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.

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.

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.

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.

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