It’s taken me a while to write this one. Mostly that is because the 2015 Glacier Grind really didn't go to plan, and it has taken some time to get my thoughts in order and figure out exactly what I learned from it.
The race was meant to be an intermediate in my racing schedule, sitting between the Fat Dog 50 and Whistler 50 (milers). I assumed that it would be way easier than Fat Dog, after all, it is only about half the distance. One thing which I was quite interested in was the chance to compare my times to those of the elite-elite athletes who would be present, namely Adam Campbell and Ellie Greenwood, two people I greatly admire in ultrarunning. Not only are their accomplishments remarkable, but they are also excellent ambassadors for the sport, being awesome people. In time, I do hope to increase my training to the point of being close to the elite level, and this was supposed to be an early test to see how far I still had to go.
Lesson 1: Don’t be nervous.
I will admit to being star-struck at the pre-race meeting, which was held in the railway museum. Which is awesome. Ellie gave a great inspirational speech about the inevitability and usefulness of lows within running careers. By chance I found myself standing next to Adam, and I suddenly felt like I didn’t even belong in the same room as these elite runners. I mean, Ellie was on the cover of my first ever issue of Ultrarunning Magazine thanks to her Comrades win, and Adam was on the cover of my latest issue, next to Kilian Jornet at Hardrock! Unfortunately, I got a little nervous from all this, which is never a good thing.
The race day start was nice and early at 7:00 am. The weather was humid, but not too cold. As seems to be usual with my dearth of race-day tactics, I headed out near the front of the pack, with only Adam ahead of me. The course started with a nice 5 km fairly flat loop, and Adam was soon out of sight up the small hills. I led the chase pack for a while, feeling some pressure to keep up a good pace on the wide trail.
Imagine my surprise when I was passed by Adam again! He had taken a slight wrong turn but didn’t take long at all to catch up and pass again. Taking a left for the 5 km loop I found myself in a pack of five with Vincent from Fat Dog, Ellie and two others. We stayed together for a while, chatting about the race ahead until the beginning of the climb, but something quickly felt wrong. We knew that the climb was unbroken and long, but here we were going back down! Everything also looked strangely familiar...
Lesson 2: If something feels wrong, it probably is.
Ellie and I slowed down, and after a moment of indecision I yelled at the others to stop. We quickly decided to turn around, realizing that we had accidentally started to go down the 5 km loop again. Backtracking, we all quickly found our mistake, and re-joined the course behind a whole bunch more runners. Now that we were on the right trail, it was time to get to work on the long climb ahead.
Lesson 3: a 1300-metre climb is no joke.
For some reason, I thought that I would have no trouble with this climb. After all, it was about the same as the Skyline climb during Fat Dog, and that was after 48 km of running, not 5! However, whether it was steeper, on a narrower trail, too early in the race, too fast or simply not ready for it, I got chewed up. I hadn’t studied the course map enough to have any reference points of where I was, and so I continually thought “it must end soon!” My nerves also became an issue at this point. My anxiety from the night before, coupled with finding myself running alongside ultrarunning heroes, combined with the confusion caused by the wrong turn meant bad things for my stomach. I tend to get gas attacks when I am really nervous, and just 8 km into the race I now had some stomach cramps to deal with.
It was one-foot-in-front-of-the-other powerhiking for what felt like hours. Hearing quick footsteps behind I moved over to let someone run by – perhaps they had just saved up during the 5 km loop and were now spending that energy attacking the uphill. I turned to say something encouraging, but instead just exclaimed “whoa!” It was Adam again, making up for lost time after having taken the same wrong turn as us and completing the full 5 km loop! Watching him run up this steep slope was very interesting, since he was able to keep a much faster pace than I normally see. Typically, my powerhiking pace is enough to keep up with runners, something that I first saw at Diez Vista. Although most people run perhaps 5% faster on steep grades, it seems to be at a high efficiency cost. So normally, I just walk losing a little distance, and then quickly catch up the small distance lost by running slightly quicker during when the trail flattens out even a bit. With Adam though, he was running at a very decent pace, nothing that walking could have maintained. Most importantly, it didn’t appear that he had to maintain a hard effort for this – it looked efficient and just fun! I suppose that is a way to recognize the truly competent – when an exceptional performance is made to look easy, it’s not a coincidence. I made a mental note to spend even more time training on steeper hills.
The climb eventually did end. Just 15 km in, and my calves were already pretty much shot, I had no idea what place I was in, with my stomach issues I wasn’t eating enough shot bloks and the weather was getting cold with the altitude. Whine whine whine!
