It 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.
I 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.
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.
After 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.
Somehow 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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…
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
The 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.
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?
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.
Arcteryx wool cap
Mountain Stride Fitness singlet
Arcteryx Phase base upper (utilized as a midlayer shirt)
Ten thirty-five to forty-eight ten: the range of my emotions, in vertical metres that is. I’ve long postponed my CCC race report, admittedly overwhelmed with the idea of trying to cram everything I saw and did into one blog post. My week in Chamonix, then taking part in one of the races of the North Face Ultra Trail du Mont-Blanc was a sensorial whirlwind, a rich, multifaceted experience which leaves me disoriented and not knowing where to begin… At the beginning, I suppose. In this post I’ll briefly detail my adventures leading up to CCC 2014 and leave the “race report” (and all the pics from the race) for the next post.
My preparations to run CCC — once the “little sister of the UTMB” and now one of the most prestigious 100km races in the world — began two years ago. I don’t know why I thought running this race would be a good idea, but expected it to be epic, scenic and cater to my particular strengths (i.e. slogging up mountains, then running down them). I raced around on fifty miles of ski runs and mountain bike trails at Meet Your Maker in Whistler, BC last summer to garner two qualifying points needed to register. Fast forward six months and by some grace of God I won the lottery and became one of a few Canadians among 1500 others toeing the line in Courmayeur on August 29th.
Fast forward another six months or so. My first day in Cham; the stokage runs high. I set my alarm for seven but didn’t get up till ten probably because I was so jetlagged. I scrambled out of bed and took the gondola up to Brévent (2525m) for an alpine trail-running traverse to L’Index/Flégère for a panoramic viewing of Mont Blanc’s many glaciers and pinnacles. Along the way I visited Lac Cornu and Lac Blanc, somehow missing Lacs Noirs. If the Aiguilles Rouges range somehow replaced Banff’s Sulphur Mountain overnight, I wouldn’t be a tad bit upset…
Descending from Le Brévent on right, back down toward Planpraz gondi station as the first stretch of my run.
Mont Blanc, looking real fine… Summit is snowy high-point on right.
Seeing kids in the mountains always makes me a little misty because I’m so passionate about them now and never saw a true mountain until my twenties. Instead I used to love aimlessly scrambling and jumping to and from the boulders in cottage country, an activity which has directly influenced my trail-running now. This dude was doing much the same except the backdrop isn’t Lake Huron, it’s the tallest mountain in western Europe. He wasn’t too concerned with the scenery, however; his animated scrambles kept him busy most of the time at Col Cornu.
Lac Cornu (2560m).
Lac Cornu (2560m).
Some of the awesomer trail running I’ve done.
Lac Blanc, the normal colour I expect from an alpine lake: blue raspberry kool-aid 😛
^The crowd goes wild: start of PTL 2014, downtown Chamonix. Before this trip I neither knew nor cared about PTL but now recognize it as the more-badass, more-underground version of UTMB and has risen to the top of my ultrarunning bucket list.
On day three, I threw on my running pack and headed up to Balme for some Swiss pasture style trail-running. No, I didn’t need more cowbell; there was plenty to be had up there booting around on white ribbon singletrack to all the little knolls and viewpoints overlooking Chamonix on one side, Trient on the other. At last, I hit up the Albert 1er hut at the base of the Glacier du Tour as the clouds cleared to reveal the Aiguilles du Tour and Chardonnet. Tres awesome!
Heading up to peep the Croix Fer (iron cross) in Balme area, Switzerland.
Looks like fun trail-running to me… Mont Blanc on left, Chamonix down below.
Peeps chilling at the Croix Fer, amongst the clouds.
Looking down to the village of Vallorcine from near the Tête de Balme (2321m).
Skies clearing over Chamonix.
Trail-runner glory shot atop Aiguillette des Posettes (2201m). Mont Blanc and Chamonix in the background.
