How did I end up running in the prairies on one of the hottest and smokiest days of the year? Well, I wanted to tick 100km off my list for the year. I looked for races online and stumbled onto Lost Soul. Perfect I thought.
I had signed up for this sold out race in December (it sold out in a couple of hours). I figured September in Alberta, on the flat prairies would be reasonably easy. Hah. To say I underestimated this race would be an understatement. This BC mountain girl got her ass handed to her. But let me back up…
We had planned a road trip through the Canadian Rockies (BC and Alberta) and I figured I might as well have fun; well, “type 2 fun” for me. We arrived in Lethbridge the day before the race (fresh off a week of touristing hard) to suffocating temperatures and smoke filled skies. I went to work on race prep. Most of the stuff in the truck belonged to me (Jason had packed very efficiently with one small back pack
Having prepared drop bags before we left home (another endeavour in and of itself), my task was relatively simple. Race nerves were kicking in and the weather was a huge factor. The week leading up to the race I was not at all stressed, thoroughly enjoying our road trip and incredible scenery. In fact I told Jason confidently, while the heat would be a factor, running Lost Soul 100km would be like running on hay bales. Hah.
We made use of the hotel pool and hot tub. I slept very well the night before and woke up just before 7 am on race morning, to eat breakfast, sort myself out and drop my bags before the race started. We were staying at race headquarters which made life easy. We had a two minute race briefing which I dragged Jason to and then we were off.
The course consisted of two 53km loops (as a 100km racer I would skip a 6.5-7 km loop on the second round). It was hot and smoky and temperatures would start to climb. The air quality index was above 10 and temps were in the high 30s. The 3 aid stations were located at the intersections of those loops : figure 8s. HQ (start and first aid station), Softball Valley and then Pavan. There was also a loop (North Loop) that would take us onto private land with unmannned water stations but no crew access.
I had coaxed Jason into crewing for me, though the volunteers and race crew were amazing and it would be quite possible to be self – sufficient on this race. Jason snapped a quick photo of me faking a smile and I was off.
Leg 1 was a seven km loop around a shale path and back to headquarters but the up and down even on that loop made me realize that this course wouldn’t be quite as flat as I hoped ha. I just missed Jason on leg one…
But he was able to catch me on the next 6-8km ish loop to Softball valley and give me some coconut water, and spray me down with sunscreen and I was off. He was waiting for me at Pavan and I took care of my feet while he fed me, reapplied sunscreen and filled my flasks. It was getting hot and the volunteers poured ice down my bra and my cap. We set off on a roughly 16km loop through private land (there would be no crew access here, merely unmanned water stations – which was amazing). It would be 2. 5 hours before I returned.
People had already dropped at Pavan aid station on the first round (just under 30km in) as the heat and smoke were starting to take its toll. Temps were forecast at 38 degrees celsisus (I later found out that by Friday afternoon temperatures had risen to 40 degrees Celsius) I wasn’t too bothered by the smoke, but I could most definitely feel the heat. I heeded the advice of a runner at the beginning of the race who told me to stick ice down my shirt, hat, etc at every opportunity. So I did. I shamelessly had Jason and volunteers dump ice down my sports bra, my back and in my hat. The ice saved me.
Leaving Pavan was where I started to feel a little rough probably because I had eaten too much too fast and had to deal with some stomach aches as we climbed some nasty little hills. Luckily within 20 to 30 minutes my stomach had started to settle down, and I found myself a rhythm climbing and then descending and met some people to run with including a lovely woman named Sherri. We soon came upon a casualty in the form of a 100km runner (who looked to be fast) in a heap by the side of the road. He assured us he was okay and that a vehicle was coming for him. There was a table with bottled water nearby (not the water station) but Sherri told me the private land owners left packages of bottled water for the racers. I was incredibly grateful and took a bottle of water.
I am definitely a climber and not a down hill runner. Thankfully the trails weren’t particularly technical, and using poles was a huge bonus. Thank you to all the people who suggested I use poles for this race because my poles saved me. After some hills and steep downhills we were able to run a nice river section. Coming back to Pavan for the second time, Jason was waiting, bless his heart and had my stuff ready to go. I double- fisted gummies, pickles, some salted potatoes and inhaled a spiked frappucino while Jason sprayed me down again with sunscreen. Even though the smoke was giving cloud cover, the course was extremely exposed and I would have burnt to a crisp. I left Pavan for the second time in the first loop.
And this was where thing started to go south (at least mentally for me). It was very hot and the 6km to the next aid station took me much longer than anticipated. There was series of hills called the 3 bitches and trust me they were. I was so defeated. I told a woman who was cheering me in when I finally reached Softball Valley I was quitting when I reached HQ; her response “nonsense. If this was easy everyone would be doing it.” I contemplated her words. Jason would be waiting at HQ.
I was feeling terribly sorry for myself as I parked myself at a picnic table filled with food: watermelon, chips, gummies, chocolate milk, cheezies, oranges, bananas and pepperoni sticks. I told some poor volunteer that I wasn’t having fun that I was thinking of quitting when I got to HQ and what was the point. I ate my weight in watermelon while she listened to me bitch. I apologized for ranting at her, thanked her and then left.
I then caught up with Bob, a trail runner I had met earlier in the race and it turned out it was 6.2 kmish back to HQ (not 16km). Apparently math in an ultra is a bad idea. I told Bob I was thinking of dropping. Bob was quite familiar with the course and told me temperatures would drop significantly at night. He told me that if I could make it through the first loop without bonking, running at night was a huge bonus. Bob took off then and I was alone. Somewhere in the next few km, wallowing in my own misery (which is not like me usually but the day was turning into a pity party), I kept climbing a ridgeline, and I had missed a left turn (the course is very well marked…I was so in my own head at this point). Luckily there was a trail runner not far behind me, and I hear shouts of “You’re going the wrong way” (luckily that was the only wrong turn I made all day). I was so in my own head at that point I had missed the copious pink flags marking the left turn.
I thanked the runner and then hauled my butt down the right path. I wound my way down the coulees and up towards HQ. I texted Jason who was waiting at HQ and told him I was done. I approached the bridge which was less than a km from the finish and I couldn’t remember for a second which direction I had come from. Climbing up the last short climb, I was with a 100 miler who was dropping and I told her I wanted to quit (see the theme). I said I thought I could make it but I didn’t want to. She encouraged me to keep going.
I cried because I thought I was done (and I didn’t care). As I ran into HQ marking the end of the first loop, I was Miss Debbie Downer. That is not my personality at all but I had never felt so sorry for myself in my life. As my friend David would say, I was having a paddy. And of course, the race announcer was announcing every runner’s accomplishments as they came in to HQ and all I wanted to do was slink off.
Jason was waiting for me, and I told him I was done, that my legs ached. He looked at me in bewilderment – are you sure? I parked myself on the pavement, guzzled the spiked frappucino he handed me and sulked. I hadn’t had the heart to turn in my bib just yet. “Will you still love me if don’t finish this race?” I demanded. Jason just looked at me and laughed. I later found out that 33 percent of the 100 miler racers finished and 44 percent of the 100km racers crossed the finish. It was a scorcher out there and huge respect to every single runner who toed the line.
I looked at the finish line arch (right beside the aid station) and thought it would have to wait another year. Jason looked at me and goes, “Well, it’s cooler at night”. I told him I thought I could make it to Softball Valley one more time (which was 6.6 km give or take) so I could at least run a little. I told Jason to call it a night as I would likely be dropping. The problem was, I wasn’t sick or injured, I just didn’t to walk 54km, I wanted a cold shower and cold beer. But I signed myself up. I left HQ at around 7 pm, with strangers cheering me on and still not happy. But I would feel better about myself if I dropped at 60kms instead of 54 km. At least that was my twisted reasoning. As I left HQ for my second loop, I could hear the race announcer go, “and she’s halfway done, this is in the bag.” Haha. As if.
As I was climbing, I saw two deer. They stopped and big eyes peered at me. It was surreal and stopped me in my tracks. As I made my way down, mostly by myself, I met a 100 mile racer named Heidi who was moving quickly. She was very happy to have found me as she had been feeling a bit down as well. I told her I was thinking of dropping at Softball Valley’ she told me I wasn’t dropping that I was moving so well, and asked me if I needed everything. She asked me if I wanted to hike it in to Softball Valley with her and so we did. Heidi gave me a pep talk all the way down to Softball Valley and was definitely my trail angel. Jason surprised me by showing up at Softball Valley for the night loop and I almost cried. I told him to go to bed and I would text him later. I left Softball Valley and as I made it to Pavan the weather was cooling down, and slowly I stopped feeling sorry for myself.
I drank two glasses of chocolate milk, ate more pepperoni sticks and then headed out for a night loop (there would be no dropping for 16km as we were headed out to do a loop on the private lands again). Luckily, I had company at night. I climbed the ridge by myself, looked at the glowing orange orb that was hanging in the sky. It was eerie but beautiful. I didn’t want to be alone, so I waited until some headlights I saw a little behind me caught up to me on the ridge. Not long after, Bob and his son who was pacing him, caught up with me, and I ended up running with them for the rest of the night.
