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

Scree Sessions: April 26-May 2

A return to running regularly after spending the month of April initially injuring myself, then recovering from that injury. Conditions in the valley have been mixed — days of blazing sun, others of blizzards and rain. Just spring in the mountains, I suppose. With six weeks until I leave for Ontario (for a wedding) and eight until the Mont Blanc 80K, I feel poised to tackle some pretty dense training over the following month while remaining cautious not to overdo it, either. I’d like to think the base fitness is there for me to slog endlessly through the hills; the best results will now come from sharpening a few particular skills. Six weeks of premature summer is the perfect amount of time to do that.

Weekly total: 9h53m/78km/4339m

IMAG645504/27/15 – Tunnel – 35min/6km/300m
Up and down Tunnel from home, then downtown for sushi. Aiming to push hard and get a fast time, at least on the ascent: 23m48s to summit, 14min to Sushi Bistro.

04/28/15 – Tunnel – 43min/7km/340m
Up and down Tunnel from home. Wasn’t aiming to go fast but rather to feel effortless and comfortable. That being said, I’m not sure if I felt any more comfortable than yesterday although I was exerting myself less. I think my legs still felt the impact from yesterday’s sprint. Not much slower than yesterday, though: 25min to summit, 19min to home.

IMAG647804/30/15 – Ha Ling – 2h53m/19km/1311m
Took me a while to figure out what to do this morning. Took the bus to Canmore and ran up Ha Ling from town. Not a particularly notable trip except that I felt pretty good and never felt like I was pushing too hard — compare with my previous ascent of Ha Ling, last Thursday. I tentatively planned on doing a Ha Ling/East-Rundle double-bag but it looked like a sheet of bad weather was heading toward me and I wasn’t keen on getting hammered by rain whilst in the alpine (some days I’m down for that sort of thing). Ran back to town via the Grassi Lakes and powerline cut-line trails.

IMAG656005/01/15 – Sulphur Loop – 2h38m/20km/1077m
Up the back, down the front, from home. I don’t remember the last time I ran every step up the back of this mountain (if I ever have) but today I did. Tagged the Ray Station on Sanson’s Peak then descended down the front, which is drying out nicely. One could probably get away without Microspikes nowadays. Descended through forest to the Fairmont castle then took some sort of horse trail (I hate horse trails) which spat me out at Middle Springs. Continued to link up trail rather than run on the road, descending quickly down the forested back of Middle Springs to Cave Ave. and thence to my apartment.

Sidenote: One thing I’ve learned about myself from running is that I don’t interpret my fueling needs accurately and often associate the need for fuel with uncertainty of challenge or exertion or stressful conditions, as opposed to actual nutritional demand. That is, if I’m not sure how far I’m going to have to go, how hard I’m going to have to push, the challenges I’ll face, I’ll often feel the need to fuel which I genuinely interpret as hungriness. The moment I return to a place of psychological comfort or certainty, the feeling that I need to fuel, am hungry or am even about to bonk all fade and I am left feeling either actually hungry irrespective of my mental state (“Who cares? I’m home”) or not actually hungry or depleted at all.

IMAG658202/05/15 – Tunnel + Sulphur Loop – 3h04m/26km/1311m
A decent-sized run, longer than originally planned, that illustrates well the deranged manner in which my psyche operates when it comes to motivation in the mountains. I left the house intending to do the exact same trip as yesterday but upon arriving at the Cave and Basin (~1km from my apartment), I stopped and marvelled at a wall of snow squall rushing over the top of Sulphur and up the Bow Valley toward me. As I was carrying almost nothing, I wasn’t in the mood to get hammered by flurries for an hour in shorts and a t-shirt on the exposed western side of Sulphur. I turned around and decided to stick closer to home and do something creative on Tunnel instead.

I headed up Tunnel and (of course) as I neared the top I saw the snowstorm beginning to clear over Sulphur. I felt so tricked and deceived by the weather that I decided that I would go bag Sulphur anyway, just out of spite. So I chomped half a Builder Bar on the top of Tunnel and swiftly descended back down to town, across the river, up behind the Fairmont castle and up the Sulphur Mountain trail. The run was pretty cruisy and in fact almost entirely running — err, jogging anyway — as opposed to the slogging I expected to resort to after a series of vertical-heavy days.

I scarfed the second half of my Builder Bar in the upper gondola terminal while warming my hands on my glutes, then sprinted out, tagged the Ray Station on Sanson’s Peak, descended the back of the mountain to the Cave and Basin, then to my apartment. When I returned to the Cave and Basin, I stopped and looked back up the valley just like three hours prior — this time with sunny skies — and asked, “What the hell just happened?” A Sulphur loop of logic.

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Scree Sessions: April 26-May 2

Scree Sessions: April 19-25

This week saw a return to running comfortably again as well as slogging some big vert after avoiding that specific activity for the past couple weeks. This week was fun and the warm, summer-like temperatures made the notion of getting outside pretty seductive. The latter part of my last long run reintroduced me to the delectably miserable side of ultrarunning. Me and it should get together more often; it’s been too long. Weekly total: 53km/3440m.

IMAG637404/20/15 – Tunnel – 51min/7km/340m
Up and down Tunnel from home after work. Summer weather. Felt strong on my uphills though a perceptible tightness in my left knee. Leaning into the first hills after crossing the bridge felt delicious and brought a smile to my face. Spent a few minutes taking pics at the top then descended with usual reckless abandon. Good to feel “back”. Considered doing a loop around Tunnel but as I’d brought no water and was already sweaty and parched, decided to run home. 27 mins to summit; 24 mins home.

11133971_372020733003903_5870013516336235548_o04/21/15 – Tunnel x2 – 9km/500m? (watch wasn’t charged)
Another glorious summer day in April. Powerhiked Tunnel with Glenn, descended fast to lower trailhead, then parted ways and ran back up fairly quickly. Spent zero time at the summit, simply tagged the top and descended again in freefall mode knowing the descent would be interesting because I was out of breath and tired. Ran back down most of the trail until I caught up with my buddy Bre-dog and her friend and I strolled with them back to the lower trailhead. Fast splits on my second run. A bit of tightness across my left knee but more of a superficial sensation and unlike what I was dealing with a couple weeks ago.

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04/23/15 – Lady Mac + Ha Ling – 6h13m/37km/2613m
A long day out, very tiring. Did a “rim to rim” of Canmore, parking my car at Elevation Place then running up Lady Mac on one side of the valley, then Ha Ling on the other. The ascent of Lady Mac was pretty strong and streamlined given I haven’t climbed anything other than Tunnel for a couple weeks. The whole experience on Lady Mac was incredibly smooth, including the awkward scramble up the final stretch to the summit ridge (one of my least favourite bits of mountain, anywhere). I just stuck to solid rock ribs and was on the ridge in less time than I remember. No true summit for me today; the knife-edge ridge was way too gusty for my liking. The descent back down Lady Mac was as quick and streamlined as the climb, save for losing my phone for five minutes and spending another five talking to a local mountain-running dude.

Taking on Ha Ling was a labored effort. The jaunt across town wasn’t so bad; and while jogging up to Grassi Lakes and slogging through the climbing area, I was tired, but still game to take on the mountain. Once I started heading up Ha Ling, however, I felt the effort: my breathing and pulse were much higher than normal, my muscles burned, and I honestly thought I wouldn’t make it to the top. I kept telling myself I wouldn’t make it to the top as I continued to slog, passing people, and soon broke out of treeline and gained the col. No turning back now. I tagged the top, took some pictures, then rigidly stumbled back down the mountain. Running back to my car from the Ha Ling trailhead was a death march. I was probably slightly bonked but too stubborn to take my pack off and eat another boring bar. Glad I pulled off the true “Rim to Rim”. Also probably my single biggest vert day this year on the heels of a few weeks of little vert.

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^Peep GPS data for this trip here.

Scree Sessions: April 19-25

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

Scree Sessions: March 21-27

Continuing with drastic increases in mileage and vert this week to no apparent detriment. I obviously don’t understand the concept of gradually increasing one’s volume; my strategy is rather to panic about a race and start slogging my face off like there’s no tomorrow. So much for the 20km/1000m “rut” I found myself in a couple weeks back; the last few outings have proven that I haven’t lost much of the skill or strength I had going into CCC last summer, and in retrospect I was extremely well prepared for that event, despite my laissez-faire approach. A co-worker and I were discussing the value of things like VO2max and lactate threshold and concluded that it’s easy to make running too complicated for oneself. Running can be as simple or complicated as one wishes — as minimalist as striking out in a pair of sneakers — however, I’ve spent several seasons doing just that and am now looking to get the best performance possible out of this scrawny slogging machine.

