Racing for Redemption in Squamish

Now that you’ve read all about the lead-up to the big race, it’s time to get into the actual race reporting, isn’t it? First off, let’s clear up the title of this post. As many of you are aware, a month before this trip, I also found myself out west for another race, the aptly-named Sinister 7, which of course you can read all about. Unfortunately, at that race, I ended up with a DNF, but one that I had to wear as a badge of honour in my journey as an ultra runner. The conditions and my own mental shortcomings were to blame. As a result, I was looking for a little redemption, and the Squamish 50/50 was just the ticket. If you are not aware, the Squamish 50/50 sees racers tackle a tough 50 mile course in the mountains around Squamish on a Saturday, then the next morning, you have to toe the line once again to race in the 50 km course, whcih is essentially the 50 TOUGHEST km of the 50 miler. For you efforts, if you succeed, you get a truckers hat. Nothing more, nothing less (unless you count getting a hug from the legendary Gary Robbins, which incidentally, I did).

BC 2017 - The Race, and Pre- Post- Prep

On the day before the 50 miler, it was all about getting ready mentally and dealing with some last minute logistics. This included race registration, packing drop bags, sorting race clothes and food, amongst a myriad of other little things. Since I’d be producing videos on both days, I also wanted to get some footage in the area, and interview the race director. I also convinced Deanna that it would be a good idea to do a little course scoping to give us a sense of the terrain. To those ends, we checked out a couple of the climbs, the terrain, and the course markings. For Deanna, it really started to hit home what she’d be taking on the next day. So far, I liked what I saw, with excellent course markings and mountain bike trails. I’d be getting very familiar with this terrain over the next two days.

Clear Directions

Day 1 – The 50 Miler – 80.3km, 3,400m Climbing

Race morning came all too early, with the alarm clocks shrieking at 4am for us to get up. We were staying at Quest University, in a dorm room in single beds. Ironically, this was also the site of one of the aid stations, but we had to make our way to the start line for briefings and to gradually make our way back here, which was well over the halfway point of the 50 miler. The 50 Miler is broken into 8 distinct legs, with the first 1.5 being pretty innocuous, and much of the climbing packed into the latter part of the course. As such, pacing at the beginning is key, and not getting lulled into a false sense of ‘this is easy’ given the flat terrain. Overall, racers have 17 hours to complete this course, so that tells you how the back end feels.

To those ends, after an animated race briefing by Gary Robbins at the start line (and a Coffee with Bailey’s for Deanna!), we got underway at about 5:45am. We had headlamps on (mandatory), but the sun was already making itself known, so the lights were mostly unnecessary. The first 10km was frankly boring, with roads and gravel roads, all pretty much flat and wide. This is on purpose, as we wind through the town of Squamish, warming up for the challenge ahead. With the sun rising, you also got to see the sun illuminate the mountains around us.

Behind the Scenes

In no time, we were in to Aid Station 1, where there were already decent crowds despite the early hour. I ditched my headlamp here with a volunteer, but other than that, just kept running. I was looking forward to Leg 2 featuring the first big climb, Debeck Hill. It didn’t disappoint. We plunged into well-maintained mountain bike trails with lots of flow and gradually made our way up and up, before a great screaming descent into Aid Station 2 at Alice Lake. Here, I took the time to top off fluids and grab a few baby potatoes and chips. Everything was working well, and I felt good. My foot was bothering me a bit, but nothing I couldn’t manage.

Leg 3 was a solid roller of a stage, which featured more climbs, and absolutely trails through forests that were just starting to have the sunlight filter through branches, making it easy to lose yourself in thoughts of the beauty and special journey we were on. I had opportunity to chat with different people, some local, some from away, some first-timers, some veterans. All of us sharing in the community that we call ultra running, and chasing our own goals. Unless you are truly at the head of the race, it is rarely about ‘winning’, but the journey, and I was happy to be lost in the journey today.

The 3rd Aid station is one we actually visited twice. Between visits, we were taken on a trail called ‘Innards’ which is apparently one of Gary’s favourite trails. Here we were treated to a fair number of wooden features built for mountain bikers. It doesn’t take long before you realize that most of these trails were purpose-built for riders. The local MTB association, SORCA, has put a TON of work into making and maintain these trails, and we got to benefit from this. Years back, I actually raced on some of these trails on my own bike, when I took part in the BC Bike Race, but that all seemed a lifetime away as I picked my feet along these routes that look completely different when you are running them.

Ahhh Leg 5. One of the real gems of the course, and the location of the biggest climb of the entire race, a lovely little trail noted as ‘Galactic’ on the sign, but much better known by the full name of Galactic Scheisse. From a relatively low altitude of 300m, on this climb we reached our highest point of 1350m. It was slow going, and most of it was actually under the cover of trees, so we didn’t have a ton of views to marvel over. Even worse, in my opinion, is that at the top, you don’t even end up anywhere with a view, so it sort of felt like we had climbed in vain. My whole purpose for climbing is the views normally. My consolation prize would have to be the crazy descent!

View to Squamish from Galactic

After cresting this large climb, it was time to head down some great MTB trails and into the next aid station, which was supposed to just be a water/coke/gel kind of aid station, but much to my surprise, they’d managed to get some ‘real’ food out there for us, so I enjoyed a few more baby potatoes and some chips. This aid station was really just meant to be a little pick-me-up before the main even, the next aid station, which was a biggie. Quest University, only 5km downhill from us, over the halfway point, and location of our 2nd drop bags, and also where a lot of friends and family would gather for racers. Of course, for me, it was a ‘lonely’ stop, since of course my important ‘crew’ was racing as well! However, on the upside, when I arrived, I was treated to some tasty freezies being handed out by local kids. Delicious, and a great treat on this warm dry day.

Obviously, the goal is not to linger too long at these aid stations, so after replenishing some food in my pack, and re-filling my hydration, it was off to the races! Although we’d now been going downhill for a while now, that was all about to change on Leg 7, as soon after Quest, we turned skyward, and entered another long sustained climb. This one threw me for a loop, as at one point earlyish in the climb, we criss-crossed some wooden structures where runners were speeding downhill, so I thought we were near the top already. I was very wrong. This was a long way from the top, and there was a lot of climbing to do. Luckily, we were lucky to again be on some great singletrack trail as we made our way up. Plenty of ‘gentle’ switchbacks that were built for cyclists, and therefore not too steep. I was definitely looking froward to the top though.

We finally reached a flat trail that went straight for a bit. In the distance, I could see flagging tape, signs, and arrows, along with a volunteer. Instinct told me the downhill roller coaster was imminent, and I was right. I’d say this was one of my top two favourite descents of the day. Fast and furious, and going up and over a bunch of neat built-up features. This descent finished faster than I thought it would, popping me out on a forest service road, and straight into the second final aid station. I still felt good, and was cheered on as I quickly filled a bottle, grabbed a little bit of food, including some tasty watermelon. I wasted no time in getting onto Leg 8, which featured more fun downhill and winding forest trails. At this point, things were all a bit of a blur, as it was just one great MTB trail after another in succession, with more fun bridges and features.

Although I was getting a bit tired, I was still very much on track for my planned finish of 12 hours, and was buoyed by the fact that the final aid station lay just ahead of me. I had heard rumours of this aid station being fashioned after a Tiki bar, with the pre-requisite alcohol being on offer. Crossing the gorgeous Mamquam gorge, and making my way along a forest road, I finally saw the Tiki mirage not far ahead, with volunteers in grass skirts and leis directing me in. As I entered, I called out ‘I hear I can summon the Kraken here’, to which I was guided to one of the far tables, at which point the kind folks pulled out a full bottle of Kraken dark rum. I had a nice big warm shot of the liquid fuel, chased it with a swig of Coke, grabbed more potatoes, and trotted out, knowing I was on the final 11km leg of the race!

However, Leg 9 is no walk in the park. After a full day of climbing and descending, we still faced two climbs on the final leg. While they weren’t super long or anything, it is their placement that makes them a challenge. Luckily, being rum-powered, I found an extra gear on the machine, and I dare say I flew along that leg, passing quite a few people, even though I knew I had another day of racing ahead of me, I wanted to push this leg and finish strong, for me more than anything. I sang and skipped along as I picked my way through yet more great trails. As opposed to Sinister 7, this time I had made a point to have the entire course profile printed and handy so that I knew EXACTLY when I’d be climbing, and where I could let loose and fly. As a result, I knew when I’d be up and over the ‘Mountain of Phlegm’, which was the final climb of the day. Of course, there was also a great volunteer at the top to confirm this with me!

