It’s been a long long time since I’ve done an ultra in my hometown. In 2013, 2014, and 2015 I ran the Elk Lake 50 miler, which seems a lifetime ago. For one reason or another, I haven’t been able to sign up for the obvious choice for my current mountain-trail focus; the Finlayson Arm 50k, but this year I decided that life’s priorities have changed, and I signed up anyways, heedless of what else I might have to miss.
The race started with the famous creek crossing, splashing up along the Goldstream River to cross under the Trans Canada. I caught up with Scott, and could hear him and Mike just behind all along the trails through Goldstream Park. My legs felt tired from just a few km in, but thankfully that feeling didn’t last too long. It was strange enough to drive straight from my house to the race start rather than travelling first, but running down from the trestle, on a trail I hiked so many times from my earliest memories, was both surreal and just right. It felt like a strange affirmation of the training I’ve put in to be leading the race along a trail I thought was so steep and unmanageable as a child.
For the most part, I genuinely don’t have race tactics. I more or less believe that we can only run what we can run on a certain day, and unless we let a competitor alter our race strategy into error, tactics shouldn’t be a worry. That being said... no matter what the terrain, no matter what my effort level, I was always aware that Mike was exactly the same distance behind me. Every time the trail straightened even a little, I could see him back there, and whether he intended it or not, it felt like he was just waiting to pounce. Climbing up Finlayson was a treat - I saw Brent halfway up the climb, and although the morning was overcast and foggy, we poked through the clouds for some spectacular views. My legs still felt a bit tight at this point, and by the summit the gap between Mike and I had decreased. I pulled over for a quick pee, and dropped in just behind him, eager to change up the mental dynamic of the race. It was a joy to allow my brain to relax for a little while on the descent, just matching his steps and relaxing.
We hit the Rowntree aid station together, 13 km in and right on Mike’s (McMillian) CR pace. My aid stations are definitely one thing I’m super happy about these days - my parents were crewing l, and I ran in calling my bib number, swapped bottles in less than two seconds, and ran out, thanking the volunteers. Job done. There’s two reasons I think this is important; one, time adds up. Even with just five aid stations, a minute or two each adds up to 5-10 minutes saved. Second, every aid station is focused on efficiency and getting moving again as soon as possible, not on longing for a break from the effort. Thus, the effect is felt well before, and well after the station itself, and eliminates one potential source of negative thinking in a race.
I left Rowntree just a little ahead of Mike, but i wasn't long before he was on my tail again. we ran together in silence over Holmes Peak, Jocelyn Hill, down the steps to McKenzie Bight, and up the smooth steep climb from the sea to Mt. Work. I knew some people at the aid station, but was so focused on getting out of there that I forgot to say hi to anyone - grab a new bottle of GU and get outta there! I was still feeling pretty good, but it wasn't long up the steep Mt Work trails that my stomach inevitably caught up with me. I felt the mental low coming on, watched Mike cruise away from me as I paused by the trail to force it out. I've had so much experience with vomit these days that I know the pattern well, and taking a moment to just get the deed done ends up making everything easier.
The Strava time-difference plot between our races is absolutely fascinating to a data-geek like me, and since I don't have any other pictures, it's what you get to look at too. The blue line is the time difference between Mike and myself - above the black line, Mike is ahead, every time it jumps down, I gain some time on him. You can clearly see how close we ran together all the way past the bight, the small jumps downwards at mile 7 and 14 are where I gained time by being a bit more efficient in through the aid stations. That large uptick towards the end? That's where I was stationary, by the side of the trail for a couple minutes. Ever wondered just how long it takes for a practiced runner to empty their upset stomach and get running again? The answer is just under two minutes.
Stomach calm and mind clear again, I set off up the mountain, thoughts of winning firmly out of mind; second was where I thought I would be, and now it looked like that was going to be the result. I enjoyed the climb and descent over Work more than I thought I would, and got to the turnaround aid station with volunteers telling me that I was only three minutes behind, to which I replied that there was no chance as I was "now on the vomit train." As I retied my shoelace, Matt Cecill pointed his camera at me and asked if I would describe "the vomit train." "Well, it's a full stomach purge, every half hour, every race; it's lovely." Thankfully it would be closer to every full hour this race, but still, I'm getting perhaps a little too familiar with puke than I ever wanted to. I've tried it all to try and calm my stomach, but at least I now have a strategy that keeps calories intake high enough to avoid bonking.
Climbing back up the mountain, DK Standrick went shooting past in the opposite direction, looking super strong on her way to the win and new course record. My stomach had calmed enough to move at a decent pace, and I was feeling great on the descent into the Ross-Durance aid station, where Darren called out that Mike had just passed through a few minutes ago. I had a few more seconds at the aid station to actually say hi to a couple people while exchanging and filling bottles, then down the long descent back to the Bight, passing Jamie and Richard, left across the estuary, and back up the steep climb, passing Jonathan and to my surprise, catching sight of Mike, not 30 seconds ahead! People had said I was close, but I hadn't realized just how close to Mike I was at that point. Trail running is so funny - the lack of visibility creates a sense of isolation that is difficult to overcome. Over the next few kilometres, every runner in the opposite direction gave me the same news "only 40 seconds ahead!" "You're only a couple minutes back!" But, as close as I was at that point, there was no way a win was going to happen. For one, Mike is a crazy strong runner and later said that he was running scared at that point and had the afterburners fully lit, also, my stomach started up something terrible, and unfortunately I didn't bounce back quite as well as I could've hoped. The lack of long-run training didn't help too, I'm sure.
Again, pure data bliss in the Strava plot - we matched each other's pace almost exactly over Mt Work, and I gained a bit more than a minute at the Ross-Durance aid station, and a teeny bit more on the descent, ending up just 30 seconds back when we reached sea level. From there though... the next uptick going up the slope is my second vomit session, after which my pace slows relative to Mike. After the third set at mile 26, my day is done and he continues to charge ahead as my pace slows to "just finish" territory. I gain 20 seconds at the next aid station at mile 28, but from there Mike gaps me at more than a minute per kilometre.
I went into this race expecting to place second, and hoping to just barely break the previous course record. I finished the day in second place in 5:52, barely breaking the previous course record (shout-out to Mike McMillian though, since his CR involved getting lost on course for about 13 minutes). I definitely need to work on getting more consistent long runs in so my legs don't fall apart so badly late in races, although this year has been so bizarre that I can forgive myself that.
Finlayson Arm is a brutal 50k course - Strava always seems to disagree on exactly how much vert there is, but whatever the number is, it is of a different quality than many other courses. The trails out here are not built masterpieces like the North Shore. They weren't crafted by mountain bikers looking for flow and clean lines; many seem to have been built by random hikers following deer trails down creekbeds. I rarely have trouble with my quads on downhills, but the choppy nature of the descents left them aching early in the race, and shot by the end of it. It makes for a slow but satisfying adventure, and a great place to stage a fantastic duel.
How would you define the term "bucket list?" What is on yours?
Think on it for a minute - where are the places you want to travel to? Swimming around tropical villas in the Maldives. Taking a selfie on a tower in mist-shrouded remotest China with the Great Wall trailing into the fog.
Maybe you've thought how nice it would be to take a class in something - watercolour, perhaps. Maybe go scuba diving. I'm sure there are exotic foods you want to try, maybe picking a fresh mango off a tree.
I rarely think about my bucket list. I don't need to because mine, rather unusually, is complete. It runs as follows:
Glenn's Bucket List
Item 1: Run barefoot on the African savannah ✓
As a runner, I was of course curious what our earliest ancestors must have experienced as they ran in our last common landscape (answer: it's f---ing scary! You're alone and barefoot and there could be lions out there! Now get back to your freakin' camp, you lunatic!)
A few months ago I asked myself what I would put on my list nowadays, and surprised myself with the answer. There are no singular experiences I would consider "bucket list" items. There aren't even any significant accomplishments. Instead, it is filled with activities, and practices, and meaningful pursuits. Essentially, they are things which have to do with a change of self; these are the things which I long to do because they become a feature of who I am, and how I define myself.
I'll give one example that is fairly representative.
