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.
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 “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.
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. 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.
And 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.
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.
A 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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 race 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.
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?”
“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.