Hanging on by a Thread
It was at kilometer 58 and hanging on by a thread. Metaphors aside, I was physically grasping onto “threads” of grass/shrubs high on a steep muddy bank of the North Saskatchewan River. Both of my feet had just slipped out from under me, and the lower half of my body was quickly making a decent to the river below. I grabbed the grass in a last ditch attempt and to my absolute amazement, these tiny clumps held strong. In fact, I was so astonished that it took my brain a second to switch from “sh*t, we’re going into the river, prepare for the worst” to “holy crap, we might have a chance here!” I quickly dug the side lugs of my shoes into the mud below the trail and scrambled on hands and knees back up onto the trail.
Flashback to 8 hours before, there I was standing with 15 other runners in the drizzle beside the Starting Arch. My watch showed 2:57am and the Race Director was going through the last details of the course. “We’re going to have you go around Golfball Alley and Two Truck trail, apparently some 100-milers ended up in the river and there are no more branches to grab onto. I mean you can go on it if you really want to..”
Fast forward back to the “situation at 58km”, now that I was out of emergency mode, I could assess the situation. I likely wouldn’t have ended up all the way down in the river. But on tired legs after rolling/sliding down the hill, it would have been a bad/tough time getting back up to the trail, and maybe have been enough to mentally break me into dropping out. I nipped that thought in the bud, forged ahead and running over two.. golfballs.. on the trail. “That’s weird” I thought, and then it all sunk in. “crap, this is that Golfball trail they told us to avoid, shit shit shit” I thought to myself(out loud). A few of runners had missed the turn and now two of us were standing in front of a mud “halfpipe/chute” we had to cross. In the dry conditions it would have been a non-issue but with all the rain, “dodgy” was an understatement. The runner behind me looked at it, said “F this” and then disappeared into the bushes above the trail. I thought about my options and decided the risk of a race-ending trip down the chute was too high (I gave it 50/50 odds) and going back* was also too dodgy. I made the executive decision to abort this “alternative course” and seek the “boring-yet-safe course” through the residential area on the ridge. After bushwhacking through chest level shrubs, and a little jaunt beside a golf course (ahh, that explains the golf balls!) I was back on the course markings. Huge relief
The rest of east loop was much less eventful. From the top, I spotted Anthony Henday bridge off in the distance which marked 65km and the farthest I would be from the finish line on this loop. If I could make it there, I could make it to the finish line. The trail then dropped back down below the residential into fun flowy singletrack. It was great to get back to “easy” trail running and I started to forget the stress and frustration I had felt just minutes ago. There were a few memorable spots along the course that had this yin/yang effect on me. It would transition between progressively challenging (physical and mentally) that would just push and push and push me right to the breaking point, then suddenly switch gears into the most amazing time ever.
Cruising along the double track now, I finally made the bridge and had 15km remaining. Up to this race, my record for personal distance was 56km so I was setting a new PB with every step I took. At his point, I was doing quite a bit of walking but found some extra energy in the Terwillegar trail section. I hadn’t been on the trails here for a very long time, so it was neat to return to trails I had last seen in my high school days. Not to mention, it’s flat so that was a welcome bonus! Coming back to the Ribbon Bridge I spotted someone in a November Project shirt, someone familiar looking. Was it a hallucination, or my imagination? No, my friend Dave was there in the actual flesh, having tracked me down on Strava Beacon while out for a (much shorter, haha) run of his own. Little moments like this make such a difference, and after been in my own head for hours and hours, it was so great to see a familiar face in the flesh. Thanks again Dave!
Back on the other side of the river, I now had only 7km to go. I was trying not to think about the finish line. There was still work to be done. But I felt great, cruised along the trails at a stable pace and watched the distance tick away.
One thing I like about the back half of trail races is the “race solitude” that comes from the runners being spread out at this point. While I love the community aspect of races, a major reason I’m out there is to push myself and enjoy the wilderness. Even with the 100km and 100mi racers sharing the same course, I only saw 3 or 4 other runners during the entire back half. The motivation, support, and community of a race combined with the tranquility of just being out there running your own race is this weird dichotomy that I love immensely
Approaching the Rio Terrace Aid Station (77km), I could hear it before I could see it. Every race has at least one “extreme energy to the max all the time” aid station and I had just found it. The only thing that stood between me and it was.. the world’s largest staircase. “That’s a lot of steps” I said out loud to no one. But like a moth to a flame, the energy drew me up the stars to the top. Whoah, music, extreme dance party, neon pink, this one had it all. To the Rio Terrace volunteers: sorry I didn’t stay longer at your dance party, I had a race to finish! Rest assured your “energy extreme” was like a slingshot that fired me towards the finish line
The last 3.5km was kind of surreal. I reflected on all the things that had gone well.. And also all the little things I had overcome in the past 24 hours: The early start (I am not a morning person) The 3 hours of sleep I was running on( why did I go to bed so late, I’m so dumb). The chest congestion that returned and ensuing coughing fit for the entire 11 hour drive to Edmonton. The pouring rain for the first 3 hours of the race. I had overcome all of these and managed to keep moving for 11+ hours to cover almost 80k! As I crossed the finish line, I felt a mixture of fatigue, gratification & serenity. I had no idea what placement I was in, nor did it really matter. I had continually pushed myself through difficult & uncomfortable situations and made it out the other side. I had pushed myself to new mental, physical and emotional thresholds. This is why I run ultras. To push myself, get uncomfortable, and see what I can accomplish. And accomplish something today I did.
By the numbers
- 11 hours, 24 minutes, 12 seconds.
- 9000 calories burnt (according to Strava)
- 1347m elevation gain
- 3000 mosquitos
- 10L of water
- 6 Berry Blast Probars
- 350g of Hammer Montana Huckleberry Gel (equivalent to ~12 gel packets)
- 7 Hammer Effervescent Electrolyte tabs
- 2 pairs of socks/shorts/shirts
- 2 golfcourse fairways skirted in commando-mode.
Thanks to all the organizers & volunteers that made this event happen, you guys rock! I can’t even begin to imagine how much work it would take. Thanks to my partner Charlotte for all the inspirational SMS messages along the way (“Only 20km left!!”) and to all my friends on Facebook/Instagram sending virtual cheers watching along the way. Thanks to my parents for showing up at the Finish Line (sorry that I ran past you, Mom!)