Perpetual forward motion.
I don’t know how many times I uttered or, at times, gasped those words to myself but it seemed to do the trick. Some 9 hours and 36 minutes after starting the second 5Peaks TrailSTOKE ultra marathon on 29 August, I crossed the finish line, feeling drained, soggy and elated at what i’d achieved.
True, I hardly zoomed around the course and I came nowhere near Adam Campbell’s incredible race winning time of 5 hours 47 minutes. But that, and some insane rain, crazy winds and falling trees during the last 15km, didn’t make the experience any less awesome. Running 51km with (according to Strava) 3,900m of climbing at an average pace of 10:29 was good by my standards and comfortably ahead of the cut off. All in all, it was a great day in the mountains.
On Strava, the course looks like this, a largely up and back route with a loop of sorts thrown into the middle. Or, as Adam Campbell subsequently described it in the Rocky Mountain Outlook: “definitely a challenging course…a graduate level run.”
The race started at the Revelation Gondola base station at Revelstoke Mountain Resort. The first leg was a 15km climb that passed the second gondola station at Revelation Lodge and continued onwards and upwards to the top gondola station (at 1,694m) and aid station one. The course followed an assortment of trails ranging from undulating, fast, single track in and out of trees, to muddy and rocky fire roads, to ski pistes. What united them all was a general upwards trajectory that had some tough gradient in places. Although the cloud was low, occasional glimpses of the surrounding mountains offered some psychological respite from the grind:
The second leg was described as a “ridge run” though the reality was 6-7km of boggy, shoe-sucking forest trails and steeper, more exposed rocky trails that led you up to the high point of the course at 2,289m. From there it was a short drop down to Kokanee Ridge, after which it was a further 2km to the turnaround point. As luck would have it, the clouds lifted as runners began to hit the ridge revealing some truly spectacular views:
From the ridge, you retraced your steps back towards aid station one but took a right turn at aid station two from where you began another arduous 3km ascent to the top of The Stoke chairlift and aid station three. Things turned a little gnarly as I hit the more exposed slopes below Sub Peak and found gale force winds, low cloud and sideways rain. The Stoke chair offered a welcome opportunity to rest, warm up and refuel before beginning the long descent along an at times soft, sandy and forgiving fire road to aid station one. From there, the descent continued, running the first leg in reverse through, as was the case for me and many others, heavy rain and dense cloud, back to the finish line at the Revelation gondola base station.
This was my first experience of mountain racing and it was nothing short of spectacular in many ways:
The course and organization were excellent – a great mix of trails (with no tarmac or pavement!), stunning views, and challenging in all the right ways. True, it’s possible that my first words after finishing might have included “that”, “was” and “horrific” and “never” and “again”. But they were said with a huge grin, weren’t really heartfelt, and any such sentiment soon evaporated as the enormity of my achievement set in. Also, having the start/finish line on the doorstep of the hotel where many of the racers were staying was inspired! It certainly made race day logistics and recovery a lot easier.
The atmosphere was truly amazing, thanks to the camaraderie that existed among the runners and the enthusiasm and invaluable support of the organizers and volunteers. I had a real sense that we were all in this together and everyone, whether you were racing or volunteering, wanted this to be the best experience for themselves and everyone else. All those human interactions along the way, those exchanges of words of encouragement, support and gratitude, however brief, had a profound and unquantifiable impact on my mental state and, as a result, my performance.
And some special shout outs for the unstinting support and enthusiasm of the super heroes at aid station two:
…to Ms. Canmore Runner and the Canmore Trail Culture crew for helping make the experience so special; and to the race director Amy Golumbia and her family, in particular her daughters Jasmine and Nathalie for their awesome and inspiring handwritten notes that we all received in our race packages:
Also among the high points was the fact that Ms. Canmore Runner and her team mates Stefanie Gignac and Liza Pye came first in the women’s relay and were third overall among the relay teams.
The weather was a bit of a highpoint as well as it turned out to be so much better than forecast. Running that race in dense cloud and heavy rain, as forecast, would have not been a whole lot of fun. And while weather of that sort and the odd clap of thunder and high winds arrived eventually, it was in the later stages of the race and after most runners were off the ridge.
I did find myself pondering at one point, after the thunder had rung out, what would happen to the can of bear spray I was carrying in my race vest in the event that I got struck by lightning. Would it explode? And if it did, and I was covered in the stuff, would that make it harder to apply first aid? Clearly fatigue was setting in – though I was pleased to have the bear spray:
The aid stations were well-stocked and well-run, with a good mix of electrolytes, water, and food, including bagels, cookies, home-made bannock, potato chips, pretzels, gels and, wait for it, chocolate covered bacon! And the no-cup policy was a winner. In the interests of the environment, the organizers didn’t provide cups in the start finish area or on the course. Rather, each racer was responsible for carrying their own water vessel at all times on the course. As far as I could see, this worked well. The volunteers at the aid stations were on hand to fill bottles and bladders and the areas around the aid stations were kept litter free (in fact I didn’t see any race-related litter anywhere on the course) not to mention cutting down massively on waste.
SOME TAKE AWAYS
As much as I loved the course, and I really loved the course, more single track and less fire road would make it even more incredible and challenging.
Also, and this is a very personal reflection, but it would have been great NOT to pass Revelation Lodge TWICE on the descent to the finish. You descend a very steep trail to the lodge, which I could barely see for cloud, then head up a fire road, drop down onto some fast single track in the trees which takes you…back to the lodge. At that stage all I wanted was to be down at the finish and off the mountain. It came as such a blow even though, in hindsight, I knew it was coming. Apologies to anyone that heard the brief flurry of expletives at that point.
It would also have been great to have a profile of the course elevation ahead of time, showing altitude and distance. All I knew in the lead up to the race was the length of each leg and the elevation gain. I didn’t have a sense in leg two, for example, of how long and steep the climb would be to the ridge or to the Stoke Chair. That would have been useful to know ahead of time. We received something the day before the race but distance wasn’t marked along the bottom so it wasn’t all that helpful.
A breakdown of the times for the different legs of the relay would have been good for those that relayed.
Finally, a couple of more personal take aways: I have to get on top of my nutrition during a race like that. My plan, based on my experience at the Grizzly Ultra last year, was to go with electrolytes and gels. It had worked then so why not now? Well, it didn’t work. After the sixth or seventh gel I was ready to throw up all over Kokanee Ridge. I managed not to and stuck to real food (bagels, cookies, water melon, potato chips and pretzels, though not the chocolate bacon!?) and plain water from then on and felt so much better for it. It’s probably the way forward.
I’ve got to find a better approach to training for a big event like this. You may remember, if you read the earlier post on training plans, that i’d developed an elaborate 13 week plan to prepare for TrailSTOKE. Well, I didn’t stick to it. I managed some long runs (including some truly spectacular runs like Mount Bourgeau). I managed some hill repeats, some speed work and tempo runs. But I wasn’t exactly consistent. In part because of injury woes along the way that put me out of action for short periods. But I also lacked complete confidence in what i’d cobbled together by way of a plan. Of course, there’s no way of knowing whether i’d have performed better – or worse – had I stuck to the plan. But I feel the need to get a better grip of all that.
And justifiably so. TrailSTOKE was an awesome adventure in the mountains. As arduous and challenging as it was, it has left me wanting more of the same. Much more.
Until next time, happy trails.