Road to Trail

They say you achieve peak physical performance at the age of 27. When I turned 27 (5 years ago today, in fact) I didn’t feel like I was at the peak of much.

I had been casually ‘jogging’ and going to the gym, as most people eventually find themselves doing at some point in their 20’s, but never with any consistency. I never thought that just a few years later I would be calling myself a trail and ultra distance runner.

I figured it was time to pause and take a quick look back at the last year or so in trail running as I complete my journey from road to trail; from marathon to ultra.

Feels like the First Time

A friend mentioned training for his first marathon which made me think “maybe I could do that”. So, after first running a half-marathon in Seattle in 2008 and my first marathon at the BMO Vancouver Marathon in 2009, I had found a new passion.

A few years, a couple of half-marathons and a few more marathons later (including Victoria, Chicago and Vancouver again), I found myself in Hong Kong after just having run a late-Fall marathon in Seattle. After a quick search online, I figured that something called the Tai Po Mountain Half-Marathon, part of The North Face® King of the Hills Mountain Marathon Series, would be a great chance to test my fitness on some hills.

King of the Hills, Hong Kong

1st trail race, Hong Kong

I had always loved the outdoors, having done lots of hiking and trekking locally and (more recently) internationally, and would occasionally take my training runs to the trails, especially in the off season when pace was less of a concern. But I had never done an actual trail race.

It turns out that Hong Kong has some beautiful trails and a vibrant running community. I also realized that 1250 meters cumulative elevation gain and equal loss over 14.75k is no joke for the uninitiated!

Let’s just say I had some difficulty walking around the city the next couple of days, but I was hooked and began plotting my move to trail running after making just one last attempt at qualifying for Boston at the 2012 BMO Vancouver Marathon.

Second Time Around

Being well past the honeymoon phase of my running, I found I was getting diminishing returns. I fell 5-minutes short of a Boston-qualifying time that summer and decided it was definitely time to look for a new type of challenge. In the meantime, I had run a couple of 5 Peaks races at Alice Lake and Cypress Mountain that Spring of 2012.

Training on the North Shore

Training with fellow Peak Centre runners on the North Shore

While training with the Peak Centre for Human Performance in Burnaby over the years, I had met a couple of ultra distance runners who were eager to show me the ropes. Racing longer distances seemed like something that would satisfy my penchant for goal setting while allowing me to spend almost all of my time on the trails.

I set my sights on running my first 50k in the Fall of 2012. But first, I had been given the opportunity to join a relay team for The North Face Canadian Death Race, a 125 km course with 17,000 feet of elevation change over some difficult terrain.

My team included 4 seasoned runners who were much faster and who all had run much farther. But since I was using this as training for a 50k a couple of months later, I took the longest and hardest leg ‘Hamel Assault’ with 5000ft elevation gain over 36k.

This time around, I felt much better prepared for the trails and the climbs. We finished 2nd place ‘mixed team’ and I realized that, not only did I love trails, I actually really enjoyed the climbing too.

Going the Distance

Training for a marathon typically involves long runs of about 2-3 hrs in length. Training for an ultra marathon, on the other hand, means preparing the body to handle much more time on the feet, focusing on vertical climbing over pace.

Cle Elum Ridge 50k seemed like a great option for a first ultra marathon in September of 2012. But forest fires caused a last-minute cancellation of the race. With just a couple of days to spare, I managed to find another 50k even closer to home scheduled for the same weekend: Frosty Mountain 50k in Manning Park, BC.

Summit of Frosty Mtn

Summit of Frosty Mtn

Frosty Mountain Ultra is a one loop, two mountain run including a climb to the summit of Frosty Mtn itself with a very small field of only about 45 runners for the 50k distance. We gathered in the parking lot for a quick briefing from the Race Director who then, quite unceremonious, instructed us to line-up and yelled “Go!”

I had planned on being relatively self-sufficient in terms of water and nutrition. This turned out to be good strategy, as the 10 or so of us in the lead group seemed to have beat the volunteers to a few of the designated aid station locations on what proved to be a pretty hot day.

I got talking with a couple of guys on the first of the big climbs and we ended up running most of the race together, encouraging each other to keep up if anyone hit a rough patch, until close to the end when we began to spread out a little.

6 hrs 24 mins later, I finished my first ultra marathon in 8th place. Biggest lesson? Small fields lead to impressive sounding results!

Movin’ On Up

Yakima 50k

Looking back during the Yakima 50k

With the success of my first ultra marathon, I decided to sign up for a couple of Fall races to take advantage of the fitness I had worked so hard for.

I did the 5 Peaks Buntzen Lake trail race in September, and ran the Howe Sound Crest Trail with a friend. I raced the Bellingham Trail Marathon in November, and the Deception Pass 50k in early December. I continued to work on my technical trail running skills, to focus on vertical climbing in my long runs, while still developing my speed at the track. I ran a third 50k, the Yakima 50 in April, 2013 and prepared for my next big challenge: My first 50 miler at Sun Mountain in May, 2013.

Back-to-back long runs of 3-6 hours each and 100 km weeks had become the norm as I began to develop an increasingly long bucket-list of races and challenges to tackle in the near future.

Coming Together

In those first 4 years of road running, I had definitely met plenty of runners at races, through my training at the Peak Centre, and on social media sites such as DailyMile.com.

Squamish 50 Training Run

Community out for Squamish 50 training run

But these relationships always felt very segmented and the focus on pace in marathon training typically requires doing the bulk of one’s training alone.

In my short time on the trails, on the other hand, I’ve met dozens, if not hundreds, of runners. Spending long days on the trails seems to just lend itself better to running as a group which in turn means that new runners are constantly being added to the fold.

What is really amazing though is how everyone seems connected by no more than a couple of degrees – typically, just a few minutes into a conversation with a new acquaintance on the trails reveals a half-dozen common connections. To say that the trail running community in Vancouver is a “small world” would truly be an understatement.

Looking Forward

In just over a year on the trails, I completed three 50k’s, my first 50 miler, a half-dozen shorter trail races, and paced friends in several big races and volunteered as course marshall and sweep at several more.

Seen on my Run

Typical sights running on the North Shore

I was also invited to join the Salomon West Vancouver shop team where I’ll be helping to promote the store and brand at local races, in social media, and throughout the running community.

Now, at 32, I can definitely say I feel fitter than ever and with my peak years of running ahead of me.

After running next month’s Kneeknacker 30 miler, my next big challenge will be running my first 100k: the Waldo 100K Ultramarathon at Willamette Pass Ski Area, east of Eugene, Oregon in August. The course starts at an elevation of 5120′, with more than 11,000′ of elevation gain. I’m feeling pretty confident about it as I paced a friend through the last third or so of the course last year, including the largest of the 3 major climbs, so I know what to expect.

What I’m perhaps most excited about is a trip that a group of us have planned to run the Grand Canyon Rim-to-Rim-to-Rim in October. At about 76 kms, I expect this to feel more like a celebration of all of the work leading up to my first 50 mile and 100 km races.

After that, who knows? Maybe a 100 miler and a staged race in 2014. One thing is for sure: I won’t be going back to road running anytime soon… Except maybe for one last attempt at qualifying for Boston!

How did you first get into trail running? I’d love to hear your story in the comments below. And be sure to check out more of my running pics on Instagram.

Jeff Pelletier
Written by Jeff Pelletier

I’m a trail and ultra runner from Vancouver, a proud member of Teams Salomon and Suunto Canada, and a Sponsored Ambassador for CLIF Bar and inReach Canada.