I can’t sleep tonight. It’s been a few hours since I received the news that my dear friend Amy Alain has passed after a nine-month long battle with lung cancer, leaving behind a loving husband and two of the sweetest children you’ve ever met. I hadn’t even known Amy for long, only about a year and a half, but she has made a massive, and lasting impact on my life.
It was just after dawn on a Sunday morning in early November and a premature winter storm had blown in a few inches of fresh snow, quieting the river valley with its heavy blanket. I was running on a familiar trail, in the Whitemud Ravine, when I heard a ‘Good morning! Great day for a run!’ in a cheerful voice behind me. She introduced herself and I picked up my pace to match her faster one so we could chat. We traded stories of races we had done, goals for the upcoming season and as our talk turned to more personal details, we discovered our kids go to the same school, they were looking to move into our neighbourhood and we shared several mutual friends. ‘Ah ha’ I thought, ‘a new trail sister’. How little I knew at the time, how this would play out.
Amy loved the river valley and her smile when she was exercising in nature was infectious. She was a personal trainer and hosted year-round bootcamps outdoors, in public spaces that were welcoming to children, leaving no excuse for any of her friends and clients to get out there and get moving. And certainly she inspired everyone she met with her boundless energy and positivity. “No cold weather, only soft people” she loved to say as she would head out onto the snowy trails. I can probably count on one hand the times I saw her in clothing other then run gear, she was always just headed to, or just coming back from a run or a workout outside.
Within a month of first meeting, Amy, myself and another friend Tania, were signed up for a 100-mile relay happening the upcoming summer. We also all signed up to run 25k at Winter River Valley Revenge in January, where she ran a fantastic race and placed 3rd.
Conditions were icy that day, and the micro spikes she wore contributed to a foot injury that sidelined her for a few weeks after the race. She had planned to run a half marathon in Jasper in April, but after a few cautious runs on her healing foot, decided to drop down to the 10k event. In the days leading up to their trip, she mentioned a nagging cough that had developed in recent weeks and was worried that it would affect her performance. She accepted the fact that she wouldn’t be setting a personal best that day and went on to enjoy a beautiful race in the mountains.
After several frustrating attempts at runs, and the insistent mothering by those of us who loved her, Amy relented and went to the doctor to get her cough looked at. What followed was a series of nightmare test results and months of the worst-case scenario unfolding. It was lung cancer and it was moving fast. But Amy was determined to fight and continued to exercise, even running at times, with unshakable positivity, on a mission to enjoy every day to its fullest. She started a social media campaign that went viral, called Lunges for Lung Cancer; challenging others to do 58 lunges, one for each person lung cancer claims each day. Towards the end, even as lunges were incredibly difficult, she would still climb out of her hospital bed to record a few lunges, her movements painful and her muscles atrophied.
In her last days, as I leaned in close to help adjust her to a new position in her bed in palliative care, I told her I loved that she was wearing her Spartan Race t-shirt. She smiled, and through her drug induced fog, told me she planned to run another one one day. Through my tears, I whispered she has inspired so many people to be better versions of themselves and to live healthier lives and before she dozed back asleep she said she didn’t understand why anyone found her inspiring. Oh Amy, if only you could see how you changed us all.
When the run community loses one of its own, it comes with a particularly painful blow to the gut. Amy, like other runners we’ve lost, was young, super fit, and made a million healthy choices every day. She did everything right, yet her death serves as a painful reminder that none of us are immune, that no amount of miles logged or sunny days on the trail can protect us from our own mortality. Somehow, the intensity of running brings with it the exhilarating and terrifying paradox that anything is possible, yet that it can all be taken away from you in an instant. Though we build our bodies to be strong, they are still incredibly and devastatingly fragile.
