Pick Your Poison XI: Playing In the Mud and Snow

A few weeks ago I had an interview with marathon writer Elyse Paxton in which she titled her finished article “Canadian Runner, Carl Wright, Prepares for This Falls Unprecedented Monarch Ultra Relay, a 2600+ Mile Run Through North America”. One of Elyse’s questions was “Which race has been your favourite, and why?” My answer without hesitation was Pick Your Poison Trail Run. Back in April 2016, it was my 1st ultra I ever ran. This race is so well organized by directors Adam and Heather Hill, and their amazing volunteers. Mostly who are family and friends. And as described in Elyse’s article, there are very deep and personal reasons why this course is very dear to me.

Always love the relaxed atmosphere of early bib pickup. Race director Heather is on right with her sister and adorable niece (the littlest volunteer) holding up a jar of Pick Your Poison honey!

So on Friday April 26th, 2019 I went to the Horseshoe Highlands for my early registration and bib pickup for my 4th Pick Your Poison. I am always given such a warm welcome. And I am always humbled by the words of race director Heather when each year she tells others that “I am that runner who is a bit of a legend around Pick Your Poison”. Back in 2016 my 1st Pick Your Poison I had registered for only a 25k. With only 15k of training that spring, this was all I was physically and mentally prepared for. I was running with my niece Caron who was running her 1st 50k. In that race, I was counting down my kilometers to go. When with 7 kilometers to go, I got the crazy idea that I would like to finish this with Caron. That was after she mentioned she was really going to miss me when I finished my 25k. And all of a sudden instead of 7k’s to go, I then faced 32k’s to go.  Somehow, I mustered up the strength to finish this entire 50k with Caron.

Lots of snow on the 2018 Pick Your Poison Course

To finish that 50k was such an incredible experience. Since then, the 50k has been my norm for Pick Your Poison, but each year I know this course is no pushover. It is extremely challenging. And you never know what to expect. Last year we received 21 inches (53 centimetres) of heavy, wet, icy snow two weeks before the race. This made for a very interesting and very challenging Pick Your Poison X!

The day before Pick Your Poison there was an all day soaker.

This year there did not seem to be anything out of the ordinary for Pick Your Poison. The snow was melting nicely and things were drying up. Then a Pick Your Poison Facebook trail update 4 days before the race mentioned a new challenge…logging. The post reads, “Adam and his crew have been out preparing the course a lot over the last couple of weeks. Every year this race offers us new challenges to keep us on our toes. (Last year many of you may remember the horrific ice storm 2 weeks out!) This year we were met with every race director’s worst nightmare… LOGGING!! The last quarter of the race course (the area around the Settler’s Ghost aid station) is currently (like, as we speak) being significantly logged. We know this is part of the cycle of the forest however, the timing for PYP is difficult to swallow. Thankfully, Adam and his team are very adaptable. They have trudged along beside the loggers preparing the full race course, as usual, with back up plans ready if any changes need to be made last minute.” I can’t even imagine what directors Adam and Heather were going through to get that course ready.

Looking out my living room window at 4 am, the rain had turned into a snow storm in the night hours.

The day before the race we had all day soaking rain, and as the temperatures dropped it turned to a wet snow overnight. I woke at 4 am and could not believe what I was seeing. Here on April 27th it was snowing like crazy. And there was this driving wind making the snow coming down half horizontal. In those wee hours of the morning I tweaked my race kit one more time to accommodate the -9C wind chill forecast at the start of the race. This was going to be so incredible.

