2018 From Start to Finish

 

As 2018 comes to a close, I look back over the last 12 months to reflect on what I have achieved, the obstacles I have faced, what I have learned, and whether my goals are taking me in the right direction.  The last few years have held a lot of “starting over” moments for me and I feel like 2018 has been a big turning point for me, in that I am really progressing beyond previous milestones.  My relationship with Christie is growing ever deeper roots, having been together for nearly 3 years now, my running goals have definitely matured and become more synergistic with my other health goals, and my career is finally starting to look a lot closer to what I envision for my future.  In the past, many of my goals have been fairly objective, such as grades in school, marathon times, or 100mile races finished, and I tended to push myself by the sheer volume of what I have taken on.  As I reflect back, I see that the biggest change for me is by selecting my goals more consciously, and that is what is driving my plans moving forward.  I have tried to take more care in choosing what I am committing my time to on a regular basis, and the top priorities are health, family and service to others. 

Christie and I started off the year with a drive to Cambridge to take part in the inaugural Stride Inside 6h track race, hosted by our friends Jeff and Heather from Happy Trails Racing (We would later be honoured to attend their wedding in early September, pictured at the left).  I was not particularly trained for the race, but wanted to see how fit I was.  Everything started off great, and it was awesome to be able to see Christie and all the others so often as we ran around the 215m track again and again and again, but after 3 hours, I started to fade.  I was about to stop at the massage/physio station set up in the corner for a bit of a break until Jeff shouted at me that I only needed one more lap to finish a marathon.  I got back up, finished the marathon, and then spent a few minutes on the treatment table.  I resumed running, but the last couple hours we not nearly as strong as the first couple, and so I knew I had some work to do to get back to feeling as strong as I wanted to be.  I recovered fairly quickly after the race, but just to keep me on my toes, my left knee started to get really sore and swollen a few days later. 

Having my left knee spontaneously swell up was not my wish for the start of 2018, but that was the hand I was dealt. Having a new, more proactive rheumatologist, I went in to get it checked out right away and she immediately offered to drain the excess fluid and give me a cortisone injection to prevent it from rupturing on it’s own like I had experienced twice in the Fall of 2016.  I was amazed at the difference this protocol made compared to the treatment I received for my right knee just over a year earlier.  The knee felt a little weird for about 24 hours, but after that, I felt as good as new and the swelling never came back, as least not nearly as aggressively. 

I was starting to run more consistently after taking it easy for a few months, a much-needed break after a very busy 2017 schedule of races.  It felt good to be back out running for the enjoyment of it, and my body was welcoming it for the most part.  I had planned to be much more disciplined in 2018 regarding the volume of running commitments I would make, knowing that I had set school as a priority and I was getting close to being done. 

My next race of 2018 was Around the Bay, on March 25th, and I would be running as a pace bunny for 2:40’ for the 30k distance and Christie was on a relay team.  Although the pace was much more manageable than the 2:15’ I paced the year before, I also entered the race-within-a-race “Easterbrook Challenge” (organized by Jeff of Happy Trails).  In addition to running the 30km route, the challenge entailed consuming an entire (Veggie) hotdog with all the menu toppings from the Easterbrook’s hotdog shop, located near the 25km mark, as well as a can pop of our choice and 3 chocolate truffles for dessert before crossing the finish line.   The dogs were all pre-ordered and ready for us when we ran by.  I managed eating the hotdog without too much trouble and chugged my Nestea during a short walk break up the giant hill at 26k.  My heart rate reflected the additional stress on my digestive system, but I stayed exactly on pace and helped several people achieve their goals of breaking the 2:40’ barrier.  The hotdog eating contest was all just for fun, but I think I finished 3rd and won a discounted entry into the Sulphur Springs 50k race in late May.

By April, I was starting to focus a lot more on my final exams and preparing for my registration exams in Toronto, as well as where I would be planning to set up my massage therapy practice.  In a serendipitous fashion, I was connected with Kubet Westin, the owner of Skye Health to talk about their clinic’s expansion.  They were moving into a new space, (coincidentally, in the completely renovated D’Arcy Lane building that I had started my massage therapy training almost two years prior) and they wanted to bring a couple RMT’s onto their team of physiotherapists.  After our first meeting in April, I knew that we would get along very well and the clinic represented a great opportunity for me to start off my RMT practice.  We continued to keep in touch, but it was hard to make any set plans or commitments before I was fully registered. 

Things were really starting to come together in May.  Not only would we take part in our family tradition of doing the Watford Road Race, but Christie and I would also celebrate our first wedding anniversary and find out that she was pregnant, all within the same week.  One morning, I woke up early by way of Christie softly announcing that her pregnancy test was not negative.  It took me a moment to process, but I couldn’t have been happier.   The news gave me a lot to think about during the 50km, super-hot, trail run at Sulphur Springs the following day.  The news also helped me keep from becoming overwhelmed by school as it made a crescendo towards our final exams, which involved a mock-version of the CMTO licensing exams.  The prospect of becoming a parent put things into perspective and gave me even more motivation to learn as much as possible and to do as well as I could in school so that I could later support my growing family. 

Running also served as an outlet for the stress of exams and gave me time to reflect on all the changes that were on my doorstep, since those types of stresses seem to be the principle trigger for my autoimmune issues.  All of my final exams went really well and I felt reasonably prepared for the CMTO exams, consisting of a multiple choice test at the end of June and a 7-station practical exam in mid July.  Through it all, my body was feeling stronger than ever, without experiencing arthritic flare-ups and the periodic fevers being controlled with an occasional dose of prednisone.  This was giving me more confidence about my main goal race of 2018, the Oil Creek 100 mile trail run in Titusville, Pennsylvania in October.  I had registered for the race in 2016 and was unable to run it due to a massive flare-up in the aftermath of starting school and moving back to London.  It seemed like deep down I had some unfinished business and felt the need to finish Oil Creek, which is objectively less difficult than the Eastern States 100.  But rather than just completing the race, I wanted to finish it feeling strong.  Balancing that goal, with the other priorities of family and career would lead me to experiment with a different approach to training.  I would try to focus on doing occasional long workouts at a very low intensity, such as 4 hour hikes, mixed with more frequent short, yet high intensity runs.  The result is a lot less wear and tear on my body, while maximizing the training effect. 

In early June, Christie and I took part in the Ragnar Relay between Coburg and Niagara Falls.  I ended up running a couple additional legs of the race to make up for injured teammates and so in a matter of 24 hours, I got a few of the short, fast efforts in.  A couple weeks later, we came back to Niagara-on-the-Lake for a 100k race.  The Niagara Ultra 100k was another race I felt I had unfinished business with, since they only offer the 100k distance every other year and I have never had an opportunity to do it.  I felt a quiet confidence going into the race, but after the lead pack took a wrong turn only a few hundred meters in (which everyone else followed), we started off with about a mile handicap by the time we got turned around and were back on track.  The day was forecast to be hot and humid and so I ran conservatively through the morning, knowing there was a LONG way to go.  As the heat set in during the afternoon hours, I just tried to keep a steady pace and hydrate really well.  Christie, as always, was a wonderful support crew and met me at several points along the course.  Before I knew it, I had gone from 10th up to 4th by just being patient, not to mention how much it helped to have Christie cycling along side me for most of the second half.  In the last 15km, I could see the 2nd and 3rd place runners just ahead and I was gaining on both of them.  I got closer and closer, until, with less than 5km to go, I blew past them both and then just tried to hold on for the finish line.  Luckily, I held it together and secured 2nd place overall in just over 10 hours.  I was very happy with the results and felt good about my training protocol. 

Just over a week later, I wrote my first qualification exam in Toronto.  The stress leading up to the exam was much worse than the test itself, and I felt pretty good about how it went.  I had a couple more weeks to prepare for the practical exam, which is equally, if not more stressful than the multiple-choice exam.  I studied with some of my classmates and tried to get into the same mindset as I do for big races.  I try to quiet my mind, reassuring myself that I have prepared adequately, and that it’s almost as simple as just allowing time to pass , doing my best and to get to the other side.  All the practice with races certainly came in handy to keep my nerves calm when taking a $700 exam demonstrating the accumulation of 2 years worth of learning in only 90 minutes.  Again, I felt that I did reasonably well and tried not to stress about waiting for the results.

