I always used to love signing up for races, putting together a training plan, trying in vain to stick to it, then enjoying the end result of completing an event in, or around, my goal time. Then a funny thing happened the last couple of years… I found that I still enjoyed signing up for these races, but then when I started looking at the training, my anxiety got the best of me. I started worrying about whether my training would be enough, if I could actually get my training completed and still have time and energy for everything else in my life, and what if I got to the race and I failed to meet my goal? Well, it seems as though a positive did come out of this horrible pandemic. With the cancelling of events and the inability to do too much “formally”, I, and most others, were left to determine what the next steps would be for 2020. And I have to say, runners got creative. More local runners were flocking to mountain trails and completing full day traverses in Banff, Jasper and Kootenay National Parks, a lot of the speedy ultrarunners in the world were going out and shattering FKT’s (Fastest Known Times) on mountain trails, and others turned to challenges on apps such as Strava to test their speed, endurance and longevity.
For me, I feel that I spent my year as a pacer and a running partner to others with no set goals of my own, and I had time to do it without the usual anxiety. With most everything getting shut down in March and staying shut down into the summer, I found I had nowhere I needed to be in the evenings or on weekends. And I mean nowhere. No sporting events, no coaching, no socializing… the list goes on and on. Aside from the odd errand, time was on my side… almost all of the time. It started by supporting my son’s first marathon attempt in May (which I have written about previously). I ran the last 25kms with him and paced him into a sub four hour finish, meeting his goal. Little did I know this was just the beginning of what would be a very unique and unplanned running season.
In June, in recognition and celebration of my son’s eighteenth birthday, we ventured into northern Banff National Park on the Glacier Lake trail and spent a full day out trail running. Canada’s National Parks had only just re-opened June 1st, and the previous weekend had been miserable, so we were pretty sure we would be one of the first ones into this valley this year. It started out great, with a temperature of around 7 degrees Celsius and no rain. We knew we would be out there for 8-10 hours based on the terrain, so we ensured we packed wraps for lunch, rain jackets and fire starter, just in case of an emergency. It was intended to be a 50km day and all was going swimmingly until we stopped so I could take off my running jacket.
The water levels were very high in the spring and as such we were standing on a bend of the raging river (which usually is nearly dry). I was taking my jacket off and packing it, while Eric was investigating a random camping site that had been there for a number of years (I pass the same faded red sweater every year on this trail). He came over to me and pointed at the meadow we were about to enter once we got around the bend of the river. “Hey Dad, what is that over there, looks like an animal… is that a cow?” I didn’t even look initially, just turning to him and saying “what would a cow be doing out here?” Then I turned and looked and there in the middle of the meadow, not 100 metres away from us, was a grizzly and her cub laying in the sunshine. I had been out here four times before and never seen a bear in this area, but with the parks having been closed and no people in the valley, the wildlife surely had got more comfortable roaming out of their normal spots. They were laying directly in the area that we had to run through to proceed to the Lyall Glacier, which was our goal for the day. A bit stunned, I said “well, look its not even noon, we have lots of time, lets just wait a bit and see if they wander off.” We watched for a couple of minutes, then all of a sudden the grizzly turned its head and locked eyes with me. I have never locked eyes with a grizzly before, only having seen them walking away from me in the backcountry. As soon as it saw me, it took a little over a second to go from laying to up on its hind legs growling at us. The cub mimicked what the grizzly was doing and followed suit. Alarmed, neither one of us moved. Then the grizzly came down and then drawing on our worst fears, started running towards us. Let me tell you… a four hundred pound bear can run fast! I told Eric “get your bear spray out and be ready.” As our hearts moved to our throats and we wondered if this was in fact the last mountain meadow we would ever see, the bear took a few more strides, then forked off to its left, and into the bush. It had clearly stunned Eric, being the first time he had experienced something like this. Of course my first thought was… well, lets wait a few minutes and then I’m sure we can cross that meadow and still make it to the glacier. Then logic kicked in, realizing that we may be able to make it to the glacier, but we then had to come back the same way after and if we spooked that grizzly and cub again, chances are they weren’t running away this time.
So our 50km plan turned into a 43km day instead, as we turned back a bit early, but still got to see some amazing sites on the way back and even got onto an old wilderness route for about six kilometers before heading back to the trailhead. With the memory of the grizzly fresh in our minds and our legs cut up beyond anything I had experienced before, we enjoyed a long downhill back towards the trailhead, getting rained on the last three kilometres or so and spoiling any chance to hang out at the vehicle and enjoy a beverage while reflecting on our day. Still, a great day out and it definitely did not go according to plan.
Not one week later, I was on course for the only “official” event that I was registered in this year. The event, Canadian River Valley Revenge, was a 50km run from the Town of Devon into the west end of Edmonton. As the pandemic raged on and events were being cancelled in every direction, the race organizers got creative. They changed the event to a self-supported, route finding trek. With no volunteers, aid stations or support on the course, they marked portions of the course and then provided all runners with access to an app called Racejoy, that would not only allow runners a map of the course, but also allowed others to download and follow along, even providing virtual cheers! Another unique element of this event was that to ensure no crowding on the course or mass start, runners could start anytime over a four day window. This was my wife’s first attempt at this distance and having done many training runs/hikes on the course, I knew the route would be slow. We were likely going to be out for around twelve hours due to some sections of the course that can only be best described as bushwhacking.
It was a comfortable early summer day… around 11 degrees Celsius to start and since it was a self-start, we chose to get going at 7am, ensuring we had lots of daylight in case we ran into any additional challenges. The first five kms were bushwhacking, and it was slow. I think we only covered three or so kilometres in the first hour. And only two kilometres in, Mel slipped and fell, cutting open and bruising her arm. I remember thinking, oh no, the run can’t be over already, we just started! But, with my role as the pacer for this event, I took a deep breath and checked in on her, trying to encourage her to just keep moving forward so the thought of stopping would be less likely to cross her mind. Now my legs that had been cut up worse than ever before the previous weekend at Glacier Lake, were now getting re-ripped up due to the tight bush we were venturing through. My mantra became “Thanks Todd” whenever a scab would re-open, or if I would slip and fall, giving “thanks” to Todd, who was our evil, conniving race director that we all, in reality, love to bits for taking the time to still give us this opportunity in trying times. His mantra was “this ain’t no lulu lemon run!” Damn straight it wasn’t… it was barely a run at all in spots like this. But again, with my different focus during this year, I wasn’t worried about time at all and just embraced the adventure.
We spent parts of our day helping lost runners that had gone off course, reminding each other to eat and hydrate, and above all just continuing to move forward, regardless of how long it took us. It got hot, the trail got exposed on some narrow ridges… but we kept moving forward. We were fortunate to have family supporting us and meeting us at a few designated spots along the course to re-supply water, get nutrition, change clothes if needed… and at 44km mark, they had slurpees. And it was hot out. It had reached 27 degrees Celsius, which was hotter than it was supposed to be that day. I can now say in all honesty that I knew my job was to get Mel to push through to the finish, but the heat (which has never been my friend while running) was taking its toll. That slurpee was a godsend and it gave me the juice I needed to finish the next eight kilometres (because a Todd course is always longer than expected!). Finishing that day by going up 108 steps to the top of the Rio Terrace stairs was such a great moment.
I was proud of Mel and excited that she not only accomplished this, but never once complained in the twelve plus hours we were on course. This was a very unique adventure, and I am glad that Mel and I were able to take part in it. Now as a last note to this run, I had told Mel to not take her shoes and socks off at any point in the event. Well, thank goodness for that because once she actually took them off after we were done, her feet looked like mush. Big ol’ blisters on every part of her feet… so much for those cute toes! But as I told her these were war wounds that she should be proud of now, but next time, perhaps a different type of sock? 😊
Over the summer months, I was able to maintain a long run every weekend and even began running to work once or twice a week. My mileage crept up weekly, but I didn’t find myself tired. I looked forward to every run, and sometimes I would run twice in a day, just because I could. I learned to not worry about how fast I could get a run done and began spending more time on the experience, making sure I got the kilometres in and learning that it was okay to stop and take some photos, or enjoy a view for a couple of minutes. Eric was still getting lots of running in as well and decided that completing a marathon and his first mountain run weren’t enough this year, so he created a route within Edmonton that would have him complete his own 50+km route… his first ultramarathon.
Now he was very creative about this, because he broke the route up into chunks and asked different people to run portions of it with him. He had a few friends from school and cross country/track teams join him for a few legs, his brother joined him for three kms and his Mom joined him for five kms. So when he came to me and asked me to do a 15 km portion of the route with him, I looked at it and it was by far the most technical section of the course he had created. Two Truck, Flat Pete and Golf Ball Alley were three of the slowest, most technical single track trails in the city. I asked him why me and he told me that he felt if he had any of his friends do these sections, they wouldn’t be his friends anymore after. I guess I’m his Dad no matter what right?
