Upon popping out of the trails onto the Sea to Sky highway I saw two volunteers standing there, waiting to help runners cross the busy road. As they helped get us safely across, they told us that aid station #5 was just ahead. But I couldn’t see it. I thought THEY might have been the aid station but they weren’t. I wanted water so badly. Needed it. I’d been asking about this aid station for the past 2 hours, if not longer. Where was it?!!! I felt myself almost hyperventilating as I tried to make a joke to Hollie about what “almost there” was to the volunteers compared to us. Hollie assured me we really were almost there, but at 69km into this race I was starting to panic.
Finally, we turned a corner and there it was, at the back of a parking lot! As we approached I saw a guy I’d run with much, much earlier on in the day sitting in the aid station chair, and he asked how I was. I opened my mouth to answer but nothing came out – I had no breath – I’d worked myself into such a panic I was having trouble breathing. For a good minute or two I concentrated on trying to take deep breathes and calm myself. I still had a good 16km to go – and although I didn’t realize it yet, one of the toughest and steepest climbs of the race in front of me. I had to pull it together.
In a way, this past Saturday seems a bit like a dream. Just 3 days ago I ran 85km, from Squamish to Whistler in 12 hours and 17 minutes. It was singlehandedly one of the toughest things I’ve done. It was also incredibly rewarding and immensely satisfying to test my limits like that. I understand now the draw that ultra running has and why this community gathers to run for hours upon hours in the wilderness. In some way, I hope this post will help you to understand too…
My alarm went off at 2:15am. Officially the earliest I’ve ever gotten up for a race, ha!! I’d tried to go to bed earlier the night before but of course I was too excited to sleep. All good though, I’d prioritized sleep in the days leading up to this race, so I knew I’d be rested enough despite the less than 5 hours I’d just gotten.
I immediately prepared my oatmeal and matcha tea – exactly the same breakfast I have before a race of any distance, from the 5k to the marathon and most recently, my 55k race. I probably could have set my alarm for 2:30am and had enough time, but I like to get ready in a super relaxed fashion so I’d given myself a full hour – probably a good thing as in the end we ended up rushing to get out the door on time.
Hubby and our girls, Sparkle and Sunshine, drove me to the start line – which was in Squamish, an hour and 5 minutes from where we live – and along the way we picked up Pargol, a trail running friend who’d also signed up for the 50 miler. We arrived at the Adventure Centre in Squamish just before 4:30am, and upon picking up my bib I inquired about washrooms, please!! Only to be informed there were no washrooms available. I guess when it’s a really small race (as this one was), then all the amenities I’m used to aren’t going to be available. All good – luckily there was a 24 hour McDonalds just across the street.
There were only 31 runners there at the starting area. We all dumped our bags into the appropriate piles – I placed one in the “Aid Station #4” pile – it was full of extra food and a change of socks as well as a long sleeved shirt for just in case; and my other bag into the “Finish Line” pile – full of a complete change of clothes and my cherry berry recovery shake, currently frozen solid (I knew it’d be sitting out for a while so I’d made it up days in advance and frozen it completely prior).
The race was to begin at 5am, so it was almost time. With 5 minutes to go the race director was showing us the colour of the flagging to watch for (orange and black striped) and gathering us into the middle of the side road. I hugged hubby and my furbaby Sparkle bye and made sure my pack was all done up right.
No fancy chip timing or starting gun – the race director said go and we were off!
Pargol and I almost immediately found ourselves about mid-pack as everyone ran along the road, and by the time we dived into the trails – relatively smooth and very runnable trails – jostling for position was pretty much over. It was dark in the trails but just enough light to see if you watched closely. As my watch clicked to signal 1km down, I went to make a joke, “One kilometre down… 79 to go!” but didn’t get too far before I realized no one else around me thought that was funny.
Between kilometre 3 and 4 the pack started to thin out as some fell behind and others pulled ahead. I wanted to try to always keep someone in front of me, to follow where they went – but that quickly proved impossible. Pargol and I continued on side by side following the orange and black tags. We ended up on a stretch of gravel road where I decided it’d be a good spot to trip and do a faceplant. Lol. No scrapes, all good. But I didn’t dare turn to look behind me to see if anyone had seen the newbie ultra runner fall. From there we were taken onto a gravel pathway, which beauty views, and finally we were directed into a neighbourhood. By far one of the most directionally challenging parts of the course, this is where we got lost for the first time.
We met up with another guy who had already taken a wrong turn and was circling back – and continued though the neighbourhood together, chatting away. We’d been warned some of the flagging might have been pulled down through the neighbourhood area but needless to say we missed a key flag and ended up coming out to a main road with no idea where to go. We double backed, but still couldn’t figure it out – so ended up back on that main road, picking up more and more racers as we went. Eventually we all turned left and ended up bumping into the sweepers on the exact street we’d already been on 10 minutes ago!! Argh! We’d done a nice full circle, about an extra kilometre. Luckily from there we were able to get back on track, find that elusive trail between 2 houses, and run up to and along the railway tracks like we were supposed to!
The group that had come together quickly thinned out again and Pargol and I found ourselves running through beautiful and very runnable trails. I began thinking this was going to be a breeze of a day with trails like this! We were making great time and other than getting lost and a few questions on which way to go, everything seemed so easy. Literally before we knew it, we were popped out of the trails onto the Sea to Sky highway, where aid station #1 was. I was at 16km by that point, an extra 2km or so racked up already. I had a medjool date and threw out the packaging of a Huma gel I’d had earlier, and refilled one of my water bottles with Skratch. My other water bottle was still full of water. And off we went!
For nearly one kilometre we ran/speed-walked along the highway, going up. I was just getting super sick of the highway, when we were directed off into a trail, thank goodness! We ended up going along a rough logging road and then trekking through high grasses – multiple times wondering if we were going in the right direction (we were). Finally we got onto more of a runnable trail – so of course we started running along it… And right past the turn we were supposed to take! We didn’t realize it until we hit the highway again, about 400m off course. I pulled my phone out yet again (there was cell service the entire route!) and quickly saw where we probably got off route – so we double backed, picking up 2 other racers along the way that’d made the same mistake we had.
Back onto the right path, we started to climb. It was beautiful, but oh my the ups and downs and rocks and roots! It became very technical and single track – and our pace slowed even more than it already had once we’d left aid station #1. Kilometres clicked by slowly but the scenery was breathtaking!
Eventually we came out at what was basically a rock face. I’d remembered seeing on the elevation chart, an abrupt down curve and had joked there’s where we jump off a cliff. Well, this was pretty much that – we scaled down a very steep rocky section for over a kilometre! You can see it just before mile 14 below. It was one of the most challenging points on the entire course and to prove it I slipped a few times (but nothing serious at all).
Reaching the bottom we were spit out onto a side road, very runnable – although at 27km in the fatigue was already starting to set in and as much as I wasn’t enjoying running on the gravel road, Pargol was being really careful not to push it – as this was very much a training run for her, not a race. We kept it steady, me probably pulling her too much, and headed towards aid station #2, where we’d be picking up Hollie. Aid station #2 was also the start of the 50k route, and while at this point the 50k race had started nearly 2 hours ago, Hollie stayed behind, waiting for me to come through to run the remainder with me. I texted her to say we were 1km or so away. Unfortunately my sense of distance was quite off – and 4km later we finally arrived at that aid station!
I was so happy to reach Hollie – it was a mini milestone within the race and I was hoping some of her fresh energy would rub off on me. Sure enough, although she was having a blast helping to man the aid station, she was raring to start running! I filled up both my water bottles, ate a homemade rice cake and off we went.
The three of us started off along a gravel road that continued for quite some time, and became a backroad that had campsites along it. We were treated to more beauty views we ran along the river. But then came one of the most beautiful parts of the entire course – Cheakamus Canyon – the views were breathtaking! Sure there was a bunch of climbing but the path was non-technical and the scenery made it somehow easier.
Eventually we came out of those beautiful trails and were directed across railway tracks and then up onto the highway. Ugh. Second time on the highway, and this time we were on it for 4.5 kilometres! Hollie, Pargol and I spread out on the highway – it was impossible to chat with all the traffic whooshing by anyways. I ran for a couple kilometres behind the barrier but then it became too much work as it was a very uneven and narrow surface so just ended up running on the road. Finally we came upon a turn-off, and right into the 3rd aid station!
