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For Miles And Miles… A Community Like No Other

The majority of people that are “trailing” are competitive to a certain degree; of this there is no doubt. However, it has been well documented just how inclusive, supportive and non-competitive activities such as trail running are. Sure, there will always be your elite competitors that make the rest of us, even on our best day, look like turtles or sloths depending on your reptile or animal of choice. Yet, even after these elites have duelled back and forth to the finish, most often mingle after their race is done. They chat with other racers, support crews, race volunteers and in a lot of cases even hang around the finish line to cheer on other finishers that are coming in well behind them. Aside from some other endurance sports such as triathlon, most sporting activities are every man (or team) for themselves. So what makes the trail running community so special?

At my first Blackfoot 50k in 2007

My first impression of the trail running community could be summed up in one word… relaxed. Upon arriving at my first 50km race I was somewhat surprised to see competitors sitting around campfires, greeting complete strangers and no one practicing their sprints or high knees prior to the race. The race start consisted of the race director dropping a sledgehammer to the ground. No start/finish line, no banner, and no kilometre markers on course. When you are transitioning from road racing to trails, these elements are somewhat surprising. A lot of people like how structured road races are and to some extent need to be. Myself, I was hooked on this relaxed environment in which everyone was just hanging out in nature with one another.

Last aid station at 2011 Sinister 7… a very relaxed volunteer told me I didn’t look dirty enough to be 142kms into a race…

Over time, I found that this wasn’t just a one-off experience. And while larger races and race series were a little bit busier, the relaxed charm was still there. Sure there may be loud music at some of the finish lines and chip timing has become the norm at most trail races, but the mood is still one without stress or anxiety. Some participants are chasing time goals while others are simply looking to finish. Inside, every person has their own stress and anxiety at these events, but by keeping the mood of the event relaxed, it in turn, calms the participant.

My parents and family are official “trailers” at these events

The trail community is supportive of each other and each other’s achievements. I have been involved in team sports for a number of years, whether it be playing basketball in high school or coaching hockey and soccer in most recent years. While it is deemed to be sportsmanlike to help up another player off the court or to compliment another teammates actions in a game, this is never the norm in these sports. Now don’t get me wrong here, I love team sports and have been involved with them all my life. However, the goal is always similar. Develop a player’s skills so they can help their team compete, with the end goal to win. Many youth coaches highlight the importance of having fun, but as the kids get older, fun is often associated with winning. And if you are not winning, your coach and teammates likely aren’t having any fun and as a result neither are you. You can be the best player on a team, but if you look at that scoreboard and you have less than the other team, you are likely going to be disappointed. So why is trail running different? Sure, it is not generally a team sport, but most importantly, any endurance sport focuses on trying to be your best. For most of us, we are only competing against ourselves and perhaps the clock, not the other hundred or thousand people in an event with us.

Volunteers make these events special and memorable

So in trail running, everyone has their own goals but they are not going to step over others to get to it. There is often casual conversation and laughter at the start line and competitors joke around and keep the mood light. On course, when someone is passed, there is almost always a “good job”, “keep up the good work” or “you look good in those tights” comment to make the other runner smile. If someone falls or is injured during a race, other participants do not continue on. They stop and ensure the safety of that individual, because they know that could just as easily be them in that situation and they would want the help as well. If there is a race to the finish line there is often a laugh shared immediately after and high fives all around. I can honestly say that I don’t know of many trail runners that leave an event unhappy because of a lack of support from everyone else involved.

Brian from Sinister Sports (prior to THE BEARD)

Let’s hear it for Race Directors and Local Running Stores that help keep this community grounded. A strong Race Director such as Brian (Sinister Sports), Gary and Amber (Blackfoot Ultra) and Sheryl and Todd (Canadian River Valley Revenge) will give participants a memorable event from start to finish. Keri from Sinister Sports keeps us all motivated with training tools and race day words of encouragement while also ensuring a hug is never too far away! Often, these folks have been a part of this community for years and know what makes their participants satisfied. These individuals want the runner that is returning for her tenth 100 miler to have just as satisfying experience as the new participant that is attempting his first 5km trail race. These individuals listen to feedback from participants, have one ear to the ground at all times, and are visionary to try new things that will be well received.

Gary from Blackfoot Ultra (middle) has been a huge part of the community in Edmonton and Area

Local running stores and sales staff help bring your trail running experience to life. I mean, where else will you get expert advice on shoes, packs, nutrition and clothing? You need experienced people to help you get to the start time, and a knowledgeable store or salesperson will get you there. Locally, Jack and his crew at Fast Trax Run and Ski Shop as well as Beto from United Sport and Cycle have been those people. For a time, I worked way too close to Fast Trax and spent way too much money there I am sure. But the reason I kept going back wasn’t because it was convenient, it was, and still has been, that I know I will leave there satisfied and with the gear I need. The same could always be said for Beto, from his days with the Running Room and to United Sport and Cycle, you trusted what he told you. He would never sell you an inferior product and he truly wanted you to succeed so he made sure you had the right tools. On a recent note, I am sad to see both Beto and Jack leave this side of the trail running community, but I know they will both be involved in other ways and will still see them contributing in other ways. Thank you both for everything over the years.

Volunteers and crew at Canadian Death Race are set up and ready for runners

Volunteers can make or break an event and most often they make you feel like the most important person on the planet when you are interacting with them! Volunteers do so much at these events and should not be taken for granted. They are there to give out high fives (who doesn’t like a high five?) re-fill your bladder or bottles when your hands no longer work and tell you how good you look, even though in reality you likely look nothing like that. Last year I had a great opportunity to work for Sinister Sports as a Site Coordinator at Sinister 7 and Canadian Death Race. A large part of my role, along with the other coordinators, was to ensure the volunteers knew their roles and had guidance if needed. Volunteers helped with setting up tents and signage, moving supplies, preparing food, recording runner’s times, assisting solo runners, and even ensuring runners didn’t take the wrong trail out of an aid station. These volunteers helped out in warm sunny weather, in a hail storm, in pouring rain, and overnight since the stations I was at were open through the night for runners. Most runners don’t see all the little things that volunteers do to contribute, but having been on this side of things this past year, it was easy to see that a lot of events just wouldn’t flow properly and be as successful without the help from these folks.

We had the best views at our Transition Area at Sinister 7 this year… I was lucky to work with such great people

Now let’s not forget the fans and supporters of the trail running community. Not to say that they are quite of the “groupie” status, but it is safe to say that you will start recognizing a lot of the same faces in the crowds at events. Spouses, children, parents, aunts, uncles, friends, co-workers and of course pets. Who doesn’t love to give a friendly dog some attention between laps? A lot of fans will come out expecting it to be like a road race the first time, but then will also start to realize trail running has a different feel to it. They love to be there because usually despite poor parking, standing in mud and horrible swarms of mosquitos, they enjoy being in nature and seeing those they are there to see, be their best in the same environment. Support Crews are those people close to a runner, that attend an event with the main purpose of getting the runner what they need when they come into a checkpoint or aid station and getting them on their way. They need to have encouraging words and a smile on their face. Some will have a pre-planned speech for if their runner is struggling and a spreadsheet to work off of to keep track of if their runner is meeting their goals. A strong support crew can make or break a race. I can attest to that. My wife is a rock star of a support crew and got me through my Sinister 7 attempt. Words cannot express what that meant to me.

