Brave Girls: Inspiring Female Adventurers

I just watched an inspiring TED talk by Caroline Paul: To Raise Brave Girls, Encourage Adventure. For starters, Caroline is an amazing role model: eloquent and intelligent, she’s also a paraglide captain, a firefighter, and she once attempted the world record for crawling. (She crawled for 12 hours!)

Caroline tells us how there is a gender bias in promoting bravery at a young age: while young boys are encouraged to engage in “risky play”, young girls are often told to avoid risks, to be careful. I’m not going to lie, when I asked to play hockey at age 9, I was registered for figure skating. (Although, I ended up finding a way to make that risky, attempting triple salchow over and over and over.)

This is part of the reason why Jo, Nancy and I made Girls Gone Wilderness, to do a small part in shaping opportunities for young women to be tempted by adventures that promote excitement, fun, and a bit of courage. It’s not always natural when we’ve been raised to see mostly guys doing adventure sports, especially in biking, skiing, and the extreme adventures. (Ps! Our next event is almost sold out!)

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After watching Caroline’s TED talk, I wanted to go back in time and meet some of the most courageous women throughout history. I went down a (wonderful) rabbit hole learning more about Katherine Switzer, (she broke the rules to become the first woman to run Boston Marathon) and Lynn Hill, (she was the first person, male or female, to free-climb The Nose in Yosemite) and Ann Trason (she broke, like, 20 world records in ultra-marathons). It was overwhelming, in a great way, and so I had to focus closer to home.  Today’s blog is about an inspiring BC mountaineer, whose first ascent was Grouse Mountain!

Introducing Phyllis Munday

Local BC lady Phyllis Munday, born in 1894, had a lifelong mission in the mountains. The first woman to reach the summit of Mount Robson, she was unique not only for her first ascents, but for her style of achieving them: she and her husband Don achieved many first ascents together, even after having a family.

Phyllis and Don pioneered routes in some of BC’s most sacred places, like Mount Waddington, where they spent over a decade of failed attempts. There is now a Mount Munday in the Waddington range (which, of course they summited, in 1930).

All this during a time when women weren’t really meant to even wear athletic attire:

Her male team members barely blinked when she’d stash her respectable city skirts somewhere on the trails and carry on in her bloomers. This was somehow less risqué than wearing trousers or knickerbockers.
Account from Experience Mountain Parks

To put this in perspective, when Phyllis was in her 4th or 5th attempts at Mount Waddington, US women had just gotten the right to vote, and women in Toronto still weren’t showing leg in public.

Time to do more, worry less. Like this time I had to crab-walk down a descent in the Rockies that scared me:

Terrified

Photo by Julien.

“Women, like men, should try to do the impossible, and when they fail, their failure should be a challenge to others” – Amelia Earhart

Featured image, by Tory Scholtz.

COVID era trail racing

Race Report: Quebec’s Ultra Trail Harricana During COVID-19

As someone who grew up and then studied in the Vancouver area, I haven’t spent much time on the East Coast of Canada. Well, I’ve been lucky to travel to Newfoundland in 2015 to run the East Coast Trail with Katie, and I got to briefly visit Fredericton, New Brunswick in 2018 for a work conference. But there’s so much more!

In 2020, I wanted to do a Western States Qualifier trail race somewhere cool, and Quebec’s Ultra Trail Harricana (125k) was a huge draw. I had never been to Quebec, neither had Julien substantially. The course was point to point, and full of lakes, forests, and fun technical terrain. I signed up back in winter, thinking it would be fun to explore Quebec and eat poutine.

But then, COVID-19 canceled most travel and races in 2020. I assumed the race would be off, like everything else. But the race organizers stayed focused, adapting their event to the evolving provincial safety regulations to make it happen. By late-August, the race announced that it was permitted to proceed– the shorter distances were canceled, but the longer events were happening!

I hadn’t trained specifically for this race, but I felt fit and accidentally ready from a summer of adventures. It also looked like the race did an incredible job with morphing their event into a safe, COVID-era race: physically-distanced start line, re-imagined aid stations, and new mandatory gear requirements like hand sanitizer and masks for aid stations. Three weeks before the race, we booked flights… we were going!

Terribly-planned pre-race travels

A small hurdle occurred in the trip planning: the race starts Saturday at 2am Eastern, and because my trip planning was so last-minute, I wasn’t able to get Thursday off work. This meant I’d have to fly across Canada Friday, and head straight to the race start line. Most people would maybe look at that plan and decide the race wasn’t feasible, or maybe decide to change to a later race in the schedule. (There was a 60k, and an 80k, both starting much later on Saturday morning.) But the running through the night appealed to me, as did the 125k, as it was a Western States qualifier. It seemed totally doable. This was happening!

What I didn’t factor in, was that the pre-race travel was 17 hours door to door. I literally woke up, jumped in my car in Squamish, and was traveling non-stop by car to the airport, plane to Montreal, car again to Charlevoix, and then shuttle bus, directly to the race start. Not exactly ideal! To make this ill-thought-out plan worse, my Thursday night sleep wasn’t great because our cat Bartholomew got violently ill that night, and I woke up intermittently as Julien got up to clean up his vomit throughout the night!

Needless to say, I arrived in Charlevoix at midnight feeling very sleepy already.

It will be pretty crazy if you can pull this off, Julien told me.

He made me a strong coffee with our 15 minutes of downtime before the race shuttle bus, and I figured that once I got running, I’d be fine.

Technical trail heaven

The race starts off in a national park called Parc national des Grands-Jardins, which is a more remote area within Charlevoix. One thing that fascinates me about Quebec, is that they have their very own national park system. The parks seem pristine, with beautiful trails, rivers, and lakes, and lots of cool cabins sprinkled throughout.

Getting off the shuttle bus in the night sky, I could see the big dipper shining brightly and a blanket of stars above me. This was my reward for all the driving, and for staying up late. In front of me, all I could see was darkness, and a row of small boreal trees bordering a dirt road. It was a neat experience setting foot in a new province and a brand new national park for the first time at nighttime, unable to see what things really looked like around me. I laughed that this was just a super-long shakeout run, straight off the airplane…

COVID era trail racing

COVID era trail racing. Julien sends me off onto the shuttle bus to the start!

I met Karen’s friend Steve from Ontario as we stepped off the bus, and was delighted to gain a friendly start line buddy. However, the race didn’t want a crowd, and within two minutes of commiserating, I was called out of the outhouse lineup and to the start line. The first wave of a few of us was starting!

Selfishly, I loved the COVID edition of this race. I was running alone down the initial dirt road kilometers, with just the night sky above me and the snacks on my back. It truly felt wild. I paid special attention to the illuminated trail markers, trying to make up for my lack of preparation for the race.

Before long the markers directed me onto a technical trail, and it felt just like home in Squamish. The trail was super narrow, with ankle grabbers, rock slabs, and sprawling roots around mud pits, and I couldn’t help but think of the trail down from Goat Ridge I’d done with Karen two weeks before. It felt like we were up high in an alpine environment, with an intense, cold wind greeting us every time we popped above the treeline. Here I got to meet a bunch of really friendly Quebec runners. There was Charles from Montreal, and a few other really nice guys. Everyone was super talkative and chill, knowing that we had a long night and day ahead. Although most people hate night running, with my super-bright 500-lumen Fenix light, I was indulging in every step of it.

As my new Quebec friends promised, I saw the sunrise from the top of Mont des Morios, which is one of Charlevoix’s 5 summits challenge. For the first time, I got to see what Charlevoix really looked like: a sea of boreal forest as far as my eye could see, with inviting little lakes. Beautiful!

Charlevoix, as seen from the top of Mont des Morios as the sun rises.

Charlevoix, as seen from the top of Mont des Morios as the sun rises.

I descended down Mont des Morios, and at this point, volunteers started telling me “premier femme”! I took it all with a grain of salt, I was only about 1/4 into the race with a long way to go!

Coffee and naptime

At 7am on the dot, a wave of intense sleepiness hit me. It felt like I had popped a few T3’s plus Gravol, like I was hazy and metally sluggish, and about to fall asleep while moving. Uh oh, I thought. I was only about a marathon into the race, with many hours to go.

Okay, I thought. There’s an aid station ahead in about half an hour, and they have coffee! It felt kind of funny, like I was running to a Starbucks in the middle of nowhere. I checked the screenshot on my phone that had the aid station menu to confirm, as I wouldn’t want to be disappointed…

COVID-era aid stations were interesting. At this year’s event, you had to wear a mask at each aid station, and unless you get your own water from streams, it’s pretty hard to avoid using aid stations entirely. (I had my own food for 10 hours, but I still needed water.) I got really good at whipping out my mask mid-stride and spreading it over my face just before the aid station, after I made sure volunteers could see me smiling for quite a while beforehand. (I’m not good at smiling just with my eyes!)

Two hot instant coffees later, it tasted delicious but I still felt hazy. My mind and body was turned off, and I carried along, slowly and sluggishly. This is fine, I thought. The upside is that you’re saving energy with this chillaxed sleepy run pace, I told myself. The weird thing, is that I still thrived on technical descents in this super-sleepy state. However, the most gradual uphills were no longer runnable to me. My body was in a strange state, set to simmer.

Can you tell I was sleepy? Eyes closing at every opportunity. 😉 I’m still smiling though, so happy to be out here in such beautiful country! Photo by Carl Vignola.

I was nearly at the halfway point, and I knew Julien would be there. I can take a nap there, I thought. I’d never napped in a race before, but I’d seen my friend Kerry nap for a few minutes during his 200 milers, so I knew it must be very helpful.

I plodded along to Julien around 60k, which was situated inside another national park, called Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. Naptime! Julien knew just the spot: he led me to a quiet area in the shade, away from the rest of the aid station. He draped my wool shirt over my face, and then supervised me, as I indulged in a glorious 15-minute nap. I woke up naturally again after 15 minutes, and I felt like a new human. The sluggish, drugged feeling had vanished, and I felt mentally awake again.

Alicia napping at Ultra Trail Harricana

I indulged in more neurotic aid station organization and then walked off while eating a cheese bun. Despite the nap, I was still leading the women’s race.

The next section was another delight, as it led me along a runnable, wide gravel path along La Rivière Malbaie. Across the river, I could see an incredible granite mountain rising up from the valley that reminded me of the Chief in Squamish. Along I went, and the trail became more technical, transforming into a beautiful, rocky singletrack trail along the river. At this point, I had zero worries about how far I’d gone, or how much ground I still had to cover. I was really just enjoying the moment.

The dreaded nausea

Right around this time, I started to feel nauseous. I listened, slowing my pace to a hike, and taking in small amounts of different (salty) food. This will pass in 10 minutes if I just slow down, I thought. However, the nausea remained. I tried taking Clif shot blocks for their electrolytes, but that didn’t help. I also tried Carbopro, thinking that maybe water-based calories would be a decent idea. That was repulsive. So, I hiked on, disappointed that I couldn’t try to run the notorious technical, rolling trail in front of me. I tried eating some salt and vinegar chips, but my body also refused them.

If you haven’t experienced nausea before while running, you are one lucky human. To me, it’s the absolute worst feeling. It’s reminiscent of competing with your ex-boyfriend to drink as much Alberta Pure vodka as you can on New Year’s Eve, but then trying to run through a national park at the same time, rather than being able to curl up on the heated floors of your party host’s washroom, with breakfast awaiting you in the morning.

No heated washroom floor was here to save me, I had to run through the national park. Despite the nausea, I managed to run some sections here and there, especially the descents. I was moving slowly, but I was still moving in the right direction. Despite my condition and mostly hiking, I leapfrogged runners back and forth, maintaining forward progress and still leading the women’s race.

Not what you’d hope for your stride to look like if you were doing a fast running race, but getting the job somewhat done. Damn I need a haircut! Photo by Denis Rouleau.

I reached the Coyote aid station around 80km, which is supposedly the place where most runners drop out. Despite my slow pace for the last few hours, I still felt nauseous, now even more so. I hadn’t eaten more than maybe 100 calories in the past 2 hours, and I knew that wouldn’t be enough to complete another trail marathon.

I’ll chill at this aid station and make sure I get food in and recover, I thought. But that’s easier said than done when you’re feeling nauseous. I sat on the grass and scanned the aid station for something delectable, but nothing seemed attractive. I asked for some veggie soup broth, but it wasn’t very salty, and I struggled to get that down. I also ate 1 single cookie, which was okay. A runner next to me had also been nauseous, and I did my best to encourage him on, but he was going to drop here. The minute he dropped, he looked all happy with a beer in hand, relaxing in a camp chair while waiting for a ride back to the finish at Mont Grand Fonds…

I still felt like shit after 30 minutes at the Coyote aid station, but I knew that these things change, and if I kept going I had a good shot at working things out. I got up and shuffled out, and the volunteers cheered me forward.

Unfortunately, my stomach was still feeling like it was full of vodka, and anytime I tried to have a small amount of food or water, my stomach further rebelled. Okay, fine, I’ll hike, I thought. I was still leading the race, but at this point it was just about struggling to the finish. In my head, I calculated that I could maybe finish the race in 8 hours at 4km / hour hiking pace. That would take me into a second night, but I had everything I needed for that.

