I jump out of the car holding two bags – one to be dropped at the start/finish line (warm clothes for when I cross the finish line in maybe 15 to 16 adventurous hours) and my hydration pack (carrying substantially more than just hydration). It’s 4:55am and there’s rain falling gently from the blackest of black skies. Not much to see save for the orange blinking lights to the left leading to the port-a-potties, and bright light streaming out of of the pavilion to the right – the start line area.
Today is the first of two days of running I’ve signed up for – 50 miles today, and 50km tomorrow here in the trails around Squamish. This is Squamish 50/50 – an event I’ve completed twice before earning the blue hat in 2017 then the the green hat in 2019. Today I’m after the yellow hat.
I say goodbye to hubby, Ocean and Skye – and as they drive off back to Vancouver I head over to the pavilion to pick up my bib. It’s been 20 months since I last found myself at the start line of an actual ultra. I notice myself finding it hard to believe this is really happening. It feels tentative… As though this entire experience might be snatched away from me at any moment, without warning. I might be racing today, but can I trust there’ll be more? Will I be welcome if there are? I fear this might be my last real race ever.
I breathe and make an effort to just be fully present, enjoying the company and camaraderie of my fellow trail racers and the beauty of this moment that I am here now in. I am about to participant in my first ultra in nearly 2 years. This is happening! My fear is replaced with gratitude.
As I make my way to the race pack pick-up table, I see remnants of that which has cancelled races for the past year and a half in seeing the volunteers masked up, and some racers masked up too. Maybe more effort from some to stay distanced from each other. But that gets nearly impossible very shortly. Because it’s raining everyone wants to stay huddled under the pavilion roof.
Grabbing my bib from a volunteer who puts a race band around my wrist, I then drop my finish line bag under the finish line drop bag tent and head to the port-a-potties. Not minutes later, at about 5:15am, race director Gary Robbins calls all runners out from under the pavilion roof and into the rain. He lets us know we’re going to be very wet all day so might as well start now. Very true.
I appreciate Gary’s humour as he lets us know that any runner not running straight through the puddles will be disqualified and that stand up paddle boards, kayaks and canoes are not allowed on course. It’s raining steadily and will likely continue all day long as well as all day tomorrow.
Before you know it, it’s go time. We are a group of maybe 300 runners decked out in Gortex, hats, hoods with some ponchos and garbage bags in the mix too. I’ve positioned myself near the back, and here we’re all sidestepping the puddles. Rather pointless in hindsight – by about the 8th km in my shoes will be completely soaked through even with jumping sideways around any puddles.
If I could go back and do it again (and believe me, everything in me wants this so much), I’d start by crashing straight through the nonstop puddles on the paths right from the beginning.
By about kilometre 5 we’ve now spread out enough that I’m relatively on my own, although I can still see runners in the distance ahead of me and if I turn to look back, some behind me too. The first 10 km are pretty flat, nothing at all like what’s to come. I’m just keeping the pace really chill right now, saving energy for the mountainous climbs ahead of me.
Coming up onto a flat open stretch (not that you can see it, it’s still ominously dark and rainy), I come across a guy limping along. Slowing to a walk myself, I ask if he’s okay. He’s not great, apparently, having twisted his ankle 2km back. He asks how long to the next aid station. It’s another 4 km away, offers another runner who’s just stopped to walk with us also. We wish him all the best which doesn’t mean much given his day will be over once he reaches the aid station – and continue running on together.
Darwin and I run side by side for maybe a kilometre. He’s worried his training isn’t enough to get him to the finish line. I’m worried about the same thing. However from his description, I think he has no reason to worry whereas I actually do. It’s true that I’ve come into today rather undertrained for a 50-miler. I’ve no doubt I can cover the distance – but am a bit worried about chasing cut-offs. Then we talk about how ultras are just big eating competitions. True. I’m SO ready for that today and excited for it.
This is part of what I love about ultras. We meet new people and share stories. We laugh together and eventually part ways. Darwin will end up finishing today’s race… I will not.
I run through the first aid station, stoping only briefly to fill up my front water bottle and then moving on very quickly. Following markers along city streets, I approach the trailhead and see there’s a bit of a party happening there! Three banana’s are jumping up and down, dancing and cheering me into the trails. I can’t help but laugh.
With a silly grin pasted on my face, I enter the trails again. I’ll soon see that smile wiped away as my day in Squamish comes to an end in a way I could never have anticipated. But for now, me and my smile are completely alone in the trails. I don’t see any headlamps ahead of me or behind me.
After some lovely meandering up and down around roots and rocks, I pop out of a section of trail and as I walk up a wider gravel path I text hubby. I tell him I’m at 13k. A course marshal directs me off to the left and back into the trails. It’s still very dark in the trails, not to mention still very rainy – and my headlamp continues to lead the way. I run down and around and down some more… A couple ladies are right in front of me. I see them get to the top of a steep decline. One goes down fast while the other waits. Then the other flies down.
