Hut Sweet Hut

Jumping all over “!Yes!” in answer to: “Would you like to head out for a couple of nights over Spring Break?”, I was In! Adventure through my first overnight winter back country ski trip was nailed. Two women, alone with the winter wilds of British Columbia mountains. What more could a girl ask for?!

Really, though, although the title of this story is Hut Sweet Hut – and there truly is a sweet, sweet, hut – this is the story of my winter, of finding a new friend and magnificent mentor and – most surprisingly of all – another good life turn well into the second half.

***

For the past couple of years I’ve dabbled in back country skiing, aka “ski touring” ,”uphill skiing”, “ski-mo” or “ski mountaineering” (the more “macho” version with ropes, harness, crampons and ice axes of which I am not-there yet). Basically, for me, it was the lure of traveling on skis, through the winter – outside of resort boundaries (I spend half my time in the resort town of Whistler) – getting after the quiet and untouched powder while, of course, gazing at vistas and talking to the trees.

The first time I tried it, I dragged along my husband, Michael, and our ski buddy, Dave. Although, previously, I had been invited out with a group of young’uns, “grab your skis! We’ll show you!”, I knew they would want to hang themselves by the time they got through a First Day with me. It’s hard to teach an old dog new tricks, and all that.

So, a thousand (or so) CAD later, we had a date with an Extremely Canadian guide and rented gear. The Guide was oh so “Cool” behind his Varnets, and, supremely fit (not that I noticed). On a bluebird April day he showed us the basics (“this is a skin”, “this is how you put them on”, “now get your jackets back on”… “and off”…). We got some absolutely glorious brag shots for FB. I was absolutely hooked. The Boys: not so much. “Why would I want to climb for 7 hours just for 30 turns?” Different strokes for different folks. I was on my own.

Totally worth it…right, Boys?

In all fairness, not everyone is into the endurance thing, and Dave is a hard working weekend warrior. His time is limited and he basically considers the day a waste unless he gets – minimum – 40,000 vertical feet of downhill in a resort day. I’m more a quality than quantity kind of gal (although some may beg to differ ;). But he does love powder and trees, and I do love chasing him. On a resort day with a big fresh dump of snow, there is no one more fun to be with. But being “on the clock” all the time – I know it’s all the rage to track everything all the time – but I’ve had enough of that already. Yeah, Stava?! Screw you 😉

My Boys

***

As some of you know, back country skiing is a little more like hiking (or trail running) than up-lifts-and-down-runs (aka “front country”, or “downhill” skiing). It is all the rage among mountain-snow-country trail runners looking for a way to “keep fit” and enjoy the winter snow while recovering from the physical and mental strains of ultra-running and competitions. The top guns do it, and it’s hard not to see a cross training article that doesn’t tout it’s virtues. It is said that you can “not step” into your runners for the whole winter but, rather, ski tour…then step right back into your runners in the Spring…without skipping a beat. Just volunteered at my 2nd ski-mo race: and straight from the mouths of local mountain babes, “this is waaaay harder than trail running”. They may have something there…

With hiking/trail running you use expensive runners – and lots of sweat – to scoot, hop, grunt (and occasionally even flow) up and down mountains. With touring you use expensive flexible ski boots, skis and bindings (with releasable heals)/skins – and lots of sweat – to travel uphill. You then rip your skins off, reattach your heals, and ski down those mountains. Same sort of scooting, hoping, grunting while ascending but lots more floooowwwwww descending. Both, as I mentioned, require buckets of sweat…but I must say, going downhill on skis is waaaaay more fun than flying down on runners. Hurts a hell of a lot less (usually 😉 when you end up with your head in snow (rather than dirt), too.

Don’t get me wrong, I love downhill skiing at Whistler. And I probably put in at least as many days with Dave and Michael, front country, this year. But there is a definite lure to the peace and quiet of heading outside the resort. A little bit of excitement in that everything is not nicely laid out and controlled for you. And fresh, fresh, turns everywhere as far as the eye can see.

Our Resort Ain’t Too Shabby Either

That being said, everyone who has listened to any news – at all – this winter probably realizes that back country “anything” carries risks. You can’t control weather, storms, visibility, avalanche conditions, equipment failures, accidents. You can, however, try to mitigate these risks. You can take the courses (I took Avalanche Safety Training 1 and 2, in six big days), spend a few days with Guides, build up the basic uphill skiing technique in bounds (ok, you got me: that’s against the Rules at WB), read the bulletins, stalk weather reports, pay attention out there, and back away when the hair on the back of your neck prickles. In the end, the most important thing of all (especially for a Newbie) is: when you “really go out”, go with an experienced mentor.

Practicing on Bunny Hills…literally…
The Rule.

***

J . My mentor (who I am gob smacked in awe of, in case you haven’t noticed), J arrived, magically, in the form of a Whistler mom, whom I had seen around, but never really connected with before. Our circles were kinda close, but never overlapped, until I took that AST 2 course, previously mentioned. Her son, a very mature 16 year old at the time, took the course with me. Rumour has it that “Mom” was looking for new touring partners. Kids were growing up and wanted to ski with their own way-cool friends and all that. I can’t remember if Kid set us up, “gotta find Mom a play date”, or if it was “the girls at the office” but, either way, it was kind of like a blind date our first day out. Yes, we Moms get ditched. And that’s not all bad… 😉

J comes from a family of Mountaineers. Summer/winter, all out real deal mountaineers. Sister, brother, cousins, Dad. The mountains are in her genes and her experience is from birth. She, in turn, mentored her two boys from early on and they have grown into fine, nearly ready to fly the coop, mountain men themselves. From what I understand, their Dad is a full-on Whistler guy (skier, biker, environmentalist, teaching skiing for at least 30 years, etc.) but perhaps not quite the back country royalty his wife is. J, I know you will be horrified by this fawning cause you would never brag on social media…like some of us 😉

***

Lots of Shiny New Things

So, as I mentioned, this is the year the back country bug really bit me. I’d practiced climbing (skinning) the mountain with a runner girl-friend who was there for the sweat – but not so much the downhill skiing – but now I had a rabid-for-powder-AND-sweating mentor to really move things along. Rad running coaches, Gary and Eric (a USA Ski Mountaineering star himself) gave me their blessing to really chill on the running, even after I had taken the better part of over 3 months to recover from what can only be labelled as burn-out now. With their blessing, I’d run very little and ski to my heart’s content. For the whole winter.

***

J and I had some amazing single days out there. This winter generally was cold – very cold – for the Wet Coast Mountains (I know you folks from PG and the prairies are laughing). But cold brought fluffy snowflake pillows for us to flow and fall over. The stuff ski dreams are made of.

Prairie Weather
For Real.

J was (and is) insanely patient. I was always slowing the operations up: tongue hanging out, breathing heavy, steaming my goggles and barely hanging on to her machine-like uphill pace. J, tethered to me, slowing down, eventually stopping and patiently waiting, then moving on again. If I wasn’t gasping, snorting (probably snotting too), or fussing with some part of my equipment, I was often splatted like an half-dead bug on some vertical something (she probably thought it was horizontal), barely clinging on, one set of toes pointed NW and the others pointed SE. She would walk back, and get me out of the mess.

I was like her kids when they were little: but bigger, clumsier, and not nearly as clever. I thought for sure…each time… would be the last she would put up with it. She showed me pity, though, yay. Amazingly, “we” persevered and quite a few times reaped the reward of champagne powder. I am not BSing when I say that – several times – while chasing downhill, I lost her in the cloud of snow. Yes – that snow over your head and neck feeling. There isn’t really much on this earth that can touch that kind of exhilaration.

Yep, but the flipside of the stuff of ski dreams is the stuff of occasional frostbite. And I went there, unfortunately did that. I had to learn how to transition more efficiently (I’m still so slow) so we wouldn’t freeze to death. You see, you sweat up the hill and need to control your layers so you don’t get too wet. Then, at the top, you need to relayer, transition your skis/skins so the standing and windchill heading down don’t get you. And repeat. And repeat. And repeat…

You don’t really “break” with J. You (ok, I) gulp water and stuff food in your face and try to grab a picture when you can (J is not much into pictures, hence absolutely no, none, nada skiing brag shots like the boys get), and transition. I guess this part is kind of like trail running (I just pray more for breaks with touring). Fortunately, we both whoop and holler heading back down into the fluff. J is efficient and never in a frenzy, but she gets just as excited heading down as I do. That adrenaline rush is addicting. The fluffy sweet icing on the cake.

I also had to learn to kick turn my way up steeper and often treed, sometimes icy/rocky slopes. This is where a lot of the bug splatting occurred. Patient J has taken to watching for ascending routes to cater to my newbieness. We’re better to go a half hour off our route than fish me out of some potentially dangerous flounder, she figures, I am sure. For this…I am sooo grateful.

Really, she taught me how to walk, how to turn around, how to get up, how to eat, how to drink, how to dress, how to stay warm, how not to roast. “We” had survived and I guess I didn’t annoy her quite enough to go running back to her menfolk. Thought my smile might break my face when she outright complimented me on my downhill skiing (ok, so I can do something half-assed) and noted that, last year, there would have been No Way I could have kept up to her where we were going. Yay! Now she was going to teach me to…

Winter Camp. This was totally outside of my reality realm, too. I had skied lots, but always returned to a nice warm house, cabin, or hotel afterwards (and before). I was a credit card/lodge sort of a gal. Heck, I hadn’t even summer back country hiked, except for one time last summer with Jane and friends. I borrowed my son’s school camping backpack and packed so heavy and awkwardly I was almost crushed. Clueless, but at least in the summer the cold won’t kill you. Although I shivered through the night…more on that later.

Add to that, was my all-too-real awareness that Jane liked to go long and hard. We didn’t start at 9 and finish at 3, like a lift day. Dawn till Dusk: bring your headlamp! After one day with J , I was flattened for the night: how the hell was I going to do Three In A Row? Fortunately, I had done some pretty stupid things in the name of long distance running before – and survived – so with that “wisdom”, on we forged.

First of all, I had to go shopping: I’d had a ton of trouble with my equipment over the past 2 years. Patient J had put up with all the holdups, but she stated – flat-out – that we could not have that happening 8 or 12 hours out in the Bush. Bindings, skis, skins, all of my stuff had been a Pain In The Ass. Of course I blamed the operator, the newbie (me), but one by one it turned out that I actually had enough bad luck to have picked up 3 lemons. Trying the skis Dave had recommended, I continued on to test 3 different setups over 3 weekends. Then I bought my New Loves. The difference was absolutely amazing (I think even J would agree with that). My credit card may be burning hot, but so is my skiing now 😉 Heehee…

I also had to search deep into my soul and buy some serious cold protection. Speaking with quite a few folks, including a winter running friend, Scott, who does those crazy run/bike/sled, at – 40 something events, I guiltily purchased a down sleeping bag and down jacket. As a vegan, this was tough. Very tough. After coming to the conclusion that nothing was warmer or more compressible than down, I researched the hell out of it, and chose Patagonia as having the highest level of animal “welfare” (triple layers of independent inspection) I could find. I was sickened by live plucking and force feeding – the horrifically inhumane practice of production factory farming – for down. But (and I don’t like buts, but)…I knew I wouldn’t do well if I was injured and had to spend a day in the snow – immobile – while help came, especially when I damn near froze sleeping in a tent and sleeping bag last August (ok, not really, but in my mind that was the case). I don’t have a lot of natural insulation…and when I stop…well…

***

We looked at two routes: the final determination would be based on weather and avi conditions, closer to the days of travel. If we were to travel the Spearhead, the conditions would have to be perfect: bluebird days for navigation and cold enough that avi danger wouldn’t rise with solar warming (Spring skiing major risk). There were crevasses to watch out for, and I would need some crash learning (she was thinking about getting her youngest son and me together for some review). We would need to carry a tent and sleep in the snow. How scary and cool – and heavy – is that?

***

The other option would be a small Hut she had travelled to earlier in the year. She loved it, skiing there had been fabulous, and crevasses would not be an issue. As the weather started to deteriorate, fate chose the Hut.

Shhhhh…

Now, Dear Readers, I am going to tell you right now, that I cannot tell you the name of the Hut as Back Country Tribal Law dictates that you will be thrown out of your Tribe if you blab. Social Media makes it damn hard to be part of a tribe, right?

***

Constant stalking of avalanche.ca and weather forecast sites

I followed J’s trip planning checklist to a T. Finalized the emergency contact plan and synced up the satellite devices. Got the food sorted. Packed as lightly as I could, then re-packed lighter. Weight matters a lot. Ladies: count your TP and be prepared to wear the same clothes for 3 days. You don’t need separate shampoo, hand, and dish washing soap. One small tube of sunscreen will take care of ALL of your skin needs. Facecloth will do for all your towel needs. Sporkatula and mini grizzly killing knife (which you will have in your mini-tool kit for your equipment anyway) will take care of your kitchen and weapon requirements. I was not about to repeat the summer fiasco.

Yep.

***

We decided to leave a day early as our Spring Break company was leaving then, so why not get at’r. March 24 through 26, 2019. Timing was good as it meant I could get back to work, afterwards, as was needed for instructor shortages. I was to drop my son’s friend, Jai, at the shuttle to catch his flight back to Vermont (and then on to represent Australia in a freestyle skiing world event in Sweden) at 4:15 a.m. The best laid plans.

At 3:45 a.m., I padded down the stairs to wake Jai up. I knew my pack was upstairs by my list – in the kitchen – waiting for last minute reminders and food packing. I would have plenty of time between dropping Jai off at the shuttle bus at 4:15 a.m. and meeting Jane at 7:30 a.m. at her place in Whistler, to do the last minute things I wanted to get done before abandoning my family – again.

Ears perking up…I heard water running. Holy Moses…could Jai be up and showering already? What a great teen, right? Until…I realized it was NOT the shower. Screeching at my sleeping husband, I realized the water was coming from our washing machine: from the water hookup, a fire-hose-like gush had filled my ski boots, soaked my jacket, vest, 1/3 of the lower floor of the house…

Anyway. After shutting off the water, getting out the wet vac, etc. poor Jai did get to the shuttle with Michael…for 4:15 a.m. He left some of his stuff, but at least got his gear and tickets.

My boot liners went into the dryer as did my wet jackets. I used one of the boys’ snow boots that, miraculously, did not get soaked for the car portion of the trip. Thankfully my nearly stuffed pack (complete with down, which does not soak well) was upstairs!

More thanks: that we were home when the flood happened. That I had to get up in the middle of the night…and found the flood. That it was only – maybe – a 15 minute flood: I shudder to think what a day or two would have done and well know that at any other time it would have been a true disaster. Those of you who know us, well know we are not home in Whistler much…

***

My heart and mind racing, I got down to the business of moving things upstairs and starting the drying process. My anxious mind thought, ever so briefly, about bailing on the trip but my go-to response, throughout life, has always been “when shit happens, put your head down and carry on”, so I did. My mostly easy going husband, Michael, was fine with taking care of the aftermath (you are a God Send, Honey). After 3 hours of full house hustling, Michael went back to bed and I, car fully loaded, went to start the car.

You know what they say about things happening in threes?

Two. I was going to make it in time. Amazing. 8 minutes away from Jane, I turned the ignition. Clunk. I tried to turn the ignition again. Heart rate up, I started to panic a little: friggin’ car! Once a year or so, it just won’t turn. (Yes, I’ve looked into it, but no explanation, just a quirk.) Running upstairs to get poor husband out of bed again, he padded down and got the thing going. At this point, I had texted Jane…she was calm as usual and, in the end, our rendezvous was only held up by 15 minutes. Thank You, Lord.

***

An hour + drive “up the Duffey” later, we parked my car. Wow…we were here! I was momentarily struck with a mix of anticipation and joy mixed with a bit of an anxiety-hangover after what the past day had wrought. It was a beautiful morning, and if I could just get going, I knew all would be well once we started kick-swishing up the mountain. I knew we’d settle into the weight of the heavy packs (or at least I hoped) and into easy conversation along with the mesmerizing beauty of the mountains that lay before us. My fumbling around to get going was taking even a little longer than usual, but we did manage to get me loaded up, the car locked, and hiked down to the slippery little bridge we needed to cross. It was the gateway to paradise, and I clumsily (but dryily, thank you) made it over. We started the kick-swishing. It was here that, the promised…

Three. …happened: into the first slippery climb, my back heal slipped out. I thought I had it (with the other heal), but before the thought was complete, my other heal was gone, and I was smacking my forehead onto the hardpacked ground. Not wanting to tell J I was seeing stars, I held still for a few moments, catching my breath, and assessing my aliveness. All parts there, breathe. More embarrassing than anything, it woke me up and kicked my ass (through my hard skull). Get on your game, Newbie. She told you – a thousand times – Use Your Arms. This pack is heavy, you are going to need to beef it up. I think I finally got it, Loud & Clear.

***

Things went nicely after this. The climb eased off, we were surrounded by our beloved trees, and yes, we settled into the saddle. Bypassing a cabin, we stopped for a super mellow lunch break. It was here, that in hindsight, I realized that J was taking it easy on me. I followed her up a steeper, long climb. Head down, it was getting warm, and we were getting into it. The reward: spectacular views and total immersion in the glory of nature.

Getting into It

The next few hours were spent moving through sticky sun-baked snow, stopping only to make navigation decisions, always keeping an eye on avalanche slopes, primarily to our left (south). Many had already run, but it was eerie nonetheless. We crossed a frozen lake and headed up and away from those slopes into the protection of the trees. Another downward funnel (with some consternation from both of us that some – gasp – snowmobilers had already poached it) and we hit a logging road. This would make for an easy skin to our next challenge: a very scary avalanche path, which we would take great pains to go way out of the way to avoid.

Leadership Qualities

J does exactly what we talked about in class: as a strong group leader, she goes at the pace of the slowest member of the group (that being me, obviously), frequently regroups to make decisions with equal input from all members, then checks to make sure everyone is doing ok along the way. She knows her avalanche stuff, and respects my rookie book knowledge. In this spot, however, she took over: we made our way down a treed section running right (but safely protected) alongside the big avalanche path, even though it was tough going and would require at least as much tough going to get around and back up to where we needed to get to to continue along to our destination. When crossing the actual path – way down and around – we moved one by one: J first, then looking back to signal to me when she was safely in the trees.

You had better believe that I booted it across there as fast as my skis could take me. I’m not sure I even breathed but, still alive, I was happy as hell to move on, no matter how tough the climb to get back up on course. The climb was ok and soon we were back in the trees. The next section was marked with flagging tape. We think, now, those snowmobilers may have been working, rather than just poaching “our” snow, to flag that section.

Seems to me that rather soon after that, we had popped out into a meadow (or over a swamp – hard to tell in the winter) and J announced that we were close to The Hut. We just had to find the dang thing in this sea of white and trees. A short time later…Jane spotted the flag. A tiny red speck to show us the way.

Maybe?

It was 8.5 hours into our hike when, honestly, I gasped and squealed with delight at the sight of the Hut. Half buried in snow, difficult to see from all but the front (Canadian flag side) it was more than I could have ever expected. A proper adorable cabin in the total Canadian wilderness. There was a designer outhouse, wood stacked underneath the overhangs of the roof, antlers over the door, and a frozen lake within a few feet. Towering avalanche slopes to the left, and more majestic mountain summits to the right. I now felt I could gawk to my heart’s desire.

Hut Sweet Hut
Skip To My Loo

Night One. Having done this for Ever, J got right down to organizing us, even though I was still a bit stunned with the gorgeousness of it all. Into the hut, get the packs off, get the stove going, heat things up cause the cold and dark and fatigue would set in soon enough. The cabin did have luxuries for sure: stacked dry wood inside, a nice wood stove, a propane stove (truly a luxury), a proper counter top, dryer racks, hooks and ropes, a lovely sleeping loft with big soft foamies. There were also wine glasses (who knew?) and fresh coffee beans from a previous fan. Dish soap, cloths, towels, buckets for water. Cards, candles, guest books with entries through the years. It was lovely.

No power, no running water, but that’s what headlamps and axes (to get water from frozen lake) and buckets are for. While J got the fire going, she had me scoop snow to melt in a big pot on top of the woodburning stove. We would save the axing of the lake until after skiing the next day. Boot liners and skins out and hung to dry. Packs emptied and dinner ingredients out, while the next days’ food was hung to hold off the mice for a while.

Big puffy Cabin Booties on. Borrowed from J’s son, I had no clue such ingenious footwear existed! They squish into your pack, puff up like marshmallows, are snowproof/water resistant and prevent damage to cabin floors. Good for chopping wood, getting water, doing anything in the cabin and trips to the loo.

Puffy Cabin Booties
Soon to Be Boiled Snow

Before you knew it, we were polishing off J’s from-scratch couscous, tofu, veggie and pesto dish. I’m not sure if I’ve ever had a better dinner but, as you probably know: cold, real hunger and fresh air make Everything taste fantastic. Cookies for dessert and oh my goodness, felt like a baby bear with a big belly. And a Big Smile.

Loft and Super Amazing Sleeping Bags
Skins and Boot Liners Drying
Dining by Lantern

Dishes efficiently “washed” in the snow, more water boiled for the a.m. I could barely keep my eyes open. The last thing I remember that night was Jane reading by headlamp, my leaving booties at the foot of the ladder, and tucking into my new -20C down sleeping bag with my damp gloves (Jane assured me that was the best way to get them dry. Again, who knew your own body could act like a “dryer” in a good sleeping bag?)

***

Burning (of the first three digits) on my right hand woke me – briefly – at midnight. They were pretty wet and cold during the day (and frost nipped earlier in the winter) so I may have done some temporary damage. Too tired to bother to look…the next thing I knew, we awoke to daylight…12.5 hours later! Now THAT’s a good night’s sleep 😉

***

***

Day Two. Sun shining through the window and glistening off snow was a great motivator get out of the pillowy softness/warmth of my amazing sleeping bag and out into the chilly hut. The promise of great skiing prompted us to skip the fire, instead quickly layering up, chowing down, coffeeing up, and stuffing packs with the usual avi/emergency stuff (beacons, shovel/probe, satellite devices, warm clothes, food, etc.), lunch (day 1, 2, 3 sandwiches), snacks (most of our ski fueling was nuts/dark chocolate/c-raisins in one form or the other), and water.

Getting at’r

Jane had already spotted terrain she wanted to take on, the day before, while we were travelling in. J was always, always, doing that: quietly analyzing, noticing, observing. While I zoned, she was most likely navigating, or scheming best-lines, or simply filing information away for future trips.

Covering Our Tracks

Since it was Spring, our main concern was solar warming of slopes (and rain). Warmth means heavier snow: heavy snow avalanches. She lead us towards a North slope, with a fairly steep, heavily treed and technical climb. For me: very technical. After several of the aforementioned “bug splats”, we arrived at the top of our intended “line”. Gorgeous, however the snow was not the fluffy stuff we had hoped to find. Still whooped and hollared all the way down, but back at the base, J took us back to the easier climb and more familiar slopes.

Navigator

We spent the rest of the day there. Simply spectacular. Jane laid a track up, and I followed in happily obedient order. Never crossed a track. Grinning and floating, we opened into bowls, squeezed back into the treeline, and finally planted ourselves at the base…and repeat. I think 3 more times? The day, regrettably, flew by.

Farming It

At one point I was a little spooked when I spotted what looked to me like weird moving snow. “Jane…do you see that?” “Where?” Pointing hard ahead and further up the summit, she spotted it, too. “Just the wind.” Clouds were coming in and the wind was blowing so hard off the summit that it was taking snow dust off like low boiling clouds. I had never seen such a thing: all I knew was that warming + wind + cornices could equal big trouble (and big avis) so it took me a minute or two of frozen gawking before I could settle that “fight or flight” instinct. It was all good. Good to have such an experienced partner!

Endpoint

We had a little difficulty finding the Hut on our way back. Later that night, I would read some of the log entries in the Hut Journal, and found we were not the only ones who had struggled with that. The terrain is like a tricky, tiny detailed puzzle. We went right past it, circled around and came back in – the opposite way we went out!

Pretty Birds

Standing just off the lake we were able to watch with amazement at the little birds who made their homes (and garden) around the outhouse. Pretty little things (one was actually red/orange – we called her Rosy Finch – but she was a grosbeak) they were digging for bugs on the trees and totally enchanting us. As far as we knew, these were the only critters out there (haha). Us and the Birds. Again, the log would reveal to us that the owners had been followed in by a pack of wolves (they were travelling with dogs). We didn’t even spot mice in the hut. Hung our food, but no problems at all.

Rosy

Back at the cabin, Jane got us to “doing the chores”. Fun chores. Not like being at home chores 😉 Jane chopped ice encased cut-wood from under the roof extensions, threw them out to me, where I could chip off the ice. From there, she would organize the wood inside the Hut, while I kept chipping. I cut stairs down into the Hut (snow stairs need to be constantly tended to) while she chopped kindling. I gathered snow – to melt, while she got the pot-bellied fire going. We both went down to the lake to cut a hole in the ice and gather nice brown water. Within a short while we had refilled and stacked the woodpile in the Hut, fixed up the stairs, fetched water in one form or the other for the night and the next day, got the cabin warming (along with our stuff hung to dry) and dinner almost ready.

Womens’ Work
Nice Mineral Water 😉

We knew – from the forecast when we left Whistler – that a storm was coming. Sure enough, the flakes started and the wind started to increase just when darkness started to envelope us. Our two-hour fire had warmed the cabin and with J’s cabin kitchen prowess, we were cozy as could be and chowing down on another marvelous chili themed dinner. Perfect for adding Michael grown hot chili peppers. J passed on the hot stuff so, not wanting to carry them back, the whole caboodle was thrown into my dish. (Yum. I have to thank my Indian BFF, Uni friends, and New Mexican relatives for my devotion to all things hot in cuisine.) Anyway, another perfectly lovely dinner, with great company and the promise of another great snooze. Shortly after pouring over the map and making plans for our last day (which could be altered depending on snowfall) it was shut-eye.

Yummmm.

Michael’s Chilis

***

This night two, I awoke several times to Hut “shaking”. Heading out to the loo, the storm was clearly on, and I was thankful we were low and covered in snow. For a very brief moment, I wondered if there would be a door when we woke up. This was kind of ridiculous: the storm wasn’t predicted to be that big, but with excitement (imagine the skiing!!!) and trepidation (imagine the avalanche risk) my night-time mind went a little wild. In spite of that, morning came. We could get out the door. And yes, there was fresh snow!!!

***

Pow.

Day Three had arrived. No fire again, we layered up (thankful, once again, for my down jacket!!) and got down to the business of getting after that fresh powder! Safety and timing in mind, we had to balance our need to ski with the need to get back to the car – preferably before dark. Even with me as an anchor, Jane figured we could ski till 11:00 and still have time to fully pack up and sweep our way back out the door. Although it took us 8.5 hours to trek in (time on skis), she figured 5 hours back (maybe 5.5). I was a little skeptical: I knew she could probably do it in 3.5, but it was the “me” element that was the wild card. I could get us into some predicaments – for sure.

Up We Go 😉
Born for It

Still snowing, we got back after it again, wasting no time looking for North slopes today. Tracks covered from the day before, we headed right back for the goods. It was as hoped: long lines, rooster tails, and grins galore. What a glorious morning 😉 We were Very Lucky People.

And Over There…
Ladies Who Lunch
So Much Fluff Today!
Ohhhmmmmm……

***

At the stroke of 11 a.m., we were back at the Hut, finishing our housekeeping and packing. Jane had taught me everything about cabin etiquette while we were there: conserve wood, water, fuel. Re-fill/stack firewood, mind the outhouse rules (for example, burn your TP in the two-hour-fire or pack it out), don’t leave food for critters to be tempted by, fix the stairs, unless you ate it pack out everything you brought in. Leave the place a little cleaner, little more swept than when you came in. Read and follow the listed rules. And, of course, leave a note and donation for the amazingly generous owner.

Such a privilege to be able to borrow a Hut such as this one. Still can’t believe it. And to have it to ourselves? Crazy luck. So grateful.

Since we had started the pack-up the night before, and being that it was such a short trip, we were all skinned/saddled up by 11:30. Snow falling lightly, the visibility started to deteriorate, but looking towards J, she wasn’t one bit worried. In awe of her navigational skills, I had total trust. She backed us right out of there. Across the meadows and back into the flagged forest. Down and over and up and around the worst of the avalanche paths. Up the logging road, then the gully. Back up and into the trees to stay cautiously away from the big naturally sloughing avi slopes, this time to our right. Back over the lakes.

The afternoon warming was making travel tougher. I noticed lots of cracking in the snow, but J pointed out that this was not dangerous cracking (we had been warned about cracking in our AST courses). Still, it motivated me to keep right on her tail, not to dilly-dally or hold things up. Then, as soon as it had started (the warming), the weather changed: cold headwinds had us both heads down and locked into a determined, relentlessly-forward-moving unit.

A moraine (no, not a moron)

Wind had scoured across a moraine we needed to bypass making it icy and difficult to grip. I was very, very pleased with my new skins. For the first time, I was able to keep going without having to wince, whine or contemplate taking skis off. For the very first time I was able to take the lead. At the summit we ducked over to the only wind shelter we could find. The hard work was done… and (famous last words)… it was all downhill from there.

I can’t begin to say how exhilarating those last slopes down past Cabin 1 were. We traded off watching each other, ever mindful of the avi risk, but it (the risk) could not take away the sheer joy of that hour. We stopped to look at the moraines before the very last powdery thrill. Heck, I didn’t even know what a moraine was before this trip, now I was practically an expert. Haha. 😉

***

We knew it was going to be an hour – maybe less – to get back to the car from there. On the way up, two days earlier, J had been scouting out our route home: hopefully an improvement over our path up. We were going to watch for “the bend and the flag-pole ship mast”. Murphy, of course, had other plans: we got a little turned around and had to bushwhack for a while. Of course in my anxious little mind, we were hopelessly lost… J, of course, like a tracking torpedo, got us back.

We ran into our first humans in 3 days (two girls) and made them take our picture. Duffus picture, but we have one, anyway. 10 minutes later we ran into our second group of humans (3 guys). I couldn’t help but smile thinking about how much fun they were going to have in that cabin.

Survived the Bushwacking

***

Well, my story is coming to an end. The rest of the trip out ended up taking twice as long as expected. The warming over the past few days at the lower elevation had done a number on the trail. There was a LOT of pushing. 50 yards from the end, I caught a small (but deadly) stick stump, spun around and fell backwards into a ditch. One ski (and pack) basically locked under a log and other ski pointing towards the sky. Crap. Jane was long gone, and here I was turtled all up. Finally managed to get the tips-up ski off, wrangled out of my upside-down-ness and got the other ski off. When just about re-stomping into my skis, Jane had sauntered back to find out what the heck was taking me so long, again.

Red-faced, I was kind of done. Again, my heroine showed me the light: the bridge (the gateway to paradise) was a few feet away, hidden around the bend. A little unsteady across the bridge, I was nervous about falling through the deteriorating snow. Yes, Jane helped me across. She hopped ahead, warning me that the snow was rotten and, calling back, “walk in the high centre, think light thoughts”. Of course I post holed through – up to my crotch – about 2 dozen times. My stupid skis (it had been a love affair up till then) would not stick together and kept falling apart on my shoulders. Jane came back to help, but this time I refused. I do have some pride (ok, not much, but a few molecules) and finally made it up and back to the car.

***

What an amazing trip.

***

Feeling suddenly elated, the drive back was easy. Although it had stormed all the way through our trek back, the lower elevations enjoyed warm clouds and some rain. Easy highway drive. Even the thought of heading back to Vancouver (work the next day) couldn’t stress. You know: that feeling when everything is right with the world.

***

I can’t – ever – thank J enough for her generous sharing of time, knowledge, experience, patience, and humour. J, you are Amazing, Woman!!!

Fully aware that not everyone has the crazy good support of their families like we do: Big Hugs to our Kids and Husbands, too!

XO

***

***

One always measures friendships by how they show up in bad weather.
Winston Churchill

***


******







The Year that Wasn’t…

It was there, finally, in sight…

…the finish line of my last ultra marathon of 2018. Unlike any other event behind me, there was no joy, no excitement, simply an impatient… get. this. over. with.

The season shouldn’t have been like this. The event was in a magical setting: my home turf of Whistler. The weather was nasty: just like I like it. The hills were technical and steep: just like I like it. My favourite Race Director and his Team had struggled against what seemed like impossible roadblocks to bring it on (including grizzlies and incoming winter): and there it was. The dream race.

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But…and no good things come from “buts”… but I wasn’t there. By I, I mean my heart, my energy, my excitement. It had disappeared and I hadn’t even realized it was gone. I had been fooling myself. Fake it till you make it

I’m just starting to process it. The “it” being the whole past year. The way I have been feeling. The results I’ve had. Talking with my coach, it finally all came blurting out: the realization that I’ve been struggling this year: struggling mightily, struggling stubbornly, struggling blindly, struggling under the radar.

Mine is a cautionary tale, one I will tell not because I want or need reassurance, or sympathy or anything else but rather, to help “sort it out”. Writing at the end of a season has always been a reward for me.  As a closet introvert, I find putting pen to paper often exhilarating…but this year…well, it’s a different year. Perhaps my story will help someone else. Reflecting on this, that person may choose to, more wisely, change course.

In a way, it was the year that wasn’t.

The previous year in running had been amazing: I kept it to three events, all out of the country. I was out of my league, and dancing along each step. It didn’t matter to me where I placed. I just wanted to experience each event, to breathe in the sweet air, experience the highs and lows of a few good events. The final, September 2017, was the magical Italian Tor des Geants. I was one of 52% of lucky finishers. It was a mind-blowing experience. That year I experienced 550 km of racing plus travelling and training. I had met people who ate events like the TDG for breakfast, who opened my eyes to a big new world.

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Not sure when I came off that high,

but fairly soon after returning home I started making plans for the next year. I wanted more. My family insisted I stick closer to home. Travel and events are exciting but they disrupt the “order” of things: kids, spouse, pets, jobs, houses.

“Fine”,  I thought, so I simply picked events close to home. Before I knew it, I had signed up for a 2018 May road marathon, a June 1/2 marathon (road/trail) and a hefty trail 100 km, an iconic July 50 km, an August back-to-back 50 miler/50km and a 120 miler, and then…if anything left for late September… a 110 km in our beloved Whistler. Yes, it would be close to home, it would be somewhat repetitive (in that I’d done several in previous years), but it would be easier on all the players, including my MAC (Most Awesome Crew) who had agreed to party in Manning Park. The mileage would potentially surpass 2017, which delighted the hell out of me. I’d become a junkie…and I wanted More.

During planning, if I had been listening – really listening – I would have heard the quiet “choke” in my coach’s voice. But I wasn’t listening. They trusted that I had used good judgement in the past, and that I would communicate if the going got rough with training. The deal was that I was to honestly lay it all out as we went along.

So, with that, I happily went barrelling towards the winter. Winter is usually another big high for me. Snow and skiing: my family, friends and I relish it. Running would be put onto the back burner and left to 3 or 4 days of the week. Shorter runs – usually in the dark of the city, around my family, part-time work, travel back and forth from Van to Whistler and regular strength training. I also took up backcountry skiing, complete with Avalanche Safety training (6 days overall), and started regular uphill grunts with a friend, and had some incredible days of “real” backcountry adventures with a new found – and very experienced – friend.

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What I chose to ignore was the other drops in my stress bucket. Our 15 year old son had experienced a concussion in the summer of 2017 (yes – skiing). He wasn’t recovering “on schedule”. By late October, we were advised to pull him from school. He was plagued with headaches, lack of energy, inability to focus, memory issues, spiking anxiety and panic attacks, followed by depression. Life was an endless calendar of appointments, a worrying whirl of concerns, and yes…downright fear on my part. When a member of your family is threatened with health concerns, well…let’s just say it’s just damned tough to be calm. But you must fake it till you make it

When it rains it pours.

Yes, there was more. Our girl teen was struggling and in some real trouble. Just when there was little energy, or patience, or attention left, there was a truly scary turn in our first born’s life. Endless drama, except it wasn’t a drama. She (hence we) were treading on dangerous ground. It Was Real.

We sought professional help. It would not be an exaggeration to say if an hour wasn’t filled with  worry, contention, or some sort of emotional explosion, there was an appointment to be driven to.

