RunsPosted by Dave Wise Mon, July 01, 2019 06:33PM (For the full review and many more photos, see the July 2019 issue of our magazine) The Happy Trails Sunburn Solstice event took place near to Hamilton, Ontario, Canada. Jenn and Dave from our team took on the full distance, starting at sunup and finishing over 15 hours later at sundown. Before we go into our usual 8 point review, here's a short film showing the course.
Pre-Event Info If I had to say just one thing about Happy Trails Racing it is that everything is well thought out, and the pre-event information was no exception. The initial details available on the registration site are very thorough and give a good idea of what you are getting in to. We were sent several emails prior to the event with all the pertinent information including detailed notes on how to get to the location, what to expect for snacks, and support during the event. We were even notified by the event organizers of the switch to smaller race bibs in an effort to cut down on waste (bonus points here for their work to minimize footprint), and even what leg would work best if we were pinning these bibs to our shorts.
Event Location(parking, facilities/washrooms, pavilion) Everything about this location was great. The drive was a reasonable 1 hour from the city centre, which in my mind is to be expected when you want to be on trails that wind through a forest. The directions and address provided worked perfectly, and made it really painless to find the park, complete with flags and signs marking the park entrance where the event parking was ample. With that being said, my two standout items about the event location were the bathrooms and the pavilion. The bathrooms were located in a park building just off the start/finish line, so no porta-potties for us! And the pavilion provided a much needed source of shade, a spot for the food/drink area and an opportunity to socialize with our fellow participants, volunteers and spectators before, during and after the event.
Aid Stations(snacks and water/fuel) The food and drink options at the pavilion were everything an ultra runner would want. We had electrolytes provided by Skratch, water, sodas, sweets, fruit, salty treats, boiled potatoes, peanut butter and jam sandwiches and more. The volunteers generously cooked up pancakes, grilled cheese, and pierogis among other things and Mes Amis Catering brought in some lovely little chocolate and fruit based energy bites that were dairy free! I always bring my own food, as I don’t want to rely on the events having vegan options but I had so many fun and appealing fuel options that I ended up bringing about half of my food back home at the end of the day.
The drinks were served in recyclable cups. This is epic. There are so many plastic cups wasted at running events it’s insane. I’m a runner and I care about the environment so I hate it when I see so much waste generated by a big event. So I absolutely love that Happy Trails use cups that they can sterilize and use again and again and again. All races should do this, hopefully soon they will.
General Atmosphere of the Event HQ(event staff, volunteers, other runners, what’s there for a spectator) I could note enough positive observations to fill a page but for the sake of space and time, I will keep it brief. Happy Trails Racing's Directors (Heather Borsellino and Jeff Rowthorn) put on races where everyone feels welcome. The atmosphere was incredibly warm and upbeat and the volunteers, runners, staff and spectators all seemed to be having a great time. All of the participants out on course were offering words of encouragement to each other as we continued to cross paths throughout the day, while the volunteers were fully dedicated to keeping us happy, hydrated and fully fueled.
For spectators there was plenty of seating and 2 basketball hoops in the shade of the Race HQ shelter. One of the beauties of a 4km looped race is that you can see your running friends quite often as they pass by. Some spectators were also acting as race crew for their friends and family and they had loads of room to lay out their bags, food and spare kit as well as a good sightline down the final straight of the course so they could see their runners coming and get things ready for them so as not to waste any time.
Course(length, technicality, scenery) The short film give you an idea of the course. It was the most beautiful little 4km loop I’ve run in Ontario. There’s very little to disturb the natural sounds there - it’s far from a main road so traffic noise is minimal and I only heard a couple of private aircraft going over all day. The first 3 to 5 minutes of the route is on tarmac path then you enter a wood which remained quite dark all day such was the leaf cover. After that you go downhill and the lake appears on your left. At dawn this was a millpond. The path curves right and the lake is always on your left until you reach the turnaround at about the 2.5km point. During this time there are a couple of up and downs. Nothing serious, the sort of climbs and descents that escape your attention when you start running but do seem like Mont Blanc after a few hours!
The forested sections were dark due to leaf cover and since there’s a fair few roots and rocks sticking up these will most likely be your biggest hazard. If you take your sunglasses off before you get into the dark bits though you should be fine, there’s nothing major waiting for you.
You can tell by my description that this is a very runnable course. It’s far from flat but you should be able to put on a pretty good total mileage, perhaps just 15% down on what you’d achieve on the flat.
Shoe choice - I wore trail shoes but the course was dry enough for road shoes and the enhanced grip that trail shoes can offer wasn't really needed. Keep an eye on the weather the week before the race and that'll help you make your choice. You can also of course take both road and trail shoes and leave the pair you're not using at the central aid station. The loop is only 4km so any decision you make on the day doesn't have to be one you stick with for very long.
On Course Aid Stations(water points, sprinklers) There was a water point at the 2.5km turnaround, and a sprinkler just after the start/finish line, which offered a welcome rain of cold spray through the hottest hours of the day.
Race Kit, Medals and Awards This race kit showed the RD’s passion and attention to detail. The t-shirt has a well designed and appealing logo (the sort I’ll happily wear as an everyday shirt) that’s screen printed onto a soft cotton shirt. In the bag, which was also screen printed with the Happy Trails logo and which will make a decent shopping bag, there was a sapling - yes, a real tree! - a whistle and a decent pair of running sunglasses.
The tree was an especially nice touch. Not only did it come from a local nursery so it was advertising a local business but also it’s one of the best things you could offer at a trail running event. If you think about it, every trail runner must enjoy nature. It’s their playground. Yet time and time again I see trail running events that seem like they’re organised by people who care more about playing to the crowd than guiding their runners in the right direction. Thankfully that wasn’t the case with Happy Trails. The tree was an inspired gift that hopefully has all runners planting, maybe for the first time, and also thinking more about the environment. I don’t have a garden but I’ve found a place to plant my sapling because the world needs more trees and it’s up to every trail runner to take up the challenge of trying to make that happen.
The finishers medal was in a stained glass style. I’ve got over a hundred race medals and this is the best designed. A beautiful mix of creative ability and race medal knowledge. The race awards were equally thoughtfully designed. I was lucky enough to get second place in the event and received a framed original art piece by Heather, one of the race directors. I usually don’t like to put my awards on show as they can be somewhat vulgar at times but this went straight on the shelf in full view and there it will stay.
A couple of days later the race directors released the Wolf Patch and Bear Patch Awards on their Facebook page, both of which are awards voted for by runners who took part in the event. The Wolf Patch is for a runner who exhibits a “pack mentality" by showing an abundance of compassion and camaraderie on the course to the other runners, staff, and volunteers.The Bear Patch is for a runner who exhibits strength and perseverance with an inspiring gritty and gutsy race. They never give up - even in their lowest and most challenging of moments. These are excellent ways of rewarding people for something other than their speed or endurance.
Post-Event Info(photography, films) The race photographer, Sue Sitki (https://suesitkiphoto.shotsee.com/), was very encouraging all through the race. She was always yelling out where she was and telling you what to do if you wanted a good photo, such as, “Go full stride soon, it’s going to look great as you come over the bridge!”
I’ve worked as a photographer and know how hard it is so I was surprised to see Sue out there all day, for as long as we were, in the hot sun. Great stamina Sue!
The photos were online within 2 days and they were all free to download and of great quality. Couldn’t ask for more from a race photographer, and bravo to Heather and Jeff for including them in the race package.
Good Tastes of Tuscany are based on the 13th century Pandolfini estate in Lastra a Signa, a village just outside of Florence.
They offer accommodation, tours and more and I visited them to take part in their single day cookery class (they also offer multi day classes for those wishing to delve further into the intricacies of Tuscan cooking). There were 4 of us taking the course. Our teacher was an experienced local chef who'd worked in many of Florence’s 5 star restaurants and knew the Tuscan cuisine inside out. Many tips came our way during the course of the day such as don’t tip the pasta out of the boiling water when it’s done, instead use tongs so you don’t damage the pasta and you retain the water for use in your pesto so you can thin it to your taste.
Having spent the morning preparing stock, tomato sauce, walnut pesto, ribollita (Tuscan peasant soup), handmade pasta, eggplant parmigiana and artichoke salad under Chef's guidance (he allocated us individual jobs and we worked together to complete each task) we sat together and ate it together with a bottle of the estate’s own wine. An excellent day, and certainly the most informative cookery class I’ve ever taken.
After class I took a walk on the dirt track that skirts the Pandolfini estate. It leads up the hillside and past the old villa of the opera singer 'The Great Caruso'. Walking to the left of the Caruso villa's main gate I passed a pool on my left where his maid used to wash the singers laundry. Further on the landscape opened out to reveal slopes of olive groves on my right drawing the eyes to mountain ridges and distant villages. The area is well known for it's traditional character but such is the draw of Florence that few tourists venture here. In the 2 short hours I walked the track it showed great promise as a trail running or mountain biking route and I'm sure that as the famous 'white roads' of Tuscany get busier and more commercial then this area will see an increase in traffic.
Within days I was back in England cooking a vegan version of eggplant parmigiana for my family. I did a great job, I'm told by my sister, and for that I have to give thanks to the cookery course. We bring many things back from our holidays - tshirts, postcards, fridge magnets, etc - but the knowledge to cook for your family and please them has got to be one of the most useful, and valuable.
To check out all of that Good Tastes of Tuscany offer see their website
Fattoria Lavacchio is a organic farm near Florence. It's a special place, and quite unlike any organic farm I've visited. Most modern farms use chemical pest control or fertiliser to increase yields, whilst most organic farms use natural fertilizers (which can also be quite bad for us, such as copper). However, Fattoria Lavacchio doesn't use artificial pest control or fertilizer at all. Instead they use nature.
To pay them a visit I caught the train to Pontesieve, a village in Rufina Chianti region about 9 miles east of Florence, and from there Mr Tatsu drove me to the farm.
“The farm was built in 1700 by the Peruzzi' family and 100 years later passed into the hands of the Marquis Strozzi Sacrati of Mantova,” he explained as we made slow progress up the winding hillside. “Then, having fallen into disrepair, the Lottero brothers bought it in 1978 and undertook a complete restoration to how it looks now. Since then the farm has combined old methods with the most modern techniques to produce organic wine, olive oil and fresh produce and has looked to harmonise it’s activities within the balance and boundaries set by nature.”
“See the rows between the vines,” pointed out Mr Tatsu as we walked along the top of one of the vineyards. “There’s mustard growing there, the insects don’t like that so they keep away from the vines. The other plants among the mustard are fava beans. They give plenty of nitrates back to the soil, which the vines take out. But we use the smaller type of fava. If we used the larger type of beans the insects might be attracted to the area, but they’re not interested in the small beans so they’re left alone. So really, you might say that to combat harmful pests, we create a habitat where animals and plants that keep the pests away can thrive.”
Before heading for a tour of the wine cellars we accompanied Paolo and his dogs Peggy and Pippo out into the forest to hunt for truffles. Paolo trains the dogs by soaking pieces of bread in truffle oil, hiding the bread under the carpet at home and then rewarding the dogs when they find it. By this method the dogs learn that if they find the truffle, they get a treat.
There are many types of truffle and they can be found most of the year, although it’s not an easy job and Paolo said that for reasons unknown to him it’s getting harder than it was. Perhaps it’s climate change, or an ever increasing demand for the truffles. There have been attempts to grow them commercially but truffles are independent little things and insist on growing where they want. All the commercial companies can do is provide what they think is the right environment for a truffle to flourish and to introduce the spores; the rest is up to the truffle itself.
Even if those attempts eventually succeed I’d still rather hunt in the forest with dogs, as we did for the next hour. It was good exercise going up and down the hills, and good for the spirit to be out there in nature gathering food with the help of another species. By the time we got back to the farm I was high on the experience and quite determined to convince my friends that they too must come to the farm and do the same thing. A life lived without a single truffle hunt is barely a life lived at all.
Later, at the farm ‘Mulino A Vento’ restaurant, chef Mirko Margheri cooked us a vegan feast. We ate at a table overlooking some of the farm’s vineyards. There was cacao coloured pasta with a hint of truffle, savoy cabbage wrapped in broccoli leaf sat in a masala and turmeric chickpea cream, a colourful starter made from pureed veg, and a sorbet for dessert. We drank ‘Puro’, which is 100% sangiovese, and ‘Pachar’, a blend of Chardonnay, Sauv Blanc and Viognier grapes (which are all grown on the top of the hill to the east of the restaurant). The wine was excellent, and tasted all the better for having been made with grapes from the fields within sight of my table. Maybe I wouldn't have thought this could be so before my visit but in Tuscany, where things like types of soil and quality of ingredients are treated seriously, one is encouraged to think of such things. And I'm glad of it!
I met Alessandro, the guide behind Inspiring Tuscany Tours, outside of Velona's Jungle Luxury Suites in Florence just after breakfast. We talked a little about the eco-bikes we'd use on our tour - it was the first time I'd ridden an electric bike - and what we'd aim to experience as he fixed the batteries onto the frames of our bikes.
"We'll be looking for the authentic Florence," he explained. "Something that lays beyond the art galleries and that makes up the fabric of the city. There'll be history, vineyards, wine tasting of course, and more. Are you comfortable on the electric cycle? Ok, let's go!"
Florence has such a beautiful face that you can have a good time just walking around on your own. However, if you want to really experience the heart and soul of the city then you’ll need a guide who thinks outside the box a little. Alessandro is such a guide. Cycle touring or hiking might not be the first thing you think of when planning a trip to the City of Art but if you’ve a few hours or even a day free in your schedule and a wish to take a look past the dazzling surface of the city, then do check out what Inspiring Tuscany has to offer.
We biked across the River Arno and into the suburb known as the ‘Galileo Hills’. Our initial aim was to visit the villa where Galileo worked then to cycle through the surrounding countryside to enjoy a taste of the rolling hills and vineyards for which Tuscany is world famous.
I flipped the lever on the handlebars to ‘Eco’, one of several settings that will add an electrical shove to whatever peddling you do. At the bottom of a hill I got into low gear and flipped to 'Tour' and the extra power swept me to the top. I didn't even have to rise up out of the saddle.
This is obviously perfect for touring groups. The fitter people can set their bikes to offer less electrical assistance whilst others can up the assistance to easily keep up with the group.
We cycled quiet roads where the grey, handmade drywall reminded me of Cumbria and the Peak District. It was so rural and typically Tuscan, just a 10 minute ride from the centre of Florence. Here is a typical view seen during a brief rest stop.
Galileo’s villa, in the village of Bellosguardo, is known locally as the ‘Umbrella Villa’ due to the domed temple-like folly that fronts it.
A plaque on the outside wall announces that it has also been home to a great many other famous people such as Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Browning and Henry James.
We cycled on past wisteria in bloom (visit mid to late April for the best chance of seeing wisteria at it’s finest) and arrived at the Verinchelli Palazzo, a stately home which has belonged to the Verinchelli family since the 13th century.
"We’re mentioned in Dante," said Thomas Verinchelli as he led us inside to taste some of his family's wine. "In ‘Purgatorio’, the second book, not the descent into hell," he quickly added, smiling.
Many palazzo you find around Florence have been brought by corporations and sterilized for touristic use but not this one. Walking through the Verinchelli home offered an authentic look into the modern lives of an established Florentine family.
In the cellars we toured the wine and olive oil making facilities. We sampled their own Vin Santo, a smooth 15% dessert wine made in 2013 and bottled 3 years later.
The urge to sample a few more glasses whilst we talked was strong, but we had to cycle back to Velona’s Jungle. It wasn’t far but there were some fast downhills to take into account and I wanted to be in full control of my senses to enjoy them.
Thomas waved us off.
“He’s a very down to earth guy,” I said as we cycled away. “Very humble, too.”
“It took a long time to find the family,” Alessandro replied. “I knew I wanted to find a family like the Verinchelli's but it’s not easy these days. Eventually I contacted them via a friend of a friend who I used to go to school with and whom I met years later by chance in the Far East. It was very fortunate! It’s the type of experience I’m happy to share with my guests. The Verinchelli’s are part of the fabric of authentic Florence. To meet them helps one to understand the city so much better I think.”
Inspiring Tuscany offers a great tour that lasted around 3 hours. The batteries of the bikes they have can last up to 160km, depending on the terrain and how you use yours, but as my tour showed me, you don’t have to peddle very far at all from the centre of the city to get a real taste of rural Tuscany. Contact Alessandro via the Inspiring Tuscany Facebook page - https://www.facebook.com/inspiringtuscany/
Nishant is a fellow member of the Octopus Garden Yoga Studio in Toronto. I had a chat with him recently about his dramatic weight loss over the past couple of years and some of the lessons he's learned.
Nish, I’m interested to hear about your experiments in weight loss. In 2017 you tried to lose weight merely by dieting. Although you achieved your weight loss goal, most of what you lost was muscle mass, which you didn’t want to do. And then after returning to your regular routine, you regained some of the weight. In 2018 you tried again, only this time you added a regular yoga practice and resistance exercises into the equation with dramatically improved results. Basically, this time around, you lost 5 kilos but kept your muscle mass.
Yes, David, I attempted weight loss between 2015-2017 relying solely on a big calorie deficit. My weight went down rapidly, I lost about 25 kilos in all, and that was the end of it, I thought.
25 kilos?!! Let's not skip over that so quickly! That’s a huge weight loss. What were you eating during this time, and about how many calories per day? Did you feel well or tired during the diet? Did the lack of calories impair your thinking? What made you want to lose the weight? How did you know when to stop?
Yes, 25 kilos was a lot. I was on a calorie deficit of 800-1,000 per day for more than 6 months over the 2 years. My diet was really varied. I was eating semi-junk food initially, which made it considerably harder than it should have been. I think calorie deficits can be made much easier if one eats more whole foods. I felt cranky sometimes, but didn't feel a big lack of energy. It's hard to remember what motivated me in the first place. What kept me going was realizing how I felt so, so much better not being overweight. It's like you've been carrying a massive backpack your whole life and then you put it down. I stopped when people started telling me I looked skinny.
Towards the end of 2018 I realized I had gained back some of it (about 5 kilos) so I decided to lose that weight, again relying on a calorie deficit with a small bit of yoga and running thrown in. I had a DEXA scan before my weight loss and one after it.
Can you explain what a DEXA scan is please?
DEXA is a bone density scan which also gives you other metrics like how much of your body weight is made up of fat and how much is lean mass, or muscle. It is one of the few ways to accurately measure your body fat.
I was surprised by the DEXA results: I realized that of the 5 kilos or so I had lost, 50% was lean mass. One interesting observation of my DEXA was that I did not lose any lean mass from my arms, but a lot from the rest of my body. Looking back, it made sense since I was doing a lot of arm workouts like push-ups, and pull-ups.
I know that resistance training (lifting weights) is recommended during weight loss but I didn’t give it much thought, until then.
I decided to lose another few kilos, this time with a smaller calorie deficit and a more structured lifting routine. My lifting routine included pull-ups, push-ups, body weight squats, daily yoga, and curls using barbells. I didn’t want to get a gym membership and wanted to rely on my body weight more.
I’m not keen on the gym either. What turned you off from it?
Gym never felt like home to me. I didn't enjoy it for the sake of it, definitely not like I enjoy running or yoga. Gym felt like a means to an end.
I went from losing 0.8 kilos a week to about 0.4 kilos a week. I took photographs and measured my waist to keep a track of the body fat and realized that I was losing the same body fat with my latter regimen (which resulted in 0.4 kilos lost a week) as I did while losing 0.8 kilos a week, all the while maintaining my lean mass/muscles.
So you were eating more food, doing more body weight exercise, and only losing fat instead of muscle?
Looking back my advice for myself would be:
1. Weight loss is not the same as fat loss.
2. Keep a small calorie deficit. In my case about 18% of maintenance calories. Even smaller if you’re already lean.
What was this in real terms for you? Did you work out what calories you needed per day, about 2,500, then take about 18% from that number?
I know that my maintenance calories are 2,400. It depends on your weight, height, and frame. There are many ways to calculate that. I also have a Garmin watch that gives me a good estimate. I read a lot of studies on pubmed (a directory of trials (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/) and a blog called StrongerByScience on different calorie deficit targets. Your body can only lose so much fat before it starts to consume the muscles. One study puts that number at 55 calories per kilo of body fat. In my case that number comes out to a deficit of about 480 calories, which is a 20% deficit on my maintenance calories of 2,400.
My third and final piece of advice would be, include resistance training in your regimen, especially compound movements like squats and pull-ups.
So can we surmise from your experience that if you want to lose weight but keep muscle, then you have to operate on a daily calorie deficit and have a holistic exercise routine that is going to keep all parts of the body in use in order to keep the muscles active, such as yoga, pilates and maybe a little swimming, cycling or running?
Not quite. Resistance training (lifting weights or yoga) is different from other aerobic workouts like running, swimming, or cycling. RT involves breaking down the muscles which signals your body to keep building muscles. To preserve muscle mass it has to be the former. The latter, running, swimming, etc, while great for the body, does not do much to preserve muscle mass during a deficit.
You do a lot of yoga these days. Do you feel that you get enough resistance in class or do you do extra work away from the studio?
I do yoga at Octopus Garden Studio and road running, not much else. I practice hand balances and mobility routines as an extension of my yoga practice at home. I am at a satisfactory body weight and don't feel the need to do heavy resistance training anymore.
During your weight loss, did you find any online sources, or books, that were particularly useful in your attempts to lose weight yet maintain lean muscle?
The two best resources I can recommend for learning about fat loss are the website and blog I've mentioned - Pubmed and StrongerByScience.
One can be inundated with all this information. At the end of the day there is little to it other than, "Eat your veggies. Exercise wisely. Be consistent."
80km and almost 2,500 metres of vertical through the mountains, forests, villages and vineyards northeast of Florence. Starting and finishing in the Piazza Michelangelo, a hilltop square offering the most famous views of the city. This EcoTrail 80km is what destination-race dreams are made of.
All photos by Dave Wise
Usually I make my first race of the season one in which I can do my best. Maybe set a PB in to start the year off on a high note. The spring is when I’m fresh from winter training and rested because I haven’t raced for a few months, so I generally see it as a time that represents a great opportunity to realise my full potential.
Take last year, for instance. I ran my last marathon of 2017 in the November, then had a month off before starting to prepare for the Malta Marathon. I trained smart and went into the race in late February, 2018, feeling fantastic, and as a result knocked 9 minutes off my PB, finishing in just over 3:03. It felt great to start a season with such success!
But this year is going to be different. The winter temperatures at home in Toronto have regularly dropped to below -15C during the past 3 months, making training outside for more than 2 hours at a time a struggle. And what trails there are in the city had become ice rinks by December, so any hope of getting any vertical training in over rough ground was quickly squashed. Of course, there were indoors training facilities if all I was looking for was long-run fitness, but a running track was never going to give me the leg and core strength necessary to take on an 80k trail race with over 2,400 metres of climbing.
So why have I chosen a race I've no chance of running a PB in, as my season opener?
Well, apart from the fact that I've started to view timings and placings as a race's boobie prizes (but that's another blog post for another time!) I’d first run an EcoTrail event in Paris, several years ago, and loved it. We’d started the 50k in cold sunshine near the Palace of Versailles before running through 40k of hilly, stark post-winter woodland and emerging onto a grassy slope with Paris arrayed below us. I remember the exhaustion of a hard run evaporating as I’d spotted the Eiffel Tower. That was where the finish line was, right under this iconic monument, just 10k away!
That had been the high point of the race for me, not the finish but that moment where I held trail running and high culture in the same focus, in the same passionate feeling. I love the trails, mountains and forests but I also love art, interesting architecture and opportunities to further my education and powers of discernment so to combine them all in a race experience is for me a huge win, and to realise that during a race was a memorable moment, one of the finest of a long running career. And now I had the opportunity to do it again, in Florence, one of the centres of fine art! How could I do anything other than grasp that opportunity!
It's clear I guess, I'm excited for the race. The 80km route will take in villages that I’d read about in classic books (such as Fiesole, which had first come to my attention in ‘A Room With A View’) and I’ll be running through the very vineyards that give birth to Chianti wine. There’ll be some mountains to explore that I’ve read nothing at all about and also, after it all, I’ll still be in Florence, surrounded by the art of Michelangelo, Leonardo, Donatello and Botticelli, as well as some of the finest food in all of Europe.
So I’d signed up with no hesitation and now race expo day has arrived and here I am, holding my race bib pack, looking out over the red roofs of Florence to the mountains beyond. I know that they’re going to kick my butt big time tomorrow and I don't care one little bit. I feel the full joy and appreciation of being able to contemplate finishing a tough 80k ultra as I move into my 51st year; I'm so lucky, and grateful.
I make a few selfies in front of a full-size copy of Michelangelo’s ‘David’ statue and take another long look at the 280 degree panorama of city and mountain. I enjoy the birds chattering among the olive trees, and the friendly, down-to-earth vibe of the other competitors who are, like me, soaking up the sun and the occasion. Then I begin the walk down the hill - towards the throngs of tourists promenading over the Ponte Vecchio - and onward to an early night at my B&B.
12 hours later I’m strolling back across the Ponte Vecchio, only this time the crowds are gone and it’s just me, enjoying the first rays of sunrise illuminating the medieval buildings. I haven't even started the event and already the day is one to remember; sharing this iconic, beautiful site with no-one but a few sleepy birds is something I'll remember forever. I’m feeling remarkably calm and rested. Usually I sleep badly before a big race, but not last night. Maybe that’s partly because my B&B - Velonas Jungle - is luxuriously comfy and extremely quiet, or that my dinner - at Il Vegano - was clean, tasty and nutritious. And maybe partly because the pressure is off. I know I can’t perform at my highest level in this race so all there is to do is completely relax into the experience. The weather forecast is predicting a high of 20C and sun, and I’ve got all day to complete a distance that I’d usually expect to knock off in under 9 hours; this is going to be a dream day of running in the Tuscan hills!
It’s a little chilly at race HQ, the wind whips in from the mountains and across Piazza Michelangelo. A growing band of racers huddles inside a large tent. Many of them look like they’ve got some solid winter training in and many years of hard won experience - thighs like tree trunks are the norm. I hadn’t expected anything else, trail running has long been a popular sport in Italy and France - where most of the competitors come from - and whatever race you choose in those countries you know the standards are going to be high. I hear many languages in the gentle hum of conversation, this is a true international event. English spoken with UK, US and Canadian accents, French from France, Belgium and Switzerland, Spanish with hints of Mexico and Argentina, German, Russian, Greek, Slovakian, Polish, and a few more I can’t recognise. With five minutes to go we walk out to stand under the flapping ‘Salomon’ and ‘Suunto’ flags, our brightly-coloured clothes shimmering.
I take a deep drink from a water bottle that I’ve filled with 4 hazelnut cappuccinos. I love the feeling of a caffeine buzz kicking in just as the inspirational music starts a few minutes before the race begins. I move towards the front, I want to be in the start line photos. But many others have the same idea before me and the best I can do is 5 rows back. It’s ok, not that important. 10 seconds to go, ah, the sun isn’t warm yet but there’s nothing in the sky that says it won’t be later. I can’t tell you how good this feels after a long Canadian winter when the temperatures never climb above 0C. Just to be in shorts, about to run in green mountains, bliss. 5 seconds to go, I fully comprehend how lucky I am to be here. I smile, widely, and we’re off.
The track leads us immediately past a church and into a wooded area. I’m in the leading group of 20. The track is wide, I pass a few people. We move onto the road and head downhill, I pass a few more. I’ve studied the race route and know that the first 10km is either downhill or flat, so this is my chance to run to my full potential as I’m well trained on the flat. I know that running full out will come back to bite me later in the race but the mountains are going to do me in anyway. I may as well gain some ground here and just battle it out when the time comes. Maybe not the best strategy but it’s what I’m going with today!
The route flattens and takes us on a dirt trail alongside the Arno River. I squint into the sun, push hard but also make sure I enjoy the hazy scenery. A marshall says I’m in the top ten. I know it won’t last but I’m pleased with the effort so far. We head uphill past a series of small villages, Florence begins to spread out below my left hand. Wow, I can see all the spires and the huge central dome of the Cathedral, the view makes my heart smile. The mountains rise away to my right, I’m in the shade of trees, the track is easy going and well marked. Life couldn’t be better. I pass a couple of runners and accelerate away downhill before climbing again through another stone village where an old man stops clipping his vines, smiles and shouts ‘Bravi! Bravi!’. Really, even if I had all the money in the world, there’s nothing else I’d rather be doing right now.
I move into thicker forest alternating with open heath land. Spring shows itself, the ground is scattered with primrose and violet, lizards scuttle among dead leaf debris, and the track is lined by bushes heavy with white blossom.
Now we’re into the more technical trails, I’m slowing down. A young guy flies past me on a tricky descent. I can’t follow. He’s skipping down a steep slope over unstable boulders with a confidence that says he does this every day. Maybe he does. If I tried that I’d turn an ankle pretty quick and my race would be over.
But it turns out he’s slower than me on the flat and uphill and I soon overtake him. We repeat this exchange of position several times over the next few kms. It feels good to be in a battle within a race. We reach the second checkpoint at Madonna del Sasso together; it’s in an old church, I'm unsure if I've ever seen such an impressive aid station... I tuck into banana, orange, and biscuits and refill my water bottle with electrolyte drink. I’ve got a hydration backpack full of a sports drink to give me fuel on the run - there’s about 1,000 calories in there in total - and I’m not yet feeling the cramps that come with salt loss too much, but the sun is getting warmer and I’m trying to stack the odds in my favour as much as I can.
Trail events often differ from road marathons in several ways regarding care of the natural environment. The EcoTrail race regulations state that every runner has to carry their own reusable cup or water bottle; none of the plastic ones are offered at the aid stations. And if you're seen discarding any trash - like a gel wrapper - anywhere but an aid station or trash bin, you're disqualified. Fantastic, that's how all races should be.
I leave the checkpoint first, make good ground on the flat path. But then it turns sharply downhill and the lad literally flies past me, I can’t believe he’s going as fast as he is. He’s either going to do fantastically well or he’s falling soon, for certain. I let him go, put him out of my mind, enjoy the track as it leads past a mini waterfall and scrambles up over mossy rocks. I breach the hill and he’s there, 20 metres down the trail, lying on his left side, looking fearfully at his right leg. He rubs his thigh and then put his hand to his head, leans back into the undergrowth and swears. I can’t see any blood but his face says he’s done some serious damage. All thoughts of our little battle evaporate and I feel great sadness for him. We’re just 28kms into the race and it looks like his day is over.
‘What can I do?’ I pant. He shakes his head. I get painkillers out of my waist belt. ‘You want painkillers?’
‘No, I’ll be ok.’ I’m kind of pleased because I’ll probably need them after the first 50km.
‘You want help back to the checkpoint?’
‘No, go on, I can run.’
I carry on, as he says. I’ve done nothing for him but it’s all I can do really, offer the help, let him know there’s an option if he wants to bail, then get on with my own challenge.
An hour later I’m on a steep, limestone uphill section, squinting against the white glare of the rocks, giving it all I have, when he passes me. I gasp a ‘Bravi’, the lad’s got some guts for sure. He’s limping a little but he’s getting it done. Perhaps I’ll pass him again later but then again, this is the uphill, this is where I excel in our little exchange, yet he’s leaving me standing. Good for him, the trails have put him to the test and he’s responding with a great show of character. I feel proud to be in the same race as the lad.
We’re 35km in and I’m starting to feel my lack of training. The distance is no problem, it’s just the vertical metres that are killing me. My hip flexors and glutes are screaming and my quads are starting to do very weird things indeed. Shuddering, feeling one moment like they want to burst through my skin and turn outwards and next like they just can’t support me any more and will have me crashing to the ground any minute now.
Dammit, I should have trained better. I should have taken a few weeks out in February, flown south, got some serious mountain trail miles in. But how could I do that, I work full time, have a relationship to nurture, I can’t just take time out like that. No, no, the balance has been right, I worked out what the financial and emotional cost of doing better would be and decided against it. I got this right. It hurts like hell now but I knew this was coming, I knew I’d start to lose places as the race went on. Just cool it down, I tell myself, remember what you expect of yourself here, stop pushing so hard, get your phone out, snap some photos, the views are magnificent and this maybe the only time in your life that you’ll ever see them. It’s certainly a perfect day to be here. Clear skies, no haze, enjoy it.
41km in, I approach the 3rd checkpoint at Monte Senario, it’s a km away uphill. There’s a race photographer standing at the end of an avenue of cypress trees. It’s shady and cool and although I haven’t got much uphill running left in me I give it a bit of effort so my race photos have a chance of looking respectable. Vain I know, but I've never met a non-elite trail runner who doesn’t admit to thinking the same in the exhaustion of the moment.
