Life in the In-between

This time of year is always a struggle for me and I think it’s because October is an in-between month. Somewhere in-between the buzz of a new September start, IMG_3275when days are still sprinkled with just enough hints of summer to keep me happy, and the bustle and glow of Christmas where we get another break and a bit of a re-set. But in October, after the leaves have fallen and ice coats the dying blades of grass, I find little to be excited about. In fact, I have to work really hard to stop myself from slapping Pumpkin Spice Lattes out of the hands of every girl who tells me they love fall colours and cozy sweaters. I just love summer so much, and I always struggle to watch it end. I live for hot days and dry trails and this summer gave us precious little of either. Sure, I had an incredible run season with plenty of mountain trips (The Self Supported Ultra: Rockwall Trail) and of course reaching my goal of finishing a 100-mile race (Sinister 7: 100 Mile Ultra 2019) but even with all that success, I wanted more. More sun, more time off work, more time to run.

What do you do with yourself when your goal race is long past and it’s too early to start working towards what is next? When your identity is wrapped up in running, how do you cope when you feel like you are doing more standing still then moving forward?

It’s very rare for me to struggle with my mental health, and I credit that, in large part to the fact that I run as much as I do. There is complex chemistry happening inside my brain that explains why I can keep away the threat of anxiety or depression, but in simplest terms it comes down to this: running keeps me happy and sane. So when my running decreases and my inspiration grows a little tired, I can feel the edges of my mind start to flirt with anxiety and the grey skies reflect back a little more sadness then normal. It seems to hit me every autumn when spindly tree branch fingers point accusingly at the low sky and colourful leaves disintegrate into dead brown, all of it pointing towards the long cold winter ahead. I think we can all agree that it is hard to get excited about that.

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Aside from just the shift in weather, this fall has been tough for other reasons too. Kids back in school, including one hit full force with the realities of starting Jr High. I’m back at work after the summer off, at a new site which brings with it a new learning curve and new team of colleagues to adjust to. Busy kids schedules with swim team, soccer, piano, volleyball, choir and drama pulls us in several directions six nights a week. Our hectic schedule means that often my only time in the day to workout is between 5:30-7:00 am,  alone and running on road in the dark…less then exciting. A lot of my favourite run friends haven’t been putting in many miles due to injury so I haven’t been doing as many group runs lately either, which is tough because we all know how important it is to surround yourself with community. On top of all that, lately I have been walking alongside some friends in difficult situations, which leaves me wanting to hold the pieces of their broken hearts together; knowing there is little I can do takes its toll.

The reality is, I need to run to cope with the daily stress my life brings. And on weeks that my mileage drops, I suffer. I’m not training for anything specific right now, I have a few races on the distant horizon, but for the most part I’m simply maintaining base fitness, working on strength and range of motion and trying to stay as motivated and connected as I can.IMG_3379

So here are a few things I’ve been doing to try to thrive in this in-between time, these are the things that are keeping me sane and at peace in a world that threatens to unravel me.

I keep running. Obviously. Whenever I can and as much as I can. And while I would much rather be on a mountain with the sun on my skin, I have to accept that not all runs are going to be that amazing. So sometimes my runs are short and painfully boring, but 5km around the track while my son is at soccer practice still touts the same physiological benefits; heart rate up, sweat forming, muscles working. Mostly my runs are early and lonely and in the dark, but most days, that is the only time I get to myself so I enjoy it as much as I can.

I keep looking for new challenges. This means I sometimes make reckless decisions to do stupid things. For example, I’ve signed up to row a marathon in the end of November. Let that percolate for a second…Row…A…Marathon. On a rowing machine. You ever used one of those things? It’s a full body torture device. A friend of mine is hosting a MarROWthon at a Crossfit gym and when I heard about the challenge, I knew I had to do it. I have a rowing machine and I’m actually pretty good at it, so I’m going to go for it. 42 200 m of rowing hell. (It’ll be fun.) I’ve also signed up for the Coronation Triathalon in May. Which is a little terrifying because this means I have to learn an entire new sport in seven months, and I really don’t like water. So, this could be interesting to say the least. If all else fails I can walk along the bottom of the pool for 1000 m, then I can fly past everyone on the bike and run to redeem myself right?.

I stay socially connected. Trail family is exactly that, we are like family. It’s a small world and we got to look out for each other. Most runners I know struggle this time of year for the same reasons I do. Race season is mostly over and many are injured or on the cusp of it and in desperate need of rest and recovery. Which means it is more important then ever to connect, even if that means finding non-running excuses to get together, or maybe it means you still run together, you just go slower then usual to make sure you have enough time to catch up.

I look for ways to stay inspired, and certainly some incredible people from around the world have been giving the run world plenty to get excited about. Eliud Kipchoge’s sub 2 hour marathon, Brigid Kosgei’s new women’s marathon record, Maggie Guterl outright winning the cruelest and most bizarre ultra imaginable at Big’s Backyard Ultra, and of course watching Alberta’s own Dave Proctor come in a strong third after Maggie. Camille Herron setting a new record at the 24 hour championships and watching Moab 240 athletes come in one by one after days on the trail. I love seeing what other people can do in the run world almost as much as I love testing what I can do.

October will pass, and so will November, and soon enough I’ll get excited about winter running and feel like I’m pulled out of this funk. In the meantime, this is a good reminder to stay in flow; to remember that running, just like life, comes in waves where a high season can just as easily be followed by a low one. It’s not wrong, or right, it just is. And for now, I suppose that is okay.

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Photo Credit: Paul Hill

 

The Self Supported Ultra: Rockwall Trail

When you toe the line at an organized race, there is a certain level of comfort in knowing that all you really have to do, is keep moving forward. The details about how to take care of yourself have already been worked out and so all that you have to do, is run. The ultimate example of this is a road race where you don’t even carry water, aid stations with water and electrolytes are frequent enough that all you need are your short shorts and fast legs. Trail races are a little different because you will generally want to carry a pack with water/electrolytes and probably snacks (cause even short runs deserve a trail snack!) and maybe some other things like extra layers, headlamp, basic first aid etc because aid stations are infrequent and being on remote trails in the back country always carries inherent risks. But even in the longest ultras, you are rarely more then a few hours between aid stations, and there are enough other runners on course that chances are if you got yourself into trouble, someone would be able to help, or at least tell the next aid station that you were in need of a rescue, and within a few hours you could be on your way to safety. I give very little thought to my own safety before an organized race, not that I would be reckless, certainly I would make sure I could be at least somewhat self sufficient, but there comfort in the knowledge that help is never too far away.

However, a self-supported ultra is a totally different beast, and turns out, is my absolute favourite kind of beast. I would define a self-supported ultra trail run as anything that is remote back-country with no bail-out option where a rescue would be difficult or impossible, and you have to carry enough gear/nutrition/water to make sure you can get yourself from start to finish with no option for help in between. I’ve done a few now, the Laugavegur Trail in Iceland, Skyline in Jasper, Rim2Rim2Rim of the Grand Canyon ( Rim2Rim2Rim: Running the Grand Canyon in a Day ) and this last weekend I did the Rockwall trail in the Kootenays. All of them between 47-77km. All of them self-supported. All of them remote enough that organizing any sort of rescue operation would be incredibly difficult. Not coincidently, all of them were amazing.

I don’t love organized races all that much; I’m not an overly competitive person, I mean, I know how to push myself, but am only pushed by others to a certain degree before I find myself settling back into my own pace. Of course, I love the energy and community that races bring, and there is nothing that compares to the electric air at the start line, or the raw emotion of the finish line. But ultimately, what I love to do is run. And I don’t need a race for that.

