Snakes, Ditches, Mud, and Ticks

Each summer for the last few I’ve hosted a small adventure club for a group of my running friends. We call them Adventure Runs, though running occasionally turns out to be only a minor component of the adventure.

So…. once again it is summer, and once again yesterday morning I posted our secret meetup location in our chat server, anticipated all day long, then finally after work ended for the day drove to the secluded parking spot and waited to see who else showed up.

Adventure Journal

It had rained all afternoon.

Not just rained. It had poured, complete with thunder and lightning, clacks of huge rain droplets batting against the windows and sending coworkers on our video meetings running off camera to close windows and comfort pets.

At 5pm we were texting back and forth about whether to delay our running plans.

But by 6pm the sunshine was back and I was lacing up my trail shoes and trying to remember exactly how to navigate the city streets to where I’d agreed to meet up for a local adventure.

The thing about trying to find interesting and unique places to run in the suburbs of a big city is that we really have just two choices for trails that are not of the well-maintained asphalt or crushed shale-surfaced accessible recreational locales: we either need to drop into the river valley or we need to find a bit of wilderness trapped between the cultivated corridors of roads, housing and shopping malls.

A dozen years ago a major infrastructure project resulted in the city building a ring road encircling a major part of the established city-proper. The road itself is almost eighty kilometers long with access points into and out of town every three to five klicks, and while in most places it snakes by the clusters of houses with naught but a bit of grassy ditch to separate the two, there are huge swaths of road anchored inside what’s called a transportation utility corridor (TUC) where clearance has been maintained to build roads, power transmission lines, and oil pipelines.

I was also acutely aware of a spot not too far (but not easily accessible) where a particularly interesting swath of TUC had been combined with some natural preserve, an old, blocked off access road, and an interesting destination at the end of the connected trail.

Into the Woods

On any given summer day, the trail that led from the quasi-parking lot to the east access of the locally famous “graffiti tunnelwould have been a moderately challenging bit of dirt-based single track weaving through and around eclectic landscapes crushed between a busy highway to the south and a winding high-watered creek to the north.

An hour after our quadrant of the city had been doused in an afternoon summer storm, those same trails were glistening and muddy, the tall grasses were hung heavy with rainwater, and the protruding heaps of clay silts that marked the marshy landscape near to the creek were more slippery than had we been running on our familiar winter ice slicks.

As we descended into this twisting, wet, and perilous collection of intersecting trails, each of the seven of us often veering off course to find a bit of path we were individually more comfortable with, a mix of caution and excitement bubbled through the group.

At one point I stopped abruptly with two of my companions close on my heels, slamming on my brakes in the wet mud and barely avoiding stepping on a medium-sized garter snake soaking up the sun on the middle of the path. I shooed it away and “stood guard” as one of my ophidiophobic running mates inched by and squealed in fear.

Familiar Destinations

More tall grass (hiding nasty ticks!)

A scramble hand-over-hand up a small, nearly impassible hill.

A leap of faith over an ant hill the size of a small car.

And wet feet all around, even though we never did get very close to the creek at all.

While the west side of the graffiti tunnel is accessible from a gentle gravel path connected to some of our local neighbourhood running routes, the east side (separated by a muddy creek) is only found on foot by following the two-and-a-half klick route through the trees and grass and wilderness-laden ditch through which we had just run.

We ogled the years of overlapping graffiti that covered the old pedestrian underpass (yet to be connected to the trail system-proper even eighteen years after it’s installation), took a bunch of photos and selfies, and then contemplated our alternate routes back to the cars… ultimately deciding to face the known perils of retracing our steps back rather than trying to find a simpler (but far longer) route home.

It is almost a rite of passage for a guy who plans crazy running routes to listen to the grumbles and complaints, cursing and swearing of those silly enough to follow him into the wilderness.

And it is certainly rewarding to lead all of those people full circle to their cars and to realize that every single one of them just experienced something they’ll remember for long after we’ve all gone home and washed the mud from our ankles.

Marshalling Report: Five Peaks

Sunday Runday and rather than lacing up to run this morning, I instead bundled up warm and packed my lawn-chair down to the local dog park where I’d signed up to volunteer to help out with the sixteen kilometre-long 5 Peaks Trail Race.

The 5 Peaks series is a race that I’ve tackled myself multiple times in the past, particularly the edition of it that happens to run through the trails of the dog park that is a five minute drive from my house.

This year, with a couple friends opting to run it and a couple others choosing to do their part for the local running scene and volunteer, I sided with the volunteer crew and held down a station about three kilometers into the course (and at the top of a grueling hill) waving runners around a detour and cheering them on by clapping until my hands were numb.

I admit I don’t volunteer often enough… though that frequency is greater than zero.

As simple as it is, even a little race like this one for a few hundred people took (according to the thank you email that came to my inbox this evening) seventy five volunteers, each working about six hours to make the race come to life.

I’ve plodded through many courses myself and waved and thanked hundreds (if not thousands) of volunteers who’ve stood beside intersections or manned water stations or handed out swag or helped me find parking for my vehicle.

It makes me realize that in a year where I’m still a little less than keen to run a heap of actual races, it might make a lot of sense to find ways to participate without sneakers and a bib and to bring that volunteer frequency number up a lot higher in relation to my finisher medal count.

It’s about keeping the sport strong and vibrant.

It’s about giving back to something that has given me a lot over the years.

And it’s a warm and fuzzy feeling all around, too.

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.