Weekly total: 13h53m/94km/5284m

tunnelle303/22/15 – Tunnel/Hoodoos loop – 2h41m/16km/484m
My easy day. Met Glenn at the Tunnel TH and slogged it to the top. Took a few pics, descended and looped around back then booted out to the Hoodoos viewpoint. Ran back, dropped down towards the river and completed a loop around Tunnel with our headlamps on. Ran to The Banff Centre, fist bumped, then went our respective ways.

3x03/25/15 – Sulphur x2 + Tunnel/Hoodoos/Tunnel -7h13m/49km/2400m
Had plans to hit up the false peak of Cascade Mountain this morning but the weather remained in a gray, misty state which didn’t make me feel like spending much time above 2500m. I opted to slog up the backside of Sulphur to the top then descended the frontside down to the trailhead where I filled up water at the Hot Springs and headed back the way I came. Ran back up the frontside of Sulphur to the top where I was greeted by a rescue helicopter evacuating even more people who had strayed from the icy trail and gotten lost and cold (this is becoming a weekly occurance on this mountain). I pounded a Builder Bar and sprinted back down the soft yet sufficiently packed snow on the back of the mountain, then home to my apartment.
I switched my sneakers then headed out towards Tunnel, ascending the main trail to the top and descending the precariously steep and forested north shoulder past Tunnel Mountain Rd. to Otter St., then booted out to the Hoodoos viewpoint. Although feeling surprisingly fresh, I was aware of a lack of food in my stomach (or in my bag, for that matter), so I turned around and descended into the Bow River valley, caught the start of the loose goatpath up the SW shoulder of Tunnel, slogged to the top once again, and now definitively famished, stumbled down the main trail with a headlamp on and raced home to make a grilled cheese.

SULFERPANO03/27/15 – Sulphur “Tick Tock” – 3h59m/29km/1850m
Ran up to the Sulphur TH, dropped off work clothes at the Hot Springs then jogged up the frontside and tagged Sanson’s Peak. Dropped down the back of the mountain, careening through soft, deep snow with overgrown shrubs snapping at me, to the Sundance Canyon junction, then turned around and reascended slightly softer snow to the top and descended the frontside to work. A beautiful day — the warmest yet this year 🙂

Scree Sessions: March 21-27

Scree Sessions: March 12-20

Turning up the volume and reducing the velocity: that’s been the theme of this week. My mindset has shifted to training more concertedly for the demands of the Mont Blanc 80K which is three months away. Lately I’d been stuck in a rut – of only running ~20km and climbing ~1000m during my “long runs” – which I’m glad I broke free from this week with a sufferfest up Rundle followed by Sulphur. Conditions remain unseasonably mild and relatively dry and springlike, save for a recent powder day which made my ascent of Rundle a little more tiring than usual. Weekly total: 83km/4889m vert

03/12/15 – Sulphur – 1h54m/18.4km/870m
Super fast splits; quickish to TH (24m); then, didn’t seem fast but must have been steady and consistent to summit (44m); then a fairly short break on top (4m); then a steady sprint down the trail and back to my apartment (42m). Felt great pre-run as I’d taken the previous couple days off to rest tight ITBs and felt elated afterwards.

03/13/15 – Grotto – 2h11m/6.6km/860m
Should have done nothing, or cross-trained, but took the opportunity to drive to Canmore and scope out the direct trail up Grotto Mountain, which I’ve never done before. It felt cold leaving the car in my short shorts but was soon slogging shirtless up the steep singletrack. The lower part of the trail was good, the upper part was very loose and braided and a combination of factors sent me the signal that today wasn’t the day to bag the summit. I cut my losses and headed down. Loose subalpine terrain like that is fun (or whatever) but not very conducive for race training purposes as I don’t expect to encounter trail (or lack thereof) like that in Chamonix this summer or anywhere else.

Screen shot 2015-03-21 at 10.12.58 AM03/18/15 – Rundle + Sulphur – 7h14m/39km/2400m
Ran up Rundle trail from home and postholed up the Dragon’s Back to the summit. Snapped a few pics, slammed my knee on a rock buried under deep snow, then stumbled back down the ridge and headed home. Switched into dry shoes and headed up Sulphur. Sulphur slog was labored to say the least. My longest run and most vertical yet this year. Peep the Movescount data for this trip here.

IMAG568103/20/15 – Tunnel/Hoodoos/Tunnel – 2h29m/19km/759m
Ran up Tunnel via main trail, descended and swung around back and ran rolling singletrack along the bench to Hoodoos viewpoint. Then ran back, dropped down toward the river and caught the start of the loose, steep goatpath that ascends Tunnel’s southwest shoulder. Pounded it hands-on-knees to the top, then descended via the main trail back to town and thence to my apartment.

Scree Sessions: March 12-20

Race Report: CCC 2014

In August of 2014, I ran and completed CCC, a 101km ultramarathon through the mountains of Italy, Switzerland and France. This race is part of the week-long Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc, one of the most popular and prestigious long distance trail-running series in the world. This is my report.

Kicking into high gear after exiting Arnuva at km27, about to start the climb up to 2500m Grand Col Ferret.

I come rushing in from the dripping rain, grab a bowl of chicken soup and slump onto a wooden bench. I’m cold and wet, tired as shit, and mud is smeared all over the place. It’s been raining for several hours and the trails have turned into little brown creeks burbling down the hillsides. Cows graze silently sentinel to hundreds of headlamped coureurs traversing the ridges surrounding Chamonix, its warmth and comfort radiating upwards from the valley below. I really don’t feel like going back out there, but I’m so close to being done.

“One more climb, eight hundred metres. Then 10K down into town. How hard could it be?”

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What possessed me to run 100km around this stupid mountain?

Race day started August 29, 2014 at 7:30am with a flurry of organized transport: first I took a city bus from Taconnaz — a neighbourhood on the outskirts of Chamonix where I was staying — downtown, then a coach to Courmayeur, Italy. The ride was short and mostly spent inside a tunnel beneath the Mont Blanc massive, this being the primary thoroughfare between these two mountain villages. The bus emerged into the Italian dawn and switchbacked down the hill as I peered around wide-eyed and unthinking, just taking in the enormity of my experience. “You’re here, at CCC, the big race,” I said to myself. “You should be so proud. All that preparation. All that training…”

Holy fuck. 100 kilometres? 6000 metres of climbing? What the hell did I get myself into?”

I was genuinely concerned with this most fundamental realization as the bus stopped and I got up like everyone else and marched toward the starting area. The energy was intense — more like some kind of dance music festival than the start of a footrace — with booming loudspeakers; announcers and spectators chattering in various languages; news helicopters high in the air and little quadcopters hovering over our heads. The starting line was supposed to be organized by bib number, but there were so many runners and so much activity, I picked a spot halfway in the pack and snuck in. Since my confidence had apparently evaporated during the busride from Chamonix to Courmayeur, my strategy for the present was to run conservatively, run my own race, and not worry about my position or that of anyone around me.

Once the UTMB themesong, Vangelis’ Conquest of Paradise, started to play, a warm feeling welled up inside. I lowered my shades and tried to hide the little tears in my eyes. The stoke was so high it was electric.

Three, two, one…

“Yeah, I visited Courmayeur once. Took a bus there, spent twenty minutes loitering then ran off into the hills…”

I trotted through the streets of Courmayeur amid an international array of fifteen-hundred ultramarathoners, my aim being generally not to run too fast. It was inspiring to see so many locals out lining the streets, shouting, “Venga, venga! Bravo!”, clanging cattlebells of all sizes and even old bakery ladies slapping breadknives against their cutting boards. We didn’t spend long in town, however, before departing cozy Courmayeur and beginning the first climb of the day up to Tete de la Tronche.

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“Procession” is the word which characterized the first climb of the day up Tete de la Tronche.

Here I was rather rudely awakened as over a thousand runners attempted to bottleneck onto the first bits of singletrack trail that this race utilizes in great quantity. “Procession” is the word which characterized the first part of this race as we slowly plodded or sometimes stood at a standstill in a long queue switchbacking up the hill. Though confused, I was equally content to trickle up the first climb of the day at this snail’s pace while, looking back, what took us over two hours should have taken less than half that time and only resulted in me being out there longer, at nighttime, when I was tired and when it was raining. Lesson learned.

