Race Report: Mont Blanc 80KM 2015

tom mbmOn Friday, June 26, 2015, two alarms woke me simultaneously at 2:30am. Though I was tired and had only slept a few hours, I forced myself out of bed, brewed up some espresso and started sawing a baguette in half. I emptied a package of salt into a glass of clementine juice and drank it. Just after three, I clicked on my headlamp and headed out for a jog. I shuffled along deserted streets, past the normally bustling Aiguille du Midi cablecar terminal and up a dim path that would be the same final metres I would spend on trail in what would be a thirteen hour day.

C’est le Mont Blanc 80K, et je suis stoked.

Since CCC last year I’d wanted to return to Chamonix and apply the lessons I’d learnt in that race to another one with the intention of performing and placing better. For months leading up to this race I’d been training on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, doing 900m vertical repeats, faster and faster, to prepare myself for the task of climbing big hills again and again and again.

1The race began with a short uphill sprint on pavement before funneling everyone onto narrow singletrack. Knowing that once we left the streets and hit the trail each runner would more or less be locked into position until we reached the top of the first climb, I wanted to get in front of as many people as possible as early as I could. It was my aim to avoid a repeat of my race last year when I waited in line for three hours to climb a hill that should have only taken one.

The sprint up Les Moussoux was smooth and I managed to pass a number of people without exerting myself too much. We soon funneled into positions that we would hold until the top of Brevent, my face nearly buried in the heels of the sneakers in front of me as we plodded up the path. After about an hour, the first runners breached treeline. A kaleidoscopic sunrise filled the sky, spilling pastel shades across the face of Mont Blanc and allowing us to stow our headlamps. One hour of headlamp running, not too shabby, I thought, hoping I wouldn’t have to use it again.

2 3 6 After topping out on Brevent, we skidded through lingering snow and heavy choss littering the descent to Planpraz. I ran straight through this aid station without stopping, continuing my traverse across the Aiguilles Rouges uninterrupted. I had plenty of food which I intended to consume while running, so I wouldn’t need to stop until Buet at Km 26. The run across Brevent was fun and descending the precarious stone staircase to Col des Montets brought back memories of stumbling up this nearly third-class pitch in the middle of the night — cold, wet and miserable — during CCC last year. 10I pulled into Buet at Km 26, not so much to eat but to poop, which I didn’t successfully accomplish. While waiting for the outhouse, however, I managed to eat one small sandwich which was probably practical for the slog ahead. I waited about two minutes until I’d finished my sandwich, then said screw it and left the aid station.

So began the second big climb of the day to Col de la Terrasse, thirteen hundred vertical metres above us, then a descent into the snowy basin that drains into Emosson Lake. Out of the many challenges we faced during this race, I’m sure this section stands out for many runners as one of the toughest, with the added perk of being followed immediately by one of the funnest.

11The ascent began innocently. Gentle switchbacks meandered up the hillside amid a lush and pretty forest. I came upon a pinecone-rich area, gathered some in my arms and achieved in thirty seconds what I’d waited two minutes at Buet to do. I continued slogging and thought I had a good pace until first- and second-place female finishers, Mira Rai and Hillary Allen jogged past and I hissed, “How the fuck… are these girls running… up this hill… right now?!”

When we broke out of treeline, the scenery became incredible, with epic views of the Aiguille Verte and Mont Blanc looming behind us. The wide switchbacks started to narrow and snake up the scree of a giant bowl towards a rocky saddle high above us. Churning through scree in my sneakers, in the blistering heat of the sun — my specialty, I said.

12 13It is often said that ultrarunning isn’t much of a spectator sport, and to the race volunteers atop 2600m Col de la Terrasse we must have looked like racing snails struggling through the dirt then freezing once we hit the snow. However, I felt like the fastest snail in our little snail arena as I picked off runners staggering, debilitated by the heat, the steepness and sustainedness of this climb.

Our paces were slow to begin with but all became slightly slower once we hit a ramp of snow leading up to a notch in the col where immense steps had been chopped, making our task of climbing it much easier. The terrain at the top of the pass was practically scrambling and we relied on arms and handholds to support us through loose rock as wobbly legs couldn’t be trusted on this section alone. The safest route through the final scramble was very deliberately marked as a fall in this area could possibly mean breaking a bone or potentially worse.

14 16I reached the top of Col de la Terrasse at 9:20am, five and a half hours into the race, astounded by the technicality of the last section, more akin to a scramble in the Rockies than what a “marathon” suggests. Nevertheless, I was now standing astride the rim of vast snowy plateau punctuated by turquoise meltwater ponds and veined by ribs of rock. The idea of this being a “trail running” race had now been thrown out the window: first I had to climb a series of rocky ledges with my hands; now I was about to glissade down a snowfield, most likely not on my feet.

17 18 19The snow was still fairly frozen but a couple inches of slush on top made all of us look a bit clumsy and uncoordinated. I galloped through trenches in the snowpack and skipped along bare stone until everything got channeled into a narrow gorge, like a black hole drawing runners down the slope, careening and sliding with increasing velocity and little degree of control.

20A short bit of downhill jogging soon brought us across Emosson Dam to the aid station which marked the halfway point in the race. I mistakenly filled my bottles with carbonated water (gross), munched another mini sandwich and put in headphones to propel me down the perilous chamois path that comprised the descent from Emosson Dam to Chatelard.

21 23 24I felt like Kilian descending the fucking Matterhorn on the few short pitches where chains and cables were installed for assistance and here I thought to myself, this isn’t a “running” race at all, even on the downhills. The form of locomotion required to move swiftly through this kind of terrain and not tumble resembles, but can hardly be called, “running”. “Goating”, let’s call it.

As I tore through the ski chalet shanty town inbound to Chatelard, a Frenchman shouted at me: “Quarante!” he said. I stopped and said, “Huh?”

“Quar-ante,” he repeated, then signed with his fingers, “Four, Zero”

I got my gear inspected at Chatelard then skipped the snacks to hustle away and secure my forthieth position. The next climb to 2000m Col des Posettes abruptly reared up in front of me and I laid hands to knees and slogged, stopping briefly for water midway, then continuing into the alpine, passing a couple dudes in the process. I began to gain ground on a runner dressed in red whose pace I matched very closely, mine only a little quicker over many hundreds of metres. This runner, Etienne and I would play leapfrog throughout the last forty kilometres of the race, losing and catching each other during our alternating high and low points, strengths and weaknesses on the course.

It was good that we happened to be together once we hit the rolling stretch from Le Tour to Les Bois, otherwise I would never have run it so quickly. Flat terrain isn’t really my jam. This was actually the tamest part of the course, and Etienne pulled ahead, able to maintain a pace my clumsy gait couldn’t support.

I jogged into Les Bois and went for some fruit as Etienne left with a gentle wave. One banana and a half later, I left the aid station amid cheers of “Run, Canada!” and prepared to take on the last big climb of the day to Montenvers overlooking the Mer de Glace.

Cue heatwaves, a desert scene, tumbleweeds, parched bones baking in the sun. Demoralized runners were splayed on the sides of the trail like casualties of war. I remember little about this final ascent besides chugging along on autopilot; painstakingly walking up grades normally easy to jog; repeatedly wiping sweat out of my eyes and wondering when I was going to develop some sort of serious heat illness, convulsing and shivering on the mountainside. All I wanted was to see that goddamn hotel, Montenvers, and thought I would never make it, until suddenly I popped out among gangs of tourists with their mouths agape snapping pictures of the Mer de Glace.

Yay! I had done it, I’d reached the top of the last hill without dying yet still had twenty kilometres left to traverse over rugged, undulating terrain, then had to plummet a vertical kilometre straight down to Chamonix. I pulled into the aid station, it was sandwich time. After a few minutes basking in the cool, shaded brick of Montenvers, I was off, en route to Plan de l’Aiguille.

Compared to the rest of the course, the run across the huge flat stones of the Balcon Nord was easy going and made easier by the prospect almost being done. I pulled up to Plan de l’Aiguille and mimed to the ladies manning the aid tent: “Do we have to go up further?”

No, they said.

“Down now?”I asked.

Yes, they said.

“YES!!!” I exclaimed as I threw myself over the crest of the hill and down the trail towards Chamonix, so far below us it looked like the surface of a planet as seen from space. And here I was about to freefall at terminal velocity from the sky to the earth, trail sneakers screeching.

3 I was surprised to catch and pass a couple guys on the final downhill yet another runner dressed in red remained just out of reach, whose speed matched my own almost precisely. This guy is pretty fast, I said, because I thought I was moving pretty fast myself. Over several minutes I struggled to catch Etienne until I was right on his heels: “Don’t worry, it’s me,” I said. “And I don’t want to pass you. You’re going too fast already!”

We finally spotted pavement and remarked how sweet it was to see. Etienne and I bounded out of the forest and off the trail I’d warmed up on thirteen hours earlier onto hard road. Applause came sporadically from random people on the street, then grew consistently as we passed the patios of restaurants and cafes. At last we entered the throngs of people packed into downtown Chamonix, all with the collective aim of watching runners finish, raving and greeting each one like a national hero, like the greatest athlete the world has ever seen.

Etienne and I crossed the finish-line side by side, thirteen hours and twenty-two minutes after departing that very spot. I had done it, I had finished an incredibly demanding race but also achieved what I eventually considered a wildly unrealistic goal of coming in 25th place.

5Last year, in my first foray in European mountain racing, I ran 101km on similar terrain and took twenty-one hours to do it, running all night and finishing in the dawn of a new day. After the pain from that race faded I vowed to try again, and hopefully not take as long as I did the first time.

Now here I was, filthy and barely clothed, sprawled on a sidewalk in Chamonix with sweaty running equipment scattered around me, nursing a cup of warm ale like it was nectar from heaven.

Like my experience in CCC, I’d occasionally entertained the idea of dropping out during this race but there was never any legitimate reason to do so. Sure, the task was difficult, tiring, hot and painfully tedious, but my body had shown its ability to chug along without respite. Leading up to this race, the real fruits of my training had become increasingly mental — mystical even. I still aimed to nail specific distances in specific times, but I achieved more by doing less. I moved faster by reducing my resistance to gravity and speed. I became like the mountains metaphysically in order to overcome them on foot.

Greatest of all was the feeling of having built something of quality, from limited background or resources, mostly curiosity about my abilities and deepening relationship with my environment.

For now, however, my body was trashed, I didn’t give a shit about the mountains and was curious only about my ability to walk four blocks so I could collapse into bed.

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Peep Movescount data for this trip here.

Peep livetrail.net data for this trip here.

Race Report: Mont Blanc 80KM 2015

Scree of Chamonix – June 20-25

14 aka gigglesI’m wandering back and forth in the French Sector of Geneva Airport, searching for the shuttle company that’s supposed to take me to Chamonix. There’s little time to waste — the moment I set foot inside my rental apartment, I intend to strip down, don running clothes, and dash off into the mountains without a care in the world. At last I find my shuttle (not in the French Sector at all), and we are on our way, flying along at nearly mach one-hundred in our minivan on the highway surrounded by bigger and bigger mountains. That is, until the biggest one of all comes into view, like a gigantic dollop of melted vanilla icecream hovering above rows of black, craggy pinnacles. I gasp: “Le Mont Blanc!

Cham is always a flurry of sensation and experience: mild culture shock; overpowering mountain scenery; fantastic food; and warm people all generally stoked about alpine sports round out the atmosphere. I intended to climb Mont Blanc via the Gouter within my first or second day in town but fickle weather kept me playing at lower altitudes. One week isn’t enough time to expect to summit Mont Blanc — unless you get a perfect weather window early in the week — and then rest sufficiently for a demanding ultra a matter of days afterwards.

The moment I arrived (June 20), I sprinted up the hill to check out the first climb of the Mont Blanc 80K. The race begins in town, climbs steeply on pavement for ~5min, then funnels onto tight singletrack that switchbacks past the refuge of Bel Lachat to the summit of Brevent. I knew from my race last year that I didn’t want to get stuck behind a bunch of people, so I realized that if I could move quickly for five minutes at the start of this race, I’d secure a good position and be able to cruise uncontested for another hour until we reached the top of Brevent.

One notable episode of this run was crossing paths with a burly boucton (ibex), who I addressed in the same manner I communicate with Canadian goats and sheep — by blahhht-ing like a sheep at them. He simply snorted in response. Stuck-up French goats… I descended to Planpraz via the Mont Blanc Marathon route, then back to town underneath the gondi line. Woo! (2h56m/18km/1412m)

3 4 5 6 7 8 10 Screen shot 2015-07-02 at 5.49.09 PM 11 12Day two (June 21), I flirted with ideas of trying to bag Mont Blanc or Mont Buet but the weather appeared rather poopy when I opened my eyes and looked out the window. I didn’t really feel like taking the bus anywhere either, so I just headed out the door intending to slog up to the famous Mer de Glace lookout at Montenvers, then scope out the final part of the course.

My hike up to Montenvers was hot and sweaty and I greeted the cool breeze of the Mer de Glace glacier with arms outstretched. I promptly bagged Signal Forbes — at least the part where all the people stop and take pictures — looked around and said, “what next?” I looked up along the broken ridgeline extending from Signal Forbes toward l’Aiguille de l’M and started scrambling. It was very pleasant scampering up huge plates which stayed in place as I hopped and leapt between them, and offered texture via their coating of lichen. Once I reached the “summit”, I continued along the exposed ridge for awhile until I wasn’t really comfortable anymore, then headed back.

This run marked the introduction of my trail buddy/pet goat, Giggles. After marveling for ages at clouds churning off the knifeblade edge of the Drus, and clearing views of the other Chamonix Aiguilles — Grand Charmoz, Grepon and Aiguille de la Plan — we headed down and across the Balcon Nord beneath these brooding towers to get a feel for the final stretch of the Mont Blanc 80K. A trail constructed from huge, flat stones, I found the Balcon Nord pretty conducive for skipping along at a decent pace to the Aiguille du Midi midway gondola station, slash, final aid station of the race, before dropping like a stone back to Chamonix for the finish.

Giggles and I reached the top of Plan de l’Aiguille and were tempted by warm cafe ou lait and stopped to refuel before descending back to Chamonix. (I imagine this was around 20kms and maybe 1300m of climbing, but I didn’t have my watch charged.)

1 2 3 4 5 6 7 9 11 13 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22My “free time” to bag peaks and such in Chamonix was constrained in a merry way by an appointment to visit two friends I know from Banff. Justine and Marion, two French twins, became acquaintances a couple years ago and we quickly became hiking buddies, poring over maps and shooting shit for hours about places to see in the Canadian Rockies. These girls were crazy about backcountry hiking in Canada, and are two of the most driven and competent peak-baggers I’ve ever met. Though the effort of the previous two days hadn’t seemed too extreme at the time, I woke up on day three (June 22) with legs sore — trashed, even — so my appointment to meet up the girls came at the right time. I caught an early bus to the picturesque ski commune of Megeve, where the girls work, and we tore off on harrowing mountain roads to climb Le Parmelan, a long escarpment overlooking Annecy.

2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14Upon returning from Annecy and its surroundings, I had two days to kill, and while the 700m climb up Parmelan hadn’t been too detrimental, my body seemed to be taking its time to recover and feel fresh again. Hence, I mainly bummed around my apartment; skulked around shops and tried on gear; did a few last minute race things including collecting my bib; sketched the mountains from my balcony; and did typical tourist things like going up the Aiguille du Midi cablecar and visiting the cemetary… I knew from reading Mark Twight’s books what I would find there and wanted to see for myself: a bunch of young kids forever entombed in the massive of Mont Blanc. What I love about Chamonix is its lack of coddling or knee-jerk reaction to the deaths of young alpinists doing what they love. Their loss is profoundly saddening and I teared up reading many of the placards, but what is more inspiring is the celebration and support for individuals who push and challenge themselves in the mountains. That support extends to the cheering that takes place in Chamonix for every single ultrarunner coming in at ten hours, twenty hours, or twenty minutes before cutoff, in the wee hours of the morning.

15 17 18 19a 19b 19c 20With one day left, I didn’t do much besides head up Brevent via the cablecar to seek a little solitude, like Herb Elliott advises before an athletic performance. It was good to be there, clearing my head, condensing some of the thoughts that had been rolling around all week, and just being with the Aiguilles Rouges — the mountain I have the most relationship with here and the first I would have to traverse in less than 12 hours — and the Mont Blanc, so impressive across the way. Chamonix is a special place, and the Mont Blanc massive has an aesthetic and ambiance which can hypnotize and transform one’s psyche. I went home that evening, crushed a jurassiene calzone from the pizza joint next door, packed up my running vest and went to sleep, with two alarms set to 2:30am and thoughts of gnarly mountain races dancing in my head.

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Scree of Chamonix – June 20-25

Scree Sessions: May 24-30

Abusing my body, exalting my spirit, and trying to wring performance from weeks of playtime with pain. This week saw me tackle a “big day” intended to familiarize me with the distances of the Mont Blanc 80K, now four weeks away. Normally I would have done a Triple Crown by this point in the season — this year a Quad — but complacency’s kept me in Banff doing laps on “boring old Sulphur” like Leslie Gerein told me to do. While I’d started feeling pretty proficient running up to 30km and climbing ~2000m — only one-third of the Mont Blanc race — I was unsure of where my endurance lay beyond that. A 70km/3800m run on Wednesday shed light to uncertainty and revealed an extension of the relative ease experienced on other “routine” long runs (Sulphur double crossing, for example). A major confidence-booster leading up to the race, with a couple weeks left in the Rockies to sharpen things up a bit before flying to Ontario, then to Chamonix.

Weekly total: 12h26m/85.5km/5229m

IMAG770324/05/15 – The Banff Burner (1st place) – 35min/4.5km/666m
Ran The Banff Burner, the first edition of some kind of not-too-competitive race up Sulphur Mountain. My friends told me about it and I figured I would give it a shot. The race began at the trailhead sign near the parking lot and finished at the platform beside the gondola station. This is by far the fastest time I’ve ever done this section of Sulphur and, as far as I know, is an FKT for what it’s worth. (I don’t go around trying to set “FKTs” on any old mountain, but important mountains or ones with a precedent, sure.)

IMAG783827/05/15 – Sulphur x 4 – 10h13m/69km/3863m
A long-needed “big day” before tackling the Mont Blanc 80K. From home, I ran up the front to Sanson’s Peak, then down the back to Sundance Canyon junction; then up the back to Sanson’s and down the front to Bow Falls where I met Glenn; then up the front, down the front with Glenn; then up the front to summit #3, then Sanson’s Peak, then down the back to home.

The initial “double crossing” was a breeze as I’ve become quite comfortable with exactly that horizontal and vertical distance of running; my nutrition was regular and my movement streamlined. At the top of Sulphur the second time, I chatted with Glenn on the phone and invited him to meet me for my next lap up the mountain. Glenn hadn’t climbed Sulphur in six years, since the day after his wedding when he puked brunch all over the trail… While Glenn’s fitness has surely improved since 2009, his pace is a bit slower than mine, but I saw the mellower pace on my third lap as an advantage — forced restraint where I’d otherwise be powerhiking madly and compromising my ability to last a longer distance.

After my third lap up and down the mountain accompanied by Glenn, we parted ways at Bow Falls and I still felt fresh enough to go back up and over the mountain one last time. While relatively fatigued, the idea of jogging over and tagging S3 in the sunset made my tiredness fade and soon I was scrambling up the various gullies and ledges to plop me on top. I lingered for awhile — the ambiance was incredible and the fact that I’d travelled over 50km and climbed more than 3500m at that point was like a half-forgotten memory. This is one of ultrarunning’s miracles, that one can feel alternately like complete shit or glowingly incredible at any given point during a big run. I eventually pried myself from the summit and jogged back towards the gondi station and tagged Sanson’s for fun.

The run down the backside was slightly more conservative than normal though my footing was still pretty precise in my new 110s. And because my phone was dead and I was also out of food, I completed the whole run from Sanson’s back to my house without stopping. This kind of day on Sulphur was something I’d conceived of to train for CCC last year but other, cooler mountain projects filled the need. I’m content with the relative comfort I experienced on a run which equals more than than two-thirds of the vertical and horizontal distance of the Mont Blanc 80K, now four weeks away.

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30/05/15 – Tunnel x 2 – 1h38m/12km/700m
A little fartleking around on Tunnel. I never really understood the idea of “speed play” as speed in the context of running for me equals pain and stress, the opposite of “play”. Today I set out expressly to “play”, not “train”, and willfully took on many speedy bits of running up, down and on the flats. My route was up the main trail from home to the summit, then down goatpath on the north side of the mountain to Tunnel Mountain Drive, then around the base of Tunnel to catch the SW goatpath up to the top again, then home via the main trail. Got lost (yet again) on my descent through the narrow, forested singletrack on the north of the mountain and downclimbed a few third-class moves, which was fun. My descents, from Tunnel Mountain Dr. to the river for example, were wild and uninhibited and the flat bit along the river to the start of the SW goatpath up Tunnel was noticeably swift and cruisy. The ten minutes or so of tilling scree in my sneakers up a 50-degree pitch went by without notice, my ears filled with the raucous clamor of John Dwyer’s “positive destruction”, a concept I can relate to. Tagged the top, sweaty and half nude, amid a swarm of weekend hillwalkers, then raced home.

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Scree Sessions: May 24-30

Scree Sessions: May 3-9

This week, shit got downright primal. Like one-with-the-elements, becoming-the-greenman sorta jive. Last week I achieved and integrated a new octave of mountain running endurance (for me, anyway), slogging away at the vicinity of a vertical kilometre or more every day for five days in a row*; starting to feeling weary, no longer wanting to climb, no longer knowing why I’m doing it and being at a loss for meaning in life in general, yet forcing myself to do it anyway… Perfect. Last week served the purpose of breaking down psychological resistance and putting a hella lot of vert into my bones, but to go back into that regimen would render little result besides probable injury. What I need now are dense, sustained, repeated climbs; blistering-fast speed ascents (and freefall descents) and the occasional long, hot, gnarly, bonky sufferfest peppered in there to maintain my base. Funny what I consider my “base”.

Weekly total: 10h01m/69km/3712m

*100km/5480m vertical between April 30-May 4.

IMAG671205/03/15 – Sulphur – 2h30m/20km/1000m
Up the back, down the front. An awesome run that started out a little rough. Set out alongside the river and up the back of the mountain and wasn’t really feeling it: had a bit of headache, sluggish legs and feeling a little underfuelled. Within half an hour the little bit of food I’d consumed converted itself into energy and I kept a decent pace jogging up the long (at least a couple kilometres), sustained switchback which takes you almost to the summit ridge. Tagged Sanson’s, raced across the catwalk and began descending the front. Although the last two days had seen this trail turn to slush (microspikes not required), I suppose the crisp, clear night had allowed it all to refreeze into sheer ice. So I spent a few hundred metres alternately galloping down the trail or sliding on both feet before the it became mostly mud and slush. Descended behind the Rimrock and took powerline trail paralleling Mountain Ave. back to Middle Springs and through forest to my apartment.

IMAG671605/04/15 – Sulphur – 1h52m/15km/744m
Up and over Sulphur from the Hot Springs after work at 4pm. Carried little and hoped the day’s strong sunshine had thawed the trail so it wasn’t like my experience the previous morning. It was pleasantly slushy. Tagged Sanson’s amid a stunning late-day sky then bombed down the backside to the Cave and Basin, then home.

IMAG683005/08/15 – Tunnel – 50m44s/7km/320m
Up and down main trail from home. A short run, reasoning that it’s probably easier to overdo it today than the other way around. I ran at a restrained, casual pace and noticed, once I hit the climb, how last week’s effort had seemingly increased my body’s overall capacity for transporting and utilizing oxygen, i.e. jogging hills felt effortless. Contrast this with my (probably) increased resting heartrate and definitely improportionate fatigue whilst in the thick of last week. Here is evidence of the effect of training seeping deep into one’s body. Anyway, my knee felt weird on the summit, fine on the descent, and the rest of the run was pleasant and streamlined in cool spring weather.

