The year of my life

What’s a long way?

For a kid whose running career began at the age of three, sprinting down the street, naked, making a getaway from diapers. For a boy who felt too ashamed of running in the neighbourhood, to train for a high school race, because of how awkward arms and hands behaved when they bounced around. For a guy who unsuccessfully trained for a half-marathon in hikers. For a young man who could not taper his enthusiasm enough to stay injury free for more than a week. For a runner whose wander into Triathlons and Ironmans, became, by way of channelling excess energy into other sports, a stepping stone to a very first injury-free year. For a man whose venture into competitive running began at the age of 24 with a soon-to-be good friend around a 400m outdoor track working on the “bread&butter” of speed training, as Jon would put it. For a workingman who viewed planting trees for 8½ hours as being a Sponsored Athlete; and the arduous training sessions after work, thrown in for good measure, as a very first step in the world of UltraAthletes. For that person, for that athlete, for me, the groundbreaking year that was 2015, was a long ways to go indeed.

Let me tell you about it.

The year of my life began with the elaboration of my very first racing calendar. My main objective was to start small and fast, gradually increasing the distance and inclination, until, finally, I reached my peak fitness roughly a month before the very last race of the season, and in many ways its crowning jewel: the FatDog 70miles. And as an extra incentive, I made the decision to, all the while, raise funds for the Alzheimer Society of Canada, for an illness that affects both sides of my family.

To accomplish all this, I would need help.

And so, I reunited with my speed mentor Jon Ruddy, and together we devised a training plan. For the next 3months, we would train together in the Louis-Riel Dome on the only 400m indoor track in Canada. Jon helped me understand that no matter the distance, be it 1mile or 100miles, races were first won on the track, with speed work. On March 31st, it was time to tick off the first objective on my calendar: a 5000m time-trial around the very same track in Gloucester, Ottawa. At my insistence, I was to run alone, without a pacer. Turns out, and I only realize that now, this 5000m run took the top of the podium as the toughest event of my year! Here are my thoughts on the event:

5k Time-Trial, April 7th.
The race season kicks off today with a 17:26min 5k personal best on the track. A humbling experience in all respects. Running faster is not all that simple it seems.
The backstretch of the track was a dark alley where the gloves came off, where everything went. Where unknown weaknesses came flowing out like sand through the cracks in my confidence. Jon’s claps echoing from around the track. 12½ rounds bouncing against the ropes. Even my own mind was rooting against me.
Jon, my good friend and coach, was working the corner, calling my splits at the end of each round, his encouragements became a bench I could sit on while I spat out teeth and blood in a bucket. ”Dance around the beast, it’ll tire itself out.” and ”Only four more laps.” and ”Hang in there!”. Thank goodness he was the one holding the towel, because i’m pretty sure I would have thrown it.
I guess we can’t know what we’re made of until we plunge deep and fight hard, uncovering new rocks that had been left unturned.
This was a first tentative step on a journey that will lead me to racing my first 70 mile UltraMarathon this summer. A small leap forward that I can confidently build on.

Although I was satisfied with the time, it became clear that, mentally, the race had not been a huge success. There and then, I made the resolution to train my mind. If a 5k run around a track proved overwhelming, how was I to run 114k in the mountains?

My next objective, the Yonge Street 10k in Toronto, was only 13days away. I used all my knowledge, in order to recover fast so that I could begin a small training cycle and taper for the race. Even still, the race came quickly and, as I had to prepare for my travels to go planting (I had to be at the Pearson Airport the same night of the race at 4am), I did not feel in top condition for the race. Yonge street is a fast race and 10,000m is an intimidating distance. Here are my thoughts on the event:

Toronto Yonge St 10k April 19th.
The day kicked off in style with a windy 0° at the start line. My good friend Emily was kind enough to shuttle me to the start line in her retro Buick. I met up with Jon, and we ran a short warm up along a side street, wearing every single layer we had, plus some borrowed gear, going over some key points for the race. A few buses were shuttling our gear to the finish line, and so, fifteen minutes before race start, we snuck in a back alley to change into our singlets and shorts, reluctantly parting with warmth and quickly discovering that a race outfit is not much of an outfit at all.
After a few strides, we wrestled our way through to the front of the waiting crowd. Ahead, we could see the many sky scrapers that cut through the sky of downtown Toronto. The course follows Yonge St North to South taking us through a few rolling sections and many stretches of downhill making for a very fast yet challenging course when it comes to finding the right pace.
The race starts in a jumble of elbows and feet. Jon stays with me for the first 300m to help me find a good rhythm, then, with a few words of encouragement, he takes off. Missing the first two km markers, I focused on lengthening my stride and letting the course roll under me. There were strong gusts of wind assailing us from all directions, channelled by the skyscrapers around us, stopping us mid-stride and taking away our breath. Many around me swore, I smiled. Wind is nothing if it’s not -30°. I clocked in at the 3km sign in 10:28. After a fast unsuccessful attempt at converting this number into feedback, I focused on the 5k mark, along the way encountering Joanna and Oli who braved the cold to cheer us on. A quick high five later the 5k mark appeared. 17:30 on the dot. My exact race pace goal.
To add to this positive feedback, I could hear hard breathing and heavy steps from the runners around me. Kilometre five stretched out for a very long time making me doubt my pace, that is until, to my great relief the 7k mark appeared. I had missed the 6k marker.
A streetlight above switched from red to green, and I was off, slowly working on ticking off the runners around me. 8k-9k. I turned a corner to find the Finish line only 200m away, so I kicked hard crossing the line in 35:27. Finishing, I noticed later, in the top 1%.
All-in-all, I ran this race very conservatively, focusing on weeding out negative thoughts as soon as they occurred (something I had failed to achieve in my 5k time trial two weeks earlier), making this a very positive and confident second step towards the longer challenges ahead! 

Two days later I was planting trees in the Okanagan. The first month of tree planting is always the hardest. Besides having to get reaccustomed with the physical and technical aspects of the job, it was important for me to continue hitting the track in order to maintain the speed needed for the two fast arriving half marathons. The first one is a road 21k taking place near the north end of Skaha Lake in Penticton. And so, twice to three times a week I came home from work, shovelled food in my mouth, switched from dirt covered boots and clothes to my track outfit and shoes, and, alone this time, I chased a training that Jon had written up for me around the track. These were some of the hardest workouts, both mentally and physically, that I have ever done. I would come back, eat and pass out, only to wake up at 5am the next day to go plant more trees.

It was all worth it in the end. The Peach City Half-Marathon is one of my favourite road races ever and I was keen to put my name on it. Here’s how it went:

Peach City Half-Marathon, May 17th.
The gun goes off. A fast dash leads us onto a slight gradual incline. The pitter-patter of running feet fades early behind me. Friends cheer me on from our motel parking lot. Soon, I am alone, with only the race marshal cycling a few peddle strokes ahead, coasting naggingly close, like a better self I will never quite better.
The first five kilometres sneak by in 18:20. The first ten in 36:46. The turn around comes, I focus on closing the ever present gap with my better self who cycles ahead slowly. My competition is running strong, I greet them as they pass a few kilometres away from the turn around.
The final uphill rolls under my lumbering feet. I woohoo my relief as I conquer this last major obstacle. Three kilometres later I encounter two large groups of friends, smartly staggered for increased effect. As a cloud, heavy but proud, I float across the finishing stretch, drifting, I know, solely by the energy they convey.
The Peach City Half-Marathon, third racing goal of the season, and last road race, came to a close in 1:18.36.

The next day, as per a wager with my boss, I went to work, tired but proud, and succeeded in planting over two thousand trees in 8hours. I could now forgo the track for the hills and I could not be happier about it! My next race was a Trail Half-Marathon in Kelowna two weeks later, so I took to the hills. Intent, again, on claiming the highest step of the podium. The race has a decent elevation gain and lost, so I spent a lot of time after work running to the top of the neighbouring hills to make sure I had the mountain legs necessary to win the race.

Here’s how the race went:

Trail Half-Marathon, May 31st

The Dirty Feet Half-Marathon rolls and winds like a jumble of twine, it rises and falls rapidly as a chest out of breath, whimsically through sharp turns and rocky technical downhills. Like playing follow-the-leader with Doctor Seuss.
The hilly course made this a race of patience. And how best to fool the competition than by going all out, guns blazing, yet oddly slowing to walk up every uphill?
It was a game of sling shot and I was the stick, they the rocks. I kept my breathing stable, while they eagerly shot passed me uphill, running hard, breathing hard. Light-headed, and with heavy legs, they lumbered downhill, while I breezed by. All the while unaware that the very pull of their uphill effort slung them backwards to where I wanted them to be. Behind me. A tiresome game. And an economical one for me.

IMG_9787

The difficulty with this race is found in the blazing heat and the one single aid station. At about halfway, once the said station was in sight, I took out a gel from my shorts’ pocket, slurped it on the run and stopped a short while at the snack table to drink a few cups of water. Towards the end, I started hearing the crowd just as my legs began cramping up from dehydration. So I bolted to the finish and crossed the line in 1:40.59, not having seen any competitor since the 5k mark.
A very positive race, under a relentless sun in a burnt forest. A fun mind game and a great way to kick off the trail racing season!

 

The summer was well under way and the planting season came to an end on the last days of June. I had managed to plant close to 100thousand trees in just over two months. For a week or so after, I lingered around Penticton, spending some time training on Apex Mountain a few times a day. That is when the Kootenays came calling! With a few planting friends, we scaled mountains in most of the Parks surrounding Nelson. With a month and some to go until FatDog, I gladly took the opportunity to sharpen my mountain power hiking skills.

On July 13th, almost exactly a month before the race, my friends granted me the opportunity to run a trail called the Seven Summits near Rossland Bc. They were to hike the point to point trail with a vehicle at each end and I seized the moment to do my last long run before the taper and the race. The trail worms itself around 7 summits and is 30k. A there and back would get me to 60k, longer than I had ever run before by about 15k. Here’s how it went:

Seven Summits 60k, July 13th
Fun day out in the mountains with friends! Ran 60k on the 7 Summits trail with 1800m of elevation gain.
The weather pulled a fast one on me at the 50km mark. I was running up the flank of this mountain when it started raining cats and bears sideways at me. The wind and the cold outnumbered my singlet and short shorts a thousand to one.
All in all, it was a great experience, and a very solid first step in ultra running!

Little did I know that a week later I would start feeling some pretty severe pain on the outside of my right foot. My body was raising a red flag. I had been training all out for 6½ months, it was time to ease off. Fortunately, although the pain lingered all the way until a week before race day, I was able to run uphill and hike down without any problem. However strange that may sound, I could still not run on flat ground for more than 2000m without having to stop. So I did some hill training in Squamish and Garibaldi Park.

Amy Ritsma who had planted, travelled and hiked with me all summer did me the huge favour of being my support crew for the race. With three or four days to go before the race we headed east from Vancouver into Manning Provincial Park. Toby & Allison, friends of a friend, who both worked in the park, hosted us on their land and in their homes for the length of our stay there. Amy and I went through the preparations for the race. We also met up with Katie who was running the 50mile and Matt who was crewing for her. Together with our new group of friends we spent the remaining time planning and relaxing. Quite the journey lay ahead of us. Finally, the time came. Here is how the went:

FatDog 70miles, August 15th.
Race Update,
Or how a hundred and fourteen kilometres became 100 AND 14.
The FatDog 70miles is designed like a half-pipe. With 1400m of elevation loss in the first 40kms – A flatish middle portion that spans 41kms – Then back up 1200m for 25kms – Ending with 8kms of downhill to the finish line.
The start line was in the clouds with freezing rain and winds. I took the lead from the start. Setting a fast pace so as to not be stuck behind people when the trail narrowed.
My goal was to run this race as competitively as possible. I kept repeating to myself a mantra I had devised before the race: Go hard on the easy and Easy on the hard. So I ran fast on the flats and the downhill and walked the steep uphills.

70mile025 (1)

I met my support crew (Amy and Matt) 46km in for a quick change of gear, refill on water and snacks, to exchange a few high fives and to give them an estimate time for our next meeting 35kms later.
Most of the second section, I ran with the second place, a fun guy named Jesse. We talked some and booked it under the rain both feet in puddles the whole time. We stayed together until Skyline aid station where I met up with Matt and Amy again, who got me ready to face the last climb sooo fast that I left with almost a minute’s lead. It was 3:30 then, 8hours and a half and 81kms into the race.
The last ascent is where I put the hammer down. With the help of my hiking poles I power hiked and I ran stuff I would struggle on on a good day with fresh legs. Up up and up until the second to last aid station 21km from the finish line. I knew Jesse wasn’t far behind so I checked in and out really fast. 4kms later I took an energy gel only to find that I had nothing left to wash it down with. My water had run out. So with legs cramping I made it to the aid station sitting at the 100k mark.
Then with 14kms to go, the most incredible thing happened. My legs gave up. There was still many rolling ups and downs before the final descent that took us across the ridge of many peaks, and I was still in the lead. At that aid station I went from first to third place. My race was done. I had run a fierce 100km race. A race I am extremely proud of.
Then came the last 14km. Some of the most humbling kilometres in my life. Using my poles as crutches I painfully hobbled on, as most of the people running anything from the 50 to 120miles (I couldn’t tell in the near dark), that I had past in the last leg of the race came zipping by. My legs could not lift nor lower more than 6 inches off the ground. Night came. I turned on my headlamp and carried on down the steep ups and downs of the ridge, down the last excrutiating 8kms of downhill, all the way around the lake to the finish line.
Approximately 15 hours after the start of the race.
My friends lowered me into a chair and handed me warm broth to drink; Amy and a stranger carried me to the car; Toby and Amy carried me to bed, there to finally rest.
114 kilometres is not a journey travelled alone. From the track to the road, from the planting block to the trail, from the sea to the summits, I have been lucky enough to sweat and smile alongside some remarkable humans. Thank you for inspiring and supporting me through this journey. I ran this one for you. Thank you.
As a last word, I would like to specially thank Amy, not only for having to touch my dirty socks yesterday (!!!!), and for keeping everyone updated on the race, but for being there when it mattered most. Your loving kindness is a quiet strength from which I have much to learn. Thank you.

It wasn’t until the next morning, barely standing at the award ceremony, that I discovered that I had held on to third place. And what a surprise! I had run such a strong first portion of the race that, even if I had snailwalked my way to and over the finish line, I had still finished on the podium.

finish036

And that folks is the story of the year of my life! Is anyone still here? Hellooooo!?


 Follow along on Instagram: @etiennegabriel

One Comment Add yours

  1. jorunswild says:

    That was a good read! Love the races you chose and how they incrementally became longer. I also saw in your race calendar that you’re gonna do the Dirty Feet at Myra again this year! I will be there, too; those are my home trails! Happy training for it 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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