This Ain’t Our First Rodeo
Mighty Quail 100 km race report
At 5:45 am, forty-seven racers milled about at the edge of Skaha Lake in the pitch dark. I was struck by the relaxed feel to this race start – a calm, almost jovial feel among the runners. We had all been here before. Not necessarily here, as in the start line of the MQ, but here as in a start line for an ultra.
The website clearly states that this is a race for experienced ultra runners only. With only four aid stations and two water drops along the entire 100 km, it favours those who know their running needs intimately and are able to be self-sufficient for many hours in remote areas. There are no marshals out on course and the tiny field of >50 means that racers could be alone for long spells. This race does not provide any coddling which is exactly why it appealed to me.
From the lakeside, there is nowhere to go but up – since we had 4200 m (13500+ ft) of climbing ahead of us. We began on pavement through a neighbourhood before turning onto a large chunk of private property bordering Skaha Bluffs Provincial Park. During those first six km, we traveled up along gravel roads, double track trail and some game trails. We descended down rocky cliffs with fixed ropes and, by the time we arrived at the Skaha Bluffs parking lot, we were spread out comfortably along the single track.
During this first section, I tried to distance myself from the endless chatter of “What Races Have You Done” guy and I happily let “Bear Bell” guy sprint off in front of me. I stepped aside to let Bruce and a train of speedy downhillers get past but was soon stopped short when I found Bruce limping on the trailside, having just rolled his ankle once again. Despite his pained grimace and his obvious distress, he insisted that I carry on and that he would walk it out to see how it fared.
During my brief pause with Bruce, much of the field passed us by and now I found myself completely alone. In fact, I saw only one other runner for the next 24 km. I focussed on following the trail markers, which were minimal but absolutely adequate, and sticking with my nutrition/hydration plans. It was a relief to be away from the crowd and the ‘racing’.
I admired the incredible variety of fall colours from the brilliant yellow Aspens to the magenta Sumac with varigated Maple leaves underfoot. I could relax into my own pace and my own thoughts and enjoy these trails unknown to me. It felt just like any of my training runs – perfect solitude.
The day was cloudy and cool. Most of the day, I was just barely comfortable in my short sleeve t-shirt. I often thought of pulling out my arm-warmers but was too preoccupied to do so. I prefer being too cool as it means I have to run harder to keep warm.
The first aid station came at 15 km and here I saw the only other runner since leaving Bruce. There were some unfamiliar gels which I skipped and some homemade chocolaty “Quail Eggs” which were fantastic – I wished I had taken 10 of them! After refilling my water bottles, I headed up the gravel road knowing that the upcoming 17 km was a broken climb to the high point of the day which would take me over two hours to achieve.
There are five trail systems on the east side of Penticton – Skaha Bluffs, Wiltse, Carmi, Campbell Mtn and Three Blind Mice. There are a few old roads in the hills in-between these parks and even fewer trails. The Mighty Quail route is an attempt to link all five parks together using whatever connections available. This means using a whole lot of overgrown road and non-existent trail through thigh-high grasses. As well, the route includes a wide variety of single and double track trail, logging road, decommissioned road and game trails. If you don’t like the kind of trail you were on, simply wait five minutes and it will surely change. The Fall colours and the occasional glimpses of the lakes were like little rewards along the way.
Around 29 km, the route turns left and ascends steeply for 3 km. This is where I finally found some fellow runners. I enjoy a gritty climb and was able to power past a number of folks who were plodding along. Eventually the straight-up grade changed to switchbacks and became the kind of climb where you could crane your neck up and see who was six switchbacks ahead of you. I continued to reel people in and felt like I was back in the game again. As we reached the top, all focus went to the upcoming water drop. I still had plenty of fluids but this 37 km milestone would mean that the most remote section and the steepest climb were behind me.
The trail popped me out onto an old clearcut and here I could suddenly see eight other runners. The curvy forest trail had hidden them from view but now it was apparent that we were all very close together. There was even a line-up for water as six of us politely took turns to refill, with more runners arriving through the cut block and along the logging road. Our small group headed back into the trails and soon hit the logging road which would take us all the way to aid station #2, 47 km into the race.
A whole bunch of us arrived at the 47 km aid station within seconds of each other. We all simultaneously delved into our only drop bag for the race and began tucking our reserve supplies into every pocket available. I perused the food table and enjoyed a few cups of broth, a PB&J and the last perogy. About 15 minutes later (where does the time go??), I headed out and began the climb up to Beaverdell Road.
Despite my pre-run scouring of the TrailForks race map and last year’s runners’ Strava maps, I somehow overlooked this section of road, which is 5 km of wide gravel road where pick-up trucks speed past, churning up gravel in their wake as they prove how pathetic you are on foot. I ran every step of the gentle ascent and tried to lengthen my stride when the road finally curved downhill. Soon enough, I had passed the halfway point and re-entered single track trail. The Ellis Canyon trail was a beautiful part of the course. The trail hangs on the side slope of the canyon, below the road. It would be a heart-throbbing ride on a mountain bike and was equally thrilling on foot. I tried to take glimpses of the canyon below but mostly I kept my eyes on the trail.
