Am I a runner now? MEC Vancouver Road Race Report

“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”

💬 Ursula K. Le Guin

Over the past few years I’ve ran intermittently, running the Vancouver Sun Run (10K) most years, but I’ve had no particular goals or training plan. In an attempt to provide some more structure/motivation to running, I signed myself and Kyle up for the MEC Vancouver Road Race Series – five low key races featuring plentiful bananas, but not much fuss. And to force us to actually need to run regularly and train, I signed us up for the half marathon distance (21.1K) at the final race of the year on September 29.

Training

It took a few months, but eventually in April, I found a reasonable half marathon training plan, re-installed Runkeeper on my phone and started running regularly.

Training was going fairly well up until the beginning of June when I developed shin splints. I went to physio for the first time in my life and started faithfully doing the exercises and took a break from running. Between a trip out of town to do trail maintenance on the GDT and settling into my last term of school, it was almost a month before I ran again. Thankfully the time off running allowed my shin splints to completely heal and other than a few odd runs with tight calves, they didn’t bother me again.

Since I missed nearly a month of runs, I searched online for shorter half marathon plans and cobbled together a new plan. The rest of training went fairly smoothly; we did our final long run of just under 20 km two weeks beforehand and then tapered for the race. While tapering, Kyle got a pretty bad cold which I also caught a mild version of, and it was raining a lot, so we cut one run short and skipped another to try and make sure we were better in time for Sunday.

Pre-Race

I woke up in the morning to discover I gave myself a charley-horse in my left calf while sleeping. I did my best to roll it out, then ate a small breakfast and walked (so convenient!) to the start of the race to pick up our race packages. There was a surprisingly long line at package pickup, but it was only a few minutes wait. I snagged an extra gel at pickup to supplement what I brought. We still had a lot of time to kill before the race started, so we walked to Starbucks to give ourselves a destination (and line-free washroom!) and then walked back, arriving about 10 minutes before the race was scheduled to start.

Race

KMPace
0 – 56:15
5 – 106:00
10 – 155:43
15 – 205:23
20 – 21.15:07

There were enough people participating they were releasing runners in waves. We positioned ourselves in the last wave since based on results from last year and the fact we were sick earlier in the week, I expected us to be finishing in the back-middle-ish of the pack.

Even though we positioned ourselves in the last wave, I initially started out too fast. When I checked my pace at the first kilometer marker, I was way ahead of my target, time to slooow down. Checking my pace again after 2K, I slowed down too much, time to speed up a hair. After this point, I figured I was in the correct zone and ran the rest of the race by feel/effort.

Around the 5K mark, the crowds thinned out and I was really able to settle into running. The route continued to be dead flat, alternating between gravel and paved paths as it followed the Fraser River past playgrounds and the Olympic Oval.

We finally reached the turnaround point! Now to just take one step for every one I’ve taken so far. I was feeling good, so started to push the pace a bit (at least it felt like I was). We went past the cool playgrounds, Olympic Oval, and finally rounded the corner for the last 5K.

I had my last gel and tried to push a little bit faster. I was definitely starting to feel the run at this point and was getting a slight stitch in my side. The stitch didn’t last too long, but the pain instead moved to my feet/toes. At the last aid station 2.5K from the end, I started questioning if I had started pushing too hard too early and if I was going to be able to keep up this pace until the end.

Managed to keep going past the radio transmission towers and cows, there was only 1K left now; only 5-6 minutes more to endure. Rounding the final bend and the finish finally came into view and I tried to give one last push to the end.

Close enough to read the clock, I initially thought I read it wrong – I was ahead of my goal by over 10 minutes! Crossing the line, I was pretty stoked with how well the race had gone – especially considering how poorly my long run last weekend had gone. I finished with an official time of 2:03:55!

Post-Race

I had pushed ahead of Kyle at the final aid station, so I found a spot to watch the finish line and wait for him. Several minutes went by and I started to get somewhat concerned; he wasn’t too far behind me, was he? Suddenly Kyle appeared behind me; it turned out he was only a hundred or so metres behind me, had lost sight of me once I crossed the finish line and assumed I went to get food/drinks immediately so he went over to the food and drink tents and then when he couldn’t find me, realized I must be waiting for him at the finish line.

We both got some food and electrolytes, grabbed the bag with our sweatshirts and set off to walk home. Once we were home, I rolled by calves with a frozen water bottle; the left one which I charley-horsed last night had a knot, but otherwise no issues.

We’ve signed up for another half marathon in April and I’ve put together a schedule to keep us running regularly in the meantime – let’s hope it sticks!

