Running For Rhinos: FKT TO KEEP THEM FREE
Avon Trail, Ontario, Canada
Saturday September 5th, 2020
The alarm on my watch goes off. It’s 2:30am and as much as I’d love to hit that snooze button, I have to get moving. Thank the gods of restless children that I’ve actually gotten some decent sleep behind me, because there’s a lot of seriously hard work ahead!
I quickly get the kettle bubbling, gather all my gear with bags and coolers, attach my signs (begging passersby not to mess with any of it), get a sleepy kiss from my wife before she heads back to bed, quickly cram in some very early breakfast, throw on my running kit, lace up my Altras, and I’m out the door to meet my buddy David, who has selflessly agreed to pick me up at this ungodly hour and drop me off at the western terminus of the 120km Avon Trail.
Today is the big day. I’m going for the FKT (fastest known time) and it will be my first ever “self-supported” effort, meaning that any aid I receive during the run is limited only to that coming from stashes of food, drink, and gear that I’ve personally left for myself at strategic drop-points along the trail. Everything else I may need will be carried in a pack on my back the entire time, and I will be running absolutely on my own. The time to beat is 17h14m (set in 2018 by the “self-supported” team of Jamieson Hatt and Casey Thivierge), but if it’s in the cards, what I really want to do is take down the overall FKT of 14h36m (set in 2004 by the “supported” team of Clark Zealand, Ryne Melcher, and Monica Scholz).
It’s not really about breaking records though. That’d be a cool little bonus, for sure, but it’s ultimately just a “fun” personal challenge to see what I can do, test my under-developed navigation skills, and take in the whole experience as it comes. On top of all that, to give this a bit of an added meaning and deeper purpose, I’m opting to run in honour of the International Anti-Poaching Foundation (IAPF) to raise money for their South African species conservation efforts through my annual Running For Rhinos campaign. I’ve been so inspired by Damian Mander (The Vegan Sniper) and the Akashinga women (The Brave Ones) who devote their lives to protecting endangered species. I wish there was a way for me to be over there, helping them out directly in some form, but short of that, I guess I can at least go for a long run...
David and I hit our first stop (drop-point #3 at ~93km), and we’re not off to a great start… Searching for a sneaky spot to stash some food and drinks in the dark of night, I abruptly crash to the ground, flat on my back beneath my cooler as I slide down a path-side ditch hidden by overgrowth. Not to worry though; when it comes to falling, I’m surprisingly talented. It won’t be the last time I take an unplanned dive today… it won’t even come close to being the roughest! Fortunately the next two drop-offs are much less eventful, and we make it to the starting line just after 5:00am. Matt is already there waiting for us in the dark, looking suspicious as hell, but we know he’s a good man. He’s decided to sacrifice his day to join David, so together they can cheer me on at whatever points they can catch me at throughout the day, maybe get in a run for themselves, film a little, and both get a first-hand look at the car-wreck disaster I’m likely to turn into by the end of it all!
With no need to wait any longer, I take off running river-side; just me and the moonlight shimmering off the water. I’ve got my waist light on full-blast and flashlight in hand to help navigate (and to illuminate any mysterious trail-side noises that will undoubtedly spook me in the darkness). Soon after taking off, still in the dark of night, I’m forced to suppress my mild terror as I run by an honest-to-goodness human being, standing motionless at the river’s edge, hidden in shadow with a black and white cat gently perched upon his shoulder. I’m certain it’s too early for me to already be hallucinating, so I just give a friendly “good morning” and get the heck out of there!
At this point, the trail is pretty easy to follow - even in the dark - and I’m moving at a good, comfortable pace. The only thing that causes me to break my stride for a moment is a sudden surprise skunk that pops out directly in my path. Fortunately the little guy is not nearly as startled as I am, so he seemingly doesn’t feel the need to gift me with his unique scent as a souvenir for the rest of my day’s journey. I’m quite thankful.
After a while running in a semi-dream-like state, a faint light starts to emerge on the horizon as the sun hints at its plans to rise. I’ll be in and out of the deep woods for some time though, chatting it up with the many shiny-eyed deer as I pass by, so it’ll be a long time before I can ditch the lights. Just over an hour later, as I briefly emerge from the trees, I’m suddenly hit with the beauty of the full-force sunrise reflecting off of the serene Wildwood Lake. I let out an uncontrollably loud, “F*** that’s beautiful!”, and immediately feel my wife, Karin’s enthusiastic nature-loving presence with me. I also wonder if I’ve startled any of the nearby sleeping campers. Nah, they’re fine.
