This past weekend was Thanksgiving in Canada. In keeping with tradition, this was marked by the consumption of vast the amounts of turkey and pumpkin pie throughout the land; and by some 1,400 runners from all over Canada and beyond descending on the Canmore Nordic Centre for a truly awesome day of racing at the Grizzly 50k Ultra Marathon and Relay – a day of broken records, personal bests and individual triumphs.
You might recall from the Racing Post that the Grizzly was the third of three races that i’d targeted for this season, the other two being Rundle’s Revenge and TrailSTOKE. It was also the only race that i’d run once before. This was a good thing. First, because i’m familiar with the ups and downs and twists and turns of the 50km course (51km according to my Suunto) so had a reasonably good idea of what to expect. It was also good because it meant I had a time to beat – 6.37.59 – which had transitioned over the intervening months into the possibly unrealistic expectation that I could run this in under 6 hours…
As i’ve said before, the Grizzly will always hold a special place in my racing and running affections because it was at that time the most incredible racing experience of my life and the first time i’d run as far as 50km. The Grizzly is composed of five legs of varying length and elevation gain that all start and finish in the stadium of the Canmore Nordic Centre. Put it all together and it looks like this pointy squiggle (on Strava):
The weather was a little gloomy before the start:
But spurred on by the brightening skies, at 9am sharp, we set off from the stadium and along the Banff Trail:
The first leg was a straightforward run along the wide and non-technical Banff Trail, passing through the Meadow with its awesome view of Mount Rundle (see the photo at the top). Just before the end of the Banff Trail we turned right on to the undulating Bow Trail and eventually rejoined the Banff Trail to return to the stadium.
As keen as I was to come in under 6 hours, I ran the first leg conservatively, trying not to get swept along by those who were running as part of a relay and just had one leg to go. I was also acutely aware that a mere 3km in, I could feel an ominous tightening of my left achilles which was to haunt me for the rest of the race.
Leg 2 was a more challenging affair with the first serious climb of the race up the wide, non-technical King of Sweden to Meadow View:
From here it was on to the Rundle Trail for some sharp climbs and descents before heading back to Meadow View for an undulating but generally downhill return to the stadium.
Leg 3 is considered the hardest of the five, with 510m of elevation gain over 12km. On the plus side, we were finally able to let go on some superb and challenging technical single track with switchbacks, rocks and routes, and steep descents and punchy climbs.
On the downside, I didn’t feel in a great position to make the most of it. Last year, this leg was my nemesis. It was the point where I stopped following the advice given at the start that “50km is a long way if you think about it. So don’t think about it. Just concentrate on the leg you’re on.” Instead, I started to dwell not on this leg or even how far I’d come overall, but how much further I had to go. All against the backdrop of what felt like a fairly constant, and at times steep, grind upwards.
This year wasn’t all that different, despite knowing what was in store. That I was, at this stage, a good seven minutes ahead of my time the previous year might have had something to do with it. My achilles had also become a more serious source of pain by now which didn’t help, especially on the steeper climbs. But, I’d set myself a goal to finish in under 6 hours and so I scrambled on, completing the leg seven minutes faster than last year.
I’d been running for 4 hours and 23 minutes by the time I began the 8km leg 4. Unluckily for me, leg 4 began with a 2km climb from the stadium up to the highpoint of the race at around 1,570m. From here it was a mercifully steep, achilles relieving drop down some fabulous, technical single track, followed by 2km of undulating trail before another fast, twisting descent back to the stadium.
A quick drink, a bite of bagel and I was off again for the last, 5.7km leg. By now, I knew the 6 hour goal was out of reach. Even on the best of days, I’d be hard pressed to complete this leg with its 215m of climbing in the remaining 30 or so minutes. It was time to reassess my goals. It was now all about beating last year’s time of 6.37.59.
