16 August 2017

Race Report - The Limberlost Challenge 2017 (DNF)

You win Limberlost, you win.

I went into this year's event with high hopes of not only completing another ultramarathon (56km), nor just bettering my 2014 result of 9:11 but actually executing a smart game plan and perhaps posting a top-10 or even a top-5 finish.  That's the kind of shape that I felt that I was in, and with my skyrunner friend Juan helping to keep me honest I thought that the odds might actually be stacked in my favour.

With so many of the RunNinjas heading up to tackle The Limberlost Challenge this year I carpooled with my friends Joy and Lewis - Joy was feeling under-trained going into her first 28km race attempt, and Lewis was still nursing a nagging patellar injury but had volunteered to assist at an aid station.  For my part I felt quite confident having completed the 50km distance at Pick Your Poison and believing that I'd learned a number of value lessons that I could bring to the table this time around.  One thing that I'd done differently was to get in a solid two-week taper ... now I'll admit that it left me feeling a bit stale on race-day morning but the key was that I was able to nail all of my desired paces during the workouts leading up to Limberlost weekend so I was reasonably confident that I could trust the training that I'd put in.

After about an hour we arrived in Huntsville and opted for a short pit-stop for washrooms and gasoline.  Well, we got the washrooms part but it was evident after two non-operational fueling stations that some kind of wicked storm had knocked the stuffing out of the computer networks that worked the pumps.  I'd later find out that my friend Vicki had no power through the night at her hotel in Huntsville thanks to a blown transformer somewhere.  This might have been my first cue that the day would turn out a little differently that I'd anticipated.

Pulling into the parking lot at The Limberlost Forest and Wildlife Reserve we all commented on how many cars had already filled the designated parking area (and it was approximately an hour before the 56km start time).  What we would quickly come to realize was that as many cars as there were the ratio of mosquitoes to cars was even higher ... a momentary opening of the driver-side door let in seven or eight of the bloodsuckers.  Between the soggy spring weather that we'd experienced and the overnight thunderstorm the bugs were swarming in stereotypical Muskoka fashion.  As such it was a mad dash from the van to the sign-in tent and back to the van to try to get ready in advance of the starter's pistol.  We still managed to connect with a bunch of RunNinjas and snap the obligatory pre-race selfies, all while getting drained of a pint or two of blood.

Photo credit:  Kathleen Power

The race
I was mentally prepared to go slow, and with Juan setting the pace we took a very measured and controlled approach to the first two 14km loops. We weren't excessively chatty, but carried on at a clip that certainly permitted casual conversation about the gorgeous scenery and the occasional sections of mud (***foreshadowing***) that we encountered along the way.  Over the first 7km we were overtaken by a number of eager runners - which we'd fully anticipated would happen and were none too worried about - and eventually dialed in to a pace that kept us together with another friend of mine named David (who'd recently completed the Sulphur Springs 200 miler).  I constantly kept checking back with Juan to ensure that I wasn't getting overanxious about our time, and after the first two loops we were pretty much spot on, crossing the first 14km in 1:40:40 and dusting off the next 14km in 1:38:09.  At this point a negative split was in sight ...!

But then the third loop happened.

Nothing too monumental, but during this lap the mud sections had sprawled out to about four times their starting sizes, and one of the most significant bogs was found along a 70m incline.  Naturally we all slowed while traversing these shoe-sucking pits, but I think that they also actually wound up doing a number on my hamstrings as at about 35km my legs started to offer some unusual and unfamiliar feedback.  I had to let Juan skip along out of sight ahead of me as I felt like the pace was becoming labourious, and I was becoming concerned about the sensations in my lower limbs.  For one of the first times in an ultra it wasn't my cardio or my fueling or my race tactics that was the presenting problem ... could it be that my fitness just wasn't there?

Naaahhh, it couldn't be.  After all I'd managed to recently power through a billy-goat's worth of 50k at Pick Your Poison and continued to build up my training after that.  In the end I can't say for certain what did me in, but my hamstrings were tight and led to me altering my gait ever-so-subtly ... and I could tell that after completing the third loop that if I decided to finish out the race that I'd almost definitely be setting the stage for some kind of compensation injury.  With that in mind I decided that discretion would be the better part of valour on this day and pulled the plug at the start/finish area, noting this to both the course marshal and the event medical crew.

Part of me certainly thought that this was a moment of shame - after all I'd managed to tough out every other race I'd ever participated in, regardless of how difficult it felt.  And yet on this particular occasion it totally felt like the right thing to do - I was not going to be competitive any more in this race, and with pacing duties ahead of me this fall I didn't want to sabotage the rest of my summer training season having to nurse a wonky knee or wrecked quads ...

... which unfortunately is exactly what happened to my pal Juan.  While he finished the race (taking 11th overall and a bronze medal finish for his age category) he pretty much collapsed in pain at the conclusion of the run.  Apparently he'd also questioned the wisdom of finishing the final 14k - which we eventually both chalked up to the instability of running through long sections of mud - but decided to do it anyway.  He finished with a high degree of knee pain that left him hobbling and unable to make it to the podium when his name was announced over the PA system.  The next day he'd actually take himself into the emergency room at Royal Victoria Hospital and was told that while he would not require surgery he was facing at least a 5-week 'no running' order.

All in all I came away satisfied with what I'd accomplished - a solid 42k trail training run (although even Strava refused to fully acknowledge my effort!), a great day spent with Juan and cheering on so many of my fellow RunNinjas, and the intentions of perhaps one day returning yet again to flog the Limberlost Challenge into submission.

What?  Even the kilometres that I toughed out didn't count?!?

But this time, I yield.  You may have won the battle Limberlost, but not yet the war.