I think I first heard of the Fat Dog trail races in my Whistler 50 race package back in October. The brochure made it look incredibly beautiful, and while the 120 mile event was clearly outside of my abilities, the 50-mile seemed like a natural progression of difficulty from the flat, smooth trails at Whistler and Elk Lake. This was my 5th ultra, my second (proper) trail race, and my first in the mountains. At 3300 metres elevation gain, it would have more elevation than the Diez Vista 50k, and with 30 more km and higher altitude it could be significantly more challenging.
After my 3-ultras-in-3-months of the spring, I was looking forward to a small break and some good training. June started with a less strenuous week, followed by the MEC half out in Sooke. For the rest of the month, I focused on quality in my runs, with almost all of my 191 km either going up and down or on technical trails. In July I shifted to pure mileage, jumping fairly suddenly from my usual ~50 km/week to 80+, culminating in my first 100 km week. I was intrigued at how easy it was to increase mileage by 60-100% - it was really a matter of just making each run a little longer and treating rest days as something to be done once a week. Although the increase in mileage was only for a month, the 350 km I logged would go a long way in the race to come.
For those interested, I started with:
- Luna Leadville Pacers (ATS laces)
- Injinji socks
- Brooks arm warmers
- Salomon S-Lab Hydro Skin Set 5L pack (the 2014 one that everyone has, and for good reason)
- Salomon S-Lab Hybrid jacket, calf sleeves, shirt and shorts (I like Salomon stuff, obviously)
- Required gear stuff - space blanket, headlamp, 2L of water and a bunch of Clif Shot Bloks
My goals going in were:
- Stay together and enjoy. In the inimitable words of Jenn Shelton, to try and “race with a f**kload of grace.” I have fallen apart pretty dramatically during my past events, with such theatrics as collapsing at the finish line and generally letting the fatigue get to me. I hoped to remain slightly more dignified this time round.
- Get a respectable time. I was intrigued that the course record was 9:28 (Adam Harris, 2013) – a good time, but far off the typical 50-mile records in the 6-8 hour range, terrain dependent of course. Although I didn’t want to be overconfident, I wondered if I could get close to this time. My main time goal was for something under 10 hours, although I would have been happy with sub-11 too. Additionally, I secretly hoped that if nobody too quick showed up, perhaps I could place quite well...
It poured on Friday, all afternoon and evening. Plenty of lightning and moderately cold temperatures even at lower elevation made me feel very sorry for the 120-ers, who had started that morning. I got my race package and dropped off my two drop bags, then headed over to get some testing done by the UBC kinesiology group who were getting some data from this peculiar crowd of athletes.
After a surprisingly good sleep at the campsite, in amongst all the other ultra-ers, it was finally time to head to the start. It’s a neat feeling being on a bus with so many other endurance athletes – each of us has our own story of how on Earth we got to the point of thinking that running 80 kilometres through the mountains in the rain was a good idea.
Pre-race nerves. I'm the guy in the blue and white hat looking cold. Eric is two to the left, while Vincent is the disembodied head talking to him.
I'm somewhere up there, at the start of the line
The start was as innocuous as one could imagine. The group crossed the highway and walked a short ways onto the trail. We had all self-sorted based on anticipated pace, and since everyone had shied away from being first, that is where I found myself. We waited for four minutes in the trees until the race director Heather simply said “ready, set, go!” and we were off. A few people clapped, some cheered, and I let out a scream loud enough to make the various support crews/families across the street well aware of our departure.
Parallel thoughts quickly arose: “Holy crap, what have I gotten myself into?” and “Holy crap, this is So. Much. Fun.” The trails were nicely maintained, and the occasional views through the clouds down to the highway were amazing. Leading was interesting – I kept a decent pace, putting in a harder effort than I knew I should in order to get some space – I don’t like being followed during races. As would be a theme for the day, the trails were narrow, maybe two feet wide for the most part, and pretty wet in places thanks to the rain. Any hopes of keeping my socks dry were gone after a couple of small stream crossings.
Nearing the first aid station I could hear someone approaching and stepped aside to let Eric scoot past. My ego isn’t large enough to stick with people I know I have no business hanging with, so I let him go ahead. We barrelled through the first aid station, and headed uphill on the out-and-back. Vincent took off after Eric, and I settled back to watch them battle for a while.
