When: June 15-16, 2019 Where: Edmonton, AB, Canada
You don’t have to be an elite runner to be an ultra runner. I am not the most fit or the fastest runner, but I am determined. And determination can take you pretty far. Last year I said that I would stick to the 50K at RVR until I could finish feeling strong with plenty left in the tank and time on the clock. And then Sheryl announced the time limit had been extended to 18 hours for the 50 miler. That was it. That night I decided I would do the 50 miles.
Now, if you know RVR at all, having run it or by word of mouth, then you know this race is not about the distance. This is a tough course and Todd keeps finding a way to make it tougher every year. This is not a road race, this is a grit your teeth, crawl on all fours, climbing embankments, descending ridges, trail running adventure rollercoaster.
I wanted to train more than I did, but family comes first and running comes second. Mind you it is a close second and I do run whenever I get the chance, typically 5 days a week and usually between 5 and 12 kilometres at a time. Sometimes I run hills, sometimes I don’t. I have no set training plan, I just run for fun and if I don’t feel like it, I take the day off. I won’t win races with this strategy, but I am not trying to win, I am running for me. For my mental health more than anything and this race was the largest mental and physical challenge that I have ever put before myself.
Now to the race! The 50miler and 100Km racers were starting at 10PM. This was also my first time running through the night. I studied the route map in advance and wrote out my plan based on my projected times to reach each aid station. It looked like this:
I planned realistic times based on the course and knowing my body. I planned that I would lose steam later in the race and planned to finish in 16hrs, giving myself 2hrs of bonus time if I needed it. My goal was to finish.
During my training runs I practiced eating fruit bars, granola bars, and apple sauce. Normally I only ate gels, bloks, and candy so I wanted to see what adding more calories would do to my stomach. All went well and I went shopping for the race. Here were my supplies:
I had also never put together a drop bag before, but I planned to have one at the Windermere aid station. I would call this (48k) my halfway point. I packed a clean shirt and a fresh pair of socks in my drop bag. I laid out my food and semi planned what to put in my waist pack, my backpack, my drop bag, and my pre-race/post race.
All set. The day of the race I got up and made Alfredo pasta for breakfast. Then I had a long bath and went back to bed for 2hrs; I didn’t sleep, but rested with my eyes closed. Then I ate more pasta for lunch and got back in bed until 4PM. I did dose off a little. When I got up I had a shower and got dressed and ate more pasta for supper. I put on my Band-Aids, layered sudo cream between my toes (this helps to reduce blisters), and added bandages to the back of my ankles (I fold gauze under large Band-Aids to make little cushions). This helps with all the abuse of the ragged downhills that wreak havoc on my ankles. I gathered up all my gear (headlamp, shoes, etc) and filled my hydropack with water. I said goodbye to my family and left my house at 6PM.
I got to Edmonton and race headquarters at 7PM. I picked up my bib and checked out the vendors and then laid down in my car and closed my eyes until 9PM. I ate my pre-race fuel, put on my trail shoes, and then headed inside the Wolf Willow Community Centre to stretch and check in. I saw a lot of familiar faces and then headed outside to the starting area. One of the 100 milers was just coming in, having finished his first 50 mile loop. The 100 milers had started at 8am.
Now it was time for the pre-race briefing. Todd told everyone to try and find someone to run with through the night so they were not alone in the dark. He reiterated that the 100km racers would really need to move in order to meet the cut off, given they were starting at the same time as the 50 milers. After more encouraging words, and with the sun setting, at 10PM we were off.
I felt great. I had a plan, felt well rested, and had plenty of fuel. I had given myself the best opportunity to succeed.
I started toward the back of the pack and we all moved along together until we hit the first single track and then went single file and started to spread out. The trails were in great condition and we moved through here quickly and onto Two Truck Trail. I knew that I would move slow through here; all part of the plan. I was with a guy from Cold Lake and a girl behind me was moving slow. I waited for her to make sure that she was not alone here. Once we get over to Laurier Park I resumed running and never saw that girl again. I got a new partner here that I would run with for the next 11 hours or so. We were moving together at the same speed, and in full darkness now, it was good to have 2 sets of eyes to look for trail markers.
Not all junctions were marked and we hit a fork with no markings. We went left and up a long flight of stairs up and out of the river valley. It just lead to a residential neighbourhood and no flags, so we knew that we chose wrong and headed back down the stairs. Then we took the path to the right. We knew the general direction was to go toward the Groat Road Bridge so we kept running until we once again found ourselves exiting the trails in a residential area with no flags. We stopped briefly to review our GPS location on my phone and my partner, Frances, brought up the course map on her phone. We plotted our course and reconnected with the route near the Lieutenant Governor’s mansion. We figured that we put on about 2 extra kilometres.
Here was this year’s route map (it changes every year):
Back on course we crossed a bridge and then headed back into the trees. Just as we rounded a bend my headlamp caught a glimpse of something on my left and I turned my head to see what it was. There was a man standing in silence in the trees in complete darkness. I was so startled that I blurted out “Hello” as we ran past. That was so strange.
