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.

 

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

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!

 

Tara and Alicia’s Howe Sound Crest Trail Women’s F^2KT (Fastest and Funnest Known Time)

As a competitive outdoorsy person, I’ve always been drawn to the idea of going for FKT’s (fastest known times). There’s something special and unique about it– something exciting, pure, and maybe more natural than traditional races. The experience is stripped down, with no markings, no support, no visible competition to push you. It’s just you and the trail, plus everything you brought with you, and your knowledge. Just a watch to time you against everyone else who preceded you, and some way to verify you did it.

I set the Hanes Valley Women’s FKT in 2016, (someone challenge it!) and at one point around the same time, I was secretly obsessed with the idea of going for the Wonderland Trail FKT. (It was dumb, I was super iron deficient at the time.) The style that interested me the most was doing it as a team with another runner. To me, this added an element of complexity, especially in longer routes. Most people will hit a low point at some stage during a hard effort, and the odds are that I would most likely have my low point at a different time than my friend’s– so double the low points! On the flipside, I thought that if I teamed up with the right person– and if we knew each other well, that we could communicate to get past those compromises, and ultimately have the awesome satisfaction of sharing the experience together, as well as the memories later. And if the day turned out to be terrible, at least you could laugh about it with someone for years to come. The idea of approaching a challenge as a team really appealed to me.

First Attempt

Enter Tara. For years, we’ve been running buds, and very similar in our strengths (downhill and technical!). It was obvious for years that we would eventually take on challenges together, but with traditional races often getting in the way, it hadn’t happened. Finally in September right after UTMB, Tara had the idea to see how fast we could run the Howe Sound Crest Trail.

It was a rhetorical question, obviously I would want to go for it together. It’s my favourite local trail, its net downhill profile and technical terrain played to our strengths, and the idea of getting the record would mean something. The HSCT was my first real trail run in 2013, and I was so over my head. I was dropped by the group several times, completely exhausted, barely able to hike up the final climbs. I was so horrendously bad at it, holding the group up all day, that I nearly decided that trail running was not the sport for me. This isn’t for me, I thought, back then. Thankfully I realized that I really enjoyed being in the mountains, regardless of my skill, and that it’s fun to have big challenges. Fast forward to today, and the idea of getting the FKT would signify something– progress, a reward for ‘believing’. Honestly, in 2013 I would have never believed it was possible, when I was alone at the back of the group, struggling. Next thing you know we had set a date, we would go for it on Thanksgiving weekend, whenever the weather looked best.

Right after Tara and I made plans, Sam Drove ran it super fast — when I saw her time– 4:37.56, I thought it was out of reach. But that made it even more fun, to have a real fast time as a target.

So, on October 6, Tara and I went out for our first attempt. Being cautious and not super confident, we went out at our own efficient pace, thinking we would focus on doing our best, but that Sam’s time would be hard to beat. We started slow, getting over five minutes off pace by St. Mark’s, but we figured we’d make up time on the technical sections, near the West Lion. Not so. Before long on the descent from Mt. Unnecessary, I slipped on black ice and super-manned into a rock, head-first. Thankfully my hip and thumb took 100% of the beating, and my head gently hit the rock… it was unbelievable. Needless to say, after that, I had adrenaline pumping, my confidence was wiped, and I couldn’t get into a regular flow on the technical sections. The black ice continued all the way until Harvey Pass, so that didn’t help my fearful state either. (Although, Tara didn’t seem as affected — she had to wait for me as I crab-walked and stalled on any steep parts!)

One of many countless insanely beautiful sections along the trail. Photo by Tara.

By the time we hit Hat Pass (just past the Brunswick Mountain turnoff), I knew we were way off pace, like 10-15 minutes. I didn’t mention anything to Tara, it’s not like that would be motivating at this point– with only about an hour to go, there wasn’t enough time left to make up that big of a gap. We weren’t expecting to beat Sam’s time when we started, and we were still super motivated to set our personal fastest time on the trail. The last sections from Deeks Lake to the bottom (one of our strengths) went well, and we finished in 4:51, happy with a sub-5 time, as we had both only ever run the trail at party paces of around 6-9 hours with friends.