The trails were pretty typical west-coast mountains, with plenty of roots and rocks to keep you busy, but entirely runnable and not technical. Overall, about 80% of the trails would be similar throughout the day. This is from the perspective of someone who thinks that the North Shore trails are a bit too much at their worst, and perfect at their best. It was easy to find a nice rhythm, but obviously care was needed to avoid tripping or slipping, which was more of a hazard after the rains.
Returning to Cascades aid (8 km), my momentum carried me a bit too far in the opposite direction, but a kind volunteer shoved me onto the right path while calmly reminding me “the race doesn’t start ‘till Skyline.” A couple of kilometres of icky road was ahead. Nothing terrible in terms of surface, with a fairly wide shoulder to run on, but with cars zipping by it wasn’t the best. Luckily it was downhill and over quickly enough.
Heading into Sumallo (16 km) I was feeling great, joking with the aid station crew and happy to be outside and running. The next section followed the Skagit River. I had heard plenty about the river sections from “the footing was super uneven and hard to find a rhythm” to “demonic mosquitoes.” As I usually find, most advice or information you receive in life is so dependent on context and a person’s viewpoint that it is very likely to be inapplicable for you. I didn't see a single bug the whole run (probably thanks to the rain) and I also found the trails lovely, with only a few sections where the grade was steep enough to warrant walking, or where fallen trees required a check in pace. The views of the river were pretty spectacular, with the occasional climb giving a beautiful straight-down view of the ever-changing forested landscape. I passed a bunch of 120-ers along here, all in varying states after what must have been a horrific night. All of you – my hat is off to you, you are all heroes. I saw Jeff Pelletier (the only person I had really met before, having run some of the Diez Vista 50k together) in and out of the Shawatum AS (33 km). He looked strong, despite having already run for more than a day and 90+ miles.
The aid stations were exceptional, with lots of food (I stuck to watermelon) and a great atmosphere. The actual atmosphere had also been very kind to this point, but now, 3 hours into the race, the rain started up.
At that moment, I wasn’t bothered, and took off down the trail, riding on the waves of cheering from the encouraging aid stationers. I didn’t see another 50-miler in or out, which gave me confidence that I was firmly in third place. The next 15 km were probably the most enjoyable of my race. It wasn’t too cold out, and my waterproof jacket kept my torso reasonably dry. However, the trail was so overgrown that I had no choice but to barge through. Every plant was covered in cold water, giving a similar feeling to running through lawn sprinklers. At times the trail was almost invisible, hidden beneath the weighed-down foliage. For some bizarre reason, I loved this, and found myself belting out ironic songs (Here Comes the Sun; Summer of ’69) as I crashed through. I was very grateful that I had worn my Salomon calf sleeves – regardless of whatever claimed performance improvement of compression stuff, they stopped my legs from getting chaffed to heck by the somewhat thorny plants.
The Race Doesn't Start 'till Skyline
By the time I got to Skyline aid station (48 km), I was soaked but ecstatic. I devoured their watermelon and raided my drop bag for warmer clothes. I swapped t-shirts and packed my thermal top, but simply could not get my gloves on. Wet skin is not conducive to the application of clothing, and I spent long enough struggling with various pieces of apparel for fourth-place Chris to show up, and for me to get chilled. After finally getting my jacket over my slightly fuller pack, I set of with Chris for the 1250 metre climb over the next 10 km.
We started together, but I was having temperature troubles. After a few minutes of hard climbing I stopped to put my thermal on. The trail went up and up and up. I hiked, guessing that my pace was quick enough to keep up, and by running the flats and downs I eventually caught up with Chris again.
Unfortunately, despite all the climbing, I just wasn’t warming up. My guess was that I hadn’t fueled enough, since I didn’t really have time markers to get me to eat at regular intervals, so I gobbled some cran-razz Shot Bloks. I’m still a newbie at this, and wasn’t too comfortable going to altitude in uncertain weather while being cold for that long. I got out my space blanket and just kept on trudging while my hopes for competition and fast times were replaced with more basic concerns. Happily, after 45 minutes of chilly cold hiking the rain slowed and I started to dry off. When I got to Camp Mowich AS (62 km) I was feeling okay. I stuck around and chatted with yet another awesome aid station crew while devouring half a bag of Wavy Lay’s (have you ever checked how many calories those things have???). I started to ponder my chances of finishing well, since it was 4:00, seven hours after the start, and I voiced that I might still get under ten hours and close to the 2013 course record if I could hold a pace of 10 kph while running. This proclamation was met with much laughter, probably justified considering the shape I arrived in. First-place woman Jenny Hoffman flew through the aid station, and I started off again soon after, feeling much better.
