Trail running: Why I Run
Written by trail runner and guest writer: Matthew Sutton-Atkins (@mattsa89)
We finally arrived at Floe Lake, I took off the baby carrier, sat down, and began to cry.
Hiking has always been a big part of our relationship. Cassie and I have taken multiple trips into the Canadian Rockies and the Western United states with the sole purpose of checking off big hikes. This trip in September 2022 had the makings of being our biggest yet, with multiple +20km/2000m gain days planed. The trip got off to a great start, we climbed Cirque Peak, the highest point I’ve ever been in the mountains. Made it to Rockbound Lake, nestled behind the iconic Castle Mountain. Trekked into the Plain of Six Glaciers and saw the perfect golden Larches in Sentinel Pass before continuing our adventures in Kananaskis where we hiked Chester Lake and the awe-inspiring Tent ridge. After 7 days of hiking in the mountains done, we had two big objectives left, Floe Lake in Kootenay National Park, and Smutwood Peak in Kananaskis.
The night before Floe Lake I started to feel a familiar pain in my shin, something I’d only experienced once before – shin splints. 7 long and heavy days were catching up with me. I didn’t want to let Cassie or myself down, so I quickly swallowed some Advil and began icing my shin. I woke up the next day of not feeling any better or worse, so I took that as a win, and we pressed onto the trailhead.
Floe Lake is considered a difficult hike, but more than halfway in I was feeling surprisingly good, I remember thinking that the fresh mountain air and beautiful views can do wonders for the body and mind. I eventually realized that although we were more than halfway done the distance, we had only done about a quarter of the elevation – we had a BIG climb ahead of us. After KMs of walking through the valley you eventually come to what looks and feels like a straight wall up. Every step becoming more laborious than the last, and the weight of baby carrier getting heavier as time went on. I slurped back my water as I sweated in the mid-day heat of the exposed switchbacks and bit by bit, one foot in front of another we chipped away at this climb and soon enough Floe Lake was in sight.
Cassie who has been wanting to visit Floe for quite some time quickly ditched her bag and ran off to take pictures but for me reaching the lake culminated a week of pushing my body, and the magnitude of that in the moment brought on a wave of emotion, I took off the baby carrier, sat down, and began to cry. By the time we reached the car that evening my right shin had completely swelled up, effectively ending the trip. My body simply refused to take any more punishment. In that moment I knew something needed to change in my daily exercise regimen that would allow me to go further and longer without letting me down.
Enter Trail Running.
The following winter I made some big changes in my life, I quit drinking and I began looking at my mental health as something that needed improving.
I always felt my best when I was in the mountains with my family, but that isn’t something I could do daily. I also realized that there was something else missing in my life – a sense of community. Cassie had been trail running with the Abbotsford Trail Running Club for a few months and really enjoyed it unfortunately, we couldn’t get out together with Aspen at home but one afternoon she suggested I take her place and check it out.
Part of me wanted to come up with some excuse, (it being November and the middle of an arctic outflow and all) but part of the transition I was trying to achieve with my mental health was about getting myself out of comfort zone, and putting myself out there, both physically and mentally. So instead of turning her down, I found myself in the same parking lot on Sumas Mountain that frozen Tuesday night where I would eventually finish my first 25km event.
Myself and 6 other brave individuals set off in the dark and the cold trail running a nice flowy 6km loop, and with that, I was hooked.
My First Event
A couple weeks later Cassie was slated to run a 12km event on the North Shore, but in the days leading up to the event she became quite sick and asked me if I would like to take her place. Not wanting to shy away from a challenge I jumped at the opportunity to participate in my first ever trail running event.
The night before I was an absolute anxious wreck. Having never competed in any sort of race since well, Track and Field days in elementary school, I had no idea what to expect. My anxiety didn’t subside when I got to the starting line, looking around at all these people warming up and chatting amongst themselves I felt like I didn’t belong. Little did I know I was standing in a sea of some of the most warm and welcoming people on earth, all there to support and encourage each other and not very concerned with their times or what place they would finish.
My nerves continued to build as the starting clock wound down but once the race began that all washed away, and I just ran. After the first few kilometres the pack thinned out and I found my pace. I didn’t care where I finished, I just didn’t want to DNF on my first ever event. I finished in 1:28:22, marking the longest run I had ever done, and even though my shoes gave me the worst blisters I’ve ever experienced, I felt exceptional sailing across the finish line that day. All those people that I had been intimidated by at the starting line were all smiles and high fives at the finish.
After this event, I knew that I could push myself to go further, and I craved it. I made some adjustments to my footwear, which solved my blistering problem and I continued to trail run with the ATRC which gave me the confidence and base needed for longer events. With summer rapidly approaching I decided to pick a couple events that would test these newfound abilities.
By now I had completed my first half marathon, so I knew I could handle the distance but the elevation gain on these next two events would be a challenge. The Trail Run for Water had a very respectable 1500m of elevation fairly spread over the length of course. The Thursty Elk however, has over 2000m of elevation starting with a grueling climb up Gloria.
My philosophy around training is that it should be something that never stops and not something you try to cram in the weeks leading into an event. I’m very fortunate to live along the Vedder River in Chilliwack, so I have easy access to trail running options, and with the opening of the new Qoqó:lem Park I have a hiking trail 5 minuets from my house. It’s very easy to maintain an active lifestyle in the time between events. I also regularly hike 10+ kms with our daughter in the backpack carrier and carrying that kind of weight, those distances really helps with my endurance when I don’t have the “extra” weight.
That being said, in the weeks leading up to these events I do try to ramp up my training and get at least 3 dedicated runs in, two 15km+ runs, and one 20 km run with as much elevation as possible. The last 2 days before the race are for recovery and stretching.
Ultimately, I suppose I build my base through hiking, but run, to hike further.
The weather that morning was perfect, and I couldn’t wait to for the countdown clock to strike zero. I was racing with a friend of mine, and we got to the starting area about 25 minutes before the race began and started to warm up. Looking up, I could see Gloria, Thurston and Elk looming above us. It felt somewhat daunting knowing we had to go up and over all three peaks. I had hiked Gloria and Elk before so I had an idea of what to expect but this would be the first time I traversed all three in a single day.
Once the race began, as always, my nerves and fears completely disappeared, and I only focused on my pace and footwork. The first aid station came relatively fast, at the parking lot for the Chilliwack Community Forest but it was well placed as it was effectively at the start of one of the hardest climbs of my life. For the next 2 hours the other racers and I slogged our way up the climb to Gloria Peak. I was able to keep a relatively good pace up the climb and was able to press on without needing to stop for any breaks along the way. This enabled me pass quite a few people on the climb and secure a spot in front quarter of the pack.
Once I emerged onto the ridge between Gloria and Thurston I was immediately rewarded with views of the ridge we were going to traverse and the valley below. The second aid station was located along the trail just after the summit of Thurston and was very welcome after burning over 1000 calories and sweating constantly for the past two and a half hour. (Also, the ladies running this aid station were absolute heroes because they had to pack all of the supplies in on foot to this remote part of the trail). The views between Thurston and Elk are some of my favorites found in the Fraser Valley. The Boarder Peaks, Mount Baker, Mount Slesse and McGuire all on full display, as well as Cultus Lake off in the distance. This is truly one of the more beautiful sections to run, it’s almost a pity to not stop and take it all in but alas the clock is ticking, and I know that there’s still much work to be done.
Once I reached the Summit of Elk, I knew that the remainder of the course was downhill. It felt good to head down using muscles that hadn’t seen as much use during the grind uphill. My pace naturally quickened as the trail opened and I began racing past supportive people day hiking Elk. I reached the final aid station positioned along the Elk FSR and quickly took some gels and a shot of pickle juice. I could taste the finish line, so I didn’t linger for very long – a mistake I would later regret. After reaching the Elk Mountain parking lot the course follows a flat section of FSR for about a kilometre before jutting back into the trails to the last section of the race. After completing the section of the FSR my right thigh began to severely cramp, I believe it was a combination of overall dehydration from the event, not taking in enough fuel at the previous aid station and the change of terrain after running downhill for the better part of an hour to running on flat road that caused me to cramp up. Luckily, I had some remaining fuel in my vest I was saving for just this emergency. The cramping began to subside enough that I could carry on walking, and then eventually a careful run.
The rest of the race I maintained a caution pace, my thigh felt like it could re-cramp at any point. Luckily, I was nearing the finish and soon enough I could hear those wonderful finish line sounds approaching. I came around the final corner and was elated to see the finish line arch in front of me with my loving family waiting just beyond it. I crossed the finish line and immediately was greeted by my daughter Aspen.
As I embraced both Aspen and Cassie in that moment it has never been clearer to me why I run. I finished 23rd with a time of 05:00:43, But that’s not why I run. A few weeks later Cassie, Aspen and I decided to do what would be the largest hike we have ever attempted with Aspen in the carrier – Mount MacFarlane. 20 KMs and nearly 2000m gained, and I had never felt better. That is why I run, to go farther to more amazing places and explore big objectives, as a family.