The Longest Season

baowhI was slogging up some mountain the other day when I started counting on my fingertips: how many months had it been between February and now? I’d started training consistently last February, bagged Rundle in March, got injured in April, ran the Mont Blanc 80K way back in June… Now here it was, practically November, the days increasingly short but the weather fine, scramblers still making summits throughout Banff.

In other words it was the longest peak bagging season ever.

In northern-ish Canada, we tend to complain about the shortness of our summers, especially in the mountains, where we love to do stuff during our four months of occasionally decent weather. Well, last winter was rather springlike and this fall has been gloriously summery, making for the peak bagging season scramblers could only dream of.

After fourteen hundred kilometres on my spindly little legs this year — a total of 238 hours moving fast and light in the mountains and over a hundred thousand metres of ascent — you can bet I’m stoked for our recent powder days.

Unfortunately, I’m already thinking about next year. A few days ago, I gained entry into The North Face Lavaredo 119K in the Italian Dolomites for 2016. Though I’m not quite sure how next year is going to pan out, I’m excited to have what is commonly described as “the most beautiful race in the world” tentatively on my calendar for next summer.

Onwards to the events of October!

5October 11 was Grizzly Ultra in Canmore, a fun late-season 50K that draws together runners from all over Alberta. Paddy and Jordan from Mountain Stride Fitness raced whilst Sean and I stood around cheering everybody on. Jordan finished in 9th place in 4h52m and looked solid all the while. Way to go, buddy!

6^ Jordan Sauer en route to a top-ten spot at Grizzly Ultra.

The weeks before and after Grizzly comprised a bunch of random jaunts, shifting back and forth between bigger and smaller objectives as the weather would dicate. During the middle of October, I did a sunny loop on Yamnuska; climbed to the false summit of Observation Peak on hard snow with an ice tool; mucked around for 30km in the Castle Mountain massive and tagged EEOR and Goat’s Eye as well. As conditions continued to be snowfree, it was hard to say no to a run in the alpine though difficult to commit to anything too crazy as the mornings grew frigid and hours of daylight scarce. I wrote about this internal conflict a little bit last year in Fall Moods over on the MSF blog.

7 8 2^ Observation Peak

From October 17-24, my folks came to visit so I took the opportunity to step back from incessant peak bagging and tried to be a good host. Via my suburban parents, I looked at the Rockies through a child’s eyes — or at least with tourists’ eyes — as we ferried around to the many jaw-dropping locations that have been photographed and gawked at time and again.

As the end of the month approached, it was obvious that I wasn’t a hundred percent satisfied with my summer, though I certainly had lots to be grateful for. On October 20th, I wrote:

I guess the feeling is that at the end of the season I haven’t really faced my fears and have largely stayed inside my comfort zone, and after all the side-stepping around the real challenges I ultimately feel disappointed and unfulfilled.

Disappointment is a theme I’ve touched on in my last few blog entries, but suddenly I knew why I felt disappointed, that I was justified to feel disappointed but also knew how to fix it. My disappointment stemmed from my own unwillingness to push myself out of my comfort zone, to face my fears of exposed, technical terrain, and I wouldn’t be truly satisfied until I did something scary. On October 23rd, I wrote:

The eternal conflict between comfort and fear. I’ve always been afraid to explore and push my boundaries, but if it gets too comfortable, I start to get bored. I can do Fairview and Ha Ling over and over but I will never attain the feeling of satisfaction that comes from having met and overcome fear. I’ve said this before: this whole activity, for you, is all about pursuing fear.

As the weekend approached, Sean mentioned he was coming to the mountains and had an objective in mind. Sean wanted to explore an esoteric scramble route up the steep, rocky north bowl of Ha Ling Peak, a route considerably more exposed and hands-on than the standard trail to the top of the mountain. We were aware the bowl had been ascended previously by non-climbers so it wasn’t necessarily a death sentence, but I was inherently uncomfortable. A part of me deeply desired to send this route but my mind immediately started thinking up alternatives: Sean said he was open to other options, maybe I’ll take him up Observation Peak… Maybe we can bike into Moraine Lake and do something there… I.e. something that doesn’t scare me.

Having reached the previous conclusions, it became obvious what I was doing and that a big, fat dose of facing my fears was precisely what I needed. So around 10am on October 25, I met Sean in Canmore and we drove up to the climber’s parking lot at the base of Ha Ling and started slogging.

