House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part II

22/06/16 – Pomagagnon/Crepe de Zumeles
jordinsourmannn
A late day run with Jordan after shopping in the morning for groceries and, of course, lots of beer and wine. We checked out the Cortina Skyrace course, which was useful because I intended to run it the following day. 

First off, it was fucking hot and I wore a black Mountain Stride shirt and black shorts. Second, neither Jordan nor myself had run a step for weeks before heading out and by the end of the first kilometer, I was dying. I know it usually takes awhile to start to feel good during a run — and figured this time might take longer than usual — but I more or less felt how non-runners describe feeling when attempting to run. There was no “conversation pace” to be had in this inferno where it was my immediate impulse to drink my entire 500mL water bottle in one gulp.

We attained some respite from the heat in the subalpine, traversing beneath Pomagagnon’s craggy face. At the notch in the ridge called Crepe de Zumelles, we searched for a “water source” marked on the map that was practically non-existent in reality. At last, I found a trickle of water flowing out of the ground and slowly filled my bottle. We headed back over the top of Crepe de Zumelles and down the front of Pomagagnon where that same spring emerges gushing from the mountain, building into a solid stream by the time it reaches the neighborhood where we’d rented our flat. Jordan and I headed directly down the mountain, sliding through cow pastures/ski slopes, and followed this watercourse most of the way home.

tomclimbingrope
^Pic by Jordan Sauer

23/06/16 – Cortina Skyrace (20km/1000m/2h26m/65° position)

21A fairly pedestrian attempt at running the Cortina Skyrace. With no meaningful training this year, I couldn’t take on the 119km Lavaredo and wasn’t sure if racing (or running) would be in the cards for this trip at all. After scoping out the course with Jordan the previous day, I felt strong enough to run the 20km skyrace without inflicting too much damage.

There were a couple elements that were essential in doing well in this race:  the course begins on a wide bike path before funneling some three hundred runners onto narrow singletrack once it starts cranking up the hill in earnest. In order to beat the bottleneck, you had to gun it off the starting line, but once you hit the climbing section you could chill. Well, “chill”.

With a lack of high-end fitness and an iffy foot, I knew I couldn’t gun it, so I resolved to run the race at an easy pace and make up any places I could later on.

The race started and most people ran way too fast. I say this because as soon as we hit the climb, movement halted and I saw everyone around me was dying: breathless, red faces, questioning motivations for even entering this race. I stood there, enjoying a (for me) moderate pace — that run on the pavement was way too fast — and politely popped in front of other runners wherever I could.

CT_skyrace_mapThis first climb eased, we swung a right turn and started traversing below the towering cliffs of Pomagagnon. Soon the singletrack widened and we reentered the forest.

The course turns vertical once again for a 300m climb through the alp called Crepe de Zumelles. I was largely locked into position in a long line-up that zig-zagged up the mountain and plumbed through the chossy forcella above.

I filled my bottle from the spring I’d recced the previous day then scooted back into line. We proceeded through the forcella, headed east and began descending on rough trail. I’d mistakenly thought from looking at maps that the descent back to Cortina was on shitty gravel access roads, but this was delightful. We hooted and hollered, flying then plummeting down rocks and roots.

The feeling of fun soon turned into one of cramping in my calves and I prayed for electrolyte drink at the ~15K aid station, the only one of the course. I soon arrived and after some linguistic mix-ups (No, not coke. Eee-lec-tro-lyte?), they filled up my bottle with electrolyte drink and I was off.

We slid through sloppy cow pastures that double as ski runs in the wintertime… Pain. I longed for the end. I wanted to see the neighborhoods, the little houses, the stream rushing beside me. Soon, we came ripping down onto pavement, running through the neighborhood where we’d rented our flat, and turned back onto the bike path for the last kilometer.

What an awful kilometer it was. Though it was a benign bike path, the final approach to town, I’m sure I cursed that kilometer with every slur in my repertoire.

We soon arrived in downtown Cortina amid a cheering crowd and I somehow summoned up the means to come sprinting through the finish line, bottle in hand, half-nude — a curiosity in a land where compression prevails.

24/06/16 – Tre Cime di Lavaredo
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Went to see the Tre Cime. This wasn’t a run, not even a hike; it was a tourist outing with components of both running and hiking.

I’d decided not to run Lavaredo, therefore I wouldn’t get to see the Tre Cime — the iconic three-peaked mountain which can’t actually be seen from town — which is sort of like visiting Paris and not seeing the Eiffel Tower. So I took a bus to Rifugio Auronzo, got off and marveled at the pinnacles of Tre Cime. I was hungry though, so I went to get coffee and a sandwich at the rifugio first.

