The Lost Soul Ultramarathon

LSU titleLethbridge, Alberta, Canada – Saturday, September 10th 2017

At obstacle racing media, we cover more than just OCR. Why? Cause I wanna. Plus there is a lot to learn for our sport by participating in other sports! The crossover between OCR and endurance running is fairly clear; training for an ultra prepares you for the rigors of the Spartan Race Ultrabeast or the Worlds Toughest Mudder series and vice versa. Ultra distance events also allow you to tap into a great local community of runners to push you further and share training ideas. Consider this cross pollination.

As an introduction to my first ultra distance event, there seemed no clearer place to start than my own town – Lethbridge. 

Smoky LSU

Except, was not a clear day: visibility was about a mile or less – and trying to see the other side of the valley was like looking through a glass of skimmed milk. The driest, hottest summer in years had turned most of British Columbia into a tinder box and since mid August, vast forest fires have been pouring blue tinted smoke and white ash onto the prairies. By the time I arrived at the start line on Saturday it was clearing, but I did spare a thought for the 100K and 100-mile runners who had battled through air quality indexes at +10 for most of Friday.

The history

The Lethbridge Lost Soul Ultra Marathon (LSU) is organized through a running club and runners store in Lethbridge – Runners Soul. Now in its 18th year, the LSU it has been billed as “The toughest race on the prairies.” Not to put anyone off; it is also known as “the nicest [race on the prairies!]” 

There’s a long waiting list for this race, and when entries go on sale in January, it sells out in a matter of hours. I was about to find out why. 

The setup

The entry fee is CA$160 regardless of distance, which is an excellent value given the quality of this event. Three distances are available to choose from; the 54 kilometer, the 100 kilometer, and the 100 miler. The race is capped at relatively low numbers to maintain a great experience for all.

The course is separated into 6 legs, ranging in distance from 6 kms to 16 kms. 

LSU aeiral

The first half of the course accumulates most of the elevation gain and loss, covering the eroded spurs of glacial till that form the valley walls, while the second half hugs the grassy banks of the Oldman River. Now, you’d expect the prairies to be flat, but I know better, in fact my GPS logged 53.06 kilometers or 32.9 miles with 1,441 meters or 4727 feet of elevation gain and loss during my race. This is not a flat course by any means, and this race climbs the walls of that river valley from bottom to top at least 13 times. The relatively short descents and climbs on the first two legs are extremely steep, but never dangerous.

Underfoot the surface is mostly dusty single-track, which isn’t a particularly challenging surface to run on – apart from some sections with loose sand, deep gravel or powdery dust. Grip and breathability were really great in my Merrell All Out Charge. I felt like they were a good choice for the mix of conditions.

Shoes for LSU

 

Lisa Houle (4) LSU

Do not assume that Canada would have cooler temperatures by September – cactus thrive alongside rattlesnake in the river valley. By 11 am on Saturday the mercury had risen to a punishing 37°C (98.6°F) in the river bottom!  Dante himself could have found inspiration here for his inferno. It can snow this time of year in Alberta, and one week later at the time of this publication, it is a balmy 12°C! You have been warned: if it is a warm day, be prepared for the extended rigors and heat of the ‘North Loop’. Train in the heat!

River LSU

The power of experience

The guidance strategies and course markings on the LSU must have been finely tuned over the years because I never once felt lost. Pink flags were liberally placed for high visibility. 

LSU Snake

I guess that when you get good enough at the big stuff, you can start having fun with the details. The race was full of amusing or unique things to look at, like tiny rocks painted as Minions, the odd fake snake, or rocks painted with motivational statements. 

Lisa Houle (1) Rock LSU

The hills all had different nicknames, from the rather obvious ‘First Hill’ to ‘The Final Insult.’ Very funny.

Oh, and in the woods of the north loop, there was this…

Tracy Romelle Facebook Clown

By later in the day on Friday, someone dealt with it before he could float anyone else…

Clown LSU

This wink of knowing, dark humor kept me entertained and helped me keep perspective during the painful final hours of the race. 

Those aid stations!

Food LSU

There were three aid stations on the course, each of which sat like literal oases on the prairie. Each can be visited twice on each loop and one unmanned aid station could be found halfway along the longest north loop. A bag drop can be made for two of them (HQ and the northernmost station at Pavan Park). I’m not kidding when I say that the aid stations here are probably among the best you’ll ever experience. Where else can you get a grilled salmon sandwich along with a frozen lemonade? The choice of treats and drinks was diverse. Now, I know I might be gushing because I was high on endorphins, so take this with a pinch of electrolytes. Each was an oasis, that as you’ll read later, I found very difficult to leave.

