“This is one of the tougher routes I run,” says Chris Humphries as we finish warming up. “The hills are killer, and they sneak up on you,” he says of the route that makes up Medicine Hat’s popular Conquer the Ridge half marathon.
The race is one of the last big runs of the year for Medicine Hat’s running scene, and is circled in pen on nearly every local runner’s calendar. Last year, it attracted 200 participants last year and is on track to reach its 300-runner maximum in 2017.
Humphries is no slouch so I pay attention when he talks about the challenge. This was already his second run of the day and he just finished working out one of his clients. He’s a Spartan regular and participates in races across Alberta. He knows a thing or two about tough runs.
Stretched out before us was a snaking, sun-soaked ribbon of asphalt rising slowly from Medicine Hat’s Gas City Campground, along a coulee to a ridge that traces the South Saskatchewan River Valley all the way to the city’s Echo Dale Regional Park.
At first glance the climb doesn’t look like much. It’s hard to shake the idea that you’re in the Canadian Prairie, which we’ve always been told is flat as a pancake. The truth is, you’re in the Canadian Badlands – a gnarly, rugged, epic landscape that rises and falls sharply, paralleling the New Mexico landscape portrayed in Breaking Bad (rattlesnakes and all).
So yeah, the hills sneak up on you if you don’t pay attention. They’ll conquer you if you don’t give them proper respect.
The sun is getting low on the horizon, giving us two to three more hours of the day’s best sunlight and respite from the heat, highlighting the rich reds and golds of the badlands landscape. The views aren’t bad at all.
Atop the ridge after climbing a 3% grade that has Humphries and I both muttering how we hate these climbs, we’re happy to have a gentle decline over the next four kilometres and views of the South Saskatchewan River Valley below us.
Prior to a regional discovery of seemingly limitless natural gas (now does the Gas City Campground name make sense?), the city’s early industry relied on coal mined from these same cliffs we’re now running atop. There is still evidence of coal mines scattered throughout the valley, with Echo Dale’s Ajax Coal Mine being the most visible example.
Ancestors of the city’s early industrialists tell stories of running dogsleds full of coal mined from the riverbank cliffs along the frozen river during the cold winter months prior to the discovery of essentially limitless natural gas.
It’s hard to imagine anything cold right now though. As we approach the descent into Echo Dale, the colours get even more vivid thanks to the setting sun. The path tracks a coulee that feeds into the larger river valley and cuts through the badlands cliffs on both sides of us. We have been warned to watch for snakes and as we run, we encounter three babies strung out along the path, soaking up the heat radiating from the asphalt. They slither into the grass as we approach.
As Echo Dale comes into view before us in an otherwise desolate valley, an oasis with two ponds and lush, green trees signal the turnaround point for our half marathon. Time to turn around and head back.
In the end, we conquered the ridge. It may be tough but it’s rewarding, and the badlands setting is one of the most unique in Alberta. Runners looking for one last good race before the snow flies won’t be disappointed to find themselves along the ridge in Medicine Hat.
This article originally appeared on zenseekers.com on August 15, 2017.