One of the most beautiful objects I have ever seen was a 16th century katana at a museum in New Zealand (naturally that is where you find such things). It didn't even have a handle, just a raw blade on a stand in a glass case. I love the history behind these objects; the care and devotion of a true craftsperson to create something of both aesthetic and objective value. I love the nuance and subtlety of the design; how something so simple can possess such beautiful traits and achieve physical properties that a katana-shaped lump of normal steel could never dream of. I love the process behind the creation of the object; the way that the iron is folded with charcoal over and over and over again and again and again to get the perfect mixture of carbon in just the right place, and how the blade is actually straight when forged, and only acquires the familiar curve in the final processes of tempering, as the blade cools at an uneven rate and curves itself in a natural, organic process.
There's absolutely no practical function for swords in the modern world (thank god; that's not a period of history we want to revisit), and yet this history remains. This is a bucket list item for me - to gain an appreciation for the craft and subtlety of forging and tempering metal. It's not an easy subject, and I wouldn't want to take a class on it. No, I would approach it with a stack of books, perhaps a mentor, and spend some of my free time over the course of years trying to approximate a level of expertise.
There's nothing really wrong with normal bucket list items; not everything in life has to be an all-consuming interest. But individual experiences to be checked off a list probably shouldn't be the only things we dream of doing. The things I aspire to now; the things I hope to achieve in my lifetime all have to do with adding qualities to myself as a person.
What do you want to be in your life? That's really what BucketList2.0 is asking. Forget about what you want to do - what do you want to be capable of?
Trail runners don't talk too much about results.
Unlike the road crowd, where questions about 10k and marathon PRs are part of the standard small-talk repertoire, trail runners might be curious if you've completed a certain race, but distances and times are usually not common topics. There is, however, one exception:
"Run a hundred yet?"
The last two years haven't been particularly kind to me with regards to racing. I haven't had a single vomit-free ultra in that time, and have missed out on a bunch of races for various reasons. I was keen to start 2018 off right, with clear goals and expectations. Orcas 100 is a race that's been on my radar for a while; it's a challenging hundred that runs over trails to my liking (steep, relatively smooth) and at a very convenient time of the year. It's also the only one I can see from my house.
From the outset, the goal was simply to finish. Competition is fun, and time goals can be motivating, but I have also found that getting too worked up about them can hide the fact that just finishing these long races can be freakin' difficult, regardless of how quickly you think you could run on a perfect day. Prior to the Fat Dog 70 mile last year, I had just come off the high of winning the Buckin' Hell 50k, and so had spent most of my time planning on running a fast race. When it became clear that I was going to have a slow and rough day, I had nothing to fall back on, and dropped because of a lack of motivation. Having learned my lesson, I decided to focus on just making it across the line, preferably in decent shape, and set 24 hours and 30 hours as B and C goals to suppress the urge to take a nap halfway through. Forward progress under all circumstances.
Although I spent much of November sick, and much of December fighting off (imaginary) injuries, I had significant mileage in the bank from October, and January went very well, totaling 478 km with 19,900 metres of gain. My peak week involved running the Finlayson Arm 50k course at 80% effort, followed by fifteen repeats of my favourite hill the next day, with the overall week at 150 km and 7,500 metres of gain across 16 hours. Physically, I was feeling very well prepared entering the race.
Apart from conditioning my poor legs, I also went to work on my digestive system, eating chipotle avocado veggie burgers and chocolate almond sea-salt bars mid-run to get things used to the concept of eating all sorts of normal foods while marching up hills. I've shown that I'm capable of running without food for long periods of time, but I don't want to have to push myself to those extremes more than a few times in my life if I can possibly avoid it.
"It's not a question of can or can't; there are some things in life you just do"
Mentally, I had prepared by choosing the foulest weather to train in, imagining just how terribly I was going to hurt, and making the decision to ignore that and keep moving. I believe that the ability to consciously become emotionally inert (temporarily, one hopes) is extraordinarily useful under a broad but specific set of particular circumstances. It's something that I've found myself able to accomplish particularly in difficult or tense social situations and strenuous outdoor activities (or sometimes both - bonus!). This was a goal of Orcas - the de-dramatization of my race. Essentially, I wanted to approach every situation in a competent and professional manner - I would not celebrate the highs, and wouldn't despair at the lows; I would not think of the miles to come, nor those that had passed; I would only think of what needed to be done to keep moving, and then simply settle back and allow the miles to flow.
I had forgotten just how gorgeous Orcas Island is, and although the bunkhouse lodging is good fun, I thought I might appreciate the option to go somewhere quieter to calm my introverted nerves now and then. We booked into the Rosario Resort, just a few minutes from the finish line, and were really impressed by how much they were into the race (course maps printed out at the front desk, notes all around specifically for runners, it was really nice) - I'd definitely recommend staying there if you are looking for a more conventional place to stay on Orcas, it is an absolutely spectacular property (there was a waterfall beside our room, for goodness' sake). In theory we could've made things feel even more like home by perhaps bringing in our waffle iron and enjoying fresh waffles immediately after the race. In theory. Next time I want to bring an inverter and get cooking waffles on the tailgate of the Baja at race finishes!
As good as I had been feeling beforehand, the night before the race was a shambles. I was convinced that I was getting sick, with a burrowing headache that felt similar to a virus I'd picked up in November. My mind was a wreck, my knee started to ache, and I had trouble falling asleep for longer than 30 minutes without waking up drenched in sweat. No matter how often I get taper pains or pre-race nerves, they're still alarming experiences.
"Start easy and then back off"
Race morning came around in that nervous way they do. Wake up just before my alarm, settle down to try to eat, and barely get anything in. Ironically my feet got colder than any other point in the race just walking across a deceptively wet field to the start line.
Each loop starts on the driveway out of Camp Moran (I am going to try so hard to not have typos as "Camp Moron"), and proceeds directly up the road towards the summit of Mount Constitution. It's a steady climb, neither too steep nor obviously runnable. On the first lap, you'd run maybe 50-80% of it, depending on speed, the third lap was maybe 70% hiking, and the fourth was a walker. It's 450 metres of gain over slightly more than 5k, but doesn't seem to take too long. The descent that follows is technical in some places, but very runnable for the most part.
One of the best-sounding pieces of advice I read in my pre-race blog search was to try and negative-split the first two loops. This sounded brilliant, as it is all too easy to go out quick, but much easier to run at an easy pace after you've already been running for 40k. I intentionally started in the mid-pack, without counting the number of people ahead of me. I never wanted to know where I was in the race, so that I could keep my mind calm and unambitious. I ran much of the early part of the first loop with Walt; a truly crazy runner whose race calendar boggles the imagination. It was nice to be able to just chat with someone, as it let the time fly by pretty quickly.
From the base of the first climb, the trail heads north along Mountain Lake and to Twin Lakes. The trail is wide and flat, with nothing much to distract from the beauty of the island. Next up was my favourite part of the course - Mt Pickett. The trail varied from grassy dirt doubletrack to soft earthen singletrack, surrounded by the greenest moss forest in the world. The trails weren't particularly steep, allowing for a decent pace and clear powerhiking decision points. The descent was similarly smooth, making for a quick descent even early in the race. I like to cruise the descents as my quads never get tired from downhills, so I went on ahead and let loose to the extent that felt reasonable.
It's a long ways from the top of Pickett to the Cascade aid station at the base of Powerline, with most of the singletrack being nicely groomed, some of it bordering on steep drop-offs next to a cold river, and a couple of km along the road to the end. Powerline starts a few minutes after the aid station, and slaps you in the face almost right away. There's a super wet and muddy traverse along the base, where the only way to avoid wet feet is to step on the highest hummocks of grass. From there, the trail turns left, and up.
It's steep. It's not crazy steep, depending on what you've trained on (it's not Red Bull 400, let's put it that way), but the initial climb is steep, and looong. I passed a couple of the runners from Japan, and found myself alone. There's one spot on powerline about a third of the way up that is just ridiculously steep. It's only maybe 30 metres high, but the grade is downright stupid. I just stopped and laughed at it on the first loop, and looked forward to it each time. There are also a surprising number of flat or downhill sections. They're not very long, but allow for 2-10 seconds of welcome jogging to loosen up the calves before the grade starts again. I started to think about how long the climb could go on for, then caught myself. Nope, I shouldn't be thinking that. This was my moment to put the de-dramatization practice into play. Time to break out The Secret Weapon.
