Healey Pass

I’m always excited when friends decide to get into trail running. Although I enjoy the solitude of running solo through the mountains, I do enjoy it much more with another person. Adding a another person is much safer if you encounter wild life, it means you can be more adventurous with route as it mitigates risk if you get injured, it also provides hours of conversation that helps drift your mind when it gets tough.

This time I was heading out with Kyle, who knew the area and we decided on Pharaoh Loop which I estimated would be around 40km. As per Covid restrictions we drove separately and met at the Sunshine Village Lodge parking lot. The planned route was to go up Healy Pass and around Pharaoh Peak. The weather was perfect, with dry cool fall temperatures.

The run up Healy starts at the Sunshine Village parking lot and runs parallel with the gondola for a few hundred meters before venturing off. The path was a gradual climb, and a good warm up for the day.

Eventually you break the tree line and have a clear view of the valley. This time of year (End of September) the Larch trees were turning yellow and the fall colors were stunning.

Dropping down the back side of Healy takes you to Egypt lake and we stopped for our first quick break. We were both feeling great and looking forward to moving on.

Egypt Lake

As we hit the base of Pharaoh Peak, we decided it would be a good idea to climb the peak a bit to get a better view. The day was early and we were feeling good.

Pharaoh Peak

Initially the top looked close, I figured an hour to go up and down. But the more we climbed the more we realized it was going to be more than double. We debated going back, but with summit fever we just kept climbing.

We reached the ridge and the wind picked up, but the views were stunning. We got a clear view of Scarab Lake and Mummy Lake (you may notice an Egyptian theme in this area).

Scarab Lake & Mummy Lake (background)

The backside of Pharaoh Peak was steam and rocky, not being a proficient mountaineer I really didn’t want to get too close to the edge.

The last scramble was up to the peak, and having gone this far we decided to just push on to the top. By this time we had burned a lot of time and energy, so common sense was saying to turn back, but curiosity and adventure was telling up to go for the top. The climb itself is steep, but not difficult or dangerous. However, tacking it on to a 40km+ run was going to add some challenge.

Top of the Peak with Mummy Lake in the background

We stopped near the summit for some lunch and I quickly realized I planned for a quick 30-40km run, not an all day adventure – doh! I had some bars and a full bladder of water, but really didn’t plan on being out all day – let the adventure begin.

Scrambling down the scree we joined back onto the main trail and started the loop around Pharaoh Peak. Had I brought my Katadyn Befree water it would have been easy to refill my much depleted water, but today I would be running past clear cold water with no way of drinking it.

The path around the backside turned into root filled single track and made for a bit slower going.

We finally reached Shadow Lake which has cabins, and from what we heard some potable water. After talking to the lady in charge she didnt seem too keen on letting us fill our water bottles, so having to live with our poor decisions moved on without water…so thirsty.

We arrived back to Healy Pass and it was a slog getting back up to the top, but once there felt great knowing that it was just one big long downhill back to the parking lot. The sun was starting to set behind the mountains, and it was only another hour before it would be dark. There were a few groups of day trippers/hikers and at the pace they were moving would definitely not be making it back before dark.

The pass was stunning for the second time, but we were ready to be done. I really miscalculated and we burned a good chunk of the day on the Pharaoh Peak climb, but it was all worth it. We arrived back to the Sunshine Village base station just as the sun was set and the sky was turning dark.

Aside from the distance miscalculation, and insufficient food/water the day was great. The test of whether Kyle enjoyed it will be determined if he agrees to any subsequent outings.

Overall it was about 20km longer than I planned for and about 3-4 hours longer. Sounds about right!

2020. I can anticipate “2020” being using in the future as some defeatist adjective to describe missed opportunities, cancelled activities, or general dysfunction. “That’s so 2020”, all the kids will say.

Every race was cancelled in the 2020 season. I had hit the virtual bike trainer all winter and registered for swim lessons in the spring to hopefully participate in my first triathlon this year, but as with everyone, Covid-19 had other plans. So with no formal races to keep me motivated I wanted to at least get out for a few long trails runs. I had always wanted to run the Assiniboine trail, but due to logistics ended up mapping out a route much longer than originally intended. Being a point to point run, and going solo, I had planned on leaving my car out in the mountains for a week until I could come back and get it.

The plan was to park at Kananaskis Village, run Ribbon Creek through Buller Pass, down Buller trail, along High Rockies to Mount Shark staging area, over Wonder Pass to Assiniboine Lodge, then up Citadel Pass through Sunshine Meadows to Sunshine Village and finally down to Sunshine Gondola parking lot:

I mapped it out and it came in an estimated 90km. I had done Mount Shark to Sunshine Village section on a hike a few years back, so I felt there were enough knowns to be able to accurately predict my pace and completion time. The forecast was cool and misty which makes for great trail running, but not so great for pictures or scenic value. After a few weeks of hot dry weather it seemed like fate to have a cooler day to crunch out a long run.

I really tried to travel as light as I could, but there are some common sense items which I just couldn’t leave behind:

  • Garmin InReach – proves communication ability while in the mountains
  • Bear Spray w/ Scat Holder – it’s no good if you cant get to it quickly
  • Headlamp – will be dark when I start, hopefully not when I finish
  • Katadyn BeFree filter – amazing inline water purification bottle
  • 3L of water – one 2L bladder and 2x500ml soft bags
  • Food – I always bring more food than I need just to be prepared
  • Windbreaker
  • Emergency blanket, first aid kit, battery pack
  • Lots of pre-applied chafe lube!

Everything else was just nice to haves that made the cut.

I was hoping to go as light as possible, however once fully loaded the pack still came in at 6kg (with all the water).

Bursting at the seams

My alarm went off at 3:45, giving me enough time to finish packing, eat breakfast and get out to the trail by 5am. It was raining for much of the drive out, but once I arrived at the Kananaskis Lodge parking lot it had dissipated to light mist.