Though there’s a circuit one can do around the base of the mountain, I reasoned it would be better appreciated from afar, rather than right below it, and identified a suitable hill that looked like a good one to march to.

This point of vantage gave better views of neighbouring Cadini di Misurina, a venerable cathedral of Patagonia-esque spires. There’s a technical hiking route/via ferrata with no pro, called Sentiero Bonacossa which traverses this range. Although I’d researched it before I left, it was hard to gauge from across the internet how techy/sketchy the terrain truly was.

15All this is an aside, because today wasn’t the day such a venture and my only real intention was putting around Tre Cime. I went back to the rifugio for another snack.

From that hill, I could only really see two towers of the famed Tre Cime. In order to see the third tower, I had to follow part of the circuit then cut over to a hilltop to the east.

I saddled up and booted out to the viewpoint across veins of karst pavement interspersed with terraced meadows. The view of Tre Cime from the east reveals the three peaks, an utterly bizarre-looking mountain which rises from the plain like some huge alien monument.

17I raced back to Auronzo and caught the bus back to town. For the past couple months I’d had this epic picture of the Tre Cime as the background on my phone. I looked at the picture: “The Tre Cime doesn’t look like that,” I said.

But that’s how Tre Cime looks from the north, the side I never saw.

25/06/16 – Cortina Trail 50K (spectating/support)
The 25th of June was Cortina Trail, a race two friends of mine, Jordan and Mikale, were running. The previous evening was the start of the 119km Lavaredo Ultra-Trail. About an hour before the start, the skies clouded over and unleashed what forecasts suggested for weeks but hadn’t delivered: rain poured; waterfalls cascaded off of roofs and gutters; lightning flashed every minute. One could almost feel the population of the town, bloated by thousands of runners from all over the world, collectively pooping their pants that very moment.

The next morning the skies were clear. We got up early before the race, as one does before an ultramarathon. After requisite deliberating — Do I bring this? Do I bring that? — and countless checks of gear we proceeded to the start line.

The race started at 8am and I watched as a deluge of happy-looking ultramarathoners rambled through the main street and out of sight.

I was fairly bent on obtaining a cowbell and ringing the shit out of it on a hill somewhere as a show of support. The Cooperativa possessed a variety to suit my needs. With an big honking red one in my hand, I caught a bus to Passo Falzarego, the halfway point of the Cortina Trail race.

The bus ride was hair-raising and begs numerous questions as to how they deal with this situation every day: the problem is like trying to fit a square object in a triangular hole, except we’re talking about big coach buses and crazy European traffic on very narrow, switchbacking roads. Every time the bus turned a corner, traffic coming the other way had to slam on their brakes and there would occur a momentary standoff to see who would back up to let the other vehicle by. Somehow they make it work.

I hopped off at Col Galina as runners came down one side of the valley and went trotting up the other side. I hiked up the course to find a good spot to ring my bell. Most of the runners going down to Col Galina looked pretty shellshocked; a few of them tripped or completely ate it at the techy little spot where I was posted.

It probably didn’t help anybody’s concentration that I was my clanging my stupid cowbell and shouting phrases of encouragement in three different languages. However, most of the runners looked heartwarmed to see me, the same way I felt when I’d seen and heard the locals ringing their cowbells on tops of hills and at aid stations in CCC*.

*That of course was Val d’Aoste. Cowbells didn’t seem as prevalent in the Dolomiti — I think I was the only person ringing one.

LG-H831I saw my friends and we ran into the aid station together. They were doing awesome, still feeling fresh and stoked about the course as well. The weather was still looking good too. Who could ask for more?

Jordan and Mikale trotted off to tackle the second half of the course and I was left to ring my cowbell and trip up other runners coming down the hill.

After awhile, I marched up the road to Falzarego to catch the bus to take me back to Cortina. I’m already inept when it comes to riding buses, so when the bus didn’t arrive on time I told myself to relax and wait. So I waited, and waited and waited, until I decided I’d waited long enough and was just gonna walk back to Cortina.

Within minutes of walking along the road, I learned there was an accident blocking traffic, then the bus arrived. Good thing, because I probably would’ve died if I attempted to walk down that crazy road back to town.

After a smoke and an espresso, the driver was ready to go, so I got on the bus and chatted with a girl who’d been watching the race and also got stranded up at Falzarego.