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Top of Tete de la Tronche: this is what UTMB was all about.

Once we reached the top of Tete de la Tronche, the procession opened up and we skirted across wide open ridges with the Italian Aosta Valley falling away to our lefts and a storm-shrouded Mont Blanc brooding to our rights. This is what UTMB was all about. This is why I wanted to run this race in the first place. This is why I came here, to run some motherfuckin’ singletrack on some motherfuckin’ ridge in the sky with some bigass motherfuckin’ mountains in the background.

Hells yeah.

"All You Can Eat buffet"
“All You Can Eat buffet” — I mean, “Aid Station”.

We descended into Refuge Bertone where I was pleased to discover that what’s called an “aid station” in Europe is actually what we refer to as an “all-you-can-eat buffet” in North America. Cheese, crackers, fresh bread, cookies, nutrition bars, dried meat, soup, chocolate, coffee, tea and more were all for the taking by the hungry runner. Thus, I generally spent way too long in these absurdly comfortable aid stations. Second lesson learned: don’t get distracted by the munchies, Tom!

Peace, Italy! Onwards to Switzerland.

After Bertone, we began the long, undulating traverse along the Italian flank of Mont Blanc east towards 2500m Grand Col Ferret, Italy’s border with Switzerland. Without any sustained climbs, it was pleasant to cruise along and enjoy the improving scenery and weather. There were lots of enthusiastic spectators throughout every part of this fairly remote course, but as I descended toward Arnuva I passed one who stood out. A little girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, with blond ringlets cheered, “Allez! Allez, Tom!” and nonchalantly gave me a high-five as I passed. This moment infused me with emotion — for little kids getting stoked about mountain, even endurance, sports is inspiring — and I continued to milk it for motivation throughout the rest of the race.

Marching towards Arnuva.
Wow, horrible scenery!

Leaving Arnuva, we began the long slog up to 2500m Grand Col Ferret, one of the highest points in the race. I sprinted along the river flats and soon encountered people struggling to ascend the (only) second climb of the day. I trotted up the moderate grade at a pace I might employ on Tunnel or Sulphur Mountains in Banff — hills I run in entirety — then put hands to knees and powerhiked, passing a couple hundred resentful runners along the way. The masochistic quantities of vert I’d put into my body over the summer had prepared me, and standing on top of the high pass overlooking Italian Val d’Aoste on one side and Swiss Valais on the other, I felt fresh and unfazed.

Looking back towards Courmayeur and the direction we came from.
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Slogging up Grand Col Ferret.
Top of Grand Col Ferret.

Surprised as I was to see people struggling up the col, I was equally surprised to see others hesitant to move quickly down its extremely runnable backside toward La Fouly. It was here that I experienced my only bout of stomach upset, bolting down a hard-packed gravel trail with me and everything inside me (including a lot of gel) being repeatedly hammered by freefall and then impact. I clasped my fingers and pleaded; looked skywards to the ultrarunning gods and prayed for them to save me. Then as fast as it came, my nausea retreated and it was back to snapping pics and putting one foot in front of the other, in that order.

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Swiss Valais, en route to La Fouly.

Leaving Champex, it began to get dark. The temperature was warm but it was drizzling so I made the (perhaps absurd) decision to remove my damp singlet and wear my Gore-Tex shell with no shirt underneath. I did this to preserve my still dry midlayer shirt which I would surely need later when it became colder and wetter. As can be imagined, soon I was damp on the outside with rain and literally dripping with sweat inside my shell, so the waterproof quality of my ~$500 jacket was more or less nullified. Since the race, I’ve reflected on this decision which made me very uncomfortable for the next few hours but ensured I wouldn’t be hypothermic and unable to finish later on.

IMAG1690The sun set as we started the march up to Bovine. No one who has not run a UTMB race — or at least run around these hills after dark — can understand the horror inherent in greeting enormous, munching cow faces grotesquely illuminated by one’s headlamp. The mood was spooky, like some sort of zombie film, with thick mist hanging over the damp soil which hundreds of trail-running sneakers tilled with squishy fart sounds each footstep.

The trail was profoundly wet and rivulets of muddy water followed the path of least resistance wherever it could be found. My descent into Trient thus took on a form of locomotion closer to downhill skiing, or sliding into home-base, than running by any means.