I’d just run out of both water and Skratch so was very relieved to be at the aid station. I’d also been getting hungry so another rice cake went down, and again I tossed the wrappers of the gels I’d had while running earlier in that leg. Feeling refreshed and much better to be off the highway, we were ready to get going again! I was now nearly 44km into this adventure, and while I could feel the fatigue accumulating I was overall feeling good – other than my darn calves were trying to seize a bit on me, something I’ve never experienced before. On Pargol’s suggestion I stopped to stretch them out – and after that, although I could sort of feel them, they were totally a non-issue.
As we got going again, we climbed through some backroads, twisting and turning, somewhat following the powerlines. We got going at a good clip, having hit a nice runnable section. At points we’d stop to regroup – but eventually Pargol told us to push ahead. We were all getting a bit tired, and were running more and more spaced out…
After a dive into trails and thick brush, Hollie and I came out onto a road, Retta Lake Road. As we picked up the pace here, we passed another 50 mile racer who was clearly beginning to tire at this point, about 50km into the race. This quite road continued for over a kilometre – at which point we were thrown back out onto the Sea to Sky highway. Oh man this part was tough. Hollie pulled a fair bit ahead of me as I struggled to keep running. At points where the highway would take me for a climb, I’d power walk, but mostly I ran it. After 3.5km (but felt longer), we finally made it to Brandywine Falls and aid station number 4.
I was so happy to be at Brandywine Falls! Now 54km into the race this was another huge milestone. There was my drop bag but I wanted none of the food in it – my appetite had started to fade on me. I was eating consistently but probably not enough. So I left all the food in my bag. I still had quite a bit on me, in my pack. However I did decide to change my socks! No good reason why – they were there, and I thought it was a good idea at the time haha. There were also outhouses there, the only washrooms on the entire course! That was nice too. And I drank some coke (haha, yup, full disclosure). After what was probably between 5-10 minutes it was time to head out again. With full water bottles and a promise of 9.5 miles until the next aid station, off we went.
The paths we followed for the first few kilometres were nicely runnable (although rather steep at points) and very pretty. But all too soon we were diverted off the runnable trails into more technical trails. The difference between this leg of the race and the others was that the entire leg was in trails – no roads or highways at all to pick up the pace on – so the kilometres clicked by very slowly. We were only about halfway through this leg when I became low on water and Skratch and started to panic. At one point running up and down the trails we came upon the volunteers Hollie had helped earlier that day while she’d waited for me as they did their run for the day. I felt the need to ask them how far to the next aid station – and by their calculations it was still 7-9km away, an eternity in my books.
As I ran out of fluids, Hollie informed me she actually had a spare bottle of water in her pack for ‘just in case’. I don’t know what I’d have done without that water – this really had turned into what I was beginning to feel was a dire situation. We continued to twist and turn through trails forever, crossing some really cool suspension bridges along the way that swayed and made us feel sick as we walked on them. We almost got lost at one point as we ran into a campground and realized there was no flagging anywhere… But we were only about 200 metres off course, and got back on track quickly.
Winding through the trails we kept on eye on those orange and black markers – but at one point they got really confusing – luckily, believe it or not, a couple of construction workers (who looked to literally be out in the middle of nowhere) saw Hollie and I, and yelled at us what direction to go in. They saved the day – we were back on course within minutes.
My GPS died on me in this leg of the race. I knew it would, but it was still disappointing when it did. It tracked me for 65.1km (9 hours and 15 minutes) and then kaput. So even though we were running downhill at the time I had to stop, pull out my phone and start up Strava to track the remaining mileage (which was to be 20km more). I’d already turned off the annoying auto pause which in my MEC 55k I’d learned pauses when I hike the climbs lol (apparently auto pause equates walking with being stopped?!!).
We continued on, for three more long kilometres – until finally there we were at aid station #5 and there I was hyperventilating. I pulled out my empty water bottles, filled one up and just started gulping water down right away. Oh my, so good. And I then I could talk again, and everything was fine – and I don’t know why I’d gotten all emotional and choked up like that. I filled up my other bottle with Skratch and water, and ate a power cookie. We weren’t at this aid station for too long – we took off pretty much right after the guy who’d being sitting in the aid station chair left. However, before we left, we were warned of the steep climb ahead of us…
We caught up to the guy within minutes, and passed him – but I’m not a strong climber and sure enough the climb was a doozy. He passed me, chatted with Hollie for a bit and then took off ahead of her. We climbed for what felt like forever, but in fact was probably about 40 minutes or so. The views were pretty incredible.