Ultra Trail Harricana course

The race featured lots of cool singletrack.

Hours went by as I hiked on, and nothing helped. My music choices were terrible, my water tasted terrible, and my food was disgusting. Several times I tried to throw up as a way of resetting my system, but it wouldn’t quite happen.

At this point, I had been nauseous for hours already, and it was miserable. Nothing was working, and I knew that the next 6 hours were going to be nauseous, in the dark, alone. At this point, I made the decision that I would drop at 100km, to spare myself such torture in such a pristine place.

I finally managed to throw up at the side of the trail, bringing back memories of being 17 at a house party. Only this time, I was alone in a foreign national park before dusk. Not on some kid’s heated bathroom floor…

Around 90k or 95k, I was finally passed by a female.

Packs of moose in the night

With 7km to go until my exit aid station, I got 1 bar of cell phone reception and called Julien, to see if he would hike towards me for company. He’s an empathetic husband, and he agreed, walking towards me on the muddiest trail, in his slippers. After some time, I spotted three large moose ahead of me on the dirt road where I was. One had massive antlers. I knew it was rutting season, and that they could charge. In my weak and sleep-deprived state, I texted Julien to let him know I was going to wait on the side of the road, until the next runner could cross the moose with me. I waited a full ten minutes as dusk set in around me, during which I was also hearing noises in the trees next to me. Must be a bear climbing a tree, I was convinced.

Finally, a runner came from behind and agreed to go with me towards the dreaded moose pack. We got there, and he laughed. The “3 moose” were actually just a tawny-coloured section of tree… definitely a hallucination! We chatted a little bit just so I could prove I wasn’t crazy, then I encouraged him to pick up his pace. I continued to hike toward Julien and my exit, with the assurance that there were no moose nearby.

I called it a day at the Epervier aid station, my first 100 kilometers of Quebec now over. As we drove through some 20km’s of dirt roads to exit near Mont Grand Fonds, I drifted in and out of sleep in the passenger seat. So deep, that apparently my head was flopping to the side and smacking against the side of the car, and I wouldn’t even flinch– just kept sleeping deeply.

Alicia sleeping ultra trail harricana

At some point, I woke up reluctantly for a moment as Julien called out that there were actually 3 moose in front of us on the road! They were large and antlered, like the ones I had imagined earlier that evening. Seeing the moose, and having Julien see them too, helped my case. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all for imaging such a possibility.

Quebec City recovery

Following the race, I spent a couple nights in La Malbaie (Charlevoix), mostly eating, sleeping, and petting baby alpacas. I recovered very quickly, I have to say thanks to the awesome Quebec food, and a cozy day of rain which discouraged doing anything stupid. (The race itself had super-soft trails and I wore Hokas, so I felt amazing even after 100km.)

Charlevoix breakfast

I’ve never met a bowl of latte I didn’t like…

We visited the Hautes Gorges national park again to do the main Acropole des Draveurs Trail, which is a fun trail that climbs up the large granite I’d seen during the race, across the valley. It’s a popular and super busy trail, but it was well worth it.

After that, we said goodbye (reluctantly!) to the beautiful lakes and forests of Charlevoix, and wandered off in our rental car, Sparky, toward Quebec City. There we found a real-life Disneyland, with castles, fort walls and cannons, and a beautiful European village in the historic old town. It was the perfect place to recover, full of amazing restaurants, poutine, and our hotel left a surprise bag of pastries outside our door every morning! The historic streets were completely empty, being outside of tourist season and with international travel still restricted.

Alicia in Quebec City Old Town

10/10 I will do this race again, Quebec was everything I hoped for and more.

Learnings

My future self will hopefully learn from all this…

  • I will travel at least a day before the race. Ideally even two or three! I’d definitely also nap during the day before the race, as the 2am start was quite challenging without any sleep beforehand. (This seems obvious in retrospect!)
  • I will be sure to drink way more water in the race, as I think this was the main culprit for my nausea. Starting at night in the cold, I wasn’t very thirsty and it meant I only drank less than a liter in my first 3 hours! In hindsight, that was a big mistake. It’s best practice to drink about a liter an hour, and dehydration is a common cause of nausea. Next time if I get nauseous, I will try sipping plain, icy cold water to re-hydrate.
  • It was really nice to spend some time thru-hiking before this race, because it meant that everything I carried as extra gear felt like it weighed absolutely nothing! I had all the mandatory gear required by the race plus 2 external battery packs (for my phone, lights, and GPS watch), two different lighting systems in case one failed, 3 pairs of socks doubling as gloves, a full foot repair kit, and 10 hours worth of food. Normally this would feel heavy and sluggish to me, but because I’d spent a week carrying a 15-pound pack, it felt like nothing. It was also great training for lots of time on feet with minimal impact.
  • A 15-minute nap can do wonders…

Gear

You never know what will go wrong during an ultra. These pieces of gear have really held up though in all my recent races and adventures:

  • Hoka Speedgoat EVO shoes: I wore these for the entire 100km I was out there, running through mud. They kept my feet and whole body super happy the whole time! I had a backup pair of shoes at halfway but didn’t need to use them, these shoes were so comfy.
  • Sockwell merino/synthetic blend light compression socks: these socks were awesome. My feet were super muddy and wet all day, but I never needed to change these socks. I’m not sure why I didn’t wear these on the GDT, I’ve had awesome results with them every time I’ve worn them for long, muddy adventures.
  • Arcteryx Norvan SL jacket: this thing is like magic, so light and tiny but packs so much warmth and protection from any kind of elements. I had this in my bag all day and wore it during the night when we got up higher.
  • Salomon Sense shorts: these shorts are so awesome, with huge stretchy pockets around the waist for easily stashing garbage etc. I wear mine a size too big for extra comfort. Love them!
  • Fenix lights: I have a handheld and a headlamp from Fenix, both are amazing and give 500-1,000 lumens. Game-changing for running at night!
  • Luxtude external battery packs (from Amazon): these things are super compact and offer such peace of mind to re-charge devices out there. I get about 50 hours of charge from my GPS watch with one of these and a full iPhone charge!

Happy trails!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My First Date With the Great Divide Trail

I bought the guide book for the Great Divide Trail several years ago, at a time when I was just getting into mountain adventures. I would leaf through the pages and see photos of enormous scree fields, remote mountain passes and the incredible route through the Rockies, and it really captured my imagination. At the time, it wasn’t something I was planning on doing, just something that inspired me. 

Somewhere along the way, the Great Divide Trail went from a book that sat on my bedside table, to a plausible thing I could do. This year, I finally decided the time was now, planning an ambitious three-week thru-hike on the 1,100+ km trail. I only had 3 weeks off work, but I was impatient– I wanted to do the whole thing! This would mean big days, but I thought it would be doable, with some luck and good planning. I planned to start at the Canada/US border in Waterton Lakes National Park and follow the Divide all the way to a wild place north of Jasper, at the trail’s terminus, Kakwa Lake Provincial Park. Early on in my planning, I invited my friend Nicola, who was more experienced with thru-hiking, and Joanna, who was from the Calgary area and knew about half the route. To me, three people seemed an ideal number, and I went into the trip with a goal of being an incredible team above all else.

Nicola, myself, and Joanna on the evening before we started, near Waterton Lakes.

How the f$#%! did I get here?!

I never made it to Kakwa Lake.

In fact, I never even made it to Kananaskis

Instead, my hike ended with me, sitting alone on the Fording River / Greenhills Mine Road 40k north of Elkford, as Nicola and Joanna hiked away from me, continuing on my trip without me…

This is where my hike ended. 900km short of my goal, I watched my friends walk away from me to complete the adventure I dreamed up, as I sat here alone and waited for a hitchhike down this POS road.

There’s so much to tell you, and I could talk your ear off about the Great Divide Trail. For now, let’s dive into why I covered only 300k instead of the 1,200 I had planned…

 

Day 1 and 2: a dream come true

On our first day in Waterton Lakes, I remember thinking how amazing everything was going. It felt like the universe really had our back! We lucked out with a huge window of amazing weather, wildflowers were in full bloom, and the extremely wet trails we’d seen from reports a month ago had all completely dried out! We didn’t see a single bear, surprisingly. Aside from the amazing trail conditions, our packs were full of Timbits and bacon, and people were making blueberry-bacon pancakes for us…

The southern terminus of the GDT at the beautiful Waterton Lake!

 

La Coulette Ridge on GDT

Nicola heading across La Coulette Ridge on our second day. The beautiful ridge continues in front of us.


Day 3: disaster begins

By lunchtime on day three, my worst fears materialized. Walking down Highway 3 toward the convenience store in Coleman, I started to feel pain on the bottoms of my feet. Taking Krissy Moehl’s advice to deal with problems right away, while they were small, I immediately stopped and tended to the blisters. At the time, I thought that I had all the solutions to deal with them. I grabbed more fancy blister bandaids to go with my cold coffee at 7/11, and continued on. (I was tempted by the Tylenol aisle, but I figured the 10 I had should be enough.)

Really, my worst fear going into this trip was foot failure. Sure, grizzlies and river crossings and getting lost are all scary things we’d encounter along the way. But foot failure was the one thing I couldn’t control, and the one thing that had the biggest likelihood of being a legitimate trip-ender. Before the trip, I read about foot maceration for many hours, and prepared the most blinged-out foot care kit ever: Leukotape, KT Tape, 4 varieties of fancy bandaids, crazy glue, Thylenol, alcohol wipes, scissors… we even had antibiotics and T3’s leftover from Joanna’s recent surgery, just in case.

Early morning miles just south of Coleman, Alberta. Check out Crowsnest Mountain directly in front of us on the route, GDT continues just to the west of it!

Unfortunately, all the bandaids and crazy glue in the world wouldn’t suffice. By the evening, I was a mess. I was surrounded by the most beautiful scenery on the brand-new GDT section called the High Rock Trail, with giant limestone headwalls to my left, and Crowsnest Mountain standing proudly on my right. The trail reminded me of the Lizard Range near Fernie’s Island Lake Lodge, which is one of my favourite places in the world. Yet despite my infatuation with the scenery, I was suddenly having a meltdown: the pain had become intense, I was getting dropped by Joanna and Nicola due to my limped gait, and I started to sob uncontrollably underneath my sunglasses. This trip was my idea, and I had dreamed about it and organized it for months. I’d spent hours wrangling permits, training, looking at maps, organizing friends to stay with along the way, and dehydrating the shit out of fruits and vegetables. We all knew there was a possibility that someone may eventually get injured, but for that to be me, on my own trip, on day 3 of 20 planned, I just couldn’t handle it.

How did this happen so soon?!

I thought back to how my feet looked and felt before the trip– soft and supple, like I’d just had a spa treatment. Except I hadn’t… all the calluses I’d built up through the years had peeled off after a disastrous foot episode two months earlier, while making the dumb choice of hiking 50k in waterproof hiking boots just to mix it up. By the end of that hike, my feet were in total trenchfoot condition just from bathing in my own foot sweat all day, and I ended up losing layers of skin over the next two months, until just before the GDT. Sort of like a spa, right?

While I sobbed like a toddler, Nicola and Joanna started gapping me, and I felt a division in the group. More and more, I saw them hiking together as a team, while I just struggled on behind, intermittently crying. As the weakest link, I started to wonder if a Grizzly would just come and eat me. At some point, I went into a full meltdown, waddling over to a bush and announcing I was done. They turned, telling me they thought I was laughing, and didn’t realize I was actually balling my eyes out. From there they let me lead a bit, as I may have mentioned something about letting me get eaten by Grizzlies. I hammered on, walking sideways, and eventually got way happier after we started hiking together as a group. Things became fun again with laughter and jokes, especially when we discovered that the Latin name for Grizzly has the word Horribilis in it. We decided to gift Joanna Horribilis as a trail name. (In our tired state, that was somehow hilarious.) I was named Tenderfoot, (T-Foot for short) for obvious reasons, and Nicola seemed to fit “The O.G.”, as she’s thru-hiked a bunch, and brought with her this sage-like knowledge. I regained a lot of strength from the camaraderie. That evening, the campsite at Window Mountain Lake was a beautiful, welcoming sight that brought me immense comfort. I hobbled around the campsite doing my daily camp chores, thankful to be in such a beautiful place.

Just a few steps from our campsite at Window Mountain Lake. One of my favourite spots we visited.

