“We need sometimes to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment no matter what.” – George Santayana
This quote is actually from a book about the philosophy of travel, but it resonates well with me in relation to running a long-distance race. Perhaps one day running long distances will get easier for me, but without exception, every distance run I’ve been on since 2012 has impacted me profoundly in some way. The Blackfoot Ultra 50k was no exception.
The day was cool and overcast with a slight wind – absolutely perfect conditions for running. I was experiencing the typical nervous excitement that is common before a race. All my senses were heightened; I had trained for many hours for this moment. When I took off from the start line, I felt my stomach drop out of my body and my mind go blank. Fortunately my legs still knew what to do.
The first 3km I kept pace with my significantly faster friend. It was nice to run with a familiar face at least for a while before he took off to later come in 25th place overall for the 50k. I was feeling really strong and kept up a faster than average pace for myself for the first 10-15km. The trail itself was conducive to this, considering it was simply small rolling hills, which seemed like nothing compared the the mountains I’d been training in. My pace slowed to my usual for the final 10km of my first lap, and I started to feel some fatigue in my legs, and minor pain in my lower back. At 25k I rolled through the start-line aid station with ease and gave out plenty of high-fives and huge grins, having run the lap in 2:57, which is a respectable 25k time for me.
And then it hit me. I had to do the whole 25km course all over again. I’m not sure if it was this knowledge that posed a mental block for me, or if I was just dehydrated, or lacking nourishment, or something else. But somewhere between the 25 and 30km mark I lost my head space and negative thoughts overcame me. I jogged into the 30km aid station seriously debating dropping off the course then and there. I had not suffered an injury but I felt throbbing pain all over my body from the bottoms of my feet, through my calves, quadriceps and low back. I hung out at the station stretching, eating, hydrating, holding back tears and having one of the greatest mental battles with myself of all time. To DNF or not to DNF. After 15 minutes or so I literally forced myself to just get out of there and start walking. I convinced myself that I could at least just walk to the 35km aid station, and drop out there if needed. The next ~5km I did a combination of walking with pitiful shuffling, sometimes jogging, and other times just stopping for 10 seconds to cry. But after a needlessly emotional 5km I suddenly started to feel better. Maybe I just needed a little time-out mentally, or maybe my body was legitimately feeling better after more food and drink, or some combination of the two. But at the 35km aid station I miraculously did not want to drop out of the race anymore.
From here, things only improved. My pace picked back up, my mood lightened, and I think I even started singing at one point. The body was still aching, but it didn’t seem to bother me as much. Was it the Advil I popped? Or was I just playing a big mental game with myself? Either way, the final kilometres seemed to pass in a blur. When I knew I was only 2km away from the finish line I started to run faster and faster, my determination boiling over. I imagined I was Kilian Jornet just casually sprinting down a mountain. I finally flew through the finish line and embraced my friends who were waiting to pass out hugs and dilly bars. The final time for my second lap was 3:54, a whole hour longer than my first lap. I crumpled to the ground in success or defeat, or both, and relished the opportunity to use my seat instead of my legs.
This Blackfoot Ultra 50k was significantly easier than the first 50k I completed last summer in Squamish, but I was much closer to dropping out of this race. In the end I am so glad I didn’t give up, and persevered through the toughest blockade: my mind. That day I can say I sharpened the edge of life, tasted hardship, and worked desperately for a moment. My running mantra still rings through my ears: “this is what you came here for”. I race for the feeling of success, but I hold dearest the moments in which my spirit nearly breaks, and I get to pick up the pieces. For these are the times I learn the most about myself, when I feel the rawest emotion and connect most deeply with my soul. This is why people will often refer to races like this that involve type 2+ fun, as “character-building”. I will register for more races again in the future for the opportunity to take part in a fun event surrounded by amazing athletes, but also for the opportunity to test myself and grow.
As a general follow-up piece of advice: if you’re not in top condition running ultra distances all the time, try not to register for other races within a week of your ultra. The Tuesday after my completion of the BFU I registered for a leg of the Banff Jasper Relay which was a 17km stretch involving 11km of downhill running on pavement. My legs were not recovered from the Blackfoot race and I really struggled on race day at the BJR. So badly, in fact, that I actually pulled myself from the race ~11km in to save my knees, and a teammate had to sub in. So just don’t do what I did. Let yourself heal before you sign up for the next challenge.
Now for a whole bunch of images of me. If you ran the Blackfoot Ultra this year, chances are that Ian took your picture as well. If you’d like to see if he has any, shoot me a message via my contact form and I’ll put you in touch. You can also check him out on Instagram at @irrationalcarny.