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Sinister 7 – 2013 Race Report

May 15, 2016

 

Sinister 7 – 2013 Race Report by Randy Cocek | K2J Fitness

 

Race Details

The Sinister7 is a trail relay and ultramarathon in Crowsnest Pass Alberta. It’s one of the tougher races in Canada, I’m told. The total distance is 148k with a 5.3km elevation gain and consequently, another 5.3km of elevation loss. The terrain is mostly single and double track trail. Each leg of the race has an absolute time cutoff, meaning that if you do not reach the transition area (TA) by that time, either as a relay runner or a solo, you are timed out. There is some support on the course. Approximately every 10k there is a checkpoint (CP) that records your number and current time, has water and limited food and can call in for medical help or evacuation if racers have to drop out.

 

Pre-race Prep

The day before the race, Gary (our crew chief), Suzanne and I scouted out the TAs, getting an idea of what the terrain might be like. It didn’t help us, as racers, too much, except to make us realize that there was a brutal climb at the start of the final leg. And that we might have to contend with people riding dirt bikes during the race. There were a lot of signs urging people on bikes to share the trail with the runners. However, it was a good idea to get familiar with the trails and the transitions. A couple of them were pretty remote and those were the ones that we would be arriving at in the dark. We also met a couple of racers at TA6, who gave us some tips about the first 3 legs. They had timed out on leg 3 the previous year and were back to try again.

Aside from that, there was the preparing of the ‘drop bags’ for the TAs as well. Different sections of the race would require different equipment and since I didn’t have to carry everything at once, I wasn’t going to. For the most part, I just divided up some extra food for each. I put my trekking poles into the second one, since the first stage was the flattest and put shoes in a couple of the others. I also made sure that I had treats for some of the later legs. These included my favorite nutrition bars and (of course) chocolate covered espresso beans for the early morning.

 

Race Morning

The morning started off with a couple of nasty surprises. First: the temperature was a balmy 7C. Second, there was a thunderstorm warning for later on in the evening and overnight. Everything else about the morning went pretty well. The nice thing about being two time zones over, is that 5am local time is the same as 7am at home. So getting up wasn’t much of a struggle. The hotel was less than a kilometer from the starting line, and everything went smoothly. We were in the starting ‘corral’ first and were able to get some good pictures before the area started to fill up. Gary left to grab breakfast and was set to meet up with us at TA1 for 9am (an hour before cutoff). Our timing chips had to be activated manually before we started, so that the organizers had the most accurate view of who was on the course at any given time. Then it was just a matter of waiting and staying calm. Which is harder than it sounds. As more people came into the corral, I started to notice that people were carrying various different amounts of extra equipment.

I had packed the mandatory gear (warm hat, gloves, jacket, and a few other things). Then I added my food and was carrying about 2L of water in my camelbak. I also had a hand-carried bottle that I used for Gatorade. I had Gatorade crystals at each TA, and some in my pack. From experience, I know that after a while my body doesn’t like it, so I have to front load a bit.

The last 15 minutes was just waiting, which is just enough time to cool down a bit. Given that there were only 400-500 people in the area, and that everyone was wearing backpacks (and in many cases carrying trekking poles too), it seemed to take a lot longer… Definitely enough time to get nervous again. Generally before any race I get a bit nervous and ‘amped up’. Usually I listen to music to calm down, but since ear buds are banned in this race I was left to contemplate things on my own. I spent the next couple of minutes concentrating on just the first leg and limbering up. I was pretty relaxed again as I listened to the race director’s last minute instructions, which boiled down to ‘Follow the flags and don’t get eaten by bears’. So much for relaxed.

 

Leg 1: The Frank Slide

(Or: Start slow, then back off)

This leg was listed as the easiest of the seven. 16.5k, with only 500m of elevation gain, 330m of loss. When we scouted the first TA, we noticed that part of it went through a small town (Hillcrest) and a lot of it was on a trail alongside railroad tracks, in between house-sized rocks that were deposited there from the ‘Frank Slide’… A large landslide that buried the town of Frank over 100 years ago. Helpfully, the race literature mentions that the rest of the mountain will collapse ‘some day’.