My shoes hit cobblestone and I jogged toward the aid station when I heard someone shout my name. On this side of the world, there was only one person who knew me or my name and I was stoked to see him. Louis Marino, in whose flat I was staying in Chamonix, had been leading a multiday tour around Mont Blanc, and after his clients had wined and dined he waited around in the rain to catch me without knowing for sure that he would.

TOM_CHAMPEX
I couldn’t tell you where this picture was taken, but I still look clean and happy so it couldn’t have been very far into the race.

I stopped and talked with Louis and some drunken farmer (for these aid-stations were lively social events for locals who lived in the semi-remote pastures) while simultaneously toweling dry the inside of my jacket and donning the midlayer shirt I’d preserved until now.

Louis asked how I was feeling and I had to admit I was feeling fine. “Fine?” he said with some skepticism. Not even a little tweak? Strain? Sore spot? He surely wondered which form of hard drug I’d been abusing to get me through this race. Meth? Maybe crack. It was uncanny, and I recognized this, but I felt okay. I was cold, wet, mentally tired and, sure, physically fatigued but for all intents and purposes I felt fine.

“DO WE HAVE A TOM AMARAL IN THE CROWD?” I then heard over the loudspeakers.

For the second time in twenty minutes, my head perked up like a deer in highbeams. Apparently, two people in Europe knew my name. I lifted my hand sheepishly.

“HEY TOM, THIS ONE IS FOR YOU!” said the announcer, then this came on:

The aid tent at Vallorcine was total and utter carnage, with runners sprawled everywhere… Some were slumped head down on the tables surrounded by food from the checkpoint, clearly having lost the battle against tiredness. — Hong Kong Trail Runner

Around 1:30am, I ripped down into Vallorcine like some sort of crazed mountain-running automaton, grabbed a bowl of chicken soup and slumped down onto a wooden bench. I crushed one bowl of soup, then another, shivering, still dressed in shorts. There was only a comparatively small amount left in the race. From here, I had an 850m climb to the top of Tete aux Vents on the Aiguilles Rouges then an eleven kilometre descent into downtown Chamonix. Eight-hundred metres is nothing, I reasoned. I can climb eight-hundred metres in my sleep. In the peak of summer, if I only climb eight hundred metres in a day, I come home all depressed and bummed because I only climbed eight-hundred metres that day. But this climb was the CLIMB FROM HELL.

The stumble up Tete aux Vents/Flegere was hideous. There was a lot of cursing; that last hill is sadistic and makes anything else I’ve ever done in a race pale in comparison of difficulty. – Anton Krupicka

By this point, it was three in the morning. Rain had been falling for over six hours. I’d been awake for nearly twenty-four and running for eighteen. This last climb of CCC — and UTMB — was some of the steepest and rockiest slogging (that isn’t technically “scrambling”) I’ve ever encountered, a borderline third-class staircase of jagged stone steps meandering steeply up the mountain and into the dark.

Once we topped out and passed the Tete aux Vents checkpoint (two guys wandering around with a barcode scanner in the dark), I incorrectly assumed (wishfully thought?) that we were on our way back to Chamonix. In reality, we still had yet to hit the final aid-station, Flegere. The long, slippery traverse across the Aiguilles Rouges was taking so much longer than expected that I’d lost track of where I was or how close I was to being done. I simply kept my eyes locked on the trail, knees high and feet moving. The tediousness of watching the ground was tempered by sublimity in the sky, however: an temperature inversion caused the cloud cover to descend into the valley, revealing the lofty, white summit of Mont Blanc standing guard beneath a canopy of stars.

Finally we hit Flegere and I sat there silently, nursing a final bowl of soup. “Okay, that climb was a little harder than expected,” I said. “But now it’s only 10K down into town. How hard can it be?”

Those cruel and sadistic UTMB course designers, they knew what they were doing when they picked this route. They knew the CCC runners would be suffering: cold, wet, tired and hungry, lacking coordination and wanting desperately to finish. UTMB runners would be the same, only worse. They might have selected some soft, cruisy, runnable trail for the last ten kilometres of this race, something like any number of other trails utilized during UTMB. But no, they singularly opted for the most frustratingly rooty, rocky, almost-runnable trail possible.