Next as we headed toward the Glenora stairs I could see the silhouette of someone standing in the middle of the staircase watching us come toward them. I assumed they were not a runner because they did not have a head lamp and were just standing there in the darkness. Then Frances, who was behind me, shouted “Right”. I looked down and saw an orange arrow. Awesome. We turned right and ran down the hill and then heard the guy on the stairs. “You guys want some pot?”. We politely replied, “No thanks”, and then he called out, “You’re way behind your friends”. Very encouraging.
We got down near the LRT Bridge on the north side and I assumed that we would now take the paved path over to the Walterdale Bridge, but I was wrong. The next trail marker took us down to the water’s edge. I did not know there was a trail here. Soon I realized there wasn’t. It was a chore to not fall into the river and I am pretty sure that the larger sized mammal that I saw briefly was a beaver. I also saw a couple of ducks swimming along keeping pace with us for awhile. Finally we reached the Walterdale Bridge and crossed to come into the first aid station. I had been regularly fuelling so I just downed a few cups of water with electrolyte powder and thanked the volunteers and then we headed back out.
My plan was to hit the first aid station (13km) at 12:30am and as we left my watch had us at 16km at 12:50am, not bad. Some girls on the Walterdale Bridge asked us, “What are you running for?”. “Fun”, I replied. Back on the north side of the river the downtown lights and the silence of the night were peaceful. Frances and I continued taking turns leading and we moved gracefully on without issue to the Dawson Bridge. This was the northern most point of the course and we crossed the bridge back to the south side.
There was some fun single track on the ridge above the water. I continued eating bloks and candies along the way and taking water regularly. After the Low Level Bridge and into woods we needed again to make some trail decisions. There were a few unmarked forks and we tried to keep in mind to always take the path nearest the river. Then at one 3 way fork, 2 other runners came back toward us from the middle path. They said there were no markers on that trail. Then they tried the left path and we took the right. It is hard to say who was correct, but we all ended up back on the marked path soon enough. These 2 guys were only shortly behind us when we arrived back at the Walterdale aid station for the 24k aid stop. I was still feeling good and refilled my hydropack with water with the help of the aid station volunteers who were in great spirits in the middle of the night. Leaving this aid station I was still doing well on my plan. I was at 27km and it was 2:41am. Only 11 minutes off my plan.
I was texting my wife at each aid stop to let her know that I was ok. Frances told me that this was her fourth 50 miler but her first RVR and she had never experienced getting lost this much on a race before. She was expecting to be faster than this but I assured her that we were doing well and I was right on plan.
We moved swiftly past the High Level Bridge, up some stairs and on some wide trails. From the Savage Centre we wound up through the trees on some pleasant double track and we talked some and marched in silence at other times when we knew we could move quickly. The sun was rising early and you could see a glow on the horizon. We ran down the hill and into the Savage Centre aid station (35.5km). There were other runners here who were taking longer breaks than we were at the stations. I took off my backpack and refilled my waist pack with treats from my backpack and the volunteers filled my water for me and then we got back out.
We were now at 37km and it was 4:32am. I was feeling great about maintaining my time plan. Next was the up/down roller coaster path behind Jan Jansen that felt longer than I remembered it from previous years. This took some steam out of my legs.
This was followed by some sections that I had never ran before. I believe they call it “Thorncliff”. This was less trail running and more bush whacking. We crawled on all fours under trees and over brush and I managed to set a new personal best for my slowest kilometre ever. My first ever 30 minute kilometre! Finally getting out of the bush and onto single track did not mean it was going to get any easier though.
Frances and I caught up to one of the 100 milers who was just at the start of a deep muddy slide on the side of a ridge. This was tough going. Sometimes we climbed above the mud, sometimes below it, and in some cases the only choice was to go straight through it. I could not get any pictures here because I had to dig with both hands in the mud in order to pull myself up some steep embankments and I was filthy.
After getting through the mud we tried to clean our hands on trees and long grass. Our 100 miler friend was still with us until we reached the Terwillegar Dog Park and then we picked it up again and he fell back out of view. The trails here were nice and I took some pictures of the morning fog on the North Saskatchewan River.
By the time we reached the Anthony Henday we were joined by the guy from Cold Lake who I had not seen for the past 5 hours. He must have been just behind us all morning and just now caught us. The three of us made the long trek up the hill through long grass on the south side of the Henday freeway and just before rounding the corner into the Windermere station, Cold Lake guy (sorry I forgot your name if you read this) saw his crew waving him into the aid station.