2Other runners who have done this route might snicker — and in retrospect it’s not that bad — but on our approach I was gripped. We treaded loose cobbles on our way to the bowl, frost covering everything on the shadowy north aspect. We rounded a corner into the bowl and left shitty terrain for really shitty terrain, scrambling up short slabs littered with scree and interspersed by green patches. We reached a sizeable class 4 pitch that we spent a good half hour probing, convinced we had to climb it in order to continue. After basically giving up, we traversed along the base of it until we found a weakness in the rock band weak enough to suit our scrambling prowess and clambered up.

3One weakness led to another and we zigzagged back and forth on exposed and chossy ledges, climbing up broken slabs in between. By this point we were closer to the col than the base where we started and it seemed that the most difficult challenges were behind us. Adrenaline tinged with paranoia transformed into euphoria mixed with enthusiasm and suddenly I was stoked. We gained a “green ramp” which deposited us onto the Ha Ling-Miner’s Peak col amid a conga line of hikers headed for Ha Ling’s summit.

4The first words out my mouth were, “That was awesome! I would totally do that again!” or something to that effect. We trotted over to Miner’s to inspect a possible Grassi traverse, then trotted back over to obligatorily tag Ha Ling as well.

Mountain running has taught me many philosophical lessons and has become more purely metaphysical throughout the past year. When I was training on Sulphur in the springtime, I learned to reduce my resistance and embrace the elements. In Chamonix, I learned to trust my training and let myself be guided towards success. On the northern aspect of Ha Ling last week, I learned that when I push myself outside of my comfort zone and do scary things, it somehow opens the doors for new opportunities to happen. This is my newfound perspective on fear.

5

The Longest Season

Aylmer Duathlon & Assorted Reflections

11Last month I expressed mild disappointment over not achieving any long technical days in the mountains this summer. That is, little in the way of exposed ridgeline traverses, multipeak link ups or self-supported ultras in the backcountry. I mainly stuck to single summits, many I know well, going faster and lighter than ever before. In general though, one can either choose to be mediocre at new things (the definition of “novice”) or become really good at a given activity by doing it over and over again. It’s obvious now that the fruit of this summer wasn’t an extension of my activities into new domains, more a sharpening or deepening of what was already there.

This summer still had its unicorns and Mount Aylmer was one of them. Sean and I ascended this 3162 metre peak in June before I left for France and before Parks Canada seasonally implements restrictions on the trail to minimize encounters with grizzlies. Once the hiking restrictions ended in September I gazed out my window at Aylmer, then down at a window of good weather forecasted on my smartphone and knew my summer had built towards this objective: tagging Aylmer from town.

There is something to be said for “town” in the context of mountain running — mostly I’ve said it here — but in essence, it provides contrast. “Town”, the seat of comfort and habitation, is Alpha to the summit’s frigid, blustery and uninhabitable Omega. At the same time, the barren summit represents challenge, growth and the exaltation of our greatest selves while the couch, cafe or office chair implies to mountaineers a stagnance that reeks stronger than death.

This year I came to appreciate diverse forms of locomotion in the mountains, particularly how a bike can be integrated with bagging peaks. Seeing only few weeks of non-winter left in the alpine, I felt like I had a choice: I could hop in the car and drive somewhere and do a gnarly ridge traverse or maybe link a couple peaks, or I could travel under my own power to a mountain I reverently stared at from my window every day, and do it faster, stronger and in a 100% human powered fashion.
ay1There’s nothing novel about bagging peaks on a bike, as Anton spent the summer rehabbing his shin by biking all over Colorado and Justin Simoni climbed the state’s 54 fourteeners in a row, pedaling in-between them. If mountain running is supposed to be about distilling mountaineering to its most minimal form, there ultimately seems something superfluous about driving a vehicle to the trailhead to do it.

My day doing an Aylmer duathlon started at seven AM with a calzone and espresso. I left the house at 7:43AM, saddling up on my aluminum framed Argon 18 roadie and riding out of town.

The ride out to Lake Minnewanka took half an hour and passed by easily and quick. I locked up my bike near the Minnewanka boat docks and started trotting. After departing the lakeshore trail and heading towards Aylmer Pass, I bellowed with greater volume and frequency than usual to warn off any grazing bears.

image

The traverse on talus below the ridge was fun as I hopped from rock to rock whilst admiring the flawless weather and listening to Sweet Valley at full blast. When Sean and I bagged this peak in June, the summit was enveloped in a dark cloud as we topped out above the avalanche gully. Today it was a hard, blue sky from one horizon to the next.

95-2 The homestretch to the summit is steep but untechnical and I slogged at a pace that was actually too hard for the altitude I was at. I repeatedly had to stop and catch my breath, reminding myself to hike slower or frustratingly redline myself every couple minutes.

