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!

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…

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.