Shortly after, through the wonderful magic of technology, I get to check in with Karin and the kids (because of work, I haven’t seen the little ones fully awake in well over 24 hours). I update them all on how I’m doing, hear what they’re up to for the day, make sure my gps tracker is working properly as seen from their end, and revel in getting to hear all of their happy voices (timing is fortunate, as against all odds, I don’t hear anyone fighting). I’m certainly not in need of it just yet, but it’s a nice emotional boost to be sure.
The remainder of the first section flows by without a significant hitch. Sure, there are a couple of brief wrong turns that I have to back-track (one in particular that had me fall into an overgrown swampy, thorny ditch), but nothing that even amounts to a full minute of lost time. Really, the only issue so far is that I’ve started to feel some early signs of nausea. I think it may be the humidity, as even though the temperature is relatively cool, the air feels incredibly thick to me, and eating has already become a less-than-enjoyable endeavor. Still, I’m able to successfully force the majority of my nutrition down, and more importantly, keep it down.
It really is an overwhelmingly magical feeling as I come out to my first drop-point at 32.5km. I’m moving easily with basically just a nice warm-up jog behind me, and I can’t hide the big smile stretching across my face. I’m slightly ahead of schedule 3 hours in (the plan was to be 3-3.5 hours for every 30km). I refill my hydration bladder, restock my gels and bars, and then hear the cheerful shouts from David and Matt as they return from their own run, catching me just in time. I quickly massage my hamstrings and calves, and then head on my way. Little do I know that this magical, smiley moment is about to wither away and die a tragic death…
This next section starts off with a strange 1.5km side loop. It’s one of many little additions along the length of the Avon Trail that take you off the main line and drop you back to the same spot you left from, making you feel like you’re no further ahead. I’ll admit that this one is a nice bit of trail for sure, but hardly a highlight compared to some of the spots I’ve already seen, so it’s hard to justify its additional inclusion in this already very long trail. Whatever, I just keep moving. Right after, though, is a crummy little winding path that takes me barely off the road for a few hundred meters (which definitely doesn’t need to be included), and once I’m back on the road, now feeling frustrated, I blow right past an unmarked left turn for an intended trail entrance. Okay, my mood is obviously taking a turn for the worse – and the intermittent hits of nausea aren’t making things any better. Still, my legs are moving fine, and I can see that I’m keeping a good pace.
The trail markers are getting farther and farther apart, and the trail underfoot is gradually disappearing altogether. That doesn’t stop me from enjoying the greeting I get from a herd of excited cows who run with me for a few hundred meters before I head back into the forest. Their enthusiasm is greatly appreciated in this increasingly dark moment. So many trees are down, blocking what looks to be the trail, and I’m forced to duck, dive, and weave my way through. Next, I come to a river crossing that I don’t remember seeing on any map, and after stopping to get my bearings, I realize it looks like the river itself may actually be the trail. My opportunities to go fast are becoming few and far between. And that’s when I hit the cornfields...
Now, I should mention that in preparation for this effort over the past few months, I’ve run the final 60km of this trail in many short out-and-back sections, so I have a good idea of what to expect there. This first half though is a bit of a mystery to me. I know there are plenty of cornfields awaiting me in the second half, but unlike those ones (which still have legitimate, visible trails at the edge), this particular cornfield has an endless barrage of spiky, thorny plant life all along its outer barrier, forcing me to move amongst the corn itself to receive all the whips and face smacks such ridiculously tall plants seem to love to give. Visibility is completely gone, and any attempts to run are thwarted by uneven ground and random gopher holes that I have no way of seeing coming. I get dropped hard more times than I care to admit, so I have to concede that walking is really my only option for now. I’m going slowly, and I’m going blind, relying solely on my watch’s rough, primitive GPS navigation track, not unlike some rogue pilot trapped in a thunderstorm. I’d like to say this has just been a short section of hell, but it feels as close to never-ending as it gets, being trapped in this unimaginative maze for well over half an hour now. The only thing that’s getting me through is the knowledge that once I hit my 62.5km drop-point, there’s nothing quite this bad that lies ahead. This is undoubtedly the worst of it… right?
