Monday, July 16, 2007

Full Iceland 55k Ultramarathon Recap

Notice the little people near the snow (they are very little).

Abstract: The race went well. I ended up 9th of 137, with a finishing time of 5:29:31, about 40 minutes behind the winner. I am recovering well and will not be attempting anything much longer than this for a little while. Next thoughts are the Royal Victoria Marathon at Thanksgiving and then Boston if the boys all go. There are some pictures from the race included in the post, but all the pictures from the race can be seen here Iceland Pictures. There are also two videos which I took during the race (sorry for the naughty language).

This is now the FULL recap. Sorry for the delay in posting it - internet access and time to write have been difficult to come by.

The alarm went off, but it needn't have. I hadn't slept at all. It wasn't that I was nervous, or even excited, I just didn't sleep. It was like having caffeine to close to bedtime. I wanted to sleep, but couldn't. My watch was first, followed quickly by the wake up call from the front desk - not one of this automated ones, but the actual person, who was definitely not amused at having to call me at 3:30 am. I went through my normal pre-race routine and left the room for the lobby and the $30, five minute cab ride to the bus.

Iceland at 4:20am.

The race site was about 2.5 hours from Reykjavik, so they loaded us on buses and drove us out to the middle of Iceland, to the start of the four to five day hiking trail that we were about to run (It is actually more south than the middle). The bus ride was uneventful, except for the two times that our bus, once leaving the pavement and driving along barren, rocky, Icelandic roads, CROSSED rivers. Twice.

The campsite at the start of the race.

We arrived at the campsite/trailhead at 8:00am and had an hour to prepare ourselves for the race. I had dropped off a bag the day before at the package pick up so that it would be available to me halfway through the race - another shirt, extra water bottles, extra salt, and gels. I hadn't been sure what to expect in terms of weather, so I brought an outfit for every occasion. As it turned out, the weather was pretty ideal - cloudless to start and warm, with a cooling off as the clouds rolled in during the latter part of the race. I didn't do too much warm up, but nervous anxiety had caught up to me and I was trying to determine who the "contenders" were. Ultra runners are a quirky bunch and I had a hard time picking out who I should key off of, but in the end, it didn't really matter.

The beginning of the race

I knew something about the course from reading the website and from a kind commenter, so I knew the beginning was the most challenging part of the course. I knew that. And so I started out conservatively. However, as you can see, there is a technical climb right at the beginning, so I knew I had to be near the front or else I would lose contact with the frontrunners. I made sure I situated myself well, going up the climb in 8th spot, but was still feeling as though I wasn't working too hard. My breathing was under control and I was chatting with a Frenchman who, as it turned out, is the Brooks distributor for France. He was running with a camera as well, but instead of a compact snapshot camera, it was a full on SLR (think of your dad’s camera). He is the person in yellow in some of my pictures.

The beginning of the course is spectacular and I found myself wondering if the mountains were painted or real. The colours were vivid and you could literally see forever. However, the beauty of the region masked the constant climbing. In the preview of the course on the website, they mention that there is 500m of elevation gain in the first 10k. That is not that much when I think of some of the trail races that I have done. In fact, it was very much in the realm of “doable” (ok, may not be a word, but that is ok). Interestingly, sitting in the spring fed pool at the end of the race, the conversation centered around the feeling that the elevation we were told about was not what we experienced. My belief, looking back on it, is that from point to point the difference in elevation was 500m, but in getting there, with all the up AND down, the actual elevation gain was closer to 800m. And that was the first 10k. This did not bode well for the next 45k.

My plan was to use the first hour to find my legs and feel good. I did that, but even though I was chatty and conservative, my heart rate kept creeping up – 150, 155, 160, 165 - a little higher than I wanted to be at that point of the race. The last person I spoke to was a 52 year old man who previously had run 5:23:00. He passed along some advice – “When you come to a 500m downhill, walk, don’t run. When I ran it, I ended up walking backwards down the hills late in the race because the front of my legs didn’t work. But when I walked it, I had my best race.” After thanking him for his help, I ran off as he waited for his friends. I was happy to know that there was a downhill coming, but sad that I wouldn’t be able to fly down it. I thought back to my long run with Nik and how I paid for our downhill running on the backside of Mt. Finlayson and I promised that I would be conservative on this long downhill.

The course passed under me as I kept tabs on the frontrunners. They were only 4 minutes ahead, and I one point I was making up some time on them. I felt great as I passed the 2hr mark and wondered how the next 3 hours would go. The course had been pretty simple to follow – move from one post embedded in the ground to the next. It also helped that I could watch the people in front of me to get an idea of where I was going. Up and down we went – over snow, over volcanic glass, and soft rocky surfaces. I was feeling good but the early leapfrogging of positions was coming to an end and we were beginning to establish ourselves. As I was past the “warm up” interval I had imposed on myself, I allowed my legs to turnover a little quicker and hold a pace that felt a little more natural (read: I fed my ego and allowed myself to run faster). I began to pull back some runners and slowly moved from 8th to 6th. I felt comfortable here. I could see a lead group of three and a group of two guys behind them. The leaders had someone in yellow and the second group had someone in red – both colours that I could pick our from a fair distance.

I felt comfortable. This was fun. The scenery was amazing and I was doing well. I realized that I wasn't going to win the race, but I thought I had a chance for a strong placing. Through the first aid station I took some more water, but was quick. A little cheer from the people gathered there and I was off, trying to make up some time from a fast transition. I came up on the long downhill the racer had warned me about, and heeding his advice, I slowed up. The rock was very loose and quite sharp, almost hollow sounding as I knocked it around on my descent. My tentativeness had allowed two people to catch and pass me on this descent. I am not one that like being passed on downhills, so again is was ego check time as I let them go, thinking that they would come back to me.

The downhill lead to a river crossing. This was the first of a few that were to come. I was prepared for FREEZING water, but it wasn't that bad. I don't know if all the ocean soaks have numbed me to the cold, but I went through and it was almost, dare I say it, refreshing. The two people that had passed me moved on a bit and I tried to keep pace, but from a bit of a distance now. I could no longer see the frontrunners, but still had my eye on the people I thought were in the second group.

This is where the race got long. After the absolutely amazing start, the course stretched out into long, rolling strecthes of volcanic black rock. No more technical running. No more beautiful vistas, no one around. This was to be the guts of the race.

And for a while things were good. But then they started to, very slowly, come apart a little. I noticed my heart rate dropping slightly, which would have been good if I felt I was easing up. But this is in a indication that a bonk is starting to set in. I had been taking gels and drinking my drink, but I started to slow down. The time to the leaders was increasing and I didn't feel as though I was able to push the pace. Through another aid station and another river crossing. Someone else passed me. He looked quite strong. I tried to stay with him. It was working. For about 3 minutes. And then he was gone. With each step he was pulling away. I was back to 9th now. And looking ahead.

Thankfully there were many hikers along this four day hiking trail. And they were all amazing. They would move off the more worn path in plenty of time and cheer as I went by. They were not upset about the fact that there were 130 people running by them; they cheered for every person, sometimes giving feedback about where I was. It was the kindness and energy of these hikers that kept me sane through that long stretch.

Cramping had started to set in as well. Thankfully, the omnipotent Jasper Blake had given me a bunch of salt pills for the race and these worked wonders. Not wanting to wait for digestion to occur, I bit into these pills, releasing A LOT of salt into my mouth - but it was glorious for I knew that it would stop the cramping for a little while. The thing was though, looking at this elevation chart of the race, it doesn't really mention any uphill in that latter part of it (save for the obvious one). But that just wasn't the case...(see video)

And so I marched on. Perpetual forward motion. I thought of my training run and how Nik had laughed at me, but I had made it through. I was no longer in sight of anyone. I didn't look back, but there was no one ahead. I had find my way along. And finally, I came to river crossing with some people there. It was good to see them. But with them came a HUGE hill...

We were to get to the top of this hill via a path along the left side (unseen) of the picture.

This was to be it. My Moby Dick. I had long since stopped running the hills in favour of apower hike. Then just a hike. The a survival hike. This one now a pride hike. My goal time of 5:00 hours was passed and I was now thinking of 5:30 as a reasonable target, but not knowing (exactly) how much further I had to go, I just wanted to keep moving forward.

The view from near the top of the hill - looking backwards.