The Secret Weapon (apparently)
For as long as I can remember I've had the ability to listen to music in my head. Not in a sort-of-imagine-it way, but if it's something I know well, in a detailed, almost auditory-hallucinatory way. Maybe this is typical, maybe not (nobody knows what it's like inside other people's heads). It's good fun though, being able to alter the beat, singers, or instruments at will. I guess it's simply a strong expression of subvocalization. Anyway, I put this to good use. Whenever I started thinking about something unproductive, I would break out what is now my ultimate weapon in ultra-endurance. Some people use mantras, some people use chants, lots of people use motivational cliches to motivate themselves.
I've found something better.
I probably shouldn't be sharing this.
I might lose my competitive advantage.
Thankfully the visuals don't manifest as readily as the auditory recollections. Use it at your peril.
It's good to think about things that are both important and actionable - deal with nutrition, make sure you have your next aid station planned out, but there are so many thing in an ultra that will try to take your attention that have no place in your consciousness. They can't be changed, don't matter, and should be blocked; "we're in the middle of the second loop, so that means we have how many miles to go? Oops, right - WAH-TERLOO! HOW DOES IT FEEL, YOU'VE WON THE WAR?!" Instant grin. You came to the event just to finish, and now you're wondering what your finish time will be? Easy - take your average loop time and multiply it by "WAH-WAH-WAH-WAH-WATERLOOO, FINALLY FACING MY WAH-TER-LOO!" Get some instrumentals in there, shift your gait to the beat, do a little dance, and you'll have your answer in no time.
Repeat for 25 hours. I am deadly serious.
With my newfound distraction providing a nice lack of emotion, Powerline was literally a breeze as the wind picked up near the summit. I spent a fun five minutes struggling to pull my half-zip jacket over my pack, getting stuck, trying to get it off, realizing I couldn't, laughing a bit at how ridiculous this was, finally extracting it and getting it on just before I had to ask for help. Ah, trouble where we least expect it.
It's a fun smooth flowing descent from Powerline around the north side of Constitution. From there, it's the last climb of the course, some 300 metres up perfectly graded and consistent gravel switchbacks to the summit. A guy behind me had clearly had fun on the descent, and we started running together on the switchbacks up. His name was Dale, and he is awesome. We would spend more than half the race running together. It's really rare that you'll find someone who is running exactly the same pace as you, but we never really had to slow or speed up for one another, and since we got along like two runners on a trail, we stuck together and chatted for a long time.
After the Mt Constitution aid station is the climb up to the top of the tower to be part of the Tower Club (alternately known as the almost-everyone-who-wasn't-trying-to-win-or-didn't-forget-to-do-a-tower-because-they-were-hallucinating-too-badly club). It might sound crazy to try and add on some extra vert and distance in a long and vert-y race, but it's such a tiny portion of the overall distance that it's not a big deal. And the views are nice. And you get a cool t-shirt. Honestly the worst part was how the freezing wind would blast you every time through the open windows. That was cold.
This race report is getting way long, but that's okay because frankly I don't remember much of either loop 2 or 3. Between continuous chatting with Dale (subjecting him to my atrocious rendition of Waterloo whenever we started talking about something we shouldn't - it might sound good in my head, but not when I try to convert it into singing) and generally plodding along, each loop seemed to go by incredibly quickly.
It got cold once the sun went down, and the wind was howling up high until near sunrise. One advantage of this was that any muddy portions of the course near the summits started to freeze over, allowing my sandal-clad feet to skip over without getting wet. Oh yeah, I ran the whole thing in sandals. I've been getting into some heated arguments with my shoes lately, and did all my training in Lunas, so I decided to just run the race in my standard Leadville Pacers. They worked just fine since the trails were pretty smooth and I wasn't trying to go too fast.
One thing of note was my headlamp. I had put in a LOT of effort with lighting for this event. I chose a new headlamp very carefully - the Gemini Xera (oh look, someone wrote a great review of it over here, wow, so well written!) - and had purchased not one, but three batteries for it. Couple that with my love of Microsoft Excel, and I had a full spreadsheet to optimize my lumen availability while securing sufficient battery life to last through the 14 hour night. Oh yeah, forget Beast Mode, Nerd Mode is ON! Anyway, despite all my effort, and borrowing a super-bright backup Black Diamond from Andre before the race, as night fell I realized that I had taken my headlamp, but none of the batteries! No matter how well you prepare, always check the basics people - does your fancy headlamp actually have a battery connected to it?
I heard Gary Robbins mention that the best way to ward of sleep deprivation is to have a bright (250+ lumens) headlamp on full the whole night. I set mine up to provide 760. You know, just in case. It's like having a car headlamp strapped to your head. Sleep deprivation and visibility were never concerns. And since each battery lasts 2.4 hours at 760 lumens and swapping them out takes 3 seconds, it was easy to maintain that through the night. Give it a few years and everyone running hundreds will have Gemini lights, they're amazing. And Victorian!
At each of the two main aid stations (Cascade and Moran) my dad would hand me two new bottles of GU, some Vega and fruit2go bars, and we would exchange one headlamp battery for a charged one (I carried two, with my dad charging the third during the loop).
At the end of the third loop, things took a slight downturn. I'd been falling behind a little on calories, and although I felt 100% when we came into the aid station, as soon as I was standing still nausea rushed over me. I sat down and it got worse. Pretty soon I was shaking uncontrollably and my temperature started fluctuating rapidly - signs that my stomach was off, and general fatigue after running 120 km.
I took some time, and when Dale came over to see how I was doing I told him to get outta there - it would've been awesome to share the last loop with him, but I knew I'd be holding him up and it was time to part ways. Good thing too, as he rocked the last loop to finish 7th in under 23 hours!
I, meanwhile, ended up staying at the aid station for 1:45, tended to by the best aid station crew ever. Everyone worked constantly to get me food and warmth, Darren got my feet up which helped with my shaking, Myke was the aid station boss, and made some decisions for me that turned out to be spot-on, Andrew, Matt, David, race director James and others all helped get me back on track. I felt really guilty for being so pampered. Thanks everyone.
In the end, I just needed to get some calories in, let my stomach settle (I never threw up, huzzah!), and change clothes into my warmest layers to feel better. I also backed the laces of my sandals way off, as my feet had swollen by at least one shoe size since the start. It was great to have a break, and I left on loop four feeling good apart from my right ankle, which had been hurting for 30km and was now getting swollen. Running was painful, but hiking was fine, and so loop four passed without much event, simply Waterlooing my way through the painful descents, and enjoying the beautifully clear night on the climbs (well, clear except for the light pollution my headlamp was creating). Despite bringing an unopened bottle of GU roctane drink mix for the race, I exhausted the supply by the middle of the last loop, and so transitioned to apple juice and sandwiches, which went down well enough. Sweet foods are so gross after nausea, but avocado sandwiches are actually quite good.
The sun rose behind me as I started the Constitution climb, the same place where it had set fourteen hours earlier. It was blood-orange, with a black Mt Baker silhouette ahead. The monochromatic forest was lit with patches of vivid red-orange. Not bad.
I'd assumed that it would be an emotional end to the race, but I think as I had spent the whole race being emotionally stable, some of that experience was difficult to process. The sense of accomplishment, however, was not diminished in the slightest. A hundred miles is a ways to run, and 25 hours is a while to keep moving, and it's going to be very nice to be able to look back on this event as a success, regardless of how the rest of my 2018 race season goes.
Every trail race is a remarkable atmosphere filled with awesome people, but being around a tough hundred miler is quite different. It was humbling and yet affirming to be a part of such an incredible group. Normally, running a hundred miles is considered crazy, but in this small camp on this small island, there were 69 people who would accomplish that feat, and on one of the steeper hundred miler courses in North America. This is not a place for complaining or hyperbole - in this group every story and incident you can speak about could be immediately one-upped by someone nearby if they so chose. Walt's race schedule was repeatedly called "insane", and you know you're doing something right if other ultrarunners are calling you insane. My petty ankle pain was nothing - despite looking properly swollen by the awards ceremony, I knew that I had endured far less pain than others - by far the most impressive performance of the weekend was by John, who twisted his at mile 8, then made his way through 148 tough kilometres of sprained-ankle running to finish. At 19 years old. You got guts, man.
It's genuinely inspiring to me that my story is by no means the most remarkable of the weekend, and so it feels all the more special to be a part of an accomplished group. It's not possible to run a hundred miles and not have some story about training, background, or racing.
Apart from my slowly-shrinking ankle, my body suffered remarkably little damage from the race. My calves and quads feel like they ran a fairly easy 50k, and my motivation to run has not diminished in the slightest, as opposed to my first ultra where I didn't want to run for almost five weeks. Competing at hundreds sounds like a pretty painful experience, and I'll probably limit competition to 50 km/milers for a year or two, but this event did give me a taste of running long distances for the sake of being part of a community, an event; a fixture of a landscape for a day, or more.
Biggest thanks go to my dad for being a stellar crew once again, never missing an aid station, and keeping all the logistics perfectly sorted during the race. Huge thanks to not only James for dreaming this crazy thing up, but also to the massive number of volunteers out. It's a big time commitment for a lot of people to attend to runners for a day and a half (or more) in addition to travelling to a small island, and hard to adequately thank them all. I suppose the only way I can is to say that when you run the event, I'll probably be there as part of the volunteer crew to return the favour.
Additional details for anyone interested:
Shoes: Luna Leadville Pacers with Injinji heavyweight crew socks (changed once, at end of loop 3).
Daytime gear: my trusty 2014 Salomon 5 litre pack with whistle and space blanket, 2x500 mL softflasks with 2 scoops of GU grape roctane each per 1/2 loop, an old Nike t-shirt (warmest one I own), Salomon Intensity 3/4 tights, gloves and S-Lab jacket, a buff, Arctery'x hat, and Brooks arm warmers - I'm a big fan of having removable items coupled with tops that have a zipper - remove or add items to deal with big temperature shifts, and zip up or down depending on the direction of the wind.
At the end of the second loop I switched to MEC Mercury 2 thermal tights, swapped the hat for an old touque, and added my headlamps - Gemini Xera with 3 2-cell batteries (2 carried while 1 charged).
At the end of the third loop I switched out tops to Salomon Pulse longsleeve with a heavy MEC 1/2 zip running shirt, with two waterproof jackets over top to keep out the wind.
Strava activity link
All photos copyright Glenn Jasechko. Please don't use for commercial purposes without permission. Even this one which isn't very good because I'm holding a reflector and additional light while trying to figure out if I'm in focus. Ah, the joys of self-timer photography. Still. Me. My photos. Hands off. :-)
This will be a short review.
A company called Gemini that nobody has heard of makes the best headlamps in the world.
If you are an ultrarunner who runs in the dark, you should buy one. I recommend the Xera.
There. That was easy...
Oh, alright, if you want me to elaborate further, then I'll do this as bullet points, to keep it short (as short as one of my blog posts can be).
- BRIGHT!!! 950 lumens ain't no joke. Nope, nope it ain't. And this is the least-blindingly-bright light Gemini makes. I've been mistaken for a car by fellow runners wearing this thing, and that was on *only* 760 lumens. Pretty sure there's no other light that can compare. Seriously, other traditionally-bright headlamps don't even show up when this thing is on. It's awesome.
- It lasts! "950 lumens you say? Yeah, but my ------- brand light only lasts for an hour on 250, so it does 950 for what, 15 minutes?" Nope, 2 hours. 760 lumens lasts you 2.4 hours. 100 lumens lasts for something stupid like 18 hours. And that's just on one battery, which leads too...
- Battery swaps! Apart from the lumens, this is the light's real strength. The battery pack is external, and plugs in with a waterproof connection. Hold both batteries, disconnect one, plug it into the other. No fiddly battery covers that might break off when you pry them apart with cold hands, and it takes literally two seconds. Now you have light for hours. Like, amazing.
- Batteries! Buy one, buy three, buy big ones, buy little ones! The 2-cell is what I have, but you can get up to a 6-cell pack. So many options, you'll never be without. Here's a thought - partner with friends and share battery costs, unless you happen to be doing all the same races.
- Programmable! No, it doesn't have Petzl's cool reactive lighting, but you can program each of the three dimmer settings to be any increment of 10% you want, using just the single button and ten seconds. Simple. Works.
- Extension cords! Plug in the cord to the light and battery, then shove the battery in your pack, leaving only a light light on your head. Oh the comfort, it's so nice.
- Simple! One button, push on, hold for off, push to cycle through brightness. Turns orange at 50%, red at 25%, blinks at 10%.
- Waterproof! Umm, it's waterproof.
- Beautiful! It's a nice piece of design (except for the headstrap, which maybe could be a bit more subtle) with just a single LED and button in a black anodized aluminium shell. Very cool. The box it comes in is like an Apple product. Purdy.
- Customer service! Holy crap did these people go out of their way to get me a third battery before Orcas 100. It helps that their office happens to be 5 minutes from my house (Victorian tech industry FTW), but still, very impressed. The first battery I picked up had a slight flaw in it, and they got it replaced immediately. Most impressive.
- Expensive. It's not particularly cheap, although for what you pay, there's nothing remotely comparable in terms of brightness and versatility.
- Battery is heavy. Yeah, it packs a lotta oomph, but wearing even just the 2-cell on your head for hours could be a pain. Use the cord to stick it in your pack. Job done.
- The cord taps a little bit in the headstrap cord holder. Pretty quiet, but it'll drive you nuts over a 14 hour night. Wrap it in a bit of electrical tape and you're good to go.
- Kinda big. Some headlamps are great to carry for half an hour before sunrise, then stick in a pocket for the rest of the run. This isn't one of them. Keep an old spare for those runs, and use this when you mean business with your lumens.
- It's really meant to be a mountain bike headlamp, and the headstrap does dig in a little bit on your forehead if worn directly on skin. Not a big deal, but I need to find at least a couple things to nitpick. Hey, Gemini - you gotta start marketing to ultrarunners; send me a note if you want a runner's comments on your product! Or, better yet, give one to someone better known to wear at races. Just make sure they use it at full-lumens, and people will take note. You might find runners become one of your biggest markets - we're gonna love your lights once we know about them.
Got a hundred miler coming up? Want to outshine all your friend's headlamps and unintentionally ruin the night vision of all aid station workers? Go get one!
Gemini Lights did nothing to encourage this review other than be an awesome company with a great product that happens to come from my hometown and that I believe most ultrarunners will be very satisfied with. So there.
Links because that's how the internet works:
Gemini (you can tell them I sent you, but nobody gets anything out of it, other than confusion on their part):
There's been a lack of blog posts, which means that I haven't had the greatest year of racing! Of the races since last year's Buckin' Hell 50k, I've had two DNFs, two DNSs, one epic vomit-fest of a fifty-miler, some minor injuries, and, okay, fine, two pretty okay 25k races. It's been a long time since I'be been able to prove my ultrarunning ability to myself, and I hoped that this race would give me that chance.
Despite the setbacks in racing, training has been great over the past few months, steadily logging 80-120k weeks since November, all on trail, with plenty of vert. I even went out and got a bike for some cross-training. Having not ridden a bike in nearly nine years prior, I naturally disregarded all advice and got a twitchy, light, single-speed track bike. I love it, and no, I have no intentions of taking up triathlons, unless someone can find me one with a short swim in a pool, a nice road bike, and a steep mountain race!
With a fourth-place finish, last year's Buckin' Hell went pretty well, and I made a couple changes to try and make the most of my improved training. Most significantly, I ditched my Luna Sandals for this one in favour of a pair of old Altra Superiors. Although I continue to train almost exclusively in sandals to keep my form in check, racing over rocky trails is much easier in shoes since you can land mid-foot, giving more foot placement options which helps with speed, fatigue, and safety. I like how I'm bothering to explain the function of shoes, as if they're somehow novel.
2017 Buckin' Hell 50k Deep Cove/Mount Seymour, North Vancouver
Like last year, the lead pack went out hard. Ten seconds after the start, in a group of eight runners, I announced "alright, we need to sort out who here is relay!" Surprisingly, only two people of the lead pack were! It was time to hit my first and most important race goal - run my own race. So, when Ullas and Graeme (2nd and 3rd last year, respectively) made a move on the technical, stair-laden trail, I ignored my impulse to chase, falling behind and out of sight. By minding my own business, I could keep the stress down and focus on what I was doing. It's so easy to give in to chasing people, but I find running to my own strategy produces the best results, so I sat back and waited.
