Elk-Beaver Ultra - Canadian 50 Mile championship
In 2001, with about 6 months left in my degree, I dropped out of university, packed all my belongings into a duffel bag and a bike box, left my girlfriend behind and flew across the country to pursue my Olympic dream with the National Triathlon Centre in beautiful Victoria, British Columbia. I arrived with two of my training partners from Kingston, Ontario on a cold and rainy January night with no place to stay and no real plans about how I was going to make it work. We were met at the airport by Simon Whitfield who had recently won the first Olympic triathlon gold medal and to say I was star struck would be an understatement. He was already a Canadian sports legend and was the main impetus for why I made the move out west. When he offered to let me crash at his place for a few nights, I probably stammered an incomprehensible yes.
After a restless night of alternating thinking: "what the fuck am I doing here?" and "holy crap I'm sleeping at Simon's place" things became a fair bit more simple when it was time to head out for my first day of training with the big guys. Following a morning swim with the who's who of Canadian and International triathlon at the time and alongside a series of young, super fit, ambitious triathletes who had flocked to the then Mecca of triathlon like me, hoping that there was Olympic magic in the air and water. I quickly, and at times brutally, found out that there wasn’t.
After the swim, we put on our wet weather gear, laced up our shoes and ran over to Elk & Beaver Lake for my first soggy run on the We(s)t Coast. As we ran along the gravel trail framed with trees on one side and the lake on the other, dodging puddles and shooting shit, I knew that no matter what the outcome of my adventure might be, that I had made the right decision.
My girlfriend apparently forgave me and soon joined me across the country and quickly surpassed my athletic feats and is now an Olympian and my wife. Simon and many of the athletes in the pool that day are amongst my closest friends and have continued to excel. Over the decade since that first run, I failed to achieve my Olympic dreams, returned to school, completed my degree, and I have run countless laps of the 10 kilometer loop, both alone and with them, and I have enjoyed almost every step of the way.
Life has interfered in various ways with with my spring running and racing plans, so when I heard that Elk/Beaver Ultras was home to the ACU Canadian 50 mile championship, I knew that it would be a perfect place to race. Although running 8 loops of a mostly flat gravel trail would normally have very little aesthetic appeal to me, this course is somewhere where I feel very comfortable and I knew that this would help me manage the inevitable lows that accompany most endurance events.
The event is low key, with few bells and whistles, but boasts all the essentials to host a well-managed race for the 60 or 70 athletes toeing the line between the various distances. I also knew that it had the potential to be quite fast. My main concerns were that it might be too fast and too flat, lulling me into quick opening laps, which I have been known to do and the monotony of the terrain would take its toll as the kilometers rolled by.
After a strangely restful sleep the night before the race in my own bed, I drove the familiar route to the lakes as the sun was rising and I mentally prepared for what I expected to be a solitary day of running. Following a few hellos and well wishes to familiar faces, the race got underway. In order to make up the extra 0.47 meters on top of the 8 * 10kilometer loops, we were sent on a short out and back along a side trail and then we began our laps.
Although there were a few fast starters, I never ran with anyone and just locked into my thoughts. To be honest, the day was incredibly uneventful. I enjoyed retracing the steps that I have made so many times over the years, but I never felt great and I never felt too bad. My right hip bothered me from about 30 kilometers on, but it was manageable. I just focused on running as relaxed a pace as I could, getting in calories (approx 2 gels per loop, 1 salt pill and coke/Gatorade after 40km) and setting short-term goals, either running form related or about the terrain, and allowing myself momentary celebrations for hitting distance milestones along the way to keep myself engaged.
My thoughts really were as simple as “eat, drink, turnover, relax, stop and pee, oh there’s Mel, great 2/5 of the way done (I am always calculating fractions of distances when I race) etc… “ This is in sharp contrast to all of April when I was locked indoors at my desk, immersed in books, journals, exams and paper writing. I very much enjoyed being in motion with all my focus directed at taking care of my basic needs to keep me moving forward.
As I predicted, it was inspiring and comforting to watch the rowers putting in their own hard yards on the lake under the rising sun and it was familiar to see all the fisherman along the shores and although I had to dodge quite a few walkers, their dogs, joggers, runners and fellow racers, I had expected it, so it never bothered me. I saw lots of people I knew along the way and running through the start/finish area every lap gave me a bit of pep in my stride, but I would try to catch myself from getting too carried away and the kilometers and the time ticked by.
Before the race, I thought that sub-6 hours would be doable and I wanted to run as comfortably as possible to hit that mark. I didn’t really think about what that meant split wise, other than the fact that running sub 45-minute laps would do it. As I ran through 40 kilometers I did a quick bit of math and after assessing my body, I told myself that I could try and pick the pace up at 60 kilometers if I was feeling good.
At 60 kilometers, I wasn’t feeling bad, but I wasn’t feeling great. My hip was still sore and I was a bit tired, so I kept the pace where it was and promised myself that I would reconsider in 5 kilometers. Those kilometers passed too and I was still feeling rather average, so I didn’t change anything and told myself that I would revisit a push at 70 kilometers. As I ran passed the aide station and start/finish area for one last loop I started out fast, but decided against a big surge after a few minutes. A quick look at my watch and I realized that I might actually be able to get under 5:45 if I was willing to dig deep, but I wasn’t, so I kept the pace as comfortable as I could be given where I was in the race.
Finally, with about 6 kilometers to go, I decided to listen to the advice that Ironman champion and my great friend, Jasper Blake texted me before the race: “Just go fast so you can get the fucking thing over with,” which is wise advice for any race, so I started to pick up the pace. I was able to wind things up and I started to race the clock home. I began chasing people that I could see up the trail, trying to catch and pass them as quickly as possible. Most of them were just out for their morning walks or runs, oblivious to the fact that they were now pawns in my internal race, but they helped me ignore the fatigue, so I kept trying to run them down.
Finally, as I pushed through the final windy kilometers of the lower Beaver lake trails, I began to run quite hard as I realized I might be able to break 5:44. I willed my legs to move as fast as they could to the finish area seeing 5:43:57-8-9 ticking over on the clock. The timers have me down as finishing in 5:44:00 and although I’m sure a photo finish camera would have me breaking 5:44, I can live with it.
And just like that, the morning was done. I had completed my first 50-mile race, I won the National championship and I later found out that I set a new Canadian 50 mile trail record, all of which are accomplishments that I am proud of, but the best part of the experience is just how quantifiable it is. All of my friends and training partners know Elk and Beaver lake, so being able to say that I have run 8 laps of it has a strange quirky appeal and I think I am just as proud of that as I am about the outcome of the race.
Thank you very much to Carlos "the Jackal" and all the volunteers, spectators and people I shared the trail with. It was a wonderful morning and another great experience at Elk Lake.
Here are my splits from the race