I know I am strong. That might sound over-confident if it wasn’t for the fact that I got to witness my strength first-hand at the 5 Peaks Trail Running’s Fullstoke race this past weekend. Part of the Trailstoke race trifecta, it is Canada’s only such organized event taking place in a national park – in this case, Mount Revelstoke. And I have to say that it turned out differently than expected – in both good and disappointing ways…
The course takes racers over what can barely be qualified as an ultra-distance of 43.6km, from the bottom of Mount Revekstoke to the summit, and then along the alpine with up and back sections culminating at Jade Pass at 2,192m asl for a total vertical gain of 1,600m. All in all, then – serious distance, relatively moderate elevation gain.
I knew it was doable.
I had trained all summer for this event. All other races I participated in – Nimble Bear 25K in Kelowna, Survival of the Fittest 18K in Squamish, The North Face Dirty Feet 21K in Revekstoke – were, to me, serious training sessions to keep me focused on the big goal; to keep me in check and accountable. Really big group training runs, if you will. It was all geared towards finally running further than a marathon in the mountains – even if I was to go over the marathon distance by only a little.
The few days preceding the race were purposefully kept fairly mellow. However, knowing that I was about to do the hardest thing I have ever done in my life was rather unsettling. Needless to say, I was constantly thinking about the race and sleeping rather badly. I tried to consume as many carbs as I saw fit without potentially causing distress to my digestive system that is not used to a very carbohydrate-rich diet (healthy fats and protein for the win!). I even engaged in the classic pasta dinner the evening before the race – with grass-fed ground beef, lots of vegetables, and 100% whole spelt pasta. Yeah, I normally never eat pasta. Talk about carbing up.
Keeping it low-key, I went to bed at 9:30pm to get enough sleep to get up at 5:30am – the race was scheduled to start at 8am. Luckily for me, I had moved to Revelstoke a couple weeks earlier and therefore did not have to deal with any stress of getting to the start line from out of town. What can I say, after racing in Squamish where I camped in the pouring rain I realized that keeping it local when it comes to races is, at this point in time, simply better for me and my performance.
I woke up the next morning, ready to rumble and to face this challenge, this big day – my big day worth celebrating. I would finally be able to add a trail marathon to my achievements!
The grizzlies, however, had other ideas. Seeing how active they had been on the lower parts of Mount Revelstoke, Parks Canada officials decided that it was too dangerous for both racers and animals to have the Fullstoke happen as planned. In a last-minute decision, the race organizers changed the course – we would start at 9am from the summit of Mount Revelstoke and do the alpine section of the original course, twice. This reduced the distance by 10km.
No mountain marathon, then. Bummer.
I did not know how to feel about it. While this made the Fullstoke definitely doable – only 8km longer than my previously longest run, instead of 18km – I couldn’t help but feel disappointed. I did, however (and still do) understand the rationale for making such a decision. Bear safety is more important than carrying out an event as planned. After all, it is important to co-exist peacefully with these majestic animals. In my opinion, we are trespassing on their land; not the other way around. Furthermore, headlines about a mountain runner getting mauled to death by a grizzly in a national park really were not necessary, especially after nine bears had to be killed in Revelstoke the previous week.
Since I had gotten the memo about the course changes only the morning of – I guess I should check my emails more often –, I ended up getting to the top of the Meadows-in-the-Sky Parkway (the road to the summit of Mount Revelstoke) roughly an hour and a half early. The temperature was hovering around 10°C, but at least it was dry – unlike Saturday when it had stormed, thundered, and poured out of buckets. Shortly before the race started, all runners had to surrender themselves to a quick check of their gear to make sure we carried all the mandatory stuff – water, jacket, bear spray. Then, we were debriefed by both race organizers and parks officials about the changes to the course, the new distance, and what to do in case of bear sightings or encounters (of which there were none).
After that, it was time to party – run, I mean run, of course.
I started off very slowly like I always do and immediately fell back toward the end of the running pack. I know that I am by no means fast but I really do not mind. The important part, for me, is simply not to finish last. That is my ego’s only pre-requisite. The trail meandered through trees and alpine meadows on soft and well-nourished soil. It started with a bit of mellow downhill and then levelled off. After a while, the trail started going over scree slopes formed by ancient rock slides, and we started to gain a bit more elevation. As we got close to the Y-shaped section of the course, we started to see some switchbacks.
