DNF - A Story of Sinister 7

Success is not final, failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.
— Winston Churchill

DNF…did not finish. My first shot at the 100 mile distance that was Sinister 7 and I was left with that. Three letters that have never been next to my name. Three letters that will remain there until I get to go back. 

Sinister 7, “will punish those who are not prepared.” A race that lives up to its name. The difficulty is real, 100 miles and a 30 hour window to cross the finish line. With just under 21,000 feet of climbing and an equal descent in Alberta’s Rocky Mountains, through some of the most rugged, remote and difficult terrain. And this year, was the wettest course on record. This is ultra, it’s not suppose to be easy. 

This year saw 218 soloists begin and only 69 finish. 149 DNF’s. 68% of the field did not finish, compared to 32% that did. Not even 1/3 of the field finished and that’s no disrespect to the athletes, this course strips you down and humbles you at every step. 

As I walked into the last checkpoint, less than 8 kilometres to the transition area of which would have been the end of leg 4, I was defeated and full of disappointment. A volunteer approached me and asked if I was done. I didn’t want to admit it, but I knew it was the end of my race. Not exactly how I saw my race playing out…

The night before the race as I laid in my bed I could hear the thunder rolling and as I jumped up to take a look out the window I could see the rain blowing sideways under the street lamp, t-minus 8 hours until race start. 

The next morning the sun was just beginning to rise and revealed clearer skies as I woke up, no rain was a good start. I prepared myself a quick meal, got dressed and headed out the door. Mark, my lone crew and I walked to the start line which was only a few blocks from where we were staying in Blairmore. I could hear Brian the race director’s voice over the speaker telling the athletes that the race was getting close to starting. Mark and I said a few parting words and I lined up on the start line. 

My game plan was to pace myself, fuel and hydrate as needed and put in what I could when I can. Run the flats, walk with purpose on the long, steeper climbs and manage the descents cautiously. Basically save my legs, eat as much as I could and keep hydrated. Simple enough…

Leg 1 led us east out of Blairmore, past the infamous Frank Slide and the town of Frank and up into the mountains. A combination of paved road, gravel road and double and single track trails over 18.3 kilometres led me into TA1. Mark and I had agreed the night prior that he would skip the first transition area and meet me at TA2 instead. As I came into TA1 I was welcomed with many cheers from the crowd. I stopped for a quick snack and was on my way within a few minutes. 

At the base of Hastings Ridge, leg 2 began with a long climb to the ridge. Once summited there were beautiful views of the valley below. I began the decent back into the town of Blairmore, most of the trail was single and double track over the 16.7 kilometres. The sun was out and sure beat the rain. I was able to fuel and hydrate myself, reminding myself of what Mark had been wanting me to take in over the duration of the first 2 legs. The legs felt good as I made the final descent into TA2 where I was greeted by Mark. 

As I sat down Mark began restocking all the necessities and we discussed how things went over the first 2 legs. Leg 3 was up next and it was rated as the second hardest leg of the entire course, also it came in with almost the same climbing and distance as leg 6. Upon leaving Mark had me do a quick video for a group chat that I had going with my family, it was great to hear their words of encouragement coming in. 

Willoughby Ridge was where the race started for me, 31.4 kilometres in this leg and the climbing began immediately leaving TA2. It was in and around noonish as I began the long, steep climb up the ski hill. I had my poles with me now and was feeling refreshed. The sun was breaking and I could feel the warmth on my back. It was crucial that I was able to continue fuelling and hydrating myself throughout this leg of the race.

Leg 3 was a test of fortitude, physically my knees ached on the downhill portions and the heat had begun to play a bit of a factor as I tried to find shelter amongst the trees, but this was next to impossible as most of the time I was completely exposed. Mentally the games had begun, adversity had arrived and was out in full force. Flat sections were few and far between, climbing and descending were a plenty. As I came off of the ridge and reconnected with a section of trail that originally sent us in another direction, I began the final descent. I felt a little fatigued, I definitely didn’t fuel like I did over the first 2 legs of the race. But overall I felt as good as I could have felt all things considered. I came into TA3 with a quick pace and excited that leg was over. 

Again, Mark greeted me and I took a seat to collect myself on what I had just accomplished throughout leg 3. Mark did his thing and I made another video to send to the family in our group chat. All the food Mark had packed at the beginning of leg 3 I brought back with me, untouched. He told me I had to eat something, I told him I had a bunch of watermelon and a bar. However my output was outweighing my input convincingly. I stuck around TA3 for a bit longer, finally putting back some pickles and blueberries. The last bit of leg 4 was most likely going to be done in the dark so we packed accordingly and Mark threw a headlamp in my vest for good measure. Before leaving I repeated to Mark several times, “don’t let me quit, I’m not quitting.” He smiled and replied, “I’m not letting you quit.”

Heading out on leg 4 things began to go sideways. After another climb half way up the ski hill right out of the gate, I began to head what I believe was west. I was climbing up some switchbacks, leaning on my poles just a little more to carry me up this uphill portion. My stomach was unsettled and this was the first time that I felt like vomiting. I took a seat on a stump to gather myself, then later on I leaned against a tree. I kept making progress through the single track trail, sheltered amongst the trees. I could hear thunder rolling in the distance and the skies went from a blue to a dark and eerie grey. The skies began to open up and torrential rain fell to the ground. I was soaked in a few minutes, even the trees couldn’t shelter me from the rain. 

As I made my way out into a clearing I could now see how the weather had changed. The rain and wind continued, I made my way up a smaller climb and onto a slight down hill portion of the trail. All of a sudden I was stopped in my tracks as I bent over and vomited everything I had inside of me. I collected myself and found a stump to sit on as I continued to vomit. I was concerned with getting the chills so I threw on my jacket and made my way back onto the trail. Ironically, the storm seemed to foreshadow what was taking place in my stomach. The rain fell and my jacket was soaked in a few minutes, sticking to me and hardly providing any protection. 