Sure enough, as soon as we started on some good climbs, I caught back up, and pulled into the lead. I noticed that Graeme had been following Ullas closely, and when I passed he tucked in right behind me. Not having any background in competitive running, I'm a total novice when it comes to race tactics, but I made a note of this, and it would come in handy later. In the meantime, I employed my only other tactic, which is to happily chatter non-stop at whoever is around me, and so both Graeme and Colin from Kitimat, a relay runner, got a good dose of chit-chat as we finished the climb and started the wonderfully smooth banked trail down again. This race is worth doing for many reasons, and the upper section of Dale's trail is near the top of that list.
Over the next 5k we swapped stories (and places, when I stopped to retrieve part of my beloved peanut butter chocolate chip Lara Bar, lying abandoned, neglected, forlorn in the dirt after a rocky drop). Colin put the hammer down on some technical climbs, and Graeme stopped for a moment, but we were all into the first aid station at 13km together, after the smoothest, fastest, most wonderful non-technical descent. Apart from the bars, I was relying on liquid nutrition (strawberry vanilla Hammer Perpetuem, for those interested. Good stuff, but gets a bit bitter when warm) for the rest of my calories, making aid stations a pleasingly simple and efficient task. My dad was crew, and I just ran in, tossed the old bottle, grabbed a new bottle and bar, and was off. #2 race goal was to spend less than a minute cumulatively between all eight aid stations.
The main climb of the race starts at about a half marathon in. I wasn't feeling bad, but not great either, and looking back I could see Graeme still behind me. I was keen to try and put a bit of a gap between us, since nearly the whole second half of the race is downhill, where he had been quicker. A third of the way through the climb, I couldn't see him any longer, but after exiting the forest for the last time onto the road, I just wasn't moving quite as well as I should. It's usually a sign that stomach issues are around the corner, and sure enough, at the third aid station, 28km in, I ate a couple chips, ran out of sight of everyone, and promptly vomited everything up. Well, I was out of sight of everyone except Graeme, who had ripped up the hill and passed just as the first spew hit the dirt.
But, it's not like I don't have experience running on empty.
I kept on going, and thankfully the next 6k were slow going because of the crazy snowpack this year, giving my stomach a bit of a break. Steadily winding our way to the summit, past tourists and immensely dedicated volunteers, past alpine lakes rimmed with melting snow and fresh early-spring foliage, I kept as much drink down as possible, and let Graeme move ahead, onwards, out of sight.
Returning to the summit aid station, I leaned against the table, ready to take a moment and regroup. My dad wasn't having it. "He's a minute ahead. Go."
I felt like the people at the aid station shouldn't be cheering me on - doesn't anyone know how much of a mess I'm in? It's been over an hour since I've had any meaningful calories, I'm losing time to the guys behind on these technical trails, and I can hardly see out of my right eye! Onto the path, through knee-deep puddles, over roots, logs, small creeks, rocks; all good fun, but slow going. On the plus side, I hadn't puked again, and had taken in just enough calories from the drink mix to keep myself moving. The trail eventually smoothed out, and gradually turned back up the hill for a short climb. I was moving well again, and to my surprise, there's that blue shirt - Graeme, just ahead on the hill!
Only 10k left? That's like a drag race for ultrarunners.
We got to the aid station at 39km within a couple seconds of each other. He filled with water, I filled with water, he stopped to get a little more food, I took my chance and booked it. I remembered how close he had run early in the day - it would freak me out to be followed so closely, this late in the game. There was no way I could keep my mind on the trail with someone right behind me, and I'd make mistakes. Time to take some risks. About 10,000 of them, every step to the finish. This was going to end with a win, a close second, or a broken ankle.
Down the first descent, carefully past where I'd taken a short wrong turn last year, and out onto the gravelly powerline trail. Dang, still there, maybe eight seconds back. Hard left onto the trail again, and as soon as the view back is blocked by the trees, floor it. I don't know how many toenails this next section cost me, maybe I'll update this blog when they finally fall off. It's cool, actually, I have one which was already recovering, so I might have three layers of toenail on one toe!
I tried my best to look fresh and confident as I came into the final aid station, 5k to go. Shouting "thirteen thirty-four, one-three-three-four!" for the check-in, I swapped bottles and turned around. Quick note - I always make a point of thanking the volunteers on course, but I'm afraid that I missed thanking the aid station workers here, both times - first time through because my mouth was very full of chocolate, and the second time because my brain was broken. I say it now - thank you very much for taking the time to support all us runners!
The final aid station has a short out-and-back, and I really wanted to pass by the incoming trail without seeing Graeme, but we crossed over just long enough to shout encouraging words at one another, a gap of about one minute. The final ascent, some flat, and a gnarly steep trail descent back onto the finish road. Ask the volunteers "do you see a guy in a blue shirt behind me?!" "No!" Sprint anyways.
11 months without a successful ultra. I won't hide it; I was pretty happy. Maybe a little too enthusiastic, but adrenaline does that. Into the finish, big hug from Gary, first ultra win, a new course record of 5:12:01.
But best of all, several hours enjoying the finish line, meeting new people, chatting with friends new and old, watching Gary's crazy scheme of having runners dash down rocks, over a beach, then swim out to a platform to win prizes, it made me wish I lived on the mainland to be a part of it more often. More frequent ferry rides are in my future, 'cause this is way too much fun to miss out on.
A day on the trails is best when shared - not only did I find someone who would push me much further than I would've otherwise gone, but also just a fun guy to run around on the trails with. Thanks Graeme!
Just a few moments from a morning on the trails. Or, if I was going for the full click-bait effect, I should've called this post YOU WON'T BELIEVE THESE 11 CRAZY MOMENTS FROM MY LAST RACE!! !!!! But I'm not, so I didn't.
7:50 AM: Parking Lot
Cold weather produces shivers and much deliberation over how many layers to wear. It was pretty cold at the parking lot, and there was discussion all around about whether to dress warm or light. It’s important to remember that climbing produces lots of heat, so dressing a little light is a good idea for winter races. Buffs, gloves, arm warmers and hats are all awesome since they can be easily removed as conditions change.
8:00 am: Before the race
There’s something about competent people. They carry themselves differently, somehow. Whether it is their mannerisms, build, confidence or gear, it’s sometimes just so easy to pick them out of a crowd. I first had this feeling spotting Adam Campbell and Ellie Greenwood at a race a couple years ago. I knew there was an Olympian roaming about somewhere, and as I walked down from the parking lot, I noticed a guy behind me, and immediately picked him out. I was right, and Chris turned out to be an awesome dude - I really enjoyed the (short) time I was able to run with him. Welcome to the trail scene man, we’re glad to have you here.
9:05am: Flat gravel road around Sasamat Lake
I’m so naïve about pacing. Give me a fifty miler and I’ll have some idea (it's easy: any speed is too fast - you'll still be broken by the end), but this was my second 25k race ever. I expected the start of the race to be at a blistering pace, but actually it felt pretty reasonable. I felt like pushing myself early on, so I picked up the speed a bit. Someone commented “early breakaway!” but I was just running! Sometimes I wonder whether race tactics really exist, or whether everyone just runs to their potential. Who knows – certainly not me – my only race tactic is to incessantly chat with (at, more like) people until they get so annoyed that they run faster just to get some peace. Whether I’m doing them a service, or making them push early on so I can catch them later, I’m not quite certain.
9:15: Powerline climb
The lead pack hits the first steep hill, and we start to powerhike, as you do - it’s more efficient at steep enough gradients gradient after all. There is another strategy, which is to not give a crap about the hill and keep running at a swift pace. Chris took option 2. I am usually a fairly strong climber, and it was pretty impressive watching a runner that strong power up some steep grades without breaking stride. Raw strength is sometimes overrated for ultras, but this moment gave me new appreciation for the value of muscle over shorter races. More stair step-ups for me!
