Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Kneeknacker 2012 (the original poor life choice)

I signed up for the Kneeknacker lottery two weeks after a breakup and in the midst of several glasses of wine. At that point, I hadn't run a marathon for over three years, and had done exactly one trail race.

The Kneeknacker course route is 30miles long and about 5,000m of elevation gain and loss. The course is a series of technical ups and downs: up over Black Mountain and Cypress Mountain, down the Hollyburn chute, continuing along the Baden-Powell trail in front of Grouse Mountain, down to Lynne Canyon, up the Seymour Grind, and a final descent to Deep Cove.

After many early mornings with Brooke doing the Kneeknacker training runs, spent wiping out, or narrowly avoiding wiping out, on the North Shore trails, I was as ready as I would ever be.

get up
I slept over at Brooke's the night before the race. The day started at 3:45am. When my alarm went off, it felt like there was water in my veins - that unsteady lightness.

I wriggled into compression socks, put on bodyglide, and tried to force down oatmeal and coffee.

Brooke's boyfriend, Sean, picked us up just before 5am. We drove out to Horseshoe bay, the start of the race, in the pre-sunrise glow. They sky was a cool clear blue and it was going to be a hot day. It was unnerving to be staring down something that would be twice as long, time-wise, as my longest race. After several rounds in the porta-potty line up and even more mosquito bites, it was almost a relief as the 6am start time drew closer.

first quarter - let's do this
We started as the sky turned pale orange on the horizon. It felt a bit anti-climactic: I had barely taken a breath and already we were walking uphill. The first climb up Black Mountain was more hike than race: I  pulled myself uphill using gnarled routes and inched across eroded rocks, with nothing but cliff underneath. The views got better as the climb got tougher: across a steep boulder field, then along an even steeper cliff face. I managed to grab an exhale going across the bluffs and see the ocean spread out far below before ducking into the forest.

The first aid station came and went - I gulped down cold water and attempted to high-five Karyn, my VFAC teammate, who had come out to cheer us on.

second quarter - oh shit
I found a couple people to run with, and could feel my legs warming up into a trail rhythm  Just over two hours into the run, I hit the start of the Hollyburn Chute: the first long, technical downhill section with slippery roots and steep rock drops. My legs didn't feel too trashed, my shoes had great grip, and the trail was dry - everything was solid. Until I took a jump down from a log that was just a little too high, and landed just a little too unevenly on the side of a rock. I could hear my right ankle crack. I swore and came to a dead stop. I had rolled my ankle before, but it had never hurt like this.

Luckily, at the time, I was running with Matt, a massage therapist.  I was as far from an aid station as I could have been. We weren't close to any neighbourhood. My only option was to get down the mountain, somehow. I started walking, slowly. The pain didn't fade, but my ankle could bear weight. Eventually  I started to run. I could tell my balance was off, but my ankle still held up. Grabbing onto as many trees as I could for support, I made my way down to the Cleveland Damn and the half-way point aid station.

When I got to the Cleveland Dam aid station and half-way point, I was running. My ankle didn't feel any better. It also didn't feel any worse.

I dumped water on myself at the aid station, drank some flat coke, and refilled my water. Matt was attempting to re-fuel and have a moment with his girlfriend. I interrupted him, waved my ankle in his face, and tried to get a quick diagnosis. As I could still stand on my leg, he figured the ankle wasn't broken, and I hadn't ruptured a tendon. I checked my time: 3hours, 10minutes. This wasn't the race I wanted, but it was the race I was going to finish..

third quarter
I grabbed Matt from the aid station and we started to powerhike up the steep road from the aid station to the foot of Grouse Mountain, where we would re-join the trail. It felt surreal to have come from being alone on a mountain, surrounded by fallen logs and the light coming through the trees, to being in a residential neighbourhood, on our way to a major tourist attraction, on a busy summer day.

As we headed back into the forest, Matt's calves started to cramp, and he waved at me to go ahead. For the next hour or so, I ran on my own. For the first half hour, the trail almost fell off the cliffside: it as duty, eroded, and held together by rocks and roots. My ankle felt spongy and sore. I took everything just that bit slower, afraid what would happened if I rolled it again. It felt like I had to apply brakes every downhill. The aid stations every half hour or so were lifesavers: I'd grab coke, candy, encouragement, and head back into the trees.

As I descended down towards the Lynne 3/4 aid station, the temperature kept rising. It felt like heat was a coming straight off the ground in patches where the sun hit full-on. The easy lower Seymour trails were crammed with day hikers, dogs, and even the occasional stroller, while I tried to weave through in my race bib.