The horn sounded and we were off. A pretty orderly start, since the soloists weren’t mostly toward the back, giving the relay runners the chance to leave as fast as they wanted. My goal for this leg was to finish by 9am, giving me an hour buffer on the cutoff. Things started off mostly to plan. The running was easy and that fact that we were on a trail meant that I was forced to stay in the pack and slow. Suzanne and I talked and joked for a bit, then were forced quiet when the train went by. Almost nobody was run over. After that we were pretty quiet, with the main sounds being feet hitting the ground and the annoying ringing of a number of folks’ ‘bear bells’. Bear bells, for the uninitiated, were required, and are a small bell that rings while you run, to better allow bears to find a slow moving snack. They are supposed to scare bears away. However, they do that about as well as putting food in an oven keeps it cold.

 

About 4-5k in, I realized I would need some extra time at the upcoming TA. Not wanting to throw off the plan, I decided to run a bit ahead to the TA, and wait for Suzanne there. I pulled ahead and hit the TA at 8:45. Really there wasn’t much to this leg, except to get used to the markings that would be used on the trails and along the ground. They were basically just orange and yellow striped ribbons on tree branches and orange spray paint on the ground at strategic locations. The other noteworthy thing was meeting someone with a sign attached to his pack with the following written on it:

Last year’s Red Lantern If you are reading this, you are in trouble

I wanted to ask about it, but he was talking to a couple of other folks and I had somewhere else to be. At the TA, I removed my jacket, sleeves and gloves and attached my poles to my pack, refilled my Gatorade and waited.

 

Leg 2: Hastings Ridge

(Or: This isn’t so bad, until it was)

I waited for about 15 minutes at the TA, but decided to get going again before Suzanne got there. I was starting to shiver and it’s a long enough race that I was sure she’d catch up during this leg, as long as I kept a slow enough pace. At this point, I was keeping my pace pretty slow, pulling back at any point where I felt like I was breathing at all heavy.

This leg was ranked as the 4th most difficult, 16k long, with 940m of climbing and 1.1k of downhill. It started off ok with some slight climbs, but nothing too outrageous. I decided to continue running without poles, but I had them if I needed. I cruised for the bulk of the first half, checking over my shoulder now and then, but never saw Suzanne. I passed a number of folks, soloists and relay runners alike. About the halfway point, I hit the checkpoint. It was at the base of a hill, which turned out to be the first real test. It didn’t seem like much of a climb, but halfway up, I was huffing and puffing and the blood was pounding in my ears. And I wasn’t the only one. This affected a number of people. The last half of the climb was a slog with a few pauses along the way. Since it was single track, I was forced to stop anytime someone in front of me did as well. I didn’t complain much. At the top there was a spectacular view, then a series of short steep downhills before hitting flat trails again.

Going down one hill is where I hit the second test. As I was hopping down a steep portion, I hit a patch of slick grass and my foot slid out. Trying to catch myself, I planted on my other foot and my left calf cramped instantly. I startled a couple of other nearby runners when I yelled out and nearly fell. I hobbled off the trail and stretched it out, but was now concerned that it might be very bad news if I was cramping this early.

Back on track after that little adventure, the rest of the leg was pretty much non-eventful. There were a few interesting conversations. The one that stuck with me was the one about the effects of altitude. The gist of it was that if I felt short of breath and blood pounding in my ears, then that was probably due to altitude and to back off for a bit. This sounded a bit familiar. (Note: The race started at about 1km above sea level. My regular training is pretty much at sea level. I have no idea how much, if any, this affected my performance and I’m not using it as an excuse for the result).

Near the finish, I met up with Doug (one of the racers we met the day before, scouting the TAs). He seemed to be doing well and we chatted for a bit, just before crossing the stream near the end. The stream wasn’t too bad, but still a bit of a shock to the system. It was a fast moving stream, about knee deep at the worst, and was ice cold. There was no way around, so the only thing to do was get it done fast.

I trucked into TA2 at around 11:30. 90 minutes ahead of cutoff, feeling good and with energy to spare. 32.5km down, lots to go.

 

 

 

Leg 3: Willoughby Ridge

(Or: Walking on the Sun)

This next leg was advertised as the most difficult. It was the longest, for sure: 35km. The start and end points were at the same place, so the climb & descent were both 1.3km. But the most difficult thing about this leg was the fact that it was completely exposed. Theoretically this also went through a forest which you might think could provide some shade. One minor detail though: There was a massive forest fire in 2003. So this left a lot of burned out trees and not a lot of protection.