I tagged the top in 3h57m, adjusted the poor wooden stick stuffed in the summit cairn and took in the scenery. “The view is pleasing but not breathtaking,” says Kane in the guidebook, but it’s pretty decent. Prairies to the east appeared like the placid surface of a lake while views westward grew into a swelling sea marked by 11,000 foot whitecaps — Assiniboine, Temple, then the Goodsirs, looking like Dracula’s castle in mountain form.

7I hung around on top for nineteen minutes then headed down, plummeting 1600 metres in a fraction of the time it took to get up there. The only complication I encountered was descending too far down the avi gulch, past the faint Aylmer Pass trail which intersects it. When the eerie feeling of, “Something doesn’t feel right,” struck, I turned myself around and marched back up the drainage for a couple minutes until I located the path.

8bThe jog back to my bike was mundane but the lake was pretty and provided a cool breeze which made things quite comfortable. I remember our run in June being sweltering on the way out and on that occasion added injury to insult by bashing the soft underside of my foot on a rock. I reached my bike in 6h20m and flew mostly downhill back to Banff Avenue and Caribou Street in 6h49m, only nine minutes longer than our trailhead-to-trailhead time when we drove there in the spring.

Now when I look out my window, Aylmer is like a friend; a neighbour that I nod to, and it nods back. My experience with this mountain was more than a fling, more than just ticking the peak in the back of the scramble book and that’s it. I had a crush on Mount Aylmer and this is how I expressed it, and I’d like to think Aylmer recognizes and respects my effort in some metaphysical way.

Next summer, I just gotta swim across that lake and make it a triathalon.

1Splits:
0h30m  Lake Minnewanka boat docks
1h31m  Aylmer Pass/Lakeshore jct
3h57m  Mount Aylmer Summit
5h31m  Aylmer Pass/Lakeshore jct
6h20m  Lake Minnewanka boat docks
6h49m  Banff (Banff Ave./Caribou St.)

50km total (20km bike/30km run) | 2127m vertical  [GPS data]

Aylmer Duathlon & Assorted Reflections

Race Report: Glacier Grind 2015

4It was a dark and stormy, err, morning. I sat inside Denny’s pondering the eternal question: shorts or tights? Shorts or tights…

I was in Revelstoke for Glacier Grind, a forty-three kilometre mountain race hosting its inaugural edition that September. The first ultramarathon to be held in a Canadian national park, the race was moved from Rogers Pass due to unusually active grizzlies in the area. The revised course scales Mount Revelstoke and climbs to Jade Pass before plummeting back to town.

The race started at seven. Runners gathered loosely and hesitantly pushed forward to form a group. It was the least energetic start to a race I’d been to — almost solemn — but I could dig it; we were all a little tired and concentrated on the challenges to come.

The course began with a 5K loop of rolling hills before earnestly cranking its way up the mountain for over a vertical kilometre. I stuck to the back of the leaders, trying not to tire myself too early; flat, fast running isn’t my strength and I hoped to catch a few people once we hit the big climb.

7I was jamming along with Vince Bouchard, Ellie Greenwood and a couple others when suddenly there was doubt whether we were going the right way.

“Guys, we’ve already been here before,” said Ellie and we all came to a halt. “We’ve already done this.” We turned around and backtracked to an ambiguously marked junction where we had made our error. Ellie, Vince and I rejoined the main pack only to try to recover the places we’d lost. After a few minutes, I was surprised to see a short European-looking guy running alongside me. Then I realized it was the race’s strongest competitor, Adam Campbell.

“I thought you were way up there,” I said, but Adam had taken the same wrong turn we had and was potentially set even further back. “How many are ahead of us?” he asked.

“I dunno, maybe ten or so” I said, admittedly disoriented since re-entering the pack. At that moment, however, we passed the lead runner and stepped into first and second place.

So began The Climb. Adam jogged up the steep incline as I hiked powerfully behind him. The pursuit proceeded into the alpine where dense forest became punctuated by isolated meadows that looked like unkempt golf greens. Adam disappeared into the mist as the inky pool of Jade Lake appeared below, rimmed by what looked like a huge crater.

8 Adam came whizzing out of clouds towards me. Having tagged the top of 2192m Jade Pass, he was now halfway done and headed for a brief sidetrip to Eva Lake before descending back to town. I continued slogging into the mist, beads of rain falling off my cap, until two dudes appeared huddled in a sleeping bag on a tiny patch of grass in the immense ocean of gray. I munched two gummies, turned around one hundred and eighty degrees and headed back the way I came.

My muscles were getting tight during the hike up there but were now in active rebellion:  calves, hamstrings and achilles all collectively teetered on the brink of seizure as I pleaded for them to cooperate. Second place finisher Matthew Fortuna came striding down behind me and we soon encountered the rest of the racers making their way uphill in the rain.