I knew the rest of the run in was downhill to the town area, then onto paved path and road to the finish for a few kilometers. The only thing that the profile didn’t tell me about were the stairs on the final descent! Luckily, I was happy to bounce down them 2 at a time, flying past rock climbers plying their trade on the granite to my right. Soon enough, I popped out at a parking lot, greeted by the ‘2.5km to go’ sign. I was fading a bit, but knew it was a straight push to the finish in the warm glow of the sun. I checked timing and knew I should make it, but I suddenly realized it would be tight, and I’d have to push hard. So I dug in, and did exactly that, covering the last chunk faster than I’d covered anything else in a while. Cheering crowds and Gary Robbins welcomed me over the line at just under the 12 hour mark. Grabbed some footage and my medal, and called it a day!

Deanna and Gary at Finish

However, it wasn’t the end of my day, as now the waiting would begin. In a bit of role reversal, now I was the one at the finish nervously awaiting news of how Deanna might be doing and see her cross the line. Ideally, I would have been eating a nice meal and resting and preparing for my 50k race the next day, but instead, I settled for a hasty shower, a hot dog, and sitting in the grass, camera in hand, waiting patiently. Unfortunately, there was no on-course timing or tracking, so there was NO news. The only thing I could confirm after a few hours’ wait was that she was NOT one of the people that had quit the course. This was music to my ears, as I just knew that if she was still going after 15 hours, she WOULD be finishing. So I waited. And then, at around 15 hours and 44 minutes, I saw some bobbing headlamps in the distance making their way to the finish line. It was Deanna! She came in strong, with a big smile (in large part no doubt relieved to be done). Happy to get a big from Gary, she had done it!

Although I felt a bit bad about rushing her a bit, I was a bit anxious to get back to our room so I could do some prep for my looming 50k the next day. We hung around long enough for her to chat a bit with some new friends she’d made on the trail, as well as chatting with the race director. She also grabbed a hot dog, and we headed for the car. On the way back, we made a slight detour to McDonalds so I could grab an uber-healthy McChicken and fries as a bit of sustenance.

Day 1 Video Re-Cap

Day 2 – 52.1km , 2,425m Climbing

So, what can I actually say about the 2nd day that wasn’t already covered in the first day? As it turns out, not a whole lot, since every kilometer that I’d be racing on this day was a repeat of the first day, apart from the first few hundred meters at the start of the day. For this race, we were starting at Alice Lake, which had served as the second aid station the previous day. Start time was set for 6am, so headlamps would not be needed. However, it would have been useful prior to the start, as i found myself stumbling in the dark around the park trying to find a washroom. Eventually, I got that sorted out, and made my way to the start area about 10 minutes before the fun was going to get underway.

No doubt you are wondering: how was I feeling? How did I convince myself to get to that start line? Well, as far as the first question goes, I felt tired. I was a bit stiff and sore. But as to the second question? I got myself there because this is what I signed up for. Why wouldn’t I go there? Luckily, in my years of experience in racing a wide range of events, I have found myself in this position before, convincing my body that it does actually want to race AGAIN. The thing to note here is that your body can cope with these stresses. It is more often the mind that can’t cope, which is what causes folks to decide they wno’t get out of bed and tackle day 2. These are the same little niggling thoughts that hold people back from getting out and training in the rain, or when they don’t feel like it. You just have to get over YOU, and get there. I guess that’s what they call motivation. Find your motivation and get out there!

The fact is, 100% of the people that don’t start Day 2 don’t finish and get their hat! Of those that actually do start the second day, over 80% of them will succeed! Moreover, a lot of people actually feel better on the second day after they’ve gotten past the first leg or so. I think the reason is that on the 2nd day, you are much less likely to be pushing for a win or your best possible time. The focus is more on efficiency, running well, and enjoying the day. And with that can come surprises on performance. Take the pressure off, and magical things can happen out there.

True to those words, I launched into the first leg by sticking myself literally at the back of the entire field, and starting at a power walk, gradually moving to a run-shuffle, before finally moving back into more of a true run after the first couple kilometers. Just in time for the first climb of the day out of Alice Lake. At this point, my body was completely in sync with the task at hand, and I headed up that climb with as much power as the day before, passing people on my way, and singing aloud and encouraging all my other 50/50 colleagues (we were sort of clumped together early in the race due to the slower start for us).

Arriving at Quest

The rest of the day for me went well, and I did feel progressively stronger as stages ticked by. I’m not saying Galactic was any easier on day 2, but I knew exactly what the terrain held for me, so mentally, I was prepared for each of the challenges. This played out best on the long climb after Quest as well, knowing exactly how long we’d be climbing. Another high point was the fact that I knew I’d see Deanna somewhere along the race course this day. Turned out that was Quest University, where she snapped pictures of me while I scaled the stairs to my drop bag to replenish food and fluids. Although I never spend much time chatting, and am pretty focused on the race, it is still a huge boost when I see her, even if she can’t tell from me ‘race mode’ face.

Crossing the Line

Once again on day 2, I summoned the Kraken at the final aid station, opting to swig directly from the bottle this time, at their insistence. Once again, I got that warm feeling my chest, and felt more weightless heading into the final stage. And yes, I truly flew through this section once again, passing a ton of people (many of whom were obviously only 1 day racers!). Looking at my timing, I again got paranoid about my timing, but couldn’t remember exactly how long it had taken me the day before. As a result, I kept pushing very hard to the finish. My goal had been 8 hours on day 2, and I’m happy to report I crossed at 7h 44 minutes! This finish secured me my 50/50 Finisher’s Hat, and more importantly, I had gotten my redemption for last month’s Sinister 7 DNF. I’m very happy with my combined time, which netted me 24th overall, and 5th in my category. Nothing to sneeze at after a tough year of training, racing, and nagging injuries.

Post-Race Beer at Quest

Whew! Racing out of the way, it was time to wrap up our Western vacation. We had one final day, as we were flying out on a red eye the following day. This gave us time the next day to try out another local’s spot for a delicious brunch. If you are in Squamish, we highly recommend Fergie’s Cafe. From there, we had time to kill, so we hit the highway and made our way up to Whistler to do a bit of light (read: flat) hiking in the area, as well as hitting a couple breweries and a coffee shop for good measure. From there, it was just a drive to the airport, with another short stop in Squamish at Howe Sound Brewing where the post-race party was getting underway. I was very glad we stopped there though, as it gave me some great 1 on 1 time with Gary to talk adventure racing, ultra running, and the Barkley Marathons. Yes, wheels are churning in my head, but I’m not ready or worthy quite yet.

Fergies Cafe

Alrighty, this mega blog post has got to come to a close, doesn’t it? Thanks for sticking with me on this journey, and stay tuned for my next race, which is the Midnight Moose Ultra. Ultimately, due to the S7 DNF, this will end up being my longest race of the season at 103km (most of which will be in darkness). Till then, make sure you check out my Day 2 video below, and get out there and FIND YOUR MOTIVATION!

Surveying area from Top of Railcar

Day 2 Re-Cap Video

The Calm Before the Storm

9,212m / 30,223ft. That’s the amount of vertical distance my legs carried me over a period of just over 1 week out in BC. This included a back-to-back 2 days of racing in the Squamish 50/50 event at the END of the trip, and a bunch of great hiking and running outings in the days leading up to the event. Perhaps not the exact prescription for a proper taper, but when I’m surrounded by mountains, and have time to take advantage of it, I do! Even better than that was the fact that I was sharing all the experiences with Deanna, who not only joined in on the hikes, but was tackling her first-ever 50 miler!! She didn’t exactly choose the easiest one to cut her teeth on, so it was going to be an interesting experience. Read on to hear all about our races.

Before we get into the meat of the race report, I wanted to take some time to write a post about the vacation part of the trip. Canada is an immense and beautiful country, and there are so many amazing places to visit. It will come as no surprise that being surrounded by mountains, the ocean, and lush forests, BC, and even just the areas around Vancouver, truly captivated me. More than once I imagined myself living there and being able to play in the surrounding trails all the time. On this trip, we at least got to experience a good cross-section of the adventuring opportunities around these parts, so read on to learn more about those adventures.

Touring Around Vancouver

BC 2017 - Around Vancouver

While at the Sinister 7 I only gave my self a glorified long weekend for the endeavour, with Deanna joining me for Squamish 50, we made it a 10-day vacation giving us time to explore what is essentially the Greater Vancouver areas as far as Whistler. We’d originally had plans to make a huge car journey all the way into the Rockies, but given the ongoing wildfires, and the how long the drive might take, we instead opted to only venture a few hours in any direction from Vancouver.