Such a cool sign in the snow. Photo credit Tony Martin, race director of the trail race Conquer the Canuck

Roads were icy on my drive to the start line at Horseshoe Highlands. Fortunately I still had my snow tires on. I live pretty close, but some runners who live further away would have had to drive through this blizzard to get to the race. Always love getting there early myself for the social time before the race. To reconnect with old friends and make brand new ones. In the parking lot I saw 80 year old Canadian running legend Hans Maier who gave me a big hug. And then he said “Since you’re such a nice guy I’m going to give you another hug”. In the warm chalet I spotted my friend Patrick Voo and sat with his many friends as part of his running group Run Ninjas. I met Running Divine Podcast host Stephanie Hurtado for the very first time. Stephanie recently did an incredible interview of Carlotta James, the co-founder of The Monarch Ultra, which I am involved with, both as a runner, and as an ambassador. I also connected with my dear niece Caron who I ran my 1st ultra with.

My friend Patrick Voo with Running Divine Podcast host Stephanie Hurtado.

The chalet was so nice and warm. There was wonderful hot coffee, muffins and pastries. Did I really have to leave this cozy place? But it was race day. It was not long before all the runners were exiting the warmth of the ski chalet and shivering behind the start line waiting for the mass start countdown. The 12.k (1 loop), 25k (2 loops) and 50k (4 loops) all start at the same time for that mass start. It had stopped snowing, the sky was overcast. And there was a very strong, bone chilling wind blasting in from the north. In no time the race was on. It was so good to get the muscles moving on this wintry spring morning. I am so fortunate to be able to run.

Beautiful chalet for the start/finish of Pick Your Poison with the ski hill we run down each loop in the background. Photo Credit Patrick Voo

There are 4 loops of 12.5 kilometers each for the 50k distance.  The race course winds up and down the rugged hills of the beautiful Copeland Forest and each loop ends with an epic dash down the ski hill of Horseshoe Highlands to the finish line. From the start, the course follows the entrance road to the Heights of Horseshoe for a very short distance, turns left onto a forestry access road, and shortly after that into the woods on beautiful single track.

Bridge crossing the brook in the single track forest. Photo credit Joe Smith. I met Joe last year at the 150k Bad Beaver Ultra.

With the runners coming off a wide forestry access road to a single track was like merging three lanes of traffic into one. And as one who starts near the back of the pack, when we enter the single track, the pace of all the runners is forced to slow right down. This suits me fine, knowing there are lots hills ahead, including four major climbs per loop. And entering this single-track forest this morning was like entering a child-like, fairy tale world. The fresh overnight snow was ubiquitous. It was on the ground and clinging to the branches and trunks of the hardwood trees. There was complete silence except for the gurgling of a nearby stream, and feathery touch of runners shoes when they contacted the ground. These were such a beautiful, meditative few moments for me.  The odd person might have been looking out their picture windows that morning in their warm homes here in Ontario to see the snow.  And then freaking out, posting all about it on Facebook. Pick Your Poison sells out very fast, so I registered on the first day of registration on December 1st. With this race each year, you never know what to expect. But what comes on race day, you make the best of it. You have to. For me April 27, 2019, fresh snow and all, Pick Your Poison XI, was going to be an epic day. Running in this fairy-tale like forest, on a single track with runners ahead of me as far as I could see, I was in complete peace.

One of the muddy sections on the 1st loop. Wanting to keep “drier” feet earlier in the race I will carefully pick my way through. By loop 4 it is a straight slog through! This spot got much muddier as the day went on. 🙂

Soon the pace of the runners were quickening. Having run this the 3 previous years, this was my cue that the lead runners of the pack were now on another short forestry road. They now have room to spread out and open up.  Then another single track through a beautiful pine forest, some muddy sections. And then the fun begins. The many hills, which include 4 major climbs on each of the 4 loops.

Lots of hills, which include 4 major climbs on each loop. This 1st climb takes runners up to aid station #1 (just past the top right of photo)

The 1st major climb takes runners up to aid station #1. Catching my breath, I was greeted by the always friendly volunteers. One of these wonderful volunteers was Becky, who I met after Spring Warmup. Bundled up with her heavy winter coat and toque I almost did not recognise her. The aid station was so exposed with winds hitting 70 kph. This is the 1st year the aid stations needed to be anchored to keep from blowing away.

Major climb #2. Photo is only a small portion of the climb.

After levelling out for a couple hundred metres at aid station #1, the climb continues. Then the course goes back in the forest for some glorious, steep technical downhill. Some more hills and soon the major hill #2 that eventually leads to aid station #2.  This station has race director Heather’s mom and Heather’s friend Dawn as a couple of the volunteers working there. Dawn is an elite “older” runner around my age who has run some really tough races such as the 100 mile Sinister 7.  After six years of qualifying, this year her name was drawn in the lottery for the prestigious 100 mile Western States. I am so excited for Dawn.

Just a hill (not a major climb), some logging that took place around aid station #2 added a bit more challenge. I was expecting much deeper ruts left by the logging equipment. Thank you to Adam and his crew for making those logged sections as runnable as possible.

As mentioned in the updates, there was logged out areas around aid station #2. It made it tougher going, but was not nearly as bad as I was envisioning. So much credit goes to director Adam and his crew for preparing this course so incredibly well. From aid station #2 to the start/finish of each loop, there is 4.6 kilometers of some really exciting running, which includes two major climbs. There is one section I like to call “the roller coaster hills” that has short up and downs. You try to have enough momentum on the downhill to get up the next uphill without much effort.

This is my favourite photo of the day taken on my favourite part of the course…”the roller coaster hills”. My friend and OUTRace (Ontario Ultra and Trail Racing Series) coordinator Pierre Marcoux went by me while I was taking pictures. He is the runner gaining momentum on the right on this action shot.

I had been taking a lot of photos the 1st half of my ultra. It is just not the same to write a blog post without the photos. I also knew there was a hard cut-off of 6 hours. If I did not complete 3 loops by 6 hours, my day would be done. So I took only one more photo the last half. This was the volunteers at aid station #1 on loop #3. Although loop #3 was not my best time (loop #1 was when I was my freshest), I felt loop #3 I was pushing my very hardest.

Race director Heather (in centre) had so many friends and family bundling up to brave the elements as volunteers. Photo taken at aid station #1.

After coming down the ski hill my 3rd time, I was met by race director Heather heartily cheering me on and hand scoring bib numbers. She reassured me my time was in great shape to make the 8 hour final completion time. Mentally and physically I was wearing down on loop #4. All I had to do was run smart, and don’t take a fall. It was so quiet out there on the 4th loop.  After chatting briefly with a runner named Tracy going out into the 4th loop, I was all alone the entire time. Not including the runners who did not make the 6 hour hard cut-off, there ended up being only 9 runners behind me on the 4th loop.

I put my camera away for most of the 3rd and all of the 4th loops. This was taken on loop 2. The course was so breathtaking beautiful with the fresh snow.

During these quiet couple of hours, I marvelled at the song birds, having returned from their northern migration. They were singing their little lungs out as if saying, “Go on Carl, you can do this”. The one thing I only noticed on the 4th loop was the wildflowers along the single track trail. Their new springtime life was pushing up through the newly fallen snow. It was a symbol of strength through adversity. But for me seeing those flowers gave a message that went much, much deeper.

My dad died suddenly when I was 15 in 1973. It was Winter’s First Snowfall.  Dad’s lifeless body was laid to rest in the snow covered ground just 2 miles from the Pick Your Poison start line in a little cemetery on the Bass Lake Road. I felt my life, with all it’s dreams, hopes and ambitions were being buried with my dad. It the years that followed Copeland Forest, including some of the trails I was running this very day were a place of healing. The new growth of the wildflowers pushing through the snow were a reminder there IS life after death. And as I was cautiously running down that steep, icy ski hill to complete my 4th consecutive 50k Pick Your Poison, tears were running down my face. I felt so strong and alive. There really is life after death. I know my dad was looking down from above and cheering me on. Now as a 60 year old ultrarunner living his life to the fullest. Thank you Pick Your Poison XI. It was such an incredibly special day.

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