War wounds from attempt #1. I was a liability, constantly falling or nearly falling. Photo by Julien.

Second Attempt

Our run boosted our confidence, and we realized that if we got the right conditions, we could maybe beat the record. We would need to have a great day, on an ice-free trail. But we live in Canada, and given it was already mid-October, we would have to wait until next August, we figured. I continued on with other plans, running Valley Vertikiller, and generally overdoing it.

By the end of Valley Vertikiller, I was ready for an off-season. I was craving snow sports, social activities that don’t revolve around running 24/7, writing, and drinking copious amounts of all my favourite hot drinks, in between cat cuddles. I started a two week “active rest” itinerary, which Julien doubted I could achieve. Man does he know me well. I was so dedicated to my “two week running break”, until day two, when Tara invited me to give the Howe Sound Crest Trail another shot on the coming Saturday. There was a sunny day in the forecast, and apparently the ice might have melted up high, she said. I stared at the text for less than a few seconds before impulsively caving. I was tired, but I wanted to push past it and get it done.

With “rest week” shot and killed, I started running a little bit to come out of hibernation, while Tara hammered out a crazy work week. My runs made me wonder if I was up for it. I was tired running what would usually be a slow pace, on a flat trail. How was I going to rebound for such a demanding challenge, by the next day? I didn’t want to tell Tara, but I confided to Julien how doubtful I felt, and he was so positive. He told me that it’s all in my head, that whatever I’m thinking is my reality. (Best husband ever.)

You can see the look of fear on my face. When you know it’s going to be a hard 4+ hours…

This being our second attempt, and very clearly going for it, I was way more nervous the second time around. Unlike the first time, I had told a couple friends about it, so it felt more legit. And also, knowing our time from last time, we knew it was within reach — but that it would be painfully close, most likely. Julien kindly shepherded us to the start, and we did a warmup in the parking lot of Cypress Mountain, just like it was a race. We squandered as much time as we could until we just had to get going. Julien walked us over to the start, took one of our only photos of the day (I look terrified), then we started our watches and away we went, into the forest, no turning back.

We knew that we had gone out too slow at the start last time, so we had to up the pace right from the get go, which sucked. That beginning section to St. Mark’s is tough, especially when you have a long way to go afterwards, and when you’re following Sam Drove’s bleeding pace. I was breathing hard from the start, both from the effort, and from the crazy race-like excitement.

As we neared St. Mark’s, I started to see that Tara looked much more fresh than me, and the negative self talk started in hard.

Look how much more fresh and fast she is, I told myself.

She didn’t race last weekend, you did. The voice added.

Plus she’s tiny.

You’re slowing Tara down, you should just let her go for the record, and just run slowly behind. Feel how tired you are. Feel how easy it would be to slip into an 8-hour HSCT pace… 

And on the thoughts went. Finally I caved and near the St. Mark’s summit, I told Tara to go on without me, that I was too tired to make it happen today, after a crazy fall.

Thankfully for me, Tara wouldn’t have any of this bullshit, and she tricked me into continuing. She insisted we go on together, and that if we needed to, we could bail out later, near the turnoff to Lions Bay. What she didn’t tell me then was that she knew that we were doing great, faster than last time, and that we would be happy on a downhill soon enough. I agreed to follow Tara as though she was setting her own pace for the record, and I just told her I’d try to hang.

She was right, I’m not sure what happened but we were getting to the West Lion much faster than last time, and I started to feel amazing. Luckily, there was barely any ice, and I found my normal rhythm. This time, Tara and I were totally in step, loving every minute and yelling out in joy more than a few times. As we passed through that section, I thought of my friend Mark and how he had come up there to take pictures last time. I air high-fived his spirit.

From a previous trip to this beautiful place, around the same time of year.

