Saturday, 19 August 2017

Iron Legs: Flatlander Style

Last weekend I ventured to Kananaskis Country for the Iron Legs 100K Relay.  It has been a while since I felt inspired to blog, but I now have something to write about that has me gushing.

After my first 100 miler at the Zion 100 in April I spent several months recovering and running for fun.  It only took me a few weeks after Zion, however, to find an open spot on my calendar in August and a race to fill it: Iron Legs Mountain Races in Bragg Creek, AB.
6:00am - 7 C (soon to be 29C)
It didn't take long for me to find 3 friends accompany me on the 14 hour drive to Calgary, while two other friends from Manitoba met us there for a grand total of 6 Manitobans who decided to venture to the mountains for our fix of thin air and lots of climbing.  Just like any normal Manitoban who lives on a flood plain 700' above sea level would do.

Training in Manitoba for a mountain race has to get creative, and is very very intentional.  Two of the friends accompanying me to Alberta are also athletes that I coach, and I devised training plans that had us doing a ridiculous amount of repeats at a local ski hill with a whopping 110' of gain. On weekends we got up super early to drive up to 2 hours to places with as many hills as we could find and logged time on feet and gain rather than miles.  This still meant running some endless loops and hill repeats but you do what you have to do while inevitably encountering poison ivy and coming home with a few ticks on your socks.  The treadmill at 15% grade and stair master even came into the mix - ugh. We knew we couldn't really train for the elevation of Kananaskis, but we could at least get our legs ready and we had lots of heat training.
Leg 1: Station Flats to Powderface
10.5k  1:25  1506' gain
Cool, Sunrise, Undulating Terrain

Iron Legs did not disappoint.  I had signed up to do the 100K Relay with my friend Todd.  I got to start and got to see the sunrise as I warmed up along the rolling hills towards Powderface Aid Station.  It only took 1.5 miles for me to start to notice the familiar heavy breathing that comes with thinner air, and we were only at about 5000'.  As we climbed, my breathing became more laboured than usual, notably without any burning legs. My mantra in the first third of a race is always "no heavy breathing, no burning legs."  Well, so much for the breathing part - it was unavoidable, but not really an issue.

Leg 2: Powderface to Little Elbow
13.5K  2:23  2467' gain
Steady Climbing, Great Views, Technical Downhill

After 3 hours and 20K we topped out at the top of Powderface Mountain (I think?).  My head was swimming and I was feeling a little wobbly, but I was still feeling good.  I noticed a group of people clustering near the top of the mountain at the cairn and someone commented behind me: why are they all stopping?  A bear?

Well, some well meaning hikers had removed the flagging telling us which way to go down the mountain.  There were two options: a trail leading along the ridgeline that disappeared into a scree field, or a well defined trailed diving sharply down into the trees below the alpine line.  I tried going along the ridgeline, but saw quickly that there was no trail and no markers.  This was not likely the way.  After hours of climbing no one wanted to risk going down the trail in case it wasn't the correct way and risk having to climb back up.
I made it to the top!
One runner volunteered to do a recon and we could hear him yelling that there were no flags down there.  Hmm.  What to do?  My rule is always: when in doubt follow the most obvious trail.  Finally after at least 10 minutes, a runner came through who had done the course the year before and confidently directed us down that trail.  By that time close to 30 runners were milling around on the mountain top and we funnelled onto the trail eager to start our 5K descent.

This was the only time in the race that I got cocky and I ended up paying for it.  I tolerate climbing, I train to be as good as I can be with it, but I excel and LOVE downhill running.  I was sick of short 110' downhill sections in Manitoba and was craving a nice long 3 mile stretch where gravity pulled me down a path I could follow with glee.  I exuberantly said to the runner in front of me, "This is what I came for.  I can't WAIT to let it rip down this mountain!"  In the next instant as I stepped left to pass him, I caught my foot on a rock and BAM! I stumbled and felt a searing pain shoot from the base of my buttock up through my glut and down the back of my leg.  I almost threw up and let out an animalistic howl.  My friend Brad who was right in front of me asked if I had stubbed my toe.  "Nope," was all I could manage to say as he continued on.  Up to this point in the race I felt I had been maintaining a respectable pace for a flatlander, somewhere in the top 1/3, but now I limped along as runner after runner passed me down that beautiful playful single track.

My heart sank as I knew I had done something bad to my hamstring, but I had no choice but to get myself off that mountain.  We were 7100' up and the only way down was the way I was headed.  Thank goodness I had my poles because I leaned on them heavily dragging a dead leg behind me.  My pace slowed and I felt my headspace go black.  I was really pissed off.  I had come so far and worked so darn hard to get to the top of that peak for the reward of going down and there I was barely able to walk.  But I had learned my lesson at Zion and I refused to let my mood dictate any more than a few minutes of my run.  I whimpered, I groaned, I might have cursed, and then I consciously told myself to STOP IT.  I said a silent but very conscious prayer to God, asking him to take my pain away so I could still run - essentially asking for a miracle.  God and I have a pretty good relationship, so I felt I could ask for the impossible - just this once.

