“Back from where?” I hear you ask. And “Back to what?” Allow me to bring you up to speed…
Back to Canmore…
First off, Canmore Runner HQ is back in Canmore! Actually, we’ve been back for more than a year, since July last year, not that you’ll have reason to know that necessarily, but more on that in a moment…
You might recall that back in March 2018 we had a plan to move from Geneva to Ottawa but those plans were thrown into disarray one month later by Ms. Canmore Runner’s cancer diagnosis. Truth be told, Ottawa was not where the Canmore Runner family really wanted to be. It had the advantage of being somewhere that we’d likely find work in our areas, and is by all accounts a fabulous city to live in. However, it had the major disadvantage of not being Canmore or in the Rockies. Ottawa was always intended as more of a stepping stone between Geneva and Canmore than an end in itself.
Anyway, there’s nothing like a cancer diagnosis to make you think about what’s important in life and re-assess your priorities. In February 2019, we hatched a new and exciting plan. Ottawa was out and Canmore was in – even if it was going to be 17 months before we would make the move, in the midst of the pandemic.
Moving one’s family and possessions across at the Atlantic is challenging at the best of times. Doing so in the midst of a pandemic adds some complexity and uncertainty and is altogether quite a strange experience – even if we did appreciate the deserted airports and uncrowded flight from Amsterdam to Calgary. It feels like something you shouldn’t do; that the sensible thing is to hunker down where you are and travel when the pandemic is over and normality returns. Switzerland was hardly a terrible place to ride out those initial months of the pandemic and we thanked our lucky stars that we were there. But the plan, which had included giving irrevocable notice on our Geneva apartment, was in motion. When July eventually rolled around, we packed up and shipped out. 19 months on from the start of the pandemic, “normality” still feels a long way off so probably just as well we didn’t wait.
Back running and blogging (finalemente)…
For much of the time we’d been away from Canmore, i’d reminisce about the trails in Canmore, the Bow Valley and elsewhere in Canada. I’d feel a touch of envy over the epic runs that friends in Canmore were posting on Facebook and Strava. I missed not having endless singletrack and hundreds of meters of elevation right outside the front door and was acutely aware that all my trail runs involved lengthy stretches of tarmac, either on foot or in the car. This is not to say that I was starved of amazing trail running in Switzerland, France and Italy. I was fortunate to have some incredible running experiences in places like Zermatt, Wengen, Les Diablerets, Champery, Chamonix, Annecy and Courmayeur as well as regular Sunday morning runs on the Jura mountains above Geneva. And there was always a welcome sense of relief that I didn’t need to worry about encounters with wildlife.
Our arrival in Canmore in July was immediately followed by a mandatory two week quarantine, albeit in the confines and comfort of our home. But the trails were calling and getting louder with each passing day.
My first outing post-quarantine was a short jaunt along the Highline which is literally right out the door and possibly my favourite trail in Canmore. On the one hand, it was nothing short of exhilarating – the familiar smells, the views across the valley to my old friends Lady Mac and Grotto; and the feel of rocky, dusty, singletrack beneath the soles. On the other hand, it was completely exhausting – the inevitable outcome of spending two weeks kicking around the house 24 hours a day, working at my desk, watching Netflix, eating chocolate and drinking beer – one of which is named after my favourite trail:
Before too long, I was revisiting some of the rest of my old running haunts – taking trips up Ha Ling and Grotto, along the stunning shoreline of Lake Minnewanka, and was soon reminded of just how rewarding and punishing they could be in equal measure. After four years in Europe, I was also reminded that I have an understandable anxiety about bears and other wildlife that I would need to work on once again.
As well as getting back to the trails, I wanted to re-acquaint myself with Canmore’s vibrant trail running community, catch up with old friends and make new ones in Canmore Trail Culture. A warm welcome awaited, for sure, as it always does. But like many others I expect, I had got used to the solitariness of running in the pandemic world. I also struggled with a reluctance to step outside the security of my family bubble and be among groups of people, especially people that are breathing heavily. I managed one outing with the old crew and it was great to catch up with friends. But in the context of the pandemic and before vaccines were widely available, it felt uncomfortable and, regrettably, was not something I would repeat anytime soon.
Nor could I bring myself to blog. Partly this was due to a pandemic-induced malaise which stifled the motivation for many things and not just blogging. My running ambitions were also stifled. My preference and tendency to run alone meant not running in some of the more adventurous places. There were several downsides to this, not least the absence of new and challenging trail experiences to write about.
But here I am, over a year later, banging away on the keyboard again. So, what changed?
Apparently, racing was the answer. But not just any old race.
I’m not sure where the motivation came from exactly. I’d be running consistently since we’d returned and was feeling fitter than I had in a long time. Meanwhile, trail racing was coming back, with the Western States, Marathon du Mont Blanc and the UTMB, among others, going ahead, along with races closer to home: the Five Peaks series and my old friend, the Grizzly Ultra, planned for October. I was keeping tabs on all this, reading articles, watching videos, including this one of Run the Alps ambassador and Black Diamond athlete Hillary Gerardi, winning the 90 km race of the Marathon du Mont Blanc series which I found truly inspiring – and a great reminder of the beauty of the Chamonix Valley.