As we talked, the driver came around a corner which, as usual, forced oncoming traffic to slam on its brakes and reverse. The driver tried to squeeze past the other vehicles, but as we turned, a loud creaking sound erupted from the side of the bus as it scraped against the guardrail. The driver exploded in a flurry of Italian expletives and went out to assess the damage; he came back a minute later still muttering swear words and drove off.

Still unsure if I would make it back to town alive, we emerged from a tunnel and downshifted to descend the steep grade of the verdant hills surrounding Cortina.

After waiting for an hour at the finish line, I started thinking my friends had already finished the race while I was putzing around at Falzarego, and were probably crushing beers at the house. I waited a little longer but just as I decided to leave there suddenly appeared Mikale and Jordan, gloriously exhausted and sweaty, Cortina Trail 50K finishers, no small feat. The aura of physical brokenness but complete spiritual awesomeness imbued them.

The finish line had been set up beside a church but the main street of Cortina had become a cathedral, crowded with smiling, wincing, crying faces. Holy ghosts.

26/06/16 – Venice – Home
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I thought I had more time to spend in Cortina but realized after coming home from watching the race that I was going to have to leave the next morning. Bummer.

Jordan said goodbye as we were caught in a downpour and I ran to the station and got on the bus soaking wet. I dried my stuff on the back of the seat whilst admiring the scenery on the ride from Cortina to Belluno.

Maestre was hot as hell and I didn’t have much interest in actually visiting Venice, but I had a huge amount of time to kill before catching my flight the next morning. Also, transportation to Venice is really fast and cheap, so I bought a ticket and hoped it would be cooler on the island.

It was just as hot, if not hotter, and packed with tourists (of which I was one). I strolled past an endless series of shops selling the same cheap merchandise, which was actually educative about Venetian culture (i.e. masquerade masks and Murano glass). Indian folks persuasively hawked selfie sticks on every bridge while African dudes sold fake purses on every corner.

The elements that make Venice unique — the canals; its antiquity — were neat, but beyond that I wasn’t super impressed. Any of these places — Rome, Florence, even the Mer de Glace  — are surely not what they used to be, even a hundred years ago, but one can’t avoid that I suppose. I realized I’m not much of a “cultural city” sort of person. Transport me to the little villages of the Dolomites, Aosta Valley or French Prealps any day.

28Once it got dark (not cooler, only more humid), I returned to the airport reasoning it would be as comfortable a place to spend the night as a comfy hostel in Venice. Though I found a quiet area and ended up sprawled in my sleeping bag on the floor, I never really got much sleep — the continued lack of which eventually proved to have bizarre effects.

I left Venice the next morning at 11:30am. I took two flights, Venice to Toronto then Toronto to Calgary, totaling fifteen hours in which I further failed to sleep; I simply head-bobbed myself awake for fifteen hours instead.

My trip didn’t end once I reached home. Even when I got to to Calgary airport, I waited for a bus to take me to Banff. I wandered across the top level of the parking deck and thought, “Although I am still in the process of waiting around for transportation, is this not a perfect end to the trip?”

I stood there watching planes taxi, take off and land as the warm sun slowly dropped towards the mountains on the horizon. The breeze started to pick up and grow cool. It was a perfect end to the trip.

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28/06/16 – My Strange Trip
The bus pulled into Banff around midnight. I was so far beyond sleeping and waking that neither meant anything anymore.

I was dropped off downtown and still had a few blocks to walk my apartment. “I’ve been living out of this pack for ten days,” I said to myself. “I don’t mind hauling it one last time.” I shouldered up my hefty pack and strolled down Banff Ave., which was quiet yet sporting the usual nighttime fare.

I got home and spent a while unpacking my bags and sorting laundry. After half an hour or so, I wrenched myself from this activity and forced myself to lay down and sleep.

But I couldn’t. My mind was racing. I couldn’t disconnect from my trip. I couldn’t disconnect from travel, from waiting, from moving. I felt disembodied, like I was going to spontaneously astral project. Suddenly it felt like I was still at the airport, overlooking the planes with the warm sun on my face and the breeze on my skin. And then everything fell apart.

I wish I could describe this process more vividly, but I had a complete breakdown in identification and consciousness. My last thought was something along the lines of, “I don’t know what to connect to”, and it felt like the linkage, the adhesive that holds everything together into a cohesive experience fell apart, and I didn’t know who or where I was.

