“You know what’d be a really good idea for me to do?”
I ask this of hubby as I’m madly going through information I’ve pulled up on the web. It’s a rhetorical question of course so I don’t wait for him to answer. Instead I almost shout out the answer.
“Run Finlayson Arm 100K race as a training run!”
This ‘endurance run / race’ would follow on the heels of my Squamish 50/50 weekend by only 3 weeks. It has more elevation than any race (or training run) I’ve ever done. Yes, more than Squamish – exactly 20,150 feet over the 100km of trail.
I continue blabbering, offering more details.
“The hotels in the area are all sold out but that’s okay, we can just camp in our tent at the group campsite.”
Hubby stares at me with a blank look on his face. He’s really hoping I’m not serious.
But I am.
I sign up.
That was nearly 2 months ago. I’d signed up truly thinking it’d be a good training run for my November Rio del Lago 100-miler. I didn’t stop to really research the race itself or think the process through in any sort of depth. I mean, I read through the Finlayson Arm website in its entirety and the race reports that were linked to from the website… But I never got a sense of how exceptionally difficult it actually would be.
And so as you might expect from any undertrained (for the terrain) and under-recovered (possibly too soon after Squamish 50/50) runner, I walked right into an epic struggle.
So um… Spoiler alert.
I DNF’d. Indeed, I did not finish. Those words still kinda pain me to write. But they make up part of my story now so I choose to embrace them best I can. Because it’s not only successful experiences that make us stronger. No, it’s the learnings we take from humbling experiences too.
In fact, maybe the tough experiences strengthen our character even more so than the good ones…
Either way, I’m using what I learned so as to, within the best of my ability, avoid any future DNF rankings to my name.
Now for anyone wondering what happened between the act of signing up and my actual DNF… Well… Here goes.
It’s Friday, September 8, 2017 at 4:55pm. As I line up with the other thirty nine crazy runners who have (for whatever reason) decided to tackle this 100km double loop course of technical mountainous terrain today/tonight/tomorrow, I’m actually feeling quite confident. My cute little pink and orange shorts had come in the mail just in time for me to wear the outfit I wanted to run Finlayson in (and yes please note that I am in fact aware this focus on the cuteness of my outfit of all things was the first warning sign). Despite having passed the correct turnoff to the Goldstream group campsite / start line multiple times, we’d arrived hours ago and had been able to completely set up camp. Hubby and my Sparkle furbaby are well equipped for the night ahead with a comfy air mattress in our huge tent.
I’d spent hours in the days before planning out my drop bags – only a few minutes ago I’d placed them in piles to send them off to the two aid stations we’re allowed to send drop bags to. The one for the first aid station, Rowntree, has 2 pairs of shoes and socks tucked away in it as well as lots of food items, extra batteries for my headlamp and warm clothes. There’s a stream crossing at about 1km into the race, so I nicely planned out having a dry pair of shoes to change into after each crossing (two crossings, given it’s a double loop course). The second bag, going to Ross-Durrance, is equally as stuffed full – just minus any shoes (I’d even packed a pair of very functional, totally ‘un-cute’, black running shorts in case my pink and orange ones gave me trouble, ha!).
I’d just conquered Squamish 50/50 three weeks ago, so basically, I was capable of anything. I got this. No probs. (Warning sign number two!)
The clocks flips over to 5:00pm. And with that, off we go.
I’m in the middle towards back of the pack. It’s a relaxed start. We weave through the first stretch of single track trails and before we know it, there’s the stream. I’m following a couple of guys who scramble along the edge of the stream instead of simply jumping in and following the rope that stretched along for runners to hang onto. I follow them thinking I’m all smart and just may save my feet from getting wet – when we hit a point where there is no other option but to go into the stream. The guys ahead of me start hopping from rock to rock. I immediately slip on the first rock and splash! My feet are wet. Just up to the ankles though – it’s shallow. I run through the rest of the stream and out the other side.
I guess last year some runners ran over the highway to save their feet from getting wet, but this year we’ve been warned anyone to try that will be disqualified. Honestly it wasn’t so bad though – actually kinda fun. I decide that on my second round I’ll just run through from the beginning, hanging onto the rope that’s set up. That will be in the dark – I’m thinking in about 11 hours time – around 4am. I’m oddly excited at the prospect.