Between our annual camping trip up to Seeley’s Bay for the Shirefest music festival, the MS Bike Tour between London and Grand Bend with Team Anderson Ales, and a week long trip to BC to visit my friend Nick and his wife Sarah, I had lots to keep myself occupied while waiting to become a Registered Massage Therapist.  Christie was quite excited about the MS Bike Tour, which had been something that I had always wanted to do but never did yet.  It was uncertain how it would go, considering she was not planning to be pregnant when we committed to it, so we took it nice and easy and we had a great time.  It definitely took a lot out of Christie, but with lots of rest and many friends along the way, we did the whole thing, plus a little bit extra since we stayed at home overnight instead of at the University. 

Pregnancy has been one of the main themes of the year, as the experience of living it, is much different from learning about it at school or through the experience of others.  Although Christie is definitely doing most of the hard stuff to grow the baby, I am doing my best to support her in any way that I can.  We had started talking about the possibility of trying to get pregnant earlier in the year when Christie was accepted into the accelerated fourth year program, which meant she would be in school full-time through the summer and finish her final placement in early December.  If all went according to plan, her school would not be compromised if we started to try to get pregnant after St. Patrick’s Day.  We had a party to celebrate the Irish before preparing for a lengthy abstinence from alcohol and creating the most habitable environment for a possible seed to sprout. 

We had one full month of “trying” followed by a gentle let-down when it became apparent that it did not work.  We had reasonable expectations and knew that it can take many months for circumstances to align just right, if ever at all, but the reality of living it gave us some pause.  Christie had expressed some mild doubts about whether we should keep trying or maybe hold off until after school was finished.  Sure enough, it was in the following month, where we were neither trying to get pregnant nor actively trying not to get pregnant that little Baby Groot came to be. 

Taking a trip out west while Christie stayed at home was not easy, but it was a good test for us.  It gave Christie time to prepare for her final exams for her summer term in school and allowed me some amazing training for the Oil Creek race while visiting friends in BC.  Once Nick found out I was coming out for a week, he set to work planning something #epic for us to do during my visit, the result being a circumnavigation of Mount Rainier, in Washington state on the famous Wonderland Trail.  The trail is about 150km long and there are several camps where hikers can stay as they complete the trail.  Many will take a week or more to do the whole thing but Nick seemed to think it was reasonable to do it in three days.  I was a bit reserved about that plan, but trusted that we could do it, even if we had to hike through the night for part of it. 

Hiking the Wonderland Trail is probably one of the most spectacular things I have done in my life, but it was far from easy.  On the first day, after a strong start, I blew up hard in the final miles of the day, to a point where I was seriously contemplating hitching a ride to the second camp.  I have rarely ever felt so depleted, but after a decent night’s sleep in my hammock, I gave it another go and managed through the second day, at a more mindful pace.  Nick and I found our groove together, mainly by each of us going at our own pace and then meeting back up for meals (which Nick would start cooking while waiting for me). Despite still feeling pretty wiped out towards the middle of day 3, I was confident I would be able to finish, and we managed to even run most of the last few kilometers back to the parking lot.  It was an incredible adventure, complete with a bit of friction at times, but it helped me to realize that I would much rather want to take my time hiking in such beautiful places than to power through them.  I thought a fair bit about my future family and what types of things I want to commit my time to doing, and running 100 miles out in the wilderness is starting to loose its lustre.  I swore to myself that Oil Creek would be my last 100mile run involving significant elevation, provided that I didn’t get picked for the Western States 100 lottery in December (Spoiler: I didn’t get picked). I would still finish Oil Creek, but I wanted to go out on a high note. 