Existential terror flooded my veins like acid, my heart started racing and I opened my eyes. I was home in my apartment, I could tell myself, but even that was alien. I felt distinctly like I was on psychedelic mushrooms or LSD, and my heart was still pounding trying to hold back terror. I looked at my scrawny, bearded self in the mirror — everything appeared normal — but it was simply appearance, still nothing to connect to. I had to tell myself, “You are here, in your apartment; this is your body; everything is normal,” but it meant nothing. Everything was stark and alien and cold and meaningless.

These were not philosophical thoughts; I could easily have dealt with that. Sadly it was the psychological reality of starkness, of meaninglessness. Within a moment, my ego — the central organizing function of consciousness — had been shredded up, crumpled and disposed, and I was a naked eye on the verge of panic.

I was still able to think, and assumed circumstances had contributed to this experience — hours of travel; jet lag; lack of sleep; dehydration; having returned from a peak experience and finally laying down to rest, attempting to end the process of travel and transition back to “normal life”… These factors I assume created a perfect storm for my psyche when I finally laid down and tried to sleep. I focused on my breathing and eventually fell unconscious.

The next day was a bit weird but after a few days everything became normal. I remember having the thought during this episode, during the part where I was disoriented as to whether I was still at Calgary airport or at home in my bed that, “This must be what schizophrenia is like.” It seems from cursory research on the internet that there’s a relationship between psychosis and jet lag/desynchronization, and I feel like I experienced an aspect of it.

As much as I talked about letting go of expectation and embracing “virgin novelty” leading up to this trip, this was the deep-seated psychological reality and it wasn’t exactly pleasant.

House in the Clouds: A Trip to the Dolomites – Part II

Reckless Abandon

After a week of daily battering — I mean running — I’m stoked to say I’ve returned to normal, that is, ripping up and down hills with reckless abandon. Throughout April I introduced longer and more sustained runs into my hiking-heavy diet, which culminated at the end of the month with a visit from my buddy Paddy. On the 31st and 1st we hit up the classic Baldy traverse in K-Country, then scoped out the route for our mountain running workshop the following day. I returned home from that weekend feeling I was done nursing my ankle injury and determined it was finally time to train.

With only thirty days until Lavaredo, there’s little time to spare, yet I don’t intend to overdo it either. I’m excited by the challenge of building something strong and finely tuned in such a short amount of time, yet feel I’ve been given all of the tools over the past few years in order to do it. Lavaredo will be challenging not only because it’s the longest distance I’ve ever ran; in terms of training, it’s like a blind exam. There aren’t months of steady conditioning culminating in this race. I’ll have to apply the various lessons I’ve learned — physiological, mental, spiritual — to a blank canvas and hope for the best.

As for our Mountain Stride Fitness Intro to Mountain Running workshop (June 4/16, Canmore), we aim to introduce aspiring mountain and backcountry trail runners to the basic knowledge and physical skills required to move fast and light in the alpine. This course came out of our participants’ difficulty in tackling the tricky trails of our Kananaskis retreat last summer. Although runners arrived ultra-fit, there was a lot of tripping and cursing the rough terrain and steep grades. Here we aim to let runners explore movement in a variety of terrain types in a low-pressure way. We also provide instruction about planning and packing for your trips and more!

Without further ado, onto the scree sessions of May!

04/05/16 – Sulphur – 11km/600m
Ran up Sulphur from the Hot Springs. Jogged the majority of the ascent, switching to a hike here and there to give my ankle a rest. Met my friend/coworker Kristina partway, then trotted off to tag the helipad (Sanson’s is closed) then the more southernly summit #3. I stopped to take in the magnificent view that S3 provides, especially at sunset, then trotted back across solid rock and narrow goatpaths to the gondola terminal, then back down the main trail to the hot pool. First Sulphur ascent of the year, not counting on skis.

405/05/16 – Tunnel – 7km/350m
Up SW goatpath, down main trail to home. Jogged towards Tunnel in Luna sandals intending to test them on some of the roughest, chossiest trail around. I deliberately chose the SW ridge to maximize hiking over jogging on the ascent. I found the Lunas’ vibram rubber spot-on in terms of purchase on the loose terrain and found the experience not much different than wearing 110s, if but requiring slightly more care not to stub a toe. I tagged the top and chatted with Tami on the phone as the rain came so I went down. Running downhill in the sandals isn’t dissimilar to wearing sneakers, however I felt the characteristic tug in the bottom of one foot — the recovering one — the underside of which is still weak after relatively little activity up until now. It will take a few more short jogs before my feet are strong enough for long sessions in these truly zero-drop footwear.

06/05/16 – Sulphur (summits 2, 3, 4, 5) – ~20km/1500m
Jogged along river from home, up steps and trail to the Fairmont then the hot springs. My ankle felt a little wonky before this run and I wasn’t sure if I should rest or not, but it was beautiful outside and I couldn’t resist. I grabbed a snack at the hot springs then consciously hiked the ascent of Sulphur, rather than jogging it. I don’t think I’ve ever hiked up Sulphur — my first time going up Sulphur was a run, in torrential rain as I fondly recall. At any rate, I hiked very competently and devoured vert like a monster, soon popping out upon the helipad (S2), congested with picture-takers. I immediately swung a left turn and dashed  towards summit 3.

At the bottom of S3, I tackled my gully of choice from its base, rather than climbing a less technical feature beside it and traversing into it halfway up like usual. This was a refreshing change and offered more sustained vertical climbing. I’m not a comfortable climber but the holds are great and the grade is perfect scrambling terrain.

8I tagged S3 and immediately made my way towards S4, which was my objective for the day. Twenty minutes or so later I was bashing choss and scrambling short pitches that deposited me atop S4.

I looked over at S5. I’d been in this same situation before, intending “only to go to summit 4”, then going to S5, then S6, and having to repeat the deathmarch all the way back… If I was gonna tag S5, I had to hurry up and do it; I had limited water, no food, and the day was only getting hotter.

S5 was glorious and alpine. I topped up my bottle with cold slush from the cornice, took a few pics then trotted back. Heading back is always the tough part, as the Sulphur ridge is akin to doing hill repeats. Now I was on my fifth repeat — sweltering and legs pooched — and still had two more to go.

Upon reaching the helipad I immediately descended, hoping to get a ride to town from work peeps who finished their shift at 4:30pm. I would normally — with almost religious zeal — never not run home unless something was seriously wrong with me, but I was really hungry and felt I’d ran sufficiently. I didn’t feel the need for an extra 4km and -300m of impact.

8 707/05/16 – Rundle – 18km/1560m
Rundle with Chris, TH to TH. An awesome day. Was a bit worried about overdoing the ankle but it just gets stronger every day. The ascent was fast and mostly a hike. The weather was warm from the get-go and only slightly cool and breezy at the top. I was also worried about having sluggish legs from my outing yesterday but I was actually feeling stronger and more coordinated; slogging was strong, my descents were quick and my left knee felt fine. As for my ankle… apparently not an issue anymore?

1008/05/16 – Tunnel circuit – ~10km/~200m
A loop around Tunnel starting/finishing at home. Headed out concentrated on jogging easily in the Lunas. “Do you know the definition of ‘easy'”? I asked myself several times as I had to pull back the pace. Not that I’m a fast runner but I seem to like to settle into a pace more suited to descending off a peak whilst going for a FKT… not appropriate all of the time. Foot fascia felt stronger than last run in the sandals, mild tightness but no abrupt tug. Also, the forest was very peaceful 🙂 A delightful run carrying little, with barenaked feet.

*It then became apparent that I’d done a number on my right foot: though I felt fine in the days immediately after this run, a few days later I developed foot pain. Too much, too fast in the Lunas methinks.

12/05/16 – Sulphur – ~10km/~200m
A short session equal parts jogging, hiking, downhill running and scrambling. Jogged towards the backside worried about my foot — a tight right arch has been bugging me last two days and I don’t want it to turn into full-blown plantar fascitis. Results were not so clear — I didn’t do any more harm I think. At any rate, it was blowing snow and as I hiked up the backside trail with my questionable foot, I knew it was going to be a short outing. I hiked until I got to the first band of rock cuts which I spent a while scrambing up and down where the slabs were steepest and most sustained — a few moves tops, really, but it was fun. There’s much more of this kind of terrain on Sulphur, I just didn’t feel like walking far enough to reach it.

13/05/16 – Sulphur (20km/950m)
Up the back, down the front, tagging Sanson’s Peak at the top. Set out to more or less repeat yesterday’s outing, except to go a little further and hopefully feel a little better. After ten hours of sleep (and 800mg of Advil), the bottom of my foot felt great, so I set out into the fine day. The jog towards the Sundance/Sulphur junction felt iffy yet I continued along. I came across lots of scrambling potential on the rock-cuts — including a few pitches that would take me a while to become comfortable freesoloing — but I really required rock shoes or at least Vibram and the trashed 110s I was wearing were soaked and ankle deep in fresh pow. Thus, I continued slogging up the trail, noting the cooler climbs, until I pretty much got to the top. I tagged Sanson’s for posterity (first time this season), then trotted over to the gondi station. The bottom of my foot felt very “clenched” on the way down but I made it, via delightful singletrack through the forest above the Fairmont and then Middle Springs to my apartment.

