Why I retired after the Olympics and unexpectedly became a trail runner

When Olympic track runner Chris Winter announced his retirement, few people thought he would become a trail runner instead.

March 1st, 2017 by | Posted in The Scene, Trail Runner Profiles, Trail Running | Tags: , , , , ,

Run_Ridge_RUnBy Chris Winter

I’ve run thousands of miles in my lifetime. I’ve run every mile of Vancouver’s seawall countless times and I’ve run enough laps on the track for 100 lifetimes.

So when I retired from track after this summer’s Olympics, I didn’t make any promises as to what I was going to do next, athletically. I knew I needed to take some time for myself. In that time, I would see if I still wanted to run and if so, to what extent. After a couple of weeks, I came to the conclusion that I still love to run. I still love that feeling of taking my body to the edge, holding it there, and suffering just a little bit. And while I’m no longer doubling up and doing two runs a day, or racking up 100 miles in a week, I still love getting out the door for 40-60 minutes. 

My main motivator this far has been to stay fit enough to do one or two workouts a week with my wife (Rachel Cliff) who is continuing to train for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo. In doing so, I’ve managed to stay more fit than I would have expected.

RELATED: Gary Robbins shares his workouts in the lead up to The Barkley Marathons

I also realized that by living in Vancouver, I can run in some of the most beautiful, pristine and challenging terrain that I could ever ask for. And it’s just outside my back door. However, for the past two decades, I had focused on the track and qualifying for the Olympics and so, I had to play it safe and avoid the more rugged (read: potentially ankle breaking) trails. And so, I had left most of them unexplored.

Until now. 

Over the fall, I fell in love with trails. It didn’t take long for me to decide to attempt a trail race but I wasn’t quite ready for the 50K, 50 Miles, and 100K races that have become commonplace in that world. Then, a couple of weeks ago I found out about the Coast Mountain Trail Series put on by ultra running legend Gary Robbins. The Run Ridge Run 25K course was in two weeks and featured trails on my bucket list. I signed up and immediately had butterflies. I sat there thinking about this new challenge: 25K, 1,400m of elevation gain and loss. This was going to smash me. 

Sure, I knew how to bring myself to my max and hold it there, but historically, I only had to do that for eight-and-a-half minutes. I had never come close to the two hour and 20-minute effort that this race would demand. Throw in a couple of mountains and it was hard to see track and trail racing are even the same sport.

Run_Ridge_Run_Gary_RobbinsThen, race day came. The first few kilometres were flat and easy. The first big climb wasn’t actually too bad. Growing up on the north shore of Vancouver, I was practically raised on the Grouse Grind. As a result, I have some experience at the uphill power-walk/run technique needed on this type of terrain. The downhill was another story. I was already brain dead from the climb up. Going down is always harder. With the snow cover, the terrain was just plain sketchy. My eyes were tearing up and I had a few close calls that I was sure would lead to a helicopter having to come in retrieve my body from some remote location. Even though I thought I was flying down that mountain, I was actually taking it gingerly compared to my competitors. These guys are maniacs. Compared to them, I was standing still. 

Over an hour into the race, I had to deal with something a track runner would never have to think about: mid-race nutrition. I’ve never had to carry a gel before–not even on my longest runs. Luckily, I had done my research by consulting Reid Coolsaet over Twitter. The three gels I took during the race worked perfectly. I didn’t have any energy issues. Despite all that doubt, I pulled through in the end. I made my switch from the track to the trail and I placed first. I won my first trail race, albeit in a completely wrecked state. 

I finished the race and thought only about fluids and food while my calf muscles twitched involuntarily. Not even the post-race massage could have saved me from the pain over the next three days. A few days later though, I can say I’m definitely hooked. I guess I’m a trail runner now. But first… I’m going to need to take a few weeks off.