Last year the Baker Lake Ultra was my very first 50k on trails and only my second ultra marathon in total. My training over the summer was okay but running a marathon the Sunday before left me feeling extremely tired by the time I toed the line at Baker and completely 100% worn out by the time I crossed the finish line exactly 9 hours later.
This year I went to Baker Lake hoping for a bit of redemption.
This race was always in the long term plan so that was a big part of my motivation for getting into a coaching relationship this year. The new training style and hard work paid off in leaps and bounds at the Vancouver Marathon in May and I was excited to see what a continued effort could net me at Baker.
For the most part my training for Baker was great but I definitely wasn’t able to keep up my momentum as life had other plans and training had to take a lower place on my priority list through August and September. I knew I had a good base however and all things considered felt pretty good going into this race.
Last year Solana found some great accommodations at a local camp near where the race was held so we booked the camp early and had a huge crew of runners and friends staying there for the weekend. Last year I was so nervous but this year felt much more relaxed as we got our stuff ready and chatted before going to bed.
Staying so close we didn’t have to get up super early but it was still dark as our caravan of 8 cars left the camp and headed over to Baker Lake. When we got there it kind of felt like being at a local race because so many familiar faces were there.
We checked in, affixed our bibs and hung out a bit until we had to start. Being there in the start area was definitely bittersweet. Last year I was a ball of nerves, excited but completely overdressed. This year I felt confident, knew I was dressed comfortably but felt sad because Solana wasn’t there ready to run herself.
Solana’s ongoing injury had hung over us like a dark cloud for a good part of the year and it had been hard to see so many of her race plans go unfulfilled while she recovered. Baker Lake was her baby and so many of us were there because of her support, coaching and encouragement. Knowing she had to stay behind and watch us run without her was tough. She showed incredible strength and class by cheering like a banshee for each of us all summer long but I know it was a tough morning for her.
Disappointment aside, I know she wanted each of us to have our best races possible so I gave her a hug before I left and felt good knowing we had a few other good friends who would be cheering along with her that day. Like last year, the start was super casual and all of a sudden we found ourselves running.
For as relatively confident as I felt about my training what did make me a little nervous at this race was that I didn’t exactly have a plan for who I would run with, if anyone. I had so many good friends running but we were all in slightly different places pace-wise and I wasn’t sure how it would shake out once we got running. I was hoping I’d fall into step with someone along the way.
As for goals, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have some finish times in mind but having run only one other trail ultra I really didn’t know how realistic they were:
- A Goal: 7:30 hrs
- B Goal: Around 8:00 hrs
- C Goal: Beat last year’s time, sub 9:00 hrs
Barring anything unforeseen I knew I’d meet my C goal and was feeling pretty good that I could get close to my B goal for a nice PR. But maybe I was over-estimating the effect of not running a marathon the weekend before and maybe even hoping for anything sub 8:00 hrs was ridiculous, I didn’t know.
Anyhow, from the start I fell into a quick but comfortable pace with a few of my running friends from Langley. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep up with them for much of the race but figured I’d ride it out while I was feeling fresh. We made it up the couple km of gravel service road before dipping into the actual Baker Lake trail when one of my friends commented how awkward my gait was looking. Gee, thanks Russ! I always feel pretty awkward at the start of a race because my back is often so tight. Only after I warm up and loosen up a little do I feel like my stride becomes more natural.
It didn’t take too long before their pace felt a bit too quick for me and all it took was one quick stop to take picture and I’d fallen behind them. No big deal, I knew it was better anyway that I run at a pace I set myself. I really wanted to run a smart race no matter what the finish time and that’s easier to do when you’re not trying to keep up to someone else.
A few more km down the road I heard a familiar voice and was happy to hear my friends Jen and Marijke coming up on me. I secretly hoped to run with these two so I tucked in behind them and off we went. I was feeling okay but settling into conversation with these guys relaxed me even more and the km started to tick by.
There were a few logistical changes to the race this year and sadly, the delectable bounty that was last year’s first aid-station was replaced with a simple self-serve, water-only station. My pack still felt quite full so our little train carried straight through into a really beautiful section of the trail with huge trees and vibrant fall leaves. So pretty.
It was somewhere around here that we met up with another group of friends and began leap-frogging with them. Pretty much the entire course at Baker is single-track which makes it difficult to pass as you run. In comparison to last year where we were constantly pulling over for the 100 km runners, this was pretty chill but an unfortunate untied shoelace separated me from Marijke and Jen and I didn’t really get the chance to catch back up again.
As we neared the half way point we started to see the faster runners heading back the other way and it wasn’t too long before we came across the fastest runners of our group already through the aid station and headed back themselves. I felt like I was closer to the turnaround this year so that was a confidence booster.
Unfortunately at one point I pulled over for a passing runner and stepped right into a bush of stinging nettles or some darn thing. Instantly my calf was on fire. Ouch! As I glanced ahead I saw a friend reaching down to her calf too and knew we both got stung.
As I finally neared the suspension bridge, I was starting to feel kinda discouraged. I’d been feeling pretty good to be honest but I was disheartened having fallen behind my friends and thought I’d have caught up to them by now. It was silly but I was doubting how trained I actually was and just found myself in that dumb headspace where you begin to doubt everything.
I felt like walking the whole last stretch to the aid station but kept my feet moving and basically went straight over to my drop bag and didn’t feel like chatting. I changed my shirt, a friend filled my pack and I replenished my snacks. Everyone else was in such good spirits but I just didn’t feel like talking. I needed to get back out there and regroup. I still had a whole 25 more km to run. Ugh.
The halfway point was definitely my lowest point in this race. In that moment I dreaded the thought of running all the way back to the start. I was tired. And discouraged. And knew I’d be running the second half alone. Sigh.
As I got moving again I scolded myself for being down because of how much I actually love solo runs. I was on a beautiful trail and was still pretty sure I’d at least be able to beat last year’s time. That was nothing to scoff at so I put in one headphone for a bit of background music and kicked myself in the butt. I wasn’t exactly alone, I could see Dianna (who I ran with last year) way off in the distance ahead of me.
These are the moments that define the difference between just running and running ultra marathons. Those who succeed at long distances are those who can not just train their bodies but train their minds to be okay with being tired, being uncomfortable, being alone and maybe being discouraged. Your body is ready so your big job becomes convincing yourself that you’re strong enough to get through whatever is bothering you and just get it done.
Thankfully I was able to talk myself out of feeling so discouraged and actually found myself a nice little rhythm as I carried on. I don’t think I’ve ever run with music on a long trail run but having my favourite songs in one ear was a nice little boost. I’m sure there were sections of several kms where I played the same song over and over again because it was just what I needed.
I barely came across any other runners but when I did I felt good that I was able to overtake them and carry on. There was still no sign of Jen and Marijke or any of my other friends so even though I was feeling more peppy, I still felt a bit bummed that I’d fallen behind. I was watching my average pace slow down and figured I’d cruise in somewhere around that 8:00 hr mark.
I knew there was a final uphill before we popped back out of the trail and onto the final stretch along the service road and every time I hit an incline I wondered if that was it. I have to be honest and admit that I didn’t check my distance once during the race. Struggling a bit with motivation I almost didn’t want to know in case I glanced down and had way further to go than I thought. When I hit the aid station again I knew I had approximately 5-7 km left so that helped.
When I finally hit the road again I glanced down and my watch said 7:15. Wait, 7:15? That must be wrong, I thought I was on pace for an 8:00 hr finish but if only 7:15 had elapsed I’d be finishing quite a bit under 8:00 hrs!
This realization hit me like a ton of bricks so I popped in my other earphone, dialled in a killer song and booked it down the road. I was super charged but definitely still tired and I begged Dianna to walk a few with me for a few minutes when I finally caught up to her. We chatted a bit, shared some water and began to run again – we were so close to the finish.
I pulled ahead and made the most of what downhill service road we had left. It’s not the most inspiring start to a race but coming down a road to the finish was ultra running music to my ears. With my music pumping I felt like I was on a commercial for something really cool and really fast. Ha ha, funny how your endorphins play tricks on you!
I turned the final corner and saw Solana walking up the road. She may have been surprised to see me already but I couldn’t tell. I was starting to get giddy because I saw the finish clock and it said 7:33. I yelled, “Is that time right??” as I flew past Marijke and Jen who had already finished and sailed into the finish line with the biggest, stupidest grin on my face.
My official time was 7:33:31 for an 86:27 minute course PR. Nothing wrong with that! I was ecstatic.
Unlike last year we had a bit of time to hang out at the finish line after I was done. I was a bit disappointed in the food they had at the midpoint aid station but the post-race BBQ did not disappoint. After downing some chocolate milk, I went straight for the chicken broth and a big glass of Coke. Yum. The burgers were also amazing.
I was really hoping to improve my time at this race and knew I was capable of doing that in some shape or form. I may have secretly hoped for a 7:30 finish but didn’t think I’d actually get there. After the way my summer ended and training trailed off, it was a real bonus to come here and still achieve such a nice improvement.
That night we went back to camp and hosted dinner in our cabin for a bunch of friends. We even got to celebrate our good friend Candice’s birthday before winding down and spending most of the night around the campfire. Aside from the great outcome at the race itself, I ended up having such a nice weekend away. Those hours at the campfire were so relaxing and fun, it was just what I needed.
I still highly recommend Baker Lake for anyone who wants to try out a trail ultra marathon. For the beginning ultra runner, it is the perfect course – not too technical and beauty beyond measure. For the more seasoned ultra runner, the non-technical nature of the Baker Lake Trail makes it a fantastic place to push yourself for some fast 50k times.
My favourite thing about this event is how it seems to be about so much more than just the race itself. Both years have been about being with good friends, having fun together, getting away together and oh yeah, running an ultra marathon in there too!