Sunday, August 15, 2010

BVH (Penny) Tops Iron Legs Ultra (50 Mile Canadian Championship)

by Blaine Penny

The Course

The course is definitely a local classic. The race is a loop held in Kananaskis starting at Station flats circumnavigating Moose Mountain. The first 50 km has significant climbing (Powderface Ridge, Jumping Pound Mountain and Cox Hill), while the latter 30 km is mostly flat returning on the Tom Snow Trail.

Course conditions were variable and quite wet due to a generally wet summer and heavy rain the previous day. The Tom snow trail was very wet and muddy, and had a lot of cow traffic leaving you sinking past your ankles in places. Absolutely brutal!

My favourite part of the course was running the Jumping Pound Ridge over to Cox Hill. It had been raining for about 1.5 hours leading up to this section and then the weather finally broke with just the most spectacular light glowing on the green alpine and the contrast of dark looming clouds in the distance. It was truly magical with spectacular running and stunning views for a full 360 degrees.

The Race

There were a few solo runners who blasted off the front, so I let them go while I got warmed up to get a sense of how my body was feeling. I was feeling like I had heavy legs and my breathing was definitely more laboured than when I ran the PowderFace 4 weeks earlier. So I just settled into a comfortable pace hoping that as time went on I would get fired up and be able to pick up the pace.

Bruce (another solo runner) and myself ran together till about the 25 km mark and when we started climbing Jumping Pound I began to slowly open a gap. I was starting to find my groove and had some energy flowing back into my body after the first aid station stop where I filled up on boiled potatoes that were laden with salt and butter. I filled my pockets with a handful more knowing they would come in handy a little further on.

After leaving Bruce, I was totally on my own for the rest of the race. I expected to see some relay teams catch up, but no dice. I really started to get into the race after summiting Jumping Pound Mountain and was totally stoked about he run over to Cox Hill knowing that all the hills would be out of the way at that point and then I just had to ride the 30 km gravy train of flats back to the finish. Boy was I wrong!

I took a nasty spill while decending Cox Hill – busted up my hand and knee pretty good and also hit my other leg and shoulder. Fortunately I could still run.

Things were uneventful for the next 20 km other than wading through the mud and chasing cows, including a standoff with a bull.

At the last aid station I pulled in feeling great knowing I only had an easy 10 km to the finish. My race nutrition had been excellent up until that point and my stomach was feeling great. (I have a colourful history of tossing my cookies in long races as well as after. More on this a little further down…). I was looking forward to a sugar kick to bring it home and downed a coke and was ready to fly.

I was directed to cross the road and told to just follow the trail by the aid station volunteer. After running about 1.5 kms, I still hadn’t seen any flagging, so I pulled out my map to double check. It was difficult to tell what was what since there were so many trails and cut lines on the map, so I decided to backtrack to the checkpoint to double check with the volunteers. Not good I thought to myself knowing my lead was disappearing by the minute. The volunteer was surprised there was no flagging so he decided to come along to see if we could decipher the route. After another 2 kms he was as unsure as I was, but said I should just take the most defined trail and that had to be it. So I did and ended up at West Bragg Creek parking lot. Now I knew I was totally off track.

I decided to make my way through the West Bragg Creek trails to HWY 66 and then to the finish where I would inform the race organizers what happened, hoping they would understand.

After literally running circles on the Bragg Creek trails - as many of the signs were missing - I eventually made it to HWY 66 and ran the final mile to the finish. Sarah just so happened to be driving by to come cheer me on at the finish and thought to herself how strange it was that I would be running down the highway.

I sprinted into the finish after covering 16 km (when I only had 10 to actually finish on the proper trail) and was told I was disqualified. I was so disappointed! It would have been one thing to go the wrong way by my own doing, but to be twice directed to go the way I did by volunteers who should have known the course was another thing.

After much debate and discussion between the race director and other volunteers, they learned that the last leg had not actually been flagged yet. I thought to myself - nice. I asked if I could go and add some additional mileage to do whatever it would take to make my run legit. Even through all this, the second place runner still hadn’t finished, which showed I had a pretty healthy lead by the time I went off course (or that he did as well).

Eventually, I was told that if I was up for it, I could go back to the last aid station and run the final 10 km on the proper course where they would restart the clock with the time I originally entered the aid station. I was mentally done at this point after such a demoralizing finish and had already begun to replenish with some soup and coke.

One of the race volunteers loaded up and we headed off for West Bragg. After driving for 5 mins, my stomach began to turn inside out and I asked her to pull over. I opened the door and hurled my guts out and felt completely awful. I lay there for about 20 min trying regain my composure and get a few sips of water with electrolytes back in me. We headed off again and about 15 min later we repeated the routine. I was a complete mess and my stomach had shut down.

Now I had to muster up the energy, which was pretty much non-existent, to run the final 10 km. About 3 hours had lapsed since my body had absorbed any fluids or food and I was truly running on empty. How ironic I thought – a month from now we will be doing a MitoCanada awareness / fundraiser run called “Running on Empty”. Very fitting.

Off I went at a steady slow pace, which was so much effort. 54 mins later I crossed the finish line for a second time and was told I won the race by an hour.

Sarah and the kids had stuck around to cheer me in and for the awards. It was a bittersweet and challenging day, but I pulled it off in the end and it was pretty rewording when it was all said and done.

Ultra People and the Challenge of Organizing Races

Doone and Tim Watson who had been on course volunteering were at the finish when this was all unfolding and helped nurse my health back twice as well as keep me clothed. I can’t thank them enough (not to mention Tim driving my car back for me and filling it with gas).

The ultra community is pretty laid back, and for the most part, runners focus on the experience and the challenge more than on how fast they are moving. Because this was a sanctioned National Championship race, the race director had some tough decisions to make and ultimately decided to give me a second chance. I was grateful, but also felt for the organizers. It’s tough to mark an 80 km course through the backcountry where there are so many junctions and opportunities to make mistakes or just miss a piece of flagging in a critical area. We had also found out at the start that the Trans Rockies bike race had come through the day before and pulled down many of the flags. Tough break to find out on the day of the race. The race organizers and volunteers did the best they could given the circumstances.

This is one race I’ll remember for a long time!


  1. Hey Blaine, Congrats on such a HUGE win. You showed incredible composure as we discussed the situation and I am happy you accepted the solution. Thank you for being an understanding competator. It was amazing to see you hammer out such an amazing finish even with the challenges of the day and I hope that you are not to jaded by everything not to come out and defend your win next year.


  2. Nice work Blaine! 80km AND 100km+ National Champ ;) Enjoy the well deserved rest-

  3. Nothing short of totally amazing!! Great story to remember.

  4. Wow. What a finish. Ouch.
    You are a 'brave heart'.