Thursday, December 19, 2013

Deception Pass 50k

So, ultra number 12 for 2013 (yes I'm counting the New Years Day Fat Ass 50 - not technically a race; and San Diego 100 - DNF, but I still ran about 50 miles). I can't say I was particularly well prepared for this race, but I didn't hesitate to sign up for it when I noticed it'd fit in my schedule. As one of James "Rainshadow Running" Varner's races, I knew it'd combine a fantastic location, great trails and an unbeatable post-run party, and somehow I'd not been able to run many of his other races this year apart from the Orcas Island 50k, way back at the start of the year.

I arrived at a house full of runners in Oak Harbour the evening before the race, having just about shaken off the hangover from the VFAC Christmas Party the night before. I'd been hooked up with this gang of runners by Alicia, who was also running the 50k in the morning. She seemed relaxed; "I've been drinking all day", she confided in me. I guess it's that time of year. Also in attendeace from BC were Tara and Meghan. I had a couple of glasses of wine, some chips, cookies, pasta; allowing myself to gorge because of the day of running that was approaching. Although to be fair, I'd been using this excuse for several days at this point, so it probably wasn't necessary.

One of the advantages of having a race in December is that everyone's already used to waking up in the dark, so it didn't seem so strange as we drove to the start line in pitch black. As we picked up our bibs, dawn gradually broke revealing a moody, steel grey sky, the wind whipping in over the Salish Sea.
Photo courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama
 There was one very fast looking guy doing a series of impressive looking warm-up exercises at the start line, and sure enough, as soon as race began he immediately took the lead with a brisk pace. The first kilometre was flat and on the road, so what the hell, I thought, I'll play along with this for a while and tucked in beside him. We clicked off this first kilometre in just under four minutes, before the road turned and started to climb steeply. This hit me like a slap in the face and the pack immediately bunched up as we slogged up the short rise. We were then diverted on to a trail which we hurled ourselves down as we immediately descended again. I found myself in a small group of guys near the front, going at a ridiculous pace, so when I got a chance at about two miles in, I backed off at let a slew of other runners steam past me. One of these was my sort-of-namesake Christopher Barry, who I'd first met nearly a year ago at the Cougar Mountain 50k. We'd run together for a while at that race before I dropped him. Today I was the one being dropped.

The next mile of trail took us up to the bridge that crossed the eponymous pass. The trail briefly passed over a short section of beach (bleh) then dragged us upwards with short steep sections punctuated by quick technical downhills. It was around this point that I realized that I'd only really done one proper trail run since August, and we all know how that turned out. In fact, after Squamish, I'd mostly been focusing on speed-work in preparation for the Whistler 50, which was fine, as that was what I needed for that race. After that I'd taken a break and now I'd just got back into training. What I'm trying to say here is that physically, I wasn't exactly ready for this kind of terrain. The climbs were taking a big toll.

Eventually I was up on the bridge and heading over to the north side of the course for a series of confusing "lollipop" out-and-back sections. I'd looked at the course map and been completely bewildered by the way the route snaked back and forth on itself and was convinced that I'd get hopelessly lost and off-course. But thanks to some exemplary marking and marshalling, there was never any doubt about which way to go, so I didn't have that excuse. Not long after crossing the bridge, I was joined by Jon, a fellow ex-pat Brit who I'd met earlier in the year at Capitol Peak. We chatted briefly for a few minutes, before I let him pass me on another short, steep climb.

No sooner had he left me, than a small voice piped up "Hello" behind me. It was Alicia, who was currently leading the women's race, resplendent in a Budweiser trucker's cap. She looked far too relaxed and comfortable, so I also urged her on ahead. I wasn't particularly happy with the number of people I was letting pass me so early on, but I reminded myself that we'd been promised beer and pizza at the finish line, and the only way I could justify that was if I slogged it out and finished the race. So I pressed on.
Totally overdressed.

A little later, I was caught by Tara - wearing a sparkly tutu - and Stacie Carrigan, presumably the pre-race favourite. They both eventually passed me while I stopped at an aid station to dump my wholly unnecessary jacket. This irked me a little; I had no problem with Tara beating me as she's a very talented athlete; it was more about the tutu. Come on. Have a little respect.
Photo courtesy of Angel Rossi Mathis

I had little company over the next few miles as the race gradually stretched itself out. At about 18 km, we hit the bridge for the second time as we returned to the southern side of the sound for the latter portion of the race. The first few kilometres of trail involved a steep climb to the summit of Goose Rock, before being dumped out on to a couple of kilometres of road. It was a fairly uninspiring stretch, but at least I finally got a glimpse of Tara again, a couple of minutes ahead. Spurred on by this I pushed through the aid station as we started the first of two 10 km loops. Within a few minutes, I'd caught Tara, who despite a blazing first half of the race, was starting to slow a little. Then a little later, I caught Jon on a climb; surprisingly he was hiking this while I was running in an odd reversal of our earlier race. We were about half-way through and I was finally starting to warm up.
Cameras make me focus on my running form.
This loop suited me a lot better. A whole lot more runnable and a chance to open up my stride. Repeating a mantra of "Just. Keep it. Rolling." I clicked off the miles at a comfortably brisk pace. I didn't see anyone else on that first loop, until close to the end when several of the front-runners passed me on the start of their second loop. Encouragingly, I could see that I wasn't too far behind a number of the people that had earlier passed me. A lot of the mid-pack runners were now starting their first circuit as I started my second loop. It was nice to have a bit of company out there, especially when you're running faster than they are, or as my friend Elliot described it after the race, "I pretended I was eating their souls".

Scaling the steepest stretch of this course, I noticed a flash of turquoise and ginger a couple of minutes ahead. "Go Alicia!" I yelled, unsure as to whether I was trying to encourage or discourage her. In my mind, the chase was on; I had maybe 10 km to catch her, but she was showing no signs of flagging.
The final chase!
After finishing the loop, passing back through the aid station, and on to the road, I had a good clear view of who was ahead. First I passed Christopher who was struggling, but still smiling. I think. Strung out ahead of me over the next few hundred metres were maybe half a dozen other runners including Alicia. As I pushed ahead along the road, trying to maintain a decent but manageable pace, I gradually started to reel in - and pass - a few of them. But not Alicia. With about two miles to go I noticed that she'd regained the lead that she'd relinquished to Stacie at an earlier stage of the race. We both kept pushing as we hit the last mile of technical trail, but somehow knew we weren't going to catch her. She'd put on a quite remarkable finish.

Eventually, emerging back into the parking lot where we'd started nearly five hours earlier, the finish line drifted into view. I mustered something of a sprint, high-fived James, and congratulated Alicia who'd won the race in a course record time. Myself, I'd just scraped inside the top 10, which was a lot better than I'd anticipated in the early stages of the race. Within seconds I had a cold beer in my hand and was already making serious inroads on the pizza that had emerged freshly baked from a wood-fired stove. There was yet more food and live music from The Pine Hearts inside. *This* is what it's all about.

The course was stunning, the volunteers amazing, and the whole vibe, well, just awesome. It seemed like a great way to cap off a memorable year of running. Looking forward to more of the same in 2014!

Deception Pass 50k web site
Official Results
My run on Strava
Photos by Glenn Tachiyama

Monday, November 4, 2013

Whistler 50

It's one of the peculiarities of ultramarathons that race directors are not content with making their participants merely run a very long way, but they'll also do what they can to make that distance as difficult as possible. Steep climbs, technical trails , suffocatingly hot temperatures and stinging insects were all features of my last race. So when the opportunity came up to race a relatively flat race in cool weather on even terrain, I was intrigued. Excited, even. So I signed myself up for the Whistler 50 as my last big race of 2013.

Now in its third year, the Whistler 50 is more popular as a relay with over a hundred teams taking part each year. The race consists of 4 laps of a 20-km loop; each loop is broken up into a 13 km and 7 km leg. So, an 8-stage relay or a solo 50-mile race. When signing up for the ultra, you're asked for a predicted finish time. I was a little surprised to see that my estimate - 6 hours and 20 minutes - was the fastest so far, with the next quickest being seven-and-a-half hours. Assuming everyone was being realistic I imagined I could be in for a lonely day with motivation being an issue. Fortunately, shortly before registration closed, one more name appeared on the list: Hassan Lofti-Pour, aka Sammy. This changed everything. Sammy's a hugely accomplished runner having won the Whistler 50's predecessor race, the Haney-to-Harrison 100km, and twice won the 120-mile Fat Dog ultra. He's a bit of a local legend, and if he's not running and winning a race, he'll more than likely be out there selflessly volunteering and cheering everyone on. Now I knew I had a race on my hands - Sammy would be a tough competitor, but I was relishing the challenge. I'd tried to put a bit of late-season effort into speed work with some interval training and track workouts, so I hoped that little bit of extra zip might help.

Race day approached and conditions looked perfect. It was forecast to be cool - around 3 °C, but dry and clear. A welcome change from the snow and freezing rain that I'd endured in the relay last year. I met up with Sammy at the pre-race briefing in a Whistler pub and he confessed to not feeling 100%. He'd been suffering from a bad cold and hadn't been able to find anyone able to crew for him during the race. I realize I'm a terrible person for thinking about this, but I couldn't help but feel a little confidence boost. Before long we were heading back into the cold pre-dawn air, to stroll the 400m up the road that were added to the course to make it exactly 50-miles. After a mercifully short time standing around trying to stay warm, we were off.
Pretty shiny, huh?
Sammy and I immediately fell into stride together. I glanced over my shoulder maybe a minute into the race and noticed the rest of the field were already some distance back. "I guess it's just you and me then!" I commented as we trotted briskly towards the village plaza. We were fortunate to have Michael ahead of us as lead bike to guide us through the dark first loop - we still had over an hour until sunrise. We chatted a little, but not too much as we'd settled into a comfortably quick pace. I felt a sense of relief as my body warmed up - the bruised ribs and rolled ankle I'd sustained a couple of weeks earlier at the Stump Jump 50k seemed to have faded somewhat and I felt like I was cruising along pretty smoothly.

After perhaps 3 km I noticed that I'd pulled a few seconds ahead of Sammy. Various scenarios passed through my head. It would be nice to have some company... on the other hand, if I try to stick with him, is his legendary endurance going to make it impossible for me to keep up later in the race? What the hell, I decided. I feel pretty good right now. Let's just go with it. So I kept the pace brisk and gradually opened up a bigger gap over the next few kilometres. I knew the first leg of the course reasonably well from having run it previously as the relay. The first 9 km are essentially flat, but after that there's a steep climb and a much more rolling section of trail ensues. Sammy's an amazing hill-runner so I didn't want to be trying to compete with him on this section. So when I hit that first climb I put my head down and pushed up it as hard as I thought I could reasonably afford to. If he doesn't catch me by the top of the hill, I might just be okay.

It seemed to work; I could see his headlamp bobbing in the distance behind me, but there was still something of a gap between us. I threw myself into the short downhill sections that followed and before long hit the exchange at 13km. Amber, who was crewing for me, was the lone spectator along with the volunteers, but her cheer gave me a welcome boost as I pushed into the second leg of the loop. This part of the course I wasn't familiar with; all I knew that it was fairly rolling for a few kilometres before dropping back down to the paved Valley trail. So I pushed on, maintaining what I hoped was a reasonable pace. The only surprise was a short downhill section that was strewn with rocks - nothing too challenging, but with a gimpy ankle and my flimsiest road shoes on I was a little wary. Still, I survived unscathed and after passing a couple of fellow ultra competitors who'd taken the option of the early start I pressed on for the next 3 km that would take me back to the village plaza and the end of the first loop. 20.5 km down in about 1 hour 28 mins.

This was where I'd decided I'd pick up my hydration pack and gels from Amber; I figured I could manage the first 20 km unaided and liked the idea of running unencumbered. Unfortunately, I'd neglected to plan exactly where we were going to rendezvous and in my panic completely missed her, despite her yelling and wild gesticulating. I was annoyed at having messed this part up, but tried to reassure myself that I could always use the aid stations if necessary. Still, I wouldn't be seeing her again until 33 km into the race. But by the time all these thoughts had gone through my head I was well clear of the plaza and wasn't about to turn around. The best laid plans...

Michael had left us after the first lap, and the relay runners had yet to start, so over the next stage I got to enjoy the still, beautiful morning breaking mostly to myself. I still seemed to be moving well and the pace had only dropped off slightly since that first quick loop. As I came back through the exchange I bellowed Amber's name and finally managed to pick up my supplies. I became aware of a slight tiredness in my legs as I hoisted my pack on to my back. It was a little concerning as I was less than half-way through the race, but then I reminded myself that I'd run a pretty quick 33km, so it's perfectly normal to feel something. Still, I wondered how much I was going to pay for that brisk start. The second leg passed uneventfully enough; I finally composed myself enough to force a gel down at about the 37 km mark - later than I'd planned, but I hoped those long fuel-deprived training runs would help me now. I completed the second lap (40.5 km) in a total time of 2:56:21.

I'd been meaning to record my individual lap splits on my Garmin but hadn't been doing a very good job of it. This continued at this stage where I accidentally hit the "Stop" button instead of "Lap". It took me about ten minutes to realize this, the upshot being that I didn't notice my marathon split - probably around 3:03. Which might have been a good thing as putting in that kind of an effort on a hilly course sounded a little rash. Of course, I'd not known how close Sammy had been to me since those first few kilometres, but I assumed he wasn't far back. And this is what kept me going for the second half of the race. The aid station staff asked if I was going to stop this time around; "Can't stop! Sammy'll catch me!" - and they understood entirely.

It had been a little unfortunate the way the race had panned out because it meant that the bulk of the relay runners were at the opposite end of the course to me, so I didn't get to see as much of my friends from VFAC and Pacific Road Runners as I'd hoped. The first relay runner to pass me did so when I was about 53 km into the race; he was laying down 3-minute kilometres to my 5-min pace which was a little disheartening. Fortunately I was seeing a few ultrarunners around this point as I started to lap a few people. I was occasionally a little jealous of the more leisurely pace they were enjoying.

Things were definitely slowing down for me as I finished the third loop in a time of 1:33 - four minutes slower than the previous lap, but still moving forward. As I passed through the exchange Amber gave me a precious update - "You're five minutes ahead!". This was good, I thought. A substantial lead, but obviously not enough to relax completely. And I knew I was starting to fade - could I hold on for one more lap?
And another loop begins...

Predictably, that final loop seemed to last an eternity. Inexplicable whole new sections of trail seemed to have materialized. Fortunately, the was more and more company on course as the relay runners became more spread out and a few familiar faces amongst the volunteers were around to cheer me on. On my fourth climb up that first steep hill, I finally relented and allowed myself to walk for a couple of minutes. Strategically, it seemed the right thing to do in order to save my legs for the easier runnable sections at the cost of a few seconds on the climb. A much larger crowd had assembled as I hit the exchange for the final time, and their cheers definitely helped as I stumbled into the last leg of the final lap. By now I was well aware that this rolling chunk of the course was the most challenging section of the loop and I struggled badly with the uphills. Around 75 km into the race I felt decidedly weary and wondered how I was going to carry on. I forced down a surprisingly tasty chocolate gel and promised myself a shot of coca-cola at the upcoming aid station. I got there, they didn't have any, so I downed some mysterious yellow liquid and forced myself to lurch on the last 3 km of the race.

Somehow I managed to hold down a reasonable impression of running forward over those last few kilometres and as I finally entered the plaza I allowed myself a little self-indulgence. Without stopping I hurled my hydration pack to the floor which enabled me to remove the lightweight jacket I'd had on all day, so everyone could see the shiny new VFAC shirt I'd been wearing underneath. Elated, and mightily relieved I crossed the line in 6:11:05, recording my first ever win in an ultra-distance race!

There were hugs and hand-shakes and a brief interview with a member of the local press. Sammy crossed the line about seven minutes after me - it sounded like he'd been having a tough day, but his dogged determination had seen him through. I'd been right not to let myself relax too much. To give an indication of how close the race was, and just how sad an obsessive I can get about these things, here are a couple of charts showing how we stacked up over the race.

Figure 1: Individual leg times.

Figure 2: Cumulative running time.
 As you can see, by the last leg, Sammy was started to gain ground on me... if this had been a 100-km race it could have been a very different story. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in Whistler, cheering on friends in the relay, eating voraciously, sitting in the hot tub, and enjoying maybe one or two beers.
Practical hardware.

Of course, there are lots of people to thank for making this such a special day. Amber, for crewing and cheering in the freezing cold morning when nearly everyone one else was sensibly still sleeping. Michael and the rest of the multitude of volunteers for helping to put on the race. Sammy, for being one of the most friendly, consistently smiley competitors you're ever likely to meet. And FITS Sock Co. and Powered By Chocolate Milk for continuing to support me in these questionable pursuits. And now, I'm taking a bit of a break for a few weeks.
Cheesy grin? I can do that.

Whistler 50 Official Web Site
Official Results

My Run on Strava (reconstructed to take into account my watch cock-up).