We come out of the stream and make our way alongside it for a time, before the trail turns inwards and we start climbing up. There’s not many of us, so we are very quickly spreading out and it’s not long until I’m pretty much alone. I’ve got one runner wearing a bright green shirt in my sights ahead of me. From somewhere behind me I steadily get passed by 3 or 4 runners who then pass this guy… And eventually I decide to try to keep up with the last gal who just passed me, and so I slip ahead of green shirt runner.
Let me just stop here for a minute and say this. I tried to keep a mental tab on the trails I was on in order to describe them later. However I gave up on that early on. There is an exceptionally wide variety of trail here – much of it is rolling (nothing flat) and most of it is very technical (roots, slippery dust, lots of rocks, uneven footing). Lots of climbing. Downhill that is decidedly not runnable (not for me anyway… and downhill that’s not runnable is just tragic).
Of the entire 50km (which was actually 54km by my Suunto Spartan Ultra GPS, just saying) there’s maybe 1km on pavement and 4-5km on some type of smooth surface such as crushed stone or dirt. The rest is challenging technical terrain. I say that only because I wish I’d known that going into this race. Now let’s be serious – not that this information would have prevented me from attempting it (warning sign number 3 – also, did I mention I’m a very stubborn and strong-willed gal?). But perhaps it would have mentally prepared me better for what I am now encountering. Perhaps not. We’ll never know for sure…
Anyway, I’m running along (the gal I tried to follow is long gone – speedy girl) and I realize I’m about the same pace as this group of 3 guys who’d passed me earlier. So I tag along with them – they pass me on climbs, I pass them on downhills. This continues until we reach Mt Finlayson – the first big climb. They disappear ahead of me. It’s a good climb and as we get farther up, it becomes more of a scramble. Eventually I’m hanging on to rocks with my hands while choosing where to put my foot in order to hoist myself up to the next point. I’m not usually scared of heights – but I didn’t exactly care to look behind me as I’m scrambling up. Thankfully we do not need to descend this mountain – the way back skirts around it.
It is a bit thrilling though, I must say. And the views from the top are quite amazing. Once I reach the top I find myself with about 4 other runners so try to keep up with them. I cannot. They disappear. It’s a technical descent and I’m cautious. There’s more winding through the trails and then all of a sudden I pop out onto a road. This is the one short paved portion of the race. I follow the road up, passing runners as I do (the road runner in me has got me running a good clip at this point!). When we’re diverted into a service road to the right, it’s not much farther until the first aid station appears (Rowntree). I’ve been running/hiking for just over 2 hours at this point.
Amazing volunteers take my hydration pack and fill it with water and Skratch. I change my socks and shoes – ahhh dry socks, so nice! It all takes me longer than I’d anticipated but once I get going again, I’m liking the path I’m on. It’s runnable for a bit. The sun is going down and making for some nice views along the way.
Hubby texts and wants to know if I’ve found a nighttime running buddy.
Not yet, I text back with a little sad face. At this point I’m fairly certain I’ll be on my own through the night – but I’m totally okay with that. I continue climbing. Because that’s really what most of this race is – a whole lot of climbing!
About an hour later I feel like I’m on the top of another mountain. It’s getting dark and I’ve pulled my headlamp out of my pack already. It’s on my head but because I’m mostly not in the trees I’ve not yet turned it on. The fading light is pretty and I’m holding off as long as possible.
Finally I turn it on and of course it’s so much easier to see. Then I turn a corner and the next thing I know – BAM! My knee and hands have hit the ground. I’m stunned. Winded for a second. I slowly roll over to inspect the damage. Ew, knee doesn’t look pretty – there’s blood. I get up and take a few steps forward. My stomach feels ill and the knee really hurts. So I sit on a log.
“It’s okay”, I tell myself, “You’re okay Sarah”. I don’t look at it anymore. There’s nothing I can do so I get up. I try to just walk it off. It seems to be working so I jog a bit, following the pink flags.
Not 10 minutes later I round another corner and see a guy standing there – just hanging out on the top of the mountain, and he calls out to me.
“How’s it going?!”
I’m trying to figure out why he’s there, when 2 seconds later I see a photographer. I tell them my sad falling story as I run by (after smiling for the camera of course) and they’re like, it happens. Makes ya look hardcore.
I’m going with that, ha.
It gets really dark. I make my way through dark, technical ups and downs. A long down. And then a fairly smoothish surface while climbing up! Service type road maybe. I pull my phone out to update hubby and my run crew. I must be texting and messaging for longer than I think – all of a sudden I hear cheers. I’m at the second aid station (Ross-Durrance)!