Luckily I got to run this in the hottest part of the day. By the time I started this, the temperature had raised considerably from the 7 degrees first thing in the morning. At this point the mercury had risen to ‘warm summer day’. By the time I’d finished the first climb, a winding road from the base of a ski hill to the top, it had warmed up further to ‘Gobi desert in July’. I had to make sure that I kept drinking and taking salt tabs make sure I didn’t dehydrate.

That seemed to work ok for a while, but the temperature felt like it kept going up. Less than an hour in, the temperature was at a balmy ‘I hear Death Valley is nice and cool this time of year’ and I tried to take in my hourly food/gel/fuel. That didn’t go well. I choked down part of a gel, but that was a non-starter. Ditto the granola bar. About the only thing that could sort of work were gel tabs, which I could slowly chew. So I resigned myself to that and continued on. I reached the first check point, grabbed some cold water and some electrolyte drink for my hand bottle. I also successfully finished my first gel tab and convinced myself to try a second one. Both of those things were accomplishments.

In between CP3a and CP3b, there was a nice respite. A small stream cut across the trail. It was shallow enough that you could pick your way across a few stones and not get wet. It was also deep enough to allow me to cup some water and pour it over my head and neck to try and cool down. I also remembered that according to the race literature, the water in the streams was from springs, and generally safe to drink. (At least the potential contaminants were non-life-threatening and took a couple of weeks to manifest symptoms. Yes, that’s actually in the race information). So I took a couple of cold swigs and felt a bit better. (If I ever do another race like this, I’m going to bring a couple of sponges with me, to make this easier). I reached the second CP and was greeted with the inspiring comment: “Are you okay?” That was just what I wanted to hear. They offered to pour cold water over my head (gratefully accepted) and also offered some food (which just looking at made my stomach turn. Nothing to do with the food itself, I was just overheated).

Moving again, I choked down a third gel tab and tried to stay as cool as possible and expend as little extra energy as possible. That was easier said than done, as the temperature had now topped out at ‘Surface of the Sun (but in the shade)’. I made it to the next CP in a reasonable time, but noticed in that period that I was being passed fairly regularly. I was falling back and not having a GPS or any real idea how far it was, I began to wonder if I would time out on this leg. Looking at past years before the race, I knew that this was the point where most people DNFed.

After the third CP in the leg, where I got more water, another cold shower and a fourth(!) gel tab, I managed to pull myself together long enough to reach the final TA. The final descent was again next to the ski hill. I idly wondered to myself why we ran up and down the dirt road, instead of on the hill directly. Not that I was complaining at that point.

Looking at my watch, I was surprised that I still had an hour until the cutoff. I figured I looked a bit rough though, because the medical folks took a look at me and said ‘Hey, you look rough’. They sat me down, grabbed some ice packs and some cold water and also a couple of freezies. They wouldn’t let me go until they were satisfied that I wasn’t going to die. Or at least that if I did die, that I wouldn’t sue them. I also saw Doug again in the tent, which surprised me a bit, since I didn’t recall him passing me. He told me he was dropping out, but his friend Travis was still on the course. According to his wife, Pam, he was about 2 hours ahead of me. I had a fair bit of time to chat, since medical kept me there for 45 minutes. 15 minutes before cutoff, they let me go. I took the makeshift ice pack with me also. I checked in quickly, to see if Suzanne had come by. She hadn’t, which surprised me. I had to get going though, so I hoped she was going to make it in time. I said goodbye to Gary and got ready to go. The conversation was actually more like this though:

Me: Alright, see you at the next TA Gary: Oh… you’re going to keep going? Me: Yeah Gary: Oh.

Inspiring words.

 

Leg 4: Iron Ridge

(Or: Episode IV: A New Hope)

I left the TA, and realized something. And that was, if you run down beside a ski hill, then the next thing you’ll do is run directly back up it. That was not something I wanted to do right then. At the heat and altitude, it was a rough climb. About three quarters of the way up, I considered turning around. And just before the top I considered it again. I pushed through and then hit the trails again. At least these trails had shade. And a lot more wildlife to keep me company. Of course, the wildlife consisted mainly of mosquitoes. They decided to write a message in Braille on my arms. I don’t read Braille, so I have no idea what they wrote. Based on the number of them I swatted away, it was something like, “Get away murderer!” By the time I hit the first checkpoint on this leg, my arms were worn out from swatting bugs. And I was pretty much done. I hadn’t been able to keep food down for quite a while my energy reserves were low. All I wanted to do then was cross the 80k point, so I could at least say that this was the longest run I had done.

