Tuesday, November 14, 2017

New York, New York, United States of America

In this post, I'm going to share journey from my last update to this picture. 

After months of anticipation, I found myself in New York the night before the race. I had been stressed about getting to the finish line, and slowly I was getting past all the hurdles that could keep me from getting there. I needed to get healthy. I needed to get through work. I needed to get to New York. I needed to get my race package. All accomplished. All I needed now was a good night's rest and then I'd be off in the morning. 

This is a picture of the roof of the bathroom of the apartment where we stayed. It was taken at 4:17am. I had been awake for over an hour at this point. After realizing I wasn't going to go back to sleep, I decided to lay down on the floor so as not to disturb everyone else. It was the only place left in the apartment where no one else was sleeping. As I expected, and as is the norm before a big race, I hadn't slept enough. But I was excited. 

I left the apartment at 4:30 (as planned) and started the long journey to the starting village. Logistics seemingly being the only thing that could stop me now. Three hours later, after a subway ride, a ferry ride, a bus ride, some walking and numerous safety checks, I was in the start village. I couldn't believe it. 

Just getting there in itself was an emotional experience. I was fighting back tears as I realized there was nothing else in my way. I was there. I was going to get to run this race. My logistical worries could now subside. Luckily for me, it just so happened that a photographer was there when I realized this and took this picture. I kinda wanted to celebrate and raise my arms over my head because I had arrived, but I decided to play it cool and rest them on top of my Gatorade bottle. But I couldn't hide the relief. It's painted on my face. 

The only downside to this mini-emotional high was that the race start for me was still almost 3 hours away. But as painful as it was to wait for the time to pass, it did, and before I knew it I was in the starting corral with a few other thousand people. The nerves were really starting to build at this point, but I knew more was to come. 

After a 10 minutes walk through the start village, the Verrazano Bridge emerged into sight along with the start line. It was just moments away now. The anticipation was building, overflowing and converting into emotion. I was trying my best to contain it, knowing that I was about to experience hours of emotions and I needed to keep everything together. But I couldn't. I spent the 10 minutes at the starting line fighting back tears. I was so damn excited. 

BANG! Off the went the cannons and away we went. 

The first stretch of the race was on the Verrazano Bridge. Within the first mile on this bridge I learned one thing and was deceived by another. I realized very quickly that there were so many people in this race that whatever notions I had of a finishing time were pointless. I would finish when the pack finished. Pushing was only going to result in me burning out too early. The bridge also tricked me into thinking that the race wouldn't have big crowds on the course. 

After cresting the bridge and rolling downhill into Brooklyn, my race changed. Immediately after the bridge, we were met by the first fans along the course. And wow, there were a lot. People of all ages were cheering loudly, many with signs, most making noise, and everyone having a great time. It was a massive party that just kept going. Knowing my race was going to be slow was disappointing, but it was almost immediately erased by the crowds. 

The energy from the fans brought a massive smile to my face. For the first half of the race, I soaked it all in. I ran on the side of the course and high-fived as many people as I could. I figured that the crowd would eventually calm down and dissipate. But it never did. Mile after mile, thousands of people were there. I lost track of how many times the scene I was seeing was so ridiculous that I wanted to laugh and to cry at the same time. I was overwhelming in the best way possible. I went into this race expecting to see a lot of spectators. Millions of spectators. And somehow, the day of the race exceeded my expectations.

Better than that, I was loving the diversity of the city. As we went from neighbourhood to neighbourhood, the faces changed, the buildings changed and the backgrounds changed. It became very clear that New York was a beautiful mosaic of the world. To see so many communities come out and support runners from around the world made the race even more special. 

For the first half of the race, I was floating. This was mostly because of the crowds, but also because it was the first half of a marathon. That's how it goes for me. I knew it would feel good for a while, and then it wouldn't. As the course went into Queens, my muscles were tightening, the strides were getting harder. The second half had arrived and now it was going to be hard. 