I hit the trail which immediately brought me into the darkest of dark. My only concern on this adventure was running into Bears. This time of year they come down from the mountains to gorge on the plentiful berries that are ripe and juicy. Plunging into the dark silence gave me an overwhelming feeling of trepidation that I would stumble into Grizzly. As the path narrowed and the brush got thicker, my trepidation turned into a bit of fear and agitation, enough so that I had my bear spray out and white nuckled in one hand. As trails forked I was really happy to have loaded my route on to Gaia GPS, an app running on my phone. Its an awesome app and replaced my old Garmin handheld that bounced out of my bag last year during a trail run (if anyone finds an eTrex in Kananaskis let me know!)

As I reached Ribbon creek dawn was providing enough light that I could remove my headlamp. The trail here was significantly impacted by the flood of 2013, many parts were washed away and have since been re-routed further up the hillside. With the sun about to rise and the rain having stopped I was feeling great.

My feet were drenched and I wasnt thrilled to have wet feet, with no extra socks this early in the day knowing that i was going to have the rest of the day with soaking feet.

I reached Ribbon Falls ahead of my anticipated schedule and scramble up the wet chains. They were pretty easy especially with no large pack, but I never like the feeling of slips having consequences. I got a pretty good cell signal at the top of the falls and it was right about the time my boys would be eating breakfast so I made a facetime call and said good morning from the top of the falls.

View from the top

I refilled my bottles at Ribbon Lake before climbing up Buller Pass. The wind was tearing through the pass and my hands quickly became frozen.

The top of the pass was stunning, right out of Lord of the Rings. Without the wind, and the desire to keep moving, I could have stayed up there much longer.

Coming down Buller Pass was great: nice single track and an easy grade to just open it up. At this point my voice was starting to fade from all the bear warning yelps. Bear scat was plentiful, and with no sightings I can only assume the constant hollering was working.

At the bottom of Buller I met the first humans of the day. It was great to see people on the trails after a morning of solitude, and it gave me newfound energy. From here a junction connected me with High Rockies trail which took me in a 10km detour to get to the Mount Shark parking lot. You can actually see the parking lot just over the highway, but I wanted to stick to trails, avoiding bushwhacking and crossing roadways.

Looking to Shark Mount staging from High Rockies

Reaching Mount Shark parking lot was a good feeling. I was 44km into the day and in need of both a discharge and a recharge and the staging area lot. Luckily facilities for both were available and a short break was in order. I ate some food from my pack as rain dizzled down on me. Not wanting for my muscles to realize it was break time throw out in rebellion I jumped back on the trail finishing the last snack in motion.

Not long after leaving Shark, the low cloud cover started to break and I was even getting a bit of sunshine to warm my body and mind. Going forward it was all trails I had hiked and it was nice to know what to expect for the remainder of the day. The start from Mount Shark follows a cross country ski trail which is nice gradual incline towards Bryant Creek.

This section has plenty of clear cold streams to fill up on water. Because of the coolness of the day, I was not going through much water. However, I did take the opportunity to fill up my small soft bottles.

I was using a Katadyn BeFree water filter which makes quick work of filtering water and filling my bottles. Much better tasting than any store purchased water and amazing to think about the volume of crystal clear glacier fed water that flows out of these mountains.

The trail continues in a constant climb and although its a perfect running trail in ideal weather conditions I started to feel fatigue settle in for first time in the day. I even caught myself looking at the GPS map, a sign I wanted to see, not just feel my progress. Trail running often goes like this, in one moment you body aches, you feel exhausted and mentally done, the next you catch a second wind and tear off in an escalated pace. Sometimes its caused by reaching a milestone, words of encouragement, food or scenery. Other times its completely unexplained and likely due to biological process ongoing in the stressed body.

The section from Shark to Bryant Creek was sprinkled with the occasional group going in or coming back from camping. I was nice to pass people, smile and wave, but with time not on my side didn’t really stop to chat.

Reaching Bryant Creek signified the start of the real climb up Wonder Pass.

Meadow before Marvel Lake with the Warden Cabin

I was looking forward to reaching Marvel lake, what in my opinion is on of the most beautiful underrated lakes in the region. It has light blue water (reflection) similar to what your would see in Lake Louise and is surrounded by tree covered mountains with exposed rocky peaks on all sides. Because its long and narrow it was hard to get a picture to do any justice to the beauty of the valley.

Marvel Lake

At the end of the lake you get a clear view of the glaciers feeding the lake, unfortunately the cloud cover was obfuscating the majority of it. There is another route to this point which goes south of the lake, behind the mountains and around Owl lake that climbs over Marvel Pass. Next time I plan on taking that route, but today I felt like mitigating the unknowns to ensure some sanity in my eventual arrival time.

The running along Marvel may have spectacular scenery, but the trail itself is not ideal being off camber and traversing sections of baseball size rocks. This creates the desire to look around but the need to constantly look down at foot placement and avoid rolling an ankle.

At the end of Marvel Lake I reached the bottom of the switchback that takes you up to Wonder Pass. From memory this would be a grind up a long winding switchback to the top of Wonder Pass. As luck would have it I caught a second wind and felt great running up the approximately 3km to the top.

Looking back towards Marvel Lake

At the top there is still about 4km of alpine meadow to reach the pass. The valley was scenic with a great single track that traversed through the middle.

The pass was cool and windy, but not nearly as cold as Buller Pass earlier in the day. After crossing the meadow, I reached the Alberta / BC border.

Summit on Wonder Pass and Alberta BC border

Looking down from the pass I could see the route to Assiniboine.

The decent down to Lake Magog and the Assiniboine lodge, is a great cruise and upon arrival I took the opportunity to fill my water at the first creek crossing right at the bottom of the decent.