Leg 5 began with another climb of around 1.5km, followed by some zippy single track through the trees and out into the Meadow for a final look around:
The trail then dropped down some fast single track to 3km of rollercoaster trail and eventually back to the stadium. Although two minutes slower on this leg than the previous year, I cruised across the finish line in 6.25.21, a solid 12 minutes faster than last year. Better still, I was greeted at the line by Ms Canmore Runner and the great news that she’d not only successfully completed her first ultra but had won her category too in 5.34.14, with fellow Canmore Trail Culture runner and part-time unicorn Stefanie Gignac coming second.
Meanwhile, Jacob Puzey had set a new course record of 3.42.56 beating Jakub Sumbera’s previous record of 3.45.38. It subsequently transpired that Puzey missed a turn towards the end of the race and, according to Puzey himself, Sumbera’s record still stands. Full results can be found here.
So, what are my take aways from this?
First, Tony Smith, the race director, and his team put on a great race. I had another awesome adventure on the trails and sincere thanks to him and the volunteers who gave up their time to ensure a good time for everyone else. The organization was great and the course challenging and well marked. To his credit, Tony also listens to the feedback he receives. He made good changes in terms of having a separate feed station for the solo runners, complete with porta potties! The feed station was far less congested than last year and you could get food and fluids and be on your way without having to wade through large numbers of solo and relay runners and their supporters. Just one thing – large bowls of potato chips so you could just grab a handful and go would have been great.
Second, it’s good to have goals, plural. As Hal Koerner says: “While it is important to have a finishing time in mind when you train for a race, it is probably even more important to be flexible about that objective…circumstances can change quickly during an ultra, and you can suddenly find yourself switching from ‘I’m going to finish well under my goal!’ to ‘I’ll be lucky to even crawl over the finish line'”. Indeed. While my overall goal was to finish in under 6 hours, that wasn’t going to define whether this race was a success or not and whether all those hours of hill repeats, intervals and long runs had been worth it. I had back up goals of beating last year’s time, to simply finishing. These were all equally valid measures of success. This was an ultra after all.
Third, I think I may have cracked the nutrition conundrum. Learning from my experience at TrailSTOKE, fewer gels and more real food made for a much happier stomach. Rather than relying on what might be available at the feed station, i’d packed my drop bag with bagels and even some rice-based energy bars that i’d made following a recipe from the The Feed Zone cookbook which i’d recommend.
Fourth, feeling that you’re part of a community makes all the difference in the world. Unlike last year when I knew next to no one, I was lucky to run with a contingent of Canmore Trail Culture and it felt good to be part of something bigger than myself. It was good in the months and weeks leading up to the race to benefit from the advice and support of others. And on race day, it was great to see my fellow Tuesday night runners toeing the start line and steeling themselves for the challenge ahead, whether that was beating a specific time, setting a new personal best, or simply completing their first ultra. It was great to share experiences and enjoy each others success. And it was great to benefit from the support and encouragement of those who stuck it out for the day, shouting and high-five-ing from the sidelines:
Fifth, i’ve mentioned this before but I like that there are opportunities to run the course ahead of the event, either through the Grizzly Run Club/Canmore Trail Culture runs on Tuesday nights in the weeks leading up to the race; or during the week between the Grizzly mountain bike race and the ultra. It’s great to be able to check out the course even if there’s the danger that you kid yourself into believing that your time of 1.21.52 for leg three on a warm Tuesday evening in August will be totally replicable on race day.
Sixth, it was a reminder, as if one were needed, that I am so lucky to be in Canmore: there are all these great races, like the Grizzly, right on my doorstep; there are all these spectacular trails to train on and an awesome trail running community to enjoy them with; and when it all goes awry, there are great doctors here to put you on the trail to recovery. Indeed, while I finished the Grizzly, it came at a price:
Hopefully, it will only keep me off the trail for a short time. But I appreciated the fact that the doctor’s main concern wasn’t that I would want to run again but that I would want to race in the next week or so. Luckily I don’t. In fact, that may well be it for this racing season though there is some talk of cross country racing during the winter. If that happens, you’ll likely read about here.
Until next time, happy trails.