At that point, I caught a lucky break. Another racer hit the checkpoint asking for bug spray. I had a full bottle of it and offered it to him. (The checkpoint had run out). He took it and asked me what was going on with me. I mentioned not being able to keep food down and he asked me if I wanted some Pepto Bismol tabs to help out. He told me that they would be a struggle to keep down at first, but if I did, I would probably start to feel better in the next few minutes. I figured I didn’t have anything to lose, so I tried some. He was right about both things… My stomach did not want to keep them down. But after 5 minutes, it settled and I started off again. Mostly at a walking pace, but I was moving. 20 minutes later, I was able to eat a gel and a granola bar, so things were getting much better. I caught up to the guy within another 20 minutes or so. And I stayed with him for a while. His name turned out to be Mike and he was the ‘Red Lantern’ of the previous year’s race. The red lantern title is granted to the racer to finishes closest to the cutoff, without going over. I got a few tips on the rest of the leg from him, including where to pick up time and generally just what to expect. He had a good idea of where he was relative to last year as well, so my spirits were improving. Apparently he was 11 minutes ahead of schedule. We ended up running together for an hour or so. Shortly before the second checkpoint, but just after crossing a thigh deep pond we parted ways. My pace had picked up enough again that he was having trouble keeping up. I hit the next checkpoint feeling better. I talked briefly with the volunteers there and then to another soloist who was sitting in a chair. In a (probably misguided) attempt to pay the kindness Mike showed me forward, I started to go over to ask her what was wrong and/or if there was anything I could do to help. However, I noticed she was crying and saying something like “I’m just done. I quit”. So instead of talking to her, I grabbed a couple of gels from the table, like it what I meant to do in the first place, and left. In reality, anything I would have said would have made things worse.

This was around the 80k mark, so I could confidently say that this was the longest run I had ever done. And it kept going on.

The section to the next checkpoint was pretty uneventful. The sun was going down and the wind started to pick up. I ended up putting on my jacket to break the wind, since it was pretty cold on the skin. Other than that, it was pretty much business as usual, up and down more hills on single track trail. As it got darker, I saw a few runners up ahead and the final checkpoint for this leg. I could see the distance between me and the other runners shrinking as we got closer. I finally caught up to them just before the checkpoint. I stopped there to put on my headlamp and talked a bit to the volunteers there. As I was fumbling with my pack, I started to talk to the volunteers for a bit. It turned out that one of them was the mother of the course designer. And they were talking about the changes that were going to be made to the course for next year. I asked her to ask him to add in a few more down hills, since there were too many ‘ups’. Her response was priceless:

“No… The course is too easy. There are too many people finishing. People like you.”

I laughed when she said it. (It looks harsh when it’s written down, but it was said in fun). Apparently I’m now the benchmark for ultra runners. If I can do it, then it’s not tough enough. Still chuckling, I took off for the final 8k of the leg. I caught up to the other runners again and chatted for a bit. They were also soloists and seemed to be in good shape and spirits. I shared the info that I had about the rest of the leg, mainly that this portion was where you could make up a fair bit of time. We chatted for a bit, and I figured I would run to the TA with them. But it wasn’t long before they dropped back. It was easier running for the rest of the leg though. Single track, but flat or slight uphill, mostly alongside the road. (From the rules, it’s a disqualification to run on the shoulder of the roads. Runners must stay on the trail). The last 4k or so, I started to reach the back of the main pack again. I talked to some folks I’d seen on the third leg. Most seemed surprised to see me again. I had a few brief conversations, but nothing of significance. It had gotten dark, so we were all more interested in watching our footing rather than talking.

I pulled into TA4 at around 11:15pm. Right before the TA, they have a sign erected that has become one of my favourite sayings referring to ultras:

”It hurts up to a point, then it doesn’t get any worse” –Ann Trason

I was tired and sore but more or less intact. Gary saw me before I saw him and came over, along with Suzanne. I didn’t recall Suzanne passing me, so I was confused. Turns out she had timed out in the last leg by a minute or two.

I pulled into a tent to grab some ‘treats’ from my drop bag, which I’d specifically put there for this situation. Suzanne brought me some soup that was made with meatballs, brine and apparently more salt. It tasted glorious! I honestly don’t know what was in the meatballs, but I’m assuming it was ground up unicorn meat. The last thing was a cup of hot chocolate, which is another fantastic elixir for really long distance runs. After that I put on my sleeves (it was getting chilly), pulled on my jacket and light gloves and prepared to head out. Just as I was about to leave, someone in the area made an offhand comment:

Guy: You have any tights? Me: Yeah. Guy: You should put them on. You’re going to climb up to 10000 feet.

