Who is Ailsa MacDonald?
She runs lowmileage, doesn’t stress about splits and drinks wine almost every day. How does Ailsa MacDonald’s unconventional training help her win (outright) one of the hardest endurance races in Canada?
She runs low mileage, doesn’t stress about splits and drinks wine almost every day. How does Ailsa MacDonald’s unconventional training help her win (outright) one of the hardest endurance races in Canada?
It’s a gruelling race on a good day. July 7, 2017, wasn’t a good day for the Sinister 7 Ultramarathon, a 100-mile race in Crowsnest Pass, Alta. As well as the more than 6,000 metres of climbing, “Sinners,” as the race participants are called, dealt with temperatures that crept above 30 C. Brian Gallant, the race director, called it “the kind of heat that crawls into your soul and takes away your will to go on.” Search and rescue and medical crews responded to more dehydration incidents than ever before, and the race, which has a 30-hour time limit, had the lowest ever solo completion rate. More than 80 per cent of soloists did not finish.
Finishing was Ailsa MacDonald’s only goal. She had excelled in a range of endurance events before – from 50k ultras to Ironman triathlons – and she had a well-prepared crew in her husband and friends, who had scoped out the course the previous day. She knew what to eat (peanut butter-banana wraps are a staple) and she knew drinking enough water and slathering on sunscreen and antichafing cream at aid stations would be crucial. She had four extra pairs of shoes at her disposal, in case her feet got wet or she preferred a thicker sole for rockier terrain.
Because this was her first 100-miler, she still felt she was in unknown territory, and she knew how quickly ultras can turn ugly. If she could finish, simply “conquer the distance,” she told herself, she would be happy.
When she started running that morning, the temperature was still relatively cool and she had predicted that the first of the race’s seven legs would feel fairly easy. She ran well under 5:00/km for the first seven kilometres and felt so good she ran past the first aid station, preferring to maintain her momentum.
During the second leg of the race, she passed Alex Petrosky, a celebrated ultrarunner and t he race’s defending champion. She figured he would catch up to her later. He didn’t.
Ailsa MacDonald, who is 37 and lives in St. Albert, Alta., was born in Stirling, a city in central Scotland. She moved to Canada with her family when she was a baby and she grew up in Bridgewater, N.S. She was the youngest of four girls and discovered her love of sports and exercise at an early age.
Being active ran in the family. She and her family members skated, swam, rollerbladed and biked with their groceries, but according to her mother, Morag, Aisla took the most interest in organized sports. Some days in high school, she would have training for three different activities. As well as cross-country and track, where her speed shone, she played basketball, soccer, volleyball and softball. People who comment on her muscular arms today wouldn’t be surprised to learn she spent years walking on her hands during gymnastics training sessions outside of school.
As a teenager, she often spent summers in Scotland with her grandfather, who loved mountaineering in the highlands. They went on multi-day cycling and backpacking trips together and after hiking a main summit, her grandfather would offer to hold her bag while she ran the rest of the peaks.
After high school, she joined the Canadian Forces, which led to stints in P.E.I, Gagetown, N.B., Borden, Ont., and Alert, Nunavut, in the world’s northernmost community. She went into the air force, working in the water, fuels and environmental field of construction engineering. As the only woman in her training course, she had to work hard to earn her male peers’ respect. There were also regular physical challenges: pushups, sit-ups, chin-ups, 1.5-mile time trials and an annual fitness test designed to simulate battle conditions. This consisted of a 13-kilometre march while carrying more than 50 lb. of equipment.
A post at the Canadian Forces Base in Cold Lake brought her to Alberta in 2004, but she eventually moved to St. Albert, a small city northwest of Edmonton. She now works as a plant operator at an oil site in Northern Alberta, with 10 consecutive days of 12-hour shifts. The work is physical, and much of her time is spent walking around the large plant, climbing stairs, turning valves and operating equipment. Before a day shift, she wakes up at 3 a.m. in order to exercise for a couple hours before work. Bedtime before those days is about 7 p.m.
After 10 days of this schedule, she has 10 days off. A regular off week typically includes about 65-75 kilometres of running, plus cycling, swimming, yoga, strength training and perhaps a trip to the mountains. She writes her own workouts and does most of her training alone, but often travels to races with her husband, who is also active.
To prepare for the ultra, MacDonald ran her long runs after leg days at the gym. Hours of cross-training might not appeal to most runners, but for her, these activities aren’t chores – they are relaxing. “Training for me is not regimented,” she said, “I generally just love to move.” She also has a balanced, unrestrictive approach to food and nutrition, drinking wine most nights and eating a fairly high-fat diet.
By the third leg of Sinister 7, the temperature in southern Alberta had risen. By this point, MacDonald was alone on the course and did not know she was the leading soloist.
Aware that his wife prefers to run by feel with as little pressure as
“During the second leg of the race, she passed Alex Petrosky, a celebrated ultrarunner and the race’s defending champion. he would catch up to her later. He didn’t.”
“Training for me is not regimented,” she said, “I generally just love to move.”
possible, her husband had refrained from calling out times or telling her she was in the lead. But halfway through the third leg, people at an aid station let slip that she was the first solo runner to arrive. She didn’t think much of it because it was early in the race and figured anything could happen. After leg three, she threw back a cold can of Keith’s Red and kept going.
The fourth leg started off well, on an easy running surface, through the trees and in the shade. But then MacDonald found herself on an exposed dirt road. It was so hot she found it hard to breathe and when she looked at her watch, she saw she had covered 80 kilometres. “Oh my god, I’m only half way?” she thought. After dismissing the negative feelings, she broke the leg down mentally into little pieces: 5k until the next aid station, or 15k until she would see her crew again.
At the beginning of the fifth leg, she felt drained from the heat, but she pushed through another exposed section, running slowly to save energy. When the route went back into the trees, though, the relief of shade made running a lot easier. With a body that felt new, she booked it for the second half of the leg. She blew through the next aid station so she could reach the sixth leg, which has the highest difficulty rating of all, before sunset.
In 2013, MacDonald smashed the three-hour marathon barrier in Los Angeles by running 2:48. Reasonably, she made her next marathon goal 2:45. Three minutes doesn’t sound like much time to slice off a marathon, but it took MacDonald three years of hard training and five attempts to do it. In January of 2016, she lined up to run the Houston Marathon on a cool day, alongside a bunch of women who were taking advantage of their last chance to qualify for the American Olympic marathon trials. She ran perfect splits (without wearing a watch) and finally clocked a 2:44:56, which remains her personal best.
That performance earned her an invitation to run as an elite at the 2016 Boston Marathon, where she ran 2:49 to finish as the first Canadian woman. Her 60-year-old mother also ran in Boston, finishing in 3:31 to place second in her age group. (This past year, Morag ran Boston again, beating her previous time by more than 10 minutes.)
MacDonald finds ultramarathons relaxing, at least compared to the intense cardiovascular challenge of a regular marathon on the roads. But though the pace is slower in an ultra, the body still breaks down, just in a different way. By leg six of Sinister, her knees were starting to hurt and her quad muscles would ache with each downhill section. When she was climbing, she could feel her glutes and her calves burning.
The f irst few kilometres of leg six are on a wide road and relat ively easy, but then the real work begins, with a massive climb that ends at the race’s highest point . The hill was so steep, MacDonald had to crawl on her hands and feet up the mountain. Relay runners with fresh legs passed her and her competitiveness got the best of her, swearing aloud to herself. When she f inally reached the end of the climb, she was calmed by the sun setting behind the surrounding peaks. The timing was impeccable, as t he leg is a diff icult one to traverse in the dark. When she reached the aid st at ion at t he end of t he leg, crews told her she was more than an hour ahead of the next soloist .
Leg seven is rated Sinister 7’s easiest stage because it is net downhill, but it starts with a brutal climb up the base of Wedge Mountain. The narrow single-track route is full of big, sharp rocks, and MacDonald was running this section at night. Finally, the route ends on paved streets in the town of Coleman, finishing just beside the Crowsnest Pass Sports Complex.
Things would get tough for MacDonald, but after nearly 19 hours, she crossed the finish line just before 2 a.m., beating every other soloist (male and female) and almost all of the relay teams. The performance inspired racers, volunteers and spectators, leading MacDonald to receive a standing ovation at the awards ceremony the next day.
No one was more surprised t han MacDonald.
“I shocked a lot of people, including myself,” she said. “It’s kind of surreal to me,” she said. “Never in a million years would I have guessed the outcome of my first 100-miler.”
If she runs a second 100-miler, it likely won’t be Sinister 7 in 2018. Though Ailsa enjoyed the race, she craves new challenges. Less than a month after the ultra in July, she rode up and down the hill on Silvertip Road in Canmore until she had climbed 8,848 metres, a feat called the Everest Cycling Challenge.
“That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in my life,” she said. “Mentally, it was more difficult. I was alone, there was no finish line, no hype, no audience. Just a personal challenge.”
Ailsa MacDonald at the 2017 Sinister 7 Ultra
RIGHT Ailsa MacDonald running the marathon component of the Ironman World Championships in Hawaii OPPOSITE MacDonald at the 2017 Sinister 7 Ultra
OPPOSITE MacDonald at the 2017 Sinister 7 Ultra RIGHT MacDonald racing the 2016 Boston Marathon