July 30, 2010

I wonder if I can ...

Two days ago I interviewed a runner for my next book. She is doing her first 50-mile race, something she wouldn’t have even considered a couple of years ago. Her race resume consists of a couple of 10km races and three half marathons. While a lifelong runner, she rarely ran more than an hour in training, has never had a coach until five months ago and didn’t know about speed sessions or interval training.

Now, at the age of 51 and looking supremely fit she is excited about starting her first ultra race on August 8. She is a mix of confidence and doubt, like nearly every athlete who is about to toe the start line of a goal race. Her training has been solid, she has done all the sessions her knowledgeable coach has given her and she has covered a lot of new ground in the past five months.

Yet she wonders what it will be like stepping into the unknown territory of the second half of the race—she has not run further than 40km or five hours in training, half of the race distance and time she hopes to take on race day. This doubt can only be silenced by starting and finishing the event. And her mind is already working on the next challenge, a 100km run.

This is the mind of an athlete, anxious and nervous before trying something they haven’t done before, yet already wondering if they can go further, faster. As she says, “I wonder if I can … if you let that thought come in...”

I first met her during a Sunday run in mid-May. I had considered doing the 50-mile STORMY, mostly because it was right at home, with the finish line less than 3km from my front door. It would be a great way and reason to explore more of the local trails, a huge network of which I have only seen a fraction in the two years I have lived here. I also thought it would be a good way to meet more of the local runners.

And, last but not least, there was that same thought, “I wonder if I can …”

However, I didn’t know anyone else training for this race, nor did I know anyone who wanted to go for three-hour trail runs with me. And the possibility of encountering wildlife on my own, particularly after a slew of cougar incidents in Squamish during the previous summer, scared me. Besides, my main goal is still to run a sub-3 hour marathon—for which I need to speed up by 7 minutes and 11 seconds. I decided STORMY was not a good idea and postponed it until another year. Then I ran into someone else training for it and changed my mind.

Since then I have met two local runners, one man and one woman, who have finished the 100-mile Western States and another who is about to run her first 100-miler here in Squamish next week. She’ll run two laps of the course that I will be doing. She’s an ultra veteran with the longest time on her feet 12 hours and 47 minutes.

While I am not even sure if I will be able to finish the 50 miles, my mind has already turned to the 100 miles—not with a plan to try one this year, or next, but with a more dangerous thought, “I wonder if I can…”

The first time I heard about 100-mile races was at least 10 years ago, when I had first moved to Canada. Living in Toronto at the time and working as a reporter for Bloomberg News covering fixed income and currency markets, monetary policy and economic news, I began training for my first marathon at the end of 1998 and finished it in May 1999.

I probably read about the great 100-mile races like the Western States and Leadville, as I doubt I saw footage on TV about these obscure events that are a lot less obscure now, like I did then for the Hawaii Ironman on the Outdoor Life Network. Watching Ironman I was in awe but I don’t remember thinking that I was going to do one of those one day, at least not consciously.

I did my first Ironman in April 2002, and another four in the next three years. It took me at least 11 hours to cover the 226 kilometres of Ironman, which is about the time I expect it to take for me to do the 80 kilometres on the trails of Squamish on August 8. In Ironman you are only on your feet for 42.2km of those 226km one covers in that one-day event.

What is it going to be like to run for 50 miles or 80 kilometres on trails that are at times tricky to negotiate? I can’t say that I know because I have never done it before but I can’t say that I have absolutely no idea because I have walked 100 kilometres in 24 hours on the trails around Sydney for Oxfam Trailwalker. And one thing I remember from that event is that I would have gladly stopped at 80km.

The final days before a big race are always an exciting and nerve-wracking time. Your training is done, you're ready but wonder if you could have done more. You're confident and yet anxious because you're about to answer that key question, “I wonder if I can…”

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