RACE REPORT: Kissing Bridge Trailway FKT
The trails are my playground. There’s nothing quite like the feeling of nimbly winding in and around trees and branches while avoiding treacherous roots and rocks that want nothing more than to grab hold of your feet and make you eat dirt. And let’s not forget the charged anticipation of climbing up steep hills like a roller coaster gearing up to let loose and bomb down the other side – pure magic. The Kissing Bridge Trailway has exactly none of that – which is why it was such an interesting prospect for me. It’s also admittedly near-by, happily still open for use in this Covid-19 world we now find ourselves living in, and a relatively short and simple first-go to lose my FKT (fastest known time) virginity to as I build up to seemingly greater challenges.
The other thing that the Kissing Bridge Trailway provides is a stout test for what I would consider my biggest weakness in running: outright speed. Yeah, I’ve proven myself to be a strong runner, but I am no speedster. My successes have come from being able to maintain pace over those playground obstacles I mentioned above, and keep going for the long-haul over the hills and throughout ultra-distances, while the plentiful assortment of much faster runners are often forced to slow considerably or burn out altogether (if I’m lucky).
So there we have it: a 45 kilometer experiment, going from Guelph to Millbank; flat, straight, and way outside of my comfort zone. Sounds like… fun?
I kicked things off at 10:03am at the Guelph trailhead, leaving from the 0km sheltered sign-post fully energized and ready to go. I was especially amped up from the surprise appearance of a few of our friends from the Team Vegan Trails (TVT) running group, who came to cheer me on (while maintaining appropriate social distancing of course). Little did I know that my amazing wife was actually in on this and somehow uncharacteristically managed to hold back the whole truth of what she had coordinated, knowing full-well that it was just the first taste of the elaborate cheering squad still to come.
My pace plan was to keep things between 4:20 – 4:30min/km overall (~7:00-7:15min/mile), but decided to give myself leeway over the first hour to just do what felt right in the moment. That meant that over the first 10km, I was comfortably moving at 4:00min/km (6:26min/mile) and only slowed a little after that. Honestly, I didn’t feel like I was pushing at all; just flowing freely, breathing calmly, and enjoying myself. Perhaps the motivational distraction of another surprise familiar TVT face popping up at the side of the trail cheering me on – along with a few strangers who somehow knew what I was doing along the way – made me less aware of what was going on with my body. Still, I was well aware that though it felt fine, a pace that fast was not going to be sustainable for much longer.
At 12km, I made the first notable deviation from the otherwise straight path (that didn’t involve just listing lazily to the side of a road crossing barrier), turning up the steps onto Katherine Street. I pumped my fist in the air as the traffic lights at 86 magically turn green without me having to slow, and then headed down the only significant downhill on the way to the titular Kissing Bridge itself, just short of the 1 hour mark. I was met with more cheers from my wife, kids, the friends from the start, and a few new strangers, and of course I was feeling on top of the world.
My leeway 1 hour was up, and I knew I needed to start being more realistic about my pace now. I intentionally slowed down to the 4:20-4:30min/km (~7:00-7:15min/mile) rate I had planned for in this middle third of my 45km journey. But soon after hitting 15km and getting back onto the straightaway rail trail, even this pace became much harder to hold than anticipated. Was it because I had gone out too fast? Probably. Or maybe that downhill had done more damage to my legs than I realized (I could feel my hamstrings were starting to stiffen up). There was also the wind, which had now turned directly against me – I’m sure the actual wind-speed was not all that much to talk about, but believe me, I felt it. And then there was the incline… I mentioned earlier that this is a relatively flat course being a rail trail, but if you actually look at the elevation profile you’ll notice that basically from 15km-41km it is actually a consistent, gradual climb. On most days, it would be almost imperceptible – it pales in comparison to most of the other challenges I’ve taken on – but the further in I got into it, the more and more aware of it I became.
My fuel intake was consistent and good, and despite the aforementioned stiffening of my hamstrings, I wasn’t in any pain. My feet even still felt fantastic in my go-to racers, the Altra King Mt 1.5’s. Still, I was slowing. My body was just not moving as well as it felt like it should. The main thing keeping me going at this point was the thought of all the people rooting for me (both from afar, as well as the many more TVT folks who kept randomly popping up every so often, like spontaneous prairie dogs emerging from their holes (again, being responsible and practicing good social distancing). A small personal victory and proud moment came in the form of my fastest on-the-go pee without breaking stride (and without getting a drop on me!)
I started fantasizing about the next notable deviation from the constant straightaway, crossing the bridge at another stretch of highway 86 and turning onto Powell, but I knew full well that wouldn’t be until the start of the final third. I say I “knew” that, but having run these mid-sections of the trail only once or twice before, I began mistakenly convincing myself that I was closer to that turn than I was, passing by spots that resembled other landmarks further along. By the time I actually hit 29km, turned onto Powell, got smacked in the face with a cold wind, and had an honest-to-goodness visible hill to climb (if only a few meters tall), I was definitely not feeling it. Fortunately at the top of that hill was another set of fellow TVT runners with signs cheering me on, which gave a profoundly welcome spiritual boost. Regardless, I had slowed to over 5 min/km (~8min/mile) pace.
I began doing simple intervals to help stimulate my mind, forcing my body to move faster just for short bursts to convince myself that I still had the ability to do-so. It worked, but only to a small extent with considerable distance still to go. Once I finally crossed Manser Rd at 36km, I now was stepping on to the only stretch of the Kissing Bridge Trailway I had never been on before. Was it going to be any different than everything I had seen before it? Probably not. Was it going to be exactly 9km? I was starting to have my doubts, worrying that I would actually have to go further, maybe burn out before the finish, or just not hit my goals.
But I had to put those doubts out of my head. In fact, I put just about everything real out of my head, ignoring my actual surroundings, and instead imagined running on my very routine familiar home trail 9km loop in Preservation Park. With 7km still to go, I envisioned myself entering the Hanlon dog park. 1km later I saw the oasis that is the pond I saw a guy fall in that one time. Another 2km, and my mind was pretending I was making a tight right-hand turn onto what I typically think of as my final stretch. At home, it has never taken me more than 20 minutes to get through this last stretch, and I decided that there was no way today was going to be any different.
Finally, knowing the end was in sight, my body actually started to speed up again. It was still very gradual, but it was actually happening nonetheless. My mind snapped back to reality and suddenly I was in the final kilometer. Egged on by friendly insults (which I was in no mood to hear, but absolutely fired up by) I hit my sprint, working my way back down below the 4:00min/km (6:26min/mile) pace I had started the day off at. I ran past near-deafening screams from so many TVT members (all at least 6ft apart, making the makeshift “finishing chute” one of the longest, but still loudest, I’ve experienced.) I passed the final barrier feeling a bit delirious, hit the last sheltered sign-post, stopped my watch at 3hr:28m:17s, got my “official” Kissing Bridge Trailway kiss from my wife, and took a well-deserved moment lying on the ground with my 4-year-old son on top of me (my younger daughter asleep in the car because obviously daddy wasn’t fast enough!)
Despite my struggles, I somehow managed to still knock off 28m19s from the previously established FKT – something I can’t help but be proud of. But honestly, the thing I’m far more proud of is this amazing Team Vegan Trails group we’ve established. They provided no physical support or aid of any kind throughout this run, but their voices and enthusiastic smiles scattered along the way were enough to keep me going and get through what otherwise could have turned into dark moments. I cannot begin to thank everyone enough, especially my wife who somehow impeccably coordinated it all. My legs and I may have done the physical work, but today was genuinely a group celebration.
I don’t yet know what’s next, but I cannot wait to cheer someone else on!