Calgary Confederation 150k Solo Run of Hell
The Lead Up
In 2016 I ran my first 50k road race at Calgary's annual marathon weekend in May. It was tough but I managed well and recovered well. Shortly thereafter, I heard they were doing a 150k solo run in celebration of Canada's 150th anniversary of confederation. I thought right away I'd do it and as naive as I often am, I thought I'd be able to manage it no problem.
I registered early, around September 2016 and started revving up my mileage through the winter after some lazy rest time recovering after Lost Soul 100 that month which was my first 100 miler.
I approached Dean Johnson, running coach extraordinaire, if he could put together a race plan for me for the Calgary 150k. His response, "I hope you live through it... yikes", and also, "why?"
I had no good response really. Several people asked me this leading up to it and my response was more or less, "why not?" Some called me crazy, but the reality is that I'm probably more naive and stupid than anything crazy. Regardless of how stupid I was, I for sure was committed to the challenge. Dean put together a training plan that started near the end of January 2017 and I got to work.
Training started out pretty easy. It was the first time I had ever done speed work and hill repeats. I'm not a fan of fartleks, hill repeats, or long runs with fast finishes but I gave it the old college try. I sucked at first at all of them but like all things, you just get used to it.
The hardest part of my training was my long runs where I would run 4-6 hours and put in 50k+. I did five of these, two of them in one day where I went to Bragg Creek to participate in the annual Bragging Rights unofficial race and ran 45k in the mountains. Then I went to downtown Calgary and ran 55k along the Bow River and ran 5 loops of the 150k course. It was this day that I met Harold Hagan, Dave Proctor, and several of the other runners that would share the battleground with me. This day I ran just over 100k and would be my final long run before my much anticipated taper. This day proved to be invaluable as it finally gave me some confidence going into the 150k. I did 100k in over 14 hours, half of that in mountains and mostly self-supported. I needed to do 100k in 13 hours on race day and would be very supported every 5k. Easy, right???
It was nice to start a race at 6 pm in the evening. I was able to sleep in, I had all morning to prep my drop bag, and I was able to catch a nap in the afternoon before the start. In the morning I made my running go-tos: rice balls filled with seasoned salmon. They never fail me. In the end this is what all my supplies looked like:
6 p.m. came pretty quick. Just before the race started, it started pouring. Everyone was huddled up under tents and we didn't line up to start until less than a minute before the start.
The rain only lasted about 10-15 minutes, but it wasn't nice to start with wet feet. I was surprised how fast everyone was running out the start. I was keeping up with the pack but then relented seeing that their pace was sub 5:30 per k. My goal pace was 6:15-30 with 5 minute breaks every 10k. I quickly put on the brakes and slowed to near last.
It was slightly discouraging having so many people pass me right from the get-go. I was near the back of the pack after about 5 minutes and I would not see a big crowd of runners again for the rest of the night.
Getting the the main aid station after my first 10k was great. I saw Lindy in her car cheering me on, on her way to the aid station. I got there before she did because parking was a nightmare for her, and I waited as long as I could but had to leave. It turns out, I missed her by mere seconds as she saw me run off. Lindy had to leave to go put Addie and Eva down at our hotel but she returned at my 40 and 50k loops about three hours later.
The first 50k was great. My strategy was working well. Each 10k lap was taking me about an hour and 10 minutes which included a nice 5 minute break. I never changed my target pace for all 50k. I took an extra long 15 minute break at 50k and Lindy was there to crew me. She laid out a sleeping pad and sleeping bag for me to rest my legs and sit on. I put on compression sleeves on my legs for the first time. I finished my first 50k in about 6 hours. So far so good.
After 60k I could start to feel the miles under my feet. I was still doing okay, but I was slowing slightly. Things were still good. During this loop I started seeing faint blue and green hues of the northern lights and they just got more and more intense and never stopped the entire loop. I had never seen the northern lights so spectacular and I was in downtown Calgary! I was getting a bit dizzy running and looking up.
It was after 70k that I started running into some trouble and I got into a pretty dark place mentally. I was only halfway done and I felt overwhelmed at what I still had left. I remember running into the aid station, grabbing my drop bag and going through some supplies when I mentally and emotionally lost it. Joanna Ford had come to assist me and Brayden Hiltz and Julia Mitton came over but I was a wreck. I was in tears as Joanna, Brayden, and Julia were hovered around me getting me out of the deep mental pit. They were so great. My feet were killing so I switched out my socks and shoes to a lighter pair. Brayden fetched a slice of pizza for me, I downed half a 5-hour energy drink and I slowly got up and staggered on my way. I never have left an aid station so incredibly discouraged and deflated about the task ahead.