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Rock/Creek Stump Jump 50k

Not long after FITS Sock Co. signed us up for their race team, Alex and I were offered the chance to run in a race close to the company HQ in Tennessee. Obviously, we jumped at the chance, booked flights, registered for the race. But this was in January, and the race was not until October... so we promptly put it to the back of our minds while we concentrated on the rest of our racing seasons.

Fast forward eight months, and we find ourselves sitting on the grass in Coolidge Park, Chattanooga, by the Tennessee River. It's the day before the race and we've just finished sweeping up an impressive array of swag from the expo. Really, it's too hot to sit out in the sun; Alex finds a spot of shade for a nap while I decide to get some late-season tanning in. The temperature is hovering somewhere around 30 °C, but the humidity makes it feel much, much warmer. Five days earlier I'd been the 3:30 pace bunny in the Surrey Marathon. I was wearing gloves, arm sleeves and a ridiculous hat:
Caption unnecessary.

This was a little different.

Still, there was little to be done about it, so we went to the surprisingly excellent pre-race dinner where I used the flimsy excuse of "carb loading" to make three trips to the chicken-and-rice station. We retired early to our hotel room where we had a couple of glasses of wine (well, Alex had one and I had three, so that averages out as a couple) and tried to stalk the competition via

N. Amer.informal
difficult, dangerous, or challenging.

The alarms went off at 4 am; we each forced down a small breakfast before driving out to the middle school that hosted the race start and finish area. The cool, dark morning air was refreshing and as we strolled around the start line, killing time, I dared to think that maybe the heat wouldn't be such a factor after all. But a few minutes before the 8 am start, the sun crept over the horizon, treating us to a spectacular sunrise and instantly warming the air by several degrees.

Happy. Clean. Mostly unbroken. It's still early.
The field was huge by ultra standards - nearly six hundred registrants - so I positioned myself at what I hoped was a respectful few rows back. The race began and there was the predictable "track meet" surge from the leaders. We had about a kilometre on the road to spread the field out before plunging into the trails. I clicked off the first kilometre in 3 min 57 - perfectly reasonable for running a road marathon in cool conditions; less so for what we were about to undertake. Still, this was somewhat intentional; the goal being to avoid getting stuck behind too many slower runners once the trail narrowed. In retrospect, that might not have been the worst thing that could have happened.

During this section, I had a brief chat with Brandon who'd been at nearly every trail race I'd run in the past year - and he'd handily beaten me at all of them. Now a Seattle resident, but originally from Tennessee, he'd run the race twice before, so I thought I'd try to glean some local knowledge from him. He said that compared to the Squamish 50 - the last race we'd both run - this would be a walk in the park. That was encouraging.

Three kilometres in, it's not even 8:15 am, and the sweat is pouring off me. Clearly this pace is unsustainable, and I ease back a bit. "There's going to be a lot of carnage out there", I remark sagely to another racer, optimistically hoping that I won't be part of it. Somewhat over-optimistically, as it would turn out.
Eyes on the trail.

Before long we hit the first aid station at Mushroom Rock and begin a steep descent. The trail quickly changes from the wide, gently rolling terrain of the early race into a narrow, twisty, rooty beast. And so it continued for the bulk of the race. Nearly all single track terrain, undulating, without any huge climbs, and occasional technical sections. On a different day, it shouldn't have been too challenging, but today, even before the half-way point in the race, the following conspired against me:
  1. My left ankle. It had been plaguing me all year, but I thought it had finally cleared up and healed. Nah, I just hadn't been running on any kind of demanding terrain to test it. I rolled it a couple of times early on, which were painful, but not too debilitating. But the third roll... oh I swore. Repeatedly. Then I hobbled, walked, jogged and eventually resumed running, but much more gingerly out of fear that I'd be forever stranded in the woods if it went again.
  2. Wasps! Around 13 km in, the runner just ahead of me yelled, slightly inaccurately, "Bees!", and suddenly I was running through a buzzing swarm. I picked up a few stings. My immediate thoughts drifted to Alex as she's been known to have pretty unpleasant reactions to insect stings. I hoped she'd escape unscathed.
  3. Wipe-outs. Possible related to (1) above, somewhere around 20 km, I lost my footing on a downhill section, flew through the air and found myself quite literally wrapped around a tree. In the process, I clenched my hand into a fist which I then drove into my ribs. Ow. It hurts to run.
  4. Weird, inner thigh cramping. It's happened to me a couple of times before in races, both on occasions where I also fell, and I think it's related to the way my muscles seem to suddenly tense up when I take a tumble. It's painful and incredibly annoying as I have to stop for a couple of minutes to stretch it out. This happened to me several times during the later stages of the race.
  5. The heat. Very occasionally there's a hint of a breeze, but generally it's hot, oppressive and very humid. Apparently we were experiencing the highest temperatures ever recorded on this date in Chattanooga. Of course, it's affecting everyone to some degree, but I can't help but feel that the locals are a little more used to it than I am. Normally I don't spend any time in aid stations in a 50k race, but this time I'm stopping each time to dump cold water over my head.
Still, by about 30 km, things seem to be improving a little and I'm even starting to pass a few of the runners who'd streamed past me earlier while I lay sobbing by the side of the trail. My goals for the race have changed from "sub-5 hours, top 10 finish" to "cross the finish line, no hospitalization required". I feel like I'm actually trotting along pretty smoothly, but the 4th place female passes me somewhat nonchalantly, and I later discover that I was throwing down 7-minute kilometres over fairly innocuous terrain.
Me and some big rocks.

The last ten miles of the course are also the first ten, but in reverse. After trudging up the steep climb back to mushroom rock, I joke with the aid station volunteers - as I had at every other stop - that I want a beer. To my utter surprise, I'm offered a Pabst Blue Ribbon, but I politely decline. Time to get this thing done. There's 6.5 km left, and most of it's totally runnable. The face that so many people were walking much of this section was a testament to how depleting the race had been. I motivated myself with the reasoning that the faster I ran, the sooner it'd all be over. It seemed to work and I passed few more runners before finally emerging back on to the last kilometre of road. This climbed slightly as it headed towards the finish area, but the three or four people I could see ahead of me were all trudging very slowly despite being mere minutes from the end. I tried to offer some encouragement as I trotted past them, but didn't get much more than weak smiles and congratulations on my "strong" finish.

