My trail running race season had wrapped up. It was time to turn my focus to winter sports. So why then did I find myself on a Thursday night hitting ‘register’ for a 50k trail race in 2 days? Some might say I have an addiction of sorts. They would be correct. The bottom line was that my feet felt good, my legs felt good, and I was looking for that little bit of motivation to keep active going into winter. Plus, the race was taking place at the Ark, which has a soft spot in my heart. All told, I couldn’t really find a reason NOT to race on the weekend with friends in the beautiful fall colours. So begins my tale from the Mad Trapper Relentless 50k Trail Race. Read on, friends.
There’s something to be said about going into a race with zero expectations, zero preparations, and zero lead-up. In many ways, it freed my mind. All summer, my races had been planned out, and fretted over in some cases for months leading up to them (Sinister 7 comes to mind). This is a surefire way to build expectations up in your mind before you even hit the start line. In contrast, with this race, I really was just approaching it as a great way to get in a supported 50k run under perfect conditions followed by a BBQ in a great environment. I knew the event would be small, and had no idea who might show up. As it turns out, there were actually only 8 of us taking on the 50k. Most of the 150 or so registered runners were tackling the 5k, 11k or 21k events that would start later in the day.
Our race start was slated to get going by 6am in the morning, so while we’d be starting in the darkness, the upside is that we should finish while there were still other people around. The course layout for the 50k has us starting with a bit of a ‘gravel prologue’, which was essentially an 18k lollipop route along the rolling gravel roads around the Ark. After that, it would be three loops of a 10.5km technical trail network. I liked this start, as it gave you a really long warm up before hitting the technical trails. In my mind, it is also good as it started with my weakness, flat long roads, before hitting my strength, the trails. With very little early morning fanfare, Mike gave us a quick race briefing, and then sent us off into the darkness by the light of our headlamps.
From the start, I decided to try and grab the lead, and see who followed. With so few runners, it wasn’t hard to see where we all were in the group. The headlamps made it easy to see where people were. I was followed step for step by essentially one other fellow, Scott Weir, who locked in next to me and we spent the kilometers chatting away. I figured he’d be my main competition, unless someone eventually charged from further behind. After about 6km, a couple other lights were coming close to us, one of them being Cal Mitchell, who is no stranger to running long distances 🙂 He said he was running fast at the outset to see how he could do. Eventually, Scott and I pulled back away, and by the time we’d returned to the Ark (now in daylight), we had a gap on anyone else from the original 8.
I had a little drop bag set up near the start / finish, allowing me to drop my jacket and headlamp to get ready to run in the harder trails where I’d warm up, and the sun would come out. Grabbed a fresh hand bottle of Tailwind, and noticed Scott just jogging past to start the first loop while I was still tidying up my stuff. He had less than 30 seconds on me at the start of the loop, so I wasn’t too concerned, and figured I’d catch back up and hold him. Ultimately, it didn’t take very long before I was right on his heels once again. In fact, it was on the first substantial climb of the loop when I realized I’d probably be ready to pass him. Once the trail flattened out, and before we hit the descent, I made my pass, and trotted off as he wished me luck.
I really had no idea how things might play out yet. I never assume that things will go perfectly in a race. My focus was on good form, watching the trail, and ensuring I wasn’t going to blow up. In my mind, the goal was 6 hours, in order to finish by around noon, and I was certainly on track so far, but was only just starting the harder part of the race. Regardless, I did feel pretty strong and good as I ran. I had a minimum of weight in my pack, only splurging on taking a camera to snap pictures as I raced. The kilometers ticked by on the loop and I was amazed at the condition of the trail. Apparently Mike had gone out with a leaf blower to clear most of the leaves off the trail. It made a HUGE difference, as I could actually see where my feet were landing, minimizing the risk of rolling my ankles for the millionth time!
Due to timing, I had gotten out on the trails about 20 minutes before the next wave of racers (21k and 10.5k) would be starting out, so I didn’t have to worry about any trail congestion on my first loop. I started trying to figure out when I’d get passed by the leaders in the 21k race (this is sort of the ‘premiere’ event that draws some speedy folks out). I guessed around the 7-8k mark, and sure enough, it was just around the 8k mark that Gareth Davies passed me on his first loop. He had a sizable gap to the next 2 racers in the 21k event, and easily took the victory when all was said and done. It wasn’t until the 2nd loop that the next two fellows passed me on the trail. All in all, only 4 racers from that event actually passed me, which is pretty respectable.