11228140_1133607019997622_7829907251956139459_oAfter leaving the checkpoint at Eva Lake, Matt and I took a wrong turn — me for the second time — descending needlessly to some lakeshore before realizing our mistake. We trotted back up the hill again, having lost no places but maybe a little momentum.

I just wanted to reach Heather Lake where a concerted descent back to town finally began. Jogging through the meadows was more troublesome for my body than going downhill and I consumed every calorie I’d brought in pursuit of relief for my cramps. At Heather Lake I filled up a bottle with electrolyte drink and departed, spotting third place finisher Mevlut Kont coming up behind me from across the pond.

3Somehow I managed to remain vertical whilst descending Lindmark, a twisting rivulet of jumbled stones half the width of singletrack, dropping precipitously beneath one’s feet. My shoes skipped from rock to rock but simply slid across the surface of each. Mevlut came barrelling down behind me as we cruised into the lush interior rainforest that is unique to Revelstoke. “This is fucking cool!” I said to my opponent, and he agreed.

The cramping in my legs had now reached its peak and the narrow trail spat us onto a paved section of the Meadows in the Sky Parkway. The moment I hit the pavement, my legs froze up and refused to run. I stood there on the road, driving thumbs into my calf with full force, yelling at my legs, “PLEASE! NO! PLEASE FUCKING RUN! PLEASE! FUCKING! RUN!” as Ellie trotted up behind me and into fourth place.

I thought my race was over, that I would be forced to hobble to the nearest convenient place to drop out. Fortunately, freefalling downhill proved easier than jogging on the flat road and I managed to continue. The dull roar of the train — so loud and harsh a presence in town — I found soothing as it grew closer. “Ah, city sounds,” I said, never liking the idea of getting out of nature more than at that precise moment.

I broke out of the trees, back into civilization, and headed straight for the museum where the race began. I tossed a glance over my shoulder and jogged towards the finish line, feeling pain blossom throughout every cell of my body… And the moment I crossed it, it was gone. I finished the race soaking wet and mildly hypothermic but my internal mantra was no longer a string of expletives mixed with prayers and supplication. I was being hugged and congratulated and chatting with strangers whom I’d played leapfrog with all morning, as though they were friends I’d bumped into at the grocery store.

Four hours, fifty-six minutes after departing the Railway Museum I finished the race in 5th place. Being competitive as an athlete is very new to me; it has always been my tendency to screw off and do my own thing rather than try to perform better than somebody else. I’ve spent most of my career simply trying to survive mountain races and have only recently tried to do well at them. However, I see my performance in races as a direct reflection of my craft; of the machine I’ve constructed, the relationship I’ve developed with the mountains. So it is with great satisfaction that the season ends with my best personal results in some of the most challenging events I’ve undertaken.

Now, coffee.

Race Report: Glacier Grind 2015

Summer’s Summit

July was a stokeworthy month: I returned from France and immediately set my concentration towards hosting our first Mountain Stride Trail Running Retreat in Kananaskis. We spent the weekend of July 12-14 running along ridges and beneath big mountain walls, sampling tasty vegan meals and chatting about all things trail running. Hardrock and Sinister 7 kept us busy spectating when we weren’t actually running or eating also.

The “wildflower” edition of our trail running retreat was hugely successful and I’m looking forward to hosting the “golden larch” edition September 11-13, 2015. Come join us!

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The weeks post running retreat were spent ascending disparate summits around Banff, all free from snow since I left to visit Ontario in early June. I bagged Edith North and ran the Cory-Edith Pass loop; Sean and I climbed Cirque Peak in a tiny window of nice weather bookended by torrential rain and blizzards; I ran up one of my favourite and most frequented summits, Bourgeau, carrying almost nothing. Mainly just my usual haunts.

The end of the month was punctuated by my buddy Sean Bradley setting a new FKT on the Banff Triple (Cascade-Rundle-Sulphur), with us planning the logistics and running the first mountain of the day together. That morning’s slog up Cascade marked me curiously questioning my performance and realizing — gee golly — that my body was really tired from the previous month and that I hadn’t truly recovered. I’d returned to Banff and ran objectives near PR pace, feeling pretty fresh, but now the race in Chamonix, fifty-plus kilometres over the weekend of our retreat, and a habit of serial peak-bagging had caught up with me until I couldn’t deny that I felt drained.

Sean on Cascade during his record-setting run of the Banff Triple:

1 6 7 8 10aI took a break, slept in for a few days, bummed around, and did stuff completely not mountain running-related. I learnt that true recovery, for me, means not only physically resting but relaxing the psychological demand for performance as well.

