Race Report: Elk/Beaver 50K

Elk/Beaver 50K

Question: When does a DNF count as a success?

Answer: When it involves winning.

“DNF” and “winning” don’t usually go together – but sometimes it’s just the right thing. Consider the following quote from elite ultrarunner Kilian Jornet:

“Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.”

Last Saturday, I arrived early at the Elk/Beaver Ultras race venue so I could check things out. And got a bit of a surprise… The course, which I’d been told was primarily packed dirt/rocks/roots (eminently doable in bare feet), had been “upgraded” by the Parks Department with fresh gravel a couple of days before. I arrived at 5:00 AM, in time to look things over. The fresh gravel consisted of medium-sized, sharp, pointy stuff, and, as it turned out, covered about 2/3 of each 10K loop. Definitely not good news.

I’d started the day at 3:00 AM, and, over my first espresso of the day, had my usual nervous jitters about the race. I was a long way from home, I didn’t know the course, and I was about to try something I’d never done before. Guaranteed to bring all that existential angst to the fore. Now, seeing all that gravel, the doubts really built up. Still, I was there and I’d set myself a challenge, so what else was I to do but run it?

I had two goals for the Elk/Beaver. One was to follow my ketogenic-adapted regime, which meant running fasted (my last meal before the race was dinner the night before) and with only water as fuel during the race itself. The second was to run the entire 50K barefoot, and not worry at all about my finishing time, much less about getting a PB.

Elk/Beaver start

The Elk/Beaver started as do most of the ultras I run – a small number of participants, the edge of a grassy field, and someone calling out “One, two, three, go!” After that, we began the first loop. It’s a pretty course. Mildly undulating (though the official course description had said “very flat”), a bit of mud, with good views of the two lakes we’d circumnavigate during the morning. A total of 77 runners were involved, for five events (50K, 100K, 50 mile, marathon, and 40K walk), so the race offered good company without any crowding. Kind of ideal when you think about it.

On course

The photo above and the one below were taken at around the 30K mark. I felt really good for those first three loops. Lots of steady energy, no trouble moving across the gravel, and feeling sheer barefoot bliss on the packed dirt sections of the trail. My son and grandson were there at the 30K mark (and again at 40K), having journeyed from Vancouver to support me. Seeing them was pretty much the high point of the race and my day. I’ll always remember that.

Feeling strong at 30K

One of the fun things about this event, which is basically just a local club race, was that two of the three aid stations consisted simply of a flat of bottled water on a park bench, along with a small sign saying “Elk/Beaver Ultras.” The third station was a table at the start/finish, offering fruit, cookies, Coke, and water. Didn’t need or want any of that, though, so I just cruised by.

I started to feel the gravel during loop #4, to the extent that, by about 35K, I was running on the grass verge of the trail if there was one. By 37K, I’d slowed down from the pace I’d kept to for the first 30K (7:10 mins/km) to a really pokey 10:15 or so. I knew I’d have to make a decision the next time I went past the start/finish area, and considered my options – keep on going for what I knew would be a real Death March, or slip on my Sockwa X8s in an effort to minimize the damage and maybe improve my pace a bit. I chose the second. But getting the Sockwas on my feet was difficult, as they were starting to swell. And the bottoms of my feet were bleeding in more than one place.

I soldiered for another kilometer or so, and then found that I simply wasn’t able to go on. In fact, once I stopped and took off my race bib, I found it difficult to even stand. A kindly course marshal gave me a ride back to the start, I crawled to the car, and drove back to my hotel in Victoria.

Time to call it quits

This is what a 40K bailout moment looks like.

Wounded

And this is what my feet looked like about an hour after I finished. A little bit of blood (there was more, and it continued for a couple of days); the swelling had only just begun, would get much worse, and would last about four days.

So what did I accomplish? And what’s all this guff about “DNF and winning”?

Well, first of all, I ran 40K fasted and fueled only by water. That proved, once again, that if you’re keto-adapted, you’ve got the fuel you need (fat) in your body, and don’t need anything else. In fact, it shows, once again, that it’s better to run this way, as it results in steady energy levels, with no insulin spikes, no bonking, and no hitting the wall. And, I might add, no ravenous hunger afterwards. Immediately after the race, I ate a few pieces of biltong (for the protein) and, an hour or so later, about 500gm of full-fat yogurt (for the fat). And felt good.

Second, although I didn’t run the full 50K, I did run 40K barefoot, on rougher gravel than I’d ever run on before. I ran the first 30K at my target pace, my form was good, and my spirits were high. I made the right decision (to bail at 40K) at the right time, clearly and cleanly. I learned that I am whole and strong, and that I can accomplish extraordinary things when I try.

I won.

Thanks to my wife for her love and support, and to Simon and Malcolm for being there.

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16 comments

  1. Congratulations on this incredible accomplishment! For me, running has several purposes: personal reflection, goal setting, and pushing out limitations. This run was clearly not about finishing, but discovering a facet of your ultimate capability. You’re an inspiration, Alan. Thanks for sharing your experience.

  2. Congratulations! I think… You definitely proved what you wanted to do! And your victory is so much sweeter with your family there to support you.

    If I were in your “shoes” I might have gone with the Sockwa’s earlier after seeing the fresh gravel.

    1. I wasn’t out to prove anything. Just wanted to find out what was possible. In hindsight, yes, putting on the Sockwas earlier might have made a difference. However, they’re a very thin sole (2mm), so even that might not have helped.

  3. Congrats Alan … let’s see 40k on gravel … holy crap. As a barefoot runner I know your pain. The crushed gravel is the worst. You certainly should be proud of your accomplishment. I know I could not have done it. Definitely shows your mental strength. This is a big WIN in my books. Way ta go!!

  4. 40K barefoot on gravel is a big thing indeed. Well done! I am also running a marathon on ketones instead of glucose this Sunday. Based on your experience, I think it should go well.

    1. Thanks, my friend. Best wishes for Sunday. If you’re already keto-adapted, you’ll have no trouble at all. And, once having done it, you’ll wonder why people would do it any other way.

    1. Thanks, Deb. Part of the fun I’m having is discovering what my limitations are. They’re not always what I expected. 🙂

      1. I often do more than I think I can do. We did our annual 5K a couple weeks ago. This year it was 4 sisters, ages 58,57,54,43. I am the old one and have had a birthday since then. I am constantly competing with the 43 year old. Two years ago I beat her by 6 minutes, this year she beat me by 2. She got better, I got worse but it is always fun. We’re all doing another in June, this one a trail run. I want to beat her!!

      2. That’s exactly the sort of thing I mean. Part of it is having other goals in addition to times and Personal Bests, such as having fun, discovering new things, or pushing various limits. Best wishes on your trail run!

  5. Glad you see the good and I know how you feel seeing your family there – the best, right?! I’m sure you’ll get the ultra of your dreams before long and I hope beyond the race you had a good visit out west!

  6. Sorry to hear about the gravel Alan. Apparently they have graveled most of the Sulphur course over this year as well. Thankfully I wear shoes, but even with the shoes, worried about the gravel over such a long distance. As one of the Ultra runners said, leave it the government to try and fix nature… Hope your feet heal up quicky.

    1. I’m healing very quickly, in fact. Hope to go for a short run tomorrow, and probably a decent trail run on Sunday. Best wishes for Sulphur. (I plan to do the Sulphur 50 Mile next year. )

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