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. 😉