My wife as my support crew in 2011 had to deal with my spreadsheets and many many pre-prepared bags of food

There is so much more too! I mean group runs, race clinics, volunteering to help with trail maintenance… I could go on and on. But ultimately, when I think of the trail running community, the word unselfish comes to mind. People give of their time to make events what they are, they take the extra time to properly outfit the runner and they ensure the safety of others during the event. Recently, as a lot of people have read, my son Eric had a hypothermic experience at a 50km race in January. We received so many nice messages from friends and family, as well as readers of the blog and other race participants. However, the one message that will forever stand out above all others was from the race directors Sheryl and Todd. The message basically indicated that whenever Eric was ready to attempt the course again, Todd would go out with him to complete it from start to finish and Sheryl would set up a pop up aid station on course to support them. Wow. This message was such a gracious gesture as Sheryl and Todd truly wanted Eric to succeed at the next possible opportunity. It didn’t matter if it was on race day or after, they knew the time and effort he went to in training and the struggle he went through on race day. So a few weeks after the original race day, Eric set out with Todd back on the course. They ended up only doing 30kms of the course, but it was memorable for all the right reasons including Todd’s willingness to be there, his great stories and his sharing tricks of the trade to help Eric in the moment, and in the future. This experience summed up everything that the trail running community brings to our lives and we are fortunate to have these moments to keep the motivation and enjoyment alive.

Todd and Eric on their River Valley Revenge Re-Do last weekend…
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Rocks, Roots, Elevation and Enlightenment…

It is 4:30am on a Thursday morning this past fall and I am about to step out the door into the black, damp abyss that I call my neighbourhood. It has been raining all night and I can see the once beautiful fall leaves now covering the ground before me. What am I doing leaving the house so early for? Well, that all started seven weeks ago when I met my friend Jason “The Ironman” to do a hill workout at 6am in the river valley. The workout consisted of a two kilometre warm up on flats, followed by three repetitions of a 600 metre hill, followed by a two kilometre cool down. The workout went well for many reasons and we had agreed to meet every Thursday thereafter, increasing the workout by one hill repetition per week, until our workout climbed to ten hill repetitions. The trick of course, is that with our other weekday morning commitments such as work and driving children to school, we still had to end at the same time each week to meet these commitments. So every week, we would meet ten minutes earlier to account for the additional hill repetition that added 1.2kms per week. By the time we got to our final week, we were scheduled to meet at 4:50am. Ugh… there is not coffee strong enough for this!

On the way to a lonely hill first thing in the morning….

I started doing hill reps when I was training for my first marathon. I still recall reading a learn to run book that had laid out a sixteen week program that would get me ready for race day! Every week for about eight weeks it scheduled me to do hill work. So I started going on my lunch hour and doing hill reps on either the Emily Murphy Hill or the Victoria Park hill, both near Downtown Edmonton. I have to admit I enjoyed the exercise and it was a great challenge. The one thing I never liked though was the amount of vehicle traffic that passed me and some days the number of runners and walkers that I had to zig zag around. Over time, road hill reps became trail hill reps. I just had to find that right hill. Fortunately for me, I didn’t have to look too far from home. I had been running in and around a large off-leash park in our neighbourhood and there was a long gradual hill that I always had to come up to end my run. This would do. And if I came in the morning, no one else would be down here. No traffic – check. No pedestrians to swerve in and out of – check. Hill to myself – check.

The lonely hill…

So hill reps became part of my weekly workouts. I found it helped me get stronger for road running, trail running, day hiking and backpacking. There was no downside to the results that came from this arduous activity. The results were there, but let’s face it, hill reps are difficult, not only physically, but mentally. The act of charting a course up a trail full of roots and rocks, then getting water at the top before making your way back down is no easy feat. Especially when you keep repeating it. Up and down, up and down, up and down. You start to feel every curve, slope, pebble, divet, fallen branch… you name it, you feel it. And it doesn’t get easier every time. Your body starts to fatigue and your brain tells you that “it’s okay to stop after this rep.” Some days are better than others. Some days your stomach rebels on your fifth cycle and you need to make a break for the port-a-potty in the parking lot before making your way back to finish your workout. Is there anything harder than sitting down to relieve yourself, relaxing all of your muscles and than gearing up to make them all feel pain again when you step foot back on that hill? There are days in the summer when you are already overheating at 6:15am and there are days in the winter when you know you could have used an extra layer because it is minus 19 and you really don’t want to be out here doing this.

Cold winter hill days…

So if there is so much challenge, so much negative sometimes, relating to getting out for these workouts, then how do we make them more enjoyable? Find a friend. Find a friend that has no idea what they are getting themselves into. Find a friend that has a training goal in mind and make them understand how much hills will help them to meet that goal. My first hill rep buddy was a co-worker and good friend of mine named Doug. He was training for a half marathon and he was the one that would get out with me on the paved hills near our workplace. Then there were other running teammates that were part of relay teams I participated with. Hills test people in many ways and if you want to see what your teammates are made of, do hills with them and you will find out after the third or so hill. But my longest serving hill buddy is my friend Jason “The Ironman”, who (as his name identifies) is a three time Ironman finisher.

Eric and I with Jason “The Ironman” on a training run this past summer

I met Jason through some mutual friends years ago and shortly after we found out he was going to be Eric’s hockey coach in his first year of Novice hockey. As we got to know each other better, we started talking more about running and hey, maybe we should go for a run together sometime. I had heard some crazy stories of his including how he was nearing the end of his first half marathon when he fainted, waking up to medical attention – what was I getting myself into running with this guy?! We lived close to each other so one run became two, which became more and eventually we were meeting two to three times each week. He was doing marathon training and I was training for an ultramarathon. When we crawled out of our cold, snowy winter that year, I told him we should go down to the river valley in the mornings because it was beautiful down there in the spring. Now keep in mind, this wasn’t to do hills… it was just to transfer our 6-10km morning runs from pavement to dirt. The first thing I learned when trailing with Jason was that he falls a lot. Take him onto a dirt trail and he is sure to be the one that finds the root sticking up from the ground, or the rock that is in your path. Fallen branches? Yup, he will find those too. All kidding aside, this was a somewhat regular occurrence and made for some funny training mornings. We always talked on our runs, mainly because Jason is such a great storyteller. I remember telling him about incorporating hill training into my weekly runs and how much I felt it had helped when I had trained for longer distance events in the past. Then I pointed out the dirt trail on the hill that I have used in the past and the rest is history. So there you have it, we started in on hills and it was a slog at first. If you aren’t used to going up and down the same hill multiple times, it takes a toll on you physically and mentally. But Jason was game for it and by taking the same route up and down, he was also less likely to fall! Seriously though, he doesn’t fall on hill reps which is why we always stick to the same route…

Note the tripping hazards in the middle of the trail…

I’m not going to go into detail about every week of hill training, but you know what makes these mornings so great? It is the banter back and forth. It is the venting about the many challenges in life. It is the bragging about our kids. It is the talk about upcoming race goals. Upcoming vacation plans, frustrations coaching hockey and soccer and funny stories from the past are all scattered about on that hill. Every time I am on that hill, whether it be running with Eric, walking my dog, or doing those damn hill reps, I think of stories and experiences that have been shared there. Not only do those hills bring out the best in us physically by pushing us towards our limits, but they bring all of life into focus. Hill reps allow you to go through your emotions and leave the negative ones there, allowing you to move forward with your day in a more positive framework. Hill reps allow you to process challenges you may be facing and come away with a different or more focused outlook on things. Most importantly though, hill reps allow you to be yourself, overcome adversities and celebrate successes, all in the time it takes to complete them.