As I moved diligently towards checkpoint 4a, I devised a game plan where when I arrived at the end of leg 4 I would get into Mark’s truck and have a nap, then get up and refuel and hydrate before heading out on leg 5. I had one last climb before the first checkpoint of this leg. As I arrived to the smiles of the volunteers, I took a seat on a cooler. I was asked how I was doing and told the volunteer that I had vomited not to long ago. He told me that I looked good and then told me I had a huge climb up and over Saddle Mountain. I asked him if he wanted to do it for me, we both laughed and I carried on.

Moving onward and upward I knew that I needed to get some sort of food and liquid into my body, the lack of eating in leg 3 and now the eating that I did in TA3 was all over the trails and not much of anything inside of me. As I made my way up Saddle Mountain the sun was starting to come back out. As I made my way out of the open and into the refuge of the trees my stomach took a turn for the worse again. I quickly got off the trail and into the bush, on all fours vomiting and then dry heaving. Athletes passed by and I waved my hand in the air, gesturing that I was fine, although everything wasn’t fine and my body was feeling the repercussions of my stomach issues. I was beginning to ache and fatigue, but still managed to pick myself up and continue on. I was dehydrated and running on empty. But my kids were my why and the thought of quitting wasn’t an option. 

I would stop several more times over the last climb to the top. I remember being told about two voices in ultra. One voice is the voice we all know of, the voice that tells you to quit and to pack it in. This voice I know all too well and I’ve never given in to its antics. The other voice is that of the body, a concerned voice telling you that your health is not so good. That voice continued to get louder but I dismissed it several times on my way to the top. 

My pace had slowed down quite a bit, as I was stopping and going. Reeling to get my body to move and continue on. As I summited Saddle Mountain and walked along the ridge, each eye was taking turns closing. My muscles were twitching and my body was shutting down. I knew I had to get something in me, but I could barely wet my lips without wanting to vomit. I was well past the point of no return, but I continued onward. As I began the descent off the ridge I looked out at what might have been one of the most beautiful sights to be seen. The sun was setting and I had an unobstructed panoramic view of the Rocky Mountains. It was in that moment that I began to realize my race was coming to an end. I was defeated, emotional and disappointed, still not fully wanting to admit my demise. 

As much as I didn’t want to listen to that voice telling me my health was at risk and my body was shutting down, I couldn’t ignore it. I wasn’t quitting, I was working to get myself to the next checkpoint to salvage what was left of me at that point. I found myself in a fight or flight mentality. I began the descent of which felt like forever as my legs were fighting the downhill portion in front of me. At this point it had been quite some time that I had seen anyone on the trails. Cutoff time was 1:30am for this leg and I was well ahead of that, with about 12 kilometres to go I was on pace to see TA4 around 10:30pm. But that had all changed as I progressed through Leg 4.

Time was no longer a factor, the goal was to get myself to the next checkpoint. The last few kilometres dragged on, the checkpoint seemed to be lost. As I came up and over the last climb I could see the white tent on the other side of a water crossing. As I approached the tent I was greeted by a volunteer. I was hunched over with my hands on my knees, she asked me if my race was over. I nodded and replied, “Yes, I’m done.” It took everything to not breakdown, besides I don’t know if I had any tears to cry anyhow after vomiting everything I had inside of me. 

I could hear the volunteer radio into headquarters, confirming that number 89’s race was over. I took a seat and sat there in silence. Looking up at another athlete who vomited all of leg 4 like I did. His day was over as well. We both waited in silence for our transport to arrive. I remember getting in the vehicle, rolling down the window and barely getting out the directions of where to take me. I tried to message Mark to give him a heads up but I had no service. It was a long and quiet ride to TA4 where Mark was expecting me to come running in, but instead I was being driven to the transition area.

I stepped out of the vehicle and made my way up to TA4. I couldn’t see Mark, ironic as he’s always the tallest one in the crowd. Night had fallen and I stood there waiting as they called my number over the speakers, asking Mark to come over. As he approached I tried to explain to him what happened but instead hunched over and put my hands on my knees and just cried. I was so emotional, so defeated, I felt like I had let so many people down. Mark had me watch a video of my kids that my in-laws had made of them and I broke down all over again. 

I was asked to have a quick assessment from the paramedics by race officials. I had a few laughs and a warm cup of chicken broth while Mark packed up our things. The ride back my teeth chattering and my legs swung side to side uncontrollably. As we pulled up where we were staying, Mark helped walk me in and I hobbled into a warm shower. I sat on the floor and rested my head against the shower wall. I sat there for a while not wanting to get up. Eventually I stepped out and dried myself off, put on some shorts and hopped into bed. Mark brought me some plain crackers and ginger ale. I passed out in minutes and woke up in the morning feeling the same I did the night prior. 

I had come just over 50 miles or so, night had just fallen so I assumed I was out there for about 14 hours or so racing. I couldn’t help but think of what could have been, that there were still athletes out on the course. Some finished already, others still had a few hours before cutoff at 1pm. I thought about how that could have been me, but instead I was licking my emotional wounds as I began to pack my things. 

My experience taught me more than I understood at the time, especially as more time has passed by. I know that I woke up with mixed emotions that morning but I knew that I had made the right decision. “Live to race another day” as Mark had said several times. I had envisioned so many time over, crossing that finish line and getting my hands on my first belt buckle, that didn’t happen. It was just a race, but the whole DNF just didn’t sit well with me. I guess it’s only permanent if I don’t go back to finish what I originally started…