One Hellish New Trail Race

In the trail running scene we racers are a finicky bunch. We are wary to try new races and courses, afraid that after all the training, tapering and money spent on travel we’ll be disappointed by a poorly organized race or inflated course expectations. Thus when race directors Ross Frazier and Dave Hengen sought to create a challenging new mountain trail race to attract high-quality trail runners to Fernie, BC they knew it might be difficult. Working on a modest budget and a break even point of only 25 racers, the race directors set out to attract attention, not through a lot of media hype, but rather by proposing one of the toughest, most daring 25km courses you can find anywhere in the country. The word soon spread through Canada’s trail running scene and Heiko’s Hellish Half was sold out a  few weeks before the start.

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Racers toe the start line.

Despite being the first year of the race, there were great expectations heaped on this race. Elite female and male racers were at the start line with hopes of cracking the three hour mark and setting the inaugural records for future years to beat. At the start line were winners of other notable races, such as Andrew Fairhurst (Cdn Death Race ’05 winner), Deb Russell (Iron Legs ’11 female winner), and Nadyia Fry (Calgary Half-marathon 2nd place female, Jasper Run-off winner).

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One of the many scenic views.

The race began up a remote mountain road approximately 30 minutes outside of Fernie. In order to simplify logistics the race directors organized a bus shuttle to take racers from downtown Fernie to the start line. Shortly after the buses arrived we gathered at the start line and headed off on the first edition of Heiko’s Hellish Half.

After a short flat double track section that spread out the runners, the course turned quickly into a technical single track trail with ladders, steep climbs, waterfalls and breathtaking views. Soon the relentless climbing began as we ascended first Three Sisters Pass, followed by Windy Pass and Mount Fernie ridge. The only relief I found from this technical terrain and uphill ascent were the short descents between the passes.

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Ascending the trail

When I had finally slogged my way up the long climbs (that later I wished would have taken longer) I paused briefly at the top of Mount Fernie ridge to prepare for what was touted as the steepest and longest downhill section of any mountain trail race, approximately 5,000 ft of descent. It was truly a leg numbing downhill as my legs outran my lungs and I wanted it all to end, but it just kept going down. Unless you live in a mountain environment I doubt there’s really any way to train for this type of downhill. I had to simply find a way to give my body over to gravity and hope my lungs didn’t explode in the process. Eventually my legs hit the flat ground and I slowly made my way across the bridge and through the finish line at Annex Park. A hellish twenty-five kilometres of extremely technical mountain trail running – done.

In the men’s race Andrew Fairhurst finished in a blistering time of 2:40 setting an impressive record for future challengers. In fact, according to one of the race directors Fairhurst almost outran one of the late course flaggers.  Matthew Murray (2:53) and Forest Latimer (2:59) rounded out the top 3 men all under 3 hours. Nadyia Fry captured the women’s race by over 16 minutes finishing in 3:11 over Deb Russell (3:27) and Abi Carswell (3:32).

For a race in its infancy all logistical matters seemed to go well, including the bus shuttle, registration, and awards ceremony. Flagging was well done considering it was such a remote course. Although more could always help as there were long sections without any flagging. Aid stations were nonexistent, so no real comment in that regard. Future racers should understand what they are undertaking and prepare accordingly. As someone who finished somewhat mid-pack I could have used more than the recommended two litres of water, while others said that two litres was more than adequate. Following the race, there was an awards ceremony at the Fernie Golf & Country Club including enough door prizes for just about everyone in attendance. With a successful first year of the race, the race directors said they would like to keep the race numbers relatively small while looking to attract more out-of-town and elite trail runners in future years. Considering how quickly well organized trail races sell out these days I’m sure you’ll have to register early next year to have your shot at completing Heiko’s Hellish Half.

~JS

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