Pavan Aid Station

Food

Volunteers

The volunteers at the LSU were THE BEST (again excuse my endorphins). I don’t know if this is a regular thing at ultras, but at every aid station, I felt revered and respected like some kind of holy cow. Whether it was an encouraging applause, the sound of cow-bells announcing your arrival, or a knowing look from someone who has almost certainly been ‘there’ (and by there I mean the deepest ‘pain cave’), I’ve never felt so supported on-course. People knew my number and my name. They interacted with me on a personal level. They were so engaged and ‘on task’ that there was no need to really ask any questions or do anything other than check in at the station, with any assistance you needed being delivered before you even asked. OCR needs this kind of volunteer.

Volunteers

My Race

I had a fairly smooth race until the halfway mark. This was home ground for me, so I was well prepared for the elevation gain and the distance. I knew these trails and was making good time, until the heat arrived. Lost Soul Glenn (3)

Staying hydrated in +35 degrees was a huge challenge, and as I came down from the ridges above the valley, I began to look longingly at the cool river running to my right. I was having a great time still, but I wanted to jump in right then. It seemed like the perfect antidote to the problem I was having with this heat. Heat had crept in and messed with my plans to finish strongly. It was the enemy and water was my ally. I thought about running down the bank for a minute and just standing in the water for a moment; it would take the pain out of my legs and lower my core temperature. It looked so inviting.

It would also leave me prone to blisters in my shoes and chafing. I might not feel like climbing back up the bank. The energy expenditure wouldn’t be worth it. Best to press on across the flood plain which was cracked and baked hard in the sun.

The distance seemed to dilate and grow as the temperatures and exposure took their toll on my mind. I’m pretty sure I had forgotten my salt pills. I checked through my bag over and over. Yeah… they weren’t there.

I took my shirt off and packed it for a while, exchanging it for my wide-brimmed hat to shield my head from the sun. I began to divert my attention away from how difficult it was and focused on keeping my running form balanced and maintaining the right heart rate, regardless of pace. I kept my mind busy – I was going to make it to Pavan aid station and recover a little before continuing.

This was a positive thought, yet in the back of my mind, I knew things weren’t going that well. I was overheating fast, and I had a very primal thought that I was going to get into trouble soon – maybe even on the way to Pavan. My watch rang out to me to take my nutrition. I was trying not to check my distance too much, but I let myself this time. I was 35km in – 20 to go!  The taste of the homemade gel I was using was starting to get weird. I struggled to swallow it: the task of eating and running was becoming burdensome. 

Where was Pavan station? I felt like it was taking forever. But I tried to keep my mind positive. This was such a privilege to be able to run out here and to experience this kind of test. The North loop eventually spat me back out, and I made it to the Pavan Park aid station – almost delirious from the heat. I got my pack filled with more electrolytes and I ate a big handful of dill pickle potato chips from my drop bag – the sodium felt like it would be enough. It probably wouldn’t be. I didn’t think to ask for salt pills; I had come this far, and I had heard that they might not matter anyway.

The mood at the aid station was celebratory, easy, accommodating. It really felt like an oasis there. I felt myself relax for a moment – part of my brain enjoying the atmosphere and the contrast with how rough things had been just a few minutes earlier on the trail. I had to force myself to snap out of the momentary stupor to realize I was far from done. It took more effort than I expected to leave that place behind and get back on the trail. 

I grabbed a frozen lemonade which I gulped down too quickly (hello brain freeze), and set off into the heat once again. I was cooler now, and feeling cautiously optimistic, knowing that I only had about 13 kilometers to go. I ran well for about 15 minutes before my pace began to falter again and soon I was unable to drink enough water without feeling sick. Heat exhaustion. Not enough electrolytes. It felt like I was drinking plenty, but in reality, I was taking in only small sips and becoming more and more dehydrated.

Lost Soul Glenn (4)

“Hi, I’m dying”

At that time, I got a message from my wife Deanna – she knew that my pace had died, as did everyone else; my family and close friends were watching my progress the whole time in real time via a Strava Live beacon. There was nowhere to hide what was happening, and messages of support soon flooded onto the screen of my smartwatch. There was plenty of help out on the course for me, but it was huge boost to know that I wasn’t going alone on this – not at all.

Moments like this put you through a kaleidoscope of emotions.  One thought began to persist – “this is what I signed up for.” I had become lost in an environment that was wild, inhospitable, and indifferent to my goal.

I had become that ‘Lost Soul.’ It was time to pick up whatever energy I had left and make it back to the finish.

Time for redemption.

Completing two of the final climbs was accomplished by crawling on my hands and knees and once I was back on the flats, the trail brought me back to the first aid station among a set of baseball fields. There I was immediately set upon by 3 volunteers who quickly recognized the symptoms of heat exhaustion. I told them I was going to try and finish, so they stuffed my hat and buff with ice, the buff loosely wrapped around my neck to cool me down. I drank a lot of ginger ale, which seemed to help too.

The final leg felt better – but the ice under my hat and around my neck was melting fast so I picked up the pace. Again, congratulations started to buzz through onto my wrist – my family had seen that I had passed 50 kilometers. It was a huge boost to know I had come this far. One final challenge remained.

I made it to the final climb at the base of Fort Whoop-Up and took this last photo. 

Final hill

I’ve run up this hill dozens of times. I’ve carried buckets up and down it. I’ve ran up in the snow and in the heat. I know exactly how long it is, and that it has a second ‘summit’. Its not a big deal, maybe 300 feet from bottom to top, but after 53 kilometers it felt as tall as Everest. The sound of cow bells at the finish line nearby kept me crawling, dehydrated and unsteady, shouting at myself to keep going all the way to the top. I crawled my way to the top of that hill before hobbling my way to the finish. I don’t care how small it looks in the photo or that people routinely do ultras that are much harder than this. To me it felt like the final character building moment in what had been a humbling day. It had taken me 6 hours and 48 minutes.

Crossing the line

Lost Soul Glenn (5)

Lost Soul Glenn (6)

Nice and Tough

Make no mistake – this is the toughest race I have ever done. I expected that. What I didn’t expect to hear was that the 100 miler had just a 33% finish rate and only about 66% of runners had finished the 50K. I felt grateful to have finished, but also understood that the line between finishing and not finishing didn’t have to become a badge of honor. No matter when you called it, it was a huge accomplishment for all. 

Lost Souls Ultra Finish

Prizes

Top category finishers received an etched rock as a trophy. All runners received a personalized tile, a North Face running jersey, breakfast the next day, and a chance to win prizes in a raffle. I’m really struggling to find a fault here with the whole deal…. um… it was too hot?

Conclusion

Views

LSU is that race that everyone wants to do because it feels authentic. It’s got that locally sourced, locally grown feel that contrasts with the escalating commercialization of athletics. Capping the race at smaller numbers mean it feels exclusive, yet so inclusive of each person on course. LSU could expand the number of entrants, but then that magic could be lost or watered down. The event isn’t pretentious or showy, and Runner’s Soul appeared to transcend self marketing or promotion pushing. It’s a race that shows restraint and maturity in that regard. On a personal level, it taught me some very important lessons about my own approach to training and managing my race during extreme conditions. 

The Lost Soul Ultra is one of those rare challenges worth waiting for. Make no mistake, this is an event where a person must journey through heaven and hell to make himself whole again. Despite the smoke, the heat and the brimstone I will be back next year.

Photo credit: Ralph Arnold photographics. Facebook contributors – used by permission.

Spartan Race – NJ Ultra Beast: MORE than just a race

My First Spartant Ultra BeastThis weekend I embarked on my first Spartan Race Ultra Beast. A 26+ mile, 50+ obstacle course, designed by none other than the infamous Spartan race designer- Norm Koch. One of the best and most life changing decisions I have ever made.

When starting the 2016 season of OCR, I decided I wanted more and ultras were seeming to be my answer. The dilemma was that I had the want but also the fear to go with it. “What if I don’t finish?” “What if I’m not as prepared as I think?” “What if I starve?” and the “What if’s” went on and on, becoming more and more ridiculous, to the point where I held off signing up until only weeks before, even still then considering my “out”. The saving grace that brought me to the start line and my first Ultra Beast finish line was the OCR and endurance world’s fellowship and camaraderie. The exact reason I started this journey. Every time I voiced a fear or reservation, ultra racers barely blinked, before responding with motivation and laughter. A recognition that, maybe we all lost our marbles and sanity to sign up for a race like this, and yes maybe all your fears are true, but you won’t know until you try and if you succeed you get a pretty sweet medal and bragging rights.My First Spartant Ultra BeastWhen race day finally arrived, kickoff was delayed a bit. Nerves would usually plague racers at this point, but I was getting practically “birthday” excited to start. The sense of knowing that not just myself, but we were all crossing something more than a starting line in a race, beat louder than most drums and in an instant we were off. All my fears were suffocated with crazy amounts of excitement.

With each step, the excitement that I was finally stepping into a new level of athleticism grew. With the goal of finishing written on everyone’s face, there also laid determination, a beautiful gift that we all have when we get on that course, later to find that, the main obstacle is not forgetting it as the miles pile up and the muscles tire out.
My First Spartant Ultra BeastBefore I knew it, we had climbed a fair amount, passed the memory test, leapt over quite a few walls and had made it to the log carry. Trying to find the best proportioned log to throw on my shoulder, not thinking of whether they had separated the piles for men and women, and we were off again down to the multi-rig, which, with a miss-grip on transition, landed me in the burpee zone.  A quick climb up the rope and back up the mountain we go. From here on out, the break-down of obstacles to mileage was pretty well proportioned, along with a bear sighting or two, rolling mud straight into a slippery wall, and by mile 8, we reached a nice long farmer carry, that personally, wouldn’t be possible without the heavy rock music blaring, wrapping up the second third of the course. Before I was able to forget, we were back at the steep climbs, and by the 11th mile of my first lap, my quads were screaming on the inclines. This is where the Spartan camaraderie began to speak volumes. A few encouraging words, the reminder to check out the incredible view and a pat on the back kept me smiling throughout not just the first lap but full blown laughing in the second lap of the grueling course.
My First Spartant Ultra BeastThis race became life changing when leaving the halfway point at the drop bin zone. After shoving an everything bagel smothered in chocolate peanut butter and marshmallow fluff down, a few Oral I.V.‘s and some generously given pickle juice, second lap was about to commence. I had done Beasts plenty of times before, but getting going to take on the mountain again was the new playing field. One by one we leave that zone, physically, we were where we were, there was no changing that, but the mental strength was what would make or break us. The strategy was that of teamwork and to just not think about the miles ahead. With fellow racers words on repeat,  “one foot in front of the other” and “it WILL hurt”, there wasn’t much else to do, then accept it all and make the most of every second. Before you know it, that fire jump becomes more and more of a possibility and how could you not get excited for that massive belt buckle!
My First Spartant Ultra BeastBottom line, I didn’t know what to expect from an Ultra Beast, but this course was far from being for the faint of heart, and it did not let you forget it for a second. That being said, Spartan teaches an amazing lesson with a course like this; when your body is shutting down, it really is an amazing thing to realize how truly capable you are. A realization that you will never forget.
My First Spartant Ultra Beast

Battlefrog 24hr Xtreme: A View from the Podium

BattleFrog 24hr Xtreme - Lap PinsBattleFrog race series put on its first 24hr obstacle race (BattleFrog 24hr Xtreme) in Miami on March 4th, 2016, and continued to set a new bar for obstacle races. I have competed in two BattleFrog races prior to their 24hour race. I knew to expect a fun challenging course with unique obstacles. I also knew that the legendary Ryan Atkins (World Champion obstacle racer) was the course designer, Chris “The Beard” Accord was on hand for race operations, and David Moore was the creative director (the Trifecta of BattleFrog Brutality right there) and I knew this was a race I had to attend! I was so excited!

The concept of the race was whoever ran the most laps of the 5-mile course in 24hours, wins! They also had an added prize, whoever completed the most number of laps penalty free (i.e. King and Queen of THE RIGS) would receive a neon lime green nunchuck. I really liked this added bonus because it provided more incentive for athletes to complete the obstacles instead of taking a penalty.BattleFrog 24hr - King and Queen of the Rigs
What made this race so special was the choice of venue (and its perfect weather), the obstacles, and the amazing ultra racing community.

THE VENUE
The race was held at Historic Virginia Key Beach Park in SoFlo (South Florida for those of you who aren’t hip with the lingo) and the weather was amazing. It was a comfortably warm temperature for the entire race. despite some threatening clouds and forecasts for rain. I really liked this aspect because it kept the focus of the race on athletic ability and not cold tolerance. This also allows for the use of significantly less equipment. I love World’s Toughest Mudder’s 24-hour race, but it was so nice not having to worry about lugging multiple wetsuits, windbreakers and ski goggles. I didn’t have to worry about hypothermia and how I would survive cold waters at 3am when I am exhausted. For the BFX 24hr race, I wore the same outfit for the entire race (sorry about my odiferous aroma people who came within close proximity) .  It wasn’t too hot during the day (thank you cloud cover and onshore breezes) and it stayed a comfortable temperature at night (thank you mild SoFlo winter weather). The race started at 5pm, which was also nice, as it allowed competitors to race during the night while they are at their strongest, which in my opinion is safest for everyone.BattleFrog 24hr-Sunrise with Wall
THE OBSTACLES
The obstacles were great, and the course was fun! The obstacles showcased upper-body and grip strength. I like this because I love monkeys bars and Platinum Rigs (that neon nunchuck was going to be mine!). I found the penalties for failing obstacles were brutal, but also fair. If a racer failed the monkey bars (which requires a lot of grip and upper body strength) the penalty was to carry a heavy bag for extra distance. The penalty was significant enough that it was always worth doing the obstacle over the penalty, which isn’t always the case for other races. I loved the general layout as well. BattleFrog - King David (Moore)
A good portion of the race was running along the beach – queue beautifully, breathtaking sunset and sunrise – and I never got bored of the course because BattleFrog did a great job mixing up the variety of obstacles (and changed obstacles and penalties as the race progressed).  The original penalty for Platinum Rig #2 was 2 Jerry Cans and a Wreck Bag; as the race went on, the penalty became only Jerry Cans, then only the Wreck Bag, then only 1 Jerry Can, then carry David Moore…hahaha! Not really, but I wouldn’t be surprised if that were a penalty next year.  The only obstacles I began to dread were the walls…. eww walls. BattleFrog 12-ft Wall
What I also really liked was a mix of mandatory obstacles and camaraderie type obstacles. This allowed serious competitors to get ahead on hard technical obstacles while keeping the community together with obstacles that racers are allowed to help each other on…i.e. walls – did I mention I hate walls? Help was really nice after lap 10 when everything in my body was aching and screaming.

THE COMMUNITY
The community Battlefrog race attracts is very special. Everyone there is very supportive of each other. I wasn’t able to bring my own crew with me, and that was completely fine, Melissa Dugan did a fantastic job of setting up an “Orphan Tent” open to any racer that needed assistance during the race (Chris Maxfield masterfully manned the Orphan Tent for the entire event-silly costumes, music, and all.). They literally have everything from bandages to bug spray to donuts and bananas. I was also very lucky that my friend Matt Hanson (he placed 3rd for males by the way) was attending and shared his crew with me. They were amazing support!BattleFrog 24hr PitAlso, a dad of another racer came right over to me in the pit when he saw my hands had ripped open and I was bleeding. He patched me up right away even though I was technically competing against his daughter. We all have a sense of competition, but the sense of camaraderie is greater. We all want each other to succeed and push new limits. The organizers and volunteers were also great. I remember this one volunteer cheering like crazy for racers in the last few hours of the race. I was so tired I could barely smile back at her, but she was giving us all new energy!BattleFrog 24hr Night Ops Orphan Tent

The only thing I would change for next year is some sort of system to update racers on their positions. It was very confusing and nothing was in place. I had to rely on volunteers looking up stats on their phones, and most of the time I didn’t trust anything anyone told me. Besides that, I would not change a thing! So please Battlefrog, put on another 24hr race next year because we all loved it!
BattleFrog 24hr - Tired Beard
TAKEAWAYS
I’ve competed in World’s Toughest Mudder for the past 4 years, and every year it has been goal of mine to podium, and every year I’ve come up short.  As a personal trainer, it’s hard to swallow your own shortcomings.  Also, as a personal trainer, I know how growth happens…when you commit to it.  I started working with Yancy Culp in June 2015, and it is paying off.  I finally feel as though I’m ready to compete for the podium, and BattleFrog 24hr Xtreme was my first outing.  I wanted to run 75 miles (15 laps)! I wanted to win Gettin’ Riggy with It (come on…you all know I LOOOVVVEEE me some rigs!). I really wanted to win!  And, although attaining all my goals I set for this race is FANTASTIC…what’s even more AMAZING was the experience – it’s always the experience and the people.

When I started to feel really delirious and exhausted, I saw Cassidy Watton, who was crewing for a friend. They ran with me for a little bit and made sure I was staying hydrated and didn’t wander off-course. When I finished my 14th lap, there were 3-4 hours left to race. I knew my lead was enough that I could stop racing. Everything was aching and I felt exhausted. I saw Phoebe Brimer and Corey Herzlich and told them what I was thinking. They urged me on to complete another lap; they knew one of my goals was to hit 75miles (what I didn’t know was that they had hatched a plan to make sure I did that 15th lap). Corey walked the entire last lap with me. I was so thankful. I also thought about Milla Bizzotto- a 9-year-old girl who was still on-course completing her 6th lap, and she wasn’t quitting, so I couldn’t quit either!

I knew I would regret not giving this course everything I had.  When I crossed the finish line, I had finally accomplished all of my goals that I had been working towards for years. It was one of the greatest moments in my life. 2016 – I’m coming for ya Eh!
BattleFrog 24hr - Morgan's Map