In a rare moment with Jason not on a hill!

Jason “The Ironman” has gone through training for marathons and ironman competitions with and without hill repetitions. He has stated that he feels stronger and better prepared when he puts in the hill work. I like to believe that his mind is also clearer and that he is more focused going into an event knowing he has pushing himself physically but also prepared himself mentally. I know I poke fun at him falling while out trailing, but seriously, I could not be more proud of this guy. Not only has he finished three ironmans and half ironmans, but he has finished more marathons than I can remember. He has faced his share of challenges and obstacles and keeps coming back stronger each and every year, more determined to improve on past performances. I am fortunate to know him and to be inspired by him on an ongoing basis. More recently, Eric has put in the work on the hill as well, and we’ve even added a second hill in the same area. Much like my time with Jason “The Ironman” on the hill, this gives me a chance to connect with my son. I think his current experience is more focused on the physical side of things, but over time he will likely embrace the same feelings that I have over my time on the hill. And to be honest, we don’t talk quite as much on the hill for one very important reason… I am almost always trailing my son because I just can’t quite keep up…

Eric tearing down a hill at Blackspur Ultra this past summer
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Hills of the Prairies… this is the Blackfoot Ultra

I have been out on course for two hours and fourteen minutes. It is definitely not the fastest that I have ever run this course, but I overall I am pleased with the outcome. I had hoped to run the 25km course in under two hours and fifteen minutes, so I am right on track with one hundred metres to go. On my right side is my son Eric, running beside me. As we climb the final hill to the finish line we see spectators who begin cheering us on. I wave my hands up and tell the crowd of supporters “to make some noise.” The crowd goes crazy and I get a huge rush from the noise and the support as we finish. As I look over at Eric, I think to myself “this is great finishing right next to my son.” We are coming in at a comfortable pace but definitely not a sprint. Then it happens. With about fifty metres to go, Eric starts to sprint. As I swear under my breath, I yell out “oh no you don’t” as we race to the finish line, only metres away…

Eric as a 6 year old at the 2008 Blacktoot Ultra with Mom and little brother “coming soon”

The Blackfoot Ultra is known as a rolling ultramarathon about fourty minutes east of Edmonton. There is honestly very little flat terrain on this course. The hills aren’t as large as say, races in the Rocky Mountains, but your legs just never get a break. The course is quite run-able once you accept the terrain but those darn hills just never stop. Up you go, down you go, up you go down you go. Distances range from 25k to 100k and the event is always held the last Saturday in May. The race has been in existence since 2003 and is run by Gary and Amber Poliquin. Each and every spring, the local trail community comes out en masse to take part in this well run event that features amazing volunteers and beautiful trails. I first registered for the Blackfoot Ultra in 2007, attempting the 50km distance. Gary had informal training runs scheduled prior to race day so I decided to join the group for a 25km loop of the course on a clear, calm Saturday morning in late April. I was hooked. The trails were nice and wide (used for cross country skiing in the winter) and well maintained. I made sure to get out on course a couple of more times prior to the race at the end of May.

All smiles and perhaps a bit overconfident heading into my first 50k

Now I had run a couple of road marathons by this point so I felt that the extra eight kilometres involved in a 50km event such as this would not be too significant. What I didn’t plan for was the heat. The funny thing about the timing of this event each year is that there are some years when it is pouring rain and the temperature is just above freezing, while there are others that get close to the thirty degree celsius mark. This was one of those years. With a 9am start time, I would have a bit of time on the course before it warmed up. Driving up to the event that day, I immediately preferred the atmosphere compared to that of road races. I arrived shortly before 8am and there were already campfires going and everyone was saying hello to everyone else. There was no start line/finish line or banner that I could see anywhere. No one was warming up with sprints, high knees or butt kicks. It was the most relaxed race I had ever been a part of and I was hooked. I believe this was the first race that when I started, I didn’t feel any stress or tension which was a nice change. To start the race, Gary gathered all of the 50k runners beside the timers table and explained some of the rules and expectations on course. Then he picked up a sledgehammer that he was holding and told us that when he dropped it, that was the time to start running. And within seconds he lifted it over his head and we were off!

Pretty much what I looked like the entire second lap of Blackfoot 50km in 2007

The course was in great shape. Trees were in bloom and the grassy sections of the course were turning green. This course consisted of two laps of 25kms. On the first lap, I met up with a fellow named Derran, who I actually ran with for the entirety of the first lap. Derran would go on to be instrumental in getting me hooked on more trail runs and specifically relay events such as Sinister 7. But more about that in future blog posts. We chatted the entire time and got through the first lap in about two hours and eight minutes. Now being a rookie at this distance and getting distracted with great conversation while you are going up and down hills for over two hours meant one thing. I wasn’t drinking enough, had taken no nutrition and it was getting hot. After fuelling up a little bit between laps we got back out on course. It was just a matter of time though before we both started hurting. I don’t remember when we split up, but I think it was around the 30km mark. As I went on ahead I started cramping up badly in my legs. It got to the point where I would walk/run in intervals. Then it just became a walk. And then the cramping got so bad that I ended up walking backwards to relieve the pressure on my calves. You get a lot of funny looks and comments when you are doing this, that’s for sure. The second lap took an eternity. The temperature got up to twenty eight degrees celsius and my lack of hydration early in the race had caught up to me. With about six kilometres to go, another runner offered me salt tablets. He said it would help, and it did! Whether it actually helped or if it was more of a placebo effect than anything, I got back running and finished the event in five hours and twenty four minutes. Slower than I had hoped, but I was so glad to be finished. Never again, I told myself, would I run Blackfoot. No way, no how. Of course as time went on later that day, I started to realize the errors of my ways and my dehydration was so bad that I hadn’t even had the urge to use the bathroom until 10pm that evening. I didn’t pee for roughly fifteen hours. Ugh. There were definitely some lessons to be learned from this.

50km done in 2007. Many lessons learned…

So in 2008 I decided to go back, but this time I chose the shorter 25km distance. I was training for a couple of relay legs at the first Sinister 7 in early July and I thought pushing myself on a 25km race such as this would be good training, without putting too much distance on my legs, which may require longer recovery. Derran was back as were some other teammates that would be participating with me at Sinister 7. It was great to go out as a group and with my family (including my very pregnant wife) there as well to support me. This was a different experience for me. The weather was nice but not too hot. The race started later, at 11am and I ensured that I would be hydrating regularly on course. I felt great from the start and once I got into the second half of the race I found myself running mostly by myself. I was passing other runners from time to time but for the most part it felt like I had the forest to myself. I started thinking about what my placing may be. I figured I was around tenth overall and there was a chance I was one of the faster runners in my age category (34 and under). With about two kilometres to go, I passed another runner that had stopped for a gel. Perhaps he did not know he was so close to the end, or perhaps he really needed that gel. He looked about my age and when I saw him there, as soon as I got around the corner, I booked it! There was a lot of downhill in that last couple of kilometres running up to the lake so I took advantage of it and left nothing in the tank. I crossed the finish line in one hour and fifty eight minutes. Good enough for sixth overall, first in my age group and only thirty seconds off of fourth and fifth place. Thank you Blackfoot, I was happy to be back!

