SPOILER ALERT: I survived the 50km Wild Horse Traverse. (It’s actually 52km but who’s counting.)
But that’s not what I expected. At the risk of sounding dramatic, but in all honesty, I felt this race—should I not listen to my body—could kill me.
During my last ultra three years ago, it felt as though that almost happened. The heat was horrible and I couldn’t drink as I had a dangerous reaction to caffeine. I legitimately felt I could have a heart attack. Stuck between aid stations, I had to continue. Blurry vision, black outs, horrible nausea, stumbling, and a heart rate that never dropped below 185 for over an hour.
So, I didn’t run any further than about 35km for a few years. I was downright scared to go down that rabbit hole again. I didn’t believe that I knew where my safety limits were, which made me unable to think that I could protect myself when I needed to.
My first ultra, and the concurrent double shoulder surgery I was going through, deeply affected the trust I had in my brain-body connection. I had pushed to the point of unnecessary damage because my brain didn’t seem to be able to tell me where my body was at.
And so, as I went into Saturday’s race, I still didn’t feel that I could trust my own decision making process about my own body. I had no evidence that I was capable of listening. Yet this wasn’t the first disconnect I’d ever had: it is actually very normal for me.
Between the ages of six and eight, my boundaries were molested by someone I was supposed to trust. I had tried to show people signs that something was wrong, but they didn’t see me. The fall out as I grew up was an inability to believe the truth in my experiences, physical or mental. I doubted everything I felt and trusted no one because I had not received validation for something so violating.
Bulimia, major depressive disorder and dissociative disorder developed as coping mechanisms to disconnect my brain from my body.
Three decades later, those early impressions still haunt me, but now I understand why. Adverse childhood experiences set the stage for how we manage emotions as adults. My method was not to feel them. But when you’re running by yourself in the bush, that gets dangerous. So my lifelong coping methods no longer apply, and I have to learn how to change them.
And now back to Wild Horse. I chose this race because I’m tired of feeling disconnected from my body. The Wild Horse is a point A to point B race, meaning you can’t turn back. The only way out is through, and that seemed a fitting metaphor for what I wanted to achieve: connection. I spent the week before the race writing and rewriting the course profile so that I knew what to expect, so I could prepare for where it would hurt, where I would run and where I would power walk. This mental prep was meant to give me the ability to know that what I’d experience is NORMAL, and not to be scared.
The race started at 7am. It was a gorgeous morning on the lake. I was excited and prepared, rehearsing my mantra, “The race is a celebration of hard work to get here, not a test that you will fail.”
At exactly 8:38am, my foot started howling in protest. I have nervy shite in my foot from a foot slam super man a couple years ago, compounded by arthritis and nerve impingement in my back from a snowboarding compression fracture. (SEE? I DON’T LISTEN.) It felt like someone had cut off my toe with an axe. Shivers of pain were running up my back. My brain was like, “Ok—you’re done. Pull out at the aid station in 10km. Or turn around where that dog was, get a cuddle and walk home with them.”
I got sad and disappointed. I had known my foot would be a factor but I was hoping I could push through. I started thinking about my friends who can’t run, I thought about how hard they work, how much we all go through shit other people don’t see and wouldn’t you know…. I got to the aid station at 21km, refilled my hydration bag, and started the climb out. My foot wasn’t an issue.
Then came the heat.
For the next 8km, we climbed up and away from the refreshing cool waters of Okanagan Lake, in the direct, blazing sun. Mercury climbed to 34 degrees and my hopes for a 6:30 finish, necessary for my pie-in-the-sky dream of a top ten finish, evaporated with the sweat on my chin. I passed multiple people with glazed eyes and bewildered grimaces. I drank and drank and drank. I stopped at every puddle to wet my hat, but nausea was looming and I couldn’t eat.
Nutrition during an ultra will make or break a finish. I have to take in at least 200kcal per hour, and it got really challenging. I couldn’t chew. It’d just sit in my mouth and I had to fight not to spit it out. I even barfed a bit. My coach Jenny Segger told me I’d be slower in the heat, walking sections I didn’t plan to so my heart rate would stay in check. With that advice running through my mind, I knew I had to keep trying, keep drinking, keep moving like I was late for something. No lolly gagging allowed.
Time passed remarkably quickly and when I got to a creek I could sit in, I did. #crotchcreek dropped my core temperature, the nausea disappeared, my head cleared and I was back to running! IT WAS AMAZING.
At the next aid station, 35.5km and 16km from the finish, my plan was to run. It was downhill. My knee protested a bit, but we bartered and came to the conclusion that the faster I went, the sooner it would be over. There were a few moments where my feet seemed to slow in the sauna baking the trail, but I cajoled my limbs by changing my gait to short, quick steps. They seemed to like this and then the thing happened that endurance athletes rave about: mental toughness. Psychological stamina. I’d never felt that before.
It was an epiphany! Our bodies are capable of anything. It’s our minds that stop it. I cranked some tunes, drank water at the end of every three minute song, ate some candy, stuffed ice in my hat, bra and shorts at the final aid station and just rode my legs till the end. They seemed to be going faster than I thought they were capable. The heat bore down like I’d never felt before, but I was ok. I knew I was ok. I was drinking. I was moving. I was smiling. And I was going to finish.
I rolled across the finish line in Naramata 7 hours and 11 minutes after I’d left Kelowna. Race Director Rene Unser grabbed me with one of the best hugs I’d ever felt, and filled me with heartfelt words of congratulations. Tears of joy and satisfaction jumped out of my eyes. I’d moved from 55th to 35th place overall, and managed to nab the 10th place in the women’s category. It took me nearly 9 litres of fluid, but I survived.
My amazing husband Jay came over with tears in his eyes, too. He knew how much this journey meant to me. He knew how many demons I’d fought to get to there. He’d watched helplessly as I’d vacillate between quitting in fear and finishing in my goal time. He’d been the sounding board for millions of excuses I tried to use to rationalize the fear I had in getting to, or not reaching, the finish line.
Damn, this feels good. It’s a whole new level, friends. I feel like a new person.
Thanks for following along.