 

Day 4: brought to you by Thylenol

Day four was a day filled with hope and renewed motivation. We set off in the morning, ascending over Racehorse Ridge as the morning sun greeted us. Window Mountain Lake and our campsite from the night before lay below us, a place that really comforted me. Today we got to see Brian Gallant again, an amazing man who had already helped us so many times in the Crowsnest Pass. (He’s the Race Director of Sinister 7, Canadian Death Race, and Black Spur Ultras.) He had brought our resupplies to Castle Mountain Resort, and even one night turned our meager camp setup into full-on backcountry glamping, with comfy chairs, homemade stew, homemade apple pie, real plates and cutlery, and adorable dogs… Needless to say, I was excited to see him and his dogs again. On the ridge, Horribilis had the brilliant idea to do some inReach shopping. She asked if I might like to try some new Swiftwick socks to replace my thick merino socks, which Brian could maybe pickup from Spry Active and bring to our resupply point. Horribilis and the O.G. were suspicious that my thick wool socks were maybe part of the problem. I had 2 full days until my new Hokas, and I felt optimistic that if I just made it there, I could continue to do the whole trail. Next thing I knew, Horribilis texted my shopping request to Brian via the inReach, and my “order” was in process, while we hiked along this amazing ridge. My style of shopping!

This is where the socks were “purchased” via Inreach, as we climbed up to Racehorse Ridge. Window Mountain Lakes is in the background below us.

A while later, I noticed the pain beginning to intensify again, so I discreetly popped 6 Thylenol. Not long after, I felt amazing! The pain had disappeared completely. My spirits totally rebounded, as I envisioned being able to complete the whole trail again. I was even getting new socks and maybe even shoes later, and getting to see Brian! In our tired, hyper state, we laughed about the whole idea of foot pain. Why are blisters a bad thing, we wondered, when you can just continue through them, and take some painkillers?! Classic groupthink in action.

The High Rock Trail section blew my mind. Thanks GDT Association for building such a gem!!

In early afternoon, we finished the High Rock Trail and made it out to Dutch Creek, where we met Brian. He presented me with some beautiful brand new socks, our resupply items, and a smorgasbord of basic calories, like coke and dark chocolate oreos. He even had paper towels! And garbages! I ate a personal best in dark chocolate oreos (5), filled a large bag full of clothing I no longer needed, then we left for the trail, setting off toward Tornado Pass. (In reality, the oreo-eating, packing and re-packing always took about an hour.)

A beautiful valley just before Tornado Pass.

The approach to Tornado Pass brings you to a wildflower heaven. Pictures will never do it justice.

Tornado Pass was one of my favourite parts of the trail. Approaching the pass involved clambering over significant avalanche debris, which was a fun, more advanced level of walking. We ascended a meadow filled with wildflowers which brought us to an incredible, scree-filled pass, with Tornado Mountain towering above us. Late in a long day, I felt a bit anxious while side-hilling on a steeper section of the scree. The O.G. helped me get across, lending me one of her poles for my uphill hand, which made it feel much more secure. Then she walked right in front of me, so I just had to follow. It wasn’t anything super hard, but I was tired, and there was a small cliff-like feature below us that gave me some anxiety. The rest was straightforward, as the route ascended straight up a moderate slope, ending in a wide col.

Nearly at Tornado Pass. In the foreground, the O.G. sports her classic one-leg compression sock, I think it’s due to a recurring niggle on one side of her body?

Finishing up the Tornado Pass section. Incredible area. I didn’t think it was possible to fall deeper in love with the East Kootenays, but it’s a bottomless hole of obsession. I will be back!

Now 7pm, we had a giant descent, and about 10-15k until where we wanted to camp. Normally I love going downhill, but the Thylenol had worn off, and I winced at every step over the rocky terrain. Unfortunately, I had used them all. I hobbled behind, wondering how I was going to make it that far. We regrouped at some point, and after some discussion, we decided that I could try one of Horribilis’ prescription T3s, which are basically Thylenol + Codeine and caffeine. I took one, and within no time, the pain completely dissolved. We all picked up the pace, bounding down and nearly running. I felt like I’d discovered a special secret weapon. I believed my feet were going to start to heal, and if I could just make it about 100 more kilometers to the next resupply with these new advanced meds, I was convinced I could do the whole trail.

 

Day 5: a date with reality

Day 5 was sobering. With little sleep, a calorie deficit and 15-hour days, my feet were not recovering, despite my prayers to the universe. The pain was back by mid-morning, and it was clear that no healing had occurred overnight. Early in the day while hiking through the Beehive Natural area, we discussed whether I should take another T3. Convinced with how well it worked the night before, I joked, “do we want to go fast, or not?!” So I took another, excited for the pain to diminish once more.

Beehive Mountain looking all majestic.

An hour passed. The pain remained, but now I felt drugged. My sharp, alert mental state had diminished into a sluggish, hazy outlook, and I was still feeling tons of pain. We walked through incredible scenery, but it was unenjoyable to me. A thunderstorm taunted us in the valley next to us, leaving the air humid and hot. The day passed by incredibly slowly, and I tried breaking up the 15 hours by creating smaller sub-goals for myself, inspired by the military. Just make it to lunch, I thought, and then In three hours you get to eat dinner. At this point, my outlook shifted completely. If my feet weren’t healing and T3’s weren’t working, this wasn’t good. My feet didn’t just have blisters, I was losing whole deeper layers of skin, with blisters forming under the inner layers. There was no way I would be able to hike for another 2 weeks like this. I don’t mind the occasional dose of suffering, but adventuring in pain and misery just isn’t my style.

Another beautiful alpine meadow on the GDT.

I started to make my exit plans, thinking I could heal up my feet and then see about returning later on. We were going to see Horribilis’ husband Matt for a resupply in about 70km, so I thought I could maybe try to make it to him, and then bail. However, 70km through the mountains on injured feet is a long way. Then I got an idea. I knew the trail would follow the Elk River Forest Service Road ahead of us, about 40km before seeing Matt. I thought that maybe I could try exiting there, hopefully getting a ride out with some car camper leaving Elk Lakes Provincial Park. Horribilis mentioned the idea of me hiking out a different trail or road to the east of the Divide, to make it more convenient to get to Calgary, but I didn’t feel comfortable hiking alone in my state. I planned to exit the next day, either on the Elk River FSR after 27k, or going a full 67k, making it all the way to our ressupply with Matt at Kananaskis Lakes.

A thunder and lightning storm brewed in the next valley over.

I went to my emotional edge on my fifth and final evening out. Walking along after 13 hours, I saw two grizzly bears nearby in the corner of my eye– one large, and one small. With zero emotional control remaining, I freaking screamed and ran. As I ran away I spastically scrambled to find the bear spray in my pocket but couldn’t get it out easily. This is it, this is the end! I thought. 

The bears started to charge in my direction, but thankfully, in split seconds it all ended as they made a U turn and darted back into the bushes. It was just a bluff charge, and they were gone!

I knew how to respond to bears. Heck, I live in the black bears’ neighbourhood in Squamish and I’ve had grizzly encounters before in the Rockies where I did the right thing. But in my tired and sleep deprived state, I had no control over my emotional response. I was a walking disaster waiting to happen.

My last night in the tent was a miserable one. The bottoms of my heels were messed, so I had to delicately arrange my feet to the sides of my thermarest at a certain angle. I couldn’t sleep continuously as my feet throbbed intensely. I asked Horribilis if she had a T3 in the tent, even though I hated those things, but she did not. Thankfully, I’d brought my Kindle along on the trip, and reading about Prefontaine helped take my mind off the pain. Even if I just lie here and don’t get any sleep, it’s still very restful, I thought.

 

Day 6: delightful beers on a side by side to dull the pain

I woke up extra early to tend to my feet for my final day. I washed them with antiseptic wipes, re-applied crazy glue to the openings, and then slathered bandaids everywhere. After about 30 minutes, I woke up the others, and Horribilis tenderly wrapped my feet in Leukotape, securing the bandages. 

I knew this would be my last day out, and I was okay with it. I’d tried everything I could, and I knew I was making the right decision. I had 27km to an exit at Elk Lakes FSR, or 67km to go all the way to our resupply point at Kananaskis Lakes. I figured I’d just see how far I made it without any pain killers.

We reached the ridge where Horribilis promised cell phone reception, and I decided to call Julien to let him know my situation. It was 5:30am back home, and the minute he answered, I couldn’t help but sob uncontrollably– again. What is wrong with me?! I wondered. Perhaps by voicing my plans to exit the trail, it was making my failure more real. Julien, in his intelligent and well-cared-for state, told me I shouldn’t be taking T3s, and that I could do permanent damage to my feet. He told me to exit the trail as soon as possible. Okay, I committed. I’ll go for the earlier exit. Thankfully, Julien was actually flying out to the Rockies the next morning, and he had a hotel planned in Lake Louise for 3 nights. Managing to simultaneously laugh while crying, I told him to get me a cot at his Lake Louise hotel, as I was now going to be a third-wheel on his trip with Jeff.

Off we went, up to the beautiful Fording River Pass and down the big descent to the Elk River. Fording River Pass was insanely beautiful, but I wasn’t in the right state to enjoy it. Looking back, I was just sad about my trip ending. You always expect something to go wrong on big adventures like these, but I never expected that someone would get injured this early into the trip. And as the trip organizer, I never thought that person would be me. The O.G. gave me whatever emotional support she could, and sometimes her hugs were so powerful that they turned my crying into laughter.

The last 3k of my hike were some of the worst of my life. Open wounds on my feet met icey-cold water as we crossed a creek back and forth, and there was no way around it. I hobbled behind as the O.G. and Horribilis hiked ahead, clearly becoming a new, more efficient sub-group as my time out there ended. My emotional state was maxxed, and eventually I told them that I’d prefer they take my ⅓ of the tent now and just leave me here, or actually walk with me out. I couldn’t handle being repeatedly dropped.

We arrived at the dirt road, and it was bittersweet. It definitely wasn’t the logging road I’d dreamed about, one that felt lively with people recreating, maybe some signage about nearby parks. No, this road had powerlines, streams through it, and no sign of popular recreation. I knew I was emotionally and physically fried, and I worried about how remote the road was, and about my ability to really fend for myself or walk out of there. (At this point, I was gibbled, and walking with a limp.) I worried about my reaction to the grizzlies the evening before, knowing that I was still in the same sleep-deprived, incapable state. I let out a long worried sigh and told the O.G. my fears. The O.G. and Horribilis snacked at the roadside where I sat and then took my water bottles (Horribilis had somehow pierced holes in hers), my portion of the tent, and some of my snacks, and then they set off north down the road, while I would wait for a hitchhike. At this point, they thought I didn’t have cell phone reception, so I made them send an Inreach message to Julien with my location, as I no longer had an Inreach or tent (as they were walking ahead with both). As they walked away they also discovered a man camping nearby. They talked to him, and then came and told me that he was kind of settled here now, but he could drive me out in the evening if I didn’t find another way out. 

I felt uneasy. To calm myself down, I took out my Thermarest, blew it up, and arranged my backpack as a headrest. With nothing to do but wait, my job now was to immerse myself in the world of John Muir or the Steve Prefontaine biography on my Kindle. 

Backcountry Kindle.

As the O.G. and Horribilis refilled water bottles in the stream to the north, I discovered I had 2 bars of cell phone reception. I can’t tell you how relieved I felt! I called Julien, and he enlisted Brian to come help me out. To my surprise, Julien and Brian told me I wasn’t actually on the Elk Lakes FSR– I was on the Fording River / Greenhills mine road, on the wrong side of the Elk River. He wasn’t sure how to get to me, but he was going to hike in or paddle board across the Elk River if he needed to! The motorized sounds we heard were not people ATVing or motorbiking as we assumed… It was mine development.

Seeing how important cell phone battery was, I decided to hobble over to my camping neighbour, to ask if he had a generator to charge my phone. I worried a little about approaching him, realizing that anyone camping out here probably doesn’t want to be around too many humans! But I needed his help.

The man I met was warm and welcoming. He offered me a seat, a cell phone charge, and to my delight, a beer. He even had two wonderful kids who were hiding in the trailer nearby, curious about this random dirty hiker girl. I couldn’t say no to a chair, a beer, and a human, so I graciously accepted all of them and we got to talking. His name was Sean, and he was a welder from Brooks who grew up in Sparwood. He loved the Elk Valley, and as soon as COVID disrupted his work schedule, he decided to come out and camp out here for the summer. His setup was grand– a huge pile of freshly chopped wood was surrounded by a series of toys, including a truck, an RV, and a side by side. He was annoyed that I was left alone out here, as he told me that his son ran into 2 grizzlies the day before, right near my waiting spot. He also told me he would never hitchhike around those parts.

The more we talked, the more we connected, and next thing I knew, he was insisting on driving me 40km out on his side by side. “We’ll load up a cooler full of beers!” he said, and my day began to get better, and better. I often try to be as self-reliant as possible, but in this situation, I was pretty desperate. As soon as Sean’s wife arrived for the weekend, he left her with the kids and then we took off down the road. It was the best ride I’ve had, leaving my problems behind me while chugging back beers. As we left toward civilization, I polished my third beer while getting a dust breeze in the face, watching the peaks of the Divide pass by on my left, and even seeing the mine where my aunt works toward the end of the road. Sean and I talked about life, his kids, hiking, and just how splendid the East Kootenays are. I felt so lucky to have chosen to exit to the warmth and hospitality of the East Kootenays.