9:55 am: Technical trails on Diez Vista ridge
You’re driving a sports car over a really rutted gravel road. The car is low, and fragile, and you really don’t want to break it. It’s hard to get in a rhythm. Steering carefully, you navigate the deep potholes and mud pits, cringing at each scrape and bump. In a blast of splintering branches and spraying detritus, a fully decked-out rally car swings around the turn behind you – no time to react, you just freeze and in a moment it is gone. This is how all technical downhills go for me, especially when someone like Mike Murphy is doing the rally driving. From the top of Diez Vista climb to the end of the technical trail I went from second to seventh. I think. I stopped counting. Sigh.
10:07am: Descent off Diez Vista
A first in a trail race for me – stopping mid-descent to shake the hand of another racer – it was awesome to meet and be able to share the trail with Tom – a super quick runner who I was just about able to keep up with once the trail flattened out a little.
10:33: Lakeview Trail
The trail is steep – hands on knees, powering up stride after stride, it gradually flattens out. Start running just before the steepest section is over, hitting your stride just as it becomes runnable. The trail dips, steepens and you’re gliding over the trail – arms out, cadence a bllluuurrrrr faster faster let it fly until the wind drags you back. The trail is smooth but mind the rock up ahead left-right-leftrightleftright-leap! The next climb looms - carry the momentum, push off harder to compensate for the compression and transition to hiking when the speed runs out. I will never tire of that feeling. Technical trails are fun, and I can see why so many people love them, but not for me. I’ll take an undulating steep trail with relatively reliable footing every time, and Lakeview delivers in spades.
10:55am: Heading towards final climb
It’s amazing how everyone can have so different strengths and weaknesses, and yet most of it tends to balance out somewhat by the end – Tom was massively quick along the flat road by the lake, Mike, Jordan, Nick and Blair monstered the descents, Chris was unbeatable on the climbs. I wondered if it would be possible to put each of these strongest attributes into a single runner, or if everyone plays to their strengths, compromising their stamina elsewhere. I know personally that being slow on the descents definitely allowed me to rest and be prepared to attack the less technical trail sections later on.
11:14 am: Final descent towards finish line
On a rutted gravel access road – been hanging with some quick runners, and they can’t be far behind after that last climb. Keep the feet moving as fast as you can, don’t roll ankles on those rocks and ignore the fact that you can’t really see out of your right eye, which has gone all blurry.
11:28 am: Finish line
Crossing the finish line, happy to see that my dad is already there, having finished the 13k. I love trail race finish lines. I couldn’t be prouder of my dad, or my mountain-unicycling buddy Ryan for crushing the 25k, or any of the other awesome people I’m slowly getting to know in this amazing community. I get a thrill each time I see someone I know finish.
End of day: Finish line
Gary hauls a box of radios from place to place. My dad thanks him for a great day – his very first trail race. Gary is polite and takes a moment, but is busy, as race directors are. Happy, we start to leave, but a moment later Gary - radios safely delivered - returns to say goodbye and how happy he is that my dad enjoyed the day. Everyone knows that Gary Robbins is one of the best race directors around; supremely competent, produces great events, and still finds time to become an amazing athlete and parent, but that moment really made me appreciate how much he cares about people and does everything he possibly can to connect with them. You’re awesome Gary, and we all can’t wait to see you finish Barkley this year.
11:30 behind Chris
I can’t believe my first ever trail race was less than two years ago.
I didn't walk how you said I should walk/
I walk how I do walk/
And that's fine.
It didn't go how you said it would go/
It went how it did go/
And that's fine.
- Tom Rosenthal [Take Your Guess]
The many summits of the Skyline trail in Manning Park are among the most beautiful places in the world. Jagged rocky peaks stand sharp against a brilliant blue sky, and white glaciers sit in the shade of the north-facing slopes. It is impossible to be in such a place and not enjoy it, as badly as your day may be going.
I will not hide it - I truly really really wanted my first ultra win at Fat Dog this year. After a couple of race cancellations on my part, I had made this my goal race for the year and was looking forward to crushing it. My training has progressed significantly from last year, and I knew that if I could stay out of aid stations and keep moving I would have a good shot at challenging Vincent's 8:32 course record from last year. The plan for the race was simple - go out at a comfortable pace, slow down a bit during the hot sections from Sumallo to Skyline aid stations (km 16-48) to keep my legs fresh, then hammer up and over Skyline trail to the finish.
The weather was perfect for the 9 am start, not too cool but going to be a warm day. I took the lead from the start and enjoyed the section from Cayuse to Cascade. My nutrition plan was literally clockwork - a simple 22 minute timer to remind me to eat a gel, maintaining a steady 300 calories per hour.
Running into Sumallo Grove aid station I was feeling perfect and was happy enough with my pacing at just under course record pace. I still had lots of gels, but filled up a couple of water bottles before heading out between the gigantic cedars beside the river. The early part of this 17 km section was nice and shaded, and reasonably cool along the river. After a while though, the trees cleared a little and the clear sunshine filtered through.
Then I ran out of water.
This was such a rookie mistake, and I'm still coming to grips over it. Although I only ran perhaps 20 minutes without water, this was not good - I don't have too much warm weather experience anyways, and couldn't risk getting dehydrated at all. Most of the people I passed along this stretch were wondering where on earth the aid station was - it really felt longer than 17 km, but I think we just didn't do as much research as we should have - I know I had forgotten exactly how far it was to Shawatum. This was the start of the end of my race.
Stage two in my problems happened just as I was heading into the aid station. Breathing in a deep sigh of relief, I inhaled a fly. Not just a normal in-and-spit-out, but a proper in-the-lungs aspiration. When I went to cough it out, I ended up retching for a few minutes instead. Even worse, I could still feel it in there, causing the retching reflex.
The aid station volunteers at Shawatum were awesome, and I left with lots of water and a renewed supply of gels. Five minutes on the trail and my timer went off, and as normal I pounded a gel. Immediately I felt it coming back up, and fifteen seconds later I was hunched over the side of the trail. I drank to replenish the water I had lost, and waited a few minutes to let things settle. Unfortunately the next gels came straight back up as well. And the next. And the next. I don't know if it was overdoing the gels, the heat, the short time without water or the retching from the bug, but my stomach was NOT happy with me.
I was losing energy and water fast, and focussed on just making it 15 km to the Skyline aid station. I knew I needed to sit, drink and eat something other than gels. I was also getting worried about my salt supplies since all the chips I had eaten had going out as well.
I made it into Skyline Aid a few minutes under course record pace with my legs feeling fresh and ready for the climbs. This was supposed to be the moment I'd waited for - quick change of gear and up over the final 33 km to the finish, but it wasn't to be.
I sat, I ate, I got my bottles filled, I talked with the volunteers, then I found myself on all fours spewing into the dirt.
I tried pickles, ginger ale, chips, watermelon. I puked some more. I got myself off the ground just long enough to give Oleg a high-five as he came into the aid station.
I lay down in the shade, I used an ice pack to cool off, and I puked again. Regrettably I don't have any pictures to share of all this, I know you're just dying to see it for yourself.
Oleg headed back up the trail. I worked on getting things under control. Skyline trail is so remote, and I didn't want to go up there without some knowledge that I would at least be safe.
In the end, I stayed in the aid station for an hour and four minutes.
I need to thank the volunteers at Skyline Aid station. You brought me food, you filled my water, you moved a cot into a bug-free shelter and brought me ice. You kept me company and gave me every resource I could ask for. In return, you got to see a smelly tired runner puking his guts out. Thank you so, so much - I know Skyline Aid sees a lot of carnage, but know that there are so many people who continue because of the support that you give. Thank you.
I have no regrets - safety is the important thing. I didn't cause an evacuation on trail, and I didn't ruin anyone else's race by being overly reckless and needing help. I probably could've gone out a bit earlier and finished earlier, but to do so would have meant risking more than my own safety.
When I felt that at least my body temperature was under control, if not my stomach, I left the comfort and security and proceeded to walk hills that I had trained to run up. For a while I seriously considered turning around and earning my first DNF, but could picture that red entry on ultrasignup.com and just walked instead. I chewed gels and said "mmm!" to convince my sore and angry stomach that I was happily eating chocolate pudding, and managed to keep down perhaps 250 calories, which really isn't enough for 47 km of mountain running.