I can’t imagine how on earth I am going to finish the 80km. Physically, I feel near to my end. I need to fool myself, to take my mind off the present, so I think of a D.H. Lawrence quote that I read yesterday that fits the situation right now…
‘For as we have candles to light the darkness of night, so the cypresses are candles to keep the darkness aflame in the full sunshine…’
Man, even without the cypress trees blocking out the sun all around, it feels dark right now. I stumble into the aid station buried under the church and gulp down minestrone soup. Then Coke, more soup, biscuits, fruit, and more Coke. I know the sugar rush will offer short lived energy and the crash will be coming, but I’ve got to gamble that I’m mentally strong enough to withstand it because physically I’m shot to pieces.
I’ve a full marathon to go with loads more elevation, I’ve said and thought it before but I have to confront the words, the feeling, again; I just don’t know how I’m going to finish. My head’s fine but my legs are jelly and now my ribs ache, an ache that’s spreading through my entire core, probably caused by the endless jolts, up and down.
There’s only one thing to do in a situation like this and that’s dig in and take what you can get from the experience. The track leading on from the aid station is very runnable. If I was feeling up to it I could push the pace hard here but as it is I poodle along on the flats, defend my thighs on the downhills, and give them a firm massage as I walk the ups. I pass a marshall who congratulates me for being in 8th position. I’m amazed, I feel like I’ve been going backward for hours but it seems that I’m doing ok really.
The large, grassy hilltop that I crest next has mind-blowing, smile-inducing views. I get my phone out and enjoy trying to work out how to capture it all. ‘Hey, you’re off track, this way!’ a girl shouts, she’s come up fast behind me and is now veering left down the grass into the valley. I look around, wow, she’s right, the view has distracted me, I’ve missed the markers. Lucky she was there or I’d be wandering off in the direction of Milan.
The kms are ticking down. Runners pass me and move away easily. The views never get any less beautiful. I feel a little sad that I can’t run at anywhere near full capacity. I’ve so much fitness inside me but a certain few muscles - hip flexors, glutes, quads - that I haven’t trained properly have the final say, and tell me that it’s a snail pace only for me until the finish line. It’s ok, I knew this was coming. I just have to remind myself of that and enjoy the day. Not actually very hard to do when the scenery is this special.
Alexis from France runs with me. We reach Fiesole and snap photos of each other standing at ‘The Window’ viewpoint with Florence laid out below us. We can see the finish line. It’s just after 3pm and locals fill the sidewalk cafes, the clinking of wine and beer glasses has us wishing the last 20kms pass quickly.
‘Shall we stop for a quick beer?’ Alexis suggests.
‘Nice idea but I’m on my ass already,’ I say. ‘If I stop for beer it’s game over. We get a free beer at the finish line, yeah?’. Alexis nods and we run on.
I tell him to leave me, I can’t keep up.
‘Enjoy the cold one, I’ll be there soon enough,’ I say. The track is so runnable now, man, I wish I had the ability to use it. If you’re coming to run the event next year, bear this in mind. The first half of the race up to the 3rd aid station is the toughest, if you can save some of yourself for what comes after, you’ll smash it.
I keep moving, the last few kms are passing without incident, I’m happy with that, I make peace with myself. I’ve done well, I’ll finish. I’ve enjoyed a truly magnificent day in the Tuscan mountains, my ass has been kicked by nature and my own limitations, and my heart feel full as a result of all this. Like this morning I’m on the banks of the Arno, and similarly the sun is in my eyes only now it’s approaching sunset and the cotton wool-like flowers of riverside trees float and sparkle like faeries. The track is crowded with locals taking a stroll and many of them understand what the race has entailed.
‘Bravi! Bravi!’ they smile. Just a half hour to go!
The final hill is in shadow all the way, the trees close in, it’s gloomy but all is good, I know the Piazza Michelangelo is near. Loud finish-line music and garbled announcements overpower the traffic noise. I see a break in the trees, then the fluttering finish line flags. I’m slow now but I still take it down a notch, this is the time to high five, to smile wide, to bathe in the accomplishment of finishing a tough 80km race. I raise my arms for the final 20 metres, look beyond the finish line to the silhouette of the ‘David’ statue. What a place to finish a race! I start laughing, this is great. Call it what you like, runner’s high, ecstasy, being held within the divine embrace, I don’t care right now, it feels fantastic.
Alexis is sat at the base of the statue. He finished in just under 10.5 hours. I’ve taken nearly 11. That’s over 2 hours more than my usual time for this distance but all is ok.
‘The beers run out,’ says Alexis. Ok, maybe not everything is ok…
We sit in the sun and trade stories about the run. This half hour after a race offers such a good feeling; I’m exhausted, happy, accomplished. I don’t even care about the lack of beer really. I’m in a city, a country, that does wine very, very well. There’s a reasonably priced bottle of Brunello or Chianti with my name on it at any corner store in town. I’ll pick one up on the way back to the B&B, along with a big bag of salty chips and some chocolate. I can see myself now, showered, smiling, elated, lying in my soft bed looking out the window over red rooftops to the mountains, washing down all the treats with a fine wine. Excellent.
What a race it’s been. A solid test in beautiful surroundings, perfect weather that topped out at around 21C, very well marked trails, decent aid stations, and lovely volunteers. And now I’m lying in the sun talking about running, and soon I’ll be walking down into the city with another 5 days ahead of me in which I’ll visit all the museums, see all the art, opera and gardens, and eat all the food. Life could quite possibly be better but at the moment I can’t imagine how. Thank you Florence, thank you my fellow runners, and thank you EcoTrail!
Transport - I flew to Pisa from London with Easyjet. British Airways, which have a slightly better reputation for reliability, also make the trip. If you book far enough in advance you should find the fares to be about the same. You can also fly direct to Florence but the fares are more expensive. I decided to fly to Pisa instead as there were more flights to choose from, they were cheaper, and the bus and train connections from Pisa to Florence are frequent and only take just over an hour.
Accommodation - I stayed at Velonas Jungle B&B, which is a 15-minute walk from the city centre and very convenient for the train station and the place where the airport bus drops you off. I loved this B&B, the rooms are amazing, the people very friendly, the breakfast (which is all vegetarian with plenty of vegan options) is first class and it's very quiet. Book directly with them for the best deals - http://www.velonasjungle.com/en/ Food - Top choices for me in Florence for a tasty, good value meal that's going to fuel you well for the big race, or help you recover afterwards, are: Il Vegano - https://www.facebook.com/ilveganofirenze/ Borgo Firenze - https://www.borgofirenze.com/ La Pepiniere - Floret - https://www.floret-bar.com/ There's also a superb food hall above the central market where you can get all kinds of food. I ate there a few times and was always happy - the pizza is very good.
Top Tip - In this city of great art, it would be a shame not to go to the opera. Our choice is Opera at St Mark's The standard is high, the prices are low, and all profits go to charity.
It's also likely that you will have heard of Michelangelo's 'David' statue, which is at the Accademia Gallery. It's wonderful, but the line up to get in is almost always very long. So if you don't want to stand around for hours, consider going to the Bargello Sculpture Museum instead where you'll probably walk straight in and find more excellent work by Michelangelo as well as a sublime version of 'David' by Donatello.
Download our free 'City Guide to Florence' for more in-depth information about what to do there.
It was freezing outside, this evening of March 6th. The weather forecast said it felt like minus 18 degrees. Many of us were huddled inside The Running Room, keeping warm while catching up with running mates, waiting until we were called outside to the start while the volunteers were taking registrations and handing out bibs to participants. We may have had different motivations for registering for this frigid 3k, but we were all there to try and make a difference and run or walk for equality.
The Secret Marathon 3K run/walk, which was held on the week of International Women’s Day, celebrates everyone’s right to be free to run. We were just a few of the women and men in Toronto and across Canada joining at multiple locations, or participating virtually, to follow the example set by the brave runners in Afghanistan and unite for freedom, gender equality and safe spaces for all. According to the creators and organizers of the event, thanks to all who participated The Secret Marathon 3K will allow the story of Afghan girls and women running for freedom to be shared across Canada through the film which is scheduled to be released Fall 2019. You can read more about the film and the 3k here.
"The goal of The Secret Marathon 3K is to celebrate our right to be free to run and walk in our community. Many women both here in Canada and in Afghanistan don't feel safe to run at night or alone and we want to change that by bringing our community together to celebrate everyone's right to be free to run or walk in their community." Kate McKenzie, Race Director
Regardless of the chilly temperature, the mood was light and everyone was happy to get started. We headed outside to the start where we listened to details of the event and the film from Kate McKenzie and Hirra Farooqi, the Toronto Co-Race Directors. Then we were off. Just like last year, the wonderful volunteers were on hand to make sure we followed the correct route and as an added touch for the weather, they warned us to slow down when we were coming up on some icy bits of trail. We followed a scenic out and back route through the park and along the boardwalk and although it was a cold evening, the sky was clear and the view along the boardwalk was fantastic. I thought about how fortunate I was. I often run alone and although I am cautious, alert and ready to change my path if needed, I have been lucky enough to feel safe in my community and comfortable with the paths I run. I know this is not often the case for many.
"By participating you are helping us to share the story through film and by making a donation you are helping to further the work of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan. Together we can empower women and girls through education and sport." Excerpt from the race registration information.
This event is wonderfully inclusive to runners and walkers of all speeds. Many of the participants were waiting at the finish to high-five all runners and walkers as we returned, including the race directors. Once everyone was back we were encouraged to head back in to The Running Room for refreshments and a prize draw. I personally made a beeline for the cinnamon chai tea that was being served, which really hit the spot after the frigid run.
Race Director Kate McKenzie and me, after the run
While I didn't win a prize or set any new personal bests during the run, this event is one that I highly recommend and I know I will continue to return each year that it takes place. At the time I was writing this, The Secret Marathon 3k had reported to have had virtual runners in 17 countries across the world, and 16 host cities in Canada with 38 communities participating. The event raised an amazing $15,935 in donations. This is enough to sponsor 53 girls to pursue their education for a full year in Afghanistan, empowering women and girls through education. To me, that is definitely worth a little cold weather running.
RunsPosted by Dave Wise Thu, February 28, 2019 05:25PM "Run to Reach is a personal and international fundraising effort to support global communities by completing 30 marathons in 30 countries before I turn 30, in June 2020."
Liz, your list of marathons and charities are unusual,
exciting and relevant, there seems to have been a lot of thought put into the
'Run to Reach' project. Can you recall what set you on the path to creating the
project, where there any great inspirations or happenings? And what were the
major hurdles between conception and launch?
At the end of last year, I was at a point of transition
and deep reflection in my life...one could call it a very mild existential
crisis. I knew that whatever I chose to do next had to positively impact the
world outside my own personal bubble. It would also have to inspire others to show
them that, in their power as one individual, they too have the capacity to
change the lives of others. And finally, I knew that the only way I was going
to be able to personally achieve this, was if I could somehow insert my two
loves in life into this equation: running marathons and traveling the world.
The time frame (3 months) to organize this charity
marathon mission felt very overwhelming - finalizing the marathon schedule,
choosing all the charities, getting my website going.
There were definitely many hurdles along the way, mostly
trying to figure out the best way to collect funds for all the different
charities. For weeks, I was conflicted about whether I should start my own
501c3 or have separate fundraisers for each of the races. Then of course, the
occasional dark cloud of self-doubt set in, where I questioned my own abilities
to take on such a project. But I am learning so much along the way and I do
find comfort in knowing that there is always a solution to every challenge
faced. And if it wasn’t challenging, everyone would do it, right?
How did you choose which marathons you wanted to take
I definitely wanted to choose marathons that were more
off-the-beaten path. Once I had a general idea of the countries I wanted to run
in, it was very important for me to find organizations within each country,
whose mission I strongly believed in and felt a deep connection to. I also felt
it was a moral duty to sign up for marathons in areas of conflict, such as such as in Palestine or Kurdistan Iraq, to
demonstrate how running can be a powerful, unifying act of peace and movement.
By traveling to Palestine and Kurdistan Iraq, I hope to paint these countries
in a better light and show the rest of the world a small piece of their vibrant
Regarding the charities, how did you decide which ones to
support in each case? Was each charity found after much googling and reading,
to see what gelled most with your feelings, or did you have another way of
making your choices?
It was a very time-consuming process choosing all of the
different organizations. It did take a considerable amount of time researching
and connecting with each organization to learn more about the specific types of
projects they were working on. Overall, I made it my highest priority to select
charities that I felt a strong connection to, who demonstrated a substantial
amount of transparency, and were also keen to support me as much as possible
during my campaign. Many of these organizations were selected based on their
high “effectiveness” ranking on the GiveWell website. Others were chosen based
on actions they were taking to actively empowering the communities (and
environment) in need, by enabling them to increase control over their lives and
achieve genuine self-sufficiency.
You’ve already done 11 marathons as part of the project
so far, Beirut, Vienna and the Bagan Temple Marathon in Myanmar particularly
attracted my attention. Any memories you’d like to share from them, the races
themselves or the charities you got involved with there?
Beirut holds a very dear place in my heart, it is truly
one of the beautiful cities in the world with the warmest people, food, and
culture. Yet, it has also gone through so much political strife over the past
fifty years. Running the Beirut marathon was particularly memorable race for
me, as it happened right when the current prime minister was being held hostage
in Saudi Arabia. As this happened, the Beirut marathon turned into so much more
than a competitive race; but a peaceful demonstration of unity and camaraderie
amongst local Lebanese and foreign runners. It was a very powerful four hours
of running, witnessing the city come alive and unite for this event.
Do you feel that your attitude to life, or running, has
changed since you ran your 1st marathon?
Absolutely. I was much more numbers-focused and
goal-orientated when I signed up for my first marathon. My running identity was
always shaped by numbers, how many miles I was clocking in per week, my goal PB
Now, after six years of running marathons, I’ve become
much more ‘process-oriented’ during training, which has completely transformed
the way I feel about running. I prefer to focus now on the immeasurable
components of how my body is responding to running, such as my daily energy
levels and mood. During each of my training runs, instead of focusing on the
distance ahead of me, I strive to achieve a certain level of meditative ‘flow’
- where I forget that I am even running at all. I think this new ‘mindful
mindset’ towards running has allowed me to no longer fear the crazy big
physical goals I have set for myself over the next year and a half.
I suspect that at some point you weighed up the question
of carbon emissions created by flying and travel vs the potential worth of the
project. Can you talk me through your thoughts on that?
Yes, I have been very conscious about this question of
carbon emissions during the planning of my expedition. I am actually in the
process of working with several companies to try to offset my CO2 emission by
supporting different energy, emission reduction, forestry and water projects,
building low carbon growth and sustainable development in the areas that need
it the most.
Your next 4 months are going to be outstanding, but a
great challenge I’m sure, with marathons in Algeria, Guatemala, Palestine,
South Africa, Kyrgyzstan and Sierra Leone.
Now, as somebody who’s been to Palestine/Israel many
times and has colleagues who go there to do business in Palestine occasionally,
I think that the fact that you’re going to Palestine to do such an event is
going to get you a 4 hour interrogation and a strip search at Israeli customs,
for sure. Then there’ll be the emotional turmoil of running through refugee
camps and hearing the many shocking, sad stories that people are always ready
to tell, and the extreme kindness and genuine welcomes into humble homes and
existences. And then you’ll need to get out of Israel, which’ll be another
interrogation and strip search. This could take a huge mental toll. And you’re
doing all this after having been in Guatemala, which is a beautiful country but
one that also has one of the highest violent crime rates in Latin America, and
a refugee camp in Algeria, another place that’s going to offer a highly
emotionally charged visit. It’s not just that these places are potentially
dangerous, it’s also that each one of them is what many of us would call a life
changing trip, offering you so much positive info to process and integrate into
your own worldview. So, have you any plan (such as lots of time off work!) in
place to help you deal with the potential info overload, mental trauma, as well
as the travel fatigue, of your program?
I could not have phrased this whole experience better
myself! It is indeed going to be a dive into some kind of high-wattage,
mind-expanding, soul-enriching adventure that will undoubtedly change my life
forever. I am planning to stay at least two weeks in each of these countries to
try to immerse myself as much as possible in the culture and allow for a deeper
understanding of the many issues facing these countries. A huge goal of mine is
to show the rest of the world the beauty of each of these countries and the
rich culture they each hold.
I feel like the resilience and strength of the local people
I encounter in each of these countries, will give me the energy to keep moving.
I’m sure there will be moments of serious fatigue, but I am determined to show
the rest of the world these countries and the strikingly unique and beautiful
cultures that define them.
The marathon in Algeria, tell me about what you know
about the race, the location and the aim of the charity you’re working with
there. I saw a little video on their website, seems like they’re helping to
reimagine the once nomadic community into a static setting, and giving them a
voice to talk about their situation through the creation of some beautiful
The race is taking place at the Sahawari Refugee camp in
Tindouf, Western Algeria; home to over 150,000 refugees of a ‘forgotten conflict’:
an older generation who lived through the war against Morocco for this land
until 1991, and a younger generation born in the camp’s state of limbo since
the war’s ceasefire agreement. Yet, despite being one of the oldest refugee
camps in the world, the Sahrawis of Western Sahara are an indigenous African
people hardly known in the West. Very little media has shed any light or
visibility on their plight; yet, their longstanding resilience persists. The
Sahara marathon is a solidarity race with aim of putting the Sahawari cause on
the minds of our global, collective conscious.
The money I raise ahead of this marathon will directly go
towards the Stave House project, launched by the Sandblast Foundation. The
Stave House project offers music and English classes to children in one primary
school in the smallest camp of Boujdour. Two hour classes are given every day,
after school, to engage the children and develop their potential. Through the
project, Sandblast also supports the training of local Saharawi teachers to
deliver the programme, so that the local teachers will be able to run the
project autonomously in the future.
The marathon experience in Sierra Leone sounds amazing.
You don’t just go there for a 1 day event, it’s 5 days long and takes you to
see many projects that the marathon raises funds for, so you can see how your
fundraising is changing the lives of communities across the country. You must
be very excited for this experience!
Yes, I am very excited for this marathon! Street Child,
the organization I am working with ahead of this marathon, has launched such
admirable community empowerment projects throughout Sierra Leone. Sierra Leone
is still plagued by extreme poverty, but I do hope to show a better image of
the country than what our global conscious understands it as.
The marathon in Kyrgyzstan, I’m pleased to see that
Helvetas, the charity you’re raising funds for there, is helping farmers to
grow Fairtrade, organic cotton. It’s an area that desperately needs help, the
cotton business there has been dreadfully managed in the past, with little
attention paid to water usage/draining of lakes, and there’s been much talk of
slave/child labour. Can you talk a little about what made you focus on this
After learning about the prevalence and seriousness of
human rights abuses taking place in the cotton sector in both Uzbekistan and
Kyrgyzstan, I knew I wanted to focus all of my energy supporting an
organization that was directly tackling this issue. Helvetas has completely
transformed the cotton sector in Kyrgyzstan by converting over 18’925 ha of
land to be certified for organic production, which allows farmer to completely
avoid the use of both pesticides and chemical fertilizers. A percentage of the
funds raised for the organic cotton project also went towards building schools
in these farming regions, allowing children (who were previously forced to skip
school to work in the cotton fields) to resume schooling. Helvetas was the
perfect example of an organization that was not only helping the community in
need, but completely empowering them to lead more self-sufficient lives.
Finally let's put the spotlight on your Guatemalan race.
What are you expecting from this one?
I am honestly a bit nervous for the actual marathon!
There is a good 2300m incline going up the Pacaya volcano at the beginning of
the 42km route, which will be extremely challenging, even for the fittest.
Regarding your running kit, what thought has been given
to the varying climates that you’ll be running through; have you got the same
kit for all races or a variety of gear?
I do tend to stick to the same sort of running kit for
all of my races. I always buy the same Asics running shoes (had to stock up on
six pairs of these ahead of all of my marathons!). I’ve been recently trying to
switch to more environmentally-friendly athletic wear and am now a huge fan of
Bamboo Clothing and Sundried, whose clothing is made from used coffee grounds
and plastic bottles, as well as Teko eco-performance running socks. To protect
my skin against the sun, I throw on a Sol Wrap, a sun protective, cooling
Do you plan to take your own running fuel, or are you
eating whatever is available locally?
I will be sure to bring some of my own energy gels (Huma
Gels) with me for the races. But when I am on the road traveling, I am super
excited to carbo-load on all of the local delicacies. Before my most recent
marathon in Oman, I could not get enough of their spiced rice and curry dishes,
which I’m convinced was the reason behind my personal record marathon time
How would you describe your training in between your
A lot of my marathons are spaced out only one or two
weeks apart from the other, so I think training my body and mind to endure that
many miles was a big initial challenge. I somehow keep making it through and
continue to feel great afterwards, which is the biggest motivator to keep
going! During the down periods between marathons, I focus on doing a lot of
strength training exercises (pilates, yoga) and stretching to try to prevent
You’re aiming to raise $100,000 for your charities, how
are you going about that? Do you offer fundraising talks about your races, or
are you focusing on awareness and asking people to donate via the individual
charities websites, or have you other ways of turning what you’re doing into
much needed funds?
This is the biggest challenge as I was very new to
fundraising when I first started this project.
As I continue the fundraising efforts for this campaign,
I am now approaching businesses within the countries that I am running in to
solicit donations to the local charities. I am also meeting with artists in
each country and collecting some of their artwork, to be auctioned off at
several fundraising dinners I am hosting throughout the year. Down the line, I
definitely do plan to organize some talks at a lot of these marathons and
I’d really like to hear how the next 4 months pan out for
you, it’s got the potential to be a fascinating learning experience as well as
a big physical and mental challenge. And I’d like to hear more about the next
group of 2019 marathons, which will include trips to Iraq, Cuba and Argentina.
For readers who want to delve more before then though, what’s the best way to
get up to speed on your project, and then to follow along with your adventures?
Dave – This is quite possibly my favourite race of the season, despite the fact that I’m far from a good 5k runner, and that it’s usually pretty cold this early in the year. It’s just such a good atmosphere, the Achilles charity does excellent work helping the disabled get into sport, and Steam Whistle beer is great so the after party always is, too. And add to all this, the race starts underneath the CN Tower and everybody is in that special sort of festive mood that St Patrick’s Day generally brings with it, you can see you have a unique event going on slap bang in the centre of Toronto.
I caught the subway down to Union Station – the race doesn’t start until 10.30am so there’s plenty of public transport even though it’s a Sunday morning – and picked up my race pack in the Steam Whistle Brewery. It was about -4C outside but the sun was angling in through the huge windows making inside a sunny, warm place to be. It was almost a shame to move outside for the race, but it had to be done! There aren’t corrals in this race so if you want a clear run at a fast pace you need to get on the front row. I was about 5 rows back yet still I had a few very young kids in front of me that I had to weave around once the gun went off. As for the rest of the course, there is a slight uphill and usually a fierce headwind at some stage (this time it was coming back along Wellington from about 2.5 to 3.5km), few crowds but ample marshals. It’s all over before you know it and then you have the happy task of receiving your medal and bottle of water from the volunteers…
…and then going back into the brewery for a pot of chili and free beer. A lovely way to spend a few hours on a Sunday morning!
Virgil – The Achilles Canada St. Patrick’s 5k run; I’ve always loved this race for the festive atmosphere and scores of runners dressed up in Irish Green costumes. Today was no exception, there were green top hats, orange tresses, shamrock shaped glasses and leprechaun outfits everywhere. I would say nearly half of the crowd dressed up or at least incorporated some green into their running outfit that morning, myself included. It was a freezing cold day so I ran in tights, a tech shirt and long sleeve top. There were a couple of vendor booths lined up in front of the brewery. Once I made my way inside I was able to pick up my bib and race bag without issues.
It was a packed crowd inside as runners were trying to stay warm. I picked up two boxes of Lucky Charms cereal to give away and headed out to drop off my bag. At the start line I took a few pictures before squeezing in with David and the other runners just before the gun went off. Last year I remember running around slower runners and kids as the gun went off and everyone burst out of the start gate. This race wasn’t organized into formal corrals, despite a fairly large crowd of over 1100 runners. Once there was a slight gap in front my me, I started my watch and ran over the timing mats. I wanted to try to find a clear path around other runners to go for a good time. I started off well for the first kilometre, but short distances aren’t my forte. I was doing my best to keep a sub 4:40 pace and monitoring it. The race leader already had a sizable gap on the rest of the field and had already run around the 2.5k turnaround, by the time I saw him. He flashed by me just as I passed the 2k mark.
The GPS was giving me wonky readings because of interference from the buildings on Wellington Street. At first it was a speedy 4:20 pace, but jumped to 4:40 before dropping back to 4:35. I must have started off too fast because I was getting burned out by the fourth kilometre. The finish line was just beyond reach as I missed my PR by 40s. Nonetheless it was a fun day and there was plenty of Steam Whistle Pilsner and chilli (both meat and veggie options available) going around, accompanied by an entertaining live band to complement the festivities.
I met up with my friends and sat on the floor to eat and take in the music. I was really pleased with the shirt design, and the bib pickup and bag checks went smoothly. I highly recommended this event for people who want a fast early season race, runners who want to dress up and party after in the brewery, and anyone who wants to be Irish, at least for a few hours! Achilles Canada did a great job at this perennial favourite. To discover more about this race, and to register for next year, visit https://achillesstpatricksday5k.ca/
RunsPosted by Dave Wise Sun, January 20, 2019 09:07PM Here’s a short film that Dave made to give you an idea of the event.
Dave – I didn’t think I’d be in shape to run the full Mississauga Marathon. Although I love it and have run it for the past few years I’d only just come back from the 7 day Marathon des Sables a few weeks earlier and felt that perhaps having just run 250k through the Sahara Desert I’d better stick to the half distance this time around. It would be a new experience, I’d never run the half route before, and I wouldn’t be sacrificing much in the way of fun by doing it. I’d still get the great organisation, the atmospheric start line (the half and full Mississauga Marathons start at the same time) and the pretty finish area down at Port Credit, all I’d miss out on was running out of gas at about the 30km stage and moving so slow I’d have trouble staying awake…
Virgil and I arrived at the community centre (which acts as the main car park) at 6am, used the washrooms and caught the last shuttle bus to Square One and the start line.
The sun was just starting to peep over the condos and we enjoyed the sight of it as we woke up with a free coffee supplied by a Tim Horton’s van that the organisers had arranged to be there. There was a brief warm up on the grass in front of a stage, I ran a little more to loosen up a tight hamstring, went to the washroom (the lines in front of the porta loos were long but there were also washrooms near the city hall complex), grabbed another coffee to help shift me into race mode and started to walk along with the crowds to the start line. The sun was shining now, the music was loud, I was in the zone and all thoughts of being tired left my mind. I felt great and was going to give the race my best. The siren went off, we surged forward into a blizzard of confetti and soon I was moving past the 1:30 pacer, hoping that I was not going to see him again today.
The route has a net downhill but there are a couple of grinding uphills during the first 10k or so and I determined to use these times, when I couldn’t go fast, to eat the dates that I’d brought along instead of gels. 3 of them would give me about 200 calories and I reckoned that would be enough to get me to the finish line.
At about the 7km mark a Kenyan moved up alongside me. My first thought was, what on earth was he doing this far back in the field? I was chugging along at about a 40 minute 10km pace which is fine for me, but for him? He was obviously a well trained athlete, just by looking at him I could see that his power to weight ratio was world class, he didn’t have an ounce of fat on him and he was moving well, just slower than I’m used to seeing Kenyans run, that’s all. I wasn’t complaining, it was great to run behind him for the next 7km, to see how he dealt with the uphills by making his footsteps shallower, and how he increased his speed to shake off anybody who tried to overtake him without any sign that he was working harder than before. He didn’t swing his arms more, didn’t lean forward, didn’t increase his footfall, he simply surged forward seemingly without effort. It was great to watch. I had half a fantasy that I could stay with him until the end of the event and maybe even race him for the finish line, but when we got to the part of the course where the full distance veers right and the half carries on, he veered right and I was left carrying on forward on my own. The field had strung out now, I was happy that I only had a few kms left, I felt strong and able to increase my pace. The course dropped downhill, under a bridge, up a small rise and then down again, heading towards the lake. It invited runners to pick up speed, to give everything in these final stages. I saw a couple of guys in front and made an effort to catch them, doing so after another km as we kept to the shoreline. The lake was shining to our right, the sun was warm, there was a lively cheer point where all the girls were dressed in white and shouting wildly and then we were into the final km. I was winding down into easy mode so as to enjoy the finish shute which was packed with spectators but then in front of me I could see the timing clock over the finish line reading 1:26:30 and I thought, oh, if I get a move on I may get a personal best here! So I gave it one last push and crossed the line in 1:26:50, just 5 seconds under my best, which I was happy about, especially as the PA guy said I had made the 50+ podium, which was an added bonus.
I got my official time, they said I had come third in my age group, but when I went to the prize giving table and asked for the 3rd place prize they looked at their list, claimed there’d been a mistake, handed me a Tim Horton’s gift card and told me that I had actually won 1st place. I wasn’t sure how that happened and when I looked later online I was still listed as 3rd place in my age group, but I took their word for it and hoped that the other 2 runners who were supposed to be above me weren’t too annoyed at being demoted. Sorry you guys if that is the case!
Virgil finished soon after me. We’d both had a great time on the course and now we enjoyed the live band as we refuelled with the free bananas and variety of snacks that were given out to all runners in the event village.
For me Mississauga is the number 1 spring marathon in the Toronto area, and a must do if you are lucky enough to be in the area at the time. Fantastic course, very fast, well organised, super friendly, loads of drinks stations and plenty of goodies at the end. Fantastic! Virgil – The race prep for the Mississauga Half started off as a adventurous drive to pick up kits for my team. There was a high wind warning alert in GTA and there were multiple traffic delays due to debris on the road and non-functioning traffic lights. Scores of downed trees caused some local roads to detour around as city crew was doing cleanup. I would have waited till Saturday to do it, but I had a kayak rolling class to go to and it was along the way, so I pushed on. The Expo was nicely organized with many vendors offering food samples – I got a big bowl of chilli right when I walked in! I’m pretty much set when it comes to running gear but it never hurts to take a peek at the merchandise. The kit pickup was uncomplicated and contained some oats, crackers with protein spreads, protein drinks, and a nice blue race shirt with the 15th anniversary logo cleverly placed within the words “Mississauga”.
The next day we headed to the community centre where the shuttle buses were picking up runners to take to the race start. I was having contact seating issues with both eyes since the early morning and it was quite irritating. I was glad that I was able to resolve it before we headed out to the buses. It was a beautiful cloudy race day for a half marathon, 13°C with sun peeking out at times, a complete contrast to the cold rainy conditions of the last two editions. There were no organized corrals but pacers were easy to spot and it was easy to slip inside the barriers. At the gun, a confetti machine blew a cloud of colourful flakes and I took a few more photos before deliberately running over the timing mats. The game plan was to pace up slowly to the 1:50 pacer. I did this at around the 5.5k mark, and introduced myself to the pacer, who was named Troy. At this point I had a 38s buffer. So far so good, now the plan was to run with his group and break free with 2-4k to go to chase my PR. I took a cup at each water station and ensured the pace group remained within 10s reach. I crossed the 10k together with the group but I started feeling calf twinges at 14k.
Aching to catch up after bobbling a cup of electrolytes at a water station, I caught up to the group at 16k but now both my calves were cramping at 16.5k and Troy and co. slowly dropped me behind. As soon as I pushed the pace my calves would twinge with each step so I had to back off the effort. The run looped around the waterfront and back through a short forest section of the Lake Ontario Waterfront Trail before cutting into Lakefront Promenade Park. The announcer called out my name a few dozen metres before the finish line, which was a nice boost. I crossed the line in 1:51:33 (about 2.5 minutes behind my PR) and collected my medal and a generous helping of carbs and Stinger waffles. That was when I found out that David won his age group and PR’ed with a blazing 1:26:50, despite running a small race called Marathon Des Sables a month ago – winning a Tim Hortons gift card – CONGRATU-FREAKING-LATIONS! David was powered by delicious dates stuffed with ground coffee beans. I ate five of them during the run and they were delicious!
Next stop for Trek and Run is the Conquer the Canuck Marathon Ultra Trail Weekend, where I will be doing the 50k trail run, followed by Cambridge Tour de Grand 160k gran fondo; while David will be taking on the Ultimate Canuck challenge weekend, including the 50k (part of the Canadian Trail 50k Championships), followed by a trail marathon distance the next day.
Congratulations to the race crew for executing a well organized run, I always look forward to this event each year. For runners interested in PR races in cooler weather, this is high on the list with its net 80m drop and ranked only behind the Hamilton Marathon as the fastest course in Ontario.