by Rhéal Poirier

Note: I apologize in advance for the horrible photos. I have learnt my lesson.  

August 20th. It’s just after 7:00 am. We’re parked in the Tim Horton’s lot in Morden (the starting point of our challenge) and all I can think to myself is “What the heck am I doing here?” No, I wasn’t kidnapped by the guys and forced to a death march. I had voluntarily signed up and was really excited to complete this challenge. I have run distances further than this before, I knew that I could do it. To understand the reasons why I was having second thoughts on completing the challenge we’ll have to travel back in time!

In the last seven months, my life has been transformed as my wonderful, beautiful, patient, intelligent, funny, talented, punctual, nice, hard-working and supportive wife and I welcomed our second daughter into our family. The little one is now seven months and our other daughter is three years old. I’ve also decided to change careers and am attending university after 20 years since graduating from high-school. These are amazing and crazy cool times in my life but it’s not the most conducive to preparing for a 90 km (55 miles) run. I was seriously under trained and sleep deprived for this event. The colour of my legs was proof of that. Think … vanilla ice cream.  

Waking up at 4:30 am to make it to Morden wasn’t all that great either. I have no idea how people do their morning exercise so early. Give me an evening run any day. Thank goodness Joel picked us up in Ultravan and I didn’t have to drive.

The trek to Morden was uneventful and we made it to our starting destination. Everyone entered Tims, a little groggy and a little anxious for today’s go-around. It was time for one last bathroom break and we would be ready to go.

I was thinking to myself that the forecast was promising for the day and the people I would be completing the challenge with were a good bunch of guys. I had gone distances with Joel and Alain many times and knew them well. I had only heard of the legend that is Dallas Sigudur through the running community and reading about his past endeavours online. From everything I knew he would be a good fit. When completing such an arduous task it’s important to have the right dynamic. I couldn’t have asked for a more generous, thoughtful and positive group of guys.

A selfie in a Tim Hortons parking lot with 4 guys about to start a running event.
Blurry photographic evidence of our start.

With the AM BM taken care of, the anxiety of the group changed to excitement. There were no time cutoffs to worry about and it’s way easier to get through tough patches when you have company. We had decided to stay as a group for the entirety of the challenge. That was enough for me to go from panic mode to “Let’s do this!” mode.

We made our way to Ultravan, made our final preparations (don’t forget to put anti-chafing gel everywhere), took our “starting point photos” and left the parking lot to begin our run southward. The Operation Muerto running challenge #3 consisted of starting at the Tim Hortons in Morden (photo op. #1), running to the shelter at Pembina Valley Provincial Park (photo op. #2), making our way to “The Cairn” off of #3 highway near Darlingford (photo op. #3) and making our way back to the vehicle. After all that running, we still had to find enough energy to drive back home to Winnipeg (did I mention that I’m glad that I wasn’t the driver and that I greatly appreciated Joel for chauffeuring us).

Let the Adventure Begin!

The first few miles are always a little rough for me. My body is always a little stiff and tight and I can never really get a good consistent stride. Running with a 12-pound pack on your back and skimping on training definitely added to the challenge of running. After five or six miles my body started to warm up and I felt like I would be able to conquer this challenge. We definitely weren’t going fast as a group (especially with all the photos being taken) but that was just fine with me. At about the seventh mile we hit Stanley Centennial Park, our first possible water/rest stop. This picturesque little park boasted a camping area, multiple play structures for the kids and areas for soccer, baseball. There was even a disc golf field. They also had bathrooms with running water which meant it was the perfect place to complete some “unfinished business” as we would not see another bathroom until we made our way to Darlingford (if we made it to the restaurant before it closed at 8 o’clock).

 

The journey to our first water drop was absolutely beautiful, especially in contrast to the flat prairie area where I grew up. The areas of land were broken down into one mile squares like the large quilt that blankets most of the prairies but the rolling hills made it feel like this part of the bed was left unmade. It’s an area that can give you the desire to take hundreds of photos of the rolling fields, with lush green trees and the bluest of skies with fluffy white clouds. I think it was Dallas who commented that it could have easily replaced the default “Windows” background on his computer. If the undulating hills and accompanying scenery weren’t enough, many parts of our chosen path for this challenge were peppered with plaques commemorating everything from post offices, villages, schools, churches and even the Boundary Commission Northwest Mounted Police Trail. My favourite of the bunch was one that commemorated the existence of a the districts of Alexandria and Elam with the image of an ox with his cart on one side and a 1980’s truck on the other. If there was a questionable reason to have a plaque along the side of the road there was one. It was a definite treat to read these little gems of history.

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Those rolling hills!

 

The weather conditions were perfect all morning and we were all surprised at how efficient our bodies were coping with the challenge so far. Things were going so well that instead of worrying about any aches or pains I was waving to all the people who drove by. I’m going to guess we saw about 40 vehicles during the entire day. They would all look at us funny. Slow down and then wave back. Only a couple of them didn’t wave. The other game to keep the mind occupied was to count the number of beer cans along the side of the road. It looks like this area is Bud Light country as some areas had a can every 200 metres.

Down and Up and Down and Up

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Our super secret water stash

At about 16 miles in we found our super secret water stash hidden in some bushes between two fields. These were strategically placed as to not be found by anyone passing by. I was quite happy that Alain had offered to drop off water the day before so we didn’t have to carry it all. He had even thought of putting a little note as to why the water was there and that we would leave only our footsteps behind, in case somebody did come across our stash.

We topped up our water bladders and bottles and began the next leg of our journey. We were quite surprised that we only drank about half of the predicted amount. With about one quarter of the way through the challenge complete we focused on our next goal which was to make it to the shelter at the Pembina Valley Provincial Park which (about six or seven miles away).

The park itself is on the other side of the valley which means you have to make your way down to the bottom of the valley and slowly make your way up to the other side. My legs were feeling great at this point so I decided to rip it down that valley. That’s probably the only time that I can honestly say that I ran a kilometre as fast, if not faster, than Steven Graupner (who is one of the province’s top trail runners and is usually way faster than me). I was running something to the effect of a 6-minute mile. The climb back up the valley was nice, smooth and slow. We made it to the shelter without any incident. With our first checkpoint achievement unlocked we took 20 minutes to take the mandatory photos, rest, refuel and readjust things in order to continue our journey with the goal of backtracking back to our same water stash.

Deep Fried Motivation

We reached the super secret water hideout and topped our water off. There was still lots of water left but luckily Dwayne Sandal was conducting a group run in Pembina Valley and was coming to pick up any leftover water from our stash (thank you Dwayne).

With our water needs taken care of the next leg of the challenge needed to be met. It was time to go north-west and find “The Cairn” at La Vérendrye Park near Darlingford. We had completed about half of our journey (just over a full marathon) and we had about a half marathon to complete before we would hit our second waypoint. Looking at the time, we figured we should be able to make it to the diner in Darlingford before it closed.

The pace of the group slowed down a bit as we were probably walking as much as we were running. Surprisingly my legs were still feeling really good at this point. The feet were starting to get a little sore from running on gravel all day but that was about the worst of it.

We made our way to “The Cairn” without much incident, quickly filled up our water, took the necessary photos and made our way to the unoriginal but aptly named Railway Diner in the small town of Darlingford. During this leg, talk (and sometimes motivation to keep going) revolved around eating the Pulled Pork Poutine that was featured on the diner’s Facebook page. With our run/walk pace we made it to the restaurant with a couple of hours to spare.

 

As we approached the building, we were greeted with odd stares. I don’t really blame them. We were 4 guys in backpacks walking toward their diner in a town with a population of about 300. We didn’t care about their stares, we were about to eat some greasy diner food! With about three quarters of our challenge completed we were all feeling quite good about our progress.

I was capturing our route (location and speed) as well as the photos all on my phone. When packing for this event I wanted to keep things light and didn’t want to bring a GPS and a camera. Using the phone, I could cut down on weight and still do all of the things I wanted to. Things were working really well but then I looked at my phone’s battery life. I had less than 10% left on my iPhone. My only hope at being able to take more photos and continue to track our progress was to charge my phone at the restaurant. I had left my charging cord in the van so I would have to ask the owners if they had the appropriate cable. It was a long shot but worth asking. When I finally waddled toward the till (the legs were getting a little stiff) and asked the guy behind the till he very proudly told me that “We are an Android environment here!” That was that. No more pictures. No more tracking our progress. That’ll learn yah!

In a way I was glad that I didn’t have to take pictures anymore. The front lens of my phone’s camera wasn’t working very well so I had to use the selfie camera to take all of my pics. This was a huge pain in the butt to try to position the phone with the right angle and still see what was on the screen. Next time I do one of these things I’ll bring a dedicated camera, bring a dedicated GPS or bring a phone with a way to charge the thing.

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Alain looked strong for the entire day.

Despite all of our previous talk, no one ordered the pulled pork poutine–we all had burgers and fries. The funniest part of the whole ordering experience was when Joel asked for chocolate milk, apple juice and a Dr Pepper. The reaction of the waitress was something to the effect of “You want all of that … all at once … you’re sure?” We then explained to her that we had run just over a marathon and a half and still had about another half marathon to go before the end of the day. Yeah, that made their eyes widen.

Go East Young Men

With our bellies full of carbs and grease we made our way about a mile north to the edge of town and then began the 13-mile journey east toward Morden. The majority of the last leg of our journey was spent walking. With about 7 miles left my legs started to tighten up. My best guess as to why this was happening was because temps were going down and our pace wasn’t keeping my muscles warm. My legs were starting to feel trashed but that didn’t really matter anymore. I knew that everyone was going to make it back to the van. Besides, the conversations had made the time fly by. We didn’t discuss any really big topics, we didn’t solve the world’s problems but we did share a bit about each other and enjoyed each other’s company in what turned out to be perfect weather to attempt this challenge.

We walked our final miles to Morden looking at an amazing golden orange moon (almost a full moon at that) and we walked south through town for about a mile before making it back to Ultravan. It took us less than 16 hours to complete the task. After a full day in the sun my legs looked less like vanilla and more like strawberry ice cream. The only thing that gave our group a bit of a scare was when a couple of dogs got a little too “up close and personal”. The smaller of the two dogs made a run at my legs but luckily it was afraid of the light from my headlamp and I was able to scare it away.

Final Thoughts

I’m sure a guy like Steven Graupner could finish it in almost half of that time but no one can take away our achievement of being the first runners to complete an Operation Muerto challenge. I firmly believe that with a bit of preparation and some training others will think about and complete the run portion of these challenges. If I were to do it all over again the only things I would change would be to train better beforehand, to pack more savoury foods in my pack and to do something about the whole tracking/picture-taking bits.

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What I was able to record from my phone (link to map).

I want to thank Joel Toews for initially getting things organized, Alain Dupuis for being the rock of the team and for taking care of the water. I would also like to thank Dallas Sigurdur for finding the right things to say to keep the group going and for lending me 20 bucks at the diner so I could eat that greasy goodness with the rest of the guys (I had forgotten my cash in the van). Lastly, I want to thank Hal Loewen for taking the time to think up of these challenges. I enjoyed figuring out the logistics and completing it.