Finally, I emerge from the corn, actually get some running in, and approach a road that I believe is where my bag is. I am sadly mistaken. There’s actually still another kilometer to go, and another new breed of hellacious field crossing to combat. There’s no corn here, just wild overgrowth (all with burrs, spikes, thorns, and whatever other horrible feeling things plants can sadistically grow). At least I can see ahead of me, but that almost makes it worse. Drop-point #2 is now visible in the distance, but as I continue to trudge forward, it doesn’t seem to be getting any closer! I could just attempt to wade through the river to my right - in retrospect, that might have actually been a wise decision - but I opt to continue along the marked trail itself where there is absolutely zero footpath, uneven ground (so yup, lots more falls), and tons of thorns jabbing repeatedly into my body. Oh, and let’s not forget that these plants are thick with cold morning dew, so I’m also getting thoroughly soaked as I plod on. There have been many times in the past when I can find strength by just embracing the ridiculousness of this sort of thing and laughing through it, but this, sadly, is not one of those times. I’m miserable. After I don’t know how many minutes (frankly it feels like hours), I hear David and Matt cheering, and I know I’m soon-to-be free of this heinous torture.
The path opens and I run ahead to my drop-point, remove my now drenched and prickly, burr-laden shoes, socks, and calf sleeves, and I’m elated to know that the worst is behind me. A bag of semi-frozen oranges is awaiting me, and as much as eating has not appealed, these heavenly fruits are absolute game-changers. They’ve saved me before in ultras, and - spoiler alert - today is no different!
For obvious reasons that section was a lot slower than planned (4 hours over 30km), but it’s actually a huge feather in my cap that I was still able to get through it and hit the half-way point at roughly 7 hours. The FKT remains in sight, and again, I know there’s nothing quite that bad ahead, so it’s all looking up from here (that is, as long as my body doesn’t shut down).
My feet are dry, I have a fresh pair of Altras and new burr-less calf sleeves, and I’m on my way. I run ahead and turn into what I like to think of as the wetland reserve. Even though I’ve run here only once before, I can’t begin to tell you how comforting the familiarity of this place is right now. My navigation anxiety is starting to relax, and I can move calmly again, actually getting to take in the natural beauty of my surroundings. I soon pass by a small pond and am pleasantly surprised to see a swan (who I’ve decided is named Gertie) enjoying a splash in the water while a chubby, yet debonair kitty (I have to assume, her excessively romantic life-partner, Francisco) sits sunbathing at the edge in this brief moment of full-on sunshine. My mind swirls over those two ragamuffins and their worldly shenanigans…
I cross into the Khaki Club where 3 men are standing drinking their coffee, eyeing me up and down like I’m the strangest thing they’ve ever seem (and I’m not sure they’re entirely wrong). I pass by and keep moving through the trail, hitting the one significant deviation from my mapped out route where I know I really need to be alert and pay attention. Rather than head north to the road on the official side-trail, I follow the winding and slightly overgrown (but manageable) main-trail south along the Nith River before turning and heading back along the other side. I know it adds 2 or 3km to my overall journey, but it’s a nice spot, and navigation goes smoothly, so I’m not mad at all.
After this, despite being a devout trail runner, I’m so excited to hit the next section of road. It means I’ll be nearing my third and final drop-point soon enough. Not to mention that the road is much more straightforward and I should be able to move faster and make up lost time. The reality of this road, however, hits me with another unwelcome low-point. Perhaps somewhat unsurprisingly, my body is in fact beginning to falter. My feet are aching, my legs are stiffening, and even though I should technically be able to move more efficiently on the road, the dullness of it is just not allowing me to propel forward like I feel I should. I also have absolutely no appetite, and drinking only electrolytes is starting to severely dry out my mouth. I’ve still been force-feeding what I can and taking in as much fluid as possible, but honestly, oranges are the only things that sound even remotely appealing right now. Without the challenging ups and downs and twists and turns of the trail, these troubles are all I can think about. Thankfully it’s not too long before I get off the road and hit the trail again (where the grass is seemingly greener). It’s yet another strange off-shoot that is a more-or-less unnecessary addition to the overall trail, but the mentally engaging terrain is certainly welcome at this point. It goes by in a blink, and as I emerge, coming down the picturesque grassy steps, I know I’m about to step back onto that same road I just left. I also know that at this time, I’ll be stuck here pounding my aching feet for at least a few kilometers. The prospect does not excite me.
A voice shouts out my name from behind me. It’s Mike, another buddy who’s come out to surprise me and cheer me on, riding along on his bike. His momentary words of encouragement could not have come at a better time! It brings me back to the Sulphur Springs 100-miler last year, where he paced me through my penultimate 20km loop. I’m sure I must have been feeling just as low then, but he brought me around just by keeping me company. This time around, just the surprise of seeing him seems to do the trick. I wish he could stay with me for the remainder of this stretch, but this is a “self-supported” effort, so after a few quick words, he speeds away to wait at the upcoming drop-point.
