“11 minutes 45 seconds to go for the finish” I shout as Robert grabs the headlamp from Seamus and starts running towards the trail deep in the woods, in search for the last solo 50 mile runner on the trail. Mike Russell. Meanwhile, I learn more about experience of Seamus and Abraham from their last loop. With every passing second, the tension among the crew, runners, supporters and spectators is mounting with no vision of anyone on trail in the sight. I dig my face and fingers in the grill fencing the soccer field of Clarenville High School as I’m waiting for one glimpse of the bouncing headlamps down in the valley. “Headlamps on the trail” I scream in joy as I run towards others. 7 minutes and 11 seconds to go and he made it. Immediately Ashelee follows “What headlamps? I think that’s the light from Community Centre.” False alarm and all the energy dies out a painful death as of many runners on that trail since morning.
It’s a cold breezy midnight at Clarenville in Newfoundland and Labrador and everyone has gathered here since morning to witness the most extreme trail running challenge the province has experienced.
Liminality Endurance Races 2018 is a 50 mile ultramarathon (Newfoundland’s longest trail ultra) with other race categories as 50 mile relay, 8.3 miles, 4.3 miles and one mile fun run for kids. The racecourse is an 8.3 mile loop comprised of two sub-loops of 4 miles and 4.3 miles, all on trail with a constant elevation change. Runners must run 6 loops under 12 hours to finish the 50 mile race. The race flags off from Clarenville High School, and runners run the popular Bare Mountain Trail as their first 4 mile loop, only to return to the Start and complete another 4.3 miles on the trail around the historic Newfoundland T’railway to finish. Runners have maximum of two hours to finish the 8.3 mile loop. The race flags off every 2 hours. So, the runners lined up on Start at flag off get to Start the next loop. Those who fail to make the 2-hour cutoff are disqualified and marked DNF. However, runners who made the previous loop in time, are allowed a buffer of 10 minutes to start the next loop with no additional advantage of time. The race goes on, loop after loop, till the runners clock the final lap. Final standings are decided based on the cumulative run time for all six loops.
Do not fall for the meagre distance of 8.3 miles, thinking that’s a walk in the park to cover in two hours. Most of the trail is technical. The first 4.0 mile loop is a mountain trail with lot of steep uphill sections, puddles and stairs. The lower 4.3 mile loop is highly technical with visible dangerous stumps, vast spread of roots, wet rocks, moss overgrowth and slippery mud, washed in rain. To keep things interesting, the loops are run counterclockwise and clockwise on every alternate flagoff. The gross elevation change for each 8.3 mile loops is 1200 ft, making whopping 7000 ft+ for 50 miles.
Despite being the freshest addition to long list of Canadian Ultras, Liminality has its own flavour. It’s made to challenge runners, to test how deep are they willing to dig in themselves when body has given up but clock is still ticking. The race not only tests your endurance, but intelligence, foresight, planning and consistency. The name Liminality has its own significance as the race director Robert Pond puts in his words “Liminality means threshold. It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and your new one. This occurs during the second stage of a Rite of Passage where your decisions dictate who you will become. This feeling is experienced by both new runners and veterans as they simply try something new.”
The race was flagged off at 9 am in the morning for 4.3 mile runners, 10.30 am for 8.3 mile and Mike was sent on trail at 12 noon with others for their first loop. Robert didn’t expect anyone to finish the entire 6 loops. However, soon after the flagoff, he was forced to eat his words following the astonishing pace of the front runners who ended up completing the first loop in little over 80 minutes. If a runner completes a loop this fast, the next obvious challenge is to keep warm and energized till the next flagoff. However, most seem to have handled that part pretty well with help of dedicated crew and relay team members. Cold overcast conditions often gave way to sunshine, but weather was all downhill third loop onwards. Given the new dynamics established of colder temperatures, poorer trail conditions and rain, just when we thought things won’t get any faster as bodies deteriorate with time spent on feet, fresh legs of one of 50 mile relay team runners clocked the loop in record 64 minutes. When I attempted the same loop 30 minutes later, it took me an hour and 42 minutes including some reckless running in the final 4.3 miles in rain. To me, 64 minutes still sounds unreal, but we did witness it.
By end of four loops, four of the relay teams were not eligible for official finish and 9 solo runners had already either quit the race or were not eligible to continue. In other words, 50% of the field was knocked out in 66% progress of the race. This was not surprising at all for either me or Robert as this was exactly everyone else was betting on, during the hours of long wait of their return. The sun had already set by end of four loops. The temperatures were close to freezing with breeze and rain. Under such challenging conditions, constant movement was the only way to keep warm. The magnitude of the challenge was beyond what any of the runners had faced in the past and the real “Liminality” thus began on fifth loop where the battle was – who can apply all the lessons learned in the daylight to survive the two hours to enter the final lap.
Like every other loop, Seamus Boyd-Porter continued to impress the remaining crew and spectators, while relay runners kept piling the pace records by end of loop 5. Not many expected them to last for that long. There were seven officially eligible runners who managed to toe the Start for the sixth and final loop against worse of the weather conditions due to cold, rain and winds that only I was tagging strong. All day’s hard work was down to the final two hours to decide everyone’s fate for at least an year to come in the books of Liminality. Mike was down, feeling tired, weak, cramped but still high in spirits when he left for the final loop. One could see in his eyes, he was there to endure, and was not ready to settle for anything less. On the other side, Abraham, the seventeen-year-old young lad was struggling with sore throat and breathing for past three loops. Seamus looked undented, singing in his own rhythm and relay runners were fresh as morning dew despite all the pounding of a tough day. It was all down to the last loop and we knew it’s going to be a cliffhanger.
However, no one expected the cliffhanger would lead us to these final 7 minutes and 11 seconds. Seamus and Abraham finished their final loops over 10 minutes ago and we’re still hooked onto the trail entrance, longing for the ray of light from Mike’s headlamp tunneling through the drizzle leading to the home lap of the soccer field. 5 minutes and 52 seconds. Suddenly, someone started ringing the bells with loud cheer. The two headlamps were floating in the darkness up the valley at a fast pace. That’s Mike. Robert chases him in his flashing vest but is easily outrun. He is running faster than I’ve ever seen him run. The face has no expressions. He is not blinking. The only sign of life is that he is moving and breathing heavy. He cruise the last 300 m and crash on the ground as he crossed with finish line with little over 4 minutes to spare for the final cutoff.
Mike is in complete collapse as everyone surrounds him in appreciation, acknowledging the remarkable feat. Seamus, Abraham and Mike proved their mettle in the battle of 18 stalwarts who had the courage to accept Robert’s 50 mile challenge. Two relay teams officially finished all the six loop with highly impressive finish times for each. The official results are now available here. The race report will soon be available on the official race website of Liminality Endurance Races.
As I train towards my future endeavors, it was an incredibly humbling experience to clock the times for each of the finishes and witness the camaraderie that trail and ultra running holds in Newfoundland, a province that is still exploring its trail running potential. It is never a good feeling when a runner walks up to you saying “I quit. I’m done” But I learned my share of lessons, for this time standing on the sidelines of a race as a spectator, that has a long way to go to establish itself as a community event that will bring Newfoundland to the limelight as the next must-run trail running destination.