Iron Horse Ultra: A Battle against our future Bovine Overlords

Iron Horse Trail


If you’re like me, your entire 2020 trail race season was thrown out the window about 6 months ago (welcome to day 192 of two weeks to bend the curve), so when I saw that Iron Horse was still happening this year, I was in.  I’d attempted it three years ago, at the end of a busy season, and dropped with shin splints sometime after km 100.  So older and wiser, I headed back up to St. Paul, Alberta to give this one another go (after swearing NEVER AGAIN!).

St. Paul you will learn is a ranching community, there are more cows then people (there are a boatload of cows).  This is not to dismiss the town.  It is situated on a lovely lake, and also boasts a UFO landing pad.  Since cannabis legalization in Canada, this seems normal.  The general terrain looks flat, with lots of rural roads, and fence lines.  Iron Horse is advertised as a ‘flat, fast’ course.  It can be..... or you can get lost on a trail or road, and add some difficulty (if you didn’t get lost on Iron Horse, were you really there??).


We stayed at the Canalta Hotel a few 100m from the start line.  Probably the only good decision that weekend!  Canalta hotels also have a 7 star clean program, free breakfast, pool, and a great rewards program.  This post brought to you by Canalta Hotels.  Canalta Hotels: our beds our better than the Galaxy Motel!  I digress.  

We drove the 9 hours from Fernie on the Friday, and upon arriving realized I left my camp chair for my wife (and myself at the aid station) in the shed back home.  I also realized I’d grabbed my wife’s shorts instead of my own.  So I’d be running in my back up shorts right away.  At least I remembered nipple bandages, forgetting those is a quick route to DNF land, as well as scaring the children, ‘Mommy, why is that bearded man lactating blood?’.  My nutrition plan is pretty simple.  A Boost nutrition drink at every aid station, and a cliff bar and gummies during each leg.  At least I had that right.  I also carb load and salt load the night before, so I can retain 4-6lbs of water.  I’m my own hydration vest.  Other then that, the game plan was to run the roads and flats, and walk the ‘other’ bits.  I’d dropped down to the 100k after being unsure if I’d have my wife with me, so I figured I could figure anything else out on the fly.



Rating (2/5). That’s second easiest leg if you’re keeping score.  It’s a cool 21km warm up)

In Covidland, my start time was between 7:20 and 7:30.  Near the back of the pack.  I think this helped with motivation early on.  The race starts at Reunion Station, and heads out briefly on the Iron Horse rail trail, before doing a victory lap through town.  From there you get to run the boardwalk by the river, and then onto a dirt road.  I was very prepared for this part, and knew to make time early.  These are the easiest km of the whole race.  I was able to pass a fair number of people in those first few km, and got to get a close look at the UFO landing pad.  Given aliens affinity for abducting cattle, this seems a logical spot (Skin Walker Ranch anyone?)

During the rolling dirt road, I ate my Clif bar, and choked down my water try to keep the pace under 5:00/km.  I knew what was coming.  While running along this gorgeous flat stretch of road, the course veers off the trail along a ‘game’ trail.  I have no idea if this area had every been run on before, but I could look longingly down at the dirt road running parallel to the bushwhacked game trail we were on, and dream of ploughing through km quickly on the road.  

The dew on the grass soaked my shoes and shorts, and I had to be careful to not go heels to Jesus on a downed tree of root.  Branches were scratching my face, and trying to follow the trail is a job unto itself.  Whoever designed the portion was a sinister individual.  I think they’ve seen the Barkley Marathons one too many times.  After several good and pointless climbs, I began the pointless descents. I’ve never been more happy to live in the mountains.  I was very prepared for these.  Just as I was getting tired of being cold and wet, the trail dumped us back onto the road, and the aid station.  Minimal damage so far.


Rating (3/5).  The middle easiest leg. 18km of good times.

I changed my shirt and hat at the aid station, but kept the wet shoes and shorts... I only had 1 pair of shorts unless I was going to defile my wife’s shorts😂.  Last time I ran leg 2 I got lost in the first 5k.  This time was no exception.  Leg 2 starts back on slightly more defined trail, as I made my way up and down a ridge, and possibly ORV or cross country ski trails.  I had planned to be careful in this part, so I would not get lost.  A few km in, we went down a small hill into a wooded area with a big gate and fence....and no directional marking.  This is not a bug, this is a feature of this race.  While the race directors try feverishly to keep the course marked, the cows and their alien overlords are constantly moving, and knocking down the markings. 

 After stopping for about 5 minutes and getting a group together, we figured out we had to jump the gate to continue on.  So after a little parkour session, we began mindlessly running up and down the overgrown hills, while trying not to roll our ankles in the cow infested marshes and bogs.  When I hit the plateau and ended up at a farmers field, I was relieved as the rest of this leg was on gravel road. Sweet sweet gravel road........

Have you ever run a 9Km road at a 1-2% incline?  It’s not good, it’s not bad.  It’s like the purgatory portion of the race.  You can’t go fast, but going slow is worse, and walking will destroy your soul.  I felt very lucky to catch a racer from North Battleford named Greg.  He was as chatty as me, so we were able to pass this portion like a kidney stone.  It was getting warm out, my shorts were still wet from the humidity in the bogs, and my shoes were gross too.  Thank the good lord the gravel road took us right to the aid station.


Rating (5/5). The least easy leg.   25km of.......27km of.....30km of dehydration.

Moose Mountain
At the aid station I was able to do a full gear change (except shorts).  I had bought some Sketchers GoRun Ultras that I had never worn before, and planned to use for the back 60km. Trail shoes were pointless now, and padding mattered to keep away foot and joint pain.  I dialed in my nutrition and hit the outhouse, only to make a shocking discovery.  My shorts had begun chaffing my manly bits (the scientific term).  Trouble ahead.

I pushed that all out of my head, and headed out on leg 3.  The beginning was very runable all the way to Moose Mountain, so I had to make up some time.  I passed Greg out of the aid station, and he was moving pretty good.  I was alone except for passing a few people, as I ran through well sites, and resource roads.  Finally, after a few km, I hit the road that would take me down to the base of Moose Mountain.  To access the mountain, you get to run through a farm, and run up the fence line. 

 I somehow ended up on the wrong side of the fence, and had to hop over the barb wire near the top.  The mountain doesn’t look like much, but it’s slow and rolly.  A person could lose a lot of time on this one.  When you get to the top, you turn right along the fence line and go up some more.  This area is packed with our future bovine overlords and their excrement.  Upon escaping from the clutches of the cows, I was confronted with ‘mean Dean’s Hill’.  It wouldn’t have been so bad if my feet weren’t covered in cow poop.  The climb was short and quick, and from the top, you could see the nice straight road all the way down to the lake.

  I took off.  Trying to keep up a fast pace, I followed the pink flagging.  A truck drove by my on the dirt road, briefly blinding and chocking me, but I was motoring.  I hit the main road at the bottom of the hill, and saw pink flagging in the tall grass on the other side.  I kept going hard.  This part was slightly better defined (which should have raised red flags).  Suddenly, I was at the lake, and the flagging ended.  I inspected the flagging in the grass, and it read ‘fence line’.......crap.  I had just added two km of downhill running.  I turned around and headed back, I texted my wife, I cursed the cows, I put a pox on the course markers, I gave the entire ‘I am fortune’s fool’ speech.  I was broken.  I’d wasted 20 minutes now and was lost.  Then I saw him, like Moses parting the Red Sea, Greg came running down the road towards me.  He was now lost too.

First '64' km
Luckily we were only a few 100m off course at this point, and we found the turnoff (right where the truck had blinded me) I was pretty bummed out, but Greg seemed pumped on adrenaline, and it rubbed off on me.  We finally hit the remote water station, and I’d been out of water for a bit.  I topped up, and we began another climb.  This was the last trail climb this leg, before a road hill, and a long stretch of the Iron Horse Trail to take up to Elk Point.  I lost Gregg on the climb.  Being from Saskatchewan, hill training isn’t as readily available apparently.  I could see him behind me though until I got to the Iron Horse.  Then I saw all the people I’d passed earlier.  I’d have to pass again.  I was starting to hurt a bit at this point, but I was more mentally broken from my detour.  When I’d pass someone, they’d look at me with a bit of déjà vu.  

Elk Point may as well have been a beach resort in Mexico.  It was officially my favourite place in the world at that moment.

LEG 7 (or 4)

Rating (1/5) the easiest leg

Second Part, missing 0.5km
I spent fifteen minutes in Elk Point wallowing in my sorrows.  I’d clocked 69.2km by that point instead of 64.  I’d blown my race, and it was just about trying to salvage my pride.  My wife and friend Joel were there, and really did a number to lift my spirits.  I decided to break out the music finally, and switch to my plan B, run two songs, walk a song, rinse, repeat.  After four reps of that, each walk break I’d drink some water, or eat a bit.  Solid plan B in my books.

I headed out on the Iron Horse trail, and had run an entire song before I realized I hadn’t turned on Strava (if it ain’t in strava it didn’t happen!).  I implemented my strategy of running and walking, and started to recover.  After a few km, I ended up on a rolly gravel and dirt road.  I was having 0 trouble running hills, and kept my pace going.  It was progressive uphill, but I knew the last 4km were back on the unrunable game trails, so I wasn’t worried about gassing, or blowing up.  I was becoming acutely aware however the the chaffing on my shorts was going to become an issue.  Blood mingled with sweat was starting to appear at the bottom of my shorts.  I did what any sane person would do, and tore the liner in my shorts.  It was nasty.  This is a glamorous sport.

I don’t remember the trail portion of this leg.  It could have been fatigue, or my bleeding man bits, but it went quickly.  There was a nice bog I remember, a couple of ticks, and lots of branches and thorns.  Ideal settings to suffer in.  But just as quickly as it started, it ended.  Happy hill aid station was just up the hill.  Life was good!
LEG 8 (or 5)
Rating (4/5) The moderately less easy leg
This is trail. I promise!
Happy hill was great.  Got in some calories, changed into my evening wear (I hoped I wouldn't need), and headed out.  There is a solid 6km of road to start this one off. It slightly uphill, and will slowly crush your soul.  I kept my run 2 songs, walk a song approach to chip away at the road, and before I knew it, I was running down the road towards the bush portion.
 This portion was not trail.  It was like an accident.  The Race director accidentally put some lines on the map, and the trail markers figured, 'what the heck, I guess we mark it?'.  It was dense, and aside from the trail markers, I was the third person to ever set foot on this patch of dirt and weeds.  It seemed to have no purpose other then to make us suffer.  Grass gripped at my shoes, thorns tore up my legs, and branches threatened to gouge my eyes out.  This was killing my pace, as the best I could muster was a walk.  After several km of this, I was finally dumped on the Iron Horse Trail.  Heavenly.
Now we could have taken the Iron Horse trail back into town, and all the way to reunion station, but you know what would be more fun??  If we handed a blind person some flagging and sent them off into the bush being chased by a pack of rabid coyotes.  This next km was the worst.  I felt like Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, where he is trying to get through the temple to the holy grail.  It was almost like moving in the direction you figures a man being chased by coyotes would go.  If they had posted a cryptic sign reading 'Only a leap from the Lion's head', or 'Only the penitent man pass', I would not have been surprised.  This section was tough cookies,  Then, the final climb up to the plateau was awful.  I was expecting a huge rolling stone to start chasing me from behind, while people shot blow darts at me. 
Luckily, the top was a plateau and a farm....and no flagging.  Which way do I go?  Left along the fence line, straight towards the house, or right, back into the bush?  Each of these would have made sense by this point, so I did what any sane person who was tired of running extra would do,  I ran to the left for a few 100 metres, then the right, the forward.  Nothing.  Then....I called my wife at Reunion Station.
She put one of the race people on the phone.  They explained where to go.  It made sense.  Go straight, and keep going.  The cows moved the flagging...again.....I'm having steak for dinner tonight in revenge.  The meat of this leg came next.  A long, long, long gravel road.  I kept the run two songs, walk a song going.  I didn't want to have to stop to put my headlamp on, so my running pace was still aiming for the 5:00min/km.  My walking was getting rough though.  The gravel felt like I was sliding backwards.  I was grateful for my thick soled shoes (or Thicc Bois as they are know on the internet).  My chest was starting to feel all the dust by this point, and breathing was hurting.  My shorts had gone into full cheese grater mode, but my legs were good. I kept clicking off km while trying to breathe deep, when finally, after what seemed like an eternity, the road bent.

And Suddenly....pavement.  It was getting dark, and I was running on the shoulder of a seemingly busy road.  I saw a set of lights up ahead.  Nothing like having to wait for the lights with 800m to go, but it gave me a few seconds to rest, and prepare to lay down a solid 'I've been running this pace the whole time' kinda pace to finish.  Once the lights changed, I took off....and overran the Iron Horse trail a champ.  Skidding, I turned around, and saw Reunion Station.  It was amazing.  Thanks to covid, there was a solid 6 people at the finish area.  It was epic.
  I ended the day with almost 109km on my 100k run.  It took 11:45 minutes, and burned almost 10,000 calories.  It turned my resting heart rate from 39 to 46.  My effort was good enough for third place.  I couldn't be happier.  The course is no joke, and not to be taken lightly.  This is possibly the most underrated ultra in Western Canada (I've run a lot of them), and I hope it continues to see the love it deserves post Covid.  After the last time, I said I would never do it again.  After this time, I'm saying the same thing.  But I have the memory of a goldfish, and really, what else is there to do first weekend of October?

If you enjoyed this, please subscribe to this, click a link (seriously, I may make enough scratch for a few Clif bars) or find my pointless wandering on Strava under Ghost Runner.


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