Once we hit the pavement in Elkford, Brian was there waiting for me, and he took me to rest at his beautiful house in Blairmore. Brian’s place was the perfect place to land, sort of like winning an unplanned lottery. As a Race Director, he knew all about foot care, and food… Brian made me ice cream appetizers before dinner, breakfast appetizers before breakfast, and even tried to pretend like he had to go to Calgary, as a polite way of offering me a ride there. He lifted my spirits over beer and tapas at a time when I really needed it. I am forever indebted to Brian’s kindness and generosity. You will find me volunteering at one of his events next year!

 

It’s really all about the people

I went into this trip thinking that it would be the mountains, the wild landscapes, and the fun of completing a giant distance self-propelled that would inspire me the most. Instead, it was the humans that made the biggest impact. 

I met Brian, and he showed me what true kindness and generosity looks like. He welcomed me into the home he built himself in Blairmore even though we’d just met a few days before. In fact, he changed his whole weekend to host me. He took me to and from the hospital, drove me to my rideshare pickup, even made me coffee for the road! All for some crazy ginger he barely knew. In just over 24 hours he brought me back to life physically, turning me from rejected trail trash into a respectable human again, all clean and well-fed. 

Myself, Brian, Horribilis and the O.G., after drinking the most delicious beers that Brian kindly brought us at Castle Mountain Ski Resort on day 2 of our quest.

Brian & puppies met us to camp one night, and he got there with this sweet side by side. In this photo, he was just leaving the campsite after us, and caught us 1km off route going the wrong direction! Not only did he catch us going off in the wrong way and prevent us from going further, he then gave us a lift back to where we went off. Such a hero!

Julien and Jeff embraced having me tag along on the trip they had planned in Lake Louise, which happened to start the day after I bailed from the trail. Childhood friends, they live life to have fun, be silly, and eat. We found hikes that maximized the view to effort ratio, ate second breakfasts and the best dessert I’ve had in a long time, and most of all, we laughed a lot. The time with Julien and Jeff was such a gift! If I could do everything again, I would bail from the GDT every time to hang out with them in paradise.

Julien and Jeff. Team “Repair Alicia’s Spirits to All Time Highs”.

 

I wouldn’t change a thing with my eventual trip, as I got to have an unexpected holiday exploring Lake Louise with Jeff and Julien. This is Julien on the pleasant Plain of the Six Glaciers Trail, Abbott Pass is on the far left of the frame.

 

The magical Bow Glacier Falls was another gem during my recovery vacation in Lake Louise.

 

Half a week later, Julien and Jeff dropped me off at the ACC Clubhouse in Canmore so I could decide whether to rejoin the O.G. and Horribilis near Saskatchewan River Crossing. Alone for the first time, a wave of emotions hit me, and I felt overly emotional again. Strangely, I was sad. Then, trail running community magic happened. Amy found out I was in town, and lifted my spirits with a beautiful run through Canmore to get me back on the horse only a few days after feeling like a disaster. She lent me a bike for my stay in town, and even gave me a cozy 5Peaks sweater that felt like a portable hug. What an inspiring woman: serial entrepreneur, talented trail runner, mom, Race Director! 

Amy and me at Grassi Lakes in Canmore. Super energizing hangout, just when I needed her!

My old UBC cross country teammate Kaitlin reached out, and she and her puppy further elevated my spirits that evening. She took me for dinner in a beautiful town park, fed me the most delicious ramen, and then drove me home so I wouldn’t have to walk by the giant elk at night again! When I decided to end any intention of returning to the GDT and that I would instead head home the next day, she was game for a sunrise run outside my hostel. We ran in the foothills of Lady Mac with Kaitlin’s husband George and the dog, enjoying the cool early morning sunshine over Canmore. It was the perfect send-off. In just a few hours, Canmore went from a tourist town where I had no ties or community, to a cozy, familiar place where I now feel a connection. 

Kaitlin and George sent me off with a nice farewell run above the ACC Clubhouse in Canmore.

These are just a few of the people who inspired me with their kindness, generosity, and the way they live their life.

So, I was wrong. The views and wild places along the GDT were incredible, and they will always be special to me. But even more than those things, it’s the people who inspire me most. Perhaps part of the reason I love these wild places so much, is that they finally crack the thick shell of my vulnerability, and help me to connect more deeply.

 

Trip data

In case you’re a nerd like me and you want to see day by day route, summaries, and photos, check out my Strava files below:

PS – According to Strava, in July I journeyed 689km in 115 hours — crazy!

Thank you!

Huge thank you to all the people who helped us along the way… Andrew with the cabin near Waterton Lakes, Mark with rides and film/photography, Matt with delicious pancakes, Brian who basically provided race-level drop bag style support (twice!!) as well as a night of glamping, and Julien, who was (and always is!) my sane, smart and capable person on the other end of the random phone calls from the backcountry. Also thank you to my work for letting me take 3 weeks off, just after starting a new position!

Thanks to the following brands for the amazing gear and product support:

  • Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival (VIMFF) for the Adventure Grant. Your support helped make my leave of absence possible!
  • Clif Bar for all the snacks. The new sweet & salty bars and the shot blocks were the easiest way to eat between meals out there.
  • Ultraspire for the best pack. It felt like I wasn’t wearing a big backpacking pack, more like a trail running vest.
  • Arc’teryx for amazing goretex jacket & pants. Such peace of mind out there knowing I had the best rain (and bug-hiding) gear in the world!
  • Salomon for the amazing shorts with stretchy pockets all around the waistband, and super-handy soft flask bottles with built-in filters.
  • Hyperlite Mountain Gear for the best super-light, super-compact dyneema bags for hanging our bear bag each night.
  • Swiftwick for a couple pairs of awesome socks!

Unfortunately no brands make replacements for tender feet. 😉

 

 

Dealing with Iron Deficiency

Iron deficiency… it’s super common for runners, especially female runners.

Both last year and the year before, I had the frustrating experience of being super iron-deficient. (In the summer of 2018, my ferritin level dropped to single digits!) It was terrible. I would get super sleepy every day at work around 3pm, then I had no energy left to do anything after work. Running, even hiking in the mountains wasn’t an option… it didn’t even feel fun anymore, I was so drained.

The worst part was that I couldn’t figure out how to solve it. I had been taking iron pills every evening for 2-years straight, but somehow I was still completely anemic. Sure I was running frequently, but it wasn’t super-crazy mileage relative to what I’ve done in the past (usually about 100km a week on soft trails). Both years, it got so bad that I had to go get rounds of iron infusions at the hospital. Each time, I promised myself I’d work harder to figure it out. I wanted to avoid using hospital resources as a relatively healthy person. Plus, the discomfort of both the condition and the infusions wasn’t sustainable.

This year, I think I’ve finally come to figure out some strategies to prevent iron deficiency, while still being able to run. I checked my iron levels about 2 months ago, and they were super strong!

With a goal of helping anyone who struggles with this, I thought I’d share some of the day to day things I’m doing differently this year. Hopefully this can give you some food for thought, maybe a new idea to try!

Winter off-season & cross-training

Every year in the past, I’d sign up for a 100km trail race sometime in late winter or early spring. I love racing at that time of year, because I tend to respond well to cooler temperatures, and it can be fun to have something to look forward to during the dark winter months.

This year, I did the opposite. Except for the Sun Run (road 10k), I didn’t allow myself to sign up for a single running race before May. My rationale was that it would help me to train just a tiny bit less. Instead of feeling the need to go out and do a super long run for a specific race, I’d be more likely to go out, and just run until I got tired. I know myself well by now, and those winter/spring ultras encourage me a little too much!

ski touring in squamish

One of many fun saturyay ski outings this year. This is Nancy in Squamish.

In the place of a winter running race, I embraced winter. I decided that ski touring would replace a lot of my super-long runs, as it’s super fun, comparable fitness, and also very kind on the body compared to running. I expanded my definition of “miles per week” to include ski touring and nordic skiing miles, and then I replaced some of my usual running fun with the lower-impact sports. Typically, I’d have one rest day per week, plus two days where I’d go ski touring instead of running. To help me resist the urge to sign up for a winter/spring running race, I instead signed up for a couple ski mountaineering races. I’d still get the community aspect I love, but it would direct my energies more toward cross-training sports!

Not only was the cross-training lower impact, but it was also way more fun than running in the zero-degree rain every day. When I did run, I felt super well-rested, and I was running much faster because I was energized.

Now that April is here, I feel mentally rested from the slight off-season, and excited to start running more now!

Small nutrition tweaks

First off, I switched my iron pills to a heme variety, which is sort of gross, but I was desperate. (Heme iron is easier for the body to absorb.) I also bought a gigantic Vitamin C bottle to always take with the iron pills. (It increases absorption to take them together.)

When I thought about my daily nutrition, there were no obvious, large changes to make. I’d already started eating a tiny bit of meat here and there. Then I started reading more about iron inhibitors, and I had a few habits to confront.

squamish farmers market

Squamish Farmer’s Market produce! I tried that black kale, the carrots, and the purple cauliflower. So delish!

First, caffeine inhibits iron absorption. I realized that I drink coffee all day long, so that was likely interfering with my body’s ability to absorb iron from meals throughout the day. That’s pretty easy to fix! I switched to only 1 cup of caffeinated coffee in the morning, then I drink this delicious decaf coffee from Rooftop Coffee Roasters.

Milk also inhibits the body’s ability to absorb iron. When I thought about my eating habits, I realized that every night before bed (and right before taking my iron pill), I was having a decaf hot milky tea, with tons of milk and honey. That one was also pretty easy, I just switched the cow’s milk to oat milk. It’s actually even more delicious now! In fact, I became completely obsessed with oat milk. It’s all I drink now. I’m sure this can’t hurt the overall iron absorption, and it’s delicious.

Obviously this isn’t a comprehensive change in nutrition practices, I was just looking for easy wins. For a full list of foods that inhibit iron absorption, check out this article!

Huge shoes!

It may be a rumour, but I’d heard some people who theorize that running is particularly prone to aggrevating iron deficiency because of the foot landing on the ground and killing red blood cells.

To mix things up for my 10k road race training, I bought a pair of Nikes with a ton of cushioning this winter. I intended to use them for road runs, but I noticed that I wanted to wear them on every single run. They were just so bouncy and fun! Suddenly I was never wearing my minimalist trail shoes. All I wanted was the cushion!

running shoes

Since then, I bought a pair of Hoka trail shoes, and I’ve been alternating the two shoes throughout the week.

I can’t say for sure, but I do think the big cushy shoes have helped.

You got this!

That’s all I can think of for now… If you’re struggling with iron deficiency, I feel you. It sucks. Hopefully my experience can help you consider some new ideas. I encourage you to keep trying new things, and that something will work! My iron levels are healthy this year for the first time in 3 years, and I think these strategies played a big role! If you want to brainstorm other ideas, feel free to comment on this post or chat on Instagram. You can find me over there at funtimes.woodside.

 

 

 

Teffles Waffles: A One-Year Side Hustle Business Experiment

I know what you’re thinking… what?! Teffles is over?! (In case you didn’t know, I was working on starting a food business, making healthy frozen waffles that were made up entirely of alternative, high-protein and gluten-free flours, like teff, almond, and coconut.)

Everyone hates hearing a business failure story. Especially in this case, I know you were hoping that you could come over for waffles, and that’s not super likely anymore. (Will we still be friends?!)

Although you may be sad, I am not! From the get-go, I approached this business without emotional attachment, and with the idea that I wanted to validate if it was viable, all while limiting my investment to the point of breaking even. I respected that there are so many factors involved to have a successful business, and I thought that the learning would be worth it, even if I decided it wasn’t going to work at the end of the year. In the process of trying, I turned down an awesome job, missed some volunteering I would have loved to do, and missed some fun weekends with friends, but it was so worth pursuing. All of those other things will come again at the right time.

Let me tell you a bit about my waffle startup story, some of the things I learned, and my decision to leave the business!

 

Validating the business idea

My idea was to start as a side hustle, and validate the business while working. If things were clearly looking super promising, then I would re-assess and shift my priorities. My validation process had 3 components:

  1. Do customers love it?
  2. Do I love it?
  3. Do the costs and margins work?

Do customers love it?

My main focus was item one, and I tested my product with customers at the spring and summer Farmer’s Markets. I developed a recipe, and kept refining the recipe until people’s eyes widened upon trying it, and until customers bought a 4-pack of waffles for home immediately after trying a sample. I felt like I achieved this step in the validation: I had tons of repeat customers, and everyone started asking me where they could find the waffles in the grocery store. And that was at $10 per pack, too. (In comparison, Nature’s Path is around $5 in Canada.)

To be clear, I wanted to sell my waffles in the frozen section of a grocery store, as a premium and healthy alternative to Eggo. The Farmer’s Markets were a testing ground.

IMG-5715.JPG

Do I love it?

