Iron Horse 100k – Race Report

The race is named after the train line that ran through this area of Northern Alberta, the Lakeland. The tracks have long been pulled up and the remaining line a multi use trail for ATVs and snowmobiles. Much of the race sticks to the Iron Horse. While sections are ideal compact dirt, keep in mind that large portions of the track are soft gravel that will suck a good deal of power from a runner. Still, it is a relatively fast course compared to other ultras.

I ran leg 1 of this race (~20k) for a last minute team that was thrown together by the race organizers. They paired the 5 of us together when we individually reached out to ask if there were teams that needed someone. The race organizers get 5 stars. They were super accommodating, friendly, easy going and all around excellent. I only saw leg 1 of the course but I’m confident in saying that the entire race provides some fantastic views. This would be the ideal first 100k or 100mi race. For the veterans out there, this would be a fast course through stunning countryside with just enough variability to make it interesting. Their website does a good job of describing the various legs.

The race comes with a great feature, 100 milers can choose to drop to the 100 kilometer distance at the third aid station (approximately 60k in). The 100 mile distance has been on my mind ever since I took up ultras. Should I ever get to that point I think this would be a great race to make the attempt.

Backstory

This was my first race since 2018. By the end of 2018 I was suffering from back issues. 2019 was a series of battles with my back that culminated in 2 surgeries, the last on December 18th. By March 2020 I was slowly getting back to running. The pandemic had me working from home and this made it possible to run every lunch hour. By the end of the summer I’d lost 20+ pounds and was tackling 10,000+ foot peaks in Utah every weekend. I was on track to marathon level endurance and potentially ultras. Then, at the beginning of 2021, I moved to northern Alberta and took a job that demands 60+ hours a week behind a desk or a steering wheel. I gained all or more of that 20 pounds back. I’ve been struggling to find a routine that will help me rebuild.

The last time I ran this distance was mid-may 2021. I ran a 15k on the Monday before just to see how I’d feel. My runs have really only been around 7-10k, when I’ve been getting out. I felt pretty good with the 15k. So I went into this race with reasonable confidence that I wouldn’t let our mashed up team down.

The Gear

I was dressed like a solo runner wearing ancient gear. My Ultimate Direction ultra bag (2014) has seen hard times. The elastics that hold the water bottles to my chest have both given up. There are rips and tears in the bag itself but all-in-all its still functional. My shorts hail from 2013 and fit a little more snuggly than they once did. As I approached the registration desk in the morning I went to retrieve the little punch card that acts like a baton between race members, (they punch your laminated card at every aid station). The card was in a little pocket on the back of my shorts. As I attempted to unzip the pocket the zipper fell apart in my hands. It felt like it simply disintegrated. I managed to force the zipper open anyway. It may be time for new shorts.

My shirt came from a sprint triathlon that I won (for my age category) in 2013 at the University of Sharjah. The lettering is fading and it has lost much of its elasticity. In my pack, rolled tight, is my blue Northface rain jacket. It long ago stopped repelling water. It has a number of small cuts on the front that have been patched by duct tape from the inside. It is still masterful at cutting the wind and keeping one warm. Also in the pack, My prescription sunglasses (I’d be running east into the rising sun), a couple granola bars, airpods (which I probably wouldn’t use), and half a dozen zip ties that have been in there since about 2016 – one day they’ll come in handy. My phone tucks nicely in a side pocket.

I’d start the race in a light pullover because I am weak. It’s freaking cold in Northern Alberta in October. I stuffed it in my bag (on the run) at the 1k mark before I could start sweating. My hat I stole from my son-in-law who got it free from a company he once worked for. It’s a great running hat. It washes easily, keeps the sweat out of my eyes, and fits well.

Start line of the Iron Horse 100. You can see the broken elastics for the water bottles.

Shoes. I debated between the two pairs of runners I own. When I moved to Alberta at the beginning of 2021 I bought runners best suited for running on the road. Of course, I still have a pair of Saucony trail runners. I bought them the day before the 2015 Canadian Death Race and wore them for the first time at that race. They’ve seen 1000s of miles.

2015 Saucony trail running shoes.

I chose to wear my road running Nike shoes. The first 7k of leg 1 loops around St. Paul on paved roads. It then moves onto the Iron Horse trail (much like a gravel road). The final 5k of the leg moves into single track through fields and poplar groves. I wonder now if I could not have gotten 1 more race out of them. I feel a strange gratitude for these shoes and a little sorrow in their retirement. Yes, I am weird.

It felt a bit strange to be geared up for this run as I was. Long past are the days that I could head out the door with nothing but a light shirt, shorts, runners, and (maybe) a bottle of water in hand.

The Race

The race began at Reunion Station in St. Paul Alberta at 7am. They let the 100 mile solo runners and teams go at 6:45am. I stayed warm wrapped in a blanket at the start line. It really wasn’t that cold. At 7am as the race began the sky was just beginning to take on a grey light. We followed the Iron Horse trail west for a couple kilometers before heading south through St. Paul to Thérien Lake. I’ve lived here twice, for a cumulative 5 years, and have never been to this lake. I appreciated the opportunity to run along the shore line for several kilometers. The paths are well maintained and there is a couple kilometers of wood boardwalk.

Thérien Lake in St. Paul with boardwalk. I returned in the evening at the end of the race to get this picture.

The loop around and through St. Paul was a little more than 7k before turning southeast on the Iron Horse trail. I ran about a kilometer with a couple 100k solo runners, Amro Alansari and Stephen Mater. Amro is an experienced ultra runner and it appears that he finished in 11th place with a time of 14:54:49.8. Well done Amro! We would leap frog each other a few times toward the end of leg 1. This was Stephen’s first ultra. He did very well coming in 15th with a time of 16:08:01.2.

I held myself back the first 10k. That is a hard thing for me to do. I didn’t do any research on this race beyond a casual look at the map and a skim of the website. I wondered if I could pull off a negative split. At kilometer 10 I left Amro and Stephen hoping to finish around the 2 hour mark. Over the next 5k I picked off 6-12 runners as I ran the Iron Horse trail. The trail is gravel soft and I fought to find harder ground as too much energy was getting sucked up by the trail.

At about the 15k mark race volunteers in a side-by-side directed us off the Iron Horse onto single track straight up a high bank. Cresting the bank we ran through grass and low scrub in a choppy landscape. We dodged cow patties and struggled to stay upright on the slick flattened grass. I didn’t last long before my legs went out from under me and I came down on my side. It’s okay. I’m not far from the ground. I did a quick push-up and didn’t lose much momentum.

The single track took us up a number of steep hills. These hills revealed my limits quickly. My heart rate shot up to the high 170s low 180s. I was light headed at points. It seems that not long ago I could have done these kind of hills all day long. No one runs these things. I appreciated the scenery though, the falling yellow leaves, the cows lulling in their pastures, the misty morning sky that occluded the sun and kept us all cool and my sunglasses in my pack.

The single track, at times, became just a line of pink flags through woods, low scrub, and crowded stands of aspens. Up and down we went. Many times in the last 2k I hoped “this” was the last hill. I could hear the cheers of spectators at the aid station for a good kilometer before I’d reach them. That last big down hill came. It was just shy of a steepness that would have people sliding on butts instead of feet. Halfway I went down hard on my back. My arm came around quickly to protect myself and the jarring was severe enough in my shoulder that I felt grateful that it took the blow and not my lower back. In the end, no great damage was done.

I came in to the aid station as quickly as I could. my teammate found me by my bib number and we managed a speedy transition. Those hills destroyed my negative split and my 2 hour goal. I was about 2 hours and 15 minutes. Before the race I told myself I’d be happy with anything less than 2.5 hours and I managed that. Lisa was there with the jeep, wrapped in a blanket for warmth. We chatted for a few moments with another member of my team, Vic. Then we were off home. We were home before 10am and I enjoyed a leisure afternoon keeping up with the progress of the race via texts from the team and Zone4.ca.

The Results

I’ll admit I was sore after this run. However, I did not feel the need for drugs, pain killers or anti-inflammatories. I didn’t take any as I wanted a good sense of how my body was actually doing. It is the next day and I could probably comfortably go for a 5k run. I’ll likely go for a good walk.

I met all my teammates for the first time at the end of the race when we drove back up to St. Paul to be there to greet our last runner, Victoria. It was an interesting conclusion. We saw the first 100k solo runner come in, a local, Doug Howson with a time of 11:12:29.4. He was the 8th place finisher in last year’s Canadian Death Race. Impressive.

Leg 5: Victoria, Leg 4: Pam, Leg 3: Vic, Leg 2: Sandra, Leg 1: Me (Lisa said nothing when i left the house dressed this way – just saying).

Yes, I don’t know any of their last names. There was a real chance that our team would make the podium. We were in third place leaving the last transition. Ultimately, we ended in 4th place with solid runs from every member of the team. Our final time was 11:32:56.5.

Final thoughts

I highly recommend this race. There are decent accommodations in the area (literally walking distance from the start) for those coming from out of town. The race organizers are excellent and the atmosphere congenial. The finish line ought to have a band and a couple local food trucks for spectators. Commitments kept me away from the breakfast on Sunday morning. I imagine that was pretty great. Those that could not attend the breakfast could get their medals the night before. The medals are nice, hand crafted by local artisan Stray Cat Designs. I’d like to be in shape to tackle the 100k next year. How I do that remains to be seen but plans are formulating. I suspect I’ll be involved with the race at some level going forward. Thanks for a great race.

Iron Horse Ultra finisher’s medal

2 responses to “Iron Horse 100k – Race Report”

  1. Great report and how fun you could find a good team. Yeah, your gear might need an upgrade… someday. 🙂

    Like

  2. […] continue on that trajectory. On October 1st I ran a half marathon distance as part of a team in the Ironhorse 100. In the past month I’ve lost about 5 pounds. Ideally, I’ll shave another 15 pounds […]

    Like

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