Winter River Valley Revenge: Well that was hard.

“Want some Vaseline for your face?”

“Huh?”

“Ya know, to reduce the chance you’ll get frostbite.”

“Ah, ok, sounds reasonable. Lube me up.”

Thirty seconds later, shiny faced me is ripping open a pack of Hot Paws hand warmers and adjusting my brand-new hose insulator, trying to figure out a way to tuck it somewhere accessible. Just another perfectly normal Saturday morning right?

Nah, there is nothing normal about what we do. The ambient temperature was around -15’Celsuis but that wind was packing a punch that could freeze exposed skin faster then you can say ‘when did my nose turn black?’ Hence the Vaseline. It was still dark out as the race director gave a brief description of what to expect on the 50km (ish) course we were about to tackle. img_1135

“The first part is hard. And the last four kilometers will be the toughest trail you’ve ever run, but its lots of fun. And oh, yeah, there’s hard parts in the middle too. But you’ll be fine.” Reassuring right?

The start line was right outside the door of the community hall we were huddled in and it’s a good thing because who would want to be outside on a day like today? Oh… wait.

Off we went. In the wrong direction. All of us. The race director yelling at us all “Go Left!” Off we went again, in the right direction this time.

Wise advice dictates to start slow to let yourself warm up and find a comfortable pace you can maintain. But wise advice also doesn’t start a race in the pre-dawn air that hurts your face. That wise advice says to get your butt to the trailhead as fast as possible where at least there is no wind. So off we went, my friend Tania and I clipping along at an unsustainable pace, but one that got us to the trailhead close to the front of the pack. Within a few kilometers we descended into what is affectionately called “Halloween Trail.” I once asked why it was called that and was told “Because that’s where we run on Halloween.” Sounds logical. It’s a magical ravine with a lazy creekbed arched with fallen logs where fairies and gnomes live. We were told the creek was frozen and we could run along it; ducking under trees and shuffling along the ice was fine for the most part, until it wasn’t.

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Frozen ‘waterfall’ on Halloween Trail.           (Photo Credit Jill Natchigall)

 I have no idea how any water could stay liquid at that temperature, but it did, and I found it. I broke through the ice and my left leg was up to my knee in ice water. Running 50km in these conditions wasn’t hard enough, now I was going to also fight off the risk of hypothermia and blackened toes. Challenge accepted. Out of the ravine and up and up and up, only to go back down again. Like a rollercoaster, but a lot more work. Same amount of screaming though.

Tania and I had settled into a comfortable pace by this time and I started taking stock of how I was doing so far. I was warm enough (five layers on top, fleece lined wind-proof pants on the bottom), I still had feeling in my toes although the clothes on my left leg were a solid ice block, and surely my new hose insulator was keeping my water nice and tepid…oh, wait a second. Nope. Less then 4km in and I was carrying around a litre of water that was completely inaccessible thanks to the iced-up mouthpiece and a hose that was frozen solid. Yay winter.

Thankfully I had thrown the collapsible cup from the race swag into my pack so I just made a promise to myself that I would down a full cup of water every time we hit an aid station. Believe it or not, dehydration is a real thing in the dead of winter, in fact, my worst experiences with dehydration have happened in the cold when I haven’t felt thirsty at all, and I didn’t want that to be the case today. Full cup of water, full cup of something else; electrolytes, ginger ale, chicken noodle soup or even ginger ale with noodles floating in it (standards drop very low on these sorts of races, don’t judge me). Other then hydrating, my other goal at aid stations was to get out of there as quickly as possible. On my previous big race, I was horrified at how much time I spent hanging out at aid stations and I was determined to not lose that sort of time today. So once fluids were down the hatch I would grab my food to go and would engage in what I have come to realize is a weird superpower of mine; eating and running. I mean, who are we kidding, I like to run ultras because I like to ultra eat, but this specific skill set involves actually eating, while running, then digesting with no incident. Cookies? No problem. Chips?

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Photo Credit: Mark Stevens
Watch me crush and flush them down the hatch. Energy bars and chia gels? Pfft. They are pretty much half digested for you anyway, no challenge in that at all. Fun fact about me when I run: I crave eating a hamburger. About ¾ through any distance of run, I would give anything for a big juicy burger, maybe with bacon, definitely with cheese. I’ve never actually eaten a burger while running, (I can’t imagine it would end well) but one day that fantasy will be fulfilled and I will be sure to report back how that goes.

I digress. Back to the race. Still feeling great at the half way point of the first loop. We were losing track of how many times we were up and down the river valley, but there was one section that somehow seemed to be 10 000 metres of straight up even though it only went from the Alfred Savage Center, (at river level) to the neighbourhood at the top of the river bank. How that trail went up and up, we will never know, and the worst of it is that it was a loop that started and ended only a few 100 m from the next aid station. So close, but yet so, SO far.

Next came the legendary Two Truck Trail. Aptly named for…well, the two rusted out trucks that can be found buried way up the steep river bank. The narrow and treacherous trail skirts the river and takes you up and down icy chutes, under fallen trees and brings you dangerously close to the ice flow on the river. Needless to say, it is the slowest 4 km of the race to get through. What could possibly make that trail better? A man in a unicorn onesie and denim cut-offs handing out shots of Fireball whiskey and his kids’ leftover Halloween candy. Obviously.

Two Truck Trail ends with a steep exposed hill with no vegetation and a layer of ice. Probably the best way to describe it is to compare it with the Red Bull Crashed Ice course. Except I forgot my skates. You could cautiously pick your way down the hill, hoping to stay upright, or, you could opt for the strategy used by lugers and drop and slide. (Ever notice that ‘lugers’ sounds like ‘losers’ with a lisp? Not coincidental in this case.) Down the hill we went, oh so ungraceful, shrieks of delight and terror the whole way. After Two Truck, the remaining windy single track felt like a stroll on a grassy promenade and we were back to the Community Hall in no time, 25 km done, another lap to go. I peeled up my icy pant leg to pull off my shoe so I could change my socks. Toes were still appropriately coloured. Not turning white or shades of black and falling off so I figured I was good for another round. Both Tania and I dropped our packs as there was no point in carrying them if our water was frozen, so instead we stuffed pockets with treats for the road and the collapsible cup and off we went for round two. Still feeling good.

You would think that since it was the second time we were on the course we would know where every turn was. But nope. We missed a few turns, did some back tracking and hoped no one passed us in the meantime. Somehow in the shuffle at transition, I had lost a hand warmer and had also cooled down after stopping and was feeling chilled, but after a hill or two of putting in some hard work, I was warm(ish) again and mentally preparing myself for the rest of the course. We were trudging up yet another hill when I saw a sight that filled my heart with pure joy. My husband and son had tracked my location and were waiting for us at the top of Selkirk Knights connector trail. Their smiles and waves made my feet feel a hundred pounds lighter and shrunk that hill to nothing. NEVER underestimate the power of simply showing up.

Next aid station. Water. Broth. Chips. Thank the volunteers. Take off south down Whitemud Ravine.

Energy levels during an ultra can fluctuate wildly, making some kilometers feel easy, and others feel crushingly difficult. This sometimes makes running with a friend awkward, and Tania and I were starting to jockey back and forth as our pace slowed and quickened, not always in unison. By the mid-point aid station she had pulled ahead and out of sight and I had resigned myself to finishing alone. We had agreed beforehand that whatever happened, we would run our own race and not let the other person dictate pace, so I was surprised when I caught up to her on Farmer’s Daughter trail a few kilometers later. Her knees were starting to hurt, a niggling injury left over from the summer, and I could see her cringing on the downhills. I could certainly relate. I spent most of my last race (Rivers Edge Ultra) grimacing from the pain in my knee caps and I was thankful that was not the case anymore, because believe me, running that far brings enough of its own pain, adding an existing injury to the mix makes you question your decision-making skills. I credit my relentless adoption of strength training to help me recover from the injury and to help me feel good on race day. I made it my mission to squat, lunge, deadlift and do all those mind-numbing physio exercises with military-like discipline for the last four months. Jump squats, weighted squats, air squats, front squats, waiting-for-the-kettle-to-boil squats and even ‘it’s okay kids, you can still read to me’ bedtime routine squats. No more knee pain and the bonus of a round butt. Everyone wins.

I rolled into the final aid station and asked if they had a hamburger, hoping for a miracle. The best they could offer was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich roasted over the fire. I took a cookie for the road instead and set my sights on Two Truck Trail 2.0. By this time hundreds of other racers had been over the trail leaving it considerably icier, but that didn’t faze me (yay spikey shoes!), I just wanted to plow through and get it done. After a tough climb up a crevice that made you feel like the steel ball in a pinball game, the unicorn was at the top offering me the shot of fireball. Alcohol and running have never been an appealing mix to me, but I was feeling pretty invincible and decided to go for it. I was not disappointed. My new motto? Always. Take. The. Fireball.

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Photo Credit: Keith Heslinga

It warmed me to the core and I pushed forward, even finishing the icy hill at the end of Two Truck Trail like a luger, but a luger who nailed it like a total winner.

The race finished in the absolute best possible way a run can, with my kids running me in, my husband and friends giving hugs and high fives, and the mind-blowing news I was second place female. I’ve never properly podium finished before and I gotta admit it felt pretty good. Tania was a few minutes behind, and our other good friend Tess a few minutes behind her. The three of us run together every Thursday morning, a tradition that is the highlight of my week, and these race results indicate that clearly we are doing something right.

The rest of the evening was spent with some of the finest people you will ever meet; racers, volunteers, friends and families. The run community is kind, funny, big-hearted and recklessly crazy and being with them for the evening dinner and awards ceremony was the perfect end to a tough, but oh so satisfying day.

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2 thoughts on “Winter River Valley Revenge: Well that was hard.

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