I look down the very steep muddy hill and make the decision to not fly down as quickly as they did. I’ll be more conservative. I plant my feet sideways one at a time. Right foot, left foot, right foot. And lose my balance. My body twists forward in a fast jerking movement and I hear a pop. My right knee screams out. Maybe I’m screaming with it.
My body tumbles head over heels, and gravity flings me like a rag doll to the bottom of that hill. I scream and scream and scream. Long and loud. It was truly horrible – I’ve never felt anything like it. My leg feels like it’s bent off entirely in the wrong direction at the knee. Covered in mud from neck down, and slowly sinking further into a couple inches of cold thick mud, my first thought is GET UP Sarah, get up, you must get up. I wince, straighten my leg and feel another pop. It’s painful, but I’m thinking, oh good maybe something clicked back into place that had clicked out.
I try to stand but the moment I attempt to put any weight at all on my right leg, it completely gives out with another sickening click and I fall once again to the ground screaming.
I’ll always wonder what would have happened if I’d just let myself fly down that muddy hill instead of being so damn conservative.
I want so badly to figure out how to continue on in this race. But in less than 60 seconds I realize there’s literally no way such a thing is going to happen. Flipping into survival mode, I drag myself over to a stump, crawling on hands and one knee, the other uselessly dangling behind me. Hauling myself up, I hear myself in shock laughing at what just happened and saying that I’ve no idea what to do next. I just fell down a muddy hill, wrecked my knee, can’t walk let alone run, and I’m already getting cold.
The rain continues to fall steadily and while it wasn’t cold at all while moving, a chill is setting in fast at rest. I pull out my phone, trying to call hubby. But with the rain and in the shaken state I’m in, I can’t figure out how to dial his number. I see it and keep trying to hit it with my finger but it’s just not dialling. My finger hits some random number instead and I spend the next minute trying to hang up. In frustration I put my phone away.
I’m feeling a bit confused. My knee isn’t actually in any pain right now at this moment. Yet I cannot weight bear without it giving out and causing me immense shooting pain. I know I can’t just sit here – I must figure out how to get out. If I can just get back to the course marshal I saw not all that long ago – straight up about a half kilometre. I look up and see two paths. The one I just tumbled down… And another much more conservative not at all muddy trail. I’m thankful there’s another way up. The mudslide wasn’t even an option to go back up.
As I slowly hoist myself up off the stump I realize that if I keep my leg very bent, place a hand on either side of it in support and take the smallest steps ever, that I can, with great discomfort, slowly make my way forward. So I do. I inch my way up the hill.
Just as I reach the top, maybe 10 minutes later, I let my leg straighten out a touch too much or maybe I put too much weight on it. I’m not sure exactly what I did, but my knee gives out completely with another bout of flashing pain. Again, as I had earlier, I fall to the ground screaming. In frustration I stay down. I don’t believe that I’m going to be able to make it the distance I need to in order to reach the course marshal.
I see a runner coming along! As she approaches me she asks if I’m okay… And I let her know I’m not. As we discuss options, I carefully hoist myself back up again and eventually agree I’ll continue up the trail. She offers several times to go with me, but I’m now that I’m up again, I’m confident I CAN make it up and don’t want to ruin her race. She makes sure my headlamp is on, and watches me take a few tentative steps forward, encouraging me as I go. Then she turns to run onward. And I continue backwards with a painstaking hobble up trail.
Not 5 minutes later I see two of the most beautiful human beings making their way towards me – my rescuers. Immense relief floods over me. It’s the course marshal and a sweep – and as they see me, right away they get to work. I’m forever grateful to these two – Nadine and Cody I believe their names are, but god help me my brain is muddled (in fact, as I’ll learn nearly 2 weeks later, it’s Nadine and Adam [ADAM, not Cody], lol I was definitely in shock and out of it when they told me their names).
Adam gets on the radio to call the rescue truck our way, and let headquarters know that runner number 1529 is injured. Is out. It’s official. I’m out. Officially a DNF.
Adam hands me a blue cloth to clean the copious amount of mud off my hands. It helps maybe a little. He asks me if I have any warm clothes. I do. I pull my purple down jacket out of my pack, unfold it from its pouch and he helps me get it on. I think Nadine helps too. She’s saying she’ll drive me to the hotel, am I staying there? No. No, I’m not – I’ve no crew, no hotel room and no one around. I need to call hubby. He arrived back in Vancouver maybe an hour ago.
Nadine and Adam point down the trail I’ve just hobbled up, letting me know we’ll head down there and then divert off the course to a quick exit out of the trails and into a neighbourhood where it’s determined the rescue truck can pick me up. I wince, an almost cry. What’s wrong they ask? I try to explain it took me so much effort and what felt like forever to drag myself up that hill and it feels so pointless to go back down! Then I realize obviously this is fine, it’s what must happen, let’s do it.
And so with an arm around each of them, one on either side of me, we spend the next 10 minutes hobbling out of the trails, making our way down along about a 400 metre section of trail (we actually really weren’t that far away from an exit). I can use my dangling leg for a bit of balance, which helps a lot. However, I’m fully aware of how much I’m relying on both Adam and Nadine, putting so much of my weight on them.