We reached a ‘false summit’ and having been warned about these as well, we began ‘running’ and shuffled along for a bit before climbing again. I’d tell myself, “It’s easier if you run” and so I’d run. Apparently I was saying it aloud as Hollie caught me talking to myself, so I used my inside voice after that haha. I’m not sure running was actually easier lol, but it did make the distance go by quicker!
We ended up back into the forest and really never saw anymore epic views for the remaining 12k or so. After a few false summits and passing that guy from the chair again (for good this time), we finally realized we were pretty consistently going downhill – which was great except it was technical with lots of rocks and roots to try to not fall on. My legs were pretty tired and I had to be extra careful not to slip, so while the pace picked up we were still clocking between 7:00/km to 9:00/km’s.
Just as the downhill began to get enjoyable on a runnable stretch we were thrust back into technical trails (which are fun in their own way, but less so when you already have nearly 80km in your legs). Finally, after what felt like forever, but in reality was about 2 hours and in all honestly hadn’t seemed as bad as the previous leg, we came upon the last aid station, #6. I’d been running for 80km / 11.5 hours at that point – and we were informed we had 5km left to go. It was a quick stop, I ate a date and refilled my water, and off we went.
The first 2km of this last leg were in trails that bikers use a lot – full of ups and downs. I asked Hollie to count us down – with my GPS dead I hadn’t a clue where we were at at any given time. She did, but every minute felt like an eternity and the kilometres just weren’t going down fast enough! I knew we were so close, but didn’t really know how close.
Finally, we came out onto a paved bike path that was gently sloping downhill. We somehow managed to run the last 3km, each one sub 6:00/km, which amazes me. My legs were so tired and overall I was so tired. I couldn’t really say anything as I dug deep to get to that finish line. Finally we saw Meadow Park and the finish line. I nearly started crying out of relief but held it together and ‘sprinted’ to the finish with Hollie. We crossed in what was 12 hours and 17 minutes of running for me over 85km- and about 8 hours for Hollie over 53km.
In my last few hours out there, I wondered at times if I was crazy to think I can run 100 miles in 3 months time. But after going through the whole experience and realizing how well my body withstood the challenge of running 53 miles and 10,000 feet of elevation, I know I am capable. It continues to amaze me what we are truly capable of. My mind gets in my way so often – too often, but I’m trying to change that. The stories we tell ourselves can be so limiting sometimes. But I want to experience so much more. So I’m definitely still going after it – this was but a stepping stone in my journey to Mountain Lakes 100 (September 24, 2016)!
Pargol crossed the finish line less than an hour later with another girl she’d met along the way, and together we all taxied over to the village of Whistler (about 4km away) where we grabbed a bite to eat from Village Gone Eatery and then jumped on the Greyhound bus to take us back to Vancouver.
Overall this race was a small one – of the 31 runners who set out to run 50 miles, 26 completed it – but it was full of amazing volunteers and I’m so thankful for each and every one that came out to support us out there. I’m surprised more people didn’t run it – maybe it is not well known? Other than the stretches of highway running, it’s a beautiful course and I’d absolutely do it again! I came in 16th overall, kind of back of mid-pack like I was expecting to – but already I’m contemplating ways I could take at least an hour off my time for next year. For one, just knowing the course as I do now and not getting lost would help immensely with that!
This race might have been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done – but it was also one of the most rewarding. There is something about pushing my limits that makes me feel truly alive. And perhaps, between pushing our limits and spending time in nature, the reason ultra marathoners keep coming back for more is really quite simple. It’s a way of growing as an individual but also connecting with the earth. It’s a way of momentarily escaping the city and letting loose. Of enjoying natures beauty but also satisfying the urge to challenge oneself with and perhaps against others (the front runners were definitely motivated to win!).
I still love my road races and I still want to run a faster marathon. But for now, and for the remainder of this year for sure, I’m quite happy to focus on running farther instead of necessary running a faster marathon. Don’t get me wrong, I still want my sub-3:21 marathon as much as I did 4 years ago when Jack Daniels first ‘told’ me I was capable of it (according to my half marathon PB). But relieving myself of that pressure temporarily and putting the focus on running longer has proven to be very enjoyable.
So for now… I’ll run with it 🙂