There’s a lovely girl at this aid station who takes care of me. A guy cleans my knee. Kind of. Sort of wipes it a bit with some disinfectant cloths. Or something. It looks a bit better. I don’t want anything in my drop bag. I don’t want any food. The lovely girl fills my water and Skratch and off I go.
This next stretch between aid 2 and 3 feels the fastest. And it is – takes me just under 2 hours (it is shorter than other sections so that makes sense). I also think my love for night running really kicked in for that bit. I do so love night running. And this course has fantastic reflective markings so it’s super easy to follow in the dark, leaving me free from any worry of getting lost. The only time I questioned if I was on the right trail was when I had my nose stuck in my phone texting for 10 minutes and when I finally looked up I realized I hadn’t been watching the ribbons. I freaked out for about 4 minutes and then saw the next pink flag with it’s reflective square dangling on the end.
The guys at aid station #3 (Munn) are just as amazing as the rest – everyone is just so super helpful and kind, I feel like I should be paying them or tipping them or something. Lol. They have so much food. I drink some soup and eat fruit and tell them I’ll be back for more later!
And don’t you know it but as soon as those words come out of my mouth I wonder to myself – would I really? Despite my love of night running, the exhaustion of this challenging course, my aching knee, my tired body… It’s been beating me down for the past few hours. And I can feel cracks.
I say bye and take off the way I came. The nice guys yell at me to get back here and go the other way – there’s a tiny lollipop loop at the end of this mostly out and back 50km course. And so off into the dark I go. I know I was near the back, but this would kind of show me how many runners are actually behind me. I see a headlamp coming towards me – one. And then two. I only count three. Or no, was it four? Brain. Not. Working.
It’s 11:30pm. I notice my phone is dying fast – already 50% drained, and I’m only just over a quarter of the way through my race. Not good. I text hubby that aid station #3 is behind me now and turn my phone off. Up up up. More up than I remember. Don’t remember going down all this on the way out. And then down. More technical than I’d remembered. But climbing technical ground is always easier than trying to get down it. And of course the more fatigued I get, I’m sure the more inaccurately I’m describing the terrain – perhaps making it out to be more difficult than it actually is. But the good news is it’s not cold! I’m still just in my tank top (and cute little pink and orange shorts haha) and am totally fine.
I come upon a runner slowly making his way down a steep descent. It’s green shirt runner, the guy I followed way back at the start! Hmm, I don’t remember him passing me. I ask him how he is, and he says not good. Ankle something. He turned around early, before reaching Munn – he’ll DNF at the aid station I’m headed to now. That we’re both headed to now. I comment on the course being harder than Squamish which I just did – and he says YES! He just did Squamish too, and this is definitely more challenging.
I continue on. And finally come upon aid station #4 (Ross-Durrance again). The same lovely girl takes care of me there. She tells me I haven’t been drinking enough. I suppose that might be true – my water pack level hasn’t gone down much in the past 4 hours or so. She asks if I want anything to eat… So I ask for bacon – and get 2 pieces handed to me. Oh it is just the best. I rummage around in my drop bag and change the batteries in my headlamp. Don’t want anything else but grab an energy bar just in case. And I’m off.
There’s a very runnable downhill that seems to go on forever. It’s amazing – I love it. For a moment I feel like I can do this. I’m going to make it. At the bottom, I pull my phone out and text hubby. I tell him I’m through aid station #4 and will text him again at aid station 5. It’s 12:30am. It’s still so warm.
I hike up. The up goes on forever. Literally forever. I reach a bench. I remember this bench from when I was going the opposite direction. This time I stop and sit on it. I turn my headlamp off and look up into the dark skies. It’s so quiet and calm. The wind rustles through the trees. I wouldn’t mind sitting a bit longer. But I get up and keep climbing.
I hear rustling to my right that doesn’t sound like just wind. I look over. There’s two yellow eyes staring back at me. I hike faster, telling myself it’s just a deer. It’s just a deer. Is there wildlife in these trees? There must be. But I don’t know what kind. Squamish had said to be aware you may encounter a bear or a cougar, but I don’t remember any warnings for this race.
Whatever it was, it didn’t chase me (lol). I climb and climb and finally it’s rolling again. All of a sudden I come across a man lying on the side of the path, snoozing. A runner. I yelp.
“Oh my gosh!”
And then, “Are you okay?”
He shields his eyes from my headlamp. He’s says he’s fine, just resting. I say that’s what I feel like doing. I think I hear him say, yah try it.
