I woke up Monday morning, loaded up my pulk and started running…
Ever since I had to cancel running Arrowhead 135 due to illness, I’ve been looking to find a race to replace it. Most of the races were too soon as I needed to get healthy first. The one race that really spoke to me was White Mountains 100 in Alaska, but unfortunately they have a long waiting list (I have moved up to 22nd on the list, but still not looking likely).
With the number of winter races dwindling for the season, the only option I really had was to make my own adventure.
This is an area that I expect I will continue to seek out in the future. I have always been the type of person who enjoys the act of getting out there everyday in training, as much, or sometimes even more, than the race itself. A race setting doesn’t always have to be the type of format that brings the most satisfaction and enjoyment in running. In other words…it’s not always about the race shirt.
This has been a great winter for training. We’ve had amazing snow, frozen lakes and cold weather to provide awesome conditions. I’ve enjoyed searching out new trails and piecing together many lakes that I’ve never run on before, and which of course aren’t accessible in the summer.
The one route that I’ve kept coming back to and wanting to eventually do in it’s entirety was almost right out my door. Starting at the Snowmobile trailhead in Yarker at the base of Trail #101, heading north to the Trans Canada Trail (Trail E108), and then east to the village of Sharbot Lake. The entire point to point route is 84km.
I had run most of the first half of this during various runs this winter, but was looking forward to connecting the entire trail. Now, I just had to wait for a good weather day. I wanted to make sure that I did this officially in the winter, before the first day of spring, so my window of opportunity was quickly coming to a close. We had a few warm days with rain and warm temperatures, so I was happy to finally get another couple of cold days to firm up the lakes again.
I decided that I wanted to establish this route for the future too as a benchmark, so set out some guidelines for myself. I treated it as a true winter race format with all the mandatory gear (ie. winter sleeping bag, bivy, stove, etc…) required of a northern race, meaning this would be unsupported and I would be totally self sufficient. I also kept my watch running the entire time, even during stops.
Water was the biggie in terms of sled weight. I was debating between pulling the extra weight of water or melting water with my stove from the snow (long process) along the way. Since the trail was going to be fairly firm in most places, I felt my pulk would move fairly well and I wouldn’t notice the added weight as much. (I didn’t weigh my sled beforehand, because I didn’t want to know, but weighed it afterwards and it was a surprising 40lbs including water.) Over the course of the day, I would drink the water weight lighter.
Sara dropped me off at the trailhead before she left for work. I figured that I wanted to save the additional 3km’s it would take to run from our home to the starting point. The plan was that she would follow my Spot Tracker and pick me up at night when I got to Sharbot Lake.
Setting off on the run lacked some of the excitement of an actual race, but I was still excited to get out on the trail and lakes and just enjoy the day. The feeling of having everything in your sled to survive for the day, or longer, leaves you feeling very alive!
Even though I was pretty sure that the lakes would be frozen and should be runnable, this is the one area that I was a little concerned with. I approached Varty Lake about 20 minutes into the run and it looked like a skating rink. I quickly put on Microspikes over my La Sportiva Crossover’s and set out across. I was still a bit nervous seeing where some of the water had refrozen, but with each step felt that much more confident. As it turned out, due to the heavy snowmobile traffic on Varty Lake, it was the worse lake that I had to cross. Each one got better.
Everything was going very well and I was making reasonably good time. After passing through the village of Enterprise, the terrain begins to get much hillier, which when you’re pulling a heavy sled, definitely makes things a challenge. Getting to Mountain Road was a nice landmark, as Sara and I had just run there a week earlier. The next stage though would definitely be more difficult with more climbs and steeper descents.
It had been a while since I’ve run around South Cranberry Lake and I’d forgotten how beautiful and rugged it was. It’s a small lake that looks to be in the middle of nowhere. I smiled as I crossed the lake as I did a run here a few years ago, and watched a bear playing along the shoreline that I was now only a few feet away. No bears today though as they’re still sleeping.
Shortly after I crossed South Cranberry Lake I was reminded that even though I was in a very wild part of the country, it wasn’t too far yet from civilization as I saw an old bike that was hanging from a tree about 20 feet overhead. Again, I laughed to myself thinking that this poor bike handled the last icy downhill about as well as I did with my runaway pulk.
I was doing a pretty good job fueling and hydrating all day, all the while knowing that each drink of water and each item I ate would be less I’d have to pull. I reached the halfway point in about 6 hours and took a few minutes to catch up on a little more substantial food and grab an extra Clif Shot Gel. I sat at the edge of Norway Lake and just took in the scenery.
It was a fairly cool morning with the temperature around -18C when I started. There was also a cool NE wind that I would face head on all day. Any time I stopped, I usually found that I’d be pretty cold before long and have to get moving again.
Crossing another series of lakes to reach Puzzle Lake had me moving well. Sara and I had run the bottom tip of Puzzle Lake a few weeks earlier, so I was getting excited to see all new trails and lakes as I made my way to the final half of the run.
Puzzle Lake was beautiful, but I wasn’t able to thoroughly enjoy it as my stomach was starting to rebel a bit. Increasing my electrolytes and sucking on candied ginger helped calm things down. There were sections of long lakes and rugged terrain that reminded me of past races in Yellowknife and Whitehorse.
Leaving Puzzle Lake, my excitement soon turned to frustration and anger though. I was met with the sight of ATV tracks that had totally chewed up the snowmobile trail. I really couldn’t believe that someone would do such a thing and was cursing out loud the culprit. This lasted for approximately 30 minutes with my sled flipping every few minutes in the deep ruts.
Just as I got passed the ATV tracks, I was faced with another challenge….Pit Road. I sort of assumed when studying maps beforehand that since the snowmobile trail runs on this road that it wasn’t going to be a winter access road. Wrong! The road was entirely bare!
The good thing about Pit Road was that it was mud and wet sand and wouldn’t break my pulk. The bad thing was that it would be very tough dragging my pulk. I was surprised that this was mud on this cold of a day, but apparently the sun must have melted the snow and ice. I got about halfway down the road and was getting discouraged by how hard I was having to work while going so slow. Pit Road featured over an hour of the toughest running with a pulk that I’ve ever done.
Having finally reached Arden Road, I saw a sign pointing down the Road that was a little confusing about which direction to take. Thankfully it was only a few hundred meters before heading back onto the next series of lakes. I honestly think that if I’d had to continue on road for much longer, I would have sent a Spot or Text Message to Sara asking to be picked up. I was not in a happy place.
It was now getting later in the day. The late day light is one of my favourite times to be running on lakes. It was just beautiful with the shine off of the hard packed snow and ice.
Going into the run, I wasn’t really sure how long it was going to take me. I realistically thought it could be around 12 hours, but soon realized that it would be longer. I joked with Sara beforehand that it would be nice to do some night running. Sara quickly replied ‘Be careful what you wish for’. So true.
As much as I love lake running, I think that I was getting my fill of it now and was looking forward to hitting Arden and connecting with the Trans Canada Trail. From there, it would be about 22 kms to get to Sharbot Lake.
I reached the TCT after having run 62 kms, and the sun was now setting. I could feel the temperature dropping further as I focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Running past the village of Arden on the trail I could see a few people looking out their windows probably wondering what the heck this crazy man was doing. It was strange running near civilization after having spent so much of the day in the wilderness, but it was somewhat comforting just the same before the final push.
The next village was a little place called Mountain Grove. I had heard of this community before, but never seen it. I was happy that I could still make out some of the buildings and the hills/mountains(?) that surrounded it. It was everything I thought it would be and reminded me of some of the small towns in Colorado. Very beautiful.
Passing through Mountain Grove, my stomach was rebelling further. I was doing everything I could to continue getting a few calories down when I could, and relied heavily on ginger again to make this possible. The wind seemed to pick up a bit, so I was cool, but with my hood up on my La Sportiva Lux jacket, was able to maintain the fine balance of being warm enough, but not sweating.
I still didn’t know exactly how far I had to go to get to Sharbot Lake. It was a welcome surprise to get a text message from Sara saying that she was now at the end of the trail and was watching me on my Spot Tracker. This spurred me on and I was now doing some fairly quick sections of faster running again.
The final 10 km’s of the run was magical. The full moon had come out over the trees and was helping to direct me to Sharbot Lake. This was a great time to reflect on what I had done, and how I was able to turn something that was so disappointing in missing a race to something as rewarding as accomplishing this day of running.
My final time to run the 84 km route was 13 hours and 43 minutes. I might consider going back to run this again at some point and doing it faster, however, this run wasn’t really about speed, but about enjoying life and putting together a really beautiful route. Seeing Sara meet me at the end of the trail made it that much more special, and realize how fortunate I am on so many levels.
I guess the only disappointment on the day was that we couldn’t enjoy a celebratory beer afterwards on St. Patrick’s Day in Sharbot Lake, as the pub and pizza joint was closed. I guess next time I’ll have to run a little quicker to get there before they close.