Every second counts…
Wow! This weekend turned out better than I could have imagined. This year was one of the most exciting and interesting relay races we’ve ever done. Everyone performed well and we had great competition along with the way.
Here are some highlights:
Last year was a pretty rough year for me. A number of things didn’t go well, and my job promotion resulted in me working around the clock. As a result, my training took a huge dive and I ended up skipping most of my races. This year, I wanted to be well trained coming into Sinister7 and to not be worried about blowing up in one of the longer legs.
In January, Warren, Darren and I started doing stair workouts weekly at the Fort Edmonton staircase. These workouts were punishing and we did them as fast and hard as we could. On top of that, we increased our weekly running mileage and came to Crowsnest Pass for some mountain training a few weeks prior.
I’ve done a few races in 2016 that weren’t that noteworthy, but I finally had a great run at K-100 two weeks back. Needless to say, I came into S7 with stronger legs and the knowledge of some solid training that gave me some important confidence.
I wasn’t sure how well we would place at this year’s race. And to be honest, I didn’t want to think much about it. Although our runners are competitive by nature, this event is all about fun and challenging yourself in the mountains. Sinister7 can be punishing, and you have to dig deep to get through it without resigning yourself to giving up in any way. It’s more about you versus the mountain, instead of you versus other teams. I kept that in mind while I was gasping for air and my legs were feeling like trash. I’ll get into more detail later about this. Anyway, this is our team lineup for this year:
As usual, we picked up our race package, ate the pre-race dinner and chatted with the other teams. I love the build up to the race and the excitement of everyone arriving. You can tell that everyone is happy to be there, be active, and share their love of the sport. For me, I tend to think about the battle that will ensue between myself and the mountain. Will it break me? Will I be brave and push hard when adversity comes my way? Will I surprise my competition? I might not be the fittest guy around, but I never give up on a race, especially when my teammates are counting on me to keep our position.
We had some good laughs at the hotel in Blairmore, relaxed, then went to bed with ease. Five months of training had led up to this weekend and it was time to see what we could do.
This was Brian’s second year with our team. He did Leg 4 last year and we figured he would best be on leg 1 (mostly road) given recent injuries to his ankle. On race day, he showed no sign of injury and finished in 1 hour and 23 minutes. This was two minutes ahead of last year’s pace! Off to a good start so far. Brian tagged Claudette and took the bus back to the main transition area. To my surprise (in a good way), Shane Andersen (team Lost in the Woods) won Leg 1 in a blistering time of 1:09, very impressive! I estimate we were in 15th place at this point.
Claudette had an unpleasant experience last year at S7. If you ever bump into her, you can ask her about it. However, I can tell she was hungry to have a stellar race. I’m sure she looks forward to this race as much as I do each year, and therefore having a strong run was very important to her.
Leg 2 is one of the more fun stages (terrain and scenery wise). It starts off with a massive 5km uphill and then there are a few more challenging sections throughout. This leg is known for causing injuries due to some tight single track that makes it hard to see where your feet are landing. Claudette had joined us for a few of the stair workouts, and her light yet strong frame made her suitable for a leg with tough climbs. I wasn’t sure how well she would react to this type of terrain, but she ended up rocking it! I figured she would run around 1:45 or 1:50, but she came in at 1 hour and 44 minutes.
She maintained our 15th place position and tagged Darren. I learned soon afterwards that one runner needed stitches after a fall, and another runner had a severely swollen ankle from a fall on this leg. Claudette didn’t get lost or fall. We still weren’t in the top 10 overall yet, but our captain Darren has a nice long leg to catch some folks.
For the past 3 years, I’ve been stuck doing Leg 3, so I was glad to hand it off to Darren. Darren is very good at hills and his discipline in training this year was probably the strongest amongst the team, a good quality to have since he is team captain. I train with Darren usually 3 or 4 times a week after work, so we chatted quite a bit about this race and the strategy of it.