IMAG697605/09/15 – Cascade Subpeak – 27km/4h49m/1648m
A stellar day in the alpine scrambling talus shirtless in the searing sun, then bombing down snowfields in a fraction of the time. Pretty much my favourite things ever. Had various plans for this morning including a lap or two on Sulphur but it was obvious I needed to be scrambling in the alpine and not trying to squeeze past tourists towards a congested summit (it being Saturday and all). I ran across town and jogged most of the actual ascent to Cascade Amphitheatre. Despite this apparent effortless swiftness (which I attribute to last week boosting my vO2max, or something) my mood was tempered by uncertainty as to whether I was doing my knee any favors. Sometimes you just have to go climb a mountain and not give a shit about things like training, I said to myself. Made it to Cascade Amphitheatre in 1h40m, which was brilliantly coated in sunbaked snow, and opted to scramble up some subpeak looker’s left of the Amphitheatre which looked dry and fun, as opposed to the route to Cascade’s false summit (my original objective) and true summit which looked super snowy and postholey. No thanks.

I hopped across the boulderfield at the base of the Amphitheatre then hunted for a goatpath to take me up. Soon I was marching up toward a lounging sheep (who I addressed with a blahhhhht), then realized the probability of ticks hitching a ride, frantically searched my body, found one, tore him off me, tossed him into the wind and cursed his kind with every swearword in my vocabulary. The crux of the day being surmounted, I gained a ridgeline of loose talus which I scrambled to the top, grinning like a dopey border-collie all the while. There was absolutely no wind in the Amphitheatre; the sun was beating down on my exposed skin; I was scurrying up lichen-splattered rock with bare hands somewhere above 2500m; and it was early May. I couldn’t have been happier. I snapped pics on the top for ~20min then turned around to descend.

Paralleling the ridge I ascended was a long snowfield, which upon first glance I believe I said, “I’m gonna glissade the shit of that!” While I didn’t quite glissade it (perhaps unintentionally once or twice), I descended it with Microspikes in about three minutes, hooting and hollering and rudely scaring off Mr. Sheep. Fuck, the mountains can be so fun.

I spent awhile taking pics in the boulderfield at the base of the Amphitheatre but eventually forced myself to head home with a rapid and spot-on descent back to Norquay Ski Area. Here I thought I recognized a bobtailed lynx (which would be pretty amazing) but then thought I saw a bushy coyote tail… Hmmm. Last but not least, the fell-running-like descent down the old Norquay ski-out to the Juniper is always a blast, freefalling through tussocked grass, rutted mud and running water much of the time. Never mind “training”, today was a great fill-up on stoke.

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 And introducing…

TOMPOSTER1_shittylogo-page-001-3Myself and Patrick Sperling (aka dumpster_diver) are stoked to introduce Mountain Stride Fitness trail running retreats, based in the epic grandeur of the Canadian Rockies. This weekend is intended to take you off the city trails and into an alpine landscape of peaks, ridges and valleys. The retreat will be based at Kananaskis HI hostel, 100km west of Calgary, tucked in the front ranges of the Rockies and close to many great opportunities to experience moving fast and light in the mountains. Also, not only will we show you some sweet trails, but Patrick and his girlfriend Nicole are going to feed you and show you how to whip up delicious snacks that are healthy and 100% made from plants. Crazy, right?

I’ll be releasing more details shortly but in the meantime you can learn more at mountainstridefitness.com/runcampkananaskis

Scree Sessions: May 3-9

Scree Sessions: April 5-18

A relatively unfruitful set of weeks spent nursing a slowly recovering left knee. The “water on my knee” I first noticed evolved into a definite tenderness and lack of strength after continuing to slog on it with Sean; then a couple days blasting up and down Tunnel last week didn’t do it any favors, either. In my short career, I’ve been fairly injury-free, save for the occasional tweaked muscle which tends to recover on the order of days. When stairs in my apartment and standing on one leg became a challenge, I assumed the worst: probably a torn meniscus. A visit to Banff Physical Therapy determined that wasn’t the case and by the end of this two week block I began running up hills again confidently. I’m looking forward to easing back into the routine toward the end of April, allowing me start training concertedly again beginning in May.

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04/07/15 – Tunnel – 46m13s/7km/339m
Ran up and down Tunnel from home. This run was a test of my knee, which didn’t render an obvious result. At first I felt nothing, then a definite tightness in my kneecap during the uphill jog from the lower trailhead/parking lot. I tagged the top, then bombed back down with a very apparent clumsiness to my usually spot-on eye-foot coordination. My brain felt unable or unwilling to keep up with processing the terrain at the speed I wanted to run or am used to running on my downhills (breakneck, that is). Lots of “cuties” on the trail (as @Ridgegoat would say) probably ensured my downhill split was snappier than it otherwise might’ve been. Ran the flats back home at a decent pace, pain-free. A confusing result of my knee test.

04/08/15 – AM – Allan attempt – 1h54m/13km/757m
Had plans to climb Allan from the Canmore side but was profoundly aggravated by the presence of fresh powder snow — about three or four inches of it. I know, I’ve been bagging peaks in “winter conditions” for months, but in reality it’s been closer to spring and now that it’s actually April, it seems I lack the patience to put up with slogging through icing sugar, postholing, wet shoes, and any of the other tediousness that goes with winter peak-bagging. It was obvious I wasn’t going to bag a summit long before I reached the base of the climb proper and ditched the frustrating winter slogging conditions to go find fast summer running somewhere else, lower in the valley.

