Kelowna runner finds niche in endurance running
High on a mountain ridge and draped in cloud cover, Stacie Carrigan and her fellow competitors couldn't see more than 25 or 30 metres in front of them.
So for much of the 11-kilometre stretch at more than 10,000 feet, the 31-year-old Kelowna woman and four other runners formed a partnership, both for their safety and to stay on course.
The temporary merger between athletes proved successful, as Carrigan went on to complete Lesotho Ultra Trail, a 55-kilometre endurance run through the backcountry of the small and picturesque African nation.
Carrigan finished third among all women racers in seven hours 23 minutes.
Of her six trail runs in 2013, Lesotho stood out as the most eventful and awe-inspiring of all.
"That was the first time I ever came across a situation where people in a solo sport had to work together," said Carrigan. "When we ran into the cloud, you couldn't really see the markers and you could understand how easy it would be to get disoriented. So we formed a line and got back on track. Because you are up so high, it's pretty unnerving.
"But the overall experience of running in those mountains was amazing," she added. "It's like nothing I've ever done before."
The fact that she would be running along a mountain ridge in a small country inside South Africa last November would have been pretty much an unthinkable scenario to Carrigan only a couple of years earlier.
Raised in Osoyoos, Carrigan never really took up running seriously until 2011.
That October she finished third among women racers at the BMO Okanagan Marathon in three hours 20 minutes.
A year later, she lopped seven minutes off her previous time to finish second at the 42.2 km Okanagan race.
While Carrigan insists she wasn't a strong athlete growing up, she clearly possessed an aptitude for running.
"I just really like the feeling of getting out there, getting away from the real world and just being in your own headspace," she said. "I didn't grow up being overly competitive, but I have to admit when I started doing well at races, that kind of helped drive me. I enjoy being outside, the training that's involved, and I like the sense of challenge and accomplishment it all brings me."
By 2013, at the urging of fellow Kelowna ultra runner Mel Bos, Carrigan decided to put her passion and natural abilities to the test with trail running.
And following her first race last March, the Chuckanut 50k in Washington, Carrigan had officially caught the ultra trail bug.
She went on to place 13th at the world 50-mile trail championships in Wales in July, captured the Canadian 50 K trail championship in Ontario in October, and set a new national record at the 50-mile distance.
And on a list that includes British/Canadian ultra running legend Ellie Greenwood, Carrigan posted one of the fastest 50 km times in Canada last year.
Endurance running coach Ryne Melcher, who has been working with Carrigan for the last year, said the Kelowna athlete's rise to prominence on the trail running circuit is nothing short of impressive.
"She certainly had talent to begin with but like any elite athlete she's put in the time and work to take things to the next level," said Melcher, a former competitive endurance runner. "For someone who is quite new to the sport, she's done remarkably well. She's very focused and organized and improvement curve has been pretty amazing.
"She aimed to get to a world championship and did well, she won the national 50 k, she won a 50 miler and set a national record," he added. "She's knocked them all right out of the park."
Melcher was also impressed with Carrigan's latest performance at the Lesotho Ultra Trail in November, a race that features a vertical ascent of more than 10,000 feet (3,173 metres).
Included on this diverse trek was open grass running, rocky trails, dirt roads, jeep tracks, stream crossings, loose rock, and both steep ascents and descents.
To take on the physical demands of running at a high altitude, Carrigan did some pre-race preparation in a hypoxic chamber located at UBC Okanagan before leaving Kelowna.
With the help of Dr. Phil Ainslie, a professor of health and exercise sciences at UBC Okanagan and co-director of the Centre of Heart Lung and Vascular Health, Carrigan spent several sessions in the chamber to help her body adapt to the lower oxygen levels she would encounter in Lesotho.
"Many athletes use this method to help them train and prepare for competition at high altitudes," said Dr. Ainslie, who has done extensive research on the subject in Pakistan and Nepal. "You pump in reduced levels of oxygen to help the athlete acclimatize. (Stacie) spent three to four hours in the chamber for about seven to 10 days before she left. It enabled her to be better prepared for the challenges of competing at a high altitude."
During the first couple of sessions, Carrigan said she felt somewhat lightheaded and experienced rather intense headaches.
But after a few days in the hypoxic chamber, her body began to make the necessary adjustments.
"For the last few sessions, I felt pretty much normal," she said. "I believe I could have become quite ill without if I didn't prepare my body for it. When we got there, about three days before the race, I spent some time at 6,000 feet and felt pretty good. During the race I didn't really have any problems with breathing, so I think it was quite useful. I was thankful to have had the chance to do it."
As much as running is the focus of each event Carrigan attends, the experience of seeing other parts of the world is an added benefit.
Such was the case when she and Ryan Melcher made a stop in rural Lesotho.
"I was really fortunate to be able to go out into the villages and meet some of the children, they were really wonderful," she said. "I love the travelling aspect, to see other countries and cultures. That's the definite bonus to what I've been doing."
While trail running was Carrigan's focus in 2013, the Kelowna athlete will be putting her shoes back on to the road in 2014.
She will be competing in her first Boston Marathon in April. And, if all goes as planned, Carrigan will enter her first ever 100 km World Championships for road running in Latvia this August.
Based on ability, drive and record of success in a short time, Ryan Melcher says the sky is really the limit when it comes Carrigan's potential.
And while she hopes to continue to develop her craft and win more races in the years to come, Carrigan simply plans to take running and life one step at a time.
"To hear that people peak after five or six years of endurance running gives me hope that I will still be able to do this and be strong for a long time to come," she said. "What I did this year makes me wonder how much further and faster I can go.
"But I still like to take it one race at a time and just enjoy it. It's what I love to do."