Before the race, I read about how hard the Queensboro Bridge would be. It was 25km into the race. It was the biggest hill on the course and again another place where spectators weren't allowed. I wasn't going to get a boost from them. In reality, the hill was very gradual and I made it up without any problem. I passed so many people going up the hill. That was my replacement boost. And the feeling just keep getting better. As we approached the end of the bridge, you could start to hear the roars. The exit of the bridge had a loop. When it came into view, I could see that every inch of the sidewalk was covered in people. It was the biggest crowd we'd seen so far. This race just kept getting better. 

After getting settled in Manhattan, the course turned north up 1st Avenue. This road was when my race officially got challenging. The crowds were still there and still magical, but errors in preparation started to bubble up. The biggest problem was that I hadn't eaten enough food in the two days leading up to the race. The effect of that was that I ran out of carbs in my system around 27km. With that my heart rate spiked as my body started inefficiently burning fat. 

What laid ahead of me at this point was around 14km, a desperate need for food, and a road that seemingly never ended (it was dead straight). Thankfully I'd been through this before so I didn't panic. I knew I needed to eat, and soon. I finished off the food I was carrying and picked up some more. And I slowed down to manage my heart rate. Thankfully this approach worked. After 4-5km my heart rate went back down. I had overcome the wall, but the damage was done. My pace wouldn't recover for the rest of the race.  

I never thought I'd be so excited to see the Bronx, but I was so tired of the relative monotony of going straight on 1st Avenue. Even better was the quick visit ending and going back into Manhattan. I was passed the wall, I had crossed the last bridge. All I had to do was keep it steady and I was going to realize my goal. 

After the challenge of the never-ending 1st Avenue stretch, I wasn't looking forward to a similar run down 5th Avenue. It wasn't as bad though. My mental strength from past races came in handy. I stayed within my capabilities at the time and fed off the crowds as much as I could. Before I knew it, we turned off of 5th Avenue and we were in Central Park. Almost there. 

This was the only part of the course that I was familiar with. I had actually run the loop in the park several times before. I knew what to expect for once. What I didn't remember from my previous visits was how rolling the road was. This was totally fine until I hit a decent downhill stretch. Being close to the finish line, my adrenaline was building so I felt better than I actually was. I decided to let my weight roll me down the hill faster than the pace I had been running. When I got to the bottom I was overtaken by fear when both my hamstrings and both my quads seized up. 

Over the last few miles, I saw numerous people lying on the side of the course, or hobble off, and receiving assistance. Their dreams in taters. All of a sudden, I was in the same place. 

I wanted to panic. I didn't. I tried my first stretch that I'd used before. It made it worse. I got up and tried to walk. I couldn't. I tried another stretch. Still nothing. I was seized up. 

It wasn't going to end like this. I was less than 2km from the end. 40km in. I had to go. I did my best to ignore the pain. It was the only way. The first ten steps were the hardest of the race. The next ten were easier. As I got closer to the end, I managed to work through the cramps while running (don't try this at home). 

The crowd pulled me home. From the entrance to the park to the finish line, it just kept growing and growing. The energy was building. I was going to make, I just had to ride the wave. 

59th Street went by. So did Columbus Circle. I was on West Drive. Then all of a sudden I saw it. The finish line. I was there. I was going to do it. I thought for sure an emotional deluge would follow. When I saw the finish line I started to hyperventilate. I was so damn excited to accomplish my goal after everything that had come before. I forced myself to overcome the breathing problems and to calm down. I focused very hard on my breathing right to the end. Relief finally came over me. 

It worked so well that when I got to the finish, I just calmly turned off my watch and stopped running. 4 hours and 8 minutes after I started. 

I really thought I was going to cry. It may have been my fear of cramping back up, or the roller coaster I'd been on for hours, or the focused breathing. But I was okay. All I could think about was getting back to my family. I wanted to be with them. I was shocked how quickly moved on mentally from wanting to complete a marathon to getting  hug from Christina and Sloane. 

In retrospect, I should've used that motivation in the race because I was weaving through the crowds to get out of the secure area faster than anyone else. All the other participants were suffering the effects of 42km. So was I. It wasn't going to stop me though. 

20 minutes of walking later, I found them. Sloane was in her stroller, covered in crumbled-up muffin, mostly overwhelmed by the city in general, but moreso from the crowds. Christina was stressed from having to try to get uptown with a toddler in a stroller, her mother and being 7 months pregnant. She was probably as relived as I was it was over too. 