Right before the West Lion, we passed a guy on the trail and didn’t think too much of it, until he came riding our ass for a solid five minutes. We hadn’t seen anyone in a long time, and so it felt weird to have company, at exactly the same pace, right behind us. I wanted desperately to drop him, to free myself of the feeling of being chased, but I didn’t want to go any faster. So, I befriended him! Turns out his name is Clayton, and it was his first time running the trail. (He was fast!) As Tara led the pace in a militant fashion, Clayton and I talked about the beauty of the Grand Canyon in winter, and the Kneeknacker. We joked that he should join us for our “sub 4:40 goal”, but that if he fell and hurt himself, that he’d be on his own to call a chopper for help. (We were kidding, obviously we would help our new friend — or anyone — if they were hurt out there.) But still, any time I hit a slick patch and slipped, I would yell out to warn him behind me. I also joked that we would have no photo breaks or water stops — and he seemed totally into it. The three of us powered up and over the often-forgotten James Peak, and all the little bumps (that feel big) on the way from the West Lion to Harvey Pass– one of the longest sections on the trail. Tara set the pace, I put my hands on my knees and followed, and Clayton powered along behind me, even cheering us along as we went. I really enjoyed his company, and the way he mellowed things out a little bit. (Although Tara was concerned I was talking too much, I believe.)

From a previous HSCT adventure with Mike, Ryan and Julien in 2015, party pace.

Near Hat Pass, I started to realize we were ahead of the record pace, and that, if nothing went wrong, we could likely get it. From there, we had our favourite sections ahead, with a bunch of technical trail to Deeks Lake, and a huge net downhill to the parking lot. Still, it’s not over until it’s over, and even then, I wanted to run it as well as we could, to set the bar as high as we could for the next person. Tara let her militant hammer pace lapse for a moment at Deeks Lake, so it was finally my time to lead. The descent flew by in what felt like no time at all, and somewhere in there we lost Clayton behind us. That old logging road, the last 4k, is a deeply comforting site to me. It means you’re almost done, especially if you can remember your turnover and churn out some 4-5 minute K’s.

Julien turned up with about 2k to go, and he told us we were ahead of the record, which was nice to hear– I still wasn’t certain. He tried to make us go faster by creeping behind us, but by that point, we were in a flow state, in our own little world. And there it was, the yellow gate, it felt like it came sooner than I expected it to. Oh shit, it did, our time was 4:28.15! Two months ago, I would have never believed that I could run the trail in that time– I have Tara and Sam to thank for that! We took some obligatory ugly parking lot photos, and then headed straight back to Copper Coil in Squamish, puffy hands and all. Time for a beer! (And lunch!)

Post-adventure Whistler Chestnut celebratory beers … the best.

I love this trail, and if you live in (or are visiting) Coastal BC, you must go! (During summer!) I love doing this trail in every style. As a party pace, it’s fun to jump in the sparkling lakes, eat lunch at one of the many panoramic views, reconnect with old friends and make new friends. And as a tempo, it’s almost a playful feeling, to run the technical trail as fast as you can.

Random nerd / gear notes

  • Here’s a link to our strava file, for everyone to go out and chase! It’s awesome, there are mini segments within the whole trail.
  • Here’s a link to the Howe Sound Crest leaderboard on Strava
  • Here’s a link to a good description of the trail
  • For nutrition, I carried 2L of water with 800 calories of Carbopro, tons of Chime’s Ginger Chews (pre-opened! I find them so hard to open while running, especially when my hands are cold!), actual salt packages like the kinds you get at cafés, plus two Luna Bars as extra food in case.
  • For safety/mountain gear, in my bag I carried an arc’teryx norvan SL jacket, a merino wool longsleeve, a buff, fancy dollar store gloves, an emergency blanket, minimalist first aid kit, and we had 1 fully charged cell phone between us. We had told Julien our route, and the time we were expected to finish. If one of us got hurt, we certainly wouldn’t be comfortable, but we would have enough on us to make shelter and wait for help.