Each person copes differently.  I began working on all the things I had to do to keep my sanity (cause if Momma ain’t happy, ain’t no one happy)…one of which was running…and skiing…

Engine Low.

I did not fully recognize it at the time. The things that normally stabilize and recharge me were starting to fail. I was able to keep up skiing, but didn’t feel my usual “umph” and strength. I ski with the boys, and what I lack in size, I usually make up for in power. I felt no excitement in extra runs, in challenging new terrain, in racing for the first turns. I looked forward to the quiet of the backcountry, but even that was fraught with frett.

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It was far more noticeable with my new backcountry experiences. These were hours-long climbs capped off with exhilarating turns and then a rush to beat the dark home. I found myself in an unusual position: I was the one “at the back”, struggling to keep up, thankful for any little break in the day. There was No Way I would reveal this (not wanting to be a pain in the ass and so thankful for the amazing mentorship), but it was tough. I explained it away to myself logically: there were techniques to be learned, constant avi awareness and decisions to be made. These were tough but necessary. I was fighting with new and finicky bindings which were a real PIA. Fake it till you make it.

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With running, again,  I didn’t recognize it, but my mid-week city runs (which were shortish and not technically challenging) didn’t give me the “hit” of endorphins I had come to depend on. Instead, I was forcing myself out the door. Out into the dark, the rain, the…ugh. No doubt, my training log did not reflect this. Smile, get on with it. There’s much to do so enjoy the time you have away. First world problems. Fake it till you make it.

April…

brings a changeover from skiing to running.

May…

Our son, who had been struggling since late June 2017 with that same damned concussion, was back at school. Since he had lost most of the school year, we were thankful for the support we had from his school, but…he wasn’t out of the water yet and he was anxious about having lost the year. We would take one day at a time and, along with all the professionals, had started to look into his “options” for the following year.

Our other family struggles levelled somewhat, but they had left us frayed and shaken.  Thankfully, they were no worse. We were ok. We had help. We were lucky. One day at a time. Fake it till you make it.

The first of my running events was planned for the first weekend in May. Not long to seriously train for a road marathon, but good enough to get the season going. I was a bit  disappointed in my result (it was off by 15 minutes) but, hey, I was barely off the snow.

June…

Two events. I didn’t feel excitement for the first and was, in fact, feeling kind of cranky and impatient with training partners for this off-the-grid event. It was what it was, but looking back at it now, I wasn’t me. Just could not get into it. Fake it till you make it.

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The other was a shorter event, combined with a family get-away on Vancouver Island. It was ok, but again, I felt that edge of tension that I had not known in previous years. At the finish line I discovered an error in timing. I, gasp, challenged the Director (politely of course). Not “me”: usually I could care less how I place. Usually, I would be grinning so hard at the finish line that the booby prize would have kept me high for a week.

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July…

This one I just couldn’t fake. My results were terrible. No…they really were. I was half an hour off previous years. Waves of anxiety had racked me the two weeks before the event. I simply could not pull the power I needed to even try to give what was required. For the first time, I wish I had heeded my fears and not shown up to the start-line.

August…

OK…this was where my running was supposed to get “Real”: two events, both big and within one week of each other.

All things were leading to the first, the 120 Miler in Manning Park. Of all the events I’ve had the privilege to train and run, the “Hundee” was the icing on the cake. I had, previously, done a 100 Miler, a 120 Miler, and a 200 Miler, and these were really where I wanted to be. I loved the highs, the lows, the digging deep, the chance – even with no talent and no youth – to dig into your grit, rise up, and keep plowing forward. I LOVED them. The shorter stuff – really just training runs necessary to get to where I wanted to be. Training for them supplied me with the regular endorphin hits this junky requires.

If all went well, I planned to follow the 120 Miler up – one week later – with a popular and challenging back to back 50 miler followed by a 50 km. A few had done it before…but very few. However, I will never know how it would have panned out as…

…the 120 Miler was cancelled. After a week of changes and revisits, and communications with crew and runners and volunteers, the Race Director was forced to halt the event due to fires. Man, did I fake it through that: revising each new course change and communicating cheerily with my crew, I suffered horrible waves of race anxiety. And then it was Over. Just like that. I may have dodged a bullet.

Hindsight is golden, but my reaction to this cancellation should have been recognized as another red flag: I could have cared less in the end. Other runners looked frantically for other races or attended the park to run where they could, but I just stopped. Dead.

One week later I lined up for the Back to Back. Felt better than I had at any other event this year…which wasn’t saying much. But the extra week had helped. A bit of an “oops”occurred: 60 km into Day One, I attempted a Superman but my knee got into the way. I hobbled to the finish, slept, then lined up for Day Two. Day 2 was tough, but got’r done. Nuff said.

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A family holiday in Vermont (my Step Daughter) followed. The knee was swollen and exquisitely sore. I could not run for a couple of weeks and soaked up the time off. Upon our return, I immediately paced (walk/ultra-shuffle) a friend through a heroic (her part – not mine) 100 Mile fundraising event, through the night. My knee was still a little swollen and sore, but… shortly after I was able to run again.

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September…

I doubt that the (final) event in Whistler would have happened, if I had run the 120 Miler And the following B2B event. As a matter of fact, now that I am starting to come out of my delirium, chances are 95% that I would not have. But…since I did not run the 120 Miler – and had lost most of my marbles – I put my chin up, got my ass out there and trained for it.

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I noticed that I was not sleeping well, “aka insomnia“.  That my results were off ,”aka poor performance“. That I was testy with others and my tolerance for normal whining was non-existent. My social anxiety had spiked, “aka emotional changes“. Even heard my doctor mention that my heart-rate was up “aka elevated heart rate“…for me (I usually sit in the 40’s and here I was at 60). However, I didn’t clue in. Weird leg niggles, that I had never experienced before, annoyed me. A pain in a chest bone, “aka abnormal soreness“. “Oh, crap, what now?!” None of it clued in. Of course I didn’t mention this to my coaches: the five signs that I was deep into “overtraining syndrome“. My smiley faces were always smiling. Fake it till you make it…

Well, it all came to a head in Whistler. Waves of pre-race jitters, total impatience driving through traffic to get there after work on Friday. Unable to sleep, unable to focus on the breathing and other relaxation techniques that had served me so well in the past. Made it to the start, somehow.

I knew…within an hour of the event start, that I was in trouble. But I kept on. As people passed, I simply gave up. I couldn’t pull out or believe my mantra. I just told myself that I was going to go on till I couldn’t any longer. There was no power. By that I mean exactly that: like stepping on a vehicle accelerator and “nothing happens”. I stopped frequently to get my heart-rate down. I thought I would freeze at the top (snow, wind) when usually, my firm belief is that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing choices. I didn’t even have the energy to dress appropriately.

Half way through, I whispered to my husband, “I will never make it”, that my first DNF was certain, and that I didn’t give a shit. He ignored me and sent me on my way (apparently I had sung this song before). The truth was that I didn’t know how to stop, so kept going. One foot in front of the other. Fake it till you make it…

Eventually…on the long climb out, I tripped over a friend who was struggling as well. Her reasons were different from mine, but we were both pretty much a mess. At least I had a purpose now. Having lost the desire to finish “for me”…I made a pact with her that we would finish this damned thing together. I saw a picture of us at the finish line: who was that woman looking so old and thin, shrunken, grey and exhausted?

Overtraining.

A few days later I had a good heart to heart (yep, cry) with my coach. Everything came blurting out. The conclusion was that I’d been a dumb-ass.  Should’ve communicated my difficulties over the past year. Races could’ve been dropped early on, training schedules revamped to accommodate the stresses of my life. It is very real to say that it’s not just training stress – but all additive stresses combined – that break an athlete’s mind and body. He had recognized it with other athletes who had suffered the year following a “Big Year”. Apparently I am not the only stubborn one. Long and short: if I had just reached out for help, things could’ve been different.

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I was dealing with it on my own: or so I thought. I sought professional help, practiced mindfulness and other relaxation techniques, was grateful for all our blessings, ate well, followed the training plan. And, in the past, putting my head down and taking care of business, as above, had worked. As usual, in my own introverted way, I went further underground, dug in deeper.

The thing is…the last 7 years have brought loads of stresses (maybe it Was that mirror I broke…?). Somehow we squeaked along through major health issues, the deaths of my beloved brother and mother, along with major career changes, and school challenges. In short: middle age. We all are equipped to handle stress but there can come a breaking point if too much collides at the same time. I had found the perfect storm.

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My personal life and running life had come to collide and I realize, now, that I will be lucky if it’s just the running season that’s lost.

Those smiley faces on our training logs, the comments…all intended to capture our state of mind…which is the very first indicator of overtraining or over-stretching into red zones.

My coaches were kind, confident, and encouraging but it left me shaken that I had been so stupid. I mean, who of us have not read about these things – usually with elite athletes – before. Plenty of warnings. But I was not an elite: just a recreational runner who took up competing late in life. Zooming up to 58 this month, I have basked in “success” for the past 8 years. Who would’ve thought it?!

What next?

Some medical tests and real rest. A promise to always be honest with training feedback. As for plans: None at all.

 

Of all the forms of wisdom, hindsight is by general consent the least merciful, the most unforgiving.

John Fletcher

May you have the hindsight to know where you’ve been, The foresight to know where you are going, And the insight to know when you have gone too far.

Irish Blessings

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Walking among Giants

Tor des Geants 2017

Two weeks and a bit since crossing that beautiful – Bellissima – finish line in Courmayeur, Italy. Feeling little surges of energy and looking back, gratefully, at memories and pictures. Almost like childbirth, I’ve been around long enough to recognize that this is one of those experiences where details will be stripped and feelings left in their place. On paper, here are some of my quickly fading memories, thoughts and feelings…

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The TOR, TdG, Tor des Geants

is, officially, 330 km (200+ miles), with 24,000 meters (78,700 ft)  of climb and an equal descents over 26 mountain passes surrounding the d’Aosta Valle, in Northern Italy.  Like all things Italian, directions, distance, and time are a little loosey-goosey. Take for example that our official cross-sectional elevation guide shows 338.6 km, and that anyone out there with a GPS watch (or three) revealed 31,000 meters (101,000+ ft of climb and equal descent), and, that the race started 17 minutes late (this year – last it was more…). Before you assume I am racist against Italiani … take a step back, please … I AM 50% Italian, so believe you me…I get it.

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Why?

I chose the TOR for multiple reasons: 1) as said, I am 50% Italian, my father hailing from a tiny town in NE Italy – one hour train ride north of Venice – called San Quirino.  2) the distance enamoured me        3) my coaches’ excitement didn’t hurt     4) the timing felt as right as it could ever feel.

First I had to “win the lottery”. Amazingly, not only did I, but my American friend, Michael Hensen, did as well. With limited numbers accepted from each country (I was one of 6 Canadians, the only female, and oldest of the lot) and Michael one of 16 from USA, of 850+ competitors drawn, he calculated that our chances of attending together were some ridiculously low number. I’m terrible at math…and prefer to believe it was just simply fate 😉

It was a 2 year plan: I had to recover from an early season broken foot in 2016, tackle the Fat Dog (124 miles) right off that (a skimpy 6 weeks actual run training), ski my guts out/run “a bit” over the 2016/17 winter season, get the TdG lottery ticket, then tackle four training races before the TOR.

The first, a short one in Whistler, I managed to trip on probably the only technical section. Flying like Superman, I “landed” like a splatted bug on both wrists. One cast and one splint later…I was up sheep creek again. Thanking my stars that it was only wrists and not a lower body part, we kept at it: a 50 Mile race over the border, another local 50 km, and finally, a 100 Km one in Colorado to test my altitude mettle. Which I failed, miserably, at.

But…like all failings, they can lead to the best discoveries. You just gotta get back up! Fortunately, this discovery of my complete ineptitude at racing at elevation (CO was between 10,000 and 12,000 ft) … in spite of expert scientific coaching advice and experience, and a week acclimatizing … lead to a friend of a friend giving me tips on elevation from his Himalayan mountain climbing buddies. Let’s just say it served me well at the TOR, which tops out at nearly 11,000 ft. Nuff said on that.

It takes a Village

Boy, does it ever. Although many of us try to downplay our dedication to the sport, not wanting to bring attention to the inordinate amount of selfish time we need to take from our adult roles as worker bees, parents, spouses … without a (mostly 😉 supportive spouse and kids and coworkers, creative ways to make the time (rising at 4, for example), and a willingness to spend every spare nickel (left behind by kids, etc.) on all things running, adventures like this would never happen. 

My coaches, Eric Carter and Gary Robbins: first and foremost, are my number one inspiration. So encouraging, so diplomatic. As elite athletes themselves, these two men embody fair play,  thinking positively and out of the box. I turn 57 in a few weeks: with neither talent nor youth, nor a long competitive history … hey … where I’ve gone boggles my mind. I am so grateful. The perfect blend of nurture/tough love, they don’t tolerate whining, and are not afraid to turn me back around when I get off course. At times, when necessary, they send me flying headfirst to where I fear to go. They have a stable of amazing athletes. I’m old small fry, but they make us all feel equally special. Always a very safe place to always return to. The TOR? Hell Yes!

Although naturally a bit of a social loner, I’ve met so many like-minded friends along the way. It makes the “road” much more enjoyable. Some, I only see at races, some only on FB, and some actually out there on the trails. Steve in PG, Fiona in Van, the Capra group, my Ridgeline group, to name a few. Michael H. and I met on-line (no, not that kind of on-line 😉 and he paced me through my first 100 Miler. We’ve been fast friends since and it was amazing to have experienced most of the TOR with him.

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Crew. People do the TOR without crew. I have done many events without crew. But the TOR…well, it’s Big. My MAC (Most Awesome Crew) included my long-suffering husband, Michael R., who originally planned to do it alone (maybe with help of Italian relatives). Fortunately, two angels flew right at us: Jay and Glenn. University friends, these guys unselfishly flew thousand of miles only to spend 1100 km chasing around the spaghetti bowl roads of Aosta Valley and mountains. Michael drove, Jay was the director, social media expert and brains of the operation, while Glenn handled photo/movie production, and entertained all with his Big Bell.

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Later on, Michael H’s wife, Sarah, and good friend, Troy, joined the (aka) Merry Group of Madmen. They came at a good time. Things were getting tough. We all needed backup and Troy and Sarah – ultra runners themselves – were exactly what we needed. They had a good time: pasta, pizza, vino, views. Or at least they never let on otherwise. They saw us at our best, and our worse. They forced us to smile when we wanted to fetal position it, they never let us down or gave us a way out. They changed our batteries, pushed us along when necessary, gave us never ending support. The list of restrictions for crew, and the location of the bases was difficult, but they just flew with it. I am forever grateful.

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My husband, Michael R.: probably no one pays the price more than the spouse. Iron or ultra or golf nerd, all the same. Michael and I get a Sunday morning together maybe once…a year. Mine is long past used to waking up alone. Although he has his fair share of being annoyed with me, he is the first to brag, first to want to pack up and accompany me on adventures, first to stay back with kids if he must. I love you, Honey.

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Our brats: two teens, Daria (17) and Liam (15). I really don’t think I trained any more for this event than any others, but I guess I need to use my kids as a reality check. Heard from Liam (through Michael): “Does Mom have to run so much?” Probably because I wasn’t there to ferry him around to friends so much, or maybe because our holidays in USA and Italy were planned around races…  Yeah. It kind of spills into all areas…

Dana and Juli, and Nikki:  Thank you for your advice. As past Geants I have such respect for you. Why didn’t you tell me it would be so tough? Grazie Mille. XOXOXOXO

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The best laid plans…

Gary and Eric laid out the

Training Plan:

Gary and Eric laid it out. Not too much, not too little. “Half the field will arrive at the start either injured or overtrained”, Gary cautioned. If nothing else I am obedient. Mission accomplished this time. Arrived at the start in “perfect” shape. Yay.

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The Sleep Plan:

Gary laid out the sleep plan. Based on his years of adventure racing with teams, he first of all asked me how long I planned to be out there, to which I quickly responded, “under 150 hours would be pretty damned awesome”. (150 hours is the cutoff) So he gave me a plan for X hours of sleep per night, “Not just for the sleep. As important is getting your feet off the ground, your legs up.” He reminded me that this would be difficult: difficult to let other racers go by, difficult with adrenaline, difficult because of restrictions as to where/how long you could sleep depending on where you landed up. There were cutoffs to meet, restrictions of 2 hour sleep in smaller Rifugios, many different opinions. I decided to follow Gary’s advice, and planned (wholeheartedly) to sleep at each of the 6 major life bases, plus some at smaller Rifugios (huts with limited, if any sleep accommodation, and some food/water). When I actually put the plan to a map, I discovered I would, after 2 days, have to sleep during day hours and spend most of the final nights on the hoof. Yes, this worried me, but trust between my coaches and myself was strong.

The Nutrition Plan:

We didn’t discuss this much. This is not usually an issue for me. It was a niggling concern… but I mostly brushed aside instincts.  I carried 2,000 calories in Perpetuem/day and planned to stuff my face at every food bin there was. Usually, eating was not a problem for me, in spite of the face that I (and Michael H.) are vegans. I spoke with a vegan Geant, who said it wasn’t easy, but doable. I was very familiar with real Italian food and was quite the spaghetti bender, if I don’t mind saying so myself. Spaghetti three times a day? No problem. Tuscan bread dry? No problem. Olive Oil? Pour it on. Espresso…and did we say wine? I was also seduced by stories of being able to “ask behind the counter” for other goodies. BUT…it turned into my biggest obstacle. It almost took me out of the event, but more on that later.

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On we press…

Getting ready for big events makes me a bat-shit crazy mad woman. The Control Freak takes over. Between Michael H. and I, we even tried to control the weather. Freaking each other out with the weather forecast (for days) of rain/snow (the WORST combo possible) we fussed, repeatedly checked different forecasts, tried to sooth/bluff each other, fussed some more and searched/purchased every possible piece of expensive gear we didn’t already have to handle it. And yeah, I “secretly” hoped for a cancellation if snow made anything but skis a death sentence. I was nervous – very nervous – but Coaches just chuckled on…”at least you have good winter gear”. Like I said: no whining.

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The weather…

in the end was as perfect as it could be. Fortunately for us, the weather shifts in patterns similar to Whistler. It was hot the first day (later I was to discover my first peeling arms from sunburn in decades). It was cold at night (- 15C, I hear). I was almost blown off a bluff. There was snow one night. But I had the stuff: Gortex jacket, and pants, puffy, fleece, guide gloves, toque, layers, hand warmers. In their wisdom, the Italians has a long list of required items you must carry with you at all times. I was randomly checked 2X and now I get it. Those climbs and descents with a little ice/snow and “no miss” passes…well, a few ounces more on your back, over death, now sounds damn good to me. We dodged a bullet. The day after we left it snowed 40 cm at one of the bases and continues to do so.

The Start line

We started 17 minutes late (Italians – time) amongst much fan fare on that beautiful crispy September 10 day. We ran through the absolutely gorgeous ski town of Courmayeur right into the first uphill, a couple of hundred meters from where we had spent the last week (more on accommodation later). Only Jay and Michael were at the start and I am sure they were glad to get rid of our anxious asses.

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Days One through Three

Day 1 was a reality check. Three passes. Michael and I declared the toughest 50 Km we ever did. Until day 2, which was our New toughest ever 50 Km. We slept according to Gary’s plan. Slept hard. Unlike the declarations of so many around us at the start – that we would not be able to sleep because of the adrenaline rushing through our veins – I slept hard and fast. Not quite as long as I had hoped because it was disorienting in the life bases, and took time to eat, get organized, etc. Cot to cot, no privacy, light and noisy with no place to lay out/dry your stuff in most cases, it took a bit of discipline, eyeball covers and time to get down and get out. Michael R. said the bases stunk like locker rooms. 800 men? Yeah, I guess so…

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Day 1 – we took the exact amount of time I predicted. Soaring views, plunging precarious descents, mellow mountain fields, below, with gussied up cows and their jingling bells. Our first night at Valtournenche. The welcoming embrace of MAC. Feeling good.

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Day 2 – climbs so steep we gasped just looking at the faint thin threads winding up the mountain ahead of us. “No Miss” catwalks. Ropes and teetering rocks. Felt the cutoff nipping at our heals. Sleep/crash at Cogne, a town so pretty MAC didn’t want to leave. Feeling super-human.

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I had come to realize that over here an interesting phenomenon was occurring. I was being treated with special respect. The number of calls, the number of compliments, the way people repeated my name “Vittoria” Romanin (Thank you, Mom and Dad, for giving me Nonno’s name) and Canadese. I was a woman. I was from Canada. I had an Italian name. Michael H. certainly noticed it, “Never travelled with a Rock Star before.” Now here’s a country where they know how to treat a lady. Heehee…pretty sure that’s why I couldn’t turn the smile off. A girl has to please her fans ;D

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Day 3 was hard. Very hard. Even for a Rock Star. My buddy, Michael H., was hurting. Favouring an old achilles injury lead to further injury at the front of his foot. It was a near “death march” getting into Donnas, the third Life Base at 151 km. Weighing heavily on Michael’s mind was his decision to “cut me loose”. Arriving at hot, noisy, crowded Donnas we had made the difficult decision to separate. Troy and Sarah had arrived. Michael H. now had is crew. I found a bed and crashed. Hot, noisy, this is the place where the majority of the field was rumoured to fall. I now see why. I was distressed at leaving Michael H. under these circumstances, but I knew there was no other way. It was shitty. He was so talented. This was not fair.

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Just sleep, Vic. Just sleep.

Days Four through Five

I headed out about 10 p.m., Day 4. As luck would have it, an American, David, who we had chatted with earlier, was heading out too. We were both happy for the company. I was feeling pretty good. The climb was the usual: steep and at times treacherous. It was good to chat with this new found friend. A backcountry ski expert with his own shop… the conversation was so good the miles flew by. But…my new friend was hurting. By the top of that first peak we parted and met much later…

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Day 4 started out well enough… There were many of the usual “false summits”. And “false endings” (you thought you were at the top until you rounded the corner and found, lo and behold, more.) This course is also nasty heading downhill, particularly in that just when you make it all the way back down “to hell”, someone inevitably sends you straight back up another 12 km over another “little pass”, AKA a vertical shit show, until you hit the real hell (excuse me… I mean Life Base).

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I was also starting to reel from the reality of  limited vegan food options. IF I was ever to do this again, I would need a proper Nutrition Plan. I would need to practice and I would need help from crew. From past blogs, I assumed the food choices would be plentiful. Usually, I can eat myself around any table, I assured myself. BUT the tables had been “standardized” this year. My options were white spaghetti with plain tomato sauce, occasional real fruit bits and no-cal salad, coffee, water, sometimes polenta, dry tuscan bread, olive oil, dates and dried apricots and not much more. Everything else was laced with animal. I just could not do it. After 3 days, my mind and body started to revolt. Michael H. was fine…guess it’s just the prima donna in me. Weakened me and almost took me out. Live and learn – next time a plan.

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This was the case for me at Niel, a beautiful mountain stop. I honestly thought it was the life base, Gressoney.  Wrong. All of a sudden, time was beginning to mean nothing. I was having difficulty eating. My Perpetuem intake had dropped to half. My loving husband – after a big hug – said,  “you only have 12 Km to go!” Big stupid grin on his face. I almost decked him right then and there. “You’re kidding.” Gleefully and oh so helpfully, “Here – eat! I brought you some polenta!!” Trying not to let my Medusa out, I knew I had to leave. Leave now. Up the 10,000 steps and 6 vertical km (think Grouse Grind/BCMC X 3), over some ridiculous farmer’s field to some stupid refugio and then back down. 12 Km of pure pissed off-ness. To say my mood had deteriorated would be an understatement.

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Day 5 – I slept at Gressoney. I only know this because I remember leaving in the morning feeling better with the sleep. Not great. But better. I had started to get those infamous “mouth sores”. Not actual sores, but sore tongue, and funny almost chemical taste. Wish I could just puke and get it over with.

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I met up with a young Spanish woman. We spent many hours together. Almost got blown off a bluff together. Separated, then fell in line again. In the end, we parted at the next life base.  After a good sleep, I felt better. Determined to buck up and not depend on anyone for the rest of the race.

