Canmore, Alberta Oct 10,2021
In 2019, I saw so many people posting on Instagram all their finish line photos from the Grizzly Ultra. Everyone had giant smiles and I felt like I had just missed the party of the year. I knew right away that I had to do this race. I signed up for 2020 the day that registration opened. Well, everything got canceled for 2020, and my entry was carried forward to 2021.
So here we are in 2021. The race director spread the event over 2 days and tripled the size of the staging area to spread out runners and make the event conform to Covid regulations. They also got rid of aid station food. What!! That is crazy! Well, I had never been here before so I don’t know what the food situation normally looks like, but if that is what it takes to put on the event, I can feed myself.
The layout of the event at the Canmore Nordic Centre had runners doing 5 legs and always coming back through the start/finish line and past the runner villages. There were 3 areas where people could setup tents with all their support staff and aid. The running community were the stars of this race. It was like a hundred individual family gatherings. Seeing old friends and people you haven’t seen for 2 years. The atmosphere was like Christmas morning, a high school reunion, and a race all rolled into one.
I went with a bunch of friends from Holy Trails Canada. Some soloists, and some doing the team relay. Teams could choose to split up the legs anyway they wanted, so long as someone was running each leg. I was doing the solo. My plan was to finish in 7 hours, two hours ahead of the 9 hour cutoff. The morning of, my friend Steve, who was planning to team with his wife told me that his wife wasn’t feeling well and he was going to solo it. So, I told him, if you want to finish in 7 hours, feel free to stick with me. He said that sounded good. Two other soloists in our group were going to be running a faster pace and one other soloist had a injury and was just going to do her best for as long as she could.
So, after the singing of O Canada and a bear stray tutorial (side note, all runners are required to carry bear spray, a first for me) we lined up to start and at 9am we were off. My plan was 1.5hrs for the first 13km leg. We checked our pace frequently and kept reminding each other to slow back. The course starts wide to spread out the runners and the first leg has some rolling hills. It was like a nice easy weekly trail run. Steve and I kept a conversational pace and hiked the taller hills. I took a gel at 5km and another at 11km. Made a plan for our first transition and all nerves were gone when we finished the first leg and got back to our base camp. I quickly stripped off my shirt and got rid of the long sleeve shirt that I was wearing under my t-shirt, swapped my electrolytes bottle for a full one, replaced my 2 gels, grabbed a half a peanut butter sandwich and we were back out for leg 2.
The second leg was just over 11km, and my plan was to do another 1.5hrs for this leg. We were right on schedule heading out. This leg was still wide Nordic ski trails and the crowd had thinned pretty well. When we hit the 2hr mark I took my salt tabs (which I take every 2 hours on long runs). Probably 5km in we got a surprise. Our friend Dean, who was doing the relay with his wife, Leanne, caught up to us. His wife was going to run the first 2 legs and he was going to do the last 3 so we were not expecting to see him here. Dean told us that his wife had aggravated an injury on the first leg so he was in for the rest of the race and figured he could catch up to us because she was only a few minutes behind us finishing leg one. I expected Dean to run on by us, because he is a strong runner, but he said that it would be more fun to run with friends. So, we were now a trio. Leg 2 was much the same terrain as the first leg. We finished leg 2 in good spirits and got a warm welcome running past the first village of tents from other crews and relay runners done their legs or waiting for teammates to trade off with them. We ran through the gate and over to our base camp. Leanne filled my electrolyte bottles for me and I ate a handful of salted potatoes that I had cooked the day before. I reloaded my pockets with chews and gels and dumped my garbage, grabbed a handful of candies for the road and the three of us headed out for leg 3.
The third leg was 12km-ish, and was known as the hardest leg of the course so I planned for 2 hours on this leg. This leg had plenty of mountain bike trails on single track switch backs and some steeper climbs than the first 2 legs. Dean was loving the single track and bombed down ahead of us a few times but then let us catch up. It started snowing midway through the leg but it didn’t last long and it was not getting colder. We stuck to the plan, hiking the ups, running the downs and flats. Then out of no where, someone spanked my ass! Our friend Landon was doing the relay with his wife Lindsay. She had run the first 2 legs and he was doing the last three. Landon caught up to us, said hello as he does, and just like that he was gone. Coming into the start/finish zone we thanked the wonderful volunteers (who have been standing in the same spot for hours; thanks again all you volunteers, you are saints) and we tried to smile for the photographer. We finished this leg ahead of schedule and I told Steve that I planned to stop at the water station to fill my bladder and I would meet them at the tent. The lady working the water station helped me fill up and then I ran to the tent, ate another handful of potatoes, filled my pockets and grabbed my candies and told the guys I would start walking while I ate my candies. Our Holy Trails family kept a propane fire pit going all day so we could warm up while we refueled and being a group of seasoned runners they were all hands on deck whenever runners arrived to make sure transitions were quick.
Leg 4 went the opposite direction from the other legs so we had new scenery. This leg was 7km and I planned 1hr for this leg. The views were amazing the whole day but this was my favourite. We hit some flowing single track and the snow briefly started coming down thick, like we where running through a winter painting. It was perfect. My ankles and groin were tightening up but having company enabled me to focus on the positives of the day and ignore the negatives. We talked to other runners that passed us and everyone we saw seemed to be in good spirits. Coming down the final stretch of leg 4, the photographer said, I thought you were going to jump? I told him that we still have one leg to go and we will jump on the last one.
Our transition to leg 5 was quick. My watch showed 45km and I planned an hour for the last leg. I also knew, from seeing the Strava from people that I knew that ran it the day before, that the course comes up a little long, more like 52km for the 50km race, so if we were going to hit a 7 hour finish, we were going to have to get going. I grabbed my candies and we were off again. Leg 5 was more open and had no single track. We chatted and ran and the time flew by and next thing you knew we were headed for the finish. We attempted a jump for the photographer (will add that picture if I find it). Then I gave it all I had left and sprinted the final 400m and through up my arms as I crossed the finish.
We got medals and finisher mugs and a Bear Paw Soda and headed over to our tent to celebrate with our friends. We finished in 7hrs, 2min. Love it when a plan works out.
Wilf and Kyla both had great solo efforts and were waiting to cheer us in. Trevor and Paula were a strong team and finished well ahead of us. Barb poured shots of cherry whiskey. Patsy was making sure we were all warm and fed. Landon recounted his trail greeting that hurt his hand as much as our backsides. Lyndsay and Leanne were busy making sure that everyone had whatever they needed. The celebration was just missing one last element. We had one more solo runner still out there. I changed into pants and warmed my hands by the fire and ate peanut butter sandwiches and then when we saw Crystal coming in we all jumped up to cheer her in. She started the day in pain and finished in glory.
What a day! Thank you Grizzly Ultra for bringing us together. I am sure there are dozens of other stories just like mine of friends and family. The tent villages were filled with smiles and laughter. You will not get this from a big city marathon! The ultra community will make you tear up with joy. If you are a road runner and want to experience something completely different and life affirming, meet me at Grizzly next year! If you see me, come say hi! Grizzly was amazing and I will be back.