719/05/16 – Sulphur (~20km/950m)
Up the back, down the front. A “rainy day” but mostly overcast; could have been much wetter. Jogged conservatively towards the back of Sulphur, simply happy to be out moving after four days off re: R plantar fascia + visit from Tami. Right foot felt a little tight but generally just weak; it’s a shame, really. At any rate, I jogged competently until I reached the climb, then hiked at a relaxed pace, popping out among tourists at the top before I knew it. Tagged Sanson’s in the swirling fog, toyed with the idea of tagging summit #3 (which was invisible in the clouds), but erred on the conservative side and descended the front. The sustained descent would be the true test of my foot and it held up pretty well. A few tugs at the end when I was closer to my house but overall not bad. A far cry from my fitness at this time last year and scarily distant from what’s required for Lavaredo but whatever.

621/05/16 – Sulphur – (~20km/950m)
Up the back, down the back. Started out mellow, still nursing a weak arch though better than last time. Got to the climb and started hoofing it. My right hamstring started tightening up again, just like last time, but thankfully it never truly became a problem. I reached the top in complete fog and strolled along the boardwalk to tag Sanson’s in the whiteout. On my way down, I felt bad for anyone who forked out thirty bucks a head to take the gondola up there to see nothing; meanwhile, just a hundred metres lower, the views were epic. As it was a busy long weekend, I decided to return down the quieter west side instead of taking the main trail. I didn’t need the unnecessary frustration of trying to squeeze past processions of people on the way down. Upon reaching the paved Sundance Canyon trail, I actually clicked off the remaining few kilometres at surprisingly fast pace, I think because I was hungry and simply wanted to get something to eat. (Took about 2h50m total, which is hardly “fast” but getting back into the scope of normalcy for me).

523/05/16 – Sulphur – (~20km/950m)
Up the back, down the back. A pretty stellar run, compared to all my other runs lately which have been shitty. Wore La Sportiva Anakondas, which is rare for me (they’re half a size too big and I don’t like the excessive play), however I thought their solidity and support would be useful for my foot. The jog towards the back felt good and I tackled the climb hands-on-knees, pausing only to commune with a family of marmots who come out of hibernation in the springtime. Soon I was stomping through a fresh couple inches of fresh snow which fell last night. I hoofed it to the boardwalk and tagged Sanson’s in my shorts — it felt definitively like December or March. On my way up, it was my intention to descend the front — throngs of long-weekend hikers or not — but it was the snow condition that changed my mind. I’d hiked through virgin powder on the backside without difficulty but the hordes along the boardwalk had trampled the surface into ice and slush, sure to be the case on the main trail as well. So I turned around, trotted back along the boardwalk and bolted back down the backside trail. This was the first time in ages that running downhill actually felt fluid and not awkward and overly conservative. The La Sportivas did the trick and cradled my gimpy foot as I careened back to the Cave and Basin, whistling to my marmot friends all the while.

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New Oh Sees:

Reckless Abandon

Fresh Blood

bloodLast year’s cuts and scrapes are all healed up, it’s time to make some new ones. I’m off to a great start, seemingly unable to avoid kicking myself in the ankles while wearing Microspikes and there’s some weird bruise thing on my thigh… I’ll let you know if any fresh blood develops.

I’ve been running more in the past week than in the past couple months combined and starting to get my bounce back — my first few runs this month felt frighteningly Frankenstein-esque. My aim has been to get in lots of mellow running in order to develop my distance base over the next eight weeks or so; then it’s time to lay it all against the grindstone and hammer until it’s sharp.

As soon as I got back from Ontario mid-January, I headed up to Edmonton to brainstorm next summer’s Mountain Stride Fitness trail running retreats with Patrick Sperling AKA dumpster_diver. We went for a jog through Mill Creek Valley just steps from his house, romantically admired views of the city at sunset (aww), then worked on the deets over freshly cooked fries. It looks like we’ll be offering three formats this year to appeal to a range of runners and hikers of various experience levels and backgrounds — from beginner to veteran mountain goats! Now that our 2016 offerings are finalized, we’ll have more information here and on the Mountain Stride website soon.

Without further ado, on to the athletic endeavors of January!