Fresh off the plan on a Saturday, we decided to grab the rental car and head straight to Grouse Mountain to tackle the Grouse Grind, because, well, why not? An 800m vertical climb over a short distance was the perfect way to shake out the legs after a long flight. Our only stop was at a convenience to grab granola bars and nuts as a snack. I’ve gotta say, the Grind was really cool There are some impressively steep sections, and it really would be a challenge to run that trail. Ultimately, at a brisk hiking pace, my time was about 1 hour. I figured that with a real effort, I could break 40 minutes. At the top, we enjoyed the world famous Lumberjack Show, hiking trails, and the Grouse Grizzlies. To cap it off, cold beers on the observation deck watching the Vancouver Harbour far off below. Great introduction to the West Coast life.

Still Happy Climbing

The next morning, we got out of bed relatively early to make our way to the Sea Bus and head into downtown Vancouver. Destination? A bike rental store of course! The plan was to cycle all around the city and take in the sights and the suds of Vancouver. This included a great little ride on the trails of Stanley Park before making our way to Granville Island to explore and have our first brewery stop where we also had lunch. Afterwards, more cycling and awesome beer tastings at other breweries. My only regret was that we could hit them all! This was likely the worst weather of our whole trip, and even then wasn’t bad. Slightly chilly, with a little bit of rain early in the day, but all in all great conditions for a day of bumming around on bikes.

Views along Seawall

Golden Ears Park

After our two days of exploring Vancouver, it was time to get a little further from civilization. We’d managed to borrow a tent and cooler from our friends in North Vancouver that we had been staying with, so we packed up our mighty little rental car and made our way 2 hours away to Golden Ears Park. While only 2 hours by car, it might as well have been 20 hours. Once in the park, we were surrounded only by gorgeous mountains and forests, and had no cell signal. Perfect! Of course, it was car camping, so there were others not far from us, but we had a spacious site, so we definitely felt like we were in the zone.

BC 2017 - Golden Ears Park

We had 2 nights booked here, and due to our slightly late start, opted to explore shorter hikes on day 1. I pored over a few maps before settling on a trail that would lead us up a canyon and ultimately lead us to a remote rocky beach with great views and some waterfalls. HOWEVER, as we hiked on the wide, gravel ‘trail’, I was a bit wistful, as it felt too civilized. Then, out of the corner of my eye, I spotted a little trail sign to our right heading up a steep faint trail labelled ‘difficult’. I somehow convinced Deanna it would be a good idea to head that way, even though we had no map or idea where it went. But when the direction is up, it always looks good to me!

After fighting and scrambling our way up this really cool back-country trail, we eventually arrived at a little pond higher up. I consulted the topos I had on my GPS, and figured that the trail kept going a LOT higher up to a summit. However, we were ill-equipped, and that would have been a bit more than the ‘forest hike’ I”d promised Deanna. Reluctantly, I turned back and we headed back down, and followed the original trail to the sights I had planned. They were still very much worth it, and little did I know just how much the next day would make up for it!

Day 2 at Golden Ears we got up early for breakfast, since we were going to tackle the Golden Ears Summit trail, whcih headed up to amazing vistas of the entire region. We decided to make this a bit of a training run, and geared up with running backs and gear. We set out at a good ‘ultra’ pace, making our way along the early parts of the trail in good time, as it wasn’t too steep yet. There was a lot of climbing to be done, but it was back-weighted, with the final push including the steepest sections. Unfortunately, Deanna wasn’t feeling super well that day, and although she kept pushing, I could see that it was unlikely she’d be keen to do the entire summit route with me.

Hiking Higher

Ultimately, we emerged on a bit of a plateau area that gifted us with really impressive views already. For Deanna, this was enough climbing for the day, and she wanted to head back. For me, it meant a tough decision, as I *really* wanted to summit. Eventually, we decided that she’d hang out on the plateau while I tackled the last bit alone. Partly for safety, partly because Deanna wasn’t too keen descending the technical bits alone (and a bit paranoid about wildlife). As luck would have it, shortly after I took off (at a pretty good running pace), I crossed paths with a group of three fellows who had been trekking and camping up here for 4 days, and were heading back down. I secured their promise that they would convince Deanna to descend with them. The benefit was that she’d have company for the descent, and be able to take her time, and for me, it meant I could push harder, sumitting strong, then having a good run back down to [hopefully] catch back up to them before the base.

Friends, let me tell you, that final scramble (which included another 500m of vertical in a short distance) was AMAZING, and exactly what I needed. I felt free, and was having a true adventure. I lost the trail on a snowfield, and ended up heading part way up another summit before realizing my error (I was packing a GPS with topos). The last push included pure scrambling, requiring hands and feet at some points. The reward was having my sandwich on the summit, surrounded by amazing views as I watched clouds swirling in a bit. The weather had been amazing, but I didn’t want to push my luck too long, so after about 10 minutes on the summit, I turned tail and started the super-fun scramble / run back down the trail. It took a long time before I finally caught up to the rest of the crew far below, and was happy to see Deanna feeling much better. Another hiker had been kind enough to give her some pain killers, and they’d kicked in for the descent.

Steve at the Summit

As a result, after coming out at another vantage point with the trio of hikers, we opted to start running again, to make it back to camp before too late in the day (as it was, we were on track for supper time anyway). We had a great run down, and thanks to having tired myself out with the summit bid, we had a similar pacing all the way down. Before finally wrapping up, we stopped at a water crossing to cool off our muscles. Yowza! Alpine waters sure are effective at cooling you off. What sweet relief! We enjoyed the warm sun, cold water, and good company for a bit before running the final few kms to camp. All told, my day saw me cover 20km and Over 2,000m of climbing. It was a memorable way to cap off our camping in Golden Ears!

Playing Tourist in Squamish

After another nice night camping in perfect conditions, we got up early once again to have breakfast, break camp, and make our way to the Squamish area. After, all, we had plans waiting for us there already! I’d been fortunate enough to work with Tourism Squamish on setting up a fun 2-day itinerary, and Day 1 had us heading up a mountain the easy way, climbing on said mountain the easy way, and of course, enjoying views and suds up there. If you’re looking for the TL;DR version, scroll to the bottom now, and you can watch the video I put together of our Squamish adventures.

BC 2017 - Sea to Sky Gondola and Via Ferrata

The first adventure was heading up the Sea to Sky Gondola, which whisks people up from the base of the mountain near Howe Sound to high up in the mountains. Of course there are really nice hiking trails to make that journey, but given the previous day’s hike, and the looming race in 2 days, I reluctantly agreed to the gondola. It was FUN! At the top, there are another series of trails, with a mix of family-friendly hikes, up to more advanced trails to head further into the mountains. Again, tempting as it was, I’d promised Deanna a more ‘taper-like’ day. So after strolling all the family trails, the amazing Sky Pilot Suspension Bridge, and marveling at the views from the main observation deck AND the platform on Panorama Trail, we were ready for another adventure.

That adventure? Why the Via Ferrata on the mountain of course! I’ve been wanting to try one of these for a long time, so I jumped at the chance. We ended up being the only folks taking part in the late afternoon group, so we had the guide all to ourselves and spend as much time playing on the granite face while securely attached. I’m pretty sure in the world of Via Ferratas this is one of the ‘easier’ ones, but the guide was good at giving me options to make it more challenging. This included me not using the rungs for my feet for most of it, and also tackling the final section without any use of the included aid, making it more like pure climbing. It was truly a fun experience, and a unique way to take in some of the spectacular views. Of course, as you can guess, we capped things off by enjoying beers and watching the day waning around us, as it was late afternoon.

Deanna Climbing Up

Amazingly, we learned that a mere week ago, they had NO views around here. The wildfires had brought very poor air quality. We saw pictures of days where you couldn’t even see Howe Sound below, and the sun was a mere orange blob obscured by smoke. We were so fortunate, as just as we had arrived in the area a few days ago, there had just been some rain, and the air completely cleared up. We had SPECTACULAR conditions!

Once we made it back to the bottom, we checked out the now-deserted Shannon Falls with amazing sunset colours playing on the cliff faces before heading to our hotel. We stayed in the Sandman Hotel, which had an amazing 2+ storey waterslide in the pool area. After playing on that for a while, and relaxing in the hot tub, it was off to sleep to rest of the next day. For our last day before getting race-ready, we opted to go tandem kayaking on the Howe Sound. I don’t think conditions could have been better!

