By Vince Hemingson - To the best of my knowledge I know of no other persons, living or dead, who have run a 67 kilometers ultramarathon while wearing a pair of Dayton boots (1954 Brown Wanders), a khaki Utilikilt and a world-weary Tilley hat, so I am laying claim to the world record. I would now like my pint of Guinness, please.
On Saturday, August 14th, 2004, your faithful servant did just that. Vince Hemingson staggered through the vaunted Squamish "Stormy Trail 67k Ultramarathon race" (www.stormytrailrace.ca) in nine hours and forty-three minutes, decked out in the garb exactly as described above. If you want a rough idea of what I looked like, check out these photos from the 2002 "Royal Victoria Marathon" (www.vanishingtattoo.com/victoria). And I did that run long before I was the General Manager of Dayton boots.
The fact that I am able to type this epistle at all is a testament to the efficacy of modern pain killers and the talent and abilities of my acupuncturist, Kenji Tano and my physician, Dr. Boris Gimbarzevsky. Thirteen days prior to the race, and just two short weeks after running the "Burnco Calgary marathon" on July 14th, I was unable to move without limping and couldn't run for more than ten minutes without cramping up. Boris and Kenji patched me together, questioned my sanity and took no responsibility for what I was about to do to my body. What they probably should have done was slap me on the side of the head, tell me to forget about the fact that I was turning 44 and that I should just grow up and get over it already. I will never be the same again. Of course in my case that's not saying much.
For those of you still in the dark, the Stormy Trail race is not just any ultramarathon. It's spoken of in hushed tones. It's a trail race run on the "Test of Metal" mountain bike race course (www.testofmetal.com). And trail is a charitable description for the squirrel and chipmunk tracks that I scrambled along through the mountains of Squamish. The Stormy race course makes the Grouse Grind trail look like one of the broader boulevards leading up the Champs Elysees in Paris. It is a race for lunatics, the extreme not-quite-rights, and the delusional. I heard that a couple of local mountain goats complained that the course was tough to navigate because the footing was so hazardous. And they have bears on the course. The day we ran it, it was so hot that the bears never left the shade because the runners were all overcooked and too well-done. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
A few people who knew what they were talking about, meaning they were familiar with the actual Stormy course itself, tried to warn me when I broached the bright idea of running the race in boots. And these were people who have run many ultramarathons before. They run marathon clinics and athletic stores for a living, were actually people who knew what they were talking about and they expressed extreme doubts about my ability to pull off what I had in mind. I promptly ignored them. After all, I thought, I'd heard all this before... Interestingly though, in addition to the "Vince, you're crazy to do this" and "Vince, you're going to kill yourself" comments, there were a number of people who couldn't possibly imagine why I would undertake such an enterprise in the first place. So I pondered, "Vince, why on Earth are you doing this?". We will plumb my psyche later.
When I told the Stormy race organizers, Eric and Paul, who are a great couple of guys, what I was planning to do, they were all for it. I'm not sure they really grasped what I was intending to do. Of course, I was also involving Dayton as a corporate sponsor of the event, so they were probably already counting on the schwag I was bringing to the table.
In the months leading up to the race I was the picture of confidence. I ran the Vancouver and Calgary marathons as training runs for the Stormy race. My training mileage was getting up around 70 miles a week and on the July 1st, "Post-to-Post 10k Race", I ran a 48:33 in 80 degree heat. I was felt as strong as a bull and as smart as an ox. Then, just thirteen days before the Stormy, on a piddling little 26k run, my right calf cramped up so badly I had to stop running. The next day I couldn't walk. I thought I was facing six months of training going down the toilet with a gigantic gurgle. But Kenji and Dr. Boris came to the rescue. And for thirteen days I fretted, tried to let my body heal, stuffed it full of good food and stopped running nearly altogether. In the thirteen days before the Stormy race my running was limited to five 20 minute sessions. For the first time before a race or a run I was full of trepidation.
I made the trip to Squamish. Finally met race director Eric in person and drank a few pints of beer. At this stage, how could it possibly hurt? I went to bed early and my good friend Thomas Lockhart showed up at 1:30 in the morning on his Harley. He was there to take pictures of me at the start. Now that's a friend. Tom even rolled out of bed at 4:45 on Saturday morning.
At the start line staging area were some eighty runners. Most of them looked at me and did a double-take. More than a few of them offered me a "Good luck, buddy", clearly knowing what was in store for me. The race started promptly at 6:00 in the morning and we were off. The pack headed out at about a 3:45 marathon pace and I forced myself to drop to the back of the pack. I figured that with my recent injuries I was hoping to squeak in under the ten hour time limit.
What really sets the Stormy Trail race apart are the hills. It is a race of elevation, elevation and more elevation. And then descent, descent, descent. Fortunately for me I had a secret weapon up my sleeve. Well, not actually up my sleeve because Seymour won't fit up there.
David Seymour and I are running buddies. We've run four marathons together. I can usually guess his heart-rate within two or three beats. He was going to meet me halfway and run the last half of the Stormy with me. We started off together on Nine Mile Hill. Fortunately we started at mile 3, so we only had to run uphill for a mere nine kilometres. Piece of cake.
As for the climb, I was pushed to my physical limits on the nine kilometers uphill at Nine Mile Hill. Check out the elevation chart, come on, I dare you! My heart rate was red-lined at 160 beats per minute for two straight hours. At one stage, when the road came out into full sunlight, it shot up to 192 (remember, folks, I just turned 44). I never was able to climb at a faster pace than 14 minutes per mile.
Did I just mention the sunlight? And the heat? Was it hot you ask? Hot? It was a furnace. It was the hottest day I've ever run on. It was 78 degrees by 10:00 and over 85 degrees by noon. I ran out of water three times, despite having a 1.25 liter water bottle and I consumed at least eight or nine liters on the course.
In some places on the course I could only walk, both uphill and downhill, and slowly at that, and in other places I was plunging downhill at a 6:30 a mile pace! I'll be limping for a few days, but should be back in the saddle in no time (OK, so it will be a few weeks). At the end of the day the Stormy is really just a test of how much stamina you have and how much pain you're willing to endure. But during the race I thought up every conceivable and diabolical way to dismember, eviscerate and disembowel the ones responsible for this travesty of a race course. I was determined that once the race was over I was going to hunt down Eric and Paul. I'd make them buy me rounds of drinks until I was satiated, and then I'd kill them in as gruesome a fashion as I could devise.
But out on the race course itself I soon had a new obsession. It must have been my Irish blood. I had acquired a new fetish for boiled potatoes. Man, were they ever good. Between aide stations I would start fantasizing and salivating about boiled potatoes and it was all I could think of... The taters and the volunteers were amazing. They really lifted your spirits and refreshed you, body and soul.
I can honestly say that this was the first race where my attire so astonished people at the aide and water stations that they asked me to pose for pictures with them, assuming I guess that when they told people the story of the nut who was running the Stormy in boots and a kilt, they'd never be believed without photographic proof. You can't speak highly enough about the folks that volunteer at these kinds of events. They're the glue that holds the race and the runners together.
I was exhausted by the end. But not as beat-up as I thought I might have been, and not yet spent. I had a few more miles left in me if I had to. Seymour and I did the last three miles at a nine mile an hour pace. And my feet were actually in pretty good shape. I'm tougher than I look! Even with the man-skirt, I mean kilt, on! It was great to see so many friends at the finish line, like Louise and Anne, Seymour's wife and our official race photographer and my good friend P.J. Reece who'd driven up from Vancouver to get pictures of me crossing the finish line... But Seymour, there's a special place in Heaven for Seymour.
At the banquet later that evening I got a very nice ovation for my little feat, as Eric introduced me as the first person to ever complete the Stormy Trail run in a pair of boots and a kilt. And then the organizers gave me a gift certificate for a free pair of trail running shoes! "For when you get old and soft", they said, and won't be able to run in boots anymore.
People thought I was crazy but in a way that perhaps only other ultramarathoners can appreciate. As one guy said as he came up to shake my hand "Congratulations man, that's hardcore!". And this was from a guy who had done the "Western States 100 Mile" race. It was actually kind of heart-warming to have so many people come up to me and congratulate me on my race.
I got back to Vancouver on Sunday morning, as I was way too beat up to drive back home on Saturday night. I did the 67k race in a scintillating 9:43 and change. Let me tell you, ten hours is a long day...
And as for the why...? Why did I run the race in boots and a kilt? There's no denying that part of it is vanity and ego, but I'd like to think there's more to running marathons and ultramarathons in boots than hubris. It's more than just being the General Manager of Dayton Boots and looking for a little free publicity, although at the end of the day, there's no denying that's part of my job description. So why do I race in boots and a kilt? Part of it is the sheer challenge of it. When I first mentioned the idea of running the Stormy in boots, people told me it couldn't be done. That it was an outrageous idea and that it wasn't even possible (some people even suggested I'd be permanently injured if I tried!). How could any red-blooded adventurer resist the very idea of doing it under those auspices? I'm in love with the audacious and I thought I had the tenacity and grit to pull it off.
I can tell you this much with absolute certainty. Running any length of time, out past four or five hours, in boots and a kilt is hard. Brutally hard. It requires at least twenty or twenty-five percent more physical effort than running in running shoes and regular gear. It's a tough thing to do. You can choose to live an ordinary life or dare to live an extraordinary one. There's a quote by Johann Goethe that is a favourite of mine, "Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic and power in it. Begin it now".
Competition is part of life and I am by nature competitive. I run in part for the camaraderie of running with friends, the joy of running itself, and the way my spirits are lifted as the miles fall away beneath my feet when I run, but I cannot deny that I am inherently competitive and if I am going to participate in anything called a race, I am compelled to find a way to prevail.
Peary and Amundsen were the first men to the North and South Poles. Edmund Hillary was the first man to summit Mount Everest. Neil Armstrong was the first man to step on the surface of the moon. Most people have no idea who the second person was to accomplish those same extraordinary feats. But if Hillary was the first man to summit Everest, Reinhold Messner was the first man to conquer the peak and make it uniquely his. Messner made Everest his by being the first to solo summit Everest and the first to summit without oxygen. He was first in his own way and made his own claim on Everest. People will never be able to tell stories of Mount Everest and not have Reinhold Messner's name come up.
By running a marathon or ultramarathon in boots and a kilt I can lay claim to a race. I can make it mine. At 6'1" and 210 pounds I am never going to win a marathon or ultramarathon outright and finish first. What I can say is that I was the first to do it my way. I was the first to run the "Royal Victoria Marathon" in boots and a kilt and the first to run the "Burnco Calgary Marathon" in boots and a kilt, and I was absolutely, definitely, unequivocally the first person to run the "Stormy Trail 67k Ultramarathon race" in boots and a kilt. A feat most people said couldn't be done. More than this, I'm probably the first person, out of millions of marathoners, to have ever run them in boots.
So that's my best shot at why I do what I do. And I can almost always count on someone buying me a round afterwards. And really, can you put a price on that? However, I think it's safe to say that the Stormy was definitely my last ultramarathon trail race run in boots. But I hear that the "Haney to Harrison Hot Springs Race" is a pretty flat course and only a 100 kilometers long...