Two Very Different Tales of The Grey Owl Trail Run… By Ben Nicholas

Hey guys. Just thought I’d give a quick post on my recent ‘Grey Owl’ trail run I did in late August of 2012. To anyone who hasn’t done this run but wants to, I highly recommend it! It’s a gorgeous/well-marked single track trail in northern Waskesiu and is easily the nicest run I have done in Saskatchewan. It’s approximately 45 km total if you go all the way to the cabin and back starting from the service road.

For equipment I used my Salomon race vest (with a 1.5 litre hydration bladder), 2 cans of coke in the breast pockets, 2 snickers bars, 4 gu gels, and a light rain shell. My total time was 4.5 hours with my splits being almost identical (5 minutes faster on my way to the cabin). My run went relatively smooth, only stopping my watch once for approx. 15 minutes when I got caught in a freak hail storm on the north end of Kingsmere lake and had to run under a camping hut for cover. I have never seen/ran through hail like that before in my life, let alone in August… it was weird! Anyways, I brought my camera along to take some pictures / videos!

The trail is very well marked, you should never feel like you are lost, and there are even KM markings along some of the trees!

There are quite a few small creek crossings, but if you’re careful you should never have to get your feet wet!

Such nice views of the forrest the entire run. Runs like this go by fast as you never stop having something to look at!

One of the sketchier creek crossings along the trail…

Twice along the way to the cabin you run along the beach of Kingsmere lake.

Gotta sign your name in the guest book… definitely a Grey Owl tradition!

The first peice of hail that struck me in the face. I definitely sprinted along the north end to find cover, dropping F bombs the entire way.

First bear shit siting…

And second…

Nice shot of some of the views you get along the trail, doesn’t get much better in Saskatchewan!

Overall the run went pretty smooth and I had a blast, but this trail is also host to the scariest time I’ve ever had running…. In January 2011 my training partner Wapoose and I picked a weekend to complete the trail, unaware the forecast turned out to be -30 degrees celcuis the entire weekend. After taking the weekend off of work and making the trip north, we didn’t want to back out and thought to go ahead and do it anyway. This wasn’t your ordinary trail running in winter, there was 3 feet of snow, the trail was 100% untouched, and I had brought aesics road running shoes to complete the journey… big mistake. At this point in my running I had never actually worn ‘trail running’ shoes, or owned a pair of goretex shoes, but running in the winter in the city you don’t really need them to be honest, even in -30. This beast was a completely different circumstance however, and I learnt very fast how my gear was insufficient to complete the run.

Normally Wapoose and I have a blast training together and doing big runs, this time, within the first hour it felt different. We barely talked, it took forever to warm up, and within 90 minutes, the straw in my Camelbak was frozen and I was unable to drink anything. We were able to run some of the first hour, but we soon realized it was almost just as fast to power hike in the deep snow and took 1/4 of the energy to hike instead of run and to go the same speed. Wapoose made the decision that we weren’t moving fast enough on the trail… so we cut down to Kingsmere lake and decided to bomb it straight ahead to the north end of the lake towards the cabin…. another scary situation. The lake was entirely frozen, but the snow was crunchy and would hurt against the shins every single step. Imagine trying to hike through knee deep snow (and I am 6 foot 3, and it was easily knee deep snow/ice on me), and having to actually work hard to move only a few kilomters per hour, in -30 degrees (with the windchill who knows how cold it was) with very harsh winds blowing onto your face as you now have no cover from the trees or forrest, definitely not fun! Anwyays, when we were on the lake, occasionally we would take steps and our feet would sink into the ice leaving a giant wet foot print. Seeing water on the lake definitely freaked me out, and I think Wapoose could hear it in my voice that I was no longer having fun or enjoying myself. We would have to sprint when we felt our feet sinking like this, which tired us out as we were unable to tell when the wet spots in the snow were coming. After making it to the north end of the lake, I announced I could no longer feel my left foot, and I quickly layed on my back, took off my shoe, and changed socks. We trudged along even more, and made it to the ‘X’ sign at the north end Kingsmere lake, where Wapoose decided we wouldn’t make it today and that we should head back. Thank God he did, his decision here definitely saved my toes, as we would have had to go 4 km to the cabin, and 4 km back, and there was no way I could have handled much longer then we were out there on this day.

When we decided to turn around, we were already out there for 3 hours! 3 hours and we we still 2.5 miles from halfway! I couldn’t believe how slow it was moving in the snow like it was! Just a few months prior, Wapoose and I did the entire run in 3 hours and 50 minutes moving near our threshold on the way back from the cabin… now we were lucky to be moving 1/4 of that speed, and I was frozen. Fast forward another 90 minutes of trudging straight across Kingsmere Lake, and I announced once again, “I can’t feel my left foot”. Wapoose looked at me, grabbed his pole, and poked my foot with the sharp end of it. Once I saw what happened and realized I had not felt a thing as his pole stabbed my foot, I started to freak out like I never had before. I panicked for a moment until Wapoose told me to shut up and that I’d be fine. He layed down as well and gave me his left shoe, which was a Salomon goretex shoe, so now we both had a road running shoe, and a winter running shoe.  But we still had easily another 90 minutes to go. The next hour was almost peaceful for me, as I stopped caring about my foot and couldn’t stop thinking about how I’d be fine if I lost a toe or two and that it shouldn’t really affect my ability to run and/or walk. I still remember this feeling, almost accepting your demise and pain, which has proven to be an essential skill in the larger ultramarathon running races I have done (2010 Canadian Death Race and 2011 Sinister7). You just accept your pain is never going to leave and move on.

The next hour however, Wapoose started to freak out. He said he felt responsible for my foot and that he should have told me I couldn’t have done the run on the shoes I had broughten. (We had a discussion the night before to decide whether or not the run was even possible with the shoes I had, and both decided I would be fine and that we would make it). When we finally moved off the lake and back onto the final few kilometers of trail before the service road, we were pumped to see Wapoose’s dad looking for us. We had given him a timeline of where we should be and that if was taking much longer, something was probably wrong. He said he felt worried and decided to run up the trail a bit to see if he could see us, as he wasn’t comfortable with waiting any longer. Wapoose instantly told him the scenario I was in, and I continued living in my own head, almost having forgotten about my foot now as it was completely numb and I was done caring or worrying about it, as I had almost completely accepted now that my foot was goingn to be completely messed up. When we made it back to the truck, it took both Wapoose and his dad to rip off my Aesics shoe (turns out Wapoose’s salomon shoe saved my other foot), and we discovered the sock was completely frozen to my foot, which again took both of them pulling as hard as they could to rip it off. I remember telling them to pull easier or they would break my ankle from having to pull so hard to get the sock off… Herb put me in his truck and instantly started cruising back to Waskesiu, calling his brother who is a doctor to ask what we should do.

We had been out there for over 7 hours with temperatures dipping much lower then -40 with the wind chill, and when we got back to Waskesiu all of my toes turned black (including my big one). Thank God the color came back within the hour… or else I would have lost some of my toes. The run has left me with a very large frost bite scar along the side of my foot, and was easily one of the sketchiest experiences I have ever had, sportwise and not. I had brought my camera with me that day, but we literally only took 4 pictures, as it was the last thing on either of our minds that day. Picture of us driving to the trail. How scary does that look?! What the hell were we thinking!? Haha.

Me almost completely frozen on the lake, I think this was taken shortly before my freak-out on the ice.

Wapoose trying to keep me focused on our way back to the vehicles.The aftermath… I almost wish we would have taken a picture of my foot when my toes were black, the color came back within the first hour. As you can see, my feet weren’t just frozen… my right side was cut and scarred the frost bite was so bad. My pinky toe lost all it’s skin and it looked like I had put my foot in a fire.

More or less what the scar looks like now on the right side of my foot.

Well, this was definitely the scariest ‘Living In The Shit’ experience I have ever had… if this story has taught anyone anything, I hope its that if you are planning to do an epic hike or run in -40 that you wear Goretex shoes! Haha. To this day even, when someone complains about being cold walking to their car or some other bullshit excuse, I’ll say “You don’t know cold, trust me” and I mean it. An experience like that is something you never forget, for better or worse!

7 thoughts on “Two Very Different Tales of The Grey Owl Trail Run… By Ben Nicholas

  1. Andrew says:

    Scary shit…You boys were definitely riding a thin line between having big balls and using your brain. I remember Herb telling me that once he got your sock off and saw your foot, he truly had doubts you would be ok, even though he put on a straight face and said you’ll be fine. Either way, its because of your ability to keep going when most people would give up, is the reason why you have your toes and don’t walk with a permanent limp. Live and learn!

    • I know! I have no idea what I was thinking attempting that run with those shoes. I had no idea what it would be like to do a trail like that 100% un-groomed. We’ve actually done it a few times since in winter, but you’ll never see me doing it again in the really cold temperatures. Come with us next time! Doing it in -10 is totally fine.

  2. HAU says:

    Tansi Niistow! I really appreciate this story. You’ve done a tremendous job in this story at showing the realities of ultra adventure running in the wilderness. From a scenic constantly stimulating single track 45 Kms of technical components that can bite your ass at any moment ….meandering into the wildreness of Prince Albert National Park. This same trail on a different day…fast forward….winter!!! Same back yard …two totally different runs and experiences. One bad decision in remote ultra adventure running can be costly …whether in dry warm…wet muddy….or extreme winter condition.
    Be prepared…plan…plan..plan…no short cuts…know your country…your equipment.
    What’s your escape plan when living in the shit…goes for a shit. Remember…in the game of living in the shit…it’s not a question of IF things will go for a shit…rather…WHEN things go for a shit. The odds are in the extreme sports of ultra adventure running you will be faced with challenges like the -40 greyowl adventure described by Ben. Amongst all the shit you got into with improper equipment….. You kept all your toes because you kept cool…DON’T PANIC!!!!
    Know when to say enough…turn back…leave it for another day. Work in a team…both on the trail (Wapoose) and having others monitoring time and conditions if help required to pull you out….at least find your remains. In the picture of bear shit…if you look close you’ll see a pair of Nike runners. Just kidding..Now thats living in the shit. Remember…issues of wildlife too.
    Great story…awesome pictures….great message for us all to be reminded of.
    Can’t wait to get out there in the shit with you boys again.

    • Thanks so much for looking out for us that day Herbavoire! I know I definitely needed it!!! And yes, everything you said is true. You need to be comfortable with your equipment/surroundings when you are doing extreme sports. Do you carry bear spray with you when you run up north? I was wondering when I was doing the run solo in August if I should have anything for wildlife. Definitely something I need to look into!

      Ben.

      • Andrew says:

        Ben, having a good dog with you will work much better then any bear spray could. I know portia has scared away dozens of bears for myself and my dad, saving us from some potential sketchy encounters.

  3. Good call! We actually just got a new German Shorthaired Pointer and it’s pretty amazing watching her run, so effortless! Only thing I’m worried about is that she is a bred hunting dog… so I’m still a little paranoid of her taking off on me on trails if she ever saw a bird or animal that she wanted to chase. But we’ll see, I think she’ll be doing the grey owl run next year!

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