Head-lamp and flashlight? Check.
Spare batteries? Check.
Warm jacket, gloves? Check.
Rain gear? Check.
I’m almost finished packing for tomorrow’s road trip.
This is the weekend of the Haliburton Forest Ultra Run. Haliburton is a privately owned, 70,000 acre wildlife reserve about 3 hours northeast of Toronto. My hiking partner, Helen, has been the Director of this race in the Ontario Ultra Series for over 20 years. This will be my second year as a volunteer and I’m both nervous and excited.
Ultra races involve running very long distances of between 50 km and 100 miles – usually on forest trails. Yes – people really do run 100 mile races. The 100-miler in Haliburton will start at 6 am on Saturday morning and the runners have until noon on Sunday to reach the finish line.
They will be running into the night, on forest trails, with only their headlamps, aching muscles, and personal mantras to keep them going in the darkness alone. It is an extraordinary physical and mental test of endurance.
Haliburton Forest is considered one of the most challenging races in the series, largely because of the terrain – but also the occasional encounters with bears and moose. I’ve been told that the howling of wolves during the night can be quite disconcerting. I’m about to find out.
Last year I was a finish line official and kept track of the first runners as they reached the finish line in the dark of early morning after about 22 hours of running. The finish line was a ‘cushy’ job, located at Base Camp which has buildings with hydro and running water. To read about last year’s Ultra experience, click here.
This year however, Helen has assigned me to an aid station deep in the forest. This is where I will be for the 30 hours of the race.
I toured the aid stations after dark with Helen last year. They were tiny oases of light in the middle of nowhere. The aid stations provide the runners with an opportunity to warm up by a campfire, get food, fluids, and other assorted needs – including first aid as required, encouragement and a friendly smile. Step outside that small island of light and you’re plunged into a darkness that is almost tangible. My stomach knotted as I watched runners leave these little safety zones and go willingly back into the forest.
I admit, I’m afraid to be out in the forest at night – even if I’m in one of those little oases. In spite of all the hiking mileage behind me, when the sun goes down I prefer to be in a solid building with all the creature comforts invented by man. I’m not exactly the outdoorsy type.
At the same time however, I can’t help but think it will be incredibly inspiring.
The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep.
——— Robert Frost – Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening