Race Recap: St. John’s Uniformed Services Run Half Marathon at 21 Weeks Pregnant!

[Surprise, surprise – I wrote this post over a month ago but am only getting around to posting it now. I was waiting for them to post race pictures because I swear I saw a race photographer on the course, but I never did find any photos!]

The Uniformed Services Run in St. John’s, Newfoundland, was one of those races that could have totally gone either way.

On the one hand, I had trained steadily for a trail half just three weeks prior, plus I had tacked on the last couple of weeks of a regular road half marathon training program to fill the time between the trail half and the St. John’s half. In theory, I was in decent running shape for the race.

On the other hand, I spent the eight days leading up to the race in full tourist mode, meaning lots of time sitting in a plane or car and lots of indulgent meals (with some fresh Atlantic salmon thrown in here and there, for good measure). I managed to squeeze in a couple of short (<5k) runs and we did a few hikes as well, but I was certainly moving less than I ordinarily would in the week leading up to a race.

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Behold: Magee and the Great Porta Potty Line Up. (Do I look overdressed for a race in June? Um, yes.)

Running a race away from home has its own challenges, too. I’ve only ever run one non-BC race – a ten miler in Toronto eons and eons ago. Running a race on a vacation means you have to remember to pack everything you’ll need ahead of time, plus pre-race rituals (like the meal you typically eat the night before a race) are tougher to stick to.

Throw the fact that I was 21 weeks pregnant into the mix, and you can see why things felt totally up in the air. For this race, I was at that point where some days, I almost forgot I was pregnant – but other days, I would get winded just walking up a short but steep incline. Even though I’d just run a trail half 3 weeks before, I knew that a whole lot could happen, fitness-wise, in those 3 weeks.

(As an aside, there is something oddly satisfying about running 21k at 21 weeks.)

So you can see why I had no idea what to expect going into this race. Well, I’m glad to say that it pretty much turned out to be the best case scenario!

Initially, my goal had been to enjoy the race and just finish before the 3 hour cutoff. After completing the Loop the Lakes trail half in about 2 and a half hours, I decided I could probably expect to run a road half at least as fast as that, given the relative lack of elevation. I estimated that I would probably finish around 2:15 – 2:30, depending on how it all went down on race day.

On the third day of our Newfoundland trip, it had snowed in St. John’s. The day before the race was cold and damp – the kind of weather that really gets into your bones. I was understandably a little worried about what race day would bring, but the forecast looked promising: sunny but cool (6 degrees, but feeling more like 1 or 2 degrees at our 7:30 AM start time). I had brought one t-shirt, one long sleeved shirt, one pair of shorts, and one pair of running leggings, so I had to option to mix and match depending on the weather. I opted for the long sleeved shirt and leggings, which seemed a little ridiculous for mid-June, but hey – cold is cold!

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Our friend was much faster than me – possibly because he wore shorts instead of pants?

By the time we got to the start line, I could already tell that I had overdressed. It definitely did not feel like 1 or 2 degrees – more like 10 or 11 degrees – and I felt envious of the runners around me who were wearing t-shirts and shorts. It was too late for a wardrobe change, so I decided I would just have to make do.

I pulled up to the start line less than a minute before the race actually started, and I seeded myself towards the back, knowing that I would probably be on the slower side. Before I knew it, we were off.

I knew virtually nothing about the course. Our friend was running the half (though his goal time was much more ambitious than mine), and he had told me that there was some nice downhill to start the race. I also knew there was a loop that I’d have to repeat twice, though I wasn’t sure when it would come up or how long the loop was. I’d read the course description, but all the names of the roads were foreign to me so I decided to just go with the flow.

The first few k were indeed downhill – and HOT! Despite a pre-race bathroom break, within the first kilometre, I was already sweating buckets and I also had to pee. There was a porta potty at the first aid station, but another runner juuust beat me to it. I waited for about 30 seconds but when he didn’t emerge, I decided he was probably going to be in there awhile longer and that I was probably better off just hustling to the porta potty at the next aid station.

There was a good crowd of runners around me, but then the course split off into half marathon and 10k runners – and most of the people around me abandoned me as they turned right towards the 10k course. This was the beginning of my first loop. Despite feeling a little overheated and having to pee, my legs were feeling pretty good and I was enjoying the run.

As I made a U-turn at the far end of the loop, the course marshal said something about pacing myself as I ran into the wind. Wind? What wind?

Then, as I began running in the opposite direction, it hit me – and I mean it, the wind smacked me right in the face. On the plus side, I no longer felt hot and overdressed. On the down side, it was serious work running into the wind. That infamous Newfoundland wind is no joke!

I had time to gather a bit of energy as I stopped at the (thankfully vacant) porta potty at the next aid station, then got back to it. Running into the wind was tough, and as we rejoined the 10k course, the road started to get a little hillier. Thankfully, the hills didn’t bother me too much – I credit this all the trail running I’ve done in the past few months.

One thing to note is that this race has no kilometre markers. I never had any idea whatsoever how far along I was – I wasn’t even wearing a watch (though I had my phone tucked away into my running vest. By the way, I’m pretty sure I was the only runner with a running vest. Trail habits die hard!) I was, however, beginning to wonder when my second lap of the loop would start. For some reason, I had thought that the loop was much shorter than it actually was.

Just when I was starting to feel a little discouraged, I ran into some fans: Cedric and the wife of the friend who was also running. I didn’t think that I would get to see them along the course, so it was great to get some high fives from them. This also happened to be about the point where the first loop ended and the second began – at least now I knew what to expect for the next loop.

I enjoyed a little stretch with the wind at my back, then it was once more time to run straight into it. I stopped at the same porta potty on my second loop that I had on my first loop – pregnancy bladder is real!

I am pretty certain that the wind picked up as the morning went on. At this point, the runners were very spread out – at times, I could only just barely make out the colour of the shirt of the next person ahead of me, and they would sometimes disappear over a hill or around a corner. There were marshals along the course, but I really had no idea where I was going, so I wanted to try to keep another race in view at all times.

Meanwhile, my legs were still feeling good. I felt like I was pushing myself, but comfortably – the kind where your legs will probably feel sore the next day, but you don’t feel like throwing up or anything (this is generally a sensation that one wants to avoid when running pregnant, to be sure). Eventually, the person ahead of me would come closer into view until I was able to pass them, then I would target a new shirt colour.

This is how the last few k went – I’d see a shirt colour, slowly catch up to them, and find a new target to lead me to the finish line. The only thing is that I wasn’t sure how far away the finish line was – I knew when I had completed the second lap, but from there I wasn’t sure how far into the race we were.

The last little bit was a slog – windier than ever, and just uphill enough to chew up your legs. I had been trailing a guy in a blue shirt and I passed him as we entered the park. Suddenly, I couldn’t see anyone ahead of me – and I was at a T junction with no course marshal in sight! I asked a bystander if she knew where I should go and she said she thought she saw people take a left, so I decided to do the same. For a moment or two, I thought I might have made a mistake – but then I saw the finish line come into view, thankfully.

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Finish line swag

The finish line clock was just turning to 2:03 as I crossed it (my chip time ended up being 2:02:47) – and I couldn’t believe it! I knew I had felt good, but this was a totally normal road half marathon time for me – and things had been SO windy and, you know, the whole pregnant thing. It was one of those days where things just kind of aligned for me and I struck that magical, elusive balance of pushing myself while still really enjoying the whole thing.

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PEACE, BABY! (This is why my hands look weird in the previous photo – because they were in transition to peace signs)

Another magical, elusive miracle: my Strava app actually recorded the correct 21.1 km distance (although it put my moving time at 2:02:15, so something was a little off – maybe my bathroom breaks automatically paused it?). My KM times are approximately as follows:

  1. 5:59
  2. 5:19
  3. 5:33
  4. 5:35
  5. 5:19
  6. 5:20
  7. 5:44
  8. 5:52
  9. 6:02
  10. 5:54
  11. 5:58
  12. 5:44
  13. 5:27
  14. 5:25
  15. 5:39
  16. 5:33
  17. 6:12
  18. 5:50
  19. 6:07
  20. 6:30
  21. 5:58

I’m not sure when my two bathroom breaks were – I would guess kms 9 and 17.

I am pretty sure that this was the last “big” race while pregnant – though I still hope to run a few shorter, for fun races. Who knows when my next half will  be – but hopefully it’ll be as much fun as this one was.

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Race Recap: Run Squamish’s Loop the Lakes 21k

I had such good intentions of writing this post immediately after I finished the Loop the Lakes race… but I didn’t. So instead of writing it with fresh memories and emotions, I’m writing it about a month after the fact. It’s not nearly as satisfying, but better late than never, I suppose.

A quick background: I ran Run Squamish’s Loop the Lakes 21k race last year (recap here!), though under less-than-ideal conditions: I had sprained my ankle in March, so training was sporadic and limited. Plus, it was my longest trail run ever at the time, so the intimidation factor was considerable.

This year, I had the advantage of a few good trail races under my belt from last year – not to mention the fact that I knew the course inside out, having run the same race the year before and having incorporated many of the trails on my training runs. Speaking of training – I trained for this one! Properly and everything! You can read a bit about my training here. I dutifully ticked off each and every run in my training plan, and I even incorporated speed work and hill workouts, which I’ve never officially done before.

There was only one little challenge that popped up in the months leading up to this race: I got pregnant!

When I signed up for the Loop the Lakes 21k back in the fall, I knew there was a chance I would be pregnant by the time it rolled around. I figured there was also a chance that I might not be pregnant, and if that was the case, I certainly wanted to keep up with my running. I decided to sign up because the race would be relatively early in my pregnancy and there was always the option of dropping down to a shorter distance (8k or 15k) if I wasn’t feeling up to the half.

In the end, the entire training period aligned with being pregnant, and I ran the race at 18 weeks. The training runs weren’t always pretty (lots of chafing, lots of pee breaks – I will write more about pregnancy and trail running/running in another post), but they always got done. I was very lucky to feel pretty good overall during my first trimester, and on the days where I wasn’t feeling so hot, I always felt soooo much better when I was out on the trails, even if I was going at a snail’s pace. Being in the trees and moving around always seemed to do the trick for me – though I acknowledge that this is definitely not the case for everyone. (And I did have a few very discouraging training runs – again, I’ll talk about this in another post.)

