Welcome back to another race report from ActiveSteve! This time, we find ourselves heading to the beautiful Kimberley Alpine Resort for the 108km solo Black Spur Ultra. After having taken on both the Sinister 7 100 miler race and Canadian Death Race, it was time to check out the 3rd Ultra that is put on by Sinister Sports. It is no secret that I LOVE to visit and race in real mountains, so getting out to the Canadian Rockies is always a highlight of my race season. My past experiences in races put on by Brian have always been impeccable, so I was pretty sure I knew roughly what I’d be in for, and that I would both love and potentially hate parts of the race, but come out a better person for it. Or something like that ;-). Read on to learn how this race is set up, and my experiences, as well as see the race video that I put together for the event.
Album of Photos from Black Spur Ultra
One of the best parts of any race is seeing new terrain, and being relatively ‘pampered’ and ‘guided’ on the amazing trails that exist all around us. Of course you can travel to the places where races are held and find the trails, but there is something just a little better about it when you don’t have to consult maps, and also don’t have to carry your body weight in food and water to tackle the long bits. As such, I was pretty excited to add the Black Spur to my 2019 race calendar. This was especially true due to the fact that after the winter ankle surgery (and follow up issues), I wasn’t sure if I’d really be in a position to tackle any real long distance races. But here I was, finding myself toeing the line at the start of a 108km race!
There were some good reasons to choose the Black Spur this year. Obviously , number 1 was the race organization. Number 2 was the venue (new terrain for me). Number 3 is less obvious, but pretty key for me this time around: the layout of the race. Instead of a long point to point with scattered aid stations, but Black Spur is laid out as a 3-loop course which is repeated twice. In other words, the start / finish line is a veritable hub of activity, and a well-tended aid station. After all, in the 108k race, I’d be seeing this spot 6 times throughout my day. This also made it super easy for Deanna to spectate and crew, since she could just stay there all day (and be close to our rented camper van for supplies / food). This also meant that if anything went wrong with my ankle or anything, I shouldn’t be more than about an hour from her.
The start / finish was hosted at the actual Kimberley Alpine Ski Resort, right at the bottom of the ski hill. This was a bit bitter sweet, as every loop meant you had to start right away with a steep pitched climb straight up the mountain, and each loop finish meant you had to pound your quads heading straight down with everyone watching on!
Race briefing took place the night before at an attached conference centre. Here we were given detailed overviews of the entire course, what to watch for, and any wildlife warnings (e.g. bears…). This was also a chance to meet fellow racers, as well as shop for any race swag you wanted to commemorate your event. My only real interest was sampling beer from Over Time Beer Works, the local brewery that was sponsoring finish line beers.
The next morning, at rise and shine time, I had my normal smoothie and some yogurt with granola in it while getting my gear ready for the race start. I handed a bin off to Deanna to be in charge of with various equipment options throughout the day (shoe / clothes options, lighting, food, etc.). I had more than required, but given the easy set-up, I ‘spoiled’ myself with options. The day had started off already quite nice. Cool morning at this altitude, but the sun was indicating it would stick around today (and potentially roast me later…).
Before I knew it, the race casually (for me) got underway. My plan was to race consistently, not push too hard in the first half, nor get caught up in race fever. Besides the solo event, there is also the option to race as a relay team, or even race only the 54 km option. As such, taking off at the start to stay with the leaders may be a big mistake if they are in a relay team. You’ll blow up following, only to find out you didn’t need to stay with them. At any rate, I was practising tortoise and the hare philosophy, and just wanted to have a big day and big adventure.
Leg 1 was known at ‘The Goat’. This loop was both the shortest loop, as well as the ‘pointiest’ loop with a total of 16.1 km and about 886m of climbing, with much of that climbing in a 5km section. The first time doing leg 1 was tough, but doable. In the excitement of being out there, I didn’t pay too much mind to it, other than to note that it had steep bits. Let’s see how that would feel later….
The first loop had been the big climbing leg, starting off on a ski access roads, but soon transitioning to some wild trails up and back down the mountain along old cut lines. It was NOT a typical ski resort loop thanks to the rugged trails. After 2 hours and 14 minutes, I cruised into the HQ feeling totally fine. It’s worth noting that there is also an aid station at about the mid point of each loop for filling bottles, fuelling up, etc. However, these stations are not major stops but rather ‘quickie marts’ on your way through.
Having taken only a few minutes of rest at the base of the mountain, I headed straight back up to start Leg 2 of the race. The leg was called ‘The Toad’. It was about 18.3 km long and featured 674 m of climbing. These trails were more like a great cross-country mountain biking series of trails. At times wooded, at times with great vistas, but generally pretty easy to follow and not super technical. We were also following cross-country sky trails for a good bit as well. I’d love to go back there to do some skate skiing!
From my perspective, I think the coolest part of Leg 2 was the rock slides we got to run through. Photo doesn’t do it justice, but you can see some nice footage of it in my video at the end of this post. After navigating the single track trails and the rock slide, we eventually ended up in what is known as Horse Barn Valley, and a beautiful lake. Sadly, picnics and skinny dipping were off the table (although the 2nd time around it was mighty tempting!).
One past the lake, the remainder of this loop was once again on some great singletrack trails, before popping back out onto the cross-country ski trails, and finally, the steep descent back to the HQ. It was only the 2nd time doing this punch descent, but already, my quads suggested I ease up on this part rather than destroying them!
Once again, I opted to take only a very quick break at the aid station. I grabbed a mini bag of chips, filled up my bottles, chatted a moment with Deanna, who of course was making friends, then headed back up the ski hill to take on Leg 3. Known as ‘The Bear’, this loop was the longest, at 19.4 km, but also had the least climbing, with only 670 m of total vertical. So it must have been easy-peasy, right? Not so fast compadre. Remember, this is a trail ultra, not a park fun run!
If I were to describe Leg 3, I’d probably say on it’s own it would make a fantastic course. It has a little bit of everything, and features 3 distinct sections. The opening 1/3rd is amazing flowy singletrack trails with sweeping vistas at spots. You will feel great here and enjoy it. Then comes the ‘road’ bit. Dirt road that is, and VERY steep downhill. This is a big quad burner, but a chance to get some serious speed, until you reach the mid point aid station to refuel. From there, you have to make up all the downhill by climbing up. However, the views are absolutely spectacular and very rewarding. Easily my favourite part of the entire race. To finish of this leg, the final 3rd is back on great single track trails for a while before emerging at the now-familiar ski trails near the HQ.
At the end of the amazing Leg 3, it was back to the increasingly painful descent to the HQ to once again see my smiling wife cheering me on. Having made it to the halfway point, I took an extra minute to enjoy a break, checking my feet and my ankles, confirming that yes, everything was working well, and firing on all cylinders. I had already started using my trekking poles, since, why not? They help. Never turn down an aid if you can take it, right?
Now it was time to repeat the entire 3 legs all over again. This was also about the time my amnesia hit, since I apparently didn’t remember just how brutal the leg 1 climb was until the second time around! I had left HQ feeling good, and imagining myself flying over the 2nd half of the race. However, as I started out in the warm afternoon heading up the ski access road, I was not feeling quite as fresh.
Then, once turning off this and getting into the wilder trails heading steeply uphill, I felt as though I had been gut-punched by a grizzly bear. Sakes alive, this trail suddenly seemed impossibly brutal! What had happened to my energy? I quickly decided to switch to caffeinated Nuun and eat some nuts. Turns out I’d need some extra ‘go-power’ for the next 7 hours 🙂
On the plus side of all this, I knew the terrain I’d be facing, and realized that this really was the worst and hardest part of the race. After getting through Leg 4 (i.e. Leg 1 redux), I had the beautiful singletrack trails awaiting me to take me to the finish line. Also, I was fortunate enough to have completed Legs 1-4, as well as half of Leg 5 in light. Other racers would be navigating the tougher parts of the trails solely by headlamp.
Like any race of this distance, you expect some ups and downs. Yes, that is rather obvious when it comes to the terrain. However, you are never quite certain when the peaks and valleys will hit you mentally. Overall, Things held together pretty well for me. My lowest point was probably at the end of the 5th loop. My energy was flagging, it was not pitch dark, and pretty quiet around the HQ. Rather than dwell on it though, I grabbed a bowl of soup, had a peaceful moment for just me, then lightly jogged back out into the cool night air without any fanfare. Knowing you have less than 20k to go, but also realizing that is still almost 20% of the race can play tricks on your brain.
Happily though, my ankles held up totally fine, and after around 3 more hours, I was making my final descent to the finish line. It was now a ghost town below. What had been a bustling hub of activity was now just the support crew for people doing the 108k solo event. In total 106 people had registered for that option. Of those, 17 people never started, and 24 did not finish. Meaning, ultimately there were only 66 finishers. My time of 17:41 was good enough for 22nd place overall, which I was totally fine with!
At the finish line, I collected my Spur, as well as my commemorative finisher’s beer. Then it was off to bed. After all, it was now about 2am, and I’d been racing for almost 18 hours! Sleeping was pretty tough, and after a few hours, I found myself wandering back to the finish to cheer people in for a bit, before heading to the breakfast awards ceremony. Here, I was able to gorge myself on way too many breakfast pastries while all the awards and prizes were given out. It was a great cap off to a great event. From there, it was back into the van for Deanna and I to continue our Rock Mountain Road Trip, but that story is for another day!
Hope you enjoyed this little tale, but to get an even better overview of the race, you should really watch my video below. Here you’ll really get a ‘taste of the trail’! Until next time, dream big!