Even without fuel, my legs were pretty happy to keep on marching. I heard that I was still in second place for the 50-mile, and I started to pass a few 120-ers here and there. I took inspiration from these people who had been out for more than 160 km and 30 hours, and were still moving. I pushed away the the thoughts of a DNF and ignored the prospect of an afternoon's slow starvation as the alpine beauty opened up around me.
I hiked the uphills, I ran down and sometimes walked when it was flat. I tried to not fall down and to enjoy the views whenever I could look up. My brain was operating on a minimum of energy, and even now, 48 hours after my problems started, I am still having some trouble functioning (a record number of typos here). At times, you need to readjust your goals and enjoy where you are and what you are doing, regardless of whether it meets your previous expectations. Adapt and move on.
I crossed the finish line in 9:38, eight minutes slower than last year, and 1:06 behind the course record. My finish was pretty emotional for me, not least because of the weakened state I was in. After thanking Heather for a great event and explaining why I looked like I was dying I celebrated my second place finish with a series of all-fours puking and an hour and a half in the medical tent retching until my exhausted stomach muscles fell into fatigue. It wasn't until late that evening that I was able to keep any food down.
Sometimes things don't go to plan, and it is important to be adaptable and to learn from your experiences. It's also important to just be happy with things as they are, how they are. I'm just so grateful for having the chance to hang out with some amazing people for a weekend. Being a part of an event like this does put things in perspective, and I really have nothing to complain about. Yes, my day didn't go to plan, but that happens. As the shirt says, "suck it up whiney baby."
The only question is, what distance for next year?
It appears I need to make a formal apology to the 50 kilometre distance, which I previously thought to be too rushed and awkward to be really enjoyable. I was wrong. I'm sorry.
Buckin' Hell is a stupidly technical 50k on Vancouver's North Shore mountain biking and hiking trails. The course spends all of its time going up or down, and tops out at 1200 metres on Mt Seymour for a total of 2600 metres total climbing and descent. As if this weren't enough, the trails are not exactly smooth, with stairs, rocks, roots, big rocks, sharp rocks, little rocks and nice big mud puddles. I do not particularly pride myself on my technical abilities, but this was a blast nonetheless.
The start from Deep Cove seemed pretty quick. The front pack went out pretty hard, and I had promised myself that I would keep my pacing in check. I was using this as a training run for Fat Dog in August, and told myself to keep the pace nice and easy until the top of CBC trail, about halfway through and most of the way up Mt Seymour. At that point it would be mostly downhill and I could do as I liked.
So, instead of worrying about falling behind the lead, I found someone cool to talk to - Pete from Whistler (who would go on to win the race) - and chatted incessantly while climbing through the forest.
Although none of the trails were smooth, there was such a neat mix that the whole race was always interesting. The first descent was along Dale's, starting out with beautiful mountain biking cambered switchbacks. Letting the legs open up and flying down these, barely having to turn as I banked at thirty degrees left-right-left-right was just awesome. Unfortunately for me, it didn't last long, with roots and big drops over granite rocks making up most of the descent. Pete had fallen behind a bit on the climb, but now came simply SCREAMING past. I would not be the only person amazed at his downhill abilities that day.
I had more training purposes in this run than simply physical preparation. In addition to practicing pacing, I wanted to get my aid stations dialed in. In past races I've really done a poor job of getting out quickly, wandering in to the stop, taking a moment, selecting what food I want, sometimes sitting (or lying) down without a clear time frame in which to get up again. I was inspired by a tweet from Ian Sharman showing his aid station stop during Western States. From arriving to exiting, including swapping hats, bottles, garbage and nutrition, took all of seven seconds. I can forgive myself for taking a few minutes during my first ultras since I was getting used to how everything worked, and was pretty uncertain about my abilities, but each of those 3-10 minute aid stations were stacking up to make a big difference.
At 20 km in, I couldn't have been looking forward to the 1000-metre climb more. Getting in lots of vert has been a growing part of my training, and big climbs are not particularly daunting anymore. I passed a few runners on the way up, and enjoyed the transition of trail from smooth gravel to lumpy tracks to woodwork-laden double-black-diamond mountain bike routes and finally on to the road. At the summit turnaround I only saw two runners ahead of me, but wasn't sure if there were more ahead of them that I had missed, or if they were part of the relay instead of the full 50k, since all of the race bibs looked identical.
The trails at the summit were really quite rocky, making slow going for me. I just don't want to take the risks of twisted ankles or falls on high-risk trails like that, but it comes at a cost. That cost arrived in the form of Pete. Making our way back towards the summit parking lot there was just no way I could possibly keep pace - he was easily moving 30-50% faster than me, and was soon out of sight. Unknown to me, he would go from fourth at the turnaround, and shoot past two amazed runners ahead on the downhill for the win.
I made a mental note to learn how to do that sometime, and plodded along at what felt like a fast but safe effort on the rocks. After a long while the trail finally started to head down the mountain again on relatively smooth trails and I could pick up some speed. I kept up with nutrition - another training goal - by pounding gels at and between aid stations. In the end I took 11 gels and most of a can of soup along with some watermelon for a total of 1300 calories, which is still a little bit low, but definitely in the right ballpark for a race like this. I'm grateful that gels work for me, because they are just so much easier and faster to take than chewable foods.
After a short uphill the remainder of the main descent was along the Severed trail. With either a little less caution, or a little more familiarity with technical stuff by that point I let loose and had some fun, gliding over short drops and rocks, barely in control at times but keeping risk to a relative minimum. Keeping my arms up and flailing to keep balance, I looked like a late audition for a Harry Potter movie. I did take a quick detour down a wrong trail, a byproduct of watching my feet and moving quickly. I don't think it cost me more than two minutes.
At the final aid station I made good on my training goal. Letting out a signature "whooop whooop" for fun and to let my crew (dad) know that it was me, I skidded in on the steep gravel trail, spraying rocks onto the parking lot. I threw down my old water bottle, grabbed a gel, drank my fill, got rid of my garbage, and picked up a fresh bottle in seconds, and was up the trail again in flash and slipped slightly as I took off again, spraying more gravel to make things nice and symmetrical.
Not only does saving 2-5 minutes add up when there are 7 aid stations, but your mindset really changes for the better, thinking not of stopping, but of getting going again. I'm really looking forward to seeing how big a difference this strategy makes at Fat Dog and Whistler, where I lost lots of time at aid stations last year.
The last section of 6 km started with a nice 200 metre climb on groomed gravel trails - easily runnable - before transitioning to a crowded, rocky, rooty, wide path through to Deep Cove. I was running a bit scared since I felt slower than most on this stuff, so kept up my pace and tried to be as considerate to all of the poor tourists as I could. This section felt way, way longer than I was expecting, making for a tiring end to the race.
Finally the finish was in sight. I screamed my way across and gave Gary a high-five. He responded by sticking a microphone in my face, to which I took a moment then gave my thanks for what was truly a beautifully run event. The course markings obviously took a huge amount of work, the volunteers were all outstanding, and although it isn't necessarily all to my strengths, there is no doubting the quality of the course.
Thanks to Gary Robbins and all of the Coast Mountain Trail Series volunteers. That was a spectacular day enjoyed by all, I look forward to next year.
5:34 gave me a fourth-place finish out of ~120 starters, 18 minutes behind "Gravity is my Friend" Pete and two others, all of whom and others I enjoyed meeting and talking with for a couple hours at the finish, for a perfect end to a great day.
Things have been turbulent since Gorge Waterfalls. In late April, right after I'd finished my recovery I made the grievous error of going for a leisurely paddle in a kayak on a beautiful Spring day. Something in my knee rebelled against this atrocity, and I spent most of May trying to get the thing back in order. Elk Lake was a write-off, and I also had to cancel another race which was going to be in just a couple weeks, but whatever. For now I'm just happy to be running again and putting in steady miles ahead of Fat Dog in August. I might have a couple small projects that will make up part of my training, we'll see.
My first test of the recovered muscles/tendons/whatever it was came in the form of the Run for Water ultra. I can't say enough good things about this event, and if you're in the lower mainland, you really should join. No, it's not a race, no, it isn't on epic mountain trails. What it is is a chance to spend a day talking with awesome runners while raising a ton of money for water infrastructure in Ethiopia. I will do this event every single year that I am able. The weather was pretty rainy this year, but thankfully not too cold. A great support crew kept us well provisioned throughout the day, all along the 56 km route.
