Cross Country

Last July, right smack dab in the middle of 2021, one of my running friends suggested that a few of us sign up for a race.

This wasn’t unusual. We sign up for races all the time, and even many virtual races lately.

This race was a big one, though. A year-long virtual team run spanning every province of Canada in an effort to cumulatively run ten thousand kilometers in one year, from the West coast to the North coast and then over to the East coast.

We signed up. We ran. We tackled The Big Canada Run.

And on this past Sunday morning, as a ten klick team run through the fresh weekend snow, we logged our last bit of mileage.

We finished.

In a little more than eight months, nine of us managed to log a remarkable ten thousand kilometers (or about six thousand two hundred miles for you still stuck in imperial measures.)

Day after day, week after week. Competing against over two hundred other teams doing the exact same thing.

One run at a time, a few kilometers here and bunch more over there. Training runs, group runs, solo runs through the snow, epic slogs through the heat, half marathons, ultras and even just jogs with the dog.

I’ve done virtual races before, but this is by far the largest.

I’ve logged my own mileage for over a decade and often recorded high numbers over the course of a year, but never computed my distances with a team to reach such a monumental milestone.

Epic races are just epic goal-setting exercises. They let us see ourselves and our efforts against a backdrop of something so much bigger than ourselves or our individual footsteps. And running across a continent is so much bigger than running the loop around my park … even if I did have the help of eight of my friends.

Into the Woods and Fog

I’ve been tangled up in a philosophical kinda-sorta feedback loop inside my own head.

See, nearly two weeks before sitting down to write this post I ran a half marathon through the local wilderness. Anyone who carefully read that post may recall that I briefly alluded to a conversation I’d had with a local trail running legend while there. It was a few minutes, a few shared words, an hour before the race started.

I don’t want to make a big deal about that conversation specifically, or name my interlocutor insomuch that this post comes up in a search somewhere, or even just pull him into this tangled thinking of mine anymore than I need to … because having followed him on the socials for a couple years (a) I don’t think he would be the sort of guy who would like that, and (b) that conversation is more of a catalyst for another bigger idea that I’ve been cooking in my brain, than it is the main idea itself.

But nevertheless, I will fill in the gaps.

If you are anything like me, you know that there are sticky ideas that occasionally gum up the works of the dusty corners of our minds. These may be ideas that are not worth actively thinking on day after day, but even so seem to wend their ways into and between the empty neurons of the subconscious mind and then simmer away in the background as if a spicy pot of chili in a huge cast iron dutch oven set atop some glowing campfire coals. Those thoughts are always there bubbling away, requiring the occasional stir or taste check, but otherwise independently cooking … until suddenly the chili is ready to eat.

That conversation I have an hour before the start of the race is mostly a pep talk from a seasoned amature athlete, a local guy who has made good with his feats of endurance, has run and won many races around the world, and now shows up to volunteer at races so the rest of us can play in the trails. According to our chat, he’s tackling some incredible challenges in the next couple years, races of physical fortitude that I barely believe can exist, let alone be taken on by a mortal being, and yet there he is casually telling me about these incredible goals he has set for himself. All while he is offering me a genuine nudge of encouragement along my difficult (but essentially entry-level) ultramarathon experience.

Then in the middle of that conversation he points vaguely towards the trail leading into the wilderness, a splash of autumn colour in the leaves wrapping around a narrow footpath that quickly disappeared into a twisting twelve kilometer endurance race route.

“It’s really just about spending more time out there,” he says, and pulls his phone from his pocket, ” and less time on this thing. If more people just spent more time out there…” he adds vaguely, implying something or another. It is a bit of gummy thought for my brain … the onions for a simmering pot of mental chili.

It’s a big idea, but maybe not even anything much more than an obvious one.

I spend too much time on my device. I admit it.

My phone screen is the first thing I light up even as I’m walking the dog to the back door for her morning pee. I nuzzle up with a tablet and the world news or the NYT crossword puzzle as I’m sipping my first coffee of the morning. I hunker down with a bank of glowing monitors eight-hours-per-day five-days-per-week so that I can do my job. I text. I video chat. I chill with the family to watch television. I sneak some time here and there with a dualsense controller in my hands to justify buying a six hundred dollar video game console. Hey, even this: I relax in my off-time by cranking words through a keyboard so that I can post a daily rambling blog here. Then I conclude my day listening to podcasts or audiobooks as I play my solitaire card game app for a few minutes before bed.

Sure, I also ran nearly fifteen kilometers through the river valleys with friends over the last couple days, and the dog sees her fair share of local trails multiple times per week, but by far the most prominent way I spend my time … a fact I’m sure is true for so many others … is with a glowing screen in front of my face.

I reply to my ultramarathoning hero with my own more specific suggestion, ironic in itself. “I’ve been watching this Youtuber …” I offer. “He’s this Australian adventure filmmaker who does some interesting videos on the clash of civilization and nature. His big theme seems to be that we’re disconnected from the world in this ineffable way and he’s trying to untangle that for his own purposes through humble self experimentation.”

That Youtuber is named Beau Miles and (because his new book doesn’t ship across the ocean to Canada quite yet … at least not at a reasonable price) I am listening to the audiobook version as I walk the dog through the foggy park this morning, the crisp air biting at the tips of my fingers. The dog is delighted to scratch at the frosty tips of the grass, but at seven am I only have so much patience for that.

We forge onward and through my headphones the autobiographic description Mr. Miles’ youthful yearning for a life of adventure, of tackling the big world in whatever way he could manage it, loops me right back to that conversation I’d had at the start of the ultramarathon a couple weeks before. Spicy peppers for my simmering mental chili.

These are not new ideas. Arguably, I started this blog exactly for this reason: to answer this calling for a cast iron lifestyle, days filled with excuses to be outdoors, in front of a hot fire, cooking real food and feeling real terrain under my feet.

Having this space creates obligation to post, which creates a need for subject matter expertise and filling, and that in turns drives me to put the screen down and do these things of which I write. Into the woods. Lighting up fire. Heating up iron.

Out of the fog?

That feedback loop I mentioned is a recipe for a spicy pot of chili that I can’t quite get right, though, no matter how much I simmer it in the idle coals of my own mind.

These two adventure seekers unknowingly adding ingredients into that mix, one at the start of an epic race, the other from across an ocean (and through a screen of all things!) They are just two influences on the things I seek to do in searching to find an answer to a question I haven’t even been able to articulate let alone make headway towards such clarity … as much as I’m virtually certain that I’m not alone in that quest.

What I do know is that there is a conflict between the simmering background thoughts and the stuff that is actively nearly-burning in the foreground. It is a rivalry between the stuff I need to do and the stuff I want to do, between what I am currently and what I could be some day… if I knew the trail to follow, the recipe to cook, or even just the questions to ask.

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.

Hobbling and Hurting

Sunday Runday, and it’s been a couple weeks since I sat down to write a post. It is a summer break for me, after all, and I’ve been out on the road, in the mountains, on the lake, and … as the topic of this post will soon reveal, running through the wilderness.

In fact, a few interesting things have happened in my running career since last I checked in. In particular, I may have spent some money on race registrations. In person race registrations.

The BIG one I’ll save for another post.

The little BIG one ties back to this morning’s Sunday running adventure that was had, all resulting from a spontaneous decision to sign up for a local (quasi) ultramarathon and the opportunity to do some practicing for that.

And again, in fact, I wrote in passing about my intention to do just that a few months back when I wrote about a nature sanctuary we had visited west of the city.

The River’s Edge Ultramarathon is an honest-to-goodness ultra marathon race through challenging terrain hosted on a large chunk of private land at the edge of the North Saskatchewan river. (Adult) distances range from a short 12km sampler run to a full 100km solo looping race of insanity.

Last weekend I signed up for the half marathon “koda” distance, twenty-one klicks through rolling riverside terrain (and even some wet crossing to a small island, I understand).

As the race host prepares the course and readies for the event, he invites some interested locals (ie. us) out to the start line to help clear trails, trial the trails, or just run the course. So, Sunday Runday and seven of my crew found themselves driving thirty minutes west of the city to spend three hours in the wilderness for one of the permitted practice runs on the “homestead” loop.

Across a little more than three hours, we pushed through nineteen klicks of grinding hills, mucky soft peat, cliff-side crags, cow pastures, grassy stretches, ambling over barbed wire fences, and stumbling down rope-supported descents.

On top of the regular running pain, the wasps had taken over the landscape. I didn’t count but I would confidently say there were well over two or three hundred nests along the length of the trail, and I was stung at least twice… which was about average for me and my fellow participants. Ultra-style trail running with a hot, burning, muscle-spasm of wasp-sting pain in your calf is nothing to shrug off.

In about six weeks we’ll be back out there for the real race, trudging through similar loops on a (hopefully) cool September day, and my in person race career will have seemingly resumed with a challenge I wouldn’t have expected to take on again so soon.