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Sinister 7 Ultra celebrates 10 years of adventure racing

Wednesday, 12 July 2017. Posted in Shootin' the Breeze

Sinister 7 Ultra celebrates 10 years of adventure racing
Ailsa MacDonald of St. Albert made Sinister 7 history on the weekend by being the first female soloist to ever win the race. Here, she accepts the goods to go along with her bragging rights from race director Brian Gallant.   Photos by Tyler Ryan

Sinister 7 Ultra celebrates 10 years of adventure racing

By Tyler Ryan

A decade ago, Brian and Sarah Gallant and Andrew and Erin Fairhurst decided to bring an ultramarathon to Crowsnest Pass.

Getting their race off the starting line a year later was much more difficult than they expected.

“We really struggled with the format, the name and how long [the course] should be,” Brian says.   

As they determined the logistics of bringing a gruelling, multi-part race to the Pass, inspiration for the name came from an unlikely source: a map.

“We tossed names back and forth and I just so happened to look at a map on my wall that said ‘the Seven Sisters Mountain,’ ” Brian says.

After reading something online that used the word “sinister,” he looked back at the map and “transposed sinister and sister.”

“I thought, ‘the Seven Sinister,’ but that didn’t sound quite right,” Brian recounts. “But ‘Sinister 7’? That’s exactly what we should call it.”

Brian ran the name by Andrew and it instantly stuck.

Andrew designed a course with seven different stages, where teams of up to seven runners could take on the newly minted Sinister 7.

“We just felt that we wanted to start an event that we could repeat year after year,” Brian says, after being asked about the differences between the Sinister 7 ultramarathon and the similar Full Moon in June race that required the organizers to find a new venue every year.

“We wanted to make it manageable and make it something that the community could look forward to every year.”

In 2008, the first Sinister 7 race attracted 160 participants.

Darren Froese came out on top that year with a solo race time of 17 hours 13 minutes 53 seconds.

Annie Rogochewsky was the first solo female runner to cross the finish line at 22:23:24.

The Fast Trax Run & Ski Shop team took top spot home with a time of 12:24:41.

Twenty-seven runners did not finish the first race.

As the years flew by, tweaks and changes were made to the course.

By 2014, Sinister 7 had officially become a 100-mile ultramarathon — equivalent to 161 kilometres.

Through word of mouth, the legend of the Sinister 7 Ultra spread like wildfire, and in recent years registrations for solo and team competitors have sold out within minutes.

A milestone race in 2017

This year was no different. Three hundred people registered in the solo category and 1,300 more registered among 205 teams for the 10th annual race.

Hundreds of volunteers were required along the route to assist runners and make sure everything ran smoothly.  

The Sinister 7 Ultra has built a reputation as one of the toughest ultramarathons on the planet for even the most experienced athletes, and this year proved the point — only 18 per cent of solo runners crossed the line.

The average number of solo finishes is 35 per cent but weather plays a factor.

In 2016, the average temperature was 20 C and 40 per cent of solo racers crossed the finish line.

This year, racers took off from Blairmore’s Gazebo Park at 7 a.m. Saturday, with 30 hours to run, walk or crawl the 100-mile course that boasted an elevation gain of 6,401 metres.

The average temperature sat in the mid-to-low 30s throughout the weekend. In some parts of the Pass, thermometers read 35 degrees.

The third leg of the race pushed runners through Willoughby Ridge and was considered the most difficult part of the race. Runners hit the ridge at 2 p.m. and the sun beat down on them from the highest point in the sky.

Racers traversed the area of the Lost Creek Fire that raged back in 2003. Brian says competitors were “exposed to the sun because there is very little tree cover and [racers] could go long stretches without water.”

Elevation gain reached 1,357 metres through Leg 3 and this — coupled with the heat — caused many to drop out of the race from exhaustion.

There was one unconventional remedy that apparently helped many racers make it to the end: pickles. Huge jars of them were added to the lists of supplies for aid stations.

“People found that eating pickles and drinking pickle brine helped their stomach, because they got a lot of gastro stress and may be puking a lot during the race,” Brian says.

Pickle juice can help alleviate cramping and nausea, he says, and pickles will most likely be included in future iterations of the race.       

However, pickle juice couldn’t help all the racers make it to the end. Several dozen dropped out of the race and received medical attention for dehydration.

“It’s not surprising,” Brian says. “I knew going into it that, despite preparations, people will quite often under-consume their water.”

Racers may underestimate the temperature, “and then suddenly, they realize they’re cooking.”

A few were hospitalized because they were dehydrated or incapacitated.

“We don’t allow people to languish in the woods,” Brian says. “As soon as we get a call or have an emergency, we’re on top of it.”

There were two bear sightings along the course, but the animal encounters did not result in an emergency.  

The champions

History was made this year when Ailsa MacDonald from St. Albert crossed the finish line.

With a time of 18:54:57, Ailsa was the first female racer to come out on top among solo competitors in all the years of the race.

She was followed by male solo runner Alex Petrosky from Edmonton in second (20:32:06).

Ailsa says being crowned champion felt “a bit surreal.”

“This was my first 100-miler,” she says, adding that the Sinister 7 Ultra was her biggest race of the year.

“I’ll give myself some recovery time and then ramp up the training again,” she says, mentioning that she has a 50-kilometre race in September.  

This was the second year that the Association of Canadian Ultramarathoners chose the Sinister 7 as its 100-mile Canadian championship race. Ailsa and Alex earned the distinction of being the top 100-mile runners in Canada.

The first time Sinister 7 Ultra was chosen by the ACU as the championship race, in 2015, Alissa St. Laurent and David Proctor achieved the same status.

Local racers had a very strong showing on the podium this year in both the solo and team categories.

Drew Sommerfeldt from Lethbridge was the last racer to cross the finish line. At age 65, Drew was the oldest solo competitor to finish the race.

He says he has competed before, in the fledgling year of the race and last year as well, but in 2016 he did not finish.

“It felt great to finish,” he says. When asked about how he kept himself going, Drew says, “I had a great crew who kept encouraging me.”  

The Sinister 7 Ultra is more than just a race; it’s a test of endurance, willpower, and “a mental game,” as Brian puts it.

“Say you’ve already run 100 kilometres and you have 60 more to go,” he says. “If you’re not feeling it or if you’re not in the right state of mind, you’re going to talk yourself out of continuing.”

Crossing the finish line is a major achievement.

For a full list of placings, please visit www.sinister7.com.

20170709 Sinister Seven Drew Sommerfeldt TR
Drew Sommerfeldt was the oldest soloist to finish the race.

Read more in this week’s online edition here.
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From the July 12, 2017 print edition of Shootin’ the Breeze.
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