I'm a World Champion!
This race was absolutely brutal for me, unexpectedly so. It should have been a smooth sail. It should have been a joy run. It should have been everything that it wasn't.
On paper it sounds very straight forward: I was the favourite going into the GOMU 48h World Championship on September 3-5 in Hainesport, NJ, USA based on previous bests, and I won it. In reality, it was the biggest fight I have ever had to fight in a race and for the most part, it didn't look like I would be able to make it.
Pre-race with Canadian-American Trishul Cherns, GOMU president. Photo: Käären Cherns
On my race calendar we marked it as a "B" race, meaning that I was still training towards the Kona Ironman World Championship as a goal race for October, so no concentrated training specifically for this 48h Worlds, but I did have some taper and it was an important race for me. The main reason it was marked as a "B" race was because we expected that I can win it even if I'm not specifically training for it. But we never expected to face what actually happened.
The event was the first ever World Championship that GOMU, the new organization for multi-day ultramarathoners (Global Organization for Multi-Day Ultramarathoners) put on. The venue was ideal, the organizers were amazing, the prizes were beautiful, the atmosphere was world class. The whole event was a huge success and I think it is a fantastic start of a new era for those crazy runners who prefer to go insanely long.
The race started at 9 am on Saturday on a long weekend and went until 9 am on Monday. I always try to refine strategies for these races as I learn things from other people, from scientists and from my own experience. This time I made some major changes, some of which worked great some of which were disastrous. The problem is that in these multi-day races the data points are extremely costly. There is no other way to try day 2 strategy than to actually do it on day 2 of one of your races in which case you are either going to be very happy with your change or screw up your race.
Beautiful glass plate prizes for the top 3 men and top 3 women. Photo: Emily Kazmac
I completely revamped my caffeine strategy based on advice from two different experts and I changed the caloric intake as well. The first one worked great the second one created a crisis.
I need to split the race into two parts. Up to hour 20 and then from hour 20. Because the problems I faced until hour 20 are on a different level than what followed. The last 28 hours of the race were one huge fight against my lungs and everything else was secondary. The normal problems of an average 48h race shrank to nothing in comparison and were unimportant compared to the struggle of not being able to breathe.
The first 20 hours went as planned really and I only faced one issue which we eventually solved by trial and error. The problem came from a few factors that coincided. I upped the electrolyte content of my drinks because I always end up in a deficit the first day even though I take in exactly the same amount that I sweat out. So this time I decided to go a bit higher to prevent this. On top of that I decided to up the caloric intake, which resulted in even more electrolytes being consumed to balance out the higher liquid amount I was consuming.
The start - everyone was so excited! Photo: Bela Vados
In retrospect I think I know what the mistake was but while it was happening we were just trying to adjust things without knowing what was wrong. If I'm not mistaken I ended up overdosing on magnesium causing constant trips to the bathroom. There were times when I had to hit the washroom every lap - that is every 10-12 minutes! Not fun... So we started playing with what could be wrong, adjusted something and waited an hour or two to see if it was working, then adjusted something else and played the waiting game and eventually managed to solve it without knowing why the solution worked. In retrospect it makes sense because the solution included decreased electrolyte intake. So we just stuck with that for the rest of the race. Don't change what ain't broken.
I had a very experienced crew with me this time. John Turner crewed me this year for Sulphur Springs (winner and CR - race recap here), the Persistence Backyard ultra (3rd overall - see race report) and the VT100 trail race (I owe the race recap for this one). Bela Vados was my crew for my 72h World Record in February in Las Vegas (see race report) and my 6-day race in Wisconsin (72h WR again, 3 x Canadian Records - race recap here). They know me well by now and know how to trouble shoot things when something out of the ordinary happens. Thanks guys, I really appreciate you!
The weather was really hot and humid. 86F / 30C the first day, 93F / 34C the second day, with 84% humidity. It was actually great for my asthma, I could even take my heat and moisture exchange mask off during the second day, there was no need to keep the air warmer or more humid for my lungs!
