There’s a First Time For Everything

The last month has been a whirlwind of activity.

Aug 13 – Ironlegs 55 miler

Aug 18 to 29 – Vacation in Iceland

Aug 20 – Reykjavik Marathon (beautiful course but I’d forgotten how painful pavement was)

Sept 2 – 7.5hr drive to Kaslo after working a full day

Sept 3 – Milford Mountain Marathon 52km

I ran very little in Iceland – 3 times to be exact.  I did the marathon and then did a 26km trail run/walk with my niece two days later.  Then there was quite a bit of hiking on moderate terrain and another 9km shakeout run the day we flew out.  Needless to say, I was not feeling particularly fit headed into MMM.

I knew the MMM course had a significant section with off-trail running so I went out for a solo scramble two days before the race to remind myself of what the Rocky Mountains are like. I think I tripped at least 100 times on the rocks and roots.  Iceland and Alberta have very different landscapes and I had forgotten how to pick up my feet.  The last 5 minutes out of my scramble finally felt smooth so I took solace in the fact that I was starting to remember what technical trail running is all about.

The MMM is a very small race with just over 30 starters, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t competitive and the people at the start line looked fit! I tried to tell myself that I was fit too.

The race began with a long climb.  Not only is Iceland lacking in rocks and roots, but it also doesn’t have any monster climbs and my legs felt confused. What’s this big hill all about? I told myself to chill out and enjoy the scenery.  It had been raining all night, but now the rain had stopped and we were climbing through the clouds in a boreal rainforest.  It was gorgeous and the more I relaxed my mindset the more I loved life.  About an hour into the race we climbed up into alpine meadow which was covered in a fresh layer of snow.  It was beautiful, wet and messy; I felt like a kid in a playground.

I’ve noticed that the happier I get the faster I seem to run in relation to those around me.  I had a huge grin on my face and I was working my way up the field.  Soon I caught the lead lady (last year’s winner) as she was treading carefully on the slippery snow.  I noticed that she was wearing Brooks and I made some smart-assed comment about how I used to like those shoes but I stopped wearing them because they’re terrible on wet terrain.  I had barely finished speaking when I fell hard on my ass as my feet slipped out from under me.  Serves me right.

The 2 inches of fresh snow on top of the alpine grasses made for incredibly slick footing.  I gave up on trying to stay on my feet and spent much of my time tobogganing on my bum.  This is where I felt my scrambling background paid off huge.  I am used to falling a lot and generally speaking I know how to do it without hurting myself.  Soon I had pulled away from the other runners and I was on my own.  Staying on your feet is over-rated.

We were travelling on barely visible trail, or sometimes non-trail. We “ran” over slippery boulders and down grassy slopes. There were flags every few metres to mark the route and I was impressed with the care the organizers had taken to ensure runners stayed on track.  I have never participated in a race that travels through that kind of terrain and I felt like I was on one of my adventure runs.  It was awesome!

I was overtaken by another runner at the first aid station about 2 hrs into the race.  He was breathing hard and seemed to be on a mission.  I felt like I should be trying harder but I couldn’t be bothered, I was having too much fun. The aid station volunteers were fantastic and I took advantage of the assortment of Clif Shot Blocks which were laid out on the table.

I know I rave about Sour Dinos and Swedish Berries as my “go to” gummy nutrition options, but Shot Blocks are my favourite.  Unfortunately I don’t eat them much because I am too cheap, so I was super stoked to see them provided for us at this race. I digress…

We had a couple kilometres of fire road to run on after the aid station.  I was getting the impression that there was very little runnable trail on this course, so I made sure to run as much of the fire road as possible to take advantage of the smooth terrain.  The road got steeper and began to switch back before transitioning to non-trail.  I looked behind me on the switchbacks for signs of other runners but no one was in sight.  I was on my own.

The route followed ridge lines on steep terrain, most of it was below snowline so the footing was good.  One uphill was above the snowline and I found myself sliding backwards so I had to grab handfuls of grass and small trees to pull myself up.  Poles would have been helpful 🙂

Mountain guides were stationed along the more exposed sections of the route and one asked me whether or not I’d seen any wildlife.  I guess other runners had seen cougars and bears.  As usual, I was happily oblivious.

Eventually I made it to the second aid station, around 4 hours into the race.  Phew, this was slow going!  The aid station volunteers had a fire going, as well as hot tea and soup; all I wanted was water and Shot Blocks.

