I did it again.
I stood at the start line of an ultra without having had my cup of morning coffee. It was the second leg of the Golden Ultra, aptly named Sweat. Just shy of 60 kilometres, out and back via the Moonraker trail network, with roughly 2,400 meters worth of steep ascent to the top of T4 (for those familiar with Kicking Horse Mountain Resort).
I’d waited for this for half a year as I’d signed up for this race back when I was still very much scaling up hills on skis and very much not running up them. It was supposed to be my first foray into the ultra world. Well, as you may know, roughly two months ago, I rather spontaneously ran the Black Spur 54K. So, while that took a wee bit of significance out of this 60K, it was still going to be the longest run of my life.
The day before the race, I drove out to Golden in the early afternoon. Luckily, this town is ‘only’ up and over the hills (highly unexaggerated, I know) from Revelstoke, so I needn’t drive far. And yet again, I was prepared for any eventuality; I had a bag full of clothes, a cooler full of food, my warm sleeping bag and my inflatable down sleeping mat that’s been, pardon my language, really starting to shit the bed (from two fused baffles – the Baffle Baby, as it got dubbed on the Columbia Icefield – it had increased to three, which made it have a really uncomfortable bulge smack dab in the middle of it).
My good friend Carmen had recommended Cedar Lake Campground. I headed there after registering and getting bib and timing chip. I scarfed down an almost ungodly amount of leftover vegan tortilla bake from the previous day’s staff potluck and was about to hit the day (a.k.a. sleep in my car in relative discomfort the night before an ultra) when I got a message from Abby, a coworker of mine. I could sleep at her place in town as her roommates were not around.
Talk about good timing and luck! As much as I liked the adventurous allure of the dirtbag runner getting little restorative sleep, car-camping in single-digit, frosty weather, on a spine-destroying, broken sleeping mat, to then embark on her longest run to date – who am I to say no to such a display of kindness? Even more so, who am I to refuse a queen-size bed and cuddles with an adorable black cat named Gato?
Anyway, I can’t thank Abby enough. After a good and warm night’s rest, the usual overnight oats, some green tea and a good face wash (another luxury afforded through her hospitality), I made my way to Spirit Square, downtown Golden. It was 7am, pretty dark, and a balmy three degrees above freezing. I was wearing the exact same clothes as for the Black Spur, which was on a noticeably hotter day. Almost all other runners were clad in more, or at least warmer, layers than I was. But, hey, there was no way I was going to already wear my jacket – the only extra layer I had – at the beginning of the race. How was I going to layer up on top of the mountain, where it was actually cold, otherwise? (Not that 3°C isn’t cold, but you get the point.)
Once the clock hit 7:30am, we sped out of the gates a little too hot. The first kilometre or two followed the flat road to the bridge across the Columbia River. With all the participants’ excitement supercharging the crisp air, it was hard to force a slow, snail-like ultra pace, Once we left the tarmac and dove into the forest, running single-file, we kept the rhythm up, flowing through the woods as one big pack.
The terrain was gentle and rolling as we moved through golden aspen groves, past lanky evergreens and fire-coloured bushes of all kinds. Our breath hung still in the cold morning air and I could feel my fingers getting numb. At the first aid station, after 14 blissful kilometres of swerving through this forest aglow with autumn colours, I struggled more than I would have liked to retie my shoes with stiff hands. Even more so, after having to wait on six other people to use the single outhouse available, cinching the drawstring tight on my pants was almost as difficult as the race altogether.
Leaving the first aid station, the field had dispersed. The route continued on through the same kind of forest, but this time I was mostly alone. From that point on, I would only encounter runners as I passed them, slowly working my way up the middle of the field. I passed them speed-walking on gentler uphills, clawing upwards on the stupidly steep sections, zipping by on the way down.
Seriously – not a single other participant passed me! Not even one of those funny ones carrying hobby horses around. (Yes, the Golden Ultra has a ‘Hobby Horse’ category. If you don’t know what they are; a stuffy horse head stuck on a wooden broom handle that you can ride in opposite fashion to Harry Potter astride his Firebolt.) Mentally, this was a huge deal. As soon as I realized that I was slowly working my way up the middle of the running field, I could visualize myself keeping my pace up and simply chipping away at the distance until the bitter end. More importantly, I visualized finishing strong. It kept me going.
