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My first Ultra Marathon
When I started running at the age of 37 and training for my first half marathon, I had no idea that, someday, I would be signing up to run 150km … who does that anyway?!!!
But here I am. After running my first trail race last summer, a distance of 38km, I decided that 150km would be a great distance to tackle…because 150km seemed like a good challenge!
Following several months of training (which included mountain biking, snowshoe running, trail running, strength training) and a few set backs (involving a serious mountain bike crash where I was unable to do anything for 9 days) and a severe ankle roll (which again put my out of commission for nearly 2 weeks), I have now successfully completed my first stage race, a distance of 150km over 3 days.
Why run 150km many people ask?
For me, it’s about setting goals (big & small), working towards achieving these goals, and making it happen; it’s stepping out of my comfort zone, learning, growing, facing and overcoming challenges; it’s about leading by example for my boys and those around me; setting the example of going after what you want, staying with it, never quitting, no matter how hard it’s going to get. It’s also about seeing how far I can push my body without breaking it completely but most of all, it’s about personal accomplishment. I am in competition with no one other than myself. To me, the feeling of achievement that comes with fulfilling your goals and your dreams is the best feeling in the world!
Was it tough? Ooohhhh yeah. It was, to date, by far the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to do. I will point out right away that it was also the most rewarding.
After arriving at The Mill, located in beautiful Wakefield, Quebec, Canada, I got to meet some pretty amazing fellow trail runners, including runners from Italy, the UK, and of course some very inspirational runners from our very own Canadian soil. That night we enjoyed a fabulous pre-race dinner, got our race pack checked out, and settled in into a beautiful room for a good night’s sleep before setting out in the morning to run in the woods for 3 days.
I was so excited to run my first ultra marathon that I did not sleep well; in fact, I don’t think I slept at all! After tossing and turning all night, I finally got out of bed at 5:00am for my 5:30am breakfast. I was looking forward to oatmeal, but there was no oatmeal at the buffet. So I settled for white bread (beware of fiber on race day!), peanut butter, plain yogurt and honey. Oh… and 2 cups of coffee, along with a good litre of water ….
By 8:30am, we were all standing at the start line, ready to go, when a lady walked up to me and said “Do you remember me? I met you in the trails a few weeks ago with my dog!” I was so touched by that fact that she remembered our conversation about my upcoming race, and took the time to come up to the start line to wish me luck. I had walked and chatted with her and her friend for a while in the trails a few weeks back while on a +50km training run. I have met so many wonderful people in the trails since this journey began…
In any event, we are all ready, the countdown is on and off we go … Stage 1 – about 54km ahead of us in 30+ degree weather… Throughout the day, I felt pretty good. I settled into a comfortable, slow pace and kept reminding myself “take it easy, this is day 1… you’ve got 70km tomorrow!”. I enjoyed the scenery, listened to my music, fueled a little bit every half hour, and just kept going. Running most of the course alone, as I do in training, is the way I like it. I am in introvert and I don’t like to chat when I run. I love socializing, but not while running! Running is when I tune out, meditate, reflect, embrace the moment and clear my mind. With approximately 10km to go, I went through a cave section, where I banged my right shin against a sharp rock, leaving me with a good little gash and a bloody shin. The intense pain, along with a few words of choice, sent my mental state into the basement for a few moments … Stepping into the icy water of the caves, cooled me right down and made me feel like a new runner, switching the mental state back to a strong positive attitude. I went on and finished the rest of the course. 8 hours after leaving the start line, I was the second female to cross the Stage 1 finish line. I was feeling very good; well, a bit stiff, but overall, I felt great! I got out of my stinky and wet clothes, put on some dry, clean, clothes and enjoyed some watermelon and can of coke (seriously? You want me to drink what??!).
Before I left for this race, I was touched by the fact that Anna Frost (aka Frosty!), my female ultra runner idol, took the time to send me a note wishing me good luck on my first ultra marathon (following my note to her congratulating her on winning the Hardrock 100). These were her words to me:
“Thanks for the lovely message.
Good luck on your first ultra! Recovery is the key…good food, electrolytes, water, legs up and a sing and dance around the camp fire. “
Happy running, Frosty”
And so I did. After completing stage 1, I put my legs up for a few hours, enjoyed a fabulous dinner of chicken, chick peas, salad, chocolate cake, and a few pieces of white bread! This would leave me feeling pretty good and ready to tackle 70km the next day…
Stage 2. 70km. Up at 4am, after no sleep due to the heat and adrenaline about the long run ahead, I start my day by drinking water, then follow with oatmeal & honey for breakfast, half a cup of coffee and more water. The ritual of getting ready for a long run can be quite intensive: prepare the race nutrition, making sure it’s accessible in the running vest, mix water & electrolytes, fill up the bladder & bottles, lube the toes and everything else that needs to be lubed up, put on the injinji (toe) sox, then the compression sleeves, the compression shorts, the running pack, the ball cap, and the most important part: the running shoes, making sure they are not laced too tight or too loose… after several minutes, I am now ready to leave for 70km! Departure for stage 2 is set for 6:00am and it’s already well above 25 degrees. It’s going to be a hot day – a really hot day. During stage 2, I actually wanted to quit a few times. I was sore and tired. Blisters were starting to appear. But I kept telling myself “if it’s easy, it does not change you… you must get through those difficult times to come out stronger, and running 150km is one way to do it…. hahaha!!” Yep, that’s how I talk to myself while out there on my own ☺
There were a few times during this stage where I thought I was not going to finish; one, in particular, at the 30km mark. My feet were in agony due to blisters on both my small toes, the section of trail at that point was difficult to navigate due to very uneven terrain and grassy sections covering the numerous holes created by horses (equestrian trail), the sun was beaming and temperature was soaring near 40 degrees celsius. With nearly 75km under my belt at that point, I texted my superstar coach saying I did not think I could do this. The pain was taking over and I was running real low on mental strength. Then the pep text back from my coach came in, and I somehow found it deep within myself to make it to the next check point, where a doctor was waiting for me to tape my toes, as instructed by my coach! 15-minutes later, a couple of painkillers and taped toes, I painfully laced my shoes again and set out to finish the remaining 40km. Every. Single. Step. Hurt. But after a while, numbness sets in and I kind of forgot about how much pain I was in, until I crossed the finish line, several hours later.
There were also many wonderful moments during the longest and most painful stage of this race. At the start of the day, I got to run with some pretty amazing runners. Despite that fact that I normally prefer running solo, socializing for a couple of hours, when you are in it for 13 hours, was quite nice. I was very happy to have some company for a while during stage 2; and not just any company: an experienced stage runner from Calgary, and an Ontario runner who ran across Canada. Trying to keep up with my new friends definitely helped me to move forward. We eventually separated and, at every check point, I would ask for 2 things: chips and how far ahead my friends were ☺ I spent the next 10 hours chasing them, always with a gap of 30-45 minutes. I could not close the gap and though my goal was to finish this stage in 12 hours, it took me 13 hours to run a distance of approximately 71km. I set out to run this stage at 6am, and was the second female to cross the line, feeling so proud of myself for having stuck with it, and for keeping my rank as the second female to finish stage 2. I am in competition with no one other than myself, nor do I do this to win. I committed to my training program and trained hard for several months; I like to do well and wanted to see where I would fit in in the ultra world as a female in my first stage race. As a rookie ultra runner, I felt proud to have kept my ranking, behind some very amazing and inspirational runners, including the 28-year-old female in front of me, who is an accomplished and wonderful athlete. Chasing some of the best is one way to get stronger!
Day 2 is done. I changed into dry clothes, ate lots of food, drank lots of water, stretched, put my legs up, socialized, complained a bit about how sore I am, and even got a 20 minute massage. That night, we all slept in a large room, with our mats & sleeping bag on the floor. This is another sleepless night, but adrenaline is still running high and so I am totally awake to run stage 3. Sore, but awake. After you run 125km in 2 days, what’s another 25km?!?!
After another oatmeal breakfast and a couple of painkillers, my totally awesome coach taped my totally bruised up toes, so I could finish this race. At that point, I am in so much pain, I don’t know how I will put my running shoes on. But, somehow, I do it! The first few steps are killing me, but as usual, I just start to run ….
Stage 3 was my favorite for 2 reasons: One, this it it! It’s almost over. Only 25km. Two, the course is the best – mostly single-track trails, my favorite trails to run! I have ran these trails several times before, I know where I am going, I know exactly what to expect. So I set out for the last time, behind my two new friends. I was able to keep up with them for the first little while, but then lost them as the pain was keeping me from running my best. Once again, I found myself running alone, in my zone, through those beautiful single-track trails of the Gatineau park. I am in pain, but I am the happiest girl in the world! Within a few hours, this will all be over. As I keep making my way through the trails, still ranking second female, I am now reflecting about my journey and how proud I am of myself for being so close to finishing something so big. I am anxious to see my boys at the finish line and can’t wait to get out of my running shoes… And so I finally cross the finish line, 3 hours and 19 minutes later. My fellow trail runner friends who have already finished, my coach, friends and family, greet me with high fives, hugs and congrats. My sons were quick to point out how much I stunk ☺!! Yep … 3 days of running wearing the same clothes – I did stink and could not wait to clean myself up!!
After everyone crossed the finish line, we spent the remainder of the day at the spa, resting our sore bodies and enjoying some amazing food in our robes, out on a beautiful sunny patio reserved just for us. The winners of the race were announced and, to my complete surprise, I actually tied for first place amongst the women’s with my fellow 28 year old accomplished athlete runner. I chased her for 3 days but had to give up because she was just too fast for me. Unfortunately, for her, she got a 6km penalty on day 2 for making a wrong turn, which turned out to my advantage (I teased her about this … we’re cool!). Not only is this young woman a wonderful athlete, she is definitely faster than me and deserved the first place all the way. She kept up with some amazing runners at the top and she did not even train for this event. She is an accomplished, super fast, short distance runner, a triathlete and an inspiration to me! Lucky for me, we live in the same neck of the woods and have already made plans to run together. I’ll be chasing her for the next little while ☺ Grateful for another new, wonderful, friendship!
There are no words to express the gratitude, the pride and the joy I felt crossing that last finish line. I have been running the trails for 2 summers. My longest and only trail race prior to this event was a 38km race the previous summer. I have made so many special, inspirational and wonderful new friends along the way. I have created amazing memories and experiences: something no amount of money can buy. As I now rest my feet, the part of my body that took the worst of the beating, I am letting all these wonderful memories sink in.
There are so many people I must thank for helping me with achieving this goal:
First and foremost, thank you to my long time husband of 20 years, and my two boys, Anthony & Zachary, for their incredible support in the last several months and over race weekend. On a few occasions, I would send a text to Romeo or call him in tears from the depth of the woods because I was lost or tired; or I would lay in bed at 5am at the sound of my alarm, pondering the idea of not going out; he always made sure I kept going, got out of bed, and laced up, because he knew how important this was to me. He took care of our boys while I was out running the woods for hours at a time, he made me coffee when I came home after a long run; he modified his work schedule to put Zach on the school bus so I could get out of the house earlier to go training. And finally, all 3 boys were waiting for me at the finish line, as they always do when I race.
Thank you to my very special long-time and dear friend Carole Woodstock for the “be strong” necklace, something we share between us as we each go through something difficult.
Thank you to my unbelievably amazing and kind friend Nadia Amimi for her incredible support and for being at the finish line with her husband, waiting for me to finish!
Thank you to all my incredible, inspirational fellow trail runners for making this journey one I will never forget; thank you for all the wonderful new friendships, for your precious words of advice and for your running wisdom!!
Thank you to all my friends & Facebook friends for your kind words of support. I may not have responded to them all, but I have read them all with a big smile on my face.
A huge thank you to all the BBU volunteers for taking such good care of us at every check point; your support, care, genuine smiles and words of encouragement was deeply appreciated.
Thank you to Mat Lefèvre, Sereena Trottier and Ray Zahab for organizing such an amazing race.
Thank you John Zahab, my strength & conditioning coach, for making me a stronger runner and for all you precious running advice.
Another huge thank you to all those who have supported me with my fundraising for this event. I had a goal of raising $5,000. I am still short of a few thousands, but will continue raising awareness for i2P and hope to reach my goal as soon as possible. If you would like to help me reach my goal and support impossible2Possible, please check this out: http://www.firstgiving.com/fundraiser/france-paolozzi/ultra2016
Finally, if it was not for him, I would never have been able to do this – over the past several months, he has pushed me out of my comfort zone numerous times, he taught me to believe in myself, he told me I could do it at times when I wanted to quit (30km mark on stage 2, with 40km to go …!). Thank you Ray Zahab for being the incredible coach that you are, for inspiring so many, for being incredibly humble, and for taping my toes to help me finish the last 25km!!!!!!!
What’s next? 50km race on August 21st.
After that? Not sure yet … stay tuned !!