Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Rivers Edge Ultra - the Longer Version

One of the things I missed when living in Phoenix was the changing seasons – the buds coming out on the tress whilst the spring flowers start to burst out of the ground, the summer blooms, lush green grass and leaves on the trees, being wowed by the colours of autumn when the weather starts to cool off and the leaves on the trees become vibrant golds and reds, and then of course the dark, cold winter months when everything hides away and all you want to do is sit in front of a burning log fire drinking a cup of hot chocolate.

When signing up for the Rivers Edge Ultra, one of the things that appealed to me was the course description of woodland trails and running across farmland above the North Saskatchewan River valley, with a river crossing and a bit of scrambling thrown in for good measure. I’d looked at photos from previous years and the colours were breathtaking – I couldn’t wait to run those trails and experience the beauty of the fall colours whilst out there.

Of course, one of the things we can’t control is the weather, and in the days leading up to race day, the Edmonton area was hit by early snowfall. Sure, it wasn’t “proper” winter snow with the bitterly cold temperatures you usually get here in Canada, but it’s safe to say that none of us were expecting a whiteout come race day.

The forecast was calling for 3 to 6cm of snow with temperatures hovering around freezing point with a wind chill making it feel more like -7. The organisers had already made the decision to remove the river crossing from the race – the water would be far too cold and there was a serious risk of hypothermia for the runners. Come race day, trails conditions on one of the loops were so bad and treacherous that they also decided to change the course – we would now be doing one lap of loops 1 and 2, and two laps of loop 4.

Not knowing the course, I didn’t really mind the change and was certain that I would still get to experience the beautiful scenery. My main concern was making sure I was warm – I can handle the cold without too much difficulty, but snowy and windy conditions add a completely different perspective to things – a wet cold is not fun! I’d raced in crazy sub-zero temperatures before, I raced in blizzards before, but these were short 8km cross country races where you’re done within the hour. Today I was expecting to be out for 5 or 6 hours and whilst we would pass through the start/finish area at the end of each loop, there are times when we would be exposed to the elements with no shelter – if I ended up having to walk for any reason, it would be easy to become cold very quickly.

The good news is that I seemed to have dressed appropriately – I got quite warm on loop 1 and almost removed a layer, but as the snow started to fall more thickly and with the forecast saying it was only going to get worse, I kept the layers and was grateful for them later in the race when I really was covered in mud and sopping wet.

Just before the start - before the snow got crazy!
Loop 1 was around 8 or 9km and from the start, I was loving how magical the wooded trails looked in the snow with the bright reds and golds adding a wonderful contrast to the brilliant white. There were a few climbs that were extremely slick and muddy making them difficult to run up, and there were some exciting downhills where a few people ended up on their butts. There were quite a few muddy puddles to negotiate as we crossed the farmland, and I could already feel my back and hips starting to ache from all the sliding about whilst trying to get a grip.

For the first couple of miles, I was leading the ladies race but there were 3 other ladies hot on my tail. With Javelina Jundred being just 5 weeks away, I didn’t want to race this one too hard – I also didn’t want to trip or fall and end up twisting an ankle by becoming reckless out there – the snow was hiding lots of roots and tree stumps and with the uneven ground also being less obvious, it would have been so easy to end up with an injury from the race. It took a lot of self-control not to go chasing after the three ladies that passed me towards the end of loop 1, but I was trying to keep a relaxed pace and I was thinking more about my longer-term goals for the remainder of the year.

As we passed through the transition area, I dropped my backpack and headed out on loop 2.

The second loop consisted of a good climb and I got passed by another lady as I made my up the hill. I’d now slipped to around 5th place in the ladies and I was a little bit disgruntled at how things were going. I wasn’t feeling as energetic as normal and I didn’t really have the mental focus on the race. I was running a decent pace, and yet I just wasn’t making any ground on the ladies ahead of me, and even when we hit the open fields, they were nowhere in sight. The course record was 6 hours 22 minutes and yet today, there were 5 ladies that were currently on track for a finishing time of around 5 to 5 and a half hours! I didn’t want to race hard, but I had hoped that I could at least win an age group award, so I was a little disappointed that I just couldn’t seem to catch them. What the hell was wrong with me?

It was hard to let them go, but I somehow managed to talk myself into a better frame of mind and started to enjoy the running. The course really was beautiful and there were lots of sections that took us through low lying branches that made it feel like we were running through a delightful snow tunnel. The muddy sections were still hard going, the snow was getting heavier and deeper, but I was having fun. At the back of my mind, I was still hoping that the ladies ahead would start to tire – I was confident that I could keep the pace going simply because I’ve been doing a lot of progression and negative split runs in training – but I obviously didn’t know how they prepared for races. I grabbed some chicken broth at the aid station which hit the spot and gave me the warm boost that I needed – I was starting to feel much better.

I still had no idea how long this loop was but kept pressing forward, and eventually it felt like we changed direction and were heading back. The trails were getting quite muddy again, but the worst was yet to come. As we climbed a small hill and started the descent the other side, we were greeted by the worst mud imaginable. Not only that but it was a steep slope that looked to be around 100m down. Up ahead, I saw the 4th placed lady tentatively picking her way down, using the bushes at the side of the trail to stop herself from just sliding.

I’ve said before that I get a little reckless on downhills sometimes – I find downhill running extremely exciting, and as I made my way down that hill, my feet had no grip whatsoever and I started to slide out of control. I squealed in my excitement, laughing my head off and whooping as I went along and passing the lady in the process. I was almost skiing down the hill but without ski-poles, grabbing the occasional tree branch or bush when I could to help maintain my balance, but otherwise just going for it, getting covered in mud up to the knees but not caring in the slightest. It was so much fun!