Somewhere on this 16kmish loop, I realized I had blisters, etc (I had changed shoes and socks and applied foot glide earlier but hadn’t really dealt with my feet because they hadn’t been bothering me). I made a note to deal with my feet at the next aid station. This night loop on private turned out to be a beautiful loop though, as I found a second wind power hiking/running with new trail runners I met. As we made our way into Pavan for the final time – I realized there was only 12km left. The finish line I was almost certain I wouldn’t reach seemed within my grasp. It was almost 3:00 am.
Bob who was a veteran of the Lost Soul Races was gunning for another Western States lottery ticket; he had a schedule and so we were allotted a specific amount of time at each aid station. Worked for me. The longer I sat, the less likely I was to get moving again. I parked myself in a chair and had my blistered feet tended to by a really good looking volunteer ha. He told me that it didn’t matter what time I crossed the finish line – I would get a finish. I was cheered by that thought. Another volunteer offered me fresh cooked salmon but I couldn’t handle it. There were cheeseburgers too – but sadly I couldn’t handle that. I had chocolate milk, gummy worms, pickles and pickles (yes I ate gummy worms and pickles together, and also chocolate milk and pickles together too) and more pepperoni sticks. The fact I was able to eat solid foods at all at this point was a miracle to me.
We definitely made up time at night; the hot temperatures of the day had slowed many racers including me, to a power hike and shuffle. As a result my legs weren’t destroyed and I was actually able to run parts of the second loop when it was flat.
Bob’s son Lucas (who was pacing him) had decided to run with us to the finish. We climbed two nasty hills (the First 2 bitches – yes that was what the hills were named – short and steep). Bob would lead the downhills while he let me take the lead on the climbs. Part mountain goat he called me. Alas, I felt more like a sloth but would take all the encouragement I could get.
As we entered Softball Valley I had two glasses of chocolate milk, and ate more pickles and gummy worms (Jason found gummies and pickles crammed into my hydration pack). I pretty much lived on that and watermelon all day. We were on the home stretch and I couldn’t believe it. I was trying to do math and Bob laughed. He reassured me we had plenty of time. This last stretch was flat save for a last short climb to the finish. We ran and walked through the cool dark of the night, keeping our eyes peeled for pink flagging.
Shortly before reaching the bridge, we heard a runner going, “excuse me, excuse me” as he flew by. I was surprised anyone was moving this fast so late in the race. That turned out to be Dave Proctor (I believe it was him and not the second place finisher) a local runner and elite athlete who was en route to winning and setting a new course record for 100 miles (yep we got beaten by a guy who was out on his third loop while we were finishing our second). To add insult to injury Dave had apparently run 170km from his home in Okotooks to Lethbridge over two days just prior to the race. I couldn’t believe it. He was gone, and we were left to finish our race.
As we wove our way around the river and approached the last short climb to the finish, Bob stepped aside and told me to take the lead on the climb, and so I did. As I power hiked up the climb I started to cry again. But this time I was crying because I knew was going to finish a race that just hours earlier I thought was out of my reach. As I ran the last pavement section, clutching my poles and through the finish chute to cheers, all I felt was relief. A photographer was waiting and her camera flashed (as she reminded me to take off the headlamp). And yep, I earned one coveted ticket into the Western States Lottery.
Some runners let me into our hotel as I hadn’t taken the room card key. I got up to our floor and banged on the door until Jason let me in (sorry neighbors). It was 4:45am in the morning.
As a BC girl, I thought it would be nothing to run in the prairies of Lethbridge. But boy did I get my ass handed to me. I don’t think I have ever had so much doubt going into a race and the day was such a roller coaster of emotions and a mental battle. I learned a lot about myself and just putting one foot in front of the other even when I didn’t necessarily feel like it.
I am so grateful to the amazing volunteers, trail runners, and crews who cheered me on and all the people who wouldn’t let me quit even when I wanted to. Special thanks to Jason, for being crewing and whose presence cheered me up immeasurably at each aid station.
P.S. I picked up my last drop bag later that morning and told a volunteer I thought I was going to be running on hay bales not short steep coulees; he started to laugh and said he had heard that repeatedly from BC runners.
Note: As I was hobbling up to the toe of the Athabasca Glacier the day after, I asked Jason how me felt about me entering the Western States Lottery (I reassured him I had a slim shot of getting in on one ticket :p).