Training runs are good, especially the long ones on the weekends. I suppose you could call those self-supported since no one offers to set up an aid-station for me half-way through a training run. But they aren’t usually more then a few hours long, nor are they all that adventurous or remote.

And that is why nothing compares to the self-supported ultra. That’s where all the training, and all the hard work really pay off. After running the Rockwall trail this weekend, I realized that it was actually the run I was training for all year, not Sinister 7; ( How to Train to Run 100 Miles ) it was definitely the highlight of my season. The reason I love self-supported ultras so much is that you get to experience a lot of the same highs and lows that you do in a race, but the stakes increase exponentially because you are left to your own devices; there is something tremendously satisfying about that. The competition isn’t other racers, the competition is only against yourself and the trail. Taking on a big run like Rockwall requires a lot of extra planning and packing to make sure you are carrying enough of everything to cover the estimated time you will be out there, plus extra in case it takes longer. You need to carry extra layers and gear like headlamps, space blanket, bear spray, first aid supplies, toilet paper etc. and you need to be fully confident in your ability to get yourself from one end to the other. There isn’t even cell service to call someone for a rescue on that trail, which means no matter what happens, you’re going to have to somehow get yourself to a trail head to get the help you need, and since we don’t carry overnight gear, spending the night is not an option.

The trip had been weeks in planning, first of all finding a date that didn’t conflict with other races or busy summer plans, and that left sufficient time for recovery after Tania finished the Canadian Death Race. Then sorting out logistics of who was coming and how we were going to keep ourselves safe when we were out there. We ended up with it being just three of us, Paul, Tania and I.

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PC: Paul Hill He always makes sure he is in focus and everyone else is blurry

And I couldn’t have asked for a better trio. It’s important you can trust the people you are out there with and be fully confident in their ability to not only get themselves across the trail in decent time, but also trust that if something were to happen to anyone of us, that the other two would do whatever it took to help. An added bonus was that we all reached our run goals for the summer, so finishing off the season with a gorgeous run like Rockwall seemed like a great way to celebrate together.

We got a 5 am start from Calgary, but by the time we drove to the trailhead off Highway 93, parked one vehicle at one end, and went back to the other to start, it was already almost 8:30 am before we started running. Our packs were heavy with 2000+ calories, full hydration packs, poles and extra layers to be ready for whatever the unpredictable forecast threw our way. And of course, bear spray and bear bangers, which we thankfully did not need. The first few kms took us across a river and through the Paint Pots, an area with wide paths and bridges going over pools of multi coloured mud and water. Then the climbing began through lush trails that took us to the other side of the mountain range and past a picturesque cabin that I would move into in a heartbeat.IMG_3090

‘Say goodbye to your friends kids, you’re going to be home-schooled, off-grid, live-off-the-land, feral children from now on.’

I wish. Except the home-school part. I couldn’t do that, they would be un-schooled and that would be bad. Maybe it’s time we move on and interrupt this fantasy.

Past the first campground, the trail took us along the first of the namesake for the trail, what is best described as a literal wall of rock. A towering mountain wall stretched as far as you could see. One of those moments that makes you feel really tiny and insignificant against the majesty of it all. Paul dropped a few Game of Throne’s references that were lost on Tania and I, cause we don’t have time to watch tv, we are too busy trying to run enough to keep up to Paul.

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One of the ‘Rockwalls’

Trail continued along the ‘Rockwall’ and through alpine meadows of blooming wildflowers and these crazy Dr. Suess type plants called Bear Grass that only bloom once every five years, so we were pretty privileged to witness such a rarity. IMG_3112By this point, dark clouds threatened our views and the wind came up, whipping cold rain at us which thankfully didn’t last long before we started the descent off the top of the mountain, away from the wall of rock and down into a valley with some pretty glorious downhills that went on forever. On trails like this, it is a little bit of a misnomer to claim that you ‘ran’ them all. We were taking it slow, partly to enjoy the views, partly because we were all in various stages of tired, recovering from previous big efforts and a bit of niggling injuries. But we were also moving cautiously over some pretty technical terrain. Loose rocks, roots, creek IMG_3120crossings, paired with the knowledge that a sprained ankle would make for a long limp home, meant that we were choosing our footing carefully.

Through another campsite and more lush trails, all flanked with whimsical mushrooms and unique plant life. This region of the Kootenay Mountains boasts a more temperate climate, which yields plant life we don’t normally see in the mountains closer to home. So I was happy to enjoy the green as we cruised along. Ahead, Paul stopped and was pointing at something out over the valley, both Tania and I strained to see what he was so excited about, but we couldn’t see anything and assumed he was starting to hallucinate and maybe needed a snack. He told us to take off our sunglasses…and then, wow. Turns out we were the crazy ones, missing out on the full rainbow we couldn’t see through our polarized lenses (a hazard of wearing Goodrs!)IMG_3071

The biggest climb of the day was towards the end of the trail, up Numa pass, with an 800m climb to a peak of 2400m, and I was starting to feel some fatigue set in, I had run out of water (I definitely need a bigger pack for self-supported runs!) and Tania saved me by sharing some of hers, which helped me get up the final kilometer or so to the top. Once there, the views were as breathtaking as the cold wind that was whipping past us. A few photos before we scurried down off the ridge and towards one of the most incredible views I’ve ever seen.

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Top of Numa pass after a steady grind up.

Floe lake is a stunning glacial blue that changes hues as the sun plays off it. The lake sits at the bottom of yet another ‘Rockwall’…and we were all completely convinced the trail is very aptly named. Glaciers cling to the steep mountain and drip into the pristine lake. Another cabin overlooks the whole scene and again I envision my fantasy life as a park ranger. It’s these moments that make all the hard work of high mileage weeks, tedious strength workouts and cross-training sessions totally worth it. That my body can take me to across the 45 km and over Numa pass, to get to the reward of Floe lake is nothing short of an absolute privilege. One I’ve earned, but one I am lucky to be able to achieve, that’s for sure.IMG_3151

The descent from Floe Lake was through burned out forest where believe it or not we were rewarded with yet another full rainbow. Seriously, can’t make this stuff up.  The trail ended with a beautiful river at the trailhead, which is one incredible view you don’t have to work hard for! Just find the parking lot off Highway 93 marked Floe Lake trailhead and the bridge is just a few meters walk. Treasures like that are worth the stop as you drive past, but for me, a stop is never enough, I’ve got to see what lies further down the trail.IMG_3142

I’m thankful for the trails I have been able to cover so far, but my bucket list of self-supported ultras is still pretty long. My goal is to be a lifelong runner who is able to experience trails like Rockwall, for as long as I can. Doing the occasional race to reach a big distance goal or working to reach a certain speed goal is fun every now and again. But really, just give me that cabin at Floe Lake and the trails around it and I’ll be happy.

Sinister 7: 100 Mile Ultra 2019

100 miles.

Turns out, that is a REALLY long way to run. I suppose you could assume that a lot happened over the 28:52:52 we were out there, but in reality there is not much to say. All we did was move forward for a ridiculously long time. Yet for some strange reason, the straightforward act of covering all that ground has left me changed, forever impacted by the significance of something that is actually rather insignificant in the end.

Sinister 7 is named, in part, because the course is broken up into 7 sections, called legs, each leg is a different distance, and takes you over different parts of the Crowsnest Pass in Alberta, starting in Blairmore and ending in Coleman. The most straightforward way to re-create the journey would be to break the race report down by a description of each leg; linear, orderly. But ultrarunning, like life, is non-linear and unpredictable, the blurry routine of time passing punctuated by a handful of crystal clear moments that give our stories structure, providing the guideposts we need so we can look back and connect the dots so we can then better understand where we are and how we got there.

To look at where we got to, we need to look at where we started. The start line.

Obviously. IMG_2547

Well, the start was actually way long before that, with a successful training season (How to Train to Run 100 Miles) and then days and weeks of fussing over details in preparation; asking ‘what am I forgetting?’ a million times. One last text to my training partner, Paul, in part to give us another reassurance that we were going to be fine, but also in part to make sure he wasn’t on his way back to Edmonton to run the Lululemon 10k instead, which was sounding really appealing at that point. He wrote back and said he was on his way. I guess we were going through with it. 6:55am on July 6th, 2019 and the air was filled with the raw energy of hundreds of runners, some relay, some solo, waiting for the gun to start us off, and the butterflies in my stomach were causing me to seriously question if my breakfast would stay down. Hugs, high fives and pictures with the Sinister 7 arch behind us. My daughter wrote sharpie tattoo affirmations on my arms; “Strong” “Flow” and IMG_2546“Run On” on each calf as a tribute to Amy Alain, who should have been there with us. Run Forever: In Memory of Amy Alain

Paul looked like his usual calm self, but I could tell that the overwhelming rush of the crowd was getting to him too:

“I just need to get started” he said.

7:00am the gun sounded and it was time. All that is left to do now, is run. Simple.

 

Leg 1:

The mass start of any race is intoxicating. Fresh legs turn over faster then is sustainable and it is impossible to resist the pull of that kind of energy. As a soloist I had to remind myself to stay calm and steady, that I needed to harness that energy to save for later, much later. After a couple of kilometers, the crowd had started to thin out a bit and we had settled into a better pace.IMG_2589 - Copy The course takes you along the train tracks and past the house-size boulders of the Frank Slide disaster and you can’t help but feel you are treading on holy ground, that we are all completely powerless against the forces of nature that pulled that mountain down on top of the town of Frank so many years ago. Another reminder of how lucky we are to be out there, strong and healthy, in the right place and at the right time. The road started to gain some elevation and we started to gain some incredible views before the course took us off the road and into the sorts of mountain trails we all live for.

IMG_2551 - CopyAnd mud. Weeks of rain in the area left the course far sloppier then I had ever seen it before and we started to encounter deep puddles and slick, greasy mud that would continue to plague us for the next 27 hours, filling our shoes and slowing us down, at times dropping us to a crawl on what should have been quick descents because the rocks were covered in a treacherous layer of mud and it’s not worth risking a fall.

By the end of Leg 1, about two hours in, we were finally feeling relaxed, comfortable with our steady pace, the sharp edge of pre-race anxiety calmed to a steady focus on the next six stages of the race. Quick stop at the porta-potty, through the checkpoint, and off we go again.

Leg 2:

The trail continued to climb until we found ourselves above the clouds and finally in the sun, mountain peaks seemed to float in the distance like islands on a vast ocean. We continued to jockey with soloists and got passed by fresh-legged relay runners, but for the most part, we started to feel like we were away from the crowds and had those trails to ourselves. Easy conversation started to flow. What do you talk about with someone for that many hours together? We covered pretty much everything; family, politics, death, music, films, travel stories and of course talked about the weather.

IMG_2552A few weeks prior, Paul told me he thought it would be a good idea to run the entire race together, that even though he was a stronger runner, he would rather sacrifice an hour or two of his potential time, if it meant sharing the experience with someone else. I was skeptical at first, my own nagging self-doubt already apologizing for slowing him down. But the more we talked about it, the more I wanted to run the race the same way I did most of my training, the same way I do most of my life; surrounded by good people. We had discussed every possible scenario that could unfold and committed to sticking together through all of those, save for a few race ending situations where one of us might have to drop out and the other would have to continue on alone. On leg 2, that partnership still felt easy, our contended chatter passing the time and shrinking those massive climbs. Being together made the mental game of ultrarunning that much easier. Of course it eventually got hard, we spent most of the last ten hours in silence, but that was totally okay. That was one of the reasons I agreed to run the whole thing with Paul, I knew we could be comfortably silent with each other, we knew each other well enough that not every minute needed to be filled. (Although truthfully, much of the last ten hours he was so far ahead of me we couldn’t have talked anyway, but we will get to that part of the story eventually.)

Last big climb on leg 2 done and we were ready to descend back down to where we started, through alpine meadows where I picked some daisies for my hair, and into view of Blairmore down below. We were nearly giddy with excitement to cruise into that first transition area. Our 35km warm up was done and we were ready to be cared for by our amazing crew.

Tania, my run soulmate, agreed to be my crew chief, and Paul had his wife and brother in law helping him out. My husband Kirk, and my three kids, were there to cheer and pitch in as well as were several other people in the run community. They had a screened in tent set up for us, with chairs and all our gear laid out inside, snacks, fluid refills ready to go, fresh shoes and socks at standby. Rolling in there was like coming into a pit stop at the Indy 500, one person is taking your pack, another is stripping off your socks and shoes, while handing you a fresh shirt and a cold cloth, then someone else is passing you sunscreen and making sure you didn’t miss any spots. The whole time we are in there we are trying to keep our mouths full of food, but the temptation to talk is just too great. We want to hear everything, we want to tell everything. The energy of the transition area is high, with hundreds cheering the runners as they come in, then head back out again for another leg. All too soon, our time was up, we needed to pull ourselves out of our tent oasis and keep moving. Cheers propelling us forward.

Leg 3:

PTAD (post-transition-area depression) hit hard and fast as we set out on what was the second most difficult part of the course. Temperatures were starting to rise, and we were about to enter ‘No Man’s Land’. Every run, no matter the distance, has a ‘No Man’s Land’. It’s the chunk of time between those first few warm-up steps and the home stretch, where running becomes meditative, therapeutic, sometimes painful sometimes just plain boring. On a short run, the time in that zone is brief, you hardly notice it, but on a 100 mile run, ‘No Man’s Land’ has plenty of time to suck you in and swallow you whole. And not coincidentally, this is where much of the race starts to blur together for me, forward movement began to feel trance-like, meditative. Breath in. Breath out. Thoughts in. Thoughts gone. My mental game was still really strong; my meditation only interrupted by our occasional chats with each other or other runners, but I knew that bubbling below the surface, was the rising thought that the first hints of fatigue were starting to set in, and we still had 125km to go. The climbs on leg 3 were starting to feel as punishing as the blazing sun and an aid station appeared like an oasis in the desert at just the right time. Paul slammed some pickle juice and handfuls of sugary treats, and I had some watermelon and electrolytes and we both set out with a fresh burst of energy. This part of the course goes through some sections of the mountain that were burned in a forest fire years IMG_2617[825]ago, leaving very little tree cover and earning it the nickname “The Oven.” Or, if you’re really classy, “Satan’s Sack”. One relay runner passed us with the dire warning that it was about to get much hotter once we rounded the corner to start our descent into “The Oven”. He was right. Thankfully, the overall temperature wasn’t too high and we managed to cope with the heat just fine and carry on through the rest of the leg, relieved that we had made it through one of the bigger challenges of the day unscathed. And once again we could see the town of Blairmore sprawled out below, with our crew ready and waiting for us to cruise in and re-group.

Leg 4:

Fresh clothes, socks and shoes, another tummy full of food and we were forced out of our chairs and out of the tent and back onto the trail. That part of things never got easier. Transition was quick and dirty and there was never enough time to say the things you wanted to say, or do the things you wanted to do and every time I left I realized there was something I forgot or something I wanted to tell someone, but it was too late.

Leg 4 turned out to be our favourite leg. Several kilometers of soft and springy single track that goes up over a ski hill and to the top of a mountain with a breathtaking

view of Mt. Tecumseh. It also happens at the point of the day where the heat build-up often results in a wicked summer storm, one that threatened to knock us right off that mountain. Hail, horizontal rain, cracks of thunder, left me scrambling to throw on my jacket before my temperature dropped too low. It was exhilarating. A dizzying mix of euphoria and terror, knowing how vulnerable we were to the forces of nature and how strangely empowering it was to be out there, doing what we were doing despite every obstacle thrown our way. I felt invincible. Paul, normally pretty even keel, was also nearly giddy as we raced to get to the relative safety of the treeline. And just like that the storm was over; the sky still darkened from cloud cover, clouds muting the impending sunset. After coming down the mountain, leg 4 sprawls over a never-ending gravel road that rolls through cattle pasture towards another aid station. We ended with some other female soloists and I admit, I was a little sad it was over. I knew that tough trails lay ahead of us and that the euphoria of the last 23 km would soon wear off as we would continue running into the night.

Leg 5:

I had envisioned this moment for a year. As you leave the aid station, the course follows a gently sloping road for what feels like forever. It’s a great time to cover some distance at a decent pace, but the trick is that by this point in the day, running at any kind of decent pace is a monumental feat. One that I was mentally prepared for, I had spent a lot of time visualizing the first half of leg 5, how I would run no matter how much it hurt and how we would bank some time as a buffer before the tougher part of the second half of the leg.  The sky darkened, and things started to feel pretty magical as we plodded along. The first stars came out and the trail took us off the road and up towards a mountain trail. The course was ridiculously muddy and it became almost laughable to try to navigate around the puddles in the dark so most of the time we trudged right through them. Paul had his carefully curated playlist blasting from his pack, each song surprisingly thoughtful and mellow, which I suppose seemed fitting for my slowing pace and the shift the nighttime air brought. I called ahead, told him it was time. He knew exactly what I meant. We both switched off our headlamps to experience one of the absolute best aspects of this ridiculous sport; the stars. It’s a rare treat to experience true darkness, our busy lives in the city mean we don’t often get to feel the magnitude of an unobstructed night sky, but that night we found the elusive trifecta of a cloudless night, no light pollution and middle of the night darkness. It was absolute magic.

And short lived. By now, Paul was starting to be concerned with my slowing pace. He was starting to think through the numbers to realize that any time buffer we had earned earlier in the day, was vanishing the longer we stayed out on leg 5. Darkness seems to slow everything to a crawl as you are robbed of your peripheral vision and ability to efficiently navigate the trail in front of you. And, although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was running out of energy. My caloric consumption had taken a serious nosedive in the last few hours and although I couldn’t have identified it as such at that point, I now see that I was simply running out of fuel.

IMG_2614The last aid station on Leg 5 looks like a rave party. Flashing strobe lights, pounding dance tunes, and tables full of booze. Also the absolute last place I felt like being. When we stopped, my head started to spin and I realized how incredibly nauseated I had become. A kind volunteer looked at me with serious concern, and shoved my pack full of ginger chews to help with the nausea, then ladled broth into a cup for me to drink. It tasted great but I could tell Paul was impatient to keep moving, so I resisted the urge to ask for another cup. A huge mistake. The last 7.4 km of leg 5 dragged on with relentless rolling hills and trail encompassing mud pits. My energy lagged and my stomach threatened to rebel on me. There was nothing in my pack that appealed to me and I foolishly silenced every logical thought that said I needed to eat if I was going to keep going. Unfortunately, but the time we hobbled into what is my absolute favourite transition area of the whole race, I was already too far gone. I was running on fumes.

Leg 6:

The transition area for the end of both leg 5 and 6 is the same. For several years now, I have been lucky enough to experience it while on a relay team and I can honestly say, it is one of my favourite places in the world. The quiet buzz of the crowd as they anticipate, and then tend to runners coming in from the dark is absolutely otherworldly. And despite how bad I felt at this point, I was still so happy to be there. Before we got there, Paul had warned me that we needed it to be a quick transition as he was worried about how much time we had lost on the last half of leg 5, so, not wanting to disappoint him, I moved as quickly as I could, changing into warmer clothes, eating as best I could, letting Tania tend to my feet. And all too quickly we were once again spit out onto the trail and into the night, with the biggest challenge of the race ahead of us. Leg 6 is rated the most difficult leg of the whole race; it’s reserved for the toughest relay runners, and is the downfall of many a soloist. I was nervous about how I was feeling, and I had slowed to a hike even though we hadn’t even started our ascent towards the Seven Sisters mountain. The gap between Paul and I was growing ever larger, he would get a ways ahead, stop, wait for me to get close, then keep going without a word exchanged. I knew exactly what he was doing. I didn’t like it, but he was right. We needed to keep moving forward as quickly as possible. Then the punishing climb began. Some of it so steep and muddy I slowed to an absolute crawl, even Paul was slipping and struggling to move quickly. The trail seemed to be a part of some kind of drainage system on this very wet year, as though the creek beside the trail could no longer contain all the water, so it just made its way straight down the trail. Forward progress was agonizingly slow and my thoughts were dulled into a numbed stupor. Left foot. Right foot. Repeat. The sun had started to rise at this point and I could see we were getting closer to what surely had to be the summit. Paul was almost out of sight for much of the time, but every now and then I would see him stop, turn to look, check his watch, wait for a minute, then go again.
I’ve run with Paul enough to know that this is often just how it is between us. He is simply a stronger runner then I am, and 99% of the time that doesn’t bother me one bit. I still appreciate his company, I still appreciate his patience with me, and have come to trust that if he didn’t enjoy running with me, he would’ve stopped doing so a long time ago. It is no longer demoralizing to me to know he is so much farther ahead. Leg 6 was no different. He was stronger and climbing faster and that was completely fine with me. But I knew it wasn’t fine with him. His face was etched with worry, echoed by the constant calculations he was doing to determine if we would make the cut-off and finish in time. At one point during the climb, he came behind me, to almost push me up the hill instead of pulling me from ahead. I turned to him and said “Paul, I could never live with myself if you didn’t finish because I slowed you down.”

Never, during the entire race, did I even entertain the thought of quitting. And even as I said those words to Paul, I knew that if he went on ahead and I timed out, I would still finish the full 100 miles. I could live with my own failure that was my own fault, but I couldn’t live with knowing I had caused him to fail too. I wasn’t about to quit, but I also wasn’t about to be responsible for the end of his race.

I don’t know exactly what he said, the whole thing is a blur, but it was something gruff and to the point like “We’re finishing together, now get moving.” And so I did. Continually forward. Continually up. We crested the top of the biggest, most difficult climb of my life just as the sunrise threw colour all over the mountains we had been heading towards for almost 24 hours. I knew the worst had passed. A sunrise selfie at the top. A mumbled word of encouragement. Onward. Down this time.