I’ve done almost all of the legs at Sinister7, and I have to say that Leg 3 is definitely the hardest. It has the most elevation gain, and it has a way of breaking you down until you can barely move. Ironically, my fastest time on this leg was 2 years ago when I took it super easy. I gave as much pointers to Darren as I could, and I fully expected him to break my time of 3 hrs 28 minutes with ease given that the weather was cooler. We watched him climb up the big hill and into the abyss. Brian Stewart from the Fast Trax Shop team started a few minutes ahead of Darren, so that gave him someone to chase or work with later on.
As Darren was battling it out for 3 hours, I enjoyed listening to Brian’s and Claudette’s breakdown on what had transpired thus far. We were a few minutes behind last year’s pace, but we were still in a good spot. I was surprised to see how many great teams there were this year. A few people and teams I recognized, but there were a few I didn’t. Perhaps our team was going to struggle to crack the top 10, however there was still lots of race to go.
Normally, we head back to our hotel after our runner takes off on a longer leg, but this time we stayed at the transition area. It gave me a chance to see how other teams were doing, chat with some new people, and most importantly, I was waiting for our Leg 4 runner to arrive in town.
About 2 hrs into Leg 3, I received a text message from Alison (Darren’s wife volunteering at Leg 3 aid stations). She said that he rolled his ankle and was struggling to run. This was not good news, and I was imagining Darren walking most of his race in pain. It’s shitty, but it’s the name of the game in mountain & adventure racing.
It was hard to gauge for what was going to happen next, but part of me thought the race was going to take a much more relaxing tone as we would start losing spots quickly. Negative thinking I know… but you need to have 7 solid legs in order to stay competitive. One bad leg can drop you positions where you can no longer recover from.
Soon after hearing about Darren’s struggles, our Leg 4 runner (Ben) arrived and he started getting ready. Given that we had no idea how fast Darren was moving, we prepared for Darren’s arrival on his expected time of 3 hours 15 minutes. After 12 teams came into Leg 3, we were delighted to see Darren come in at 3 hours 24 minutes, a new team record!
Last year, were were in 4th place at this time, but we were now in 13th place and a few minutes faster than last year’s pace. This shows you how good the teams were this year. Ben quickly got organized and tagged Darren to begin Leg 4.
Darren was limping a bit and he immediately sat down to relax. I could tell he had some good stories for us and battled hard. He wasn’t too pleased with his run or the pain he had to endure, but I was still happy that he set the team record and kept us in competitive mode.
Ben was the last runner to join our team. We had struggled to find our 7th runner after two runners quit. We tried asking several others to join us too but with no luck. I didn’t know Ben personally, but I recognized him as a worthy rival at the 5Peaks races last year. This year I noticed he upped his game and he was racing with such a high intensity, which made me think that he would make a good candidate for this type of race. At the Canada Day race, I saw him at the finish line and figured it couldn’t hurt to ask him. After Ben got the race day off of work, he confirmed he was in.
I haven’t done Leg 4 before, but based on the race results from previous years, it looks pretty hard. It starts off by going up the ski hill before heading west towards Coleman for 17 km. Grant and Brian had raced this leg previously in 2 hrs 6 minutes, so I figured Ben would run somewhere between 1:50 and 1:55. Boy did I get that wrong, he blew that time out of the water and ran a 1 hour 38 minutes! Good enough for 3rd overall and he moved our team into 6th place. This was now two team records in a row too.
It only took one leg to completely change the nature of the race. Instead of us being the hunters, we were now being hunted by the best teams, with still half way to go. The new leg 4 transition area made it difficult for us to see who was coming in, so Warren was surprised and had to quickly change into race gear to begin Leg 5. A couple of more teams came in right behind us, so it was important for Warren to have a strong run and give me some wiggle room on Leg 6.
Warren had a rough race last year at S7. If you bump into him, you can ask him about it (blow up!). This year, Warren shook off a few bad injuries and trained really hard. He is probably the most competitive person on our team, so I was expecting him to erase last year’s memory with a fast time and team record. Jillian’s time last year of 2:33 would not be easy to beat, but the weather was cooperating and Warren had the extra motivation to stay ahead of the teams that were on our heels.
Five minutes after Warren took off, it sunk in that I was next and I needed to get ready. I was really enjoying being a spectator thus far, but I needed to eat something and prepare mentally for the battle that was about to ensue. I’m not going to lie, I was a bit worried about my competition on Leg 6. It was the longest leg of the race (36 km), and some of the best runners were strategically placed on this leg including last year’s solo winner Alissa St. Laurent and fast marathoner Cliff de Bruin.
I’ve been in this position before and I reminded myself that it doesn’t really matter who I am running against. My job is to run from point A to point B as fast as I can for my team. Whatever happens will happen, but my effort and determination is what is in my control. Giving up or holding back in any way is not how I want remember this day. After eating a light salad, and grabbing my gear, I made my way to the 5/6 transition to wait for Warren’s arrival.
It didn’t take long, Warren came down the big hill of the Leg 5/6/7 transition in a record time of 2:27. No doubt, Warren had a great run and redeemed himself from last year’s race. Warren tagged me and we were now in 4th place. Amazing how things have turned around since Leg 3 when were worried about Darren’s potential injury. The teams ahead of me were too far ahead, so now I have to do my best to hold our position.
Many months of training has led to this moment. It’s hard to believe it’s finally here. I am about to run for over 3 hours through mountains, mud, and rock with almost the entire field chasing me. I have no idea how much of a lead Warren has given me, but again, it doesn’t matter. It’s time for me to battle my own demons and put a good foot forward for my teammates. Every second counts.
As I began my journey, my first thought was that “I have a long way to go”. I better pace myself appropriately. The excitement can get to you and it’s easy to push a little too hard early on. Luckily, I ran a large section of Leg 6 in 2010, so I knew what to expect in the first 20 kilometers. The first 8km is mostly gentle uphill before you start the steep climb up the mountain. Compared to leg 3, this is nice because you can get some kilometers out of the way before your legs start being brutalized by the hills and rock.
I tried to remain calm for the first 8 km, but it was hard. I felt really slow and heavy, especially with carrying the full water pack. I kept thinking about the runners behind me who were probably feeling better than I was and were gaining on me. After about 4km, I was breathing so hard that I decided to stop completely to calm things down. I assessed how I was feeling and determined that I was a bit more fatigued than I should have been. I was breathing so hard, yet I haven’t even started the mountain climb. Perhaps I over trained leading up to this event, and now I have tired legs and general fatigue. This is not good. I am only a few kilometers in and I’m really stressed, tired and don’t feel like racing.
After this brief pause, I resumed my race pace and started contemplating my options. Should I slow down a bit in order to reduce the possibility of wearing myself out? Or maybe this is all in my head? I realized that this is all part of the experience, and adversity and challenges are to be expected. I decided to push hard regardless of whether or not I was feeling good or feeling fast. I chose to be positive and not think about failure. After all, I might feel better later on and I’m still in 4th place.
I was looking forward to the mountain climb because it was going to tell me how I was truly feeling. I had done tons of stairs and hill workouts, so I knew how my body should react to the stress of climbing. It didn’t take long to realize that my legs were still very tired and heavy. I tried to run some sections but my body was not having it. This was the lowest point of the day for me. I was not expecting to feel this tired for the event I had trained so hard for. I had no choice but to walk all the uphills and just try to keep a decent pace on the flat and downhill sections.
It took me a little over an hour to do the first 10 kilometers. I was hoping to be under an hour for the first 10 km given that the first 8km is mostly flat (or so I thought). I’m slightly off pace, but not too bad. A secondary goal for me was to break Claudette’s record of 3 hours 47 minutes. Suddenly, that goal was starting to fade away as I huffed and puffed my way up the mountain. I took note of the lovely scenery as I had previously run this leg in the pouring rain several years back. When facing adversity in long races, I try to remind myself of the basic things about running that I enjoy such as the beautiful scenery and being out in nature.
After filling up at the first water station, I began the steepest climb of the day. I still wasn’t feeling that great, but I powered hiked my way up the hill the best I could. There was still no sign of anyone catching me, and I passed the time thinking of funny remarks to say in case anyone did pass me. My mind soon turned to helping out the team the best I could. If this race doesn’t go well for me, I still have to give our Leg 7 runner Kevin a chance to compete to the finish line. If I can hold off teams until 30km, then that may give Kevin an opportunity to regain any spots that I lost. That goal gave me something to strive for while I was waiting for my body to feel better.
As I crested the top of the mountain, I was welcomed by 50 kilometer per hour winds and rain. Being out in the open, the weather changed dramatically and I realized that it would have been nice to bring a jacket. It was cold, but didn’t last long as I dipped down into the treeline.
Things started to turn around for me after reaching the top. The hardest climbing of the day was behind me, and I was finally able to get some downhill running. My hope was that I could pick up the pace and slowly start to feel better with consistent leg turnover. The terrain became really rocky and technical. It was slippery up there too as it was still raining, but I was having fun. Technical terrain tends to take my mind off of the strain running does to your legs and lungs. Although, as I was cruising downhill, I was aware that my quads and calves were starting to feel sore/tight. I have vivid memories of the pain and muscle seizing that Leg 3 has done to me over the years. I was praying to avoid that feeling for as long as possible.
When I hit the 16 km mark on my watch, my left calf muscle seized. I thought “great, I’m not even half way and my legs are starting to give out already”. I wasn’t going to panic yet, I continued to drink plenty of fluids and ate a gel. The longer I can hold off extreme fatigue and soreness, the better chance I have of succeeding on this day. I continued on running the best pace I could without over stressing my legs as I eagerly made my way towards the next aid station.
Seeing the next aid station was another goal to keep me motivated, as it would signify my progress of distance into the race. I encountered a giant deer on the trail about 18 kilometers in and it quickly ran off into the bush. Finally, I saw some wild life at Sinister7! A few minutes later, a rather large Moose walked across the trail only a few meters ahead of me. That put a smile on my face. It reminded me of the beautiful wilderness that I was in and that I should do my best to enjoy it.
The guy at the aid station was very friendly and I could tell he hadn’t seen anyone for awhile. He said I was looking good, but I was still in a cautious mode as I was now entering the point in the race where other teams could catch me. I don’t like staying at aid stations for very long, so I inhaled some food, refilled my water pack, and was out of there in less than 45 seconds.
Getting past the 2nd aid station was another boost for me. I was still feeling okay and I was eager to pick up the pace and make it harder for teams to catch me. A thought occurred to me that running slower earlier on in the race may have allowed me to feel better for the 2nd half of the race. I usually struggle in the final few kilometers of long runs, but if I can hold a solid pace until the end, it will have made my earlier struggles not as difficult to swallow.
I’ve now passed the 23 kilometer mark, and I can begin thinking about the finish. I tend not to think about counting down the kilometers in long races until I’m reasonably close to end. Otherwise, I get impatient and it makes for a longer day of suffering. About two kilometers later, I heard the first runner behind me. I was expecting it would be “Lost in the Woods” runner Cliff, but I recognized it was Andrew Fairhurst. He is one of the original Sinister7 organizers and he helped plan the race course. As a very good mountain runner, it didn’t take long for him to disappear out of sight. I asked him what team he was on (it was Spry2), and wished him well.
It didn’t bother me to get passed because I was glad that I was still running a good pace and I haven’t fallen apart yet physically. My legs weren’t feeling the greatest, but I was ticking away kilometers much quicker and I was in a good spot to battle any other runner who could catch me.
The 3rd aid station came quicker than I thought and I started to encounter Leg 5 runners as Leg 5 & 6 share part of the same course. The sun and weather turned from gray and windy to sunny and slight winds.
My legs are hurting much more now, but I’m still in a positive mood because I realized I was going to finish without having to walk anymore. I knew I had enough strength left to battle those final few kilometers. At this point, I am super eager to get to the 30 km mark. If I can get to the 30 km mark without dropping anymore positions, our team will still be in a good place.
I passed several of the Leg 5 runners as I increased my pace a little more. Hunger and fatigue was slowly creeping in on me, but I was close enough to the end to push the pace a little harder without worrying about the consequences. The final few kilometers reminded me of my 2nd marathon in Las Vegas. Although my legs were now shredded and beyond tired, the desire to finish strong got me through the pain. By now, I knew that I had locked up the 5th place position. I took one last walk break to chug down lots of water, and made the final push to the end.
Seeing the transition area was such a delight. It signified the end of this difficult yet rewarding journey. Most importantly, I could relax knowing I did my best and didn’t hold back. I raised my right fist in the air and yelled out “YES!” as loud I could as I caught a glimpse of all the spectators. I dropped back into the downhill trail and rounded my way into the final straight away. I looked at my watch and saw that I was 3 hours 27 minutes, about 21 minutes faster than the record and one hour faster than last year’s pace.
Despite earlier challenges with fatigue, I have succeeded in my goal of having a solid race, and keeping our team in competitive play. Running has it’s great personal rewards because it is a very difficult sport/activity. It challenges you physically and more importantly, it challenges you mentally. It pits you against the darkest and most negative side of you. Years from now, I won’t remember my time or placing, I’ll remember the battle and that I gave it my all.
I tagged Kevin and told him that I didn’t see anyone behind me. Hopefully I gave him enough of a lead to maintain the team position.
Kevin is a klassy guy. He loves the team atmosphere and relay competition as well. In fact, he enjoyed it so much, he didn’t mind hydrating himself with 5 beers before the race. I wasn’t worried though, he is the king of drinking and racing well.
Since Leg 7 is only 11 kilometers, we were eager to get to the finish line to welcome Kevin in, but we were also curious about who was behind us. Leg 6 is such a long leg, that most of the lead I started with could have evaporated. Darren and Warren kept an eye on the transition area while I scarfed down some pizza provided by Alison. With 11 kilometers to go, a safe lead of 11 minutes would suffice in my mind to hold our position.
Nineteen minutes after I had finished leg 6, the next team came in, it was Lost in the Woods. Shane took off like a lightning bolt and began to chase down Kevin. I wasn’t worried though because Kevin had done the leg before, and was a reliable trail racer. I went back to my hotel room to quickly shower and make my way back to the finish line. This day went by so fast, it’s hard to believe its coming to an end, and it’s still daylight outside!
As expected, Kevin maintained the 5th place finish and was recognizable with his ultra bright flash light he was carrying. When Kevin crossed the finish line, I’m sure he had the same sense of relief that I had knowing the team competition factor was over. We took our team photo and celebrated the accomplishment of having 7 successful races in the day. I think we all encountered some sort of adversity along the way. Perhaps we put too much pressure on ourselves for the sake of the team, but it did make it more meaningful and interesting.
Three minutes later, Shane came into the finish line. He ran an incredible second run of the day, and it demonstrated how every second counted over the 100 miles of the race. Premature Acceleration finished with a team record time of 15 hours 15 minutes and 54 seconds. We watched a few more teams arrive, and then we went to The Rum Runner to enjoy some drinks and celebrate.
There is no official Leg 8, but I must give mention of the hard work that Allison did for our team. She volunteered last year and this year for 8 hours. Our team truly appreciates her support and time which allows us a guaranteed entry into the race. Plus, she got me pizza!
Of course we’ll be back for next year. Although, I think we’ll take a more casual approach to the race. After doing 4 years straight of the long legs, I will want to do Leg 4 (17 km). Warren may consider doing it solo, and we’ll ensure that everyone can run a new leg. Running a shorter leg will allow me to focus more on the shorter distance speeds and hopefully set some new personal bests.