The 5 Peaks Great Canadian Crossing: 4800km in a year

I ran the distance across Canada for the 5Peaks Great Canadian Crossing in one year and can barely bring myself to write about it. My Strava feed reads like a well-worn diary to match the handwritten one in my bedside stand. Scrolling through it before writing this post was like peering back at a stranger I no longer recognize, watching her transform through each kilometer covered to complete the challenge a different person.

The quantifiable part of this challenge is easy to sum up; from July 1st, 2020 to June 30th, 2021 I covered over 4800km entirely on foot. It consisted of two 100mile (160km or more) events, and 7 other ultras with distances ranging from 43km to 120km, 8 marathons, 14 mountain summits and over 11 mountain areas hiked in for over 52 000m of elevation gain.  Every single kilometer tracked was outside in every kind of weather and over 90% of those kilometers were at a run pace for a total of nearly 600hrs. Not one single in-person race.

I earned a nice big medal for my accomplishment. But what I’m really interested in is all the other things I have gained and lost in the meantime.

I decided to sign up for this challenge as an antidote to the disappointment I felt when we had to cancel our planned road trip across Canada. It was a trip that both my husband and I had done with our families when we were kids, and we wanted to replicate that with our own children while they were old enough to travel well, and young enough to still want to hang out with us. That’s a small and quickly closing window. But instead of packing up to hit the road, I laced up and hit the trail for a Canada Day run across the city from one side of the Anthony Henday Drive ring road, to the other, and back, for a total of 77km along the North Saskatchewan River. Ten days later I made it to 24 hours in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra for a cruise-y 161 kms in my neighbourhood in a 6.7km lap run on the hour, every hour until I timed out. The rest of July was spent recovering on mountain trails and leisurely runs with friends. Covid numbers were low, the panic attacks I had struggled with in June were resolving and I was off to a great start on the challenge.

August had different plans.

A last-minute change of plans from running the Canmore Quad thanks to the closure of the Lady MacDonald trail in Canmore, meant that Tania and I decided to do a 50km day on Mount Northover in Kananaskis instead. A fall while crossing a snow field, left me with a massive scar on my head and a changed perspective as I realized how fragile life is and that coasting on autopilot was no longer ok. I really examined what I wanted out of my life and started to make some changes to shake things up and see how the cards would fall. (Fast forward a few months and I started my master’s degree in counseling psychology and had a whole new relationship with my husband.) The one thing that remained constant?

My determination to keep running.

With the help of some great friends, I was back at the top of a mountain in no time, with a gorgeous day at Landslide Lake in David Thompson country basking in the incredible privilege it is to be alive.

Autumn brought more disappointment as the expected rise in Covid numbers derailed our naïve optimism to host the first ever Run On trail race in support of Amy’s House. However, in true pandemic fashion, Amy’s husband Phil, and I made the most of it and still had a great day on the trail with friends and raised a ton of money for the house.

Shift. Recalibrate. Move on. Anyone else sensing a trend for the year?

Heading into winter, I needed a new challenge to keep me going so I committed to a run streak and diet changes for November. Those dark days refined the clarifying process that started as I lost control on the side of Mount Northover and continued into an even darker December. My Strava feed during that time captures the intensity of those emotions with snippets of poetry, song lyrics and literature woven with stories told by each run. Some runs left without any captions at all. Those were the hardest. Those were where the really painful growth was happening.

The hope we all felt while we watched the dumpster fire of 2020 disappear barely made it past New Years Day as new rounds of restrictions dragged our uncertainty into yet another year. I watched dreams of my goal race move further on the horizon and kept doing the only thing I know how to do well. Put my shoes on. Go for another run.

I poured myself into counselling theories and neuroscience. Textbooks and essays punctuated by workouts and long walks with my family and trips to the mountains as often as we could manage including a sunrise run up Ha Ling I will never forget. Somehow, the lure of collecting kilometers for this challenge kept me clawing forward. In a strange way, I was thankful for the pandemic in how it slowed my world down and gave me the gift of time. Less commuting time, no kids’ activities, no social gatherings or events to fill my weekends. It could well be into my retirement years before I will have that kind of time available ever again. It has been a strange blessing. A gift I did not even know I wanted until I slowed down enough to realize it was what I needed.

 After each workout, I received a quirky email from a site called Challenge Hound that lightheartedly reminded me how I was progressing on the challenge with subject lines like “Funkadelic work on your 10.3km run” and it would let me know if I was on pace to finish on time. By mid-April I realized I had stopped receiving those emails because I had completed the challenge already. I had originally signed up for the Run/Walk/Bike option and my bike kilometers added up quickly. I calculated that I could take out my bike kilometers and finish the challenge entirely on foot if I averaged 100km per week. It was exactly the kind of incentive I needed to make the most of my otherwise uneventful spring. 100km a week is a stretch for me. I can comfortably do 70-80km/week so this would be uncharted territory for me to aim for so much for the last 12 weeks of the challenge.

Another round of lockdowns meant the time needed for that was actually available to me, so I decided to go for it.

The high mileage weeks felt pretty good at first. I did a few marathons and other birthday long runs with friends (a strange tradition in the run community is to run your age in km with your friends on your birthday!) including my own birthday run at Elk Island park. By the beginning of June, I shifted my race plan from running a 100kms at the new Klondike Ultra, to doing my first 24 hr track event with the virtual Survivorfest and knocked a significant chunk off my final total distance for the challenge. Two weeks to go and I still needed about 180km. I was exhausted. I called myself a wagon with the wheels coming off fast. I had plantar fasciitis, tight hips, messed up hormones and fatigue. My whole body was screaming at me to stop. But I felt so close, I just needed to hold on a little while longer. Stubborn. Driven. A little stupid.

I skipped some runs and walked a lot more which helped in my recovery a lot. But mostly I looked forward to the extended break from running I planned to take, starting July 1st.

I managed to complete the challenge by the end of June, thanks to some friends that agreed to help me wrap it up by running the Henday to Henday again, this time only one way for 42km. The whole thing ended rather anticlimactically. Just one last email. I submitted my results. Waited for my medal. All that work, for…well… nothing.

Looking back over the year, summed up in distance, pace and Strava captions, I am reminded of how little life typically changes in a day, but how much it changes in 365 of them. For all the loss that happened over the course of 4800km, there was much to be gained as well. The pandemic ushered in a collective universal grief our generation had never known before, but also showed us how to appreciate what we have in new ways. For me, the other side of the grief of this past year is the bittersweet beauty of what I’ve gained; I have a new career trajectory, improved relationship, more time with my kids and am a stronger runner.  It is sometimes hard to accept, but the ugly and the beautiful parts of life can coexist in tension. A dichotomy we wish we could do without, but it just doesn’t work that way. We wouldn’t recognize the beautiful if we didn’t acknowledge all the other stuff.

My Great Canadian Crossing medal is in a way, the beautiful representation of a whole lot of ugly that it took to get there. And while I sure wish we could go back in time and never experience the shitshow of 2020 that never seems to end, I’m just gonna hang that medal up, cause it’s pretty and I earned it.