In 2016, I read an article that highlighted the “dangerous, expensive, stupid, meaningless task” of marathon running. It was well-reasoned, well-argued, and made complete sense, and yet, I wasn’t so sure. Until that moment, I may have even agreed, but as I read it, the article had the opposite of the intended effect. Instead, I realized that the Slate.com author had a bitter and limited view of sport. The article planted a seed of curiosity – why do people run marathons?
Of all people, I probably should have known the answer to this question. To say that I grew up in a hyper-competitive family would probably be an understatement since both my mom and my Aunt Christine were two-time Olympic rowers, my Aunt Clare and Uncle Geoffrey were on the Junior National Cross-Country Ski Team, and my Uncle Stephen was on the National Paddling Team. I myself had been a competitive cross-country ski racer from age 13-21, and had spent 11 out of 12 months training and racing, with little room for anything else.
However, growing up, I also had a very limited view of what it meant to compete, and I internalized from a young age that the point of competing was the prospect of winning. Because of this mentality, over time my relationship with organized sport turned sour, and I bitterly told myself that racing was pointless. More than the pain of pushing, I feared the severe disappointment of not getting a “good” result, and this detracted from the enjoyable and rewarding aspects of racing. To compete when you didn’t have a chance to win? Hah.
As I transitioned to university, I had to question my priorities. Unable to perform at a high level in both school and sport, both took a backseat. Soon after, I retired from competition, but I found that without an outlet, my competitive nature soon spilled into every other aspect of my life.
When I went for casual walks with friends, I was one step ahead. On Canada Day, I had a push up contest with a bunch of drunk boys followed by a casual footrace to the next party. At Christmas, my immediate family had a race using only our arms to drag our legs from one side of the house to the other. I went tree planting, and spent three summers competitively shoving trees into the ground for money.
Sometimes it was funny, but other times people would get frustrated with me. I was unofficially competing in every aspect of my life, and I would be hard on myself when I didn’t meet my expectations which I was “unofficially” working towards. I was constantly trying to prove something, but I wasn’t sure what. After a large proportion of my friends told me that I was “the most hard” on myself of anyone they knew, I started to get the hint. Maybe competitive sport was necessary for me, but I just needed to frame it differently.
So, in 2016, after about five years of retirement, the bitterness of the article egging me on, I entered my first big running race – Vancouver’s Eastside 10 km. I had zero chance of winning, but was swept up by the excitement of the event. Despite my solidly mediocre time, I rode the runners high all morning, giggling at puns and poop jokes. I once again remembered all the great things that sport has to offer: community, challenge and an insatiable appetite. With endorphins coursing recklessly through my body, I did what any newly re-initiated athlete would do, and signed up for the Goodlife Fitness Marathon, which was only a couple weeks away. It was time to satiate my true curiosity. Was marathon running really so “dangerous, expensive, stupid and meaningless”?
At this point, there were a few people worried for my sanity, not to mention my knees. Having almost no training base apart from my residual tree-planting fitness, I was woefully unprepared to compete in a full marathon, and yet it was the lack of preparation, in addition to my curiosity, that made it possible for me to put myself on the line. Yes, it was expensive, but somehow, it didn’t feel so stupid or meaningless.
Upon completing the marathon with another solidly mediocre time, just over the Boston Qualifying time, I began to question why things were different this time around, and started to search for new challenges. Marathons aren’t that bad, but what about ultramarathons? By February, my Facebook algorithms were most likely alerted by my obsessive Google searches, and soon enough, I came across a trail ultramarathon in Victoria, BC – The Finlayson Arm.
In a matter of hours after finding the event, I was signed up for my first trail ultra: with 3500 meters of elevation gain and 52 kilometers of technical trail running, it was both scary and exciting.
But, despite the advanced warning of a February registration, the months before my first trail ultra involved very little actual “running”. Instead, I spent the time leading up to the September race date shoving hundreds of thousands of saplings into the earth. While others increased their mileage, I increased the trees I planted – wading through bushes, and waddling up and down the swampy trenches of Northern Alberta with saddle bags caked in mud.
It wasn’t the smartest or most effective way to train, but moving all day everyday did, once again, “unofficially” build up my endurance. As the start date approached, I didn’t feel the usual nervousness or dread that I used to feel leading up to a big race. It was almost as if the longer the race was, and the less I trained, the less stress I felt. There was no expectation. I was choosing to do this purely for the challenge and the guaranteed type II fun.
The night before the big event, I began to register the oh-shit-what-have-I-done-ish-ness of it all. Having looked at the previous years race times, I realized that I was probably going to be on the trail for at least twice the time it took me to do the marathon. With my clothes folded neatly beside my bed, and pre-packed shot blocks, cliff bars and sports drink stuffed into my newly purchased running vest, I was as prepared as I could be given the circumstances, but I hardly slept at all, buzzing with a combined mixture of nervousness and a child’s Christmas Eve excitement.
When morning finally came, just finding coffee was a logistical nightmare, not to mention finding the race start. After several failed attempts at finding the ambiguous “campground” where the event would kick off, I finally saw a little sign in the 5 am gloom, pointing down a narrow gravel road. The parking lot was full. We parked far away, and ran to the start line, with minutes to spare for the bib pick up cut off time. People milled around. Tents and colourful banners led to the finish line, and the commentator welcomed the 100 kilometer runners as they passed the start for their second lap. Having run all night, they had a deadened look in their eyes, but some managed to raise their hands as the crowds ushered them forward. “Perhaps next year,” I thought.
At 7 am, the race organizer called all 140 participants to the start line. My mom, who had come to watch, took blurry photos of me, and my friends Sarah-Monique and Max, who I had convinced to run the race. Fresh faced and giddy, we hardly minded the rain that fell in fat drops around us. Moments later, we were off in a clatter of hiking poles, whoops and crunching gravel.
With an uphill start, I had to resist the temptation to surge ahead. The previous times had ranged from 6-12 hours – this was not an easy course. I was prepared to be running for most of the day, so I settled into a comfortable jog, lengthening my stride to a brisk walk on the steeper sections.
When we had established smaller groups, I felt myself begin to relax. Around me, people chatted. We wound up and down the narrow trails and under bridges until we found ourselves at the notorious Goldstream crossing. With the rain falling steadily, wading through the calf deep water hardly phased us as we picked our way along the slippery riverbed. It wasn’t until we exited the stream and the water sloshed heavily in our runners that our legs began to resist a little. They say an ounce on the foot is a pound on the back, and I began to recognize truth in the old adage. The groups began to space out, and I started to chat with the girl next to me, something I had never done in a race before.
We passed the time finding commonalities and sharing tidbits of wisdom. She had been a tree planter too. Her calves had the intimidating cyclists bulge, and we bonded over our lack of ultra experience.
“I hear if you’re bonking, you can eat your way through anything,” I told her.
“That’s the best news I’ve ever heard!” she said, sharing my love of calories.
We fell silent as the first major climb up Mount Finlayson steepened and people began to drop off the pack. We neared the top, and the trail turned to a slippery scramble up a rocky outcrop. My breathing was ragged as I pushed over the crest of the climb, and I began to feel the first real hints of discomfort. At this point, we were only eight kilometers in, so I ripped open my first shot block, chewing the gummy vigorously and washing it down with a swig of sport drink. The volunteers gave us high fives at the top of the 400 m climb, and I felt myself smile involuntarily. It was impossible to resist their energy. The elevation began to drop again, and I emptied my first soft-flask of water as I recovered on the downhill.
After a small stretch of road where I was able to lengthen my stride and find a rhythm, we reached the first aid station. At 12 kilometers, the little tent with fairy lights and the random assortment of treats and meal items was a welcome sight, but nothing was more welcome than the sight of my mom, who cheered excitedly as I came into view, wrapping me in a giant hug. Beau, our giant wolf dog, wagged his tail in greeting. As I tried to take out my water flask, I noticed my hands were clumsy and cold from the rain, so the volunteers took charge. “Your mom is great,” one woman told me enthusiastically, with an added “go Freya, go!” Clearly Mom had been strategically making friends. After replenishing calories with bananas and a cold quesadilla, I was back on the trail, feeling a warm glow.
On my own, the narrow trail carved up another steep section towards Jocelyn Bight. Not wanting to expend too much energy, I transitioned to a ski stride. A little bound, reaching ahead with my arms, and rolling from heel to toe. It looked nerdy, but as a cross-country skier, it felt natural. I found my stride, and fell into step with a man in his forties who seemed to be employing a similar technique. “Is this your first ultra?” I asked him curiously.
Once again, I found to chat to. This was his fourth ultra. He was from Ottawa. He was a cross-country skier too. My uncle was his chiropractor! It was as if I could find some sort of connection with everyone on the trial, and it was comforting. Rather than feeling a fierce competitive edge, I felt motivated to push myself, while simultaneously cheering on the other participants. We worked together, and when the time came to part, we split with well-wishes and see-you-soons.
As I reached a downhill stretch, I downed another liter of water, and let my legs go. They felt dethatched from my body as I ran down the multi-kilometer decent, and I felt a little rush of adrenaline as I threw in a few video-game inspired leaps and jumped off rocks. I resisted the urge to say “PARKOUR,” but I definitely thought it.
At a certain point, the ups and downs became a blur, and my energy began to flag. There was another feed station at 23 kilometers, and then another at the 28 kilometer turn-around point. My mom had driven out to the turn-around, but by this time I was in zombie-mode. I haphazardly grabbed orange slices, and used my wrists to extract my water bottle – my hands too swollen to use. “Eat more,” Mom told me. I gravitated towards the roasted potatoes, and ate a handful of jujubes.
Knowing that I was just over halfway, I began to thinking about all the hills I had joyfully bounded down, and dreaded climbing back up them. As I began to drag myself down with defeatist thoughts, I decided it was time to press the reset button. I forced a smile on my face, and continued back the way I had come while Mom excitedly took her unflattering, blurry phone photos.
I sang the Finding Nemo Dory song to myself as I urged myself back up the hill, thanking Pixar for their delightfully quotable movies. Time blurred again as I entered survival mode. I fell into stride with another participant. We didn’t talk much, but we ran together for 15 kilometers, taking turns setting the pace, and working to keep each other motivated. I was faster on the downhill, but he was steady on the uphill. I found myself holding back so we could run together until he encouraged me to pass him. “You’re so close!” he said at the last feed station. “Take it for the team!”
Feeling a little guilty, I pushed ahead, running as quickly as my stiff legs could carry me. It was mostly downhill at this point, but running downhill suddenly felt hard. With only four kilometers until the finish, it seemed like I would never cross the line. I thought of an asymptote, and patted myself on the back for the mathematic connection.
But, despite the drawn-out last kilometers, I did cross the line. As I ran down the corridor of colourful flags into the finish, I heard my mom and the friends who had come to cheer me on. I crossed the line, and the race organizer gave me a high-five. I got that indescribable bursting feeling – how could the happiness balloon be so full and not pop? I felt the desire to cry out of the sheer emotion, as the endorphins crashed down on me like waves on a beach. With a finish time around eight hours, I was the 12th woman, and 37th overall out of 140 participants. I had given it what I had, and I had nothing to compare it to. I realized that just finishing was an accomplishment, and my success was unconditional, whereas in a shorter race, I may have questioned whether I had more in the tank.
Max had crossed the line just ten minutes ahead, and we gave each other a congratulatory hug as our friends and my mom led us over to the camping chairs. We huddled under our survival blankets, teeth chattering, legs seizing, and watched as other racers crossed the line. In that moment, despite being tired and uncomfortable, I felt unbelievably content. I watched as small children ran into the finish line to greet their parents, and took in the tears, hugs, cheers and laughter.
It was an intoxicating mix of extreme discomfort and hedonistic pursuit. Potentially dangerous. Definitely expensive. Probably stupid. But meaningless? I’m still not sure I know the answer to that. What I have realized however, is that the uncertainty allows people to surprise themselves, rather than expecting something only to be let down. With the question of unsuccessful and successful put aside, people are able to immerse themselves in the experience, and connect with people in a way that isn’t always possible in other forms of competition. They’re able to prove something, learn something, and maybe in the best case scenario, carry it on to other aspects of their lives. Rationally, running for a really, really long time will never make sense, but I’ve come to the conclusion that the best things are unexplainable.
And yes, it’s addicting.