And so, with the hill summited, I trudged to the finish. The landscape changed back from barren to lush and I could feel a sense of pride welling up. I had never questioned if I would be able to finish the race, it was a matter of how well I would finish it. And although dreams of medals had danced in my sleepless mind the night before the start, I was exactly where I thought I should be right now - suffering, but still able to go forward. I ran the last couple kilometers pretty well as I saw the clock inching toward my new goal time of 5:30.

I crossed the line in 5:29:31 to the cheers of about 30 people, 9th overall, and was instantly taken care of by some wonderful volunteers. The next few hours were spent alternating between thermal hot springs, soup, chocolate bars, sleep, showers, and salad and backed potatoes (no BBQ'd lamb for me). It was a long wait for the ride home (which I almost missed because I was engrossed in finishing the novel Once A Runner), and the ride home was pleasant. A time to reflect on the success of my first ultra. I don't think I will be venturing over the 50k distance anytime to soon. Maybe a 50 miler, but I am definitely leaving the 100's (km and milers) alone fore a good little while. I would like to do some more stage races in the future and have my eye on a couple. But for now, it is back to training for the Royal Victoria Marathon in October and maybe Boston in the spring.

We arrived back late and there was NO WAY I was paying for a cab home! The forty five minute walk was serene. It was 11:30pm and yet twilight. Still and bright. A nice end to a long day.

Sunday, July 15, 2007

A quick note...

As I sit in the departure lounge of the Keflavik Airport I wanted to give a quick update, with a larger one (with pics) to follow.

The race went well. I finished in 9th, in 5 hours 29 minutes and 31 seconds. The winner was 4:49. I was happy with the result and the race as a whole although my desire to run 50 miles or longer has been tempered. I think I will stick with 50k races for now (or shorter).

The weather was great, the view both amazing and desolate, and I am able to walk today. Actually, my body held up relatively well after the race and I can walk relatively normally. is the website for full results (click the british icon in the top right for english).

Friday, July 13, 2007

One more from Iceland

This is the first internet access we have had in Iceland. It is amazing here, but quite expensive, so we have come to a cool little cafe and bought toast for $8 so that we could use their free internet. I have picked up my race package. There are 137 racers, 99 men and 38 women. There are people from all over the world - UK, France, US, Canada, Argentina are the ones I remember from the entrant list. My runs have been good here and, as they say, it is all in the bank. As I mentioned in a previous post, I will likely wait until London to update the race. You can check for results at but I would be surprised if they were up quickly. Rather than wake up at 3:30am with me, Sonja is going to go for a horseback adventure in the wilds of Iceland, so we should have some great pictures to show later.

And thank you to everyone for the well wishes. I will carry them with me when I am out there, avoiding falling through weak snow (seriously, that was one of the cautions on the board today; that and watch out for where the mudslide has hidden the trail).

Off the plane..into the Lagoon

The Blue Lagoon was a little more green than blue. But, man, was it spectacular. The water was beautiful and invigorating, the perfect temperature for a two hour bath with hundreds of your closest friends.

We got off the plane from Gatwick with little problem and found our way to the Blue Lagoon. After dropping our bags into lockers, Sonja and I met in the water. I cannot describe how opaque it was. Just two inches beneath the water and one would lose all sight of, well, everything. This point was reinforced when, as we were leaving the Blue Lagoon after being there for 3+ hours, we overheard an Icelander telling a visiting friend to “do what every Icelander does – take off your shorts once you are in the water. No one can see beneath the surface.” I wonder how many Icelanders were in the Lagoon with us…

The outdoor “spa” had steam rooms, saunas, a pounding waterfall, and full on silica mud face masks. Sonja and tried them out – it was fun but I don’t know if it can help this face.

So far, Iceland consists of dramatic contrasts. Very barren. Excellent English. Weird Icelandic language. A Subway and a Quizno’s – which was disappointing. Coming in from the airport (which is about 60k outside Reykjavik), it was stark and volcanic – very little life outside moss. But as we approached Reykjavik, grass and trees sprung up and there were many little colourful houses (and some encroachment of American franchises). We have a tour tomorrow of some of the more well known geographic sites within driving distance of Reykjavik, so we are excited to see more of the country. I will also be brining my camera with me during the race, hoping to capture some images and maybe some video from the run.