I had completed my first 10.5k loop in 1h and 12 minutes. This was a very decent time considering I already had about 28k in my legs. Once again, I swapped hand bottles as I went through the start/finish area, and felt very relaxed. It was nice to get cheered on, but I wasn’t wasting any time in this area. I had no idea where other people might be behind me, and decided not to wait to find out! The second loop went just as well as the first one. The sun was now higher in the sky, providing great lighting streaming through the leaves in the trees. I couldn’t help but stop and admire the beauty a few times on this loop. Throughout this loop I was also starting to catch up to racers from other events, so I had to make a few tricky passes along the way. At one point, I almost missed one of my turns as I was passing someone who had inadvertently stood blocking my marked trail. No harm no foul however, and I was back on my way quickly.
Wrapping up Lap 2 of 3, I took note of my lap time, which was around 1h 13 minutes, meaning I’d stayed very consistent on the first two laps. I was also still feeling really good, which made me happy. All that remained is one final loop of 10.5k, and then I’d be ready for some food and beer. Looking at my watch, it also appeared that I should be able to squeak out a 5h 30 minute race, bettering my target time by a fair bit. The day was turning into one of those near-perfect race experiences. I was obviously still pushing hard, but wasn’t being punished too much. You’re probably now waiting and expecting to hear about where things went south? Well, happily, that never happened!
The third and final lap was again fairly uneventful. By now, I was intimately familiar with the course itself, and knew where to push, and knew where to pull back. Having this knowledge is key when you are starting to fade a bit in a long race. It would ultimately mean the difference between a strong finish and a hard finish. About my only challenge on the final loop were the remaining shorter course participants. A good number of them were sporting headphones buried deep within their ears and thus making them oblivious to my footfalls behind them. Even calling out ‘on your left’ was unheard and unheeded, putting me in an awkward position a few times, where I had to sneak around them on tricky trail sections. This loop is why the race is called ‘relentless’. It never lets up, making passing a tricky prospect at the best of times.
Eventually, I stopped even trying to call to people, since invariably I’d only notice upon passing that they had music playing. My hairiest pass was trying to squeeze by a gentleman who got the bejeezus apparently scared out of him by me. When he finally noticed me passing on his left, he literally jumped, with both arms flailing out, resulting in me getting elbowed in the chest. I sort of annoyingly pointed at my ears to indicate that it was his own damn fault before trotting off ahead of him to continue my race. After all, what could I do? I wasn’t about to start yelling wildly at everyone I came across 🙂
I made it to the finish and hit the lap button one final time. My last loop had been 1h14mins! So still steady on the whole race. That was probably my most satisfying outcome of the whole day. I’d managed to run strongly and consistently the entire day. When all was said and done, my actual race time was 5h 24 mins for the full course, which by my watch was a touch over 49km. I took a seat in a lawn chair and enjoyed the day while watching other people finish. I wasn’t sure how long before another 50k racer would cross the line. After a little bit, I wandered off to change and dry off.
Ultimately, it was over an hour after I finished before the next 50k racer came in, which was Scott! Quite frankly, I was shocked. However, I have no illusions that it was due to me being that fast on this day, it was just one of those cases where the big guns simply didn’t sign up for this race. Despite that, a win is a win, and I’ll take it! I also have to promise myself that this was truly the last running race of the season, given the strong finish in my final 2 events. End on a high note, right?
All in all, it was a great day racing in beautiful surroundings. Funny to think that 4 years ago, I had been gathered in the very same place with friends and family for my wedding, and the same person who married us was the race director here on this day. That of course, is why this place is special to me. We also couldn’t have asked for better weather or trail conditions for this race. Although it is a small, grass-roots event, it is still one of the funnest to take part in, and this time, there was even custom-made finishers wood mementos to take home from the experience. I’ts fair to say that it probably won’t be the last time I race this event, and in fact, in a few months, I’ll be back out here tackling the snowshoe races on the same terrain! Till then, have fun out there, and enjoy the great weather!