The fun way back to town…
Old man chilling out, overlooking Vallorcine.
assumed everyone in Europe was an uber-fit trail-runner; even here I can take the suggested times and cut them in half.
Dejeuner at the Col de Balme kitchen… Sure beats energy gels and granola bars.
“Let a sleeping dog lie”… THAT’S WHAT I’M FREAKING DOING!
Looking across the Glacier de Tour toward Aiguille du Chardonnet, presently hidden in the clouds.
Pinnacle-like Aiguille du Tour (3529m).
Aiguille du Chardonnet (3824m) reveals itself just as I reached my hypothermia-threshold shirtless beside the Glacier du Tour.
Looking across the valley from above the Albert 1er refuge.
Cows and chairlifts, something you don’t see at Sunshine Village, har har har…
One day before my race, I sought out a low-intensity activity to exploit the nice weather and went up the Aiguille du Midi cablecar for sweet views, zero exertion required. After snapping about a million pics of the Mont Blanc massive and surrounding eye-candy, I strolled into a tunnel with my shades on and saw two scrawny alpinists walking towards me. It took a moment for my eyes to adjust and as they passed we gave each other a quizzical stare: it was Kilian Jornet and Emilie Forsberg! I walked past all giddy and awkward, saying nothing, but then thought to myself that I should at least go back and shake their hands, or something. I pulled a U-turn and raced back, searching all the logical places they might be. Nowhere to be found. Puzzled and a little disappointed, I gaze out across the ocean of mountains and what do I see? Kilian and Emilie charging down a steep snow ridge other parties are shuffling along roped together. I was in awe, and felt fortunate that I spotted these ultrarunning idols in action instead of just mulling around town, for example. An auspicious experience which got me super-stoked less than twenty-four hours before my race!
Longest unsupported cablecar in the world… I’m not terrified!
Hang ten, Mont Blanc. Hang Ten.
Cham and the Aguilles Rouges range.
Practicing my race-day shudder… I mean stare.
Parents, watch your kids.
Helbronner gondi to the Italian side of Mont Blanc.
BORING! A 57km backcountry trail run from Mt. Assiniboine to Sunshine Meadows through some of the finest subalpine scenery the Rockies has to offer. A cold, cloudless morning at Mt. Shark trailhead turned warm and sunny as we cruised along buttery singletrack, climbed a couple gnarly passes, ran out of water when we needed it most and narrowly dodged thunderstorms, experiencing the full spectacle of mountain weather without bearing the brunt of it. In the course of our trip, we crossed the BC-Alberta border six times, courted a few aches and pains, incessantly made fun of each other, and crushed nearly 60km of Continental Divide eye-candy in one sitting. Like I said, pretty boring…
What’s generally treated as a two- or three-day backpacking excursion was one long but overly scenic backcountry jog for us. I really had no idea we were in for such a slog up to Citadel Pass more than halfway through the run, but perhaps it’s better we didn’t know… I’m sure Pat and Jordan loved it 🙂
Our first views of Assiniboine.
3618m Mount Assiniboine and Magog Lake seen from near Assiniboine Lodge.
Departing the Assiniboine area and heading north toward Og Lake.
Awesome rock outcroppings, manicured-looking turf and smooth singletrack trail…
Heading toward a constriction in the meadow along Og Creek.
Hey, they call this area “Valley of Rocks”… I wonder why that’s the case.
Jordan and Patrick descending towards Og Lake.
Descending rocky trail to probably reascend again somewhere else
Getting faded, with Assiniboine and our previous 40km in the picture behind us.
At the top of Citadel Pass, marching toward Quartz Hill in centre, with glaciated Mount Ball on right.
Rock outcropping on the side of Citadel Peak, seen as we crossed Citadel Pass from BC back into Alberta.
Jordan running towards Quartz Ridge, our final climb of the day.
Jogging through a lush meadow toward our last climb up Quartz Ridge on right.
Circling Howard Douglas lake on our way up Quartz Ridge.
In awe, or “aww shit, we still have really far to run”?