While Amy’s body grew weak, her mental toughness persisted right until the end. I hope that in the hours she lay sleeping her mind was already drifting to places free from her physical suffering. Places where she could cuddle her children, walk with her husband and run the trails she loved so much. Her suffering is over. She has crossed the finish line of a cruel and horrifying ultramarathon called lung cancer, an ending that leaves us all furious at the unfairness of it all. Soon, I will head out on a run, through the snow on her favourite trail, to grieve her loss and celebrate her life the only way I know how, the only way any of us know how, with one foot in front of the other.
She had big plans to run a 100 mile race this summer. Those plans were prayers for more time that have gone unanswered when she died on Feb 22, 2019. I sincerely hope that now she can run forever and feel no pain. Run on my dear Amy. Run on.
“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.
“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.
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? 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.
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.
You know that feeling you get when settle into your seat on a roller coaster and lock yourself into the restraint? That mix of nervous excitement and stomach-churning fear and you’re not sure whether you should smile and enjoy the ride or claw your way out of the seatbelt to scramble to safety. You know that feeling? Yeah. That’s the one. That’s what I’m feeling today. I signed up to do something so deliciously terrifying that all I can do it remind myself to hold on and hope that rumbling feeling in my guts won’t end badly. I signed up to run a 100 mile race. Well… actually I signed up to run two of them but who’s counting. One of them you enter a lottery and hope you win the privilege to suffer and the other one you just pay up front and are guaranteed all the pain and bodily fluid malfunctions you can handle. The lottery I entered is called Leadville 100 in Colorado. It is a notorious trail steeped in all kinds of ultra-running history that it gets me so stupidly excited I would almost rather win an entry to that then win an actual lottery with actual money. The other race is called Sinister 7 in Crowsnest Pass Alberta and any fool willing to sign up to run the whole 100 miles gets an automatic entry and a ‘best of luck you idiot’ pat on the back. So whether I win the lottery or not, I’ll be running a 100 mile race this summer.
After spending some time in Leadville last year, I knew I had to add the race to my bucket list and started to say things like ‘I would totally run this’ and ‘I’ll throw my name in the lottery’ but I also knew that leaving my odds up to the running gods was a bit of a cop-out. The chances of getting in are so slim that I could easily toss around reckless statements like that and never have to worry about follow through. Which is why I’m also registered for Sinister 7. Cue the roller coaster ride, the catch is I’m just not sure yet where these tracks lead.
I’m excited because I know I am capable of running 100 miles. Maybe that sounds arrogant for someone who has only run half that distance before, but I know I can do it because I know I am only limited by my beliefs about my potential. I just need to put in all kinds of work to get there. And that is the part that gets me ‘I just puked in my mouth a little’ scared. I know it won’t be easy, but I also know it will be worth it.
So why would I willing subject myself to doing something so massively scary? There is absolutely nothing heroic about running that far. In fact, it is likely a colossal waste of my time and money. All those hours put into training could be better used for doing something truly noble like adopting orphans or ridding the oceans of plastic, but I like to think my career choice in non-profit has earned me at least a few good karma points and so I’m going to spend those hours selfishly. But why? If it scares me?
Fear is our most primal instinct. It has been what has kept humans alive for this long, because we know enough to be afraid of dangerous things and run away quickly. It’s a fantastic motivator. But fear is also a pretty undiscerning emotion that doesn’t distinguish between perceived threat and actual threat. As a result, fear can create some pretty loud mental-chatter that can lead to crippling anxiety and a life that may feel ‘safe’ but is actually a life only half lived. I don’t want to live a life half-lived, and I don’t want my kids to look at the life we have given them as one that is (perceived) safe and predictable. I want them to know that they can accomplish big goals by taking the risk to try and believing in the process enough to know the outcome is worth that risk. There are lots of ways to teach those things to your children; I’m gonna try to do that with a finishers medal and a big sweaty hug.
I’m lucky. I have the privilege of choosing which fears I want to conquer, which challenges I get to take on. Not everyone is. I look at those around me facing bigger mountains of grief, loss, sickness, bad relationships, addiction. I look at my dear friend Amy facing every mother’s most terrifying mountain; a cancer diagnosis that has had more bad news then good. For the last six months I have watched this fierce woman climb her mountain, one step at a time, without knowing how far she has to go before she has conquered it. This is a challenge she did not choose, in fact, she had big plans to run 100 miles this summer as well, but instead of hill repeats and long runs, she’s getting surgeries and chemo. This is scary stuff; lie awake at night and cry sort of scary stuff, and yet she bravely keeps moving forward.
Real bravery is being scared but doing it anyway.
No one knows how the journey will end. There is a very high chance I will get a DNF (did not finish) even if I put in all the work and do all the right things. But that is the beautiful messy part of taking on these sorts of challenges; no one said it would be safe but that was never what I was looking for. Choosing to run 100 miles is my way of rejecting the fear that would otherwise keep me home, living a small, predictable life. And when I finish, I will know with certainty that when I am faced with other scary things beyond my control I will be well-equipped to go ahead and do it anyway.
When was the last time you stepped outside your door with the goal of finding adventure? Beating your fastest time on your drive commute doesn’t count as adventure, plus, those red-light tickets add up fast. I mean when did you truly, sincerely carve time out of your week to just head out for adventure? If you are a trail runner, you probably answered that question in a hot second. If not, well, lets talk about why those trails are calling your name.
I didn’t even know that trail running was a thing until about four years ago, I joined a team to run Sinister 7 in Crowsnest pass and way undersold myself by picking the shortest leg. By the time I finished, I was dirty and tired and hopelessly hooked on the ridiculousness of the sport. I already knew I loved to run but had only tried road races which are focused on nothing but speed. This did not overly suite me since I’m not particularly fast. I also already knew I loved to hike and am eternally thankful to my parents who introduced me to backcountry trails from a pretty young age. So, when those two worlds collided, my head exploded, which also makes me wonder why I had not connected those dots sooner. How did I not figure out that if you can walk on trails, you can run on them too? I’m a slow learner I guess.
I also knew that Edmonton had a pretty fantastic trail system along the North Saskatchewan and its many ravines, but I had really only explored the paved trails when my family would load up our bikes and drive in from the farm so we could ride on pavement. As I’m writing that I see how pathetic that sounds, don’t worry, we had electricity and running water, just no pavement. I had no idea that snaking off those paved city trails was hundreds of kilometers of single track just waiting to be run.
When I first moved to the city at 19, I ventured onto a narrow trail somewhere near downtown and scared a homeless guy, who yelled at me and ran off the trail into the bush and left his shoes and drug paraphernalia in the middle of the path. I remember staring down at his shoes and debating calling after him to let him know he didn’t have to run away barefoot, but then I thought “What the hell am I doing? Here I am, this naïve girl from the middle of no-pavement-ville rural Alberta, running alone through downtown and stumbling upon drug addicts hiding in the bushes?” It took me over a decade to re-discover those narrow trails; thanks alot homeless guy.
I spent much of that decade running road or worse; the dreadmill at whichever gym had the cheapest childcare. Sure, I gained some speed, but since my primary motivation was to lose that baby weight between three pregnancies, all those miles left me rather uninspired. I needed nature. I needed adventure. And I needed to get brave and go out to find it.
I started by exploring the wide paths in the ravine close to my house. Then I hit Terwillegar dog park, still mostly sticking to the well used trails, dodging labradoodles and their sauntering owners. I even ventured downtown if I could convince a friend to come with me to protect me from the barefoot homeless guys. But wide gravel or wood chipped trails still had me pushing for speed and missing all that adventure that lay off the beaten track. Turns out, homeless guy was onto something even if he ‘slightly’ missed the mark; running in nature is like doing drugs. You keep needing more and more to feel good. And so I just kept exploring. I partly credit the fact that I worked up the courage (junkie desperation?) and put myself out there on social media to connect with other people also looking for a trail fix and I gained confidence to try new-to-me trails and here is what I learned. It is ALWAYS an adventure.
First off, the wildlife in our city is incredible. Woodpeckers with bright red heads, coyotes and their pups, moose twins, small white tail deer, long legged herons, comical squirrels and beavers. Oh god, the beavers. One time I scared one while running on a path between the tree he was working on and his home in the river and he sprinted across the trail, nearly tripping me. First, I let out a loud and meaty cuss word and then laughed until I had tears running down my cheeks. A running beaver is about as graceful as a sandbag with a canoe paddle slapping behind it and is quite possibly the greatest thing I have ever seen. I’ve also been chased down the trail with owls swooping at my head which was slightly less funny and more terrifying but still makes for a great story.
Secondly, a magical thing happens when you get off your couch and outside; it gives you a chance to re-set, to gain a new perspective. There is even a science-y word for it; Biophilia. It means that as humans we are innately hardwired to seek out connection with life forms outside ourselves and that when we do, those other life forms (trees, plants, animals) give back to us in ways that science can’t even figure out. It changes us on a cellular level. It heals us. Don’t believe me? Get off your phone and go outside and find a forest, walk in it and notice how much better you feel. No wait! Don’t leave! Finish reading this first, ‘like, comment, share’ and THEN go find a trail.
What else heals and changes you on every level? Exercise. And it is nearly impossible to be sedentary in nature. So when you get out and explore your biophilic tendencies you are guaranteed to get some movement as well. Win win. I call it E2. Sure, you can hit the gym and get a good workout and there is nothing wrong with that (hopefully you like other peoples swass marks on the bench and hairballs on the changeroom floor), or you can double the value of your workout hours logged and get outside to reap all the other magical healing powers the forest is just waiting to offer you.
I get it, it’s easier to stay inside. There is always work to do and kids to care for and Netflix to binge on, and lets face it, the weather in Edmonton leaves a compelling argument to hold down that couch. But trust me, our wild seasons make getting outside that much more of an adventure. The forest changes dramatically week to week and never, ever gets boring. It gets hella cold. But never boring.
The other great thing about trail is that you are far less likely to experience injury. I can hear your cries of protest “But roots to trip on! Rocks to twist your ankles!” Yes those are certainly risks. But when you run soft trail you experience far less impact then when you run on hard pavement. Less impact means less repetitive stress. Less repetitive stress means happier muscles and tendons. Speaking of muscles and tendons, all that time spent dodging roots and jumping over rocks means that every step brings a slightly unique movement, working everything in every way imaginable, making you really, really strong. Strong is good. Strong means less injury and a nice butt. Do you really need a better reason to hit the trails?
Start small if you have to and find a trail, any trail, and move forward. And don’t worry about distance, or time or how fast you go. Just move. Look around. Breath it in. Take a dog or a child if you need help appreciating the small beauties of nature around you. If you don’t have one of those, then borrow one. I’ve got extras if you need. If you’re not sure where to go, start asking around, explore, talk to other people you see on the trails (I bet homeless guy knew those trails inside and out, I should’ve asked). Follow me on Strava or even better, message me and say you need some E2 and I’ll hook you up, turn you into a trail junkie too. If you need a goal, like, to make sure you got a workout it, aim for ‘time on feet’ instead of a kilometer or speed goal which could set you up for disappointment if you don’t reach it. The most important thing is to get out and explore. Commit to not coming back to that couch until you’ve found the adventure you didn’t know you were missing. Happy trails friends.
My favourite run of the week this fall was never more then 4 km, which either makes me a super lazy ultra runner, or it means that those 4 km runs were jammed packed full of so much other goodness that I didn’t mind how short they were. Before you get all judge-y…I’m only lazy when it comes to properly loading the dishwasher. The correct answer is, the latter; it’s guaranteed the most fun you’ve ever had in 4 km. For the last few years I have enthusiastically volunteered at my children’s school to help with the after school run club and have forced my own children to come along as well, even if they have sometimes been less then enthusiastic.