I took a detour to the lake and caught my first glimpse of Mount Assiniboine. The unfortunate part was that it was cloudy, and therefore the tooth-like summit was covered in clouds. Back in 2017 when I hiked up here I was fortunate to have 3 glorious days in the sun hiking in this area. Today I was blasting right through.

View of Assiniboine peak from the porch of the lodge

The lodge was closed to non-guests and I was glad I brought my own full day supply of food. One option I had looked at was going even lighter and filling up with water and food at the lodge. With that not being an option I took my only break of the day off my feet to sit down on the side of the trail and eat.

Assiniboine Lodge – Open only to guests while we are still in a pandemic

The section out from the lodge towards Citadel Pass is one of my favorite sections. The trail passes through a valley with stunning views in all directions. The single track is smooth and easy to pickup the pace and make some distance. I turned on some music for the first time and picked up the pace on my way to Lake Og.

Eventually I arrived at Lake Og, visited the Banjo for another needed break and continued on through the Valley of Rocks.

The last look back at Assiniboine from the Valley of Rocks
Looking forward at Citadel Pass

After the Valley of Rocks I hit what turned out to be by far the hardest grind of the day – the climb up Citadel Pass. In hindsight its only around 600-800 meters of climbing, but because of my exhaustion and desire to keep pushing to finish on time, I began to bonk. The climb is steep and a rugged trail. I should have stopped to hydrate and eat, but just kept pushing up the trail. By this point I was exhausted, one foot after the other…

As I reach to top of Citadel Pass and arrive back at the Alberta border I get a renewed sense of energy. By this time the sun was low in the horizon, shining through and making for a beautiful evening.

The run through Sunshine Meadow is great and highly recommended for anyone who wants to do some high elevation alpine running or hiking. I could start to see the Continental Divide chairlift in the distance. It gave me another burst of energy, although I didnt realize just how for the Sunshine Meadow trail stretched before dropping down to Sunshine Village ski hill.

It was a glorious feeling to come over the last hill and see Sunshine Village. It was my first glimpse of real civilization since leaving in the morning.

Dropping into the village I eagerly tried my cell phone to see I now had full coverage. Although I had been using my Garmin InReach to communicate when not in cell coverage, I wanted to let my parents (who were my pickup ride) know that I was finally close. My dad responded that they were at the bottom waiting.

The last section was the Sunshine Skiout, which consisted of a gravel switchback down to the bottom of the gondola. I’ve skied this many many times in the winter and its always a quick blast down to the parking lot. With this being my first decent on feet, I under estimated the distance and it took me much longer to arrive at the bottom. The sun had gone behind the mountains and it was starting to get pretty dark out. Knowing I was so close I didnt bother to dig my headlamp out of my bag, I just took out my cell phone and used the light off my phone to bring me to the finish.

Bottom of the Sunshine goldola

I arrived at the bottom with a totally empty tank only to realize the lodge was closed due to covid, and the parking lot was totally empty. I ran around the lodge to try to find where my parents had parked. I got a sinking feeling that maybe they were waiting at the wrong location, but received another text from my dad that the front gates were closed and they were parked outside the gates. On one sense I was relieved, but there was one last 800meters to run to the gates. I was so close to 100km that I contemplated doing a few laps around the parking lot to hit the mark, but after my delayed caused my parents to wait around an extra hour for me (stuck in a car no less), I quickly decided against it and was fine calling it a day.

It was totally dark by the time I spilled into the back of the car. I was spent, but felt great, only feeling bad for leaving my parents waiting at the bottom of the hill for me. They had food for me and it was nice to have a ride home. My feet felt a bit beat up as I was wearing relatively new shoes, but not blisters or hot spots.

Its amazing how your body will scream to stop, but if you can just mentally force yourself to keep going the body will respond. I feel like outside of some base conditioning, much of of the challenge is overcoming those mentally low spots of the day. Ignoring those times when you just feel like walking, or sitting down, and focusing on keeping forward momentum. Hundreds of thousands of years of evolutionary refinement have created a machine that is so well suited long distance travel, and its a joy to be fortunate enough to use it as it was intended.

Overall I was just shy of 100km, and a little beyond my target time that I mostly attribute to the logistics of filling water bottles, stopping for photos, and boking a bit over the last pass. That being said it was a fantastic day out in the mountains.

Summary Thoughts

Much of my knowledge from long distance running comes from experience, but also from reading feedback and blogs from other runners. In that spirit I thought I would share a few things that I thought worked really well, and other things I would change for my next undertaking. Since this was a full day point to point solo run, I really had to be self sufficient.

  • Gaia GPS App – having a detailed reliable GPS eliminated the stress of route finding and helped give me confidence that I was on the right trail. I studied paper maps ahead of time, but relied on my phone GPS while on the trail. There are a number of GPS devices and apps on the market, all will work great, for me having the route pre-plotted on my phone using Gaia GPS was perfect – super slick app.
  • Katadyn BeFree – amazingly small and effective water purification bottle. Much faster and lighter than a traditional pump filter.
  • Spare Socks – argh, feet got wet in the morning and stayed that way for much of the day. Having at least one pair of dry socks would have been a so rewarding to put on halfway through.
  • Bear Spray and Scat Holder – its a pain always having to carry bear spray, but such a necessity.
  • Warm clothes and emergency blanket – although the weather forecast wasn’t too bad, the conditions in the mountains can change fast and turn severe. I brought more warm clothes than I needed, but if I were to get injured the body will cool quickly and help may take a long time.
  • Not run solo – all the recommendations to alpine travel recommend never going solo. Unfortunately my last minute scheduling didn’t make it conducive to trying to coordinate with friends or clubs. I did find it a long day with few people on the trails due to weather and not having time to stop and chat with many people. This can be a nice escape, or in my case make it a bit lonely on the trail by the end of the day.

