Black Spur 54K: A First Caffeine-Free Ultra

To do something on a whim.

The above expression perfectly describes my rationale, or lack thereof, behind running my first ultra a week and a half ago. Of course I’ve been spending a lot of time out on trails and in the mountains, preparing for the Golden Ultra, happening September 23rd.

But, that’s just so far out. I’ve just been wanting to throw myself out there now. Give it a shot. Even more so, the prospect of finally being able to call myself an ultra-runner drove me to register for the Black Spur 54K in Kimberley, British Columbia – a mere two weeks before race day.

Now, that’s a rather petty and extrinsic motivational factor. But, the ultra-running label means much more to me than simply being a way to describe myself. It’s the culmination of an ongoing process of discovering who I am, who I want to be, what I want to do. Oh, and also – knowing what I can do. As someone who’s always been shitty at sports, without any endurance, always being the last one picked for teams in PE, it’s empowering to see how far I’ve come.

I have to say – a 13th female and 38th overall finish with a lot of gas left in the energy tank is a pretty darn good first foray into the ultra-running world. I’ve got my body and my mindset to thank for it, and also Queen. Their song, “Don’t Stop Me Now” may or may not have powered me through the last 9km of the race.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

It’s Friday, August 18, and I’m running around in a frenzy, stuffing two coolers and a duffle bag full of food, clothes, and supplies. Boiled, salted potatoes, homemade hummus, vegan lasagna, overnight oats, sprouted whole-grain bread, Nuun hydration tablets, countless Lära Bars that were on sale at Save On Foods, an extra pair of Altra trail shoes, my new Ultimate Direction hydration pack, trekking poles, running clothes, sleeping bag, sleeping mat, pyjamas, and work clothes. I’m basically bringing my life with me. On the plus side, I won’t have to worry about getting some carb-rich grub pre- or post-race, and I have enough food with me to easily last through the work day on Sunday. Because, yes, I have to get directly to work from Kimberley the day after the race. There ain’t no rest for the wicked.

I have no idea if I’ll survive this race. But I got the logistics dialled, at least.

Well, sort of. I had planned to leave for Kimberley in the morning. However, I don’t get on the road until 2PM. Classic. Having to hop over into Mountain Time, I barely make it to racer registration on time. The deadline is 8PM at the Conference Centre at the bottom of the ski resort – I get there at 7:58PM. Phew. I sign up, get my bib and little goodie bag, and listen to the pre-race meeting. Afterwards, it’s time to head to my AirBnB for the night – a huge RV trailer tucked away next to a little creek. I scarf down a ridiculous amount of lasagna and go straight to bed.

I can’t say I slept all that well. A logical reason would be worry and excitement about what is to come leaving you unable to get decent, restorative shut-eye. However, I am calm and composed. There is no feeling of frenzy or trepidation coursing through my veins. Really – I don’t feel anything. I am so out of touch with how prepared my body is for a 54K – if it is prepared enough at all -, that my emotions don’t really know what to do, either. Thus they choose to do nothing special. To be perfectly honest – I like it that way.

I scarf down my overnight oats, toast and peanut butter. By the time my hydration vest and drop bag are packed, it’s too late to make any coffee. I remember that they have some available at the starting area of the race, so I stuff my gear back into my car and head out knowing that I’ll still get my fix.

Who am I kidding. I get to the bottom of Kimberley Alpine Resort with barely enough time to spare to drop off my bag at the Transition Area and go to the bathroom. No coffee. Shit. My penchant for living life on the edge of permanent delay has turned this race into an experiment I shall dub: “How far can Jo go without her cuppa joe?”

A side note on the race course. The Black Spur Ultra is organized into three separate loops that start and finish at the bottom of the ski resort: Goat, Toad, and Bear. The first, aptly named, is shortest but has the biggest climb of the course. The other two are relatively similar in their length and elevation, although Bear is slightly longer and thus the leg on which vertical gain is most manageable. There is a checkpoint roughly halfway through each of them with water and a few snacks. But the actual aid station is the Transition Area back at the start/finish area; it has heaps of snacks, electrolytes, friendly helpers, and our drop bags.

This layout is what drew me to sign up for the race; I only have one drop bag to worry about. I stuff it full of Lära Bars, potatoes, hummus, a loaf of bread, Nuun tabs, spare shoes, socks, Blister Shield powder and Vaseline. I have absolutely no clue of what I’ll need during the race – so I might as well bring everything I can think of.

And so, the adventure starts at 8am – coffee-less. It’s already super sunny. My fellow runners and I start off at a walk (yes, trail running is a lot about speed walking), up the steep hill just below the chairlift. Then, this first leg travels along a dirt road for a while, skirting around the base of the resort, looker’s right. The grade is slight, so this section is mostly runnable. However, I am making myself walk more than I normally would to conserve energy.

And off we go!

Eventually, we leave the road and hit some beautiful, flowy singletrack in the forest. This does not last, however. Soon, we start clawing our way up the infamous, steep goat trail, through thicket, over logs and rocks, and basically straight up. I am hiking up in a little convoy with a couple other female runners. I’m pleasantly surprised that the pace we are going at is slow enough for me to rest up on the climb. That’s why I eventually break off from this group, together with another runner, to go up slightly faster.

Once the grade eases a bit, I scarf down the first of many, many Lära Bars and take a few swigs from my electrolyte-laden water. I’ve actually never tried these kind of dissolving tabs before (a gamble in itself, as trying anything new on race day, nutrition-wise, is never recommended). I have to admit, they do what they are supposed to do – I instantly feel my mineral stores replenished.

Eventually, I hit the high point on the ski resort and get a nice descent on a grassy cat track down to the first checkpoint. I’ve already passed a few people at this point, which has me stoked (I always start real, real slow). I leave the station with two temporary running buddies, and we chit chat as we run along.

The second half of the Goat leg has some of the most amazing singletrack I have ever run on. Relatively technical with many rocks jutting out here and there, following cliff edges, overlooking the massive valley far below. Some steeper downhill sections require more footwork, others are flowing flawlessly through relatively arid forests reminiscent of the Okanagan. It is dreamy. I definitely get into the groove.

I reach the Transition Area for the first time and have a volunteer take such good care of me, from filling my water bladder and bottle to almost wanting to untie my shoes and do everything for me, that I almost get confused. What a service! I eat some potatoes, put some more Vaseline on potential blister locations on my feet, and head out for the second leg after less than 10 minutes.

We had some wildlife watching over us at the Transition Area.

I have to head up below the chairlift again. Ugh. But hey, after this time around, I’ll only have to do it once more. This time, the course turns left at the top of this steep climb. We skirt the road on the backside of some resort condos, and hop on some more singletrack, away from the boundary of the ski resort. The uphill is mellower, however I can start to feel the heat. The sun is strong in these parts.

I’m pretty lonely throughout this loop. I’m also reaching the point where I’m feeling most exhausted. It’s a relatively strange situation. Just before runner’s high really starts kicking in, making you numb toward most discomfort and tiredness in your body, the struggle is hardest. I’m out in the midday heat, fighting my way up some old, endless double-track that is too steep to run, but too flat to be considered a climb. Sure, I had a slice of pickle at the checkpoint, but the fact that I have not managed to catch up with anyone else since then is a bit disappointing. I wonder how far we’re all spaced out across the course. Are some people charging through the third loop already?

It’s in those moments that mental toughness is most important. When endorphins aren’t yet able to get you through it, your mind has to do all the work. I’m glad that mine is stubborn as a mule. It carries me back to the Transition Area, where I’m glad to, once again, be tended to and surrounded by people. I eat some more potatoes and hummus, and load up on yet a couple more Lära Bars.

Bib number 83! Whaddup!

Back up that steep pitch. For the last time! I am actually stoked when I leave the Transition Area. I’m finally feeling the runner’s high. There’s some guys there struggling with blisters and whatever else. But I am actually feeling good, and full of glee! Apart from tired legs, there’s nothing major to report – no blisters, no weird muscle pains. Time to tackle the last 19km.

The last leg, Bear, heads into roughly the same direction as the previous one. Behind the condos and into the cross-country skiing area. The course snakes its way up runnable singletrack through sparse forest. I’m over 6 hours in at this point, so a squat behind a bush is unfortunately unavoidable. In the end, I have to go find some off-trail vegetation a few times during this loop for, you know… Nature’s call. I have been stuffing potatoes and chewy bars into my system all day. They have to come out the other end at some point. Digestion: the endurance runner’s favourite topic.

As I pop out of a nice singletrack, onto a service road, I witness as the first aid team is carrying a fellow runner to their truck, on a stretcher. She cut herself open badly after a fall. From what I gather, other runners had to use makeshift tourniquets to keep her from losing too much blood while they waited for help. I feel terrible that this fun race had to end this way for her. It’s a good reminder that even though it is “only” running, a lot of things can go wrong.

Once I reach the last checkpoint after running down the service road for about 2km, I am already an ultra-runner – 44km in! This realization raises my level of stoke to new heights, and I feel more than ready to tackle the last stretch. I am almost done and I can say with absolute confidence that I will finish this race. Not only that, but I know that I will finish strong. No dragging myself across the finish line. I’ve tapped into an energy reserve I did not know I had. The motivation and happiness that flow through my body give me such a kick that, once “Don’t Stop Me Now” by Queen starts playing on my phone, I am unstoppable. I put the song on repeat and pass another three or four runners on my way to the finish, almost dancing to the tune.

I charge down the last hill and cross the finish line at a full sprint. 9 hours, 14 minutes, a few seconds (and six or seven Lära Bars) – a good 45 minutes of which were spent at the Transition Area and checkpoints.

Do you see how I’m sprinting?

I finished 13th female, which is a result that still boggles me now. I have never done that well in a race before. Does this mean that ultras are made for me – or that I am made for them?

I am not entirely sure. I do know, however, that I am hooked.

And I also know the answer to that very important question: Jo can go pretty far without her cuppa joe.

Photos courtesy of Raven Eye Photography.

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