I spent the last two days of July skateboarding back and forth to bag a local peak, then slogging up a glaciated elevener far from home. On Thursday (30th), I finally summited Mount Cory after three previous attempts, continually shut down due to rain or time or something. On Friday (31st) Glenn and I climbed most of 3400m Mount Athabasca via the AA Col “scramble route” which we’d done previously in 2013. Athabasca is amazing — views from the top reveal a metropolis of geometric mountain forms smeared with flowing white glaciers — though the route is one of the least enjoyable I’ve encountered. Imagine sidehilling through an endless ball pit of scree and grovelling up gullies of hard ledges littered with choss on top of choss. Sounds like standard fare when it comes to scrambling in the Canadian Rockies but this was particularly bad. We gained the 3400m Silverhorn and dropped down to inspect the final snowy ridgewalk to the summit, which realistically called for ice axes and some sort of traction device, at least Microspikes, rather than the bald and shredded MT110s I happened to be wearing. Not a bad accomplishment for running shoes, however.

Mount Cory:

1 2 3 5 Mount Athabasca:

1 2 3 4 5 6 9

Summer’s Summit

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 31-June 12

6aPolishing the cutting edge of flintstone against alpine rock; riding a serrated arete between peak fitness on one hand and shattering the medium I’m working with. This is me at the climax of months of training in the Rockies, absorbing and integrating its lessons before applying it all elsewhere. My training season began way back in March but an abrupt jumpstart in vert and mileage contributed to a niggling injury in my left knee which reappears occasionally until this day. My most recent weeks have been spent mostly doing laps on Sulphur Mountain in Banff, a tamer mountain than my preference but my workouts have been more structured, consistent and measurable than ever in the past. A trip up Mount Aylmer on Wednesday provided the final dose of adventure I needed before flying off to Ontario for a week, then to Chamonix for the 80K du Mont Blanc. I’m excited to let this machine I’ve built do what it’s intended to do, then coast for the rest of the summer with the fitness I’ve developed, my concentration turned to ticking off personal projects with friends here in the Canadian Rockies.

Week-and-a-half total: 12h51m/92km/5376m

01/06/15 – Tunnel – 35m22s/7km/300m
Up and down Tunnel from home, as fast as possible. Started with a warm-up to Cave and Basin and back, then started my watch and started racing towards Tunnel. By the time I reached the upper trailhead, I knew my pace wasn’t sustainable; I was too out of breath and felt like passing out so I sullenly slowed to a jog to find some iota of recovery. My jog must have continued to be fast but I lost all intentions to push hard and break a PR, content with just tagging the top without losing consciousness along the way. Somewhere just shy of the summit, I dared to look at my watch, which was only thirty seconds or so off my PR time so I full-out sprinted up the last hill, down the rooty dip before reaching the red chairs, then clambered up the slabs to the summit, finding it busy, and immediately dropped off and down for a fast round-trip time. 35min makes that a new round-trip personal best.

IMAG805503/06/15 –  Sulphur Double Crossing – 3h37m/35km/1900m
A pretty demanding run that started out cruisy and resulted in me knocking an hour off a routine 35km/1900m objective. Ran up the front, down the back; up the back, down the front. I am truly getting a little bored of spending all my time on Sulphur when there are so many other peaks coming into shape, but the weather was somewhat threatening this morning and this is probably where I needed to be today, sharpening up splits and racing habits, not frolicking on some random peak that is “more alpine” in character. The initial jog up the frontside of Sulphur was an absolute breeze — I tried to cruise along rather than push, and my relatively quick speed is evidence of speed workouts increasing my overall pace and decreasing my exertion. I tried to concentrate on not stopping, fuelling consistently and eating while running. I felt pretty punished by the end of the final 900m freefall from the top of Sulphur to Bow Falls but will take that as part of the pace required to knock over an hour off this objective. It was only in the last couple years that it would take me almost the same amount of time to go up and down Sulphur once that it now takes me to do it twice.