Who cares - off to the alpine! The trails were mercifully flat or even downhill, and I got back to a nice pace. Not long though, and it was clear someone wanted past. Quickly. I jumped off the trail when I could, and watched as Ellie took off. Ellie runs like no other runner I have ever seen. Some cruise, others glide, some bob, some crash. I don’t think there is another word for it – Ellie just motors. Her arms are out and pumping like crazy, she just exudes determination. It is actually really intimidating, but don’t be fooled – even when racing she is an awesome person, yelling out some encouragement and advice with regards to my stomach troubles on the way past up into the alpine.
Lesson 4: Distance is not representative of difficulty.
Going into this race, I had thought that, since the race was only 43 km long, that it would be much easier than Fat Dog. As it turned out, terrain is a much greater proxy for difficulty than distance. Despite being half the length, sometimes the footing on a rainy Mt. Revelstoke is not particularly solid, with plenty of muddy sections. There was also just something indefinable that made this race harder than I expected. Much harder than Diez Vista, for instance, which had more elevation gain and 12 more kilometres.
The foggy treed alpine gave way to foggy rocky alpine. Although very beautiful, I do wonder when I will get to run in some nice weather so that I can actually see the mountains in one of these races? The climbing continued through rocky slopes, which gave a good view of the course ahead through the mist. Adam flew past down the hill from the turn-around, while I kept up the powerhiking on the way up. The peak of the course as at Jade Pass, where two amazing volunteers were huddled in collapsible chairs, in the rain, and fog, and wind, in freezing weather, with snow next to them, for hours. You guys are heroes.
Lesson 5: Eat more.
Turning around was a great feeling – at least the vast majority of the climbing was now done. At this point I still hadn’t eaten enough, and hopes of competition had been shrunk down to “one foot at a time, don’t fall.” I really need to start thinking about more food sources – shot bloks are great for calories, but I just couldn’t get myself to keep eating them this time. Being energy-depleted isn’t good for maintaining a positive mental state, which is key for races like this.
The details of the next hour aren’t important. I struggled, and didn’t quit. The trail was really slick with mud in places, rocky in others, and I found myself walking even slight uphills because of my calorie deficit. I took a pause at the final aid station, and began the descent along the Lindmark trail, which was much more interesting. It was steep, and the trail was composed mostly of soil, with vivid green moss – a true, medium-green – covering almost everything. Tall white granite cliffs would loom out of the mist, and perfectly round tan-coloured mushrooms dotted the slopes. In my energy-deprived state, it was pretty surreal.
It was a very long descent, and I knew I had a runner just behind me, which acted as motivation to keep the pace up. Gradually the technical, slippery, steep Lindmark trail gave way to forest paths, then wide gravel trails, and then finally the rail museum was in sight. I finished the race in 5:35, well behind Adam who won with a 4:28, a full 20 minutes ahead of second place. I wish that the day had gone better, as I feel that there was so much more time to be made up. However, I am happy with the physical effort I put in, if not the skill in race tactics, nutrition and planning. I had hoped to do much better than my 21/82 finishers (I think there was a fairly high drop-out rate, since over 140 were originally registered), but I will take it all the same.
Some days just don’t go to plan, but working through the challenges to a finish gives far more experience than dropping out.
Lesson 6: Thoughts on choosing races
I have some personal observations. They are opinions, and more than that, they are opinions on how my brain and body react to different races at this point in time – I’m not trying to critique race organizers on their distance selection, merely observing. That being said, I am not sold on the 40-60 kilometre distances. To me they are to 50-milers what the 10k is to the half marathon; just a little too quick, and too much of a race. It always feels like the pressure is on to run fast, and stopping will cost precious seconds. In the longer events, you can be more relaxed, taking your time early on, knowing that you should save for the second half. You can stop and eat at the aid stations, happily munching knowing that a minute spent taking care of things will pay off in feeling better for the next hour or two. Personally, this suits my style of running much more, where patience and a relaxed, constant effort will produce better results than going flat-out, which would probably result in crash-and-burn.
I still very much enjoyed the race, how could I not when it was so well organized and with such a great group of runners and volunteers? 5 Peaks put on a great event, particularly with all of the difficulties with bears this year. However, although any excuse to run in the mountains is worthwhile, I will try to keep my race calendar filled with as many 50-milers as possible, and perhaps some that are longer.
Next weekend is the Whistler 50, my last race of the year. It’s flat, 50 miles, and I hope to run considerably faster than I ever have over that distance. If the day goes to plan, my training will carry me through (I've run 1468 km over the past five months, and they've been higher-quality than the 798 km in those same months last year. This should make a difference to last year's time of 8:08), and if not, at least I’ll have lots to learn from a good day fighting the challenges.
Writing words here and there on adventures running out in the forests and mountains