Trip Summary: Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

This past year has been quite busy for us as I’ve been back in school completing a Bachelor of Education, so unfortunately we haven’t found time for any overnight hiking trips. My program finished in July and I had the month of August off, so we decided to take advantage of this and go a bit further from home to return to the Great Divide Trail in Jasper. This trip was a combination of doing some trail maintenance with the Great Divide Trail Association and then doing a short loop of the GDT by combining the Six Passes Alternate with the main GDT route.

As a quick plug here for doing trail maintenance, I can’t recommend it highly enough! We have never done trail maintenance or building before, but went on two trips with the GDTA this year and found it very fulfilling to both give back to the trail as well as quite educational in terms of learning about how much thought and efforts needs to be put in to keeping trails in good condition. We will definitely be back in the future to help on future trips!

Logistics

This loop is approximately 67km with 30km off-trail, 10km on excellent trail and the remaining 20ish km on trail of varying quality. It combines the Six Passes and the official GDT route through the decommissioned Maligne Valley trail. It should take 2-4 days depending on how fast you are.

We started at the northern end and did the loop counterclockwise, starting with the Six Passes Route as we were uncertain how long Six Passes would take, but knew we could hammer out the Maligne Valley section in one day if needed.

If starting at the southern end, you would add an additional 30 km round trip (15 km one way) to reach the loop from the Poboktan Trailhead.

To get permits, campsites along the official GDT/Maligne Valley can be booked as “Maligne North” on the online booking system; camping along the Six Passes Route needs to be booked by calling the Jasper Parks Office. I’d suggest calling to book everything – you will probably need to leave a voicemail and wait for someone to call back to confirm the details. I’ve found Jasper is quite good about calling back on the same day if you call in the morning.

You will also need a Discovery Pass which can be purchased in advance (in person at MEC or online from Parks Canada) or in person at the park gate when you arrive.

For maps, we downloaded the GPS tracks from the GDTA and created our own maps in Caltopo. The GDT website also lists several other map options. These were supplemented with the GDT app.

Beforehand you’ll want to confirm trail conditions primarily for the following: (1) Snow/cornice size on the southern most pass on the Six Passes Route – early in the season this could be too large to bypass; (2) Water levels, in particular for Maligne River – typically this crossing shouldn’t be an issue, but this year water levels were quite high and there was at least one incident of a hiker needing a rescue.

Daily Trip Journals

Final Thoughts

This is a nice simple loop if you are looking for a few days of hiking and are fairly tolerant of brush. Personally I don’t have any issues with the level of brush in the Maligne Valley, but many other hikers find it to be one of the worst sections of the GDT. It is also possible to do the Six Passes Route as an end-to-end route if you have two vehicles or hitch from one end to the other.

For GDT hikers, I would highly recommend the Six Passes Route in good weather. In bad weather, the main challenges with the alternate are the first/last passes and the ridgewalk on the northern side. Honestly though, the valley route also affords nice views on clear days and really isn’t that bad (especially compared to Section D and some bits of Sections F/G).

Gear-wise we continue to be quite happy with our overall setup (lighterpack – a few things have changed, but this is mostly accurate). Gear of note on this trip:

  • Sun hoodies: Both Kyle and I used new sun hoodies on this trip. He has the Arcteryx Phasic and I have the Patagonia Sunshade. We were both quite pleased with how they performed and will continue to use them on future trips
  • Baseball cap: Previously we wore bucket-style sunhats, but baseball caps pair better with sun hoodies. I was most impressed with how well the baseball cap kept rain off my glasses – I will definitely continue to use a baseball cap rather than a bucket hat for this main reason.
  • BeFree Filter: Our Platypus GravityWorks filter was at the end of its life after the GDT, so we decided to try out something new to replace it. There are some reports on the internet of it clogging early on, but so far ours seems to be working fine – hopefully it stays that way in the future! If it fails, we’ll probably go back to the GravityWorks filter.
  • Rain jackets: Our MEC Outathere rain jackets are definitely on their last legs (arms?). I think we can probably add one more set of patches to them before they should be replaced. I’ve got my eye on Arcteryx Zeta FL jackets, but I’m not sure if I’m willing to shell out that much money for a rain jacket.

Food-wise we stuck to our usual diet of mostly bars, supplemented with cheese, salami, and baby food pouches. Kyle had Beans and Rice for his dinners and I dug deep into our food cabinet to use up some old instant potatoes and dehydrated beef. I added cheddar cheese to the potatoes and was quite pleased with how they turned out – not sure how it took me so long to think of adding cheese to the potatoes, but I find it improves them substantially!

Day 3 – Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

Mileage: 27 km

It did not rain overnight and it got cold enough to scare the mosquito swarm away; this was our nicest morning on the trail so far!

We were making relatively slow time as we were taking pictures and waypoints to document the worst sections of the trail. The brush wasn’t too bad until a particularly brushy section before Mary Schaffer where the trail got close to the river (and had actually washed away in a couple sections along with the river bank). We got to Mary Schaffer a bit before noon, but stopped for lunch as it was raining.

The rain didn’t last for long, but the clouds stuck around obscuring the fairly nice views that we would get on a clear day. The rest of the day we alternated between forested sections with regular deadfall to navigate over and brushy meadows. The meadows were fairly dry and we didn’t experience too much carwashing which was a pleasant surprise.

At Maligne River, the old bridge sat on an small island in the middle, taunting us for trying to keep our feet mostly dry today. The river was substantially deeper than when we went through last year, but still very manageable; where we crossed it was mostly knee deep with a brief crotch deep section close to the shore.

After the river ford, we still have several hundred metres of meadows to get through before the worst of the brush would be behind us. Unfortunately all the rain the area has received this year meant there was a new challenge in front of us – a boggy muddy mess. It wasn’t nearly as bad as the mud we encountered approaching Kakwa, but nonetheless, it wasn’t my favourite part of the day.

Soon enough we finished the mud and reached the area we had been clearing the trail a few days prior! After this we flew down the trail, opting to head all the way to our car rather than camp at Trapper Creek.

Day 2 – Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

Mileage: 23 km

There was rain off and on throughout the night, but thankfully when we woke up in the morning it seemed to have stopped. It was still pretty cloudy, but we managed to get packed up and hiking in a reasonable amount of time.

Now that we were on route, navigation was straightforward and we finished our third and fourth passes before stopping for lunch. The sun was even shining and we had a mini yard sale to dry out our gear.

After lunch, we quickly made it over the fifth pass and down to the valley where we started the long ascent up to the six and final pass. We opted to stay to the east side to try and stay high and out of the marsh with moderate success. We continued to stay left as we ascended the final scree slopes to the top of the pass. This is where we encountered our challenge of the day – there was a cornice on the south side of the pass. I’m generally okay with exposure, but when combined with the loose footing, I froze up. Kyle had to coach me past the east edge of the cornice and across the scree to a more moderate slope. It took me way too long, but eventually I made it over and we continued our descent.

On our way over to connect with the GDT, we found several cute families of marmots hiding amongst the rocks.

Once we got on the GDT, we flew down towards the Mary Vaux campsite. It was nice to be able to relax and just follow a trail, especially after descending around the cornice.

As soon as we started setting up camp, the rain that had been threatening us all day finally arrived. Thankfully the campsite is well-equipped despite being decommissioned and has a well-sheltered picnic table we ate dinner at while fending off a never-ending swarm of mosquitoes.

Day 1 – Six Passes-Maligne Valley Loop

Mileage: 17 km

We got a relatively late start as we needed to pack up our car camping site first, but we managed to get to the trailhead at 9:30am and promptly started ascending to Bald Hills in the rain. It was somewhat steep, but easy walking as it followed an old fire road up the hill. As we neared the summit, we encountered several large groups of tourists – pretty impressed they still went out in the rain. We weren’t rewarded with views at the top because we were socked in with clouds, but we did get to start on a pretty awesome ridge walk leaving the main Bald Hills trail.

Mistake in purple

We soon reached a saddle on the ridge and made a mistake we’d spend most of the rest of the day fixing. I thought the saddle was where we would cut down to the south, unfortunately this was wrong and we were supposed to continue on the ridge for a ways more.

Once we realized the mistake, we wound up sidehilling through an annoyingly dense batch of trees until we finally descended enough to find an easy contour to follow. We eventually reconnected with the route at a pretty lake just below the pass we were supposed to descend.

Now that we were on the trail, it was pretty easy going over our second pass, although we would have appreciated a bit less rain.

With the rain seeming to not be going to stop, we decided to camp in a good flat spot we found before the third pass. It was only once we finally got everything setup and were starting to eat dinner that we finally got to see some blue sky and the rain stopped.

We were both still pretty soggy when we tucked into bed. Hopefully we dry off while we sleep and tomorrow is less wet!

Gear Review: Sun Hoodies

Background

Since I have been 15 years old I have had a condition (vitiligo) that, while it gives me unique white skin, hair and eyebrows, it makes me very suseptible to sun burns. This results in skin damage and can lead to skin cancer. As a result I try to be very careful with sun protection, opting for physical protection (hats, shirts) as much as possible.