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Days 6 and 7

Day 6: 239 km into it. As mentioned above, having trouble eating. I was already feeling weaker, but the sun helped, and I knew I was well into it now. My low points had forced me to consider the almost inevitable: I was ready to accept a DNF. After all, I was way in over my head. Nice try, Vic, but you are a wannabe. With this in mind, I had nothing to lose. I was going to try to pick it up, even if I dropped. And guess what happened? I ran almost smack into Michael H.

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Michael H. had chosen NOT stop at Donnas. He had travelled almost continuously, since then, strategizing his injury would not allow him to move very quickly. I was soooo happy to see him. We rejoined forces, along with his new companion from India, a young brash Indian lawyer (bit of a Star and bringing ultra running to the huge exotic country). The amazing thing is that Michael had started to regain his pace. I suspect whatever was hurting him had now “died” – or that part of his brain had – and he was able to force through. We were all tired. The boys did not have much of a long sleep plan: they would sleep when we had to. I was a pack animal by then. Following along blithely.

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We slept in someone’s bedroom – at their Rifugio for 20 minutes, we slept on a church floor – clothes and shoes on – hat over eyes, for 40 minutes.

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I don’t even remember the order exactly, but we did end up at the last life base – Ollomont – eventually. 287.2 Km. I did not have to reason too hard with the boys to sleep. I could not eat. Michael R. was getting in my face. My crap was everywhere and no one could help me find it. I am not sure how long we slept. Maybe an hour? Michael H was somewhere. Glenn and Jay reassured me I would make it. Not sure if any of them believed it at that point, but they were kind. And kind of afraid of me, I think. Apparently, it stunk. It was…yep…a low, lower, lowest point.

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MAC told me stories afterwards, but apparently, I was in as good as shape as it got. Misery everywhere. I was simply not well fed. There were worse off.

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Day 7: 287 km into it. One way or the other, this was going to finish. I confessed to Michael H. that I had accepted that I might not make it, and was ok with that. He violently retorted, “Well I am Not.” OK, well then… We simply moved forward. We had a cat nap at a way-high refugio and a bite to eat.

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A very touching memory: one of the guides in this little refugio was grinding fresh oranges. It was the first thing I had seen in two days that looked even slightly appetizing. I asked if I could have one, then proceeded to bite straight into it, peel and all, starving dog style. He grabbed it from me and proceeded to peel it with his knife, breaking sections perfectly. It was the most delicious fruit I have ever tasted and…I may have developed a little crush on mountain guides from that point on…

Moving forward, stopping once in a while for Michael’s foot, and tolerating our young companion’s well meaning advice (he has no idea how close to decapitation he came at one point when he pointed out that I was choosing not to eat enough) we three moved on. It was beautiful – no doubt – but it needed to end.

We slept again at the last Rifugio before the last climb. Last sweet climb. I forced myself a bowl of penne drowned in olive oil. Suck it up, buttercup. The morning was cold. Ice over mud and steep. Step, slide. Replant step, slide. Over and over. The top 1/3 was so steep there were ropes and 3 mountain guides. They must have guessed that our minds were almost lost. A guide billy-goated down to me: “step here and here” qui e qui. “You don’t need the ropes.” …oh mama mia… Crush.

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We were up and over! Up and Over!!! Time to Git’r Done. The Kid left us, in the dust. Only 30 km of treacherous downhill to go. We were having such a good time we decided to … Get Lost. Yes, we did. Thank goodness for another Angel. Honest to God Angel, because our gooses were almost cooked. A blonde Italiana, hiking briskly uphill asked us where we were off to? She pointed us back – UP – we turned around, beetled our way back, hardly cursing at all. So many people had passed. I don’t know how many hours it took us off, but WTHell, at least we had a chance to reprieve ourselves. I had begun to hope again.

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Some jerks had began to remove flags. It was in the playbook: we were warned this could happen. We were supposed to know our route and recommended GPS guidance. On we go. I could smell the barn. But in usual TOR fashion, it was just the cows. Not the actual barn. That was still 30 Km away. Like a bad movie where the end of the hall never comes. And the cruelest thing: the last 30 Km was not all treacherous downhill, it was undulating ups, downs between treacherous downhills. Is there a cranky theme here?

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Still, I could beat my body on. I knew it. I wasn’t injured, but if I didn’t get food I could be dead. Needed to get to the finish. Michael had started to hallucinate. Then – then – then – the (almost) unspeakable happened: Michael H. decided he needed a nap. A friggin’ nap. Now. I could feel the cutoff flames at our heels. I wouldn’t let him. So we did what friends do. He swore at me, “Don’t tell me what to do. I can do whatever the F**k I want!” It didn’t even shake me. I really cared about this dude at this moment and knew – remember he told me – that he was NOT ok with not finishing. Instead of scolding or ditching – as I was prone to do naturally – I reminded him that I really cared about him and couldn’t let him stop. I had seen him help others along the way, and now he needed the help. I was so glad to be there with him, to help him for a change.

A switch flipped and we kept going. We ran into a couple of other annoying unmarked (jerks) forks, but we worked it out. Our energy was starting to come back. We were laughing and joking. We were talking real food, and it was NOT spaghetti. This time we could see the barn.

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Sweet, Sweet Courmayeur

Yes, we were here!!! Heros’ welcome. Interview. Photos. Joy. Hugs. Wine.

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148 hours and change. We walked onto the finish matt side by side. Again, Italian time meant nothing. Michael’s time was recorded as 22 seconds faster than mine. I guess that was payback for them practically throwing him off the finish line to interview me: haha, the Canadian Woman.

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We were two of 53% to finish before the 150 hour cutoff.

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The aftermath

Both Michael and I had some leg swelling. Both lost weight.

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Michael’s injury is still undiagnosed, but there is a suspected stress fracture, at the time of this writing.

Otherwise, I had not a rub, not a blister, not an injury. My glasses kind of bruised my nose and temples, I guess 😉

As an aside, everyone suffered to some degree. Some more, some less, but I would say Michael and I were some of the more fortunate ones.

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Everyone made it to the After/Awards party the next day. It was amazing. Italians love to Par-tay. Love to Celebrate. Love the pomp and ceremony. It didn’t matter if you completed in 67 hrs, or 150 or 1/4 into it: it was the Heart of the Athletes that was celebrated. The ceremony was long for our long-suffering MAC, but selfishly, amazing for the runners. Rockin’ music, everyone recognized…in three languages. Lights, cameras, action. Met up with so many folks we had met along the way. I truly hope our life paths cross again.

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My sleep was messed up for several nights. Though I slept hard and long, was haunted by PTSD-like symptoms. I had vivid dreams, so vivid I could not differentiate between reality and dream. My whole body was throwing itself back into climbs. I felt my full core working the climbs, my muscles clenched and released, arms, shoulders, breath. I was back on the mountain. That’s since passed. I have been sleeping long and hard and well.

I put compression socks on the first night and by the time I woke up the next morning, I swear the fluid has squished into my face. Yes, this was me. Just before the Party.

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I could not eat much for 3 days afterwards. Lost nearly 15 pounds. Scared myself looking into a mirror. Mouth so sore. Horrible taste. 3 days after, my appetite returned and I have not stopped eating since. Lost some serious muscle, but we will get’r back.

Debriefing with Coaches: So positive. Discussed what went right: dodged the weather bullet. Perfectly trained. No blisters. No injuries. Beat the 150 hr cutoff, one of the lucky 53%. For the most part, the sleep plan was wise and prudent, even though I kind of screwed it up in the end. By sleeping I avoided hallucinations – yeah. And probably sleep walking myself off a cliff. The eating thing…well, we live and learn. Never again will this be an issue. Finally, they reminded me that for something this brutally beautiful…there will always be something. I am grateful. Thank you, Gary and Eric!!!

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Getting bursts of energy. Feeling pretty darned good. So thankful. So humbled. So happy to have had the privilege of taking this on. So grateful for good friends, loving family and health. I am a lucky woman. Looking forward to snow…

The Tor des Geants

In a nutshell:

  • stunningly beautiful
  • well organized, and over the top support from the community
  • steep and technical, infamously long and difficult downhills 8 to 30 km
  • 67 countries represented. Lottery.
  • based out of Courmayeur. Top notch accommodation, gorgeous Mont Blanc views.
  • new record: young Spaniard, Javi, 67 hours and some change. Superhuman. Jornet comrade, I assume.
  • if you are a vegan or gluten intolerant…plan carefully. I am not kidding.
  • My crew (MAC) was the best on the planet: I can never thank Glenn and Jay enough.  You make me cry with gratitude at your willingness to put yourself in the way of sleep deprivation, car sickness, jet lag and wine hangovers. Troy and Sarah – it was such a pleasure – thank you!!! Michael R. I love you.
  • Our accommodation and hosts were absolutely amazing. Message me if you want details, though I plan to put pic on this site.
  • Valle d’Aosta is a beautifully cool mix of Italy, France, Switzerland as borders have shapeshifted. So Euro. Inhabited by amazing kind, fit, exuberant people. It was an honour to borrow their trails and mountains for a short while.
  • You will meet the finest people. In my case it was tall and very handsome Dutch men (you know who you are), gorgeous Spanish girls, the most Awesome Americans ever, dreamy eyed Italians, talented confident Indians, spicy Mexicans…you name it. They got it. Ultra nerds with a cool Euro twist. Like I said, the bad memories are fading, and this is all I will remember…
  • as a woman, you may sit at 13% of the field. Not bad odds 😉 Italians love their cars, soccer and…women.
  • And finally…Respect, and a tear, for a Fallen Geant and his family. May you Rest in Peace, Yang Yuan.

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It’s a wrap. Thank you for Walking through this Giant adventure with Us ;D  

XO  Vicki

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Big Fat Deal

Fat Dog 120. Some of you know it as a tough 120 Mile Endurance (Ultra) Run through the insanely beautiful mountains of Manning Park, British Columbia. It nails the elevation gain of Mount Everest and is quickly gaining notoriety for being insidiously difficult. August 12 – 14, 2016 – one month ago – we got’r done. This is my story, my tale of this trail.  Like childbirth, the details and discomfort are fading quickly from memory, leaving bare the emotions of the event.

I have to warn you, the path from planning to finish line were not straight. There was an injury (or two), there was drama, there is a long prologue. If you are only interested in my take on the actual event, please skip forward to “Back to Fat Dog…” several paragraphs below 😉

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OK – the preamble: Last fall, 2015, still riding the high of my first 100 Miler experience at Cascade Crest in Washington State,  Coaches Gary Robbins and Eric Carter, of Ridgeline Athletics, helped hatch the plan for the year. It would include downhill skiing at Whistler (hell, yeah!) and three events before the ultimate goal (A race) of Fat Dog: (1.) the Boston Marathon (girlfriend weekend, April 2016), (2.) Sun Mountain 100 K (to get back on the trails and increase endurance, May 2016), and (3.) the Edge-to-Edge Marathon in Ucluelet (C race and an excuse to go on a weeklong family holiday in Tofino, June 2016;).

Boston was kind of the wild card:  I had run it before and wasn’t a fan. The crowds and the heat (92 F) pulverized me and besides, I prefer the trails and trees. But my friend wanted to give the iconic event a try. What the hell, the speed training would  be good for me as you, sure as hell, don’t speed up after 50. Coaches were absolutely on board – hell yeah! – we can help make you one of the fastest lil’ol ladies on the planet (or so, that’s how I read it). The plan included a little more speed work than I was used to in the past. I lapped it all up, put my nose to the grindstone, and was absolutely amazed by the speed (and endurance) that came out of it. Yes…I was getting excited…

You know what they say about the best laid plans:

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Yep. April 2, 2016: Two weeks out from Boston – 1.5 hrs into my last long progression run before the taper – my right foot exploded. 4th metatarsal stress fracture. Not a single warning sign. Just Wham! Hit the bottom of the hill from UBC to the beach and – an axe through my foot. Unravelling the What? Why? it appears that I was quite the idiot for training exclusively on pavement. Prior to that, my feet had become used to ski boots and softish trails. I thought I would toughen them up for that concrete jungle we call Boston (you know what they say about training “specificity”). Coaches had recommended (unbeknownst to me, the reason)  tracks (oops, they are padded) and assumed I would be on trails  part of the time (I live in Whistler and Vancouver). It all knuckled down to a gentle, “Vic, even the elites stay off concrete whenever they can.” Hard lesson learned.