Jogging the white ribbon which leads back to Sunshine Meadows from the top of Quartz Ridge. Spectacular trail running!
What began as a bluebird day became quite rainy and stormy, everywhere other than directly above us
“Did I say fading, I meant 5K to go!” Patrick says as he sprints toward a thunderhead which looks like a volcano erupting overtop of Bourgeau.
It was awesome to experience the spectrum of mountain weather all around us, but without actually getting soaked by rain or hit by lightning. We certainly got drizzled on, blasted by wind, and cautiously marched toward the top of Citadel Pass with an extremely active thunderstorm hanging over Fatigue Mountain to the north of us, but for the most part the weather made for a more complete experience of this landscape than a bluebird day would have offered.
If anything could prepare my eyes for the scenery I’ll see running around Mont Blanc in The Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc CCC next month, it might be this: A 60km out-and-back tour of Mount Robson to peep the Rockies’ tallest peak firsthand.
What was intended to be an “analogue run” two weeks prior to Trailstoke 60K Ultra in Revelstoke turned into a glorious day of warm sun and cool breeze; more roaring waterfalls than I can count on one hand; neon blue tarns with creaking glaciers flowing into them; buttery subalpine singletrack; chossy, exposed ledge running and sprinting up lateral moraines like some dude in a North Face ad; a little hands-on-knees grunting; about three litres of unfiltered mountain water and a near-miss with momma bear and cub. Just another day running around in the Rockies half-clothed 🙂
0:31 Kinney Lake
2:45 Berg Lake
5:01 Snowbird Pass
7:57 Berg Lake
9:38 Kinney Lake
10:23 Berg Lake Trailhead
Trail running opens the doors to seeing more in less amount of time; what is generally treated as a two- or three-day backpacking trip then becomes a daytrip for the long-distance trail runner.
Buttery-smooth packed-stone trail dropping down from Land Of A Million Waterfalls (my own name for it) to the river flats near Berg Lake.
Berg Lake and the Rockies’ tallest mountain, Mount Robson (3954m), towering two vertical kilometres over the tarn.
Standing above Snowbird Pass (2719m) on the BC-Alberta border, looking down on the NE face of Mount Robson and the valley I just ascended. I am now 30km from my vehicle and feeling fairly fresh, but trying to avoid thinking about the next 30km I need to travel to get home…
View of Mount Robson and Whitehorn from my little perch above Snowbird Pass.
Looking down to the Coleman Glacier on the east side of Snowbird Pass. The pass and ridge I ascended to get here can be vaguely seen on left.
Looking down to Mount Robson’s huge north glacier during my descent from Snowbird Pass.
Back to the soft, cruisy trails of the Berg Lake area which my legs appreciated for the last 20km back to the car. Awesome trails and awesome scenery!
My second go at this masochistic little scrambling endeavour first devised by two buddies of mine in 2012 and reconfigured by myself into a 100% bipedal effort around this time last year. The Triple Crown is a one-day ascent of Mount Lady Macdonald, the east end of Mount Rundle (EEOR) and Ha Ling Peak, a grand tour of the city of Canmore, Alberta totalling thirty-eight horizontal kilometres and over 3500 metres (puke!) of accumulated vertical gain. Assuming I was stronger this year than last, I had definite intentions to beat my old time (12 hours), but both trips certainly involved their fair share of lollygagging, selfie-taking, and sitting on my ass eating sandwiches whilst cursing the mountains.