Current Gear

I’ve been wearing a button up sun shirt for years – sun shirts have been a staple in my hiking wardrobe.

This strategy has worked fairly well for me. My current sun shirt is a simple MEC one, with no frills, mesh or accessories.

Wearing my sun shirt, trying on some new sun hat options at MEC Calgary while waiting for the Greyhound to go to Pincher Creek

Underneath it I wear a running shirt. Previously I have worn a running shirt I bought on clearance somewhere (the branding has worn off) that has a normal athletic shirt weave on the front and a coarse jersey mesh on the back.

For the GDT I replaced this with a lighter sleeveless Patagonia running shirt mostly due to concerns with gear weight.

In addition to the sun shirt I wear an outdoor research sun hat with brim all the way around.

Finally on the GDT I wore sun gloves to protect my hands from the sun.

How it Performs

The coarse mesh in the back of my old running shirt is great for ventilation and made a significant improvement on keeping my back cool and dry. I still sweat on my back, despite my pack being suspended off my back, so the mesh helps a lot but it isn’t perfect.

The Patagonia shirt I replaced it with was outstanding and even outperformed my old running shirt while being much lighter and more compact. This shirt dries very fast; it really surprised me at how well it performs.

The MEC sun shirt dries quickly and does a great job of keeping the sun off me. I sometimes pop the collar to get better coverage on my neck. However the back still can get wet from sweat and I sometimes need to take it off at lunch to dry off.

Being able to unbutton the shirt on the front and cuffs is nice, as that can let me dial in the ventilation. Simply unbuttoning the cuffs gets a lot of airflow up my arms without compromising sun coverage.

The sun shirt is fairly slim fitting, not baggy, but it still is loose enough that it does not feel restricting. I also find I do not notice when the shirt is dirty or sweaty as it doesn’t cling to me. This has been very nice on long hikes as I tend to only wash my socks and underwear on the trail.

Sun Hoodie

During the GDT it was painfully obvious to me that I just had a lot of items for sun protection, and generally a lot of shirts. In an effort to reduce the number of shirts and items I carry I looked for sun hoodies. I had looked before we went on the GDT but did not find anything and after a half hearted effort I gave up. During the hike we saw a number of people who wore sun hoodies and decided to make a more serious effort when we got home. After the GDT Natasha and I found a number of local options within a day and had each tried them on and selected one each. So I guess it was easier to find them than I originally thought.

My Hoodie

After trying a few on, I selected the Phasic Sun Hoodie from Arc’teryx. Arc’teryx is a local company, so it’s nice to support them (and we get fully stocked storefronts available to us, so it’s convenient).

I liked how the hoodie design had no seams and no pockets, and the front of the hood covered my neck and seemed to have a nicely constructed brim on the hood.

I bought a lightweight baseball cap from Ciele to replace my full brim sun hat. It is a soft trucker hat and didn’t itch or scratch my head, and the mesh is breathable.

How I like it

I like it a lot.

In fact I haven’t worn my other sun shirt since I bought the hoodie. I have worn the hoodie showshoeing all winter as well.

The material is light enough not to make me hot in the trips I’ve worn it so far, but I haven’t worn it much on hot days since we bought it in the fall. The fabric breathes a little more than my sun shirt so I am hoping I will not need as much as much ventilation as I used to. Not to mention the sun hoodie is just one layer vs my old setup of two layers.

So from what I can tell, the fabric seems to breathe well and is very comfortable. I can later on top of it without any discomfort.

The seams are well thought out. The seams on the shoulder are not noticeable and are placed such that they do not become pressure points or irritating below pack shoulder straps.

There are no pockets, no frills or unnecessary features. It’s a shirt with a hood. No zips or buttons. Again nothing to interfere with pack shoulder straps or hip belts.

The hood has good coverage but I am still a little concerned that the side of my face is a bit exposed. Through the winter I have turned my hat to follow the sun but I will need to keep an eye on this and make sure I do get enough protection from the sun.

Final notes

I really like the hoodie so far, and it certainly is better than my sun shirt on shorter trips in cool weather.

I am concerned that I may lose some sun protection on my side of my face so I need to keep an eye on that to make sure I have a solution.

I’m curious to find out if this sun hoodie will continue to feel clean after a week or if it will feel more dirty than my current setup. I do know that I haven’t cleaned it after every day hike and it’s felt fine, do the real test will be multiple days this summer in the heat and sun.