 

 

I Want All The Goals, Right Now (Goals For Impatient People)

If you have lots of goals, how do you space them out?

I get it, I’m supposed to set goals for various timeframes. Some for this year, some for next year, some for ten years from now. But what about for impatient / goal-greedy people? I see those 3-year goals, and I want them all at once, along with my goals for this year. It’s sort of like a buffet, where I try to stuff as much on my plate as possible, so that there’s no space on the plate. It’s towering, and when I walk by other people, they just sort of stare at my plate in horror!

I feel like my goals are similar. I have lots and I understand they should be spaced out, but I can’t resist wanting them all, now!

2 different paths. Both please, now!

Some of my goals this year are running-related, things like seeing if I can better my best time at Chuckanut 50k this March, running the West Coast Trail solo in late June, and having a great run at UTMB’s TDS in August. In coming years, I also really want to further my skiing skills, and get into ski mountaineering. The trouble is, I’m super impatient, and I really desperately want everything at once. It means I’m never fully focused on one thing, I’m always thinking about how I can fit the other things in, too. And when you factor in the variability of planning for skiing, having to time the weather, avalanche safety, and the snow conditions, it just doesn’t work that well with also trying to improve in running. Doing multiple things at once is totally fine, but often the best people are the ones who really focus their efforts and energies, day after day. (One gal I really admire who exemplifies this is Krissy Moehl! 18 years of dedication and she wins every damn race there is!)

Lots of goals, I want them all now! Like skiing up to Sproatt in Whistler backcountry.

The only reason I even noticed my tendency to get impatient & greedy with my goals is thanks to my running coach, David. Occasionally I would go out and ski instead of running what I had in my schedule. It was oblivious to me that this might be less than ideal, until I learned from him, that this might be a bad idea the week before a running race. Before having a coach for trail running, I would just go out and do whatever I felt like, so at first it felt weird that there could be an ideal timing to consider, and to plan adventures neatly around the timing. Honestly, I wasn’t sure if I could conform to a timing or restrict my adventures in any way. But how can you expect to improve, if you just keep doing the same thing, never fully committing?

After thinking more about it, I realized that I have a commitment phobia. By doing lots of goals at once I allow myself to dabble, and I stay away from having to fully commit to any one goal. When the time comes to put myself to the test, I never have to know that I gave everything, because I didn’t. I was out frolicking, and I never did fully apply myself to the single purpose, so I can avoid the same level of expectation as though I had. Instead of doing X really well, I did X and Y and Z to a pretty good level. And it’s comfortable, by goal-dabbling, I stay exactly the same each year, maintaining my comfy spot while minimizing chance of failure, by doing other things too. (Case in point, I ran Deception Pass 50k in 2017 & 2013, both times were only 5 minutes off!)

Photo by Ashley Agellon – on Bowen Island in 2017

I hear that some people stagger their goals, and they actually space them out, taking one goal at a time and giving it their all. Going for one goal with everything is a big risk, it’s more clear when you fail, the ego can be crushed, and so it takes courage to commit.

To push past the comfy mediocrity I know and love, I’m going to finally give it a try, dedicate myself fully to one goal without those side goals, and see what happens. For me this year, it means I’ll give the running goals my attention, actually following my training plan and trusting the process. Then next year, I’ll give skiing its own time and space in my goals.

The monthly winter sun came out in North Vancouver, BC!

Learning Patience From The Trails

Since I was little, I’ve been an impatient sort of person. In many ways, I benefited from it. I never wasted a moment, and I got to do lots of things at a young age, guided by this crazy internal clock.

As I started working, I was often rewarded for my impatience, as it transformed into a get shit done quickly attitude. I expect progress to happen, right away. In the short term, I feel like our society really rewards an impatient attitude.

However, it’s also a big pitfall. Being impatient all the time rewards short-term thinking over long-term thinking. But when we set long-term goals, we need to be prepared to wait months, or sometimes even years to see our results come to life. Any long term endeavour requires patience– by definition, it’s something that happens with sustained effort over a long period of time, and an impatient attitude can’t change that. So as I get rewarded in the short-term for my impatient attitude, I know that those big long-term goals require a balance.