BC 2017 - Kayaking Howe Sound and Breweries

The funniest part of the paddle was our guide. Why? Well, because I actually knew him. As in, I had suffered with him in a multi-day race. It was none other than Eduardo from Costa Rica, a fellow I’d raced the Gaspesie Adventure with a few years before! I didn’t even clue in that he lived in the region. It was great catching up with him as we slid across the water to arrive at Galileo Coffee, no doubt one of the highlights of the day for Deanna to have a delicious coffee! I was happy for it as well, as it meant she couldn’t get too annoyed by the fact that the rest of the day would be spent touring the 3 local breweries! However, before that, it was off to a locals’ favourite spot for lunch, Mag’s 99 Fried Chicken and Mexican Cantina, and yes, it was as awesome as you might imagine!

After a filling lunch, we wrapped up the tourist experience by visiting all three of the local breweries, meeting the brewmasters, and sampling their wares. After Backcountry Brewing and A-Frame Brewing, our final stop was Howe Sound Brewing, which for some reason treated us like royalty! Eduardo actually joined us there as well, and we stayed well into the night enjoying delicious food and flights of beer. We bumped into a few other racers as well who wanted to chat about the upcoming race. All in all, a fantastic way to cap off a couple days being a tourist in Squamish. It’s safe to say I’d love to spend more time there (retire there perhaps??). One more night at the Sandman before changing gears, moving locations, and getting ready for the races! But, to hear the tales of that, you’ll need to read the actual race report instead!

Beer Tasitng at Backcountry Brewing

Video of our Adventures Around Squamish

Becoming Half a Sinner

I looked down at my watch again and did the math in my head for the thousandth time. I’d lost some time on this leg, but in theory, it was still *possible* that I’d be able to finish my first 100 miler within the 30 hour time limit. However, there were a few problems. First, it was nearing 10pm, and my headlamp was in my transition bag which was another mountainous 8km of singletrack away. In addition, I wasn’t actually sure when I had last ate or drank anything, and my whole body felt ‘off’. And so it came to pass that I had to make peace with my decision to pull myself out at the next checkpoint, at the 82.2km point in the race after having given it my all for nearly 15 hours. Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to my story of the Sinister 7 Ultra!

Sinister 7 2017

Two weeks have passed since I excitedly got to the start line, did some pre-race yoga and centered myself before launching into what I knew was going to be a tough race. It is high time that I share my whole story with you all. First off, there will be no excuses. I made my own decisions about this race, and feel that in spite of everything, I did show up in form to actually get this done. Yes, I have some leg issue that I’m awaiting an MRI to diagnose, and I hadn’t ran that much since my last 50 miler as a result, but I felt mentally ready, which in this kind of race counts the most.

Sinister 7 isn’t so much a race as it is a crucible designed to test your mettle. While the relay racer category boasts the higher numbers, it is the like-minded group of solos that make this race legendary. Celebrating its 10th year, this year’s edition was definitely the toughest by all accounts. The course had been tweaked, making it just a little tougher, and the weather this year was unrelentingly hot during the day. Given these conditions, less than 18% of the solos actually completed the event, so I was in the vast majority with my DNF, but actually got further than a lot of other racers. But why? Let’s examine.

Tecumseh and Seven Sisters

First off, I was really excited to finally head out west in Canada for a race this year, and was actually re-tracing the footsteps of my immigrant father (but that’s for another story) by arriving in Calgary. Mountains always hold an allure for me, so the setting of Crowsnest Pass was ideal in my mind for a first attempt at the 100 mile distance in trail running. Never mind that this is one of the hardest hundred milers not only in Canada, but North America. As somewhat usual for me, in order to ensure there would be an audience for my success or failure, I was covering this race by producing a video for Get Out There Magazine (see epic final video below), which meant filming not only before and after my race, but during the race itself.

So, how could I make things even more challenging? Well, how about racing it solo and completely unsupported? That’s right, whereas the majority of solo racers would arrive at transition zones to hordes of family and friends there to cater to their every whim, I was on my own to fight through the people to get things like peanut butter sandwiches and water. Mind you, there were oodles of AMAZING volunteers willing to help how they could, but the added dimension of being self-supported is a challenge. However, typically, I thrive in such settings, so again, no excuses, and I relish that extra effort I had to make to keep myself motivated and moving.

The race itself is broken into 7 overall stages, each with their own difficulty ratings. The first to legs are on the ‘easier’ side, but make no mistakes, they are only on the ‘easier’ side compared to the other legs of Sinister 7, meaning they are also tough. Leg 3 of this race is the second longest and has the second most elevation gain, but when you get to it, you are tackling it in the middle of they day, and much of it is exposed. When you factor in that it was around 35 degrees that day, you quickly see why it claimed many victims this year.

Admiring the Big Truck

I’m proud to say I wasn’t one of them. I had played my game carefully to this point. But let’s back it up. The day before, I did everything I could to stay focused and relaxed, hanging out with a few friends from home that were also racing. We took a nice ride to see some of the sights, including the worlds largest truck, as well as some of the course transition spots, to get a sense of the race. We had an amazing pre-race meal at the registration / race expo site. We were bandit camping in the woods right at the finish area, so we wouldn’t have to re-locate the next day after the race. I got a decent amount of horizontal time in my tent (I wouldn’t say I really slept much, but at least I was laying down).

We got up around 5am in order to catch a shuttle shortly after 6am to the start line, a short drive away. While warm early in the morning, it wasn’t sweltering yet. I’d made some last minute purchases to prepare for the forecasted heat, including cooling arm sleeves, a cooling buff, and a new white hat with a mini cape. The cooling gear was purported to produce coolness when it is wet, so I had high hopes for it.

Start Line Photo

At 7am, the race got underway, and I decided to reign in my speed, and pace myself by running with my friend Cal Mitchell, who is legendary in that he has actually completed the Grand Slam of Ultras, which is four 100 milers in a span of 2 months! If anyone knows how to pace in different conditions, it’s Cal. Plus, he’d completed Sinister 7 before, so had firsthand course knowledge. We ran side by side for much of leg 1, with me only pulling ahead a few times to grab some video footage. However, by the time we closed in on Transition Area 1, I had somehow gotten about 10 minutes ahead of him, so chose to cool off in a creek and await him. When Cal got in, it seemed he wasn’t having the best day, and he urged me to keep going without him, and just trust my own pacing.

Climbing on Leg 2

I’d completed leg 1 in 2 hrs 18 minutes, only 12 minutes ahead of my planned pace. I left TA1 pretty much bang on my planned schedule. Leg 2 was a beautiful stage, with some gnarly climbs, but extremely rewarding views higher up, and a sweet section of trail on the edge of a hill with great sidelong views. The end of if featured some super fun twisty turning descents, and I felt pretty good. I was calm, heart rate under control, and nutrition and hydration completely dialed in. I cruised into TA2 (which we also see as TA3) feeling happy. Once again, I was exactly on pace, arriving at pretty much the 5 hour mark, giving me a theoretical 2 hour buffer when compared to the cutoffs.

Knowing that the next leg was going to be brutally hot, I made sure my 2.5L bladder was completely filled, and grabbed a couple peanut butter sandwiches before turning around and trotting back out. I didn’t touch my transition bag at this point, as I had all I needed. I was also making liberal use of my trekking poles, and they were pretty much a fixture in my hands for the rest of the race.

Enjoying a Sandwich on Leg 3

Although I haven’t mentioned other racers, I will note that throughout the day, there were plenty of great conversations, and trading footsteps with other hearty solo racers as well as relay team people. Although I’d spend lots of time alone, there always seemed to be people not that far away, so if you slowed pace, inevitably someone would show up to perk you back up. On Leg 3, this was much appreciated, as it definitely started feeling like a race of attrition. Temperatures were soaring, and it was starting to get very challenging to regulate my body heat.

Leg 3  (see full race leg descriptions here) featured a series of climbs and descents, with many of them quite exposed. To deal with the heat, I basically stopped at every single trickle of a stream to dump my hat in the water, soak my buff, and wet down my arms and legs. There was simply no escaping the heat, and we were still burning tons of calories, while not fully replenishing them. I have enough experience that I know what I need to do, but it was TOUGH to keep things in check. Luckily, I’d known Leg 3 was a critical ‘make or break’ stage, so I worked hard at managing everything.

I’d given myself a conservative 6 hours for this leg, and wouldn’t you know it, I cruised into the Transition Area at 5:58pm, having taken pretty much precisely 6 hours to cover this leg. I was happy to see I was racing exactly to my plan. This is absolutely key in a race like this. I made the decision at TA3 to take a little longer rest to change socks and shoes, giving me a chance to check my feet over. That’s when I discovered that somewhere in all the punishing downhill runs, I’d *finally* managed to nearly completely dislodge one of my big toenails. As a result, I ended up spending over 25 minutes in transition while I waited for a medic to remove the toenail and associated lingering tissue (yes, I know, yuck!), and then completely patch it up to prevent infection later.