Speaking of which, I got out for a quick run tonight (39:52, cruisey like TomKat) around the waterfront near our hotel. It was eerie. The run was beautiful and serene, but I can imagine that when the winter comes around, and there is very little light, people like Bjork come out and make music by throwing pennies at rocks to keep everyone else from thinking that they are going insane. Seeing her reminds them that there are crazier people out there! The landscape includes jutting mountains and horizons that stretch on forever, The tap water is unbelievably good and air is pure – so much so that I wasn’t sure what was wrong with my lungs for the first part of my run. The run felt very good and while the body was a little tired from 4 hours sleep last night and two hours in a lukewarm bath, the legs responded nicely and I had to keep from running too quickly.

This evening we were quickly reminded that we cannot do the conversion here, either. Our meal at the hotel restaurant tonight consisted of a $25 dollar cheeseburger and a $40 veggie lasagna (luckily they were both excellent). A little ridiculous, but they were some of the cheaper items on the menu (we are gorging ourselves on the complimentary breakfast buffet tomorrow morning). It is beginning to make sense why there was such an extensive duty-free shop right before you picked up your bags. In fact, it was so close, you could shop AND watch for you bags. Iceland must be conspiring with England, deciding to be the most expensive places in the western hemisphere (my 4km cab ride on Saturday morning – at 4:15am is going to be about $40. I thought about running over to meet the race bus, but after 6 months of training and lots of money getting here, I am not going to ruin my race for $40).

Saturday consists of me being on the bus that leaves for the race site at 4:30am. At least it will be light out when I get up (I am writing this at 10:30pm and it looks like it is 7:00pm out – they get 23 hours of sunlight here right now). The bus ride is about 2.5 hours to the race site. We begin the race at 8:00am and if everything goes well, I should finish about 1:00pm. After the race ends there is a BBQ, a geothermal pool, and the awards ceremony. The bus leaves the finish area for its return trip to Reykjavik at 8:00pm, which puts me back here at the hotel close to midnight (I will NOT spend forty MORE dollars after the race – I am walking home damn it!). Internet is available here, but it is costly. I am not sure that I will update the blog Saturday evening as our flight leaves early on Sunday morning – but I will do so for Sunday evening, London-time, when we are back at Anna’s.

London to Iceland

We were told that constantly converting Pounds to Dollars would slowly drive us crazy. Therefore, it is best not to convert the 52-pound cab ride to Gatwick Airport this morning into dollars. However, if we were to do so (roughly - $125), I believe we will still be justified in paying it. The thrill of swerving through London streets at 5:00am, squealing tires through roundabouts, and hitting over 100 mph (that’s right – miles per hour) on the A23 highway made the trip more about the experience than the destination. The best part, I felt, was that the traffic lights go from red, to amber, to green, allowing our crazy cabbie, with his GPS on the front windshield directing him through the various neighbourhoods as we moved from north to south through London, to treat each light like the start of Formula 1 racing. Nevertheless, an hour later, after following a route I question as the most direct, we arrived at Gatwick and moved smoothly through check-in and security and onto our flight.

Last night we went to a pub. A gastro-pub as they are referred to here – I guess that is the kind of pub that sells more than just beer. Beforehand, I joined Anna as she went to her track club workout, and I ran a few light 400s as the rest of the club ran 14x400 on 1-minute rest. The second group was hitting about 75s, with the fast group consistently holding 65s. Some talented runners in the group but I knew that 400s had about zero to do with Saturday, so after cruising some three 78s, I finished the night with an easy run watching the rest of the group. The track facility itself, in the middle of Hampstead Heath (a HUGE beautiful park) would make Victoria drool. The field in the middle of the track was reserved for throwing events. No multi-purpose. And it was lined for the events! And open to the public. At all times! The facility (without stands) rivals UVic easily, and most other University facilities I have seen.

But back to the pub…

We joined some of Anna’s club and made our way to said pub where a 10 month pregnant barkeep/owner was trying to train a motley crew of imports to run the business when she gives birth tomorrow. Couple English as a second language and a woman obviously tired, stressed, and pregnant beyond belief, and a comedy of errors ensued. Missed meals, ice cream before my meal because they had run out of the appetizer I had ordered, weird tasting 7-Up, and ice cream after my meal because they had brought ice cream before my meal – Basil Fawlty would have been proud. Thankfully the company was funny – British accents make everything funnier – and the food was good. An enjoyable evening spent with some runners, but I feel bad for Sonja who has to deal with the running crowd even when she is on another continent.