Long distance trail running has really been an interesting mental exercise for me, because it’s all about patience. Often, the people who are the strongest in long trail runs are the ones who were patient– in their training, and in their race. In the many long ultra running races I’ve seen, or been a part of, it’s often the smart, patient runners who have the best day. And that’s not to mention the cases of injuries and other setbacks, which further test our patience, and our ability to wait for a better day toward our goal.

One of my favourite places to trail run, Island Lake Lodge in Fernie, BC

When I started trail / ultra running, I was incredibly patient. Coming from a road running background, I didn’t hike or climb at all, so I couldn’t really run uphill, or downhill. I decided it didn’t matter: I really enjoyed running long distances on trails, so I was willing to wait. I gave myself an arbitrary long time– ten years– by when I expected myself to overcome these weaknesses, and I was surprised to really improve in about two years.

Adventures with friends is the best way to spend a day on Earth! Kerry and Tara on the route to Hanes Valley.

As I became less of a disaster and liability, my patience began to slip away. I started to do better and better, and as I did, I expected more from myself, more quickly.

In the past two years, I’ve had to really remember the patience I had when I started. I’ve had an incredible two years of running, getting faster and stronger than ever, and getting opportunities to race internationally. But when it came to the races I entered eagerly, everything usually fell apart, because of my inability to figure out the nutrition side. I found it incredibly frustrating to feel fit, but unable to have a good day at a race. Over and over, I got severely nauseous during races, and performed way worse than I had in similar training runs. It got so frustrating, I thought about maybe trying a new sport… something that did not require eating during the event. Yoga, sprinting, and others became attractive.

But then I remembered that I could simply choose to be patient. If I really like the beautiful places I get to see, the people I get to meet, and the fun I have doing this, why not just chill out a little bit, and give myself time to work through these issues, just like when I started?

Photo by Tara at this year’s epic Broken Arrow Skyrace, which I barely survived. Had a terrible day in terms of results / hoped-for run, but I’ll be using those lessons for the next decade!

With that mindset, I’ve gained back my original patience, bit by bit. I’m more focused on my long-term quest than before. And funny enough, as my short-term expectations lower, my performance rebounds… finally had a race where I didn’t DNF, try to bushwhack off the course at halfway, eat only a single granola bar, eat only goldfish crackers, etc. last week at the Elk Valley Ultra!

Galloping around just outside town in Fernie, BC before a super fun day at the Elk Valley Ultra

 

 

2016 World Trail Championships in Portugal: Still Smiling, Still Foolish

On my first step, I fell in love with Porto. Jet-lagged, disoriented, it didn’t matter. Porto totally seduced me at any time of day. This was totally unexpected, as I had just come initially as a stopping point to run the race.

When we were introduced to Peneda Geres National Park on Wednesday before the race, it did not disappoint. On the northern Portuguese border with Spain, this park is full of ancient forts and ruins, tiny little villages, and lush green valleys capped with rocky granite formations. The running was a delight and full of surprises at each corner.

For the few days leading up to the race, we stayed in this area called Bom Jesus do Monte that was literally a sanctuary. Local Portuguese and tourist pilgrims hike up to Bom Jesus to visit the churches and the beautiful Baroque steps (which Julien uses to Strava-race) above Braga. I was lucky to hang out in this sanctuary with the 2016 Canadian team: Cassie Smith, Mallory Richard, Beverley Anderson-Abbs, David Jeker, Darren Seaman, Sebastien Roulier, & Roy Kok.

Last year I ran at the World Trail Championships in Annecy, and I became so nervous that it crippled me. This year, my plan going into this race was to just be confident, and pretend I was running an adventure run with Tara. I removed all stress, expectation and doubt and in their void came fun. Actually, pure joy! The first 55km of the race were pure joy, running through this beautiful park with inspiring runners from all over the world.