At the aid station I found my drop bag and found a chair to sit down. I took my shoes off and one of the volunteers offered to re-fill my water while I changed into a clean dry shirt. This felt great. I peeled off my mud caked socks and was about to put my clean socks on my dirty feet when the crew for the girl beside me saw me and started handing me baby wipes and told me to wash my feet. This was so amazing and I am sure saved me from many blisters. I learned an important lesson here. Pack baby wipes in your drop bag, or have a great crew with you. I refilled my pockets, sorted my backpack and then the 3 of us were off again. This aid station was busy and some of those ahead of us were putting in a lot of time here.
We left Windermere station at 52km and at 8:46am. I was an hour behind schedule but felt ok about it knowing that I could not have scheduled for that mud kilometre. Also, my plan was that my speed would decline over the last 30km, so I knew that I had some wiggle room.
Our threesome made it through the mosquitos and down through the woods to the trampoline. Yes, there is an actual trampoline in the woods. This stretch was an out and back and on the way back the Cold Lake guy started pulling ahead. Frances and I stayed together and we crossed the Henday Footbridge and then I started falling back as we headed south. I caught up and we climbed a steep hill together grabbing onto trees and roots to stop from sliding back down. Up and over, this hill was just as steep a decline. At the bottom, we reached the sign that the big island was closed. We had heard about this in the pre-race briefing. So, we began our way back north along the river. This was the south most point of the course. My watch battery ran out here and I turned on my backup watch. I started to trail behind Frances here but she was waiting back at the Henday Footbridge. I went pee for the first time in 11 hours, despite having drank more than 6 litres of water. Then I sat with Frances and we had something to eat. I told her she didn’t need to wait for me and then we got up and started off again. She was moving well and I was walking and eating Skittles. That was the last time I saw Frances.
The course here was mostly flat and had some shade sometimes but I was just power hiking and soon was getting passed by the 50K runners who started this morning. I had some quiet contemplation time here. All alone for the first time, but I enjoyed it. Time to think about how far I came.
Passing the water treatment plant, the fine folks from EPCOR had setup their own water station and they let me fill by pack again. It was getting hotter out now and I was starting to dehydrate. I finally reached the Donsdale aid station and immediately started chugging back electrolyte powder mixed with water. The course designer, Todd, was here and started shoving watermelon at me. I ate 3 or 4 pieces and he handed me more. Then he walked out of the aid station with me and gave more words of wisdom. He said it is going to be hot on the ridge, “Keep Drinking!”, he gave me 2 more pieces of watermelon and I ate them while I started jogging onward. 67km done, it was 11:10am, just passed 13 hours on course and only 10 minutes off my goal for this aid station. Pretty awesome.
I hit Golf Ball Alley in full noon sun. This was rough. The sun was zapping what little energy I had. I tried eating a fruit bar but my mouth was so dry that I was difficult. I told myself to just keep moving. I did not stop. I was moving slowly, but I would not stop. I had come so far but seeing the bridge in the distance it felt like I still had a long way to go.
Finally reaching the Fort Edmonton Footbridge, I thought that it would be straight up to the finish. Nope. The flags sent me down to some bike trails that seemed to go on forever. I was walking briskly now and had no run left. The mosquitos were so bad that the sound of them was making me crazy so I pulled a buff over my ears so that I would not hear them anymore. I got passed by several people on mountain bikes that I had to move out of the way of and stand at the side. When I finally exited this section right back where I had entered I started the march up and out of the river valley. But, right when you think you are out, you go right back in. Back into the woods. This time the 5K trail teasers came blowing past me. All full of energy and enthusiasm. Kids were running past me and I perked up a bit knowing that I was at least into the final stretch.
Coming out of the woods and onto the sidewalk I could see the Wolf Willow Community Centre. Here I am, at the end. Nope! A sign sent us into the woods again. A rough ravine with logs to climb over and under. Bending down low and lifting legs high was very difficult at this point and the slopes were as steep as any on the course. I trudged through this last 2km with 2 kids behind me, both around 10 years old. They were chatting and having a blast. I came out of the woods and saw the flags bringing me into the finish line. I mustered whatever run I could to finish strong. I finished at 3:10pm in a time of 17hrs, 10min. One hour behind my goal, but still plenty of time to not be flirting with the 18 hour cut off.
I got my ceramic medal, grabbed some Coke, and sat down on the grass. I had done it. My longest and toughest run to date. After taking my shoes off and closing my eyes for a few minutes I made a decision. I had completed the 50 miler. I had nothing more to prove to myself. I called and told my wife that I do not need to do any more Ultras (This feeling disappeared 3 short days later and I was already looking up more races). I shared some stories with other runners over burgers, pickup my drop bag that was delivered back to the finish area, and headed home satisfied and ready for a long sleep.
I have now completed 6 River Valley Revenge races. 3 summer (25K, 50K, and 50mile) and 3 winter (25K, 50K, 25K). So I decided to make a special display for these medals. I hollowed out a space in the back half a log and then drilled holes in the bottom to shove the ribbons through. Slapped a sticker on it and a course marker ribbon that I helped clean up the week after the race, and here it is. I even drilled a few extra holes. Who knows, maybe I will go back for more punishment and glory.