I thought I was well prepared for the Skyline summits, but there were just so many freaking climbs. I had studied the maps, and knew the terrain, but although I was happy on the flats and going down, my calves were shot on the ups and I was just sick of hiking. I did my best, but certainly took a dive in my goal of keeping things dignified when I started yelling at the landscape to give me a break! This was supposed to be the most beautiful section of "the most scenic ultra in Canada" but that evening there weren't many views through the clouds to distract me from the climbs. I guess I'll have to see them next year, perhaps! Finally, after about seven decent ridge climbs, it was time to go down. 6th-place had caught me, but I passed him again on the next down and started the descent.
I had been warned about the early downhill stages, that they were rocky and not entirely runnable. Again, how much context matters for advice! In comparison to navigating the off-trail scree fields of Black Tusk in July, the trail was just fine. In fact, I would say that it was pretty typical for maintained mountain trails, and runnable with only occasional checks in pace. After a while, I was able to start down the nice non-technical descents (my favourite!).
All through the race I was amazed at how much better I felt every time I simply smiled, laughed and appreciated what I was doing. It wasn’t so much a matter of blocking the fatigue as reveling in the task at hand. These downhills made the race fun again. I was also happy with how good my legs felt – the extra miles in training really paid off, as I was able to keep a good pace much longer than in previous races, where I would simply fall apart after 60 km or so.
As I dropped, the air became noticeably warmer and I paused to take off my jacket. Bad idea, since I was so wet and it took a while to get off! I got to the bottom, along the flat trails and could almost see the finish ahead. With about 1 km to go I crossed the bridge at the lake and on the other side had a look behind. To my surprise, 6th was still with me, maybe only 15 seconds back! I’m not usually too competitive, preferring to run my own race, but this was just the motivation I needed and I took full advantage. As soon as I was out of eyesight, I took off as best I could, determined to get far ahead by the time the trail was straight again. It felt kinda mean to try and discourage someone from racing like that, but anything to get watermelon sooner, I figured.
Crossing the lake, I saw Jenny just ahead. I did my best to gain another place, but she seemed determined to sprint to the finish, and there was no way I could keep up. I ended my race in 5th, with a total time of about 9:30:32, two minutes off the 2013 CR, 58 minutes behind Vincent (congrats on the win!) and well under my goal of sub-10 hours.
For some reason I didn’t realize exactly where the finish line was, and so rather awkwardly ran straight past the race director before realizing that I had, in fact, finished and could stop running (sorry Heather!). I went back to thank her for an amazing race, and I truly meant it – RDs put in so much work and create these amazing things for us to enjoy, and I am very grateful. Same goes for all the volunteers, especially those who brave horrid weather on mountaintops, you make amazing things happen.
I devoured my well-earned slice of watermelon before being snagged by the UBC people for some post-race tests. I sat in their motorhome waiting my turn and saying various incomprehensible things in between moans of pain and comments on how crazy they must think we all are. It turned out I had lost nearly 10% of my already quite low (single-digit) body fat percentage, supporting my hypothesis that I simply didn’t fuel well enough. I did surprisingly well on the cognitive stuff, probably due to nine hours of pattern recognition and quick reactions, but sure didn’t feel well when I got my blood pressure taken. While the student and prof were having a discussion about the equipment, I held up my hand and said “sorry, but there’s a 20% chance I might puke. Do you have a bucket or something?” They made hurried movements. I yelled “30%!” resulting in appropriately frantic motions to get me out the door. FYI, watermelon puke is by far the worst. No good, nuh-uh.
They were very kind and gave me blankets while they did the rest of their measurements (thank you very much guys, sorry I was so gross, hope the data is good), then I went to go warm up and get some food over the next few uncomfortable hours.
The race was exceptionally well organized and although the weather made some moments difficult, I had a great time. Everyone was friendly, and the trails were spectacular. I would immediately recommend this race to anyone looking for a nice trail ultra. Just make sure you have those required gear items - you will be glad you have them.
I fell asleep in the car on the way home the next morning. One moment I was in the serene mountains, the next surrounded by the horror of terrible drivers on Vancouver’s crowded freeways. More and more I realize how I need time in the mountains. Quiet places of nature and beauty are not always comfortable, but hold a value that cannot be overstated for crazies like me.
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains