Sunday, April 24, 2011


So, today I am licking my wounds - the ones on my feet and the ones on my ego. All are self-inflicted of course, and all will heal. So I am trying to learn what I can from them while the pain is still fresh.

Friday afternoon I set out to hike 240km (140mi) in 48 hours with a 60 pound load (weight vest, backpack and dumbbells). It was an arbitrary assignment I had given myself. Knowing the predicted length of The Death Race in June, I figured I had better see how I would hold up to that duration of intense physical work. As I am apt to do, I broadcast this intention on Facebook - and received a ton of encouragement. The route was between the south end of Orillia and the north end of Barrie, on the Oro-Medonte Rail Trail. It is a fairly flat route, 28km (18 mi) in length. I figured I would do the first and last legs solo, and had friends lined up to join me on the middle six.

Looking back, I vastly underestimated this task. I have run a couple of marathons (with zero training, might I add) so how hard could walking be? Well, maybe not all that hard. Until you add a 60 pound load. That load consisted of a 20lb weight vest (thanks for the loan Mike Kitchen), a 20lb backpack (food, water, clothes, etc) and 2x10lb dumbbells. As soon as I started I knew it would be a great test of my ability to "gut it out" but that was the whole point, so I welcomed the strain on my shoulders and back. 

About 8km in, I stopped to remove a pebble from my right shoe. It had been wearing at the ball of my foot since the previous concession and I didn't want to take any chances. But once I got unlaced there was no sign of a stone. Not in my sock either. There was, though, the start of a good blister. Already?? WTF??? I put sock and shoe back on and marched forward. Two miles later, the blister was much worse and others were developing on my left foot and the outside of both heels. Obviously the extra weight was causing me to push off much harder than usual. I swapped my cotton socks for wool ones (packed in case things got wet) and soldiered on. Things seemed a bit better.

At the halfway mark (the 1/16th mark of the whole hike) I assessed my pace - and it was awful. I had figured my first few legs would be 5 hours each, leaving lots of cushion for a quick replenish/refresh at the turn and the inevitable slowing in the latter stages. It had taken me a full three hours to go 14km. I called Karen Graham, who was meeting me at the Barrie end for 8:30pm and told her to count on it being 10pm instead. 

Here is where the real "fun" started. I noticed that my stride was way off - with a significant limp. The blisters had not become much worse, but that's because I was compensating so much for them. Now, it was the familiar pain of plantar fasciitis that was flaring up. I stopped, dropped to one knee and stretched my calf and Achilles then switched legs and repeated. Up and walking again I started running through scenarios. There was no way I was going to make the 224km in 48hrs. Which would be a more acceptable adjustment - finish the distance but take much longer? Or get in as much as I could in the 48 hours and call it a "qualified success"? With this playing out in my head, the clouds started rolling in.

KG called me back. Concerned at the tone of our last conversation, she suggested I consider dumping some of the weight to allow me to pick up the pace. How could it be that I wasn't even done one leg and already I was making compromises?? But the reality was that I had to do something differently, as my feet were getting worse with every step and I had people counting on me to keep to the schedule. Fine! I met her at the 5th Concession crossing and unloaded the dumbbells and the backpack, keeping just the weight vest and some water. I took some time to stretch really well. Then I put my head down and continued South, switching on my headlamp as the evening gave way to night.

With so much less weight, I was able to pick up the pace significantly and started feeling good about my prospects again. "No worries, Johnny, you are just getting started! Pain is mostly in your mind. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat!". An hour and a half later I was at the South end of the trail, where KG and her trusty pooch Hailey were ready to join me for the return trip to Orillia.

Really, I was just an hour behind schedule and would surely travel much faster with company, right? I took a few minutes to put some moleskin on my blisters, then donned a fleece jacket and some gloves as the temperature had dropped quickly, the rain now snow.

KG and I are old friends, and our conversations are always lively and animated. She did her best to keep up her end of that bargain, but it was clear to us both that my replies were coming through gritted teeth. Within a few miles I was already slower than my fully encumbered pace. Every few hundred yards I stopped to stretch before wobbling on. We dutifully ignored the obvious topic - how far could I go? And at what cost?

In my mind I was still going to finish...

"I am not a quitter!"
"Remember Joe's lesson - you don't "try" to finish something, you finish it!"
"Mind over matter."
"Suck it up and giv'er" - sings Steve VanKessel.

As we passed the Third Concession, KG "joked" that she did have cab fare should we need it. I pretended I hadn't heard, though by now I knew that simply finishing this leg was the new target. Every step felt like it could be the last, with pain shooting though each foot every time they touched down. I remembered my friend and chiropractor, Andy Westelaken, telling me that plantar fasciitis would be my number one enemy training for The Death Race. "You can tough out most things Johnny, but PF ain't one of them. If you don't keep that in check you will NOT be doing The Death Race." 

The mile between the 3rd and 4th probably took close to an hour. We may have been moving towards Orillia, but it was actually getting further and further away. Finally, I parked my ego and threw in the towel. "SON OF A BITCH!!!" I HATED quitting. We decided the best plan now was to backtrack the 5 or so miles to the truck. With that tension broken, KG worked hard at boosting my spirits - joking about her crazy dog zipping in and out of the marsh, asking me about other training plans, pointing out that I now had a "found" weekend to get stuff done. I hoped that my other hiking accomplices would be as understanding when I told them their plans were being changed - and remembered that my next trailmate, Amanda, would be expecting me soon at the Orillia end. I pulled out my BlackBerry to send her a text so she would stay in bed when her alarm went off - and saw a very recent message from her asking for an update.

So, swallowing the very last of my pride, I called Amanda and asked her to pick Karen and me up at the 3rd Concession. She didn't ask any questions - she knew how disappointed I would be - and agreed right away. KG and I sat down under a streetlamp and waited. When Amanda arrived, she took me to my truck and I returned for KG and her very wet dog, dropping them back to Karen's car in Orillia. Shortly after 2am, I limped down my stairs and into a hot bath before crawling into bed and passing out until 11am.

When I woke up, I started the post-mortem. My stated goal was to walk for 48 hours and cover 224km. I had walked for less than 9 hours and quit after less than 40km.


Brutal. Massive fail. Actually very embarrassing.

Could I have continued? For a while, maybe. Would I have jeopardized the next two months' training and even The Death Race itself? Absolutely. So there was no doubt that stopping was the right call. Why, then, did it feel so utterly shitty?

Mostly ego. I am training for one of the hardest races in the world. And I can't #&% walk to Barrie??

At Noon, I posted on Facebook that I was "off the trail" and conceded my defeat publicly. Then I started making the calls to let my hiking partners know that they had some free time ahead. To my relief, but not my surprise, everyone was hugely supportive and encouraging.

All that was left to do was find the lessons in this aborted adventure. What are they?

  • I need better socks! I did not bother to prepare for the difference in hiking under load, and blistered astonishingly fast. 
  • I need to practice walking/running distances under load. The Death Race pack will be between 40 and 60 pounds, so I had the weight right. But I need to build that ability up over the next two months, especially on steep hills ... Horseshoe Valley here I come.
  • I am nowhere near as ready for The Death Race as I thought. Which just means I need to make the most of the next two months to prepare. I can't take anything for granted - in terms of conditioning OR equipment.
  • I have amazing friends.
  • Sometimes you have to surrender a battle to stay in the war. My ultimate goal is not to hike back and forth to Barrie - it is to complete The Death Race in June. My eyes are still firmly on that prize!
So, with that said I am off to bed. And back in the gym in the morning for strength work (taking a few days off from running or plyometrics). Then a Tuesday massage, Wednesday chiropractic appointment ... and the McNaughton Ultra May 7th in Vermont. 

What do they say about getting back on a horse ;)


  1. For the record, I WILL complete the 224km in 48 hours at some point in the future. It is entirely do-able, but I won't be taking it on again until AFTER the Death Race :)

  2. Really happy to see a post from you. I really enjoy reading about your journey and it helps keep me focused on my own goals. Thanks!

  3. Saw this article and thought you might find it helpful. :)

  4. Thank you so much Heather! Great article!!