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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