Steady Progress on Leg 4

I would say this was the start of my undoing in the race. You see, instead of taking the time to properly eat and drink in the aid station, I was stuck sitting in a chair while they worked on me. Then, anxious to make some time back up, I abruptly headed back out. Yes, I’d re-filled on fluids, added food to my pack, but I should have eaten and drank a bit more while in the relative calm of the transition. However, given that I’d been right on track, I knew I had to get moving.

In my mind, Leg 3 had been the ‘beast’, and Leg 4 would give me a reprieve. This was my second fatal flaw. I had not actually studied the course / leg profile, and was therefore not intimately aware with what was awaiting me. I won’t make that mistake again. With the hot temperatures still sitting with us well into the evening (it was now around 6:30pm), I set out at a modest pace, and attempted to eat and drink a bit on the first climb (since you’re forced to hike anyway). I marveled as a couple young gents blazed past me, but realized they were clearly relay racers with fresh legs.

My Undoing

In all honesty, it’s tough to truly recall that much about Leg 4 even now. Looking back at the profile, I now understand why I was losing my mind. There was a MONSTER CLIMB that I totally didn’t count on. This essentially killed my mental state. I hit a very deep low, and couldn’t seem to climb out of it. The longer the climb lasted, the more I felt like this was completely unnecessary suffering, and I wanted it to end. Even once I FINALLY reached the top, I was in a funk. That’s when I realized I’d more or less stopped eating and drinking, and had no desire to try to get back into that groove.

Looking at my watch, I also realized I’d lost over an hour as compared to my plan, which further dissuaded me. In reality, even with my conservative plan, I’d left 2 ‘spare’ hours for unforeseen challenges, but I felt it was too ‘early’ to be using those up. After all, the hardest leg is Leg 6, and I was a long way from there! Due to the lost time, I also made the realization that I wouldn’t finish this leg in the daylight, and I had made a STUPID last-minute to move my headlamp from my TA3 bag to my TA4 bag, meaning I’d be stuck finishing this leg without light. If you’re keeping track, that was fatal flaw #3!

Strava Capture

All of these circumstances culminated in my mentally throwing in the towel. During the slow, arduous descent to the next checkpoint, I convinced myself that I was going to pull out at the next checkpoint. I rehearsed what I’d say in my mind, and even thought I was at peace with it. I’d managed to race just over half of the course, and while not completely broken, I had some concerns around residual impacts of continuing, and also the very real risk of having an accident thanks to clumsy feet and no light on the final section of the leg. Oh, and I would be remiss if I didn’t add that the BUGS WERE ABSOLUTELY INSANE on this leg!! Another person at the checkpoint basically quit because of the bugs alone!

And so it came to pass that I pulled the plug at CP4B in Leg 4, having covered just over 82kms in just under 15 hours. The 2 volunteer staff there were great, they were completely neutral when I said I was pulling out, stating it was definitely my decision, and they’d respect it. But at the same time, they actually offered me a headlamp if I wanted to continue. A little part of my brain immediately tried to speak up and say “Take it. Keep going. You’ll make it to TA4 and re-group”. Unfortunately, it was too late, the bigger, meaner part of my brain had already bullied me into submission. I should have listened to the littler part of my brain. That was the REAL me. The one that keeps going in spite of the odds. Had I done so, I would have learned that there were warm meatballs and soups awaiting me at the next transition, along with other clothes if I wanted, and my amazing headlamp to keep me going.

Finish Line Photo

However, as I write this, we know hindsight is 20/20. I have to live with my decision. And unfortunately in this case, that’s what it was. My decision. I hadn’t been cut off. I hadn’t suffered some terrible accident or injury. I was just ‘off’. And that, friends, is humility. As I will always tell people, you learn as much from failures as you do successes, so I will spend the next year (or 2, or 3) learning my lessons and doing my homework until I return to Sinister 7 once again for a shot at my redemption!

Interestingly, yesterday, I read a very relevant article making the case for why quitting is sometimes the best decision. While a long read of itself, I highly recommend giving it a read. It’s an overall life lesson, not race-specific. Read it here. One line that struck me towards the end was:

“Use trying and quitting as a deliberate strategy to find out what is worth not quitting.” – Eric Barker

In some ways, I feel this very succinctly encapsulates the entire reason why I get into these situations and tackle things like overly ambitious long-distance races. I’m on an eternal quest to determine what is worth not quitting.

Right. Well, I’ve made you all stick with me long enough to share this tale, but it was one I have been re-hashing in my mind for the past two weeks and was anxious to share it with you all, so let’s wrap things up!

All is not Enough

So, what did I do after dropping out? In a nutshell, waited around for a drive back to the finish. Upon arriving, I learned that all 3 of my buds had also dropped out. They were all sitting in lawn chairs near the finish, enjoying beers, and essentially just waiting to learn of my fate. They poked fun at me, I had a shower, ate an amazing burger from a food truck that had set up at the finish and stayed open ALL NIGHT, and dusted myself off. I tried to sleep, but couldn’t, so I hobbled back down to the finish line from 2-4am to cheer in finishers, then back there again from around 6:30am until the 1pm cutoff to cheer in the very last solo racer. It was a girl I’d ran with a fair bit in the middle of the race from Utah.

Her race? Well, she crossed the line at 30 hours and 4 minutes, so was officially a DNF (did not finish). No belt buckle, no wine, no official finish, even though she had persevered and completed the entire course. That’s the bitch of it all. If you don’t finish by the cutoff, you are not an official finisher! Just try to put yourself in her mind at that moment. Delirious, having given everything, only to be told you were 4 minutes late after 30 hours of racing 160 grueling kilometers in the mountains!

Needless to say, I congratulated her, gave her a hug, and turned away choking back my own tears for her predicament. Ultras are emotional beasts, and I guarantee they can put anyone in tears in the right circumstance.

Cal and Steve

For my part, I made the best of the rest of my vacation, enjoying a couple more days with my friends, including a remote night camping completely disconnected from the world, and a very memorable day / night in Calgary and at the Stampede. Mark my words people. I. WILL. BE. BACK. Till I am, sit back, and enjoy the video I made of my experiences! Next up, Squamish 50/50 in a few weeks, where I plan on at least earning myself a truckers’ hat. One DNF is enough in a season, right??

Staring down the Stairs in Ithaca

Welcome back race fans. Two weeks ago I lined up at the start line of the Cayuga Trails 50 Mile race for the second time. This is notable in some respects, as I VERY rarely repeat ‘away’ races. I ran in (and covered) this race last year, and was captivated by it for a few reasons. Firstly, Ithaca is a really cool little New York town, with a hidden secret: the canyons / waterfalls just outside the core! I had absolutely no idea that there were such cool natural features so close! Add to the fact that there is a tasty brewery close by, and two great state parks to camp in, and there is ample reason to choose to try this race out. In addition, it is only about a 4.5 hour drive from Ottawa, and the timing makes this a great early season test race. While I didn’t film any video this time around, I have a pile of pictures, you can see them all by clicking left / right in the frame below.

Cayuga Trails 50 - 2017

It was therefore with high hopes that I was coming back to this race a second time. The race also serves as the USA Track and Field trail 50 mile Championships, so you just KNOW there will be excellent competition to mix it up with ( and in my case, I just KNOW I have NO chance at a podium!). Deanna and I once again made this a pretty quick trip, spending less than 48 hours total in the States. We had 2 nights booked in the Robert H Treman state park, which also serves as the start / finish area. Boy, are we glad we FINALLY bought a bigger tent last year. So nice to actually be able to stretch out, relax, and get dressed without knocking each other out (and we each have our own door!).

Gangsta Camping

As mentioned, I had high hopes. Last year, I managed to finish just under 10 hours, but was hoping to better that time by an hour if at all possible. I was pretty confident I could at least take 30 minutes off. Part of my bravado came from the fact that a month ago, I felt I had proved myself pretty capable by snagging 5th overall at the 12 hour Black Fly Trail race, and believed that the suffering I had put in there might translate to extra strength and speed a month later. My training had been going well, and recovery after hard efforts even better, so I believed in myself.

Race start was 6am on Saturday morning. We’d gotten in town around 7pm the night before, so we didn’t have an abundance of time to get into the ‘zone’, but I slept well enough, and had no excuses. I got my kit together, and headed to the start. Ironically, almost exactly like last year, I found myself as the last dude waiting to use the washroom, with a mere minute or so before the start of the race. Nothing like pressure! Ha ha ha. Luckily, we actually started a couple minutes late, so I still had time to mingle and get settled into the start chute before the start horn (literally, a horn made of an animal horn of some sort….).