Back home in Banff, my girlfriend and others followed along online: “Ten kilometres to go, how hard can it be?” they wondered. As painful as the last ten kilometres were for me stumbling down from the top of Flegere, they were surely as painful for my friends staring at my progress halted on their computer screens. When things began to take longer than expected, they speculated that I was injured or walking, which is precisely what I was doing though I wanted nothing more than to be bounding along gracefully like some agile Chamois.

After what felt like an eternity of downhill hiking (something I hate on a good day), the trail mellowed, grew a little wider and allowed me to stretch out my legs and actually run. When I finally spotted the texture of drab concrete lit by the dull, orange glow of a streetlamp, I thought it was a mirage. “Finally!” I gasped cathartically as the rubber on my sneakers left the dirt and met the road. Running on pavement had never felt so good before.

Once off the trail, I had only a few kilometres left to run through the familiar streets of downtown Chamonix. I jogged along, nearing the centre of town. It was six in the morning and everything was quiet. I’d been on the move for twenty-one hours and awake for over a full day. The glow of a new morning was beginning to appear, I was somewhat disoriented and wasn’t really sure what day it was. But here I was at the finale of an event I’d variably lusted after and dreaded; anticipated and trained for; cursed and reviled – the whole spectrum of every emotion – and now it was all over.

Most important to me was the feeling of many years of hard work being examined and me passing the test. I’ve always considered the mountains an arena for challenging oneself, but here I’d travelled to a strange place and set my blend of Canadian Rockies mountain-running against an altogether different grindstone. Summers spent wandering aimlessly in the Yukon, then scrambling in the Rockies in a perpetually lighter and faster manner, had developed into a mature state. The feedback loop I had nurtured between me and my home mountains — the lessons I`d learnt and the machine that had been chiseled out of continual contact with them — was proven to be something that could be exported and successfully applied to epic mountain ranges elsewhere in the world.

I crossed the finish line looking like the embodiment of good running form, then hobbled over to collect my finisher vest – a teal Polartec fleece vest I’ll probably never wear, but of which I’m goddamn proud. I looked back wistfully at the finishing area and iconic UTMB arch like a final glance to a lover one will never see again, then shuffled off alone. Sidewalks normally inundated were vacant and void, save for me in my filthy trail-running garb. I couldn’t wait to brew up some Lavazza, hop in the shower and hit some of that hash I got off that English kid, but I was going to have to find a way home first.

I guess I could run home; it’s only ten kilometres. How hard could it be?

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Screen shot 2014-12-21 at 11.03.48 PMScreen shot 2014-12-21 at 11.01.00 PM

Gear:
The following is a list of gear that I wore or carried during the race. Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc races, including CCC, require several items of mandatory equipment be carried at all times.

All of the crap I had to carry around for 100km.
All of the crap I had to carry around for 100km…
  • Arcteryx wool cap
  • A Buff
  • Julbo sunglasses
  • Mountain Stride Fitness singlet
  • Arcteryx Phase base upper (utilized as a midlayer shirt)
  • Icebreaker Merino underwear
  • Icebreaker Merino glove liners
  • Homemade waterproof gloves (from dishwashing gloves)
  • Lululemon Surge shorts
  • Lululemon Surge tights
  • Lululemon No-show socks
  • Mountain Hardware Plasmic waterproof pants
  • New Balance MT00V2 trail-running shoes
  • Arcteryx Alpha SL gore-tex shell
  • Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 2.0 + 2x500mL bottles
  • Thermal emergency blanket
  • Petzl Tikka XP headlamp
  • Petzl Tikka RXP headlamp
  • Extra AAA batteries for headlamps
  • Collapsable bowl
  • Platypus bladder
  • Whistle that comes with UD packs
  • Adhesive first-aid bandage sold in droves at pharmacies in Chamonix
  • Tiny tub of vaseline
  • Passport
  • Money
  • Mobile phone that works in France, Italy and Switzerland
  • My North American smartphone, for purposes of taking pictures
  • Hammer Nutrition Gel
  • Hammer Nutrition Fizz electrolyte tabs
  • Some random other nutrition bars I grabbed at the Ultra-Salon which were pretty good…

Things Definitively Not Carried During This Race:

  • Trekking poles 😀
Recovery meal: banana and Nutella crepe. I couldn't finish it.
Recovery meal: banana and Nutella crepe. I couldn’t finish it.
Race Report: CCC 2014