Splits:
1h14m    Sanson’s Peak
1h40m    Sundance Canyon junction
2h43m    Sanson’s Peak
3h14m    Bow Falls
3h37m    Home

IMAG817205/06/15 – Sulphur (summits 2, 3, 4, 5) – 1h59m/19km/1200m
Messing around along Sulphur’s ridge today. Headed out on my bike to check out Cory Pass but rode for only a couple minutes before I realized my rear tire was flat. Took the bus up to the Hot Springs, dropped off work stuff, then jogged up the front of Sulphur to the gondi station (S2) and started working back towards some of the other summits. Although my legs were super tired from the previous day, once on the ridge I sprinted and scampered my way up slabs, reveling in the batteredness of my body. Reached S4, my goal for the day, looked out towards S5 and couldn’t turn it down. Tagged S5, took some pics, then headed back, tiptoeing along fractured ridgeline, bombing down the saddles and slogging exhaustedly back up the summits. My quads were pooched on the descent, but I was somehow able to relish that feeling of overall fatigue and recognize the benefits I’ll reap from continuing to push when so tired. Descended back to the Upper Hot Springs and hastily constructed a delicious sandwich.

IMAG8067 IMAG8127 IMAG814010/06/15 – Aylmer – 6h40m/31km/1976m
A mighty unicorn slain. The way some people in Banff look upon peaks like Cascade and Rundle, that’s how I look at Aylmer. Just out of town, it rises high above everything around it and possesses a long approach trail frequented by berry-hungry Grizzlies. It has long been on my list of peaks to bag and I have gazed upon its prominent summit from my window for over a year now.

The initial gameplan for today was to do something far more training-specific: I intended to do a variation on the Canmore Triple Crown as a final preparation for my race in Chamonix, slogging lots of steep vertical and continuing to sharpen my ascent/descent splits. However, at the back of my mind, I needed something more alpine, more epic before leaving for Ontario, though I hadn’t overtly articulated these thoughts to myself yet. Yesterday I took a cab to work and the driver said that if he hadn’t been working, he’d be over there, climbing that thing, Mount Aylmer. Aylmer looked so sexy draped in clouds that morning, and the conversation with the cab driver seemed so meaningful, that I immediately texted Sean (who was joining me from Edmonton): “Change of plans. I need to do something more epic. Like this “. Sean had zero problems with the revised scheme and I knew he wouldn’t. After switching the plan, I felt an immediate sense of relief and enthusiasm.

Sean and I woke just after six though the sun had rose a half hour earlier. We made coffee, hit up Wildflour for snacks then drove to the trailhead, starting at 8:19 AM. The jog along the lakeshore trail was cruisy as we hooted and hollered our heads off to ward off grizzlies. The rest of the climb was uneventful save for some of the worst scree I’ve ever encountered, which took us an enormous amount of effort to ascend and later bombed down at terminal velocity in a fraction of the time. The views from the summit were impressive though I’d read somewhere they wouldn’t be, with many snow-clad 11,000ers visible along the horizon to the west. The valleys of the Ghost Wilderness area were lush and green. And the prairies were brooding with dark storm clouds.

We didn’t spend long on the top, skiing down fine scree with grace at times, and narrowly dodging broken ankles or necks at others. The run out was disproportionately tough — maybe because it was so hot or maybe because of the effort we spent climbing 50-degree scree earlier — but was made worse by a tactical rock strike to the underside of my foot, which was pretty tender and sore and still is. At any rate, I’m glad I did something like this that really engaged me mentally and made me exercise some mountaineering sense, and expanded my heart with stoke with a fresh ascent on a big peak, rather than doing a really long and boring workout. Arguable which would have been more advantageous but I definitely don’t feel like I lost — and definitively feel like I gained — something from our trip today.

Splits:
0h50m    Aylmer Pass junction
1h40m    Ascent gully junction
4h02m    Summit
5h13m    Ascent gully junction
5h46m    Aylmer Pass junction
6h40m    Lake Minnewanka parking lot

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Scree Sessions: May 31-June 12

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 10-23

Eroding resistance between me and the mountains; occupying my mind with the passage of the wind; leaving my humanity hanging on the trailhead sign and becoming nothing other than the movement of my limbs, the sound of my breath and the patter of my feet. What the previous weeks have lacked in gnarly sufferfests, they have made up for with lots of hard breathing, sunburns, slogging, scrambling and loving life. While I feel the need for a “big day” soon (i.e. <3000m of vert), I can’t be upset with where my current level of tan — I mean, fitness — is at. Running up to 40km and climbing 2500m has become almost mundane and I feel myself transforming into some sort of mountain ungulate, channeling the spirit of my inner chamois. Hopefully the coming weeks see a couple massive days before I fly to Ontario and then taper for my petite jog around Chamonix the week after that.

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05/11/15 – Tunnel x 2 – 38m58s/7km/320m | 1h07m/7.5km/320m
Up and down Tunnel from my house and back, twice. First lap fast, second lap casual. Ate a ton of yummy Singapore egg noodles right before running and it felt like I was going to poop my pants the entire time. Also, I wore my bald New Balance 1400s, which is a pretty novel concept for me, but they were really comfy and enjoyable. The first lap was a PB to the summit and back (21m to summit, 38m home), which was the objective, to push hard anaerobically and beat my previous time. I got home in such egg noodle-induced misery that I said one lap was enough, but after literally a minute or two I decided I was game for a second outing. So I switched my shirt, trotted across town, got my ass back up the mountain, took a bunch of pics (the sunset now even more sunsetty and alpenglowy than the first time), then descended yet again in diminishing light. It seemed the egg noodle demon burrowed its way even deeper into my gut and the run from the lower parking area/trailhead to home was downright painful. Fast and very pretty but uncomfortable.

IMAG721513/05/15 – Tunnel – 50m33s/5.5km/368m
From home, ran up the SW shoulder to the summit, then down some goatpath on the north of the mountain which I intended to take me more directly down its north ridge to Tunnel Mountain Drive but took me pretty much staight down from the saddle to the first switchback of the main trail. Okay, I’ll take it. Great running on the approach along the exposed (literally — you trip, you die) singletrack paralleling Buffalo Street going up to the Banff Centre, with 100m of sheer drop to the whitewater of the Bow River below on your right. This is trail I used to run often when I worked at the Banff Centre which definitely forces you to concentrate on your footing. I caught the SW goatpath up Tunnel and jogged much of it, then slogged sweatily to the top. Tagged the top then pleasantly got lost on the descent and pretty much skiied scree down to the start of the main trail, where I burst out of the bushes half-clothed amid a gang of elderly, picture-taking tourists. Bombed the trail back to town and retrieved passport pics in preparation for going to EUROPEEEEEEEEE.

IMAG729214/05/15 – Sulphur Double-Crossing – 4h47m/~35km/1900m
Big Sulphur “tick-tock”: From home, ran up the back, tagged Sanson’s, descended the front to the confluence of the Bow and Spray Rivers (i.e. Bow Falls) then ran back up the front to Sanson’s and down the back of the mountain to my apartment. It was pretty poor weather outside so it was easy to stick close to home today. This is the sorta thing (LSD) I said I wouldn’t do again any time soon but today’s run served the specific purpose of instilling streamlinedness to my longer efforts; to focus single-mindedly on forward/upward travel until I hit the summit, then taking a few seconds to recover mentally and dropping like a stone back down, whilst trying to utilize the descent to continue to experience some degree of recovery. Hit the bottom; recover quick; then back up again. It’s easy on big hill repeats (CCC for example) to waste minutes amounting to hours during breaks at the top or bottom relishing the comforts of not moving. I’m specifically trying to break the desire to lollygag, procrastinate, linger, take pictures, eat more than I have to, screw around in my backpack, sit on a rock with my head in my hands questioning life, or the desire to simply curl up on the ground and go to sleep indefinitely, and just get on with it.

Where the Bow and Spray Rivers meet. Also the lowest closest place from the top of Sulphur, seen on left.

Today’s run featured a few near-mystical moments on both the uphill and downhill, literally losing consciousness of “myself” and becoming only my experience of the wind passing my body, the sound of my feet hitting the ground or my hands occasionally gliding into my visual space. Thoughts like, “Tom’s tired” or “Tom’s thirsty” would bring me back to the reality of burning muscles, hard breathing, sweat and fatigue.

IMAG731415/05/15 – Tunnel – 37m/7km/320m
Up and down Tunnel from home in bald 1400s. Aiming to break my previous PR, which I matched on the ascent to the specific second (21m30s). Meant to turn right around and freefall back to town (even though I was dying) but got caught chatting and taking pictures for some girl on the summit visiting Banff. The backside of Tunnel Mountain is closed right now due to a grizzly munching on an elk carcass, prohibiting me from doing a loop around the back of the mountain, if I wanted to do that sort of thing. Today’s objective was simply up and down, as fast as possible. I flew back down to town and sprinted to my apartment in a definite round-trip PR in 37m30s.

Weekly total: 7h59m/62km/3228m


matt118/05/15 – Tunnel – ~1hr/7km/320m
Up and down the main trail with my buddy Matt Wade, who used to live and work at the climbing gym in Banff but now lives in Saskatoon — boggles the mind, I know, but soon (10+ years) he’ll be a brain surgeon. At any rate, I jogged up to the Banff Centre to meet him, then we powerhiked to the top and descended quickly back down. I did a bunch of cool runs with him in the summer of 2013, namely the Cory-Edith Loop with a scramble up the north peak of Edith. I think he’s trying to make it out to Golden Ultra in September, hence trying to get more vert in his running diet.

