2015 Whistler 50 Mile
Running was everything, and all was running. The only way I could keep moving was to stare at the ground, wipe my brain clean of the pain, the fatigue and the worry. With them went my other senses, memories of the past and thoughts of the future. It wasn't a comfortable mental state to be in, with the emptiness, but it was much better than dealing with the physical anguish I was inflicting on myself.
My goal for the immediate future of my running is to become sub-elite. I'm not keen on chasing wins just yet (I tend to be pretty cautious, and don't want to push myself too hard and get injured from something reckless. I also recognize that truly elite performances are a loooong way off. However, one step at a time and who knows, right?), but would like to attain a perceived level of proficiency in this crazy sport, perceived from my own perspective and for my own judgement.
The Whistler 50 was my only ultra last year, and my second ever. At 8:08 I was quite happy with my finish, and was looking forward to bettering that time by spending less time walking or stopped at aid stations. While the course was nice (4 x 20k loops) along with much of the scenery, it was the people that really set the event apart. The main aid station in particular was staffed by several race directors who had plenty of experience and made the day very special. The fact that the start/finish was held in the Olympic Plaza didn't hurt either - with about 1000 people doing the relay, the energy at the start of each lap was immense.
My goal was sub-7 hours. Having completed a 7:38 at Elk Lake in May, I thought this would be a reasonable target considering the effort I had put in over the summer. However, with Fat Dog in August and Glacier Grind just four weeks before Whistler, I was wary of pushing myself too hard, and left out some training so that I could recover properly.
I kept myself relaxed to the start. I didn't want another repeat of stomach cramps, so I focused on smiling and pretending that I was absolutely confident that running 80k wasn't going to be difficult. The weather was thankfully perfect - crisp but not too cold and dry. It would stay cloudy and a nice temperature all day with only a few drops of rain.
I made a point of not chasing the four fastest guys like a hyperactive greyhound for once, instead falling behind and letting their headlamps fade into the trees ahead after a few kilometres. Running alone, I myself formed the chase pack, and I have some nice memories from these pre-dawn miles. Light slowly crept into the sky, but was punctuated by blackness in the forested sections. I looked behind to see if the next runner was visible (actually that's a lie - I was being paranoid about cougars) and my headlamp lit my breath in the cool air like a steam locomotive as I powered along, feeling happy to finally be running after a almost two weeks of tapering. The sunrise was spectacular over Lost Lake. Lap 1 was over after 1:35:33, ahead of schedule.
I made a conscious effort during this race to do a better job with nutrition. Glacier Grind was bad because of a lack of variety and stomach cramps, while I simply didn't eat enough during Fat Dog. This time I had access to my drop bag twice each lap, and had it filled with lots of good food that has worked in the past. Over the course of the day I took in 3.5 packs of shot bloks (700 calories), 3 bags of watermelon (150 cal), 2 rice balls (300 cal), a can of butternut squash soup (200 cal) and half a bag of cold roasted potatoes (100 cal) for a total of around 1450 calories. Pretty good, considering the time I was aiming for.
I honestly can't remember much from the second lap. For a brief period I was worried about gas and had some painful stomach cramps for a few minutes, but by forcing myself to relax they thankfully dissipated. The fastest of the relay teams scooted past at around the 35 km mark, much later than last year thanks to my quicker pace. As crazy as it sounds, the first 40 km of these events are pretty easy, but I tried to keep the pace reasonable to not suffer too badly later on. 3:14:08 was on the clock for the end of my second lap.
One of the most amazing parts of this race is the atmosphere at the beginning of each lap. The first kilometre or so takes you straight through the heart of Whistler village. Because the whole town is taken over from the relay and ultra participants, everyone starts cheering as you make your way through. The energy from this is quite special, and far removed from your typical city 10k - you are running through an alpine village after all! It feels more akin to what I imagine some European events would feel like.
As I approached the 50 km mark, things rapidly started to become more difficult. The easy cruising section was now long past, and my legs were starting to get tired. I had completely foregone walking or stopping at aid stations for any appreciable amount of time to this point, but now I was walking the only minor hill on course to try and save my legs. Even so, after something over four hours on the run, the distance was starting to show.
Nutrition was pretty good, I hadn't puked and was getting more calories in than any race before. My training over the past few months had been nearly double the previous year. My best guess for the (relative) lack of endurance in my legs is that I have been neglecting my long runs - with all the racing over the past few months I've spent so much time either tapering or recovering that I haven't had too many 40+ km outings, and now it was starting to tell. In addition, running on such a flat course is unusual for me, spending most of my time on slower, hilly-er trails. It could also have just been that I had run 53 km in less than four and a half hours, either one.
I staggered into the 60 km start/finish at 5:05:56. This was going to be close. I sat down for the first time in five hours and massaged my quads and calves - they were screaming to stop. I drank a whole can of warm Amy's butternut squash soup, the oily salty goodness overwhelming the probability that I might see it again from drinking it too fast. After four minutes I got up; my legs were feeling much better, and I started running as best I could. Once again, the feeling of running through the village, knowing I was going out for the last time, was incredible. The pain and fatigue quickly returned, and although I was motivated each time I saw a course marshal and was able to say to people I had seen for hours "last one!" I lapsed back into suffering pretty quickly. I was convinced that if I just kept running, I could make the 7 hour mark.
At every race there is one volunteer who cheers with such sincerity and sheer volume that the whole event is uplifted by their presence. There was a new marshal out on course during this lap, and boy could I hear her and her cowbell from a good distance! "WOOOOOOOOO!!!!!! CLANG CLANG CLANG! WOOOOOOO!" When I got within sight she was busy talking with someone, but as soon as she spotted me the cheers began "WOOOOO!" Then she spotted my yellow race bib, signifying an ultrarunner, prompting even more enthusiastic cheering. When I got closer she stopped the cowbell for a moment and her expression changed to a look of sincerity as she asked how I was doing. All I could gasp was "last one!" At once her face turned to something between shock and excitement as she screamed "ARE. YOU. SHITTING MEEE??? WHOOOOOOOCLANGCLANGWOOOOOOOOO" as she practically chased me down the trail on a wave of cowbell and encouragement. Whoever you were, thank you for being awesome.
I sat down again at the aid station (68 km). Things were still very rough. I needed just a minute to relieve some of the anguish, and to try and get my head in order again - I had been letting thoughts of just lying down on the side of the path get too far into my head. I don't regret stopping at either of these times - sometimes you need to give yourself a small break to run the better.
At around 70 km, I found the blank mental state. This wasn't something I had done before, and it still sort of unsettles me. This felt worse than "being in the moment" or "blocking the pain," this was blocking life, and it was weird. For the time though, it was better than feeling what my legs were going through, or even thinking about how I still had another freaking hour of this misery to go through. I let my thoughts fade, stared at the ground and didn't look up. I would like to say that I spent the last hours of the race reveling in the beauty of endurance events, but I did not. I wanted it over, and I did not want to have to think about what it would take to get there. Nonetheless, I did not walk, and I kept my pace as high as I could manage. When I occasionally drifted back into more conscious thought, I focused on keeping my stride as efficient as possible, to eek out whatever speed could be coaxed.
I passed the final aid station without slowing, just shouting my thanks to the awesome people who I had hardly seen all day. The clock at the station said I had 18 minutes to cover 3.5 km. In my condition, I did not think there was any way that was going to happen. I knew I would miss my 7 hour goal, and it didn't matter - I just ran all the same.
Running into the plaza, I could finally let my thoughts, emotion, pain and fatigue return. I crossed the line in 7:00:54, and let out a huge scream. Some people came up after and said that I had the best finish. I've just given everything I had for seven straight hours - I ain't finishing quietly!
Finishing a race is terrible. There is only a small moment of relief that the running is over, but within seconds your body hits the stop button. Some awful hormone rushes in, rendering everything incapacitated so that recovery can begin. My teeth, arms and face went tingly as my circulatory system sent blood to my damaged muscles, while the pain that I had been mentally blocking for three hours became all-consuming.
At 5th overall, 3rd man, 2nd in age group (<40), I couldn't be happier with my result. I also don't care even in the slightest that I missed 7 hours - missing a totally arbitrary, self-imposed cut-off time by 54 seconds means nothing to me; the effort I put in, and knowing that I left nothing out there, that is what I am proud of.
32 hours later, and recovery is coming along nicely. I can slowly walk without too much of a limp, and although I'll be missing a couple toenails (my toe socks were rubbing on my pointer toes for some reason) there are no injuries to speak of. I am looking forward to a good solid rest period to fully recover from three good races, and then it is back to training for what I hope will be an excellent year of running in 2016.
I don't know how this all fits into my "sub-elite," aspirations but at least I am getting there. With each race I gain experience, with each year my training becomes steadily more intense. Although my mileage will be more than double this year compared to last, I know that I have so much more to learn and to give to help improve my performances later on. It is this journey that I enjoy, along with the events, places, adventures and people along the way.
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains