It’s never a nice feeling realising that you aren’t in as good shape as you’d hoped you were. Especially when you’re only fifteen minutes into a 5+ hour race. On Saturday I spent a day in the Rockies and 'got my ass kicked' by Minotaur Skyrace. Despite the pain, it was an incredible day out with many valuable lessons learnt.
When I first heard that the Skyrunning World Series was to have an event in Canada I immediately knew I wanted to go. Races are special experiences in their own right, but using them to travel to new places, meet new people, and travel new terrain is even better.
In the end I was lucky enough to be able to head out two weeks prior to the race to ‘acclimatise’. Part of this was getting used to the altitude, but mostly this was simply getting used to Canada. Travelling solo for events like this is something I really enjoy, and I think the independence makes me feel braver and stronger come race day. When I first arrived, however, I’m happy to admit I felt a little out of my depth.
Firstly, Canada is big! I know this is a cliche, but I really hadn’t appreciated this until I arrived and started to feel very, very small. The country is big, the mountains are big, the houses, the cars, the washing machines, the prairies, the cows - they’re all big!
Secondly, bears. Coming from tame Scotland where the main dangers are the weather and your own mistakes I found it really scary having an unpredictable threat whilst on my runs. I joked about the wildlife in the run up to the trip but was quite surprised how real my fear was when I finally arrived. Logically the threat isn’t that big - you’re more likely to be struck by lightening than attacked by a bear.
My first few runs were by myself and each time I took a few hours to psyche myself up to head out. Once running my eyes would lock in on signs of bears, I’d convince myself I was going to be charged at any second, and jump at any sounds from the forest. By the end of my first run my voice was hoarse and my hands sore from clapping and shouting my way round a 12k loop. There was so much adrenaline in my body that my heart rate would rocket whilst I cautiously jogged along at 5.30 min/km. It took about ten runs before my enjoyment of running began to outweigh my fear of the wildlife and I was able to settle into exploring the area properly. I’m so glad I gave myself this adjustment period; by the time race day came round my head was settled. In the near six hours I was running I only thought about bears a handful of times and never felt afraid. I’m still glad I never saw one though!
Finally, whilst Crowsnest Pass is a stunning place it was a little quieter than I’d expected. There isn’t much of a trail infrastructure or tourist hub and that (combined with unusual snowfall, flood warnings and bears) made me feel unusually intimidated about exploring the area. I was so grateful to Andrew and Erin (part of the Minotaur team) for taking me out, giving me maps, and hooking me up with locals to head out with. These experiences made me feel truly welcome in Crowsnest and helped me to settle into a rhythm of Canadian training. In the end, the week before race day was my first 100km week since injury three months ago. Lots of happy Canadian miles in these feet.
Race day dawned cold and misty. Race directors had made the decision the day previously to push back the start time two hours to 08:00. A decision everyone was happy with. Sky runners don’t seem to be morning people!
In the days before the race I’d recce’d the first climb (4km, 800m, steep!) and the final 6km (3km of soft downhill forest and 3km of flat tarmac). The rest of the race was unknown and intriguing. The race directors told us that the course would take us to some truly remote areas along trails they’d built themselves over the last two years. Only a handful of people had been on the route before. Race predictions reflected the nature of the terrain with the men’s winning estimate being just over four hours for 33km and 2,900m.
I felt fresh and strong for first kms through town and up the hill, but as the climb wore on I found myself dropping back from the leading women. This was disappointing as the uphill is normally my strength, but I soon realised that my fitness simply wasn’t where I’d hoped it was. The rest of the climb was spent mentally adjusting and trying to focus on experience over outcome though this attitude was immediately dropped whenever I began to catch up with someone!
By the bottom of the first climb I was in 6th and totally by myself, but just as I decided to focus on enjoying the day instead of running hard 5th and 4th came into view and I was able to reel them in on the runnable section into the aid station. We spent the rest of the day switching positions and challenging each other’s weaknesses.
As my legs warmed up I was able to attack the ups more and hold my own, but I would soon be dropped on the downs and have to work hard to catch up again. This was especially true on the section called ‘shoe shredder’: a drop of 600m in less than a km on an incredibly steep scree slope. Rea and Kalie flew down this and though I felt I was moving decently I simply couldn’t keep up.
Interestingly I think part of this was unfamiliarity with the terrain. This scree was unlike anything I’ve run in the Alps or Scotland in terms of depth, rock size, and consistency. I just wasn’t sure how to tackle it! The same applied to much of the race; it is easy to assume that mountains are similar the world over, but rock, soil and vegetation type make a huge difference in how you run a trail. I found myself unable to commit to lines because I wasn’t sure how grippy the rock was or how soft the ground was. Perhaps two weeks acclimatisation wasn’t enough after all!
For the third and final climb I was on my own. It was 11:00 and temperatures were rocketing. At the first summit we’d been running through falling snow and on this climb we were grabbing fistfuls of lying snow to cool ourselves down! I could see Real and Kalie ahead of me, but couldn’t close the gap with any significance. By the time we were traversing the ridge to the final summit (my favourite section of the course) I could only see Rea and still couldn’t get any closer to her.
From the final summit we’d been told it was 11km of runnable downhill to the finish line. In reality it was a long slog of technical, undulating terrain, a lot of which was on a fairly unpleasant camber. I lost sight of Rea altogether at this point and just focussed on keeping moving as every slight undulation would slow me to a walk. Then, suddenly, with 6.5km to go I could see her! It’s amazing how a little competition can rejuvenate the legs. I put in a kick and overtook Rea on our way into the final aid station. I abandoned my long held dream of stopping here for a drink and hustled through into the final section of the race. I was now on trail I knew and felt able to pace my effort to the finish line. Resisting looking over my shoulder too much I ran a steady pace to the finish and crossed the line in 5th place.
At the start of the race when I realised I couldn’t keep up with the fast girls I felt frustrated and disappointed in myself. I knew I wasn’t in top shape going into the race, but had hoped I would do better. It’s important not to be too harsh on yourself though, and I kept reminding myself that I’ve been injured for the last three months. Whilst I have been able to run for some of that I haven’t risked trining hard. My focus was on getting back to running rather than peak fitness, and on Saturday I was able to run a beautiful course in a different continent pain free. I’ll have to take that as success for now. I also reminded myself of the joy I felt with my first 5th place finish in a world series race back in 2019, it felt like an insult to 2019 me to not be happy with 5th again this weekend.
It was also useful to realise what I need to work on through the race, and to get the motivation to work hard to get there. I’m looking forward to racing later in the season, not necessarily to chase better results but to run with confidence and test my limits.
So what’s next? I’m planning on racing again this weekend at Garmin Epic Trail. I’m not expecting a great race given the short recovery window and amount of travel to get there, but I’m looking forward to a hard day out and getting to know a classic Skyrunning course!