At the 3/4 aid station, I stuffed ice down my bra, drank more coke, and headed back out.

bring it home
It was easier to run on the less technical trails. As my pace increased, my foot throbbed with every step. My ankle had swollen so much that I had to stop and loosen my laces. It was hard to figure out exactly where the pain ended and my leg begin. At one of the aid stations, I got a full sponge bath from a group of volunteers with an inflatable kiddy pool. Amazing. As I approached the last climb up the Seymour grind, I saw a couple other kneeknacker runners in front of me. I did what I had trained to do: picked up the pace, went harder, and passed them.

At the top, I loosened my laces again. My ankle had grown to twice its size. From here, it was less than 45 minutess mostly downhill. I dialed way in, and told myself: "this is not my body, this is not my pain" over and over. And I picked up the pace one last time. I could see the ocean of Deep Cove through the trees. I could hear the finish line announcer. The last part of the trail was a swarm of people. I know the uphills must've been hard, and the roots abrupt, but I was too far inside to notice.

Suddenly I was out of the trees and along the last couple seconds of the race - the ocean spread out in front, the wide green lawn, the finish line.

I finished in just under 6 hours, 35 minutes. I was 7th female overall.

right after
I'd like to say I felt great at the end: the achievement of running my first ultra, surrounded by friends and the trail community, awash in endorphins. Instead, I just felt a lot of pain, and sort of empty. Barry was volunteering at the finish line, and he brought over a makeshift ice pack for my foot.

Alicia, Tara, and Katie came over...WITH A CAT ON A LEASH. In my daze at the end of the race, I had missed them standing and cheering. It was classic Alicia: she knew mine and Brooke's obsession with cats (and ultra-running), and had borrowed a cat from her friend's boss to have to boost morale. A pretty crazy idea, but, being Alicia, she pulled it off. Having my close friends make it all the way out there, accompanied by my favourite animal, made me realize how lucky I was and how much great support I had.

Brooke was 2nd female overall, and was celebrating her victory by having a swim in the ocean. I hobbled over, went waist deep into the water....and started crying. Not really the congratulations I intended. A friend of Brooke's boyfriend, Nathan, had won the race - his first ultra ever. After hanging around the finish line a bit more, we decided that there was no better recovery food than ice cream.

At the awards ceremony, my amazing physio (and new ultrarunner) Allison Ezzat taped up my ankle, even though she was more than a little tired after running a nail-biter finish of 6:59 in the race.

eight months after
It took my sprained ankle a month to heal. My head didn't take as long, but it was still a new experience: I went so far inside myself to finish the race that it took a bit of time to come back.

I was in pain for the next couple weeks, relegated to doing easy 30-min bike rides. All I could think about was getting back on the trails, how the next race would be different, how to take those drops downhill.

As soon as I was able to (potentially somewhat sooner than physio Ramsey told me), I was back on trails: running up mountains in the late summer heat. I did a 50-miler later that year. It hurt, and I cried, and I loved it. This past March, I faced down my technical running demons and came out of the Chuckanut 50k uninjured.

what I got
I have a finisher certificate from this race, somewhere. But what reminds me, every day, of the experience are the amazing friends I have and the feeling like I am part of a bigger community. Brooke and I still run trails, and she still kicks my ass on the uphills. Katie and I are doing Transrockies together this August. Despite being ridiculously fast, Nathan invited us out for runs  and we had amazing trail adventures. He also sends out some great cat pictures / internet links. Barry and I are part of the FITS trail team, and I'm pacing him for his first 100-miler / midlife crisis in June. Allison is currently killing her training for the Boston marathon, and is running the Grand Canyon rim-to-rim-to-rim with us this May (along with Alicia, Katie, Barry, and Meghan). Matt is training for his first road race ever, and has (somewhat reluctantly) joined me for early weekday speedwork.

Everything heals. My life is so full, and I am beyond grateful to have all these people in it. I love trails, but I really love all of the people I experience them with.We are all a bit quirky, and a bit crazy, and I get so much inspiration about hearing what we all do, and how we support each other.

I feel like I am stealing from my cheesy fridge magnets - but seriously - this race was a game-changer. It showed me that things go wrong, sometimes painfully wrong. It showed me that I could hurt, and come back stronger. It showed me the power of saying yes and going after something ridiculous. It showed me that things don't have to be okay, and I'll be okay, anyways.

what about 2013?
I wanted so badly to get into the race this year. There's something about it: the intense climbing, the support of the North Vancouver trail community, the amazing volunteers, the hours with my friends. As far as abilities go, I'm way better at road running, and weakest on technical trails. I didn't want the race for a win, or a PB. I wanted it for the sweat, and the roots, the crazy downhills, the slick board walks, the stream crossings, and the final light of sun on ocean as I finish.

The night of the 2013 lottery, I went to bed early because I couldn't stand the tension. Then I woke up at 2am, to many many texts saying :"sorry" or "next year?". I was really said - it felt like all my friends were going on, without me.

At the same time - there will be other years. And there are a lot of training runs together...and I still do believe that my right ankle will thank me. The trail is still there, everyday, waiting for me.

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