The rescue vehicle is pulling up just as we reach the trailhead. Good timing. My third rescuer has a dog in the back of her truck which for some reason makes me very happy, and she tells me not to worry for a minute about how muddy I am. I am so muddy. As I am helped into the passenger seat I can only think of how now I must call hubby. So while my rescue vehicle driver (whose name completely escaped me) radios in the message that I’m safely off the course, I call hubby to come back to Squamish to pick me up from headquarters, at the Executive Suites Hotel.
She offers to drive me to the finish line and grab my drop bag for me, which sounds great – those clean warm clothes will come in handy. But as we pass the hotel, a call comes in – a runner with a possibly dislocated shoulder. And with that, because she can put a dislocated shoulder back into place, we swing around and head back to Executive Suites and the Squamish 50/50 headquarters. Hubby and I will later collect my drop bag, in a few hours time.
My rescue vehicle driver helps me into headquarters, the clubhouse at Executive Suites Hotel, and there I’m given a chair with a sleeping bag. The lovely guy in charge there (Eric?) is constantly on the radio – but in between calls here and there he ensures I’ve got everything I need (as with Cody/Adam, this name didn’t compute correctly either – headquarters guy’s name was [and still is!] Arnault). What I need is a new knee, so I don’t quite get all I need… But I’m okay.
I decide to change out of my mud soaked capri pants and into my fold up packable wind pants which are in my hydration pack. Carefully hopping over to the bathroom on my good leg, I spend the next 20 minutes doing what would usually take me 2 minutes. There’s mud everywhere. I try to clean it up. The immense disappointment of what just happened is really setting in. But I don’t allow myself to feel it just yet. I slowly and painstakingly hop my way back out to my chair, wrapping the sleeping bag around me.
A couple guys enter the clubhouse. As they walk by one stops, looks at me and then tells me it’s good to see me here! I can’t put a name to this very familiar face. Nonetheless I’m happy to see him. I mumble something about being worried about my knee and how it took me out of todays 50-miler. All of a sudden I’m feeling so ashamed to be sitting here, injured. I want to cry. He walks over towards that whom I believe is Eric (that who is actually Arnault).
Later I’ll put a name to the face. Mark. I ran many kilometres of Tenderfoot Boogie 50-miler with him a few years ago. He’s sporting a green 50/50 hat, the same one I received in 2019 and couldn’t find to wear today, as he is. He also earned his in 2019.
Mark comes back over, looks at me, reaches down and gives me a hug. I’m overwhelmed with emotion, appreciation and so much gratitude for each one of the beautiful human beings to cross my path today. Ironically in this moment, I can’t for the life of me remember who he is, but I’m so grateful for this hug, so thankful he reached out to me and held space for my pain, even just for a moment. And then he’s gone. And I’m alone. Or rather, feeling incredibly alone.
Arnault offers me an apple. Puts two on the table in front of me actually, for me to choose from. Again, I’m filled with gratitude. No one can give me a full functioning knee – but I do feel deeply cared for. Eating my apple, I’m marvelling at how part of me wants to have a pity party, part of me is so ashamed to be here and also so ashamed I was nearly the last runner out on course, and part of me is just so full of gratitude for the beautiful humans that are helping me and comforting me.
Just after 9:30am, hubby arrives. My last angel rescuer for the day. He literally carries me to the car. It’s only once I get into our car that I allow myself a few tears. There’s so much sadness – grief for the loss of the experience I thought I was going to have. But also fear – will I ever be able to run in the trails again? Let alone another real race. And anger. I’m so mad at myself for what just happened. Somehow it’s my fault. I shouldn’t have been so conservative, I should have just let myself fly down that hill like the two girls in front of me.
Later today I will find myself in Emerg at Lions Gate Hospital. I’ll fall asleep waiting for my turn. An x-ray will tell us there’s no bone damage. The ER doctor will tell me I’ve torn my ACL and maybe my MCL too. The nurse will put me in a splint and I’ll be sent home with a referral to an orthopaedic surgeon and directions to get my butt to physiotherapy in one weeks time. I’ll learn that an ACL tear doesn’t heal on it’s own and always requires reconstruction surgery to be able to return to pre-tear activity levels. That recovery will be 9-12 months – and that’s AFTER surgery. That the surgery itself generally doesn’t happen until a few months after the initial injury. I will be overwhelmed and have many questions for which I’ll find no answers to today.
For now, I’m just sitting in what just happened. Trying to make sense of something that probably isn’t meant to make sense. Trying to give meaning to something that might not have any meaning. As we drive away from Squamish, I think of all the runners who are still out there wading their way through the trails. A part of me is insanely jealous they are running through those rainy wet trails and I’m not. Another part of me is actually a bit relieved I get to go home and rest. And the part of me that still really, really wants that yellow hat has already started praying and begging for ways this might happen in the future.
And so it happened, on Saturday, October 16th, 2021 in my first ultra race back after over 20 months, I tore my ACL instead of crossing the finish line.