From there I ran downhill for what felt like 10 minutes (but I’m sure it was longer) before I hit the next aid station.  I grabbed a couple more Shot Blocks (yay!) and ran down the road before heading up the last climb to Buchanan Lookout.  This section was all fire road and not particularly steep.  I mixed in some running and some walking, I’m sure some people could have run the whole thing but my legs were starting to feel the effort.

Buchanan Lookout was where things started to go south.  I reached the checkpoint and the volunteer asked me what time it was.  What?  Aren’t you the one who’s supposed to know the time?  I wasn’t wearing a watch so I told him I didn’t know.  I laughed as I ran down the trail to “The Monster.”

The race director had admonished us to review the race course maps before running the race and so I had.  I remembered seeing “The Monster” in big letters on the map before the final long downhill.  I also remembered seeing a fire road branch off to the right of The Monster.  I knew we followed the trail for a ways, but then we were supposed to turn right onto the fire road.  Why am I telling you this?

I ran down the trail to an intersection with a fire road.  I stopped on the road to grab a gummy and look around.  I thought this was my junction to turn right, except it didn’t appear to be marked that way.  There were flags on either side of the trail as it crossed the road, and I didn’t see any extra flags heading down the road to my right.  I assumed that the race course must continue down the trail and the fire road must cross “The Monster” twice, with the race course taking the second exit.

While I was standing on the road another runner, Alex, caught up to me.  We descended The Monster together.  There were pink flags along the trail, but the fire road never crossed our path again.  The Monster is a downhill mountain biking trail, definitely not meant for trail running and we were having a hilarious time trying to get down it in one piece.  It was so much fun and I remarked to Alex that I couldn’t believe a race course would be allowed to use a trail like this!

Eventually The Monster exited onto a fire road and we saw the first place runner cruise past us.  Wait! What?!  We realized we had taken a short cut, so we turned right and began to run up the road in the direction the first runner had come from. It was the first time either of us had been lost and we tried to figure out where we had gone wrong. A kilometre or two later we came to the 42km aid station.  Oh crap.  We should be at 37km, not 42km.  The volunteer radioed the RD to explain what had happened and then told us to continue on to the finish.  This was not acceptable to me.  We had severely shortcut the course and I wanted an official result for completing the race.  Continuing on to the finish would result in a disqualification.

After explaining my concerns to the volunteer she spoke with the RD again.  If we didn’t want to be disqualified, we would have to run up to our last missed checkpoint.  I made a mental transition away from race mode and into survival mode.  It would be stupid to overcook myself now and then not even make the 10hr cutoff.

Alex and I ran up to the 37km checkpoint, but after looking at the volunteer’s map we realized that there was still ANOTHER checkpoint that we had missed which we would have to run up to.  We made the trek up to the next CP together and it made the misery a little more manageable.  Meanwhile the first placed lady ran by, then the second … and the third.  Ugh. I stopped counting.

Alex entertained me with stories of ultras gone bad and I tried not to whine too much.  When we finally reached the next checkpoint I was ready to cry tears of relief.  Can I turn around now???

I was too heart-broken to entertain the thought of trying to track all those ladies down so I told Alex to go ahead while I worked to get my head back to it’s happy space.  At least we were headed downhill now …

The run back down the hill and to the finish line was surprisingly quick.  I stopped sulking and focused on smiling and thanking the volunteers.  I was able to catch up to one of the ladies who had passed me.  That felt good.

Matt was waiting for me near the finish line.  He had been told about the mistake I had made going off-course and I was happy that he hadn’t been worrying about why I was so far behind schedule. Alex and the RD were also at the finish line, Alex having finished 7 minutes ahead of me.  We all stood around and discussed “The Junction” and what could have been done to mark it better.  I could see that the RD was really upset over what had happened and I felt for her; being an RD is so hard!  She gave Alex and I vouchers for free entries next year.  I guess I’ll have to come back and redeem myself 🙂

Final stats:

Alex figures we ran an additional 9km with an extra 600m of climbing.  I think that would bring the total to 61km with 3100m of climb.

Total time – 8:09

Place – 6th lady (out of 12 starters), 19th overall (out of 32 starters).


What’s next?  There is one race left in the Canadian Skyrunning Ultra Series, The Golden Ultra.  It’s the finale so it’s worth 20% more points.  Of the four ultras I’m running this year, it is by far the most competitive.  I am going to have to run out of my skin (and hopefully get a little lucky). I’m excited for the challenge 🙂


Happy Trails!





2 thoughts on “There’s a First Time For Everything

  1. Pingback: The Golden Ultra – My first stage race! | Joanna Runs

  2. Pingback: The Journey to 200k | Joanna Runs

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