On Your Mark, Get Set… (Strava CRs, dirtbags, and super humans)

running mountain

There were over twenty people out that evening, standing at attention at the base of a mile-long winding hill with an impressive gradient. The running group I tagged along with on this Thursday evening seemed a little more serious, a tad more focused, and not quite as social as the Tuesday Canmore Trail Culture (CTC) group I had been out with the previous week. This group referred to themselves as ‘dirtbags’ which, hindsight being 20/20, could have possibly served as some clue as to what the evening had in store.

When it was communicated that the workout entailed five sets of this beast of a climb at an 80 percent effort, I nearly choked on the tasteless gum I’d been chewing for the past hour. I scanned the group for reactions but no one appeared to be phased by the announcement. I then quickly did the math in my head and with a puzzled look on my face I questioned my addition and multiplication skills. Had I heard that right, were we about to embark on 16 kms of hill interval training at a near full on sprinting pace. Before I could even let that thought digest in my head and question what the hell I had signed up for, the friendly looking man sporting the spandex shorts in the -30 C weather began to count down from 10, and there really was no turning back at that point. The group seemed to huddle together a little closer and slightly crouch a few inches lower as if they were about to pounce on some unsuspecting prey. Wait a second…was this a race?! Why was that guy wearing spandex shorts in this weather (was there something wrong with him)?! Could I even run 16 k? And why would that nice lady with the eastern European accent from CTC suggest this to me?!

E. Woodrow (Woody) @ Lake Minnewanka. Givener’ in a Dirtbag like manner. Picture by M. Fitzpatrick (Fitzy)

I could feel the evolutionary flight or fight response emerge as I my heart began to pound, breath quicken, and hair on the back of my neck rise. As a competitive boxer for the better part of my life, I was much more used to fighting, but in this unique scenario running was shaping up to be what the ‘fight’ indeed was. I crouched along with the group, peered ahead at the ridiculous hill we were attempting to defeat, and braced myself for what was about to come. And just like that, as my frame of mind shifted, I too was ready to pounce alongside our heard.

The intense, but friendly looking chap with the nice smile and spandex shorts, was now shouting a little louder as the numbers wound down; three, two, one. There was no gun shot but the pounding of people’s feet on the pavement may as well have been. With the group tightly huddled around me, I picked up my feet; one step, two, three, four and before I even knew it my hands flew up in the air, body jolted forward and I, the new girl that night, tripped over what probably were my own feet, and landed flat on my face. I don’t recall anyone physically jumping over my body as I lay there, face pressing against the cold pavement, but I wouldn’t necessarily put it past a group like this, who instinctively, in an almost animal like way wanted to run, compete and push forward. And please don’t mistake the reference to these individual as animals in an unkind or insensitive way because the members of the group, albeit intense in a very Canmore way, are some of the nicest people I’ve ever come across. These folks aren’t truly ‘dirtbags’ as their name suggests, but people who live for the grind and are a representative sample of a prominent type of people who exists in the town of Canmore. I jumped back on my feet within seconds of the fall and from what I could tell, scraped hands and knees, ripped pants and a bruised ego were the only ramifications of the event. The friendly intense guy felt bad as he directed the group to ‘calm down’. I was pretty certain, however, that these folks could not be tamed.

Canmore attracts different people for different reasons. There’s those more free-willed folk who live here for the beauty of the mountains and the spiritual space it offers, those who come to play in the mountains, and those who come to play hard, like extraordinarily hard. Per capita, I can’t imagine a place in the world that has a denser volume of past Olympians, previous national team athletes, iron men and women, ultra-marathoners, world class climbers and bikers and the list goes on and on, all living in one small 11,000-person community. There is a culture of pushing physical limits and boundaries and if you are a ‘dirtbag’ type person, this push can be extremely contagious. If you want to go further, faster, higher find some friends from this town and I can assure you that if you’re open to it, you will be taken to places you’ve never imagined possible.

A note of caution however, if you choose to befriend these individuals, before you go to boast of your own achievements, know that the person you’re telling has probably ran eight 100-mile ultras, or competed at the Olympics, or represented Canada all over the world doing some insane sport. Of course, that’s not to say you shouldn’t share or celebrate your accomplishments with others, but these folks may not be the best group to compare yourself to. These significant accomplishments, by the way, you would never know unless someone else told you, as the athletes from Canmore are, generally speaking, some of the humblest people I’ve ever met. The humility here seems to be a sort of unspoken rule that has become ingrained into the culture. Although people don’t necessarily compete out rightly or against one another and talk about their achievements, believe you me, you have never met a similar middle-aged-ish demographic (who I’ve generally surrounded myself with) anywhere in the world who are as fierce of competitors as these folks.

Enter Strava, a Canmore athletes dream app. The perfect ‘silent’ mechanism to compete without ever having to open your mouth. An automatic upload from your wrist to the on-line community and bam; your distance, time, pace, and route or ‘segment’ accomplishments is out there for all to study. And while everyone is quite sincerely keen to support and ‘kudos’ the multiple activities folks partake in as the data becomes available, there is most certainly unspoken rivalries amongst ‘segments’ that people are itching to claim a course record (CR) on. There is no award, or medal, or material item associated with any of these achievements, just a pinky sized computer-generated crown shaped icon that appears next to an online profile. And although these little crowns may not seem like a big deal, in Canmore they can be weighted extremely heavily in certain circles.

The workout that chilly winter’s evening lasted over 85 minutes and by the end, although completely exhausted, there was such a sense of satisfaction to not only work as hard as we did individually, but also as a team and connected community with friendly pushes amongst each other along the way. It may be hard to rationalize or make sense of the willingness and reasons why ordinary people with jobs and kids and bills to pay, well past their prime and into the middle ages of their life, no longer with the nuggets of world titles or Olympic medals dangling ahead, to motivate them to do 90-minute hill internal training sessions in deep freeze temperatures or to compete for electronic crowns. And while these activities may appear outlandish to some, the point here is that these individuals have found something in their life that lights a fire in their belly, that motivates and focuses their efforts and gives them purpose. There are no right or wrong ways to find purpose, but I encourage you to find and invite it into your life. For some, it’s having children, others writing a book, signing up for a race, learning to dance or joining a team – it really doesn’t matter. So, go ahead, commit to something that’s meaningful for you because no matter how big or small, even if it’s a ‘worthless’ computer generated crown imagine, it makes life’s journey just that much more enjoyable.