3Jan. 04/16 – Whitehorn (ski) – 19km/1161/4h09m
Skied up Whitehorn Mountain at Lake Louise ski area after Sean and I got denied the previous week. This time I woke up at 4am and got started at 5:25am, reaching Temple Lodge in less than an hour. Groomers were humming about so I switched my headlamp to “stealth mode” and puttered up the ski-out, trying to avoid being seen. I tagged Top of the World in just over two hours, skied south along the ridge to tag Paradise in 2h12m, then headed towards my objective, the summit of Whitehorn. I tagged the top of Whitehorn in 2h46m and hung around for over half an hour as dawn broke over the Slate Range, illuminating the peaks of Lake Louise.

Eventually I had to descend and received mixed responses on the way down, including from a liftie who was stoked to see I’d skinned up there, and from a couple patrollers who weren’t so stoked… But like Calgary ultrarunner Majo Srnik joked the other day in a Facebook thread about ski patrollers, “They’ll survive”.

Max speed: 63.3 km/h 😛

bramptonsucksJan. 09/16 – Run in Brampton – 11.8km/39m/1h07m
A run in Brampton while I was home visiting; a long, paved loop in which I struggled to find some semblance of nature and otherwise dodged cars or waited at traffic lights. The run started by visiting old landmarks — my primary school; grandma’s house; where we used to drink and smoke-up as teenagers — but eventually pounding the pavement started to hurt. I headed into the park near my high school where I used to train with the cross-country team but here the trails were also paved. This corridor, containing a burbling stream, some tall, bowed-over willows and small meadows of reeds, was socked in by the urban landscape at its least aesthetic: a rumbling highway overpass on one side and endless warehouse complexes on the other. I know cities have the potential to be beautiful — and Brampton has its moments — but overall this sprawling maze of cookie-cutter housing, congested traffic and drab commercial/industrial architecture is the opposite of “beautiful”.

skogan passJan. 21/16 – Skogan Pass (ski) – 17km/790m/3h25m
Skiied up a long cut-line route connecting Bow and Kananaskis valleys. During the ascent I focused on a speedy cadence, tagging the top of the pass in two hours flat. Doing the full 30km traverse to Kananaskis Village is an objective I might consider one day, though there are surely much more scenic tours out there. This kind of fare — fire road and cut-line skiing, for example — is becoming my specialty.

anntunnel1Jan. 22/16 – Tunnel – 8km/324m/1h06m
Up and down Tunnel with my friend Anne. Jogged to her place, then we jogged to the trailhead, mostly hiked the ascent, hung around on top for a couple minutes, then ran back down. A really warm day on which I wore shorts and reveled in it.

halingjan3

Jan. 24/16 – Ha Ling – 14km/1138m/2h30m
Up and down Ha Ling via Grassi Lakes. Not many people on the trail — neither on Grassis nor on Ha Ling — which was surprising for a Sunday. Maybe the trace amounts of snowfall we received yesterday scared everybody off, or they went skiing. The run in general was disproportionately labored, which is fine because I’m just starting to slog again consistently. This is “fat and lazy Tom”, as fat and lazy as I ever get. I packed a puffy jacket but wore a long-sleeve shirt from trailhead to summit, a particularly delectable occurrence for January.

Screen shot 2016-01-29 at 9.09.12 PMJan. 25/16 – Tunnel Circuit – 8.5km/196m/56min
A loop around Tunnel, starting and finishing at home. I decided to go for a “flatter” run, something more horizontal, to try to build up my distance base. Plus I think it’s good to mix up vertical-heavy days with flatter ones. Jogged at a fairly conservative pace but it was really enjoyable; nice to not be sprinting or powerslogging up a steep slope, but that will come… I need to remember to keep my pace easy for now or it’s going to undermine the purpose of my training.

tom_haling_jan292016_2Jan. 29/16 – Ha Ling – 23.6km/1300m/3h25m
Up and down Ha Ling from downtown Canmore. This is something I’ve done many times before but this is my first time doing it this season, and is my biggest run yet this year, so it was tougher than usual. Took the bus to Canmore and jogged/slogged from town to the trailhead via Grassi Lakes. The actual ascent of Ha Ling seemed easier than the other day, which was a bit of a deathmarch. Donned a puffy jacket at the col and hung around on top for only a couple minutes, enough to take one picture before my phone died, presumably from the cold.

11Jan. 31/16 – East End of Rundle – 6.3km/982m/4h01m
Up and down EEOR with Glenn from trailhead. A pretty cold day to start, with light snowfall and clouds socking in Canmore and the surrounding peaks. As we climbed, however, the top of EEOR stood out crystal clear against a blue sky. The crux of the route — grovelling up a snowy ramp then traversing along ledges to clear the headwall — was tedious but typical for wintertime. This snow climb has the potential to be perfect for climbing and glissading but I’ve never been there for perfect conditions, usually the snow is either rock hard or isothermal and the thawing headwall is pitching rocks at me.

And in other news, FUCK YES:

Fresh Blood

December’s Dying Days

sidedoor2The last month of 2015 saw a continuation of my break from running that started in November, swapping the sport for ski touring which has been infrequent lately as well. I believe this long hiatus from running will be beneficial structurally and in terms of my overall energy going into the new year. My body feels vastly more “together” compared to how I feel at the peak of my training in the springtime — I’m much slower and lack the stamina I’ll develop next season, but at my peak I often feel peculiarly capable of performing extremely well in an event, but beyond that, utterly being shattered.

For now, however, I am the coarse and unshaped boulder, not yet the serrated flintstone. Lots of beer, Christmas cookies and reduced running will turn one into an unshaped boulder, that’s for sure.

v180_3The month kicked off with Vert 180 on December 5, an urban ski mountaineering race at Calgary’s Olympic Park where competitors rack up as many laps as possible in a three hour time limit. The course consisted of a little over a hundred metres of skinning, a short bootpack to the top of the hill, followed by a blistering descent back down again, sans turning. I managed to get nine laps — only half of the winner’s number, to be clear — but more importantly checked off one of my goals for 2015: compete in a skimo race. (2h52m/14.9km/1262m) Movescount.

v180_1 v180_2 Screen shot 2015-12-31 at 4.13.00 PM 1On December 10, I tagged Lookout Mountain in the Sunshine Village ski area. Starting at the parking lot at 7:38am, I reached the top of the Great Divide chair in just under two hours. The resort opened while I was still skinning straight up Lookout and a few people stopped to ask what I was doing or to cheer me on. An older gentleman referred to me as “the man” and “his hero” as I stashed my skis on my bag, ducked the ski area ropes and started marching up the remaining twenty metres to the true summit of Lookout. I stood around taking pictures for a few minutes before noticing a ski patroller bootpacking laboriously towards me: how quickly I went from being someone’s hero to being scolded and skiing down with my tail between my legs, haha… (2h23m/17km/1100m) Movescountlookout5 lookout7On December 11, I tagged Sanson’s Peak — the little brick observatory atop Sulphur Mountain that I frequent in the springtime — from my house on skis. Well, mostly on skis. I carried them on my back for about a kilometre before finding snow deep enough to start skinning near the Cave & Basin. I reached the boardwalk along the top of the mountain in about three hours, had a snack, then hiked up to tag Sanson’s in 3h20m. Fast conditions got me back down to the riverside in only twenty five minutes, followed by another forty minutes of flat travel to get back to my place. A far cry from two hour-something ascents in the summertime but this objective is exactly what I pictured when I purchased these skis — out and back from my house; racking up almost a thousand metres of vert; tagging a summit and getting a fast downhill trip as well. (4h47m/20km/976m) Movescount

sulphurskimo1The month concluded with a Christmas ski day riding lifts at Sunshine Village with my girlfriend and a couple runs here and there, just Tunnel and Ha Ling. The act of running feels delicious and I hope to keep things nice and easy going into the new year. I’ll be attempting to rebuild my endurance base during the first few months and want that foundation to be built on enjoyable, playful running.

redoubtThe last two days of December brought Sean to town for a little touring on the skis. We headed out early on the 31st to Lake Louise Ski Area, skinning up Temple access road to Temple Lodge where we were promptly informed that we weren’t allowed to #skiuphill and would have to #earnourturns elsewhere… It was a half hour after opening and there were a good number of people coming down the mountain; I was pretty bummed but have to concede that this activity is better done before or after operating hours. So we skied over into the bowl between Redoubt and Lipalian, wafted through deep power making frequent kickturns to the top of a ridge, turned around, stripped off our skins and skied back down again.

seanlake1 leevinglake

December’s Dying Days

Aylmer Duathlon & Assorted Reflections

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

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

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

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

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

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

image

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Aylmer Duathlon & Assorted Reflections

Race Report: Glacier Grind 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Now, coffee.

Race Report: Glacier Grind 2015

Summer’s Summit

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mount Cory:

1 2 3 5 Mount Athabasca:

1 2 3 4 5 6 9

Summer’s Summit