That section of the course was the turning point for me, getting fueled on adrenalin to give me the boost I needed which enabled me to overtake some other runners and to start gaining on the leading ladies.

As I headed into the aid station by the start, Andy was there with a hot coffee for me and some nibbles. I grabbed a bit of both but having spotted another lady racing the 50k just ahead of me, I set off in pursuit.

If lap 2 had been fun, lap 3 was incredible but also frustrating at the same time! It was exceptionally muddy, and I felt like my pace had slowed dramatically as I fought to keep moving in the slick conditions. The snow was also falling even heavier by now and it was almost blizzard like. Everybody was bundled up so much that it was difficult to distinguish the girls from the boys, but I had a feeling I had now moved in to 3rd position although I was certain there was another lady about 200 metres ahead.

We ran along more single track before hitting double track trails, and then joined the trail alongside the river banks. The river looked amazing but also very cold with the snow falling and I was feeling relieved that we wouldn’t have to wade across today! We dropped down to the river’s edge and ran along a beachy area for a short time. This part wasn’t much fun and for a second the negativity was starting to creep back, but as soon as we left the river and headed up the hill, I had my fight back.

I hadn’t realized there was another aid station on this loop so I when I spotted the amazing volunteers there, I headed over and grabbed a drink of coke. The caffeine and sugar gave me the boost I needed, and I headed off up the hill, slipping and sliding once again. I could still see the other lady ahead of me and she was making light work of the hill – I had to keep going and keep her in my view, but a half mile or so later she disappeared in to the trees as the route took us through the next exceptionally fun part of the course.

The last couple of miles on loop 3 were so much fun. The trail was amazing as it wound through moss-covered trees and with the snow having still made its way through, there was far more mud making some of the steep downhills slippery hard going. The difference this time was not having anything to hold onto and slipping here would take us rolling down the hill to the stream below. By now my gloves were sopping wet with using the ground to steady myself and I could feel my fingers starting to get numb from the cold.
We dropped further down the hillside and then had to use a rope to drop down to the stream and cross over to the other side. I tried not to step in the water as I knew it would be freezing cold, but the wet rock meant that my feet got another soaking and my toes were starting to protest.

The trail appeared to disappear the other side as we climbed up a peat covered hillside, climbing over fallen trees and literally dragging ourselves up the short, steep climb. Only on reaching the top could we start to run again and even then, it was very wet and muddy causing me to almost lose a shoe as the mud tried to claim it.

5 or 10 minutes later, I heard the main aid station again and I found that I had already completed the loop. I was expecting it to be about 10km, but it hadn’t taken long to complete, and I thought that maybe we had to do it 3 times rather than twice as I’d previously thought.

Andy was once again at the aid station waiting for me and I removed my gloves with intentions of changing them. I spotted the other two leading ladies at the aid station and knew that I needed to start the next loop ASAP to give me the advantage over them. In my haste, I forgot to take my dry gloves with me which I would come to regret just 10 minutes or so later, but I had spotted the opportunity to take the lead, so I went for it.

I’d moved into second place and after a few minutes chasing the leading lady, I caught her on a narrow, muddy section of trail and she stopped to let me pass. I don’t know if she realized she had just given up the lead and I hesitated thinking maybe I should say something, but my legs just wanted to go and started to pull away.

I knew that this was the last lap for us but when I looked at my watch and it showed just 20 miles or so, I thought that we either had one more lap to do, or else I had accidentally stopped my watch and forgotten to restart it. I was more frustrated about the latter crazy as it sounds – geez, us runners eh?! – and tried to speed up to open as much a gap as possible now that I was leading. I knew the river section was coming, I knew that the climb was coming, I knew that I had to make ground before the climb, and somehow, I managed to keep ahead.

The final stretch through the woods was just as much fun as last time and I recklessly ran up and down the hills, getting caked in mud pretty much everywhere in my determination to now win this race. The steep climb after the stream had my legs burning but I refused to relent, and as I ran down the hill towards the finish line, I knew that I had just about done it.

But there was still a lingering doubt – my watch only said 22 miles - and despite the course change I was still expecting to be closer to 50k. As I ran towards the finish line, I was convinced I’d have to do out to do another lap. I stopped to check with the timekeepers and only when they confirmed that I had indeed finished did I stop my watch – 22.1 miles in 3 hours 48 minutes, I had won the ladies race with just a minute between me and the second placed lady.

Have I finished? Or is there another lap?
PC Rivers Edge Ultra

I was presented with my trophy at the finish line as the snow still came down, but I was so happy to have won that I had become oblivious to the cold and the wet. It was only when I went in to the warming tent to change in to dry clothes that I started to shiver and realized just how cold I really was. Thankfully Andy was there to look after me and I was soon toasty warm again and drinking a most welcome cup of hot coffee.

Finish line awards and happy to have won. Snow? What snow?!
Picture Credit: Rivers Edge Ultra

The Rivers Edge Ultra really is an awesome race on some gorgeous trails and the organisers did an amazing job adapting and making sure the race still went ahead, especially considering how crappy the weather was. The volunteers deserve a medal for standing out there in the cold just to look after the runners – there was a 100k race too along with a 50 miler, and folks had been out there for hours already before I even started to run!

What I loved more than anything about the day was that nobody complained and the ultra-running and trail running community came together to make the most of the day. The conditions only made the race more challenging which is why we enter these races – to challenge ourselves, to test our limits to the max, to see what we are really made of. If Mother Nature gave us perfect conditions all the time, if every race we did went just as planned, how do we ever learn to adapt? Do we ever really learn what we’re made of? What’s the point in even doing these things if everything is easy? And let’s face it, when we have a race that really is perfect, doesn’t it make it even more special?

Until next time, happy trails and happy running to you all 😊

Beautiful wooden trophies ;-)

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