In which I run one loop of an ultra trail course

It was at the top of the first hill, not even one kilometre into our 13-kilometre run, that I learned the truth.

About 10 of us had gathered in Wentworth to run a single loop of the Beat to a Snot Ultra Trail course. The inaugural 52-kilometres ultra some 90 minutes north of Halifax is set for September 2013.

But an open invitation to run the course had gone out and a few people figured it would be a great way to spend three hours on a Sunday.

Lucky us.

When we arrived at Wentworth, at the base of the ski hill, the snow machines were running full-tilt (glad something was) churning out white stuff under a bleak, gray sky. A bone-chilling wind insinuated itself into any exposed surfaces and quickly set most of us to shivering, quaking, teeth-chattering and so forth.

We retreated to our cars and huddled inside, pondering our grave stupidity at having traded our warm, cozy beds for this barren cold.  Our genial and only slightly insane hosts, Jodi and Karine, hadn’t appeared yet and we began to hope against hope that they wouldn’t show and we could turn around and drive back home, where we could perhaps crawl back under the covers, maybe with a plate of eggs and a beer, and pretend to read a good book while we dozed.

Jodi and Karine drove up.

“What’s everyone lollygagging for?” Jodi cheerfully asked. “Let’s get going.”

Like that we broke into a slow run past the ski lodge, over some pooled ice and headed toward the first climb. The wind plucked at our clothing as if telling us to turn back.

We began running, then hiking, up the ski hill. Everyone, with the exception of Colin (“I don’t need no stinkin’ poles”) had trekking, snowshoe or ski poles. I’d never run with them before and was dubious over the prospect of adding the annoyance of carrying four-foot poles along to all the other expected discomforts.

Almost immediately, as we started a fast walk up the long hill, I followed suit with everyone and began poling…except for Colin, who dropped nearly everyone as he showed his silent disdain for the use of poles.

This wasn’t so bad, I thought. Tough, but doable. Steep, a little taxing, but not unmanageable.

Then we came to the wall.

For about 200 feet, a nearly vertical cliff extended up. I put my fears of vertigo into a small box in the back of my head and began to climb. Straight up. Pole. Kick foot in. Push up. Calf muscles burn. Pole. Kick foot in. Push up. Calf muscles burn. Repeat about 1,000 times.

Reaching a plateau, I looked up and saw…another climb, this one not as steep, but long. We kept going.

Finally we reached the summit of the first ascent, where a stunning view over the Wentworth mountains and beyond awaited, along with a sign.

We’d just climbed up a black diamond ski run named Idiot’s Way.

Of course.

That set the tone for the rest of the run.

By this time, we’d covered about 1.4 kilometres of the day’s 13 and it had only taken us 18 minutes.

The good news was we got to go downhill…except that wasn’t any better. We began a skittering descent over frozen dirt and loose stones and gravel that progressively became steeper and steeper until I was almost plunging down the mountain side. The jarring motion hammered my quads to pulp.

Colin, of course, ran down them effortlessly and then sneered at everyone’s trail poles.

At the bottom, everyone waited for me and as I pulled up, they put away the various bits of food they’d been nibbling on for strength and immediately set off again. I consoled myself with a sip of water.

We moved to the next of the five hills we’d climbed. This one led directly under the snow machines and within minutes we’d been transported from a chilly fall day in Nova Scotia to the Hilary Step on Everest. We trudged through the deep, blowing snow in a line, moving one step after another. I kept reaching for my supplemental oxygen tank only to realize I was without.


I’d read Into Thin Air. I knew what was next. Horror washed over me. People died doing this shit. Not this time though. We made it to the top and ran down to the bottom again.

The next hill passed in a mental fog. A person can only take so much pain and suffering. My mind retreated to a warm, happy place. Oh yes, please, I would like some more eggs. Say, is that a bottle of North Port single malt? Could you pour just a drop more?”

“I said, ‘How we doing here?'”

Jodi interrupted my reverie, dragging me back to the harsh reality of the hills, the cold, the dead and brown frozen ground, the unrelenting pain and suffering we’d endured for so long now.

I found myself staring at the base of the fourth climb. It wasn’t quite as steep as the first cliff section, but came close. I launched myself toward it and spread my arms and allowed myself to fall flat on my face.

Everyone gasped.

I got up. Onward, upward, we continued.


At the top, we paused long enough to take in the view, extending all the way to Northumberland Strait. Honestly, it was magnificent.

Karine pointed at a tiny little house far, far far down in the valley. That’s my parent’s cottage, she said. A cedar home with a green roof, it looked very warm, the sort of place where chilled, bone-weary runners might be met with a spot of tea and even some single malt Scotch and perhaps a biscuit or two. But it was so very small and far away. I looked at it with great longing in my eyes.

Our next descent was the steepest yet. We quick-stepped and poled down a vertical wash of rock covered in leaves. It kept going and going and going. At last, after what seemed an eternity, we reached the bottom.

Cheerfully Jodi turned around and began to climb up the same absurdly steep descent we’d just come down.

This one seemed the longest yet. I’d pole up for a bit and then stop, my glutes seizing up. I looked at Jack: “I could kill for some food right about now. Kill!”

A hysterical laugh bubbled up out of me.

Jack looked alarmed and quickly put some distance between us.

Soon I was stumbling through rolling double-track, unaware of how I’d reached it, blindly following the feet in front of me. Within minutes we rolled into the parking lot, two hours and 46 minutes after we’d left.

Ha ha ha ha! I cried. “I’m alive! I’m ALIVE!”

Everyone else eyed me strangely as they all congratulated each other on a good run.

I kissed the earth next to the car. Then I kissed the car. Several times. Well, actually, repeatedly. A lot, really.  In fact, Anthony sort of had to tear me off of his car and pin me down on the ground while I hysterically screeched: “Alive! Alive!”

At the Wentworth Split Crow where we gathered after the day’s ordeal for victuals and refreshments, everyone solicitously asked after my well-being. “Feeling better now, are you?”

In reply I said, “So, next week, two loops?”


About subthree

A multiple award-winning journalist, I'm currently a contributing editor with both Canadian Running and Canadian Cycling magazines. My articles have appeared in Explore, Canadian Geographic, enRoute, The National Post, The Globe and Mail, and many other magazines and newspapers. Formerly a competitive cross-country mountain biker, I switched to running in 2006. I've run seven marathons, qualifying for Boston five times (and which I've run once). Generally, I've placed or won in my age group in races, in distances ranging from five and 10 kms to half and full marathons. I've also taught spin classes at a number of leading Eastern Canadian gyms. Sub-three was a 2012 #Runchat finalist for Best Overall Blog.
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12 Responses to In which I run one loop of an ultra trail course

  1. Jacko Kelly says:

    Charles….you are definitely the Mark Twain writer/runner of trail running. You described the outing just fine. And by the way, I love Scotch, too!…..we will have to share one on Sept. 7th after our near suicide day. Wouldn’t you agree that a sip of fine Glen-Scotch would be a nice finishing touch to mark the occasion ?

    • subthree says:

      Thanks, Jack. Very kind of you to say. Quite the outing yesterday, eh? Not such bad weather once we got going. If I decide to tackle the solo 50 km, I’m going to need to share a bottle, not a sip, after that. Just saying….Cheers

      • Heather & John says:

        Charles……it was good to meet you again and the other Rambos, too. ( we’ve met at the Sunofa Gunofa ). Hope we all can get out there again to tackle this “Monster” that Jodi and Karine have so proudly created. By the time Sept. rolls around we should be well oiled and tuned to tackle the slopes and have a respectable run. It would be pretty cool if some runners from out West or Ontario and the New England area came to give it a go. I believe that they would have lots to talk about afterwards.

        I do agree with you that a sip of the fine liquid just wouldn’t be enough. So, we’ll each have to bring a bottle or maybe go splits on one…..what’s your’s ?…..Mind is the original “Glenmorganie”, a Highland Scotch from Tain, Ross-shire, Scotland. An excellent Scotch dating back to 1738……..

        Have a good one and see ya on the slopes again, Jacko

      • subthree says:

        I actually am partial to North Port, but it’s impossible to find anymore as the distillery went defunct a number of years ago. But, like you, I tend to favour the single malts that are robust with that smooth honey finish, like the Glenmorganie. But I’ve never turned my nose up at a Lagavulin, either.

      • Heather & John says:

        Charles……I haven’t tried Lagavulin but I’m always open and of course, willing to give it a go. I never heard of North Port either and for a blended Scotch, I prefer Grants over most. If you want, I have a Scottish friend who travels to Scotland once in awhile and I can ask him if he knows of the North Port being available over there. If it is, he may/could bring a bottle of it back with him if asked.

        Do you plan to do the Snot next Sunday twice ? What are your thoughts on bringing it down to 3 laps as opposed to 4 ? I think it would still be tough and time wise maybe would be easier on the organizers.


      • subthree says:

        Jack, I wouldn’t touch a blended Scotch. lol. I’m a single malt purist. I don’t think I could afford the cost of the North Port if your friend brought it back. You shouldn’t tempt me. Yes, I’m going to try the two laps, but fully expect I may not complete them. Three laps may not be a bad idea. See my ideas re: the ultra on the email thread. By the way, I’ve got your email off that thread that went out, so I’ll email you off of that. Be cool if we could get out for some runs.

  2. Trevor says:

    Very cool! Since you read Into Thin Air, I thought maybe you would call your wife (while in tears, of course) before heading up the mountain.

    • subthree says:

      Fortunately, the mighty peaks of Wentworth loom close by Halifax, so I was able to cry at her before I left. Besides, we lost the satellite phone half-way through the run.

  3. Colin says:

    Multiple mentions in one post? I feel like a rock star. Next time we do the course I fully expect to have a set of hiking poles however, especially if it will be more than one lap.

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