The Powder Face 42 is a 5 Peaks “Ultra” Marathon held in the Kananiskis area. It’s 43.6 km (bonus ~2 km) of trails with 1671 m of elevation. The race begins at Station Flats, runs to the Powder Face Trail Head, follows Powder Face trail looping back to the trail head, and then back to Station Flats. There is also a half marathon race option as well. The event is capped at 150 participants and it always sells out!
In the days leading up to the race I was abnormally calm for such a big endeavour. There were no nerves, no doubts, no nothing. Normally before any sort of long endurance race like this, I’d have gone over my race nutrition again, and again, I’d be checking the weather constantly and mentally preparing myself for the task at hand by thinking about the race non-stop. Not this time though, my pre-race preparation consisted of not drinking coffee two weeks before race day (extra insurance that the coffee clears the plumbing on race day), and knowing that I’d bring a few Gu Gels and Nuun electrolyte tabs with me.
When I had a look at the course map and saw that there were 5 aid stations throughout the course, I figured I could run with one 500 ml water bottle and refill it at the aid stations as needed (I’d skip the 1st aid station as it was only 5 km in, therefore I’d fill up my bottle 4 times giving me 1.5 litres of water for the whole race if I started with a full bottle). My goal was to complete the course in less than 5 hours, and without putting much thought into it I grabbed 5 Gu gels and assumed that’d be enough to sustain me for 5 hours. If 5 gels weren’t enough I planned to grab more gels or food at the aid stations.
Part of my reasoning for only carrying 1 water bottle and 5 gels, was because I didn’t want to have too much weight on me so I could run faster…cause another gel or 2 or 5 would REALLY make a difference (not the smartest decision but made sense at the time).
Maybe I’m more experienced now and know what I need to complete the race, hence the lack of anxiousness…or I’m just overly confident…well only one way to find out.
At the starting line I continued to feel relaxed and confident in my ability to do well today. There were a few nerves as I began to think about just how far 44 km is…it’s a long damn way, but I knew I was ready for it. The start line was very relaxed, no one was right at the edge of the line revving to go. Everyone was in little groups chatting and laughing a few meters away from the start when the announcer began to countdown “10, 9,…” Even during the countdown people were still scattered about the starting area. At “Go” runners began to leisurely cross the line and we were underway.
We began running along a wide hiking trail while runners talked, laughed and even took a few selfies as we headed out onto the course. It was nonchalant as spirits were high and everyone was feeling good (granted we weren’t even a km in yet and we had 44 km to go).
I locked into a pretty solid pace that I felt I could hold for a good majority of the race. I counted the guys ahead of me and determined that I was in 8th place. The climbs began right away and feeling strong I ran up a few, but then quickly remembered that we aren’t even 5 km into the race so of course I feel strong. Keeping this in mind I began to walk more hills, but still ran a few if they were small enough. It’s better to decide to walk a hill early on rather than be forced to walk hills later.
The first aid station was 5 km into the course and I zipped passed without stopping into the single track that lay beyond aid station. This portion of the course was quite fun, it was a gentle downhill trail that was overgrown with long grass and lush bushes that resembled Jurassic Park. Although running through Jurassic Park was pretty sweet, it was also a little unnerving because of the overgrowth I was never entirely sure what I was stepping on or into.
I was having a blast flying down the hillside, letting my legs spin freely and take me down the slope. At the base of the hill we had to traverse a dried river bed. As I was going across the river bed I stepped awkwardly on a rock and I somehow got stabbed by a rock on the inside of my big toe. Hurting a lot more than it should of I kept on moving but for the rest of the race I felt my toe throb on every step (I have a nice little bruise on it now…I’d post a picture but my girlfriend tells me constantly that my runners feet are gross so I’ll save you the horror).
Across the river bed was more single track with some rolling hills as we made our way to the second aid station ~12 km into the race. I made sure that I had drank all my water by the time I arrived at aid station 2 so I could fill up my water bottle and have it full because aid station 3 was another 12 km away. Only about an hour into the race at this point I had my first gel and was feeling good, I was still in 8th with 7th not too far ahead and 9th nowhere in sight.
The majority of the elevation gain is in the 12 km’s between aid station 2 and 3. None of the climbs are very steep, but steep enough that running them would take a lot of effort with little gain. Initially coming out of aid station 2 the course is relatively flat as we headed through gorgeous mountain meadows at the base of the mountains. It was in these meadows that I realized how hot it was going to be. The sun was scorching with no clouds in the sky and the air was humid from the rain in the days prior to the race, making for very hot conditions.
