Mt Robson Ultra

The Mt Robson was an awe inspiring event in an incredible landscape just over the border of Alberta into British Columbia. The fifth running of the event in 2015 saw the route extended, increasing the previous marathon route by 8km to become an ultra; clocking in at a round 50km.

The Route.

  • Length: 50km Ultra Marathon
  • Ascent: ~1300m
  • Race Type: Out and Back
  • Start/Finish Height: 820m
  • Highest Point: 1670m

The Mt Robson Ultra was an awe inspiring event in an incredible landscape just over the border of Alberta, into British Columbia. The fifth running of the event in 2015 saw the route extended, increasing the previous marathon route by 8km to become an ultra; clocking in at a round 50km.

The event was pretty low key by even New Zealand standards with no compulsory kit, no bear spray required, not even water, but we took it all anyway as you never know about these mountain conditions! We were however, blown away by the beauty of the event – so picturesque yet really tough going if you put it alongside other races in the ‘runnable’ mountain running category.

 Mt Robson Route Map (x = aid/water stations). ©OpenStreetMap contributors at openstreepmap.org
Mt Robson Route Map (x = aid/water stations). ©OpenStreetMap contributors at openstreepmap.org

We were a little scared of bears on this one to be honest after visiting the visitor’s centre on the way through from Jasper. We stopped to take some photos and saw a hastily made sign saying – “Bear in Meadow”. We weren’t really sure what to do, or what to think about our safety as we would be running in less than 36 hours! However, we were a little bit laughed at by the locals when we asked if we should bring bear spray… so we went with the flow (like with kit list) I guess we’d be ok!!

The bear warning sign in the meadow at Mt Robson Visitor Center.
The bear warning sign in the meadow at Mt Robson Visitor Center.

The Race

The route is winding and quite unforgiving in places, but it started off easy and semi-flat, luring you into a false sense of fast pacing security with a 2km tarmac/gravel road section towards the Berg Lake Trailhead. I pushed myself to the front with the leaders for this first section and had a chat to a nice Australian runner who heard my kiwi twang. He also was living in Edmonton for a while, so was good to catch up with someone who understood the Antipodian lingo.

After hitting the actual trail, the route got nicer underfoot (check out this cool panorama of the trail) and one guy decided to take on the trail and I surged to keep with him, although trailing about 30m behind comfortably in 2nd place. There were a few steep climbs before levelling off around Kinney Lake which was an absolutely incredible view in the mist, with the turquoise waters and blue skies above.

Kinney Lake, Mt Robson Ultra
Kinney Lake (without the mist!) – Florian Fuchs [CC BY 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

We passed the 6km aid station and I unhinged for a bit and felt good and strong, loving the winding trails. There was a bit of everything, up, down, scree, bumps, even a bit of mud to make you think about where you were putting your feet.

After rounding Kinney Lake, the route hit the river bed for about a kilometer criss-crossing the Robson River’s braids. Thankfully there were small bridges placed on good locations to cross as I assume that the glacial water would have been mighty cold at this time in the morning as the sun hadn’t hit the valley yet.

Me looking way too happy in 2nd place through the misty river valley.  Photos: Beth Russell, facebook.com/mountrobsonmarathon
Me looking way too happy in 2nd place through the misty river valley. Photos: Beth Russell, facebook.com/mountrobsonmarathon

After the river crossing we were on the true right of the Robson, and were greeted with our first set of switchbacks, climbing up to Whitehorn Campground. Here I was caught by the eventual winner, Cormac, who had run the race before and we had a good chat through the campground along the flats (another panorama) and onto the huge ascent towards Emperor Falls.

The climb was pretty brutal to be honest, hundreds of switchbacks piled on top of each other through the forest, breaking occasionally for a quick section of heavily weathered and slippery rock underfoot before getting back into yet more switchbacks. Here I was caught by a couple of runners who I must have kept within 100m or so for the rest of the first half.

After we reached the Emperor campsite checkpoint (runners must have reached here by 3 hours to guarantee carrying on for the rest of the route), the trail turned into a rock and scree scramble for a couple of km as we traversed up the side of the river valley towards Berg Lake and the first sight of the Berg Glacier, glistening in the sunlight. The running was good and fast across the braids and flatter sections of floodplain, with the occasional undulation, but generally pretty speedy for the last 6km before the turnaround.

Berg Lake and Glacier rolling off the top of Mt Robson.  The race trail followed the right hand side of the lake in the forest.  Photo: facebook.com/mountrobsonmarathon
Berg Lake and Glacier rolling off the top of Mt Robson. The race trail followed the right hand side of the lake in the forest. Photo: facebook.com/mountrobsonmarathon

I picked up the pace through the forest alongside Berg Lake, the trail now cushioned and perfect for running (my feet, however, had already decided to fall apart with a few blisters). Campers who were just leaving for their day’s hike cheered us on as we passed through towards the Alberta/British Columbia border. It felt amazing.

Past Hargreaves Shelter, the race leader was running back towards me, so I knew I didn’t have far to go to the turn around. We exchanged congratulatory comments and carried on our way. A couple of minutes or so later, the second and third were through and before I knew it, I hit the turn around at the same time as the guy in 4th. We took in some jelly beans, water and m&m’s and took-off along the trail back to the start. I looked at my watch and we’d hit the 25km turnaround at the 2h15m mark. Awesome!

There was a big gap behind us, so I was confident in keeping running quick along the top before anyone else could catch up.

The spirit of the event was one of the best experiences I’ve had, EVER. Every single person (who wes still climbing up) said ‘well done’, ‘good job’ or ‘nice work’ to me, and I replied back with a message of my own. There wasn’t one person who didn’t say something positive (apart from the leading lady who I drew a blank with) and it was great to see so many smiles about the place. There was even a code of courtesy on the 1-man bridges; whoever got there second, waited for the first to cross, just like at a 4-way stop sign… incredible in the middle of a race really!! I don’t think any single person was unhappy, partly because the weather was sunny, but also that the environment was so crisp, air so clean and views so beautiful!

Berg Glacier, yes we ran past this on the run! - By Jeffrey Pang from Berkeley, CA, USA (Berg Glacier  Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Berg Glacier, yes we ran past this on the run! – By Jeffrey Pang from Berkeley, CA, USA (Berg Glacier Uploaded by russavia) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

After hightailing it along the forest trail, and across the open river bed for about 25 minutes I passed Caralyn on her way up, looking strong in the top few places on the women’s field. After a small descent through the scree traverse, Mel was there too; she’d made the time cutoff with ease, even after racing her first marathon 3 weeks previously and now taking on an epic ultra. Kudos!

Onto the switchbacks my legs started to falter. I started losing energy fast as each step zapped the calories out of me. Maybe I should have started eating sooner? Maybe I should have drunk more water? I didn’t think that I’d gone out too hard, I’d felt good at the start so went with the flow, but now started to get that horrible drained feeling… how long could I hold on for?!

Descending past the Emperor Falls I was still in 4th/5th position and had caught up my friend from the turn around after he took the wrong trail (twice!). However, that was all to change as the climb back up after Whitehorn finished me off, still with another 16km to go!

Emperor Falls, Mt Robson Ultra.
The race route passed the majestic Emperor Falls – By Jeffrey Pang from Berkeley, CA, USA (Emperor Falls Uploaded by russavia) CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0), via Wikimedia Commons
Caralyn on the river crossing at Kinney Lake.
Caralyn on the river crossing at Kinney Lake.

I held on for dear life at this point, trying hard to push 5 1/2 min/kms and trying to forget about by super sore and blistered feet too. Suddenly I heard footsteps behind me and sure enough, 6th place was passed with a blink of an eye. Mentally I found this quite hard to deal with. I’d raced this distance before at the Kepler, but hadn’t felt this drained. Could it be the altitude? Probably not as we weren’t that elevated, maybe I just crushed the first half too hard…

Still, the race against myself was on and I creeped along past Kinney Lake taking in my emergency gels… but couldn’t stomach them, not even the ‘maple bacon’ flavour. Water was the only thing I could take on board.

Keep going, keep going, keep running, no, no, don’t stop! What are you doing, keep going, yes, that’s it, run, run, legs, legs…

Putting on a brave face, trying not to die as I pass the 3/4 race mark. Photo: Beth Russell, facebook.com/mountrobsonmarathon
Putting on a brave face, trying not to die as I pass the 3/4 race mark. Photo: Beth Russell, facebook.com/mountrobsonmarathon

As I ran down the forested trail along the lower Robson River, another competitor passed me and said it was only 5km to go. I murmured something unintelligible back to him…and my legs simply couldn’t keep with him but my brain switched a gear and I perked up again. 5km, I can do this!!

I reached the trailhead and kept my cadence consistent, looking back every 100m for fear of another runner coming hurtling past, but it wasn’t to be. I was on the home stretch and loved the feeling of crossing the finish line in a very respectable 7th place. Wow, my body, what happened out there?

Collected my belt buckle and sank to the ground to watch the other competitors finish, applause for everyone (even the bear probably still hiding in the meadow). Caralyn finished a short while later in 5th female, an awesome result in a tough field filled with multiple Canadian and international mountain runners. Melissa also had an awesome race, finishing just over 7 hours in her first ever ultra and so soon after her first marathon!!

Caralyn finishing the Mt Robson Ultra.
Caralyn finishing the Mt Robson Ultra.

After Thoughts

All in all, what an epic race and weekend away in BC – don’t ever forget to play the pre-race ‘Darude – Sandstorm’ either… driving down the highway listening to this song really got the adrenaline pumping; the mist revealing the mountains one part at at a time as the sunshine bounced off the glacier above. Very surreal and overpoweringly majestic.

If I was to pick one weekend trail to hike or route to run, it would definitely either be this, or the Jasper Skyline. These two are totally out of this world routes. As for the race; I would definitely do it again (and even run faster too!).

Bonus: Here’s just a few of the things I heard during or after finishing the Mt Robson Ultra this year… and I’ll let you guess which one(s) I said:

  • “Good Job”, “Well done”, “Nice work”, “High five!”, “No, after you”
  • “I nearly made it to the car before vomiting…”
  • “That descent totally wrecked my legs and my feet.”
  • “Darude – Sandstorm.”
  • “Are you ok, can you walk?”
  • “Yeah these guys don’t look so ultra-savvy.”

(Hint: I downed a chocolate milk straight after the finish line as I thought this was a good idea…)

The Mt Robson Ultra race route elevation and my finish time of 4h33m (second half was more accurate as I lost GPS signal on the climb up through the valley).
The Mt Robson Ultra race route elevation and my finish time of 4h33m (second half was more accurate as I lost GPS signal on the climb up through the valley).