I didn’t really have a frame of reference for that, but it sounded high. And he sounded sure, so I spent another 5 minutes and pulled on my tights. It might have been a little longer. Tying my shoes was kind of difficult at this point.

 

Leg 5: The Seven Sisters

(Or: Episode V: Sinister Strikes Back)

This leg of the race is 22.7km and is listed as the second most difficult leg. It’s more or less all on a ‘dry’ creek bed. I left the TA with five and a half hours to complete this leg. My thinking was: It’s basically a half marathon. How hard can a half marathon be? Even a tough one? At a walking pace I figured I would be done in 4 hours or so.

If I’ve learned anything from running ultras (and it’s quite possible I haven’t), it’s that you should never, ever, ever, ever ask the question “How hard/bad can it be?” The description for this leg did not do it justice. It might have been the second toughest leg for relay runners, but for soloists, who had already run 100km+, this was a nightmare. The footing was awful. Basically most of the terrain was rocks about the size of shoeboxes. The ‘dry’ creek was sometimes dry, but quite often it was ankle deep, flowing water. If there weren’t rocks, it was muddy or wet trail. And it was uphill. All uphill. Hours of uphill. I wasn’t wearing a GPS, just a watch, so I didn’t have any idea about how far I had gone. Just how long.

And around ever turn and over every hill I crested, there was just more uphill. It was getting colder and I was working like crazy just to make horribly slow progress. I knew I wasn’t even half way (since I hadn’t found the checkpoint yet) and I was getting worried about timing out.

I was hoping to find someone else on the trail, or anyone to talk to. Occasionally I would hear voices just ahead so I would speed up a bit. Every time it turned out to just be running water and another cold slog through a stream. At some point I decided that since Coor’s Light was made from ‘Rocky Mountain spring water’, then I was never going to drink it again. Because obviously that was the most important thing to think about. Still, I figured at some point, with my slow pace, someone was bound to catch me sooner or later.

Finally after approximately 3 days, I found the checkpoint. Which meant halfway. 11k. Finally someone to talk to. The volunteers there offered me some graham crackers and asked how I was. I lied and said I was fine. They then asked if I wanted to go on. The rest of the conversation went like this:

Me: I’ll be fine as long as there is some downhill soon. Them: It’s only 3km more of uphill, then it’s back down. Me: Yeah, that’s what I wanted to hear.

The last response was a bit more sarcastic and snappy than I wanted so I quickly apologized to them. It wasn’t their fault and they nice enough to be out here at “stupid o’clock” in the morning to look after me and the other runners. They laughed it off. Apparently I wasn’t the only cranky runner they’d seen.

Back on to the run though and the last 3km up seemed to get steeper. And it was cold. It went from seeing my breath to seeing that the plants at the side of the trail were frost covered. I silently thanked the guy who told me to put on my tights. I don’t know how I would have felt running this leg in shorts.

Finally I noticed the trail was trending back down and realized I was on the back half. The bad part was that I couldn’t really speed up. The footing was still treacherous and between wet and possibly frost covered rocks, I didn’t want to risk turning an ankle or worse. So my pace was still very methodical. Still at that point, I would have really enjoyed someone to talk to. I thought about finally pulling on my headphones and listening to a couple of podcasts to help. But that was an instant disqualification, so I resisted. I also started to worry more that I might not finish in time. I occasionally glanced behind, looking for an official that would tell me that I had dropped back too far and that I was done. Neither of those thoughts were rational. I slowly realized that no matter what, I had to get to the next TA. There was no one that was going to come and DQ me and drive me back. Of course, that also meant there was no one to DQ me if I decided to listen to my iPod. My brain couldn’t reason out that last part.

For a while, I continued to descend. I kept an eye out for other runners, but didn’t see any. I did see some people from the subdivision that was under construction putting out their garbage for morning pick up. They never waved back or said anything. I also considered taking a picture of the Thomas the Tank Engine replica they’d built, but that would involve stopping to get out my phone. Besides, the Thomas statue wasn’t finished. It was just made out of a fallen tree. And the people turned out to be more trees. And the garbage bags were actually just frost covered plants. (Several times I had to close my eyes and remind myself that “That’s probably not real”).

