Wednesday 23 April 2014

Professor Fail

My GPS file. Check out that elevation profile! 
I had planned my most epic adventure to celebrate my 40th birthday. I'm not usually one to celebrate birthdays, but a big part of the adventure was to simply test myself more than to prove what I can still do at 40. Age means nothing to me, it's more about continuing to challenge myself and grow. Instead of an incredible 3 day journey, I spent the day in Professor Fail's classroom learning more than I expected. 

It's now two days later and I'm back on my feet again. Pushed out a 30km run for my birthday with the aid of an ankle brace and lots of trainers tape. Wait a sec! I haven't even told you what happened to my "mini expedition" yet. Let's take a step back and return to Monday...

My wife says this looks like a "Missing Persons" photo
It began as planned at about 5:30am in Grimsby at the Start of the Iroquois section of the Bruce Trail. I had already made mistake #1. As a facilitator for an ultralight trekking course, I should have known better, but the day prior I had added a "few things I might need" to the pack. As well to save time that morning not filtering water I decided to fill up both my extra water bottles. One I use for scooping water from natural sources, the other is for mixing up meal replacements. All in all with the water bladder in the pack and the bottles I added 8lbs. My pack was way over it's "training" weight and I could feel it.
All smiles at the Lookout

I started slowly up the escarpment and finally reached the lookout in approximately 30 minutes. I was feeling confident and enjoyed the sunrise for a moment. I left Beamers Falls Conservation area to discover I had about 6km of road. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I ran a good pace until I found the trail head to the next section. From here it was really technical. Rocks, roots, mud, more rocks and more roots - all camouflaged by fallen leaves. It was only a matter of time. I caught the edge of a sneaky little rock hiding away and felt my ankle roll. My right ankle is notoriously weak in general and it didn't take long for a second ankle roll to strike. As if that wasn't bad enough, hours of this up and down terrain created hot spots on my left heel. I stopped numerous times, but the "blister" bandages kept coming off and the trainers tape I had was only exacerbating the issue by causing more rubbing. I was still confident and in a good place mentally as I did expect issues.  

My toes were now becoming inflamed. I stopped to tape them at the border between
It's almost all powder, but it adds up quick!
Hamilton and Stoney Creek and watched as a train whipped by. At this point I felt like things were back under control. I had been eating a little, but what I had scheduled to eat throughout the day was proving too much for my working body to handle. Mistake #2. I had planned on 3800 calories per day and even at that I would be going into a calorie deficit. That means I'm burning more than I'm returning. What I didn't expect was that my body couldn't digest much while working hard. I was basically nauseous all morning and into the afternoon. I had brought more food than I could consume and all that extra weight had been slowing me down while also forcing my body to burn more calories. 3000 calories per day will have to do next time and just like that, I can save nearly 2lbs. Oh and I did say NEXT time. I'm already planning a second attempt in the fall, but we'll get to that in a bit.

With all this extra weight, my weakened ankle was sure to have more issues. As I started into Hamilton the third ankle roll hit. This was a pretty bad one. Now my tendons and ligaments are so stretched that it only hurts for a few minutes, never swells and never bruises. The problem is that once it goes, it just feels like a wet noddle and has no strength for a few days. I stopped to fill up on water again, of course making the same mistake of filling every available container I had. I was going to stop for lunch in about 30 minutes so I just filtered extra water as it was a good clean source and I would consume most of it soon. I hadn't even made it 500 meters when coming down a hill the fourth ankle roll happened. This time I felt the outside of my ankle hit the ground, followed soon after by me and then my big, fat pack body slamming me. I could hear a girl screaming and quickly felt my face to turn red with embarrassment as I realized it was myself screaming. I called my wife in a panic and explained what happened. After calming down and standing on it I decided to continue on, but have her bring me an ankle brace and a blister bandage restock. I was already feeling guilty as I wanted to do this truly unsupported and by taking help for any reason broke the rules. The official rule of unsupported running states: 

  • Unsupported means you have no external support of any kind. Typically, this means that you must carry all your supplies right from the start, except any water that can be obtained along the way from natural sources. This approach has also been termed "alpine style". The longest trip I'm aware of using this style is Coup's 20-day thru-hike of the Colorado Trail. For most people, carrying enough food for more than a few days to one week will be prohibitive. Unsupported also means unaccompanied!

Not my finest moment...
During this entire run my right calf had become seriously swollen and a giant vein began to appear. I was to the point where I couldn't even massage it due to the pain. I had never experienced so many issues or so much bad luck in one run. When I finally appeared on the far side of Hamilton I had covered 38+km of truly difficult single track hiking trails in 8 hours. I was broken physically, but mentally I still felt I should go on. As I sat with my wife contemplating the nearly 20km more I needed to travel to reach camp for the night I knew I was beaten. I could probably limp my way there, but I mostly likely wouldn't be able to continue running the next day. I had also, through my own miss-planning. not included enough bandages and not brought my ankle brace. This offering of help from Christine that I accepted had technically voided an "unsupported" attempt, which to me had been a huge part of the challenge. After some common sense kicked in I decided to call it quits and live to run another day. 

This brings us to Mistake #3 and for me the most important one. I underestimated this challenge and overestimated my capabilities. In a way it was almost satisfying. I usually accomplish what I set out to do. This challenge had humbled me, but in the process had shown me what a worthy challenge it was. You can see my GoPro video of the trip on youtube.

I have a few thoughts on a re-attempt:
1. Less weight. This means no GoPro next time and I'll have to deal with less calories per day. It also means a 2L cap on the water I can carry at all times.
2. Lighter means faster and easier. I am now also considering carrying only enough food for 1.5 days and attempting to do it with only one night out on the trails. My pack weight would be less than 20lbs so covering 65km a day is possible with more training.
3. Longer days on my feet. A slower pace, but longer duration. This means less time for recovery and setting up camp in the dark by headlamp, but also means less demands on my body at any one time.

I will, of course, keep anyone who is interested posted with the progress of a reattempt. I will continue to train throughout the summer with the pack and weigh my options. At least Professor Fail's classroom has left me wiser for the process and with a greater sense of respect for a good, hard challenge.


  1. You can only fail - if you don't try.
    Nice effort!
    Better luck next time.

  2. Ryan, this is an amazing blog post. The fact that you even tried leaves me in awe. It takes a lot of strength to admit mistakes and know when to listen to your body.

    This is just a temporary set-back, of course. I'm looking forward to reading about your next adventure!