Knee Knacker Race Report! ***Long blog warning***
I don't really know how to start this blog entry... Obviously I have loads of people to thank: thanks to all my amazing friends who are inspiring and extremely supportive! I loved receiving all your best wishes in the days before the race, and I thought of you at various points on race day - more when things felt good than when things felt bad, which tells you something, I think. Tells you that I keep very good company. I also got a lot of support from my friends and family locally who came out to the race to support me - how amazing is to see familiar faces along the way? UTTERLY AND TOTALLY AMAZING! I feel like I can't thank them enough and I can only hope they know how much their support has meant to me.
I did it! I completed a 50km ultra marathon through the bush, rock, mud, and boulder scree of the Baden Powell trail! It was both fabulous and brutal, with rough patches and a success story in the end. I'll try to capture the race for you here (and for me, when I want to look back on it), and do this feat some justice!
Most of you know Rocco and I live in an old house that has been broken up into 4 apartments. In the attic suite above us, our neighbour was 39 weeks pregnant in the week before the race. It would be just my luck that she would go into labour the night before my Biggest Race Ever and that it would be messy and complicated and the medics would come to the house, etc. Obviously that would be very bad luck indeed for her (!), but I was pretty anxious about getting some rest the night before the race, so I stayed at Jane's place instead of in my own bed. It was blissfully quiet and I managed to get four and half hours of decent sleep, surprisingly. We awoke at 3:30am and even at that hour, the first thing I said when she knocked on the door to my room was "yay!" I was so excited! We got some breakfast (I had brought my own raisin toast from home to be consistent), made coffee, got all our gear together including drop bags that the race organizers would shuttle from the start to the midway and then to the finish for us, and climbed into the car at 4am. The 50km is a point to point trail, so we drove to the finish and climbed on an old orange school bus that took us to the start. Luckily some of the ladies we have been training with also got on the same bus so we chatted away and giggled about our nerves.
I've never been a porta pottie user at races. I'm usually very regular and I know from practice that if I use the toilet at a certain time before we leave then I should be good until a rest stop I know is coming up, but Saturday morning I ended up in line at the pps not once, but twice. My stomach was in knots, and it turns out that it wasn't just nerves (more on that later). Milling around the start which was quite small as only 200 people run this race, we bumped into all of the people we had trained with, and some spectators who had driven racers to the start area. People were giddy and excited; we posed for pictures and teased one another about injuries and hidden talents; talked about strategy and rolled our eyes since strategy so often flies out the window the minute the start gun goes off.
Then the start gun DID go off!
1st quarter: We trotted as a group down a short gravel road to the first trailhead, sorting ourselves into single file strategically since no one wants to get stuck behind the slowpoke on the uphill, and no one wants to BE the slowpoke holding other people up! Before the gun, I saw a friend, D, who had climbed Black Mountain with me in both training sessions. Jane and I had decided we wanted to be near her at the start so we could form a good support group with common pacing, and it turns out D had the same plan. D and I did manage to stick together but Jane dropped back into another group well behind me, so I didn't see her on Black Mountain at all. Actually I didn't see her again until the halfway point. But we did have a solid group of about 10 people who were all pacing together up the first mountain, and we did really well, I think. It's the kind of uphill that you just tuck your chin in and keep going. Being in a group helps with that because someone is right on your heels looking to fill the toe hold your foot has just left as soon as it's vacant. The weather all week before the race had been super rainy, and we were worried that the rock would be wet and therefore slippery, but two short days of heat Thursday and Friday had dried it off and I had no problems skirting around the face of the rock, or on the boulder scree. The view from the top was stunning - the sun was already up, but not very high, and Howe Sound 3550ft below us was clear and sparkling!
On top of Black Mountain is the first aid station, and this station is totally amazing since volunteers CARRY all the supplies up to the top from Cypress parking lot, which is quite a hike in itself, let me tell you! They start at 4 in the morning, lugging up water, eLoad, sharkies, first aid, etc., out of the goodness of their hearts! And trust me, they are a sight for sore eyes for us runners because seeing them means you've summited Black Mountain and are about to hit the downhill. And hit it we did! I lost D at the top when she stopped to refuel, but kept pace with a stranger in black shorts and a red singlet. We ran the downhill all the way to Cypress where the first checkpoint was set up. For this race there are three major checkpoints along the way that you have to pass within a minimum time or they will pull you from the race. You have to ensure that they've seen your number and checked you off before you can run on. I reached the checkpoint at 2:06 (hours, not time of day), at least 15 minutes earlier than I had been reaching it in training. Grabbed some water, a few pieces of fruit, and kept running.
2nd quarter: This quarter is tied with the last quarter for being my favourite portion of the race. It's called the Hollyburn chutes, it's essentially all downhill, and it's really beautiful forest with a few opportunities for fabulous views of the mountains and the city of Vancouver below. I ran with another friend from training, S., for a while, but she really is more of a solo runner and happily dropped back on the downhill at some point. Black shorts/red shirt guy kept pace with me and we chatted for ages about his work, my work, and other stuff like how this was his fifth Knee Knacker. I don't really remember passing many people, one guy maybe, and perhaps being passed by one or two others, but mostly this section of trail was just me and this dude and a few random hikers who would scuttle out of our way when they heard us coming. I was feeling pretty good, although all the downhill plays havoc on my IT band. Properly timed ibuprofen was really helping me out, and I was eagerly looking forward to the next big aid station that marks the halfway point.
Two weird things before the halfway though. Dropping down towards Cleveland Dam (the halfway), a volunteer was in the woods directing us where to turn. He shouted up to me, "Did you pass a guy lying on the ground?" No, I definitely did not. I asked him if someone was missing, and he said yes! But nothing else was said, and we just ran on! Odd. The second weird but wonderful thing was that we could hear the crowds at the dam from at least 2km away! That was amazing! Finally running across the dam (oh flat ground, how I love thee!) and heading towards the crowd, I was totally overwhelmed. People were cheering and clapping and stomping - I really got choked up and started to cry! I had to work hard to rein it in; this is only halfway! There's a lot of race left! Keep it together!
Halfway stop: (Sorry, this is really becoming an epic blog! Feel free to stop reading.) Man, the supporters and the volunteers were just so awesome. I ran through the crowds, two people who are friends of Jane's yelled my name and cheered me on, and I looked for Rocco and Steve. They were at the very end near the aid station but as I headed towards them a volunteer cut me off and demanded my attention. She laser beamed my eyes to keep my attention and said, "Do you need your drop bag? Come sit down. I'll do everything. What do you need. Tell me what you need. Do you need these socks? Do you need salt? Do you want your hydration pack refilled? What do you want in it?" Holy crap! Seriously, she sat me down in a folding camp chair (heaven!), gave my pack to someone to refill (!), took my shoes and socks off (disgusting!) and helped me put new socks on (brave woman!), checked that I was feeling ok, stood me up, put my pack on me, and pointed me at the toilet building. I was flabbergasted! It was like pulling into a pit stop during the Indy 500 with a full pit crew pulling for you and taking care of all your needs. I cannot tell you enough how phenomenal the volunteers are at this race! There are 250 volunteers to 200 runners - can you believe it?!?
The volunteer who sat me down at the halfway was intense. In fact, I made two choices during the race that were totally polite Canadian choices: at the Black Mountain aid station I took some sharkies even though I didn’t want them because those poor folks had carried them all the way up the mountain for us; and I changed my socks at the halfway point mostly to give the intense volunteer something she could do for me. The sharkies stayed in my sweaty palm for about a half hour until I found a pocket to stash them in, and I spent the rest of the race collecting more grime than necessary on the gooey sharkie mess that was my right hand. And as for the socks, I had packed extras in my drop back just in case the mud or snow up top was really wet but it actually wasn’t that bad, and the blisters I found after the race definitely indicated that I shouldn’t have changed socks halfway. But I’m still so grateful to the volunteers! Also, red shirt/black shorts guy and I finally had a moment to introduce ourselves at the aid station (his name is Bryan), where all the volunteers laughed because we had been speaking to each other like we’ve known each other for years, but only met a couple hours ago on trail. