Finding the edges of my fast

Fast. Its one of those adjectives we like to throw around like it can be defined; neatly quantified to accurately describe the subject that follows. He is a ‘fast’ runner. She ran a ‘fast’ race.

When really, a word like fast is no different then a word like ‘rich’ or ‘smart’; we all have an idea of what those words mean, but can those concepts actually be quantified? Measured and judged? Not really. In the end, those are very subjective interpretations based on our own experiences. I feel rich when I find $5 in my pocket, but that doesn’t make me rich. I’ve got friends who have a pretty nice house and a couple nice cars. Are they rich? Kinda. Is Daryl Katz rich? Sure, but not when you compare him to Bill Gates. And I’m pretty sure there are some other tech wizards and oil barons that make Bill Gates’ wealth look quaint. My point being, these things are all relative.

Running fast, and our ideas of how to quantify that, are no exception. It’s a pretty subjective thing.

For most of my running life I really haven’t worried too much about how fast I am. Partly because I’ve never considered myself to be competitive, but also because the kind of running that I love to do isn’t quantified by speed, rather it’s by distance, elevation and more importantly by scenery and adventure. I don’t care if it takes me 25 mins to cover a kilometer if that kilometer takes me over a rocky ridge along a mountain top.

I didn’t even have a clue what my personal best times were for shorter distances. It sounds crazy, but I have never run a 5k or 10k race. And my half and full marathon times were so long ago they aren’t even relevant. I sort of skipped over all those goals and went right to ultra distance and have been pretty focused on that ever since.

But this summer I got curious. I heard other people refer to me as ‘fast’ or make comment’s about how I must win races all the time. I find this pretty laughable. Sure I’ve done well in a few small local races in big distance events, but mostly because those events have been a war of attrition and I’m too stubborn to quit. Doesn’t mean I’m fast…it just means I’m dumb enough to be the last one out there! (That’s the beauty of ultras.)

I watched on Strava, as a number of my friends set out to do time trials, which is basically a ‘pretend race’ to see how fast you can do a set distance. Usually the 1 mile, 5km, 10km, half marathon and marathon. And so many people I know nailed down some extraordinary speeds! I was inspired and intrigued… and wanted to know what I could do. So one day, early in September, I hit the track by my house and ran 5k around it, as hard as I could.

Ugh. That sucked.

The pain you feel while running an ultra can get intense, but it’s also manageable because you just sort of get used to it. But the pain of running as fast as you can for that long is a completely different beast. I am really not used to red-lining my system like that and everything in me screamed to make it stop.

I stopped my watch and sighed. It wasn’t bad. But it wasn’t great either.

I committed to six weeks of throwing a few speed workouts in to see what kind of improvements I could make. I know I have the fitness base to pull off some decent times, but first I needed to get my system fired up a bit and used to running in that red-line zone. My legs needed the reminder to turn over fast, way faster then the usual grind I put out while doing big distance training.

Speed work brings a weird mix of dread and exhilaration that I don’t get from other types of runs. They are usually short and intense and give you a runners high that carries you all day, but I have such a hard time getting excited about them and it took me awhile to figure out why.

But then it hit me. It was because speed work is quantifiable. And as soon as you put a number to something, you inevitably compare and are left feeling inadequate. Whether that means you are comparing yourself to others, or comparing yourself to your previous efforts, it affects how you feel about that effort. And it never felt good enough because like I started out by saying, fast should be a subjective term…but now we have quantified our speed…so shouldn’t we be able to identify what fast really is? Remove the subjectivity and give it a definition?

What do you think is a fast 5k time? 25 mins? 22 mins? 20 mins? Some guy just did it in 12:35. Does that mean that every time slower then that doesn’t meet the standard of fast?

This sort of thinking left me feeling pretty defeated. I went to a track workout with some pretty quick people, ended every interval pretty much dead last. I had hundreds of people bet on how long it would take to run 40km for Run On: The Race that Almost Happened, and turned out to be much slower then most people anticipated. Event though it was a difficult trail run and I was pretty social for much of the event, it still was a little hard on my head. I skipped some speed workouts. (Randomly ran an ultra instead to make myself feel better.) I sort of gave up on re-doing my time trial once the temperature dipped below zero. I didn’t want to do it because I was afraid of failure.

But then we got the gift of some pretty mild weather and I felt like maybe it was still worth a shot to see if I improved at all. My friend/coach Paul offered to pace me for it, so really I felt like I couldn’t turn an offer like that down at all. Time to see what I could do.

We met early on a Tuesday morning and oh man was I ever nervous. I hadn’t slept well the night before thanks to that raw energy buzz usually reserved for races. This was more then a race. This was a test that would answer the question I had thus far been able to avoid answering. Just how fast can I run 5k?

I told Paul my goal time, and decided I wasn’t going to check my watch at all while I ran. I would rely on him to determine our pace and turn around point and do my best to keep up. We did a short warm up loop and headed across the Walterdale Bridge and then stopped to stare down the straight paved trail following the river. I consoled myself it would all be over soon.

Watches ready. And GO!

We started out way too fast but I felt good so I didn’t care. Those are the sweet moments. Leg turnover feels easy and your heart rate hasn’t maxed yet so you literally feel like you’re flying. I will never take for granted the incredible privilege it is to be able to move like that with my own power.

If only that bliss could last longer then a few minutes. It doesn’t take too long before lactic acid starts to build and your heart rate starts to border on frantic. I focused hard on deep breaths and tried to settle into the rhythm but that meant I started to fall a few steps behind Paul. No room for letting up. We weren’t even to the turn around point and my brain started to play those games normally reserved for really long runs…I started to think of ways I could get out of it. I could stop to pee. I could pretend I needed to tie my shoe. I could…well…just stop. Nothing was keeping me there. I didn’t need to experience that pain for one more second if I didn’t want to. I could go home and snuggle between my dog and my husband in my warm bed. I could stop right then, and never run again. The pain could end if I would just listen to the excuses and just give up.

It was pretty tempting.

Turn around point came and Paul pulled even further ahead. Every now and again he would yell something over his shoulder at me. I could never hear what he said, but every time it made me dig a little deeper to see what else I had left. After what felt like an eternity the lights of the High Level bridge came into sight. Pass the LRT. Under the High Level. A slight downhill brought a tiny bit of relief, but the arch of the Walterdale bridge still seemed so far away to my burning lungs.

Photo Cred: Paul Hill -Picture of the Walterdale Bridge taken a different morning…
there’s no time for pictures during a Time Trial!

Finding the edge of your potential is such a strange thing. How do you really know if you’ve given it your all? If you had asked me in that moment if I was running as hard as I could I probably would’ve said yes. But yet, what would I do if I had looked over my shoulder to see I was being chased by a bear? Absolutely I would’ve found a higher gear! These things are all relative. But in that cool, dark morning with Paul as my only witness and cheerleader, I dug as deep as I could to finish those last few meters.

Stopped my watch. YAAAASSSS!

I was pretty pumped to see I hit my goal exactly bang on. It was a pretty decent improvement from my initial effort (considering I didn’t put that much work into getting there) and it was a good indication of how much harder I will have to work to take the next chunk of time off my new personal best.

I am tempted to share what my time was…but I won’t. Not because I’m not proud of it, I am. But rather because I am holding on to that time as my own subjective definition of fast. It’s my fast. Not yours. (Yeah you, whoever has read this far!) You probably have your own idea of ‘fast’ and how you stack up compared to the people around you. There’s not really anything wrong with that…but it’s a tricky balance to know how use that comparison to motivate you, not leave you feeling defeated if you don’t stack up. Mostly I want us all to take the notion of comparison out of the equation when it comes to our personal achievement. Everyone has a different edge of what fast means to them and that’s more then ok. In the end, its all about the journey. And while I don’t think I’m going to turn into a pace-obsessed road runner, it sure was fun to push like that so I can finally answer the question of how ‘fast’ I really am.

Run On: The Race that Almost Happened


Today was supposed to be my debut as a Race Director. We had it all planned out, the course mapped, the permits applied for, the website built and we were contacting sponsors to get the party started. The race is called Run On, and was to be held in Edmonton’s stunning river valley trail system when autumn leaves are at their best. I was nervous, but excited, knowing that it was all for a good cause and would be the start of a beautiful tradition in the Edmonton run community. Run On was to be in support of Amy’s House, a home away from home for out of town cancer patients to stay while they received treatments at one of the big hospitals in the city. Amy’s House has been open for a year already, named after my dear friend Amy Alain, who passed away from lung cancer at age 38, you can read her story here: Run Forever: In Memory of Amy Alain. The house has been full of grateful families this whole time, but we needed a long term fundraising plan to make it sustainable; and Run On was going to be an important piece of that fundraising puzzle.

Little did I know, in those early days while we were dreaming big about the possibilities for the run, that 2020 would turn out to be the absolute worst time to be a Race Director. We were all set to launch the race and have registration go live for March 20, 2020; the same week that we watched as one by one, events and gatherings were banned and full on Covid-19 lockdown sent us all spinning, scratching our heads at the insanity of a world shut down over something we didn’t yet understand the magnitude of. We decided to put registration on hold until April 1st, thinking that surely after Spring Break we could get back to normal life and back to event planning, but instead, over the next few weeks and months we saw every race, every event…well…everything, change. Race Directors all over Canada and the world were scrambling to save their carefully curated empires, coming up with virtual events or attempting to navigate regulations to still hold small in-person events. And while I loved participating in a virtual event (Quarantine Backyard Ultra: Just One More Lap) I knew I didn’t want to host one. So we remained optimistic with Alberta’s Phase 2 re-opening that allowed gatherings of up to 100 people with the possibility of things opening up more by the new school year.

I spent hours pouring over regulations from Alberta Health Services and talking to the City about event permits, hoping for a definitive answer to my question of whether or not we could proceed. The answers were vague. We could, but should we? Does it make sense to proceed with in-person events like we so desperately wanted to when the barriers seemed insurmountable? Was it irresponsible to bring people together during a pandemic even though we knew the risks of outdoor transmission among a physically distant crowd was slim? I knew I could make the event follow all the health guidelines relatively easily and could, in good conscious proceed with the race according to new guidelines, but the real problem was with our numbers and getting the permit approved. The city was firm on the cap on numbers for outdoor events. 100 people. And that had to include racers, volunteers and any one else that showed up that was affiliated with the event. As I thought through the implications of that, attempting to proceed sounded laughable. My family, and Amy’s husband and kids was already 8 people! Add on course marshals, and finish line and aid station volunteers, and timers and someone to hand out medals and our numbers of volunteers needed was getting astronomical. And that was before we had any racers accounted for! We quickly realized that proceeding with all three events (marathon, relay and 5km fun run) was impossible with those number restrictions. So we dropped the marathon and relay events, refunded the money to the racers already signed up, and decided to proceed with the fun run.

If I’m being honest, I never felt good about that either. While I loved the idea of supporting new runners to achieve their goals of completing a 5k, and wanted to put on an event that could bring together supporters of Amy’s House, what I really wanted was to host a challenging event for the run community that highlighted the gorgeous trails of our river valley. I wanted a big event that brought out all the mud and struggle and sweat that I love so much about trail events. I wanted the 5km family friendly fun run to be the teasing side dish to the main event; the trail marathon. So having to drop the marathon took the wind out of my sails. Not to mention the fact that the lower price point of the 5km event meant that even if we sold out at an underwhelming 80 participants, we wouldn’t be making much money for Amy’s House…and at the end of the day, making money was kinda the whole point of putting all this work in.

On top of all this, even at the end of August, Alberta Health Services was yet to get back to me about whether or not our ‘Covid plan’ for safely putting on the event was even approved, and we couldn’t get final event approval from the City until AHS gave us approval. And we were warned that AHS wasn’t getting to permit requests very quickly, some events were only getting their permits looked at a few days prior to the event meaning planners were left scrambling with only a few days to finalize details for their event. That all felt pretty overwhelming to me as a brand new Race Director.

Covid-19 and all the protocol has changed nearly every aspect of our lives. Most of us spend our work days differently now, we shifted to find new ways to educate our children, shopping habits are altered, our social lives have been rocked, our relationships challenged and our mental health put through the ringer. And all these changes have forced us all to re-evaluate…what is working, what doesn’t work and what is worth fighting to maintain in a world that is changing so rapidly? It’s kinda time to question everything isn’t it?

And so we found ourselves questioning Run On.

Nothing about moving forward as planned felt right. But it didn’t feel right to walk away either.

Phil (Amy’s husband and founder of Amy’s House) and I, spent many hours sitting on my front porch trying to figure out what we wanted to do, and honestly, the whole thing was causing me a lot of stress. We thought about what we wanted to accomplish: we wanted to raise money for Amy’s House, we wanted to honour Amy and we wanted a run on the trails.

And then something clicked.

We could do all those things without all the permits, uncertainty and the stress. So we came up with a plan that still allowed us to achieve everything we wanted and let us shelve our dreams of Run On 2020 and hope for better luck next year.

So what was this new plan? That I would run the entire course, invite friends to join me, and have people buy a guess, betting how long it would take me to finish the course.

So on September 27th, the day before what should have been Amy Alain’s 40th birthday, I put myself out there on social media way more then I am ever comfortable doing, and encouraged people to guess how long it would take me to run 40km. $10/guess and the winner got a sweet prize. We watched the money roll in to keep the doors of Amy’s House open.

The day turned out to be absolutely perfect. Our stunning September weather held warm and sunny, the vibrant leaves were on full display and the trails were perfectly dry. Exactly what we had envisioned for race day. I was joined by a dozen run friends for the first 10km loop. We were sent off by Phil and the kids, thanking everyone for coming and supporting our little endeavor. Back to the starting place for Loop 2 where many of the morning runners left and a smaller group of us set off on my favourite part of the course; on the technical bushwhacking fun of Two Truck Trail and Patricia and Wolf Willow Ravines. Loop 3 was down to just my friend Tess which was fitting as she was a good friend of Amy’s for many years, long before I even knew Amy. It felt like a great way to celebrate the impact she had on both our lives.

By the time I got back from Loop 3, a party had assembled at the Alfred Savage Centre, a fire was going and the table was full of snacks and cupcakes. Everyone cheered as we came in, and after a few quick hellos and stuffing my face with a few more snacks for the road, we headed out (joined by Keith this time too!) for the final 10km loop up and down the single track along the Whitemud Ravine. The trails that Amy particularly loved. The ones she ran to get to her cancer treatments at the Cross Cancer Institute. The ones where chickadees would land on her outstretched hand and where Phil, Adey and Christian go for walks when they need to feel close to her.

With just a few kms left I flipped on a Facebook Live video to talk while I ran. I talked about how life is precious, how Amy and her attitude towards life taught us all about living and loving big, I talked about how we wish she had made it to her 40th birthday and that this should be her birthday run and not a fundraiser for a house in her name. And I talked about how Amy’s House is paying it forward, bringing something pure, something beautiful into a world that doesn’t always make sense.

I was also starting to get tired. I realized the pressure of so many people watching me run, betting on how long it would take, waiting for me to finish, was no small feat. While it was a great way to spend the day, it was also a huge weight on my shoulders. Shoulders that have felt a whole lot of burden and uncertainty these last few months.

Truthfully? I’m tired.

Six months now of our world turned upside down. Of work, home life and relationships disrupted and top that off with an injury that rocked my summer (story here: Northover Ridge to Emergency Room) and it all has left me exhausted.

Thankfully, the secret to surviving, the secret to finishing those last few kilometers and persevering when it feels impossible, is always the same: Move forward, immerse yourself in nature, and surround yourself with people (Movement. Nature. People. Even in a Pandemic.).

The race course is supposed to end with coming down the Grandview stairs. The stairs we have applied to have a memorial bench for Amy installed, and the stairs she loved to do repeats on. However, in true 2020 fashion, they are under construction. Of course. So we came down the hill beside the stairs and ran towards the campfire, to the cheers of 40+ people waiting for our arrival. I had said I wasn’t gonna cry, but I choked up at the sight. All the months of planning, of stressing over Run On and trying to be a race director in a pandemic was over. And while it wasn’t what I had planned; I was supposed to be the one watching runners come in…not the one running the course… it was still a wonderful day.

The best part? We raised nearly $6000. More then the race would have raised had we proceeded as planned.

With a finishing time of 5:57:50 and a fantastic day on some of the best trails this city has to offer, shared with my amazing run community and a backdrop of supporters of Amy’s House, I think we did a pretty good job of making the most of this craziness.

I want this vision for Run On to move forward. I picture the perfect venue, gorgeous weather, completed stairs with Amy’s name on them. I believe we will have a sold out event, with families enjoying the trails on the fun run, new runners reaching their 5km goals and racers pushing for new personal bests on the relay and marathon event. I see myself holding a clipboard (don’t even know what it will have on it…but I’m gonna hold one!) and a megaphone at the finish line, announcing runners as they come in. I see hugs and high fives and a community brought together for a good cause.

We all thought 2020 sounded like a good year to make that all happen. Oh well.

2021 is sounding better and better already

Receive. Recover. Run

After my backcountry accident (Northover Ridge to Emergency Room) I was prepared for all kinds of possible outcomes. Aside from letting my stitched-up scalp heal, I was bracing for weeks, months, or even years of concussion recovery as well as having to process the emotional trauma from such a dramatic incident. But guess what? I was really wrong. Recovery has gone unbelievably well.

When I was still in the hospital, I had been told by a few people to accept help if people offered, that even though I am normally the one who jumps in to support others, that this was the time to receive instead. That sounded hard.

But if I can do hard things like run ultras and hike to safety with an exposed skull and be strong when they removed the drain from my head then surely I could accept help from loved ones right?

I had no idea how hard that would be.

To just receive.

Even while I was in the hospital I had friends and family caring for my children and dog, checking the house and offering to drive to Calgary to pick up my Jeep. And once I was home I was given meals and gifts (run swag and fuel!), garden produce and flowers, chocolate and wine and all kinds of other treats.

The hardest thing to receive though? Gifts of service. I love to do things for other people, but it’s so much harder to have others do things for you. A few close friends kept asking “what do you need?” and I meekly told them my hair was causing me so much stress and I didn’t feel I could deal with it myself. Between the accident and surgery and days laying in bed, my hair had developed a life of its own and formed mats and dreadlocks I simply couldn’t get out. A few friends worked for hours and hours to try to fix it and in the end, a very gracious hair stylist cut them out for me, leaving my hair a mess of shaved bits, short cut out sections and long pieces at the bottom. As if the support I had received wasn’t enough already, my amazing tribe of mom friends rallied together to take me shopping and buy me new hair to cover the spots. I protested there were real problems in the world that deserve their money… and then cried and remembered to simply accept their graciousness.

Another friend insisted on helping in some way and finally asked if she could come clean my house. No way. It was messy before the accident… I can’t accept that. She said she loved to clean and that a clean house would help me stay rested.

I took a deep breath and reminded myself to receive.

“Ok. Come and clean”

The day she came was the worst day during my recovery. I could barely get out of bed my head hurt so much. I struggled to maintain conversation but just couldn’t focus. She graciously told me to stop, to rest, to just let her clean.

One of the lowest, yet strangely beautiful moments of my life happened that afternoon. I fell asleep mid sentence while she was cleaning my toilet. I woke up four hours later and she had cleaned her way out of my house without a word.

Talk about humbling.

Just breathe. Receive.

And I had to remind myself of that all over again when my husband kissed the scar on my forehead and told me he loved me and was glad I was alive.

And again when a long line of run buddies offered to walk, then later run with me to make sure I was ok.

And again when the gifts and messages and acts of service kept coming and coming.

(I have the absolute best people in my life.)

I felt pretty rough for about a week, maybe 10 days. Headache, tired, sometimes dizzy and light headed. I fully expected that would mean I had a concussion and these were just the symptoms I would have to deal with for who knows how long. I was waiting for an appointment at the Glen Sather Concussion Clinic and was told to take it easy until then. Only light activity, no driving and let symptoms be my guide. But here’s the crazy thing, once I stopped taking the prescription pain meds most of my symptoms disappeared too. I started sleeping better and feeling more rested during the day and the occasional headache was manageable and passed quickly.

After one week I started going for walks and felt fine. So I rode a stationary bike and waited for symptoms to hit, but I felt fine. By two weeks out, I was running again. I know it sounds crazy, but such a dramatic injury was really just a scratch in the end. My brain is totally fine. (Ok a big scratch that left a big mark… but still)

Tania came to visit 10 days after the incident. The last time she saw me I was just home from the hospital, exhausted and a total mess. She told me she was still going ahead with the plan we had made earlier in the summer to run the following weekend in David Thompson country, and sort of asked if I was ok with that. I said “oh god yeah of course you should go!” And then followed with “and I think I should come too”

You should’ve seen the look she gave me. She thought I was nuts.

It felt too soon, she felt I wasn’t physically ready. I insisted I was. I felt fine. 90% of the way to normal. And I knew I wanted to get back out there. With September looming and being back to busy weekends and winter around the corner, I was worried that if I didn’t make it on this mountain run it could be a really long time before we got out there again. I knew I didn’t want to wait. I wanted to face those demons; the what if’s and anxiety and bursts of trauma that surfaced as I thought about what happened and what could have happened.

Overall I’ve been doing ok emotionally. I fully admit I had an incident in the hospital where panic got the best of me when it came time to pull the drain out of my head. And again when I woke up several times one night thinking I was falling… as if my body remembered something my mind did not. I also hesitated when I got into the passenger side of the Jeep for the first time since I was a bloody mess and going into shock. But overall, I had mostly been feeling gratitude for the people in my life and the fact I was still around to tell them I loved them.

Tania has done a great job of addressing her own trauma but we both still knew there was some unfinished business above the tree line.

She was hesitant. But I knew I was ready.

We talked it out and came up with a plan and off we went, heading west until our phones lost reception and it was just mountain peaks calling us.

Believe it or not I ran. We covered the Landslide Lake trail, from the Interpretive Trail side to Pinto Lake Staging area. 28km and 1300 m elevation gain, glorious blue skies and great company.

At the top of the pass, Tania and I went in for a hug that started as all smiles and quickly turned to belly deep gasps for breath and tears.

Am I ever thankful for her (and the rest of my loved ones!), for health and for the ability to run those trails another day.

A few kms past the pass, we were back down to the tenacious little trees of the high alpine and we came to a creek. It was peaceful, shallow and required just a few steps to cross it. Tania crossed without a thought, grateful for the cold water on her feet, but something about the sound gave me pause. I looked around for rocks that looked safe to step on…but felt stuck, crossing seemed too hard. Tania turned and saw I was hesitating, watched me pace a few meters up and down the creek looking for good rocks to step on. I was frozen. Couldn’t do it.

She stepped back into the creek, the water half way up her calf, and offered me a hand.

Ugh. Here I am again having to receive something that should be so easy for me to do alone.

I took her hand and stepped into the cold water; laughed at the absurdity of my fear, and crossed without difficulty.

Once again reminded that sometimes, no matter how strong I am, I need to accept help from others.

I truly believe it’s nothing short of a miracle that I walked off Northover Ridge alive on August 6th, and even more of a miracle that my injury turned out to be so minor and that I was back running within 12 days and back in the mountains within 16 days. I absolutely take that privilege seriously and remain grateful for every day I wake up with breath in my lungs and blood in my veins. Bonus that I have strong muscles that let me do what I love and loved ones that support me through it.

Oh… and the best part? I solved my hair crisis… thanks to some fake hair and an amazing stylist I have a cute new look!

Northover Ridge to Emergency Room

Warning: this story starts out nice and ends a little gruesome. Brace yourself.

Nothing about this trip seemed to be going as planned from the start. Hell, nothing about this year has gone as planned though has it?! Originally we wanted to tackle the Canmore Quad to celebrate Tania’s birthday (run up four mountains in one day) but one of the trails had been shut down the day before so we scrapped that idea. Some Strava creeping and intel gathering led us to Northover Ridge figure eight trail in Kananaskis instead, a place both Tania and I were eager to spend more time exploring. We hit the highway just as the sun cracked orange over the horizon, promising beautiful Mountain View’s on the drive. We parked at Upper Kananaskis Lake and did a quick cruise-y 12k circumnavigation of the lake before turning into the backcountry to head up to Three Isle lake. There we were met with peaceful mountain lake views and a meandering trail through an alpine meadow before we began the grueling ascent up a very steep and sketchy shale slope that took us to the infamous ridge. The forecasted storm had started to blow in earlier than we expected and the wind was gusting pretty fierce up there. But these are the moments that make it worth it. There is something wildly exhilarating about being so high up, taking in such incredible views, in a place your own strong body could get you to and feeling the full force of nature. It leaves you feeling simultaneously incredibly small in a vast and powerful earth, and incredibly powerful and alive. At 2800m we were pretty much on top of the world with snow capped mountains as far as the eye could see in every direction. Even the strong wind couldn’t wipe the smiles off our faces as we carefully made our way across the incredibly long ridge traverse with steep drops and snow fields/glaciers on either side.

By the time we started our descent, I admit I was ready to get down. Mountain top experiences are great, but those are not the places we were meant to stay. It would keep our adrenal systems in overload if we did. Time in the literal and figurative meadow and tree lined trails bring a different aspect of safety and peace we need for balance. By this time the wind had brought with it cold rain that soaked us through as we made our way down the steep shale and snow fields on the other side.

This was where I discovered my first mistake of the day. My shoes. I opted to wear my new favourites, my Nike Wildhorse instead of my typical preference, Altra Lone Peaks. I had set those aside lately after an injury that may have been linked to problems in my chronically weak right ankle, made worse by Altra’s zero drop and minimal design with not a lot of ankle stability. Yet while Wildhorses offer great ankle stability, they have pathetic tread for a trail shoe. As soon as I stepped onto the first snow field I realized those shoes weren’t going to allow me to stay upright and run down like Tania was able to in her Solomon’s with better grip. I quickly adapted a strategy I’ve perfected after a lifetime of skiing, a childhood of figure skating lessons and years winter running… I drop down low to the snow with one foot out front with the heel dug in acting as a brake (think pistol squat or ‘shoot the duck’ in figure skating!) and the other foot tucked under my bum acting as the ski, and both hands out for balance. It works great to get down snowy slippery hills with max control and decent speed without the risk of falling from standing height. Here’s the thing though. It only works on downhill snow, not a snow traverse. But we’re getting to that.

After a rain soaked hour or so of carefully picking our way down the mountain we were happy to be back to the protection of the tree line as we skirted Aster Lake and continued dropping down though easier forest trails.

The trail spit us out onto another steep, rocky mountainside we had to traverse to get down to Hidden Lake and back to Upper Kananaskis Lake where we were parked. Only 9km and 500m descent to go. I was mindful of the time because I had told my husband Kirk to call Search and Rescue if he didn’t hear from us by 6pm and it was almost 4 already. We stopped to admire the view, snapped a gorgeous photo of the lakes in all their turquoise glory with a hint of a rainbow showing in the sun and kept picking out way carefully over the rocks.

I wish this story ended with us cruising out of there, laughing and celebrating another successful mountain run. I wish Tania never had to witness what happened next and I wish I didn’t have this wicked scar to remember my next error. But life doesn’t always work out that way does it? Accidents can happen in the blink of an eye and no matter how many times we go back to question the what if’s and the how’s, it won’t change anything. I simply have to accept what happened and move forward. Just like running. One step at a time.

So what happened next?

We came up to a smallish patch of snow, maybe 20 feet wide and 30 feet long that we had to traverse. It was clear that was where the trail went and there were several fresh footprints there already. Above us, to the right, was a small waterfall that went under the snow and I assume rocks beneath it. To our left, below the snow, was a drop of maybe 8 ft into a rocky creek bed fed by the waterfall above us. Tania fearlessly made her way across the snow and I was not far behind, moving cautiously, knowing my shoes were more slippery then hers. But only a few steps in and I lost control. I slid slowly at first and quickly dropped low to hug the snow and tried to dig my feet and hands into the icy crystals to stop myself. But it wasn’t enough. The slope was quite steep and I started to slide faster and faster. I said something to Tania and our eyes locked for a terrifying second. I hope to god she looked away after that. I looked down to assess where I was going to fall and brace for impact. It was clear I was dropping off that 8ft snow ledge into the creek below.

The next several seconds are erased from my memory.

The next thing I remember is staring down at the water I was standing in, looking at the shiny silver trigger pen from my bear banger. I could hear music, sort of like chimes and wondered where it was coming from. I reached down to fish for the trigger pen but lost sight of it when my vision blurred. I tried to wipe what I thought was water from my eyes but quickly realized it was blood. I tried to brush some of the loose hair from my face but it came out in a handful. I pushed back what I thought was hair…

I don’t think it was my hair.

By that time Tania made it down to find me. She told me later she was screaming, yelling f-bombs and feeling panicky but all I remember is her calm face as she assessed the situation. I don’t really remember climbing out of the creek, I just remember her holding my hands and looking at my head while whipping the Buff off her own head. She guided me to steady footing and worked quickly to gently stretch the Buff below my chin and over my head to secure the wound. She then pulled off her arm sleeves and tied them around my head the other direction.

I asked: “Did I scalp myself?” Half joking.