Awaiting the Starting Gun

The plan out of the gate was to not go all out. At the Black Fly, I stuck to the front runners from the star, but in this race, knowing it was the championships, I didn’t want to get sucked into an untenable position. So I let myself float back a bit in the crowd, opting to chat with people I recognized from last year. This made the first few kilometers fly by without even noticing, but once we hit the first set of climbs and technical bits, my desire to pick up the pace a bit took over, and I started pulling away and passing other runners.

I decided to run pretty much by feel, and not pay too much mind to my watch. The only exception was when I’d get to an aid station, just to see how far ahead of my conservative 10 hour pace card I was. The course is a double-loop course, but also a bit of a figure-8, so there are really only 3 aid stations that you see several times during the race. The first one is always basically ignored on the opening lap, as it comes up only 6k or so after the start. In fact, it wasn’t even  really set up when we ran past it the first time.

Piper at the Stairs

By and large, the course was pretty much the same as the 2016 edition, with a few modifications, including a new 1.6km trail section through old growth forest. The idea was that this modification would cut off a bit at the end, to give us the full 80k. Most of this race is in the shade (luckily), and takes racers through impressive canyons with even more impressive stone steps to run up and down. There are also long sections in the woods, and a few access roads and VERY little pavement, which is greatly appreciated. A couple sections are less awesome, like a seemingly long stretch running in an open field, but all in all, I find the course very balanced. The big challenges are the stairs, which cumulatively lead to some serious quad fatigue during the 2nd lap. The overall climbing only registered as 2,600m, but it seemed a lot more than that. Of course, given the GPS coverage challenges in the canyon, perhaps it was…

After the first aid station, I found myself running more or less alone, keeping my eyes on a few runners just off in the distance ahead. I was enjoying my solo running, feeling light on my feet. However, all of a sudden, I realized I had a runner right behind me. I figured he must have just been off the trail taking  a ‘nature break’ before joining in with my stride. I assumed he was a more speedy dude, and would want to pass me, but instead, he seemed happy to just stay on my heels. I was trying to decided whether I should pull ahead, or pull aside, and then just opted to run my race. Eventually, we struck up conversation, as it became clear we’d likely be running together for a while. Sometimes I like the solitude, other times, the company is nice. In this case, it was welcomed company, and we learned all about each other as we ticked over the miles on the course.

Winding our Way Up

Interestingly, at this point in the race, I was WAY ahead of schedule. I’m talking like a projected finish of just over 8 hours!! I had told Scott, and he intimated that this was probably not sustainable, and I also agreed, so mentally we tried to reign it in a little bit, but things just felt good at that point. We actually kept running together again after this turnaround, as he caught back up to me as I was navigating the long stairs back up the canyon. Once again, the miles started ticking by. Unfortunately, this is also about the time that I took a spill. As usual, in the heat of a race, I never really remember if it was ‘good’ or ‘bad’, as my focus is on recovery. Essentially, it was one of those ass over tea kettle falls, with a bottle being ejected. I stunt-man rolled with it, recovered my bottle, and was back on my way as soon as possible. My new friend Scott had seen the whole thing (and reported on it in his blog), and was making sure I was okay. Of course, macho racing ActiveSteve shrugged / limped it off for a few hundred meters, and thought nothing of the impact or the slight trickle of blood from my knee. At the next aid station, Deanna also noticed it and said “looks like you fell”. Indeed. But another quick inspection didn’t concern me.

Entry to Underpass Aid Station

I’m not sure where exactly I pulled ahead of Scott, but I did. In ultra running, there is no real saying ‘goodbye’ and pulling away from people, it just sort of happens. Everyone ebbs and flows in the energy department at different points, so this is the natural flow of the race. Actually, now I remember. It happened when another runner joined us, a female from Toronto named Karen. She was FLYING. I got sucked into her slipstream as she passed and we were talking. I guess we sort of pulled slowly away from Scott, and that was the last time we ran together. I stuck with Karen until after the next Aid station, when I told Deanna I had to get going as I had to follow my new friend. However, it was clear she had the engine firing on a better gear than me, and I was now limping every time I had to start running away. I had noticed a little tightness in my right calf lately. Nothing debilitating, but noticeable nonetheless. As I kept running, I decided it was perhaps a side effect of switching to zero drop shoes recently, since tight calves / Achilles are common. I decided I’d change shoes at the halfway point to hopefully provide relief. Again, status check didn’t raise any red flags, so I ran through the niggling pains. Good ole endorphins!

As decided, when I cruised into the halfway turnaround point (the start/finish), I took a slightly longer pause to change shoes and socks. There are a number of water crossings, so it feels SOOOO nice to slip into dry socks for even a little bit. I told Deanna that I’d be slowing down, and noted that I *was* feeling some pain in my leg, but not to worry. I headed back out, and settled into a comfortable ‘ultra-cruising’ pace, which is somewhere between 7 and 8 mins / kilometer. The opening 25% I ran in 2:10, by the 50% mark, I was at 4:30, so I was definitely slowing, but still hopeful for a 9.5 hour total. Sadly, I got into my own head for the second loop.

Sock and Shoe Change at Turnaround

I spent most of my loop on my own, and with no one to visibly chase, and with no one passing me to put the pressure on, I just let my pace naturally drop I think. By the time I hit the 75% mark, I’d hit 7:15, or in other words, it took me 35 minutes longer than first time to cover this distance. As I often do to pass the time, I started crunching numbers, and knew hitting 9:30 would be VERY difficult. I once again chose to ignore the watch and just focused on getting through what was now just becoming a painful final 21k or so. Luckily, my nutrition and hydration were working perfectly, so that was a good thing, and something to note for my next race in terms of strategies.

Daunting Challenge 2nd Time

This last 21k became VERY challenging. I willed myself to keep actually ‘running’ and not power hiking the climbs, but some of the long stair sections did get the better of me. I also had the realization that the course would definitely be over 80k (I logged over 83k by the finish). I was extremely relieved to reach the final aid station, knowing it was mostly downhill and only 6-7k to the finish. I had a few final perogies (god-send out there!), and got back out there.  Somewhere in the closing section I risked a look at my watch. Ugh. I realized that if I rallied, I should at least be able to salvage a sub 10 hour finish. I gave it one final mighty push (once again sacrificing my toenails on the descents!), and flew the final downhills until I could literally hear the finish line music and see the open field leading to the finish.

The Finish Chute

With a mighty effort, I crossed under the banner clocking an official finish time of 9:58:26, almost EXACTLY 1 minute slower than my 2016 time. However, the course ended up being a bit longer, and I will argue that conditions were not as good this year (some mud sections). The final results bear this out, as the 2016 winner finished in 6:40, whereas this year it was 7:32! My overall standing also improved. I finished 32nd male, and 6th in my category (last year was 38th and 5th respectively).  Overall, I couldn’t complain.

5 Guys Burger and Fries Post Race

We capped off our day by delicious Five Guys Burgers, and picked up some tasty Ithaca Brewing beer for the campsite. With only a month until my upcoming 100 Miler, my plan was to recover fast and get in some final training, but as some of you will note, that nagging pain in the race? Yeah, not great. Turns out I tore something (undetermined as of this writing, as I await an MRI). However, I believe it is healing well, and I’m still optimistic. Regardless, once again, Cayuga Trails kicked my butt, and was another memorable and enjoyable race. One of these times I should really add a day to the trip to truly enjoy the area! Maybe next year, right? Well, until next time, hope you enjoyed my wordy race report!

Strava Track

Muddy Mayhem at Inaugural Black Fly Ultra

In theory, we should have been super happy. After all, there was no blazing sun, and there were no swarms of the namesake Black Flies harassing us as we ran. However, what we got instead was just as draining mentally and physically. Lots of rain, and lots of mud, which only worsened as the hours ticked by. What exactly am I talking about? None other than my first ‘summer’ ultra trail running race, the Black Fly ultra taking place in my personal playground! There were options to race for 3, 6 or 12 hours. Can you guess what I opted for? Of course, 12 hours! My plan was to use this as a long training day to see how things were progressing for my journey to Sinister 7 (my first 100 miler coming up in July). Read on to learn more about this new and exciting race in our area!

Inaugural Black Fly Ultra

Last year, you may recall that I took part in the inaugural Bad Beaver Ultra, a 3-day staged ultra race taking part in Gatineau Park. Well this year, they added a couple new events to their roster, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring and try them out. After all, who doesn’t want another cool hoodie to add to their collection, right? The idea behind the first new event, the Black Fly, was to pit racers against themselves on a looped course that you would run for 3, 6, or 12 hours straight. The winners would be whoever logged the most loops in the allotted time. In my mind, that meant that regardless how far I’d run, I would at least be able to say I did a proper 12 hour training day.

