Amber Rollack runs leg 3 of the 2022 Sinister 7 100-mile relay.

It’s Sinister 7 this weekend; here’s why so many Sask. athletes love the race

As July 8 approaches, many Saskatchewan trail runners are readying to test their mettle at the Sinister 7 Ultra, which kicks off each year in Crowsnest Pass, Alta.

The challenging event — which offers 50-kilometre, 50-mile, 100-mile and team relay options through the Rocky Mountains — is credited for creating lifelong friendships and converting ardent road runners into trail runners.

This week, the Brainsport Times spoke with some past and present participants about the allure the race holds for Saskatchewan runners. Read all about it in their own words — and get ready to add this race to your bucket list.

Charlotte Brockman
Charlotte Brockman will line up at the Sinister 7 100-mile relay this weekend.

Charlotte Brockman, who moved from Saskatoon to the Northwest Territories in 2022, is running the 100-mile relay this weekend on a two-person team with her sister, Nancy. “My favourite thing about this race is the atmosphere, camaraderie with other trail runners, and the biggest reason – the large contingency of Saskatoon runners,” she says.

Getting started: The first time I ran this race was in 2017. I had only run two ultras before this and none in the Rockies. I had only just realized the previous fall that Saskatoon had a large contingent of trail and ultra runners – I had known many from road running groups, but it wasn’t until Beaver Flat in 2016 that I realized “my people” were in Saskatoon! Theresa Reid-Shea had started a Friday Night Light informal running/ beer drinking weekly event in her preparation for one of her years running Sinister 7, and through Beaver Flat 50, I was introduced to Friday Night Lights and an incredible running community. After driving home from that first Sinister 7 in 2017, I knew I was hooked. I got home and searched for another ultra that summer that I could get into last minute – I ran Blackspur 108km that August and placed first female (which is just pure luck and an indication of how inspired I was at the time).

What she’s looking forward to: I am most excited to just be back in the mountains running with friends! I don’t get much opportunity to run in the mountains or with my Saskatoon running tribe now that I’m living in the Northwest Territories. I’m super excited to push my body with some vertical! I’m excited for all the high fives and smiles from so many like-minded humans. I love running this race as a two-person team as I can get in over 70km of mountain trails, (legs 1, 2, 6 and 7) but also get to cheer, crew, and spend time at transitions with many of my favourite people. Best of both worlds!

Memorable moment: To me, it’s about the whole experience of the journey – not just the event, but all of the memories with “my tribe”. There was a couple years that S7 put on a pretty laid back and informal training weekend in June, and a few of us would carpool down, share accommodation, have dinners at the rumrunner, and log a lot of kilometres in a short weekend. I would then run into some of the non-Saskatoon runners at Sinister 7 or other races and you just want to cheer on these familiar faces and see them accomplish their goals. Everyone is there for many different distances, different goals, different experiences, and yet we are all in it together and have an innate understanding of why someone would pay money to go and suffer physically for a couple hours to over a day.

Mandy Currie at the Black Spur Ultra.

Mandy Currie is sitting out Sinister 7 this year due to other race commitments, but she has several Sinister 7 finishes under her belt as a relay team member as well as a soloist in the 100 miles and 50 kilometre events. She keeps making return trips because she loves the energy watching people chase down big dreams.

Getting started: A friend asked me to join his team in 2011 after injuries left him short two runners. I had recently run my first half marathon, and agreed to run leg 4, which at the time was 34km. He educated me on hydration packs, nutrition and Garmin devices. All I remember was trying not to get lost, and smiling the entire time. I was hooked after this experience! We camped as a team of seven so I got to know all of my teammates and their spouses. The connections I made on that team led me to my career as a registered nurse in the PICU, and fuelled my love of trail running. I met some pretty incredible soloists (including Lori Soderberg) in 2011 and I believe they were my inspiration to try the 100 miler for myself years later.

Memorable moment: I watched a young woman finish this race in 2016. I stood at the finish line and caught myself crying as I watched a stranger finish 100 miles. Her mom was there supporting her, and she looked like she worked so hard to get to that finish line. In 2021, I met her half way through the race. We had a brief conversation about how it was getting dark, and decided we would head out on the next leg together. We stuck together for the remainder of the race and crossed the finish line as a unit. You really get to know someone spending hours on the trail, and it was fun to share my memory of watching her in 2016.

On why this race is so popular with Sask. runners: I think this race is a gateway to bigger distances. Runners usually join a team and have a really positive experience. Sinister 7 has now added additional distances (50km, 50mile) so it has made the race more accessible to many. It’s also a reasonable distance to travel from Saskatchewan, and there are affordable options for accommodations- camping!

Amber Rollack runs leg 6 of the 2018 Sinister 7 relay.
Amber Rollack runs leg 6 of the 2018 Sinister 7 relay.

Amber Rollack is running the 100-mile relay this year as part of a seven-person team. This will be her fifth time tackling the 100-mile relay. “I can’t recommend this event enough,” Rollack says. “There are lots of Saskatoon and Saskatchewan runners with experience at this race, so if anyone is curious and has questions, reach out to your local running community or any of the Saskatchewan social media running groups. Anyone who has run this race, will gladly answer your questions.”

Getting started: Coincidentally, I had prior training partners from my time as a Huskie track athlete and a co-worker who were both part of the same 100-mile relay team (my track and work world collided). Hearing how a hurdler and a sprinter both evolved into long distance trail runners and talked about nothing but an amazing experience from this event had me very curious about the race. I offered myself as an alternate to their team and when one of the runners (my track friend) couldn’t run, I was invited to run in her place on the team. So my first experience with trail running was running leg 7, in the middle of the night. It was nerve racking and exhilarating. I made a classic error of following another runner and stopped paying attention to the course markers. We went about 1.5 km off course before the trail we were on dead-ended and we had to back track back to the marked course. Despite this, I was hooked on trail running.

Why she loves Sinister 7: It’s this crazy community that combines running trails with amazing mountain views, and a party atmosphere. It can be a gruelling suffer-fest, but we are all in it together. Trail runners are always looking out for each other. I have had to stop to stretch out muscle cramps on the side of the trail and, without fail, every runner that passes will take a moment to stop (literally bend over and look you in the eyes) and ask if you are OK. They are willing to sacrifice their own race to look after you. The volunteers are nothing short of amazing, since they are often hydrating, feeding, and helping to tend to minor wounds (all while stationed at some remote spot in the wilderness, where on occasion they also have to scare off a bear).

Memorable moment: My favourite was the year I ran leg 6. It is the longest (31.9 km) and the toughest leg with the greatest elevation gain (1400m). I started my leg at dusk, around 10 pm. I was anxious about how hard the leg was as you essentially run around the far side of Crownest Mountain and the Seven Sisters. Pair this with running at night and the always present fear of encountering a bear. I was about 12-14 km in, when another runner caught up with me from behind. He ran with me for a bit and I learned he was a 50-something-year-old runner, Dragomir, from Edmonton, originally from Croatia. We found comfort running together in the middle of the night, so we decided pretty quickly that we should just stick together for the rest of the leg. We both had hard moments during the second half of that leg, but when I was down he was up and would push me to keep going, and vice versa. We are still friends to this day, and stay connected via social media.

On why this race is so popular with Sask. runners: Part of it would be the convenience, in that it’s one of the closest mountain ultramarathons for Saskatchewanians to travel to. But, once you go the first time, and see how organized the event is (Brian Gallant, the race director, and his team do an amazing job), the electric atmosphere created by all the runners, and the simply spectacular mountain views, you’re hooked. Over time, word has gotten around in the close knit Saskatchewan running community about this race, which draws in new runners and teams every year.

Theresa Reid-Shea at the beginning of Leg 6, "the gateway to the pain cave."
Theresa Reid-Shea at the beginning of Leg 6, “the gateway to the pain cave.”

Theresa Reid-Shea will be running the 100-mile relay this weekend on a three person team. She first ran the event in 2014 and hasn’t missed an event since.

Getting started: A fellow Saskatoon runner was looking for a teammate to run Leg 7. I had not run trails much before, and had zero experience with mountain trail running. The leg was only 11 km, and so I confidently accepted. Little did I know, I was in for a rude awakening and an experience that would test my limits far more than I had imagined. I was completely unprepared, and I had no experience running at night and didn’t even own a headlamp. Reviewing the information ahead of time, I estimated my teammates times based on what I knew of road racing. On race day, by mid-afternoon, to my dismay, it became apparent that S7 kilometres are NOT like regular road kilometres. It was inevitable, I would be running in the middle of the night. My anxiety spiked. Sure enough, after midnight, for the first time in my life, I ran off into the darkness of steep and challenging mountain trails with only a small headlamp to light my way. Those 11 km pushed me well beyond my comfort zone. I was hooked.