The desire to race again was gradually building, even if though it would inevitably mean being among groups of people. My concerns on that front had been tempered after being vaccinated and it seemed that race organisers were following COVID protocols and keeping runners and volunteers safe.
But again, it couldn’t be any old race. It had to be the right race.
So it was that on the Saturday morning of the Canadian thanksgiving weekend (which seemed particularly apt), Ms. Canmore Runner and I found ourselves toeing the start line of the 2021 Wandering Moose, on the outskirts of Kelowna BC, part of the PACE Trail Series run by Rene Unser, which also includes the awesome Broken Goat race.
In 2016, I described the Broken Goat as the “Best. Race. Ever.” As I wrote at the time, Rene’s created something unique with the Broken Goat, a very special vibe manifested in a strong sense of community. I wasn’t surprised to find that that vibe is not unique to the Broken Goat. It was very present too at the Wandering Moose. And that was why we were there.
It felt great to be back among the trail running crowd; to pin on a race number after all this time (more than two years since the debacle that was the Mont Blanc Marathon – some unfinished business there); to feel that nervous excitement at what lay ahead; and to hear a good mix of rock, pop and dance music blasting through a PA early in the morning. There was even something magical about the pre-race ritual of queueing to use a porta-potty.
Rene’s race briefing hit all the rights notes. There was excitement and gratitude that racing is back and that we’d all chosen to be at the Moose. And there were the welcome and all important reminders that, first, however much it hurts, we’re lucky and privileged to have the opportunity to run on beautiful trails and it’s good to keep that in mind; and second, that we’re all in this together. We have our individual aspirations for the race, but races come and go. What’s important is to look out for each other – topped off with the promise of free entry into next year’s race should you sacrifice this year’s to help another racer in need. I love that.
Then it was time to race – me in the 21km and Ms. Canmore Runner in the 13km. I went into the race with a few thoughts milling around at the back of my mind. First, that Strava’s been telling me over the last year that i’ve set new personal bests for various segments, beating times that I’d initially set back in 2014-2016. This was interesting, as I assumed that I’d be getting slower with age and yet seemed in some ways to be getting faster.
Second, I’d graduated from the 40-49 age category into the 50-59. There are of course amazing trail athletes in this category (and indeed, the ones above) but that wasn’t going to deter the small, if ridiculously optimistic, voice in my head telling me that at 51, I was at the younger end of things and that could be an advantage. I was also aware that my best racing performance to date was at the Broken Goat. Was there something about the PACE races that brings out the best in me? Maybe I should give this a go?
So I did. I employed my mantra of “marginal gains”, something I’d picked up watching a documentary about the Sky cycling team and how they invested heavily in research, technology and design to gain every conceivable tenth of a second over their rivals. My version of “marginal gains” was to save seconds, and the minutes they become, through perpetual forward motion. No dilly dallying. No stopping to take photos. No hanging out at the aid station, where I have a tendency to squander time. Just keep running and ignore the mind’s insistence on walking when I could run if I just made the effort, especially on false flats and short, sharp hills.
It felt like there were no shortage of false flats, short, sharp hills, as well as punchy technical descents. On Strava it looked like this:
It was a fantastic course with more than 700m elevation gain over 21km. A short stretch on the road soon gave way to a mix of fire roads and, for the most part, singletrack with some stunning views over Lake Okanagan or otherwise in the trees, with their beautiful fall colours. The highpoint of 1096m came around the 13km mark and after that it was an initially steep downhill to the base of the spectacular Myra Canyon, followed by a cruisy run along a rooty, rocky trail with four creek crossings.
Rene had warned us that there was a sting in the tail. In situations like this, my mind is usually adept at imagining something far worse than the actual reality. Not this time. The first part of the climb out of the canyon up a grassy bank felt quite literally vertical. Rene had warned us to keep some gas in the tank.
2 hours and 28 minutes after starting I crossed the finish line where, like all those before and after me, I was greeted by Rene with pom poms, a big smile and a high five.
I was chuffed with the time – even Strava described my “relative effort” as “historic”!
My goal was to finish under three hours so this felt like a job well done. I later discovered that I was the first male and second overall for my age category. This was a new experience for me. One I could get used to.
As great as that all felt, it was nothing compared to Ms. Canmore Runner’s performance. Such a class act that one, crushing the 13km race and finishing as the first female and seventh overall. And she didn’t even have a watch on. I didn’t know it was possible to run, let alone race, without a watch.
Formal race results aside, everyone triumphed at the Wandering Moose.
Rene and her team for having the courage to put the race on and doing so with their usual panache and care – and for putting divine Rifugio Coffee in the race packs.
And everyone who toed the line was triumphant for the simple fact of being there; of being part of the race and the broader PACE and trail running community; and doing what we all love so much: running on awesome trails.
It’s so good to be back.