It’s 2:05am. I look for a spot on the side of the path to lie down. Nothing looks comfortable enough – or like it wouldn’t make me all dirty – or what about bugs crawling all over me? Instead I opt to sit down on a rock. I feel like I’m reaching a mountain top again – it’s windy and the gusts of wind are cool so I pull out my jacket, just a thin shell. I also pull my phone out and text hubby.
“This might be too much for me”
I add 7 ‘tears streaming down the face’ emojis.
Then I text, “I’m just gonna sit for a second”
Hubby is awake it appears. He texts back and tells me not to fall asleep. I tell him I won’t.
Then I turn my phone off.
And I contemplate life.
Okay, more like I go over my reasons for being in this race. But I can’t really think. I’m exhausted. My knee hurts. I want to sleep.
I get up. I would sit longer – but it’s too cold for that. I’m beginning to shiver. I move forward again, walking. I start jogging, but as soon as I do, my toe catches on something and I trip. I catch myself – but it scares me. I’ve been doing that a lot – so many little trips. I’m annoyed at my body. Why can’t it just go faster? Be more nimble?
WHY AM I NOT BETTER AT THIS?!!! I am so damn annoyed with myself.
I think of all the 50k racers that will inevitably overtake me tomorrow after I begin my second round (they start at 7am and at this rate I’ll go through the ‘start’ area at between 5am to 6am). That thought of them all passing me for whatever reason just mortifies me.
I think about how relatively unprepared for this terrain I actually am, and how exhausted I am. Not just tired from being out here for the past 9 hours or so – tired from not having completely recovered from Squamish 50/50. It would appear I’m not superhuman (dang it – but lol don’t worry I’ll keep trying).
For the next 45 minutes I hike. I move forward. The first place guy comes towards me and past me. Then the second place, and third – and forth. Was that the lead female? I think it was! Man, I’m far behind them. So, so, so far behind. They are so amazing. I’m so… Unamazing. Why can’t I be more amazing like them?
I trip again. I sit on a log. I pull out my energy bar. Maybe this will help. I eat it – mmmm, really yummy. So I finish it all and wash it down with water. Okay it’s time. I get up and slowly start shuffling forward. I trip. Okay that’s it, I am so over this!
I slowly make my way along this dark and completely treacherous path (it’s 2:30am and I’ve been ‘running’ for 9.5 hours – thus use of the word treacherous is completely justified at this point).
At 3:00am I sit down on another log and turn my phone back on. I text hubby.
“Would you be upset with me if I dropped at half way?”
I don’t want to. But honestly I just can’t fathom another 15 hours or so of this. And it’s not just the fatigue or my aching knee or my constant tripping or the thought of getting passed by all the 50k’ers in a few hours. It’s the fact this race really isn’t doing much for me at this point in terms of training. This terrain is nothing like what I’ll experience in my 100-miler (at least I’m fairly certain it’s not). And it’s the fact that if I actually do push through this entire 100km I just may need weeks if not months to recover and actually put myself into a position where I cannot run my goal race – which would of course make finishing this 100k completely pointless.
My text goes though, and as it does I receive exactly 11 messages from him. He’s been awake for the past 50 minutes freaking out because last he heard from I was sitting on a rock trying not to fall asleep.
Oh boy. My bad.
Anyway, one of the first of his messages to come through is, “Maybe you just do 50?”
My watch beeps. It appears it just reset itself. As in, it just ended my run and saved it and it’s now in sleep mode. What the?!! Geez – I hadn’t even asked for a ‘sign’, but sure, I’ll take it.
I call hubby and apologize for making him think I was sleeping on the rock. Then I tell him I think I will cut out once I return to the campground, at the half way point. He tells me to please not worry, I won’t be disappointing him if I do this.
Basically I know he will support me no matter what I decide to do, but I know he’s relieved to hear my decision. He worries about me.
I restart my watch and set off again, both relieved and with new resolve. I must simply make it back to camp and then this can all be over. Sleeping runner dude comes up from behind me and passes me. I ask him how his nap was. He says it was good but he’s got other problems. And then he’s gone and it’s just me in the middle of the nowhere shuffling along the this treacherous path in the dead of the night.
An hour later (longest hour EVER) I’m finally at aid station #5 (Roundtree again). I stop and drink tomato soup and eat chips and M&Ms. Then I grab a brownie for the road. Don’t ask. I’m so done. My brain, my body. Done.
