Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Iron Legs, Moose and Fun at Mount Robson :-)

I really can't believe that we are in September already and having already had some snow in the past couple of days, it's a sure sign that we are heading into autumn and the dreaded "W" word won't be too far behind. 

I actually love the autumn. It's always been my favourite time of the year when the days get cooler and we are greeted by early morning dew and mist lingering in the valleys and alongside lakes and rivers. I always feel more alive at this time of year - I thrive on being outside, amazed by the vivid colours as the leaves start to change, watching the animals preparing for winter and the birds flocking together to make their journeys south to warmer climes. It also signals the start of the cross country season and I'm already looking forward to the first event in early October at River Park.

I'm lucky to have already done some pretty awesome races this year, but I have to say that the past few races have blown the others away and I've found myself in my element having spent tons of time in the "great outdoors".

Those that know me well will know I've never been a city girl - I've spent many weekends and holidays hiking, camping and backpacking in various locations in the UK and abroad, and I'm likely to have more fun when "roughing it" rather than having life's luxuries thrown at me. Needless to say, I've felt more alive, healthy and extremely happy in recent months as we've ventured more in to the outdoor wilderness of Canada with camping trips, hiking, trail runs and races.

Back in August, I ran the Iron Legs 50 miler. I knew that the distance wouldn't be a problem, but a revised course due to flood damage from the previous year meant some 15,000 ft of ascent throughout the race. Much of the new course followed trails used for the Kananaskis Triple so I was already familiar with the majority of the route and I knew that it would be tough, especially with the last 20km or so involving a climb up Moose Mountain at around 7,000 ft.

Iron Legs - Aid Station 3 at Powderface Parking Lot
With  so much climbing involved and with knowing there were far more experienced trail runners taking part, I knew I had no chance of placing in the top 3 ladies, so it was quite nice being able to run with the actual pressures of racing. I would be happy to finish in one piece, and having set a target finishing time of anything in between 13 and 14 hours  - which would hopefully placing in the top 5 ladies - I was feeling pretty relaxed and relatively confident that I would meet my goals.

I won't go into the ins and outs in any great details, but there were a few things that stuck in my mind;

  • I was - and still am - paranoid about running into a bear, or a cougar, or a moose when out on those trails. They are all big bloody critters, they DO live here, and I spent a hell of alot of time talking very loudly to myself, or singing "The Happy Wanderer" and clapping along. I also felt a complete wally when catching or being caught by other runners in the race that were nearby and heard by appalling singing! Sometimes those trails are deathly quiet, the senses are on high alert, and the slightest snap of a twig sends the adrenalin pumping. 
Yep, bear country....but almost at the finish line :-)
  • The first climb up to Powderface Saddle really wasn't as bad as I remembered, but the second ascent from the rear via Ford Knoll and the Ford Creek Trail was a b****rd! I did remember it being a long trail with some ups and downs, but seriously?!
  • That second ascent was nowhere near as bad as the climb up Pneuma. I was on for a 12.5 hour finish shortly after I started the ascent of Pneuma, but it took 2 hours or more to do just 5 miles. The trail was actually very pretty and not particularly steep, but the frequent switchbacks and the constant teasing of being at the top but not really, played absolute havoc on my brain. I really was ready to throw myself off the next available cliff!
  • I was gutted that there was no watermelon when I finally reached the top of Pneuma and arrived at the Moose Packers Aid Station. I cried - yes, cried. I really needed that watermelon and it was all I had focused on when heading up Pneuma, and now I had to head up Moose Mountain - without my watermelon! I was tired, i was hungry, and I wanted my watermelon :-(
  • Chocolate croissants are excellent fuel, except they are terribly bad for melting if you don't eat them straight away. A lack of running water to wash the hands really does then cause a problem.
  • Moose Mountain is an awesome mountain, and you don't half get a shift on when you see storm clouds in the distance and hear rumblings of thunder that seem to be getting closer.
Approaching the checkpoint on Moose Mountain
  • It was NOT all downhill to the finish once leaving the check point on Moose Mountain. Ridgeback is another beautiful trail, but it also has some nasty surprises in the closing stages - mothers would be ashamed of my language!
  • It gets pretty emotional at the end when you see the signs heading into the finish and you realise that you've done it.
  • It's even more emotional seeing your loved ones at the finish, despite the pouring rain, along with good friends that have either made a special trip to see you finish, stood around for literally hours as a volunteer for the race, or they've just completed the 50 miles themselves. They feel your emotion, they feel your relief, and without a work being spoken, you just have the urge to hug each other.
But the best part about Iron Legs is the friendly camaraderie amongst fellow competitors, support teams and spectators, the smooth organisation, loving the whole experience, breathing in that fresh mountain air, testing your limits both mentally and physically, the amazing views from Powderface and Moose, and being in awe at how much forest there is around here and how green everything is.