Of course, ultras are full of challenges. My big challenge came at kilometer 55, when the heat finally got to me and just roasted me alive. The race was 10 degrees hotter than expected, and a white girl without heat training does not thrive in an oven. (Always heat train!) It sounds strange that 55km could seem breezy and then suddenly, every step forward can take all of your might. But that’s what happened. Fortunately, quitting was not an option for me on this day, so I made tiny little goals. My goal was to get to the next water station 5km away. And when that seemed too far, my goal was to get to the next stream where I could cool off for 5 minutes. When the stream wasn’t appearing like an oasis, the goal became: get to the next trickle of water where I can dunk my hat. Eventually, I came out the other end of this suffering and finished the last 75-85km with a sense of happiness, gratitude and pure joy. Yes, 190th place and in the dark, but still, full of joy.

Beautiful Northern Portugal

Another amazing photo by Nadine Marie.

Thank you to everyone who made this experience possible for me. The wonderful people in Portugal, my team, our crew, and my sponsor RunGo. Until next time, Portugal! Keep it unbelievable…

Link to race results

Link to event Facebook page

My Arm Flew Into a Rock: hitchhiking from the Spearhead Traverse

The day was young, and there had not been nearly enough coffee.

At 7am Mike, Nate and I were galloping shuffling through Whistler Village, with our eye to completing the Spearhead Traverse, a hugely popular ski route.

Except, we didn’t have skis, and we weren’t planning on getting any. On this September day, we were planning to generally follow the idea of the popular ski traverse, but as a run & hike alternative. Skirting below the glaciers and above the trees, we thought we could do it in about 40-50K, one adventure day.

The goal is to get over to that ridge across the valley, through the path of least resistance. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

The goal is to get over to that ridge across the valley, through the path of least resistance. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

It was all Mike’s idea. With a summer off completing any big 100 mile run and months spent cooped-up in injury, he was jumping at the bit to run as many big Sea to Sky routes as he could before snowfall. He had just pioneered this other great run, Elfin Lake to Garibaldi Lake, and he was on a mission to complete as many grand Sea to Sky traverses as he could. Part of what made it exciting is that you just don’t find trip reports of people doing these traverses as a run. Mike’s adventures were entirely new, exciting, and full of unknowns.

Just the start of the adventure.

Just the start of the adventure, reaching the hut at Russet Lake.

I had just suffered from a cold from running one too many laps around Buntzen Lake, but I seemed fine enough to join the party. So at 4am when the alarm sounded, I jumped out of bed immediately, ready for the fun.

Loaded down with tons of gear, we slowly ran the first part of the route, the standard trail up to Russet Lake near the top of Whistler Mountain. From there we could roughly see where we wanted to go, the ridges of the Spearhead Traverse, which lead all the way to Blackcomb Mountain, across the valley. It seemed so close yet so far, all at once.

And now... how to get there? Photo credit: Mike Rose

And now… how to get way up over there, just under the glacier?
Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Passing Russet Lake, our first task was to find a nice line across to the Blackcomb side, skirting under Overlord Glacier. As actual legit skiers, Mike and Nate are naturals at picking out lines in the alpine, and they looked ahead at the slope, determining which ways we could ascend. I stared ahead and sort of followed, thankful that these guys have much more of a knack for the alpine.

Our first obstacle was a little steep rocky slope. Maybe 45 degrees, for about 100 feet. Falling here wouldn’t be life-threatening, but you could get a few good scrapes or maybe hit your head if you descended awkwardly. I immediately entered Gramma mode, which led me to crab-walk down a small gully formation in the rock, only after spending a good two minutes frozen, holding up the whole group with my ass facing down the slope. (!!) Finally I got into a good crab-walk down the gully, and things were looking up. I got 50 feet down, and yelled up to Nate that he could start descending.

The rocks of wrath. As usual, they picture always looks so benign, how could anything bad happen here? Photo credit: Mike Rose.