About 20 kilometres in, it really started getting steep. We were punishing our legs up one of the gnarliest black diamond downhill trails I ever set foot on: LSD. We were all reduced to a crawl up this merciless singletrack, with tall trees towering over us and rendering this part of the forest much darker.
The second aid station sat on a logging road at the 25-kilometre mark, back out in the open. I gobbed some more hummus-and-olive wraps I had packed in my drop bag, filled up my electrolyte bottle with water and a Nuun tablet, chatted up a lady who wore ‘Run Like a Girl’ arm sleeves, and kept on trucking, up the dirt road. The nastiest part of the climb was yet to come.
But, by nasty, I also mean ‘most worthwhile.’ Wrestling my legs, their muscles having felt sore (especially the gluteus maximus – A.K.A. my butt) since I started going up, up this even steeper ridge was tough. Really tough. It got increasingly colder, windier. Here and there, snow patches started to appear. The trail got very technical and rocky, making actual running attempts even harder. Still, I didn’t stop to put my jacket on. Still, I kept passing more people. I had been fighting my way up this mountain, on some of the steepest sections of trail I had ever been on (it’s a double black diamond on Trailforks), for a little over 15 kilometres, after having already ran about a half marathon in the woods.
This was harder than Mt. Cartier.
Once I crested, after what seemed to be an eternity, what I thought to be the top of the ridge, I felt my heart sagging into my pants. The exposed ridgeline over to T4 that I had imagined swiftly traversing was made up of super short and super steep ups and downs that were hardly runnable. What had looked like the top of the climb on the elevation profile had duped me! I was technically at the top, but there was another top I could see further on, and getting there was not going to be easy.
I didn’t let that discourage me, as I knew I could soon fly down the mountain. So I quickly gathered my thoughts and feelings, and embraced those last steep uphills; invoking my inner mountain goat as I swiftly tiptoed my way across the ridge, past Kicking Horse Resort’s other Ts, down steep stone staircases that were a mountain runner’s equivalent of a skier’s no-fall-zone, up the steep cat road, and finally to the third aid station at the top of the gondola. Sweet. I had conquered the giant climb!
After more wraps and more water, it was finally time to head down along the hiking trail. I passed a guy who was limping. I asked him if he had twisted his ankle but no – he somehow strained his groin. After that, the course went down a mountain biking trail, enabling more flow on the descent as I leaned into the berms. The lodge at the bottom of the ski hill was creeping ever closer as I quickly made up for the time it took to slog up that big mountain. My legs, exhausted from doing uphill walking lunges for the better part of maybe five hours, were not taking it lightly that they had to pound down with such force. But in such situation, you just have to be really good at disregarding those complaints. Your mental game needs to be on point.
From the bottom of Kicking Horse Resort, the course dipped back into the autumnal woods and the grade once more became mellow as I ran down Scalli-Mag. I had come full circle. The fourth and last aid station, complete with puppies to pet, good music and pizza, was on the turnoff to Cedar Lake, at the edge of the Moonraker trails. I looked at my Suunto: over 15 kilometres to go. I swallowed dully. I had reached the point where I wanted this to be over with. Over two hours of running in the woods I had already spent time in that morning, as pretty as they were, suddenly felt tedious. Oh well. This was going to be the post-uphill-sufferfest sufferfest.
Onto a trail named Hemiptera, before hopping on the CBT Mainline. On the latter, time seemed to stretch into infinity. Perhaps I was approaching the event horizon of a black hole. Still, I passed the odd runner here and there before finally emerging out of the forest. I like to think that my overtaking them gave those few people the last extra push of motivation they needed to get through the race.
The road back into Golden, which had carried such galvanizing and contagious energy in the morning, was empty and desolate. It took all the willpower I could muster to not fall into a walk. I knew I could run it all, but my brain, pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding as always, was in rebellion. However, I managed to hold on to the fact that I would have to spend less time on this godforsaken, empty, and flat road, if I ran it. Muse’s Knights of Cydonia chimed in through my iPhone speakers, giving me the final little push I needed. Then and there, my mind had won.
Just as for the Black Spur, I managed to sprint across the finish line. I was handed a medal that doubled as a coaster and bottle opener. A few minutes shy of ten hours, I was done. And again, I felt good, considering what I had just achieved. As the wave of relief and tired euphoria washed over me, I was confirmed in what I already knew.
I wanted more.