Off the Beaten Path

Fol­low the Light

Canadian Running - - DEPARTMENTS - As told to Jes­sica Al­dred

When Eli Yon set out for his long­est-ever train­ing run in Al­berta’s Kananaskis Coun­try last March, his big­gest worry was whether he’d make it to the start line for Sin­is­ter 7, the no­to­ri­ously pun­ish­ing 100-mile ul­tra­ma­rathon through the Rocky Moun­tains. Only an hour from Cal­gary but home to dif­fi­cult, moun­tain­ous ter­rain, avalanche warn­ings and of­ten more bear than peo­ple sight­ings, Kananaskis was to be Yon’s ideal train­ing ground for what was sup­posed to be the big­gest en­durance test of his life. But when poor weather and bad vis­i­bil­ity threw him sig­nif­i­cantly off course on his way back to his car, Yon found him­self trapped in a far greater test of his men­tal and phys­i­cal en­durance – a 10-hour bat­tle with -25 C tem­per­a­tures, dis­ori­ent­ing dark­ness and his own dark wor­ries that he might not get off the trail – and back to his fam­ily – alive.

Ileft the house around 6:30 a.m. and started run­ning by 8. It was my first 50k . It was beau­ti­ful out, but cold, maybe -20 C. Through­out the day, though, the weather started to turn – fog and mist rolled in, then light snow. I hit the 47–48kilo­me­tre mark at the top of Ranger Sum­mit where I could get cell re­cep­tion, so I sent my wife, Bethany, a mes­sage that I was a few kilo­me­tres from the car. This was around 5:30 p.m. The sun was start­ing to go down.

Com­ing down the trail, it was over­cast and the snow was fall­ing hard. There wasn’t a pre­dom­i­nant marker say­ing, “OK, you need to go this way.” I went with the big path, and it felt like I was on the right track. I made my way back down into the val­ley and thought I must be close to the car. But there was a bridge that was not at the be­gin­ning of the trail­head from the park­ing lot. I de­cided to go up the trail to see if I could spot any mark­ers. I man­aged to get up the other side of the val­ley and that’s when I re­al­ized – I am not where I need to be.

It was now -27 C. I’d brought two phones, and tried to find gps, but in just one minute the cold froze one bat­tery, and then the other. That’s when panic started to set in. I thought, ‘I’m screwed. I’m not where I’m sup­posed to be; I have no means of com­mu­ni­ca­tion. And the sun had gone be­yond the moun­tain range so it’s get­ting a lot darker and colder.’

I started scream­ing. I hadn’t seen a per­son on the trails in 45 min­utes. My voice wasn’t car­ry­ing in the val­ley, even though I yelled at the top of my lungs for the next 30 min­utes. The sun was down, and the sky was still over­cast and get­ting re­ally

dark. Ul­ti­mate panic set in. I had noth­ing to light the way; I was a novice trail run­ner, and pack­ing for the day, I thought, ‘I’m go­ing to do 50 kilo­me­tres, and then I’m go­ing to go home.’

I tried fol­low­ing the track back, re­trac­ing my steps to the place where it went all wrong, be­cause ob­vi­ously I wasn’t in the right spot. I did this for an hour, and I kept go­ing up a big­grade el­e­va­tion. That’s when the men­tal games be­gan; I kept think­ing, ‘No, I’m walk­ing too far for too long with­out hit­ting the trail­head.’

I started sec­ond-guess­ing my­self. So I went back down to the val­ley, and that’s when the clouds started to dis­si­pate, re­veal­ing a nearly full moon. I was able to see. I got back up to the top of the val­ley, got my bear­ings and no­ticed far off in the dis­tance, over the top of the val­ley, a light. I fig­ured it was ei­ther a high­way or a park­ing lot.

I told my­self to just fol­low the light. I went down into the val­ley, and went to take the trail back up again, but I was ex­hausted. There were so many zigzags in the trail, it just didn’t feel right. So again, I went back down into the val­ley, and tried to get to as high a perch as I could. It was now around 10 p.m. I’d run out of wa­ter, and I needed to make a de­ci­sion: ei­ther dig a hole to make some kind of shel­ter, or just keep go­ing. I had no sup­plies, and no means to keep warm. It was at the third tra­verse of the val­ley where I fi­nally said to my­self OK, ‘ just keep mov­ing, and fol­low that trail un­til you find some­thing.’

I fi­nally found my way back to the trail­head. But I couldn’t see the trail­head map be­cause it was so dark. So I ripped it off the post, and looked at it un­der the moon­light.

I had taken a left turn when I should have gone right. But it was re­ally dark through the canopy, so at some point the only way I could gauge where I was was by feel­ing the firm trail on my feet. I kept run­ning into fresh snow. I be­came hy­per-fo­cused on just get­ting out, even though I had no idea where I was. I thought, “Just lis­ten to your breath, just con­cen­trate on that, and watch and feel your feet.” Luck­ily, each time I veered off, some­times by 20 m, I was able to get back on the trail. Then I heard the siren.

The trail sys­tem shifts and switch­backs con­stantly. With ev­ery sharp right or left, the siren would switch sides, in front or be­hind me. And then it would stop. But I re­mem­ber vividly when the siren fi­nally started get­ting closer. As soon as the siren stopped I started yelling, but when no­body re­sponded, I kept mak­ing my way closer.

I yelled out one last time, and that was when I heard my brother’s voice in the dis­tance. I started run­ning to­wards him. He came charg­ing down the path to­ward me, and about five feet away, he tripped over some­thing and rolled, and I just re­mem­ber him grab­bing my legs, and al­most burst­ing into tears as he called out my name. When I f in­ally t a lked to Bet hany, I just sa id, “I’m sor r y.” A few days later, look­ing at the map I re­al­ized that I’d cov­ered ap­prox­i­mately 90 kilo­me­tres over the course of 20 hours on the moun­tain. Look­ing at it and map­ping it all out was when the real ter­ror set in. Be­cause, look­ing at the map, and had no idea how, with no light source, and only a lim­ited amount of moon­light, I was able to get out of there. On July 7, 2017, Eli and his brother Levon com­pleted three legs of Sin­is­ter 7 de­spite peak tem­per­a­tures of 45 C in the Crowsnest Pass area that day. (The race is renowned for its low com­ple­tion rate, with only 18 per cent of solo rac­ers cross­ing the fin­ish line.) Eli in­sists it was a walk in the park com­pared to his night in Kananaskis.

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