Hot Days, Trail Run Nights

Sunday Runday and technically I finished my weekly long, slow distance very early this morning, even before I went to bed last night.

The arrival of what the weather forecasters have called “a mass of hot air” over the western half of North America has provided us with a second great excuse to mix up the running training plan.

The first excuse is that a large contingent of our running crew is off to an overnight mountain race in less than two weeks thanks to the lifting of pandemic restrictions and the resumption of in person racing. They need some serious mileage to help with their training.

Two great excuses collided into an impromptu plan to start our run just as the sun was setting last night, providing a bit of reprieve from the heat and some local training for trail running by headlamp.

The first five or six kilometers wedged neatly into a golden hour dusk even after most of the sunlight had faded beyond the horizon. We trod through a more open section of gravel trail still able to mostly see without artificial lights and stumbling through the terrain without much difficulty.

The next three klicks took us into a winding, twisting, rolling bit of the river valley that swtiched back on itself and sometime between entering and leaving the disorienting maze of trees and roots and flitting insects, the night fully collapsed into darkness and my seven companions and I were little more than spots of light and echo-location-like shouts from the distance.

Yet, it is remarkable how the dark plays with all your senses on a run like this. Confusing them. Blurring them. At one point, stumbling down a narrow tree-lined path in the dark, I caught myself checking to see if I was maybe dreaming and mentally pinching myself as I felt my mind drift past it’s bedtime fuzziness.

Our full path crossed with late-night picnickers, a porcupine, a creepy man rollerblading through the trails in pitch black, and the eerie silence once abruptly broken by the echoing boom of a distant blast of noise. For one long stretch of about fifteen minutes where we had nothing but smooth asphalt ahead of us we turned off our headlamps and ran in the pitch blackness under the starry sky and soft glow of the surrounding suburbs.

It was all at once crazy, serene, painful, and intimidating.

I crawled into bed shortly after one-thirty am, having crept back into my sleeping house and quietly showered the dust from my calves and sweat from my back, my Sunday run done, and my mind a blur from the mash up of heat and experiences.

Gear: Skin 4 Hydration Vest

As the summer runs get longer (and hotter) I’ve picked up a new bit of gear to assist with the ever-present runner’s dilemma: hydration.

I don’t think I need to write too many words on the subject of why water is important to … um … being alive, but certainly the effort of carrying enough fresh water (or other fluids that both fuel and hydrate) on a long distance run is a complex challenge for anyone who is out there on the trails.

Water, of course, is heavy and clumsy.

A bottle in the hand is something that needs to be carried, balanced, and on the trails two free hands are more useful than one might realize. On a short run taking a small bottle along is just fine, but an hour into a longer run the last thing I want to be carrying is a half-full plastic bottle that’s sloshing around in my hand.

I’ve used water belts in the past, but sloshing along with a couple plastic containers on your hip is a moderate inconvenience. And I have yet to do a race a not see multiple dropped belt-bottles littering the course, usually in the first five hundred meters of the race when someone’s carefully planned hydration plan is now just garbage and an obstacle for the next hundreds of people who run by.

I’ve tried a couple hydration packs in the past, the key differences from a hydration vest being the kinds of shoulder straps and the location of pouches. A pack is basically a light backpack with a water pouch. And my biggest problem with my previous pack solution was that usually within ten kilometers into a run I was running with my thumbs hitched up under the thin straps to limit the whole apparatus from that chafe-inducing jostling that was already well underway.

Last week I pried open my wallet and ordered myself what is probably the sports-car-equivalent of hydration solutions: a Salomon Skin 4 Hydration Vest, a snug fitting, light-weight, multi-pocket four-liter backpack-slash-vest designed to hold water bottles, a water bladder, gel packs, cell phones, car keys, and whatever else a distance runner might need quick access to while on the trails.

The new pack arrived yesterday and I wore it for our regular Wednesday evening adventure run.

The advantage of this pack, or so the logic of the purchase goes, is that it is snug. I have no honest comparison, but I assume it’s a little like wearing a sports bra overtop of a running shirt. This tight fit is both deliberate and a feature. It keeps the whole system from moving, shaking, jostling, and rubbing, and is meant to wear comfortably and securely for hours of running while keeping the hands free for trail navigation.

Our adventure run took us deep into some rolling river valley trails, the kind of terrain where your legs are slapped by branches as bumble through the trails and as you scramble up over steep dirt paths, grabbing onto tree stumps and protruding roots. I only carried a bit of water, as it was a short sub-ten kilometer run, but a set of car keys, my wallet and an iPhone tucked neatly into the pack and

… well … success!

I barely noticed the pack after the first few minutes.

A better test will come this weekend, as temperatures creep into the mid-30s Celsius and our distances move into the longer-than-a-half-marathon slogs through that same heat. I can’t say I’m not nervous about both the heat and the mileage, but at least now I’m pretty certain I won’t die of thirst.

*This is gear I've purchased for myself and not a paid endorsement of this product.

On Detours

Sunday Runday and it felt a little like old times as we plodded through busy spring trails, dodging bikes, dog-walkers, and fellow runners along the river valley trails.

A few of the run crew have found themselves in an urgent training predicament. With the local restrictions lifting quickly and thoroughly, an ultramarathon that most figured on being postponed again seems to be running. A few of the run crew signed up to do signficant distances through mountain paths. A few of the run crew need to get back to their 2020 stamina levels in the next few weeks. A few of the run crew are a bit panicked.

Not me. I’m just enjoying my minimal-race summer agenda, but I promised to train with them all no matter what they need to accomplish.

So we planned on a twelve to fourteen kilometer Sunday run.

Plans don’t always work out.

Busy trails. Improptu plans. Spontaneous pathfinding. These are the ingredients for adventure.

The first ten kilometers went without a hitch. We climbed the aphalt ascent from where we’d met and parked our cars that morning, looped through a local park as we traversed the weaving network of winding paths. We crossed the river on the sidewalk portion of the new bridge stopping for a photo. And we traced the trail to the foot of another long hill…

… where we stopped and contemplated our options.

To the right an asphalt trail cluttered with people led on a long slow ascent out of the river valley to a familiar neighbourhood. To the left a narrow dirt path ducked under a guardrail and dropped along beside the river, showing no signs of human life.

The trail was true for the first few minutes. Then deeper into the route bits of it were washed away from the spring runoff causing us to take careful footsteps along sloping, sanding ledges barely as wide as our shoes. A corner opened up into a mud pit, which we trod through with reluctance (and a few choice curse words) and led to a steep drop gleaming with a gaping outflow of slippery orange mud dropping off of a sharp ledge that fell three meters into the murky river water below.

The six of us stopped and debated our options.

We were now about half a kilometer down what seemed like either a risky or dead-end path, and the choice was to continue on and hope we weren’t further blocked ahead, or turn back and take the alternate route up the people-cluttered asphalt hill.

Detours and tracking back on your path are unfortunate side effects of taking risks in running as in life. Is it better to cut your losses and try a different approach to get somewhere, or stubborningly forge on and hope for the best?

As we traced back, climbed the hill and then found a path back into the valley that would eventually connect back up to the trail we’d lost we wondered how much our detour had cost us. I stopped my watch at sixteen kilometers as I hobbled back to my vehicle at the end of the run. It was a small bit more than I’d planned to run today… but also a whole lot more adventure, too.

My Winter Runs Need to Get a Grip

Sunday Run Day and for the first time in two months I took part in a group run with a small cohort of friends.

Our locality has been on pandemic-related lockdown since late November, and all my runs have been solo. But COVID-related hospitalizations have been down. New case numbers have been declining. And the doctors say we can ease gently away from some of the stricter restrictions… like avoiding all non-essential personal contact. In other words, we can run together again.

Of course, it also happens to be that we are in the middle of winter. In the middle of a cold snap. In the middle of temperatures averaging minus twenty and offering up moderate quantities of snow.

Over a series of early morning text messages we pushed our usual eight-thirty meetup time by a couple hours to tempt the sun’s generosity. Also, given that it’s been months since we’ve seen each other in person, it was decided that a location more interesting than the regular high school parking lot was on the table for debate.

Luckily I never take my grips out of the backseat of my truck in the winter, and when we converged in a river valley parking lot to engage the single-track snow-bound trails therein I easily added some necessary traction to my street sneakers.

Some winters I splurge and buy myself winter trainers. They are extra grippy and have a bit more insulation. It makes it necessary to get out into the rough for longer, colder runs for a season or two … y’know, to justify the cost.

But in a pinch, a pair of, wrap-on traction grips will substitute.

We ran.

Into the trails.

Across a bridge.

Into a meadow.

Up and down, left and right.

Between towering poplar dusted with snow.

Eight kilometers later, twisting and turning through trail packed by a hundred other feets and a few dozen fat-bike tires, threaded between fresh knee-deep snow, we had logged the first group run of 2021.

I missed those.