Rob Smith hit the 100-mile mark and began to puke. At 105 miles, blisters covered his feet and were so painful it felt like someone was hammering a nail through them.
But the Victoria ultra-marathoner kept motivated – even positive – as he thought about the remaining 95 miles he needed to endure the gruelling 200-mile Pigtails Challenge in Renton, Wash.
His tenacity paid off as he won the race in 52 hours and 32 minutes, beating his personal best from a year ago by 5.5 hours. Not bad for a 56 year old.
“I really don’t know what drove me other than the challenge,” Smith, an ambulance paramedic, said over coffee at a downtown Victoria Starbucks. “It’s a challenge of out there and beyond where most people look and never go. There’s a lot of satisfaction in knowing I can do it.”
The Pigtails Challenge is run around Lake Young Watershed, which is a rolling loop with 900 feet of elevation gain on each loop. Each loop is 9.4 mile. Runners race one direction and then run the opposite way. It’s difficult to tell, or remember, whether, you’ve lapped a runner or who remains ahead of you.
The races are determined by attrition, Smith said: “People who were ahead of me at the start were dropping out and I didn’t even know it. I just concentrated on running my own race. There was no sense trying to run faster. Trying to pay attention where everyone else was would just be distracting.”
The first day was a “real mental battle,” but Smith had run the race before and knew night would soon descend and bring its own set of mental and physical challenges.
“I knew all I needed to do was focus on the here and now. You just have to survive the night and see what’s there in the morning. You always feel better the next morning,” he said.
When dawn broke, Smith learned just two runners had leads on him. His first 100-mile split was 25 minutes faster than the previous year, and he was now in a position to win.
In the end, his strategy worked.
Smith doesn’t consider himself a lifelong runner. He didn’t even run his first marathon – a mere 26.2 miles – until 1986. He said the most he’d run regularly before then was about three miles, but was lucky to have a job as a logger that kept him in top shape.
He fell in love with ultra-marathoning when he and a buddy took on the Great Walk between Gold River and Tahsis in 1995. He was hooked. Since then, he has competed in two 200-mile races, thirteen 100-mile races and numerous other smaller ultra-marathons.
Heading into this year’s Pigtails race, Smith had no grand ambition to finish first. His goal was to finish. After all, last year’s winner Daniel Kuhlmann was the favourite to take it again.
Smith’s big year of running hasn’t ended just yet. He’s still planning to run a handful of 50 and 100 mile races before the end of the year. And he has plans, some day, to run the 310-mile length of Vancouver Island through a series of trails.
“I really don’t see that I’m doing anything special,” he said. “I understand what my limits are, but it’s that ability to be able to get as much as I can out of myself and not giving in.”
Rob Smith got a lot of help from friends, family
Rob Smith knew he couldn’t run 200 miles alone.
The Victoria ultra-marathon won the Pigtails Challenge race by getting a lot of help along the way.
Friend and former worker partner Randy L’Heureux spent the entire race with Smith running every second lap. He ran more than 100 miles (161 kilometres) supporting Smith.
“He allowed me to keep my mind where it needed to be in the race,” Smith recalled. His full focus was on me. That was pretty spectacular to have that kind of support.”
There were others along the way too – many who didn’t even travel to Renton – his personal trainer, physiotherapist and doctor.
His wife has always been supportive of his running, even though she isn’t a runner. Then there’s other Victoria ultra-mathoners from Victoria like Rob Grant, Moe Beaulieu and Mike Suminski.
“I don’t do anything in isolation. There’s nothing I’ve ever accomplished without a lot of support from the people around me.”