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.
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.
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.
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?”