So, I lost those three races, including the girlfriend weekend, flights, accommodations, and race entries. Fat Dog was, at best, now a big question mark.

The next 11 weeks were a flurry of X-rays, Docs (sport and foot), and careful planning by Coaches to keep some endurance up. Aqua jogging interval training, walking with soft cast followed by hard soled hiking boots/shoes/cycling shoes, and a strength training plan (accommodations for bum foot) by Lewis Morrison of Peak Centre. They tried to get me on a stationary bike, but after an hour (or three) of staring at the walls, TV, magazines, my phone, I was in the “kill-me-now-and-why-the-hell-would-anyone-voluntarily-sign-for indoor-cycling/spin-classes” (Hah! Triathletes of course). So, we ditched the bike.

The sport doc recommended the Exogen, a bone healing system which was a little off the grid. I would heal, but the Exogen may help heal faster and better. He had seen super results with his Olympic athletes and one of my Coaches had used it for a “similar” fracture, so we gave it a go. I found a used one for $500 bucks, in pristine shape, from a female athlete who turned out to be a wealth of info and giggles. Hell of a bargain considering she purchased it for $4,000 and some change.

 Well, I’m sure by now you’ve heard the saying: life is 90% mental and 10% in your head. Yeah, well, in athletics (especially endurance athletics) it’s really the case. You can train your body to the best of “it’s” ability, but your head can really make or break you. Your body and your brain have important feedbacks. Keeps sport psychologists in business.

Studies have shown we also have a limited capacity (imagine water in a bucket) to cope under stress. Work/life stresses can start to fill our brain bucket so the mental reserves/coping begins to get squeezed out. Our physical bodies feedback to our brain and our brain back again. Simple, right?

Although most were unaware, my small bucket was filling rapidly: the last year (hell – the last 5 years) had delivered some significant blows (drops in the bucket): (1.) my cancer diagnosis August 31, 2011, (2.) my precious brother’s illness and death August 31, 2013, (3.) my beautiful, brave mother’s stage 4 cancer diagnosis in January 2015 (4.) followed by her death November 2015, (5.) recent major career decisions/changes, (6.) 16 year old daughter who has discovered the wild side (oh Lord…help us now).

Grief upon grief. Worry upon responsibility. All this while real daily life was swirling. To say I had began to feel jumpy when my cell rang, or that there were days that felt like I was moving through sludge would not be an overstatement. Middle Age Madness. I was not coping well.

So, there I was. Friggin’ broken foot. I know: too bad, so sad and get over it (TTFU would also apply). That’s true. And it’s not like I was broken and stuck in the backcountry orthat a tiger was chasing me. Hardly life threatening. No one was holding a gun to my head. I do count my blessings and the list is ridiculously and embarrassing long. There are far more serious issues in the world. People experience loss all the time (divorce, death, bankrupcy), betrayal, abuse, war, natural disasters… I should’ve coped just fine.

What I was actually getting to (in a long winded sort of way) is that I had, albeit temporarily, lost my cure, my drug, and maybe even my fix. What coping I did, was aided by running. From the first step, my breathing falls into line and, with it, my thoughts. The hypnotizing sound of your own footsteps, warm embrace of trees, soft sounds of nature (well, maybe not so much in the City) all act as a beautiful form of meditation. The long distances, intervals, and running with a pack give me the rush and pure sense of well-being (runner’s high) that I believe we were all made for. It would not be much of a stretch to say that an athlete, without their adrenaline fixes, their highs and lows, suffers mentally and physically. Hmmmm…sounds a bit like addiction, eh? Like I said, my fix was being threatened.

It was a long 11 weeks. No excuse: I had lots of support and the coaches kept me busy. The aqua jogging intervals helped keep the endurance up but, more importantly, gave me some semblance of an adrenaline rush and tired me out (in a good way). Gary repeatedly stepped into the shoes of a shrink. Both coaches, Gary and Eric, each in their own way, made sure I kept my expectations real: “Let’s get you this“,  tempered with, “we gave you a 1% chance of starting, and a .5% chance of finishing”. The walks got me outside in the fresh air. I used the Exogen two – sometimes three – times a day. Followed recommendations to a T: bumped up calories and protein, figured out how to get more sleep in. Even though my foot started to feel better at about 7 weeks…neither Coaches nor Docs would budge to let me cheat.

Fast forward 11 weeks to June 20, blessed June 20, 2016: the Docs gave me the go-ahead to start training. “Stop when it hurts”.  Yay! After a figurative high-five and champagne (over the phone), the Coaches hatched a plan to get me to FD with – hold your breath – 6 weeks training. This, after no real trail running since November 2015. I’m sure Gary and Eric’s stress buckets were overflowing half way through coaching me through this. And – you will notice this as a repeated theme – I will never be able to thank them enough.

So, from week one (16 hours of hiking “real” terrain with some actual elevation gain, and including a SQ50 O-run plus a pool session and a couple of strength sessions) through week 6 (which cumulated in a 4 hour trail run on Saturday followed by a 61.5 k “Double Rubble and then some” on the Sunday), we had done all we could.

During those 6 weeks (in particular the first two weeks) my joints, ligaments, and muscles from the knee down would have to learn to work with each other again. There was discomfort. There was lots of talk about  how lousy endurance runners are at interpreting discomfort/pain. I was second guessing the niggles and owies – a lot. Amazingly, endurance was not an issue. That aqua jogging did the trick. What was the issue…was what was in my head. I had lost so much confidence. I trust in my training and usually this acts as a powerful ally. What I could not trust in (actually, no one could), is that my foot would hold up…or that I would be able to pull the actual 120 miles off with so little training.

I had worked hard. Rehabbing and healing is hard, hard work. But I had not been able to put in the miles nor the intensity my teammates did, the miles that give me confidence. It was this that was the main complicating factor. I was glad it was taper time. I was tired.

Now that it looked like it was going to actually happen, and now that the sharp 11 day taper had arrived…

Back to Fat Dog…

Planning for a “100” is like taking on a small military operation. I’m pretty sure most us (ultra-nerds) take over a room (or at least a large table 😉 with our lists, sticky notes and cue cards, mandatory racer (and pacer) gear, nutrition stuff, drop bags, etc. Planning is critical. Visualizing just as important: I could see myself at the end, but was having trouble with the stuff in between. I focused on trying to align drop bags and Crew with a wide range of times, thinking about the start and that big hill, remembering the hurt and the bliss of Cascade Crest. I hyper focused, overpacked, over prepared. Had no idea how I would handle the sleep deprivation – after all, this event would take me over two (not just one, like my 28 hour Cascade Crest) nights. I was very uncertain how my foot would hold up – heck how my body would hold up – with so little time to train. But, it was my choice. Time to stand up and git’r done.

Some pacer drama ensued. This one I can laugh at. Another prime example of, “shit happens”. OK, first of all I “gave” my now friend, (and CC Pacer from last year), M, up to a team mate, way back when I broke my foot. Why hold such an amazing talent back with so many uncertainties whirling around me? So, when it looked like I was going to run the FD after all…I was scrambling. Folks were either booked into their own races, or had pacing gigs already. Two amazing women in my life tried to help: My “Boston” friend, made a gallant attempt, but that didn’t pan out. I searched, and begged/bribed and turned over every lead I could. My wonderful sister-in-law, Wendy, offered to step up for Leg 6, but one week before the event, she was riding Khyber Pass and….

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Ow! Oh, Wendy ;(  Clearly  I had  “pacer curse”. And it sucked up a disportionate amount of my now limited mental reserve. I was really intimidated to take on the two nights alone. But it looked like I had two choices: drop out OR suck it up buttercup. Gary helped me dig deep and look at the bright side. There was a good chance I would buddy up out there, or I could enjoy my time alone. It wasn’t “the alone” I was worried about. It was not the cliff drop-offs nor the bears, but rather, getting lost. I wasn’t sure how much of my limited sanity/sound judgement would be left after 40 hours and this worried me – big-time. I’m the woman who got lost on – promise you won’t laugh – the Whistler 50, Lost Lake trail. Clearly marked, and clearly urban, I missed a marker in the dark and…yep – the dork who did the extra 5 km…

Time to get the show on the road:

Our kids and critters (aka the Zoo) safely tucked away with my Aunt Vicki and Uncle Charles, “Crew” aka (enthusiastic, handsome, chatty) Husband, and I drove out to Manning Park a day early to scout out the crew points. I made sure he was given a “nice” schedule – one where he could sleep most of the two nights. After all – one of us would need our sanity in order for the pack to survive. Next day we attended the “electric” mandatory meeting in Princeton, followed by settling into our Princeton hotel.

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My mantra (always important) would be “relentless forward movement” with generous splashes of “gratitude“. Not “strength”. Nor “whoah”, the soft little sound you make to calm horses (my daughter is an equestrian) which works like a hot-damn on me, too. Nor “strength of an ox, speed of a cheetah, and when all shit hits the fan, you will prevail”, like in the past. I just needed to keep moving forward. Gary and I figured between 40 and 45 hours. I could do this.

I was ready for it – the inevitable hurt/periods of bad attitude which were part of this sport. After all, if there were nothing to endure… This is what many of us come to this spot for. This, because the flip side of the hurt, of the dark, is the sheer euphoric bliss. Colours brighter, senses heightened, primal transcendence of worldly concerns. (Did I write that?) It’s not always like this. Yes, I had doubt: this could be a miserable humiliating suffer fest. But, you know, I felt that flutter, that gut feeling. Terrifying, no happy ending guaranteed, but just – maybe – within reach.

At some point, we were advised the event would add an extra 2 miles distance, and 240 m elevation gain, to accommodate moving the exposed Heather Aid Station. So now, the run was 122 Miles and the elevation gain would be greater than Everest. A good friend reminded me to suck it up buttercup cause that’s only 1.6% more. Thank you, George.

Been meditating for a few years now, and breathing usually conks me quickly. Not this time around. Of course. But here we were, everything was prepared, breakfast eaten, coffee consumed, restless chatter among friends/teammates and soon to be friends. Perfect weather. There was nothing more I could do to prepare.

The start: Photos with teammates (they looked awesome and practically pawing at the ground) and Gary at the start. We all needed to put foot to ground, desperately. I hung back – no use doing otherwise. My goal, after all, was to finish standing up and smiling. Of course in order to do this, I had to beat the sweep. I later found out that everyone, everyone, was unusually nervous before the event. An event of this magnitude has that effect on folks.

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First Climb: From practically the first step, there was a crazy bottleneck. Everyone had to cross a tiny goat bridge, then climb straight up for about 2,000 meters. It was slow going, but felt good. I fell in step behind a fellow who was familiar with Garibaldi/Rubble Creek. We hit it off and you will hear more about “K” as we go along. Folks started dropping (DNF), even on this first climb. OK – Vic, just keep moving. Came across a man bleeding from a hand gash. Gave out my first bandaids (useless), then used my mother’s scarf (tied to my pack for luck) as a sort of tourniquet. She would’ve been pleased that it went towards a good cause. By the time I was half-way through the event, I had given out all emergency stuff: the bandaids, blister stuff, Tums, the electrolytes, the Advil, the Sunscreen…. Being a back of the pack-er gives you a new perspective on a whole bunch of stuff.

Second Climb: Heat of the day. I was moving along with K, who had run it before. He warned me that this was a steep one. Somehow, that got to me. Weird, because I love climbs. I felt  suddenly and overwhelmingly exhausted. Deep exhaustion, what-the-hell-was-I-thinking-and-how-the-hell-could-I-do-this kind of exhaustion. Fortunately, Gary had coached us on this: “The lows can hit you at any point. Could be ten miles in, could be 90 miles in, could be multiple times.” So, with K to follow, I dug in. One foot in front of the other, repeat. At the top, teammate N was working the Trapper Aid Station. Good to see a familiar face. She reassured me that we were not that far behind (yet) the rest of the crew and helped “fill’er up” 🙂

Bonnevier: It was dark (night one) when we pulled in and had first meet up with Crew (Michael, Husband). Popped some major heel blisters. Michael did everything he could to help K and I, but it was looking like my new friend was feeling the effects. We lingered for far too long…then finally headed out with Crew’s urging.

