Running on Empty: East Coast Trail 50K Ultramarathon

Middle Cove Beach. Newfoundland. When last time I was here, I was sleeping under an overcast sky during Big Birthday Bash at break of dawn. I was destroyed, sleep deprived for the previous two nights, in tears, exhausted, and throwing up. But, right now I am smiling recalling those memories. For the past two hours, I had been chasing this place as here lies my drop bag, that has pickle juice to help my cramping calves. I’m dehydrated and feel like throwing up. I shuffle my drop bag, take two sips of pickle juice, gulp in a pack of yoghurt, and say “Greg. I have a quick question. I think I won’t be able to make it to Logy Bay by 3.30 pm, and hence, won’t make the cutoff. Can I still continue on the trail once officials mark me DNF? I ain’t going to quit. Not today.”

“Well, you can remove the bib there and we cannot stop you from hiking a public trail. But, you will be on your own after that. And it’s not even half past 1. You still have time.”

“I’ll do my best” as I share a high-five and leave the Middle Cove Aid Station amid cheers from the volunteers as two more runners arrive at the aid station. As I limp up the uphill road on Marine Drive, the two runners overtake me in a jiffy and I continue to slog one step in front of the other in all sadness, trying to find joy in the crashing waves of Outer Cove on my left. I can’t see both of them now as I climb up Doran’s Lane to start another hike on East Coast Trail, Cobbler Path, with no hope of making to the other end in time. About half a kilometre in the hike, I stop, crash on the wooden steps of the first big climb and other hikers go past me. “You started from Pouch Cove in the morning, right? Great job. What time do you think you will finish?” asked a hiker as he passes by.

“Thanks. Well, I have about 90 minutes left. I don’t think I will be able to finish in allotted time” and I bid him silent goodbye biting my lips in humility and look at my watch to see every second, just slip by. I think it doesn’t matter how long I take on this hike anymore. The race is over.

I’m running East Coast Trail 50 km Ultramarathon, my first race since The Barkley Fall Classic over thirteen months ago. ECT 50, being directed by Greg Greening, is 50 km long ultramarathon that starts from Pouch Cove and ends in Quidi Vidi Village in St. John’s following incredibly beautiful, rocky, muddy but well maintained 320 km long East Coast Trail – one of the prime attractions of Atlantic Canada. The race is partly self-supported with three water stations and a drop bag access point at 30 km. The race course comprises of five of ECT hikes (Stiles Cove Path – Father Troy’s Trail – Silver Mine Head Path – Cobbler Path – Sugarloaf Path) with their respective road connections that generally takes a cumulative time of 18-24 hours for an average hiker. The first three hikes mostly have rolling hills with gradual climbs and descend. However, the final two hikes feature steep and rough climbs when you have to deal with them with a tired body. Runners start at sunrise and have time until sunset to finish, about 10 hours and 15 minutes. All that 100 runners run for is Curlywurly chocolate candy, a bowl of Chili at Inn of Olde pub and a warm hug by the owner Linda Hennebury. The entrance to her pub is the official finish line and grabbing the “ugly stick” made of old broom marks the last ritual to claim the finish.

bib
East Coast Trail 50K Ultramarathon Bib and The Finisher’s Candy

I started the race with others from Pouch Cove in the cold and windy morning with an aim to finish. Within cutoff or over, it didn’t matter. I had not been running since October last year as I sustained half a dozen injuries including Plantar fasciitis, shin splints and lower back pain. During that time I was taken over by an ugly episode of depression and running was left behind and my body weight shot up by 14 kilos – which is a little too much when your body is barely five feet. I moved to Newfoundland about six months ago and started leading guided hikes for the East Coast Trail Association to explore the trails. However, it was not until being a part of Liminality Endurance Races when I realized my negligence towards the alarming health concerns has gone a little too far.

One of those evenings, while taking a shower I was reading the label of the bottle of my shampoo. When I wash my hair, the shampoo runs down my whole body, and it is very clearly printed on the bottle “For Extra Thickness And Volume” EUREKA!

No wonder I had been gaining weight all this time. And I thought it was my bad eating habits and not exercising. Well, I got rid of that shampoo and now I shower with Palmolive Dishwashing Soap instead. Its label reads “Dissolves Fat That is Otherwise Difficult to Remove”. Just kidding.

