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?

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Madeleine Cum­mings

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

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