The last stretch between Roundtree and the start/finish is ridiculously long. In reality it takes me only an hour and a half but it’s the longest 1.5 hours ever (yes, even longer than my previous longest hour EVER). Two runners overtake me. Wow, they’re moving well! They use their poles deftly to help propel themselves forward. I try to keep up with them. I’m pretty sure I’m the only 100k runner without poles. I musta missed the pole memo. Why does everyone have poles?
They disappear – there was never any way I could keep up to them but I’d really wanted to. I feel so alone. Also, there literally must be no one else behind me now. I convince myself I am now the last of the 100k runners out here, desperately trying to get back to the start/finish area.
I slowly let myself down steep bits, hiking along. So over this. Dying. I’m dying. I’m totally dying.
I text hubby a single word.
But he knows I’m just being dramatic.
I think I’m close! I pull out google maps and it shows me I’m a 20 minute walk from Goldstream provincial park. Okay I can do this. I climb. Moving forward. But after about 10 minutes I pull my phone out again. It says I’m 28 minutes away from Goldstream. Um, that’s farther away. Did I somehow get turned around and now I’m going backwards? I freak out. It’s a pretty good freak out. But then I realize the point google maps has identified as Goldstream (main parking lot) is not actually where I’m headed (group campsite area). I calm myself down and continue following the ribbons.
And finally I can see the lights of the start/finish area ahead. I jog in as volunteers cheer. As I approach they ask what can they get me. Technically I’ve just reached the halfway point.
Although relatively emotionless, I do feel a bit sad and terrible yet relieved all at the same time as I tell them I’m done. I tell them to please officially DNF me. They sit me down by the fire and suggest I warm up before making my decision. But my decision has already been made. And as hubby comes over to me holding little Sparkle, I confirm. I will not be going back out for round two.
Out of 40 runners who began the 100km run, 33% DNF’d (13 runners). There was at least one runner who came through the start/finish area after me, and finished her 100km run with 13 minutes to spare before cutoff. As I was lamenting I must be the very last runner on the course, she was somewhere out on the course behind me – and she did it. She finished what I could not.
It wasn’t my day. And that’s okay. As I woke in the tent 4 hours later I heard rain beating down on its thin walls – and I must say I was immensely thankful I wasn’t still out there trying to tough it out. Of course there were plenty of runners out there in the rain running and conquering that challenging course… But it simply wasn’t my day to be doing the same. I watched some of them come across the finish line – still in t-shirts or even tank tops and with smiles on their faces as they crossed. Clearly the rain hadn’t stopped them. I felt a bit embarrassed that I’d failed.
But what really are the words ‘success’ and ‘failure’? They are but words – simply descriptions we give experiences.
I’m no longer embarrassed that I ‘failed’ – because I’ve decided to position it in such a way that nothing of that sort happened. Instead, I’ve learned a great deal from a very tough experience – and for that I’m choosing to be grateful.
(Here, the little devil on my shoulder is hissing ‘”Loser talk!!” at me… But whatevs. Ya win some ya lose some. At the end of the day it is what it is – I’ve simply positioned it in such a way that I have retained – or maybe regained – the confidence and motivation I need to pick myself up and continue moving forward.)
I’m also exceptionally grateful for hubby who continues to support me through my crazy running endeavours!! However in the future I have a feeling he might draw the line at last minute 100k training run races where all the hotels are sold out ;P
Run… Be it faster or farther, for freedom or fun… Just run…
I read this post today after not running for a few days and feeling the fear, self-loathing, and food cravings return as I “fell off the wagon” with my food plan and with the stress of starting a very uncertain school year. I’m in a new classroom, but can’t unpack as I will be moving to a new portable when it arrives- lots of new kids at the school this year! Today, I hydrated and have eaten well and ran with the kids during out Terry Fox Run and it feels better…
Your writing soothed and inspired me. I think you made really good choices during this run- especially to quit while you were ahead so that your goal race wouldn’t be compromised. The technical difficulty during a second lap sounded like it would be torture and not a run that challenged your spirit and made you stronger. I feel you made the correct choice even though it was a difficult one. I’m so glad Jeremy and Sparkle were there to welcome you “home”.
Thank you for this article! love, Marg
Thanks so much for your comment Marg – we all have days as you did and I’m so glad you were able to ‘jump back on the wagon’ quickly, and am honoured my writings of my experience helped to inspire you. Looking back (a month out now!!), I know without a doubt I made the right choice as I’m feeling so strong now. Crazy how some bumps in the road must be there in order to help build us into stronger runners xx