I have discovered that I enjoy hot chocolate
I swear, it feels like I haven't seen the sun in two months. I know that it's probably only day or two at most, but looking out my window at the impenetrable grey mass that is a foggy day on Burnaby Mountain, it is hard to remember what direct sunlight feels like. Or why shadows form.
But! I have rediscovered cocoa! As someone with an extremely exclusive diet, this is a major breakthrough, and yet another caveat in the details of my dietary nuances. "Nope, no hot drinks, I just don't like them. Apart from hot chocolate - almond milk with unprocessed sugar, Green and Black's 71% and raw cocoa in case you're offering."
I visited the Salomon store a couple of weeks ago and picked up some new summer running stuff. Shorts, shirt and SPF 50 hat. The sun retreated into hiding hours later.
Overall, the off-season has gone well. January was a total shambles of course, what with the food poisoning and getting sick thrice over from various maladies (worry you not - nothing serious), but February continued the ever-increasing trendline on my mileage spreadsheet, and March has seen a weekly average of well over 100 km/week, despite the lack of sunshine. Yesterday was an easy 53 km, and my last long run before my first race.
Oh yes, races you say? My schedule is finally set, with a last-minute switcheroo on a couple things.
First up is the Gorge Waterfalls 100k in Portland in a week and a bit (eep!). Looks beautiful and should be fun as I don't plan on taking it too seriously.
The rest of the year will be filled with four other events, most familiar, one considerably less so, but more on that later.
For now, it is cold and foggy and raining and it is time for cocoa while the weather is dreary enough to enjoy it. I hear sun is on the way.
I can be a little meticulous about taking care of things. I have an Excel sheet to track my car’s maintenance and a little kit for cleaning my camera lenses. When I started running, I made darn sure to spend as much time as I needed learning proper technique before upping my mileage, and even then I did so slowly. In general, this is a good system and keeps things lasting a long time.
However, when something beyond my control goes wrong, I do tend to overreact. So consider this:
I have a sore leg.
It started around New Years; left calf, deep inside. Didn’t improve for a couple weeks, and after running a hard 100-km week on it, a friend suggested that it might be a muscle tear and I should take it easier. So I have. I’ve been stretching obsessively and running very little for two weeks. It has not improved one jot, but neither has it got worse. Obviously, deep, excruciating muscle pains with every step could be signs of an injury, and should be treated with respect. Except those aren’t my symptoms.
My leg has the most mild, tiny twinge, barely there when I run. 90% of the time I don’t feel any pain whatsoever. Sometimes when I stand up it hurts momentarily, but mostly it hurts when I poke at it to see if it is still painful (duh). As a result, I now find that I have probably taken two precious weeks off training when all I really needed was a massage or a new stretch.
This is not a new problem. I actually wrote this blog back in July and am now simply substituting “left calf” for “right knee” since my previous “injury” involved quads that just needed a stretch, yet caused me more than two months of doubt. Of course it went away, just like that similar mystery pain I had in my shin. Or that time my ankle swelled up a tiny bit. And yet, even though I can clearly see the pattern, every new pain renews my Runner’s Hypochondria, convincing me that this time it is something serious.
Obviously I am just worrying too much. However, running until something finally does get injured is even worse! This isn’t about pain – I’ve happily run with a big gash in the bottom of my foot, or continue on barefoot even after an encounter with a thumbtack, cases where the cause of the pain is obvious and won’t lead to further injury. But I hope to get through my ultra career with all limbs intact - longevity is more important to me than outright competition, so where does the balance lie?
I cannot be the only runner to suffer from an over-eager self-preservation instinct. Where is the balance between overtraining and too much caution? How can we differentiate between an imminent injury and something that needs a stretch?
Comments, advice and discussion appreciated
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.
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.
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