Strong 6th place finish way back in 2008

Then for over ten years, I never went back to the event. It was not for any specific reason or that anything had been changed that I didn’t like. Life just happened. I had two boys now and we started camping in Jasper the last weekend of May every year. It was great because all of the campgrounds and facilities opened up on May long weekend, but then going the weekend after there were no crowds and you had access to everything. I still went out to run and hike at Blackfoot several times a year though. In my training for my solo attempt at Sinister 7 in 2011, I actually went out every Wednesday morning for about eight weeks in May and June. I got permission from my place of employment to come in later those days and work a later shift so that I could get 25kms in every Wednesday morning. In addition to that, I always find myself out there in the fall when the leaves have changed and time seems to stand still at Blackfoot. Fast forward to 2018 and Eric is starting to join me out there for some 15-18km training runs. “Dad, why don’t we register for this next year and do the 25k” he said. “Well, you know that will mean no camping that weekend though and you guys love that” I replied. So after a family chat later that night, it was decided we would bump our camping into early June so that Eric and I could challenge the 25km course. Back to the Blackfoot Ultra after eleven years away!

Spring 2019, one week before Blackfoot Ultra 2019

Eric and I had got out on the Blackfoot course a couple of times prior to race day, including a 25km effort the weekend before. Eric wanted to run the race on his own and push the pace, which was different than our usual routine where we start together, run for the first few kilometres together, then have Eric take off on me, generally beating me to the finish by one to three minutes when all is said and done. I told him to go for it. I had a time goal in mind and just wanted to enjoy the day, which was shaping up to be a great Alberta spring day. We popped by Fast Trax Run and Ski Shop the night before the run to pick up our race packages. Gary Poliquin, one of the Race Directors, called out “is that Scott?” It had been over ten years and I was impressed that Gary remembered me, although we had both taken part in some other races over the years. One of the things I love about the trail running community is that people remember you for who you are and for getting out on the trail, not for what your final result is. It was a pleasure to introduce Eric to Gary and be told that my son would likely beat me the next day. Not that I could really argue with that…

Fall 2018

Race day comes and the atmosphere is just as it was over ten years ago… relaxed. There are more tents set up than I remember, but these are for the soloists and I am pleased to see such a great number of people out supporting runners. As the time grows near to start, Amber Poliquin calls over the 25km racers for a pre-race briefing. We are expecting to have a few minutes to mentally prepare after this talk, but instead, once she is done, she starts the race! I think I see someone go darting down the trail immediately, but I’m not sure. Eric crosses the timing mat first, then I follow him and we are on course! Eric is looking strong and I am able to keep him in my sights for about the first ten kilometres. I have great company, running with someone who turns out to be the women’s race winner. But I also know that I am going out a little stronger than I should be. I finally back off around the 13km mark and slow my pace. Aside from the odd 50km, 50 mile or 100km participant that I pass, I am on my own until I hit the 21km aid station. I find it odd that there aren’t more people around me, or passing me. There can only be a handful of people ahead of me since I was one of the first to get on course. I haven’t passed anyone and only one person has passed me since the start of the race. As I come down a long gradual hill into the last aid station, I am running beside a wire fence. The course has me following it to the end, checking in at the aid station, and running back along the fence on the other side. I am shocked to see Eric on the other side moving slowly. I call out to him asking him if he’s okay. He says his knee is bugging him and he’s had to slow down. I tell him to keep moving and there are under four kilometres to go. I know he can do it.

A little over halfway through… photo courtesy of Alissa St. Laurent

I keep plugging away, possibly a bit faster now knowing that Eric isn’t that far ahead of me. Sure enough I catch up to Eric with two kilometres left. I know the remainder of this course like the back of my hand. I slow down and talk to him. He says the knee hurts going up hills. I explain to him that he should run with me on the downhills (remember there are no flats) and we can walk the uphills. I will keep him company and make sure he gets to the finish okay. He agrees and we start out. There is no question that I had the momentum when we came across each other and I’m certain that I could have beaten him to the finish by a few minutes if I had chosen to keep running. But this is my son, and I would hope that he would do the same for me, or someone else he found injured on the trail. There is more to a race than just a finishing time after all, even though it is hard to wrap your head around it sometimes. As we pass the sign informing us that we have four hundred metres left we are moving steady and before we know it we are climbing up to the finish line. Despite his knee pain, Eric is running, albeit slowly to the finish. No one has passed us in the last two kilometres and no one is currently behind us. I am thrilled to see family that has come to support us. This will be a great moment to remember finishing the race at the exact same time as Eric. I’m sure there will be some great finish line photos. Then with about fifty metres to go, Eric finds some sort of extra gear and starts sprinting to the finish. I am not pleased. So much for my nice moment finishing with my son. I yell out “oh no you don’t” and move my legs as fast as I can, crossing the finish at the exact same time as Eric. Once I catch my breath, I ask Eric why he did that, smiling, but not overly impressed to have to push so hard when I wasn’t expecting to. Eric replies by saying that his track coach at school always tells the team to finish strong and drain the tank, so he did. In my head I’m thinking “but I waited for you, ran with you, checked in on you.” Oh well, he was clearly feeling well enough to finish strong and I am proud of him for getting it done and pushing his Dad even when I didn’t expect it.

But hang on a minute… we got to talking about who was ahead of us and it became clear that there may have only been two males and one female that came in before us. So while we weren’t in contention for third overall, one of us finished fourth overall and would get the third place male prize. The suspense was building between us… I mean this was for bragging rights and I hadn’t beaten him in a race in recent memory. Now honestly, I didn’t care who beat who, but I did have some fun with the moment. There was some uncertainty in his face thinking that he may lose to his Dad… and that wasn’t something that happened anymore. So when the time came for the awards, they announced first place male, then second place male and then we both held our breath. And third place male is… and Amber announces the bib number first. And it’s mine. I give Eric a hard shove and laugh out loud. He is rolling his eyes as if to say “I can’t believe it.” When the results come up, we see that I beat him by 0.5 seconds. Basically I ended up ahead of him on the results because even though we hit the finish line at the same time, he crossed the start line slightly before me, probably half a step, which is the equivalent to half a second. What a day, what a finish and what a story. Once again, the Blackfoot Ultra doesn’t disappoint, leaving me with memories to last a lifetime.

3rd and 4th place males respectively… not that anyone is keeping track!

A few weeks after Blackfoot, I got a gift card mailed to me as the prize for my third place finish. It said “3rd place male” and I made sure to put it on the fridge under a magnet that said “Remember.” “Remember, 3rd place male” would become a bit of a poke and a nudge to Eric to push him for his next race, and also to playfully remind him that his old man beat him this once. For once when I am “trailing” with my son, I am not trailing my son. What a relief, I mean he can’t beat me every time can he? I’m pretty sure I’m moving into my prime at 42!

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When Hypothermia Sets In…

It is about 12kms into the 50km Canadian River Valley Revenge and I see Eric climb out of the ravine looking strong.  Surprisingly, he is the first runner through on the snowy single track and is followed about a minute later by a pack of three runners, all with frosty toques and icy beards.  The temperature is a brisk minus twenty three degrees and there is a strong windchill that is making it feel like minus thirty three. As he runs by me I ask Eric how he is feeling. He says that he feels good, isn’t in need of a change of mitts or buff and that he is glad he knows the course well as it is helping having been through the route before.  As he runs away from me, I am thinking to myself “what a great day, this is going to be so much fun supporting my son on his first ultra.” This is the last time I will see Eric until two hours later when he is brought back to race headquarters in a hypothermic state by Search and Rescue Volunteers. 

Eric just prior to race start

Hypothermia can occur when someone’s body temperature decreases to a point that is unsafe. Basically, the body ends up losing more heat than it is able to produce and this can be fatal in some cases. I am fortunate enough to have never personally had a situation in which I have experienced hypothermia. The thing about hypothermia is that it can be triggered in a matter of minutes and as well prepared as someone may be for the cold, if one unforeseen thing occurs, there can be a significant risk. Eric would be out in extreme cold for up to ten hours if he were to finish this race. Hypothermia wasn’t even a consideration when preparing for this event… preparing for it, or how to avoid it was just never considered because I did not think it would be an adversary of Eric’s.

Eric after being stripped down and wrapped back up. He would be in this state for nearly four hours.

I had last seen Eric at about the 12km mark of the race but when I went to see him at 18km’s, he never showed up. He was way behind schedule and we got to wondering what had happened. Had he had an injury, or fallen through the ice and into the creek? Perhaps he had taken a wrong turn and was already en route to race headquarters for the end of his first lap? There were a few of us out supporting him that day so we split up and I went to race headquarters where I laid out his change of clothes for lap two and waited patiently. Then I got a text that said “Eric is at the last aid station. He is not well. He is done.” My heart sank. My original reaction was a selfish one… I wanted him to finish this race, not for me, but for him because he had put in so much time and effort. I was even thinking that when I see him, maybe we can get him changed and back out on course. Then I saw him…

Eric at one of the aid stations on course

There are moments in your life that you remember because they leave a scar or permanent impression on you. This was one of them for me. Eric came into race headquarters very slowly with Search and Rescue Volunteers holding onto him and keeping him upright. He looked like someone had sucked the life right out of him. His face showed discomfort but also had a blank look as though he wasn’t quite himself at this moment. The volunteers sat him down in a chair and slowly started to peel the layers off one by one. He was dressed with four layers so it was a slow process but once the last one came off he was shaking uncontrollably. Socks and shoes also had to come off and his feet were like blocks of ice. A dry fleece sweater was put on his top half and he was laid down, wrapped into a space blanket with heating pads inside, then wrapped into a sleeping bag, followed by another sleeping bag and finally wrapped in a tarp. The volunteers took his vitals and told me that he was currently in a mild to moderate state of hypothermia. To give you all an idea of what this meant… it meant that his core body temperature was between two and five degrees (32-35 degrees celsius) cooler than it should normally be. His breathing was slow, his coordination was poor, and he was showing impaired judgment and cognition when he interacted with the volunteers. The most important thing at this time was to get his body temperature back up and warm his feet and hands that were like ice. As his body warmed up, the hope was the other symptoms would disappear. It would take over three hours of warming before he was able to get up under his own power.

Eric being treated to by Edmonton Regional Search and Rescue Association Volunteers
Photo courtesy of Sheryl Savard

So what had happened out there? It was definitely cold, but we had done training runs in similar conditions in the past two months. We started to piece the story together as Eric became more coherent and it turns out that he had a problem with the water hose on his hydration pack. When he had stopped at the aid station around 13kms into the race, the top was frozen and wouldn’t open. What ended up happening was that after much effort trying to get the top to open so water could flow, the top broke off and water sprayed all over his gloves. Then he took his gloves off and for ten minutes (or more) he tried fixing his hose with his bare, wet hands, in the exposed windchill of minus thirty three. Once he got it back on, he put his wet, cold gloves back on and started moving again but noticed his body getting colder and colder. Having to trample through fresh knee and hip deep snow in one spot didn’t help his condition. The cold was spreading from top to bottom, from hands to feet. He was finally reduced to a slow walk as his feet felt like blocks of ice. His hands were colder than he had ever felt them. And still he moved forward. Upon arrival at the final aid station of the first lap, he was immediately checked on by Search and Rescue Volunteers. At first they tried to get him warmed up enough that he could finish the final stretch of lap one to race headquarters. But after a few minutes it because quite clear that he shouldn’t go on. If he would have went on, one of the volunteers said, he likely would have been found passed out on the trail somewhere in the final three kilometres. It would have taken the volunteers longer to get to him and the outcome would likely have been much worse.

Eric leading the pack 5kms into the race

This was not the race report that I had planned on writing this week. I had plans to detail the full 50kms and highlight the ups and downs of “trailing” on the Canadian River Valley Revenge course. When Eric had been stripped down and bundled back up the first thing he said to me was “I’m sorry Dad.” I told him he had nothing to be sorry for and that we were all just glad he was safe. There will be other races and adventures to come. Myself, I felt like I had let him down. I had helped him prepare and plan for this event and this was something I just hadn’t considered. I mean, who considers a hose on your hydration pack leaking all over you in the arctic-like cold conditions we were experiencing? I should have. When Eric was in his warming state, I was speaking with Sheryl and Todd Savard, who are the Race Directors for Canadian River Valley Revenge. Sheryl asked me if I was going to write about hypothermia in my next blog. At the time I recall saying no, this was too hard to go through, I don’t think I will want to write about it. But… as the days went on after the event, I felt that I should highlight this day. Despite the scare that Eric gave all of us, there were so many positives that could be seen on what I originally felt was a horrific day. First and foremost, friends and family came out to see Eric start the race and to cheer him on course. He is a lucky guy to have such a great support network. Second, he toed the line of his first ultra. It may not have gone how he wanted it to, but he had the will and determination to try it. Third, Edmonton Regional Search and Rescue Association volunteers were amazing. Seriously, these volunteers do not get the credit they deserve sometimes. My family is forever indebted to your care for my son. Thank you from the bottom of my heart. Fourth, Canadian River Valley Revenge has a great group of race participants and incredible Race Directors. Sheryl and Todd, thank you for checking in with us the next day. And last, we learned how quickly hypothermia can set in and if not treated in a timely fashion, can end horribly. It was a positive ending for Eric as he recovered quickly and does not have any lasting effects or symptoms.

Eric and Flying Moose teammate Carl prior to the race

Eric was fortunate in this situation that he came out in one piece and despite requiring nearly four hours of attention from Search and Rescue on race day to warm up, he was up and about in the days following. I told him the day after the race… “if that ever happens again in this type of cold weather, drop the pack and leave it. Gloves stay on. You stay moving. And perhaps wear some warmer socks just to make us all feel better from the start!” Eric is currently planning to still complete the full 50km course in the coming weeks, preferably in milder conditions… I’m looking forward to supporting him once again.

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A 50km Trail Race in the Dead of Winter…

It is 5:00 am on a Thursday a few weeks ago and as I stumble downstairs with my eyes half open, wondering if I put my shirt on backwards or my slippers on the proper feet, I am greeted by a cheery voice.  “Morning Dad!” Am I hearing things? That couldn’t possibly be Eric up already? Usually he stumbles down shortly after I do and on occasion I’ve had to poke him to get up. I come around the corner into the kitchen and there is Eric eating some oatmeal and looking like he is ready to take on the world.  “What are you doing up already” I ask. “I thought I should start getting up a little earlier so I’m not as rushed before our morning runs and also it lets my stomach settle a bit more before we leave.” I’m impressed to say the least, but I don’t dare tell him that. After all, I need to open my eyes first and find the  coffee.

