Several weeks ago my dear wife Lynne asked what I would like to do for my milestone 60th birthday on July 7th. My thoughts were maybe we could go out to a nice restaurant and then top it off with a live concert with a legendary band. Or maybe go on a little getaway to a place like Niagara Falls, a place I last visited 48 years ago when I was 12. At Niagara, my wife and I could go on that cruise that takes you to the base of the falls, and then maybe take in a museum or two. Or perhaps have a 60th birthday party where people from the community and co-workers and relatives could come and wish me a Happy Birthday. These were all great thoughts, but the one thought to celebrate my 60th I kept returning to was….I could go out for a run. But not just any run.
Running is a gift and I am so privileged to be able run in some incredible ultra events I never even dreamed about five years ago. July 7th this year just happened to fall right on a Saturday, the day of the week most trail races and ultras are held. Which was really cool. And my thoughts kept returning to The Limberlost Challenge held at the Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve. Described by some runners as one of the most spectacular and challenging trail races in my province of Ontario, Canada, their website gives a synopsis which reads as follows, “You will run through technical areas that will require the nimblest of footwork and on trails that allow you to open up to your best speed, plus everything in between. You will marvel at the extraordinary beauty of this privately owned Reserve that we are so privileged to enjoy. It will leave you breathless in more ways than one!”
There are three distance options to choose from, 14k for one loop, the 28k for two loops, or 56k for 4 loops. The 56k was the distance I was drawn to. But could I even complete this? It certainly wouldn’t be quite as an exciting celebration if I DNF’d (did not finish). Reading precious blog posts on the event, race results from previous years and talking to runners who have run this course I learned that this is a extremely tough course. In 2017 there were 81 starters in 56k and 67 finished. In 2016 there were 77 starters, and only 54 finished. A DNF can happen to anyone. Even though a runner can be extremely trained and prepared, a lot of unexpectant events can take place on the course and things can go terribly wrong out there. I have so much respect for each and every runner who stands on that start line.
For my 60th birthday my wife booked time off work to help me celebrate my 60th by being there on race day. The thought of sitting on a chair for up to 10 hours waiting for me as I came in on each of the 4 loops does not sound that appealing. I think taking a boat cruise to the base of Niagara Falls sounds far more exciting for her. But she chose to support me on my 60th birthday while I ran The Limberlost Challenge. This was huge. Lynne has been to one of my finishes, but this is the first time she has been to an entire event from start to finish. I asked her if she realized how much this means to me. She replied, “I think I know”.
We arrived early, and I was greeted by a local elite ultrarunner by the name of Chad Dickinson. Five years ago, when I started running I could not even run 1 kilometer. And I hated running. Chad believed in me, and told me to not give up. When he saw me arrive, he gave me the biggest bear hug…..and when I told him it was my 60th, he gave me another. Others arrived. I met my dear niece Caron (who I ran my 1st ever ultra with), and her dear friend Beth, who was aiming for her 1st ultra that day. More hugs and handshakes came from Kristi Raz and her family who made the 4-5 hour drive from Ottawa. There was a large group from Ottawa connected with Kristi who were running races of varying distances.
At 7:35 there was mandatory prerace instructions for all runners from the race director, medical director and a few others. In the 9 years this race has been run, conditions were said to be the best they have ever been. The trail was said to be very fast, and records were expected to be broken that day. The sun was shining. The humidity from the previous few days heat wave had broken. My dear wife was there cheering me on. There could not be a better way to celebrate 60 years of life on this magnificent planet than by running this breathtaking race course 4 times. And before I knew it, I had assembled with the other 56k runners in the corral at the start line, the countdown took place and the race was on.
The course was extremely well marked out with red flags along the right side of the trails. There were 3 aid stations, one at Langmead at 3.9k’s and the 2nd one was at Buck Lake at 8.6k’s. The 3rd was at the start finish line. There is a hard cut-off time of 3 loops (or 42 kilometers) to be completed within 7 hours and 30 minutes. The entire 56 kilometers was to be completed within 10 hours. As announced in the race briefing, even if you are a mere one second over the time limit after 42 kilometers, you will not be allowed to continue. My strategy was to run a little harder on the first two loops before the heat of the day and build a cushion before that 42 kilometer cut off time. To me that time cushion is like an insurance policy if things go wrong. It also affords me the luxury to take time for some photos on this spectacular course while running.