Why she loves Sinister 7: Personally, I love this event because the weekend leaves me feeling hopeful and optimistic. It is a chance to reconnect with familiar trail friends and to make new ones. I love witnessing the determination, grit, and bravery of my fellow trail runners. When you are out on the course, every person you encounter would not think twice about stopping to help a fellow runner in need, whether it is to offer food, to give them electrolytes, provide first aid, or give them a pep talk when they are feeling down. The S7 course is no joke, it is tough, yet facing the challenge with other people really binds you together.

For me, S7 is an experience more than it is a race. The experience never fails to be a wash of emotions. People leave their blood, sweat, and tears on that course and every time I leave the event, I feel so inspired by the participants. The event renews my passion for running and reminds me why I love the trail running community.

I surveyed a few friends who are also hooked on S7:

Chelsea Hardy has been a team lead many times. She loves the level of logistics and organization that go into the race. She was hooked after her first year, when she watched a soloist finish at the last hour. The finish line is an emotional rollercoaster of highs and lows as you watch people push through pure exhaustion to be rewarded with the pride of finishing such a daunting feat, 100 miles.

Curt Halpenny is impressed by the sheer scale of the event, both the terrain and the manpower (staff, volunteers, and community support) that go into planning an event of this scale. He feels rewarded when he is able to be a small part of that.

Finally, Darren Dyck appreciates how there is a level of challenge that is safe for beginners to the most extreme of runners.

Our Saskatoon cohort seems to prominently represent our province, perhaps due to our resourceful mindset. We seem to be able to adjust our plans regardless of the conditions the race throws at you each year. Saskatchewan runners are just very good at improvising. We find appropriate training grounds to get in a bit of elevation and we push through long runs in bitter winter conditions, all of which make race day conditions less of a problem.

Memorable moment: It is hard to narrow it down to just one memorable event, because every year never fails to produce powerful memories. However, if I must pick just one, it would be last year (2022) at the finish line when I watched my good friend, Brent Senger, cross the finish line. For numerous reasons, he went into the event as an underdog, and he had more than a few people doubting his ability to finish all 100 miles of the gruelling course. He finished it and I was so proud! I felt like my heart was going to explode; that is a moment, and a feeling, that I will never forget!

On why this race is so popular with Sask. runners: Saskatchewan athletes have a couple of things going for us. We have to go out of our way to strategically plan how we will get in all the training and the elevation. Often this results in runners planning group runs on the weekends to places like Blackstrap Provincial Park or Saskatchewan Landing (Beaver Flat 50 course). These group running opportunities have been such an asset when growing the trail culture in Saskatoon. In Saskatoon we are blessed to have a vibrant and active group of people who are interested in trail running and these types of events. The energy is contagious and it seems that once people start coming out to be part of the Saskatoon trail running community, they catch the ‘S7 bug” and the rest is history.

Lori Soderberg (second from right) at the 2022 Sinister 7.
Lori Soderberg (second from right) at the 2022 Sinister 7.

Lori Soderberg will be running the 50-kilometre race at Sinister 7 this weekend. She’s made several previous trips to the race, both as a solo competitor and relay team member.

Getting started: I first took on the Death Race (which is also run by the Sinister Sports group that puts on Sinister 7) solo, and from there was hooked and heard many great things about Sinister. The community and organization of this event is truly incredible. I love running trails, and better yet signing up with friends to take on these crazy adventures together.

Recommended reading: If trail (or running, adventure, etc.) is your vibe, I’d highly recommend reading “Solo: What Running Across Mountains Taught Me About Life” by Jenny Tough. I’m half way through, and one of my fav takeaways so far is adventure is that place at the edge of your comfort zone. I’ll always be grateful for the many places to run in Saskatchewan, and for me running in the mountains is that extra edge!

Celeste Cross Child at the 2022 New York City Marathon.
Celeste Cross Child at the 2022 New York City Marathon.

Celeste Cross Child is making her Sinister 7 debut this weekend and will be tackling the 50-mile distance, which will mark her longest-ever race. “I’m so excited to try this event and a new distance. I think it will challenge me in a completely new way,” she says. “And hopefully (there will be) no horse flies chasing me.”

Getting started: I had heard about (the race) for years. It has a catchy title. I also follow it on Instagram. Back when my kids were younger I had heard of the Canadian Death Race (which is operated by the same organizers) and thought that sounded cool. I registered for the Sinister 7 50km last year, but decided to do some track meets instead. So this year I signed up again. I originally signed up for 50km, but have done three 50km before so thought I would try the next longest distance.

On why this race is so popular with Sask. runners: We like to push ourselves and have so many trails to run on and train on, yet not too many trail events. Plus, Saskatchewan athletes love to experience the mountains. Also, Sask. athletes are tough — and for this event you need to be tough!