During this entire time, other than hiking, I had logged about 20 training miles in one year as I built to this day. Perhaps, the least anyone had ever trained before toeing start of a reasonably tough ultramarathon. As soon as the race was flagged off, I started with a friend I had just met for the first time, Marcel Clift, and decided to stay in the middle of the pack for as long as I can. 10 minutes. That’s how far I could go before stopping and calling it a day. It was not happening. I knew, soon sweep would take over and I would be removed from the trail. To avoid that shame, I continued to walk as I tried to convince myself “It’s fine. Just accept what’s real and deal with it. You are not the same runner as of last year. Everyone has to rebuild and there is no shame in that. You can only finish the hike you’ve got.” And a decision was made. I would hike the rest of the distance and will be okay even if I didn’t finish.

Before I could move any further, I was stumped by another blow – my shoes were not sticking. They were slipping everywhere – mud, rock, boardwalk, grass – and now I had nowhere to hide. I was being punched from all ends. I would walk, slip, fall every other minute; and it was not funny when you are too close to the cliff. So close, that one wrong step on downhill steps could cause serious injuries. I reduced my pace further, adjusted my foot landing and somehow survived the first two hours. Now, I started to run a few flat sections, but continue to carefully hike the uphills and slippery downhills. I skipped the first water station of Flatrock and continued on to the next trail. Father Troy’s Trail is known to be among easier trails, so I thought I can make up some time there. However, due to rains of the previous week, the trail was a mud puddle.

 

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Running up Father Troy’s Trail (Image: Will Gough)

The 9 km hike took me two hours, I ran out of the water, for some reason my stomach was not holding up and calves of my left leg started to cramp. However, I was happy to know I was still not the last runner – which I got to know while crossing the first of the two rivers of Silvermine Head Path. The last time I was there during Big Birthday Bash, it was around 3 in the night, amid heavy rains, when I had to cross the river under the light of my headlamp. My glasses were fogged and nothing was visible. I was nearly blown away into the ocean that night before I could make it to the other end. This time, the river was calm, but tricky enough to halt the two runners. I overtook them and had rushed to the Middle Cove beach water station, where they crossed me again and now, I can see them no more.

90 minutes. That’s all I have to complete Cobbler Path hike and then run 5 km on road to make it Logy Bay Ocean Sciences Lab so I can officially continue the race. I get up, sip in some water and continue to climb Red Cliff to reach the other end. About an hour later, I reach the old Radar Station that almost marks the end of the trail and now I have 35 minutes to make it to Logy Bay. I run, as hard as I can. Suddenly, after the first turn, I see the ocean again. Have I reached? Did I miscalculate the distance? How far is it? I immediately check my phone to pull up Google maps to know the distance. I’m still 3 km away and have no time to look at my phone. Under the exploding applauds, I reach Logy Bay with 11 minutes to spare and see Greg again. “You made it! Congratulations! Now you must see me on the other side before 5.49 pm. So you have about 2 hours and 20 minutes. Relax and you can easily do it.”

After a break of 5 minutes, I start the final and the toughest climb of the trail. The Sugarloaf Path. For past few weeks, I had been hiking this trail in the nights so even if I strolled, I knew I would make it before time. So, I lay down for a few minutes as I reach Sugarloaf head, the highest point. Before I could realize, I was fast asleep. Never sleep on the trail during a race. As I get cold, I get up and start walking deeper in the woods chasing the regular mental targets on my night hikes. “If I can make it to Skerries by 5pm, I can still finish” I hike as hard as I can to reach Skerries in time. I arrive 5 minutes late and there awaits the most intimidating climb of the race – The Bawdens Highland. On the other side of the mountain is the finish. Bawdens Highland is a steep Quidi Vidi climb with tall tiring steps that crush my morale every time.

I quickly climb up, reach the top and then get down following the complex pattern of the downhill trail to make it to the trailhead. But, where is the finish? I had no idea. I continue to run on the road, get on the other side to Quidi Vidi Brewery. As I reach there, I see no runners or race officials. Is everyone gone? I come out, run back and see a few waving volunteers or friends of runners, on my left directing me to the finish.

10 hours and incredibly daunting, muddy, slippery, rocky and crushing 50 kilometres later, I finally get to grab the magical upgraded broom and call it a finish, just my second ultramarathon finish in Canada. I am cold, in sweat, happy and sad – all at the same time. This officially was my slowest race ever. But, hey I made it in time and did far better than my Start line aim.

As I am recovered and look forward to the future races, I believe ECT50 was the necessary push I was looking for to get back to running, break the chains of injuries and work my way towards series of 100 milers planned for next year. As my winter begins, I work to get stronger. The trails are waiting and I must get on them soon as I can to be the best version of me!

finish
The Finish Line at The Inn of Olde, Quidi Vidi

Feature Image: Will Gough

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