“A Wizard is never late, nor is he early, he arrives precisely when he means to.” – Gandalf, The Fellowship of the Ring.
I’m a little embarrassed that I had to resort to such desperate measures as I did on the Spartan Race Canada Sun Peaks Beast, but these were desperate times. I wish it were a fable, or a tale, but it’s true. All of it. Read on to see how the Western Canadian Spartan Series brought me to my knees – quite literally – on the slopes of Sun Peaks.
As a venue, Sun Peaks is the crown jewel in the Western Canadian Spartan Race Series. Sun Peaks Ski resort offers plenty of natural substance as a race location, and while it maybe not quite as picturesque as Montana, Sun Peaks offers the greater challenge. The single loop Spartan Beast course had roughly 1500m of elevation gain, while the Montana Beast had closer to 1200m.
The resort itself has reasonably priced accommodation on offer if you are visiting for the race (hooray for the off-season); our two bedroom chalet slept four of us comfortably, had two bathrooms, a kitchen and a hot tub for about $CAD 200 per night. More thrifty visitors would be advised to bring food with them to avoid paying inflated prices at the restaurants and pubs in the village – although the food and atmosphere was really great since a lot of race participants were able to stay and socialize after the race. Note: the city of Kamloops is a 45-50 minute drive down the valley one way which is a little far for a post race dinner, or maybe more pressingly, it’s an awfully long drive to Kamloops to get cleaned up post race. Stay where the party is. Stay up in Sun Peaks.
The bad part? Sun Peaks is a PITA to get to and if I ever go again, I would have to be flown in. That drive was almost prohibitively long, especially considering the numerous viable locations available around the province of Alberta, which is much more central for everyone in the Western Canadian catchment. Selfishly, I’d love to see a race out at Lake Louise Ski Area, Nakiska, Sunshine, West Castle Mountain, Crowsnest Pass or even Bragg Creek, and I believe it would draw in more people from around the western provinces.
So back to my story:
After 11 hours of driving in the rain, I stumbled into my chalet at Sun Peaks Ski Resort in British Columbia. It was too quiet. Where was everyone? Then I realized my mistake; it was actually an hour later than it appeared (we’d crossed a timezone as we wove our path through the Canadian Rockies) so It made sense that my apartment full of Albertans were already in bed for an early start. I was the last to arrive, and I was being way too noisy. Quietly does it then.
Morning arrived with the normal check-in, last minute bag drop and run to the toilets. With the Ultra Beast already underway, I stood at the base of the Mountain staring up at its crisp, yellowing outline against the bright sky wondering what was ahead. I knew it was going to be cold. It already was; frost was subliming into mist on the start line chute rails as it filled with elite heat competitors and their breath hung visibly like a cloud above the chute. It was -3C, yet there is always at least one elite with his shirt off. I wasn’t taking any chances though. Two layers for me!
Soon we were running and power hiking our way up the mountain. You know the drill. It’s a Spartan Race…. so I’ll spare you a play-by-play. Instead, here is the highlight and low-lights reel.
Rolling Mud – The rolling mud was not very… muddy? No big deal. It wasn’t missed! It was freezing cold out there!
Log Jam – This obstacle was a series of logs that were to be crawled under. It was also a crossover point for the racecourse. The obstacle was intended to be tackled on the ascent only but some volunteers were telling runners descending the hill to go through the crawl again. The crawl was very tight and many people had difficulty squeezing between the ground and the logs, creating a bottleneck even on the elite heat.
Balance Beam – One of the first obstacles on the course. Once again volunteers were suggesting racers take off their shoes to complete this obstacle since it was icy. Nearly everyone who removed their shoes failed the obstacle.
The highlights – Obstacles were more widely spaced and less stacked than in previous races this year, and all of the heavy carries were long and challenging. Really challenging. The climbs were incredibly steep in places, eventually reaching a crunchy, snowy summit and a breathtaking view of the resort and valley below. Once we had reached the summit of the mountain, the course unexpectedly dug deep into the back-country of the resort along miles of mountain bike trails that delivered a rewarding rooted, icy, muddy patina underfoot. We were treated to two sandbag carries, including an extra long 50lb sandbell carry. The overall highlight for me was moving into the downhill single-track, then hurtling down the main double black diamond ski run, stopping at half a dozen obstacle stations on the way down. I ran that hard – really hard.
Then it happened.
As I ran down the hill, I saw it. The stairway to Sparta obstacle stood like a steaming gateway into heaven. It was just within spitting distance of the finish area. As I ran towards it, my legs were starting to cramp up. “No worries”, I thought. This would be over soon. I climbed it carefully, pivoted over the apex and turned around lowering myself down to the ground. I was almost done, but then horror struck.
The course markings turned west. West was bad. West meant we were going back across the mountainside and into the woods again. As we began climbing the hill once more, and the cheers from the arena faded along with any hope of an easy finish, I began to lose my running form. The dull pain that had been growing in my hips and knees suddenly built into a crescendo of pain that drowned out every other concern I had about finishing the race. I had descended the mountain too quickly. Like a diver trying to reach the surface without thinking, I had given myself the spartan racing equivalent of ‘the bends’. To make matters worse, my painkillers had fallen out of my pocket way back on the bucket carry.
Now I was just shuffling my feet. People who I had passed earlier were catching up to me. They patted me on the back, “keep going dude”.
I tried to keep walking, but my body was grinding to a halt. I wasn’t tired, just in a lot of pain. With just two miles to go, I dropped to my knees and sat on the side of the trail and watched as concerned runners passed me by. At this point I should offer a special thanks to Nancy Loranger, and Adam Mowat who gave me the push to stand up and keep going. Feeling encouraged, and enraged by what was happening to me, I stood up and tried to walk a little further. It was really no good. Again I crouched on the trail and took my buff from my head – almost defeated.
Was I really going to come all this way to do this? To give up and DNF? It crossed my mind more than once.
Then I saw something next to me on the ground – a gnarled stick. I grabbed it and stood against it. It was strong. I wasn’t going to give up on my last spartan race of the year without a fight.
Leaning heavily against it I began pushing myself along, trying to take as much weight off my joints as possible. Like Gandalf the Grey, I made my way through the forest. I took a hammer gel, and washed it down with what remained in my CamelBak. I was pushing hard down into the ground with the staff now, almost like I was steering a gondola through Venice, punting through a river of pain and disappointment. It must have looked very odd, but I didn’t care. I really didn’t. I just had to finish. Emerging from the forest, I could hear the festival area again. I strode faster and faster towards the slip wall with my stick.
I tossed the stick to one side to complete the obstacle and as I came down the other side, it was clear that the pain had cleared out of my joints almost as quickly as it had begun. The volunteers looked at each other like they had just witnessed a miracle as I ran back into the forest, leaving the staff in their outstretched hands.
I ran the rest of that race like Lazarus. I was back from the dead. I’d love to say that like the great wizard in Lord of the Rings, that I arrived at that finish line when I intended to, but it just goes to show – some of the best adventures have unexpected conclusions.
The Sun Peaks Beast gets a perfect score for providing an unparalleled experience to run in the Canadian Rockies. Great obstacles, huge slopes, big payoffs. This was the kind of quality spartan race we’ve been hoping for to round out the series. I know others of you had struggles and race stories to tell too. You can check out the winners here. Congrats to all of you who ran. Please leave a comment and discuss what your spartan race story was like!
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