“The course is slow, it has no flow and it will fuk with your mind” were the wise and
not-so-encouraging words from MostAwesomeRaceDirector, minutes before the start of the newest PACE Trail Race Series ultra. We’re doomed! I heard ThinksTooMuch, my brain monkey, whisper as he tried to surface from the depths of my mind where I’d sent him the night before – he was not invited on my run today. But the big smile that lit my face stopped him dead in his tracks. Bring it on! I said. This would be my last race of a particularly strong Spring season and I knew I could use a beating to shake me out of that feeling of complacency – things were getting almost too easy and I wanted something that would kick my ass. It looked like I was about to be served.
With a race course located in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, carb-loading could only mean a serious wine tasting extravaganza (as I had recently discovered at Nimble Bear). I left Banff early morning, my mind set on the prize – lunch at the Wild Goose Vineyards in Okanagan Falls, home of my absolute favourite wine, the Autumn Gold, and less than seven hours later I was enjoying a bison burger on the patio, glass of vino in hand. Life was good. Blue sky, endless rows of grapevines, blooming flowers and warmth. The anxiety and apprehension of the miles to come the next morning and my last few stressful weeks at work were quickly dissipating as I was transitioning to vacation mode.
After a quick stop at the vineyard next door for a few more tastings (the hunter in me was lured by the big buck on the label), I returned to the road, backtracking towards Naramata, where a lovely campsite under a canopy of trees filled with singing birds (and quails!) was waiting for me. Every vineyard was calling but being a responsible driver, I carried on with only one small distraction: when you read “our patio has the best views”, you must stop and have a look. And a taste. And what do you know, you might even discover something new, like a white merlot! Awesomeness.
The Wildhorse Traverse is exactly that –a traverse that is quite wild. The Naramata Centre, where I camped, was the official finish line. Early (very early) the next morning, shuttles would transport us all to the start in Bertram Park, Kelowna – we would proceed to run back fifty kilometres through Okanagan Park and the Wildhorse Canyon, finishing via the Kettle Valley Railway (KVR) and down steep roads to Naramata, where a gourmet meal and wine tastings awaited us. As for the “wild” part, Mother Nature had recently decided to wreak havoc on the course which had been turned into a jungle obstacle course, complete with giant mud holes, fallen trees and many detours.
MostAwesomeRaceDirector had diligently posted updates on social media and kept runners informed of what was to be expected, including a mileage increase: there was now a cross mark over the 45k with a 50 written next to it.
So there I was, standing in Bertram Park on that already too warm Saturday morning, along with another hundred and twenty or so other runners ready to attempt taming the Bucking Bronco. This inaugural year would be the one to remember, MostAwesomeRaceDirector boasted at the pre-race briefing, as surely, the course would never be this challenging again. I was on a high. I had met lovely folks during the shuttle ride: as we looked across the lake to the mountainous landscape trying to imagine where the course went and estimating how long it would take each of us to return to base, we were happily chatting away while feeling the adrenaline of what we were about to tackle. Some were there for fun, some you could tell, had big goals in mind. I wasn’t sure what my plan was. Due to unforeseen circumstances, the friend who was supposed to accompany me on this quest had to bail out at the last minute. This would have been her first ultra and I had offered to run along at her pace and offer (moral) support. Now that she was no longer running, I had an option to go hard. But six days earlier, I had raced a fast road 50k and my body was feeling it. Plus the temperature was high and humid, a perfect recipe to slow me down. Upon hearing the race director’s comments about the course, I decided not to focus on where I’d place and rather settle for a time goal: under 6:00 would be fantastic with 7:00 the time to beat. But ultimately, I wanted to run without the Brain Monkey. If I could race strong and give all I had without going mental in my head, this would be a total success.
My wine carb-load had obviously worked because I was feeling rather calm as the countdown reached zero and the horse pompoms exploded upwards. Off we were, immediately running up a steep hill before reaching the gravel road that would take us to the trail. I picked up pace and tagged along a few other ladies near the front. As we started up the trail, PoweredByChocolate (you need to see her tattoo to understand) quickly took the women’s lead and disappeared ahead while I gained to third only to be passed again and eventually fall in a comfortable fifth, where I remained for a long time. I was happy with that. No Monkey on board, it was all smiles, fun and games. Mostly sweet singletrack, the trail had some sections that had suffered severe erosion in recent storms and one had to really be careful with their steps. This was definitely not fast and “flowy” and with my pack filled with two litres of water and some snacks (aid station 1 was located over 21km from the start) I felt heavy and sluggish. Cresting the top of the first series of hills, views opened up, the sun crept out from behind the clouds and the heat settled in. I could feel my head throbbing. Remember the Grand Canyon, ThinksTooMuch immediately panicked as he hopped on his wheel. You’re not going to last. You know you never perform in the heat. I smiled – I’ll just slow down and enjoy the ride. He persisted – how will you enjoy this? You will melt. You will bonk. Remember the Goat (referring to a nasty last third of Broken Goat 50 a few seasons ago)? The cramps, the tears, all the runners passing you?