The next two loops were extremely hard. All I could think of was how many times I had left to see that damn course. After 80k, I felt my mind getting out of the slump. I only had to see everything two more times.
During the first 50k of the night, I was running alongside my fellow runners and would chat here and there with the other runners. After 50k, I hardly saw anyone, and the people I did see were all relay team runners, not 150k soloists. They didn't count in my mind, hehe. The last 50k were so very lonely on the course. One thing that was super cool was being lapped four times by Dave Proctor and every time her lapped me, he said hi to me. That guy is a gentleman and a machine.
The early sun was rising and I could feel my body waking up for the day. After 90k, I thought, "thank god I only have to see this course one last time". The mental energy of doing 10-10k laps was harder than I thought. The last little bit was to run to the Stampede grounds, the finish for the first 100k. It was lovely to see a different part of the Bow River, parts I had never seen before but the course just kept dragging on. Just when I thought it was ending, the course would do a turn or take me in a different direction from the Stampede grounds. And my feet felt humongous after 100k.
I finally got to the finish of the 100k and Lindy was there cheering me on. I felt completely drained and it was an emotional relief to see her.
She escorted me to our tent where the soloists could rest. I was surprised how empty it was. Lindy had my sleeping pad and blanket. I was able to change my shirt, charge my watch, go to the bathroom, get more food, lay down for just a brief moment and get off my aching, aching feet.
Harold Hagan met me there and it was a nice pick-me up to see his cheerful spirit. Harold is relentlessly positive and seeing him gave me a bit of energy in my depressed state. All I could think about was how fresh everyone else's legs were and how beat and run down mine were. They had all had a good night's rest with a nice warm pasta dinner. I had run 100k with cold pizza. They allowed the 150k soloists to come forward to near the front of the start but having thousands of runners cruise past me from the gate wasn't too encouraging.
The entire remaining 50k was a complete mental fog. I distinctively remember a handful of things: How much pain I was in, Harold's encouraging optimism, and seeing Lindy a handful of times during the race to aid me.
I was just trying to get each foot in front of the other and as the morning's heat started to climb it was getting harder and harder. Harold was keeping on top of my pace and was noticing that my slowing pace was getting us into trouble of finishing. He was keeping me going on a steady pace and would set little destination benchmarks for me to get to. As I was coming into Memorial Drive, I remember how hot it was getting and how much slower I was getting. Harold kept encouraging me but we were both worried about the cut-off which I was getting closer and closer to. I saw Lindy on this stretch and she saw how much pain I was in. She posted on Facebook for people to message me and a flood of messages came in on my watch. It seriously helped.
Coming into the Stampede grounds for the second and final time was the biggest of my life. As I staggered to the finish line, I was overwhelmed with the relief of finishing the most grueling race I've ever done. It was the most emotional and cathartic finish line I've ever had. 18 hours, 53 minutes, and 21 seconds of running. 12 hours of that was in the dark agony of the pain cave.
As I was walking back to the car my entire body seized up and I couldn't walk. We had to get first aid and I was carried to the first aid tent where I was feeling really bleak. It took about an hour for me to get up again, onto a wheel chair where Lindy and Gennie pushed me to the car. We went back to the hotel and I didn't get out of bed for 24 hours.
It took me another two solid months before I felt like I could run full steam again. Running 150k on pavement was the hardest physical thing I've ever done. Later in August 2017, I ran the Fat Dog 120 miler in the BC mountains and this was still harder.
I still get asked why I do these sort of things. I still have to think hard every time. I remember running my very first 5k and a woman passed me as I was faltering, and exclaimed, "C'mon you can do it! When are you ever going to feel like this???" That really stuck with me. I often have a hard time centering my mind but when I'm running, it's easy. When I'm racing, it's easier, and so I think that's why I do these crazy races. So my answer to why I do these sort of things is often same: I want to see and experience what my body can do when I push it to the limits. And the Calgary 150k was by far the most I've ever pushed it.
Special shout out to Harold Hagan who gave up his chance to run a 50k PR just so he could pace me. He saw me through that finish line when I was deep in the pain cave. We were cutting it close to the end for both of our cutoffs, and I regretfully had him worried. Glad we both finished though! He's also a fantastic mortgage broker if you're looking to buy a house!
I couldn't have been better prepared if it wasn't for Dean Johnson and his wise training plan. Thanks Dean!
Julia Mitton, Brayden Hiltz, Joanna Ford, and Mackenzie Parsons for their amazing support during the race.
Gennie and John McMullin for helping watch the kids while I was running.
And Lindy. Always Lindy for her unending support in helping me see my dreams come true.