This stretch of road is much too long for my liking, but as I turn the corner onto Carmel-Koch Rd, I know that I’m finally approaching drop-point #3. Except, as I’m pushing forward to get there, I notice a trail marker indicating another left turn. What the hell?! My mind goes crazy. I’ve completely forgotten about yet another trail off-shoot (with its own additional mini-loop and some significant climbing). I’m so mad that this exists right now! I do have to admit that this particular off-shoot and loop are actually pretty fun sections and make perfect sense to be included, but seriously? Come on!
Well, I genuinely could cry, but that would waste too much energy, so I turn into the trail and just keep moving. As I continue along the forested trail, I suddenly hear a sound that changes my anger and sadness to fear. Pheasants ahead of me scatter as gunshots ring through the air. Now, I’m no gun connoisseur, but it doesn’t sound quite like a hunting rifle to me; maybe something more along the lines of the pop from a BB-gun. Still, I’m not planning to get shot, and frankly I don’t want any animals shot either (I’m doing this to help stop poaching after all!) so I do the only thing I can think to protect myself and get the birds flying to safety. I sing - as loudly as possible - the first thing that comes to mind (which for some reason is “How Far I’ll Go” from Disney’s Moana). It’s not my best performance, I’ll admit, but I don’t hear any more shots from that point on, so we’re all good.
I’m back on the road and at once I can actually see my final drop-point, with 3 friends waiting to catch a glimpse of my personal disaster.
I quickly grab my cooler from the bush, and promptly collapse onto my back (intentionally this time) for a much-needed rest after 93.5km and 10h40m of running. While rolling my legs and back, and scarfing down some glorious oranges, I quickly crunch the numbers. That last section took longer than I wanted, but it was reasonable, and the next (and final) section should be the shortest of the four quarters, so I’m thinking I’ll be able to push it towards the end and make up time to finish strong. I figure at worst, I’ve got another 3h30m of running ahead of me (unless something really goes wrong, which is not at all out of the picture). I’ve still got 3h54m left to catch the overall FKT, so gambling on the accuracy of my thinking, I give myself a full 20 minutes to rest, get things in order, and recover as much as I can. I fill my bladder with more Tailwind electrolytes, pack some high-grade premium chocolate and more gels (including a Tutti Fruti flavor that brings me joy to say out loud), and grab an extra hand-held bottle filled with straight water, then take off on my absolute favourite section of the trail into Musselman Woods and Schneider’s Bush. I’m rested, rejuvenated, and I’ve got more oranges with me. I’ve successfully gone from low to high and I’m now moving great again!
It’s not all rainbows and puppy dogs from here on out though. After 4.5km of joyful roller coaster trails, it’s onto another long stretch of road running. It amounts to only about 5km (with a less-than-thrilling single turn to the right) but feels like an absolute eternity.
Like all things, it does eventually end though, and I make a turn into a short forested section before heading back out onto the road towards another ~2km farmer’s field bushwhacking section. This spot won’t be fun, but I know that as bad as it is, it’s nowhere near as bad as what I’ve already been through earlier today.
I’ve finally reached the point where finishing feels inevitable, and at least the “self-supported” FKT seems to be in the bag (even if I’m forced to walk the rest of the way). But my aim is still for the overall FKT, so I’ve got to keep pushing to get there in time. My orange supply is completely depleted, and my handheld water bottle has been sucked dry. Oh, and remember that Tutti Fruti gel I was excited about? It is profoundly repulsive, inciting me to lose control and “hulk out”, ripping the wrapper to itty bitty pieces. That’ll show it! All I can do is look forward to what may be waiting for me at the finish line.
I call Karin again, with the hopes that she can pick up some oranges on her way, because they’re really the only thing I can contemplate eating right now, and the thought of them being at the finish (in addition to my friends and family, of course) is undoubtedly going to motivate me to get there all the more. I’m a bit disheartened to hear that she and the kids are already there waiting for me. I love and am so grateful for their enthusiasm, but I feel guilty that they will have to be there waiting possibly for the next 2 hours. It seems to me that 2 hours of struggling to keep my legs moving is going to be tough, but will pass significantly faster than what she’ll experience over 2 hours of waiting while trying to entertain two now-exhausted and probably short-tempered children. Still, she’s nothing but sunshine on the other line, and agrees to source out some juicy citrus.
After passing by St Jacobs, I enter into the last true trail section moving along the Conestogo River. I’m so glad to be at this point, but the internal battle is raging. I can see from my watch precisely how far I’ve come, but I’m struggling to remember how far there is left to go. It could be 5km; it could be 15km. I’m genuinely not sure, and right now the difference between those two numbers is immense.
I think back to my first recon run on the Avon, and I’m pretty sure I did an out-and-back from the finish line to an area that’s coming up with a uniquely carved tree that I lovingly refer to as Grandmother Willow. It would have been about 15km that day, so that must mean I have 7.5km left, right? But wait, maybe that was a day when I had more time… I could have done 25km instead. Hold on, I think there might have been two entirely separate runs joining these two spots. Oh god, did I completely make up the thing about the Grandmother Willow tree? I’m not seeing her anywhere!
The sun is threatening to set, my phone is dead, I have no light source, and I’m starting to freak out about the thought of navigating in the dark. On top of that, I’m seriously heating up, there’s no water left, I haven’t taken in anything for some time now as I’m certain that it would result in vomiting. My feet and legs hurt, and I’m fantasizing about curling up in the fetal position in the trunk of our car. I’m desperate for a drink of water, and with the river now behind me, the only thing I can think of is to start praying for rain. Eventually, Grandmother Willow’s smiling face greets me, and I excitedly pick up pace, deciding that I might as well believe in my 7.5km estimate from here.
I get to the road, and while I’m for sure thinking about that finish line, my mind is truly consumed by the thought of voraciously chugging some nice cold water. I am truly getting desperate. There is nothing more important to me at this point. I don’t have money with me, but I start to think maybe there’s a convenience store along here where I can sweet talk my way into a bottle or two. Unfortunately, no such convenience store presents itself. So instead, I try to lean into the kindness of strangers. I start wildly waving my arms to flag down each and every car, truck, or gaggle of motorcycles that passes, even dryly screaming out “help” and occasionally mustering up some energy to obnoxiously jump around like a mad man to show I’m in some level of distress. I can’t begin to comprehend what those poor people must be thinking is going on, but all I get from each one of them is a subdued smile and gentle wave back. Hey, at least they were polite about it.
After I don’t know how long, I come up to a bridge where I see a photographer shooting out over the river. He responds to my pleas for water so kindly, but sadly does not have any with him.
I’m disappointed yet again, but not broken, because suddenly none of that matters. I know this bridge! I remember it so clearly! Screw thirst! You don’t need water when you’re this close to finishing!
I look at my watch for the first time since hitting the road, and the numbers I see only spur me on all the more. I can actually do this!
I make the last little hill climb and take the turn onto Sawmill Rd. All the pain that I was previously feeling is gone. Exhaustion is a thing of the past and my pace is rapidly picking up. This is the final sprint, and despite the 118km that came before it, I really do mean “final sprint”. Whatever I have left in the tank is going to be used up and then some. It’s all being laid out there and I am amped up. I let out a celebratory sound - something akin to a deep raspy guttural yawp, but somehow at the same time, a much-less manly high-pitched banshee screech.
My children’s playful laughter echoes off the water, and I can just about make out my wife’s adoring smile off in the distance. David is ahead of me at the street corner, fumbling to get his camera ready - apparently I wasn’t expected quite yet. All cylinders are firing, I make the turn with David chasing behind, trying to keep up. As fast as I’m moving, it’s all in slow motion now. Karin and the kids are beyond excited, jumping up and down and screaming as they cheer me on with their rhino signs. I take the moment in and I’m so grateful I could cry. But no time for tears now, I bee-line it straight to the finish line rock where Matt is standing, bags of oranges in hand.
I’ve just laid down my fastest kilometer of the day (4:05/min/km), and I’m well and truly spent.
My watch lets out a series of beeps with a change of screen to let me know that I’ve arrived …except, while it’s busy letting me know that I’ve arrived (which I am actually already quite well-aware of), it doesn’t allow me to press the button to stop the timer! I’m panicking because I may or may not have just hit a substantial time-barrier, and this extra delay could push me over. Finally, the screen goes back to normal, and I successfully hit stop. The magic numbers pop up on the watch face: 13h:59m:49s and I’m beyond elated.
Not only did I best both the previous “self-supported” and “supported” FKT’s, but I just barely broke the 14-hour barrier. It’s an arguably arbitrary time-point, sure, but today for whatever reason it means something huge to me! I feel like I’ve done the rhinos proud. I’m so happy to be sharing this moment with such amazingly supportive friends and family as they all rush over to me with spirits surging. But perhaps most importantly, I’m just so excited to get my hands on those damn oranges!