IMAG740319/05/15 – Tunnel x3 – 1h56m/14.5km/857m
I’m not sure why I thought this would be a good idea, but proved to be a banal but pleasant evening accumulating vert on a tiny mountain. I reasoned that I needed to work on repeats, specifically getting used to the feeling of climbing after descending. I can slog 2000 vertical metres in one go, no problem. But break that into 500m ascent/descent repeats and guaranteed my legs are gonna feel extra pooched on the final laps — the difficulty seems improportinate. Three 300m repeats on Tunnel doesn’t really make a dent, sad to say. I set out feeling stiff and my knee felt wonky and I was doubtful about the practicality of the outing. By the end, having slogged and descended 900m, I said to myself that I simply felt “normal”, i.e. no longer stiff, but warmed up and a little fatigued. You know, “normal”. This run didn’t push my limits in any way but served up 900m of vert without detriment on a pretty night. Plus it provided heaps of comic relief/bewilderment for other people hiking up the mountain as they watched me whiz back and forth. Probably won’t be doing this again :S

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20/05/15 – Birthday Hike: Stanley Glacier – 3h25m/12km/401m
A heartwarming birthday hike (for me!) with peeps from work. I can’t remember the last time this many of us got together outside of work, besides maybe once or twice in the bar… We hiked up to Stanley Glacier viewpoint. Highlights include rockfall hitting and exploding chunks ice and snow off the headwall (!!!); big, wet cliffs and wispy waterfalls; sunburns; amazing views of sunbaked spring snow coating big alpine pinnacles; lots of jokes and laughter and lotsa mud on the way out. A stellar summery day doing easy hiking with friends in a beautiful mountain location.

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21/05/15 – Sulphur Traverse – 6h13m/30km/1946m
I’ve been waiting for this for awhile, for the ridge linking Sulphur’s boring “tourist” summits with its more scrambly, rarely-explored western ones to thaw free of snow. There was never enough snow to ski beyond the gondi station this winter, and post-holing isn’t my style, so I’ve waited till now for my go-to, backyard mountain to become a little more interesting.

Today was a day I desperately needed: to be out getting sunburnt, with my hands gripping talus and the wind in my hair. Personally I’d grown irritable seeing all the snow melting off the surrounding peaks and not foreseeing a chance to get out and bag something, until the opportunity arose and I seized it.

I headed out and jogged up Mountain Ave. towards the trailhead to get to the mountain and into the alpine as fast as possible today. Jogged and slogged to the top, refilled my water, then immediately sprinted out towards Sulphur’s next summit to the south (S3). I got there in quick time (1h30m), then tagged the next summit, and the next one (highest point, 2476m), the only variations being the scrambling on each and routefinding through the trees on the saddles between each peak. I hit S4 in 2h30m then proceeded to the next by 3h10m. Took a bunch of pics then headed back in lollygagging, stopping-to-take-pictures-of-everything-again fashion until my phone died. Hit Sulphur’s upper gondola summit at 5h22m, a little put-off by the noise of chattering tourists while having just spent a few  hours listening to the wind and sound of my shoes crunching scree. And Thee Oh Sees, at times. Tagged Sanson’s, then bombed down the fireroad without stopping, arriving at the Sundance Canyon junction in just over twenty minutes. I clicked off the final flat run to my place at a decent pace despite feeling pretty beat up — deliciously so. An awesome route on a mountain literally in my backyard, with lots of quality third-class scrambling and talus-scampering. Booyah.

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22/05/15 – Heart – 1h24m/6km/760m
Up and down Heart Mountain fast to christen new running toys with blood, sweat and scree dust. I had to drive to Calgary to do passport stuff and stopped at The Tech Shop on 4th Ave on my way out of town. Running-specific shops are hard enough to come by, but ones carrying the kind of stuff that caters to finicky ultra/trail runners is an even less common find. I picked me up a pair of New Balance MT110s (the original version!) — a coveted trail sneaker I wore frequently in 2013 but have had difficulty finding since then — and a Salomon Sense 1L vest. These items will hopefully support me through summer 2015 and get me through the race in Chamonix next month.

I tried to pick a peak close to the highway that I could summit in the quickest time possible and Heart is like a forty-degree ramp of scree-covered slab rising into the sky. The ascent was a sweltering march hands-on-thighs, sweat pouring off my face, while the descent was loose, slidy and hardly in control. Scree-on-slab = the most treacherous type of terrain. My footing in the new 110s was spot-on although my legs were trashed from bombing down the Sulphur fireroad the day previous.

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Me in a Salomon vest: unprecedented.

Weekly total: 13h34m/69km/4284m

Scree Sessions: May 10-23

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