The second water cache at 57 km seemed quite unnecessary so soon after AS#2 but I was relieved to find a pit toilet in the parking lot all the same. After crossing over Beaverdell Rd, the trail eventually began a steep descent through deep, loose sand down towards the Campbell Mtn reservoir and the river crossing. I was thankful for my dirty girl gaiters as they prevented most of the sand making its way into my shoes. When I reached the river, about six runners were stopped, some removing shoes, others re-lacing on the far side and some barefoot, mid-creek. Having no fear of wet shoes, socks or feet, I attempted to cross through the calf-deep water without hesitating but soon was crab-walking on all four over the treacherously slippery rocks. I made it across without further incident and began the steep ascent out of the river valley.
The route continued to ascend up less-used trails and then became smoothed-out switchbacks leading up to the microwave towers at the summit of Campbell Mtn. From this summit, we began the sweet, single track descent on flowy mountain bike trails all the way down to aid station #3 at 71 km. I was delighted to see old friends Lisa and Heather in charge of this station and I was uber-spoiled with hot broth, tales of mutual friends and adventures we had all had since leaving the Lower Mainland. When I bemoaned my slower-than-anticipated time, Lisa wisely reminded me that no matter when you finished, everyone got the same race t-shirt and the same burger at the finish line. It was exactly what I needed to hear and I mulled it over during the long, steep climb up Greyback Mtn Road.
I heard this climb described as ‘soul-sucking’ and it lived up to its reputation. The paved road twisted its way up past cattle farms and acreages before it became a gravel road and then a loose, baby-head quad track. Over 5 km, it steepened with each switchback and I concentrated on finding the shortest path around corners and watching the rocky footing. I had briefly considered leaving my poles in my drop bag way back at 47 km but I was really glad that I still had them with me for this. I knew that the route would eventually veer left off this road and I felt disappointment each time the road swerved right again with no left exit.
I finally came to the High Point Road just as some very encouraging and friendly quad drivers arrived going downhill. I headed along High Point, able to shuffle along the gentle grade. At some point, I met up with ‘Cowboy Hat’ and we decided that it was time to pull out the headlamps. Once I was set-up, I started to fly again.
There is something about night running that thrills me. It is like a six-ticket ride at the fair. I feel fearless in my 8 ft wide beam of light and I ignore everything except the immediate underfoot. I anticipated the final climb at 83 km so I didn’t mind it too much especially since it was a mountain bike track rather than a nasty road. After that, I holstered my poles and enjoyed the wild, smooth switchbacks of the Three Blind Mice trail system. I could hear voices off in the distance which I guessed was the final aid station but it took a long while before I descended far enough to reach it.
I was met at the short out-and-back approach by a volunteer who kindly pointed me in the correct direction and I arrived to much excitement at the 87 km mark. As I indulged in some Coke and a big pile of apples, a volunteer explained that the final descent could be run in ’45 minutes on fresh legs’. Seeing as I had the opposite of fresh legs, I figured that I had at least 90 minutes of race to do. It felt daunting but I knew that I still had some life in my legs and I was keen to be finished before 10:00 pm.
The descent was fun and those trails were in awesome condition but I missed a critical right turn and suddenly was bumbling along with no markers in sight. I backtracked and found my error and then continued to whistle on downhill. Unfortunately, there were three or four spots where I stopped and had to retrace my steps to the last marker. At one point, I plowed on ahead despite the lack of markers and eventually found one which was a great relief.
When I finally reached the trailhead parking lot and hit the KVR trail, I was determined to hit that 10 pm goal but that KVR is a doozy and it kept rolling along, albeit mostly downhill, but it seemed to go on forever. I was happily distracted by the gorgeous smell of fallen apples through the orchard section. There was such relief when the markings finally directed me off the KVR to steeply descend the “Vancouver Trail”. Finally I could finally see the yacht club and hear the finish line.
I was welcomed into the finish chute by my husband Bruce, who had amazingly run to the 71 km mark on his bad ankle, and our good friends George and Gail. Once I had gathered my wits, I asked for my burger ‘to go’ and we hit the road. Indeed, I had the same finish line burger and received the same finisher MQ beer glass as everyone else. It isn’t really a race as much as it is a personal challenge and today I met that challenge.
I don’t think that the Mighty Quail is any more difficult than other 100 km races but it is very remote and minimalist which makes it a stand-out in my opinion. I loved being way off the beaten track and I loved being alone. I loved having to keep my wits about me and I loved gauging my needs in the long distances between aid. I loved the feeling of a self-supported training run and I loved knowing that I was surrounded by experience the whole day. The resumes of these entrants are astounding and, if anything had gone awry out there, an army of experience would have been close at hand. The small field of runners and the grassroots approach made this a day to simply do what we love to do most!
But wait … This whole report sounds like some sort of paid advertisement for the race. Although everything above is true, here is a ‘Take 2’ report called And Now … The Truth. which gives a more honest account of my competitive spirit that day.
Fun Fact: I ran this like a metronome. It took me four hours to complete each 25 km section. 25 km = 4:00 hrs; 50 km = 8:03 hrs; 75 km = 12:16 hrs; 100 km = 16:08
Be Aware: You are allowed 11 hrs to arrive at AS#2 (47 km), leaving 7 hrs to complete the final 54 km. I truly wonder if this scenario is possible and if any mid-packers have run the second half in seven hours or less. Although the first half is more difficult, the second half is not easy, especially in the dark. Instead I would advise that you plan for a 9 hr/9 hr split, if you think you’ll need the whole 18 hrs.
finish time – 16:08.43
16/32 finishers (unofficial included); 4/11 women; 1/6 W40-49 age group