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.
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains