Yesterday, I ran my first ultra, the Niagara 50 – and I finished it. A big event for me, and a big reason to celebrate, for sure! A slow time, as I’d expected – even slower than I’d expected, in fact – but I finished, and I felt good at the finish and afterwards.
The Niagara 50 starts in Niagara on the Lake, goes to Niagara Falls, and back. (The turnaround is at the Falls itself.) It’s mostly flat, the only exception being the hill up (and down, on the return leg) at Queenston. Even that’s not bad, though, just a gentle climb. The route is almost entirely along the Niagara Parkway pathway, which is asphalt and away from the road proper. In Niagara Falls itself, though, runners pretty well have to get on sidewalks because of the traffic. All in all, a lovely route. Very pretty, as it runs right alongside the Niagara River and Gorge, all the way to the Falls. It goes through parkland, past the Horticulural School and the Butterfly Conservatory, and the quaint little village of Queenston, where there are some lovely homes.
It rained for five of the six hours I ran. Reminiscent of the Around the Bay 30K in March, when it rained for all the last hour of the race. The difference, of course, was that it was cold for the AtB (6C, if I remember correctly), and yesterday it was a near balmy 17C. Wet is wet, though, and running for over six hours soaked to the skin – well past the skin, to be perfectly honest – and in squishy socks isn’t exactly a recipe for fun. Unless you’re running 50K, it seems… I know this sounds odd, especially to those of you who aren’t runner, but those six hours and twenty minutes in the rain were serious, serious fun.
As a first-time ultra runner, I noticed that some things were different from the other races I’ve done, all of which were in the 8K to marathon range. For one thing, a lot of the runners were older, many in their 60s and 70s. (Thank heaven for an even where I’m a relative youngster!) Second, these are folks who, while quite competitive, are keen to support everyone else who’s running. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “Good job!” called out more often or more sincerely in a running event. The niceness extends all the way to the organizers – in my race packet, I found a hand-written birthday card from the organizers! (My birthday was two days before the race.) And for truly serious fun, the food at the race’s aid stations, instead of being the usual water and Gatorade, consisted of water, HEED (another electolyte replacement drink, much more to my liking than Gatorade), flat Coke (blick!), orange slices, banana slices, tortilla chips, potato chips, fig newton bars, chocolate chip cookies, and M&Ms. The aid station volunteers were members of St. Catherines Runners and Walkers, the race’s host club, and were invariably cheerful beyond the call of duty. (Remember, they had to stand in the rain for seven hours, waiting for all those running fools to go by.) Long story short, as well as my usual HEED and Roctane gels, I consumed fig newtons, bananas, and M&Ms to get me through. And loved every mouthful!
Highlights? The two middle-aged Mexican ladies (twins, I later learned, celebrating their birthday), clad in matching screaming yellow outfits with “Mexico” emblazoned across their backs, who touristed all the way to the Falls and back. Just before the Falls, when I was passed by not one, not two, but three power walkers, doing their odd hip-throwing moves and going a lot faster than I was capable of doing. At the Falls itself, in an absolutely torrential downpour, watching double lines of Japanese tourists obediently filing off their tour buses, clad in rain capes and carrying umbrellas, to troop to the railings, look at the Falls, take photos, and file back to the buses. Watching turkey vultures soaring in the mists above the Gorge, looking prehistoric and graceful all at the same time. Looking down at my hand to see a strange mix of yellow and green and purple, and taking a minute or two to realize it was from melted M&Ms. The taste of the beer I drank just after I finished the race.
My wife was my support crew for this race. That meant she got to stand around in the rain a lot. She met me at 24K and again at 37K, waiting with mini steamed potatoes (possibly the perfect race food) and a water bottle filled with coconut water. And, of course, she was there at the finish, which made completing my first ultra very special indeed.
Running a 50 is hard, no doubt about it. I saw other people doing the distance much, much more quickly and gracefully than I. I know that some people did it more slowly and less gracefully. But I did it, and I’m immensely pleased. It was fun, as I’ve said, but it was also a way of reaching deep into myself to find strengths I didn’t know I had. I heard myself whimper a couple of times, but I also found myself laughing out loud at the 45K mark, when I realized that, for all the soreness and the tiredness, I was going to make it to the finish. I honestly felt good, and it was magnificent to be alive.
At the finish, there were people cheering me across the line. The finisher’s medal was draped around my neck. (Odd how keen we are on those things, isn’t it?) Then I went inside the Niagara on the Lake Kinsmen’s Hall, handed in my ticket for a beer, and inhaled four pieces of pizza and a Tim Horton’s donut. At that moment, life seemed very, very good indeed!
I finished in 6 hours and 20 minutes, which meant a very pokey pace of 7:36. I managed to hold a pace of 6:30, as I’d planned, for the first part of the race, but hit the wall at about 43K, and did 10 and 1s for the rest of the event. Still, that’s not bad. I’ve only been running for one year, and I blew up badly at the Mississauga Marathon six weeks ago. As this was my first ultra, I simply wanted to see if I could manage the distance, and to see what it felt like to run 50K. The answer, of course, is that I was tired and sore, and that I enjoyed myself immensely. I was pleased to have finished upright and smiling, and I look forward to doing more ultras. A little more quickly than this one, I hope, but we’ll see.
Now, one ice bath, one Epsom salts soak, and 10 hours of sleep later, I feel great. I don’t hurt, I’m not tired, and I’m not wet. Not being wet means a lot, believe me. And I’m looking forward to my next 50K.