When I was a kid, my English teacher called me to the front of the class after some province-wide standardized testing to tell me that my writing skills had scored at a grade 12 level.
I was in seventh grade at the time.
That was the day I realized I was good at writing. I always knew that I liked it, but I didn’t know I was better at it than others. It was more than just practice or paying attention in class. I had a natural talent. I could see and express things in unique ways. I could inspire change.
That realization transformed my future. It defined my profession, the way I express myself, and who I am.
At Noble Canyon on Saturday I experienced a similar awakening.
Noble Canyon can basically be broken down into three parts:
- Starting at 5500 elevation and running down the side of a canyon to 3500 feet.
- Turning around and running back up the canyon.
- Climbing another long hill reaching 6000 feet of elevation, then looping back for the finish.
To put this into perspective, you are basically spending 5+ hours running uphill. Sometimes much longer. The terrain is: Rocks. Everywhere. When people say a trail is “technical,” it is usually about 95% LESS rocky than Noble Canyon. It’s almost impossible to even walk it barefoot because there is no space for a clean footprint.
Early into the race I watched the guy in front of me take two full out face plants within 20 minutes of each other. The second place finisher crossed with huge gashes on his knees from possibly several falls. I stumbled about five times, but was lucky enough to fall only once. A classic gravel slide. Footing is no joke here.
Both Shacky and I ran this race on a Sport Kilt sponsorship, a company we both love. I wanted to show that Sport Kilts weren’t just costumes for short, fun runs. They could be serious, functional gear for ultra running. And cute as hell.
RUNNING DOWN THE SIDE OF THE CANYON
No matter what distance I run, the hardest part is always the first 3 miles. It’s also the only point where I significantly feel the elevation. I’m breathing hard and my legs feel heavy, like they’re hard to lift. Sometimes I stumble. On this route I even felt sleepy-tired. Like I could have just closed my eyes and passed out.
Combine this with the fact that it was freezing cold at the race start. My legs and hands and fingers were numb. I was literally shaking and my stride was stiff. I couldn’t get warmed up.
It was demoralizing to think about distance at this point. I had just started and already felt shitty. So I focused all my attention on just getting through the first 3 miles and warming up.
I have never raced a single track trail before, so it was a little weird. I’m used to big road race mobs. I’m good at weaving through crowds and pushing ahead, but with single track you can’t do that. There’s really no place to go at all. It was making me feel restrained.
I hated the feeling of someone right behind me, breathing down my neck. I felt like a hunted rabbit and I wanted my space. I also assumed that everyone was faster than me and should therefore pass. So I ended up stepping to the side a lot and letting people go through, hoping I could get some running room. But it didn’t work out that way – there were people everywhere. When I finally stopped letting others pass, I got stuck behind them all the way down the canyon.
At the beginning I was shy about asking people to let me by. But finally I had to. On my training runs I was able to work up a good momentum and fly down the side of the canyon. It was my favorite part of the route. My leg-jitterbugging skills have really developed, and I can bounce down that canyon fairly easily. But I couldn’t pull that off on race day. There were too many runners taking it slow on the downhill, watching their footing carefully. I just couldn’t slip by.
AID STATION #1 – THE BIG TREE
The first aid station arrived before I needed anything. I still walked through and eyed the food, wondering whether I should eat something anyway. The guy I had been following collapsed on a chair, but Jeff was in front of him and didn’t even stop. I had been trading places with Jeff all the way down the canyon, and I didn’t really want to lose sight of him this early.
“What can I get you?” Some guy startled me by asking. I didn’t know anything about trail race aid stations at the time, so I thought he was weird for asking.
“Um.. no. I think I’m ok.”
I took off after Jeff.
BOTTOM OF THE CANYON AND AID STATION #2
By the time I got to the bottom of the hill (just a bit ahead of Jeff), I felt like I hadn’t even started running yet. Getting stuck behind so many people coming down had me anxious to shake them off and run at my own steady, uninterrupted pace.
