I live in Ontario and one of my big goals is to get ready for mountainous trail races. When I tell people I’m into mountain running, the typical question I get is: where do you do that when Ontario doesn’t have any mountains?
The highest point in the province, Ishpatina Ridge, is 693 meters above sea level. It also happens to be about 450km away, as the crow flies, so I might as well drive to New York. The photograph in the header of this blog is from Silver Peak, which is 539m above sea level. It’s a bit closer than Ishpatina, and it’s certainly the best approximation Ontario has to mountainous terrain. Unfortunately, it’s still fairly inaccessible for training purposes: on the north shore of Lake Huron. The closest major geological feature is the Niagara Escarpment, but the closest ski area on the Escarpment to me only offers ~70m of vertical. I’ve skied, hiked and ran there, and it’s not really a mountain in any sense of the word.
So how do I get my legs strong enough for running a route that involves kilometers of ascent and descent? I get as fit as I can, and do many repeats of smaller hills.
Last Thursday, I hopped in the car and drove out to a McLennan Park. This park was previously a landfill and has since turned into a tobogganing hill and park. Locally, it’s referred to as Mount Trashmore. It actually has some pretty nice views from the top, being one of the higher points in the surrounding area. I meant to take some photos, but the wind was gusting upwards of 60km/h with snow blowing sideways. In general, things weren’t very pleasant out there, and I really didn’t want to stop for selfies.
This is my first Repetitions post - I’m going to split it into 3 sections: a bit of history, a runner’s perspective on the area, and some positive memories.
The park was previously the site of a landfill, which opened in 1958. The landfill closed in 1973, when the Region of Waterloo took over waste management from the City of Kitchener. Managing the site involved quite a bit of effort on the part of municipal governments. Various strategies were employed trying to reduce the odour: filters and charcoal pellets scattered around venting sites, but the scent persisted and locals dubbed the hill Mount Trashmore. The decomposing garbage posed other difficulties: houses and a neighbouring school had to be evacuated due to dangerous levels of methane being detected.
In the early 2000s, both the city and the region collaborated to create a park on the site. This was largely the result of efforts by Tom Galloway and family, with large levels of community support. Construction began in 2007, and occurred over two phases. The official opening was 2011.
In general, the park is quite large - occupying 96 acres of land. It includes a splash pad, skate park, off-leash dog park, volleyball, and basketball courts. Interestingly enough, there is also a downhill mountain biking park, complete with dirt jumps, banked turns and various wooden structures. While I’m sure mountain bikers frequent the bike park, I’ve mostly seen remote control car operators using the space. The park also hosted a music festival, with headliners such as Aerosmith, Moist and Big Wreck. The two biggest draws seem to be the dog park and the tobogganing hill. Most users I encounter walk through the park to the top of the hill for the views of the city. As one of the higher points of the city, the views can be quite good. When there’s enough fresh snow, it’s a fairly common site to see families using the tobogganing hill for it’s intended purpose, and I’ve encountered the odd snowboarder trying to get some turns in.
Immediately adjacent to the park is a small Catholic elementary school, and the park is connected to a couple of other parks via a hydro corridor. Parts of the hill are left as natural meadow, but by and large the surrounding area is grass.
In 2014, in the lead up to hosting a large music festival, methane was discovered building up under the grass of the park. The city moved to fix the build-up, which involved tearing up the grass and putting down wood chips so the festival could go ahead. Over the course of three years the wood chips rotted and the lawn became a mess. In 2017, the City of Kitchener and Region of Waterloo moved ahead with a remediation project costing 2.6 million dollars. As of August 2018, the lawn reopened for public use.
There are a series of paths that surround the hill. Doing a loop of the hill roughly works out to a mile. Warming up for a workout usually involves 20-30 minutes of light running and doing 3 loops gives me a pretty tidy warm up.
Ok, so here are the numbers: according to Strava, one trip to the top from the closest parking lot is 26m of climbing. The hill has a number of options for ascending and descending, depending on what I want to work on. The tobogganing hill is ~11% average grade, 160m long and roughly similar to a ski hill. There’s a runnable gravel path up the bike park, which is 300m to the summit and about 10% average grade. If you keep going to the opposite corner, the descent is 500m to the garbage bin at the entrance. The return run starts steeper than the bike path, but there’s more flat across the top. I think the whole climb averages out to about 5%. There’s a path that runs around the back of the hill that’s 700m-800m, that’s a little more generous with an average grade of 1-2%, and a max of 8% on the final push to the peak.