As I squeaked out a slightly pitiful surge down to the finish line, I spotted Alex cheering from the sidelines. It turns out she'd also rolled her ankle, but much more severely, earlier in the race and had had to drop out. Guiltily, I almost felt a little jealous that she'd not been through my ordeal, but I knew she'd rather have endured that suffering than pick up her first DNF.

As I lay on the grass, somewhat immobile from my cramping legs, I spotted a stranger drinking a beer. I asked him where he'd got it, and he explained that he'd brought it with him, but he'd be happy to share his stash. Never has a beer tasted so divine. Thanks, Scott.

I the end I finished 58th out of 587 registrants (or 448 starters, or 343 finishers) in 6:08:21. While not my greatest ever performance, I still felt a certain sense of achievement just to have got through the damn thing.

In spite of the taxing day I had out there, this is an exceptionally good race. The organization was excellent and the volunteers were fantastic. The course itself was a good mix of fun and challenging, including some cool parts that involved squeezing between some narrow gaps in the rock. The refreshments both pre- and post-race were just right.

Once again, FITS Socks ensured that my feet were about the only part of my body that escaped unscathed and I'm massively grateful for their continued support!

Official site.
Official results.
My run on Strava.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Squamish 50

Two days after racing White River, I was engaging in some solid recovery drinking with a work colleague who was about to leave the world of research for medical school. What started at as a mostly civilized afternoon on a False Creek patio ended somewhat incoherently several hours later in a backstreet bar off Main St. I made the mistake of checking Facebook before I passed out on my bed, where I saw a post from Gary Robbins announcing that he was re-opening the wait-list for the Squamish 50 race due to a greater-than-expected attrition rate. The race was only twelve days away - two weeks after White River and four weeks after Mt Hood. My legs were angry with me, so signing up for another 50-mile race this soon would be out of the question.

I awoke the next morning, confused at how I could feel so dehydrated despite all the fluids I'd taken on the previous evening. And then it hit me, the groggy recollection of a few clicks, hey, they've saved my credit card details, how convenient. I checked my Inbox. Yep, there was the confirmation email. In addition to the 50-mile option, there were also 23 km and 50 km courses which I could have signed up for. I don't think I need to tell you what happened.

The next couple of weeks were all about damage limitation. I decided to follow the Joe Kulak plan for training for peaking for multiple races. Nevertheless, I was weirdly looking forward to it. The 2012 Squamish 50 was my first 50-mile race, and despite some questionable pacing decisions I had a reasonably good day. Looking down the list of entrants, it seemed that half of the Vancouver trail-running community were running one of the distances this year; the other half were volunteering. It's difficult to underestimate the value of seeing friendly faces at events like this.

Race morning soon rolled around. The Squamish music festival was on the same weekend, which meant that all of the hotels in Squamish had been booked solid for months. So we were going to drive up from Vancouver in the morning. The plan was to rendezvous with David (50 mile), Nick (23 km), Hannah (50 mile) and Julia (crewing) at 4 am, which should just about be comfortable for the 5:30 am start. There were no buses running at 3:45 am, so in order to meet the others I was going to hop in a car2go - a local car-sharing service - and drive the few kilometres to our meeting spot. I'd checked online, saw there was a car just round the corner, and approached it with my brand new membership card in my hand.

It was my first time using the service, but it sounded like it should be fairly straightforward. Just wave your membership card over the white box mounted on the dash, it unlocks, and you can get in and drive away. Except I couldn't see the white box. I started randomly waving the card over every square-inch of the vehicle, yet it remained stubbornly uncooperative. This, I thought to myself, is not a very user-friendly service. Panic mounting, I called David and explained to him that there was clearly some problem with my card, or the car, or something. He patiently guided me through the steps, but I still couldn't find this mysterious white box. Exasperated, he asked: "Barry, you are standing in front of a car2go car, aren't you? It's not just someone's Smart Car, is it?". I looked again. There was a distinct absence of the car2go logo which should have been plastered over the vehicle in large, bright letters. "Oh. Ah. I'll see you in a few minutes".

The rest of the journey was largely uneventful, with the exception of the sighting of a bear strolling across the highway just outside downtown Squamish. He looked like he was walking somewhat sheepishly back from McDonalds. Perhaps he'd been at the festival and had a case of the late-night munchies.
Photo courtsey of Rob Shaer.

As we assembled at the start line, the sky lightened just enough to see where we were going. The first 11 km of the race are deceptively simple. It's flat and run over a mixture of gravel roads, single track trail and paved roads. Last year, my own excitement got the better of me and I went out *way* too fast, passing a concerned Ellie Greenwood within the first 2 km (bad idea, she ended up beating me by nearly two hours) and splitting the first 10 km in about 43 minutes. Which, while not blazing fast, is a little too brisk for me, especially when there's a long, long day ahead.
I will *not* go out to fast. Seriously.
So this time, I was determined to take my time to gradually ease into the race. After the initial jostling for position, I found myself once again running next to Ather Haleem, who'd also made the brave/foolish decision to race here two weeks after White River. After a brief chat, I gradually pulled ahead and found myself running with Kevin Douglas. We chatted away for the next few miles, a welcome distraction from the flatness of the terrain. We passed through 10 km in 47 minutes and I was happy to be running that bit more conservatively than last year. Gary had made a point of making this year's course even more challenging than last year's version, so saving my legs for as long as possible seemed like a smart idea.
Strolling into the first aid station with Kevin.

We finally hit the trails at Coho Park, and as I expected, Kevin gradually pulled away from me as the terrain started to roll up and down. Within a couple of kilometres, the gradient steepened as we hit the first major climb of the day, up Debeck's Hill. Quite a few people passed me during the ascent, including Ather and Colin Miller, who I'd last seen in the furnace of Pine Creek at the San Diego 100. The view over Squamish from the peak was spectacular, but no-one was sticking around to enjoy it. Immediately, we embarked on a steep, highly technical descent. I'd wiped out painfully here last year, so I approached the descent timidly. I was passed by a few more adventurous souls, but I was content to save my energy.

So when I popped out on to Jack's Trail, I still felt pretty fresh and was rolling along happily as I passed by Alice Lake and cruised up the Four Lakes Trail. I passed one other runner, and bizarrely, found myself accompanied by someone's (lost) dog for a couple of miles. He (or she) was a pretty good pacer, apart from the habit of quite literally getting under my feet. We parted ways at the Bob Macintosh trail, I continued around Dead End Loop before embarking on the short, but steep climb of Made In The Shade. I hadn't seen anyone for a while, so the heckling I received from Nicola Gildersleeve - performing live social media duties for the race - was welcome.

A little later as I weaved down Rob's Corners, I passed a couple more runners. One of them hitting the rocky trail spectacularly and painfully just ahead of me (I didn't push him, really), and the other complaining that as a road runner, this was all a little different. Oh, but we're just getting started...

At the aid station at 28 km I made my first stop of the day, briefly pausing to grab a couple of gels and nibble on a few goodies. I was still feeling pretty fresh, so I pushed on. After navigating Cliff's Corners, I hit Mashiter Creek Road, one of the only out-and-back sections on the course. Ed McCarthy was steaming up the road, already several miles ahead of me and looking sharp. He'd also run (and come third at) White River and when I chatted to him after that race, he sounded pretty sure that Squamish was out of the question. I'd told him that I was planning on volunteering, so I'd see him on the course somewhere. And here we both are.

Heading back into the shaded trails, the course rolled up and down some more, and I spotted a cluster of runners up ahead. Before too long I caught them and passed a couple before settling into a fun stretch of slightly technical downhill with Ather and a couple of other guys. When we emerged back on to Mashiter Creek Road, I decided I felt strong enough to give a little push. I dropped the remainder of the group and put in a decent effort over the next couple of kilometres back to the aid station. Mentally, it was a great boost to know I was feeling stronger than some of the competition, even if at 35 km in, we still had a long way to go. During this ascent I passed Kevin, who'd unfortunately badly rolled his ankle earlier and was about to drop. Given the technical nature of the remainder of the course, this was a wise decision. I also passed local trail running legend Kathy McKay who was having  a bit of a bad patch and walking up the hill. "You can run this!" I shouted in what I hoped was an encouraging tone. From her body language, I'm not sure she took it that way.

Back into the aid station, and things were a lot busier than the first time through. As well as other 50-mile runners coming through for the first time, the 50k race was also now in progress. I grabbed a couple of gels, refilled my pack, and after a brief pep-talk from Chris "Pricey" Price, who I'd first met on these trails several months earlier, I was out again.

From hereon in, we were mingled with the 50k runners and the added social element was great. After a short stretch down a gravel road, it was back into the trails. This was one of the few parts of the course I wasn't familiar with, the climb up the delightfully named "Plastic Scheisse" and "Galactic Scheisse" trails. The centrepiece of the new course, this was a steep ascent over around 650 m over 4 km. There were a few short runnable sections, but for the most part it was a big ol' power-hike. So I settled into the climb, motivated to try and maintain the gap I'd built over the rest of the pack.

Eventually we hit the peak, where the trail rolled up and down a little over a few creeks. It was clearly "vicious stinging insect season", as something stabbed me in the leg. I'm not sure if this was a welcome distraction from all the other aches and pains that were starting to manifest themselves, or just an additional annoyance. Still, it was good to be descending, even if the technical nature of the trail made it difficult to really open up. Some time around this point a few 50k runners flew past me. Which seemed strange given the ease I'd seemed to have passed them with on the ascent. After the race it was explained to me that there was an early and regular start to the 50k course; the people I'd been passing earlier on had taken the early start. But I didn't really mind, as long as none of them were sporting the orange hue of the 50-miler bibs.

Briefly dropping on to a short section of road, there was a welcome water station. A short pause, chug some kind of lurid yellow drink, chat to the vollies, then back into the trails. It was only about 5 km to the next aid station, but the twisting, rolling trails made progress slow. Popping out of the trails on to a dirt road, Ryne Melcher put in an appearance announcing something hilarious like "only 4 miles to the aid station!". It was in fact, a few hundred metres.
Look at those people, just having a nice picnic. Suckers!
This was the Quest University aid station, at about 53 km into the race. I had about 6 hours on the clock, which felt about right. Nick was here, having already run a storming race. Rather tactlessly I asked him "What went wrong?" when I found out he'd not won it. Look, he's been running really recently, and besides, I had race brain. Anyway, it was great to see him and fellow PRR runner Susan here. I paused a little longer, guzzling watermelon, M&Ms, and grabbing some gels. Then down one hill, and up another, passing a burnt-out looking 50-miler in the process.

It was now approaching the middle of the day, and it was getting hot. As an added bonus, the trails became nicely exposed at this point. A spot of mild confusion when I noticed two runner coming towards me, before I realised that it was Terry and Rik of PRR, taking photos. They offered some encouragement, but were vague about the trails ahead. For good reason. This was another section I was unfamiliar with, a loop of a few miles that had another substantial climb and descent. A wonderful surprise was an unadvertised mini aid station where freezies were being handed out. But after that it was climb, climb climb.

I think it was around this point that I started to become a little disheartened. I'd completely underestimated this climb and felt that it should have been over much, much sooner. Also, my stomach was getting a bit grouchy. Fortunately, things started looking up soon. A number of things happened in quick succesion:
  • Like a bear in the woods, I dealt with my GI issues.
  • I remembered I had a bunch of jelly beans in my pack and started on those I was now sick of gels. Yum.
  • The trail finally started to descend.
A short stretch along the road and there was the aid station. More familiar faces; Nathan and Brooke, who would have been serious contenders had they been running, were instead offering much-needed support. My appetite restored I wolfed down a questionable selection of items, refilled my pack one more time, and now, 62 km into the race, pressed on.

I'd run this section a few months earlier. I noted at the time how challenging it would be this late into a race, and was relieved that I hadn't signed up for it. Oh. There were a couple of miles of shaded ups and downs that went by reasonably enough before we emerged into a hot, exposed section. Full of scrambly steep climbs. Thanks, Gary. I was passed by David Papineau, who was running the 50k race and rocking the "shirtless but with taped nipples" look.

The final aid station was preceded by a short but steep climb, the runners strewn along the road ahead visibly trudging for some distance away. I stuffed a delicious looking cookie into my mouth and tried to chew it, only then realizing how dehydrated I was. It probably took a good minute to get that one down. Okay, 10k to go. Doesn't sound so far, but I knew we weren't out of the woods yet, in any sense.
Give me Gary Robbins' head on a stick. Now.
Fortunately there were quite a few other runners on the course at this point, so I latched on to whoever was around for company. I'd usually get a few minutes of distraction before one or other of us pulled ahead, but it all helped. The last climb, up Mt Phlegm was brutally steep. No doubt it had spectacular views. Not really interested at this point. But it was essentially all downhill from here. Before long I hit the familiar trails around Smoke Bluffs, all nicely runnable, before finally being spat out onto the last stretch of road. I knew it was around 2 km to the finish. I looked at my watch. 9:51. Maybe I can still make it in under ten hours... well that headwind is certainly... refreshing. One last little challenge, eh?

Still, I thought I'd give it a go and tried to empty whatever was left in the tank. I caught up with VFAC team-mate Mary Walsh who was just finishing up the 50k race. I yelled encouragement before nearly leading her off-course as we trotted through Rose's Garden. Under the highway, back into downtown Squamish. Nearly done. Up ahead was my friend Janette, with Will who'd run the 23k race many hours earlier. They probably said something motivating. Entering the finishing chute, I noticed a relaxed-looking Jason Louttit, who had the demeanour of a man who'd stopped running several hours ago (he'd come second to Adam Campbell in a nail-biting finale). "Why aren't you smiling, Barry?" he quite unreasonably asked. I saw the finish line ahead, and conceded his point. The clock had just rolled over 10:01 as I crossed, but truthfully, I was happy to be done. Tenth overall, out of about 180 starters, so not too shabby all things considered.

The next few hours were spent relaxing in the sunshine, chatting with friends who'd already finished the races of various distances, while waiting for others still out there to lurch across the line. The initial reaction of many people upon finishing was "I want to kill Gary Robbins". It was, without doubt, a very challenging course. But I think, after a bit of reflection, most of us appreciated that. We all felt like we'd been truly tested that day. More than many other races, just to survive it was a real achievement. I'll be back next year.

But now, I think, it's time to take a little break.

Squamish 50 web site
Official results
My run on Strava

Thursday, August 22, 2013

White River 50 Mile Endurance Run

So this one had been on my to-do list for a while, ever since I'd seen photos from previous years. It looked special. I'd signed up for it within a few days of DNFing the San Diego 100, although at that point I didn't realize that I'd have run another 50 mile race just two weeks earlier. Ah well, a couple of weeks is enough time to recover, right? Riiiight.

I was travelling down to Washington with Alicia - the first time we'd attended a "destination race" together since last year's Cougar Mountain 50k. As usual, we stopped off as soon as we'd crossed the border to stock up on pre-race essentials: beer, wine, cheap lawn chairs, chocolate and smoked salmon. Realizing that it was already getting a little late in the day, we elected to have dinner in the mall parking lot; not the most scenic location and the cause of some consternation to our fellow shoppers, but we had a great little feast before hitting the road again for the remaining few hours that would take us to our camp ground in the shadows of Mt Rainier.
Nope, we're not running up that mountain. Photos courtesy of Glenn Tachiyama.

Except that by the time we'd arrived, the only shadows were those cast by our headlamps as it was now pitch dark. Still, the tent seemed to go up without too much trouble, and following a quick snack of chocolate and a relaxing mug of wine we turned in, hoping to get maybe four hours of sleep.

It's one of the highlights of this race that it starts and finishes in a state forest camp ground, so many of the racers choose to camp here both before and after the race. It engenders the run with a great sense of community and only being a few hundred metres from the start line in the morning is one less source of anxiety. The downside is the complete lack of bathroom facilities, but at least we're all in the same (stinky) boat.

After a minimal breakfast and some alarmingly sweet instant Mongolian coffee, we assembled at the start line. There were a few familiar faces; Ather who I'd been in a couple of close battles with already this year; and Ed McCarthy, a fellow Vancouverite who was no doubt one of the pre-race favourites. It was one of the bigger 50-milers I've been in; there were around 400 starters and the field was decently competitive.
But I think we do climb up that one.

The race starts off pretty flat on a gravel road next to an airstrip. It's ideal for spreading the field out, but there's the temptation to start out too quickly so as to avoid getting held up behind slower runners once the trail narrows. As we entered some classic Pacific Northwest single-track I couldn't help but feel that the pace was a little on the brisk side; and there were already a lot of people ahead of me. Still, there wasn't much I could do except go along with it.

We all went straight through the first aid station at four miles before starting the first of two big ascents. White River only has two major climbs, but they both involve around 3,000 ft of elevation gain. Which is substantial. As I'd more-or-less expected, the group I was running with attacked the climb a little more enthusiastically than I'd like, so on a few occasions I stepped aside to let people pull ahead of me. The changing gradient - some parts runnable, some not so, made it difficult to find my rhythm, so the stunning views of Mount Rainier that casually presented themselves were a welcome distraction.

More people passed me, including Ather who I'd been expecting to see for some time. There was an aid station at around 10 miles into the race, but I opted to continue, eager to keep moving while I still felt relatively fresh. As we climbed higher, we emerged from the forest into lush alpine meadows. The scenery was magnificent, the weather perfect, yet the climbs were unrelenting. I pushed on, managing to smile for Glenn Tachiyama who'd found a perfect spot for some amazing photography. There's a sizable out-and-back portion in this section of the race, so it was fun to see the leaders flying past. Ed was hanging on tightly in 2nd place, right behind, I believe, Max Ferguson.

At the next aid station, Coral Pass, I decided it was time for a short break. The course was so beautiful and the volunteers so cheerful that it seemed wrong not to spend a few moments soaking up the atmosphere. So I grabbed handfuls of various foods before heading out - and  up - wondering if we were ever going to get any downhill. After the final couple of ascents, the trail started to drop down again. Now I was having fun. The trail was fairly non-technical, but was made entertaining by the sharpness of the switchbacks, some "interesting" drop-offs and the fact that several hundred people were running up the trail in the opposite direction.

Despite not pushing the pace too hard, I passed at least a dozen people over the 10-mile descent. This section was probably my favourite of the whole race, as the trail was deliciously runnable. Exactly how I like it, I reflected, as my foot caught on a root and I sailed spectacularly through the air before landing in a dishevelled heap. I looked around. No-one seemed to have seen me, so I quickly picked myself up and carried on, wondering if I'd ever learn to stop doing this. Don't hold your breath.

Eventually, just as I was starting to tire of the constant downhill pounding, the descent came to an end and we entered another aid station, roughly half-way through the race and cruelly close to the finish line. I wolfed down a questionable assortment of food items - who says fudge isn't a good running fuel? - before launching into the next couple of miles of trail that weaved around the camp ground before the next big climb started. This was the part of the day I was least looking forward to - the arduous steep climb up to Sun Top. Everyone's legs were feeling a little worked by this point and the temperature was creeping up quickly. I passed a couple of other runners who were looking desperately unhappy. I also passed a pair of horseback riders - twice, because my legs unexpectedly and painfully cramped up as soon as I'd overtaken them, so I stood sheepishly stretching while they casually cantered past me.

After a gruelling few miles of steep climbing, the next aid station was a welcome sight. It was around this point, that ultra-legend Megan Arbogast passed me, oozing class and professionalism. All except for her failure to sound genuinely upset when someone told her that Ashley Arnold, who was wining the race, had rolled her ankle. She efficiently exited the aid station while I spent a little longer there trying to compose myself and prepare for the rest of the climb.

After a couple more miles, the trail suddenly dropped down, but I had at least been prepared enough to know that this was a false dawn. There was a final steep half-mile of uphill to go. Just before emerging at Sun Top, Glenn put in another appearance, although this time I don't think I managed to look quite so spritely. Again, the views this high up were absolutely incredible, but their uplifting effect was less pronounced than earlier. I knew there was a pounding downhill to come and I'd been telling myself on the climb "Just stick to water for now - you don't want to feel bloated when you're hammering it down that road". Sounds like a plan? Of course, as soon as I saw those delectable little cups full of Coke and Mountain Dew, resolve went out the window and I went about quaffing sugar, caffeine and carbonation with alarming gusto.
No Glenn, I'm not going to start running.
The next stage is potentially one of the fastest in the race if you've still got legs for it. It's a 6-mile steep descent on a gravel road. Totally runnable, but after 38-miles many people's quads are screaming. My legs didn't feel too bad; my stomach, as you may have guessed, less so. Still, I managed a reasonable effort over the next 45 minutes or so, but this time, I couldn't wait for the downhill to be over.

Dropping back into the trails, the staff at the final aid station told me, as they are contractually obliged to, that I was looking great. I remained skeptical and pleaded for an exact breakdown of what was left. About six miles. On the elevation profile, it looks pretty flat, but I'd been warned beforehand, that it's no such thing. The trail rolls along the banks of the eponymous White River, gradually climbing as you head upstream. It had been described to me as "technical", but fortunately it wasn't as severe as I'd feared and the first couple of miles clicked off fairly quickly. But I could feel myself rapidly running out of gas. With the steep descent from Sun Top and my slightly dodgy stomach, I'd not consumed many calories over the last hour and it was starting to catch up with me. I began walking sections that I had no business to be. Eventually I pulled out a pack of jelly beans and munching on a few of the tangy delights gave me a small boost. Still, I was probably passed by five or six people at this stage. I kept repeating the "Just keep moving forward" mantra, and after an eternity of glacial progress, I finally popped out of the trail on to the road that marked the final few hundred metres of the race.
Yep, it's a picture of me running. Thanks to Ather Haleem for this one.

As I flopped over the finish line, the race director handed me a water bottle filled with ice-cold water, a nice touch. My time was around 8:48, for 24th out of 286 finishers. A little slower than I'd hoped for, but at that point I was just glad to be done. Before long, Alicia crossed the line looking a whole lot more lively. She'd snagged third place, a fantastic achievement against a strong field. We spent the rest of the afternoon cheering other runners in, eating and drinking in the sunshine, and then as darkness descended, eating and drinking more around the campfire.

White River's a tough race for sure, but it's more than made up for by the fantastic setting, a great atmosphere and superb organization and volunteers. I'd highly recommend it. As usual, I'd like to thank FITS Sock Co. for their support and kitting me out with their amazing Performance Trail Socks which cushioned my feet admirably on a pounding course.

Official Web Site
2013 Results
Alicia's Race Report
My run on Strava