The club was first started several years ago by a super fit young teacher who had boundless energy and glowing skin and everyone adored her, myself included. She once told me that she wanted to be as fit as I was when she grew up, which I tried to take as a compliment but I suspect it may have been her backhanded way of reminding me how old I was. She, and whatever other teacher she could convince to run, took the kids on the same route, twice a week, down a wide trail that was easy to access from the school, and I usually brought up the rear, half walking, half jogging with the kids at the back who whined the whole way about being hot/cold/itchy/thirsty/tired. When fresh-faced beauty left for a different school I was worried the remaining teachers, none of whom were passionate runners, would let run club die with her departure, so I stepped in and promised to take the lead as much as they would allow, all I needed was two teachers who would agree to tag along for liability’s sake. They agreed, but cut it back to once a week and only for a few weeks in the fall, citing the need to introduce other after school sports. I don’t get why anyone would want to do any sport other then run, but fine, I’ll take what I can get.
I suspect administration is seriously questioning the sanity of that decision.
You see, I can be a little reckless sometimes. I tend to dismiss risks as a natural side effect of adventure, and dive head first into whatever lies ahead. So I get a little impatient with arguments around safety and liability when those things are used as excuses to hold back on trying something new. Thankfully, it seemed the teachers who agreed to sign off on run club weren’t too fussed about playing it too safe, they just sort of looked at me strange when I showed up each week, eager to show the kids a new trail and let me lead the way.
And it has been AWESOME.
You have not lived, until you have heard over 40 kids laughing and shrieking in delight as they barrel down muddy single track, jump over fallen trees, and huff and puff up hills. Sure, there are kids who hang back and whine a bit (usually my own kids) but we stop lots to give high fives, cheer and of course, pass out candy. I’ve had kids beg to run hill repeats and sprints across the field, kids run in 5’C and pouring rain with big smiles on their faces, kids volunteer to ‘slinky’ back to run with the slower kids in the group. We’ve picked up trail litter, talked about trail maintenance and environmental sustainability, run obstacle courses, learned basic strength and stretch exercises and pushed to run farther and faster then any of these kids ever have before.
This last week, a little girl in grade three stopped to thank me for taking her out to get so much exercise.
I am certainly not a run coach, I am most certainly not a great runner. I just love getting out there and sharing my passion with these kids, the rest has taken care of itself. They bring their own unfiltered enthusiasm to the trails, never holding back, paying no mind to potential risks or liabilities us adults get so hung up on.
There are a million excuses we give ourselves to stay inside, to stay ‘safe’. Lets face it, our climate here in Edmonton, is pretty brutal and this autumn has been particularly nasty. But last week, not one kid complained about having to run in the snow, they only complained when they were told to stop throwing snowballs at the kids still coming up the hill. We think we are keeping our kids safe by driving them everywhere, keeping them busy with activities and arming them with devices so we can stay connected but in reality, what they need, what we all need, is simply to be connected with our bodies and the way we move in nature.
I make it my parenting mission to make my kids fall in love with movement and nature, and believe me, I get a lot of resistance. The Ipad, TV, movie night, Youtube, those are all seemingly far more enticing options, and so I do what every good parent does to manipulate their kids’ behaviour, I bribe them. Straight up, shameless bribing. “If you come for this hike with me I will give you candy” “If you come to bootcamp with me, we will stop for ice cream on the way home” “If we ride our bikes to the store you can pick out a treat.” My kids usually eat more calories in junk food then I do at a races even though I’m the one running for hours on end. Ok, now I can hear all the child psychologists and nutritionists losing their minds that I would so deviously distort my child’s relationship with food but think of it like this; when you are training a dog to respond favourably to a situation (ie. Meeting another dog, or coming when called), you give them treats so that they build a positive association between the situation, and their response to that situation. So that is all I’m doing. Training my children like dogs. Wild dogs who run through the trails while laughing and shrieking and hopping over fallen trees.