Following our enjoyable spring and summer of trail running this past year, Eric wanted to find the next great race for him.  He wanted to go bigger. We had taken part in a very challenging, well run event in January 2019 called Canadian River Valley Revenge.  The winter edition of this event has a 5km, two person 25km relay, 25km solo and 50km solo distances. Eric and I had taken part in the 25km solo distance and it was one of the hardest races I’ve ever done.  You were constantly shot onto single track trails that wound their way back and forth and up and down for a couple of leg burning kilometres, then you would get about a kilometre of reprieve, before the whole cycle began again.  No one entered this race to break their personal best at 25 or 50kms. Plus, add to it the fact that it is held in January and you never know what the weather is going to be like in Edmonton, Alberta at that time of year. It can be a mild winter, or it can be a flat out nasty winter!  Luckily, the 2019 race ended up somewhere in the middle for weather and conditions, with a high of minus 12 degrees celsius plus a cold wind whenever you came out of the trees. This race had us crawling on our stomachs under fallen trees and sliding on our backsides down hills.  It had us clambering up a near vertical ridge and then had us nearly slip and slide right into the river! We stuck together for the entirety of the event and finished in a little over three and a half hours. If that sounds slow to you, the winner finished in three hours, so believe me, this was about the experience, not the time it took to complete it!  

Fast forward to this past fall and Eric decides he wants to consider taking part in the 50km event of Canadian River Valley Revenge being held on January 19th, 2020.  I tell Eric “you know, you’re going to have to get out and do 30km runs in potentially cold, crappy weather to train for this. You are also going to have to do a lot of your running on the actual race course, or similar terrain, so you know what you are getting yourself into.  And last, morning hill reps at least once a week are mandatory.” We went over a few other factors, “now you have to realize that most runs will be done early in the morning, before school during the week. Weekend long runs will take up a few hours of his day and you may find yourself exhausted for the rest of the day or even the weekend.”  Eric thought about it long and hard… for about sixty seconds, before blurting out “I’m in!”

And so, training began.  Eric already had the base from the events in the spring and summer so it was more getting used to the terrain and the weather as fall turned into winter.  I was undecided about partaking in the event with him but told him I would do the training with him. This went well until late November when a day after a 31km trail run, I found myself walking the dog and hobbling due to a sore achilles.  How this occurred, I still do not know, but I can tell you that it has been extremely frustrating to deal with. Fast forward nearly two months and I am just getting back to 10km distances. Thank goodness I have a good physiotherapist that has helped get me back to running again (that plug should get me a discount shouldn’t it?).  So needless to say, I wasn’t entering the race this time around. Being hurt and not able to do the runs made my role more of a coach or mentor. I made sure he stuck to his training schedule, drove him to where he wanted to run (Eric hasn’t got his driver’s license yet), gave him nutrition advice and supported him on long runs, meeting him throughout to check in on him.  And so we continued on with this and Eric, to his word, put in the proper training. The only small struggle he encountered was getting quite sick with a bad chest cough in mid-December and not being able to run for about ten days. But once he got his energy back, he continued with what he had set out to do. His most challenging weekend of late came about two weeks ago when he ran 25kms on the Saturday followed by 20kms on the Sunday on the race course.  The two runs were completed within a twenty four hour period to see how his body would respond. He came out of it tired, but overall feeling confident and prepared for the full 50km distance.  

As we prepare for this coming weekend’s race, we have a list of things to consider.   A plan for fluids and nutrition along the course is essential. Ensuring that he has a full change of dry running clothes that he can change into for the second lap of the day (each lap is 25kms).  And we have our A, B and C goals for the race. The A goal is what Eric will expect to meet if he has a perfect day out there and everything goes well for him mentally and physically. The B goal is the projected finish time if Eric has a few bumps along the way.  And the C goal is generally to finish in the allotted time limit of ten hours for the 50kms. Rough time estimates along the course are also being discussed so that family and friends can come out and support Eric. The race course has completely changed this year and we are fortunate that it is very near our home, being run through the ravine that we can see from the front window of our house.  There are a lot of details and elements at play for a race such as this and one that we can’t control is the weather. It has been extremely cold this past week. Last weekend we ran in minus 21 degree celsius weather that felt like minus 31 degrees with the windchill. The past few days though the temperature has bottomed out near minus 40 degrees with windchills close to minus 50. Needless to say we haven’t been on the trails the past few days.  The weather is supposed to improve a bit for race day with a high of minus 20 degrees projected, which compared to the recent weather will be well received by all taking part!  

So when I see Eric getting up at 4:45am on a weekday to prepare for a run the past few weeks, I know he is committed to getting this thing done.  I do not know a lot of teenagers that would bring it upon themselves to get up in advance and follow a morning routine so that he can get out the door for his run by 6am and back in time to get ready for school.   To further elaborate on his choice of morning runs, he is not going out and running in the neighbourhood on flat, paved surfaces. Eric is strapping on his microspikes and a headlamp and getting down on the single track ravine trails, or on the hills near the river.  Aside from the actual running he eats pretty well, does well in school, finds time to spend with his friends and although he could probably get more sleep, overall he is balancing everything. The passion he is bringing into this run is contagious. He talks about the race all the time.  He went to a race clinic for the event so he could see the course and meet the race directors. He is constantly checking social media feeds about the event and making sure he is looking at the most up to date course maps. At seventeen years old, Eric is ready to take the next step in his running and I am thrilled that I get to be a part of this.  I truly think he will succeed. Regardless of which goal he meets (A, B or C) I believe he will finish and will have memories that will last a lifetime. And if things are not in his favour on race day and for some reason he does not finish, I will still be proud of him for attempting it and know that he will learn so much from the struggles of the day that he will be much much stronger the next time he toes the line or has a struggle in a different part of his life.  

So to my son Eric, I will say that you have put in the training, you are mentally strong and are confident on the terrain.  I am so very proud to see you attempting this event and to be your running partner, part-time running coach, and Dad.  Now go get this thing done and don’t be out too long because your Dad doesn’t like the cold!

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Wait, did the bearspray get packed?

I am five kilometres into my final leg at the Blackspur Ultra this past August.  Dusk has set and its about to get quite dark once the trail drops back into the trees.  I look down at my watch and notice the battery icon is flashing. Crap. I forgot to get Eric’s watch after I finished leg 5 and before I started leg 6.  My watch is a very basic garmin and only lasts for about four hours before it dies. I had asked Eric to borrow his garmin (which is far superior to mine) for the final leg, knowing that mine would eventually die.  Oh well, it’s not the end of the world not knowing the exact distance remaining once it dies. Just then another thing occurred to me… much more important than the watch for me. I had asked Eric to pack my bearspray for me at the transition as I knew I would feel more comfortable having it while running in the dark.  Was it in my pack? I don’t remember seeing it get put in. But I’m sure he remembered to put it in right? Right? Right?

The Blackspur Ultra is a 108km ultramarathon and relay that is held annually in Kimberley, British Columbia near the end of August.  This was its fifth year in existence and was another product of Sinister Sports, the company that also operates Sinister 7 and the Canadian Death Race.  My son Eric who I am constantly trailing with (and behind), had expressed an interest in this race the previous year. There were six legs for the 108km distance and if we had three runners, each doing two legs, then each runner’s distance would be between 34 and 38kms.  Eric was wanting to move past the 25km distance that he had become accustomed with over the past year. As a father, I did not want my son progressing in distance too quickly since he was still growing and I wanted to avoid any sort of long term injury so early in his running career.  I had slowly brought up his race distances over the past year. But now he was wanting to do more. And honestly he was strong enough to do it. I contacted my good buddy Carl and we entered the race. The Flying Moose, as our team has been called for about ten years, was re-born with some youngblood!  

I had never been to Kimberley but had been nearby in places such as Panorama.  I was told by the race director that we would love this course, mainly due to the great singletrack that it offered.  Training went well and we felt prepared as we arrived on the Thursday before the race. Carl had booked a place for us and we were fortunate enough to find that it was located just off the ski hill, about a ten minute walk to the race start.  There was a great energy when we picked up our race packages on the Friday and attended the pre-race meeting. This event was much smaller in scale than Sinister 7 and Canadian Death Race and had more of a “neighbourly” feel to it.  

The race started on Saturday morning and Eric had the first two legs.  The start made us all smile because everyone had their game faces on, the gun went off and everyone charged ahead… for about one hundred metres before they got turned straight up the ski hill for the next kilometre!  The quick start gradually became a slow walk up the hill. Not Eric though! He was running around some people, walking for a bit, then running more to get better positioning. And that was the last we would see of him for the next couple of hours.  What a great day it was. We had put up our shelter right near the transition area and had a clear view of the ski hill. Every leg started and ended by runners going up and down the ski hill so there was really no way we could miss our runner. The first few runners came in and it was very impressive.  Two soloists in the 108km distance and two soloists in the 54km distance were the first four runners in after leg 1. Then to our amazement, over the loudspeaker comes… “First team coming in is Flying Moose!” What?? Eric was the top team runner to complete leg 1? Eric flew down the hill and into the transition area.  He was feeling good, got some nutrition and was back up the hill. Carl and I looked at each other and had a conversation about how it must feel to be seventeen again!  

Leg two was a little different for Eric.  Turns out just past the 25km mark he started to get a bit of an upset stomach and had to walk on and off for a few kilometres.  Then his legs started throbbing. When he came in, he looked done! He had a couple of teams pass him on the second leg, but most of these teams had six runners, so every leg they were sending out someone fresh.  What Eric accomplished, coming in after 34 total kilometres, was a record distance for himself and in very good time. I was very proud of him and it was the first time we hadn’t actually started a race together. Usually we would start a race together and he would take off on me at some point, but we had each other to keep company for part, if not all of the race.  This was not only a physical test for Eric, but a mental one as well. There were struggles, but he learned from them and will be stronger next time.  

Carl set out on legs three and four.  Carl is great to run with. Super laid back, loves the trails and is funny as hell.  Carl had done his own training for the race and his long runs weren’t as long as ours were, but the thing about Carl and what I love about having him on a team, is that he always gets it done.  He came in off leg 3 looking and feeling not too bad but had some aches and pains. Leg four was a different story as his body rebelled on him. About half the leg was climbing and he struggled with it.  But hey, we weren’t in any sort of hurry so he could take as long as needed, as long as he finished.  

Now the thing about being on a relay team is that you have to guess when your runner is coming in and be ready for them so that you can get out on course right away.  As a team we usually set our rough estimates before the race so that the next runner knows when to be ready. You don’t want to be the guy or girl that is not ready when your relay runner comes in to transition with you.  This happened to me once at the Banff Jasper Relay. I was part of a team based out of Sherwood Park and did not know most of the runners. I was connected through a friend at work and it sounded like a great opportunity to run in the mountains.  I was running leg three which was north of Lake Louise on Highway 93. My distance was 21kms, the weather was great and I was feeling good. The leg ended on a long downhill with the transition at Mosquito Creek Campground. I came flying down that hill when I saw the transition area and flew right through the finish.  Everyone was cheering and clapping and then silence. “Where is my runner? Are you kidding me? What do I do?” I went from being relieved to finish so strong to a feeling of disbelief bordering on anger. There was murmuring all around as the crowd could not believe what they were seeing. Finally one of the race volunteers came over and told me “you can keep running and once your runner arrives we will get them to drive up the highway and you can switch when you see them.”  I was exhausted. I had given pretty much all I had and the thing about Mosquito Creek Campground is that it’s downhill going to it, but as soon as you pass the campground, you have a long uphill on the other side. Well, what choice did I have. Being a fairly competitive person, I chose to keep moving since the clock wasn’t stopping. I ended up running about three kilometres before a car pulled up beside me with my runner. “We are so sorry, we misjudged how long it would take to get here.”  In my head all I could think was that they should have been here about an hour ago, well in advance of me coming in. I handed off to the next runner, got into my vehicle with my wife who was following me on the side of the road, and never wanted to see that person again. Turns out I didn’t ever see them again. Hopefully if they ever entered another relay event, they were better prepared.  

Anyways, back to Blackspur.  Carl was late. I was ready in advance of when I thought he would be in.  I kept running to the bathroom to pee. I was nervous, excited and really had wanted to finish during daylight.  But I knew that was an outside chance to begin with. We would see runners coming down the hill and say “I think that’s Carl” and I would scuttle over to the transition area only to see that it was someone else.  Finally, Carl did come down the hill and he seemed fine. When he got down to the transition area though he was done. He exclaimed that Blackspur had kicked his butt. I was just glad to see my friend in one piece and at the transition area.  So off I went into the trees and straight up the ski hill!  

Leg five was great.  So much windy single track and rooty terrain.  I tripped and fell about three kilometres in, giving myself a cut up knee, but nothing too serious.  The conditions were perfect and I had hoped to complete the 18km leg in two hours. I finished in two hours and one minute.  Perfect. I was feeling good and wanted to get as much daylight as possible so I wanted a quick transition. The problem is that I hadn’t told anyone else that I wanted a quick transition.  So I pulled into where my crew was and got my bladder filled up in my pack and threw my headlamp into my pack. The only thing I had asked Eric to do between legs was to give me his watch and put my bearspray into my pack.  I came in hot and wanted to get back out quickly. While I was talking to my crew, I was assuming Eric was putting things in my pack. I quickly stopped at the food tent and continued onto leg 6.  

Fast forward to the beginning of this post where I am in a meadow in very little daylight.  I put my headlamp on and notice the watch battery icon. Crap, I forgot to get the watch. No big deal, I can live with it.  Then I was looking around the meadow thinking “this would be where I would likely see a bear. But did the bearspray get into my pack?”  The funny thing about races is you often don’t want to stop. And I didn’t want to stop to check. I figured if it was in the back of the pack that would be great, and if not… well… I didn’t really want to go back five kilometres to get it and then come back another five kilometres to this point.  The odds were low of running into wildlife, but this was the one time I was running on a course such as this without my bear spray. I continued on and it got dark fast. I was about halfway through the final leg when I came around a corner on a trail and my right foot hit a rock. I had a lot of momentum and I was coming down a hill.  What did this equal? A complete yardsale on the trail. I flew into the air and landed squarely on my right shoulder. I yelled out in pain. My headlamp flew off. My hiking poles were gone. I was certain I had broken my arm. “Okay Scott, take a few deep breaths and calm yourself” I thought. I found my headlamp down the trail. The poles were found in the bushes.  “What was that noise in the bushes? I’m sure that must be another runner right? But that came from the trees, not the trail!” I knew that my arm was in rough shape but I got everything back together and was back on the trail moving forward in quick fashion! At the aid station shortly after I saw my shoulder was a bloody mess. The volunteers were great and offered to fix it up, but I wanted to keep going and told them it would make for a better finish line photo.  

Ultimately I finished the final nine kilometres and had never been so happy to see a finish line.  As I was running down the ski hill to the finish I was thinking to myself… I wonder if that bear spray was actually in my pack?  Once we finished, crossing the line together as a team, I asked Eric about the watch and of course, the bear spray. He replied “oh, no I guess I didn’t give those to you.”  I was on the final leg for two hours and forty five minutes and his response indicated that he hadn’t even clued in to the fact that it was forgotten. Gotta love teenagers! As we were walking over to the medics to get my shoulder looked at, he says to me “Dad you did great but what took you so long on that last leg?”  Maybe I would have been faster if I had been chased by a bear? Thank goodness I had my bearspray with me. Oh wait…

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My First Blog Post

Trailing (with) My Son…

My oldest son Eric is seventeen years old.  Back when I was seventeen I was playing high school basketball, trying to date girls, working part time at a video store (do teenagers these days even know what those were?) and trying to figure out what I wanted to do with my life after high school.  Fast forward to present times and my seventeen year old son is an honours student in grade twelve, has been accepted into post-secondary in the fall, is a great big brother and is generally liked by all that meet him.  Oh and he is about to attempt a 50km winter trail race this month. Kids these days eh?   

This weekly blog is entitled Trailing (with) My Son.  Trailing generally means “to follow behind someone or to be losing to your competitor.”  I see the word trailing as having a different meaning. Trailing to me means to be in motion on a trail.  In my case this encompasses trail running, backpacking, and day hiking. The main point being that trailing involves getting out and being active on trails, preferably with some great company.  Now you must know that I get out trailing with my son Eric regularly. Four times a week on average. However as he gets stronger as a runner, I also find myself trailing behind him regularly. You will find my stories incorporate both definitions of trailing, specifically that I am getting out on the trails but am definitely following behind him at this point.  This is the ongoing story of trailing with my teenager, the adventures and misadventures that occur, how he inspires me and the bond that has been built and that I hope will last a lifetime.  

I feel that it is important to give you, the reader, some background before getting into my various stories.  I am a 42 year old married, father of two that is currently unemployed. I have worked most of my professional career in the non-profit sector in a variety of roles from being a Recreation Coordinator for adults with mental health concerns to being a Manager of Disability Services for the entire province.  I have been a volunteer coach in youth sports for the past thirteen years, coaching soccer, hockey and basketball. Above all though, you must understand that I have a passion for trails. My love of trails started as a child when my family would go car camping and we would go out and explore the trails around the campground or around a lake or river where we were staying.  As I got older, I wanted to get further on these trails. After writing my final high school diploma exam, myself and two other friends drove to Mount Robson Provincial Park in British Columbia and hopped onto the Berg Lake Trail for four days. It was challenging, it was wet and our packs were definitely overloaded (why did we bring cans of beans?). But I was hooked. Over the next few years I got onto as many trails as I could in the Canadian Rockies.  To me, this was the best way to live.  

When I was 22, I had a corneal transplant on my left eye.  I had played basketball for a number of years prior to this and was still participating in a men’s league at this time.  After my surgery, I found out that I would have stitches in my left eye for a year. As a result of this, I was told I could not take part in any contact sports anymore for a year, basketball included.  The Ophtamologist told me that “you can either start swimming or start running.” Well, since I despised swimming (I failed the blue level of testing too many times growing up), I guess I would try running.  How hard could it be after all? I ran in basketball all the time up and down the court. Turns out running continuously for a few kilometres was a little more challenging than I thought. So I started running near home on the sidewalks and ensured plenty of walk breaks.  As I got more comfortable I decided to enter some local runs and races to test myself. In my first year, with stitches in my left eye, I went from a 5k to a Marathon distance. I remember being crushed when I struggled late in my first Marathon and missed my goal of three hours and thirty minutes by a measly five minutes.  But despite this, I loved the progress I had seen in myself and I found myself near the top pack in a lot of races so I kept on keeping on!  

Over the next five years I ran mainly on pavement and road, mainly because it was convenient.  Then one day I heard about a 50km trail race being held outside of the city where I live. Sweet, how hard can it be?  Well… it was two laps of 25kms and let me tell you that the first lap was great. Two hours and ten minutes and feeling good.  As I embarked on my second lap, I was certain I would finish in four hours and thirty minutes which was my goal. Piece of cake.  Here’s the thing though… I wasn’t taking enough nutrition or hydrating properly. Turns out you burn quite a few more calories when you’re going up and down on uneven ground than when you are on paved, flat terrain.  So I bonked. Hard. I remember my calves being so tight I was walking backwards on the course. People were asking me if I knew I was facing the wrong direction. I finished that second lap in 3 hours and 17 minutes.  Wow. Was that an eye opener. But man was it beautiful running (and walking backwards) in nature. It was like backpacking but at a faster pace and without the massive pack weighing down my shoulders. I promised myself to come back to this race and to also find other events such as this one.  And so a trail runner was born. Relay legs were completed in trail races as part of different teams. Trail runs from ten to twenty five kilometres were completed and sometimes even an age group victory occurred. Then I got the idea of attempting a 148km Ultramarathon in Southern Alberta. Sinister 7 was only four years old at that point and not nearly as popular as it is now.  But I ran it twice as part of a relay team and knew it had every sort of terrain, could be very hot mid-day, and had the reputation of challenging even the strongest runner. I was comfortable attempting it and knew it was very well organized. Sure. I’m in.  

The 2011 Sinister 7 was one of the greatest and one of the most disappointing days of my life.  I lucked out and it didn’t get too hot that day, 21 degrees if I recall, we had no wild weather and overall my body felt good.  I had good company throughout the event and a dialed in support crew. I finished the entire 148km race in a little over twenty five hours.  Far from winning any age group, but I got er done! The disappointing part was that I had a sharp pain in my knee with about fifteen kilometres left that left me moving incredibly slow, going down hills on my backside and even climbing downhills backwards (am I the only one to move backwards in these events?).  It took me four hours to complete that last fifteen kilometres. It led to months of knee pain after, followed by an attempt to train for the event the following year, which was taken over by the knee pain coming back with a vengeance. Turns out it was a meniscal tear and I had to go in for arthroscopic surgery.  This is far from some knee surgeries that others have had, but for me this was heartbreaking. Once the surgery was completed I had a few months of recovery but even when I got back at it, I found my knee cranky and my motivation lagged as a result of not seeing success anymore.  

So over the next few years I ran, but not at the same level or distances as I once did.  Usually I just ran around home and my distances were short, six to eight kilometres at best.  I was content with this and I regret it so much now that I look back. Then a funny thing happened… I got reconnected with my great friend Carl that had also completed Sinister 7 in 2011 and we got talking about doing a relay event in Canmore, Alberta.  The Grizzly Ultra was a 50km race that was broken up into five legs from five to thirteen kilometres in length. Carl and I committed to it, along with our wives. But we needed one more runner. That is when my fourteen year old asked if he could run a leg.  “And not one of the short ones” said Eric, my oldest son. “But Eric, you have to realize there are hills and uneven terrain and you have to carry bear spray. Oh my goodness your Mother won’t want you running where there are bears. Plus you’ve only done some cross country running as part of school and a few kids races when you were younger,” I said.  “Dad, I’ll be fine, don’t worry so much.” And so another trail runner was born.

And so… trailing was about to begin.  It would take us from the Grizzly Ultra in Canmore to the 5 Peaks Series in Northern Alberta to River Valley Revenge in Edmonton to the Blackfoot Ultra and most recently to the Blackspur Ultra in Kimberley, BC.  But I will get to all of these experiences in the future. Trailing with a teenager is so unique as there is so much to consider and I hope you will enjoy my future commentary on some great topics including nutrition, technology, social media, our local trail running community, pooping before you run, lessons learned from injury, remembering to pack all your gear and much much more. To my son I am a running partner, a running coach, and a Dad. That can be a tough mix but I think I’m doing okay with it. Above all though, I love it.

We have big plans for this year as well. 2020 is going to be epic.

And it starts for Eric on January 19th…

This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.