I often think about what a peculiar and contrasting life I live. I joke about having multiple personalities, which really isn’t much of a joke. The truth is that I am blessed to have so many interests, hobbies, and passions that keep me invigorated both mentally and physically.
On August 28th of this year, I embarked on my most extreme adventure to date. The event: Fire and Ice, a six day 250km footrace across Iceland. The race is a staged multi day event where you are responsible for carrying anything that you need for the entire 6 days on your back. My previous experience with staged racing was last year at a fabulous event called Transrockies. TRR takes place in Colorado and is essentially summer camp for runners. We were so incredibly well taken care of that I never wanted to return home and cook for myself again! I loved my experience at TRR but I was ready to up the ante and the challenge of the self supported Fire & Ice race looked like just the right amount of crazy. I was also fortunate enough to have the inside scoop from the 2016 winner, a crazy dude who also happens to be my coach, Charles Miron. Charles shared every single tidbit of his experience with me and provided invaluable information on exactly how to prepare for this race.
The prep -
The work for Fire & Ice essentially started in November of 2016 when I entered that 16 digit credit card number and pressed submit… I’d be lying if I said this hasn’t consumed the majority of my thoughts and energy since that fateful day. Months and months of research, organization, planning, testing, and revising were necessary for the logistical side alone, never mind the physical and mental training.
My living room floor slowly disappeared as I gradually began to collect and purchase gear. Some of my major purchases included my PHD ultra down jacket and custom sleeping bag. Honestly people, these products rock! My bag and jacket were incredibly light and packable and kept me toasty warm when the temps dropped below zero. If you are looking to invest in a wicked down jacket, I would seriously check out PHD Designs. I also tested numerous different trail shoes, packs, clothing and liquid fuelling before making my final decisions. As far as food went, well dehydrated meals suck just as much as you think they will. By day 4 of the race my system was severely disputing their entry, lessons learned on that front! Another major challenge was the act of physically packing. Like how does a girl who owns half a dozen leather jackets survive wearing the same outfit for a week??? My 33L pack filled up quickly, every single item was endlessly debated and provided a specific purpose.
Charles had given me several different training blocks of work throwing in all the stops. From speed hill work early in the winter, to painfully painful slow recovery runs, to tempos, to ginormous solo runs in the mountains featuring plenty of vert and mind numbing road. There were many points in my training where I suffered from self doubt, yet Charles encouraged me to have trust in the process. Turns out the guy knows what he’s talking about! In addition to his running program of 6 days a week, I was lifting 2 days, doing yoga as often as possible, and riding my 2 horses 4-5 days/week. All I can say is thank you to family, friends, and incredible employees for everyone’s sacrifice. Without their knowledge, they all signed up for this race with me and had to help fill in all of the blanks of my personal and work life. Not to mention putting up with a cranky, constantly hungry and sore, complaining runhole. They were kind enough to take this journey with me and offered me endless support and encouragement along the way.
After almost 10 months the race had finally arrived. While we always wish we could be fitter and stronger, a few weeks leading up to the race, I felt ready. Mostly I think I was just sick of being consumed by the preparation. Hearing myself talk about my upcoming travel was becoming nauseating and I just wanted to start running! Already thinking back to the race it’s a bit of a blur, the days have kind of melted together and the race amnesia* has definitely set in. *Race amnesia* - when you completely forget about the intense pain, discomfort, and general hatred and only recall the rainbows and unicorns. My Facebook feed has been flooded by race registrations from my fellow competitors and friends, of F&I, some of whom are in walking casts, nursing their stress fractures. I will say that I was fortunate enough to have a truly “by the book” race. There is no question that I had ups and downs and it was damn hard, but in my opinion Charles Miron had brilliantly prepared me for this race. Not only in my physical training but more importantly, my mental training and self confidence. I am still so green to running in general, that his constant reinforcement and whip cracking lead me to a “successful race”. My definition of a successful race? Walking away knowing that I gave everything that I had to give in that moment. In Iceland, I accomplished this. I ran hard, I ran smart, and I mostly (other than day 5) ran happy.
The race - in a snapshot
The first 2 days we dealt with rain, cold temperatures, unbelievable winds and a very heavy pack. There is this strange phenomena in Iceland where the wind is literally ALWAYS in your face. Oh and did I mention a very heavy pack, because my pack felt really heavy and adjusting to the weight took some time. The landscape was uninspiring to say the least, with varying shades of grey and a whole lot of nothingness, the area completely lifeless… In some ways this felt like a very fitting introduction to the race, after all these were the conditions that we all came for.
On day 3 after a foggy, spooky start, the sun came out to join us and oh did that vitamin d ever feel good! If you hadn’t yet mastered the lava fields, the end of day 3 gave us plenty of opportunity to practice. Even though it took an enormous amount of focus (and eye drops), I really did enjoy the lava fields. Although I moved slowly, I was able to continue moving and it offered a much more enjoyable experience for me than the roads we were also spending endless miles on.
I think we were all looking forward to putting day 4 (aka: the long day) behind us. The 70km stage can be a make or break day and luckily for most, it was a strong day. The night before, Greg and I had discussed strategy on how to tackle the long day and I clung to that plan like velcro. Not a new concept for me but I really focused on breaking the race down into checkpoints and only concentrating on that section. Rule number 2 for the day, just keep moving, and so that is what I did. It was exciting to be able to keep my eyes on the leaders for the first 50km of the stage. After that we dropped into more lava fields and then into Hidden Valley. Hidden Valley is like a real life Dr. Seuss book, with big tufts of electric green grass and a beautiful stream, a stark contrast to the moonscape from moments prior. The final leg of the long stage was a fun little surprise (insert sarcasm) of 10km of rolling ankle biting heathers. I have yet to be able to totally describe this terrain but I felt like I was on ninja warriors, leaping from one mound to the next, hoping that it was stable and crossing my fingers that the heathers weren’t hiding a nasty crevice below. However, I survived day 4 and finished feeling relatively strong.
Oh day 5… by far my weakest day on the trail. Ultimately, this was a result of poor fuelling with breakfast making a reappearance and loosing track of my consumption (or lack there of) on the stage. I just couldn’t get my brain and body to work as a cohesive unit and the 12km start over volcanic rock, moorlands, cliffs, and crevices lead me to start the day with some clumsy jogging and power hiking. After hitting the 4 wheel track, I just couldn’t find my rhythm. The rest of the stage was spent counting those little red flags, grouping them, and making math problems out of my numbers…satisfying my OCD tendencies and keeping me out of my head as I awkwardly completed the remaining kms. Sometimes you just have to be satisfied with survival, so although not my best day of running, I managed to keep my head in a healthy space so I deemed it a success. On the evening of day 5, we were spoiled with the opportunity to go enjoy the hot pools at Myvatn. As we walked into the pools and were surrounded by civilization and it was the first time that week that I even remotely considered my appearance. Standing there with my hulk green jacket and my tacky, but oh so delightful down booties, I began to giggle to myself. After all, I am in the fashion industry and the not so subtle stares from other tourists solidified that I hadn’t quite nailed the “camper chic” look.
Prior to the start of day 6, the top 12 runners had decided to run the final stage as a group and finish altogether. At this point in the race, these top placings were very much finalized (especially on the women’s side) and there was no room to move up or down unless someone incurred a medical disaster. After 5 days of running 98% of the course solo, I was excited to have some company and enjoy some of my new friends up close rather than as a distant blur. We ran very casually that day and saw more elevation than we had the entire week. We laughed, took selfies, and exchanged life stories, it truly was the perfect end to an incredible week.
The finish line -
In all honesty, upon crossing the finish line, I actually felt somewhat unfulfilled. There was this sense of “is that it?”. My dad and his partner Zoe, had made the long trip to Iceland to support me and enjoy some adventuring of their own. Running across the line I could see them
cheering, grinning and waving a homemade sign saying “Whitney, our Wonder Woman”. All I could think of is, I’m not Wonder Woman, I’m just a girl who likes running, and horses, and clothes, and lots of other things… I guess the problem with us crazy ultra runners and A personality types is that we are always wanting to challenge ourselves to the max. While Fire & Ice was not short of challenges, I was able to execute my plan. Why I wasn’t immediately ecstatic about this, I couldn’t tell you, after all that is the ultimate goal. As I looked at my parents and saw their immense amount of pride, as I watched others cross that line in tears, received hugs from fellow competitors, and started to pick up messages from family and friends, I was slowly able to digest the magnitude of this adventure. Ultimately I am grateful. I am grateful to have the resources to explore and see what this big old world has to offer. I am grateful to have an able body and mind that allows me to push the boundaries of what I think is possible. Mostly, I am grateful for my tribe. My mom, who wasn’t able to be at the race but who was yelling louder than anyone and was my biggest cheerleader. My dad and Zoe, for making my vacation their vacation, taking care of my tired, undernourished body. My friends and family for tending to the business back in YYC and sending words of encouragement that gave me a reason to keep moving. I could literally feel their energy and love pushing me every step of the way.
It has been almost 3 weeks since I crossed that finish line and I can confidently say that I am indeed proud of myself. I set a goal, I worked hard and I accomplished it. Something that doesn’t always happen in a sport filled with uncontrollables. So yes, I am cherishing this experience, the lessons learned and the memories created.
What were my main takeaways from my Fire & Ice experience?
The ultra running community is absolutely incredible. Fire & Ice was not a one of, all the ultras that I have participated in have been filled with spectacular humans. Of course, the format of 6 days, self supported, challenging conditions and terrain, certainly promote the need for connection and community. People are inclusive, compassionate, caring, funny, down to earth, adventurous (duh), and truly grateful for all of their experiences. My favourite moment from the race, was on the evening of the long day. The northern lights were dancing across the sky and the crew had advised everyone that mother nature was putting on a show for us. The majority of the competitors sleepily rose from their tents to take in the beautiful sight. It was close to midnight and while gazing up into the sky we were informed that the last 2 competitors were making their way in from a very long day on the trail. As we followed the head lamps of 2 amazing fellow Canadian women march their way into camp, the cheering became deafening. It was beyond moving to see the determination of competitors grimacing through unimaginable pain, putting one foot in front of the other for kilometre after kilometre, day after day, continuing to smile and encourage every other individual out on that course. In addition to making dozens of new friends, this was a wonderful opportunity to really get to know and connect with an old one. Sharing this experience with Greg really did make Fire & Ice that much more incredible. We laughed, we suffered, we had pity parties, we strategized, and we sat in complete silence simply enjoying each other’s company. Greg aka F&I suffer buddy, thanks for being my friend out there on that big cold, desolate island.
The idea of running long distances has been a struggle for me to wrap my head around. As an entrepreneur in the service industry, the thought of disconnecting for hours upon hours is beyond challenging and can feel very selfish. However, running is teaching me that I am a better person because of it. Trail running is one of the very few things that I do in my life that I can be totally present and in the moment. Not thinking about the emails to return, the week of appointments, budgets, scheduling, fashion trends, customer relationships, I am just in the now. How am I feeling? Have I eaten? When did I drink last? How’s my form? Where should I place my foot so I don’t impale myself on lava rock? The entire objective of the week was to listen to my body and take care of it. Eat, run, eat, sleep, eat, sleep, eat, and repeat. It was so refreshing to spend an entire week not living and planning a life 6 months from now.
Staff and crew are the race. Dave Annandale and every single member of the Fire & Ice team, put their hearts and souls into this race. I keep thinking about the amount of work it took me - one little person to get to the starting line… the logistics for organizing and pulling off a production like this in a country such as Iceland, is mind boggling. Most importantly the crew made it fun. They laughed, they cracked jokes, they danced, they honked their horns, they were our cheerleaders and fan club.
So here I am, back in civilization. Thoroughly enjoying showers, running water, personal hygiene, fresh food, makeup, pretty clothes, and the hustle. I write this as I sit on another airplane traveling back and forth from Toronto, buying for Spring 2018. While I thrive on the busyness of the changing season, I desperately want to cling onto my time in Iceland for just a little longer…