The mere thought of a cougar or any other apex predator in our midst can turn a backcountry adventure into a psychological test of mind over matter. Luckily, our fears are mostly in our heads and few have experienced a negative wildlife encounter. But, for ultramarathoner Sam Dickie, that s**t got real. Words :: Kevin Hjertaas.
Anyone who runs ultras—foot races longer than a marathon—will tell you the efforts are part physical, part mental. To develop the capacity for those distances, your muscles and aerobic system must be stressed, then given time to recuperate and adapt to an ever-greater workload. The mental training is much the same. Near exhaustion, the mind will highlight any reason to stop. Keep running past boredom, past self-doubt, and you’ll eventually run into fear—fear of injury or perhaps failure. But with repeated exposure, the mind learns to accept these hardships and build resilience. Of course, not all fears are mere mental constructs. Run deep into wild mountains alone, and you’ll find very real things to fear.
On August 22, 2021, when Sam Dickie limped into the remote Hidden Creek campsite northeast of Tornado Mountain, he’d survived the worst of those fears.
The trajectory of Dickie’s running career was a sudden and rapid ascent. He moved from Ontario to Banff in 2013 at age 17 to pursue kayaking, but soon fell in love with the mountains above the rivers. He remembers, “I started running a lot, but only because I wanted to explore the area. I had all the maps for the Bow Valley, and I just wanted to tick off all the trails. It got to the point where I had to train to get to certain places. So, my first marathon was just a trail run on my own. I realized it was wicked what you could do with your body. If you train it and fuel it correctly, you can do anything.”
So, train he did. In 2019, Dickie entered his first race, an audacious 100-kilometre run in Edmonton called the River Valley Revenge. He won, then followed up with fifth place in a 50-miler in Squamish. He capped off his first race season with a victory—and a course record—in the Golden Ultra 120-kilometre race in its namesake Rocky Mountain town.
“When we saw the results of the Golden Ultra, I was like, ‘Holy shit.’ We expected Leif (Godberson) to win or be close, but Sam beat him by almost an hour,” says Rebecca Newton from RunUphill, the Canmore shop and community hub for trail running. In fact, Dickie won by an hour and a half.
As the pandemic settled in, races were cancelled, and runners like Dickie had to find other challenges. In June 2020, he organized his own solo charity event and ran 230 kilometres along the Icefields Parkway from Lake Louise to Jasper in a ridiculous 31-hour continuous effort. On that run, Dickie saw just how far he could push himself: “220 kilometres in, my mind went to a place that was almost like a sixth or seventh sense. Everything in my body that didn’t need to work shut down. My vision dimmed, my hearing went, I couldn’t smell anything. Every sense that didn’t need to, didn’t work so that my body could utilize what was left to run that last ten kilometres. My fastest kilometres were those last ten.”
Newton adds more perspective, “The Golden victory and that solo Louise to Jasper fastest-known-time put Dickie on the map. Louise to Jasper is not common, I mean, it used to be done as a (multi-person) relay.”
With his compounding success, every dream felt attainable. “The objectives are endless, and nothing is going to hold you back because you can always push your body further. There is no end,” Dickie says.
So, just how big could he go?
• • •
The Great Divide Trail (GDT) traverses the Continental Divide, roughly following the Alberta and British Columbia borders from Waterton Lakes National Park to Prince George. As much a concept as a maintained trail, it’s 1,100 kilometres of rugged wilderness along the spine of the continent with the reputation as “one of the most spectacular and challenging long-distance trails on the planet,” so claims its dedicated website.
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On August 19, 2021, Dickie started running north from the US border, attempting to complete the epic trail in a modern light-and-fast trail-running style. He would cover an average of 80 kilometres of rugged terrain per day, and though he would get support (food and shelter) when he could, he’d cover most of those kilometres alone. The fastest known time for the trail is just under three weeks. Dickie hoped to do it in two.
He knew the Great Divide would test his resilience. Part of his desire to do the trail was to be exposed to the full force of the Rocky Mountains. But he didn’t expect the tests to start within the first hour. “Just over a kilometre in, there was a mother bear and her cubs. She was stressed, and her cubs were up a tree near us.” It sounds terrifying, but Dickie shrugged it off. “We were a group of five at that point, with bear spray. It wasn’t scary, but it set us back. That first kilometre took 50 minutes.”
Dickie told himself to appreciate the wildlife experience while trying to get back on schedule, and he was able to cover dozens of kilometres before his next obstacle. “The first day is 105 kilometres; 70 kilometres in, the trail just disappeared. I was on a grassy ridge, and a storm came in. I remember seeing a tree that said GDT, so I’m right on it, but there’s no trail. I couldn’t see anything through the storm. It was slippery and steep above cliffs, and I couldn’t see ten feet in front of me. I ended up sleeping under a tree the first night in a rescue blanket.” At 1:00 a.m., the storm started to lift, and Dickie plodded on by headlamp. By 2:30 a.m., he’d reached his team’s RV, where beer and a Snickers bar awaited. Day one had been a challenge, but he’d met it.