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Classic pre-race photo – check

 

 

The weeks leading up to the race were HOT – like, 25 to 30 degrees hot. Yet somehow, race day ended up being perfect: cool, overcast, and all around optimal. I headed to the start line at Alice Lake and got a good warm up walk in as I walked from the parking lot to the starting line (be sure to give yourself LOTS of time for this – I arrived at the start just a couple of minutes before go time).

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KILLER finish line food at the Nester’s tent – although the oranges were the only thing I was interested in.

Before I knew it, we were off. I seeded myself towards the back of the pack, anticipating that there was a good chance that I would be one of the last of the half marathoners to cross the finish line. As we headed out to loop around the first like (Alice Lake), another girl made a comment about being happy to let others go ahead of her – she told me her motto for this quarter of the race was “slow and easy”. I never thought about having a motto for each quarter, but I liked the thought and decided to adopt it myself.

Slow and easy seemed especially fitting since it would prevent the keeping-up-with-the-pack start line jitters – plus, I have grown to dislike running the Four Lakes Loop clockwise in Alice Lake Provincial Park, and this motto would get me through it in one piece. I’m not sure why I don’t like it – I think it’s because I have run it a few times too many and it has just enough incline to be runnable, but annoying.

Anyway, I took it slow and easy through this first section of trails and found myself thinking that the small uphills weren’t as horrible as I’d anticipated. I pulled over at the same porta potty I stopped at during the 5 Peaks race for a pee break (for those doing the math – I was also pregnant during the 5 Peaks race), then got ready for the second quarter of the run.

The second quarter is actually my favourite part of the run – I love the technical parts of Entrails and the flowy, downhill Roller Coaster and Lumberjack segments more than anything. I had run these trails a ton during training and I surprised myself when I was able to pass a few people on some of the more technical bits. At this point of the race, I was feeling great – though I knew it was still early on. Still, rather than focusing on how things might start to hurt in a little while, I decided to enjoy feeling great while it lasted.

 

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These extremely unflattering spandex shorts are the only warm weather bottoms I have that currently don’t cause extreme chafing.

When I popped out of the bottom of Lumberjack, I adopted a new motto for the third quarter of the race: keep your head down and run. This part of the race features the Around the Rock section that I remembered from the previous year as being pretty uphill – zapping any evidence of a runner’s high that might have developed on Roller Coaster and Lumberjack. This was actually the only part of the race that I hadn’t covered in my training runs and, indeed, it did have lots of uphill and I certainly slowed down. The reward was none other than my beloved (not) Jack’s Trail – mostly the same section that is covered in the 5 Peaks race, where the incline is slight but relentless.

Throughout this section of the race, I felt like I was running alone – I saw virtually no one else out there, aside from some course marshals. This was fine by me – I did the vast majority of my training runs by myself, so it was nothing new. Besides, I was still feeling pretty good.

At long last, I found myself back at Alice Lake Provincial Park – but the race wasn’t over. I now had to run the Four Lakes Loop counter-clockwise for the fourth and final quarter. My motto for this leg: dig deep. The end of the race is so often where the wheels start to fall off, and in this race, us 21k runners actually run against a stream of 8k runners for part of the stretch. The 8k runners got to tackle a fun downhill, which for me was a slog of an uphill. But I knew that once I got through the uphill, it would be relatively easy until I crossed the finish line – mostly flat and downhill, woohoo!

I didn’t need to dig to deep after all (though I did take one more porta potty stop, for good measure). Overall, I was feeling pretty good – far better than I had for either of the two 19k runs I had done in training.

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Finish line fun

When it was all said and done, I crossed the finish line in 2:33:09 – placing me 26th out of 42 women. More importantly, I beat my time from last year by more than 21 minutes – at 18 weeks pregnant, to boot!

All in all, it was a great day. The runner’s high lasted me through the entire weekend. I was proud of having felt so good throughout the entire run – and I was really, really proud of all those training runs I had completed, even on the days where it was the last thing I felt like doing. Having a race like this was exactly the motivation I needed to get outside and get moving – two things I hope this future baby likes to do, too!

5 Peaks Alice Lake Race Recap: First Race of 2018 in the Books!

I am pleased to report that the first race of the season was a great success!

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Don’t mind our colourful wardrobe choices…

Cedric and I volunteered as course marshals last year at the 5 Peaks Alice Lake race, and as a thank you, we received a free into any 5 Peaks race. We saved it for this year’s iteration of the race and had a fantastic time on our respective courses (Cedric did the 8.5k sport course, I ran the 13k enduro course).

This was my second race in the 5 Peaks series, but it had been years since I ran my first one (which was up on Blackcomb mountain).

Logistically, the race was very well run. We picked up our race packages the day before at Capra, so we didn’t feel rushed to get to the start line on Saturday morning. Still, we left with plenty of time because parking at Alice Lake can be finicky. The pre-race email was very clear about parking; it advised to give yourself lots of time and noted that those who carpooled would be rewarded with the better parking spots.

Since we were only two in our car, we parked down by the highway and prepared ourselves for a long-ish, uphill walk to the start line. Luckily, we were able to hitch a ride up with another car – in the end, we only ended up walking 10 minutes or so to the start.

As the kid races were underway, I made my way to the queue for the porta potties. It was longish, but moved steadily and I made it in and out with a good 10 minutes to spare before the start of the race.

The enduro runners got a head start over the sport runners. The two courses start out the same for the first 4 or 5 km, so this gives everyone a good chance to space themselves out a bit. To help ease congestion on the trails even more, we seeded ourselves into different groups. Each seed took off a few minutes apart. I hung back, starting with the last group – speed wasn’t my goal for this race.

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I spy Cedric! Photo Credit: Rob Shaer Photo

I should mention now that despite a nasty weather forecast, the weather was PERFECT. It was cloudy and cool for the most part, with the sun peeking through every so often. I saw people in shorts and tanks, and I saw people in down vests. It was that perfect in between weather. Despite a few days of steady rain leading up to the race, I didn’t find the trails to be too muddy at all. I had expected the worst weather-wise, but it ended up being just fine. I love when that happens!

The first part of the race takes you clockwise along the Four Lakes Loop. At this point, everyone was trying to find their place in the pack – there was a lot of passing and leapfrogging, but it wasn’t too bad. Things cleared up quite a bit as we approached the wide, flat stretch (where you hang a right to continue onto Four Lakes, rather than going left onto Bob McIntosh). I no longer felt like I was fighting for a spot as there was plenty of space.

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I like this photo because I’m such a ninny about running on the wooden parts when it’s wet – I always look down. Photo Credit: Rob Shaer Photo

Despite my pre-race porta potty visit, I had to pee again – but I knew there were a couple of outhouses along this stretch of the trail. The first one was occupied, but the second one a little further down was free. There’s a race hack for those who are stuck in a long line as the race is about to start – if you can hang in there for a few km, you can visit the on course toilets!

Shortly after the toilets (and aid station) is when the two courses split off. The enduro runners go for an additional loop along Tazer, Rupert, and some other trails. I happen to think that this loop features some of the most fun trails to run – I would definitely recommend it if you’re torn between the two distances. It starts of with a bit of uphill (still runnable, if you’ve got plenty of steam in your engine), then continues on to some fun, technical stuff with plenty of cool bike features.

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Solid game face from Cedric. Photo Credit: Rob Shaer Photo

The trail opens up at Tracks from Hell, which has a nice wooden bridge/platform section (I always like running these for a change of pace). Eventually, the course merges back and for a short section, you run a part of the course that you already covered a little earlier. It gives a bit of a sense of deja vu.

Shortly after, the course takes you towards Credit Line. I run Credit Line all the time, so I was looking forward to the long stretch of technical downhill. If you’re not used to the trail, this section can be tricky – I saw plenty of people taking their time, and I totally understood why (after all, this is the trail I sprained my ankle on last year!) I was feeling pretty good the whole way down and eventually, I was spat out onto Jack’s Trail.

I feel like Jack’s is an underrated menacing little bugger. It’s “just” a green mountain biking trail and it is pretty even and non-technical, compared to a lot of other trails in the area. But it slopes upward juuuust enough to tucker you out, especially at the end of the race. It also seems to go on forever and everything kind of looks the same.

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Luckily (or not), I run Jack’s often, so I have certain landmarks I like to look out for to break up the monotony. From Credit Line, you pass Mid Life Crisis on your left – they had a couple of marshals here, which was nice for a morale boost. A little while later, you pass 50 Shades on your right – when you hit this point, know that the distance between Mid Life Crisis and 50 Shades is about the same distance as 50 Shades to the finish line. In other words, you’re almost there.

The nice part about the course is that pretty much as soon as you’re done with Jack’s, you’re right at the finish line – no need to run around Alice Lake or anything.

So that’s the course (I wrote it out for any 2019 or beyond runners who want a detailed preview – sometimes I like to look up race reports to get any idea of what I’m in for).

In terms of how I felt, in a word: GREAT! Without getting into too much detail, I have been running a lot for the past couple of months (gearing up for my Loop the Lakes 21k race next month), but I have been pretty conservative with speed. That’s saying a lot, as those who know me know that I’m not much of a speedster to begin with. My goal for the race was to push myself comfortably (oxymoron?), to maintain my energy right to the finish, and to really enjoy myself.

I feel like I succeeded at all three! I love the racing environment, and even though I am generally not very competitive (unless it involves board games), I like the rush and extra push I get from the people around me. I felt strong and steady the entire run, so I feel like I paced myself perfectly. I crossed the finish line feeling great – and then I stuffed my face with sliced oranges from the snack tent. I ended up running it all in 1:45:32 – kind of mid/back of the pack, which is about what I expected.

Cedric is not usually much of a runner, but I’m glad he joined me for this race and I think he did really well. We celebrated our respective finishes with a hearty breakfast at the Crabapple Cafe in Brackendale. The home fries are to die for.