My going in position was not to take it too seriously or competitively. After all, this was pretty early in the season, and I was running on untested feet! Plantar fasciitis has been a recurring theme, with my right foot currently suffering the brunt of it. I’d been putting in trail time, but due to a lingering winter, I hadn’t been on trails very much yet, just a lot of road mileage to remind my legs how to run. The week before the event, I headed out to the venue and did about 4 practice loops of the course as best I could piece it together. Bumped into a few other folks doing the same thing that day, and we all agreed the trails were in great shape and it should be a fun day racing in a week.

Satellite view of Trail

Well, good ole mother nature decided to play tricks on us, deciding that later in the week should be characterized by biblical rains, and that the actual race day should also feature her favourite natural hydrator. In fact, I learned later that the race organizers were actually on the fence whether or not to cancel the event outright the evening before, due to the risk of damaging the mountain bike trails we’d be using! In the end, the decision was made to slightly modify the original course, and see how things progressed during the event.
As the original plans called for the start/finish/loop area to be in an open space, Deanna and I made a bit of a mad scramble the day before the race trying to secure a pop-up tent that I could use as my private ‘aid station’. Luckily, the fine folks at Euro-Sports had one available, and were kind enough to let us use it! On race morning, we learned that the aid area was relocated to the lower level of the Camp Fortune lodge, so it would be dry. However, I opted to still set up my own tent to keep things simple for my race. It would also mean I hopefully wouldn’t be too tempted to stay indoors and dry when the going got tough, which I was sure it would.

In keeping with my ‘long training day’ mantra, I had a few other tricks up my sleeve. Mostly, this consisted of my testing out a whole lot of new things on race day! I had new shoes to try, new socks, and even new nutrition / hydration. The way I saw it, since we were doing loops anyway, if something wasn’t working, I could swap it out. All told, I went through three pairs of socks and three pairs of shoes, changing out every roughly four hours. I can honestly say that putting on dry socks twice, even if it lasted less than 10 minutes, was a real mental boost during the slog! Oh yeah, and as is often the case these days, I was carrying cameras and getting trail footage for a review (which you can find at the bottom of the post).

Lead Pack

For the 12 hour event, our race got underway at 6am, after a briefing indoors, where we were instructed to always run through the middle of all puddles and mud areas, which would limit trail damage. It was clear we’d spend the day very wet and muddy. There were 34 of us brave souls at the start, with a pretty low-key start line. I decided to hang out near the front and see how things went. It was clear quite early that one dude out to put a little distance between him and the crowd as soon as possible, but apart from that, I found myself running a nice solid race pace with a group of about 4-5 other accomplished ultra runners. Initially, I had a feeling that I’d drop back within a loop, but much to my surprise, I spent the majority of my first 4 hours running with this lead pack (minus turbo dude in front).

We had a good group spirit, and traded stories and jokes as we got progressively wetter and dirtier, and the trail god increasingly more treacherous. To call it a trail in spots would be a misnomer. It was more like a river carving its way along the remnants of trails. It felt quite rain forest-esque in some spots as well. Luckily, it wasn’t super cold, so I was making do with tights, a merino wool long sleeve top, and a gore-tex shell. Ironically, I’d grabbed that gore-tex shell as an afterthought on the way out, but it ended up being my outer layer for the entire day! I was having so much fun running with these guys that when nature was calling, I was paranoid about losing them, so I had to time my stops. At one point, I was sitting in a porta-potty, keeping the door open a crack to see when the lads would be running by (this was between laps). Amazingly, I didn’t lose to much time and got to hang out a bit longer with them.

Regardless, when hour 4 came along, I decided to take my first real pit stop, and change socks and shoes. Yes, I’d lose time, but that wasn’t as critical to me as it was that I check my feet for any damage, and try another pair of shoes. In an ironic twist, my ‘pit crew’ ended up being none other than Ray Zahab himself, who feigned being grossed out by peeling my socks off for me. But knowing what he has gone through in the past, I have no doubt it was more acting than real disgust! I changed my Salomon Wings Pro 2 shoes for a pair of Inov-8 Mudclaws, which I thought may work better in the now deep mud. The plan was to run in this combination for the next 4 hours.

Full Stride

Well, about 3.5 hours later, a couple things happened. First, I was informed that I’d only be doing one more ‘long’ loop up Brians trail (that whole section was getting cut). Secondly, I’d had enough of the Inov-8s. They were killing my feet. With minimal cushioning and large lugs, every time I’d push off or land on a rock, the lugs would drive into my feet, causing discomfort. I opted to take my 2nd pit stop a bit early. This time, I wanted a full boost. SO, I put on a new dry shirt, new gloves, new socks, and BRAND NEW shoes! Yup, trying out a pair of Skecher GoTrail waterproof shoes for the first time. Lots of cushioning. At this stop, Deanna noted that I didn’t seem very happy. I think she was right. The mud and rain, and sore feet were getting to me!

I lingered an extra minute or so before finally trotting out, with warm, dry feet, and a little trepidation at the final 4+ hours of running I had ahead of me. By now, I had definitely lost the pace of the front runners, and was more or less running my own race. In the past 4 hours, we seen the numbers swell first from the 6 hour runners joining us, and then the 3 hour runners joining. However, after the 9 hour mark, it was back to just the 12 hour runners, and things quieted down a lot. I was on my own. However, something magical happened on that lap I think. I felt lighter on my feet again. It was the shoes! These things drained the water fast, felt light, and were like pillows on my feet compared to the previous pair. When I finally jogged in after the next loop, Deanna could see I was much happier again. Of course, maybe it was also the slice of pizza that I had inhaled!

Either way, when you know you only have a bit more than 3 hours to go, you are starting to see the end of the misery (fun?). By this point in the day, I could tell that my pace had dropped. Without really being aware of it, I had now been lapped by the leaders, who seem to have an inhuman ability to keep pushing at the same pace they’d started at. For me, there was definitely starting to be ‘groundhog day’ feel to the loops, and I realized I now knew exactly where the rocks were hiding in the puddles, which roots to avoid, and which rocks were the best to jump on and off from. Things had definitely moved into the ‘cruise control’ portion of the day. Now it was all in the mental game. Willing myself to just keep going around another time, despite realizing that there was nothing amazing waiting around the bend! Luckily, people were still hanging around at the lap area, occasionally even emerging from the warmth and dryness of the building to cheer us on.

Filming and Running

Energy-wise, I’d say that I’d done a good job with nutrition. I was testing out Tailwind as a substitute to solid food, and it worked pretty well. My only concern was that by moving to a liquid-only option, I think I drank too much, too fast in the early hours, as I did end up with some bloating and discomfort for a few laps. I suspect that on a hotter day, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, since I’d need the liquids more. At any rate, later in the day, I went back to my tried and tested combo of Nuun for hydration and Fruit2 for nutrition.

As the clock marched forward, I started doing the mental math on pacing to figure out exactly how many more loops I’d have in me. You see, as long as you START a loop before the 12 hour cut-off, you can finish it, and it counts. So in that way, the 12 hour race is actually over 12 hours :-). I have a feeling that my internal clock was actually pre-programmed however. On my final lap, it appeared as though my pace was EXACTLY tuned for complete the loop AT the 12 hour mark. I’m pretty sure that if I’d *really* wanted it, I could have crossed the line a couple minutes before the cut off and completed one more loop. However, I also realized it would not affect the standings in the least bit for me. The next person ahead would be at least 1 loop ahead, and I couldn’t catch them, and anyone behind me would be unable to do another loop anyway, and therefore not ‘pass’ me. So I opted to just cruise in comfortably at the 12 hour mark.

Finish Line with Race Directors

A small but energetic group was gathered at the finish cheering in the 12 hour finishers at this point, including all 3 of the race directors. They were chanting for me to dive head first into the mud across the line, but frankly, I was having none of that. I just wanted to be done now, get out of the rain, and rest a while. After all, I was slated to be at a potluck / party in the next hour!! You can just imagine how much fun I was going to be there 😉

When all the dust, or rather mud, settled, the stats on the day were cause for some happiness. I had covered roughly 85km of distance, including over 3,500m of elevation gain. I clinched 5th place overall, and by looking closely at all the results, had a pretty damn good day out there. While I really had nothing to prove, I nonetheless showed myself that my early season fitness was there, and that as long as I stay healthy, I should be in good shape to complete all my challenges planned out for 2017! As to the new gear, again, I’m happy to report positive findings on all fronts, especially my decision to impulse order DryMax socks from the US. After going through this 12 hour torture test, my feet looked pretty immaculate, all things considered. Given that they were submerged in water with churning sand all day, this was a remarkable feat. Mind you, it took HOURS to rinse out all the gear the next day, but I suffered not a single blister! Amazing!