Ok, so those are the numbers. How do I use it?
Regular hill repeats are easy to plan out using any of the climbs that I’ve pointed out above. Hilly mile repeats are pretty easy to plan out going from the bike park sign to the opposite corner over the top of the hill. Short uphill sprints are great on the tobogganing hill, and I’ve also done continuous efforts with uphill hiking and running downhill. I’ve also used the park as a turn around point for long easy runs, to mix in some repeats for variety.
With the long runs, the most important thing to note is that the park has both a splash pad and a washroom. When it’s hot, it’s convenient to cool off, and as other runners can attest to, it pays to know where bathrooms are along a route.
As a sample, here’s last Thursday’s workout:
It’s a lot of running in a pretty small space. This workout was 3 miles warm-up, 10 repeats of the bike park path to the top, with gentle running down, and 3 miles cooldown. The outer loops are my warm-up and cooldown, and the inner spike is where I ran hill repeats. I parked at the base of the bike park, so I was never far from the car if I needed to warm up at all, or get some water from the car.
It’s not just the ability to do workouts that bring me back to the park. I’ve had some very pleasant experiences in the park since moving to Kitchener. In general, park users all seem pretty happy to be there. I can’t say that I’ve ever had a bad experience; dogs are usually on leash, and while I may have disappointed some couples that were there for some time alone up top, they’ve never been rude. I remember one time someone’s kid decided to run uphill with me for a while, which was actually kind of adorable.
Some weeks, I find myself in the park in the evening, and running to the top of the hill provides you with excellent views of the city. With the way that Kitchener-Waterloo is spaced and laid out, it’s rare to have unobstructed views towards the horizon. When the weather gets nicer, it’s pretty common to see photographers and families enjoying the view from the top.
I’ve also been in the park in some pretty terrible weather. And there’s something to be said for being out in those kinds of conditions too. One of my favourite early runs in Kitchener was after I abandoned a long trail run due to icy conditions. Instead of slipping and falling, I ran out to McLennan via the Iron Horse trail and Ottawa Street. It was foggy, and it felt like I was in the middle of a cloud.
I’m not much of a bird watcher, but I have noticed that there’s a red tail hawk that roosts in the area. You can see the hawk hanging out on the structure in my instagram post. I’ve seen the hawk idly coasting on winds that come up the hill when I’ve been out on workouts before, and it’s pretty cool to see a bird that big up close.
Sorry about the lack of photos that aren’t from a couple of years ago. Not a lot of sunlight, and that storm meant pulling out my phone didn’t really happen. Let me know if you like the format! I really enjoyed looking into the history, and I’m looking forward for doing this with other parks in the area.
We’re getting more cold weather this weekend, and I’ve got a couple of weekend commitments that will make fitting a long run very difficult. I’m bumping my long run up to Friday, since highs of -2C are nicer than highs of -16C. This will mark the second week of my first solid training block for the year, and I’m feeling pretty good with the load. Hopefully next week I’ll make the leap up to 2 hard workouts, round out this first block, and be ready for working on my speed.
I’m nearly through the Happy Runner, so expect a post about the book soon. There’s a lot in the first half of the book that would be pretty general advice for maintaining excitement and balance for any activity that requires a lot of dedication and practice. The second half is training advice for trail runners, and it’s looking really good.
I’ll be trying to follow the outcomes of Houston Marathon weekend. I’m excited to see how Natasha Wodak will fare racing the half, and I’m really hoping Sasha Gollish will have a strong marathon. There are a solid group of Canadian men running the half, but I’m going to be focussing on Jim Walmsley’s attempt for an Olympic Trials Qualifier (sub 64 minutes for a half). Jim has been on top of the world of trail ultras for a while, but it will be interesting to see how the psychology required for success at 100-milers transfers to a half-marathon.
I hope you’re staying warm, and if you are a runner, you stay safe out there!