There was a short turnaround between arriving home from out west and returning to the Woodstock Fruit Festival at Camp Waldon in upstate New York.  With a baby on the way, Christie and I decided that we should take advantage of the opportunity to go back as volunteers while we could, because it would be much harder to do with a small baby.  This year, we were on the breakfast buffet team, and so most of our jobs revolved around cutting melons and prepping other fruit for the morning.  We also stocked the 24hour buffet, helped with the smoothie station and like last year, served as the go-to couple to run errands into town for the camp admin.  Because we had been to the festival before, we felt much more at home and comfortable.  There were many people we were excited to see again as well as some new friendships made.  We ended up spending much of our spare time (outside of our 6-11am volunteer shift) just chilling out, reading and relaxing, rather than doing a lot of the other activities like last year.  Just the 5 hour shift of working was taking a fair bit of energy, and it was nice to unplug and just enjoy some leisure time after the intense trip in the mountains just a week or so earlier.  I snuck in a few shorter runs with lots of hills and we were lucky enough to take a class on the Wim Hof Method of breathing, led by one of the camp attendees who happened to be a certified WHM trainer. 

I have been fascinated by Wim Hof, the “Iceman,” for over a year at that point and was excited to be able to implement some of his techniques into my training.  For those that are less familiar, Wim has developed the an amazing skill of enduring the cold as well as performing other extreme physical feats by using special breathing and meditation techniques that he has mastered through decades of his own experience in the cold.  After the class, I started doing 4 rounds of the breathing exercises almost every day, and noticed an improvement in my ability to hold my breath, sometimes in excess of 3 minutes AFTER exhalation. 

The exclamation point on my summer was, of course, finding out that I had passed both of my qualification exams and could then register as a massage therapist in Ontario.  That was the final step required for me to be able to start treating clients at Skye Health, and it was a huge weight off my mind.  I committed to working 2 days each week and alternate Saturdays at Skye, while returning to regular supply teaching work in September.  It was really nice to get the cash-flow moving in the right direction again after a couple years of major deficit spending to get through school.   

With the addition of the breathing and meditation to my training, along with things like intermittent fasting that I have been using for quite awhile, I felt like I was going to be in great shape for Oil Creek.  I didn’t really do many long runs leading up to it, except for the 12h night race at That Dam Hill in London.  I was able to get all the benefit of running hard all through the night, without the wear and tear of running for a full 24 hours.  I felt good from the start and just tried to stay focused and moving all night long.  I was surprised to reflect later (no pun intended) that I actually spent most of the night just focused on the lanterns a few hundred feet ahead, rather than thinking much of anything else.  It was like I had blinders on and just kept moving forward with a fairly clear mind.  My friend Andrew, who has paced for me before, came out at 6am and ran with me for the last two hours to help me finish the race with just under 119km in 12 hours.  I even felt good enough to go out for Sunday brunch with Christie’s family immediately following the race. 

As we approached Thanksgiving, I felt ready to take on Oil Creek, but was also conscious that we would be missing several family gatherings, not knowing at the time that it would be the last family Thanksgiving attended by my Uncle Mike, who had been diagnosed with an aggressive brain cancer earlier in the summer.  On further reflection, it has really made it clear to me how important family is and that I want to try harder to make each time I get to see family and friends count.  And when there are scheduling conflicts, to do my best to prioritize and keep in mind that we all have a finite number of days left on this planet.

During our time in Titusville, Pennsylvania, Christie and I stayed in the Caboose Motel, which definitely added to the small town charm of the trip.  We arrived on the Friday evening just in time to pick up my race package and bib before they closed.  The motel was only a 5-minute drive from the start/finish line at the Titusville middle-school so it was very convenient for us, especially with the early 5am start on Saturday.  For more details on how the weekend went, you can check out our YouTube Channel but I will try to summarize the race as briefly as I can (which tends to be one of my greatest challenges). 

The forecast had been calling for rain, so I was mentally preparing myself in the days leading up to the race.  We were very fortunate that the drizzle on Friday night tapered off by early morning and from 5am until about 6pm Saturday the skies were relatively clear.  My first couple 50km loops went pretty well, although I was slowing down a bit during the heat of the day on the second loop.  I still felt okay and my stomach was cooperating, which is a critical part of being successful at completing 100 miles.  Just before I was ready to leave the school to start my 3rd loop, the storm swooped in and there was a downpour.  I figured that I would get wet regardless so I ventured out to cover some ground instead of waiting for the rain to ease off.  I was soaked from 100km onwards, but the really tough part was not being able to see very well.  With all the moisture in the air, the trails were soon quite foggy in some areas and the small sections of mud that I could navigate around in the day now took up the entire trail and were unavoidable.  I spent the next 8 hours trudging through the mud, contemplating whether or not to go out for the final “Going Home” loop for the last 12km, along with pondering many other great questions of life and the meaning of why we struggle (I highly recommend Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning for more incredible insight on this topic). 

I spent some stretches of the race running and hiking with others, including one of my pacers from Eastern States, Brad (pictured at right), and a few others that I came to know better along the trails.  I also spent long periods of time completely by myself in isolation, out in the woods.  I kept thinking about what it would have been like 150 years ago during the first big oil boom when the very trails I was running on were used by the first cohort of labourers working in the brand new oil industry.  It was a very dangerous occupation where explosions and fires were likely and dying on the job was a very real possibility.  As I ran through the mud, I could smell the aroma of oily tar in the air.  It was both nauseating and mesmerizing during those late night hours by myself. 

I did notice a couple other racers that were nearby, but it was hard to differentiate the 100 from 50mile runners in the dark.  Every time I could see a headlamp in distance, it would motivate me to patiently charge forward, attempting to either catch or not be caught by the light.  When I finally made it back to the school, I needed a couple minutes to sit down and rest.  I asked Christie if I should go out for the last loop, hoping she would say, “It’s okay if you don’t, I’ll love you anyways,” only to hear, “Of course!  Why wouldn’t you?”  That was all I needed to hear to send me on my way back out into the darkness one last time. 

I was expecting the last loop to take me 3-4 hours based on my pace during the 3rd loop, but by being that much closer to the end put a little bit more spring in my very tired steps.  I passed one guy just a kilometer or two into the loop and it was good motivation to keep moving, otherwise he’d catch back up.  I just tried to power-hike the muddy trails as best as I could, and keep my eyes open for the sign that signaled the turn off the main trail and onto the smaller loop around the 5k point. 

After climbing all day long, I knew from chatting with a few other runners that the biggest single section of elevation gain was just a few miles from the finish on a part of the trail that we wouldn’t see until the last loop.  I kept anticipating this enormous hill, only to find that right after the trail split from the 50km loop, I started loosing elevation.  I kept going down and down and down and wondered if I had somehow already did all the climbs in the last loop since there was only a few miles left.  Sure enough, my delusions of the hill already being behind me soon fell back to reality.  I crossed the famed “Going Home Bridge” which was used by the oil workers in the 1860’s to walk from the derricks to their homes across from Oil Creek, and just a few meters onto the other side, I read a sign through the fog stating “Climb of Death!” 

“One foot in front of the other,” was my motto for the next 15-20 minutes as the trail went up and up and up, took a turn, then up some more, until I was spit out back onto the same trail with the 50km loop, but closer to the end.  I had covered this section just a few hours earlier and the footing actually seemed to have improved, or maybe I was just a little more excited to be almost done.  I moved swiftly until the trail dropped down onto the asphalt road near the Drake Oil Well Museum grounds.  During the first 3 loops, we had to run a little over a mile around the grounds of the museum before heading back to town, but on the final loop, we just had to cross the bridge and the finish line was just a couple kilometers down the bike path.  It was really the mud that was slowing me down during the night, but once I was on solid ground, I could still run fairly well so I really picked it up, or at least it felt that way.  I might have run a couple hundred meters and then walked 30m, then run a couple hundred more, just repeating that over and over.  Once I saw the streetlights, I really put it into high gear and tried my best to suspend the walk breaks until after the finish line, which I would cross in just under 25 hours after I started.  It was short of my time goal, but still within the top 10 (I would later find out that about 60% of those that started the race dropped out, mainly because of the rain and mud).  I could see Christie cheering for me as I charged towards the finish.  She is definitely a big part of my WHY, along with the baby she’s currently carrying.  I thought a lot during that race about why I choose to continue participating in such events, and I feel like there are now fewer good reasons for me to put myself out there, suffering for a long time, just to get a belt buckle at the end.  One thing I kept coming back to in my head was that, somehow, my suffering might help ease the burden of someone else’s suffering, perhaps even some of the pain Christie will have to endure during childbirth, (*Disclaimer: Running 100 miles in mud is NOT the same as child birth, although our attitudes towards pain and suffering may be made more familiar through either.) even if it is only through cultivating a greater sense of compassion for those that suffer.  I figured that if Christie has been such an incredible support for me while I do these crazy races, right from day 1 (literally, check out our first date on YouTube) of our relationship, then I owe it to her to stick it through and finish what I start (referring to the race), and also to try and be the best support for her when she goes into labour. 

Upon further reflection after the race, I feel like Oil Creek was an important experience for me to really prepare for my life to change in very big ways, entering parenthood and shifting the focus from getting me to the finish line, to getting Baby Groot to adulthood with the tools needed to be resilient and confident in a scary world.  My ambition to do the big mountain races has waned, making room for more family centred goals and challenges.  I have certainly learned a lot from competing in ultras and I will still continue to challenge myself in various ways.  I think I would really like to do more things to give back to the running community such as speaking engagements, coaching, and the occasional cameo in educational programming (such as the upcoming episode of “The Unlikely Vegan” which we shot in November, and the Arthritis Society’s video on living with arthritis, which should be coming out in the next couple months) to share my experience and expertise.    

After a short recovery in the Caboose, we were on our way back home and back to the regular routines, which have carried through until the holidays.  I have been working consistently at Skye, slowly building my client base, and supply teaching has been pretty busy.  Through November and December, along with working lots, I was spending more time helping Christie at home so that she could maintain enough energy to complete her final placement and consolidation for her nursing degree, at the OBCU at LHSC.  It has really become clear to me that pregnancy is a lot bigger challenge than running 100 miles and I have a ton of respect for all the women out there that make it look easy.  They often don’t get enough appreciation for all they go through. 

We have had a busy end to our year.  We had lunch at the Mandarin with Christie’s mom’s side of the family, got to see Christie’s friend Nancy (who travelled from Olympia, WA) and meet her 8-month old, Rylan, we attended the Groot family Christmas gathering and had a visit with Christie’s Aunt Marie prior to Christmas. Then we spent a portion of Christmas day at all four of our parent’s places.  We had a few days blocked off to try our best to get our home in order before New Years, but that always takes much more time than anticipated.  We enter 2019 on high alert for the coming of our little baby boy, which we couldn’t be more excited for.  I’ve also got a few big goals for the 2019 to keep me focused while I’ll probably be getting by with a little less sleep than I’m used to.  I have registered for the Ottawa Marathon in May and hope to finish it in under 3 hours, something I haven’t done since 2015 in Chicago.  I will also be running most of the Happy Trails Racing series, which kicks off with the second annual Stride Inside on January 5th, and I’ll continue to promote Endurance Tap gel packs as one of their 2019 brand Ambassadors.  I really love being able to have the opportunity to support such great brands and look forward to helping to build their communities at races and on social media.  I also hope to create some more content for our YouTube channels now that the deadlines of school are a thing of a the past (at least for now).  The last big thing I have brewing for 2019 is a set of workshops that outline and teach a handful of simple practices that can make a huge difference for one’s health and wellness. 

In closing, I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for making it this far and being supportive of me achieving my goals.  Every year, I am dumbfounded by how much I have been able to accomplish in 12 months and wonder how I’ll ever be able to continue being so productive.  I have come to expect this outcome, and the driver behind how it’s made possible is to continually write out and refine a variety of goals and make small steps every day that work towards those bigger goals.  Some days, especially when dealing with my auto-immune issues, it can seem like just getting out of bed can be a huge win, and on the better days, getting out for a run, or to a yoga class, or just a leisurely walk with the family can be the small wins that move you closer to the long term goals. 

The last few years have been very transformative for me, with many more accomplishments than just covering a few miles in a set time.  I finally feel like many years of hard work are all starting to pay off with huge dividends.  There’s a lot more to do in the coming years, and much of it will not be easy, but I feel confident that the struggles will be worth it by being able to be more present with family and friends and all the moments in between.  My hope for the coming year, and the years ahead, is to do my best to value people and moments while resisting the urge to get caught up in the many distractions and things that are ubiquitous in our modern world.  Just to keep it simple, to love, stay fit and healthy and spread as much joy to others as I can. 

 

Wishing you all a healthy and prosperous year filled with love,

 

Brian

© Brian Groot 2018