All in all, 5 Peaks Alice Lake was an awesome experience. I’ll be back next year – whether as a volunteer or racer is still TBD.

Believe It or Not… I’m Still Running

I realize I have not posted about running in… oh, about forever.

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(Actually, I have not posted about anything in forever. I feel like so much of my day is spent on the computer for work, that lately, at the end of the day, the last thing I have felt like doing is getting back on the computer.)

That doesn’t mean I’ve stopped running. In fact, I’m running a lot – typically 5 times a week these days, just about all of which is on trails.

I mellowed out my running over the winter-iest winter months, opting mainly for runs in the 5 – 10 k range and more often on the pavement than on the trails, but I picked things up again towards the end of February to start training for the Loop the Lakes 21k.

I ran that race last year and I quite liked it, but my goal at the time was mainly survival. I had never run a trail race of that length, and an ankle sprain in March seriously messed with any intentions I had for training properly.

This time, I’m entering the race with a plan. Goal #1: don’t sprain my ankle (so far so good – touch wood!) Goal #2: follow a training plan.

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I can’t remember how I found this training plan (I think I googled some combination of trail running half marathon intermediate training), but so far I like it. It is a 12-week plan, which is enough to make me feel prepared but not so much that I start to burn out.

It incorporates 5 runs a week, which is a lot for me – 3 to 4 seems to be my happy place. But 5 is doable for 12 weeks, and it has been particularly enjoyable as the weather has crept from winter to spring (and back again to winter, on some occasions). The first few runs were done with crampons on iced-over trails – but now, I’ve already run a few in shorts and my crampons have been stashed away for the season. (Don’t make me eat my words, Mother Nature!)

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Swapped snow for rain

Each week features one workout type of run, which is somewhat new to me. I’ve often tried to incorporate things like hills and speed into my (admittedly informal, to date) training, but this one really maps it out for you with specific hill repeats, track workouts (ha ha, there is no track in Squamish – a quiet road will have to do), and Fartlek sprinty-fast runs. Don’t forget to do a warm up and cool down for these guys – I typically do 15 minutes of easy road running for each.

The regular runs have a mix of distances (building to 12 miles, which is about 19k) and tell you what kind of effort to give: easy, adding strides, negative splits, tempo, race goal pace, etc. I admit that I am only adhering to the effort part somewhat – the truth is that for trail running, my race goal pace and my easy pace aren’t terribly different from one another.

There are also a couple of rest days per week – I use these for hikes, gym days, or days where I’m too busy (and/or tired) to exercise.

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I haven’t followed the daily schedule faithfully, in that I may not do the designated Monday run on a Monday, but I will make sure it gets done sometime in that week. At the start of each week, I make a check list of each type of run I’m meant to do that week. As long as it gets checked off by the end of the week, I’m happy. That way, I can plan my long runs when the weather is best, and I can squeeze in the shorter ones when my days are busier.

While I’ve felt a little sluggish and low energy emerging from winter hibernation, I truly feel my best on these runs on the trails. Sometimes I forget how pleasurable it is to breath in trees and dirt and rocks – although Cedric and other seasonal allergy sufferers might beg to differ!


Before I tackle the Loop the Lakes course, I have one race to conquer first: the 5 Peaks Alice Lake race this coming weekend. Cedric and I volunteered at this race last year, and we received what I consider to be the ultimate volunteer perk: free registration for any 5 Peaks race. I’ll be running the longer course (13.5k), and even though it may be a little soggy, I’m really looking forward to it.

Over Easter weekend, my local trail running store, Capra, held a free orientation run for the 5 Peaks course. This was perfect – my training schedule happened to call for a 13k run and I always like knowing what I’m going to run ahead of a race.

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As a further bonus, my friend was able to join me at the last minute and we both did the course together – her longest trail run ever, and my longest run in about half a year.

As a bonus bonus, Capra had hidden little Easter eggs throughout the course. Even though we stayed towards the back of the very large pack (seriously – attendance was impressive!), I was determined to find an egg of my own. For the first half an hour or so, we were too busy chatting and forgot to look for eggs. Eventually, we remembered, and I was lucky enough to spot this little white one.

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They smartly imposed a limit of one egg per person, so we set out trying to find an egg for Becky. It was nice having something to distract ourselves with when our legs started getting tired – I wish ALL of my runs had prizes hidden throughout. Such great motivation!

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Alas, we never did find a second egg, but we made it in one piece and I’m feeling excited for the race this weekend. For those wondering, my egg was redeemed for a $25 Capra gift card – a most awesome prize. Thanks, Capra, for the fantastic event (and to Altra for the waffles afterwards!)

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I don’t think I will destroy any records on the Loop the Lakes course in May, but I hope to feel strong the whole time and to enjoy the race day (which I really did last year). I think I should be able to beat last year’s race time, but you know what? I can’t remember exactly how long it took me to run it last year, and I haven’t looked it up yet. I kind of just want to run it my best this year and then compare the two afterwards. We’ll see if I can hold out.

Happy running!

Woods Explorer Stories: Banff and the Canadian Rocky Mountains

We are lucky to have some pretty phenomenal landscapes in Canada, but the Rocky Mountains has to be one of my all-time favourites.

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Even though I live among the Coastal Mountains of BC – and I love them, truly – there’s something about the Rockies that humbles me every time I see them. I was very excited to visit them in Banff on the 12th leg of our trip of outdoor exploration across Canada.

We arrived in Banff right around Labour Day, fresh from an 8-day canoe trip along the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories – and we’d stumbled our way right into winter. It was seriously cold, and I won’t lie – I was exhausted from our previous leg.

Arriving in Alberta also meant that we were nearing the end of our five-month journey. Half of me wanted to squeeze every outdoorsy moment out of this trip, since I knew it wouldn’t last forever. The other half of me sorely missed my warm, comfortable bed.

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How I felt about taking photos at this point on our trip…

And so, our time in Banff was kind of a hybrid between outdoorsy and not. If you’ve ever been to Banff, you’ll know that if you stay by the town centre – as we did (in a campground, at least) – it’s hard to feel like you’re truly “out there”. It is pretty touristy and there are lots of shops, restaurants, hotels, and even a movie theatre. (We may have gone to see Straight Outta Compton – that’s the not-so-outdoorsy part.)

We toured the eternally busy Johnston Canyon (when in Rome, right?), then attempted a more challenging hike up Mount Bourgeau. It felt weird crossing through gates at the trail head – the gates are to keep grizzlies and other critters off the highway and main populated area, so when you cross them, you’re leaving your safe(ish) little bubble and entering no man’s land.

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The first part of the hike was no harder than many of the hikes I’ve done in BC, but man, I felt winded! I couldn’t determine if it was the elevation (we’re not a sea level anymore, Dorothy!) or just the fact that most of the hikes I’d been doing that summer had been pretty flat and not, you know, scrambling up a mountain.

We passed Bourgeau Lake and continued to head up. Now, things were getting more exposed – and stormy conditions were a-brewing. Clouds were rolling in and we were getting socked in. It rained. It hailed. It even snowed!

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We continued onward and upward until I couldn’t feel my hands anymore (remember – Raynauds!), and then we assessed our situation. Cedric was steadily on the “let’s get to the summit!” train, but I thought the weather was making things sketchier than we were probably prepared to face. Eventually, I convinced him that the dense fog meant we wouldn’t have any views even if we made it to the summit, so we turned back and made our way back down.

We had been leapfrogging with another couple on the way up, but lost them after we turned around. Shortly after we arrived back at the parking lot, they popped out. They, too, had turned around – they told us they had visions of being a headline: “Dumb Tourists Fall Off Side of Cliff in Fog”. I laughed – and very much related to the sentiment.

Nights weren’t great. The campsite was busy (being Labour Day weekend), so it was hard to feel like we were truly “out there”, as we had been in the NWT. Plus, the temperatures dipped well below zero. There was a lot of tossing and turning and it was hard to feel enthusiastic at all times, if I’m being perfectly honest.

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However, it was VERY easy to feel enthusiastic about one particular adventure: HORSEBACK RIDING!

We were both very green to the sport (activity? sport? what is it at this level?) of horseback riding. I had memories of riding a horse in a circle outside the IGA – can that be right? Was there such thing as horses in grocery store parking lots when I was little? I also vaguely remembered riding a horse named Raisin at my cousin’s stables around the age of 7. Nonetheless, we had been signed up for a full day of horseback riding in the Banff backcountry – and we were STOKED!

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Our horses were amazing. I had a fella named Caesar, and he was sassy and perfect. Cedric rode a horse named Possum. Possum was fantastic – he had to stay in the back of the pack because he annoyed other horses. Caesar was the only horse who could tolerate Possum, so I rode ahead of Cedric. When Possum would get too close to Caesar, Caesar would just swiftly kick him.

Shortly after we left for the trails, we were reminded that horses are actual beings, not just methods of transportation. Here’s what happened: a trail runner came up from behind and spooked Possum, who was at the back. Possum took off at full sprint (gallop? canter?!?!), Cedric hanging on for dear life. Possum’s freak out, in turn, startled Caesar, who also took off running. Thankfully, I held on tight as we passed the three horses ahead of us, and eventually Caesar and Possum chilled out. I was very weary of sudden noises and movements after that, but we didn’t have any more excitement of that genre.

Here’s one kind of excitement we did have: WOLVES! Thus far into our Woods Canada adventures, we’d seen bears, moose, deer, porcupines, porpoises, and even a whale – but no wolves. A way’s down the path ahead of us, we spotted a wolf and her pup before they tucked into the woods. They looked a lot like huskies from where we stood. In hindsight, it is kind of sad that we saw them, because there has been a lot of conflict in Banff with wolves, making it not so safe for them to be around. It’s kind of like bears in Whistler – they’re just chilling in their habitat and checking out the treats the people are leaving behind, but by being so close to people, they’re putting themselves in danger.

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Possum and Caesar had no problem navigating the terrain, even the steep and muddy bits and river crossings. The most nerve-wracking part was right at the end, when we walked them by the Fairmont and there were cars and buses and people everywhere. I was worried that the beep-beep-beep of a bus backing up would startle the horses, but we made it back in one piece.

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Earlier in the day, our guide had mentioned that it was rutting season for the elk, and that one male had been making a regular appearance late afternoon around their stables. We hung around (from the safety of our car – you do not want to mess with an elk in rutting season) and indeed, out he came, kicking up grass with his antlers and stomping around. He was on the cover of our Christmas card that year.

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Our time in Banff was more about micro adventures than one big one. It included hikes, wildlife, horseback rides, alpine explorations, waterfalls, a couple of trips to the movies, and yes – a trip to the Grizzly Paw brewery in Canmore (which also serves CRAFT SODA – a dream come true for me!). Leaving Alberta was bittersweet – on the one hand, it meant our adventure was coming to an end. On the other hand, it meant that I was getting closer to a night in my own bed and a FRESH CHANGE OF CLOTHES (I had been wearing the same two or three tops and bottoms on repeat for nearly five months).

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But the trip wasn’t over yet – we still had a couple of legs in our own neck of the woods to cap things off. Stories to come… some day…

Woods Explorer Stories: Northwest Territories, Part 3 and the Conclusion

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Umm… yeah. More on this shortly.

Do you know what I just realized?

I never finished writing about my summer spent camping, hiking, paddling, and otherwise making my way across Canada as a Woods Explorer!

In fact, I just left the stories about our trip down (up, technically – we were going north) the Mackenzie River in the Northwest Territories totally unfinished. YIKES!

These trips happened two and a half years ago, and I won’t lie – the memories aren’t all that fresh. However, I originally wanted to write them down so that I could revisit them down the road and remember all the good times (and a few of the not-so-good ones). So here we go.

If you missed it (or need a recap, because the last time I posted about this was more than half a year ago):

  • In Part 1, we delayed our canoe trip on the Mackenzie River due to winds and made some friends in Fort Providence.
  • In Part 2, we hit the river for many relentless days in the most wild country I’ve ever been exposed to.

Reading Part 2 with fresh eyes, I realize I made paddling the Mackenzie sound kind of unpleasant. The truth is that it was Type 2 fun: somewhat miserable while it happened, but pretty incredible looking back.

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These are the types of photos we didn’t share on social media originally. But this is what it was like day in day out: cold, flat, sparse, and grey (this is actually pretty bright grey for the trip!)

There is something unnerving about being so totally alone in nature. Cedric and I saw a ferry going upriver one of the first days of our trip, but that’s it – that was the only sign of active human life that we saw. The trees were so, so dense on either side of the river that it felt like we were in the middle of nowhere. I guess we kind of were.

But as long as the days were, as cold as the nights were, and as muddy as everything I owned was, it was still pretty magical. Case in point:

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The Northern Lights, ladies and gentlemen.

We were in the NWT in late August, which is not prime Northern Lights time – that would be mid-winter – but man, what a spectacle.

Despite the heavy cloud cover that plagued our entire trip, we lucked out with two nights of Northern Lights.

These Northern Lights were unreal. Both times we saw them, I had awoken in the night to go for a middle-of-the-night bathroom break – and even without my glasses or contacts, I could tell that something amazing was happening in the sky. Indeed, once I popped my glasses on, I saw the sky dance with green. That’s the best way I can describe it – dance. The sky was fluid and the lights were constantly moving and changing shapes.

It was cold as heck standing outside watching it all go down, but man – what a show. And to enjoy it by ourselves in the middle of the Dehcho was something I will never forget.

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Our second to last morning, we woke up to dark grey skies – again. As we took off to paddle, I could see a teeny, tiny opening of clouds way up on the horizon. It was the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, and I paddled like crazy all day hoping that the clouds would break and all would be well.

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We spotted this bad boy (the antler, not Cedric – heheh) on the side of the river towards the end of our trip

This day was monumental because we were approaching Jean Marie River, a small town of about 200 people. This was a potential exit point – if we weren’t able to make it all the way to Fort Simpson, the Canoe North people could pick us up here. At one point, we stopped for a snack and checked our map – and it looked like Jean Marie River was still a long, long way away.

Even though the weather was starting to clear up a little and – best of all – the river was starting to narrow and the current was helping propel us along, I felt totally, utterly defeated. I had kept up my spirits for most of the trip, but for some reason, I broke that afternoon.

The funny part is that we’d actually underestimated how far we were (this NEVER happened – we always thought we’d come further than we actually had), and we pulled into Jean Marie River less than an hour later.

We had planned on phoning Canoe North when we landed in Jean Marie River to give them a sense of whether we needed a pick up there (for instance, if we’d had an extra day of weather delay) or if we would make it to Fort Simpson. I won’t lie – part of me wanted to call it quits and have them pick us up the very next morning. But we didn’t quit. We phoned them on the satellite phone, told them we were right on schedule, and arranged for a pick up two days later in Fort Simpson.

We had kind of hoped that Jean Marie River would have some kind of store where we could buy hot food or a cold drink, but nope – it’s just a few houses with people! We ended up camping a little way down the river (this was the second night we got Northern Lights).

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Finally, we woke up for our last official day of paddling. We’d read that the distance between Jean Marie River and Fort Simpson was a solid day or two of paddling, but it took us less than a full day, thanks to the flowing current that helped push us forward. On a rare sunny day, we pulled onto a beach in Fort Simpson and caught a ride to the local campground. We’d made it!

Fort Simpson is small by our standards, but is considered a large-ish community in the NWT (according to the lady at the post office, anyway). We gobbled burgers at the only restaurant in town, visited the information centre, and enjoyed a solid snooze at the campground.

The next day, our ride from Canoe North arrived. It was a long, bumpy ride (and we saw a bear – despite not having seen one on our entire canoe trip!) and we made it back to Hay River just as it was getting dark. I enjoyed a glorious shower and we had another burger – this one was way better than the one in Fort Simpson. And the next morning, we flew out of Hay River and out of the Northwest Territories altogether.

Just like that – the biggest leg of the trip was done.

This was truly a once-in-a-lifetime kind of adventure. Traveling up North isn’t cheap, and frankly, there are so many places in the world to discover that it’s hard to repeat places you’ve already been. I don’t know if I will ever make it back to the Northwest Territories, but I do know that my short time there changed me profoundly.

Life in the territories is considerably different than anywhere else I’ve seen so far in Canada. Communities are small and distances are incredibly vast. It’s hard to wrap your head around without experiencing it – and I know I’ve only experienced a very small part of the territory. If you ever get the chance to visit, do it. Do it, do it, do it.

Our next leg took us to Banff, Alberta – for a very different experience than the one we’d just had. Hopefully, it won’t take me another year to write a blog post about it!

For the Love of the Adventure: “Snowshoeing” at “Garibaldi Lake”

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I am not what one would call a “peak bagger”.

Rather, I am a firm believer in the old cliche that the journey is the destination. In other words, if I have to amend or abort an adventure due to weather, injuries, time crunches, or other variables that are generally out of my control, I’m not really bothered.

I’m not concerned with reaching a summit; I’m more focused on getting outside and having a really nice time. So while a recent snowshoe trip to Garibaldi Lake ended up involving neither snowshoes nor lake, I still deem it a success. I got to play outside, enjoyed a rare and glorious sunny winter day to its fullest, spent some solid QT with friends, and capped my day off with (root) beer and snacks at Backcountry Brewing – by all objective measures, the adventure was a perfect one.

If you’ve ever done the Garibaldi Lake/Black Tusk/Panorama Ridge hike in the non-snowy season, you know that the first part of the hike involves a seemingly never ending series of switchbacks through the forest. However, in the snowy season, the hike starts one step earlier.

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The paved road to the trail head is not quite as easy to maneuver in the winter, when it is covered in snow, as it is in the summer, when it is not. Our first clue should have been the dozens of cars parked on the shoulder just past the turnoff. However, there were a few tough guy cars who had laid down some tracks along the road, and our Fearless Adventure Leader’s truck seemed as capable as any, so we happily bumped our way down the road to see how far we could get.

We got a decent way up, but the three point turn required to orient the vehicle properly for a smooth exit was a little trickier than anticipated. Luckily, our Fearless Adventure Leader had a sturdy avy shovel in his sturdy truck, so the rest of us got to feel useful as we dug and pushed it to a comfortable position on the shoulder of the road, out of the way of any other tough guy cars who dared make the trek.

Then, we were off. Though there was snow on the ground, it was fairly well packed and more easily tramped by foot than by snowshoe. We debated leaving our snowshoes in the car, but we ultimately decided to take them with us in case things got deeper and softer. Spoiler alert: we did not end up using them, though I am glad we took them because – as another hiker we bumped into with snowshoes strapped to her pack said – we got to take them out for a lovely walk. Snowshoes need fresh air and exercise too, right?

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Notably missing: snowshoes.

We lucked out on gorgeous, sunny weather, though under the canopy of trees in the switchbacks, we weren’t in much danger of getting a sunburn. The snow was a little sparse towards the bottom, but it covered most of the trail pretty solidly. I anticipate after some recent snowfall that the trails are even snowier – perhaps even requiring snowshoes?

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Cell phone cameras: taking poor quality selfies since the 2000s!

My biggest challenge with outdoor activities in the winter is temperature control. I have the attractive habit of sweating aggressively when doing any moderately strenuous activity (including hiking up switchbacks for hours). If I stop, say for lunch, the sweat cools instantly, chilling me to the bone. I’m usually able to reheat my core and my legs once I start moving again, but my extremities go yellow and lose circulation. (Google Raynaud’s if you want to gross yourself out a little.) I lose feeling, especially in my hands, and it is very uncomfortable and hard to regain feeling until I’m somewhere sheltered and warm and wearing something dry.

So, when we stopped around our pre-determined turnaround time to determine whether we wanted to keep going or call it a day – despite having not reached Garibaldi Lake – I was totally fine when we opted for the latter, knowing it meant I would regain feeling in my hands that much sooner.

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We came, we saw (some pretty trees, mostly), and although we didn’t conquer much, we had a great time, proving that one does not actually need snowshoes for an enjoyable snowshoe trip!