• 6th July 2009 - By adventuresofgreg
    “No one would have crossed the ocean if he could have gotten off the ship in the storm.” ~ Charles Kettering

    There was a storm and I got off my ship. It was my second dreaded DNF (did not finish) in my athletic career – the first was the 24 hour human powered distance record attempt in Alabama. My steering bar snapped in two and I ended up on my side skidding down the race track at about 30 kph which forced a premature ending to that attempt.

    This time it was two feet covered with nasty, painful blisters at 120 kilometers into the 146 km Sinster 7 ultramarathon.

    Little did I know, but the wise imparting of wisdom passed from father to son would come back to bite me in the butt. I told Cody the day before the ultra that periodically experiencing a bit of physical and emotional stress is something that I think us humans are probably genetically geared to require from time to time. I feel that one of the problems in our modern sedentary society is that we don’t expose ourselves to that anymore, and as a consequence, I think that maybe some brain chemistry gets out of sync and we suffer unknown effects.

    A study done by Duke university found that after 10 weeks, exercise was as effective in treating depression as depression medications were and after 10 months, exercise beat the doors off the medication. This leads me to wonder what kind of undiagnosed forms of mild depression most of us are living with from day to day as we move from our beds to our cars to our desks to the car to the dinner table to the TV then back to the bed. And maybe we don’t even know it because we’ve always felt that way.

    There is nothing like the feeling you get when you’ve physically and emotionally challenged yourself in a big way. If you have experienced it, you know what I mean. The best way to describe it is that you feel very alive – before, during and after the event. Days leading up to your race you feel excited, nervous and apprehensive. During the event you ride an emotional roller coaster as you deal with your fears, your physical pain, your joy, your hopes – it’s a microcosm of life itself. After it’s all over, you enjoy the happy camaraderie of your peers who shared your journey with you, contemplate the lessons you learned and take pride in your accomplishment. In some very small way, you have been to hell and back and you survived. And you can put things in your life into proper perspective, and life is good.

    My Sinister 7 ultramarathon adventure started on Friday night when I arrived at the Safe Haven B&B and discovered that my socks didn’t make it into my backpack. Since the house was being shared by other runners also doing the S7, I asked around and Bonita and Bony from Vermilion, Alberta who were running as part of a team in the relay event kindly offered me their brand new Sinister 7 socks they had bought at registration. This is an example of the kind of people that you find at events like this – always eager to help.

    At registration I met up with my buddy Mace Mortimer who was also part of a team and running 16.5 km leg 1 which would be his first race ever, and Blaine Penny who was looking to redeem himself after he dropped out last year after running 80 km and his second round of puking. Unfortunately history repeated itself for Blaine and he quit after puking his guts out again at about 80 km. Mace had a successful run and the latest news is he is looking for another race to enter.

    The race started at 7:00 am on Saturday morning as the sun rose above the mountains in Crowsnest pass. It warmed up very quickly as we tackled the gradual uphill climb through the rocks and boulders of Frank slide. I ran with Mace for a bit and he was doing well, so I caught up to a couple of friends from the B&B, and then proceeded forward and started making new friends. It is so easy to make friends during an ultramarathon. There is really nothing else to do but talk, and so talk we do. About everything – past races, this race, a bone by bone report of how we’re doing physically, our hopes, our dreams, our fears. The first thing I ask is “how are you feeling?”. This is always met with a variety of responses and they are always honest.

    I wasn’t feeling all that great – not bad really, but not like how I felt 4 weeks ago at my first ultramarathon which was the Northface endurance Challenge 50 miler. I was on fire at the NF ultra and feeling fantastic for most of the race until I got lost – another story. I was being pestered by niggling little aches and pains – my left achilles, my right lower quad, my right hamstring – nothing major, just nagging little reminders that I wasn’t entering this race at the top of my form. Maybe some of those issues were left-over injuries from the NF race, maybe some new ones from subsequent training runs and maybe even some new cycling injuries.

    In every race there is always someone who is perfectly matched to your own pace. And you discover this person because you always seem to be right around them – either you are in front and they catch up to you or you are behind and you catch them. Hours can go by, but for some reason, they are always in the general vicinity. In this race that person was Greg Sumka from Edmonton. I found Greg somewhere near the end of leg 1 and ran with him on and off for the remainder of the race. I think Greg and I developed a good friendship and we helped each other psychologically. It was either me encouraging him to start running again when things started to slow down, or visa-versa. We had developed a pretty good partnership.

    After leg 2 and a total distance of 32.5 km, we passed through the first transition point again where I had a chance to get some food from my gear bag. Lucky Greg and other solos had support crews with them, so they arrived at T1 to a waiting lawn chair, a change of socks, new shoes or whatever else they needed. Arriving back at T1 was a really motivating experience. Everyone cheered and yelled as if I was Lance Ar
    mstrong wining a tour stage. It really gave me a needed shot in the arm.

    Leg 3 was 33 km and had the most elevation gain of 1237 meters (3711 feet). During the big climb it started to COOK! most of the trails were quad tracks, so they were wide enough that I was exposed to the baking sun and the big climb up to the continental divide on stage 3 was an oven. Since I was smart, and left my water bottle sitting on the water table at the last transition station, I had no water. Not the kind of thing you want to do before heading into your 60th km, mid afternoon, and huge climb remaining, and temperatures warming to the upper 20’s. I didn’t realize this until I had climbed 30 minutes of the ski hill. I didn’t want to backtrack, so I just kept going. Luckily, I found a stream which probably saved my race. I figured ingesting some microorganism from the river water would take a couple of weeks to incubate in my stomach, so it wouldn’t effect my race, and was certainly better than risking dehydration.

    When you are running an ultra, there is always too much of one thing, and not enough of something else. There was too much heat and it was really killing everyone. And then when we got near the summit, a thunder cloud passed over and it started to rain which was very refreshing! And then it started to POUR, and then sleet and then hail and then wind started to blow. After 45 minutes of it, I was starting to get cold and wishing for that sun to come back. The trail got very wet and muddy which was probably the catalyst for my eventual down fall – wet feet which lead to blisters. The sun did shine again – and of course after an hour or two we were all wishing for that rain again. Such is life on the trail.

    After leg 3 (total 65.5 km travelled), we arrived back at the main transition and Blaine’s support crew told me I was doing well and in the top 10 solo racers. I was very surprised to hear that and it motivated me to keep up my pace even though I was really starting to feel drained and sore everywhere. I popped a few vitamin A’s (Advil), caught up to Greg and we kept pressing forward.

    Leg 4 was the longest leg (33 km) and with 3000 feet of elevation gain, it was pretty gruelling, but I would have to say that I think it was my best leg. My left achilles had an annoyingly sharp pain that shot electrical bolts up my leg on every step, and I was starting to feel some blisters developing on both feet. For some reason, I had the strength to keep pushing and I started to pass some other solo racers. Greg and I finished leg 4 together in 8th place.

    My feet were soaked by this time, with mud up to mid-calf. Greg and I ventured out on leg 5 which is ranked a 6/5 and the most difficult leg of the Sinister 7. After about an hour, I started to have problems with my feet and Greg kindly gave me one of his hiking poles to help take pressure off, and to help balance while stepping over rocks in the many streams and mud pools that littered the quad track. The pole was really helping, but I was slowing down. I told Greg to go and he left me his pole. Thanks buddy! As it turned out, I really needed that pole!

    The pain started to get worse, and then it got really bad. I found a branch, cleaned off the twigs, and made myself a second pole which seemed to take a bit more pressure off of my hot spots. By this time, I was probably only half way through leg 5 and I was taking baby steps because the pain was so bad.

    And the mental game began. At first I started to ask myself how much pain I could endure in order to finish the race. First, I had to quantify what it meant to finish, and at that point, it meant getting through the remainder of leg 5 which was basically climbing 3000 feet with very little elevation loss. Then there were 2 legs remaining – both short and both downhill. I calculated that I could walk the remaining 40 km and still make the cut-off time of 24 hours. If only I could endure the pain.

    It started to get dark and I put on my headlamp. By this stage of the race, we were so spread out, that there were very few other racers around. I got a bit cold due to my lowering heart rate due to my hobbling steps and I put on my arm warmers and rain jacket. The elevation grade started to ramp up at the same rate as my pain. The scenario was being re-evaluated: Now, I could see the kind of grade I had to climb, and I had a much better sense of the kind of pain that would have to endure. I knew that there was no way I would be able to finish the next 2 legs, and after a while, I was wondering if I could even finish this leg. Calling for help would have meant declaring an emergency and it would have meant that the race organizers would have to organize a 4 wheel drive quad to come and rescue me. I didn’t think it was at ’emergency’ level. Yet. So I struggled on, step by step trying so hard not to think of the pain.

    A solo racer with a didgeridoo strapped to his back caught up to me and tried to encourage me. He told me what his daughter had told him when he was going through a rough time: “Dad – there will come a time when you cannot do these races anymore, and now is NOT THAT TIME. Keep going”. I thought about that a lot, and I was doing everything in my power to just make it to the next transition station. I wasn’t even sure I would make that.

    Finally I reached a water station at the very top of the climb where there were a few volunteers who had camped out for the night. They had heard about my problems from some other runners and were concerned. They radioed my situation to the crew at the next transition and told me that it was only 6 km and it was mostly down hill. In my confused, delirious mind at the time, I didn’t think 6 km was very far – I mean, I can run 6 km in 30 minutes. It wasn’t until I overheard the volunteer on the radio as I hobbled down the trail that I realized what I might have in store for me. He was telling the T6 station that I would be there in about 2 hours. That realization was very disheartening to say the least. It ended up taking me over 3 hours!

    Finally, I reached T6 where the medical volunteers were waiting and ready to take care of me. Boy – they were SO GREAT! I have to hand it to the organizers of Sinister 7: Brian Gallant and Andrew Fairhust. They really do run a great race in every way. The medical volunteers were very caring and supportive. They checked out my feet amongst oohs and aahs from all of the other people at the station looking in. They told me they didn’t know how I even made it there on feet that bad. One guy told me that my feet looked worse than the guy in the movie Run Fatboy Run.

    The crew arranged a ride back to the main staging area with this family from heaven who sat me down in front of the fire, put a blanket around me and make me a cup of chicken noodle soup. That’s the kind of people you meet at these kind of events. I would like to contrast that with a story I heard from Ben Saunders who recently ran the Thames Ring 250 – the longest ultramarathon in the UK where three runners in his race actually got mugged:

    “And I still clench my jaw with rage when I recall the jarring news at the second checkpoint th
    at three runners had been mugged, on three separate occasions during the night (one apparently on his knees, begging to keep his stopwatch, another beaten by three men as a fourth filmed the scene on a mobile phone)”

    I was dropped off at my car, and struggled with my clutch as I made my way back to the B&B in Coleman, had a quick shower, and was sound asleep by 3:30 am. The next morning we all shared our war stories over coffee and a wonderful omelet made by our host Allanah. Then it was back to that dreaded clutch for my 3 hour drive back to Calgary. Can you say “cruise control”?

    I checked the results, and realized I forgot to turn in my timing chip, so my times aren’t listed. But, playing that always wishful and somewhat foolish ‘what-if’ game, since I was with Greg Sumka up until part way through leg 5 and about 110 km, and he finished in 7th place overall, I ‘could’ have been right up there with him. This is definitely fuel for thoughts of returning… There were 49 solo runners, and 27 of them finished the race. The winner was Chris Downie who finished in 15 hours, 51 minutes and he actually beat all of the teams except for 3!

    All in all, it was an amazing experience and I will never forget it. If asked to do it all over again, I just might say yes!

  • 10 Comments to “Hamburger Feet – the Sinister 7 ultramarathon”

    • Iron Greg on July 6, 2009

      Those are the ugliest feet EVER!!!! yikes

    • Helen on July 7, 2009

      Actually, the photos don't even do it justice. His feet look even worse in real life. They are all puffy, swollen and oozing. Makes me want to do an ultra…

    • Helen on July 7, 2009

      Actually, the photos don't even do it justice. His feet look even worse in real life. They are all puffy, swollen and oozing. Makes me want to do an ultra…

    • Anonymous on July 7, 2009


      That was a great account of a tough race. You were right about your feet – ouch!! I commend you for not radioing in for help.

      Looks like we both have 2 DNF's in our athletic careers – both happen to be S7 for me. A good reason to go back next year. Good luck with those feet. Let me know when you are recovered and we can start training for next year…


    • Brian on July 7, 2009

      That's a great report, Greg. It really captures the experience from every angle.

    • Noni on July 7, 2009

      You're also a good writer. Really put us all in the picture with you. And those are pretty bad feet!! oucheeee!

    • David on July 7, 2009

      Paint not Pain… granted "pain" may really have been a better word to describe your experience LOL

    • David on July 7, 2009

      Dude that was a great story – I really enjoyed reading it. You have a great writing style and did a good job of putting words together to pain a good picture of what was going on. Enjoy your break from running – I look forward to future updates!

      David aka ATHFitMan

    • Bryon Howard on July 8, 2009

      … wow.

      Really appreciate your beginning on exercise and depression – I think you are bang on.
      Great experience – and thanks for sharing.

    • Gord Cross on July 10, 2012

      Thanks for sharing your experience. There is something spiritual about voluntarily suffering the way you did. It reveals strength and resonates a kind of courage. People benefit simply from reading accounts such as yours.

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