Strava of Route

Well that pretty much wraps up my race report from the Black Fly. I’d say this is a perfect early season event for any ultra runner, as you can go as hard or easy as you want, test new things out, be surrounded by fun people, and get in a hell of a training day with lots of elevation. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d definitely put this one on the calendar for next year. And in case you need any more convincing, check out my video below! Until next time, get out there, and have some fun. Next up for me is another 50 miler, back to the Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, New York. Stay tuned for that race report!

Freezing my Bits Five Times at Pentathlon

Yes, I realize that writing up a race report from the depths of the winter may be odd, given the current season, but I really have to catch up on things, don’t I? This blog post takes us back a mere two and a half months ago to the Plains of Abraham where I was taking part in the unique Pentathlon des Neiges Quebec. As the name implies, the race has 5 stages; biking, running, skiing, skating, and finishing with snowshoeing. The entire race takes place in the historic Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, making it a fun destination. Read on to hear all about it.

Pentathlon des Neiges 2017

This was not my first time racing in this event. I’ve done both the Pentathlon previously, as well as the winter triathlon that they also host.  The Pentathlon is actually an event that spans several weekends with different events, and I had been invited back to tackle the Pentathlon. The last time, I raced in the ‘elite’ category of the triathlon, and had my butt handed to me by ex-Olympians, national team athletes, etc. Luckily, in the Solo Pentathlon, there was no ‘elite’ category, so I’d probably place a little higher (although still get my ass handed to me!).

Being early in March this year, my hope was that the weather would be decent. The last time I did the event, we had to drive over 9 hours through a snowstorm just to get to the start line, and I really didn’t want to go through that again. Given the extremely balmy temperatures at this year’s Gatineau Loppet, I assumed things would be relatively mild. I couldn’t be further from the truth, as in fact, this would prove to be one of the absolute coldest races I’d taken part in! Luckily, at least the drive from Chelsea was fairly uneventful on Friday night. We had decided to make a long weekend of it by taking Monday off, so we’d be spending three nights in the Chateau Laurier hotel in Quebec city, hopefully taking advantage of amenities like the hot tubs, as well as touring the city.

Trying ot Stay Warm Before Race

My race was the first on tap for Saturday morning, which of course meant the coldest possible conditions. Not only that, but we had a lovely little ice wind blowing just to make sure we got the full experience! On the plus side, the sun was shining brightly, so visibility wasn’t an issue. Luckily for Deanna, we had media / VIP passes, so she had a warm place to go to if required. No such luck for me, since I’d be racing. If nothing else, there was strong motivation to move fast and finish quickly!

The opening salvo was the 14.3 km bike leg, which was multiple 3.8 km loops along the roads surrounding the Plains, including a pretty significant decent off the plains to a U-turn where we had to pedal back up. It was bloody cold on that decent, screaming down a hill at 60km/h wearing only lycra in -35 temps feels more like -50, so as you can imagine, the bits and bobs were feeling it. Or rather, they felt nothing as things were slowly but surely going numb. The course itself was pretty nice, with no major surprises. After the final loop, we turned onto  a groomed snow trail to head to transition. The fast dudes were all riding cyclocross, but for my part, it was my trusty mountain bike (hadn’t yet bought my cx bike…).

Finishing Bike Leg

I rolled into transition as a veritable Stevie Ice pop, and had to get right out on the run. I’d opted to use flat pedals, which at least meant I didn’t have to change foot wear. Instead, my ice block feet got right to work churning snow on the multi loop run course. Something felt off right away, but it was hard to tell what it was, what with no circulation. Eventually, after about 600-700m, I realized the issue. While I had gone completely numb on the bike, the run was actually forcing some semblance of circulation in my feet, and it was causing extreme pain as it passed through my quite frozen tissue. Pretty sure had the bike leg been much longer, I would have had bad frost bite. As it was, the run ‘saved’ my feet, but caused much agony.

It wasn’t until I’d completed a full 1.6km lap and a bit of the run that my feet started to work again. I’d had to stop and shake them out for a while on lap 1 as well, which is quite evident from my split times on the run. Regardless, once I ‘found my feet’, I took the time to enjoy the scenery a bit more and get through the 5 km run. I gotta say, 5k of running has never been quite as challenging in some ways!

Working on Fast Transition

Coming into the second transition I’d now face my first ‘costume change’, as I had to remove my sneakers and put on my ski boots. This is where I was really, really thankful that I had heated gloves on! For once, I actually had feeling in my fingers during a winter transition, making it much easier to untie and re-tie footwear. That was a life saver for me! I had a relatively good transition, and was soon jogging to the ski put-on line. Obviously, I’d be skate skiing my way around this course, and after my race at the Gatineau Loppet, I had a feeling this might be my best leg of the event. I strode out of the stadium purposefully, hoping to make up some spots I’d lost on the first 2 legs.

Again, we were set to do multiple loops around the Plains covering a total of just under 10 km over 3 loops. The snow had been groomed quite nicely prior to the race, so although the air was very cold, the snow hadn’t become too frozen. I had good glide without being too icy. I was able to find a decent grove and sure enough, I was passing people along the way. Going into this leg, I had been 52nd on the bike, and 46th on the run, but wrapped up the ski in 30th. In my category, it was even better. I had been 16th in bike, 14th in run, but emerged 7th on the ski! With only 2 legs left, my intention was to hold my spot as best as I could.

Heading onto Ski Course

Lucky for me, with my endurance base, I can generally maintain my pace for quite a while, even when things get tough, so I was pretty confident I could stay in my place, in spite of not being a strong skater. This would prove to be another interesting leg. All told, I’d been out skating precisely ONCE prior to this race, so I was both practicing and racing at the same time. Round and round the perfect ice oval for 21 laps, that you had to count yourself. On the plus side, once again I avoided a shoe change since my blades clip right onto my ski boots. Thank goodness for technology.

I did my best to imitate the form of a speed skater, leaning way forward and trying to keep my arms in that oh-so-cool looking relaxed behind the back posture. Sadly, looking at some of the pictures, I’d say I was only about half as aero as I felt like I was. It may not have been pretty, but it was hopefully effective. Sure enough, stepping back off the ice and back into transition for the last time, I had maintained my exact standing.

Non Ideal Form

And now for the penultimate stage of the Pentathlon. The snowshoe! This leg could prove interesting for the simple fact that I was running on completely untested gear! I (or rather Deanna) had literally picked up a pair of snowshoes in a mad scramble on Friday afternoon that  had ordered in a few days earlier. A completely new design consisting of a plastic frame that I’d seen around a few races, and wanted to try. They were TSL symbioz hyperflex racing snowshoes, and were almost HALF the weight of my other snowshoes, so I was keen to try them out. As Deanna was driving us on Friday, I was in the passenger seat making adjustments and setting them up to fit my shoes perfectly. My only testing consisted of jogging in the hotel about 10 feet to make sure they were secure!

Lucky for me, things worked very well. These beauties were so light that you barely felt any swing weight at all as you were running. I took note on the course of just how many people had converted to this snowshoe. They have definitely taken the top-end racing scene (at least in Quebec) by storm. I can also vouch for them now. They are sturdy. Given the very cold temps, this was a good test for whether they’d become brittle or cause blistering issues. I’m happy to report I emerged unscathed, and also managed to gain a spot in my category, and 2 in the overall classification.

Last Minute Push

So, the final tally for me? Well, in what I’d consider a very competitive field, I ended up 29th overall, 26th male, and 6th (of 24) in my category. I was happy with that. And even more happy that I could get out of the cold!! It was time to warm up first with a hot chocolate, and later, a beer and a meal! We did also find time to hop into the hotels hot tubs (which were cruelly located outside, meaning a VERY cold bathrobe stroll to get into them. Although we had grand plans to tour Quebec City a bit more this time, we decided it was too bloody cold to make that very enticing. The following day, we watched the elite team competition, which was pretty exciting to watch. Lucky for them, the weather was a little warmer.

All in all, we had another great time at this event, which is definitely one of the best organized winter events I’ve had the privilege of taking part in. I was also covering the event for the magazine, so I had plenty of camera gear in tow. Sadly, footage from my own event was pretty tough to obtain, given that all my gear basically instantly froze out there. Batteries are no match for those really low temps. However, I had much better luck the next day when I could protect the gear between shots. As a result, if you haven’t done so yet, please check out the video I shot below. Till next time, see you out on the trails!

Stories from an athlete, adventurer, and lover of life