In addition to pacing him through this section, I spent time the day before and the day of, preparing and supporting him. Making sure that we met him at each checkpoint to re-fuel and see what he needed. Even when I was running with him, I made sure I had what I needed in my pack, but also carried extra for Eric. Despite his best efforts, he started fading around 35kms and I gave him some beef jerky, some salt and he drank one of my water flasks. Once through that tough section, he was good to go. When I handed him off to his Mom, I knew he would surely finish. Of course, his mapping skills needed a little bit of work because his 50ish km route turned into 56kms. But nonetheless he finished it in just under 7 hours and everyone that took part in running with him came to see him finish. It was truly a great experience to be a part of and I was thrilled to see so many young people doing such a cool thing with him.
To put in to context the difficulty of the section he and I did together… it took him around 4 hours to do 41kms. The 15kms he spent with me took 3 hours. I can now see why he feels his friends may have abandoned him after. To me, it was another unique, uplifting experience in a year that was anything but for many.
Late summer saw the only vacation of the year and some hot, dusty trails around Vernon, British Columbia. It is always great to get out in a different setting and experience the expansive lake views and hot valleys of the Okanagan.
As fall started, things got back to some sense of normal, at least more normal than we had previously. School was back in-person for my youngest, hockey tryouts led to being put on a AA hockey team and being on the ice 5 days a week, I was back in the office more and there just didn’t seem to be the free time that we had previously. I was still running regularly, albeit not quite as many long distances through September. Then we heard about a unique challenge being staged in early October to coincide with Canadian Thanksgiving. It was called a Falltra – an ultra in the fall – pure genius!
What made this event unique was that it was consisted of a 7ish km loop and runners were challenged to do as many loops as they could in 9 hours. I must stress this was not a flat, road route. It was a pure trail run, complete with several sets of stairs and had a 1.3km section that was pretty much bushwhacking, which was charmingly dubbed “Mary Poppins.” When runners finished a loop, they would log their time on the race directors front lawn, then head back out in the opposite direction, meaning that if you ended one loop with Mary Poppins, you had to do it first on the next loop. There was no fast way through this, so I learned to enjoy the dipping, ducking and dodging of trees. Eric and did the event together and my wife and younger son also came out for a couple of loops.
It was a gorgeous fall day for this physical, and mental challenge. In the end, Eric and I ended up doing 8 laps of the course, for a total of 55kms in about eight and a half hours. What a day! Again though, I wasn’t worried about how many loops to do or how fast we were, I loved the opportunity to just be on my feet for most of the day and see what the end result was! A big thank you to Race Director Todd (yes the same one as mentioned previously) and Sheryl for putting together such a grand adventure before winter hit.
Which brings us to where we are now. It is the beginning of December, and we have been out on the trails for the past number of weekend doing runs that range from 25 to 30 kms and gnarly trail runs that last over three hours. Eric and I have another running companion now (Robin) so we are a hearty group of three getting out every weekend and making the most of what nature has to offer us. The snow fell a few weeks back and that tends to deter some people but we’ve just found our warmer clothes and our spikes and kept on going. In fact, we’ve even registered for the winter version of Canadian River Valley Revenge, once again self-supported, in January. Here’s hoping it actually runs (no pun intended) and that our experience is less stressful than last year (see my blog post on hypothermia from last January).
So in a year when so much went wrong in the world, in which we lost loved ones, lost jobs, were forced to change the way we do most everything, running was the one thing that I had control over. It was my choice to still find ways to challenge myself when races and other events weren’t always there for me to choose from. When our summer event changed itself to self-supporting, many registrants chose not to continue and cancelled their registrations, knowing it wasn’t what they had planned for. The pandemic and the limitations put on events led me to experience running differently. I was more relaxed, less worried about pace and really just enjoying getting out on the trails for a longer period of time. Honestly, I don’t recall the last time I had so much mileage in a year.
In 2021, events are hoping to be put back on. We have re-registered in the events that were cancelled in 2020, hoping they can be run this time around. But if there are limitations and changes once again, I know that I can continue to get what I want out of the sport on my own, with my family and friends, and with the goal of not setting any concrete goals in 2021. Often the best moments are the ones you don’t plan for…