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04/08/15 – PM – Tunnel – 1h53m/8km/400m
Up and down Tunnel from home; up main trail, down south shoulder. Needed to get out and run in the sun on some dry trails, dressed for summer, carrying little and moving quickly. Deliberated for ages about the condition of my knee (really hard to gauge it) but decided I needed to get out and enjoy the beautiful weather for its own sake. Felt pretty good throughout most of the run; both aerobic performance and my mental sharpness were better than the previous day. Came down the south shoulder “goatpath” — lollygagged for a while taking pictures and scoping out 4th class scrambling terrain. Booted back home in the warm sun and cool breeze, my favourite combo. A beautiful day; felt great physically.

*Then a week of nothing, after it became obvious the previous couple days didn’t help my knee at all.

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04/15/15 – Physio @ Banff Physical Therapy
After a week off my left knee, I finally bit the bullet and saw a physiotherapist for the first time in my life. The knee had improved steadily throughout the week but strength and stability still seemed fundamentally compromised and I was tired of its back-and-forth condition, the sluggishness of my recovery and general uncertainty as to what the injury is. My guess was a torn meniscus; luckily the diagnosis was a “blister” under my kneecap — rawness and irritation rather than the carnage I’d envisaged. She gave me ultrasound and stuck some needles in my knee to break it up and showed me a couple resistance-band exercises to strengthen my hip on that side. She also remarked that the rest of my body (i.e. hips and legs) were remarkably balanced and flexible given my chosen hobby… One of the reasons I feared ever going to physio was the expectation of shock and scolding over the state of my body. The doc gave me a bill of good running health, save for my knee. I’ve just gotta take care of that.

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04/16/15 – Tunnel – 7km/340m
My first run of any consequence since last Wednesday the 8th. Ran up and down Tunnel from home. Took a switchbacking route through town and up through the Banff Centre to maximize the amount of gently-graded running terrain before hitting the trailhead proper. Stashed my shirt in some shrubs then jogged to the top; took some pics along the broad, open saddle and then ran back down. “No apparent detriment”. I can tell there is something in my knee (hopefully just scar tissue) but it doesn’t feel raw or inflamed. A beautifully warm day running around town partially clothed.

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04/17/15 – Stoney Squaw – 1h57m/~15km?/500m
I considered driving to Canmore to bag a more alpine-style summit but decided to enjoy the sunny morning out and back from my apartment instead. Jogged across town, got cat called by Glenn testdriving a car, then started slogging up the old Norquay ski-out which starts at the Juniper. This is a more direct way of reaching the Norquay ski area trailheads than running up the endlessly switchbacking road. I continued to the “summit” of Stoney Squaw (lacking views worthy of being called a “summit”) and then down the backside to the ski area. Here I spotted fresh cougar tracks heading in the opposite direction. I jogged out through the ski area and chatted with a Parks Canada dude who’d just seen a cougar heading up the mountain shortly after I did. I know cougars frequent this little promonitory but didn’t think my jaunt would bring me within such close proximity (or at least, knowledge of proximity — I’ve surely been spied on by a cougar or two before). The slippery slide back down the muddy no-track of the ski-out was epic fun, fell-running style.

Oh yeah, this happened last night.
Oh yeah, this happened last night 🙂
Scree Sessions: April 5-18

What Skyrunning Means to Me

I have evolved into a mountain runner from a scrambler; a scrambler from a hiker; and into a hiker from a precocious kid set loose in the wilderness. Though relatively few have heard of mountain running, the idea usually suggests sprinting up a craggy summit and racing back down again as fast as possible. Although this is occasionally the case, mountain running is often a more casual affair that might include a long subalpine traverse on buff singletrack or a lazy jog up a tame, local summit. But if you ask me what characterizes the coolest, most exciting form of mountain running, I would have to say it is summed up by “Skyrunning” — and Skyrunning is characterized by curiosity, the same kind that comes naturally to a precocious kid.

Although Skyrunning is now a brand name for a particularly alpine style of mountain racing born in Europe, its genesis and central concept is simple. Looking up at a great mountain (the bigger, the better) from down in the valley or the center of town, one asks: How fast can I reach the summit and return here again? What is the most aesthetic line I can draw? How can I exalt the majesty of this mountain through the motions of my body? How can I merge myself in this movement so that no movement exists, no mountain and no me? Skyrunning is birthed from the collision of big mountains, alpine trail running skills and a huge heap of curiosity.

In Skyrunning, the town or valley is as important as the mountain summit — it provides context and contrast. The epic thing about Skyrunning isn’t just the alpine running, it’s how the remote, bleak and brash quality of the alpine is bookended between the comforts of civilization within a matter of hours. Kilian’s FKTs on the Matterhorn or Mont Blanc wouldn’t be what they are without his starts or triumphant returns to Cervinia or Chamonix. When I returned to my car at Moraine Lake parking lot after summiting Temple (a trip that takes most people all day) and it wasn’t 10am yet, I cried.