I finished in 13 hours 32 minutes, and 5th lady overall - goals achieved and a jolly good day at the office - happy days :-)

The following week, we found ourselves up at 4am as once again, we headed to Bragg Creek for another early morning appointment on Moose Mountain. This time we would be seeing and experiencing the flip side of a race, by volunteering at one of the aid stations in the Moose Mountain Trail Races. 

The weather was none too brilliant and it was actually pretty cool, but we had such a wonderful time supporting and encouraging the runners. It was great to see so many familiar faces both running and helping out, and we also made some new friends that I'm pretty sure will be happy to share some of their trail running tips and experiences when it comes to future races. 

Volunteering at Moose Packers Aid Station - Moose Mountain Trail Races
A sweep of the course after the last runner passed by took us down Moose Packers trail, parts of which had been used the previous week at Iron Legs. It felt so different running down there for fun and on fresh legs rather than as a competitor that has already covered some 70km, and I noticed things about the trail that I hadn't done the week before - it really was fantastic!

Having done Iron Legs and volunteered at the Moose Mountain Races, I hadn't really got any race plans for a few weeks and it felt quite nice just being able to focus on some good quality training for a change. 

We had made plans to have a short vacation, and had already decided to head to Jasper for week of camping along with the dogs. The plan was to do some short hikes and some trail running, take some time out for a bit of relaxation, and of course to make the most of the obligatory beer drinking around an open campfire. 

I was extremely keen to head to Mount Robson - the highest mountain in the Canadian Rockies - and having stumbled across the Berg Lake Trail last year, I had suggested to Andy that perhaps we could do that whilst we were there. In my ignorance, I hadn't realised that the trail was some 20+ km one way - certainly impressive but not something that we could do in a day. Whilst there were backcountry campgrounds that could be used, we hadn't come prepared for backpacking, and besides, dogs were not allowed on overnight stays on the campground along the Berg Lake Trail. And then I stumbled across something else - the Mount Robson Marathon on September 6th - an out and back trail marathon from the visitor centre to Berg Lake, following the very trail that I was desperate to explore. It seemed too good to be true, and it took very little convincing for me to sign up once I'd checked with Andy that it would fit into our itinerary.

I had no intentions of racing the marathon - from the video footage I had seen and the feedback I'd read, I knew it was highly likely that I would spend most of my time just taking pictures and enjoying the surroundings - so in the days leading up to the marathon, I did plenty of trail runs with Wilson and Brandy, and also hiked with Wilson up Whistlers Mountain that overlooks Jasper. 

Hikes and runs with Wilson and Brandy
That was an awesome day and whilst I felt bad that Andy and Brandy had not joined us on our 4 hour hike up Whistlers, (it was far too steep for both of them and they refused to do the tourist thing by getting on the cable car!), I absolutely loved spending time with my little pup. The weather was beautiful, we got some amazing views from the top, and it was another Rocky Mountain summit that I could add to my list.

top of Whistlers Mountain in Jasper
The rest of the week had been pretty cool and damp, but come Saturday morning, we crawled out of our tent to a the most wonderful early morning blue sky, with Mount Robson towering over us in splendid glory without a cloud in sight.

