I spent my entire summer getting my butt kicked, running in the mountains, and not accomplishing a whole lot. But that entire time, I'd been planning to fly back to Canada and run the Lemming Loop 24 Hour Trail Race. It was never too far from my mind, even while dragging my battered body over mountain passes in high altitude mountain races. I kept reminding myself how valuable it would prove to be when I got back to Winnipeg to run a flat trail loop at 790 feet above sea level.
I had run this race last year, winning the race and breaking the course record, but I wasn't happy with how I had run. It had proved to be the toughest 24 hour race I'd ever ran and my disappointment was nagging at me. I was looking forward to getting back to Canada to take another crack at the Lemming Loop.
The race had originated at the Beaudry Provincial Park, just outside Winnipeg, but due to flooding, the race had to be moved to the Living Prairie Museum, which is where I ran last year. The race returned to Beaudry this year, so the course would be entirely new to me. I had no intel on the new course, other than it's a 5.7 km loop, roughly 3.5 miles, and it's dead flat. Pretty much ideal for me.
I have a wide range of Topo Athletic running shoes to choose from, but because the terrain was nontechnical and the footing was good, I opted to wear my favorite light-weight road shoes, the Topo Fli-Lytes. A light, comfortable shoe would prove to make a big difference, once again.
I was also excited to return to Canada because I really enjoy the local running community in Winnipeg. The trail runners I've met up there are like a big, supportive family that carries a true passion for the sport, and for each other. I've always felt very welcomed and supported by these people and it's a pleasure to share the trail with them.
And for those that have never visited Canada, I would like to clear this up. Canadians DO NOT actually look like this!
Now, here's the pisser about this race. It starts at 5:00 PM on Friday. This means, even if I force myself to sleep in, I'm going to be awake for a LONG time. But I can't whine too much because we're all in the same boat.
At the start of the race, I recognized a lot of familiar faces and I was eager to get going. I had no idea who might be fast, or who may have goals similar to mine, but I had 24 hours to let this all play out and I hoped for the best.
When the race started, I shot to the lead, determined to run a fast first loop. Partially to warm up, but also to create a gap between me and the rest of the field. My plan was to run the first 20 miles at marathon pace, then slow to something more comfortable for the rest of the race. I figured that would put me well in front, and I could manage my race from that advantageous position.
The first loop was also my "recon loop". I paid particular attention to the trail conditions and any hazards that might pose a problem at night, which would come soon. In loop races like this, I try to find the fastest way around the course because every little tangent can make a big difference after 24 hours of running.
I also try to break the course up into sections by using landmarks, the same way I break up 100 mile trail races by using aid stations. Creating smaller segments seems to help pass the time and give a sense of progress, which can be pretty uplifting when the mind begins to bend.
This river crossing sign was my first landmark. The river crossing wasn't a part of our course, but I was amused by this sign the first 14 times I saw it.
My next landmark was this warming hut that gets used by nordic skiers in the winter. It's just past the halfway mark on the loop.
My final landmark was the dreaded prairie. This is a half mile section at the end of the loop, and over time, I grew to hate it because I could see way too far ahead of me. Late in the race, it seemed like a daunting task to make the crossing.
I finished the first loop in a little over 20 minutes and didn't stop when I passed through the aid station. The entire trail proved to be fast, and with the cool temperatures and low altitude, I was able to comfortably run fast.
After heading out for my second loop, I heard footsteps behind me and glanced back to see a runner about 80 yards back.
Odd...I couldn't decide if this dude was real competition or if he was just messing with me. I pressed on, but didn't speed up. It was way too early to fall into somebody else's race.
As I entered the prairie section, he pulled up and flew right by me. I thought about chasing, but relented and just watched him sail away. I was dumbfounded! I began to calculate his pace and realized he was running a 13 hour, 100 mile pace. This just didn't add up at all.
I made a quick stop at the aid station and Jo said the runner in front of me didn't stop (again). This meant he'd be at least 10.5 miles without fueling or hydrating at all. Like me, he wasn't carrying anything, so the aid station would be the only source of fuel.
I pressed on, but it was driving me mad that I couldn't figure out what was happening in front of me. Was this guy for real? I couldn't fathom maintaining that pace, especially if he wasn't stopping at the aid station. I tried to shove it out of my mind and focus on running a smart race.
As I came through the prairie and into the aid station after my 4th loop (14 miles), I saw the leader walking toward his car, carrying some shoes and clothes.
A smile stretched across my face.
When I got to the aid station, Jo said he'd stopped to change clothes. Based on that, and from what I saw, I knew he wouldn't retake the lead again. And I was right. I was back in front and still running strong.
The sun dipped below the horizon around 7:30, so I grabbed a lamp and pushed on through the night. By the time I had hit the 50k mark, I had strong lead and I slowed my pace to something more reasonable for the distance.
The trail was so familiar by now, I could almost run it blindfolded. Every root, rock and turn was memorized.
In an effort to test my mental acuity, the timing people got in the habit of yelling out my total kilometers at the completion of each loop. Initially, I could quickly convert their numbers to mileage, but as the race wore on, I found myself halfway through the next loop arguing with myself about the correct conversion. My frustration would just begin to fade when I'd finish another lap and get slapped with a whole new math problem to sort out.
I had asked Jo to go back to the hotel at midnight so she could get some sleep. There was no need for her to stay awake all night to watch me turn circles. After she had left, things began to fall into an almost robotic rhythm. I love running at night and I was feeling good, passing runners, making momentary small talk, hitting the aid station...repeat.
As I was cutting through the prairie section about an hour before sunrise. It was pitch black, with no visible moon and heavy cloud cover to obscure the stars. My headlamp was set to a very dim setting in an effort to conserve the battery. I was deep in thought, my mind somewhere other than the race, when I heard something off to my right. As I turned my dim light in the direction of the noise, a large whitetail buck had squared off with me and let out a loud, angry snort that nearly stopped my heart. Not that I'm usually scared of deer, but what the hell was that?! I never heard a deer snort at me. Shortly after, he spun off and dashed away, leaving me rattled and confused. Canadian deer are weird.
I was happy to see the sun come up and even happier to see Jo back at the race. She brought me an Egg McMuffin for breakfast. After removing the ham, I inhaled the sandwich, gave her a kiss and went back out to log more miles.
I realized I was closing in on the 100 mile mark and began calculating my splits so I could figure out when I'd hit that critical distance. The Race Director said the race staff had money on whether I could hit 100 miles in under 16 hours. I checked my watch and said "Definitely". I did it in 15:53.
Side Note: When I say "watch", I'm referring to a $19 digital watch, not a $500 GPS device. Those things are counterproductive to me because they get in my head and have the tendency to dictate pace, or otherwise frustrate me.
After reaching 100 miles, I began to take stock of the overall situation. I had a 21 mile lead over 2nd place, my body was beginning to hurt, I was ridiculously tired, and I kinda wanted to go home.
I was still running fairly well, but I had began to walk more, and not with much deliberation.
When I hit 107 miles, I broke the old course record. But I was determined to break the course record I had set on the old course, so I still had work to do.
After breaking the course record, two things happened:
1. I realized how badly I hurt and I wasn't having fun anymore.
2. I quickly began to lose interest in continuing.
People often poke fun at me for being too lazy to actually do all 24 hours of a 24 hour race, but they're kinda right. If I hit all my goals, I'm inclined to slow way down and I almost always stop early. This was no exception. I was failing to find the motivation to run hard. It's not like I was going to qualify for the Canadian 24 Hour Team. No matter how well I do, I'm still an American. I was searching for motivation and not finding any.
At 124.5 miles, all my goals were met. I was 22 hours into the race and I had the win sealed up. Jo had walked the final lap with me because I wanted her to see the course before the race ended. After walking that loop, my legs had cooled off and began to seize up. Running was almost impossible after that.
So I found a spot in the grass and watched the race.
After an hour of sitting around doing nothing, the little loop opened up. It's a 1 kilometer loop that prevents runners from being caught on the big loop when the race ends. Not being happy with 124.5 miles, I headed out with Caroline Wiebe, a local Winnipeg runner and friend, for another kilometer so I could round it up to 125 miles.
Beer in hand, we headed out for a leisurely stroll that would mark the end of my race.
I want to thank the Race Director, Dwayne Sandall, and all the volunteers for putting on such an awesome race. And a special thanks to Hammer Nutrition and Topo Athletic for all the support.
We're already looking forward to getting back to Canada.