Skyrunning is about creativity and aesthetic, about exploring not just what’s obvious, but what the mountains have to offer. Skyrunning differs from mountain trail running at the outset as it doesn’t concern itself with preexisting trails but naturally occurring routes chosen for their own value, often to achieve a balance between technicality and runnability. Gazing at a map or at mountain ranges for a few hours will cause a complacent mountain runner to start dreaming of circumambulating; entraining; zigzagging; traversing; crossing over the top, then back again; scrambling shit never intended to be climbed in sneakers and short shorts; and last but not least, blasting up and down a mountain in as fast and direct a manner as possible, that’s Skyrunning too.

Lastly, Skyrunning is about alpine character. Skyrunning is defined as inclined running above 2000m but that doesn’t mean jogging up a dirt road in Leadville, CO. Skyrunning is about steep, technical singletrack; ridge running; scree skiing; snowfields; ridge running; hands-on-rock scrambling; via ferrata; boulder-hopping; and definitely lots of ridge running. Many forested trails will take you up to and beyond 2000m, but to me, it isn’t Skyrunning until I burst out above treeline and race across some ridge where the earth meets the sky.

ppI once saw Skyrunning as the Olympics (or better yet, the X-Games) of this grueling niche sport I happened to fall in love with, with races in exotic locations, in majestic landscapes, which I would never be a part of. Now the Skyrunning Federation exists in Canada, I have already run Canadian Skyrunning events and am presently registered to participate in a Skyrunning race in an exotic location, in a majestic landscape, which typifies its genre entirely. All of this is much for me to be proud and grateful for but this is not what Skyrunning means to me. Skyrunning isn’t about a particular organization or brand, as much as I love what that organization does, and it isn’t about a particular race series in any location in particular. Skyrunning is grassroots, DIY. Skyrunning is about curiosity and discovery.  Skyrunning is about some dirtbag kid in short shorts and sneakers looking up at the mountains asking, “How much? How fast? How far?”

I’m proud to be able to call myself a mountain runner, but on my greatest days, I am a Skyrunner.

What Skyrunning Means to Me

Scree Sessions: March 28-April 4

“No apparent detriment”? Oh, you mean like a sac-full of fluid sloshing around on my kneecap? This week was marked by the appearance of mild knee effusion, probably not so much from running, but from powerslogging thousands of metres vertically with my hands death-gripping my thighs. A strategic recovery was first tempered by denial and not wanting to rest (skills I’m actually getting better at over time), then a visit from Mountain Stride Fitness athlete Sean from Edmonton who was eager to do some peakbagging. He really had to twist my arm on that one. Although there’s zero pain associated with this inflamed knee, it’s obvious I can’t expect to go hard on it without a strong potential for further injury. A couple days sitting around with a bag of ice on my knee and tearing apart my quads and ITBs with a lacrosse ball has already shown improvement and I’m looking forward to givin’ ‘er a test-drive next Wednesday.

Weekly total: 9h36m/43km/3548m

Sundanceee03/30/15 – Sulphur then home – 2h21m/16km/810m
Ran up Sulphur after work, then back home. The fact that I was able to go up Sulphur after work, shirtless, just wearing sneakers and a pair of shorts, while not impossible at any other point, somehow signifies to me that spring is here!

IMAG596903/31/15 – Ha Ling via Grassi Lakes – 2h19m/13km/1132m
Planned to go up Mount Allan on the last day before the three-month seasonal trail closure but by the time I got to Canmore, the initially crisp, bluebird morning had begun to deteriorate and it seemed I wasn’t going to get very far up Allan before the rain came. I decided to race up Ha Ling Peak via Grassi Lakes (a route I love), with the added spice of assuming I was going to get pummelled by the weather at some point, probably while on the summit. Ran shirtless up to treeline, then donned a light shirt for the final grunt to the top. Watched the dark, fuzzy rainstorm oozing up the valley toward me, devouring the Sundance Range, then Sulphur, then the true summit of Rundle… I free-fell back down the mountain; blahhhhht-ted at some sheep; slid on my ass on ice or slush or something. Narrowly dodged families walking peacefully on the Grassi trail while bounding back to the car at breakneck speed. Made it back to parking lot and started editing an Instagram pic before the first few raindrops landed on my windshield. Fuck yeah.

sean_slog104/01/15 – Mount Lawrence Grassi – 3h48m/9.8km/1330m
Met up with Sean and his buddy Stu at the Goat Creek parking lot for a trek up Grassi. Moved at a slow but consistent pace to a point just above treeline, then Sean and I made a break for the top despite gale-force winds and stormy weather brooding all around us. Slogged hard for about ten minutes and climbed some great, hard snow on all fours. Almost made the top but comfort dictated we turn back. Gorged ourselves on pizza and beer at the Bear Street Tavern afterwards.

04/02/15 – Tunnel – 1h08m/4.1km/276m
Walked up Tunnel with Sean and Stu. Sean and I are both nursing frail knees so a short jaunt was more than enough. Dressed to run fast and froze my ass off, otherwise a great time all-round.

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“ULTRALIGHT, bitch!”
Scree Sessions: March 28-April 4