I wish I could say that I cruised it in from there. That I somehow magically revived and everything was fine again for the rest of the leg. But it wasn’t. It was tough. Really, really tough. The mud over the rocks and tired legs made every step down a cringeworthy affair. Even in the hopeful morning light, I knew we were running out of time and I knew Paul had to be growing impatient with me. What is absolutely mind boggling to me in hind-sight though, is how did I not recognize that my waning energy was directly related to my calorie deficit? I needed to eat, plain and simple, but my fuzzy brain kept making excuses; I convinced myself I had eaten enough at the last aid station (I never did) that there was calories in my water (not nearly enough) that I would eat well at the next aid station (that never happened either). Paul even asked me a few times if I was fueling ok and I unintentionally outright lied to him. It was as though all I could do was put one foot in front of the other; all rational thought was long gone. I told Paul I was trying the best I could. He simply said “I know.” And powered forward. I wondered if he regretted deciding to run with me. He was so strong right until the end.

We finished leg 6 around the time we had hoped we would have been finishing the entire raceIMG_2588 had our pace maintained as planned. I had lost us two whole hours over the last two legs, and Paul was still nervous we would not finish within the cut off. Our crew at the last transition assured us we were fine, and would finish in great time even if we only walked the last 10km. I could feel waves of emotion threaten to crest somewhere under the haze of my mental state, but it never came. My brain and body were in pure survival mode; no extra energy for anything else. I stared with vacant eyes at our amazing crew and the many smiling faces outside our tent, friends all there to cheer us on as we entered the last leg of our journey, and I felt nothing other then a rising determination to get over the final 350m of elevation gain and 10km of single track that lay ahead.

Leg 7:

Its supposed to be the easiest part of the race. A quick and fun leg reserved for the relay runner newest to the sport. But after 150km, nothing felt easy anymore. We climbed and climbed and climbed some more up the final elevation gain of the race, and then started the slow and winding descent for 10 km into the town of Coleman where the finish line, and our people, were waiting. I ran. I actually ran a surprising amount. I would have been totally fine to walk the entire 10km, but Paul had set the pace and I knew he wanted to finish in under 29 hours. So I ran. For him. Not for me. I didn’t care anymore. I knew I was finishing. I already knew I was 6th place female. But I knew this was important to him, and that was enough for me. I reminded myself of Amy Alain’s mantra, that you can do anything for 60 seconds. So I counted to 60 over and over in my head as I ran. Our good friend Tess, whom we had been leap frogging with the entire race, caught up to us with only a few kilometers to spare and we all agreed to finish together. 6th place female made even better by sharing with a friend and worthy competitor. By now the sun was warm. We could hear the cheers and music from the finish line. It was absolutely surreal. I’ve watched countless runners cross that finish line before, but never done it myself at this race and now, the moment we had worked towards for so many months, years even, was happening.

It was too much. Too overwhelming for my tired body and frazzled nerves. My memory of it is vague. As though it happened to someone else as I watched from the outside.

It was also perfect. Friends, family, sweaty hugs, tears. An obscenely large belt buckle and equally large bottle of beer with my name, number and finishing time on it.

Too much, and perfect. That is actually a pretty accurate description for a race like Sinister 7. 100 miles is too much for any one body to handle, but that is exactly the point. These things aren’t mean to be easy, a 30% finishing rate attests to that fact, but that is where the perfection lies; in those stories of struggle of those who finish, and those who don’t.

I sat in a chair at the finish line, in shock, fighting off waves of nausea and exhaustion. I looked at Tania and said

“What do I do now?”

She laughed.

“You listen to your body. For 28:52 you have not been listening to your body. Now it is time.”

Ok. I can do that.

How to Train to Run 100 Miles

If you clicked on this in the hopes of finding a comprehensive training plan that goes something like this:

Day One: Get out of bed, push through the fog of your existential crisis, run 12 km.

Then I apologize because this post will not give you details of my training plan. For one, because I would far rather talk about existential crisis then numbers and workout specifics. And two, because there is no one right way to train for this stuff. I’ll lay out a general idea of what I have been up to the last six months, but in the end, I would highly recommend going with a run coach who is responsive to your goals and understands your personality. A good coach will tailor a plan that will work with your lifestyle to get you the results you’re looking for and that is totally worth the time and expense. Alternatively, you can Google “How to train for 100 miles”. Good luck with that.

My official training plan started January 1st, but the journey started 3 ½ years prior when I ran Leg 1 of Sinister 7; it was 16 km and left me hungry for more. It was the first time I had ever heard of someone running 100 miles and although I was intrigued, I would have laughed at the thought of ever training for that goal myself. After a successful road half marathon later that summer, I decided to set my sights

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My first ultra: the gateway drug to this nonsense

on trail and ultra, and trained for my first 50km race, Black Spur Ultra the following year, and then did a few more 50-85km events over the next two years. But it was really only last summer, while spending the weekend in Colorado, pacing for a friend at Leadville 100, that I really started to seriously consider that maybe I could do this too. So, sometime last fall, I picked a run coach, Paul with

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http://www.evolutionhill.com

Evolution Hill , and told him I wanted a plan that wouldn’t leave me a frazzled, exhausted mess. My biggest goal was to make it to the start line in excellent physical and mental health; no injuries and feeling happy, and I’m thrilled to report that I’ve accomplished that. I feel great. I feel ready.

So how did I get here? Well, I started by having a completely honest conversation with Paul about the kind of plan I knew would work for me. Traditional plans usually have really specific run and workout goals for each day, but knowing the way my brain works, and my tendency to push for perfection means that those sorts of plans feel like a massively overwhelming to-do list that leaves me feeling like I’ve failed if I didn’t follow the plan exactly. My life is way to busy to throw that kind of pressure in; I need flexibility, I need to be able to adapt my training to work with the rest of my life and highly structured training plans simply do not work for me. Instead, the plan he gave me outlined weekly total run targets and it was up to me to figure out how I wanted to divide those distances up over that number of runs. So if it didn’t work to run as much as I wanted during the week, that was fine, I would just do the best I could on the weekend to still reach my goal. It sort of looked like this- Week 1- 50km over 3 runs, Week 2- 65km over 4 runs etc. building to a 100 km week at my max. Easy weeks, building up to a peak week, followed by an easy week again. The plan also included an elevation gain goal, the goal of 3 strength sessions a week, 2-3 cross training sessions of either row or bike, and a yoga session. This all sounds nice on paper, but let’s talk about what that actually looked like in practice.

 

It meant a lot of 5 am alarms for weekday strength sessions in my basement; either High Intensity Interval Training or weights (squats, lunges, deadlift repeat!). It meant late night yoga that sometimes doubled as a heat training session. It meant a lot of time on the rower in my basement, with the music blaring and the kids dancing around keeping

me entertained. It also meant spin class during swim lessons at the rec centre and even a couple road bike sessions. It has meant a neglected house, almost no tv, not nearly enough books, a few missed soccer games and swim lessons, and shortened nights out cause the morning alarm comes quick.

Most of all it meant a LOT of running. Sometimes my runs had to happen alone at 5 am on a weekday before a full day of work and I’m not gonna lie, as much as I like running, there was plenty of times it was a struggle to get out the door. I never IMG_1806regretted it once I got going, but finding that discipline when you’re tired and under a time crunch is not always easy. Those runs often felt like work, and usually that was exactly what they were as I would try to focus on speed intervals, or elevation gain and do hill repeats to make the runs as quality as I could.

