Fall Colours

During my exhausting trail half marathon this past weekend I may have tired myself out good and proper, but I managed to keep enough mental focus to nab some photos of my adventures through the autumn foliage.

Of course when one is running an epic wilderness race carrying proper camera equipment is out of the question.

I did have my smartphone, tho.

And when opportunity permitted I tugged it from the side pocket of my hydration vest and paused for a moment to nab some photos.

Enjoy.

Race Report from the Rivers Edge

Sunday Runday and I mostly rested.

Having spent about three and a half hours running an ultra-style half marathon yesterday, the first actual bibbed, chipped, other-people-on-route race I’ve run in nearly two years, I was feeling very tired.

By the time I crawled out of bed yesterday morning, the folks who tackled the much longer distances, eighty and one hundred kilometers, had already been running for a couple hours.

The twenty-one kilometer race was set to start at noon, so I had plenty of time to sip my coffee, make pancakes for the family, do some stretches and prep my gear.

In fact, I got a little bored waiting around the house and drove out to the start line an hour and a half early for our noon gun. This reminded me of one of the best parts of racing, which is the social aspect of hanging around the start/finish zone.

In fact, I lucked out and ended up having a nice conversation (and admittedly a bit of a pre-race pep talk) from one of our local ultramarathon legends who was volunteering in the finish zone.

Regular readers may recall that this was the race I have been planning (and dreading a bit) over the last few months. I bought a new pair of trail shoes for the event and a couple months back we test-ran part of the longer-distance course and came home with few souvenirs in the form of wasp stings.

No matter, the day was upon us. I was as trained as I could have been, and ready to face the wilds of the local river valley.

At noon they called us all over, we peeled off our face masks, and they sent us along our way and into the woods.

And it began.

The twenty-one kilometer course was actually made up of running two of the four mapped loops.

Our first leg was a twelve kilometer lap called “summit” and climbing up a short rise from the start line we vanished into the woods for about four kilometers of rolling, undulating, root-twisted, mud soaked forest trail. Here one of my crew tripped and twisted her ankle, and we thought she was out for the day (though she surprised us and toughed it to the finish adding less than an hour onto her expected time via limp.)

The summit loop climbed up into a mix of agricultural and swamp land. If we weren’t mucking through soft, wet peat, we were stumbing over crop stubble or plugging our noses past a chicken barn. This finished with another hard couple of klicks back through the forest and to the transition/finish area.

Our second leg had earned the name “island” because of the three kilometer lap around a river island plumb in the middle of the leg.

A four kilometer winding run along the river shoreline brought us to a thick, muddy rope that was dangling along the side of a short cliff into the water. Climbing down everyone was met with an ice cold, mid-thigh wade through about twenty-five meters of the North Saskatchewan river where, with numb feet, we climbed another rope back out on the other side.

The fall foliage photo above was taken about mid-lap around the island where I was already starting to feel the fatigue and had long since gotten used to jogging along with drenched socks inside my “waterproof” shoes.

Escaping the island was simply the reverse of crossing over to it, and with a mere two kilometers left in the race one might have thought the event was in the bag. But no. With soacking wet feet we had to ascend out of the river valley up a virtual cliff, hand-over-handing it up another rope before disappearing into the forest for more rolling hills, more mud, a sketchy creek crossing, and a final glorious decent towards the finish line.

A couple years ago I ran a half marathon through the streets of Dublin, fighting the cobblestones and the rolling hills of Pheonix Park. My time was about two hours.

Yesterday I stumbled across the finish line after three and half hours, almost twice that time, and I honestly feel like I didn’t leave anything behind in the tank that would have sped that up much.

After nearly two years without real racing, not to mention eighteen months of work from home sloth and stress, I don’t think I’d say I’m in the prime shape of my life, but that I was able to fight through that course yesterday was a pretty good feeling overall.

…but no, I haven’t signed up for next year.

How to Plan a Local Adventure

So you’re stuck at home during travel restrictions but still need something exciting to do close to home. I don’t know where you live, but adventure lurks nearby if you know how to plan for it.

Choose Your Activity

I needed a good excuse to keep running…

…but, last year as the pandemic restrictions ramped up, the running store (where we’d been meeting and running from) shut it’s doors. It was geographically convenient and had ample parking. Plus everyone knew to meet there on certain days and times so that we could run together.

The simple approach might have been to just keep running as we were, meeting from a parking lot, and for many runs over the past year we did. Yet, I wanted something more, and I suspected a lot of the crew might start to get bored and go off on their own plans if nothing more exciting happened.

Invent a Concept

Instead of panicking or just running solo, I decided it might be interesting to find somewhere new and interesting to run as we no longer had any good reason to keep running from a closed-up retail store. I also decided I’d like to see more of the city trails that I had never bothered to check out because they were not particularly reachable on a short run distance from that store.

I called it adventure runs.

Plan a Goal

A running adventure sounds like a self-evident concept, but in fact it encompasses so much potential… and potential for disappointment.

I was working full time (I still am) and didn’t have time nor motivation to sit down and plot out full miniature courses each week through locations I’d never spent much time traversing.

Instead I set the goal as something simple: if we ran somewhere new, down a new path, in a new neighbourhood, and saw something or somewhere we’d never seen (or hadn’t seen in a long time) then the adventure run was a success.

Pick a Starting Point

The second part of that concept was picking a good starting point.

It had to have access to trails. There needed to be enough parking (since we could not carpool during the restrictions and transit was still not running at full capacity.) Later in the summer a nearby ice cream shop or coffee stop was requested for afterwards. And of course, it had to be somewhere that felt remote-ish or like we were about to embark on some crazy adventure.

Invite Willing Participants

The gimmick then became about the mystery and the invite.

We have a group chat that has been around for years with a tight knit group of runners who have often been up for exactly this kind of adventure.

I would keep the suspense up. Eventually, as the summer progressed, folks would ask in the lead up week “where is the adventure run this week?” or “what are you planning for Wednesday night?”

The rule quickly followed: “The plan would be announced the morning of the adventure run. Keep your calendar open and check your messages.”

Show Up

On our best days we had as many as a dozen or more people show up.

I always did.

Rain or shine.

If I felt like leading a run or not, I was there.

And this morning, the first good spring Wednesday post-restrictions, I just sent out that notice once again.

Season two of the adventure runs, by enthusiastic request, start tonight.

Weekend Walking Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary

The Canadian prairies have a long and storied history that has been felt through the countless ecosystem changes in flora and fauna, and punctuated by the lives and actions of a handful of various peopled cultures that have lived and settled here for some recent thousands of years.

I state it in this particular way to draw attention to the very idea of a nature sanctuary.

A nature sanctuary is a space that has been set aside for the specific purpose of drawing a line around a bit of the map and deciding, as much as it is possible, to pause the progression of history or preserve a piece of it.

We drove to the nearby Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary on this recent sunny Sunday afternoon to wander the trails here and enjoy the day.

The parking lot was full to overflowing.

The sun was hot but the breeze pushing through the trees was still carrying the coolness of late spring.

I turned on my camera.

Located 33 km southwest of Edmonton’s city centre, the Clifford E. Lee Nature Sanctuary protects 348 acres of marshland, open meadow, aspen parkland and pine forest. The varied habitats of the Sanctuary attract a diversity of animals, including more than one hundred bird species, and provide excellent opportunities for wildlife viewing.

This particular nature sanctuary was a space that was new to me. I’d never made the trip out here previously.

There is a particular patch of wilderness here. It is crammed between the city-proper to the east, a trans-provincial highway to the north, and the twisting North Saskatchewan river to the south.

The land is a mix of marsh and forest and seemingly poor agricultural space because it is speckled with acreages and nature preserves and the local University’s botanic gardens.

There is a local ultra marathon that runs annually through the “river’s edge” tracing along the bottom of the above map tempting local runners with an eclectic single-track adventure on trails regularly inaccessible except with permission of the land owner.

And when I was much younger, the scoutmaster of my troop knew of a bit of land (or likely knew of someone who owned a bit of land) in this area where we frequently winter-camped as teenagers.

In short, when I think of nearby wilderness, it is this block of a few hundred square kilometers that often jumps into my mind first.

The nature sanctuary itself was only established in the late 1970s, and set aside as a block of land that has been expanded and shifted stewardship over the years.

It was hardly a pristine snapshot of undisturbed local wetland history however. The space has a multi-kilometer elevated boardwalk, picnic areas, bird houses and bird feeders, viewing platforms, plastic toilet boxes, and meandering families straying from the designated paths and being humanly-terrible by littering and trampling.

Yet an imperfect preservation is better than no preservation.

There were countless birds (and baby birds.) The elevated boardwalk was a photographic splendour. The marshland failed to excite my teenager, but I could have stood there for hours and watched the life in and around the murky waters. And spring was in its full groove on Sunday, new foliage popping from the trees, ground and swamp.

This nature sanctuary is a space that seems to have been set aside for the specific purpose of drawing a line around a bit of the map and deciding, as much as it is possible, to pause the progression of history or preserve a piece of it.

Resource extraction sites dot our landscape. Hundreds of houses hide in the woods on small plots of land just out of reach of the city. Roads and highways twist through the countryside. Jumbo jets climb into the sky on their way to explore the world as they take off from the international airport runway a few dozen kilometers away.

It has been preserved for not just Sunday family walks in spring, but to draw our attention to the long history of these spaces, to help us recall the wilderness that was and the future we might want to recapture.

If nothing else, it’s a nice place to escape the city for a few hours.