I kept plodding along, checking my watch and realized that I probably wouldn’t make it in time. This is about the time in the race where emotionally things went off the rails. This happens to almost everyone in longer races (I’m told). At a certain point, I decided that I would never run another ultra, that I was going to try something shorter… like an Ironman (since it would be over in 17 hours, no matter what). Then I decided I would start with a half-Iron. Or an Olympic Tri. Or forgetting that, maybe I’d stick to Marathons. Or halfs. Or maybe try to get good at 10ks.

I finally snapped out of it a bit, when I realized that I had missed the sunrise. I had just slowly noticed that I could see again. And that I was near the end of the leg, because the checkpoint folks had told me that the next uphill was right before the TA… And I was at an uphill.

One steep uphill later and I looked at… another down and up ahead of me. I check my watch: 20 minutes to time out. Maybe they meant two, instead of one. I push on, as hard as I can (which wasn’t all that hard at that point). As I’m coming up the second one, I’m having to stop and lean on my poles and gasp for breath every 5 steps or so. I crest that one and… see another. 13 minutes to go. I stumble on, but I didn’t have much left. I had the same sort of rhythm for this climb as well. 5 steps and stop. 5 steps and stop. At that point, I don’t think I had ever been that tired. About three quarters of the way up that hill, I just leaned on my poles for a bit longer and tried to gather myself. I knew I wasn’t going to make it and trudging on just to time out was not thrilling. Luckily though, something woke me up:

“RANDY!”

…That sounds like a real person…

“WHAT ARE YOU DOING!?”

…and they sound angry…

“YOU’VE GOT 8 MINUTES LEFT! THE CHECKPOINT IS RIGHT AROUND THE CORNER! GET MOVING!”

Suzanne’s bellowing woke me up and got me running again. That was something I didn’t think I could do at that point. I chased her down and followed her through a few twists and turns, letting her pick the trail. I made it to the TA with 3 minutes to spare. Had she not been there at that point, I would have timed out.

 

Leg 6: Crowsnest Mountain

(Or: The Mental Game)

This transition had to be quick, because I officially had to be out of there before the 3 minutes were up. I had enough time to grab a cup of hot chocolate (which was glorious!) and start on my way. I talked to Suzanne and Gary briefly and we made an agreement that Suzanne would pace me for the last leg, if I made it there in time. Officially pacers aren’t allowed, however racers can pace other racers.

At this point, I was feeling surprisingly strong. My legs still hurt, as did my back and shoulders, but between the sunrise and the fact that I had just made it, I was re-energized. My next goal was to make it to the next leg in time. I set out at a hard pace. My goal here was to run as much as possible, and power walk the uphills. The leg itself was listed as the second easiest and was around 14k, so I figured I should take advantage of its relative ease.

Things were going well at this point. I was definitely not at all graceful and I wasn’t even bothering to find ‘the best path’ at all. It was strictly the shortest path, whether it was through water, mud or over rocks. It was rolling hills too, which were a nice relief after leg 5. After a bit, I noticed that there was someone a short ways ahead of me. They slowly got closer too, especially going up the hills. I caught up and talked to someone whose name escapes me. They were hurting but still going. I asked the only important question I could think of at that point: “Do you think we’ll make the cut off?” I didn’t get the response I was expecting. He either said “I don’t know” or “I don’t think so”. Either way, it meant I had to speed up.

I left him behind and shortly caught up to someone else. The same scenario played out, they weren’t sure they’d make it, so I sped up and left them behind. (It sounds selfish, but if I was going to timeout, I wanted it to be my fault). This happened more times than I expected over this leg.

As the checkpoint came up on this leg, I was feeling good. I knew I was making good time (I’d passed a half dozen people) and was feeling confident. As I pulled in to maybe grab a drink, I talked to one of the volunteers. I asked him my important question. His mouth said “You’ll have to run”. His expression said “Sorry buddy. Better luck next time”. That was a shock to the system. I took off at a run right after, hoping to make up more time, if it was possible. The last thing I remember hearing was him calling after me asking if I wanted to take some food with me. I yelled back that I didn’t have enough time.

The last half of the leg is a blur. I passed at least one more soloist and a couple of people doing the relay. None of them could answer my question. I eventually saw Gary at the top of a final hill and knew I was going to make it. I pulled into TA6 with 8 minutes to spare. I thought I’d done pretty well on that leg considering everything. It turns out, I did well in general. I had the seventh fastest time for solo runners on the leg. And as far as I know, none of the runners I passed on leg 6 finished.

 

Leg 7: Wedge Mountain

(Or: Game Over)

Suzanne was there and ready to go. As I came in another woman left the TA. According to the volunteers, she had taken a nap and wanted to be woken up just before the timeout for the final leg.

Leg 7 starts with an ugly, steep climb. Suzanne and I caught up to the lady shortly before the top of it. Suzanne began to talk to the woman, with the basic niceties, “How are you?, What’s your name?”, etc. After about the third question, the woman just turned to Suzanne and said “Please don’t talk to me”. That made us both start to laugh. At that point, it was all we could do.

This leg was much more technical than the last. My legs were completely shot at this point. I ended up tripping and falling about a half dozen times before the halfway point. There, the final checkpoint was set up. The volunteers pointed us toward what they assured us was the ‘last big hill of the race’ and told us that at the top, there was a sharp turn and to follow the path there.

This instruction was a bit lacking. To me a sharp turn is around 90 degrees. At the top of this last, brutal hill, there was a path to the sharp right. So we started to follow it. Which started to go further up another hill. After a point, I noticed that I hadn’t seen a marker flag in a while. (You tend to notice them, especially when you’ve spent the night following them). We went a bit further and I mentioned it again. Finally I was pretty sure that we’d made a wrong turn. The other woman had caught up at this point. (We’d left her behind a while before). She went running (shuffling) past us and we called up that we thought this was a wrong turn. She turned around and starting running back down yelling “AW BOLLOCKS!”, which is, again, hilarious.

We turned around and headed back down to the previous plateau and found the correct path. Apparently ‘sharp turn’ to them is what I would call a ‘hairpin turn’. Compared to the rest of the race I found that one point very poorly marked. That detour cost me about 15 minutes or so.

The path criss-crossed back and forth, but the progress toward the town and finish was clear. On one switchback, I finally caught a glimpse of the finish. I knew from other racers that this was the ‘false finish’, so I didn’t get my hopes too high yet. The course designer was somewhat cruel, because he designed the course so that finishers had to go right by the arch before running another 2-3km. Checking the time, I had 25 minutes so time was on my side.

True to that info, the course took me away from the finish line for a bit, but before too long we exited the woods (finally!) and were in a residential area. The arch came back into view. And so did a course marshal, who uttered this wonderful phrase:

“You’ve only got 10 minutes left, and you’ve got a 3km loop to do. You’re not going to make it.”

My first thought was: 10 minutes? 3km? Maybe I can do that. After some quick calculations though, reality set in. I could maybe run 3km at a 3:20 pace under ideal conditions. (Wind assisted, downhill). This was not ideal conditions. This is where I stopped and told Suzanne I was just walking. That completely deflated me and I took the time to enjoy the last of the race.

All I worried about at that point was whether or not they’d take down the finish line before I got there. As I got closer, it seemed like they had, since I couldn’t spot it. I got to the camping area and I saw one familiar looking guy standing outside his tent. I was too tired to figure out who he might be until he said this to me: “You did make it”. It was the guy from the 6th leg, who had hinted to me that I might not finish the leg. That marked the last 100m or so of the race. I forced my legs to run again and crossed the line, just over 27 hours after I started.

 

 

Epilogue

(Or: The Part After The End)

I will say that the race organizers put together a great breakfast after the event. Everyone else raved about the food. I didn’t have any, since I chose to have a shower first. When I got back to where the food was, the lineup was halfway around the arena. I stood in line for 5 minutes and realized that there was no way I was going to be able to last until I got to the front. I managed to grab a coffee from a booth in the expo, but I had forgotten where my group was sitting. And I couldn’t find them. So I just sat in the bleachers. From what I understand from the awards ceremony, I missed out on a $200 prize by about 15 minutes… about the same time I spent on my detour. I was very close to getting the ‘Red Lantern’.

My final thoughts on everything though: This was one of the most well run races I’ve been too. The logistics of getting supplies to the various spots is pretty daunting, but the stations were all very well stocked and the volunteers were amazing. I would do the race again in a heartbeat. I have a good idea about what I need to work on to be able to finish before the official cutoff the next time. It’s also the toughest race I’ve ever done. About half to two-thirds of the soloists who started, did not make it to the finish line.

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