Under the direction of John Turner and Bruce Smith, the Sulphur Springs 100 Miler in Ancaster, Ont., is a great race to participate in. The logistics of the event are well organized, the trails are clearly marked and the volunteers and aid station captains are encouraging and supportive. The course follows a 20 K route through hilly forest trails that is repeated eight times by the 100-mile runners.
Unfortunately I didn’t have a great race. While there is nothing easy about running 100 miles (160 K) through a forest, the race became so much harder for me due to severe cramping and diarrhea early on in the race. It was one of those days that should be spent in bed at home feeling sick and weak, not running a 100-mile race.
On my first loop, I had stomach pains and felt bloated. I kept to a slow pace and just hoped that I would feel better as the day went on. By the second loop, the situation worsened and I began to take frequent pit stops in the bushes and at the porta potties located at the aid stations. At the 30 K mark at the Gatehouse, I lay down on a picnic bench for about 15 minutes and was ready to quit. One of the volunteers came over to check up on me, and helped get me moving again. He would be a source of encouragement throughout the race as I passed through that aid station.
I walked most of the next 10 K, as it was too painful to run and running seemed to only intensify the situation. At the end of the second loop, I ran through the timing station and rushed to the washrooms. Once there, I didn’t want to leave.
I was ready to quit. I knew that this would be the smartest decision as far as my personal health was concerned, but I also knew how hard I had trained and how many sacrifices my family had made for me to run this event. Since my wife, Rochelle, son, Kieran and friend Sherri were still on their way from Toronto to see me, I figured that I should at least try running one more loop and then let Rochelle force me to stop when she saw how sick I was. At least that way I wouldn’t be a quitter, just an obedient husband.
Before heading out on this third loop, I ditched my single bottle waistbelt (which had been too painful to wear) and grabbed my Nathan hydration pack. It was a very hot day, and the weather conditions were wreaking havoc on many runners, causing a number of them to drop out of the race (I think only 35 of 61 entrants finished the race). Sharon Zelinski was manning the aid station at the start/finish area and filled my water bladder with ice cubes. She also put some ice cubes in my hat to help me cool down. Every time I went through the start/finish area, Sharon would check up on me and do what she could to help me out. She really was a race angel.
The third and fourth loops were probably my worst. I think the only thing keeping me moving forward on the third loop was knowing that I would see my little son, Kieran, at the start/finish area.
When you pass through aid stations in an ultramarathon, you’re usually concerned about making sure that you have enough water and food to sustain you until the next one. For me, my prime concern was making sure that I had enough toilet paper stashed in my pack and short pockets.
As I came up the hill to the start/finish area at the end of the third loop (60 K), Rochelle, Kieran and Sherri were there cheering for me. Unfortunately, they had to wait a few extra minutes to talk with me as I had to run to the washroom first. It was so great to see them and Kieran seemed excited about the race activities. Rochelle was obviously concerned about my health and Sherri looked at me like I was a madman. After spending about 10 minutes with them and giving Kieran a farewell kiss (he was returning to Toronto with Sherri), I headed back out with my hat and water bladder full of ice. My plan was to finish one more loop so that I would have at least completed 50 miles. I also changed out of my La Sportiva Crosslites and into my Brooks Launch as they seemed like a more comfortable option at that point.
With the extreme heat and my severe diarrhea, I was weak and dehydrated. It took every ounce of remaining strength and willpower just to keep moving forward. Then, at about five kilometers from the end of this loop, I found someone with some Imodium. Or, as I now like to call it, the Magic Pill. By the time I made it back to the start/finish area (80 K), I no longer felt so vulnerable when trying to run. And once I got there, I managed to scrounge up some more Imodium from someone else. It’s unfortunate that I couldn’t have taken some Imodium nine hours earlier.
Perhaps I should have stopped at 50 miles (80 K), but the Imodium gave me new hope. I also wanted to try one more loop as I had never run as far as 100 K before. With Rochelle’s permission, I headed out for a fifth loop. And that’s when things began to improve for me. While I wasn’t able to run at my regular pace (I was still in a weakened condition), I was able to run fairly continuously for this fifth loop and made up some time. At some of the aid stations, the volunteers remarked that I looked like a new man.
At the end of the fifth loop, there was no question that I was going to do a sixth loop. As it was now dark, I grabbed my Petzl Myo and Petzl Tikka XP 2 headlamps. I wore the Myo on my head with the spot setting and clipped the Tikka to the chest strap on my hydration vest and set it to the wider diffuse setting. With these two lamps, I had no problem navigating through the trails in the dark. As I knew I didn’t have to worry about any bears, wolves or cougars on these trails, it was cool to see the many eyes from wildlife, such as deer and raccoons, staring back at me in the night. As well, when I ran through some areas with open meadows, I could smell the fresh air scented with wild flowers.
Just before leaving on this sixth loop, I kissed Rochelle goodnight and told her to go to sleep in our tent. I said that I would wake her up if I needed her at the end of this loop, but that if I was okay, I would keep running for a seventh loop. I told her to sleep in her running gear, as I might need her to pace me for my eight and final loop.
I ran these two loops fairly well, but faded a little bit in the final 10 K of the seventh loop. After all of the squatting I’d done in the bushes throughout the day, my quads were totally thrashed and were a mess on the downhills. When I arrived at Scholz’s Deli (one of the aid stations), Geoff Sheppard, the RD for the Iroquoia Trail Test, was helping out there and saw that I was fading. He forced me to eat some food and drink some Gatorade and then ran with me for five minutes. He taught me a trick to keep moving when you’re tired: Pick a landmark such as a tree or rock, shout out a random number between five and 10 and then when you reach that landmark, start running while you count out loud up to that random number (one, two, three, etc). Then you walk for a second or two until you pick out another landmark and continue. This trick helped me move quickly through the rest of this 10 K section.
When I arrived back at the start/finish area, I had only one 20 K loop remaining. I went to our tent and woke up Rochelle so that she could pace me. Once we had her headlamp fitted and her water bottle filled, we headed out. We walked slowly for a few minutes so that she could get accustomed to the headlamp, and then we started to run a bit. I taught her Geoff’s trick, and she took over the responsibilities of picking landmarks and numbers, moving us quickly over the next 3 K to the Gatehouse. I left Rochelle there, and ran the next 7 K by myself. I did my best to keep following the run/walk countdown, but eventually my legs started to buckle a bit due to exhaustion.
During this 7 K section, I passed through some open meadows and orchards as the sun was rising. It was amazing to see the deer starting to graze in the high grass. At many areas along this route, I was within metres of deer just eating and staring at me. At one point, I stopped in front of a herd of four and spoke to them for a few minutes.
When I arrived back at the Gatehouse and met Rochelle, we had 10 K left in the race. As it was now light out, we left our headlamps in my drop bag and continued on. I told her that I was exhausted and just needed to finish this. She led the way, and I just focused on keeping up with her. She was a bit surprised by how hilly this next section was, but never complained or showed any weakness. When we arrived at Scholz’s, Geoff razzed me a bit about this being a 100-mile race not a 100-mile walk, but after the day I’d had, I just focused on moving one step at a time. All through this last loop, I made a point of thanking the aid station volunteers for their support and encouragement.
As we climbed up the gulch, which is a very steep hill near the end of the race, I started to smile, knowing that I was going to finish. I nearly fell over halfway up, but I managed to catch my balance just in time. When we reached the top, we only had to go back down the other side, follow a short winding trail and then follow a short path to the final hill leading to the start/finish area. If it hadn’t been for Rochelle, I’m not sure that I would have made it here as quickly. It was very special to share these final moments with her.
As we approached the finish, the other racers and spectators who were there started cheering. As I crossed the timing mat, John Turner shook my hand and gave me my Sulphur Springs 100 Miler belt buckle. My final time was 26:37 (or something near that), which was about five to six hours longer than expected. Considering how sick I was and the fact that I nearly quit during the second loop, I’m just glad I finished.
At the finish area, I was congratulating a few of the other runners. One of them just shook his head and said that he was amazed I finished. “You came back from the dead,” he said. Sure, but I guess it could just as easily have gone the other way as well.
When I woke up this morning, I worried that the whole thing was a dream and that I never finished. I quickly turned to my bedside table and saw my belt buckle. It was there. I finished my first 100-mile race.
Things I Learned (In no particular order)
- My training was sufficient for a 100-mile race. If I hadn’t had to deal with being sick, I’m confident that I would have done well.
- I have weak core muscles, so need to strengthen this area.
- I was woefully unprepared for health problems. Other than clothes and headlamps, the only items I packed in my drop bags were gels, S-Caps and ginger. I had no Tums, Imodium, Advil or even any band-aids.
- Road shoes work pretty well on trails.
- As I have no blisters on my feet, I’m pretty keen on my Injinji socks.
- While there will always be rough patches in a 100-miler, the first half should be relatively easy. If it isn’t, you need a lot of mental strength to make it through.
- Now that I have a 100-mile finish under my belt, there’s no way I would do something stupid again like running on a hot day with serious diarrhea for 100 miles. It’s just dangerous.
- Gels, shot blocks and sugary foods do not mix well with stomach cramps and diarrhea.
- The more I relied on fruit, soups, bread, crackers and sandwiches, the more I began to question the need for sugary foods. Why not eat real food all the time, such as wraps, sandwiches and dried fruit?
- While I didn’t meet any time expectations, I definitely displayed some toughness and fortitude. Actually, the McAlister clan’s motto is “fortiter,” so maybe it’s just my Scottish roots coming through.
- When you’re feeling weak, it’s okay and sometimes necessary to draw strength from others, whether that’s your crew or pacer, another runner, the aid station volunteers or even a majestic stag in the meadow.
- I think night running should be faster than during the day, since by the time you realize there’s a hill ahead, you’re already at the top and it’s too late to walk it.