Downhill running is much harder on the hamstring than going uphill which made that descent rather unpleasant. It took me 48 minutes but by the time I made it down to the Ford Creek Aid Station and my drop bag I was starting to move a little better.  My leg still felt very weak, but the pain wasn't that bad.  I knew I had lots of climbing coming up in the next section and that the hamstring doesn't really work much while climbing.   It was getting hot so I filled up all 3L of my carrying capacity, shoved a few pieces of yam sushi into my mouth (best drop bag snack ever), and decided to take each mile at a time and see how it went.

Leg 3: Little Elbow to Ford Creek
15.6k  3:00  2871' gain
Relentless Climbs, Hot, Dense Forest & Open Meadows

This section of the race between AS 2 and 3 are reportedly the hardest part of the course and ended up having more gain that the previous leg. It took me 3 hours to go less than 10 miles, covering a series of relentless climbs in densely treed areas that became suffocatingly hot by late morning.  It's amazing how as long as you keep moving, your muscles keep working, and I confirmed how little you need a hamstring muscle for climbing.  It's all quads, gluts and calves.  At one point I snapped out of the zone I was in and was startled to notice that I didn't have any pain!  A quick analysis told me this was either because I had completely torn my hamstring (full tears are often painless) or because God had answered my prayers.  Either way I had no choice by to continue on and I was moving pretty well as long as I kept my stride short and didn't catch my foot on any rocks.  Todd was waiting for me and I really wanted to give him enough time to do the majority of his section in the daylight.

There were some really beautiful views in this part of the course if one just looked up and back periodically.  At one point I heard the familiar beat of helicopter blades saw a chopper overhead.  Lisa said she saw someone in the basket.  Thank goodness that wasn't me! By the time I was nearing Ford Creek I was sick of climbing, out of water, very dehydrated, and definitely looking forward to some watermelon and water.  All I could think about was wet, sweet watermelon...and running downhill.

Leg 4: Ford Creek to Powderface Exchange
9k  1:30  1001' gain
Very Hot, Short Climb, Long Runnable Downhill Bliss

Ford Creek had LOTS of watermelon (THANK YOU!) and I must have inhaled 5 pieces.  Another 2L water refill and I headed out for the last 9k section to Powderface where I was to hand off to Todd.  The Iron Legs course did not disappoint as it delivered another "this is what you came for" 3k uphill grind  before finally handing me a steady, very runnable downhill descent to the AS.  I was thrilled to find I was actually running very well at this point.  As long as I kept moving, my legs felt really good.  No knee pain, no quad burn, and if I kept my cadence high and watched my footing carefully: no hamstring pain.  I pranced and danced my way down some very technical rocky sections, crossed creeks with enough water to cool my face and arm sleeves, even passed a few people who had gotten away from me at the top of Powderface Mtn, and rolled into AS4 only 19 minutes behind schedule - not bad considering. I passed the mandatory bear spray "baton" to Todd, and he took off to rock his own 50K Iron Legs experience. I'm sorry I can't report on the whole course but the first half was spectacular!
Todd stashing the infamous bear spray
Lisa finished strong and after her hand-off to Leslie we were done!  A chilling soak in a glacial creek, awesome post race massage ( and savoury bean chili or meatballs served up at the finish line were just what we needed.  Later that evening we welcomed the rest of our teammates across the finish line.  Leslie finished the 50 Mile Relay smiling through her tears with stories of sighting 4 moose on Moose Mountain reporting that she had had the run of her life.  Todd crossed the finish line without his pack, poles or shirt.  As we clustered around him, he proclaimed, "do I have a story to tell!" and then eagerly shared with us with tales going off course, bear spray exploding in his pack, getting baby wipe rub downs at the last aid station, and the generosity of volunteers who loaned him clothing and a headlamp to finish the last leg of his run.

Holding ice to my leg - but with a huge smile!
After moving to Manitoba from BC, I recognized that I NEED to return to the mountains at least once a year for a good cathartic, quad burning, vista viewing, run.  I chose Iron Legs because it promised all that, was within driving distance, and looked low key.  I am happy to say I got exactly what I went for.  The race started on time, all but one aid station during my section came up exactly as predicted, the volunteers were amazing (every time offering to fill my bottles and bladder for me), and the views were incredible despite the smoke from forest fires.

I must give a shout out and thanks to Salming for my awesome new Trail 5 running shoes.  I had just received them in the mail and only had about 15 miles on them prior to this race.  They performed perfectly. Shoe review to follow.

My only complaint was the lack of course marking as previously mentioned, but that was not the race directors fault.  In fact, as we were on our way down Powderface Trail, someone was coming up to reflag.  It baffles my mind how people can remove flag tape tied to trees or tucked under rocks on purpose, either thinking they are cleaning up or just being vandalous.  They could have created serious risk to some runners - flag tape is here for a reason.  Please leave it there!

Todd ran very strong and we finished the 100K relay happy and tired.  In fact, everyone from MB did very well! I am very proud of my athletes Lisa and Leslie - they were nervous for their first real mountain run and they nailed it!  We did not break any speed records, but we had a great time and demonstrated the key characteristic of successful ultrarunning: the ability to adapt.  Injury, going off course, bear spray exploding in your pack - all these things can easily derail you from having a good day out there.  But experience and mindfully resisting the instinct to catastrophize the unexpected enabled us to have a great day regardless.

Thanks for a great race @ironlegsmtnraces!

Epilogue: My physio coworker diagnosed me with a high grade partial hamstring tear.  Not great news but it could have been worse.  It's already feeling better and will heal with a little time off and some rehab!