I’d say that this part of the validation was less concrete. I can’t say that I was infatuated with all parts of the business, that would be a lie. There were parts I really liked, usually the creative parts like designing the packaging and developing the recipe, and the people parts, like making friends at the Farmer’s Markets. There were also parts that were incredibly energy-draining, and these were usually the most laborious physical tasks, to my surprise. (I love exercising, so that was weird!) I did not enjoy setting up for Farmer’s Markets, physically driving from Squamish to South Vancouver to pick up wholesale ingredients like a truck driver, (my orders were under the minimums required for delivery!) and the task of standing for 7 hours to make 100 waffles by hand for the markets. I knew, however, that as you grow, you can start to delegate some of these energy-draining tasks to contractors, so this didn’t seem like a blocker. The ratio of things I loved and things I disliked seemed quite balanced, and I felt like I could just suck it up for the next few years.

IMG-4481.JPG

Do the costs and margins work?

The financial viability was ultimately what failed the validation exercises. This part was trickier than I thought, and if I’m honest, I think that I wasn’t fully facing the facts for longer than I’d like to admit. The food industry is a tough one. Today, and until direct-to-consumer grocery (like Amazon) really takes off, there are tons of middle men and women. There’s a distributor, the retailer, and even a broker. You have to account for all of these margins, like this:

  • Cost of goods sold: say my total costs, including ingredients, packaging, and labour to produce each package work out to $4 per package. 
  • Let’s say I want my product to sell on the store shelf for $8 per package. The store needs its own margin to carry your product, typically around 38%, so you would sell it to them for $4.80.
  • That leaves 80 cents per package profit, right? Unfortunately, not exactly. Once you get to a certain scale, you need to hire a distributor, and they expect a margin too, usually around 20%. They would sell it to the store for $4.80, but they’d need about 96 cents per package for their cut. Now, you’re down to a loss of 14 cents per package.
  • Now, you have to factor in all your other costs, including any storage fees, admin fees, marketing, perhaps financing fees like interest. 

I think you get the point! Basically, there is downward pressure on price in many food categories, but there are many costs of doing business with all these different layers. To make it work, you need a product that’s so different, that it doesn’t have that downward price pressure, or you need to simply make a huge investment to make your costs scale enormously. As a small waffle producer, I’d be walking into an industry with food giants like Kellog’s (Eggo’s) and Nature’s Path, so there is definitely a price ceiling for customers, having bought Eggo’s waffles for $4 their entire lives. My whole product vision was based around premium ingredients like teff, almond, and coconut flour, so that also created a lot of upward pressure on the cost side. To make a viable profit margin, I’d have to either sell my waffles for an insane price like $12 per package (which I didn’t think the market would bear), or I’d have to downgrade my product significantly to bring the costs down– which was totally against the whole point of bringing my product into the world!

I mentioned earlier that I was avoiding the facts for longer than I’d like to admit. For quite a while, I didn’t read too much into my financial analysis, because I predicted that my cost structure would vastly improve as I scaled. Then I got to work with Denis, the founder of Nomad Nutrition, on a cost economics sheet. After completing his analysis template, it was finally clear to me, like the rare day in a Squamish winter when the clouds finally vanish and you remember there is sunshine. (Yes, I talked about sunshine in the same paragraph as cost economics, and during an article about a failed business!) I had a high-cost business (premium ingredients, operating at a small scale, plus the need for expensive frozen storage and transportation), I didn’t want to downgrade the product as that was my differentiation and reflected my values, and the market wouldn’t bear the price to cover those costs.

IMG-5708.JPG

 

Learning about the food industry

Over the past year, I also tried to learn about the food industry at every opportunity. Most of my learning came in the form of phone calls and meetings with food company founders I admire, but I did take a couple formal courses. 

Company founders I learned a lot from:

These are the types of people who hustle around the clock to run their companies, and they took the time to provide guidance over the phone, sometimes even over a run:

  • Terry of Bremner Foods
  • Melissa of Spread Em’ Foods
  • Denis of Nomad Nutrition
  • Simon of Stoked Oats

Formal courses I took:

  • Feeding Growth, from UBC Farm… amazing course! It’s one half-day session a month over 4-5 months, and each course covers a specific topic, like brand, finance, and production.
  • Scale Your Business workshop from Good to Grow 
  • Food Safety (this was required, but I actually really enjoyed it!)

During Feeding Growth, we got to hear from the founder of a different food business at the end of every course. From these talks, it was very clear that the food industry is a super tough one. Most of them, even 5, 10, 15 years in and as successful as selling at the big chains like London Drugs and Costco, are still in full-on startup hustle mode. They’re still doing all of the business functions themselves, not taking vacations, taking huge risks to achieve a feasible scale (like building a factory at startup stage!), and still uncertain if the business will succeed. Two of the founders actually admitted that they aren’t sure if they would do it all over again, if they were given the chance. Basically, if they get bought-out, then it will be worthwhile, but otherwise it won’t be. (Those 2 companies are well-established companies I look up to.)

Other fun memories from the year

A few stats:

  • Attended 11 Farmer’s Markets (mostly in Squamish, which was my favourite, but also in Ambleside and Lonsdale)
  • Fed approximately 1,100 people with healthy teff & almond-flour waffles
  • Traded other Farmer’s Market vendors for all kinds of the most amazing local products: homemade soups, local water buffalo milk and cheese, veggies, sour kraut, Humblebee mead…
  • Highest market revenue was $292 at Squamish Farmer’s Market on a sunny August Saturday, lowest market revenue was $121 at a cold, torrentially rainy Squamish market in April (it was so cold that my lips were blue)!

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Some of the things I learned:

  • A new skill, how to quickly cut through red tape to get shit done (food permit approvals, for example).
  • The best way to learn: I would reach out to company founders who inspired me, ask to have a phone call or coffee or run, and it resulted in many hours of the most amazing mentorship.
  • How to do a financial viability analysis (they taught this during business school, but it’s quite different when you’re evaluating your own business). Next time, I’d bring objective outside mentors in sooner to look at my spreadsheets.
  • I actually like admin, which was strange to discover. And, I really dreaded the labour of making 100’s of waffles!

Thank you to my amazing community!

First off, thank you to every customer who supported Teffles– you gave me daily inspiration and made this all worthwhile.

Thank you to everyone who provided hours of mentorship (Cam Lloyd-Jones, Nomad Nutrition, Bremner Foods, SpreadEm, Stoked Oats, everyone in the Feeding Growth community).

Thanks to talented professionals I got to work with: Mark Locki Photography for the incredible support with food photography, and to Studio Millie for the most amazing packaging design.

Big hug to The Nest for being the most supportive and flexible commercial kitchen, I was so infrequent in my schedule but they let me keep all my supplies there regardless!

Thank you to everyone I work with for being so flexible and supportive!

Lastly but definitely not least, thank you to my friends and family. Julien, thank you for helping me set up and take down at every single farmer’s market. Thank you to my parents for coming all the way to Squamish to support, and to my friends, my lovely friends, who all showed up after runs, tired and hungry, to support me. I know it was a hassle to cut your all-day runs short to make it in time for the market’s closing at 3pm. 😉 Some of you, like Tara and Alex, even drove whole cities over bridges to come! And to Will, I owe you a lot of surprise lattes when it’s pissing rain.

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What’s next, you ask?

I’m definitely not finished with my entrepreneurship journey, and I think that’s why I’m 0% sad. This business wasn’t viable. Time to move onto the next! 

In the meantime, I will be working as a consultant, currently I’m spending most my time doing technical writing for an awesome company called Mobify. I’ll be spending most of my free time running, skiing, and organizing my biggest adventure yet, which is to “run” the 1,100km Great Divide Trail from Waterton Lakes to Kakwa Lake (north of Jasper) as fast as possible, in July/August 2020.

To send Teffles off in the best way possible, I’m going to conclude things with a fun charity breakfast in Squamish to use up all the remaining ingredients in the best way possible. The date and specific charity will be announced soon, so stay tuned!

If you want to learn from my experience, please feel free to reach out to me. You can find me on instagram, or out in the forest.

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Adventures in Maui

At first glance, a non-surfing trip to Maui doesn’t seem like it would offer a ton of adventure. You’re surrounded by the newlywed and nearly dead, the island appears to be totally tourism-based, and many people go there to stagnate on the beach.

But then, there’s Haleakala. The massive ~10,000 ft volcano dominates the island, and to my delight, it ensures there’s plenty of adventure for land enthusiasts. These are my top favourite adventures thanks to this amazing volcano…

 

Exploring waterfalls fed by Haleakala

I thought we had mighty waterfalls in Squamish, but the waterfalls in the southeast and eastern side of Maui were insane. With water flowing 10,000 feet from the top of Haleakala, there are tons of waterfall adventures. One day, we hiked along the Pipiwai Trail at the base of Haleakala, which was beautiful. Taking the questionable advice of another hiker to venture off-trail, we scrambled up a waterfall’s lower pools, and a few minutes later we found ourselves staring up at a private, 300-ft waterfall in the middle of nowhere. (Note this can be super dangerous, due to rocks falling from the waterfall, and sudden flash floods.)

Waterfall-hiking.

 

This was super dangerous, in retrospect. I get some adrenaline just looking at this pic of Julien so close to it!

We got super close to the waterfall base for about 30 seconds before beelining back to safety, fearful of watermelon-sized rocks falling from the falls or from the canyon surrounding us. Still, those 30 seconds were incredible. Looking at Strava’s global heatmap off the island’s south/east Hana Road, you can tell there are tons of crazy hikes like this that only a few people do, swim-hiking up waterfall pools. I stayed up late one night reading tons of crazy stories, as these type of hikes often result in rescues, injuries and deaths because flash floods are so sudden, with the water flow from Haleakala at 10,000 ft. suddenly changing. Definitely a lot more adventure than I expected!

 

Driving the back road to Hana

The Road to Hana is already infamously windy, blind, and rollercoastery. Most people take the northern route from Pa’ia Town, then return the same way they came. If you look though, you can take this interesting back road, on the south side of Haleakala through Kaupo. On the maps they give you at rental car companies, there’s a big asterisk on that section of the road with font in red which says “Do not come between these points. Driving on unauthorized roads violates rental car contracts.” This of course only made us more curious. If they’re telling tourists not to go there, doesn’t that mean it will be way less busy, and more fun? We did some research, checked that there were no landslides or other highway warnings, and decided to go for it.

The road was beautiful, taking us pretty high on the side of Haleakala from Kula, and then back down to sea level near Kaupo, where the road precariously curved around cliffs right next to the ocean. As promised, many corners were totally blind, and in between those, uncut grasses and hills caused stretches of total blindness. We honked the horn sometimes, but thankfully it wasn’t busy, and generally the other drivers were being cautious and chill. It was so fun, like being on a rollercoaster ride. At one point, there was a pullout in the middle of a giant U-shaped curve in the road, which happened to be a black sand beach with a waterfall in the middle. It felt like total paradise. Since this section of the road is often un-advised in many blogs online, it was way less busy than the main road to Hana. Not for everyone, but if you’re up for an adventurous drive, it was tons of fun.

This is what the back road to Hana looks like.

Venturing into the Haleakala crater

Best of all adventures was the Haleakala crater. I got Julien to drop me off at the Halemauu Trailhead which is near 8,000 ft., and then he continued to meet me at the crater summit, which is just over 10,000 ft. From the Halemauu Trailhead, I ran along and then joined the Sliding Sands trail to the top, which made for a super-fun 11-mile trail run. Haleakala is a National Park, plus it’s on every Maui “must do on your trip” list, so I figured it would be busy. Boy was I surprised and delighted! I experienced miles of total wilderness!

Starting at the Halemauu Trailhead, the trail took me down a 400 meter cliff-lined descent down a winding rocky technical trail, which was super slick from the fog and winter rains. It was super fun and intense, and I really had to be cautious because of the combo of slick mud and cliffside. Was not expecting challenging terrain! It felt a bit like running down into the Grand Canyon from the South Rim, it was that special.

The trail descended from that little mountain in the foreground.

From there, the trail traversed a grassy arid area near this beautifully remote-feeling Hōlua Cabin. After the first 3k, I didn’t see a soul! The trail eventually led me deeper and deeper into the crater, with giant sand mountains rising in the misty fog in gray, black and red. Being totally alone in there with the atmosphere of the dark, foggy rain, it felt extremely wild and desolate. It sort of felt like the sand-mountains could suddenly slide and bury me, or that the fog could intensify and cause a whiteout-type situation. It made me feel so small and vulnerable, which was exactly the experience I was craving. I felt excited, like I wanted to run to safety. The run ended in a punishing mostly-runnable climb of about 950 meters at altitude, topping out at the summit close to 10,000 ft. That was tough! I would definitely do that run again, it’s one of my favourites I’ve ever done.

Total wilderness inside the crater.

Next trip, I definitely want to do the same route again, and I also want to try the longer adventure from sea level, up the Kaupo Trail and into the crater. (To get there, it means we get to drive part of the back road to Hana again!)

 

These adventures surprised me, showing me that there’s a ton of true wilderness to be found and explored in Maui. I can’t wait until the next trip!

 

Sunshine, Rainbows & Candies @ Canadian Death Race

It was the first summer in years where I hadn’t over-committed to athletic adventures. After DNFing Black Canyon in February, (and a bunch of other 100k’s, let’s be honest!) I decided to back wayyy off. I wasn’t sure I liked running long ultras anymore. I’d lost the stoke, and I’d kept trying to revive it, to no avail. I’ll stick to small, local events and maybe some low-key 50k’s, I thought.