Somehow I got it into my mind a while back that it would be fun to start doing Gulf Island raids - in one day ferry over, run to several key landmarks on the island, take some photos, share some tweets, eat some food then blast back to the terminal to catch a boat back. Gabriola needs a re-do since I was only able to stay for a couple hours.
Galiano was yesterday, and didn't disappoint. Much more elevation change than Gabriola, I had a full five hours of running on gorgeous trails, bushwhacking my way through areas I probably wasn't supposed to be in, and generally having a grand old adventure. I'd been staring at Mt. Galiano every time I took the ferry for the past year and a half and thinking I should probably run it. I was right:
In terms of competition, the Gorge 100k was not a goal race for me this year. The plan was to go out, finish my first 100k in a respectable time, meet some cool people and generally gain experience. As a bonus, I'd get my qualifier to enter the Western States lottery. The Gorge field is generally very competitive, so I was definitely not there to try and place well - I'll leave that for another day!
My last long run was just 11 days before the event, cramping my tapering period somewhat. In addition, I had my usual pre-race week lethargy. I figure this is an evolutionary adaptation previously used to conserve energy when the kudu starts to run out and another persistence hunt is imminent. Pretty useful when you think about it - keeps your body from expending too much energy right before a big journey. Amazing that the abstract concept of a large race can produce such physical responses in our bodies. Of course, this adaptation pales in comparison with the immediate pre-race effects caused by nerves, which also have their uses.
The ten hours of travel from Victoria to Portland brought me to a hotel packed with cool people. Ten more hours had us all standing in a dark parking lot beneath some hills, 333 crazy people all hoping to cover one hundred thousand metres in less than the 17-hour cutoff.
The course consists of a 50 km out-and-back route along the southern bank of the Columbia river, travelling through the forested hills. As per the name, it is rather famous for passing by (and under) some pretty spectacular waterfalls. There were several points on course where I actually stopped for a while to drink in the views.
The 6:00 am start (THANK YOU RAINSHADOW RUNNING FOR CHANGING IT FROM THE PAST 4:00 AM START!!!) had the first hints of dawn on the horizon as we set off. The path followed the highway for a bit, with long dewy grass pre-moistening our feet for the day. To look behind and see over three hundred headlamps following was very special. The weather could not have been better - shorts all the way, not too chilly in the morning, and not a hint of rain all day. Well done meteorology.
After a brief flat mile around the park, the main hill of the course began. Running the roughly paved switchbacks in a crowd was interesting. The powerhikers and hill-runners spent some time coming to an agreement regarding technique and pace, swapping places often, but it all worked out. Since I wasn't there to compete, I fell into an old (and probably annoying) habit of chatting with everyone as we were running, asking where they were from, what their past races were, and discussing the beautiful scenery. I suppose my hill training has been sufficient, because the 500 metre gain was a non-issue, as would be the other 2800 metres of climbing throughout the day.
It was light enough to not have a headlamp on the descent, but that is where I started to get a sense of unease regarding surface. The pace was quick but not crazy, but with so many people behind I felt pressured to keep up the pace - not something I enjoy on rocks.
A note about footing - let me take a moment to describe these rocks, since no other race reports I read really describe the terrain apart from some vaguely ominous terms: There are two lithologies (rock types - excuse me for geology-geeking out for a moment) on course, basalt (columnar and pillow) which makes up those spectacular waterfalls, and dark limestone, which makes up those picturesque mossy rockslide areas. Between the two of them, they form 20-30 km of the total race distance, mostly within the first 20 km of trail. I walked pretty much anything that consisted of rocks. Part of this is due to the sandals, but most is because I don't want to trip/fall/roll ankle/face plant. The basalt chunks are embedded in the trails in fist-sized lumps or larger, making foot placement a constant draw of attention. It's not impossible, but you have to slow down to minimize the potential for carnage. Luckily these aren't too slippery, but they are relatively sharp and embedded in the trail, so you have to be aware. Scree is minimal.
The limestone comprises a much smaller portion of the trail (mostly those rockslide areas, about five of them at ~100 metres each), but boy are some of them slippery! It's still an awesome course, and the rocks are the price to pay for amazing scenery, but these earlier trails are not (in my opinion) in great condition. Expect fallen trees, tight twisting trails and lots of rocks in those early sections in particular. Fun for sure, but not exactly well-maintained. It certainly makes for a much slower course than would otherwise be expected.
The first 50 km of my run was pretty uneventful. No Name aid station (10 km) came and went, the trails led to a 4 km road section and the second aid station where I saw my dad who was crewing for me. I kept up with the calories in the form of shot bloks, and chugged along.
The section from Yeon (20 km) to Cascade Locks (35 km) was way less technical but with a corresponding lack of waterfalls. I found someone to run with, Tim from San Fran, and we yapped for about an hour about our past races, goals and discovered we both had a similar attitude towards the day - have fun and don't focus on competition too much.
Cruising into the Cascade Locks themed aid station, a guy grabbed my waterbottle and helpfully started helping me get all my gear in order. It took me a while to realize it was Yassine Diboun, a runner whose accomplishments I really respect. It is such a cool aspect of our sport that even those who are among the elites get out to volunteer on course. This community is awesome.
The 15 km to the turnaround at Wyeth was easy, non-technical and fun. The descent into the aid station was surprisingly gradual, although there were a couple points in this section where I hadn't seen a course marking for a bit too long and was wondering if I was off-course, but eventually one would always appear. This leg did feel way longer than 15 km though...
I got into the turnaround in just 5:05, way under my prediction of 6:00. I was feeling great, physically very fresh and mentally fine. I sat and drank some soup, amused spectators by (unsuccessfully) trying to wash some of the pollen out of my eyes with my water bottle, and then set off back towards the start.
It didn't take long before the mental struggle began. I think the problem was that I didn't have the proper motivation to cope - no thoughts of competition or a certain time goal meant that I faced an interesting problem; I would tell myself "Hey, know what, see that mossy slope in the sunshine? You could have a nap! Just an hour... you'd still finish, and it would be so nice!" Unfortunately I didn't really have an answer to that, making things difficult.
I battled it by tailing other runners to relieve some of the decision making. It's so much easier to just follow a pair of shoes than to decide if this hill is worth running or walking. In the end though, you just have to keep moving, and one way or another that's what I coerced myself into doing.
One thing that did go well this race was food. Shock to the rest of the running world, I'm sure, but gels are amazing! I had only taken two before race day - a GU apple which I was not a fan of, and a Clif razz which was stomachable, but also easy and quick to get down. so, I broke my rule of "nothing new on race day" and packed a whole bunch, figuring that they were basically liquefied shot bloks anyways, and should be that much of a change. Total success, and probably a game-changer since the chocolate ones are surprisingly delicious. Coupled with watermelon, two cans of butternut squash soup and brushing my teeth 80 km in and I felt pretty good about nutrition. No puke too.
Shortly after the road section Tim caught up with me, and together we tackled the remainder of the course. I really enjoyed running with someone, each of us pacing the other and sharing the experience.
After a very fast last couple of kilometres (not my idea), we crossed the line in 11 hours and 40 minutes, and gave the RD James the traditional high-five. I tried to remain standing for a while to talk to people, but eventually just had to collapse in a heap as per tradition.
Overall, it was a mental battle, not a physical one, and more experience which helps me to understand how I work as a runner. The volunteers were top-notch, with all of the aid station volunteers being extremely helpful and competent. As long as you like your technical trails and forest views, it's an easy race to recommend. I'll be entering my name into Western States for next year (<10% chance I'll get in first time), and I'm already looking forward to the next race, Elk Lake 50-mile in May. It's astonishing to me that when I did my first ultra I didn't run for three weeks after - mentally and physically I never wanted to move again. Just 24 hours after the race I was looking forward to the next one, and 48 hours after I was out for a little run on the trails. It's amazing how our bodies adapt to the conditions we place them in.
Finally, a lesson as I write this:
Jars of pasta sauce labelled "Spicy Red Pepper" are NOT good recovery foods.
Especially when combined with tofurkey cajun sausages.
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains