The Grizzly

While I’ve identified as an “ultrarunner” (mostly because it sounds cool) for several years, I realized, with all the cancellations over the past years, it had been nearly three years since I last ran an actual ultra marathon! Who am I anymore? But last week I finally had the chance to slap on a 50K bib again at the Grizzly Ultra Marathon in Canmore, AB. In prep for the race, I found some videos and race reports extremely helpful, so thought I’d write up my post-race thoughts to pay it forward to anyone else considering the race in the future.

Here goes.

Weather and location couldn’t have been better for a race! We got to the Canmore Nordic Centre in time to watch the sun slowly light the mountains as we waited for the start of the race. Frost on the windows when we left town, but temps would rise to around 20 on a sunny day.

Mule deer eating up before the race began.

After some issues in previous races with leg cramps (probably because I went out too hard) and unhappy stomach (likely due to dehydration), my goal on the day was to pace well at the beginning, and to drink enough water to prevent dehydration. The 5-segment course, each starting and ending at the Nordic Centre, was ideal for breaking up the race mentally for good fluid and food intake. As a flatlander, I was nervous about the elevation. I knew it was “only 1000m” of vert, but couldn’t speak too confidently as a runner whose average month doesn’t hit that kind of vert.

Our home base.

Having a ton of family at the race, I was also hoping for a good race mentally, so I could be present for my kids at our aid tent (my 8-year-old would be running the kids race as well), and enjoy this rare opportunity to explore in the mountains.

Little bear.

The first two laps made me grateful for all my training on local ski trails. Non-technical double track in the pines, with beautiful views on all sides. I struggled with wanting to run too fast with lots of other runners in the mix, and all the hills were fun and easy.

From my research, I knew the 3rd lap would be the toughest, as the longest segment, with a big climb, and long descent, but I was also excited to get onto singletrack. It didn’t disappoint, and I found myself going with the flow on the descent (which felt fast, but probably wasn’t at that stage of the race). There was some footwork required, with roots and rocks, one of which I kicked harder than a bad habit, shooting pain up my big toe. My toes would complain on the long downhill stretch and leave me with bruises under my toenails as a souvenir.

Seeing the Nordic Centre below as I swooped down the final descent of lap 3, I felt great. I’d survived with ease, the next two laps, roughly 5km each, were victory laps!

Little did I realize, lap 4 was called “Killer Bees” for a reason. Afterward, I noticed that although only 5km long, the 4th segment packed the steepest climb on the day, and on windy singletrack. On my way up I hit my low mentally, struggling to get any forward momentum. I felt like I did a good job keeping my head even as I felt my mental energy wan. I took on water and food, walking while letting the feelings pass (much like they tell you at IMAX, right?) I craned to see beyond each rise, waiting for the trail to point downhill again so could try to get some running motion back, but forever to get to the top. Eventually I made it down, taking an extra moment to eat a slice of watermelon and gear up for the last lap.

Lap 5 returned to non-technical trails, and a nice finale to a long day. I felt my strength return to the point where I could run most of the gradual uphills, and finish really happy.

Finish line “sprint”.

I’m always grateful for the opportunity to race, setting aside an entire day to focus on exploring a beautiful place like the Bow Valley. On one stretch I asked a fellow racer how he was feeling, and he said, although we were all huffing up a climb at the time, “Doing great, look at these views!” And it was true, from any angle you could look up or around at incredible forest, meadows, or, oh yeah, mountains.

My family also gave their day, sitting in the sun, helping me and waiting for the finish. Such a gift.

Probably the bigger story happened toward the end, when my uncle, who’d battled injury for the past year and came to the race assuming he wouldn’t finish more than a few laps, crossed the finish line to the sight of our cheering family. Every runner toes the line with a story, and regardless of whether they’re on the podium or chasing cutoff times, each story is inspiring.

Running poetry.