Running from Life?…or for Life?

We simply had to know…Could we trail-run the 420 kilometers from Bragg Creek to Jasper in just ten days?  Short version…we tried…we couldn’t. But in that very inability something quite marvelous happened for Grace and me.

We started out well enough. Day one—the Powderface trailhead. Thirty-eight kilometers later we landed at the Quaite campground, just past Barrier Lake. We sat at the lake’s edge, bone-sore feet plunged in the numbing-cold water, feeling beaten beyond anything we’d expected. Our packs—simply too heavy. Food and fuel caches along the way—didn’t matter: Our packs would only get heavier. What’s more, during this one day of exceptional effort, we’d scarfed down nearly double our planned daily food allotment.

Gear spread out on the meadow, we limped about, surveying, seeking anything we could drop to lighten our loads. A shared toothbrush, perhaps instead of two? Maybe half the sunscreen. What about the tent—could we dump it for a tarp? Fear gave pause for thought—we knew we’d encounter some nasty, cold nights once we neared the Columbia Icefields. “It won’t look good,” Grace offered, “if two Out There managers die of exposure because they didn’t have the right gear.” In that instant of icy logic, our goal to run from Bragg Creek to Jasper died. 

Yet this precious time off work was planned. We were fit and well trained. What to do for the next nine days? Side by each, comfy in our down bags and with full tummies, we schemed. The Parks of Jasper and Banff spread out in memory above us in the dark. “Let’s do a series of one-day trail runs along the best parts of our original route,” came the idea. Fingers traced routes in the attic of our tent. Start here, run there. Sleep. Eat. Drive. Repeat. When excitement at last gave way to sleep, we had a new plan.

Grace’s father, Gale, generously came to our aid and offered us the support needed to run our route through Banff and Jasper. These next nine days would be the best of our shared running career. Miles passed underfoot…along Wilcox Pass…Helen Lake Cirque Peak…Maligne Pass…the Skyline Trail. The pinnacle of our ten days was running the famed Skyline Trail southeast of Jasper itself. The 45 km trail is renowned for its 35 km above the tree line. A 4.5-km ridge-top spine at 2530m (8300ft) affords hikers and runners alike stunning 360-degree views of spectacular Canadian Rockies scenery. 

High elevation dictates proper preparation for all weather—you don’t want to be caught in a thunderstorm up there. On the day we decided to run it was supposed to be hot and sunny. Just to be on the safe side, we also packed our rain gear.  We started at 8 am, planning to reach the other end at 8 pm, latest. Within 40 minutes Grace was already thirsty and found her water filtration systems had clogged. I tried mine. Clogged. Not a good sign. We had left the Pristine (another water treatment option) back at the parking lot.  Another moment of truth loomed when I suggested continuing on without any water treatment. No—Grace convinced me. Maybe her dad was still at the parking lot and we should run back. We ran in desperate hope back to the parking lot and—thank heavens!—found Gale still there, enjoying the views. Now it was 9:30. A tad more frazzled, we started the trail again. As we left, Gale expressed doubt that we’d make it all the way by dark.  We ran hard for the first 10 km, trying to make up lost time, praying we’d prove Gale wrong.  Running up a hill, I spotted a lost camera, perched alone on a stump. We decided to take it with us, thinking we’d catch anyone who had been hiking ahead of us earlier that day. Once we reached the open terrain above tree line we found we couldn’t continue our feverish pace. Exquisite views and amazing terrain had us gawking the whole way.

One of the many enjoyments of running multi-day hiking trips in a single day is the people you meet. At around 10 km, other hikers began to appear ahead of us. For runners, having other people around, especially slower people, is motivating. Passing others on the trail is a boost for hikers and runners both. The first group we met was a teenage boy and two group leaders, trailing the rest of their party, by now far ahead. The young lad was having a rough time and could barely manage his huge pack. We pulled out the camera. Sure enough—the boy shouted with glee. You found it!  We explained what we were doing and told him a picture of us waited on the film roll for him. The group’s leader asked us to let the rest of their group know that they had slowed down due to the heavy weight of the pack, that they were going to leave the pack and come back for it. Later we came across the group of 14 teenage boys and the group leader, told them about the boy’s hardships, and that they’d be a while. The teens gaped in disbelief that we were running the whole trail in one day. Their leader saw an opportunity to motivate the kids to move a little quicker toward Snowbowl campground, where they would stay the night.  Some boys were truly inspired, saying they wanted to come back and run the trail one day.

Once the boys were out of sight we focused on the trail and the scenery. We soon reached Big Shovel Pass, 2320 m (7610 ft) and 18 km into the trail. We could see the Notch, a steep, narrow pass, often snowed in till mid-August, often dangerous. It seemed so far away we would never get there. We could see tiny specks—people crossing the snow on the Notch.  The trail towards the Notch was like running along a side hill until we passed Curator Lake Campground, a popular camping spot for people who hike the trail in two days. Our delight in the sun’s gleam off Curator Lake gave way an achingly hot slog straight up to the Notch. Now our goal was to catch the people who had already started their ascent to the top of the Notch. It was tough going, trying to run up the steep hill, negotiating glacial boulders, slippery scree, and a scorching sun. We made sure to stay hydrated the whole way up, but I felt grateful not to be burdened with a massive pack.  Our hearts went out to that poor, struggling boy we’d seen earlier. 

As we crawled toward the top, we overtook a group of four who had not yet reached the snow and the final ascent. The hikers’ packs were huge, festooned with dangling water bottles, coffee cups, and sandals. We, with our tiny packs, soon nipped at their heels. Once at the top, we talked with a gaggle of hikers nursing painful sunburns. We took time to eat gels and a bagel, and we took pictures of fellow hikers with our Out There flag.  We shared some stories, along with the explanation of why we would choose to run the trail as opposed to the gentler three-day hike. It soon sank in that these hikers could rest here longer than we—they only had 10 km more to Tekerra Campground where they would stop for the night. We still had 20 – 25 kms left.

 Just after the Notch, you come across Amber Mountain, a high ridge at 2530 m (8300 ft). For the next 4.5 km of barren summit, we felt on top of the world, running along the ridge with 360-degree views. In the far distance we could see Mounts Robson and Edith Cavell. Very quickly that 4.5 km was done and we began a great descent. The next thirty minutes was all downhill, long switchbacks bringing hardship to tired legs and aching bodies. At the bottom ran a beautiful stream from a little tarn—a perfect spot to restock water and eat some more gels and bars. After a quick stop we were running again, along a meadow tracing this stream. Trees and green grass gave a welcome view contrasting with the grey scree of the last 15 kms. The next landmark to appear amid the trees was Tekarra Campground, 15 kms from trail’s end. Two hikers from Prince George had just finished setting up camp. They were very surprised to learn we had started just that morning and were already here. One of the two, Karen, was wearing Crocs on her feet. Karen told us she’d hiked the last bit of the trail in her Crocs because her boots were hurting her feet so badly. We told her about wearing approach shoes or trail runners if she had strong ankles and she was not carrying a super heavy pack—then she wouldn’t have to wear big heavy boots and her feet wouldn’t hurt as much.  We took some pictures of Karen and John grinning as they held the Out There flag, and wished them a good hike out the next day.

The next 6 km to the fire road was a long push—mentally, utterly draining, as what we’d been expecting to be a downhill turned out to be over half uphill. Wind buffeted us on the trail, and with every corner we thought: Surely this’ll be the fire road. Eventually we reached road, and excitement overwhelmed us. A quick time check and we realized that—if we hurried—we could finish our trip before seven pm, meaning the 45kms would have taken us 9 ½ hours from our second start. We ate more bagels and gels, having sagged to near zero energy level. We put the camera away since the rest of the trail was going to be a fire road overgrown with trees blocking all views. With some food in our tummies and the anticipation of finishing in under 9.5 hours, we took off downhill like a pair of ungainly camels on the run.  Switchback after switchback, Grace felt stomach pain from the bagel and now the jostling of the downhill. The trail, it seemed, would never end. But eventually we could hear trucks on the highway. That was it—the end must be close, we knew. The trail leveled out and around a few more corners, and there is was the coveted trailhead marker, the prize for the endurance enthusiast. We had just dropped 990m (3247ft) in the last 9 kms—another epic journey completed!

A 35-degree completely sunny day, multiple energy bars, many liters of water, and over 200 photos makes a perfect day, finished off with a Coke and some very bad food at Maligne Canyon. What better way to finish ten days of running in the Canadian Rockies?

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