All posts for the month October, 2019

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.