2019 was a great running year for me. I’ve been healthy (coming off a broken ankle from a pothole last year), managed to make the time to get out, and hit a slew of races over the season including my furthest: the Sinister 7 160km trail race.

What more do I need to chalk this year up as a great season? Well, I failed to qualify for Boston by 12 seconds in the Calgary marathon, so instead of stewing all winter about the results I decided to sign up for the last qualifying race of the season: the Okanagan Marathon in Kelowna. We blasted out on the 7 hour drive the night before and crashed a few hours before the race.

Its a flat course, in a cool time of the year and offered a little escape before we settle in for a long cold winter. I love the city, the lake, and was thrilled that my wife signed up for the half and we were going to have a bit of an escape from the kids for a few days.

enjoying a coffee and leg stretch on the kid free dive out

Normally I’m all about the experience, as a non elite running I truly don’t get worked up about my finishing time as long as I feel I put in the effort and hand a great experience. This race however was a bit different in that I really wanted to go through winter knowing I had finally qualified for Boston.

The weather was perfect for a late season race, and I arrived early to mentally get in the right state. Pushing hard means entering the pain cave for an extended period of time, in this case 3 hours. Its much more mentally exhausting than physically. Your body screams at you to stop, but if you mind can overcome, you body will just drag along at the pace you command.

As the race started I positioned behind a small group of fast runners. It takes a lot of mental energy to continually look down at your watch and gauge your pace. I find it much easier to just pin a fast runner and try to keep up, let the mind go empty and purely focus on just keeping behind the ‘pacer’.

Kelowna is a two lap race, which normally I’m not a fan of, but when you are trying to go fast it lets you experience the course, then know exactly what is ahead of the second half. I was really impressed with how well run this race was, the course markings, water stations, scenic route along the lake and groups of people cheering the racers on.

After half way through I was really focused on keeping pace, but with an amazing sub 3 hour split pace I started thinking about the possibility of crushing my goal with a sub 3 hour race. This is the worst thing that can happen because it make you get excited early and the race really begins at km 30, not 21.

Like most of my marathons I hit 35km feeling great only to hit a complete wall. Legs feel like they are encased in concrete and energy drops to a minimum. This time however I was determined to keep pace and finish within my Boston Qualifying time of sub 3:10.

The last 7km was a mental gauntlet. My body was screaming to stop, but I managed to push through and came in with a 3:05:48!

My immediate reaction was that I left some gas in the tank, but having crushed my goal and qualified for Boston I was stoked. Either way it was my fastest Marathon and made me finally believe that I could come in under 3 hours, maybe next year for now I was happy with the last race of the season.

I walked around for an hour knowing that I had another 7 hour car ride ahead of us. Finally qualified for Boston and although I missed next spring cutoff, I feel confident my time will be good for the 2021 race.

As I get older I often get frustrated that I didn’t get into racing and ultra running at a much younger age. I’ve finally found an outlet that completely drains my stress, anxiety and makes to feel physically better, it just took me 20 years longer than it should have. Whenever I feel this way I recall the Rich Roll autobiography, he wasted years on addiction only to find his outlet and become the fittest man on earth. In his words of wisdom: “Keep running”.

Thanks Kelowna for the perfect weekend to end my 2019 racing season. Thanks Rich for the inspiration.

The Golden Ultra in Golden, British Columbia is one of my favorite events of the year. Its late in the season which makes for totally unpredictable weather. This just adds to the challenge at hand. Its also one of the best run events, in a beautiful area and a great way to close out the ultra season.

Golden Ultra Trail Race Start

This year I opted to pass on the 3 day stage event and make it more of a family event. My wife entered the 10km trail race and two of my boys participated in the kids event. I signed up for a single day in the 60km event.

My plan was to run hard as there was no need to save energy and legs for any subsequent stages. As often happens, best laid plans have a way of going sideways. First issue was that the course changed to a different mountain. Instead of going up Kickinghorse, we were routed towards another peak just south of the town. This meant the trail was new and unknown to me, silver lining was that it was to become more of an adventure.

Getting out to Golden the weather was perfect: cool and dry with no snow like the previous year. When the race started I went hard out of the gate. I was feeling the best I have in any trail race and had a ton of summer conditioning under my belt. By the 10km mark we were settling in and I felt that I wasn’t too far off from the lead pack. I roughly new the course, but opted to not load any routes to my phone or watch like I typically do. This race is so well organized with flags every 20-40 meters there was low risk of getting lost or confused (or so I thought).

There were, however, a few sections where the course would loop back on itself and eventually we came across a trail intersection with flags going off in 4 directions. The runner in front of me blasted straight through, and although there was nothing at the intersection that indicated any correct direction, I assumed he knew where he was going and followed along. I heard the runner on my heels come with us and came to the conclusion that between the 3 of us someone had confidence in our quick selection. I thought about it for a while wondering how they knew which direction to take considering there were no arrows or indications.

Morning sun coming up

We raced though single track and down a long hill for another 4km until reaching a clearing. Up ahead was a group of about 20 runners standing around. My first inclination when i see runners stopped is that there must be a bear or other hazard up ahead. I ran up to the group and it became apparent that we had all come to the wrong place – a wrong turn had been made. A guy beside me immediately mentioned that his watch beeped to turn back that the crossroad but seeing everyone go straight he just followed suit. At that point I knew exactly where we had made a wrong turn, and groaned knowing it was a 4+ km climb back up to the junction.

About 15 of the runners immediately decided to continue forward to a road and double back a service road to the main trail. I had no idea how to get back to the junction except back tracking. The remaining runners debated whether they would continue forward or double back. I immediately doubled back with another runner, at least we knew how far and where we made the wrong turn.

We started back and the guy I was running with was really down about the situation. I consider route finding and wrong turns part of the adventure and tend to not get too worked up – hey its just another 10km on a perfect day in the beautiful trails!

After about 4km of backtracking the guy I was running with stopped and was certain we went too far back, I wasn’t convinced and we quickly agreed to separate – he ran back again and i continued “forward” to the junction I thought we missed. Not even 1km further I reached the junction we all blew past, I tried to run back to catch the guy who went the other direction, but it was no luck and I decided to continue on the right path.

I spend the next 10km passing runners who were at the back of the main pack. At this point I threw out any high performance placement and just wanted to have a good day – good vibes only.

The climb this year was grueling, absolutely one of the longest, steepest, mentally challenging climbs I’ve done in a race.

By the time I reached the top I was hurting, but stopped to take some pictures, chat with runners and take it all in.

Hitting the top – stunning views of the valley

After the top we ran along the ridge with some scrambling and route finding. Some awesome volunteers were up there to provide some guidance in the more sketchy areas, cant imagine how early they would have had to come up – thanks!

After the summit the trail plunges down a long winding single track. I’m a climber, not a downhill speed runner, so this part was a knee destroyer for me.

By the last aid station I was feeling good, but ready to be done. I ran hard into the finish including the flat section along the river which I find is a good spot to reel in any hurting runners ahead.

Overall it was a great race. Scenery was epic and although i took a wrong turn, I was happy about how it came together. I came through the finish line with my family waiting at the end – perfect ending to a nearly perfect day.

Update: about a month after the race finished I received an email from the race organizer. Apparently someone had gone out the night before and removed some signs which caused the wrong turn by the lead pack. They were able to easily determine who had missed the turn and adjusted their time, and offered a discount on next years race. Super nice, shows the quality of organization that goes into this race and I’ll definitely be back next year again.

my son ripping on the kids race
my middle guy bringing it home in the kids race

Coming off a great race at Sinister 7, I signed back up for my annual Iron Legs race in Bragg Creek. I love this race because its close, well organized and covers some great terrain. This year I signed up for the 100km, but was a bit bummed that Moose Mountain was cut due to the fire lookout construction.

Regardless, I packed up my gear the night before and tried to get some rest. I arrived with about 10 minutes before the race started and rushed to get out to the starting line.

Sunrise at the start line.

My intentions were to go a bit quicker this race than usual. I wanted to get ahead of the long row of people that get jammed up during the first 8km of single track. I ended up going harder than I probably should have, but I was feeling good.

As soon as we started climbing up Powderface Ridge we encountered snow, lots of it.

Starting the climb to Powerface Ridge
Starting the decent

The snow added some challenges on the decent, but the weather was perfect and the cool damp weather was most welcome. After descending down the backside of Powderface and reaching Ford Knoll Loop, the warmth of the day arrived and it was starting to feel like August again.

This year took a detour bypassing Moose Mountain due to the fire lookout construction. Its too bad because its one of my favorite sections, however, this year took us up Prairie Mountain, which I have never done before.

getting above the tree line

Prairie Mountain turned out to be a steep scramble, instead of a run, and I took a wrong turn on the way down. Eventually the trail ended, luckily I had downloaded the route on my phone and using the GPS realized I needed to traverse a scree field back to the path.

Top of Prairie Mountain

By the time I got back down Prairie Mountain I was starting to feel fatigued. I met up with Craig and started the climb up Pnuma with some company. His wife and kids were waiting for him at the top which was cool to see. We dropped into the Moose Mountain aid station and had some warm soup. The volunteers there were amazing: super helpful and full of positivity.

The drop from Moose Mountain is nice smooth single track, but its long. By the time I arrived at the last aid station the sun was going down and it became a good time to toss on my headlamp. On the way back it became unbelievably dark, I missed a turn at Fullerton Loop, but it didnt add much extra distance and droped me back on the correct trail after a few kilometers.

At one point I started to think I made another wrong turn and doubled back for a bit just to verify. I figured I was on the right path and turned around again to continue forward. At this I ran into another headlamp, and it was great to see it was Craig. He was running towards me, the wrong way down the trail as he had doubled back thinking he was going the wrong way. Glad to see me, I reassured him we were going the right way (at least to get to the finish) and we continued to follow the flagging. Being dark as it was, and as tired as I was, it was nice to have some company for the remaining 10km to the finish.

We ran in together, yet I wanted Craig to run in first as he would have been long ahead if he had not doubled back to much. I came in with a 16:45:43.

Running it in together.

I felt great at the end, definitely tired, but all around good. I had some stew, but didn’t stick around long as it was a really cool evening, and once you stop it gets pretty chilly. I also had to drive myself home and I wanted to get back before I was too exhausted to drive, or risked falling asleep en-route.

Race end adrenaline

I’ve now completed the 60km, 50Miles & 100km segments of this race. Its still one of my favorites and I’m looking forward to next year whatever distance I decide on.

This was the beast of my 2019 running schedule, the 100 Mile (160km), 6000 meter elevation gain, 7 stage race in Crowsnest Pass, Alberta. Originally I planned on signing up for the relay race, then coercing 6 other friends to come spend the day running through the mountains. However, I quickly realized that the relay portion quickly sells out and only solo spots remain. A bit disappointed, I thought why not just sign up for the solo and see how far it takes me. Even if I don’t make the entire way, at least I get a day out of it.

That being said, from the moment I hit submit on the registration page I became determined to finish the race. My longest distance prior was 90km, which hurt. Adding almost 2 additional back to back marathons on top of that was going to be an intersting challenge.

With a busy work schedule and family life, getting the time for long training runs was difficult. However, by the time the race came around I actually felt physically and mentally prepared.

The area around Crowsnest Pass is stunning, yet this happened to be a cool wet year. The area was socked in with fog with a continual drizzle and by the time the race was scheduled to start the trails were covered in mud.

This is an amazingly well run event. The day prior to the race, the organizers host a dinner for all participants. Some prizes are given away and some insight on what to expect on the trail is shared. Bears seem to be a common these, and although the area is filled with large grizzly bears, dangerous encounters are rare. I ended up booking a motel in nearby Sparwood so at least I could expect a decent night sleep. I walked over to a nearby grocery store and loaded up some some snacks from the bulk bins. I was exhausted and easily drifted off into a deep sleep once my head hit the pillow.

Leg 1 – Frank Slide – 18.3km – 535m

Not wanting to feel rushed, I arrived early to the start line. It was a cool wet morning, but the mood was energetic. The lineup to the porta potties were 100 people deep so I ducked across a grassy field to a nearby bush to take a pre-race leak. My feet immediately became soaked from the tall wet grass – off to a good start.

At the gun we take off, a good chunk of the runners are in a relay race, where a new runner tags in at the start of each of the 7 legs. Because i knew it was going to be a long day for me I hung back to middle pack, not wanting to feel rushed out of the gate. The first 1-2km were a single track conga line of runners going at a slow crawling pace. I was fine to start slow, but many racers were impatiently trying to pass along the rail line. Buying a few seconds of time wasn’t worth rolling my ankle so I stayed in the line and slugged through with the group.

The remaining 10km of the leg was essentially a mud trail. After 5km both feet were drenched and coated in thick grease like mud. At this point I realized it was going to be a long day, but everyone was in the same position so all good.

Leg 1 goes by fast. It’s pretty easy and most runners are still jacked up on pre race adrenaline, so its a satisfying leg. You run through the notorious frank slide, where the side of the mountain had given way and burried an entire town. Although macaw, it for some interesting scenery, just a field of car size boulders. Dropping into the first transition station I watched runners getting pampered by their support crew: filling their water, bringing them dry socks and giving the standard pep talks. Although the volunteer teams were amazing and super helpful, I started to wonder if not having at least some familiar face to greet me was a mistake.

Leg 2 – Hastings Ridge – 16.7km – 772m

Leg 2 is one of the best segments of the race. Its a pretty grueling climb out of the gate, but snakes along the ridge of a mountain with some pretty epic views. Runners were starting to loosen up and conversation among the group I was with start started to flow.

By the end of Leg 2 I was feeling great, and ready to just continue on. I forced myself to take a rest at the transition area and try to get some food in. My main meal for the day was going to be Hammer Perpetuem which I have found works well with my stomach while still giving me the calories I need. Its a powder you mix with water into a gelatinous paste – yum.

Leg 3 – Willoughby Ridge – 31.4km – 1357m

In preparation for this race I read a number of blogs, race reports and previous runners race reviews. One theme that kept coming up was that Leg 3 and 4 had the massive attrition rates. It was long, steep and right at the peak heat of the day. Although this year was muddy, we had the luxury of it being cool and overcast which made it much easier, or so I thought.

Leg 3 is often referred to as “Satan’s Sack”, and it did live up to its reputation. The heat was non existent, but running through mud puddle after mud puddle was starting to wear on me. In a stroke of luck, or experience, I had packed extra shoes and socks for transition area 4, so only about 25km before I can finally dry my feet, if only temporarily.

Again, dropping into transition area 3 I was greeted by the most helpful volunteer support team. By this time my brain was starting to run slower so I often just needed a few seconds to stop, rest and collect my thoughts. Rushing through a transition and forgetting something could be a disaster on a day like today.

Leg 4 – Saddle Mountain – 23.4km – 974m

I left transition area (TA) 4 with some momentum knowing I had one of the toughest legs under my belt and feeling pretty good. Its tough to know what will recharge you at the transitions. What you think would taste great is often repulsive when you are physically drained. One item I read about was packaged cups of mandrin oranges packed in juice. For some reason these are the most amazing things when you are exhausted. If you haven’t tried these I cant recommend them enough. I was lucky to have packed 2 for every transition station. Keeping food down and calories in is the most critical factor to completing an endurance race. Stop drinking and you get dehydrated. Having your body reject food and you completely bonk with lack of calories. Either way your race is done, so getting food and liquids in is paramount.

Leaving TA4, you jump right into single track with a constant climb. Really wanting to complete the race I ease into a manageable pace. As much discomfort as I was starting to be in, I really just tried to enjoy the experience. Leg 4 probably has the highest drop off rate for runners. You’ve just come off the grueling leg 3, have willed yourself to continue “at least one more leg”, but just drop at the end. The weather was great, but my feet had been wet all day and the general feeling of discomfort was the prevailing theme. I’m lucky that I rarely get blisters and my feet never seem to bother me, but after soaking all afternoon the skin was getting soft and my confidence in them was starting to wane.

Leg 4 was tough. It wasn’t so much the terrain, which started as some nice scenic single track, but the last 5-10km which consisted of a muddy dirt logging road. Runners who have done this leg in the past said it was pretty easy and the last section is a nice cruise back on this dirt road. This year however introduced a new twist, the dirt road had turned into a complete quagmire from all the rain. It was comical how exhausting it is running through sticky mud and around puddle after puddle. One runner who I met at TA4 had his shoe sucked right off his foot when he planted in a soft ankle deep gumbo only to spend another 10 minutes trying to pry his shoe back out with a stick.

I cant say I enjoyed this stretch. Cows had trampled up and down this road leaving ankle breaking hoof holes and wretched smelling crap all over the road. I put myself into cruise control and just focused on getting through. It would have been nice to take some pictures to show just how bad the trail was, but I was too fatigued and couldn’t muster stopping to pull out my phone. Getting passed by fresh legged relay runners was also not the most motivating experience.

Dropping into TA4 gave me the confidence for the first time that I can complete this race. The transition area was full of some pretty haggard runners and although fatigued, I was in a great spot mentally.

I sat down beside a pale looking runner who looked weak and was being attended to by a medic and volunteer. He had come in way before me, but was really struggling to hold down food and looked terrible. I tried to convince him not to pull the plug, but take some time hydrate and recover before going back out. He just kept saying that he was done, but he said it in a way that sounded like he was just trying to convince himself more than actually being ready to quit.

I hit the porta-potty for a much needed delivery, ate as much food as my stomach would hold down, and for the first time changed my wet socks and shoes for a dry pair I had stashed in my drop bag. This felt like heaven and a wave of comfort hit my feet with whole new level of energy that went through my body. I had no idea dry socks could bring such satisfaction. After nearly 15 hours of wet muddy feet, it was a welcome change and in hindsight I would have packed at least a dry pair of socks in every drop bag.

Dusk was on the horizon and the temperature had dropped significantly so I put on some warmer clothes in preparation for the long night on the trail. I threw my Silva trail running headlamp and spare batteries into my bag.

Leg 5 – Mount Tecumseh – 27.4km – 962m

I left TA4 with a fellow runner Alan from California. This leg is the transition across the highway to Seven Sisters area and starts with some flat dry gravel road running – great way to stretch out the legs.

Sunset approached quickly and we settled in for what would be a complete gong-show of a leg. After a few clicks of gravel road we approached the trail as the sunlight disappeared enough that our headlamps came out. The next 20-25km were going to be brutal. The trail was narrow with thick impenetrable brush on either side. Every 50 meters would present a large knee deep puddle, which became increasingly difficult to pass. At some point I started grabbing branches to hold me up why I precariously walked around the cambered edges of the puddles.

This approach seemed to work until I inevitably slipped and dropped into knee deep muddy water. At this point I stopped wasting time trying to delicately creep around the puddles and started going straight through them. There is only so wet you can actually get.

The night was dark, very dark, yet it provided some level of motivation and a sense of adventure. Pulling something off like this, outside the context of a race, would be seen as strange or unusual. Yet I found the experience immensely enjoyable. With only 10-20 meters visibility beyond my headlamp you just had to take each obstacle as it came.

At some point I could see some distant lights and hear a rhythmic thumping base of music. This wasn’t the transition area, but an aid station, which had turned into an impromptu party for the volunteer helping there. It provided a much needed boost to what had already felt like a long time out in the dark. I passed on the shots of fireball booze and decided to blast out without stopping for long. At this point the runner who I met at TA4 came running up and said ‘hi’. I could barely recognize him as he had his color and energy back and was was flying after a few hours break at TA4. Good for him, I was really happy he bounced back and was now killing it.

I knew TA5 was only about 5-10 km further when I encountered what I can only describe as a long muddy slip-n-slide. The trail had turned into a wide mud path (the width of about a two lane road) and I found my self at the top of what appeared to be a long steep hill. In the dark I tried to find the best path down but with minimal lighting, I ended up picking a poor side of the trail and started sliding down on my feet. I quickly fell, started sliding on my but and got covered in thick mud as I continued to the bottom.

At some point I was passed by a group of 3 runners and having been solo for the past hour felt motivated enough to pick up my pace and follow the group in. Its amazing how much more motivating it is running in a pack and I was glad to have found some well paced runners in the dark.

I approached TA5 in the dark with some degree of trepidation knowing that the hardest, longest, steepest, darkest leg awaits next. I could see the entrance of the pain cave and I was running directly inside.

Leg 6 – Crowsnest & Seven Sisters – 31.9km – 1400m

With some hot food in my belly and dry socks on my feet, I depart TA5 knowing this is going to be a long night. Trails started much dryer, but consisted of constant climbing. One of the runners I was with had his only headlamp batteries die. I had a spare set and felt somewhat confident mine would last through the night so I gave him my spare set. Not having a headlamp on this leg is a race ending situation as the night was completely black.

At some point the puddles returned, my feet got wet and the climbing continued… for hours. My headlamp started to fade, but with sunrise on the horizon I was hoping it would last just long enough.

The stretch to the summit was almost straight up, and with the mud it was not easy or quick going, and some sections turned into almost crawling on all fours. But upon reaching the summit, we were just in time for sunrise and it was all worth it. With the dusk light returning I started to get a second wind and we stopped at the top for a quick break for some snacks.

From here the map looked downhill, yet the terrain was rough and big downhills were met with more inclines. At one point I felt my stomach completely knot. I had been “eating” primarily the Hammer Perpetuem paste throughout the day and although I never felt sick at some point my body needed some immediate evacuation. I dove into the bush for an experience that was not the most pleasant, yet I returned feeling great and confident I could cruise to the finish.

We looped passed last nights party aid station again, yet this time it was quiet and many of the volunteers looked exhausted (or hung over). I’m always humbled that people volunteer to work the aid stations through the night and glad they made a night of it.

About 8km from TA6 I got another burst of energy and picked up the pace to run it in. The hardest section was done, and I was hoping to be rewarded with an easy cruise to the finish.

I spent a bit of extra time at this aid station to soak it all in. Nick, who I had lent my batteries to gave them back and was most appreciative. I made some small talk with some of the other runners, grabbed some food and headed out for the final section.

Leg 7 – Wedge Mountain – 10.9km – 321m

The last section has a huge climb right at the start. It was hot out and I just threw my gameplan out the window and pushed hard to will myself to the end. I stopped and took a few pictures including a selfie which I’m not sure why, but knowing the end of the race was near I really wanted to make sure I soaked it all in.

I really enjoyed the last segment which was primarily single track with a few dicey scrambling drops, but otherwise really run-able and quite nice after a long day/night.

Eventually I hit the road and knew there was only a few kilometers left. I could see the community center in the distance and picked up my pace to run it in.

Crossing the line I felt great. I wasn’t hurting, wasn’t overly exhausted, but just had a feeling of accomplishment and satisfaction to bring me in.

My wife and kids were there to greet me at the finish. Strangely I wasn’t overcome with any emotion, I was just really happy to have had such a challenging, yet enjoyable experience. It was exactly what I was hoping to get out of it, and I was just feeling good about it all.

After receiving my buckle, giant beer, and high-fiving some friends, I dropped into a chair to cheer on the remaining runners. The finishing rate varies year to year, but is typically around 15-30% of the 238 solo runners that started, only 69 finished this year, which actually a good number and likely attributed to the cooler temperatures.

The real prize with my name and time stamped

I went in with a goal to just finish and ended up an hour faster than my goal time of 29.5 hours.

Boys were excited to climb over me

Getting up was hard, after about an hour sitting I had starting to seize up. By the time I got to the car, adrenaline had faded and exhaustion kicked in. Pulling an all nighter is tiring enough, add the reality of just blasting through 13,000 calories in the past 30 hours and I was bagged. I rested my head and just crashed.

Looking back physical preparation was important, but what i felt more was that I was mentally prepared. I knew it would be hard. I knew I would hit the pain cave and feel the lows. I knew the climbs would be killer and I prepared for my body to breakdown during the process. Leading up to the race I would lay in bed and visualize each of the legs. Trying to ensure nothing came as a surprise, but that when it came time to perform I just had to show up and execute. Not sure of the validity of that, but it helped to know what was coming when I hit those lows on the trail.

When exerting yourself for long periods of time the brain turns to mush. Thinking and remembering can become difficult and I like to have some expectations of what lay ahead. I made these cards to enable me to keep track of expected pace, duration, aid station locations, difficulty, elevation gains, and watch charge segments (I charged my watch on the go). Each card represents a leg and I would leave one behind at each of the transition areas after completing a leg. I took the time and pace values from a few racers who last just just came in under cutoff, as long as I ran under those times I knew I was tracking for completion. Front and back of cards:

Font side
Back side

Of course the obligatory Strava screen shot and route:

And the Sinister 7 buckle awarded to all racers who came in under cutoff. To early to decide if I’ll come back next year, but it was a highly enjoyable, well run, rewarding and tough as hell race.

I’ve been training since Christmas to Boston Qualify (BQ), and was pretty confident of hitting the previous years 3:15:00 requirement especially after having slid into an older age bracket. However, due to the growing demand to run in Boston, the qualifying times dropped by 5 minutes this year, so much for the 5 minute savings in the new bracket. This year would be a 3:10:00 qualify cutoff.

The Calgary Marathon is nicely positioned early in the season before the summer BBQ and patio beers have a chance to drop their anchors on performance. This years course skipped some hilly sections and was intended to be a fast BQ capable race – woot!

The day was perfect, cool and sunny. I felt ok at the start – I’ve learned that you NEVER feel great at the start of a race, there is always nerves, or a sore that feels different and threatens to scuttle the race. I now realize that I never feel ready and these symptoms go away soon after the race starts.

The first 30km felt great, I felt I was holding back running just under my 4:30min/km pace required to qualify. At the 30km marker my pace was 4:27 and although I was starting to feel the early stages of a bonk, I picked it up to finish hard. Breaking away from the pace group, I was anticipating how sweet it would feel to finally qualify.

The last 2km were hard and I was hurting, but adrenaline was willing me through at a comfortable 4:27 which would bring me well under my qualify time and land closer to a 3:08:00 time. As I rounded the last bend I could see the last 100 meters to the finish and realized the clock had just turned over 3:10:00. I sprinted (or what felt like a sprint) through the last 100m and came through with a 3:10:18 gun time. I couldn’t believe it, I had been so focused on pace, I failed to realize the race may actually be longer than what my watch read (which is actually quite common on races). When your body gets really fatigued, it limits cognitive function and you just aren’t thinking straight, even basic math becomes difficult in your head.

Just getting over the finish line

My only hope was that I had started quite a bit back from the front pack, so my chip time, which is used for BQ may still actually be under 3:10:00. Upon getting through the gate and checking online I realized I was in fact just over 3:10:00 with a 3:10:12 final time. Doh!

Regardless, my GPS said I had run a 3:08 and I felt confident I could shave more time off next time. Good vibes only. I had taken my marathon time from the start of last year of 3:40 down to 3:10, so overall I was pretty stoked.

So Close!

Pacing had been the key to avoid my 30km bonk, and I finally had a strategy that would work next time around. Until then I have a long season of Ultra Trail Races ahead.

I planned to kick off this years running season with an easy going half marathon. I felt this one captured the spirit of a season opener, just getting sh*t done. I started by trying to convince friends to join and thought of making it a social occasion more than an athletic experience. Ashley and my buddy Mike agreed to register, but alas Mike never found the time to train.

Come race day the weather turned into a windy cold snow filled morning. Yet having committed, I related to getting out and running with with Mike. It was unseasonably cold, but how much can you complain about the weather.

Part of this race is a timed segment about halfway through. Its a race within a race and I thought it was a great idea to motivate some mid run push. As the race started we moved at a steady slow pace. With the slower pace I had an abundance of energy at the segment race which consisted of a 1km gradual climb. I decided to give it a go and ended up running a good pace, enough to win the segment outright.

I pushed hard the last 10km and ended on a good note:

As part of winning the segment I got a cool hat and shot out:

Unbeknownst to me, Mike had hurt himself at halfway point and ended up walking in the second half. Kudos to Mike for pushing through and finishing the race:

In hindsight I’d have to say this was one of the best run smaller events. The course was in my backyard and the organizers were full of energy. As a bonus there was amazing cookies at the end.

Regardless of the weather this was turning out to be a great start to the 2019 summer race season.