Third Climb: Beautiful pitch darkness. It was night and we were deep in the trees. I was safely with two men, K and “very tall young military guy”, from here on known as “VTYMG”. Yakking it up and moving along very slowly. I was beginning to feel pretty damn good again, and the truth be told, if I wasn’t so worried about that getting lost thing, I could’ve powered up that hill. But I didn’t. The choices we make. I was acutely aware, even at this point, that if we kept moving at this snail pace it was going to be a very looooong event. And, yeah, it was. The flip side is that, unlike previous events, where I could trust in my body and training, I had little  confidence. 6 weeks trail training, an 11 day taper, and a newly healed foot which I was testing on a 122 Mile, Everest gain (and then loss) course was near to madness. Screw the time – just make it through. If you can pull this off safely, next year will be your year.

We made it to the River Crossing – gosh damn that water felt good on the feet. On to…

Heather AS: (the infamous extra 2 miles) brought us morning light. Again, we lingered far too long. Honestly, I think about 10 hours of this event was eaten up lingering at AS. Coach had warned me against this, but this year was different. I promised myself that I would use this sting and experience – in the future – to avoid dallying.

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While VTYMG still lingered on at the aid station, K and I climbed out of the Heather AS and into the light. The next few miles were really pleasant. Morning cool, flowers, easyish terrain. It felt like dancing. The scary bit of rock that had turned off my Boston-friend- almost-pacer, seemed like nothing. The downhill (usually my nemesis) didn’t seem all that unreasonable. Unfortunately, my buddy, K was really, really struggling at this point. I stayed with him for several more hours, tried to convince him that he needed medical attention…but he continued to drag along. I had to make a decision: blow this event entirely (the sweeps were licking at our heals) or leave him. It was a bitch of a decision, but in the end mutual, and I moved on.

Nicomen Lake AS: was somewhere halfway down that descent. Teammate J and lots of friendly folks were waiting. Two bottles of To-kill-ya and 6 or 7 bags of “herb” were offered by a friendly young man. How did they know I was straight outta the 60’s/70’s? Laughing, I moved on to look for some real food. There was none! Crap and dagnab it!! Crankiness was inevitable with neither coffee nor real food after 24 hours of travel. Thank Gawd my old fashioned Perpetuem could keep a corpse alive. Note to self: next time you decide you will be at the back of the pack – bring real food!! Those bloody front runners had devoured it all. Again, a new lesson in back of the pack perspective.

Cascade: from Nicomen to Cascade I was on my own. From Cayuse Flats to Cascade was a short, devilish series of climbs. It felt good. Race directors love these things. And man, this course director was something else 😉

Crew was waiting at the AS. I devoured some food (I’m a hard core vegan, but screw that – I almost bit the hand of the poor voly who unwittingly got in the way of me zeroing in on the last cheese wrap – the only food besides a banana I quickly stole while they weren’t looking). A lovely young woman, who I discovered was the fiance of VTYMG, helped me with my feet. She was waiting for her man and planning to pace him the last leg. I told her I had spent the first night with him and that he was ok but very tired at that time.

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After far too long, again, I left with another runner, T, who had been “leapfrogging” with us for miles. Quite the character, I was happy to set out for the second night with him. He was to meet his pacer at the beginning of Leg 6 and – if I could keep up – we could threesome it up that last bloody hill. Hah! If I could keep up.

It was a good matchup. Both a little older, we grumped through the 3 km highway section (ugh), enjoyed a nice rolling section, then hit the horrendously buggy “Swat’um” (actually Shawatum) flats which seemed to never friggin’ end. I was stung twice and we were tormented by black flies and mosquitoes. There was a New Mexican (my husband is from NM, so it was hilarious how familiar he seemed) limping along behind me with 100% Deet in his pack. He kindly offered me some – which I gladly splashed on. Melted my legs and pack, but what the hell. These were desperate times.

Finally finding the Swat’um AS, in which everyone had bug tents to retreat to, I scarfed some more food (yay avocado enchiladas). I bullied T into moving his butt back on the trail. His sweet wife was so wonderful and grateful her husband had a companion for the trail. And I was grateful for his company, too.

Do you remember K? He came trotting along as we were heading out! One of the most interesting and endearing people (never mind tough and enduring) I have ever met, was crossing our path again.

It was soon headlamp (night 2) time, again. We were about 34 hours into it and I was not one bit tired. The bugs started to drop off with the cool of the night, and I could taste – literally taste – the last leg (Skyline) ahead. For a brief moment, I recognized that my Ridgeline friends would be pulling into the finish line about now (turned out I was right about that – Yay!!!! Team!!! Absolutely Amazing!!!). You could feel the anticipation – the sheer let’s get this f’n thing done. I knew I was going to make it now, and with impatience for being so far back in the pack, I was ready to rock.

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Skyline:  102 Miles in. Night two. The last leg. The infamous last leg. We were about to experience it, and all I could feel was excitement and anticipation. Crew wasn’t there (did I take so long I missed him?) but T’s wife and Pacer, W, were. That lovely woman had dragged Tim’s coffee along that horridly long and difficult road to get to us. I finally got to meet W, T’s pacer. Instantly liked him: he had never paced before – had only done road marathons – but he was obviously a fit backcountry kind of guy. T & W were entertaining as hell. It was one of those times when you realized a man and his buddy…well, it’s really a very special bond. We girls don’t have the patent on that.

I answered all the “sanity questions” and felt 100%. We all did. And all I can say is…what happened over the next 20 miles shows you how effective those sanity questions (a series of questions and answers we had to be able to regurgitate 102 miles into the race in order to be able to continue for the last 20) are.

Crew came along, just as we were leaving. He reported that someone had said there was a big guy wandering a few hundred meters away – hallucinating. VTYMG’s fiance was waiting, ready to pace. She ran off to find the hallucinating big guy, which was confirmed later to be VTYMG. Also trotting in was Mr. K!!

As we’re dealing with complete disclosure here: the other boys were perhaps not too happy to have K along because of concern about his state of well-being. T and W made it pretty clear that they would be patient, but not too patient with K (and myself if I chose to stick close to K). As it should be, the goal was for T to finish this thing – no holds barred.

As hinted to, above, what happened over the next few hours opened my eyes to the craziness of staying awake for two nights. It was pitch dark and we were climbing like fireflies, higher and higher. K started retching behind. We heard others loudly puking below. We passed runners with their pacers that were sitting (or laying), unable to move.

T stopped to pee, again. While I averted my eyes and “patiently” waited, I spotted a bright light. There was a truck, a big, bright truck several switchbacks away. Several young men were trying to load a huge TV screen (strange, it was “on”) into the back, but having a hell of a time. They kept moving it back and forth, tipping in and out of the truck to try to make room. What the hell was a truck with a TV doing up here? A lodge? Strange…no cell reception or internet or anything. Maybe they were telecasting live results? Turning to K and pointing to the truck, I asked him what he thought was up. He couldn’t see it, but then again, he was so tired, he probably couldn’t see his nose. He asked me, “where?”. Impatiently (what was it with these boys?) I pointed to the really obvious, bright goings on, on the side of the mountain. “Vic – I don’t see it.” Right there! I pointed right at it again. “Vic – you are hallucinating.” By then the other boys had joined up. This time it was their turn for impatience. “Vicki. There is nothing there. You are hallucinating.” I looked again, and it was still there. My heart in my throat, I told K, the paramedic, I didn’t think I was capable of such madness. With pure gentle patience he said, “Yes you are. We all are.”

So we carried on. Our merry band of pukers, pee-ers, hallucinators (T soon started seeing cups and saucers on the trail). I refused to look off the trail after that. Once I stopped and asked K if he could see the paintings on the leaves fallen on the trails, but he reassured me that it was just my batshit-craziness. As they say – this, too, shall pass. And it did. Hallucinations stopped, just like that. I was fearful that things would escalate. That myself, or one of the boys would consider it perfectly ok to step off the very steep and dangerous trail into the abyss. On one hand, I vowed NEVER to do an event I thought I would have to do a 2nd night through again, and on the other hand, I was happy it was dark and I couldn’t see what was above and below!

K was, however, losing ground. His electrolytes (and probably blood sugar) were off balance, at the very least. I started to become impatient (and I feel absolutely horrible about this) and tried to convince K that he MUST get help at the next AS. Unfortunately, as a paramedic, he knew just enough to reason himself out of reason. He knew the answers – just enough to possibly hang himself. T and W were pulling ahead and I was getting pissed. Pissed at K for being so unreasonable, and really pissed at T & W for daring to pull ahead. Would they leave me with K, alone? That frightened and panicked me, because I really had no idea what would happen with him next. And – what if my mental state deteriorated even more? THAT was scary. I bullied K along till we finally caught up to T & W. As a gang, we finally reasoned K into sleeping a little at the next AS. I honestly thought I would never see him again. Felt crappy about that, but…as you can see, these were desperate times and unless I was going to join him (which I had absolutely no intention of doing at this point), I had to move along, again.

With K safely tucked into an emergency blanket at the aid station – high on that exposed bluff – T, W, and I made haste (finally) to get this thing finished. Up and down and over and across we went. Passed lots of suffering folks. There was some very, very, sketchy terrain. W was fantastic: so nice to have someone to fall in behind, guiding our every step. He fussed and damn near coddled T. The arrangement was: W in front, T in the middle, and me, behind. I caught T as he was just stepping off the thin trail to certain death (he was falling asleep). Both W and I were on him, loudly and angrily, as he (T) got sleepier – and sillier. This, too, passed when the caffeine from the last AS (or the morning light) kicked in.

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Morning  had arrived (6 a.m.ish, Sunday). We just had to get over those last series of climbs and it would be home free. And it was exactly like that. The climbs were what I expected. All good races have diabolical and nasty climbs before the grand finale and – Boy oh Boy – this one was no exception. As the sun arose, I had another little vision- but minor – really. We met Peter, the Course Director, at the last aid station. Such a nice man – but he was clearly exhausted and in no chatty mood. On we went…

At the top of the last climb, I was beginning to feel like Super-Bitch again. There was a little patch of technical downhill, and Lord, you would’ve thought the boys were wearing high heels. Come on Boys…let’s move it!!! To paraphrase, “Well, Miss Priss, you take the lead!” I didn’t have to. The technical bit ended, and the boys finally started running. It felt amazing. Down and down we went. T started to slow it down, but I wouldn’t let him. With W’s clear approval, I bullied, teased and dared T to move much faster than he wanted to.  In my defence, the road here was wide, non-technical and it was daylight. The kindest thing to do at this point was to get this friggin’ thing done.

Cajoling turned into laughter, laughter into runners’ highs, runners’ highs into crossing the finish line (T and I together) to the hugs of each other, Gary, Michael, my team mate, Peter (who rocked it at 33 hrs), and so many others. Yes! Sweet Yes! It was done. About 10 minutes short of 47 hours (cut off was 49 hours). We had started out at 10 a.m. on Friday, August 12 and here we were – two mornings later – just before 9 a.m., Sunday, August 14, 2016.

And…my foot…was fine ;D

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Some stats:

  • Ridgeline athletes rocked it. In the 122 miler: One podium (Hilary), one top 10 man (Peter) and two top 10 women (Hilary and Melanie). One top 10 man in the 70 miler (Ben). Gratefully, I can report my squeaking out of a 16th (women) – 90th overall.
  • I was the oldest woman in the race. Yay to BD’s! I turn 56 in October.
  • 112 folks finished. 57 dropped.
  • I reached my goal: Finish standing up and smiling!
  • The weather was perfect (especially compared to nasty 2015).
  • K finished after all. He’s the race hero to me.

Words cannot describe how grateful I am for my coaches care. Gary Robbins and Eric Carter – you’ve earned the respect, admiration and loyalty  of every single one of us. Thank you!!!

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Thank you, Matt, Nadine, Josh for so selflessly serving all of us at those hot (and buggy) Aid Stations XXX   Hope I didn’t miss anyone else!

Again, words cannot convey how grateful and full of love I am for my patient, handsome husband. You not only put up – and fully support – this middle age passion of mine, but you make good Crew! It just doesn’t get any better XO

Here’s to next year!!

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If you are going through Hell    KEEP GOING.      – Winston Churchill

The key to endurance is enduring. The secret to endurance is ENJOYING.    – Pearl Izumi Ad

 

 

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