First, we had to head up to Eva Lake where the first aid station was located. The trail leading to it remained fairly mellow, with more scree slopes and the potential for rolled ankles. Once I arrived there, I took off my jacket – it may have been pretty cold but this turned out to be perfect to run in 3/4-tights and a sleeveless shirt!
From the lake, we had to head back to an intersection where another trail was leading up to Jade Pass. This was the difficult section of the course. The trail immediately became much steeper and rockier. The entire terrain quickly switched to a high-alpine environment. This, of course, offered the best views, and I did not mind having to walk most of the way up to the pass because the mountains were just so gorgeous to look at. The closer we got to the pass, the steeper it got. Back on Mother Nature’s StairMaster, I thought. She was putting us all to the test but didn’t forget to reward us for succeeding in it – incredible views from Jade Pass which immediately lifted any runner’s spirits.
The other factor lifting my spirits apart from making it up there was the long, steep, and fun downhill that came next. That is the thing about suffering up a steep trail – you know you will have so much fun going back down. At least I do; it is my favourite part of any run! I imagined being an angry mountain goat and started my quick-footed descent. It went really well almost all the way back to where the trails intersect – and then I rolled my ankle. I fell on my hands and was unscathed but it hurt. Tears immediately welled up in my eyes – partly because of pain, but mostly because of frustration. Right then, I thought this might mean the end of the race. But I had only done 12km, there was no way I could quit – even if I had to walk the other 21km. And so I started walking. Eventually, it seemed to me as if the pain was easing off. Maybe I could run if I was really careful? After testing it out, I slowly forced myself back to my pre-incident pace. Fuelled by adrenaline and fully embracing the power of the runner’s high, I pushed the pain aside and kept going. I just had to not roll my ankle again on the remaining two thirds of the course strewn with rocks and roots…R
I made it back to Heather Lake, second aid station, turn-around point (and finish line) and middle mark of the course, in a bit over three hours. I loaded up on orange slices, pretzels with peanut butter and, weirdly enough, salted boiled potatoes and kept going. I had to run the entire thing again. Thinking about heading back up to Jade Pass made me shiver. Also, would the ankle hold up? Would I hold up?
Well, it turns out that I did hold up. Not only that, but I managed to run the second loop much faster than the first. I shaved off well over forty minutes even though it felt like I was moving up the really steep section towards Jade Pass at a crawl! I noticed that when I could run, I was going much faster than I usually would, but according to my heart-rate monitor, my little blood pump was not exerting itself at all. What a strange feeling! I felt so good relative to the circumstances that, as soon as I started to descend from Jade Pass the second time around, I had to sing and cheer and almost cried. I was experiencing true joy on this trail, in this race, in that moment. It is a feeling I will never forget.
I was the 8th female to cross the finish line. Granted, not many women had participated in this race, but I was still in the first half of female finishers. Like all other participants, I received a bad ass Trailstoke growler and a mug with the neat saying: “I eat mountains for breakfast.” I went over to the food table and shovelled everything into my mouth; the last two kilometres of the race, I felt like I was starving. I was tired, but my legs felt good, my feet were blister-free and the toenails were not even bruised.
But, more importantly, I felt incredibly proud. I may have participated in a shortened Fullstoke, but it was still the longest race and the hardest thing I have ever done. Furthermore, it turns out that this modified course was steeper than the original – I guess that’s why climbing up to Jade Pass the second time around felt so excruciating.
And, most importantly, I learned a few things about my body. First, I realized that I take a long time to really warm up and get my engine churning efficiently. This was made most evident in the second half of the race, in which I was considerably faster. Second, in this state of efficient exertion that I experienced, I was unable to get my heart rate up past 165. To me, this is another proof that my body can handle very long distances efficiently, mainly using fat for energy – looks like I’ve got a good deal of mitochondria, everyone’s favourite powerhouse. Finally, I got to appreciate how strong my legs have become. The day after the race, they felt totally fine and I even went mountain biking; it really did not feel like I had just done the longest race of my life.
Needless to say, the experience of the Fullstoke has boosted the confidence in my running. I feel as though this experience has confirmed that I am on the right path to, one day, be able to run ultra distances. For a movement junkie such as myself, this is a step closer to realizing a big dream of mine.
(Special thanks to Bruno Long and his absolutely amazing photography skills for capturing the Trailstoke weekend! The featured image was taken by him as well. Go check out his website, it is chock full of fantastic pictures. @eye_b_long on Instagram)