I knew this was going to be a great day, and I was so excited about the run and having the opportunity to go somewhere new. 

It was also fantastic to see my friend Natalie there. We first met at the Kananaskis Triple in July and she was an excellent motivator during the 3 days (she's also unintentionally influenced me to enter the Trans Rockies Run next year in Colorado thanks to sharing her photos and experience there herself this year!) She too was buzzing with excitement at the thought of getting out on the trails and completing what we knew would be a truly awesome, spectacular race.

Natalie and Del - Very excited to be running  :-)
The first few kilometers were a steady climb up through dense forests and alongside the raging waters of the Robson River, but as we climbed higher and we reach Kinney Lake, things started to open out a little and we had some spectacular views of surrounding mountains and the crystal blue waters of the lake. 

The next stage from Kinney Lake was relatively steep, but then it became even steeper as we faced 5km of pure uphill, gaining something like 1600 ft in the process  as we started to ascend the Valley of a Thousand Falls. The sound and sight of the thundering waterfalls crashing down the mountain sides into the valley and into the river below really was breath taking! We had to cross  the river several times, at one point via a suspension bridge which was pretty exciting as it swung from side to side, we crossed glacier fields and river beds, woodland trails and rocky terrain, and after a couple of hours of running, we came face to face with the majestic Mount Robson whilst Berg Lake was just ahead. 

I couldn't stop gawping - the amazing glaciers hugging the mountain sides, the turquoise blue lakes and crystal clear river, and the mountain tops so clearly visible against an outstanding blue sky. There are not enough words to describe how I was feeling, but I was completely in awe and felt so privileged to be experiencing such beauty. I couldn't help but keep stopping to take pictures and to just take in and absorb the sights that I was seeing.

Berg Lake and Mount Robson :-)

Amazing Views :-)

Absolutely beautiful :-)
I hadn't really been focusing on the race, but as I headed back the way I'd come, I discovered that I was lying in 3rd place although there were at least 3 other ladies that were only a couple of minutes behind me. I honestly hadn't come here to race, but knowing that I could be in with a chance of a prize did encourage me to push a little harder in the second half, particularly with knowing there would be alot of steep, downhill running which is one of my strengths.

I did pick up the pace a little, but only enough to ensure I held on to 3rd. I passed so many men on the return journey and whilst some of them clearly didn't like the idea of being "chicked", they still gave encouragement that pushed me onwards. There were alot of tree roots and slippery rocks and I took a couple of tumbles that later caused bruised knees and elbows, but thankfully nothing too serious and I was still making good progress.

It took me 2 1/2 hours to get to the top of Berg Lake and it took me 2 hours to get back down, and as I ran towards the finish line at the visitor centre, I did indeed finish 3rd lady in 4 hours 30 minutes. The winning lady ran an excellent 4.12, whilst Natalie had finished 2nd in around 4.20. I meanwhile was extremely pleased with my run - my legs felt good, I didn't feel too tired or exhausted, and I had hoped to finish in between 4-5 hours dependent on the trail conditions. I was one happy bunny and it finished off a fabulous week of outdoor fun.

It's  now Wednesday evening after the race, and I feel like I have recovered really well and am certain that it didn't take too much out of me. I've got a couple more events coming up - the last race in the 5 Peaks Trail Running Series is this Saturday and I'm hoping to place top 3 overall and to win my age group, and then next weekend, I will be competing in my first duathlon. After that it's back to cross country again, and of course, I still have the Toronto Marathon in October that I'm looking forward to. After that, I will start to focus on my big plans for next year and I'm determined to test that spirit of adventure that I've always had but sometimes remains hidden. There's alot of hard work in the pipeline, but with family and friends around me, I'm pretty sure that that will in some way help me to achieve my goals.

Happy running folks!

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