keep up with Caron, fighting through the pain while fearing a full charley horse. In my last 2 marathons I witnessed marathon runners have their race abruptly end through what I assume were these same type of muscle contractions. I knew what was happening. I was becoming salt deprived, and in addition possibly water deprived. I did not want to trouble Caron as she was fighting her own battles, but finally I called out “Caron, I am cramping and am struggling.” After walking a bit and drinking my entire litre of water in one go, I discovered that a fast power walk matched Caron’s slow run. The contractions were still there, but the intensity was not as strong. Up hills were welcoming, the rare flat ground sections were just okay and the downhill’s I dreaded. Caron was fighting her own battles, but every few minutes she would call out in a concerned voice, “Are you doing okay Uncle Carl?” Where it was my intention to support and be there for Caron, she was in fact supporting and being there for me.
Reaching the 2nd aid station I drank a cup of electrolytes and then drank a refill, got my water bottle refilled, munched on a few pretzels and took a small handful to munch along the way. Continuing in that fast walk after a short while, it seemed the contractions in the calf muscles were improving. Changing to a slow run to match Caron’s the pain was still there but tolerable. But as time went on it got worse and worse. With the pretzels I had with me long gone, instead of counting km’s to go, I was counting the number of downhill’s until reaching the base aid station. One final downhill to go, and it was brutal. Crossed the start/finish line and once again the dear volunteer was holding out those “Pick Your Poison” socks for completing my 25k. I said running past with what would have been a pained look on my face “No thank you” and the volunteer looked even more confused.
Coming up to the base aid station I blurted out the words to the volunteers “Please, I need salt. I am cramping badly”. To me, these words seemed so absurd coming out of my mouth. I don’t touch salt, am always reading labels on the sodium content of packaged foods. My dad died at 47 of a heart attack and I am really trying hard to keep my blood pressure within an acceptable level. This includes my salt intake to a minimum. I don’t want to be on blood pressure medication for the rest of my life. I don’t want to be on statins for cholesterol the rest of my life. This is one of the reasons I run. An article from one of my more recent blog followers (and who I highly respect) Doctor Jonathan (who was a long-time practicing chiropractic physician) is called “High Blood Pressure: The Most Popular Club in Town.” He mentions “That prescription medications do not fix high blood pressure. It is important to realize that the root cause of this hypertensive state remains unaddressed.” Salt is an essential nutrient, and our bodies need a certain amount for survival, but the general public does take in much more than required. I have seen the salt tablets in running stores and I just could not get my mind around it. But now I totally understand why long-distance runners carry these tabs with them…. just in case! My body had lost SO much sodium in this race that it had fallen below the minimum levels.
One of the dear volunteers apologized they did not carry salt tablets and I was directed towards the big bowl of pretzels, and I took a few. While I still eating the pretzels another volunteer offered me a cup of Mr. Noodles. This is something I never eat because of its high sodium content. But I was more than happy to try. It was just in my tummy just a few seconds when I knew it was not going to stay down. Hustling away from the group at the aid station, I hunched over at the edge of some trees, and it came back up. There was a pause and a second round of throwing up, and when the third round came my body was wrenching and heaving but nothing more came. That last round seemed to exhaust any remnant of strength there was left in me.
Feeling like a ton of bricks had just hit me I realized that it was over. I am finished! My day was done. I came into this aid station begging for salt, and now if I am not able to retain fluids or nutrients, to go out on this grueling course once again would be an invitation for disaster. I tried to regain my composure and wipe away the tears that had just fallen to tell Caron she will have to finish the final loop on her own. Be strong for Caron. Assure her she can do this alone. Yeah, I came to do what I had set out to do. I ran that 25k. Be proud of it too Carl. I looked at the proud yet concerned look on Caron’s husband face who had come to send her out on her last lap. I looked at her little daughter with those sparkling eyes. I looked at Caron. But the words I had rehearsed in my mind were not coming. Walking back to aid station they kindly asked if the Mr. Noodles were helping. I said, “No they didn’t stay down….is there anything else I could try?” One of the dear aid station volunteers suggested ginger ale. I drank it in small sips. It tasted so good. Then moving on to electrolytes, one cup and a second cup. And then some pretzels. I only learned how painfully difficult this wait was for Caron when she wrote her own blogpost. She would have been so anxious to get going but graciously did not say anything. But I really needed that assurance that this fluid and nutrients were going to stay down.
Finally with my big hand I grabbed a large handful of pretzels to take with me. I felt like a greedy kid not willing to share. Giving the thumbs up to the aid station workers the amazed and excited look on their faces was priceless. That last lap was pretty much a blur. I don’t remember hardly anything of it. It was like driving the same route to work for years, you arrive at work and don’t remember anything of the drive. My one and only focus was to keep up with Caron. She was running very strong. She was pacing ahead extremely hard and with my lack of training and throwing up at the last aid station it was taking every bit of me to keep close. I did not want to hold her back. The pretzels and electrolytes were working, and I felt like “that greedy kid not willing to share” as I took very generous helping of both at the two on trial aid stations. With Caron now running most hills it was a challenge to get the pretzels and fluid into me on the go, but I somehow managed. The cramping was gone, and it seemed it was 100% mental to keep pushing…. keep pushing. As hard as I was trying to keep up, Caron was slowly distancing herself from me. At first, it wasn’t much, starting with 20 feet, then 50 feet, then 100 feet ahead. Then it became 30 seconds ahead, and then maybe a minute ahead. She was out of sight around sharp corners and hills, and then I’d catch a glimpse of her. There was nothing more for me to give, and I knew I could not make up this time. She was so strong and doing this on her own. I was in awe. For myself, I also knew I was going to finish, but was saddened of the thought that we would not be crossing that finish line together. We shared so much together on this course. I rounded a hairpin turn that led to the final hill, the final push that would exceed the 1 mile of elevation gain (5,292 feet total) and there was Caron straight ahead. She had the arm of another runner, the back of his black jersey bleached white from the salt in his sweat. The runner seemed to be experiencing a lot of distress. Even though Caron and the man were walking slowly, it still took me a couple of minutes to catch up. Coming along the other side, the man grabbed my hand and the 3 of us climbed that final peak. The dear man assured us he was okay for the downhill to the finish. He wanted to finish on his own and Caron and I were off. That downhill is steep in places, and I have to be very careful to avoid another tear with my vulnerable and easily re-injured meniscus in the right knee. As the hill flattened Caron and I picked up speed before crossing the finish line. Unknown to Caron of the sadness that was going through my mind up top, she reached over and took my hand in hers as we crossed the finish line together. It was the greatest feeling. And for the 3rd time in 3 laps that dear volunteer was holding out for me those Pick Your Poison socks. This time I was so happy and grateful to reach out and take those socks.
With a race of this magnitude every runner has their own personal story, no matter the distance accomplished, no matter the time it took to make it. There are so many out there, but I am just going to share a couple. The 1st is about a dear lady named Lori whom I heard about on the Pick Your Poison Trail Race Facebook page. She was the final runner out on the course. We messaged a bit on that page, and she told me how painful the extreme loneliness she felt. This is the same loneliness of what my niece Caron was concerned about. Overcoming this had to be enormous. But Lori mentally pushed on and on and finished this grueling 50k course just after the 8-hour cut off. As she finished, she was sobbing for joy.
Then there was Hans. He came up beside me at an aid station and asked if he could use me as a leaning post. While leaning on me he quickly drank two cups of electrolytes, and then he was gone. In amazement I watched this man take off. The volunteers said “That is Hans Maier. He is 78 years old and still running ultra-marathons. And rounding that hairpin turn that led to the final climb, the salt-stained man whom Caron had by the arm and was helping up the hill….it was Hans. We introduced each other, and he mentioned he was Hans (which we already knew). And then he added, “I’m 78 years old and I ran another 50k ultra 2 weeks ago. Maybe it is just a bit too much.”
I think of the volunteers at the aid stations, on the course and at the finish line. So encouraging. So caring. They remembered our needs and our preferences as each loop was knocked off. I can’t get over the huge buzz that was created among them after my decision to accompany Caron to her finish. And race organizers Adam and Heather (a husband-and-wife team) …. what can I say, this event was so tremendous. I have no idea how much work would go into this, but I know it is HUGE. And the one thing you did after the race. You bumped me up into the 50k class to make it official. This is something race organizers don’t normally do. THANK YOU SO MUCH! I am so grateful!
Lastly, I think of my niece Caron. This was such an amazing race. Yeah, we bonded during our training together way back, but no comparison than the bonding we had on this course. She is such a very smart runner and knows when it is important to pull back some. And when she let loose, she was indeed “My Unstoppable Niece”. On her first ever ultra-marathon she finished 12th out of 30 female runners, which is huge! She is such an inspiration! If anyone is on Instagram, you can find her @ this.girl.runs. And as I mentioned about every runner has their own story, well Caron has her story as well. It is from her perspective and written with such passion, inspiration and emotion. Her amazing personality shines in this post. You can read it on her extremely well written post on her brand-new website called thisgirlcaron.
Surprisingly I was not nearly as sore as might have expected after the race, but the exhaustion came a day later. Boy was I tired. And it took a couple of days to get back to myself. Four days later I was back running on the course to take pictures for this article. It was so sweet retracing the course and remembering all the emotions. I went a slow pace and marveled how beautiful it was in there. There were the hills that seemed like mountains, the logs that seemed like major obstacles, and the mud that seemed to go on in this one area forever (but in reality, it was not that far at all). And yeah, this time I stopped in that enchanted forest with the gurgling stream to allow the sounds of the water soak deep into the soul. At the end I climbed that final ski hill where Caron, Hans and myself climbed up arm in arm together. I stopped and took in the panoramic view of the area where the course ran through. I looked to the west and in the haze, there is the faint outline in the horizon of what is known as The Blue Mountains, and my heart started beating faster. Two days after our race Caron still feeling on top of the world had registered for the North Face Endurance Challenge held in the Blue Mountains. It is another 50k ultra held in July but has more elevation than what we just completed. Before my Pick Your Poison race my thoughts were on the North Face race, “I was not going to run this. I did not think I had it in me. I could never do this.” But as I reflected on this past event and the nervousness, I had of even running the 25k, and then completing it as a 50k, it was something way beyond my comprehension. It was life changing. I learned a lot about the challenges I faced, and the mistakes I made. I learned a lot about the “inner me”. And running with Caron and how she came to the aid of Hans, I learned a lot about looking out for one another, and how important that is. I thought how fully alive I felt running. I experienced the feeling of not having anything left in the tank and reaching down and discovering there was still more there. I want to experience this all again.
Thanks for reading. It has been an ultra-marathon. You all deserve a medal! 🙂