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