You can fail at something you don’t want so you might as well take a chance on doing what you love – Jim Carrey
You never know until you try – others and me
After weeks of planning, race morning had arrived!! Unfortunately, I hadn’t planned for the very long queue at the portable loos (duh! – there’s always a long queue) so with less than 2 minutes till start time I found myself jumping out the loo, pulling off my long-sleeved top, stuffing it in my race pack and then shouting abuse at my race pack; it had a serious parts failure. Forget it, I would have to sort it out during the race. I had to get to the start line!! I hugged Peter then jogged across the grass into the starting area on the main street of Blairmore. The gun fired. I kept on jogging. I was off!!
So started my first ever 100 mile ultra, the Sinister 7, on a sunny July morning in 2016.
All my doubts and fears about not doing enough training for this race disappeared as I started running. I was happy. It was a lovely day. I was in the middle of hundreds of other runners all enjoying themselves. Pure joy. Instead of doubting myself, I made a plan to go as far as I possibly could and to keep on smiling for as long as I possibly could.
Leg 1 Frank Slide 16.5 km, 502 m elevation gain
Leg 1 felt great. I started nice and slow and it felt easy. Yeah! Despite much of the leg being on road I loved it and was so glad to be out there running. I said hello to a British guy who was also a solo runner. He said he still had jet lag. Jeez, how can you run this event with jet lag!!
Early on, the route crossed the massive debris field of Frank Slide. In 1903 The Frank Slide buried part of the mining town of Frank. Millions of tonnes of rock slid down a hillside. Between 70 and 90 people were killed, most of whose bodies were never recovered; a sobering thought.
Leg 1 was flattish at the beginning with some climbing on cross-country ski trails later on.The finish was a steep little drop down into Transition Area 1 where Peter was waiting. He told me I was doing great and a little ahead of my target. I checked in with myself. Even though I was a bit ahead of myself I felt I was not going too fast.
I grabbed some snacks, filled my hydration bladder back up to the brim, hugged Peter and headed into the wilderness of leg 2.
Leg 2 Hastings Ridge 16 km, 937 m elevation gain
I think Leg 2 was my favourite stretch of the day. The scenery and views were beautiful and I still felt great. It started with plenty of up. I hiked up as quickly as I could. A couple of blokes passed me with little speakers on their packs. The music was a nice distraction. Once up on the ridgetop, the views were just spectacular. We were in the middle of an old forest fire area and the trees were sparse, grey and withered. The views across the Canadian wilderness were jaw dropping.
I chatted to a relay runner and finally figured out how to tell who was a solo runner and who was a relay runner. The solos had yellow numbers on the bibs and the relay runners white numbers. Duh!
After the ridgetop with some flattish bits and some rolling up and down, there was a lovely long downhill. I love running downhill. Down and down and down we went. There was some lovely single-track; that added to the thrill. For the last few kilometres I eyed my fellow solo runners and it quickly dawned on me that most who were doing the race at or around my pace were using trekking poles. I felt like the odd man out.
Leg 2 finished at Transition Area 2/3 in Blairmore. It was incredibly busy. But, like a shining light, there was Peter making sure he was in a spot where I would easily see him. My transition felt really chaotic. The porta-loos required an extra 30 metres or so of travel to get to them! You really don’t want to walk any further than you have to in a 100 miler!! Peter later told me I had missed a loo that was closer.
After the loo stop, Peter guided me in and out of the jumbled crowds of people and tents to the spot where he had set up camp. I regrouped, restocked my pack then got moving again.
Leg 3 Willoughby Ridge 35 km, 1327 m elevation gain
Leg 3 was a long loop around Mt Willoughby, up and up and up; then down and down and down; finishing back at TA 2/3.
I spent much of the middle section of leg 3 chatting to a guy from Edmonton. I’m really sorry “guy” but I didn’t even ask your name. Somehow, in these far-flung races, I find myself meeting people with Scottish connections and chatting about all things Scottish. “Guy’s” wife had Scottish roots; in fact, she had Isle of Lewis roots; that’s where my dad was born. My Isle of Lewis roots go as far back into history as is traceable. Anyway, we passed a very enjoyable few kilometres going up around Mt Willoughby chatting away about the Isle of Lewis and other Scottish things.
Just after the halfway point of the leg, I realised I was keeping “guy” back. He was a little behind his target time for reaching TA 2/3 and his team handover. I said to him to run on ahead. Thinking I would keep him in sight, I jogged on but pretty soon I encountered my first difficulty of the race. There was a checkpoint half way round this leg and foolishly I scoffed down too many crisps and smarties. This seemed to be the cause of a bad, bad tummy pain, which lasted for a good couple of hours. I couldn’t do anything but walk a long section of downhill waiting for what felt like a huge ball of trapped gas to eventually disappear. Any running caused pain. A lot of burping went on!! While I was in the middle of this gassy spell I chatted to Milan (sorry Milan!!). He and his wife were doing the solo too and I saw them at various points throughout the race. Milan was so encouraging to me and I thank him for that (they are now Strava friends J).
Thankfully the stomach distress had disappeared by the last couple of kilometres. And so, pain-free, I was able to stretch my legs and enjoy running the lovely downhill back to TA2/3 with all its little tents and people and an announcer who was quite wonderful and welcoming. Peter was there, wonderful and welcoming too. I changed my shoes and socks while Peter exfoliated the dirt from my legs with a hot towel. Bliss! I had grabbed some mini sized potatoes from the food next to the finishing funnel. They didn’t taste of much but seemed to be just what I needed. I wolfed them down. I got some snacks from Peter too and some wonderfully delicious cold cola.
Ready to rock again, I sneaked out onto the little steep hill, which was the exit from TA2/3. The announcer spotted me and shouted me on. Boy, I felt like royalty.
Leg 4 Saddle Mountain 17 km, 675 m elevation gain
Leg 4 started with a stiff climb up a ski hill. I ran for a minute or two with a young lad who was doing the relay. He congratulated me for my solo run. I told him to run on as my slow pace was obviously way to slow for him. He speeded up, waved back to me, wished me well (what a polite young kid!) and sprinted into the woods. That was the last I saw of him. I wonder how his team got on.
So, leg 4 went up and up. After a while, there was some familiar ground as it shared a short section of trail and an aid station with leg 3. Panting up to that aid station I stumbled across a solo runner going DOWN! Yikes, I can’t imagine going the wrong way down a hill in an ultra. He said he was going down to help someone who was in a bad way. This piece of news really confused my tired brain as I had travelled pretty slowly along the trail for the previous few kilometres and hadn’t seen anybody in a bad way. There were plenty of people in the vicinity, including an aid station only 2 or 3 minutes away, and I didn’t feel like I had to turn around and go back down to help. I couldn’t have!!
Leg 4 was where my little jar of energy began to run out. I felt tired but was still feeling hopeful. Although running was feeling more and more arduous, I was still able to run the flats and downhills slowly. The solo runners around me were of a similar pace. I wasn’t going backwards. I made sure I was taking in my hourly calories and kept trundling along with sugar-fuelled pick me ups.
I saw Milan halfway through this leg. He and his wife still looked great. As we chatted, I gazed in wonder to our right. There was Crowsnest Mountain in the distance. It appeared menacing. Leg 6, the hardest of the race, circled Crowsnest Mountain and the 7 sisters. I felt there was no way I was going to be able to complete leg 6. However, that was still hours away.
The latter part of leg 4 went on forever. There was a long, straight rolling section and I could see loads of runners in the distance all with their poles. I talked to a guy called Eric. He had done quite a number of ultras including the Squamish 50/50. The 50K he had done with his dad and he said that was a really special experience. Eric disappeared into the distance. I think he did really, really well in the end.
Finally, I trundled into TA4. It was beginning to get dark. The daylight hours had almost passed! I was still on target. I had done a great 50 miles. But what are 50 miles in a 100miler!!! Ha ha! Only half way!!
TA4 was busy too. I sat on the grass and ate delicious hot potatoes. Peter had luckily found a convenient parking spot on the highway right next to the course. At the car, I changed into a warmer top and restocked my race pack. Peter had bought me a veggie sandwich at Subway and I packed that for the road.
Leg 5 Mt Tecumseh 29.6 km, 763 m elevation gain
Leg 5 was surreal. It took me into the Canadian wilderness in the crazy dead of night and to the furthest distance that I’d ever run.
We started with a long straight road where I chatted with Kyle. Last year Kyle had made it to the end of stage 4 exhausted. He’d detonated and didn’t continue any further. Now, a year later, he told me he “had it”. He was going to finish the 100 miles. There was no doubt he would (he did!) He was so inspiring. I saw him a couple of times during the leg. Awesome, Kyle!
The long straight roads went on for a while. I was really getting tired by now and was mostly hiking with a little shuffling. Early in this leg, we moved into the night. The sky was full of stars and the moon just a slither.
The road led upwards into the pitch-black forest. I switched on my head torch and followed my light beam up and up and up through the tunnel of trees. The trail was wet and muddy. I walked round huge deep puddles while trying to keep myself from skidding in the deep mud.
I spent much of the high section of this leg either just in front of or just behind Hilary. Hilary had an awesome pace. With her poles, she hiked really fast, faster than I was able to jog. We exchanged ultra-running stories and I enjoyed her company. Hilary had done a number of ultras. She told me about the Lost Sole 100 km in Lethbridge. She said it was a lot of fun, very tough, very hot, and had lots of up and down. One to do in the future!!
At some point when I was alone negotiating the puddles, I heard country and western music in the distance. It got louder. Then I saw a very bright light approaching and heard the noise of an engine. I stopped at the edge of the trail in the tunnel of trees. In the midnight darkness, an ATV appeared, music blaring from it. In the vehicle, were 3 young guys, all wearing similar checked shirts. They stared as they drove by me. They looked at me as if I was bonkers. I looked at them as if they were bonkers. I was taken aback by this weird turn of events and as the ATV disappeared into the darkness, I lost my footing in the slippery mud and fell backwards into a deep mud bath!
I extricated myself. Cleaning the mud off my legs and bum with my Buff, I caught up with Hilary. Hilary very kindly lent me one of her poles at a couple of other dodgy spots. Using the pole I inched past puddles on narrow ledges of dry land.
I lost Hilary again for a while. I was on my own in the darkness in the woods. This was when I had my one and only animal encounter of the day. It wasn’t a bear or a cougar. It was a cute, baby, bunny rabbit caught in the glare of my head-torch. We looked each other in the eyes. The bunny then hopped away into the darkness.
Shortly after that, I heard voices; I saw a light in the distance. I didn’t think I had travelled far enough for it to be the next CP. But what else could it be? Well, it was a huge gathering of lights and people and noise in the middle of the woods seemingly in the middle of nowhere. It was a party! I trundled past further into the darkness. I was getting more and more tired. Then I reached the lights and the people of the next CP. The volunteers there were amazing. This was an intersection between leg 5 and leg 6. The volunteers checked my water and cleared out my sweetie wrappers as I sat down and emptied my shoes and socks of the mud and grime that had got in during my mud bath.
Shortly after the CP, I came across the 2nd party of the night. Hanging around the trail were some shadowy partygoers. They asked me how my race was going. I said “really good”. They followed up by saying I looked like I could do with a beer!! For sure, a beer was the very last thing I needed!! I trundled on, away from the party lights further into the darkness.
It became more and more clear that my thoughts in the weeks leading up to the race were very likely true: that I may not be able to finish this race. It was really tough going up and down the trail as I neared the end of leg 5. Many leg 6 relay runners breezed past me. I saw a couple of other leg 5 solo runners who were in worse shape than me. I also saw a male solo runner who was finishing leg 6. He must have been one of the leaders in the race. So inspiring. I cheered him on and gained some strength from seeing him. But, I was at that point where even walking was difficult; when you just want it to be over; when you somehow manage to keep going but your legs are yelling at you to stop.
Peter and I had checked out the end of leg 5 earlier in the week and eventually I saw that vaguely familiar stretch of trail. And, in the distance, I saw fairy lights! The end was in sight! The end was a steep little downhill into a funnel of lights surrounded by darkness and noise. I crossed the line; out of the darkness a voice asked me my number. “198”, I said and burst into tears. Peter was right there waiting for me as he had been at every transition area. Jeez. How long had he been standing in the cold looking for me? I had done well up until leg 5 keeping to my target times. But now I was behind and he must have been waiting for ages.
Flailing around in the transition area, I was exhausted. I was pretty sure I was not going on, but not 100% sure. “Will I or won’t I?” I kept repeating this. I got my hydration bladder refilled just in case. One of the volunteers asked me if I wanted medical help!! Crumbs I must have looked bad. I sat down and refuelled. I gave myself 15 minutes. After these 15 minutes, if I felt a lot better I would set off on leg 6. Leg 6 was the most difficult leg of the entire race – 36.2 km with 1093 m of elevation gain, a circuit of Crowsnest Mountain and the 7 sisters. It would be longest, hardest stretch of the course. Quite likely I would be on my own. I contemplated the enormity of that task. It seemed impossible to me. I didn’t receive any thunderbolts of energy or inspiration. And so, I gave in to my doubts about my fitness and my mental toughness. I couldn’t do it. In the dead of night, with Peter beside me, in the otherworldly space that was TA 5/6, I decided my race was over. I gave up.
My chaotic mind told me I had failed. I was sad. But underneath my jumbled thoughts, I was OK. I had done my best. I had run 70.5 miles over tough terrain in just under 19.5 hours. This race has a low finish rate. I was definitely not alone in DNFing. I had got further than many. I kept thinking of a quote I read somewhere, “The biggest winners are all failures who tried again.” I would try again!
After a few hours of sleep in our tiny green tent at the Lost Lemon campground, Peter and I packed up my Toyota Yaris. It was full to the brim with camping gear and running gear. We drove 1000 km back home. Despite the long drive and squashed legs, I recovered really quickly. The Sinister 7 was an amazing, super-cool adventure and as Peter said, “a lot of fun”.
Almost finally, 2 pictures of my wonderful race crew. Peter and Big Teddie. Thank you guys!!
You are capable of more than you know. Choose a goal that seems right for you and strive to be the best, however hard the path. Aim high. Behave honoroubly. Prepare to be alone at times, and to endure failure, Persist! The world needs all you can give – E O Wilson.
All photos thanks to Raven Eye Photography and Peter Malacarne 🙂