Somehow my hopes of breaking any records vanished relatively early. I kind of remember not worrying too much about the amount of time I was wasting in the bathroom because at that point it didn't really matter that much any more, I had a comfortable lead but I wasn't on pace for any records. And that was only about 7-9 hours into the race, so very early. It must have been the heat, I can't think of any other reason. The course was great, I was otherwise feeling good at that point, so I can't pinpoint any other reason why I wouldn't have been on record pace.
John handing me my drink. Photo: Bela Vados
I don't quite remember when I went through the 100 mile mark, I know it was very late in the race for myself, sometime around the 18-19 hour mark. I finished the first day with about 122 miles / 197 km, again, a new low for me, but by that time, I was in serious trouble with my breathing.
The problem started around the 20h mark, that was when I first couldn't get enough air down my airways to keep running. Accepting it for what it is, I started power walking. I had just read a book about the correct technique the week of the race, I even went to the track to practice for 10 minutes. I didn't expect to need it in this race! I was just planning ahead for future 6-day races.
However, after about 3 hours of power walking, my airways started to close up even more. I had to ease up the power walk. That worked for about another two hours and then that was it. Complete close up. I have chronic asthma and it has been a learning curve to be able to handle it in these long races. The problem this time was that I also had a mild cold going into the race. I'm guessing the cold, together with the asthma and running for 20 hours was just too much for my body to handle.
25 hours into the race it looked like it was going to be over. I know how my asthma works, it would take days for the airways to open back up. Maybe even a week or two. Not much you can do on the spot in a race. I didn't want to give up just yet though. I started walking very slowly. As if I was in the park with my kids. 13-14 min per km / 21-23 min/mi. I tried to relax. I was all tense and freaking out because I thought my race was over and that made it even harder to breathe. I knew for sure that I wouldn't be able to run any more in this race but I was hoping that if I managed to get the airways open just a bit back up then maybe I could walk faster.
If this was any other race I would have just dropped out. My lungs were hurting and the struggle of not being able to take a deep breath is just so frustrating. You try to breathe only into your mouth because trying to send it down to your lungs hurts. You try to breathe as shallow as you can, try to fake the breathing.
When power walking was still going well. Proud of my new technique, pumping my arms and all. Photo: Bela Vados
The reason I didn't drop out was because I felt that this might be my only chance to win a World Championship ever. Next year we have confirmation that at least one or two of the very few ladies in the world who could beat me in 48h will be attending. This year they were at other races, the European 24h Championship, Spartathlon, EMU, etc.
There will be the 6-day Worlds next year too, so that might be another chance but so much can go wrong in 6 days and again, maybe someone will show up who is stronger than me. So I was very determined not to let this potentially once in a lifetime opportunity pass of becoming a World Champion. Records can be broken but a World Champion is a World Champion forever.
Mentally the hardest part was that the asthma attack gave me the perfect reason to quit. Nobody would be able to say anything or blame me for not being strong enough if I stopped because I couldn't breathe. I would still have taken second place in a World Championship. So on top of the usual temptations that come up in an ultra when your chimp is just banging your head to stop, now I had a perfectly reasonable and unquestionable excuse to drop - putting fire under my chimp. Obviously on top of the physical challenge this added another layer of mental challenge.
I walked around at a snail's pace for an hour. I was thinking of my kids, happy times, trying not to worry about what would happen in the race. Tried to remove myself and my thoughts from the race. It worked. After an hour of that I could actually pick up the walking pace again and start power walking. I was pleasantly surprised. I seriously doubted my little relaxation trick would work and that there would be a way out of this hole. I was very happy. It looked like I still had a chance to become a World Champion!
I had a nice lead at hour 20 when this all started so I had some leeway. My lead started to shrink but it looked like that if I could power walk then Lisa, who was in second place, wouldn't be able to catch me. She was relentless and had a very powerful walk. She was mostly walking, mixed with a little bit of running. But while I was walking at 3.5 mi/h (5.6km/h) with my newfound technique, she was walking at 4 mi/h (6.4km/h) so she made up half a mile every hour. However, she also stopped to eat and had 2 naps, 10 mins and 40 mins, which allowed me to keep more of my lead.