But then, Tara and I ran the 75k West Coast Trail in June, and my spirits changed. The day was absolutely amazing, the type of magical day you dream about. After that day, I started to believe in the whole thing again. I started to reconsider. Maybe something in me had changed?

Spurred on by the West Coast Trail, I signed up for the Death Race two weeks before the event. It took me those 120k of mud pits, overgrown animal trails, over 5,000m of ups and downs and thunderstorms to finally re-discover my why. I’d forgotten, it’s not about having a perfect run. It’s about working on the practice of mental discipline and positivity, and the satisfaction that comes from meeting inevitable problems head-on and embracing them.

Below is a non-traditional “race report” which I originally posted on my Facebook page.

Canadian Death Race was fun! For fun/motivation I pretended I was on a fictitious co-ed relay team even though I was doing the 125k solo. (😂) It kept me laughing all day imagining a new character as I ran…
  • Leg 1 runner was Samantha. She’s fairly new to running and the team only invited her because she’s dating Lopez, (more on him below) and didn’t want her to feel left out. The team put her on the first leg, not expecting much. Samantha did her job well, started out smoothly and not too fast.
  • Leg 2 runner was Lopez. He’s a machine at climbs and descents, and he was amazing charging up Flood and Grande Mountains, possibly getting the team into 2nd place. However, he’s a bit of a low IQ type and got lost only one mile from leg 3, running 23 minutes back onto Leg 1. Talented, just not so smart…
  • Leg 3 runner was Jennifer, a road runner. The team chose her because that leg is essentially an old logging road. She did fairly well, nothing to write home about but she plugged away, and got the spirits back up after Lopez’ getting lost situation.
  • Leg 4 runner was Jordan, inspired by the real-life Jordan Maki-Richards. The team needed a strong-as-hell & smart ringer on this tough leg (over 2,000m climbing and 40k!) and Jordan fit the bill. She was super strong and just kept charging. She also really had her head screwed on. When a sudden thunder storm started that looked pretty menacing, she found tree cover, opened her emergency blanket and wrapped it around her base layer from her pack so it wouldn’t soak through.
  • Leg 5 runner was Jeniqua, a partier, who the team didn’t know that well and unfortunately was a bit of a lemon. She came for the night party & fun boat ride across the Smoky River, but she couldn’t really run worth shit. A bit like Lopez, she made a fatal error — the bright headlamp she’d brought wasn’t charged, (🤦‍♀️)so she had to use the less bright backup. She was also a super pretentious eater, all she wanted was things she didn’t have. In the end she got it done, but slower than the team would have liked.
Relay team alter-ego aside, all in all it was a super fun race & community! I appreciated the assorted beef products in the race swag (very Alberta!), the amazing community who treated me like family, and leg 4— Mt Hamel, where you could see amazing views of the Northeast Rockies & Smoky River Valley. I ended up in 5th Female / 21st overall after the events described above, which I’m pretty happy with, I think there were over 350 solo runners that started! (Wow, 134 DNFs this year! Likely due to the crazy wet, muddy bog conditions!) We can always improve and that’s fun to dream about as usual, but I’m happy with my headspace, how I stayed positive and single-minded all day.

 

 

 

 

Running The West Coast Trail: Tara and Alicia’s 2019 Female FKT

Good things take time

Alicia: In 2013, we went on a trip to Carmanah Walbran Provincial Park, which borders right next to the West Coast Trail. We knew the trail was just south of us, and it awakened this excitement about running it. Being winter, the trail was closed and off limits at the time, but it was planted in our minds for another day. Driving home, we stopped somewhere near Cowichan, and went to this little cafe. Not sure how the topic came up, but we started talking about it with the cafe owner, how we wanted to one day run the West Coast Trail. He told us it wasn’t possible. We rejected that notion. He insisted, “No, it’s not possible. People take a week to do it. You can’t run it.”

Tara: That encounter only fueled our fire even more to prove him wrong! Why couldn’t we?!

Camping in Carmanah in 2013 in bivvy sacks! Lol. Photo by Laurel Richardson!

Alicia: In the years since, Tara and I kept running, and the goal eventually expanded beyond just running the trail, but seeing how fast we could do it. Tara ran the trail with Tory in 2014, which was an FKT time at that time, and then she hiked with a big pack over four nights with Ryan the next year. I’d never done it, but I’d frequently read about it. Last summer I’d planned to do it solo on Canada Day, but then I got super iron deficient in June. I couldn’t imagine running 20k, let alone 75k, so thankfully I cancelled and took to writing instead of running. Thank the universe that I cancelled. I’d planned to do it alone?! Obviously it would be way more fun, and way more likely a fast time on the trail with the huge teamwork boost from Tara!

Tara: I can’t believe Alicia planned to do it alone! I was excited to join and jumped at the opportunity to run together. The first time I ran it I hobbled out the last 30 km due to an injury and has always wanted to go back to try running it again! I also thought this trail would feed to both of our strengths, technical rooty terrain. Alicia had run Hurt previously, and the West Coast Trail sounded like the Canadian version. Obviously it would be way more fun to run this trail together!

Summer solstice, 2019: the perfect day

Alicia: In the days leading up to our planned run of the West Coast Trail, I was anxious. Many nights I woke at 4am, our planned wakeup time, as though it was already time to go. I really respected the women who had come before us to run it quickly, and I wasn’t sure if we could run it faster. I also felt humbled by how difficult the trail would be, and how remote it is. Heck, I’d never even set foot on the trail.

The slight discomfort of the unknown continued until we woke up on the morning of our run. At 4am, the ocean right in front of our campsite in Port Renfrew was calmer than usual. The sky had a marine layer, and the birds weren’t even awake yet. For the first time, I felt calm and relaxed. All the logistics, the details, the challenges to get there– those had all been dealt with. There was nothing to worry about! Now we just got to have fun!

Tara: I was also nervous about the route and knew exactly what we were getting into. We had to book the permit back in January, so there was no option to change the date. I thought we would have more time to do more specific training together, but the date seemed to come quite quickly and we were busier than we thought this spring.

I felt similar to Alicia, the excitement rather than nervousness only went away once we started putting our paddle boards in the water and I got excited about the challenge ahead. Paddling over to the other side feels a little bit like stepping into another world. You can only get to the start of the south end of the trail by crossing the Gordon River.

Our campsite at the mouth of the Gordon River in Port Renfrew. That’s the south end of the West Coast Trail in those hills across the river! 😀

Alicia: Our planned start at sunrise (5:15 a.m.) obviously shifted to 6am, as we tinkered with last-minute (copious amounts of) sunscreen, and then we paddled on our stand up paddleboards to a misleading beach. We even had a false start: there was lots of overgrowth at the start, and we managed to get ourselves off trail within the first 30 steps. After wasting precious minutes looking for the trail, we concluded: might as well restart!

The first 20km were some of the most fun, technical trails I’ve ever run. It was like HURT, but with crazy-steep ladders and half-there wooden planks, less Pirate Aid Station and more bear/wolf/cougar. Within the first 10k, we’d already torn the mesh of our shoes, hammered our shins into roots, and tripped and saved ourselves. We also went off trail for a few minutes, as soon as we let our attention drift to volcano vacations. At one point I supermanned into a huge mud pit, and came out with my arms and hands covered in thick mud. I looked like a Tough Mudder competitor!

Tara: This trail is one of my favorites because of how technical it is, but because of that, it’s almost a matter of when you may trip up on a branch versus if.  When Alicia fell, was trying not to laugh and so badly wanted to take a photo, but I didn’t know if the fall was serious or not. Alicia got up so fast and insisted we keep moving. I had a similar superman fall later on in the day on more solid dirt, and similarly brushed it off.

I hammered my quad into a log early on within the first 2 km and had a moment of panic worrying that I may end up hobbling out of this trail again, luckily it was just a charlie horse.

One of many, many ladders on the West Coast Trail. Note the arms caked in dried mud.

Alicia: The south end of the trail is so fun at the start of the day, but I can’t imagine how much it would suck to run if you were coming the opposite way. 

Tara: I had run south to north previously and agreed this way made much more sense with trying to do a fast time. You get the harder and longer section of the trail completed first, and the boat for Nitinat Narrows is on the south side of the trail which means we wouldn’t have to wait on the other side of the river and hope the boat see us and comes quickly. We also didn’t have to worry about crossing a river at the end of the day!  

Alicia: After a long time of full concentration, we finally reached the first beach access point, near Walbran Creek. After talking with Matt Cecil before the run, we’d decided that we’d try to run the beach when we had the option, because he said it was quite a bit faster.

The beach was beautiful, with huge crashing waves. But it also felt painfully slow! We spent the first ten minutes zigzagging between soft sand, pebbly rocks where you would sink, and running on a firm but slippy underwater rock shelf. A few years ago, I’d cut my leg pretty badly after running when the tide was out from Kits Beach to near UBC in Vancouver, and I was still traumatized from that. Tara tried to lure me farther onto the rocky shelf, but I cowardly ran in the sinking sand. It was clearly taking me double the effort to keep up with her, so I kept criss-crossing between attempting to run on the tempting rocky shelf, then cowardly retreating to the sinking sand, then repeating. In this first beach section, I totally understand why this trail takes so much time. For a second, I worried that Chris and Holland would be waiting for us to finish in 18 hours.

Tara: Mentally I was struggling with the thought of running on the beach, and debated whether we should indeed take the trail. We took the beach whenever we could, but opted for the trail in the last 20 km when we had the option, as I was feeling the effort on the beach was both mentally and physically draining me. Cue the compromises that have to be made when running as a team versus solo!

Alicia: The day continued like that, trail-beach, trail-beach, and we stopped for water often, hoarding 1.5L in soft flasks every time without any water purification. (Hello, Giardia. Do you want a ride?!) Every thirty or so minutes, we’d encounter a group of hikers, all of them so happy, grinning from ear to ear, and offering encouragement. They could hear our bear bell from a mile away, so they were already ready to greet us when we came upon them. (Most hikers seemed to be hiking opposite us?)

At some point, I realized we were actually getting close to halfway. I looked at my watch, for the first time looking to calculate what sort of time would be possible. I didn’t want to do that earlier, because the trail is so technical, it would be discouraging. I couldn’t believe it. If we carried on at this pace, knowing the second half would be much easier than the first half, we could fairly easily break not 13 hours, but 12 hours! I never would have imagined that. Back when we were dreaming, we thought that a time in the 12-hour range would be fantastic, a “perfect day” sort of achievement. But sub-12?! I wasn’t sure whether to tell Tara or not. I decided to tell her, and obviously she had also figured it out. That was a huge boost, for the first time realizing how well we were doing.

Tara: I secretly knew that the real halfway point timewise was much sooner, but I didn’t want to jinx how we were doing and kept this quiet. We had hit the halfway point in my mind at 5.5 hours in, when we were near the old burger shack (Moniques)!  Around here, I felt a bit of a boost after knowing what our time was and picked up the pace a bit before we got to Nitinat Narrows. It was the excitement and surprise about how the day was going. I also thought we could push a little harder before getting to the boat as it was likely we would get a rest at the dock and need to wait at least 5-10 minutes for the boat driver to shuttle us over.

A rare moment of beautiful beach surface!

Alicia: Near Dare Point, we hopped back onto the trail from a beach section, which our Port Renfrew Parks Canada orientation host had advised. This section was my favourite! The trail was fairly flat, up high, with many views down to the ocean, and a constant sound of crashing waves. Several times, we passed through arches of ferns, and deep, dark patches where suddenly all the sunlight vanished. I felt amazing. It was breezy, the trail was super fun, and we were on track for an awesome time too! Above and beyond all that, I was really enjoying all the views, I think more than any other run I’ve done. Around here, Tara started to pick up the pace. (I found out later that she thought the Nitinat Narrows boat ride was at 36k remaining, when it was actually closer to the 32k remaining point. She’d picked it up a little bit, thinking she was going to get a rest at the boat!)

At Nitinat Narrows, we ran down a wooden plank to see the boat just about to leave. “Hey!” we yelled, not super loudly, but half-heartedly. (Didn’t want to be too annoying!) We arrived to the dock, realizing we’d have to wait for the boat to go for its trip and then return before getting us. Oh well, more time to eat our sandwiches! We thought. But then, the Narrows ferry operators came over to us, shook our hands, and told us they were bringing the boat back for us! “You two are the fastest yet this year!” they said, smiling. We were blown away that they were coming back to get us! This was a huge boost, with about 32k to go.

A waterfall along the trail.

The final 32k was a mix of beach and trail as we spent our last few hours in paradise. We kept eating and drinking water, navigated on and off the beach fairly swiftly, and we even ran into 2 long, lean black bears with about 14k to go. (Sorry to anyone who heard our terrible singing!) At our last water refill, we encountered two women taking a break from the hike, maybe in their 50s, at the stream. I could tell they were runners, because they asked very detailed questions about what we were eating, and they weren’t shocked— more so, very interested. One lady announced that she was competitive in nature, and now she wanted to run the trail! We told her she should go for it. We wished them a great hike, then we entered the final stretch, which was a beautifully flowy 12k to Pachena Bay.