We wandered out of the crowd and I gave them hugs and kisses. The only thing left to do was get back to the apartment. We located the nearest taxi and hopped in. That takes us back to this picture. 

This picture made everything worth it. All of the training, all of the pain, the uncertainty, the lack of sleep. This was my first marathon I got to share with my daughter. I got to show her what I had earned that day. I love this picture because it so perfectly captured many things: 
  • How much of a disaster I was. Smelly, sweaty, frozen and also worried about keeping my daughter entertained. 
  • How amazing it was to see her interested in the medal. She immediately tried to put it on herself. I think a lot about the example I set for her. 
  • How lucky I was that it all worked out. So many things went wrong along the way, but so many more went right. 
And really, that's been the story of my life. I hope it keeps up. I hope I get to do so many more things like this with my family. I want to be able to share in our accomplishments together. I hope I'm lucky enough that fate makes that possible. For now, I have this photo.

If you've made it this far. Thanks for reading. And thanks for all of the support I received before, during and after the race. It really made a big difference. 

Friday, November 3, 2017

Edmonton, Alberta, Canada

With our growing family, my travel now mostly is related to running events. It should be no surprise that this post is about running. The reason I am writing this is because in a few days, I'm going to be running the biggest marathon in the world: New York City Marathon. This is the story of how I got to race week.

First marathon. Regina, 2013
This all started a few years ago when I started running marathons. After completing a few, I thought it'd be fun someday to try to get into New York. I had looked into the options for entry in 2015 and concluded that the secured entry was too expensive and I'd already missed the lottery process. When the lottery opened late in 2016, I was ready. I talked to Christina and we thought it would be a fun trip to make as a family. I was coming off my best year of running. I had set PBs in 5k, 10k, Half and Full distances. The odds of getting picked were low, but we figured it would be worth a shot. If I did get picked, I was probably going to be in decent shape if I could keep up my training.

Before the lottery draw was made, I was already a little ways into a ridiculous training season. Early on, I  was focused entirely on my first ultra marathon June. That meant trail runs, strength training and hills. So many hills. My run commutes always included a hill repeat or two.

2017 runs
Next thing I knew I was awaiting the new from the lottery. Somehow, with a 17% chance of success, my name was drawn on my first attempt. I was in. We were going to New York. My race calendar for the year now had a significant anchor point and suddenly I needed to book flights and accommodation.

I quickly ironed out the details and immediately went back into training mode, squeezing in runs between my family and work life. This in itself is an incredible challenge, but I was able to make it work. I was racking up kilometers like I never had before. Month after month went by where I broke my record for kilometers and I found myself average nearly 250km/month through the first four (winter) months of the year.

Before this year, I had only exceeded 200km in a month twice (once followed by injury). I was a bit nervous as I was training nearly twice as much as I was used to. Even though there was potential for stress injuries, I listened to my body and kept going when I felt good.

First ultra 2017
Soon came summer and race season. I was still racking up crazy distances and even crazier climbing numbers. My first ultramarathon came and went and somehow it didn't wreck me. I was even back running within a couple of days. Later in the summer, I did the hardest leg of Sinister 7 and beat my expected finishing time by 30 minutes. I was feeling ultra confident. I even was doing crazy runs on my vacation, just for fun. All of these things were in the category of "not possible" even 12 months before.

Around this time of peak fitness for me, I was also now facing an ongoing health issue head-on. In 2015, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I was initially impacted for a few months before my symptoms receded. Without any issues since, I consider myself lucky. But how MS progresses is largely unknown and unpredictable. We didn't know if it would go away forever, or debilitate me in a week. With that uncertainty hanging over me, I needed to start treatment. The treatment I had chosen was a fairly benign oral pill that I would take daily. It had potential side-affects, but they are typically minor and wasn't supposed to impact my training.

In July, I started my treatment. I was thrilled to find out that I had no side-affects at all. I was still running like I normally would and everything seemed perfect. This lasted until September when one week I started to get random fever'ish symptoms. Thinking that I'd just come down with something, I wasn't too concerned. I knew my treatment was intended to compromise my immune system, so this was probably a good sign.

Where it all went sideways
But after a week, it hadn't gone away. I was now struggling to complete physical tasks that had become normal. Running was a challenge. By the end of week two, it was clear that I was being impacted by side-affects. My running was limited. On good days, I could get a decent distance in, but I was now starting to miss critical long runs leading up to NYC.

By week three of these problems, I didn't care about the race anymore. I had one particularly bad morning where I decided to stay home from work because I knew I wouldn't have been able to get my daughter to daycare by myself. Definitely not biking, and not even riding the bus. I was completely exhausted.

After crashing on the couch while everyone else in the house woke up, I needed to get up to go to the washroom. I remember thinking that, but then it got fuzzy. Next thing I know, I'm crouched down at the top of the stairs, incredibly dizzy. My house looked backwards. I ended up trying to go lay down in bed and had to stop and crouch again before I got to the bedroom door. From there, I pulled myself up (with difficulty and hanging onto things) so I could lay down in bed. When I got there, my whole body immediately started sweating profusely. It was a surreal few moments. I was struggling with everything. I couldn't eat. Sleep was interrupted. Physical activity, even walking, wasn't possible.

Aerobic walking. Not good
After some consultation with my neurologist, he suggested that if this ever happens again, I should be in the ER not staying home from work. This spooked me pretty good. This was something more serious than I'd feared.

We made the decision to stop my treatment to confirm it was indeed the cause. Thankfully, I started to improve almost immediately. Over the course of the next 4 days, I was able to sleep again, eat again and eventually run again. I had lost around 10 lbs through this time and my muscle mass was already starting to wane.

At this point, race day was in a month and my threshold for distance was around 10km. And even with that, I was noticing my heart rate was spiking well beyond normal ranges. So well I was feeling better, it was clear that there were other longer-lasting impacts from the treatment.

At 4 weeks from race day, I felt confident that I was at least improving and that I could probably make it better by training appropriately. Knowing that my previously training program had been obliterated, I started from scratch. That's right, I came up with a 4 week marathon training program.
Training in the dark
Week 1 consisted of a new long run of 14km, then another of 24km. Week 2 had strength training, speed work and the tradition long run (34km). Somehow through  these two weeks, I was able to build up some strength and get my heart rate close to normal again. After that, it was time to taper. I mean, it had been two weeks of tough training. :)

Now race day is on Sunday. It'll be here in no time, and I'm pumped. I think I'm ready and four weeks ago, I didn't think I'd even get close.

Now, my expectations have changed. I don't think my original pace goals are realistic anymore, but I'm going to get to run in the biggest race in the world this week. Something that I'll never forget. My family will be there and I can't even imagine what a potential finish would feel like. I'm happy I get to try.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Kimberley, British Columbia, Canada

I'm back for another retroactive Storification of a running event. On August 20-21 I was at the Kimberley Mountain Resort for the Black Spur Ultra. This is a 108km race on and around the ski resort. Our team of 5 tackled the race in just over 16 hours. It was an amazing test of fitness, strength, luck and determination.

The fun part for me was learning a few days before that I would be running 2 legs, instead of 1. It was fun!

Here's the story!

(Pretty sure I goofed this hashtag....)

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Skagway, Alaska, United States of America

Time for part 3 of the photo-journal of our trip to the north. I had left off the last post after we had arrived back at the Dawson City airport following our adventures in Tuk. Getting back to Dawson was a bit of a shock because the sun was out, it wasn't windy and everything was glowing with fall colours in the high sun. A far cry from the gloomy conditions we'd left behind.

When we arrived, rather than continue to push on down the highway, we decided that it would be better to explore Dawson City and its surrounding areas a bit more. So on our way back into town, we saw a detour to view a historical gold mining dredge. On the way to see the dredge, we passed by numerous active mining operations, along with a historical operation. For Mike, this was heaven. He loved every minute of it. After stopping at the Historic Dredge, we stopped a few more times before heading back into Dawson for a more thorough wander around town.

After checking into our hotel, it was time for us to knock-off one of our must-do's on the trip. While researching, we looked into the Top of the World Highway which is a gravel highway running west of Dawson City to the Alaskan border. Everything we read was that it was a gorgeous drive. We had a few spare hours so we thought we would head 10-20km down the road to see what it was like. Before we even really got started, it was already fun. We had to take a ferry across the Yukon River before we hit the highway, then we got an amazing view of the river and Dawson.

Almost immediately, we realized that we were in for a treat. Everywhere we looked was stunning. The road instantly climbed on top of the small mountains and never left. It swerved around the tops, from side to side, giving views to the north and south. We were loving it. We kept driving. We hit our limit of 20km and all we could see in the distance were even better views. So we kept going. And going.

After many, many stops, we were trying to keep making good time because we didn't know what time the ferry back to Dawson shut down. After coming over a rise, Mike yelled in the back seat, "BEAR." I screeched the car to a stop to see two black bears just out the right side of the car.

Right after we stopped, we we're surprised to see a third bear come over the crest. After a few minutes of fast camera snaps, the bears retreated, as did we.

Before we knew it, we weren't far from the Alaskan border. Part of our goal on this trip was to go to Alaska at some point. But given our good fortune with the first phases of the trip, we had extra days and planned on making an overnight trip to Alaska. Because of this, and because we had only planned on briefly travelling down this highway, we did not bring our passports. So when we got to the border and started wandering around, the border guards quickly alerted us to get back in our car and keep moving. We had no passports and couldn't cross, so we left back to Dawson.

When we got back to town, we had probably our best meal in days. But it didn't quite fill us up, so afterwards we started heading towards a gas station to pick up some snacks. Before we got there, we passed by the ol' Sluice Box and as we did, Dustin said, "Sluice Box has free popcorn." We were all sold. We made a quick turn, went inside, ordered some beers and started ploughing through the popcorn.

Most of us thought that after a few beers, our long day was finally ending. But I had checked out my aurora borealis forecast and it finally seemed like we were getting a clear night with some visible lights. I slept for all of a couple hours before forcing myself awake and heading out to the river to check out the northern lights. I eventually got the others awake to see the slightly glimmering lights. It wasn't an unbelievable display, but it did make for some good photos and one video.

Mercifully, we called it a night before the sun came up.

The next morning, we were headed south. Our target was Alaska. This time we had all our stuff, including our passports. We cruised south to Whitehorse in no-time (I even had a nap). What we didn't know was that one of the best drives of our lives was upcoming.

We headed south of Whitehorse and were surprised to find another bear. And another. And another. All grizzlies, feeding on the side of the highway.

We kept going and as we did the scenery just kept improving. We were still in an area with fall colours, but it was now blending with snow-capped mountains and inexplicably a desert. For some reason, near Carcross, there is an actual sand-filled desert in the middle of the mountains. It was definitely worth a stop and made for some great photos.

For miles and miles, the views just kept on getting better. We were losing time all over the place because we kept seeing something amazing which we needed to stop at. This was the Top of the World Highway all over again. Eventually, we made it to the Alaskan border (not really on the border) and into the USA.

After crossing the border, we descended a massive hill and found ourselves in Skagway, AK (the namesake of this post). This was going to be our home for the next two nights. We checked in to our B&B (an old brothel) and started to explore. We knew that Skagway was a cruise ship port, but were not expecting the town to still have maintained much of it's old gold rush charm, albeit with a certain manufactured and touristy feel. The town was still beautiful.

Following dinner, we only had one thing left to do. That was to find something to do the next day. We had the entire day and were hoping to catch a tour somewhere. And oddly enough, I had an idea. While we were waiting in the airport in Dawson a few days before, I started looking through the travel pamphlets and saw one for a Fjord Express that would take you to Juneau, AK with a quick ride through the Inner Passageway. Both of these things were intriguing to me, and enough to sell the others. We called hoping to be able to book a ride only to find out that, of course, the cruise was full. Ugh. We were stuck again. We really wanted to do this, and didn't really have any other good alternatives. So, we stayed persistent and had them put us on the waiting list for the morning.

We woke up nice and early, headed for the piers with some faint hope. We needed more good luck if this was going to work out. We met the captain of the boat and told him that we were hoping to get on. He mentioned he had a fully booked boat but would let us know if there were some no-shows.

The departure time was approaching quickly, and many people had filled the boat. We didn't think that it was going to work. We wandered around aimlessly. I took pictures of boats. Finally, the captain came back down towards the boat and said, "I have 3 opens spots." We were in. Somehow there was just enough room for us. Before we could blink, the boat was launched and we were on our way to Juneau.

The ride to Juneau was spectacular. Everywhere we looked there were bald eagles. So many that we lost count. There were sea lions, seals, porpoises and the promise of whales. Also along the way were amazing views of mountains, waterfalls and glaciers.

After a bus ride into town, we will suddenly in the capital of Alaska, that can only be reached by boat or plane. We had a few hours to tour around so we quickly grabbed lunch and started wandering.

Almost immediately after walking around, we got separated. Not wanting to miss out on the opportunity, and having my camera, I headed for the gondola that takes you up the side of the mountain. I didn't want to spend my limited time in Juneau looking for people so I kept on. Within minutes I was floating over the city. Having less than an hour to tour around, get back down and catch the bus, I had to power walk everything. I did the loop on top of the mountain just under running speed (but just as sweaty) and made it back down in time for a couple more pictures in town before departure.

We boarded back on the bus, then headed back north to see another glacier. This time a little more close-up. We got dropped off, checked out the view point and decided that we wanted to get closer but didn't think we had enough time. I did a bit of walking speed math and determined that we could get to the waterfall and back in time without missing out bus. It was well worth the effort as we managed to see some icebergs and get up close and personal with the waterfall.

This marked the end of our quick trip to Juneau, but meant that we were getting back out for another boat ride. Before we even started heading north for Skagway, our captain informed us there was some whale activity a few miles south and that we should go look. No one was going to say no. This wasn't a whale tour, but would be a nice bonus. Soon we could see whale blowing mist in the air in the distance. Then near us. Then all around us. At one point, people were just running side-to-side and front-to-back as whales were surfacing arround our boat. We couldn't keep up with how many there were, but it was constant for 20-30 minutes. Finally our captain reluctantly told us we needed to go or we'd be out past dark. We were all mostly in shock. Even the helper that worked the tour everyday said she'd never seen whales like that before. There was even a massive breach as we started to head back.

The rest of the journey was mostly uneventful, except for some more sea lions, sea otters and a lighthouse. But we did get a great meal and some more great photos.

After a quick meal, we were fast to sleep. Still amazed by how close we were to not going on the cruise and missing the amazing day we just had.

The next morning was the beginning of the end. We were officially heading home. Our plan was to drive to Muncho Lake, BC and stay at the lunch there. We checked availability in the morning and there was lots so we continued on without a booking (you know where this is going). But before we got too far down the road, we were seeing wildlife again. First it was another grizzly bear, then another black bear. And a while after that, bison. Bison everywhere. All this wildlife kept us entertained as we went back into the Yukon and eventually back into BC.

Our plan was to take a break for a swim at Liard River Provincial Park in the hot springs before hitting up the lodge. The swim was fantastic and great rest after a full day of driving.

It was a good thing we got a good break, because when we got to Muncho Lake we found that all the rooms in our price range were now sold out. After a not-so-hard sell from the front desk we said forget it and kept driving. We made up time while we could in the daylight but eventually found ourselves in the dark and pushing over 12 hours of driving. Late in the night, we made it to Fort Nelson and found a much more affordable hotel.

The extra driving was a bit of a pain, but made the next day a lot simpler. We had planned on driving back in three days, but with our misfortune in Muncho, we actually had made it halfway home from Alaska. Rather than stop in Grande Prairie for the next night, we were able to just keep on going right back into Edmonton. We were going to get back from Alaska to Edmonton in 2 days.

And just like that, it was all over. The car made it safe and sound. So did we. We pulled the car over in front of our original departure point and took one last group photo (patched into the collage below).

What an amazing 10 days. Memories that will last forever and hopefully new discoveries that we will get to see again someday.

Thanks for reading about our crazy northern adventure!!