At obstacle racing media, we cover more than just OCR. Why? Cause I wanna. Plus there is a lot to learn for our sport by participating in other sports! The crossover between OCR and endurance running is fairly clear; training for an ultra prepares you for the rigors of the Spartan Race Ultrabeast or the Worlds Toughest Mudder series and vice versa. Ultra distance events also allow you to tap into a great local community of runners to push you further and share training ideas. Consider this cross pollination.
As an introduction to my first ultra distance event, there seemed no clearer place to start than my own town – Lethbridge.
Except, was not a clear day: visibility was about a mile or less – and trying to see the other side of the valley was like looking through a glass of skimmed milk. The driest, hottest summer in years had turned most of British Columbia into a tinder box and since mid August, vast forest fires have been pouring blue tinted smoke and white ash onto the prairies. By the time I arrived at the start line on Saturday it was clearing, but I did spare a thought for the 100K and 100-mile runners who had battled through air quality indexes at +10 for most of Friday.
The Lethbridge Lost Soul Ultra Marathon (LSU) is organized through a running club and runners store in Lethbridge – Runners Soul. Now in its 18th year, the LSU it has been billed as “The toughest race on the prairies.” Not to put anyone off; it is also known as “the nicest [race on the prairies!]”
There’s a long waiting list for this race, and when entries go on sale in January, it sells out in a matter of hours. I was about to find out why.
The entry fee is CA$160 regardless of distance, which is an excellent value given the quality of this event. Three distances are available to choose from; the 54 kilometer, the 100 kilometer, and the 100 miler. The race is capped at relatively low numbers to maintain a great experience for all.
The course is separated into 6 legs, ranging in distance from 6 kms to 16 kms.
The first half of the course accumulates most of the elevation gain and loss, covering the eroded spurs of glacial till that form the valley walls, while the second half hugs the grassy banks of the Oldman River. Now, you’d expect the prairies to be flat, but I know better, in fact my GPS logged 53.06 kilometers or 32.9 miles with 1,441 meters or 4727 feet of elevation gain and loss during my race. This is not a flat course by any means, and this race climbs the walls of that river valley from bottom to top at least 13 times. The relatively short descents and climbs on the first two legs are extremely steep, but never dangerous.
Underfoot the surface is mostly dusty single-track, which isn’t a particularly challenging surface to run on – apart from some sections with loose sand, deep gravel or powdery dust. Grip and breathability were really great in my Merrell All Out Charge. I felt like they were a good choice for the mix of conditions.
Do not assume that Canada would have cooler temperatures by September – cactus thrive alongside rattlesnake in the river valley. By 11 am on Saturday the mercury had risen to a punishing 37°C (98.6°F) in the river bottom! Dante himself could have found inspiration here for his inferno. It can snow this time of year in Alberta, and one week later at the time of this publication, it is a balmy 12°C! You have been warned: if it is a warm day, be prepared for the extended rigors and heat of the ‘North Loop’. Train in the heat!
The power of experience
The guidance strategies and course markings on the LSU must have been finely tuned over the years because I never once felt lost. Pink flags were liberally placed for high visibility.
I guess that when you get good enough at the big stuff, you can start having fun with the details. The race was full of amusing or unique things to look at, like tiny rocks painted as Minions, the odd fake snake, or rocks painted with motivational statements.
The hills all had different nicknames, from the rather obvious ‘First Hill’ to ‘The Final Insult.’ Very funny.
Oh, and in the woods of the north loop, there was this…
By later in the day on Friday, someone dealt with it before he could float anyone else…
This wink of knowing, dark humor kept me entertained and helped me keep perspective during the painful final hours of the race.
Those aid stations!
There were three aid stations on the course, each of which sat like literal oases on the prairie. Each can be visited twice on each loop and one unmanned aid station could be found halfway along the longest north loop. A bag drop can be made for two of them (HQ and the northernmost station at Pavan Park). I’m not kidding when I say that the aid stations here are probably among the best you’ll ever experience. Where else can you get a grilled salmon sandwich along with a frozen lemonade? The choice of treats and drinks was diverse. Now, I know I might be gushing because I was high on endorphins, so take this with a pinch of electrolytes. Each was an oasis, that as you’ll read later, I found very difficult to leave.
The volunteers at the LSU were THE BEST (again excuse my endorphins). I don’t know if this is a regular thing at ultras, but at every aid station, I felt revered and respected like some kind of holy cow. Whether it was an encouraging applause, the sound of cow-bells announcing your arrival, or a knowing look from someone who has almost certainly been ‘there’ (and by there I mean the deepest ‘pain cave’), I’ve never felt so supported on-course. People knew my number and my name. They interacted with me on a personal level. They were so engaged and ‘on task’ that there was no need to really ask any questions or do anything other than check in at the station, with any assistance you needed being delivered before you even asked. OCR needs this kind of volunteer.
I had a fairly smooth race until the halfway mark. This was home ground for me, so I was well prepared for the elevation gain and the distance. I knew these trails and was making good time, until the heat arrived.
Staying hydrated in +35 degrees was a huge challenge, and as I came down from the ridges above the valley, I began to look longingly at the cool river running to my right. I was having a great time still, but I wanted to jump in right then. It seemed like the perfect antidote to the problem I was having with this heat. Heat had crept in and messed with my plans to finish strongly. It was the enemy and water was my ally. I thought about running down the bank for a minute and just standing in the water for a moment; it would take the pain out of my legs and lower my core temperature. It looked so inviting.
It would also leave me prone to blisters in my shoes and chafing. I might not feel like climbing back up the bank. The energy expenditure wouldn’t be worth it. Best to press on across the flood plain which was cracked and baked hard in the sun.
The distance seemed to dilate and grow as the temperatures and exposure took their toll on my mind. I’m pretty sure I had forgotten my salt pills. I checked through my bag over and over. Yeah… they weren’t there.
I took my shirt off and packed it for a while, exchanging it for my wide-brimmed hat to shield my head from the sun. I began to divert my attention away from how difficult it was and focused on keeping my running form balanced and maintaining the right heart rate, regardless of pace. I kept my mind busy – I was going to make it to Pavan aid station and recover a little before continuing.
This was a positive thought, yet in the back of my mind, I knew things weren’t going that well. I was overheating fast, and I had a very primal thought that I was going to get into trouble soon – maybe even on the way to Pavan. My watch rang out to me to take my nutrition. I was trying not to check my distance too much, but I let myself this time. I was 35km in – 20 to go! The taste of the homemade gel I was using was starting to get weird. I struggled to swallow it: the task of eating and running was becoming burdensome.
Where was Pavan station? I felt like it was taking forever. But I tried to keep my mind positive. This was such a privilege to be able to run out here and to experience this kind of test. The North loop eventually spat me back out, and I made it to the Pavan Park aid station – almost delirious from the heat. I got my pack filled with more electrolytes and I ate a big handful of dill pickle potato chips from my drop bag – the sodium felt like it would be enough. It probably wouldn’t be. I didn’t think to ask for salt pills; I had come this far, and I had heard that they might not matter anyway.
The mood at the aid station was celebratory, easy, accommodating. It really felt like an oasis there. I felt myself relax for a moment – part of my brain enjoying the atmosphere and the contrast with how rough things had been just a few minutes earlier on the trail. I had to force myself to snap out of the momentary stupor to realize I was far from done. It took more effort than I expected to leave that place behind and get back on the trail.
I grabbed a frozen lemonade which I gulped down too quickly (hello brain freeze), and set off into the heat once again. I was cooler now, and feeling cautiously optimistic, knowing that I only had about 13 kilometers to go. I ran well for about 15 minutes before my pace began to falter again and soon I was unable to drink enough water without feeling sick. Heat exhaustion. Not enough electrolytes. It felt like I was drinking plenty, but in reality, I was taking in only small sips and becoming more and more dehydrated.
At that time, I got a message from my wife Deanna – she knew that my pace had died, as did everyone else; my family and close friends were watching my progress the whole time in real time via a Strava Live beacon. There was nowhere to hide what was happening, and messages of support soon flooded onto the screen of my smartwatch. There was plenty of help out on the course for me, but it was huge boost to know that I wasn’t going alone on this – not at all.
Moments like this put you through a kaleidoscope of emotions. One thought began to persist – “this is what I signed up for.” I had become lost in an environment that was wild, inhospitable, and indifferent to my goal.
I had become that ‘Lost Soul.’ It was time to pick up whatever energy I had left and make it back to the finish.
Time for redemption.
Completing two of the final climbs was accomplished by crawling on my hands and knees and once I was back on the flats, the trail brought me back to the first aid station among a set of baseball fields. There I was immediately set upon by 3 volunteers who quickly recognized the symptoms of heat exhaustion. I told them I was going to try and finish, so they stuffed my hat and buff with ice, the buff loosely wrapped around my neck to cool me down. I drank a lot of ginger ale, which seemed to help too.
The final leg felt better – but the ice under my hat and around my neck was melting fast so I picked up the pace. Again, congratulations started to buzz through onto my wrist – my family had seen that I had passed 50 kilometers. It was a huge boost to know I had come this far. One final challenge remained.
I made it to the final climb at the base of Fort Whoop-Up and took this last photo.
I’ve run up this hill dozens of times. I’ve carried buckets up and down it. I’ve ran up in the snow and in the heat. I know exactly how long it is, and that it has a second ‘summit’. Its not a big deal, maybe 300 feet from bottom to top, but after 53 kilometers it felt as tall as Everest. The sound of cow bells at the finish line nearby kept me crawling, dehydrated and unsteady, shouting at myself to keep going all the way to the top. I crawled my way to the top of that hill before hobbling my way to the finish. I don’t care how small it looks in the photo or that people routinely do ultras that are much harder than this. To me it felt like the final character building moment in what had been a humbling day. It had taken me 6 hours and 48 minutes.
Nice and Tough
Make no mistake – this is the toughest race I have ever done. I expected that. What I didn’t expect to hear was that the 100 miler had just a 33% finish rate and only about 66% of runners had finished the 50K. I felt grateful to have finished, but also understood that the line between finishing and not finishing didn’t have to become a badge of honor. No matter when you called it, it was a huge accomplishment for all.
Top category finishers received an etched rock as a trophy. All runners received a personalized tile, a North Face running jersey, breakfast the next day, and a chance to win prizes in a raffle. I’m really struggling to find a fault here with the whole deal…. um… it was too hot?
LSU is that race that everyone wants to do because it feels authentic. It’s got that locally sourced, locally grown feel that contrasts with the escalating commercialization of athletics. Capping the race at smaller numbers mean it feels exclusive, yet so inclusive of each person on course. LSU could expand the number of entrants, but then that magic could be lost or watered down. The event isn’t pretentious or showy, and Runner’s Soul appeared to transcend self marketing or promotion pushing. It’s a race that shows restraint and maturity in that regard. On a personal level, it taught me some very important lessons about my own approach to training and managing my race during extreme conditions.
The Lost Soul Ultra is one of those rare challenges worth waiting for. Make no mistake, this is an event where a person must journey through heaven and hell to make himself whole again. Despite the smoke, the heat and the brimstone I will be back next year.
Photo credit: Ralph Arnold photographics. Facebook contributors – used by permission.