‘Beaver Fever’. What the hell is that?
Was I going to be aggressively attacked by fevered beavers?
I did think Briony was on a wind up when she told me that I must not fill my water bottles from streams and rivers as I habitually do at home. Surely the water is really pure and clean coming off the mountains? No. It is full of nasty little Giardia parasites that come from beavers; hence ‘beaver fever’.
Fever inducing beavers aside, animal encounters were a possibility and I had to know how to avoid them and what to do if they occurred. I checked with the park authority on the likelihood on my planned route and if it was safe to run solo. Running solo was fine but I should carry bear spray, not wear earphones and make noise when approaching blind turns and hill brows.
Bears do not like to be surprised or challenged: as a sometimes, grumpy bear I know this. Key bear encounter tips: look big, don’t make eye contact, don’t turn and run. I had practiced my ‘hey bear!’ calls along the Loch Ard trail training runs. Bear spray was duly purchased. Nerves of steel my friend, nerves of steel. You need to let that bear get pretty close before letting loose with the spay.
Cougars are sneaky and mean; inclined to lie in wait, pounce and maul you about just for fun. Someone recommended a more aggressive approach; stare it down and convince it you are a threat. Again, don’t turn your back and run. He suggested that I might want to purchase a small lightweight hunting knife like the one he always carried when trail running: really? Tempting, but no.
Having subsequently seen a cougar at Calgary Zoo neither the knife nor I would have come off well. There is a reason they are called Mountain Lions! Encountering a bear would have been the preferred option.
When planning my route, I initially assumed the Rockies and trails around Canmore, Banff or Lake Louise; but the local recommendation was to check out Kananaskis (the foothills of the Rockies). There were plenty trails which could be easily linked together and which had good access for support. Even better it’s only an hour’s drive out of our base in Calgary.
My 60k route started at the Little Elbow camp ground and followed the Elbow Loop trail then transitioned onto the Powderface Trail. It was a mix of forest tracks, gnarly, single track paths and some gravel track. There was 5,039 feet of undulating ascent with a couple of long climbs. The starting elevation was 5,266 feet rising to a high point of 7,280 feet.
I was excited and a little nervous. This was going to be my longest run since my knee injury ten months earlier. I had done a slow, steady build up since the end of January and felt strong and as ready as I could be. It was also my last run as a V50 planned for the day before my sixtieth birthday. I had briefly considered running on my birthday, but why? I’m not that masochistic. Celebration and bubbly were far more attractive.
We arrived in Canada a week before the run. This gave me time to acclimatise to the dry air and heat of the Alberta summer. Thankfully, the bad air pollution from wildfires in the North had cleared and no fires had started in the areas we planned to go to. During the week we had taken a three-day road trip into the Rockies visiting the Canmore, Banff and Lake Louise, the highest communities in Canada. The beauty and grandeur of the Rockies exceeded expectation; it is stunning. At Lake Louise we hiked the Plain of six glaciers trail which rises to 7,200 feet and a dramatic conclusion along a shale ridge onto a scree slope nestle in a horseshoe of peaks.
We arrived at the Elbow Loop trailhead for an 8:00 am start. It was already quite busy with groups of walkers. The weather was bright and it was a ‘cool’ 18 degrees. After the usual twenty trips to the toilets Alasdair, Briony and Jackie, my support crew for the day, escorted me to the start of the trail. After the obligatory photo I was off.
As I crisscrossed between a variety of paths and tracks it became clear that there were many paths to the same place. After a short distance it settled down to a single forest track. Suddenly there was a noise. A startled deer shot across the track just in front of me leaving me equally startled. Catching my breath, I continued on my way through the woods my heart rate easing. After crossing the Little Elbow River, the trail began to rise as I started a 10k, 2000 feet ascent that curved round Mount Glasgow.
I spotted something ahead; an unmistakable pile of fresh bear scat and simultaneously heard but couldn’t see something moving in the trees and undergrowth. My heart raced, my pace slowed, my arms shot up and the well-practiced ‘Hey Bear!’ calls started. I continued slowly making a few full turns to check around me: all clear. There were no further close encounters on the run although I saw a lot of old bear scat (which looks not unlike horse droppings). There were occasional noises of things moving in the trees and undergrowth keeping me vigilant. Most likely just deer, nevertheless, I continued to periodically sing, whistle or call and wave my arms above my head.
I had read a hiker’s comment that the thick woods made the trail uninteresting. Not at all; I relished the verdancy, colour and scents; and the surprise reward when a break in the trees provided splendid glimpses of the river and mountains.
Less enjoyable was struggling to maintain pace. Why was this so hard, so tiring, and why was I so out of breath when attempting to push? Admittedly, my training had been short of a couple of long runs short, but I had done all that I could in four months. The was one thing I had failed to consider; the effect of altitude albeit low altitude. At sea level we have 21% oxygen, by my start elevation that was down to 17.3% and at the highest elevation 16%. Many people including myself have run higher, but even a small drop in oxygen will make a difference.
Finally reaching the top I found a conveniently placed rock to perch on as gave my lungs a rest and regained my equilibrium. Next, I was rewarded with a short flat section which transitioned into a lovely long glide downhill. That felt so good after the previous slog and I may have imagined it, but I could feel my breathing ease.
The trail continued downhill alongside and with clear views down to the Big Elbow River. This half of the loop was much more rugged. The track transitioned onto a single-track path technical and gnarly at times and which, twisted, turned and undulated its way down the steep sided valley. Finally, after crossing a gorge it widened back into a track and levelled in the last section of the loop.
That long first climb had sapped my strength so now, even small inclines were having a greater than expected toll on my reserves. It had become hot too reaching the high twenties. I was piling through my fluids and even carrying extra I was close to empty. There was no hope of replenishing until I reached the end of the loop which was still 10k away (2k further than I thought). It was my lucky day! As I paused to admire the gorge a group of mountain bikers stopped to chat and kindly offered a re-fil.
At last, well behind schedule, I got back to the trail head where Alasdair and the girls were: a) extremely bored waiting and b) just beginning to wonder if they needed to start searching. I slaked my thirst with water and coke. Oh, how good was that coke: like nectar.
Whilst being way off schedule the good news was that the loop had been longer than estimated and I now only had 15k to do. We decided to adjust to route. A technical woody loop that ran off the Powderface Trail was cut. I would stay on the Powderface Trail and do an out and back leg.
After a short easy section of tarmac, I was back onto trail. A broad gravel track less crowded by trees and with a larger gopher population. The next 7k was relentless. A seemingly endless thousand-foot climb, that invoked outbursts of sweary words. I pressed on hoping to see the meeting point as a target but it was hidden by the rises and turns. Then at the top of a rise I spotted the car. My tap on the window startled them. They had settled in for a long wait not expecting me to make good time with such a long climb.
I could smell the finish now and felt a spark of achievement. It had been a long haul in all senses of the word, especially the come-back from the knee injury. That last climb had been worth it for the joy of a downhill finish. Although at the end there was a farcical comedy of laps around the trail head car parks to get the last kilometre.
The diamond Odyssey 60 for 60 completed. It was tough and spectacular. Just as it should be. My patience, my rehab and my steady build up had paid off. I was an able and happy runner once again with the achievement making my birthday a little more special.
Postscript. This blog entry has been sitting in draft for a couple of months. I have lacked the motivation to edit the final draft.
My triumphant return to ultra distance was short lived. Unfortunately, a week after the run my knee injury started to trouble me again preventing a full recovery and return to long miles. In four weeks, I get some minor surgery to the cartilage which will hopefully resolve the issue and enable me to start again.