Pick Your Poison 13 Race Recap.

After such a long day running up and down those challenging hills of Horseshoe Highlands and Copeland Forest in the all day cold, drizzly rain in the 2023 Pick Your Poison trail race, 58 year old 50k Pick Your Poison 5 time finisher Joe Smith remarked to me at the finish line, “Carl, they got to be making this course harder. Because we can’t be getting any older”.

Pick Your Poison logo. Image source. https://www.pickyourpoison.ca/

This year was the 13th year Pick Your Poison was held. It was my 6th time finishing the 50k distance. I’ll be turning 65 in a couple of months, and it really seems like that the older I get each year, the course really does seem more physically demanding. With the race falling on the last Saturday of April each year, I never feel prepared. The important thing is to make the best of it. And enjoy the experience. I am extremely fortunate to have the health and strength to run these demanding ultras.

Coveted pair of Pick Your Poison socks I received at the finish line. Photo by my Twitter friend Kris.

It really is an amazing experience. And each year you never know what kind of conditions lay ahead. This year was the 1st year I have run Pick Your Poison in the rain. Though the rain wasn’t all that heavy compared to the week before at OUTrace Spring Warm-Up. Other years had their very own unique challenges

My 1st Pick Your Poison was 2016. The challenge that year was deciding at the 15k mark of the 25k distance I had registered for that I was going to run 50k. So I could accompany my niece Caron on her 1st 50k. I had not trained for 50k.
If I remember correctly, conditions at the 2017 Pick Your Poison was quite good. In my 6 years running Pick Your Poison, I had my best time that year at 7:02:49. Sunny, cool with ideal trail conditions. Photo with friend and ultrarunning legend Jess Heroux. Jess took the bus from Kirkland Lake that year (9 hours by bus). I picked him up in Barrie and drove him to the race. No longer able to drive, in 1993 Jess had an aneurism. And while on the operating table he had a stroke which almost took his life and left him paralyzed on the right hand side of his body. Undaunted, he fought hard so he could continue to run ultras despite his handicap. Jess has really been an incredible inspiration to me.
Two weeks prior to the 2018 Pick Your Poison we received close to 50 centimeters of heavy wet snow. Though a lot had melted by race day, there was still major sections of the course that was still snow covered.
At 4 am, four hours before the 2019 Pick Your Poison I looked out my living room window. It looked like a blizzard. The snow did stop by race time. That race was like running in a winter wonderland. Image Source Joe Smith.
With Covid-19, Pick Your Poison was cancelled both in 2020 and 2021. Runners had the option to defer their registration. Lockdowns here in Ontario began only 6 weeks before race day. This would have been so hard for the directors, as all the swag would have been ordered and paid for. Even with me deferring to another year, in 2020 a Pick Your Poison virtual was offered to claim a pair of those coveted Pick Your Poison socks. Which was very generous. I ran my 50k in the forests behind Hillsdale, incorporating lots of elevation to try to replicate the challenges of the real Pick Your Poison course. Ultra length virtual runs and relay runs such as the Monarch Ultra are definite accomplishments. But they don’t appear in a runner’s online ultrarunning history.
The 2022 Pick Your Poison was a hot day. Midway through my 1st loop I realized I should have been wearing shorts and not leggings. The biggest challenge was I was not at all mentally into this race. The year 2022 was a tough year as the church I pastored for 11+ years was closing. At the same time I was on the receiving end of several nasty online attacks on Facebook by non-church community members regarding the church closure. It pretty much destroyed me. Still off of Facebook, though am now linking articles there from my blog. It’s a tidy and touchless method. Allows me to post articles for people who might want to read them on Facebook, without me ever having to go back on that platform.
Three weeks before race day the Copeland Forest trail sections used for cross country skiing in the winter was glare ice.

Three weeks before this years Pick Your Poison I did a long training run in Copeland Forest. It also gave me the opportunity to check out a good portion of the Pick Your Poison course. The singletrack in the cool, dark pine forests still had spots with a bit of snow remaining. While the wider trails used for Nordic skiing in the winter months in Copeland Forest was glare ice. Moving on to where we were to traverse the tree-free alpine ski runs, the snow was extremely deep due to the tons of man-made snow blown on these hills to extend the alpine ski season. Then back into mostly single track in hardwood forests. These trails were predominantly snow free. Short, steep pitches and quick quad busting drops were the order for those last few kilometers to where I turned around at the top of that final ski hill which plummeted down to the Horseshoe Highland chalet. The start and finish line of Pick Your Poison on April 29th.

Lots of snow on the ski hill traverses 3 weeks before Pick Your Poison.

Normal temperatures are around 9 Celsius for that time of year. Soon we were experiencing temperatures close to 30 Celsius for 10 days straight. These kind of temperatures really give me major climate anxiety. A quote by climate scientist Peter Kalmus resonates with me during times like that. It goes, “It kills me when people and the media are like “Isn’t this great, it’s summertime in winter” No it’s NOT great, it’s horrifying. It’s like the death rattle of the livable Earth”. With those summer like temperatures, the course had dried up considerably by race day.

Near the same spot as the above photo. On race day this was the only bit of snow left on the course. I took this photo the day before when I picked up my bib.

On race day I was joined at the start line by my Twitter friend Kris. And Martin who is part of the Tuesday evening run club here in Hillsdale. Temperatures had returned to more seasonal. It was a pleasant +6 Celsius with light drizzle. We started off together and after about a kilometer I came alongside 74 year old ultrarunning legend Ronald Gehl. Kris and Martin went on ahead, I had the privilege of catching up with Ron. He doesn’t talk much about his accomplishments, but looking up his profile on Ultrarunning Magazine, since 1995 Ron has completed 263 ultras. Twenty two of these are 100 miles or more, with distances up to 640 miles. Ron did share with me he has been struggling with long Covid and unfortunately was still not himself. After a couple of kilometers I asked Ron if it was okay if I went on ahead. He encouraged me to do just that. We wished each other the best. That was the last I saw of Ron that day.

The only photo I have with ultrarunning legend Ronald Gehl was at the 2018 Limberlost Challenge.

My 2nd 12.5 kilometer loop was my most challenging. The wind picked up whipping up a a cold driving rain while I was running across the exposed ski hills. It was short lived, but I was very grateful I decided to wear my rain jacket. In time the rain reverted back to a drizzle. The volunteers were so friendly and helpful at the aid stations. Heading up to the 2nd aid station there were a lot of reports of runners seeing the Grim Reaper. Including myself. The race directors mentioned they didn’t see anything while they were clearing the course. So it was suggested we all must have been hallucinating it.

I guess I wasn’t the only one who saw the Grim Reaper on the course after all. There were reports of several other runners seeing him. A few even got photos. This was posted on the Pick Your Poison website on their race recap.
Another photo of the Grim Reaper. Image Pick Your Poison website.

The 3rd and 4th loop was simply one step at a time. And eventually I was descending down the ski hill descent my final time and across the finish line where I was presented those coveted Pick Your Poison socks. Everything went quite well on race day. Very happy also how my hydration and nutrition went. Martin finished 84 seconds ahead of me. Kris finished 12 minutes ahead of me. It was her 1st ultra finish. Unfortunately Ron Gehl didn’t make the hard cutoff time of 6 hours 30 minutes after the 3rd loop. Which was at the 37.5 kilometer mark. His 264th ultra will have to wait for another time. Out of 94 runners that started the 50k, 14 did not finish for various reasons. Looking at the race day stats there were 5 runners (including myself) over 60 years old that finished. Three finished ahead of me and one behind me.

Taken at the 2017 Pick Your Poison. My wife shot this picture (I’m in the centre) on my final downhill towards the finish.

Each of these ultrarunners in my age bracket have massive accomplishments. There was 60 year old Leon Vanderhoven. Since 2011, Leon has completed 40 ultras. Nine of those are 100 miles or more with distances up to 150 miles. There were two 61 year old Pick Your Poison finishers. The 1st being Larissa Chankseliani. Since 2014 she has completed an amazing 51 ultras. Six of those are 100 miles or more with distances up to 167 miles. The other 61 year old Pick Your Poison finisher was Jeff Simpkins. Since 1997, Jeff has completed 44 ultras. Of those, 18 are 50 miles in length and 8 were 100 miles in length. The next oldest finisher was the phenomenal 64 year old Iris Cooper. Since 2000, Iris has completed 111 ultras. Many of these are the toughest ultras on the world’s stage. Forty two of Iris’s ultras are 100 miles or more. Among them Western States, Bigfoot 200, Tahoe 200, Moab 240 and Badwater 135 (four times). The Badwater 135 consists of running 135 miles across Death Valley in July. It is sometimes referred to as “the world’s toughest footrace”. Pick Your Poison is a tough race for a 50k and attracts some incredibly strong runners.

Picture of the oldest finisher at the 2023 Pick Your Poison. My friend Martin is behind that runner in the front, chatting with my Twitter friend Kris (hidden behind that front runner). Image Sue Sitki Photo

The oldest finisher in the 2023 Pick Your Poison Trail Race was a 65 year old male. His ultra accomplishments pales in comparison to those other four 60 plus Pick Your Poison finishers. He is just so grateful to run and to share the course with such amazing ultrarunners. Pick Your Poison is extremely popular. It is a tough course. Each 12.5 kilometer loop has 385 meters (1250 feet) of climbing. That’s 5,000 feet of climbing and 5,000 feet of descending over 50 kilometers. It is very hard to get these kind of elevations in Ontario. Registration opens 5 months prior on December 1st. It sells out extremely quickly. You snooze you lose. Having this race practically in my own backyard, I’ll keep running it until I am no longer able to. Whatever age that might be. Thank you so much to race directors Trish Mintz, Rhonda Ingram-Empey and Chris Mintz for putting on such a great race. And also to the over 25 warm, friendly, encouraging volunteers who braved it out in the cold, drizzly weather. Thank you.

The oldest finisher here is holding up traffic on this steady climb. Over the span of 50 kilometers, there was approximately 5,000 feet elevation gain/loss. Image Sue Sitki Photo.
What goes up, must come down. The oldest finisher concentrating so he doesn’t do a faceplant while descending the ski hill at the end of loop 3. One loop to go. Image Sue Sitki Photo.

In a race do you prefer running alone? Or do you enjoy connecting with other runners on the race course?

There is a vast amount of information on any runners race history online. Do you sometimes check out other runners race history accomplishments?

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  1. Congratulations to the oldest finisher of the PYP ultra!! Well done, Carl!! That’s an amazing accomplishment and very inspiring!

    Thank you also for highlighting those other great runners. 40, 50, 100 and then Ron with over 260 ultras?! Stunning! People like that must have incredible grit and discipline.

    You look so happy in your photos, especially that one where Martin and Kris are chatting behind you. It’s clear that running in a forest in cool weather with nice people is your happy place.
    I love to chat with others during a race, it adds spice and colour to an event. And yes, I also check out the running history of some of the runners. It adds so much context: instead of just seeing Ron not finishing, you see all the ultras he’s done in the past and what a strong runner he truly is.

    I hope you get to run this race many, many more times. This race wouldn’t be the same without you!!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you so much for your kind words, Catrina. It was a wonderful day in my beloved Copeland Forest. A really well run event. Aways so nice to meet up with the other runners. Such well spoken about context. Everyone who knows Ron, knows how much grit and discipline he has. He is a machine.
      I do look forward to getting back there each year. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

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