The rocks of wrath. As usual, they picture always looks so benign, how could anything bad happen here?
Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Then, a rock came flying down the gully where I was perched, about the size of two grapefruits. It was my worst nightmare. Of all the places the rock could travel on this huge slope, it was coming– right for my head. I had no time to think, react, or change my position. The next second, the rock rocketed forward and hit me good in the upper arm, and immediately I was in shock. Perched on the slope, suddenly lightheaded and my right arm totally numb, I felt helpless and useless. I wanted to get off the slope, but I couldn’t move. I think I let out some kind of audible surrender.

Somehow I slid my ass down the mountain and started mowing my chocolate croissant to regain the upper-hand over my body’s physiological upset. By now, Nate was talking good sense into me, suggesting that him and I could turn around right about now. I knew Mike was going to continue one way or another, and I wanted nothing more than for him to complete the adventure. Still feeling lightheaded, I started to weigh the options. Don’t be a wimp, I thought to myself. Some curious thoughts floated around my head. Maybe, finishing this adventure is a kind of dividing line between being tough or not… maybe this moment will define me… But thankfully, Nate’s voice countered those stupid thoughts.

Mike ran and got me some glacier ice for my arm, which gave me a good ten minutes to decide whether to carry on, or turn back. I couldn’t lift my right arm, but that didn’t matter to me. (Runners don’t need arms! I thought.) More concerning was that I still felt a bit lightheaded from the shock, and I was already in sub-optimal condition to begin with, recovering from being sick. Now I was a bit of a liability. And there was so much uncertainty about what lay ahead. Looking forward, we didn’t know what was on the other side of the ridge in front of us.

Suddenly it felt dumb to continue, with so much uncertainty about the challenges ahead, coupled with a whole list of known ailments. And suddenly, I realized this could become a hitchhiking adventure!

Choose Your Own Adventure: find your favourite line around the glacier! Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Choose Your Own Adventure: find your favourite line around the glacier! This is a shot looking back at the base of MacBeth from where Mike carried on solo. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

I absolutely love hitchhiking, I’d say, equally to the amount I love running. And so, with a fresh opportunity to hitchhike and with Nate as a poor sucker of a friend to come along, I decided the remained of the day would best be spent as an urban, gas-fuelled, stranger-filled adventure.

The second our thumbs flipped up, we were scooped up on the side of the Sea to Sky Highway. Our hero was Ramon, a Mexican entrepreneur/father from Mexico City, who had moved to Canada to help his family escape sketchiness in Mexico City. For the entire drive to Vancouver, we were treated to the inspiring story of how Ramon moved his family to Canada, how he had suffered from fraud with his first venture here; a restaurant he purchased which he had to bankrupt, and how he was not even acknowledging any setbacks, now a Locksmith to support his family and planning a second Mexican market and deli. We told him about running and biking on trails, and we were the first people he had met who do long distances. At the end of the car-ride, he said we somehow had inspired him, that he was going to start running in North Vancouver. In that moment, I didn’t care about the Spearhead Traverse. Connecting with Ramon, and hearing about what constitutes a great tamale, was so much cooler.

And what about Mike? Of course, Mike completed the route. Going most of the way solo, it took him about 10.5 hours including the first aid picnic, and he didn’t have to cross any glaciers, or anything sketchy.

Mountain or urban, it doesn’t matter. The Sea to Sky brings nothing but great adventures and inspiration, even on a day when things go south.

Up high. Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Up high.
Photo credit: Mike Rose.

Adventures in Fernie: how I fell in love with a remote mountain town

My mom first moved to the BC Kootenays to teach about five years ago, when I was only interested in running on roads, and the mountains just meant pretty views. I recall a visit where I ran the shoulder along the highway between Sparwood and Fernie as my fun long run. Or, a day where we roadtripped to Banff, and I ran along the Banff highway as my long run!!!! Fernie is famous for skiing, and of course I wasn’t into that, either. On my first visit in winter, I completed a 3-hour pool run at the Sparwood pool. Yes. The mountains were staring me in the face, but I had nothing to say to them.