Entering some tree coverage after the meadows brought about some relief from the sun, however it was short lived as the trail widened again allowing the sun to once again beat down on my back. Approaching the biggest climb of the race I was all alone. 7th place was out of sight and as far as I could tell no one was close behind me. I climbed hard as I hoped to keep my position and chase down the runner ahead of me. Making it to the top of the climb I had a quick look at the mountains around me and it was an absolutely gorgeous day, too bad I was racing and had not time to really enjoy the view. Heading straight over the top resides one of the best downhill sections I’ve ever ran. The downhill has a good mix between technical rocky/rooted sections where foot placement is key and smooth dirt trails where you can just let your legs fly.
I thought I had to be making ground on 7th place on as I ripped down the mountain but I never saw him. Oh well I still felt good and kept moving at my pace.
Right at the 21 km point I was greeted with the steepest climb of the course, it wasn’t very long but the grade made for a good grind to the top. I leaned over placed my hands on my legs and powered up the steep slope. I reached the top out of breath and drank my last bit of water and had another gel. I knew the next check point was ~3 km away so I was fine with having no more water at this point. But as I continued to run, I felt my mouth become more and more dry as my thirst grew. I remember telling myself to drink some water at the next aid station in addition to filling up my bottle.
With the aid station now insight I was definitely beginning to recognize some of the symptoms of dehydration (primarily, not sweating and I am a very sweaty dude). The trail twisted and turned through some trees and all of a sudden there was a big brown mass in front of me…my heart skipped a beat as I thought it was bear! Thankfully though it was just a cow. There was an entire herd grazing right along the trail side.
Making my way through the cows I final reached the third aid station where I was greeted by some friendly faces from the YYC Trail Runners. They filled my water bottle and told me I wasn’t too far behind 7th. My mind a little foggy at this point I forgot to drink any additional water at the aid station.
I took off with my bottle in hand and chugged half of it a few steps from the aid station (stupid). I should have drank the whole bottle, turned around and filled it up again, but I didn’t. I was in race mode and there was no way I’m going to go backwards (even though I should of). I ended up drinking all of my water barely 1 km from the aid station. This was not good. I was very thirsty and am now out water with the next aid station still 10-12 away. Tree coverage remained minimal and the heat was killing me. Despite all this though my legs still felt relatively good, but I had to force my next gel down because I had no appetite and it tasted disgusting (even though it was my favorite flavour: peanut butter chocolate) all I wanted was water. I forced the gel down knowing that I needed to eat even though it made me a little queasy. Well over halfway at this point I was on pace to reach my goal of coming in under 5 hours, but the wheels were slowly coming off.
Running through more meadows I was faced with another herd of cows that were directly on the trail this time. There were a few calves and bulls in this herd and I’m not sure how defensive cows can be, so I took out my bear spray (not required to carry in the race but highly recommended, you are in bear country and one was seen that day) and was ready to fire just in case. I was able to run by without any issue and no cows were harmed in the running of this race (disclaimer joke HA…I’m funny…).
Now about 3 hours into the race I still had not seen another racer for 2 hours. Mentally this was challenging because there were a few times where I forgot I was racing and would slow down significantly. If I noticed myself slowing down I had to remind myself this was a race and I had to pick it up!
On one of the climbs about 4 km away from aid station 4 I got a bad side stich. I tried to combat that side stich with good deep belly breaths to no avail. I tried forcing down another disgusting gel hoping the salt in the gel would help, but it also failed to do the trick. Granted I only got half of the gel down before I dropped it and it was covered in mud. I still had another gel with me but for some reason I didn’t even contemplate eating that one either (probably because the taste repulsed me). I just kept on moving with the side stich.
As I slowed to try and work out this side stich the 9th place runner passed me. I tried to keep up with him as he went by but I could not push myself hard because with every breath I took it felt like I was getting stabbed in the side. On the ensuing downhill I noticed a twinge in my left groin, and I prayed that my groin doesn’t cramp up! Luckily it didn’t as I made my way down the slope.
The stich in my side would come and go until it got too painful to run with. 32 km in I began to walk to help relieve some of the pain but the stich still wouldn’t go away. Then I had a Eureka moment. I recalled people eating Nuun tablets on a random Instagram video. Without a second thought I grabbed my Nuun tablet and bit into it. Surprisingly it still tasted great and even better my side stich was gone instantly! The fourth aid station was close too so I couldn’t wait to fill up my bottle again and keep moving.
At the fourth aid station I filled up my bottle and this time I remembered to drink some water before running away. I also had a shot of coke, an orange slice and a small banana. I felt revitalized with my side stich gone, my body still felt good, besides my unquenchable thirst. Even with taking time to drink at the aid station I was barely a km away and my bottle was nearly empty yet again. No matter how hard I tried to preserve my water I could not do it. As soon as the water touched my lips my immediate reaction was to chug it.
Approaching the final section of the course we rejoined trails we previously ran early in the race, so I knew what to expect. I knew there was a large climb ahead of me after the dried river bed and I assumed there was not much climbing after this. I told myself that all I had to do was get up this last big climb and it was smooth sailing to the finish. The climb in all honesty wasn’t that bad but with no water and a lack of nutrients/calories I slowed drastically. The climb being located 37 km into the race didn’t help either. I tried to have my last gel, but I was only able to get half of it down before I started to gag! I continued to climb and felt my face and body droop as my body began to shut down. I heard footsteps behind me and the 10th place guy had now caught up to me and passed me like I was moving backwards. I was not in a good place, I was hanging on by my fingernails at this point.
Atop of the climb we diverted from the section of the course we ran previously and came to a relatively flat section of the course and to my demise I was forced to walk. My body had nothing left to give as I was running on fumes (~1 litre of water, < 500 calories, and 4 hours of trail running, my body had no fuel). I passed an elderly couple out for a hike and I was barely moving faster than them. I was seriously moving like an old man.
Finally I made it to the last aid station and the volunteers told me it was only 6-5.5 km to the finish. By this time I knew I wasn’t going to finish under 5 hours but I still wanted to finish strong (hard to finish strong when you can’t really move). I remember looking at the course map before the race and thinking to myself who would stop at the last aid station so close to the finish line…turns out I would. I spent a significant amount of time at this aid station. I filled up my bottle, drank a lot of water and coke, as well as eating a few bananas, and oranges. I also grabbed a handful of chips and shoved them into my mouth and spit them out immediately. Maybe I had eaten/drank too much all at once but those chips were clearly not what my body wanted. Leaving the last aid station I thought all the climbing was done and it would be a good “cruise” to the finish. I was wrong.
Immediately after the aid station there was a massive climb that may as well have been Everest. I could barely walk, and it took all my energy to keep putting one foot in front of another. Seriously though this climb was 38 km in to the race and is right after a big climb at 37 km. So you do a big hard climb at 37 km, see some flat ground and an aid station, feel relived just to be greeted with another big climb at 38 km, just brutal, mentally and physically.
On this climb I dropped from 10th to 12th. Hopes and thoughts of hanging on to a top 10 spot left me a few kilometers back but having to lose so many position right at the end is a tough pill to swallow but I was in pure survival mode at this point, my new goal was to get across the finish line. Finally reaching the top I tried to will my legs to run down the slope but every step was incredibly laboured as my feet pounded the ground harshly. I had no energy to keep my arms in tight and I allowed them to flail wildly about as I clomped my way down the mountain side.
I kept moving though and reminded myself that I only had ~5 km to go. Finally back down onto some flat land I managed to piece together a half-assed jog until I came across another hill “are you fucking kidding me!” I yelled in frustration at the site of another climb. I crawled my way up, feeling my groin begin to act up again. I made my way down the other side of the hill and my groin seized up. I tried stretching it out, but it had seized real bad. I tried to walk it out and could barely bend my leg. I headed over to a tree and grabbed a hold of it so I could really lean into my groin until the cramp finally relieved itself.
Luckily that was the final climb I could see the finish line in the distance and new there were two small slopes to get up and over and then it was all flat. I managed to keep up my jogging pace till I finally crossed the finish line at 5:18:53 in 14th place.
All in all not a bad result but tough to have done so well for the majority of the race, to only drop a bunch of positions towards the end. I don’t think I went out too fast or wasn’t fit enough to go sub 5 hours. I simply think it was a lack of nutrition. I only consumed 4 gels, ~1.5 litre of water, and a few orange and banana slices, during the race…stupid! I was definitely cocky and over confident. I should really read my own blog about fueling /nutrition where I talk about consuming 200 calories per hour (Fueling for a Spartan Ultra Beast), while today I was consuming under 100 calories per hour…STUPID!
Oh well you live and you learn and it’s always good to get a good slap in the face to bring you back to reality and remind you that you aren’t invincible.
As for the race itself, it was much harder than I anticipated and the aid stations are very far part adding to the difficulty. None of the climbs are super long (except they feel long at the end), it’s a lot of smaller climbs that results in the large elevation gain and you truly aren’t done climbing in this race until you can see the finish line. The course is absolutely spectacular though and very well organized. I highly recommend this race to any looking for a good challenge. This was my first 5 Peaks Race and I’ll will be looking to do more in the future.
Official course stats: 43.6 km, 1671 m of elevation