Our sleep was abbreviated as we awoke to the triple chime of heart monitor, watch and cell phone at 4:30am. One last check of bags and we were out the door, James Bonding through London to Gatwick, but you know that part already.

We are now enroute to Iceland and the Blue Lagoon for the afternoon. If you have not looked it up yet, you should. Sonja said we should buy the mud. I said ok. I will let you know how that goes…

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Tower of London

As we quickly pack for Iceland, here are some pictures of our day at the Tower of London. We have an early flight to Iceland in the morning, with a stop at the Blue Lagoon in the afternoon. I am feeling better after a run this evening, but was quite lethargic still during the day. Hopefully everything will click in the next couple of days.

See you later.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Jetlag? I think it is a myth...

Oh England, land of the lost adjectives...

Abstract: We toured part of London. I ran. Ricky Gervias lives near by. Jetlag is a silent napper.

Hey everyone.

London is fun. There are lots of people and lots of things to do. This may sound a little understated, but man, when you are looking at a map, it is difficult to decide what to do.

We woke up this morning at a reasonable hour, thinking that the worst of the jetlag was over. Anna had graciously given us some melatonin to help with our sleep, and help it did. After a deep and restful sleep, Anna took me out on a beautiful scenic run through a huge local park while Sonja explored the local village on her run, hoping to catch a glimpse of Sir Paul or Ricky Gervais, both of whom live in the same neighbourhood as Anna.

Upon completion of the run, (51:31, good post-travel run) and some breakfast, Sonja and I set off to explore London, or at least part of it. We decided to emerge from the tube at Picadilly Circus, taking in a London landmark with our first breath. It is a bustling intersection of advertising, tourists, and some locals.

Dude, you're in my picture!

From there we visited Her Majesty's Palace and then made our way past Westminster Abbey and to the National Gallery after buying sandwiches from a little Italian man who told us to say hi to George Bush. Sonja mentioned that we were Canadian and then punched him in the nose.

It was in the National Gallery (which, like most museums and galleries in London, was free!), admist the amazing works of Picasso, Monet, Manet, Rembrandt and Michaelangelo that I started to feel, well, asleep. It became difficult to walk and to focus, and my legs started to give out. I sat at every chance, and Sonja to her credit, was patient with me. We decided to head back to Anna's before we both ended up sleeping on the street.

We arrived home, and laid down for a moment. Three hours later, I got up. Sonja has yet to rise and I think she will make it through the night.

So it is here, watching the Triplets of Belleville, after having missed the Tour de France in London by hours yesterday, that I sip probably the best red wine I have ever had, and finish this post. Iceland is starting to loom. We have to order a cab for Wednesday morning to get us to Gatwick and then to the Blue Lagoon!

Tomorrow includes a run with Anna's running club and an authentic London pub night. Maybe I'll have a Guinness for Jim.

Sunday, July 08, 2007

London Calling

(For those that have not followed my blog in the past, the abstract is here for those of my friends – Trevor Millar – who don’t like to read my rambling posts, but want to know what is happening. Thus, an abstract of the post is at the beginning to help him along in his day. And I will add pictures as we take them.)

Abstract: Left Victoria. Arrived in London. No real problems.

I am down 0-2. First, it is cheaper to buy Underground tickets once in the Underground than it is when you fist get off at the London Victoria train station. Secondly, the orange arrow on the map is NOT in fact where Anna lives. She lives on a street in the opposite direction to the orange arrow on the map. Very opposite. I am down 2 points to Sonja at this point as she stood her ground on the first (resulting in cheaper tube fares) and conceded to me on the second (resulting in us having to have to drag our jetlagged butts back up the street aptly named Haverstock Hill).

Trevor, always the gentleman, picked us up at 6:00am this morning in Victoria, BC. We made our plane with plenty of time, ate Harvey’s breakfast sandwiches onboard, got off in Toronto. Simple. Simple, but we were literally in the baby vortex at the back of the plane. Thankfully one baby moved and we knocked the other two out. No, we didn’t, but if the dynamic duo of Pippa Whitfield and Dominic Stubbs had been with us, we would have let them sort things out for us in a rumble not seen since the Jets danced their way into Broadway lore.

Getting to our Air Transat flight was easy enough. Switching terminals in Toronto was actually quite easy. And Air Transat was good. Maybe I have lowered my standards after flying Air Canada for so long, but I was impressed. Sonja and I had two seats to ourselves, so sleeping became less of an issue. They served decent food. The movie was an edited version of Blades of Glory, which is a great airplane movie. Overall, a good experience.

Upon arriving at Gatwick, with our backpacks and oversized carry-ons, we had to find our way to London proper. Anna, our host in London over the next six weeks, suggested the Gatwick Express, which is a direct train from Gatwick Airport to London Victoria (think Union Station). It looked good, but was 17 pounds each for a one-way ticket. This was a little too much for us. Sonja found another train for 8 pounds each, and although it was not direct, it only had three stops. After a little concern over the discrepancy between what the information officer at the station had told us (Oh yeah, buy tickets once you are on the train) and what the big sign in front of us said once we were on the train (You must have a ticket! Failure to produce a ticket will result in beheading! or something like we were going to pay 3x the fare) we were left with our first decision. Stay and plead ignorance to the ticket collector or jump off at the next stop and buy a ticket. Well, fate forced our hand. Said collector of tickets emerged through the door at the other end of our car. I would love to say that there was a big ordeal and we had to beg for our lives, but he just took our money and gave us tickets. Crisis averted.

We arrived at Victoria Station and followed Anna’s well laid out descriptions for our travel on the Underground (get on the light blue line until the black line and go north on that line – it actually makes perfect sense in the plate of spaghetti that is the London Underground). This is where Sonja was right about waiting to buy the tickets from the Underground station rather than the first automated ticketing agent I saw. 0-1. We followed the underground with little problem, and stepped out into a beautiful day at Belsize Park, just outside downtown London. Listening to people speak puts me somewhere between the BBC version of The Office and the movie Snatch, which is fun as I have always wanted to be on TV or in the movies. Now I pretend that I am, and that Hugh Grant is going to be walking by any moment all muddled up my some woman problem.

Now, the map Anna sent via email had her street on it. Let’s get that clear. It is close to the Underground stop as well. It is just that I didn’t see it in the 5 times I studied the map. But there is also a large orange arrow on the map, and I thought, “Why else would there be a large orange arrow on the map if not to indicate to me that this is where Anna lives?” Although we had her street address, and the street was not near the orange arrow, I thought we should just walk there and it wouldn’t probably be near the big orange arrow. So we heaved our packs and descended Haverstock Hill, watching the double deckers rumble by and enjoying the very Englandness of the street. We finally reached our orange map to (surprise!) find no house. 0-2. After 20 hours of travel to reach an orange arrow, I approached a lady walking on the other side of the street to ask directions. Although a little startled at first at my crossing the street and calling to her, she hastily gave us directions which lead right back to the Underground station we had just left. She said it was just past there, on the left. After apologizing to Sonja, who had upon leaving the Underground suggested the very logical idea of asking a merchant for help, we hiked back up the hill to eventually find Anna’s amazing flat.

We let ourselves in as Anna was out for a run, and after freshening up, we promptly slept for 6 hours.

And here we are.

Tomorrow we will explore. I will run. I will eat some fish and chips. And read some Harry Potter.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

One before I go...

Packing takes a lot of time.

School ended well. I have been running. I did two hours at Mt. Work on Sunday and two hours with Adamo today at Thetis. Jazzy helped me out with some nutrition stuff for Iceland and the clock is ticking incessantly and moving and leaving.

The past few runs have felt incredibly good. I had to slow myself down yesterday, but Adamo made sure I was slow at the end of today's Thetis adventure.

Everything is laid out for the race. I even practiced taking pictures while running to make sure I could do it well. 25 seconds for two pictures. This is an example from the summit of Mt. Work. I will definitely be bringing my camera with me on the course.

For those interested, Comfortably Numb went well. Adamo (seems like this post is an ode to Adamo) won the race with his goatlike ability to climb hills. I ran the course 4 minutes faster than I did last year, coming in third, but it was a great finish - four runners within one minute of each other. And all four runners were under the previous course record. A great last race before the biggie.

I will be updating more while I am on the road (I promise) and I may stray away from running content, so please stay tuned...