I briefly entertained the thought but luckily, I got rescued by MountainBikeLegs who I’d at some point passed but had stayed close behind. We had reached the junction with the wider Wildhorse Trail and we began running together. Nothing better than a good mid-race chat to send the Brain Monkey back to the land of the uninvited.
Though it was Mud-Puddle-Central (I am talking multiple 20m to 50m long sections of above knee-deep stinky crap – dark water, mud and Heaven knows what else, but it sure reeked a lot – that wants to steal your shoes, or better, swallow you whole), this was my favourite part of the race. There were a lot of flat segments with hills that were not insanely steep – it was runnable.
We settled into a solid pace and covered lots of ground quickly, both happy for the company as this was also Bear Shit Alley – a dense jungle with very poor sightlines and a pile of bear poo pretty much every 200m. This was no time to be quiet. Looking up from the fresh turds, we noticed we were in the canyon and smiled in awe at the marvellous landscape. The thick foliage gave way to a meadow as we passed a checkpoint in the middle of nowhere (thank you volunteers, you rock!) before running up a last hill where I managed to slip and slide into the “all-time stink winner” mud hole: my trail partner even made a comment in regards to me carrying the scent along.
Fortunately, we finally summited above the first aid station. Due to recent flooding, this much needed watering hole had to be relocated to a new area (thus the reason it was so far) and now involved a very steep downhill kilometre all the way back to the lake level. Seriously?!?! With barely any tree cover, the return uphill would be a killer under the baking sun. Never had I been so happy for the poles I was carrying. I passed MountainBikeLegs thinking I was running at cheetah pace towards watermelon and chips but a FlyingGazelle appeared out of nowhere and literally flew down that hill. Mental note to self: my New Year goal of improving my uphill segments was achieved and I obviously now needed to focus on the downs! I cheered on the runners that were returning up the gruelling climb: PoweredByChocolate was killing it in the female lead! And I was happy to see I was not terribly far from the pack of Fast Ladies. My sub-six hours seemed within reach.
There is no better fitting name for Aid Station 1 than the Watering Hole. Volunteers could only reach it by boat and the lake water level was so high that the beach was nonexistent with barely any space to stand and setup their table. In order to access it, runners had a choice to wade through a waist deep pool or take their chance balancing on a log. I felt brave, chose the log and miraculously crossed without falling. I quickly refilled my water, grabbed a few treats and proceeded to the strenuous uphill, which I surprisingly climbed in a decent time. With 8k to go before reaching the highest point of the course, I felt confident. According to the race elevation profile, it was all downhill from kilometre 30. I figured it I could make it there, my race was in the bag as surely, I could run the last 20 downhill without much effort. Yeah right. The moment you feel overly confident, Murphy decides to join the party.
That 8k was relentless – for me and for pretty much everyone else I spoke to at the finish line. Up, down and around. Over and under. Thick bushes, fallen trees, hills, heat, repeat. Interestingly enough, I barely battled with ThinksTooMuch as I began walking more and more, realized I might run out of water and saw my sub-six goal fly away. I lost sight of MountainBikeLegs (who earlier was concerned my pace was too fast for him) and FlyingGazelle (who I’d almost caught back up to) and before long other women started passing me. I even thought the unthinkable – dropping out at the next aid station. The heat was killing me: I was so spent, dehydrated and tired that I could not ponder running the last 15k, even if on a super easy downhill road. Another checkpoint, again in the middle of nowhere (how did they even get here?), provided friendly volunteers to cheer me up and helped me focus: I had to reach the top of this endless hill. Though I felt like I was dying, I knew I was still having “fun” and was still going strong. Just not the strong I wanted to be. That will teach you for running a 50k last weekend, ThinksTooMuch blurted. I had no regrets. There was nothing I could do about the heat, or the fact that my body was not in prime shape, so I looked at the scenery and let myself be in awe at the craziness of the course. I wanted to be there and remembered that all uncomfortable moments eventually come to an end.
Out of the jungle appeared a man with a camera. How far to the top of this damn hill? I asked. He smiled encouragingly, less than a kilometre. Mind if I run with you and take photos? Game changer! I now had a buddy to chat with and to keep my mind off the task of running uphill. Turns out he was Nathan, the fellow who designed all the cool shirts for the PACE races and also extremely talented photographer whom I owe a few lovely memories of me in action. We had a pleasant conversation, though I think I was whining a lot, and before I knew it, we parted ways at the high point of the day, with him returning to other runners and myself starting on the much anticipated descent. It wasn’t exactly the easiest downhill I had dreamed of, and saw a few more ladies go by me, but I eventually popped out in a parking lot with a big sign announcing a “Beach Party” one kilometre further along a dirt road.
Longest. Kilometre. Ever.
I was greeted by such nice women who took excellent care of me. I drank water, refilled bottles and packed some Stinger waffles and chews that I had in my drop bag. I was done with the poles and left them there. As she helped me with my gear, one volunteer briefed me on what lied ahead: a steep gravel road for a couple kilometres that would level off once I reached the KVR. Then about eight more to the final Aid. You got this, she whispered as they sent me off. I thanked them all warmly, took a deep breath and made a decision – I got the earbuds out (trail was over), blasted the magic playlist and entered the zone. Time to be numb, not think, just run. I was half a kilometre down the road when I realized that in all my fluster I had totally forgotten to take advantage of the beach party buffet and not eaten anything. Watermelon, chips, brownies… I totally missed out. ThinksTooMuch yelled in outrage and called me all sorts of names for being so careless but I could not be bothered – though not ideal, I had enough calories in my pack to get me to the next pit stop. The KVR came fast, flat and long. Mind numbing is the only way I can describe this portion of the run, except for the brief adrenaline rush of a bear running across the path. There were some great views and even a cool tunnel, but I was done. I had nothing left. Yet I ran, and ran, at an incredibly good pace. Though there was no way I would make a six hour finish, I might beat the 6:30. Time goals are so much healthier for me – a battle with myself rather than against others. No Brain Monkey required.
I ate all I could and more at the last aid station – never had watermelon tasted so good. They could tell I needed this run to end and offered me some electrolytes and a solid pat on the back. With a final grunt I returned to the final miles with a bit of a bounce in my stride – I was almost done. I soon found myself on the steep downhill roads of Naramata, an unwelcomed quad buster, and though we had recently broken up (see Calgary Marathon 50k Ultra: My Love Affair with Road Running Has Come to an End blog post), I had no choice but to dance to the finish with Road. He took me in his arms, my stride opened and I gave it all I had left. I passed a winery named Serendipity (hmmmm, should I bail out now and go drink wine?) followed immediately by another one called Therapy (only MostAwesomeRaceDirector would have the kind of humour to make her racers go past this winery on the last kilometre of the course).
I laughed out loud and kept that smile all the way to the finish line where I was greeted by the pompoms and traditional hug. I was thrilled. 6:18:29. This was a better time than Nimble Bear, on a course I had found way more challenging. I had managed to keep the Brain Monkey at bay, ran strong, talked myself through tougher times, dug deep and ran my downhill portion, though totally spent, at an excellent pace. And most of all, though this was far from an easy day, I had fun. I embraced it for what it was, adjusted my expectations and came out a winner. Actually, a bigger winner than predicted: I was convinced I had finished in eleventh place but was actually eighth. Apparently, in the heat of the day, I had imagined three ladies running past me. Maybe the Wild Goose from the day before had a bigger effect than I wanted to admit?
I grabbed my medal and finishers’ wine bottle, walked out to the grassy area and dropped on the ground amidst other equally tired runners. There we chatted until the last racers crossed the finish line hours later, sipping on wine and savouring food, sharing thoughts about our day and the epic journey we had achieved. I hobbled barefoot to my tent a couple blocks away, made myself a big pot of KD, called AwesomeNonRunner (boyfriend) to say I’d never run again (a promise that lasted less than 48 hours) and collapsed in my tent, falling asleep peacefully to the sound of a roaring brook. The Horse had kicked my ass but I had kicked right back. Exactly what I needed, this had been a perfect day.
A very special thank you to Rene Unser and the entire team of PACE Trail Race Series for making the impossible possible, all the incredible volunteers who offered us so much love and gave their day to make our run happen (some even had to backpack and camp overnight to be at checkpoints), to Nathan Karsgaard and all the other photographers who provided images that tell the epic story and to all my fellow runners who tackled and tamed the Wild Horse.