One of the things I have always struggled with on these long races is my hydration and nutrition. Real food always works best for me, and at the Limberlost Challenge start/finish aid station they offered boiled potatoes which you could dip in salt, which was wonderful. I brought 3 litres of ELoad Endurance Formula (an electrolyte that agrees with my stomach) with an added 1000mg Vitamin C in each litre from home. These I kept in my drop bag with Lynne at the start finish. I had salt/electrolyte capsules with me, and was drinking roughly 2 litres of plain water on EACH of the 4 loops. The volunteers at the aid stations were awesome. They filled my hydration pack with lots of enthusiasm and cheers of encouragement to keep me going as I headed out on the trail again.
Another thing that really keeps me going are the runners that I run with. Over the course of 56 kilometers I connect with a lot of runners. Sometimes it is a greeting and a “You are doing awesome”, but other times I ran significant distances. There were 4 different runners I ran with in varying distances from 2 to 8 kilometers. I ran with a different runner on each of my 4 loops. I love the fact that each runner is very unique in their running journey. I loved and cherished the time I spent with each one. They made my 60th birthday race day celebration so much richer.
The first type of runner I have called “the legend”. And that legend is none other than 71 year old Ronald Gehl. I have seen Ron several times running different ultra events. He always chooses the most challenging distance. I saw him my 1st time running Creemore Vertical Challenge 3 years ago. I was running the 25k. He was running the 75k. Two years ago I ran the 50k on the same event. He once again was running the 75k. He is known for his consistency and tenacity and is so well respected in the ultra running community. Ron has received the Norm Patenaude award for the past 21 years in a row. The award is given for the successful completion of 8 ultras events (an ultra is a distance longer than a marathon) in a given year in the Ontario Ultra and Trail Race Series (OutRace). In 2017 only 7 ultrarunners received the Norm Patenaude award, and running legend Ronald Gehl was one of them. Taking 21 years in a row and multiply that by 8, Ron has successfully completed a MINIMUM of 168 Ultras in the 21 years up to the end of 2017. When I came across Ron on the 1st loop there was already a couple of runners with him asking loads of questions. I joined the conversation for a couple of kilometers and I was in so much awe to be in the presence of this legend. He is a very humble man. When Ron came in to finish with five and a half minutes to spare under 10 hours a crowd had gathered around him to congratulate him and have photo ops with him. I was one of those people in that crowd! What an amazing way to celebrate my 60th birthday. 🙂
On the 2nd loop I ran with another type of runner. This female runner I have called “the elite”. I’ll be honest, I can never ever keep up with the pace of an elite runner in a race. They are that fast. There were several elite runners that lapped me when I was running my 3rd loop. What this means is they were on their final loop while I was on my third loop, and were 14 kilometers ahead of me at the time they went by me. One of those runners was my friend Chad Dickinson. He finished 2 hours and 28 minutes ahead of me and finished 8th overall. This particular elite female runner I came across on my 2nd loop unfortunately rolled her ankle shortly into the race, and the technical areas were causing her lots of trouble. I came across her as she was painstakingly picking her way down the steep, treacherous backside of the monster switchback hill between the 1st and 2nd kilometers on that 2nd loop. The one thing I noticed was several Ironman tattoos on her arms and legs. When I asked if she has completed a lot of Ironman’s and she humbly said yes. She was more interested in me, celebrating my 60th birthday and my running journey. However she mentioned in passing when we were talking about ultras, that she earned the bronze division medal in the prestigious 89 kilometer Comrades Marathon in South Africa in 2010. In doing some research I discovered, there were 23,656 ultrarunners entering this race in 2010, and is often dubbed as the “Ultimate Human Race”. Back on the Limberlost Challenge course, once the trail flattened out this lady picked up the pace even with her injured ankle. I kept her pace. It felt wonderful to be running this fast with a Comrades finisher. She looked so effortless running. She asked me if I wanted to take the lead, but I didn’t want to hold her back. And deep down I knew I could not keep this pace up for the remaining 41 kilometers, and told her that I’m going to have to pull back my pace. For those four kilometers I had such a wonderful time running with this elite. What a tremendous way to celebrate my 60th birthday.
On the 3rd loop I ran with another type of runner. This runner is very much like myself, and I would call him the “nature lover”. I love trail running so much, and the connection it brings to our earth. This ultrarunners name was Ryan and he is an environmental scientist. The amazing thing is about his work, is he knows the area where I live really well, having been conducting studies on the deer yards just outside Craighurst, and how this proposed development might affect the Copeland Forest (where I do some of my training) deer herds. Ryan tries to run one ultra a year and I was so enthralled by his deep knowledge of this old growth Limberlost Forest. By the size of some of the timbers, he estimated the last time much of the forest has been logged has been 140 to 200 years ago, which dates back to the early settlers. Ryan also pointed out the Eastern Hemlock, a tree that does not recover well after disturbance. If aggressive forestry takes place in an Eastern Hemlock forest, this tree requiring cool shaded protection to re-establish does not return. And in this Limberlost forest these beautiful hemlocks were thriving. The Eastern Hemlock is also the only host of the Hemlock Varnish Fungus, which grows prolifically on dead and dying hemlocks in this forest. I loved spending those six kilometers running with Ryan. The deep hemlock forest is actually fairly dark in places, and the few photos I took with my old school Blackberry did not turn out. Old growth forests are Ryans specialty, and I so appreciated his sharing his depth of knowledge with me. What an incredible way to celebrate my 60th birthday.
On my 4th loop I ran with yet another type of runner. I had the honour and privilege of running my final eight kilometers to the finish with this person. Her name was Lindsay, and I would call her the “1st Time Ultrarunner”. Every ultrarunner has been there. She certainly picked a tough course for her debut into ultrarunning. When I came alongside her, she was really labouring her right hip. She mentioned she hurt herself around the halfway mark, and her pain seemed to be getting worse as the race progressed. Lindsay is much like myself, and is not one for taking painkillers. But she gratefully accepted some when I offered some ibuprofen I was carrying on me. I did not do much except keep her company and talk to her to help take her mind off her discomfort. Lindsay pushed hard right to the finish. It gave me much joy to see her smiles as she crossed that long sought after finish line. What an awesome way to celebrate my 60th birthday.
But there was more to come in my 60th birthday celebrations. At the finish line I received my medal and I quickly introduced Lindsay to my wife, my niece Caron and her friend Beth. I also had the privilege of meeting Lindsay’s boyfriend Alex. Although my main objective was to just finish this race, deep in my heart I wanted to make it 60 kilometers for my 60th. So off I went for my remaining kilometers on the gravel road that comes in to where the race starts. I still had my race bib on, and the people who were driving on this road were looking at me rather oddly. Did I not know I could stop at the finish? When my watch hit 60 kilometers after my turnaround, I stopped it, saved my information and walked the rest of the way back to the start/finish line. Way back when I started running at 55, I couldn’t even run a kilometer. I would never ever dream I would run 60 kilometers on my 60th birthday. What a special way to celebrate my 60th birthday.
But there was still more to come in my 60th birthday celebrations. I was enjoying a post race meal with my wife beside me and with my new ultrarunner friend Lindsay and her boyfriend Alex. I was chilling and relaxing while the award ceremony for the 56k runners was being held in the background. As winners for different age categories would get up on the podium I would cheer, and then return to our quiet dinner conversation. It was my wife who brought it to my attention, “Carl, they called your name”. I said, “For what?” “For coming in 2nd for 60 years and older”. I couldn’t believe this was happening. With no shoes on my feet I ran up and claimed my beautiful Cherrywood plaque, and stood on the podium while my wife took my picture. I know to come 2nd out of 4 runners 60 years and older who completed the 56k Limberlost Challenge shouldn’t be that big a deal. But to me it was HUGE. I have never come close to winning any award in my short running career. It felt like I came in second in Western States, the Boston Marathon or even the Comrades Marathon. My 60th birthday celebration couldn’t have been more perfect.
A big thank you to race director Neil Jefferson and the terrific team of volunteers who prepared the course and worked their hearts out at the aid stations. Thank you to race emcee Katherine Andrews for announcing with such enthusiasm all day. She even announced my birthday coming in after my 3rd loop. After running 42 kilometers, it gave me a much needed boost heading out into my 4th and final loop. Thank you to my dear wife who did all the driving, and for cheering and supporting me on my special day. Thank you to Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve for allowing me and all the other runners the privilege to run in this spectacular property. Lastly, thank you to all the other runners who shared in my birthday celebrations. It is all of you who made my 60th birthday both memorable and very, very special! THANK YOU SO MUCH! 🙂