Straight faced she replied. “yes”

So we started walking. She checked to make sure I could still move ok and we both agreed our only focus was to get off the mountain ASAP. We were moving after the incident within minutes. The bleeding slowed considerably and the ringing in my ears stopped and I honestly felt fine to hike out. All these things led me to believe it wasn’t a very serious injury. In fact, I sort of thought Tania was over reacting when she said I would definitely need stitches and immediate medical attention.

She never told me how bad it was. I had no idea until I saw the shock and heard the comments in the trauma unit of the emergency room later that night that I learned a significant chunk of my skull was exposed, my scalp was peeled back, and I had lost a fair bit of blood. And I am eternally thankful for that. I’ve never done well with blood… had I known what was going on I don’t think I could’ve hiked out like I did. She stayed totally calm and kept us both focused on the moment.

“Look at the grass!” “Cute purple flower!” “Ok here’s a step up” “Careful on these rocks” “Oh look at the colour of the lake! So pretty”

It was almost childish… the way you would coax a preschooler to keep moving along. But damn did it ever work. Once or twice I let my worry bubble to the surface and asked questions or got thinking about what had happened or what could have happened. But she immediately brought me back to the next step forward and kept marching me out. 9.2km to be exact. Tania is a ninja level master at being calm in the chaos. Her own life experience, including the sudden and traumatic death of her husband 3.5 years ago has forged her into an absolute rock in times of crisis. Tania, you have no idea how much I appreciated your calm that day…

As we headed towards the last campground and were on the final stretch to the Jeep, we started to see more people on the trail. Some stopped and gasped. Most offered help but there was really nothing they could do. Tania masterfully blocked any kids from seeing me… no one needed to see that. There was a few sections of climbing that at times felt impossibly difficult but for the most part, we got out of there pretty quickly. I kept watching the time, hoping Kirk hadn’t called Search and Rescue. Back at the Jeep, I caught a glimpse of myself in the window reflection. My face was completely caked with blood as was the buff and sleeves tied on my head. My hair was a red mess of tangles but I couldn’t see anything else.

Tania calmly drove me to the nearest campground where she found a landline to call an ambulance and call Kirk to let him know what happened. The ambulance arrived incredibly quickly and that was when I started to unravel. I got cold. Faint feeling. Nauseous and weak. Tania filled them in on details while they tended to me in the parking lot, praising her for her excellent work with wrapping me up on the mountain. Her quick thinking saved me from a lot of blood loss that could have easily prevented me from getting out of there.

We made it to the Foothills hospital in Calgary by 9 or so, 5 hours after the fall. I was ushered straight into the trauma unit where they started to clean me up and talk about next steps. Kirk arrived shortly after and that was when I learned how serious the gash was. They sent me for a CT scan, which thankfully showed everything inside seemed ok. No brain injury. The Emergency room doctor decided it was beyond his scope of practice to fix a wound that severe so he got someone else to staple me back together while I waited for surgery the next day.

Over 30cm of stitches ranging in three directions across the top of my head and down my forehead. I lost 20-30% of my blood and have a few other scrapes and bruises but nothing else serious.

It’s nothing short of a miracle I came out of that as well as I did.

I’ve tried not to let myself go down the road of ‘what if’ but it’s hard not to.

“What if i hit harder and cracked my head worse?”

“What if I lost too much blood and couldn’t walk out?”

“What if I broke a bone on the fall?”

So many possibilities. I’m in awe at how fortunate I am it wasn’t worse then it was and that we got out and got help ok.

This has got me thinking about the risks of trail and ultra running. The truth is the mountains are unforgiving and our bodies, even at their strongest, are devastatingly fragile. My soft tissue was nothing against that rock. We break so, so easily. Is it worth the risk? Will I mountain run again?

You bet I will.

Because yes that mountain could kill me, and yes we are often reminded of that risk when we hear of deaths in the backcountry, but when you start to focus on all those risks you can do easily drown in the fear of what’s out there, and life can grind to a halt.

I could have easily left that run unscathed as I have on countless other mountain adventures, only to get in a car accident on the way home. Or get home and start coughing and learn it’s lung cancer as we saw with Amy (In Memory of Amy Alain) and now are seeing again with ultra runner Tommy Rivs fighting for his life #Rage4Rivs Heart disease and infections and immune disorders and natural disasters and now add Covid-19 to the list and it’s absolutely crazy-making. I’m not saying we shouldn’t take precautions. By all means, we need to wear seatbelts and masks and eat healthy and exercise and get regular check ups and wear the right shoes for the terrain you are on. But we also need those mountain top experiences to remind us that instead of being afraid of dying, it is more important to be excited about living.

As I lay in the Emergency room, getting stapled together, there was a man in the bed next to me who came in citing depression. I couldn’t help but overhear his conversation with the social worker. He was unemployed, alcoholic, no family, no social supports, watched tv all day and struggled with suicidal ideation. He came to the hospital that night because his roommates kicked him out and he had no one, and no where to go. My heart hurt for him. I wondered about the choices he had made, the people he loved and lost, the opportunities he missed out on or gave up on because he felt inadequate. I wonder how his life would have been different if he could unlock the secrets of a life well lived; to find nature, to move your body, to surround yourself with people you love, to find those mountain top moments that make you feel alive, and those alpine meadows that bring you peace.

Sure there are lots of things I would change about that day if I could. I wish Tania didn’t have to do what she did. I wish I didn’t burden the health care system with my mistake, I wish I didn’t worry my family and friends like I did and I wish my kids didn’t have to see my scar and shaved parts of my head and have to think about their mom being hurt or worry for one second that it could have been worse.

Mostly though, I’m thankful it wasn’t worse. I’m thankful I walked off that mountain and for the people who are helping me recover.

And of course I’m thankful I can live another day and have another chance to get back out there to run again.

Quarantine Backyard Ultra: Just One More Lap

 

Running 6.7 kilometers really isn’t that far. No problem. That’s easy, right? Yet it felt increasingly difficult to convince myself of that by the time Sunday morning rolled around last weekend, because by then, 6.7 km felt nearly impossible.

I participated in a virtual event called the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a race, as the name would suggest, spurred on by Covid and our new and weird physically distanced lives. With every race cancelled this summer, Race Directors got really creative in coming up with new ways to inspire and torture us, and while I haven’t participated in many, I was intrigued by the Backyard Ultra concept and felt that there was no better time to try it out then during a pandemic.


Quick summary of the race concept. You choose a course that is 6.7km long. That could be around your living room, your backyard, your neighbourhood,  a trail, it doesn’t matter. Just make sure its flat and safe enough that you can run it in a mental fog. You sign on to a Zoom meeting where you find hundreds of other runners in their ‘starting corral’ (living room/front entrance/deck/car), wave hi, and then you run that 6.7 km, every hour, on the hour for as long as you can. So you start at 7:00 am, run 6.7km, stop, drink a coffee, wave at the Zoom meeting, chat with your friends, put your shoes back on and then at 8:00 am, run 6.7km again. And again. And again. And again. And…ok you get the idea. There is no finish line, the only way you win is by being the last person still putting their shoes on and running at the top of the hour. Everyone else gets what we call in the run world, a DNF (Did Not Finish). No medal for you.

You can see how this format lends itself well to the cruel craziness that has been 2020 right? So, of course I dove in. What have I got to lose?
I admit I went into the event with my confidence a bit shaken. A solid spring training season was derailed by an injury that left me house bound and stir crazy for most of June. That, paired with a whole pile of other junk happening in life, left me a feeling like a shell of who I normally am (Movement. Nature. People. Even in a Pandemic.). But as my leg started feeling better thanks to an amazing physiotherapist and some potent anti-inflammatories, I got back out there and remembered how much running has always helped me heal, how it grounds me and brings me back to my true self. Maybe this race was exactly what I needed.
I set up my aid station, struggled to figure out the tech, and while my family still slept, I watched the clock on Zoom tick down to start time and stepped out my front door as I hit ‘Record’ on Strava. And imagine my surprise to see my friend David smiling on my front porch, running shoes on. I knew he was considering stopping by, but had no idea it would be for the first laps! Off we went, obviously excited about the day, cause our pace was way too fast as we chatted in the early morning sun. First lap done in 35 minutes with plenty of time to relax on the front deck until the clock ticked down to start the next lap. Those first four laps were truly a gift, they felt easy, conversation and company was

great, the day was just warming up and we had plenty of time between each lap to fuel up, foam roll and have coffee with my husband, Kirk. We even had some other visitors pop by to wish me well, The Allen’s stopped by with a finish line goody bag and homemade signs to cheer me on, and Bossel’s came to say hi.
Laps 5-9 I was joined by friend and run coach Paul who I had shared my last 100 mile adventure with this time last year (Sinister 7: 100 Mile Ultra 2019). We’ve supported each other through all kinds of crazy run endeavours over the years so of course I knew he

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He always makes me blurry in pics. Payback time.

would want to be a part of this, but I really knew he was making a sacrifice when he said he would come for the hottest hours of the day. Normally he prefers the early mornings and cooler temperatures yet here he was, running hot pavement in the rising temperatures, which he paid for later with heat stroke symptoms. I was still feeling really good and was taking care to cool down with ice and plenty of liquids (electrolytes, coconut water, Infinite, ice tea) and had started carrying a small handheld of water while I ran as well. The kids were even getting in on the fun and bringing us ice and drinks and enjoying the unlimited screen time they were allowed while mom was busy. I was also visited by Glenda, my energy healer and physio friend who graced me with her love and KT tape to help hold my faltering right leg together. Love her.
The laps together with Paul were a typical mix of easy conversation side by side, followed by Paul running ahead in silence, checking his watch and keeping me hustling. I was a consistent 38 minutes per lap still and very happy with my progress. The heat for the day peaked at about 27’C which felt pretty intense since it was only a few weeks ago we had the last few blustery hints of snow and I really hadn’t had any chance to heat train, but I still managed to stay cool and hydrated the whole time. At some point, getting closer to evening, I even snuck in a shower, brushed my teeth and changed my clothes to help me cool off and feel like a whole new woman. Paul left, encouraging me to just keep taking one lap at a time. Good advice, Coach.
Another lap with Julia on her bike which marked a momentous occasion as I announced it was time for my first ever ‘tarps off’ run and I stripped down to my sports bra. I have always wanted to muster up the courage to run in just a sports bra but the perfect

trifecta of temperature, safe company and body confidence had never aligned until that afternoon. It felt like straight up Girl Power!  That lap was rewarded by my badass mom-run friends Jill and Victoria who descended like angels with frozen lemonade straight from heaven.
I was then joined for the quietest lap of the day by my son Levi on his bike…conversation was impossible as he wasn’t wearing his hearing aids and was way out in front of me the whole time, but he loved a chance to get in on the action and I sure appreciated the company and his sweet curb hopping skills as he cruised ahead.
It started to cool off and cloud over, bringing relief for laps 12-17 when I was joined by the best run partner a girl could ask for, Tania. She somehow managed to juggle feeding and caring for all our collective children, taking care of me between laps and running 40+km with me all with a smile and loads of encouragement. (I’ll never tire of adventures with her!) As we neared the end of each lap we could discuss our transition plan as my time between laps was shrinking to only about 15 minutes by this point and it was a whirlwind of activity to get everything done, wave at the Zoom crew, and head out

again for another go. Around lap #13 all 6 of the Vignals popped out of the bushes to surprise me as I passed, and Hardstaff’s were waiting on my deck to cheer me on. We passed the 100km mark for the day with an incredible entourage of two other familiesIMG_4856 (Lanes and Kawchuks!) from the neighbourhood on bikes trailing behind, laughing and chatting our way through a couple more laps with my friend Tom wearing a bike jersey with the slogan ‘Chafing the Dream’ on the back. His words were all too painfully accurate by that point in the day.
It felt like the party was winding down as we all laughed and danced with the DJ rapping on the Zoom call and kissed the kids goodnight. A lap with Kirk on his bike and Tania still running, and then Tania left at midnight to catch a few hours of sleep. I was mentally preparing for a few laps on my own in the dark which I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, running alone in the dark is rather magical… I do plenty of it in the winter on early morning road runs. But I was also a bit nervous about being alone out there on a hot summer night on a predictable route at a predictable time. These are the things female runners think about every time we head out, and certainly I saw plenty of people all through the night who didn’t seem to have anything better to do then hang around. However, as I was trying to force some more calories down and roll my aching feet, I heard the voices of my beautiful mom friends Julia and Paula outside. They rocked up on their bikes to see me through the night. Find your tribe. Hold them dear. And they will show up for you when you need it most.
I’m afraid I wasn’t able to express my gratitude as much as I would’ve liked by this point. My throat was dry, conversation was difficult and my pace was starting to slow even more. But these incredible ladies chatted and giggled the whole way along, encouraging me and entertaining me for two hours with conversations about everything from Fortnite to vagina’s to raising teenagers and wanting to steal lettuce from the community garden since they were out anyway in the dark and it felt like an exhilaratingly naughty

thing to do. At 2 am I was met by Paula’s husband Blake on my front deck, waiting to do a few laps with me too. Interestingly, he also mentioned he would like to steal lettuce and I was simultaneously so happy that Blake and Paula were such a perfectly matched couple, and also a little appalled at my choice in morally destitute friends. Kidding. They are the best kind of people in the universe. Earlier in the day they had side-walk chalked some messages on the pavement for me and I delighted in pointing out the adorable cloud at the end of the rainbow every time I passed. Seriously, they are the best people.


As Blake and I ran up to the house at 3:45am (and past a few meters then back again…each lap needed about a 30 m addition back and forth to get to 6.7!) I got a little teary at the sight. My husband Kirk was sitting there with a smile and his bike ready to go. All through the day he had helped me by managing tech, buying a new armband so I could hold my phone easier, bringing me food and drinks and asking about my caloric intake. He stayed up watching EuroVision while I was out with Blake and was ready to fill in so I didn’t have to go out alone. Yes, this quarantine has been tough on all of us and there have been days that working from home and home ‘unschooling’ and watching all our plans for the future fall apart has taken a huge toll, but as I saw him sitting there, waiting for me, I was again reminded that the lights of my front deck and the people who make that place home, are worth sticking through the hard times with. I couldn’t do what I do without the incredible people that prop me up when life feels tough and love me through it all. He hopped on his bike and away we went off for another lap as the sun came up. Love him.
Kirk headed to bed and I was joined by another run friend Thomas. Thomas and I have also had our share of fun run adventures, but I’m sure that this one couldn’t have been fun for him at all. He showed up in the rain, at 5 am to walk for two hours through my neighbourhood while I struggled to hold conversation and keep food down. But that’s just the kind of guy he is. I was really starting to feel awful by this point. I had managed to keep my jog at a fast-enough shuffle for the last few laps that I still had at least 8-10 minutes between laps to regroup but I could feel the wheels coming off fast once Thomas arrived (not that I blame him!). I was walking as much as running and watching the clock with urgency to make sure I could make it back in time for at least another lap. This time, I only had 4 minutes to spare. Kirk had kindly left me some sugary oatmeal out for when I came back and I tried so hard to swallow some but it came right back up. Ugh.
I checked in on the zoom call and gave my best smile and wave.

Down from 1200 runners to only 42. I headed out to see what I had left in me.

Thomas and I were joined by Victoria who couldn’t sleep and wanted to join in the fun and we started out on what felt straight out of a dark comedy featuring something between a ‘Victory lap’ and ‘Walk of Shame’ (one person in our trio who shall remain nameless was, in fact, hungover!). I shuffled a bit, but quickly realized I was far too nauseous to maintain any sort of run pace so I made the decision to enjoy the lap as best I could and see what happened. IMG_4861

So, what happened? We chatted and power walked and I stopped to throw up a time or two. The best thing about run friends is that stopping to puke doesn’t even mean you pause the conversation or even flinch; I was offered a pat on the back and some water to rinse and we kept our relentless forward progress. An hour passed. I didn’t make it back in time. I was done. I chatted with the Race Director and he informed me that technically I only completed 23 hours and that was my official time. I’m not too worried. I know what I did.
161km in 24 hours.
And quite happy with that.
I had sort of hoped for a bigger personal best. Over 100 miles would have been great. However, I was exhausted and nauseated and pretty drained and the clock won. If this was a regular ultra I would have walked until I felt better and worked on getting my calories up so I could start running again. But this wasn’t a regular ultra. That clock was brutal and like Lazarus Lake (the evil genius behind this race format) says “When its easy, its easy. But when its hard, its really hard”. There is no comparing those first laps with David, done in 35 minutes, to those last laps with Thomas racing the clock. First it felt breezy and sunny, but it ended cold and increasingly impossible. The winner of this race went on to 51 hours (the world record is 68 hours!) and my utmost congratulations to those that stuck it out that long. I’ll never view 6.7km as ‘easy’ again. But I will forever view 6.7 km as best shared with friends. I was totally blown away by how such a ridiculous race concept could bring out so many people to run, bike, cheer and support me.
Tania came back to the house to get her sleeping kids shortly after I stumbled to bed to try to sleep. Her and another friend Denise packed my kids and our camping gear up and then drove me to the mountains for a couple days for some much-needed recovery time. Our last morning at the campsite, I was quite happy to stay at the campsite with the kids so the two of them could run a lap on the trails around the campground. It was kinda nice to watch someone else for a change as they went out for:

Just. One. More. Lap.

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Movement. Nature. People. Even in a Pandemic.

Movement. Nature. People. I’ve always believed that is the formula for a life well lived and my favourite way to practice that formula is through trail running. But, like the entire world right now, I have had my share of moments where I find myself questioning how to continue to live well in the midst of a global pandemic that seems to be unravelling everything we have considered safe. So, I remind myself, as many times as needed, that amidst the uncertainty, the answer remains the same. Perhaps the way it plays out will need to shift, but if we are going to make it through this unprecedented time, we need to keep moving, we need to heal alongside the earth that sustains us, and we need to stay connected to those we love, now more then ever.

I swear, I’m not just making this formula up, it’s backed by research around trauma, mental health and building resilience. Our treatments often lean heavily towards talk therapy to get through difficult times, which certainly has value, but on its own is not enough because it does not provide a new framework from which to grow and develop.

Our brains cannot grow and heal if our bodies are not moving. Physical activity, of any kind is the best thing you can do to bring yourself back to your centre and remind you of who you are. It literally benefits every cell in your body, brain included. Of course, I’m totally biased towards running as the best way to do that, but it really doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you’re challenging your muscles out of sedation and find a rhythm. Whether it’s shuffling feet on trail, swinging hips to music, passing a ball between feet, breathing through a yoga pose. It is in the rhythm of those motions that the body can focus on the present and the mind can quiet. Meditate.

So what does that mean now that gyms and recreation centres are closed and our regular routines are pulled out from under us, threatening to push us into even more sedentary lives then normal as we figure out ways to ‘work from home’ with even longer days in front of a screen? Thankfully there are plenty of online options for at home-work outs and basement yoga which should leave us with no excuse to get our endorphins flowing and find ways to make a new exercise ‘normal’. I am lucky enough to have a pretty incredible basement home gym including a rower and a bike trainer, and yet I still find it difficult to get down there and push myself. Music helps, including the kids helps…sort of. IMG_4046If running outside is no longer an option, I am fully prepared to try something crazy like running circles around my basement!

Motivation comes much easier for me when I take my movement outside and thankfully we are still able to get outside although I realize that too could change any day. Again, trail running is my preferred happy place and most of the trails I tend to frequent have been empty enough that I’m quite comfortable being on them and still away from people. (I have definitely noticed that the city greenspaces are busier than usual which is great to see so many getting out to explore as long as we can still keep our distance!) And with all this time with the kids and no place to go, we have been spending hours each day taking long walks through the ravine trail system near our house. It feels so good to just play. They climb trees, we slide down hills, break ice and flop in the snow. It’s so simple, yet the benefits are incredible; rosy cheeks, improved mood, IMG_4017voracious appetite to follow. If the province decides to lock down completely and getting out on the trails is no longer an option, I’m still prepared to find nature in anyway I can; the backyard will become my study and rays of sun through the kitchen window will have to suffice. Maybe this is our chance to give earth a bit of a break so she too can heal, and maybe, just maybe we will learn to shift our ways to use less, consume less so we can help save the forest that was put there to save us. If you think I’m being over-dramatic then I encourage you to find a place in the forest, preferably by water, and sit. Wait. Get lost. Be found.

It’s the last piece of this formula that is feeling so uncomfortable for so many of us. Social connection. We know we need each other to navigate life at the best of times, and of course this pandemic is triggering a wave collective grief where no one is left untouched. It feels so foreign to me to stay away from people when my impulse is to draw towards them, particularly during difficult times. A big key to my run success is that I run with others whenever I can, whether it’s with one other person or a big group, the kilometers pass quickly and easily when you have someone keeping you going, it becomes a form of therapy with benefits that far outweigh the physical ones (See: Running with the Tribe) Along comes ‘social distancing’, a concept we hadn’t even known about one month ago, turns all of that on its head and has dismantled every group run and race for the foreseeable future. It feels so counterintuitive to show love to humanity by closing our doors and staying away.

I hate it. I get it. But I hate it.

For now, I have chosen to run alone or with one other person and keep our distance from each other and others on the trail. Of course, all that could change if there is any hint of sickness or the province goes into further restrictive measures, in which case I will adhere to those guidelines and just have to get even more IMG_4055intentional about remaining connected to others. Social media, a tenuous place at the best of times, has not been my favourite lately. While I certainly appreciate the incredible humour that is coming from this pandemic, and I weirdly love the mundane oversharing of friends from their own self-isolation, I know my own mental health is better when I limit the amount of other information I take in. Right now, getting information on the pandemic feels like trying to take a sip of water from a firehose and I’m not too keen to do that. Instead I have been enjoying the time with my family, watching my kids turn back into their goofy little selves without all the stress from our regular lives has been the best part of all of this, and I have also been intentionally connecting with friends instead of relying on social media for connection. The hardest part is resisting the urge to arrange to get together, but this is only temporary, and may I never take face-to-face interaction for granted when this is all over.

In run training we use the concept of Run, Recover, Repeat, with each of those pieces equally important. Training hard is what breaks down the muscles, so that they can be rebuilt stronger during the recovery phase to adapt, so we get back at hard work of breaking down again. That pattern requires intention and consistency to ensure we are coming out of the training cycle stronger than before.

Think of this crazy self-isolating reality as a strange new training cycle. This is hard, but that’s ok because its only through the hard times that we are broken down to become stronger in the end. The really weird thing is that this simultaneously feels like the ‘run’ phase with the hard work, and the ‘recover’ phase with the rest and lots of snacks. And every single day (I think we are on day 14? I will have to check the prison style tally my daughter is keeping on the wall by her bed!) we wake up to the reminder that this is a pattern on repeat, and we don’t know for how long.

I’ll say it again. It’s hard, but that’s ok. In running ultras, I’ve come to reframe difficult moments by asking myself two questions:

How do I feel?

How do I feel about how I feel?

Running ultras can bring about all kinds of discomfort and the emotions that come with it and it is incredibly important to connect with how you feel, acknowledge what is going on and decide whether or not you can do anything about it. And just as important is the second question. How do you feel about the discomfort you are experiencing? If everything was easy during an ultra there would be no pride in finishing one.

One year ago today, Tania and I were running Rim2Rim2Rim of the Grand Canyon (Rim2Rim2Rim: Running the Grand Canyon in a Day). I will forever remember that day as one of the most incredible of my life, not the easiest that’s for sure, but absolutely incredible. Every moment of suffering out there is now long forgotten and all that remains are the memories of the views and the experiences we had out there. It’s worth it.

We get to choose how to emerge from this bizarre time in history. Stronger, rested, with a renewed appreciation for the beautiful aspects of our lives that remain after everything else has been sifted out.

This won’t be a sprint. This is an ultra. It will be hard, but it will be worth it. And none of us will leave the finish line until the very last of us have crossed safely, no matter how long it takes, because we are all in this together. And you can bet that when that time comes, I’ll be ready with sweaty hugs and high fives for everyone, social distancing be damned.

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Running with the Tribe

Anyone who’s read the fascinating book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, is familiar with the theory on why humans have the unique capacity compared to other creatures in the animal kingdom to run long distances. It has something to do with our Achilles acting as a spring to propel us forward, our diaphragm allowing our lungs to deliver oxygen to our muscles for a sustained effort and some other biological factors that I am a little foggy on cause I spent most of Bio 30 with my head down on my desk trying not to faint from looking at illustrations of the cardiovascular system. Seriously.

What really struck me about the explanation about humans’ endurance potential was how we have used this super-power to survive throughout history. The theory goes that tribes from the plains of Africa would essentially go for long runs as a group and chase down a herd animal (like an antelope) and keep running after it until it dropped dead from exhaustion. This was before weapons like spears or bow and arrows, so their only option was to knock the animal out with a rock once they got close enough to do so. (Interestingly, the endurance of an antelope is approximately 4 hours, a decent marathon time…which explains the evolution of the road marathoner but does nothing to explain the evolution of the ultrarunner…so I’m pretty sure somewhere on the plains of Africa, there was some caveman runner who caught his first antelope, ate the whole thing, then kept on running after another one until he ran that one to death too, ate that one, then kept going…for days at a time…cause really, that is all that ultrarunning is…) I digress.

When a herd of antelope is outrunning an animal predator like a lion, the herd will work together to trick the lion into chasing a new antelope with fresh legs while the other ones hide and rest. That way the herd always has a new distraction for speedy McLion. Kind of like a group of kids playing tag…it will go on forever cause while one kid is being chased, the others are regrouping and getting ready for the next sprint away from the tagger.

So, here is where this gets interesting…here is where evolutionary biology proves my theory that we are better when we run together.

Human hunters, unlike lions, figured out how to work together as a team to run down the increasingly tired antelope by never giving the poor guy a break, they just keep chasing him out of his hiding place and forcing him to run to his death. No single runner could do this alone because the herd would keep trying to distract that person with fresh antelope legs to chase. But when the team works together…ta da! BBQ for dinner. We quite literally evolved to survive by running with friends.

Ok so maybe I’ve lost my vegan running friends with that rather gruesome thought, but it is still undeniable that we are simply better together. Runs with friends are 10x better then solo runs, runs with really big groups are a chance to make new friends, races are really just a massive sweaty party, and although I would never admit this to anyone, I’m not sure I would have completed 100 miles if I had to go it alone. ( Sinister 7: 100 Mile Ultra 2019)IMG_3806

Community is not always easy; it’s messy because people are messy. Recently some of our beautiful Edmonton run community has experienced some ugly parts of what it means to be a part of a group. I’ve watched it unfold in group chats and social media posts, heard the pain in people’s voices and had my own moments of hurt brought about by a careless few that threaten to create rifts and seek to exclude. But despite that, despite the hurt and outrage, what has overwhelmingly risen to the surface is what we have all known to be true all along. We have a beautiful thing that is worth being a part of.

For such a simple sport, you would think that all runners would be the same; I mean really, all we do is put one foot in front of another. But the diversity amongst runners is as wide ranging the selection of run shoes we get to choose from. And just like shoe shopping, there is no right or wrong choice when it comes to deciding which kind of runner you are. Track or treadmill, road or trail, sprint, ultra and every distance in between. Some runners race all the time, some hardly race at all. Some are drinkers with a running problem (I’m looking at you Hashers!!), while some are vegan purists fueled by avocados and giant calf muscles. Some prefer self-supported days on the trail, and some go for all the shiny race swag they can get. Some can tell you their splits and have their pace completely fine tuned, while others of us judge the quality of a run by things like elevation or time on feet. Within this wide range of running styles we still are all united by the simple act of forward motion.

And despite all our messiness, it’s such a beautiful thing.

(Even the lone wolves out there have to admit we are better together. Go on, admit it.)

This summer there was a creepy case of some weirdo flashing women on the trail. It left a lot of us a little shaken, and Facebook run groups filled up with stories of other incidences like this that women have experienced while out running. Some incredible women in our community quickly organized a group run, IMG_3801something akin to Take Back the Night, (I think they even called it ‘Take Back the Trails’) and that’s exactly what we did. We ran some of the trails that he had been reported on and that was it. There was a bit of media coverage, but I doubt the perpetrator even heard about it. But that really doesn’t matter. What matters is it gave all of us women a chance to come together to acknowledge the unfortunate reality that we don’t always feel safe when we run alone, and it gave our male counterparts a chance to come alongside us and acknowledge that while most men are living well, there is still work to do. So, what exactly did we accomplish that day? Did we eliminate misogyny? Nope. But did we draw together hundreds of people united by a cause? Yep. And that is community.

We all run different paces and have different goals, and certainly not every run is meant for everyone. I have learned that the hard way with my share of tearful exits from group runs I wasn’t prepared for. Part of living in run community is acknowledging our diversity and celebrating it, without being critical or envious of IMG_3803others’ success. The beauty of doing this together is being able to cheer wildly for other runners, whether that’s a first time at a 5k or a podium finish, it’s all hard work and it is worth celebrating. Being a part of the run community also means supporting each other through injury or encouraging someone after a DNF because we all know running is definitely not all sunshine and rainbows. And I would argue that those are the times we need our people the most.

Running together isn’t just about rustling the tired antelope from behind the bush and making him run so we can survive, it’s about bringing out the best in each other and continuously pushing each other forward so we can thrive. I am so grateful for every Edmonton runner out there braving the elements and putting one foot in front of the other day after day.

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.