This was my third year at the Blackfoot 100km. I finished second in 2009 and third last year, so there was unfinished business to do. 2009 was the year of the heat, where Blaine and I had run the first 75km together, before he opened a gap to win the race by 13 minutes. 2010 was the year of the mud. Continual rain turned to sleet, turning the course into a gloopy mudfest and over half the field dropped out. We had returned to our tent to find it flattened under the weight of heavy snow. This year conditions were much more benign, with the forecast calling for a high of 19C, and underfoot conditions were bone dry.
The Blackfoot Ultra is held just east of Edmonton at the Cooking Lake Blackfoot Provincial Recreation area. It is an area of Aspen parkland, with numerous lakes and lots of wildlife. The area has 85 km of trails and is the home of the Canadian Birkebeiner Ski Festival which is held in early February. The course uses 25km of trails, making a loop which is repeated four times for the 100km. Other races with distances of 25km, 50km, and 50 miles take place on the same day. Although on the prairies, the course packs in a lot of height gain as the trails almost continuously undulate. The hills aren't so noticeable the first time round, but seem to get steeper with each lap.
Being the longest race, the 100km is the first to start. Approximately 40 runners assembled for the 5:00 am start, just as day was breaking. After a few words of wisdom by race director Gary Poliquin we headed off into the woods. It always strikes me just how mellow the starts of ultra races are: there's no mad dash for the front, just gentle jogging to get the legs moving. I soon found myself part of a breakaway group of three - the other two being Oleg Tabelev and Charles Miron. Oleg won the Lost Souls 100 mile race last year, and Charles the Sinister Seven, so I was in good company. We chatted as we ran the first lap together, the kilometers sped by and soon we had 25km behind us in 1:59. The pace felt very manageable. Along the way we saw a huge bull moose bounding through the forest and heard lots of other animal noises but were usually too focussed on watching our footing to pay any more attention.
One of the great things about this race is the aid stations are well stocked with fruit, including over 90 pounds of strawberries. My nutrition strategy was to rely on a mixture of eload and protein in my drinks bottles, and gels and fruit for solid food. This worked well for the first 60-70km, but after taking seven gels I couldn't face any more. Despite downing nearly three litres of fluid I found myself developing an unquenchable thirst, probably brought on by the gels. As somebody who never drinks coke, I was surprised to find myself looking forward to a cup of flat coke at each aid station after 70km in an effort to quench the thirst. The fruit went down very well, especially as they seemed to have sourced the juciest oranges on the planet. I've always found that getting the nutrition right is the most important aspect of ultra running - get it wrong and you can end up with a very sore stomach, and stories of projectile vomiting are very common. I later heard that Charles dropped out with stomach issues after 50km.
The second and third laps went by in 2:06 and 2:25, and by the 75km mark I had built up at least a 10 minute lead over Oleg. Knowing that Oleg is a strong finisher with a lot of stamina, I was getting a little concerned as I could feel myself slowing. Last year on the Moose Mountain 42km race I was feeling complacent during the final 10km thinking I had built a sufficient lead on Oleg, only to find him cross the finish line just one minute behind. There were now lots of runners from the 25km, 50km and 50mile races on the course, so there was plenty of company. By noon things had warmed up and, without much wind, conditions were feeling warmer in the trees than the forecast high of 19C. As dehydration kicked in my pace slowed and the last lap went in 2:38, slower than I had hoped for. With 1km to go my children Bridie (13), Ben (11) and Anna (9) appeared and joined me for the run in to the finish. I had missed Rick Webb's course record by 19 minutes, but done enough to finish first. Just three minutes after collapsing into a chair Oleg appeared to take second place in 9:11. He had gained considerably on the last lap and was looking strong.
As usual I was feeling quite beaten up by the finish. This is where bringing along a support crew pays dividends, as Rosie and the kids attended to my every need. The coke had done little to quench the unquenchable thirst and when I mentioned to Rosie the only thing that could quench it was a cold beer, one appeared almost instantly. Not perhaps the best way to rehydrate after 100km, but very effective.