I loved the tarmac.

I loved the tarmac.

How time changes!

Thankfully, my love for mountains has grown and evolved dramatically during this time that my mom has lived in this wonderful place. Somehow, I was reacquainted with skiing, and I fell for Fernie’s snow, just like so many others. I loved the fact that a “busy day” in Fernie was like a slow day in Whistler. I fell for the look of the antique streets lined with snow, and at some point the combination of old-fashioned brick buildings filled with high-tech ski touring setups made my mouth water. One year my mom bought me a lesson to learn skate skiing, and this became a big, self-respecting step forward from my good ol’ long pool run routine.

Snow!!

Snow!!

At some point I started trail running. I found the most amazing mountain biking trails, which provided endless fun. I discovered the amazing flowy trails of Fernie Provincial Park, and fell in love with the cushy singletrack, lined by tall meadows. I stared up at the interesting granite mountains surrounding the valley, Hosmer and Ghostrider and others, and envisioned future scrambles with friends. I couldn’t wait to come back and spend more time exploring.

Late in the day during the Trail to Ale challenge. This is just above town on the way down from Hyperventilation!

Late in the day, this is just above town.

Then this past visit, I was overwhelmed with the possibilities. First there was the Fernie Brewing Trail to Ale Challenge, a fun adventure that challenged me to run an unplanned 50k, linking together three trail systems in order to earn a free beer (and handmade medal!). Then I discovered that you can run up a beautiful rolling trail to grab a snack or beer at Island Lake Lodge, before heading out on some amazing, well-marked alpine trails from the lodge, then running back down. (!!) Between those two runs, I found a nice and easy riverside run right from town, and saw the sun set on the Lizard Range. I was in heaven.

A shot from the Mount Baldy loop at Island Lake lodge. I saw not a single person on this beautiful 10km loop in the alpine.

A shot from the Mount Baldy loop at Island Lake lodge. I saw not a single person on this beautiful 10km loop in the alpine.

 

A shot from the FBC Trail to Ale Challenge. These awesome little trail signs were made for each of the goals along the way, and we had to snap a pic with our time for evidence!

A shot from the FBC Trail to Ale Challenge. These awesome little trail signs were made for each of the goals along the way, and we had to snap a pic with our time for evidence!

 

A part of the Old Stumpy/Elk River run, just a few kilometers from town.

A part of the Old Stumpy/Elk River run, just a few kilometers from town.

Just as I thought, Fernie, screw off. You’re a remote small town, and I can’t fall in love with you… I need to go back home to Vancouver. — a lively band started playing in the town center, in a beautifully repurposed train station that now serves as the Fernie Arts Station. Local beer and wine flowing, a cafe owner tells us it’s Wednesday Night Social. I look around at all the happy people dancing, all ages intermixed together, old men and women with hardcore mountain bikes, and I felt so at home.

Wednesday Night Social at the Fernie Arts Station!

Wednesday Night Social at the Fernie Arts Station!

I tried my best to avoid falling in love with this town, but it’s like Fernie was beckoning me. A quaint book shop displayed a selection of entrepreneurship and creativity books, exactly the kind I like… Cute little restaurants sat with gardened patios, with the perfect ratio of sunlight to shade… Everyone was biking, everywhere, so happily. Cafes, yoga and breweries seemed to outnumber any other kinds of stores… And when I sat down for coffee, articles in Fernie Fix magazine seemed to be written just for me. Even the garbage cans were beautiful, with local artwork decorating them!

Fernie is one of those places that has something special going on. But beware… if you go, you may just find that you have to keep coming back… 😉

Another from the Mount Baldy Loop

Another from the Mount Baldy Loop… remote mountains forever!

If you’re heading there, grab a trail map from the helpful folks at GearHub, ($10) and check out the awesome local trail running group by Abi & friends, called Stag Leap. In the summer, be sure to grab some bear spray and a bear bell for further fun times. For a nice, easy 10k trail & river route from town, you can follow this route I made on RunGo.

Till’ next time!