Tara: Alicia patiently let me lead even though the pace had slowed to some walking on false flats. My legs were starting to seize up and I was having trouble running our normal pace.

Alicia: Poor Tara was on her wedding and honeymoon for a month before this, and wasn’t loving this part. But before we knew it, we saw an obscure sign and grass field. This was the end, far less monumental than I’d imagined. It was done!

Tara: Alicia talked me through the final stretches and before we knew it, we saw the trail sign in Bamfield and the orientation post on the grass field!  What the heck, we actually did it?! We finished in 11:34!

Pretty stoked to have finished in time for dinner at McKay Bay Lodge! 😀 Photo by Holland Gidney.

Running the West Coast Trail!

While everything is fresh as mud, we thought it would be a good time to share some of the things we learned for future runners! Here’s everything we learned from Tara’s previous 2 times on the trail, plus lots of blog-reading, and talking with Matt Cecil a few days before (thank you Matt!):

  • Travel south to north. It’s so nice to do the most technical part when you’re fresh, both physically and more importantly, mentally! The stretch of trail from Gordon River to Walbran Creek (approximately 20k!) is similar to the most technical section of the Baden Powell trail in North Vancouver, if you’re familiar with the area (between Grouse Mountain and Prospect Road). It took a ton of mental focus the entire time, and would be so hard at the end, after a long day! Doing it first made it super fun, while I imagine that doing it at the end would be frustrating and more like type 2 fun. Also, the technical nature of that stretch forced us to start out slower. It would be super tough to run too hard in this part! :p Lastly, this lets you get the Gordon River water crossing over and done with right away, rather than doing that when you’re tired at the end!
  • We used a stand up paddle board to cross Gordon River at the start, which worked really well. (Two of us kneeled on one board, plus we both had paddles and life jackets.) The water was super still when we crossed, it felt super safe. Our friend Chris towed the extra board back with her using the SUP leash.
  • If you can, time your run so that you can choose to run on the beach, or the trail. For us, it worked out great because that meant starting at 6am, which was also really nice for us with safety in mind. We’d learned from Matt that it’s often quicker to run on the beach when you can, because it’s more direct, obviously not technical like the trail, and sometimes you can find a nice rocky shelf to run on, under a few centimeters of water. We sometimes found it nicer to run on the beach, but more often we preferred the trail, just because it was shady, and the surface was much mor enjoyable. (Well, we love the technical stuff though!) Either way, it was so nice to have several occasions when we had the choice of doing either trail or beach, because the tides were out. We were able to learn what worked as we went, and made decisions on the fly. (We used the beach stretches to look at the map and plan the next sections. Also, it was easier to eat on the beach, to its credit.)
  • Running the trail on Summer Solstice was great, because it gave us ample daylight with sunrise at 5:15am and sunset at 9:30pm! It was really nice peace of mind, in case we had a longer-than-expected day!
  • You will laugh, but carrying a bear bell was a great little trick. Although we brought it to prevent seeing bears, it turned out to be mostly great for sharing the trail with hikers. It let them know we were coming with tons of notice, so we had lots of great interactions with hikers hearing us coming a mile away! Seeing all the hikers along the way, and how happy they were, was one of our highlights.
  • Having friends meet us at the end was super awesome, it just let us run confidently, not wondering how we would get to Bamfield (5k away from the trail!) at the end of a long day!
  • Bring a “lunch” (sandwich, or something yummy) that you can eat at Nitinat Narrows. This way, if the boat doesn’t come right away, you have something positive to do while waiting– eating something delicious (and calorie dense) that’s hard to eat while running! That’s what we did. We were looking forward to a little wait for the boat, and during the ride across, to have a lunch break, and dump the rocks from our shoes. (Either way, it’s positive!) But fortunately / unfortunately, the boat was just leaving, heard us coming, and they actually came back to get us! So in the end, we had zero time to eat! It was nice to have the more luxury food to make use of the time in case we had to wait.
  • In terms of training, we live in Squamish and Vancouver, and frequently get out on trails that are very similar to the most technical part of West Coast Trail. We did a training run from Grouse Mountain to Deep Cove in North Vancouver, that’s a good one! Also, Alicia did three runs down Sea to Summit in Squamish as training. (The hardest parts of the west coast trail are similar, but way flatter!) Tara did some sand running on vacation.  Either some training in the sand or snow if you’re not used to those conditions would be ideal!

Of course, a big important requirement for having a relatively efficient day on the trail, if that’s your goal, is having great weather, so that will just come down to luck! We lucked out with a sunny, not-too-hot day, and the week leading up didn’t have a ton of rain. This meant that the roots were all dry for us, and we got to skip a couple cable car crossings by walking right across the rivers. (We only did one cable car crossing!) I’m guessing this is a very rare and special treat.

Ways to do it even quicker

We think that a super-motivated gal could push herself to do this even faster, assuming a perfect day with the same dry conditions! Here are a few ideas:

  • Running the last 12k portion faster! We slowed a bit in the end, walking the gradual ups, but they are very smooth, non-technical and runnable if you’re able to push there!
  • We filled up water four times, but we could have filled up three times instead with an extra soft flask, maybe saving five minutes. (We had three 500ml soft flasks, maybe having a 4th would save some time.) You do waste a bit of time filling up while looking for the stream, especially when you’re on the beach. We also went off trail one time, down to the beach to get more water.
  • Maybe you could keep running when you see two big, lean black bears jump from the bushes onto the beach 50m from you? In our case, we stopped, started singing horribly, and then slowly walked past them once they hid in the bushes. Depends how comfortable you are!
  • In the first 20k, there was a downed tree which led us off-trail, up an animal path by accident for about five minutes. This was the one time we stopped paying full attention, and started talking each others’ ears off about volcano vacations. (Tara hiked a volcano in Indonesia the other week with Ryan, and some tourists were smoking the entire way, apparently!)
  • We were conservative running along the rocky shelf which was under a few inches of water on the beach, being super careful to not slip and hit our head! If you’re more aggressive, you could probably pick up the pace there, although it’s often covered in seaweed and algae. (Alicia had once slipped on a rocky shelf like that and cut her whole leg, so she wanted to be cautious.)

    Our beautiful campsite dinner venue in Port Renfrew!

Our packs

It’s nice to travel light, but the only way out on this trail is at Nitinat Narrows at approximately halfway, or in Bamfield. If you get hurt, the communication system is based on handing a piece of paper with information about your situation to the next hiker you see, and having them hand-deliver it to the next person they see with a radio on the trail. (!!) So, a bit slow. We knew we needed to carry enough stuff to survive overnight if we needed to, in the worst case scenario. That included:

  • Lightweight Gortex rain jackets (Arcteryx Norvan)
  • Merino wool long-sleeve
  • Buff that could be used as a toque or tourniquet if needed
  • Lightweight gloves
  • Extra socks
  • Emergency blankets
  • 1 SPOT device
  • 2 packs of matches and fire starters
  • Cell phones (although likely useless for making a call on the trail, you never know, maybe you can get 1 bar of reception somewhere… and, we could use it for navigation.)
  • Waterproof maps of the trail
  • For first aid supplies, we had bandages, antiseptic, Tylenol, Advil, antihistamine,  and medical elastic and bandages.

Most important, we had our friends waiting for us at the end, and they knew our route, and the time in which they should start to call for help.

 

The beach near the southern end of the West Coast Trail

 

Nutrition

We ate and drank a ton running the West Coast Trail! It really helped to do lots of planning before. Alicia sat down and literally wrote a google doc with a list of sweet and salty foods, to make sure she had variety. In the end, here’s what we ate:

Alicia: 2400 calories during the run including:

  • 2 Clif Tart Cherry-filled bars
  • Big bag of plain salt and vinegar chips
  • Huge bag of sour grape candies, gifted from Chris
  • 6 packs of Mott’s fruit snacks
  • 1 pack of Clif Chomps for electrolytes
  • 6 softflasks filled with 200 calories of Carbopro each, just for some extra
  • Salt packages just in case (literally, packages, like the ones you might see in the condiments section at McDonald’s)
  • In the second half, 1 cheese bun sandwich with lots of mayo and Havarti inside
  • Brought a high-protein teff waffle sandwich stuffed with almond butter and honey inside in case it took longer, but it didn’t!
  • For water, guzzled 14 (500ml) soft flasks of water throughout the day! (We didn’t bother treating the water, hope we don’t get giardia!)
  • Brought orange ginger Chimes, really didn’t like them!
  • Brought 1 pack of kids baby food fruit puree, but unfortunately, it had yogurt in it, which was sour and gross! Good emergency food though!

Like a kid’s birthday party snack table!

Tara:

  • About half a pack of bacon in the first half!
  • Some tailwind to start.
  • Tried out new flavours of Muir Energy Gels got from Distance RunWear- Now she loves these!!!
  • Untapped waffles! (4-5!)
  • Majority of one of Alicia’s Teffles waffles
  • lots of jelly beans (late in the day this is all I wanted the last 20 km or so!)
  • A bag of salt and vinegar chips
  • Some coconut chocolate
  • A few bites of a ham and cheese sandwich, but couldn’t stomach this and opted for more jelly beans
  • Pack of mini eggs
  • Honey Stingers
  • Justin’s nut butter- also couldn’t get much of this down, too sticky when your mouth is dry!
  • Similar amount of water to Alicia/slightly less as I didn’t fully fill up on one stop!

Stats

Here’s a link to our Strava to get a good look of the route. Alicia’s and Tara’s.

 

Thank you!

To our amazing party / crew / SUP whisperers, Chris and Holland, who came along for all parts of the adventure except the actual running of the trail. They woke up at 4am to make coffee, shepherded us on SUPs across Gordon River at the start, towed the extra SUP back, drove our car to Bamfield on remote dirt roads all day, and were willing to wait until midnight for us to make sure we were safe in Bamfield! We’re ready to be your party / crew for this thing as soon as you are! 😉

Chris & Holland testing the morning paddle setup with Alicia lurking in behind.

A special thank you to Parks Canada, the West Coast Trail Guardians, the Pacheedaht, Ditidaht, Huu-ay-aht, and Nuu-chah-nulth First Nations for welcoming us onto this beautiful wild paradise, and protecting and preserving such an enjoyable route through it. Kudos to everyone who came before us to pioneer this route as an awesome run– notably Gary Robbins in 2010, and Jade de La Rosa who had the most recent women’s FKT.

Bradey Beach.

Black Canyon 100k DNF: Lessons About Joy

Nearly a month ago now, I toed the start line of Aravaipa Running’s Black Canyon 100k near Phoenix, Arizona. A “golden ticket” race, the event attracts a super competitive field, as the top-two men and women get to run Western States. (Non ultra runners may be wondering: woah – wait a second – is it really a reward to win a 100 miler?!)

Thank goodness for Tara (B), I’d trained with her every week, escaping Squamish deeper winter and doing marathon long runs on the North Shore. Tara was extremely fit, so they were tough! I have flashbacks of watching Tara pound out a 3:45 min/km downhill during a short tempo at the end of a long run… (Downhill, but still!) By the time I was standing at the dark, muddy Black Canyon start line, I felt fit and ready.

Tara on our shakeout run in Prescott before the race.

The race appealed to me for so many reasons back in the fall. It presented the idea of a fun girls hangout, with Tara B, Mallory R, and Cassie S all coming from across Canada (Vancouver, Winnipeg, and Waterloo!) to hang out together. The route itself also looked awesome– it was a point to point route on this beautiful Black Canyon trail, and it was net downhill. I was excited by the idea of a point to point course, and I also thought that the competitive field would be a fun challenge.

Cassie, Mallory and I watching sunset at our Prescott Valley zen house. I was pretty happy to skip the race expo and festivities to stay holed up in this place!

I’m a data-driven person, and when I looked at the stats before the event, I knew I wasn’t in the running for a golden ticket. I mean, the top-two women going into the race had marathon times of 2:44 and 2:39– I’d have to have a lot of heart to out-run them! Instead, my goal was to see how fast I could run 100k on trail, and hopefully, to minimize the gap between those women and myself.

Unfortunately, in the final hours before the event, the race organizers had to change the course for safety, due to concerns about rising stream levels. This meant that we only had 60km of unique trail, and then we had to do some doubling back and forth. I was disappointed, as the original course was the main appeal to me, but I understood the reasoning.

At the start line, I didn’t feel the excitement you’d expect. I felt motivated to see if I could run a fast time, but when I think about it, I wasn’t actually pumped for the running itself. Looking back, this should have been cause for concern.

The race began, and Tara, Mallory and I ran the first kilometers close together, navigating the muddy, hilly Jeep road. As it was so early in the race, everyone was friendly and upbeat. I met a couple women from all over North America, including a woman from Vermont, and another from Montana. I believe we all ran the first 10km a bit too fast, but we were excited to get the hell off the muddy Jeep road and onto a trail.

I remember Tara and Mallory drifting ahead at some point, and I was quite positive, locking into a forever pace that I felt I could maintain all day. I thought of my friend Jordan in Australia, and how she was so strong in running forever. I felt good, totally at peace with where I was at.

Around 30k, I started to feel quite bored. The desert hills continued forever, without much change in scenery. I glanced at my watch, and realized that I had about 7-8 hours left. “Just 8 more hours of running this same pace“, I thought to myself. That was a long time to maintain! I started to negotiate with myself. “If you finish this, then you can drop from Chuckanut [next month].

This was the beginning of my self-imposed destruction. 

Shortly after I started to really feel the sun exposure. It wasn’t too hot, maybe 20 degrees, but there was zero shade. I eased my pace even more, just chilling, knowing that an easier pace really helps when it comes to heat. Our new friend Nic was volunteering at an aid station, and he told me to dial it back. It became my mantra.

Photo by Nic. I think it’s only around 9 or 10am in this photo, and it’s already warm!

Unfortunately, I quickly became super nauseous around the 40k mark. My stomach was sloshing, and my nutrition quickly deteriorated. My plan was to drink CarboPro as a way of getting calories quickly, but with my stomach so volatile, I didn’t want to put any additional liquid in there! The nausea made me dizzy, and I tripped, falling superman-style onto sharp rocks on the trail. With my stomach in so much pain, I decided to walk for a bit. At first, walking was welcome and joyful. I imagined I was on vacation, staying at some kind of spa and doing a short 5k walk.

After a few minutes of walking, (likely actually half an hour!) I hated that too. At this point, I was barely crawling forward, I can’t even call it a walk. Tens of runners were coming up behind and looking to pass on the tight singletrack, forcing me to step off into the cacti every minute. The nausea persisted, and I started realizing that it would take me almost two hours to slither along to the next aid station at this pace.

Earlier I’d bartered with myself that if I finished today, I could drop from Chuckanut. Suddenly, I had a realization: I could actually just drop from both!

Around the same time, Denise B ran by, and I was amazed by how far back she’d started. She was so positive, telling me to eat some calories. I didn’t listen, with the knowledge that I was just going to drop, anyway! I watched Denise bound ahead along the trail, so composed and purposeful.

I considered whether I should drop at the aid station behind me, which was only 4k back, as opposed to 8k forward to the next one. Dropping backward would be awkward, I concluded. It was a narrow singletrack trail, and I knew that every runner would ask me if I was okay. I ripped my race number off, thinking that I could turn around and look like a volunteer, so it would be less awkward. Still, for some strange reason, I couldn’t get myself to walk backwards on the course. Even though I knew I was going to drop, I had to do it forwards. I put my race number into my pack, and continued crawling forwards. I could get there in two hours at this 15 minute per kilometer pace, I calculated. The next 8k is a blur, I just remember a duathlon of walking and puking.

I managed to puke and rally around 45k, and I enjoyed a couple kilometers of running, with nothing in my stomach. A runner in front of me found some garbage on the ground, it was my race number! I thought that I may be past the nausea, so I grabbed the race bib and continued past that aid station I’d been dreaming about, testing myself to continue to the next aid station. The high was short-lived. My stomach was a wreck, and after a couple kilometers, I was back to my uninspired crawl. When I thought about it, I hadn’t felt any joy, all day, and it was very unlikely that I would start to feel it at 60k. I walked through downtown Black Canyon City with a slight smirk, knowing that I was about to call it a day, conveniently cutting out all the new convoluted, re-routed parts of the course. A man made fun of me for walking as he drove his car into a Black Canyon gas station. “Shouldn’t you be running?” He asked. I continued my walk along the road, defiantly.

As I walked, my mind wandered into fascinating places. When I saw the second place female on the out and back, I glanced at my watch. I was certain that Tara was in third place close behind, and I was going to tell her how far ahead the second place female was. Perhaps to pull me out of my own misery, I started imagining that she was going to come second, and that we were going to Western States together. I’m done with ultras, but I can be a great pacer, I thought to myself. I even started thinking about how we could fund the trip !!!!

At 55k, I was so excited to stop running. Cassie would be done the 60k soon, and I knew that either Tara or Mallory would be crushing the 100k. I’d rather cheer for a friend who was killing it, then run without joy.

With a smile on my face, I handed the crumpled race number to the RD matter of factly, then heckled the other runners who were still in the warzone. Pizza ensued. Hanging out with Scarlett and Nikki, and later, the entire Canadian crew at the finish line, I started to finally feel joyful, for the first time that day.

In the end, Tara also caved to the boredom of the re-route plus the stomach sloshing, joining me to heckle at 70km. Niki and Cassie both ran super strong 60k races, both in top-10. Most admirable, after training in -40 Winnipeg winter, Mallory was a stoic powerhouse, running a smoking fast 9:33 and coming in third!

Our little crew post race! Oddly I look the most banged-up, those bandages on my knees are hilarious– and just covering little cuts from my fall. Photo by Nic!

I’m so at peace with this DNF. I never felt joyful once that day, which is my #1 reason for running. Too many non-joyful miles would suffocate my enjoyment in the sport, and I feel like I’m already getting precariously close to that edge, after so many years of running ultras.

I believe the problem was in focusing on results, rather than the process, the running itself. I was doing it to get a fast time, but not necessarily because I was excited to run an ultra. I can’t help but see the similarity to how I burnt out from track and field by age 11. I used to run the 1500m, and by age 10, I was already putting an incredible amount of pressure on myself. I expected myself to make the Youth BC Games, the Provincials, to get a varsity scholarship to some Ivy League school. There was always some standard, and some result I was seeking. I was 10, damnit!!!! Before long, I resented it. Each race I toed the bunched standing start line, I would tell myself: only one more race, then you can quit.

I think I’ve gotten myself into a similar predicament with ultras. I expect so much from myself, and no matter how much I say I don’t care, I can’t help but expect the best. I line up to a start line and expect myself to run fast, to the point that it’s not fun.

Exploring Seodna. (Worth all the hype!) Photo by Cassie.

Walking away from this race, (hah– literally!) I’ve finally seen the light. I need a break from the expectations I set on myself. I need to re-discover what brought me to trail and ultra running originally: exploration, grassroots community, inspiring adventures. Getting back to running for the joy of the feeling of it, without any watch or time or standard, without any expectations of distance or pre-set categories imposed by other people. The irony is that what originally made me fall in love with ultra running — defying norms and limits — is now holding me back, as I expect to run in neat categories like “100km” or “100 miles”. I need to get back to the carefreeness that connected me to the sport, running through amazing places for as little or as much as I want without definitions or expectations.

From the outside, not much will appear to change– I’m still going to be running a lot. But in my perspective, everything will change.

Team Thirsty Beavers in Sedona post-race. All my friends are so tiny!

 

This is what joy looks like – @taraberryadventures, somewhere in Prescott!

 

The Dog That Bit Me

Two weeks ago, a Rottweiler bit me.

I was running, of course. I was down a flat dirt road near the ocean, listening to How I Built This podcast, featuring Soul Cycle. It was a Friday afternoon. I happened to have the day off, and I was getting excited about the weekend. I was going to sneak 15k before the weekend even began, hoping to start discretely building lots of mileage before an upcoming 100km race.

Just as I started feeling good, this mini chihuahua came running, directly at me. It was so tiny, about the size of my left foot. How cute, I remember thinking. I stepped to the left so that I wouldn’t crush the little thing. Just then, everything else changed. There was a Rottweiler on a leash about six feet further to the left, and the second I stepped a foot left, it overtook its owner, jumped and bit my arm.

All I can remember is seeing the dog’s large jaw around my elbow and then acting like a four-year-old. I went into a weird state of shock, and frankly, I’m ashamed with how I reacted. I started crying, and I was irritated about the dumbest things– how the dog had interrupted my awesome podcast, how I’d gotten blood on my new iPhone, how I had to stop the rhythym of my run. There were angry tears, some swearing, some blood, and for some weird reason, I refused to tell the owner my name. She was really sweet, was trying to give me her name and phone number, but for some reason, I didn’t want it. I just wanted to run away.

So naturally, I did.

I’m stubborn, so I insisted on finishing my run, just wrapping a buff around my bloody elbow and then heading further. I was simply grasping for the only thing I had control over.


Tonight, I had a meeting outside the grocery store with the woman who owned the dog.

She’d brought me flowers, and a shirt, to replace the one the dog chewed.

Looking her in the face for the first time, I noticed she was pretty. She was stylish, her skin was really nice, and her eyes had sparkly eyeshadow. I suddenly felt a warmth between us, like I wanted to hug her.

We talked about what happened, and then her eyes started to well up. She told me that they’d decided to put the dog down. They’d adopted it as a rescue dog, and unfortunately, it came with trust issues. They’d taken the dog to a behavioural specialist in the past, but it was hard to train an old dog. Seeing her tear up, I could tell this whole thing was harder on her than it was on me.

I didn’t know what to say. I told her that she’d given the dog a great life and that she did the right thing. Hell, it was on a leash, jumped from far away and bit me. With my words, I tried to strike a balance between supporting her decision by agreeing how dangerously the dog had behaved, while not bashing the late dog she clearly loved.

As a fireplace-dwelling cat owner, I couldn’t fully understand how someone could unconditionally love a dog that’s capable of harm.

But I didn’t need to understand. The fact was, the Rottweiler was gone, and at this moment, we had closure to move on. We hugged, and then I told her I hoped to see her around town soon, before turning toward the grocery store.

“Good luck with your running”, she said, as we parted. For some reason, I said, “You too”, even though I didn’t know if she ran or not.

I left feeling inspired by the small encounter. We’d taken something negative, and transformed it into something that made us feel warm inside. I wondered if perhaps, navigating my way through these small daily challenges with other humans, and making the situations feel warm and fuzzy– maybe that’s a worthy goal in life.

Imposter Syndrome

I love it when a name for something is coined, and it makes you feel understood, like you’re not the only one. That other people experience it, too.

For me, the name imposter syndrome does just that. I’ve felt this lurking feeling of unworthiness in various situations in my life, but without consciously being aware of it. Once I heard the term imposter syndrome, the thought pattern finally reared its ugly head, making its way into my conscious awareness. Now that I’m aware of it, I can trap those thoughts, and choose whether to believe them, or more often, simply kill them. Not only that, the name told me that it’s a common occurrence, and that it often doesn’t reflect reality.

Photo by my talented friend, Mark Locki. Trail running along BC’s majestic Howe Sound Crest Trail.

In my running adventures, I’ve been lucky to rarely feel imposter syndrome, as I’ve been a runner for my entire life. But even then, I’ve felt it. Standing at the start line of UTMB’s CCC (2017) and TDS (2018) races in the elite section at the front, I felt a deep sense of “what the hell am I doing here?!”. Even though it’s based on a system of points driven by the past results I achieved, I still couldn’t help but feel like I was an imposter. Even though the race has decided that I belong in that section, and I’ve competed at the World Championships in my sport, I haven’t given myself permission to belong there. I’m waiting for some breakthrough, some crazy performance that will come, to convince myself that I belong. I’m starting to think that I’m giving myself an ever-raising bar to jump past being an imposter.

Photo of Tory, Tara and Niki along a run to Watersprite Lake, BC.

Aside from running, I more often feel like an imposter when I’m skiing. Even though I ski regularly in the resort and in the backcountry, I can’t help but always feel like “I’m not really a real skier”. I’ve heard lots of people talk about themselves in this way when they describe running. “I’m not really a runner”, they say, when they haven’t yet convinced themselves they deserve the term yet, even though they run a couple times a week. I find this crazy, and deeply fascinating. What do you really need to do, to achieve the status of a runner?! In my mind, I think you’re very much “a runner” if you jog once a week. My situation with skiing is the same– I’ve resigned myself to this subordinated category of “not a real skier”. I’m not sure what’s blocking us in these situations, perhaps it’s a way of protecting our ego, to always just tell ourselves “that’s okay, I’m not really an X”. Whatever the case, I do feel that we will never really improve, until we start defining ourselves as a full-fledged, “real” skier or runner or writer, or whatever. If we spend the time doing something on a regular basis, we deserve to consider ourselves a full member of that community, not a second-class citizen.

Photo of my friend Chris skinning up on a fun day out in Garibaldi Provincial Park, BC.

My fascination with these topics is that they extend to everything we do, from outdoor to work, and other life adventures. I strongly believe that if we’re denying ourselves permission to identify with a sport or profession, then we’re holding ourselves back. For myself, I only just started calling myself “a writer”. I’m not sure how many thousands of words I had to write to get there — but it involved a lifetime of writing, a recent 80,000-page manuscript, various jobs as a ghostwriter and technical writer, and all the posts in this blog. Some people have to take an undergrad or Master’s degree to feel like they’re really qualified to be a certain thing they want to be. Of course, learning and studying is a wonderful thing, but I do feel like sometimes, the extra education is just a highly-structured way of getting to a place where we can deserve to be part of a certain group. Once we finally give ourselves permission to identify as something, we’re more likely to feel invited to take part in that community, and fully learn and grow.