But the best runs, the really magical ones, were the weekend runs. And lucky me, I’ve run every weekend for at least the past year. Twice most weekends. Sometimes all weekend. So, lets focus on that, cause that’s where the good stuff really happened, where all that hard work, cross training and strength really paid off. I would usually head into the weekend with 25-30km accumulated during the week over two early morning weekday runs. So, depending on my total goal for the week, that meant I would need to accumulate between 25-70km on the weekend. Planning for those runs were almost as fun as actually getting around to them. Sometimes it was a rather spontaneous text from a friend “hey I need to run 30k Sunday and need to be done by 9:30, you in?” and before you know it, we would have a group assembled IMG_2373ready to run. And sometimes it was weeks put into planning a mountain trip. Whether it was well planned or spontaneous it was always a unique adventure. Each run memorable in its own way.

I’ve run in groups of friends, many of whom are also working towards big distances this race season, and I’ve run alone. I ran in -41’ C windchill and once in +25’C (still waiting for those hot summer runs!) Did a couple days in the mountains with up to three IMG_2090mountain summits in a day, and ran from one side of the Grand Canyon to the other and back. (Rim2Rim2Rim: Running the Grand Canyon in a Day) I podium finished a 50K in the freezing cold (Winter River Valley Revenge: Well that was hard) and ran from the Kinsmen-Henday-Henday for no reason at all. I logged countless other runs along the North Saskatchewan River, Whitemud Ravine, Millwoods Ravine, MacTaggart Sanctuary (got lost EVERY time!) and every other green space that hides trails in this fine city. I grew frosty eyelashes until I could hardly see anymore, IMG_1192sweat until I could wring out my clothes, lost a toenail (only one this season!) Cut up my knees, shins, arms and got weird chaffing in all kinds of places. I’ve practiced running on a calorie deficit, eating all kinds of things while running, and even practiced running on a full stomach; post-Christmas dinner in fact. I’ve been bored on the treadmill or track the few times I ran there and made the most of it by listening to podcasts about, what else? but running of course! I’ve woken up to run at 4 am, started runs at 9 pm and ran all the way through the night twice (Night Running. ). I’ve run with a lump in my throat, and in full on ‘can’t breath’ heart-sobs. I ran at 3 am on the cold February night my good friend died (Run Forever: In Memory of Amy Alain) and continue to think of her every time I hit the trails. And in April I got to run a pretty special 10k in Jasper with her husband where her wet footprints appeared on the pavement beside us. I ran through my grief because that is the only way I knew how to process what just happened; and just as often I run through my joy because again, that is the only way I know how to process what happened.IMG_1809

And that, my friends, is the messy and spectacular way you train for a 100 mile race.

I’m not going on and on about this to showboat about how much I’ve accomplished. Not at all. Rather, as I write this l I am in awe of how fortunate I am. That my body allows me to do all this. That the people around me have supported me in this goal. And that in one weeks’ time I will be toeing the line at the biggest and most daunting challenge of my life thus far.

A friend recently shared this quote, and it really resonated with me.

“Racing isn’t a test. Racing is a celebration.”

Say it louder for the people in the back cause we got big things to celebrate and everyone is invited. Whatever happens out there next weekend has almost become irrelevant because the process of getting here has been the biggest reward of all. Running 100 miles is really just the celebration of all that has happened so far. Sure, it will be a ridiculously painful way to celebrate, but I’m ready. And that sounds to me like it is worth a really long trail party.

Soccer Season: Why it’s worth the struggle

I promised myself when I started this blog that it wouldn’t turn into a ‘mommy blog’.  Mostly because I find most parenting blogs rather irritating with the constant whining about hard things and the never-ending talk of bodily fluids, but then I realized that is EXACTLY what running is; whining about hard things and talking about bodily fluids. SO. I’m going to talk about my son. Well, more specifically, about his soccer team. And soccer is mostly running so I think it still works. (Stay with me here.)

I agreed to be assistant coach to my son Levi’s indoor soccer team this year mostly because my awesome friend Tara was the coach and I can’t say no to her. I probably shouldn’t have ever agreed to that because I missed a bunch of games to go running instead, and those (not coincidentally) were the games the team actually won. I mostly just manned the gate for shift change and yelled a lot of rather unhelpful things like ‘Stop ‘em D’ and ‘First to the ball’ and cheered and high five-d so hard that each game left me with sweaty palms and a racing heart and a sore throat. I had NO idea what I was doing.IMG_2058[9148]

You see, I have my own checkered past with the sport. I signed up to play on my high school team because I don’t like the sounds of squeaky shoes on the gym floor (so basketball and volleyball were out) and our school was so small that all you had to do was show up and you made the team. No chance of rejection AND I get to be outside with my friends? That’s the sport for me! Except I was terrible. Truly terrible. I only made it onto the field when we were up by five goals and the real soccer players needed a break. For my senior year, there were so many girls who wanted to play, the coach decided to make two teams, leaving me at risk of facing that rejection I had been avoiding. After the teams were formed, he pulled me aside and said;

“You’re probably wondering why I put you on the ‘A’ team…since you’re not very good.” I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry because I knew he was right, but then he said something that changed my life forever.

“I wanted you on the team because you are a good social catalyst. You bring the team together and we need that.”

I really don’t care about being good at soccer, but being good at bringing people together? Yes please. I used that story in my first job interview out of university and they gave me the job because of it. Never did I imagine that my terrible soccer career would lead to a fulfilling professional career down the road.

Something else happened in those three years of leading cheers and riding the pine; I noticed how good I felt after every practice. I loved that chest heaving, lung burning, sweaty mess feeling as I walked off the field. And one day it dawned on me.

I don’t like soccer.

I like running.

And so, I started to run. Not for long, and not very far, but after the season was done, I found myself craving that feeling and could only find it again when I would head out on that long, flat gravel road with only the big prairie sky and the sound of my breath.

As fate would have it, 2/3rds of my children LOVE soccer and so here I am, back at the soccer field with my cheers and high fives, getting giddy over their own heaving chests and sweaty heads not because I love soccer, but because I look forward to the lessons they will pull from these years on the field, whether it be about how to get along with others, or how to cope with failure, or how to dig to find strength buried deep within yourself.

My favourite part of coaching this season was watching those little lessons unfold among our adorable troop of 8-9 year old boys. Like the little guy who looks up at his adoring family after every contact with the ball; he knows the value of tethering himself to the people he loves. Or the bird-frail boy who can’t seem to get through a shift without getting hurt, yet he keeps going back out with a big smile and the promise he will eat more to get stronger so he can be a better player. Or the tall and quiet kid, mature beyond his years, who commands the respect of his peers by leading by example. A community leader in the making.

But my favourite? The short and feisty kid with bright blue hearing aids who loves to play striker and blows by his opponents like they are standing still. That kid can run. Love him.IMG_2049

The chance of Levi going on to play soccer at a high level is pretty slim, (especially with the questionable coaching he received this past season) but this is not at all why we do this. If this was just about turning out a skilled soccer player it would never be worth the work; busy weeknights and early Saturday games, rushed laundry for clean socks and jerseys, the driving and scheduling.  But we will continue to be ‘soccer mom and dad’ and support him and his sister in this as long as they need us to so they can figure out those million life lessons that come with sport; play with others, work hard, don’t give up, lead by example, cheer loud and give lots of high fives so you can bring people together.

Most of all, I hope my soccer playing children learn this:

Just. Keep. Running.

Night Running.

Have you ever wondered what would happen if you chose to run all night long instead of sleeping? What it would be like to get up, go about your regular day and then instead of tucking in at night, chose to run for 7.5 hours, and then go about the next day as if nothing ever happened? You probably haven’t because that would be a completely ridiculous thing to do. So obviously that is exactly what I, and 13 other completely ridiculous people did last Friday night. For fun. Well, more accurately, for the suffering. We wanted to find out what it would actually be like to run on sleep deprivation. The purpose of the training run was not only to work out the practical aspects of night running (getting used to wearing a headlamp, dressing for the cooler temperatures, navigating technical terrain with limited field of vision etc.) but we also wanted to simulate to some degree, what the body will go through on a very long race when you run all day, through the night and into the next day. So I woke up early Friday morning and went for a bit of a run, did my usual strength workout, worked all day, came home and fed the kids, went out with friends for dinner, then met up with all the other pyscho-paths in the city so we could start running at midnight until morning.

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Should I really trust these people in the dark?

The night held all the promises of an incredible experience; the sky was clear with stars out in full force, Aurora Watch issued a Northern Lights forecast, energy was running high in the chatty group and the good tunes were pumping out of someone’s pack. It was all the makings of a wild trail party as we started out across Two Truck Trail, with the obligatory stop for pictures at the trucks and the usual ducking under branches and sliding down the steep parts. We were all feeling like a bunch of kids who had snuck out after curfew in search of reckless living, but instead of sneaky cigarettes and stolen hard liquor, we were indulging in mud caked shoes and pokey branches whipping at your face.

There were so many gorgeous aspects of the night. The stillness of the city, the stars overhead, that hushed awe of knowing the whole world is asleep around you. I love the spine-chilling way the headlamp allows you to see just enough to keep moving forward, retaining a sense of mystery in the forest around you. We were even lucky enough to catch a brief glimpse of the northern lights, watch some porcupines and heard beavers slapping their tails in warning as we neared their home. It really was beautiful.

It was also absolutely, horrifically, brutal. Beautiful and brutal. It was Brutiful.

The next section of trail was a lot more runnable, but still rather technical terrain and one wrong step caused me to roll my ankle over, not bad enough to end my run, but it definitely took a little wind out of my sails. It was also the first of many strikes that would eventually break me down to a teary exhausted mess by daybreak. I could go on forever to discuss the many mistakes I made throughout the night, a list of pathetic excuses and rookie mistakes. I didn’t carry enough food and only had 200 calories in the first 5 hours, I wasn’t carrying enough layers and spent most of the night shivering, my headlamp couldn’t compete with the overly bright lights of the others so my eyes never adjusted to the low light, I didn’t drink enough nor did I eat or rest enough leading up to the night and instead came off a busy and stressful week and went straight into the run with little to no thought into how massive an undertaking it really was. Basically, I started with my tank running on fumes and then tried to run for 7.5 hours.

It. Was. Brutal.

I don’t even know if I can pinpoint when I gave up the mental battle, or even when my body reached the point of no return, but I do know that as the hours dragged on and the sky started to lighten, my already slow pace and my mood both took a serious downtown. Even the sunrise didn’t do much to turn things around for me.IMG_1949

By 5:30 am we made it back to our vehicles and we had only covered just over half of our original goal of 50km. Most of our group has dissipated by this point, and I watched with envy as they dragged themselves to their cars to drive home to get some sleep. I could have done that. I probably should have done that. My body was desperate for food, sleep and warmth and my mind was a foggy mess incapable of little more then whining. The five other runners who stayed were hanging around their cars eating, adjusting layers and re-packing to set out for another 90 mins. I was sitting on the pavement with my legs straight out in front of me, completely unsure of how I was going to get up and move. I wish I had some profound insight into why I let myself be hauled to my feet to head out for those last few kms but I don’t. Maybe it was stubborn determination. Maybe it was the fear of missing out on trail adventures. Or maybe it was just the promise of breakfast when we were done. 90 minutes. I was promised only 90 more minutes.IMG_1925

Except it wasn’t only 90 minutes. It was over two hours, not because we even covered much distance, but because the section of trail we tried out was barely a trail at all, alternating sections of thick mud and too soft sand, punishing thorn bushes that shredded through my tights. By the time we emerged the sun had started to gain some power, and while I was thankful for its warmth, I was not sure how I was going to make it the 4 km of runnable trail back to the parking lot. Only 4 km on familiar trails. But it just felt so unbelievably far for my tired legs to go. I knew I was holding the rest of the group back and was worrying about irritating those closest to me. It certainly wasn’t my finest moment and I was exactly thrilled that my friends and training partners were witnessing it.

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I swear, I wasn’t even being dramatic. I really didn’t think I could continue on.

We reached the Fort Edmonton footbridge, meaning we had less then 2 km to the parking lot. Everyone waited patiently for me to join them at the start of the bridge, then off they went, chatting happily in the warm morning sun. I dropped to a walk and watched the distance grow between us, too tired to attempt to keep up. I was about to pull out my phone and send a quick text, telling them that I would just meet them back at the car and was fine on my own. As they reached the end of the bridge, I saw Paul, friend and run coach, turn to see where I was. He stopped. Waited. IMG_1926

Then Tania stopped too, doubled back to get me. The rest of them stopped and waited.

And just like that, the night turned from brutal, back to beautiful.

Another lesson I learned from that run? It’s really, really hard to run with a lump in your throat.

Back at the parking lot there were lots of hugs and high fives, pep talks and a few tears (mine!) and then we tried our best to clean up before heading out for breakfast where the answer was always “Yes please, I’ll take another coffee refill”.

And that is what it is like to trade a night of sleep for a night of running. Brutiful.

The next day, I dragged my tired legs out the door for a 15km recovery run in the full afternoon sun of the hottest day yet this spring. I revisited some of the trails from the previous night and marvelled at how different they looked, almost unrecognizable in the bright light. As I passed smiling, fresh-smelling families out for a Sunday afternoon walk, I thought about how even though we were sharing the same trail, they would likely never experience the dark side of them like we did the other night. Nor will most people experience what its like to push your body past the point of exhaustion, far beyond when you thought you have had enough. I would never advocate sleep deprivation as a regular training method, nor would I ever glorify pushing your body without proper fuelling or rest. However, the night run proved valuable for so many other reasons, if none other then to learn that I don’t want to do it again; but if I do?

I know who to surround myself with.

Rim2Rim2Rim: Running the Grand Canyon in a Day

Every attempt I have made these last few weeks to describe what it was like to run the Grand Canyon has simply been a reminder of how impossible it is to capture its magnitude. There is a reason that over 5 million people each year go to see it, why it is one of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, why hotels along its rim are ridiculously expensive, and why when I heard about other ultra runners doing ‘Rim2Rim2Rim’ I knew I had to add it to my bucket list. It’s a massive goal, and certainly something I wouldn’t want to attempt alone, so I was thankful that when I asked my best run friend, Tania if she wanted to come, she gave an enthusiastic yes and we planned our spring break travels around taking on our biggest run attempt yet.IMG_1598

The night before our planned run, we found ourselves in a hotel in Williams, Arizona with all our gear spread across the hotel bed, fretting over the details. Anxiety in motion. Running an organized race is so easy in comparison; you know there are aid stations and paramedics on standby in case you get in trouble. But there is something deliciously terrifying about running so far self-supported. The only one getting yourself out of trouble, is you, and quite frankly, I’m not sure I’m up to for that sort of responsibility.  It meant we had to carry enough food and water, emergency supplies, and the right clothes and gear to accommodate the radically fluctuating temperature of the desert. In those moments of preparation my mind starts to spiral out of control and doubt bubbles to the surface. Are we crazy for even thinking we can do this? Is it worth the risk? Have I trained enough? What if I’m simply not strong enough? Then what?

4:00 am came fast. Tania and I snuck out of the hotel room, trying not to wake my sleeping family, and we hit the road to the South Rim. Thankfully, an early start meant we beat the tourists and we landed a parking spot right at the trailhead. The wind was furiously cold, as we flicked on our head lamps, to illuminate the massive etched rock sign that read ‘Bright Angel Trailhead’.

“Lets do this.”IMG_1644

Excited chatter turned to whoops of sheer delight as the sun began to light up the red canyon walls. Our descent was quick on the well travelled path even though we stopped for lots of pictures, our mouths gaping wide at the views.

“This.” Tania said, “This is my ‘why’”

I couldn’t have agreed more.

Running the distances and places that we do requires a tremendous amount of time and effort. Most of the times its fun, but there are times the workouts just suck and the sacrifice doesn’t feel worth it. And sometimes I wonder why on earth I put so much into it; for what gain. Its difficult to sum it up, other then to play a slideshow of the millions of moments that make all the hard work pay off and to say:

“This. This is my why”

It’s the carpet of colourful leaves blanketing the trail in Edmonton’s River Valley. The jagged rocks underfoot on a trail across a lava field in Iceland. The third mountain summit in nine hours. The training run in temperatures so cold you can hardly see out your iced over eyelashes. The chest-heaving, heart-pumping, quad-burning push up yet another hill. The volunteers handing you food at an aid station in the middle of the night on a mountain. The vulnerable conversations between trail sisters.

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The glow of the sunrise waking up the colours of the most spectacular Canyon in the world.

My why.

And we were cruising. Just after two hours of descent we reached Phantom Ranch cabins and campground with plenty of amenities for those who booked months in advance.

 

It was also our last stop for water, a frustrating imbalance of water distribution along the trail this early in the season. We really hadn’t even drank enough by that point to top up our packs, so off we went on the slow grind up to the North Rim. The trail follows the Colorado River along the bottom of the Canyon for several km and then begins a subtle and soul crushing ascent towards the North Rim. After a few hours and a few stream crossings, the ascent became less subtle and considerably more painful, each step rewarding us with increasingly stunning views…and snow?? Wait, what?

We had just pulled ourselves out of the ‘Polar Vortex of 2019’ back home and came all this way to the desert to run on dry trails and here we were finding snow. The elevation at the North Rim is over 8000ft and a particularly brutal winter meant that even this late in spring we were trudging through some pretty deep snow for a few kilometers, post-holing every now and then and thrashing my shins on the sharp ice. But even though I was twitching from the post-trauma flashbacks of our awful winter, the snow turned out to be a life-saver since by now my pack was right empty; some snow, a little water from the spring run off pouring over the canyon walls and a whole lotta prayers that if this water was going to make me sick that it would wait until tomorrow.IMG_1838

Reaching the top of the North Rim was…well…a little disappointing to be honest. There’s not much of a view, there was a lot of snow, and there was nothing other then a sign. The absolute best view of the Canyon is the top of the South Rim, where tourists can stroll along the edge and snap gorgeous photos. It’s the reverse of summiting a mountain, where the reward is for those who are strong enough to get to the top of the mountain, everyone else can only enjoy the view from the bottom. But the canyon rewards, shall we say… the lazy? You can stroll along the promenade while enjoying an ice cream cone and witness the best of the breathtaking views. The real kicker? Because we started and finished in the dark, I didn’t even get to see the view from the South Rim. And now here we were on the North Rim and there was nothing even remotely spectacular. In fact, there was just…nothing. Then two guys drove past on a snow mobile. That hilarity sorta made it worth it. We sent a few texts to family and friends, snapped a few pictures, and turned around to do it all over again.IMG_1839

Descent felt easy. After the uphill grind it felt great to cruise downhill again and I was able to maintain that momentum once it levelled out again at the bottom. We cruised through Phantom Ranch where we were disappointed to discover we were too late to access the canteen that allegedly sells lemonade and chips as they were closed for the night, but we did stop to chat with some women who were pretty fan-girl over what we were doing and they offered us snacks to fuel the upcoming ascent. We politely declined, partly because we wanted to keep moving, but mostly because by this point in the day, neither of us felt like eating. This is where ultra running gets really tricky, in order to keep going, fuel is an absolute necessity, but even the best trail snacks can become unappetizing. Thankfully, we didn’t really feel nauseous, but we did have to force down a bar or two and hope it stayed there because we knew we had the biggest climb of our lives looming and we were running out of daylight real quick.

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Photo Credit: Kirk Schultz. Sunset from the top of the South Rim while we were still at the bottom of the canyon, looking way up.

Pit stop at the flush toilets (Whaaaat? How luxurious), handwash with warm water (which felt really good after a leaky maple syrup gel and double dipping in Squirrel’s Nut Butter all day…Google it…it’s gross) a fresh top-up of a non-bacteria ridden water and we put on our game faces.

“You still think this is a good idea?” I asked Tania.

“Yep.”

Love her.

The ascent up the South Rim is considerably steeper then up the other side, you gain some serious elevation really quick. This is where ultra running goes from a shuffle to a death march, although ultra-runners don’t like to call it that, we call it ‘power-hiking’ to make ourselves feel better, but really, it was pretty slow. And then we lost the last bit of daylight and things were starting to feel a little demoralizing with so much left to climb on exhausted legs.

And then the most amazing thing happened, one by one, the stars started to appear. With no lights to interfere, they were breathtaking, a beautiful reminder that we are so small in a very big universe. It highlights a strange paradox; to find significance in those moments when you realize how insignificant you really are, but I think that is why it is so important to seek those experiences in nature. Those moments remind us we are part of something much bigger then ourselves, it pulls us out of ourselves, draws us closer to those around us and begs us to be better stewards of the world so we can live up to our potential of being an important contributor to the big picture. Staring up at the stars was incredibly humbling and I was overwhelmed with gratitude that we got to be there to experience it.

Something else magical also came out; a lot of creepy crawly things, including a small and rather translucent scorpion looking thing, which I wasn’t too scared of because he was tiny and couldn’t get me. But later I was leaning up against a rock while waiting for Tania to use the outhouse and had the terrifying realization they could crawl out of the rocks and kill me much faster then the bacteria riddled run-off water would. I pulled away from the rock and stood in the middle of the trail instead, fighting off the vertigo that came when I remembered how steep the drop off was. Soon, we could see the lights of the hotels at the top of the rim and it was only a few more minutes of straight up and we reached civilization again after 77 kms, 4800+ m of elevation gain, 16 hours on the trail, 12 hours of moving time.

The day left us exhausted, yet elated knowing that we had accomplished such a massive goal, but most of all it left us completely full of gratitude. A relatively small number of people have had the privilege of traversing the entire Canyon in one day like we were able to. Sure, we have trained hard to get to a place where we can do crazy things like this, but it was also thanks to our supportive families, flexible work schedules, finances that allowed us to travel and healthy bodies that co-operate with our big goals.

The real hero of this story? My husband. He brought the kids to the Canyon and they hiked 10km, he had to bribe them with a trail of M&M’s and ice cream at the top, but they did it. Little do they know, this is all part of the bigger plan to train them to love these adventures as much as I do so we can all go back and run the whole thing together one day.IMG_4293[8786]