The triathlon season ended for me last month but that didn't mean my race season with done with…I still had my first ever 50K Ultra to look forward to, the Vulture Bait Trail Race.
The race is local for us as it takes place at Fanshawe Conservation Area, just the other end of town. The setting is beautiful as you run through the woods around the lake, one of the best trails to run in our neck of the woods. I was looking forward to it, but really didn't know what to expect as my longest training run was only 30K and I had never run further than the standard marathon distance of 42.2K (26.2 miles). Nothing to worry about, right??
The race was Saturday morning and we were blessed with absolutely perfect weather…a true anomaly for this race as they were quick to let us all know. Apparently this was the first time in the 14 year running of the race that the weather has been decent. I did the 25K last year and we had snow flurries, so we were quite fortunate. It was cool to start, probably around 10ºC or so, but the sun was shining and it warmed up to 20ºC during the morning. Michelle was with me as well as she was taking on the single-loop 25K, her first trail race! She was running with our friend Nancy, and we met up with her and her husband Tom in the parking lot on the way in. There were plenty of familiar faces to say hi to and catch up with so the time went by quickly as we waited for the race start. The wait wasn't completely uneventful though as I had to seek out first aid before the race even began. I went to unlock the bathroom stall and the door was a little tight…as I slid the lock open I though to myself, "I better be careful or I'll end up slicing my finger." Sure enough. Knuckle gashed and dripping blood (it was just a flesh wound), I found a lovely volunteer to bandage me up (she also happened to be a nurse, lucky me). Hopefully not a sign of things to come!
9:00 rolled around and we all made our way down the steep (slippery) hill to the start line. I scampered to the back of the pack and found Michelle to give her a kiss and wish her well, then made my way back up through the crowd to the front. The 25K and 50K start at the same time (can't really call 300 people a "mass start", but you get the idea) and I wanted to make sure I got out quick enough to avoid the crowd as we headed into the single-track. If you are looking for trail racing advice, that's about all I've got…get in the lead pack and avoid congestion…once the trail narrows you do not want to be stuck behind people that have nowhere to go. Frustrating for you and frustrating for them too.
A group of about 10 took off and set the pace right from the start. I had tried to scope out the bib numbers at the start to see who was wearing a 300+ (meaning 50K) as I had no desire to chase the 25K rabbits for very long. It didn't take long to see the front 5 putting in a bit of a gap on us, and I called back to my buddy Abe (who was doing the 25K race) to let him know that this first 5K stretch was one of the only places on the course where you could book some time as it was pretty open and easy running. He nodded and took off after the pack. Shortly afterwards the runner in front of me called back to let me know that he was off the pace of the leaders in case I wanted to chase, but I was quick to let him know that I wasn't interested in running anyone down today. It was pretty easy to tell who the 50K runners were!
I bridged up to this guy and we chatted for a little while…he had travelled all the way down from Sudbury (about 600km away) because he had heard how great this race was. We ran for a bit until we hit the aid station at 5K…I just grabbed a quick sip of water and he stopped for a beat or two longer and that was the last I saw of him for the day.
I made my way across the dam and ducked back into the woods again, beginning the real traily part of the race. This section was a bit twisty through some pine forest with lots of roots to tiptoe through. I was finding that I was able to run the road/easy trail sections around a 4:20-4:30/km pace and once I got back into the more technical sections I was down around 4:45-5:00/km…paces I would be very happy to hold. Coming up on 10K and I saw a runner in front of me that I was reeling in…I recognized his blue shirt (or maybe purple? Not sure, I'm colourblind #colourblindessdidnotwin) and knew it was Abe. As I got up behind him I told him not to worry it was only me…nobody was overtaking him. We started running together and chatted a bit along the way. He was dealing with some hamstring issues but was holding a really good pace. We spurred each other on through the next 9 or 10K before Abe eventually had to pull off for a moment to stretch out his wonky hammy on the Thorndale bridge.
Back into the woods for the last 5K of the first loop…last year this was the area that featured an unofficial "Hillbilly" Aid Station (which featured three types of beer…light beer, dark, beer and root beer. Plus banjos) This year was a different take with a beach party going on, complete with Bob Marley & Jimmy Buffett tunes and the Jamaican flag. The guys were decked out in hula skirts and Hawaiian shirts and offered me margaritas, Red Stripe beer and cerveza…I downed a margarita (LOADED with tequila!) with a Red Stripe chaser, then tried my hand at their limbo station, all while some other guy went zipping by saying something about catching them on his second loop. Jeez man, taking the lead from a guy doing shots and limbo??? Where's the fun in that?!? I figured I better say goodbye to the Rasta-party-ans and chase this guy down before he got too far ahead of me. I closed the gap and got on his heels after another kilometre or so and we ran together the last couple kilometres back to the start/finish area and our halfway point. We chatted briefly about race position and wondering if anyone was out ahead, which neither of us believed was the case…we were fairly certain we were the first two runners. We cruised into the halfway point and both of us stopped at the feed tables. He quickly refilled his water bottle while I downed Coke and water and grabbed a couple handfuls of peanut M&M's and ju jubes. As I was
pigging out refueling the other guy was already out building up a lead of nearly 200m…time to chase again. I took off and right away I felt gross. I had been running a bit quicker than I knew I should have been when I was running back to halfway with the other fella and now I was feeling it. I wasn't exactly letting him go at this point, but I wasn't going to burn all my matches trying to stay with him now either. I still had a long way to go and I had to run my race. I settled back into a more sustainable pace and was once again running solo.
I made my way through the quicker section of the trail again and as I popped out by the first aid station near the dam I caught a glimpse of the lead runner already heading up the hill, but surprisingly no further ahead than he was when we started our second loop. he aid station volunteers confirmed we were 1 & 2 and urged me on to go get him, saying I was about 30 seconds back. I grabbed some goodies at their station and took off again, keeping to my steady pace. Back into the woods again I saw a couple out walking their dog…as I got closer I realized that it was Ralph, one of my buddies from work. I'm not sure who was more surprised to see who. A quick "hey Ralph!" was all I could muster as I trudged onwards.
Eventually I made it to the cottages section where we were back onto some road and coming up to another aid station…I knew it was coming so I downed my second and final Gu gel (Root Beer, yum). This aid station was great…more Coke & water along with candies, cookies, chips, crackers and watermelon (which I downed in one big bite). Seriously, when you are racing there is nothing better than watermelon. Also at the aid station was the lead runner, once again refilling his bottle. He left just as I was pulling in, but I knew that I was closing the gap. Once I took off again I decided to try and make up some ground while I could on the faster surface before ducking back into the woods. It was about a kilometre before we hit the woods again and I pulled up beside him just as we were going in. I saw him stretching his arms out above his head a few times and asked him how he was feeling. He replied that his stomach wasn't great and he was having trouble eating, as well as some cramps. I wished him well and took off…he didn't even try to chase me.
By now I was 40K in and was just focusing on making the next aid stations. As I cruised into the next station the volunteers were still putting their finishing touches on for the 50K runners. She told me I was about 3 minutes earlier than they were expecting people…that's gotta be a good sign! I refueled with more Coke, water and sport drink as well as some delicious oranges and was back on my way. I tore down the black diamond hill and noticed my watch beep at 42K…I was crossing the marathon threshold at 3:31. I was now into uncharted running territory and way past that 30K training run. I came out on the final stretch of road and took a peek behind me as I was turning back into the woods…you can see back close to 500m from here and there was no one in sight. The race was mine to lose, I just had to make sure I didn't do anything stupid.
The next aid station was the unofficial beach party again and all I wanted was water. I asked the Rasta-party-ans if they had anything non-alcoholic and one of them said, "sure, there's plenty of water down that hill…in the lake". So Red Stripe it was! No limbo this time and for the first time ever at their station nobody passed me! I thanked the guys and headed off towards the final aid station up at the top of the hill. By now I was wondering if I would see Michelle and Nancy and sure enough as I was just about up the hill I could hear Michelle's voice as she was leaving the aid station, saying something about not letting her husband pass her. One last Coke, Ginger Ale, water fill up for me at Jeremy's aid station and then off to the finish line. I came up behind Michelle and Nancy shortly after and they cheered me on as I passed them…I still think Michelle was trying to block me but she'll deny it ;) There were actually quite a few 25K runners still out finishing their races and they all cheered me on as I went by and I tried my best to encourage them as well, but truth be told I was a little grumpy and tired at that point…the energy level just wasn't there.
I emerged from the woods and made the final 2K run to the finish. Tom was there to cheer me on as he was heading out to cheer in Nancy and Michelle, and at the finish line there was a decent sized crowd gathered to cheer me in. I crossed the finish line with a winning time of 4:11:34. I knew the guys at the finish line handing out medals too and got mine from Kevin, which was kind of a nice touch. I found a comfy picnic table to sit at and waited for Michelle to finish. I gave her a big cheer as she crossed the line to complete her first trail race.
We were unfortunately unable to stick around for the amazing post-race food spread and awards ceremony, but I did get hooked up with some pretty sweet swag for my win. I walked away with a $50 gift card for MEC, and I will soon have a new custom embroidered Columbia Sportswear jacket as well as a new pair of Montrail shoes. Not bad at all!
Big thanks go out to the organizers and all of the amazing volunteers on this one…without you the race doesn't happen. Vulture Bait is definitely on the must-do list if you are looking for a trail run here in Southwestern Ontario, highly recommended! Cheers for reading folks :)