The Finlayson Arm ultramarathon takes more than muscle. It takes mental grit.
If you’ve ever hiked Mount Finlayson, you’ll know how steep the elevation gain is—if you haven’t, imagine climbing a skyscraper at a slight angle. Quickly. At night.
Tanya Seal-Jones crossing the finish line at a Vancouver Island Trail Running Series race. (📸 Matt Cecill, contributed)
Tanya Seal-Jones has never run more than 50 kilometres at a time, but she’s preparing to run twice that this weekend. She’ll set out at 5pm on Friday with 85 other people who have signed up for a 100-km trail run that summits six peaks, twice.
If you’ve ever hiked Mount Finlayson, you’ll know how steep the elevation gain is—if you haven’t, imagine climbing a skyscraper at a slight angle. Quickly. At night. That’s the first peak, and there are five more after it on this race course. But to hit 100 km, the ultra-long-distance runners will do the whole thing twice.
They’ll run through the night, in streams, over roots and loose rocks, with headlamps, sucking on electrolyte goo to keep their bodies fuelled. As for their minds, that’s where the real marathon takes place.
“If you’re standing on the start line and know you’re going to finish, that’s not really a challenge, I always say,” said the race director Myke LaBelle.
This race is on the hard end of the ultramarathon trail run spectrum, he admits. The terrain is technical and the elevations are steep. Plus, runners are in the dark for about half of the race. Elite runners will take 16 to 18 hours, and all runners have a maximum of 24 hours to complete the 100 km.
Seal-Jones did the 50-km race last year and seems to have found it addictive. She’s in a running club called Badass Chicks Run Trails, where she finds encouragement and camaraderie, but each pounding step in the forest is up to her feet and her mind.
Her mental strategy to push through when her body wants to quit is gratitude. “I remind myself of how lucky I am to be physically and mentally healthy enough to accomplish this,” she told The Westshore. That mindset will help keep negative thoughts at bay when she’s five hours in, and there’s more than halfway yet to go.
That, and food. “It took me a couple of years to realize that if I haven't had enough calorie intake, then I started to get into that negative headspace. So I just eat some snacks, and then I usually feel better.”
While the 86 100-km runners are still huffing through the trail on Saturday, another 204 people will start the 50-km race. It’s the same course, but these runners only do one lap. Then on Sunday, 324 people will run a 28-km route—plus 33 of the Friday runners who, for fun, will also run the “short” race.
Lindsay Cristante running through Finlayson Arm, with a smile. (📸 Matt Cecill, contributed)the Finlay
Lindsay Cristante ran the 28-km race last year with a stunning time of 3:22:56. She was the fastest female runner, and crossed the finish line seventh overall. She’s an elementary school teacher in Victoria who’s been running for about 15 years. She loves trail runs, but always said she’d never tackle the 100-km beast.
That is, until she ran that distance in a self-made course to raise money for a former student. After completing that feat, the 100-km Finlayson Arm race didn’t seem so out of reach, and she found she was itching to give it a try. So this Friday she’ll be at the start line beside Seal-Jones, setting off into the woods when the sun is already dipping low.
“It’s a bit of a tactical game. Like you can't just go all out from the beginning and hope that you can hold on till the end,” she said. “You have that physical training, but you're also training your mind to have a little bit of grit.”
What goes through the mind during those long hours? For Cristante it’s meditation on the present moment.
“Some people go for walks or do art, or find something peaceful. When I'm in the trails, I get into a meditative state of appreciating being in nature, and that my body is able to do it,” she said. The runs are social. When you run for 18-plus hours, there is no sprinting. It’s a conversational pace, at least if you’re in shape like Cristante is. If you find yourself running beside someone, it’s a chance to connect and make a new friend.
“In these races you meet people that you are forever connected with because you've had this shared experience,” she said.
Seal-Jones and her Badass Chicks Run Trails are raising money for Cowichan Valley Youth Services, a non-profit that provides mental health support for youth. Each of them has a personal connection to mental health resources, but the person they’re raising money on behalf of is Seal-Jones’s 13-year-old niece. Through her niece’s experience, Seal-Jones has learned how much programs like this provide, and how underfunded they seem. Their goal is to raise $10 for every 334 km they collectively run.