First thing is I want to say a BIG THANK YOU to my wife, Marilyn Matlock for supporting me and for doing an amazing job helping me through the transitions. I really would have failed if not for her.
How can I keep a long story short? I can’t so forgive the long post. Probably I can keep it short in the same way I kept an Ultra run short, by running little “bullet” paragraphs at a time. So if you want to get a feel for what it felt like, then please try to read this while standing in a dark freezer on one leg while sprinkling yourself with water. So here are my bullet points:
-started at 7 AM in a cold and raining Iron Horse morning in St. Paul.
– watched ALL of the runners disappear into the dark morning, leaving me behind (never saw them again).
– wondered what the cold miserable rainy morning would bring with 100 km of trail still ahead of me.
– got confused and lost in St. Paul just after the boardwalk 7 km on, and had to call Ben for directions.
– ran leg 1 and the flag people were pulling flags thinking there was no one left on that part of the course.
– by sheer luck Ben on his truck saw me going the wrong way and redirected me back onto leg 1 (the flag puller was only a half km ahead of me).
– going downhill in leg 1, I realized that my current pace of 9 min per kilometer was not achievable because my left knee suddenly decided it did not like going down hill. Possibly because I had bruised it during a rock climbing session the previous week.
– leg 2 is a blur and I don’t remember much of it, other than that the sun came out (during leg 1) making the rest of the day absolutely a perfect fall day in stark contrast to the rainy cold morning.
– leg 3 for me was brutal more in the downhills than the uphills. Still sunny and warm but very windy. I got all touristy seeing as my time goal was shot so I did not mind stopping and taking a couple of pictures and one video in various places.
– coming into the aid station after leg 3 things began to get interesting as it got dark really fast. I ran most of leg 4 and all of leg 5 in the dark. At that point, my GPS coincided perfectly with what the race director said was the distance so far, 64 kilometers but with my getting lost in St. Paul and a few other short misdirections on trail I read 66 km.
– leg 4 was when I realized that I could no longer eat according to plan. I felt nauseous so could not eat. I was quite well hydrated though. I don’t really remember exactly when the real pain started. All of the weak links in my body were singing their discordant and chaotic symphonies at the same time. Should I list them? Infected big toenail, arthritic flareups in both big toe joints, bruised knee which did not swell up too much because I’ve done this before so I took care of it by gingerly walking downhills and also thanks to KT tape, sore back and aching shoulders due to rock climbing and yoga cross-training, multiple heel blisters on both feet which had not yet totally healed before the run, multiple open bleeding rashes in my nether regions in spite of liberal application of body glide at transition zones and one calf muscle which threatened to rebel into painful spasms. All of these things my brain was internally and often consciously monitoring for potential race stopping disasters. And part of my brain was screaming, demanding that I stop immediately while the other part was saying, “quit and I’ll freaking kill you.” That takes a whole lot of brain energy.
– I took care of that wasteful energy squandering by zoning out and methodically hypnotizing myself into a relentless plodding along. Which is dangerous in it’s own right because your attention to detail suffers. Part of the trail into the swamp got my shoes totally soaked with the wonderful aroma of swamp water. Also it was beginning to get really cold because I could not run fast enough to generate body heat.
– got into the aid station after leg 4 and took some sugared ginger ale which promptly caused me to violently expel the contents of my stomach. The best energy for me became just a couple of candy bars and Marilyn made me a hot chocolate which was REALLY good.
– after an assessment at the aid station Marilyn agreed that I was fully rational,conscious, and alert, it was just my body that was letting me down we agreed that I could finish in about 22 hours so off I went. There was almost a full moon out there in the night skies and the stars were breathtakingly amazing. In the Edmonton region we don’t notice the sky at night because of all the light pollution but St. Paul was dark and the stars were utterly amazingly bright, almost 3 dimensional in their brilliance. Orion was jaw dropping!
– leg 5 was OK but went a lot slower than I wanted. I seemed to be just crawling along. When I hit the last stretch of bush country, the chaotic trail was painfully slow. I did not want to risk breaking anything. Once out of the bush, I ran along the Iron Horse trail until the last big hill through the bush and onto the range road back to St. Paul. At that point I noticed there was frost on the ground. Also at several points on the trail, in the dark, I heard startling splashes into the numerous water bodies there and I figured that I’d just startled beavers going on with their business. I got confirmation of that during one splash event when I saw, out of place, a sopping wet poplar brush lying right across the trail with drag marks leading from the bushes on my left into the water on my right. At the top of that hill, I noticed that a very thick freezing fog was rolling in out of nowhere, it seemed. Suddenly everything was gone and there was a literal white-out in the glare of my headlamp.
– it was a real challenge finding the flags. There was some indicating that I should follow the power poles but I could not see the next pole and the flags were too few and far between for those conditions. So I had to look up with my headlamp and then I could see the general direction of the power lines and followed those to the next pole.
– when a flag was visible it was really visible from a long distance away because of the red reflectors on the flags, but if the flags had been trampled to the ground or turned in the wrong direction you could not see them. So from that point on, whenever I saw a trampled flag or felt that a rotation of the flag this way or that would help the next runners behind me (the 100 milers) then I fixed it to make it easier for them to see the flags.
– finally made it onto the long 10 or 12 kilometer straight stretch of road into St. Paul. The fog was totally obliterating all light so that for that entire distance I could not even see the slightest glimmer of hope from the lights of St. Paul. All that way it was terribly lonely and depressing and cold and miserable. Rather than dissipating the fog, a strong breeze seemed to make it a driving impenetrable haze of light speed special effects. Vision was very small tunnel. I had to stare at my feet just to know that I was still on the gravel road, and at times I wandered off into the side ditches. I felt I had no depth perception at all. I started hallucinating, that is, in all that blinding light haze of driving fog particles, I could not focus properly and so the gravel at my feet seemed to be flowing and I had to blink a few times and shake my head to bring myself back to reality. Hard to explain so I’ll leave it at that.
– that time on the road into St. Paul seemed endless. But finally, I saw a truck which stopped. It was one of the volunteers who said the turn right into St. Paul was just ahead, which meant that I had only about 3 km to go. He said to follow the flags and keep the flags on the left, then went off in search of other runners. Apparently the race directors had decided at this point to pull runners off the course who had not yet made it this far because of the difficulty of finding the flags. But if you were on the road it was pretty much impossible to get lost so a lot of runners went on anyway.
– So I finally caught a glimpse of St. Paul lights and noticing the time (6:15 AM about) I was very happy to know that I would make it to the finish line a good 10 minutes or so under 24 hours. Unfortunately I got lost yet again. Following the flag advice, I came to an intersection and saw that there were 3 flags in a arc on a side walk and another flag about 50 feet down that road so I turned and ran on. I remember thinking that I could not get lost now I just had to follow that road, so I got distracted looking for lights ahead. Then I came to another intersection where I could make out a school in the fog and some sort of Town of St. Paul gas plant. I suddenly realized I had not seen a flag for some time and began looking around for one. Then spoke with Marilyn on the phone who had been looking for me for 20 minutes or more and, long story short, ended up burning up all that spare time just 1.5 km away from the finish line. I ended up finishing in 24 hours and 15 minutes or so. And yes, the fog was that bad. I felt very angry and betrayed about that but there was no one to blame, really and I was pretty tired so happily my brief period of internal anger rapidly dissipated.
– and that, my friends, is the story of my first official Ultra.