If any of you know my dog with his bad behaviour and inability to run, I hope you particularly enjoyed this analogy. Its a good thing he’s cute.
But back to run club. I often listen to interviews with accomplished runners, and a common question is ‘how did you get into the sport?’ and most of the time the answer will start with something like “Well, I ran track in high school…” I sincerely hope that one day, a great athlete from Edmonton will think way back to that time they were in Elementary school and they got to run through the woods with some giddy parent volunteer who gave them a high five and a piece of candy as they passed. Even more so, I hope that those 40 kids I have had the privilege of taking out on the trails, make a habit of getting outside and moving every single day of their lives, without fear of risk, without excuses, with just a whole lot of laughing and shrieking in delight.
It was 4:45 am and 40 of us stood shivering inside a tent with goofy grins on our faces and tiny packs on our backs. Five centimeters of snow had already accumulated overnight, and the giant flakes showed no sign of slowing down. This end of September race was usually guaranteed crisp blue skies and vibrant leaves, but this morning, the scene was straight out of a Christmas Card. You know the ones, with pictures of people drinking hot cocoa around a fire in a warm and cozy house? And yet here we were, a bunch of fools about to flick on our headlamps and venture out into the snowstorm to run All. Day. Long. ‘What kind of Kool-Aid were they serving?’ You might ask. Fair question.
Rivers Edge Ultra offers several distances to race and I suspect someone was holding a gun to my head when I opted to sign up for the 100 km event. There were only four other women in the tent that morning and they were all running the 80 km race, which meant it was a war of attrition against myself. I was already mentally polishing my first-place trophy and wasn’t listening too closely when the Race Director began explaining how they had to modify the course due to the wild weather and slippery conditions. We all shuffled like a bunch of giddy drunks to the starting corral and off we went into the snowy darkness. It only took me about 5 km to decide this was the dumbest thing I had ever signed up to do and there was no way I could continue for another 95 km. It was cold, footing was terrible, I was being passed like crazy and then I fell into a ditch. Yep, an actual ditch. It sucked. I started thinking of excuses I could use to drop out; too cold, too slippery, my knee hurt. And as soon as I thought it, the strangest thing happened, my knee actually hurt. It had been a rough two months leading up to the race because my patellar tendon was pretty irritated. This meant my training runs were less then ideal. No big distances, no back to back runs on tired legs. Instead I had a lot of physio, strength and rest. I even did yoga. And I don’t ‘yoga’. I came to the start line feeling about 80% confident my knee would be ok, but as soon as I felt like giving up, it started to hurt. I took a deep breath and remembered the words my daughter had written in Sharpie on my forearms. Smile and Flow. I repeated that mantra and reminded myself to run my own race and not worry about the people passing me. I pulled myself out of the (literal and figurative) ditch and kept going. Leg 1 done. I set out on Leg 2 on pace with a guy running the 80 km. He seemed like the kind of stranger you could trust in the dark, so we started chatting. Let me pause to explain that trail runners are absolutely insane nutballs who drive to remote places to suffer for long hours in grueling conditions (and pay money to do it). But they are also a wildly interesting and amazing humans. This guy was no different. We passed the time telling race tales and discussing the ethics of forestry and Indigenous rights. Deep stuff.
By this time, I was about two hours in and it was time to empty the tank. Now, boys, you might want to check out for this paragraph…my ladies, lean in. Guess who I was met with in the porta-potty? Aunt Flo. Now, I knew this was a possibility, but thought for sure my uterus would take stock of what the rest of the body was busy doing and would hold off for the day, but no such luck. You see, we like to think that we can control her with our pills and our rings, but the reality is, the uterus is the sun around which all else revolves. And now she was flexing her mighty muscle and making my race day that much harder. Not quite the Smile and Flow I had in mind.
Beer and Boobies!!! Ok, boys, now that I have your attention again, you need to hear this about how amazing women are. I hustled back to the transition area and found a friend who was about the start the 50 km race. She gave me a hug and I whispered ‘hey, you got anything?’. She didn’t, but she mobilized the troops at a rate so fast that it made Napoleon’s head spin and I kid you not, in less then a minute someone was sneaking one into my hand and threw and extra one in my race bin. You see, women are like squirrels, we keep stashes of feminine hygiene products everywhere; purses, glove boxes, the moldy recesses of gym bags. And we totally forget they are there until one of our own is in trouble and then BOOM, we know exactly where to look, and someone will dig into the hidden zipper pocket of their jacket and pull out a tampon that they got from some drunk girl in line at a porta potty at a music festival three years ago. Who run the world?? (Girls)
Now that I had that problem solved I was ready to tackle Leg 3, excited to cover new terrain and find new friends. Turns out my new friend on Leg 3 grew up in my home town, so we spent a couple kms playing ‘Seven Degrees of Separation’ and climbing through barbed wire fences. Fun times. The aid station on Leg 3 is off the back deck of the race directors’ house where I was met with volunteers eager to offer me home baked treats and hot drinks, making it hard to not call it in and stay awhile. But no, I must stay focused. I pounded back a hot salted potato or three, a shot of coffee and me and homeboy were off again to the sound of cheering and cowbells, ready to finish Leg 3.
Leg 4 was another go-round of the same loop but this time I found myself completely alone. Time to turn on my carefully curated run playlist. Relentless, Run me like a River, Laura Palmer, &Run, 100 Miles and Runnin, it was just song after song of so much goodness. I rarely run with music, but put great effort into the perfect playlist for today and it sure was working for me. That is until I came up to two guys plodding along, just as “Its Raining Men” came on and I suddenly became very embarrassed of my blaring tunes. It most definitely was not the super sexy times that ‘The Weather Girls’ had in mind. But then Twenty-One Pilots ‘Trees’ came on just as I rounded the corner to the most breathtakingly gorgeous section of trail; snow slowly filtering down through bright yellow leaves. I got goosebumps at the intensity of the moment.
Round two at the back-deck aid station. More coffee. More potatoes. A meatball. More cowbell.
Halfway back to transition I came up behind Hiro, who is also running the 100 km, and suddenly my catchy alt-rock/pop mix felt wildly inappropriate on this sacred ground. If you have ever run an ultra anywhere in Western Canada you know the name Hiro. This guy runs everything. He’s like a Japanese Energizer Bunny always ready with a smile and word of encouragement, and Rivers Edge Ultra was his 99th completed ultramarathon. Have I mentioned that ultra runners are amazing? This guy is who we all sorta wish we were.
Back at transition to stuff more food into my face and change my clothes yet again. I pulled my shoes off to inspect a hot spot on my feet and that is when she appeared. The magical crewing unicorn. Don’t believe me? She legit wore a unicorn head for most of the day. I’ve only met her a few times before but know a bit of her story through social media. She, lets call her ‘The Unicorn’, is an avid trail runner and very accomplished ultrarunner as well as a personal trainer and run coach. This girl LIVES to run. However, a few years ago, a debilitating concussion left her unable to do what she loves most. She is tackling her healing journey with incredible determination and a big smile on her face and here she is, on this freezing cold day hovering over me as I pick at my feet. “What do you need?” She asks. “Uhhhh…” I stammer. “Moleskin?” She pulls off her gloves, opens up a fishing tackle box full of medical supplies, and sits down in front of me and works her magic. Five minutes later my foot is clean, taped and blister resistant. I looked up at her in wonder. I don’t even touch the feet of people I love, and here she is, taking care of me, a near stranger. I think you’re starting to get the picture; trail runners are extraordinary people.
Due to the course changes, we were supposed to do the last 12 km loop four times instead of two. However, even this last loop was modified to remove a section with a river crossing and its inevitable hypothermia. So off I go with about 50 km done and knowing things were about to get harder in the back half. Thankfully the trail was gorgeous. It followed the river for awhile, before heading up and over some rolling hills and then back through stunning single track through mossy forest and a babbling creek. I came up to transition area the same time as two other 100km runners and we all stopped dead with baffled looks on our faces. The supposed 12 km was barely over 6 km, there was no way we were done one loop already. The volunteers who were recording times were equally confused and the race director was nowhere to be found. I certainly did not need to stop at the aid station after only 6km so I just kept on going for round two. I hit a bit of a low point as the mental game started to play out this new uncertainty. I didn’t know if or how we would make up the lost kilometers and the cold and fatigue were starting to get to me and I walked far more of that loop then I care to admit. At the end of another 6 kms we had the official word from the race director that the course was shortened, and we were all going to finish with less distance then anticipated. In my now frozen brain, that plan sounded lovely because it meant I would be done within two hours and would be clean, warm and fed before dark instead of trudging along well into the evening. However, the news was also a huge disappointment. I know running 73 km in those conditions is still an accomplishment, but after having my sights set on the arbitrary number 100 for so long, 73 still felt like a loss.
No time to wallow in those feelings though. At transition I was surprised by a friend who has been very supportive through my training and I was so touched she drove all that way just to see me for a few minutes. My wonderful husband mixed up a batch of liquid oatmeal to warm me up, another change of clothes and I was good as new and ready for the last two loops. Another friend had just crushed the 50 km race (shortened to 34km) and wanted a few more kms, so he volunteered to pace me.
Being the nice Canadian I am, I played the “Are you sure? You don’t have to. I’m so slow by now and your so much faster” blah blah blah. Truthfully, I was thrilled for the offer of company and distraction. That was when ‘The Unicorn’ leaned over and said, “Go for it, never turn down company.” Hugs, high fives and off we went. ‘The Unicorn’ was right. The company made all the difference in the world and I couldn’t believe how many times I looked down at my watch to see we were running under 6 min/km. Now, if you read that and think “pffftt. That’s slow.” You are either:
1)an experienced ultrarunner and have my utmost respect
2)have never tried running a 6min/km when you’ve already been running for 9 hours.
I felt like we were flying. At the last transition, I tried to hide the desperation in my voice when I asked, “Are you doing the last loop with me?” then tried to sound all cool when he said he was happy having hit a marathon distance and was done. Ugh. Alone again. Time to dig deep and push through. A shot of coffee and I was off, motivated by the now growing crowd of friends and family who were waiting in the cold for me to come in. Amazingly, even without a pacer, I managed a few fast kilometers and passed four other 100 km racers. Now, I already knew I was getting some big hardware at the finish line, but winning because you were the ONLY female, is not exactly satisfactory. But beating those guys? Now that felt good.
Good being a relative term. Emotionally, I was elated it was almost over and things were still going so well. 80% of ultrarunning is the mental game, and other then the ditch incident early that morning, I had stayed mentally strong all day. I count that a huge win. However, my injury was starting to rear its ugly head and it felt like a knife was being wedged under my kneecap with every downhill step I took. Just a little further.
I was greeted at the finish line by a pickle and a ‘The Unicorn’ who were handing out medals (did I mention ultrarunners have a fantastic sense of humour?) and of course my husband and kids and a handful of running friends. More hugs, high fives, and I was awarded my first-place female prize, which was a massive chunk of engraved and painted wood. We all laughed when we saw the girl that was painted on my wood looked eerily like me. Am I really that much of a running cliché?
I went to bed with my heart full and my body emptied, which is exactly the best way to end a day. And while conquering a 100 km distance is still a beast waiting for me to slay, I could not have been happier with the incredible journey of Rivers Edge Ultra.