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The next two days went according to plan, though rain and muddy trails slowed him down and cooler temperatures meant he had to eat more to stay warm. When he awoke on August 21 at 5:00 a.m., Dickie was halfway through a 200-kilometre solo segment, and though his gear was wet, he was on schedule and feeling good as he packed up his hammock and hit the trail in the dark.
The beam of his headlamp projected the path ahead and he ran toward it while twilight slowly broke. Surrounded by dense forest, he was focused on the single track before him when suddenly something was running back at him. The glowing eyes of a large, healthy cougar were barreling his way.
“I was told cougars attack you from behind, but when I first saw this cougar, it was sprinting right at me.” Dickie’s initial adrenal spike was firmly on the fight side of the primal fight-or-flight reaction. “I fumbled with my bear spray for a second but got it out and shot it. There was a breeze, but the mist was enough.” The cat retreated into the bushes, and Dickie had a moment to comprehend the situation.
Humans are not typical prey for cougars. In Alberta (Dickie was on the east side of the Divide at the time) there has only ever been one fatal cougar attack. These big cats live mostly off deer and smaller mammals. Even avid hikers go years without seeing a cougar. Though often nearby (there are more than 2,000 cougars in Alberta), these cats are wary and avoid people. In fact, Dickie had likely passed several cougars on his journey without even knowing it.
“I was told cougars attack you from behind, but when I first saw this cougar, it was sprinting right at me.”
But the strange attack continued. “It started to circle around me from the bushes,” Dickie recounts. “It kept searching me for weakness. With my headlamp, all I could see was the reflection of its eyes.”
“Then it would come out and charge me again. I would pop it with bear spray, but with the breeze I never got a direct hit. It was fascinating how smart it was. This animal had one goal. It was doing everything it could to make the kill.”
After every attack thwarted with bear spray, the cougar would retreat to the bushes to regroup. After the second attack, Dickie relaxed a bit and tried to come up with a strategy. It didn’t take long to realize that he was no match for this predator and his canister of spray would soon run out. That’s when he thought about pressing the SOS button on his GPS device—not for help, but because he’d lost hope and knew that someone would need to find his body.
Then the cougar changed tactics. “The fifth time, for whatever reason, it came in really close and got low. It wasn’t charging; it crawled in with its ears up and its eyes wide. It was close enough I could have pet it. I leaned in and sprayed it directly in the face.”
That stopped it, and the cat retreated. Dickie’s primal survival switch flipped to flight and he ran. He didn’t want to turn his back to the cougar though, “So I was kinda running sideways and I caught my foot and fell face-first to the ground, rolling my ankle really bad. I thought, ‘I’m done. This thing’s going to pounce on me.’” But nothing happened, so Dickie crawled to his feet. Hobbled now, he made for a clearing a few hundred metres away. There, the cat would lose the advantage of camouflage in the bushes.
Dickie made it to the clearing, and then another three kilometres to Hidden Creek campsite, while always looking over his shoulder for an ambush. He had not seen a soul over the last 100 kilometres, but fate was on his side in this instance, and a tent was pitched there. Finally, he could breathe and believe he would survive. When the two campers awoke, they found a completely spent Dickie lying beside their tent recovering. They helped him limp on his injured ankle to the nearest trailhead where a truck waited. By the end of the day, Dickie was back with his support team trying to make sense of what happened.
“The feeling of acceptance that this might be how I die and having to fight for my life… I kept running through the scene in my head over and over. I couldn’t sleep for days.”
“Those feelings still come flooding back,” he confides five months later back home in Banff, “I’m still learning from that.” Over coffee, Dickie speaks easily about the GDT and the beauty of the Rockies, but when he recalls the cougar, his eyes widen, and his neck straightens—the same primitive defence triggered.
“A lot of things came out of that which I still haven’t gotten over. To this day, if I’m driving in similar lighting, I’ll see a sign on the side of the road, and my mind will turn it into a cougar. Physically, I’m feeling good and building my mileage up, but mentally I still have work to do.”
Dickie explains that for an endurance athlete, mental resilience is similar to physical capacity. As you near exhaustion, emotions amplify and athletes must build the capacity to deal with them. So, you push yourself until those vulnerabilities arise, you work through them and then you recover. Or, as he says, “Put yourself in the pain cave and work through it. Repeatedly.”
• • •
Seven months after the encounter, Dickie is in shorts and a t-shirt running along the Oregon coast. Green grass blows in the breeze and waves roll in the Pacific Ocean. He and his dog, Miya, run on a ridge above the water then scale a small summit. For the next two months, he’ll push himself hard in this warmer climate, then return to his home in the Rockies.
Getting away from the snow-covered mountains and running in the sun is a chance to gain strength. Perhaps it’s also a chance to put some distance between him and the traumatic events of his first career setback. Dickie knows that these challenges will lead to adaptation and, with time to recover, will build greater resilience. He’s taking some time before returning to the GDT. But the dream remains.
“I’m still very much in love with running and these mountains. The Canadian Rockies are to me the coolest place in the world. To traverse them like that (on the GDT) is a dream. If it takes me a decade to do it, it’ll take me a decade to do it.”
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