With a finishing time of just under 18 hours, ultramarathon runner Ailsa MacDonald earned herself a spot on the podium at the Western States 100 Miler on June 26 in California.
Already a heavily-decorated ultra-runner, the former St. Albert resident did more than just win a medal — she got her redemption after her last appearance at Western States in 2018 got the better of her.
"When I came into Western States the first time, I had a lot of eyes on me and felt like I had a lot of pressure on me because a lot of people were thinking I had it in me for the win, so I got caught up in the competition," MacDonald said in an interview.
"I didn’t run my own race and went out too hard and kind of gassed myself early in the race and it was all downhill from there.”
This year, MacDonald beat her previous time at Western States by more than three hours.
“Ever since I had that big blowup race in 2018, I’ve taken a different approach and just paced myself better and learned to manage my own race and not worry about the competition,” MacDonald said.
Indeed, her second-place finish in California is MacDonald's third podium this year after she won both the 91-kilometre Whiskey Basin Trail Run in April, and the 32-kilometre Copper Corridor race in late February. Both races took place in Arizona.
MacDonald only had a few days off after the recent 100-mile run before she went back to work as a power engineer in a northern Alberta oil field.
"My body’s bouncing back pretty good so the recovery is going well," MacDonald said.
"I could just be riding on those post-race highs ... I’m kind of expecting there’s going to be a crash to follow.”
Although ultramarathon events are planned year-round, MacDonald said she considers the fall as her off-season.
"I’m usually starting to crash by the fall," she said.
MacDonald has a 50-kilometre race scheduled for September, but it's "a little bit late in the season, and because I’ve raced a lot already, I’m kind of going into it with low expectations, so after that one I’m taking a break for sure.”
It's all about the solitude
When asked about what goes through her mind during an 18-hour run, MacDonald said that, if she's having a good day, she feels like she reaches a state of meditation.
"I love the miles that I spend alone in the trail," she said, adding, “I love the solitude."
"If I’m having a good day, I can just clear my head and just flow.”
MacDonald said a common problem for ultramarathoners is losing appetite during a race.
"There’s always a point in the race that I do lose my appetite. I think the better I pace and the cooler the conditions then the easier it is to digest; this one I paced really well so I was able to take in a lot of really good high-calorie foods and solid foods until probably mile 80.
"After that, I was surviving on ginger ale and pretzels,” MacDonald said.
“It’s not the healthiest diet in the world when you’re running an ultra, it’s whatever calories you can get in your body.”
MacDonald said she always keeps chips and candy on hand for the final push when she races; specifically red licorice, and salt and vinegar Lays or Pringles.
"When it comes to ultra-running, it’s very difficult to eat. A lot of times, food alone can be a morale booster, and you either need something sweet or something salty, so I always make sure I have both on hand at all times so I can satiate that craving as I’m running, and it kind of gives me that mental boost."
Whether it was the countless hours of training, or the power of red licorice, MacDonald's Western States 100 Miler result earned her a bib for another prestigious ultramarathon: the 2023 Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB) in France.
MacDonald competed in the UTMB in 2021, but she didn't finish.
"That was the icing on the cake of making the podium for [Western States] because I can now go back and take care of some unfinished business.”