There was an aid station at the bottom of the canyon. It didn’t feel like I had been running long and I still didn’t need anything, but I figured I should stop and refill my hydration pack before heading back up.
I’ve never been to an aid station that wasn’t at a Toronto road race, so I’m not aid station expert. But this is what I’m used to: stations run by high school students who play and flirt with each other until you beg them to refill your bottle with something.
But walking into this aid station, I was immediately cornered.
“Can I get you anything?” some smiley dude asked.
“Uh…. no thanks.” What was he asking that for? Was he trying to flirt with me? What a weirdo.
I walked to the food table to look around. A few seconds later, a girl was clawing at my hydration pack trying to make me tell her how to fill it.
“Water? Gatorade? Ice??”
I finally surrendered my pack and thanked her. I walked to the sponges and started soaking the back of my neck with ice water.
All of a sudden, the sponge was no longer in my hand. But the water was still coming down. The smiley dude had snatched it away and was soaking me. Then he asked me if I wanted my head or back soaked. WTF was going on??
So this is how trail aid stations work: You’re not allowed to do anything. People will follow you around and stop you if you try. It’s service you’ve never seen before. They’ll hand you food. They’ll refill your bottles. They’ll soak your head. They’ll tell you you’re awesome and send you on your way.
BACK UP THE CANYON
While I was trying to figure out why everyone was being so nice, Jeff took off ahead of me back up the canyon. When I was ready I ran out quickly, still hoping for some uninhibited running. I wasn’t surrounded by people this time. I had some breathing room and I was happy.
At all my training runs, the hike back up the canyon has always killed me out. But today I felt great. I was running uphill.
The cool part about coming back up is that you get to see the people behind you. I saw Julius and Ngoc, which was a shock because I assumed they were way in front of me. I also saw Regina and said hi, but she didn’t reply. She looked like she was ready to strangle someone with her bare hands. (At the finish line, she would later have the worst case of Runner’s High I’ve ever seen – chatting and laughing and snapping pictures.)
Sarah, another strong runner, had left the aid station after me and soon caught up. She had kicked my ass at every training run, so I knew she was awesome. I let her pass. After a while I caught up to her again but stayed behind. I figured it would be pointless to pass her since she would surely smoke me. But my legs were itching and I finally passed her, almost apologetically.
I felt weird passing people. Almost like I had no right to. Who did I think I was? These guys were strong. They had lived and trained here longer than I had. I was just a silly Canadian girl in pigtails who knew nothing about running up a canyon. But I never saw Sarah again.
I also slipped past Jeff, and tried to build some distance between us. I imagined that both him and Sarah were right on my ass, and that kept me moving for the next 3 miles or so.
After that I started to pull out some mantras. I felt like walking, but I knew I didn’t really need to. I remembered something my dad had told me a really long time ago:
“It’s not how you start, it’s how you finish.”
I repeated this to myself a few times. I had started strong, and I wanted to finish strong.
Sometimes the terrain got so bad that I had to walk, but I made a point to walk fast. And never for any longer than I absolutely had to. I was still feeling good.
I was mostly running on my own on the way up, and I embraced the solitude. It felt like it was just me on the canyon. It felt right. Every once in a while I’d catch up to someone and run behind them for a bit. Then when my restlessness had build up enough, I’d shyly pass.
AID STATION #3 – THE BIG TREE AGAIN
Rachel was the one who attacked me with happy service at this aid station. I had never met her, but knew who she was of course. So I introduced myself and chatted with her a bit while snacking on a sandwich.
Rachel Spatz completed an Ironman when she was something like 17, and ran a 100 miler when she was around 19. She’s like a walking goddess. Just being around her is inspiring. I took off from her aid station in great spirits.
Rachel had told me that Shacky wasn’t far ahead, and he was walking. So I had a new goal: catching up to Shacky. I ran until I caught sight of a cheering section up ahead. It was Theresa and team holding Carlos’ signs, which were hilarious. They told me Shacky was JUST up ahead!
Here’s the sign Carlos made for Shacky:
AID STATION #4 – PENNY PINES
Shortly after the signs and the cheering, there was another aid stations. I did another ice water sponge soak and grabbed a potato. I didn’t hang out at this station much – I had to run Shacky down. Coming up out the station, a few more people were cheering near the parking lot. One lady looked at me and let out a loud gasp. Then she exclaimed to the lady next to her, “OMG! She looks like she just started!”
That made my day.
THE LAST UPHILL
I ran strong for the next couple of miles, and then I hit my wall. The climb wasn’t steep, but it was a gradual incline that felt like it would never end. The trail was open and fully exposed to the sun. It was really rocky. I started to walk.
I’m not a fast walker, so every once in a while I would try to run again. But it was like my body refused to respond to me. My quads were tight, and I was starting to cramp up. Frustrated, I thought of something my friend Ngoc reminded me of before the race – Caballo Blanco’s wise words from Born to Run:
“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one—you get those three, and you’ll be fast.”
I definitely couldn’t handle fast, so I decided to just focus on Easy. At the same time, I remembered Daniel Howell’s mantra, which he talked about on his interview with Caity on Run Barefoot Girl. He said, “I run today so that I can run tomorrow.”
To me, this means not killing yourself after every race. It means doing what Caballo said – running easy. So I stopped to stretch and sit down. I hoped that would loosen me up so I could run again. A couple of people passed me during my stretching, but I figured that time would be made up if I could actually start running again.
And it worked. After a couple minutes, I was moving. And I ended up passing the people that had slipped by.
Finally, I hit 6000 feet of elevation and it was downhill from there. It felt like a deep sigh of relief for my legs and all of a sudden I could pick up the pace. I got my second wind. The world felt right and the day was beautiful. I was in my element.
AID STATION #5 – THE RAT HOLE
“Vanessa Runs! Vanessa Runs!”
Someone was calling from the last aid station. I ran in, refilled my bladder, and ate a bunch of random things. They told me that Shacky had JUST left and he had spent a long time at this station. I was only there for what felt like 2 minutes before they were kicking me out. “You’ve been here too long!” So off I went.
I knew I had to step it up if I was ever going to catch Shacky, so I ran. And it felt good. Then I realized that I had been doing two things for most of the race:
When I caught up to people on the trail, I would size them up. If they looked fitter than me in any way (ie. Everyone), I wouldn’t pass them. I’d tag behind and assume they were better runners than me.
I had been walking some inclines, not because I felt I really needed to, but because the people in front of me were walking them. And I didn’t feel I was good enough to pass them.
Then it dawned on me: OMG. I have low Runner’s Esteem.
I thought about one runner I saw hunched over on the side of the road earlier. Then I thought about a lady I saw crying after a fall. I thought about all the falls and the wipe-outs I had seen and all the people running behind me.
Then it hit me: I think I’m better at this than I realize.
It was more than just having a good day or good running weather. I think this comes easier for me. And I love doing it. It just fits. Like writing.
When I’m running on a trail, nothing feels foreign. I feel like I belong there. Like my body was built to move this way. I can’t help smiling and I can’t help feeling at home. Different people have different talents, so I don’t think I’m particularly special. But I think that ultra distance trail running just might be my “thing”. Something I could potentially develop. Something a little bit bigger than me.
Nobody else passed me after that. I ran strong and I sped up when I saw the finish line. I crossed it with a big grin. I never caught Shacky, but someday I will. With enough time and distance, I think I can run anything down.
Back in May I ran a 60k mileage at my first timed race and raced a marathon the next day. After that I felt like I could do anything. It gave me the courage to pursue a life I really wanted.
But this race did something else. This race made me FEEL like an ultra distance trail runner. It gave me the courage to pass people. It gave me a place on these trails. At the finish line, I could stand in the company of some amazing athletes and not feel like that silly little Canadian girl. This was my world now. And I am an ultra runner.
Official finish time: 7:07