At one point in the race I even took over the overall lead. On the men's side, the Greek competitor, Dimos was leading for the most part with Mongolian Bud chasing him. Dimos had issues with the heat and humidity, so he took an hour nap and slowed significantly while Bud just kept marching ahead at a very steady pace. So when the two were trading position, somewhere in the middle there I was able to take over the lead around 30 hours and kept it for the next 10 hours or so.
I knew it wasn't going to last, because Bud was running and I was walking. If I didn't have breathing issues, it would have been much more interesting. Then I would have been in the game for the overall win. But not the way this was going. I was happy if I could keep my women's lead.
In the lead for a few hours.
I instructed my crew not to tell anyone what was going on. Lisa didn't know me and that I normally run for the full 48 hours so I expected that she didn't realize I was trying to overcome such a huge obstacle. And I certainly didn't want to give her hope that she could actually catch me. There was nothing anybody could help us with anyway. I was either going to fight through it or not.
I was constantly calculating and trying to figure out how much was going to be enough. I certainly wasn't going to go a step further than I absolutely had to, I was in so much pain. By the end of the race my voice was completely gone too, another way my asthma manifests.
This time taping my feet worked really well and I didn't have to touch them until the end of the race. I feel a small victory here, even though by the last few hours there was one really painful spot between two toes, but there were only a few hours left so instead of treating it, I decided to just finish the race and deal with it after. A second huge blister I didn't even notice until I took the tape off. So it was not all perfect but certainly a good step in the right direction.
The new caffeine strategy of dosing higher during the night and lower during the day worked great, so that was another win. I had no issues with being sleepy until about 38 hours in, which was at 11 pm on Sunday. At that time I started struggling with the sleep deprivation so I took a 5 minute nap. That was all I slept during the race. Once I woke up I took my higher dose of caffeine and got going. However, it wasn't the nap or the caffeine that woke me up. It was actually Lisa!
She started to speed up. I suddenly saw her running. Now that woke me up good! It reminded me of my 6-day race earlier in the year, when the Irish runner, Eoin Keith, chasing my overall lead, suddenly started running at 3am on the 5th night at a pace that seemed unreal for that phase of the race (detailed race report here).
This all happened with 6.5 hours to go, so after 41.5 hours of racing, at 2:30am in the morning. It was still dark. Parts of the course were well lit, other parts were relatively dark. The way the course was designed, you could see other runners in the distance from a lot of different points on the course - it was an open field.
Power walking again! Photo: Bela Vados
I had an 8-lap lead, almost 8 miles. I wanted to send Lisa a message, the same as I wanted to take a stand against Eoin back in June that night - a message, that she had no chance of catching me. Which, if you look at the numbers, was relatively obvious, with her making up half a mile per hour and having 6.5 hours left. But my thinking was that if I took a stand now, maybe, she would pull back or even decide to stop as it would be obvious that she wouldn't take over the lead and the gap to 3rd place was over 50 miles. My lungs were so painful that I thought if I could save a few hours of suffering at the end, because she decided to ease up and so could I, then it made sense to push myself a little bit right now.
So with her speeding up, I decided to start running on the parts of the course that were in the dark, where she couldn't see me. It was excruciating but I kept telling myself that it was just for a very short period of time. I walked the parts that were lit. The idea behind it was that if she saw that I was walking (and didn't know about the running) and realized that she could still only make up half a mile per hour, that would certainly be a strong message.
We spent the next 2 hours like that. Her mostly running, me running in the dark, walking in the light. It took her 2 hours to make up a lap - exactly as I planned.
What I didn't know and it took me by surprise was that she didn't care. She is the kind of runner who will push herself to the very end no matter what. The mentality being that she paid for 48h and she needs to get her money's worth. Bummer for me...
Now we were 4.5 hours away from the end of the race and I had a 7 mile lead. She wasn't stopping. I could finally ease up though, because seriously, even if I strolled around like with my kids in the park (which I did for the last 2.5 hours), it was going to be enough. With me slowing, she made up the next lap in 1.5 hours.
I had 190 laps, she had 184, 3 hours from the end of the race. I even started teasing her, hoping to get her to slow down (which would mean less suffering for me in the last few hours), saying "you know there is no special prize for having a smaller gap to first place". We had a laugh about these conversations after the race. Me, the meanie, her, the relentless pursuer.
Her answer was something along the lines of "I'm just doing it for myself, I just want to get to a certain number."
Ok, that makes sense, so we keep pressing for a few more hours. At this point I did my maths and figured out that Lisa would end up with 195 laps if she didn't push it and 196 if she pushed it to the end. Which meant that I needed 197 laps and I could stop!
Casually walking the last lap and posing with Dimos, 2nd men, 4th overall. Photo: Bela Vados
I eased my walk even further because then my lungs hurt less. This way, going around in 20 mins for the mile loop, I could get in 3 laps per hour, which meant that I would finish in about 2 hours and 20 mins, with 30-40 mins to spare. That sounded pretty good. This was, again, about the pace of walking in the park with my kids, so very easy, happy, other than my lungs still hurting but far less.
A little insurance in going to 197 laps was that if out of some miracle Lisa made it to 197 and not 196, then I would still be the World Champion because I got to that distance first. But monitoring her while casually walking around for the next 2 hours it was clear that my calculations were correct and she would finish with 196 laps.
Based on the conversation earlier, when she came around next time, I asked her "so what's so special about 196 laps?" . This was going to be far from her PB, so I really didn't get it when she said that it was for herself and that she wanted a certain distance. 196? Really? We laughed about this after the race even more... what's so special about 196 laps...
Sitting on a bed laughing with Lisa. "So what's so special about 196 laps?" She is such a fierce competitor! Photo: Emily Kazmac
At this point I could finally relax. I walked around for the two hours taking it very easy, adding my 3 laps per hour and then chatted on the last lap with friends, taking almost 30 minutes to finish. 197. DONE! I'M A WORLD CHAMPION!
Lisa ran around until the last minute, finishing 196 laps. Well done, girl! Bud won the men's race and overall with Dimos taking 2nd male and 4th overall, behind Bud, myself and Lisa.
It's over! 197 laps! DONE! Photo: Bela Vados
The award ceremony was nice, the prizes were beautiful glass plates for top 3 men and top 3 women. There were prizes for the age group winners as well.
We were sitting on a bed with Lisa after the race when the awards started and when it was time to go up, I realized that I couldn't stand up! My calves were completely shot after so much walking. I never knew that walking was so hard on your calves. As a triathlete, I assumed my calves were relatively strong, but apparently walking uses different muscles in your calves than cycling! Muscles, that I have never exercised in my life before. Now, they got 28 hours of exercise!
We drove home after the race and strangely the next day went relatively well and the collapse came on Wednesday instead. I had a great sleep Monday night but no sleep at all on Tuesday and I ended up at the doctor's office on Wednesday with my lungs. I got some antibiotics to clear them up plus she told me to take the maximum allowed doses from all my inhalers. The recovery was still slow and by Sunday I still couldn't breathe well enough to work out.
With Budjargal Byambaa, the overall winner, after the race. Photo: Bela Vados
It took until Monday to be able to do some cycling but I was still coughing really badly during my ride. I lost about a week of training, which doesn't sound too bad, but I only had 4 weeks between this race and the Kona Ironman World Championship, so with one week of taper that left me 3 weeks to train. Losing one of those weeks is a third of my training block!
But I have the fitness, I can certainly finish the race and I wasn't going to fight for top positions in Kona anyway. So even though this episode ended up messing my race up for Kona, and making this World Championship the 'A' race instead, I'm happy with the decision that I made on the fly to prioritize it.
I am a World Champion and that will stay with me forever. I'm happy to chill now and just enjoy my accomplishment for a bit, not worry about jumping into anything major just yet. I will make sure I fully recover, physically and mentally as well. I will enjoy Kona for what it is and not take things too seriously for now.