I crushed my old time, sweltering in inferno-esque temperatures (to me, anyway), chugging back melted snow with my running pack fully prepared for winter-mode if necessary. It definitely wasn’t necessary. I hope to return to this project some day with a lighter pack and a little less time devoted to taking pictures of myself to put up a truly speedy FKT. Until then, I’ma hit up this foam roller and drink some water 🙂
Splits: (7:45am start from Rocky Mountain Bagel Co., downtown Canmore)
1h03m – EEOR trailhead (TH) | 6.4km | 372m ↑ | 6.4km total
1h12m – EEOR summit | 2.3km | 884m ↑ | 8.8km
0h51m – EEOR TH | 2.4km | 872m ↓ | 11.2km
1h03m – Ha Ling summit | 2.9km | 801m ↑ | 14.2km
0h43m – Ha Ling TH | 2.9km | 808m ↓ | 17.2km
1h54m – Lady Mac TH | 11.1km | 469m ↓ | 28.3km
2h13m – Lady Mac summit ridge | 3.9km ↑ | 1182m | 32.7km
1h02m – Lady Mac TH | 3.3km | 1151m ↓ | 35.5km
0h17m – Bus stop | 2.5km | 118m ↓ | 38.0 km
This year I don’t need to carry the front page of the National Post with me to prove I bagged all these mountains; now I have a fancy GPS watch which tells me all sorts of nerdy details about my trips
View out my window at 5:45am on the morning of my Triple Crown trip.
Steep Ha Ling Peak, mountain #2 of the day, seen across Whiteman’s Gap during my ascent of the East End of Rundle.
Standing on top of the east end of Mount Rundle, 2590m, two hours and fourteen minutes after departing downtown Canmore.
View of one of Rundle’s subpeaks, arguably a cooler feature of Rundle than it’s actual summits. Evidence of spring avalanches was everywhere although the scramble routes on each of the Triple Crown peaks were pleasantly dry.
Eating a ProBar in the rock shelter (which offers mininal shelter) on top of Ha Ling Peak, 2408m, four hours and nine minutes after leaving downtown Canmore. Mighty Mount Temple is in the background at far left looking closer than it actually is.
A gorgeous day in Canmore, seen from the top of Ha Ling Peak. One thing I love about the Triple Crown and long-distance mountain running in general is the different types of locomotion required over the course of the day. After ascending two rather steep peaks in a fashion similar to climbing stairs by skipping every other step — for a vertical kilometre and a half — one is then required to actually run eleven kilometres across the valley and slog up the biggest peak of them all 😐 Who came up with this stupid idea, anyway?
Looking from top of summit #2, across Whiteman’s Gap to the east end of Mount Rundle, summit #1 of the day.
Top of Mount Lady MacDonald, 2605m, eight hours and fifty-seven minutes after first leaving downtown Canmore at 8am. It is now nearly 5pm and fairly windy. Whereas I hit my low point ascending Ha Ling Peak last year (peak #2), this year I felt strong until I got to Lady Mac and then staggered up the mountain, stopping every few minutes, lightheaded, to heave back oxygen like I don’t do this on a regular basis. The glory of physically challenging endeavours is when that quality that one needs to do what one’s trying to do — drive, will, “mojo”, physical energy, period — is utterly drained, yet one pushes on regardless. This realization has been both a gift and curse, as I now realize that no matter how weak and shitty I feel, I probably, actually, have the ability to push on indefinitely. This makes copping out a little harder to justify.
The knife-edge ridge which leads to the true high-point of Mount Lady Macdonald… I like this ridge when it’s dry and when winds aren’t so gale-force. I’m only a hundred and fifteen pounds and this Arc’teryx shell is like a wingsuit on me
View looking back down Mount Lady Macdonald’s SE ridge which, at the moment I take this photograph, I despise very, very much. Most of the ascent up Lady Mac consists of really good trail until you reach the “bench”, site of the old teahouse (middle of picture). The final push to the summit ridge is loose and exceedingly tedious: one of my least favourite sections of mountain I’ve personally experienced. Smart of me to least the worst for last?
