How I accidentally became an ultra runner due to COVID
2020 was a strange year for most of us, not what we had planned for and very hard to navigate at times. I feel extremely lucky that I got the most out of the situation and I'm actually glad that the season went the way it did and not the way it was originally planned even though the reason why it went that way is horrible.
Short recap: I participated in 4 races, won 3 of them, set records at two of them and won a World Championship medal in the 4th with Team Canada.
I always try to look on the bright side and make the most out of whatever life throws at me. Naturally that's what I did this year which turned out to be the most successful season I've ever had.
Somehow virtual races just don't appeal to me. So my approach to the season was that whatever comes up and is a real race, I'm going for it. All my originally planned races were cancelled: the Niagara Women's Half Marathon, Ironman Ohio 70.3 triathlon, the ITU Long-Course Triathlon World Championship at Challenge Almere, and Ironman Malaysia where I was hoping to qualify for Kona 2021. That whole racing season now got pushed to 2021.
Once my racing calendar was wiped out by about June, I started to look around what races were still standing. I definitely wanted to do a full Ironman: 3800m - 2.4 mile swim, 180km - 112 mile bike, 42.2km - 26.2 mile marathon run. I haven't done one in three years and I knew I had the base for it this year. I was watching IM Louisville and IM Chattanooga, both being within driving distance for me. However, the borders to the US were closed for us, Canadians and eventually these two got cancelled as well.
Then in July I saw my friend win a 70.3 race in Hungary (1900m - 1.2 mile swim, 90km - 56 mile bike, 21.1km - 13.1 mile half-marathon run). Seeing the finish line of a real in-person race made me very emotional and even jealous of her being able to experience that feeling. The Hungarian National Long-Course Triathlon Championship was 5 weeks away and was still a go. A long-time bucket list race for me. After looking into it more closely, I learned that I was allowed to fly to Hungary and then back to Canada - so I went for it.
That turned out to be the most memorable experience of my athletic career and a race I will never forget. I didn't expect to win it whatsoever, even just finishing on the overall podium would have been a positive surprise. It was the first time my mom saw me race and the first time my kids were there. They were even allowed to run the finish chute with me, which made the experience even more magical. I became the overall female National Champion showing the country that indeed "Anything Is Possible". (Race report here.)
I was invited to TV shows, Runners World Hungary published a long feature, lots of online magazines and even today I get invitations to speak on Hungarian Television about how a mother of 3, an amateur athlete ended up beating the whole field in a national championship.
Coming back to Canada I saw that one of my other bucket list races was still standing. Three years ago I ran a half-marathon at the That Dam Hill race, which is a road ultra. Up to that point I didn't even know such things existed. I had thought all ultras were on trails and I'm not a fan of trails. What I really liked about the race was that people ran on a loop - making it very much possible to self-support, and I never really had anyone to crew me, so I expected that I would be doing this myself. I put it on my bucket list back in 2017 to run the 24h race at That Dam Hill one day (I have a very long bucket list!). However, I didn't expect to get around to it for at least another 3 years with my ITU World Championship and Kona plans.
The fact that I have never run anything longer than a marathon didn't really bother me. After all, it is a timed race and I can stop anytime I want to and just go as far as I'm comfortable with. They offered 6h, 12h and 24h options. The 6h didn't really appeal to me, I felt it was too short. 12h would have been interesting, but it was a night race, starting at 8pm. I figured, if my night is screwed anyway, I might as well go for the 24h.
The result was once again, very much unexpected and a bit surreal for me. I indeed was able to run for the whole 24 hours, 213.8km/132 miles, beating the whole field, including men, by 27km, setting a new course record and a new Canadian record for Canadian soil. Yes, I was aiming to win the race this time. No, I had no idea I could set records and beat men too. (Race report here.)
The second best Canadian women's 24h result of all time got me invited to the Big Dog's Backyard Ultra with Team Canada which was an incredible experience and I was very proud to participate with so many great "real" ultrarunners while I was (and still am) practically a rookie. The Team came 3rd out of 21 countries in the world and we were all very happy with the podium. I made it to 34 hours. (Race report here.)
My poor coach... I started the year with giving him a 5-week notice to get me ready for a full Ironman! After the 5-week IM crash course, he basically had 3 weeks to train me for my first ever ultra which happened to be 200km+ (130 mile+), having never run anything longer than a marathon! When he finally thought my season was over, I threw the Backyard Ultra idea at him, leaving him 2 weeks to get me there. And then at our year-end phone conversation I threw another craziness at him... "well, actually, how about we don't end the season just yet"?
I heard about the One Track Mind Ultra from Matt Shepard after the Backyard Ultra where he came 2nd Canadian. It sounded like the perfect opportunity to go for a 48h record attempt. After my 24h race I realized that although I'm not fast enough to break the 24h Canadian record yet, there are a few others where the standard is not set as high - including the 48h which seemed like a natural progression after the 24h.
I went for it, and although barely (by 6 km - less than 4 miles), I managed to break the Canadian record and learn a whole lot for future ultras. (Race report here.)
I can honestly say that it all went much better than what it could have been had the original races not get scratched. I'm extremely happy with the season and that I did things that I never thought were possible, discovered a new sport in the form of ultrarunning and learned a ton about training, racing and myself as a person.
What does the next season hold for me? That will all depend on what races will still go ahead. My first one, the Boston Marathon has already been postponed. I don't think there is much chance that the 24h World Championship will run at the original date either. I have an A, a B and a C plan and will just play it by ear. That worked pretty well in 2020! And hope my coach is happy to come along for the ride...