Aug 022011

by Jamie Anderson –

Not my best running performance, but not terrible at the same time. Overshadowing any glitches in the matrix was an outstanding race, beautiful course and awesome people. In fact, epic would be an ample one-word description. Prince Edward Island by itself is an incredible place, and running an ultra here just made it all the more special.

I also can’t express my gratitude enough to the race director, Shawn, and the numerous volunteers who worked hard to put on a terrific, well organized event that provided a great time for all of us. Top notch event with a well marked, butt-kicking course that was a total blast.

Kate and I arrived about 45 minutes before the 8am start, giving us plenty of time for bathroom breaks, arranging gear and socializing. In the parking lot, we saw Jodi and Karine who we met the day before at Sporting Intentions while picking up our “race kits”, which is the same as a race packet (being very untraveled outside the U.S., those little idiosyncrasies are pretty fascinating to me).

I also met and chatted with a runner named Rob from Moncton, NB. Perhaps it was a sort of fate, as I’d later link up with him for a significant portion of the race.

Not surprisingly, the pre-race vibe was just as great as any race down in Maine, or the U.S. for that matter. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming. The electricity in the air of everyone’s collective excitement was shared by all. I knew it was going to be a fun day.

Pink Ribbons and the Course

The course. Photo courtesy of j. norman-bain.
Elevation course per my Garmin 410 (which always comes up
short on distances, but the elevation should be roughly okay).

Three different races were held, a 50K, 25K and a 10K. We all started at the same time, and given that the race was relatively small, the mass start did not feel overcrowded.

One nice touch that was new to me was that those of us running the 50K wore a piece of pink ribbon pinned to the back of our shirts to identify us as such. This was very helpful, as if someone blazed past you and there was no pink ribbon, you knew they weren’t in your race and there was no point in giving chase. Somewhat conversely, if you saw someone ahead of you with a pink ribbon on the back of their shirt, you knew you had a potential target to chase down if you chose to.

As for the course, there was a 25K loop we’d run twice. The 10K loop would join us for several miles before veering off on a different path to the finish line.

We’re Off! The First Few Miles

The start. Photo courtesy of j. norman-bain.

The race director gave us the pre-race instructions (including if you get lost, not to worry as you’re on an island and eventually will reach the coast) and then we were off. The trail was quite wide for the first several hundred yards and made its way downhill and past the shooting range (for biathlons, as the start/finish area was at a Nordic skiing facility).

I kept an eye out for how many pink ribboned 50K runners were ahead of me. Looked to be around five or so, from what I could see anyway. I had a loose goal of coming in the top three and also breaking five hours. Both were hard to surmise though, as I knew little of the runners in this exotic foreign land and also didn’t know the course. However, Shawn, as well as Jodi and Karine, had told me the day before it was hillier than Pineland and Stonecat (they had all run both). They were quite right on that one.

In the first few miles, I noticed one 50k runner who had a peculiar strategy of reasonably running/walking the uphills but then completely blowing the lid off and charging the downhills with extreme ferocity. You’d have to have quads of steel to keep that up for 50K, and if you did, you could probably stand to take the uphills a bit faster.

With each uphill I would gain more ground and he kept repeatedly glancing over his shoulder. Checking with that much concern this early in the race seems pointless to me, and given the downhill Blitzkrieg approach I mused that he was probably pretty new to this sort of thing. Nice guy though, and we exchanged good lucks once I passed him.

Linking Up
Three or four miles in now and the course continued to take advantage of very hilly and technical trails with the occasional cross country ski trail thrown in. I was definitely taken a bit by surprise at how challenging the course was. That’s not a complaint, mind you. That’s a compliment. And along with the rugged terrain of the course was the rugged beauty of red spruce and other trees of the woods that were very scenic to run in. Also, with it raining the day before, the trails were pretty muddy and slippery. The soil on PEI is predominately a red dirt which turns clay-like when wet.

The humidity was also much higher than I expected. Thankfully the temperature was reasonable (I don’t think it ever got above the lower 70s at the hottest point of the day) and it was overcast for much of the morning, so at least there was cloud cover for a while.

It was around this time that I linked up with Rob, the fellow I had chatted with before the race. We would end up running much of the remainder of the first loop together. I can’t tell you what a treat this was. It seems like the past few years with every marathon or ultra I’ve somehow ended up running alone (I hope that’s just by chance), with the exceptions of Val’s Fat Ass run last February in which I ran the whole thing with Ryan and maybe Pineland where I ran with Joe for a bit, but that wasn’t for a long stretch.

Rob was great company. We naturally talked about the races we’ve done and which ones we liked best. I really enjoyed hearing about his Canadian races, particularly an obscure one up in Labrador that took place on a summer midnight in the daylight.

The course was well marked, but given that it was unfamiliar territory for both of us it was nice to have an extra set of eyes to help make sure we were staying on course as well as keeping each other’s spirits up. My groin muscles/hip flexors were aching pretty badly at this point which concerned me since it was pretty early in the race, but fortunately they reached a point where they never got worse and talking with Rob helped keep me distracted.

The Experimental Forest
We got through the single track, hit the aid station and then ran alongside a road for a few hundred yards where we hit a trail that went through a very cool section of experimental forest. I had to stop to pee and Rob pulled ahead. Signs marked which trees grew in the different areas, including Norway Spruce, Douglas Firs and various other trees I can’t remember. The way it was laid out was great, as much of the time there was little underbrush and it had a medieval kind of feel to it.

There was only one real section with underbrush near these trails, and given that it must have felt it needed to make up for it in grand fashion. The bushes overgrew and totally obscured the trail, but the markings made it quite clear that you were to go through it. None of the twigs and branches were stiff though and easily gave way. After 15 feet or so of running blindly as leaves whipped your face, you were through it and back to tall trees and cleared ground where you expected to see fair maidens dancing around maypoles at any moment.

I caught back up with Rob after he went off course a bit but figured out his mistake. Together we made it back to the road, headed back towards the aid station, and then up a very steep service road.

Third Section
I divided each loop into three sections: that first section of mostly single-track with some cross country ski trails thrown in, that experimental forest section, and now this final section, which was roughly equal parts “heritage roads” (another idiosyncrasy, they are like a cross between fire roads and the carriage trail roads of Acadia National Park), single track and cross country ski trails.

The heritage roads came first, and began with a steep climb that gains over 200 feet in half a mile. However, once up, the ups and downs to the finish of the loop were much more sane and also went through a roughly equal mix of single track and ski trails.

Rob and I finishing up the first loop. Photo courtesy of j. norman-bain.

Rob and I finished the first loop and waved at the folks at the start/finish area and went on for our second and final loop. Time for the first half was around 2:40, so the rough goal of breaking five hours was now definitely out of the question, but I didn’t give it much thought as I felt that was a pretty decent time for me on a course this tough.

Rob and I heading out for the second loop. Photo courtesy of  j. norman-bain.

Second Loop Begins
Not long after we began the second loop, Rob mentioned he was tiring and needed to slow down, and urged me to go on ahead. I had really enjoyed running with him and would miss his company, but we wished each other good luck and I moved on.

For the first time I was alone now but was grateful the course did two loops, as I knew what to expect now. I just kept the pace up as best as I could and tried to block out the sore hip flexors, but was still moving pretty well overall.

Groin Guy
I was running on one of the ski trails when in the woods to my right I caught a glimpse of a runner wearing a yellow shirt and a white hat. Pinned to his shirt was the pink ribbon. I mused that I was probably coming up on the turn into the woods and he was just ahead of me, and sure enough as I rounded the bend, there was the turn.

A few minutes later, I saw the runner sitting off to the side of the trail, stretching with his feet together in front of him and wincing in pain. As I approached I asked if he was okay and he replied “Aaaaaaaaaaaaah! My groin!! Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!” In a very lame attempt to try to console the fellow, I mentioned I was also having some groin pain and should probably stop and stretch as he was but was pushing through it for now.

With some effort, Groin Guy got up and ran behind me for about about a hundred feet, but on the next uphill he was having some trouble and I pulled ahead and we wished each other well.

With the passing of Groin Guy, I mused I might be in the top three, but wasn’t sure at this point. While I wasn’t running horribly, I also knew I wasn’t having my best day, but if I was in the top three that would be pretty neat.

Hey Look! It’s Kate!
Kate was doing the 25K and she had just finished climbing that long climb on the heritage road and I could see her from an intersecting section of heritage road as I passed by. We yelled hellos to each other and it was obvious she was in great spirits and having fun. I had been a bit concerned as she was perhaps a bit undertrained for the race and is having IT band problems, so it was a nice mental boost for me to see her faring well and having fun.

Single Track of Death
Shortly after that, the course ducked back into the woods and I was on single track. This time around, it seemed to take forever. I thought for sure I’d be coming up to the roadside aid station again soon, but alas, it was like one of those dreams where you are running from a monster but aren’t going anywhere.

Related to this, I was at my worst energy point of the day. I knew I had to fuel up and I took a Gu here and made a point to mow down some more boiled potatoes and take in a generous amount of coke (both of which I was taking in at each aid station). My water bottle also soon emptied and the humidity was pretty tough and I was getting thirsty. Not ideal. Part of me wished I had brought my double water bottle belt or had at least had dranken more liberally at the aid stations.

One hill came after another and going up them became tough, but finally I was heading down overall and came to the aid station. I drank and drank, refilled my water bottle and mowed down some boiled potatoes. I also asked one of the volunteers if she knew how many runners were ahead of me. Just two. Whoa, sweet, I did have the podium as of now. Just had to keep it.

Experimental Forest Section, Part Deux
As I made the few hundred yards up the road to the experimental forest, I looked over my shoulder and down the hill to see if anyone was behind me. Nada. I appeared to be safe for now, but such thinking is dangerous especially when there’s still around nine miles to go. It’s best to convince yourself someone is on your tail and run accordingly, so that’s what I did.

I did see the second place guy coming back from the experimental forest section and we exchanged good lucks. Wow, he was way ahead of me. In fact, all of the top five runners were pretty spread out, with an average of about 20 minutes between us for our finishing times.

Given this section is much easier than the first section, my hydration was in check, and I had some fuel in me so I was moving much better now and feeling the proverbial second wind. However, I was still tired and kept repeating in mind “Keep the podium… keep the podium….” It would remain my mantra until the finish line.

Final Section
Experimental forest section completed and I made my way back down the road to the aid station. I was a bit more talkative and energetic this time around. I commented “just six more miles to go” which seemed to give the volunteers some pause. Did I miscalculate the distance? Just as I realized what was up, one of them confirmed it by saying “yep, just 10 kilometers to go”. Ah, the metric system. Slightly embarrassed, I then remarked on the beauty of the course and made my way up that big ass hill.

When I finally reached the top, I rejoiced. It was just four miles or so now to the finish. A few times on my way up, I looked behind me but saw nobody. Still, I kept repeating “keep the podium” to myself in my head and pressed the best I could.

Those sore hip flexors began to cramp a little for a few minutes but thankfully dissipated. Less than a couple of miles to go though and then my calves… both of them… were threatening to cramp up. I had been taking S-Caps but took two more and hoped it wasn’t too late. Thankfully, they never fully cramped.

Soon, I emerged from the woods and turned left and saw the finish line and crossed. Official time was 5:30:16 and was good enough for third overall out of 16 finishers. Even though it was a small field of runners, I was still honored to take the podium. Worth noting the top runner finished in 4:25 and second place in 4:51. Those guys are beasts.

Fifteen minutes later, I was happy to see Rob cross with a smile on his face. We congratulated each other and recapped our experiences a bit. Another fifteen minutes later and Groin Guy came in, also with a smile on his face. About 10 minutes later I saw him stretching again and he was still hurting a bit but seemed very happy.

Award ceremony was held and I won a Salomon water belt for getting third place. Pretty sweet. But obviously the best part was the experience, meeting new folks and getting to battle a tough and fun course in a new area. Prince Edward Island is beautiful enough as it is, and getting to run a race there made it even better.

Almost there.
Kate and I after our finishes.


The RD, Shawn, and I during the awards.

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