My trusty New Balance MT110W’s which got me through this silly trek. I think they liked it better in the soft, clean snow of winter; not so keen on this scree stuff…
I often do epic things in the mountains right before going home to Ontario to visit so I am somehow imbued with epicness and the spirit of adventure in a place I associate with an almost suffocating sense of banality. I don’t think this practice really counts for much, except perhaps to stroke my ego, but it’s not like I boast about my adventures and once home my focus became firmly centred on visiting friends, spending time with my family and revisiting old hiking haunts in my newfound trail-running style. I also ran a rather flat 10km trail race at Terra Cotta conservation area which, by some stretch of the imagination, serves as a qualifier for a spot in the elite division at the Canadian Mountain Running Championships, a 12km/1200m vertical sprint at Kicking Horse Ski Resort, Golden, British Columbia three weeks from now which I’ll also be attending.
Though the Terra Cotta course was a modest one, it was a good, early test of a new dimension of running I want to explore: speed. In the past I’ve always focused on distance, building the overall length of my long runs week after week, trotting along through the backcountry for thirty, forty, fifty kilometres at a pace intended to keep me from sweating too much and prematurely burning too many calories. Now I wanna do the same thing, faster. Misunderstanding how the race’s timing worked, I snuck into the back of the first wave seconds before the starting buzzer and shot off in a high-velocity tiptoe through the winding roots which covered the trails of this course. I finished in a respectable (for me, anyway) 19th place out of 260 runners. Not fast enough to qualify for the mountain running team, but I have different racing plans on my agenda this summer, anyway. Peep the Movescount data for this race here.
My calves feel like they’ve been used for boxing practice. Getting out for long runs rather inconsistently, yesterday’s thirty kilometre run to Canmore and ascent of Ha Ling Peak in the deepest and slushiest snow conditions I’ve ever encountered it in means I’m a little sorer than usual today. To reach Canmore I jogged along the Rocky Mountain Legacy Trail, which is much flatter, paved and runnable than what I’m used to running on, so I wasn’t really sure if the benign-ness of my chosen route would destroy me over twenty-five kilometres.
After a big dump — which we just received a weekend of — I’m used to powder piling up on Ha Ling at treeline, resulting in, say, a one-hundred metre stretch of waist deep sugary snow to plow through, with the rest of the peak wind-scoured and barren. Yesterday, however, I found the whole alpine zone of the peak caked with knee-deep isothermal snow from treeline to summit, with a crust that would barely hold your weight with one step and would break through on the next. Of course, what did I really expect at 4pm in the afternoon on a sunny day after, oh, our biggest single snowfall of 2013-14? I rank that as my most arduous ascent of Ha Ling, ever.
Descending Ha Ling wasn’t too difficult; I gained so much momentum on the slushy, muddy lower part of the mountain that I almost ran over Adam Campbell, 5Peaks Race Series organizer, Arc’teryx-sponsored athlete and one of Canada’s strongest male ultramarathoners. We shared gripes about the post-holing nightmare that was the top of Ha Ling and chatted about trail-running, races and the revered New Balance MT110 over a few kilometres through the boulders of Grassi Lakes before my descent into town. A highlight of my day. Peep the Movescount Move for this trip.
In the spring of 2011, while traveling to the Yukon, I stopped and took a picture of Canmore’s mountains with my phone and sent it to my buddy Jay, saying, “Yeah, I think this is where we wanna be.” For months we’d discussed setting up shop in Canmore (because living in Banff seemed like a pipedream) and spending all our free time bagging every summit possible. I pictured myself like some old-school mountaineer with wool alpenstocks and a long ice axe toiling up these snowy mountainsides amid snow squalls and spindrift…
Although the steep rock faces seen in the top picture possess heaps of technical climbing routes, I never suspected the backs of these mountains had routes that could be walked (or run) up in a matter of hours. Three years later, Banff is my home and the Canmore mountains I’d once fantasized about climbing are now routine trips I do in the dead of winter, when my eyelids are freezing shut, or on days when I don’t really feel like hiking or running at all. The thought of actually standing on top of these peaks once seemed incredibly out of reach, let alone doing it in a style that is fast, light and aesthetic or linking together multiple peaks as per the Canmore Triple Crown, which I wish to repeat this season.
I’m grateful every day for this landscape, the passion it inspires and what it has molded me into.