Annually serving as the Canadian Long Distance Mountain Running Championship the 50K held at Kalamalka Provincial Park in the heart of the Okanagan is a wonderfully low key, well-run affair. Phil and Grace Hiom, the owners of Dirty Feet put together a year-round series of both trail runs and snow-shoe events throughout the region. Both Grace and Phil are accomplished runners and understand what it takes to put together a great race.
On race weekend runners have the option to select from a 50km, 25km, and an 8km event. For this recap, I will be focusing on the 50km. Since the 50km is two loops of the 25km course it can also serve as a review of the 25km event. The Kal Park course has elevation is around 1000m – 1200m per 25km depending on your GPS device, or 2000m – 2200m for the 50km.
The 50km event gets an early start at 7:00 am as the weather in the Vernon area can quickly heat up in early May. This typically plays a much bigger factor by the second loop. The course itself is really a tale of 2 halves played out over each 25km loop. Starting on paved trail racers start to quickly climb what is the first of two major elevation gains. The pavement is quickly replaced by smooth track trails that lead up to the first views of Kalamalka Lake and the gorgeous vistas that make up the Okanagan interior. From here it’s all buttery smooth downhill trail wrapping around the park to the back reaches. For those who can take advantage with quick leg speed, the first of three aid stations will be there before contestants know it.
At 12.5km, the course quickly changes. Replacing the smooth open trails are relentless switchbacks under forest cover leading athletes up to the second big climb. The winding trail is an exercise in mental focus to be able to maintain a good rhythm throughout this section. Topping out on the second climb runners are rewarded with a downhill bombing descent that is both technical and steep. The absolute polar opposite of the first long descent, this one will make participants pay if their feet aren’t light and quads seasoned.
Popping out on a fire road, the course begins a roll down this section for a brief respite before dropping back onto a single-track under the forest canopy. A quick view to the left allow runners will see both the enticing cool lake and the aid station down below in the distance. The second aid station is really the first aid station that does double duty. From here it’s just over 4k back to the start line to where runners get to do it all over again. Oh, did I forget to mention during this last section is the steepest, most exposed climb of the day? This climb can be a soul-sucking slog for those ill-prepared. Take advantage of that aid station to refill water despite the short distance to the finish line.
2019 was the third time I have run this race and as such I’m still figuring it out. To me that defines a good trail race – one that will always leave participants second-guessing their strategy and force them to adapt year in and year out. Success will come to those that can hold enough back during the first loop to really take advantage in the later stages of the race. Very few runners have negative splits on this course. If a runner can manage that, they normally count themselves towards the top of the finishers list. Prizing is awarded for the top 3 in both female and male categories. Since this is the Canadian Championship, awards include cash payouts.
Post-race activities are held at the start/finish line that is just a few steps away from the lake for those inclined to take a refreshing dip. With plentiful draw prizes and traditional ultra-race snacks, it’s easy to find competitors relaxing in the sun for a few hours cheering on all the finishers.
For those looking for a Canadian adventure outside of the traditional Vancouver, BC area, the Okanagan is a great place to explore!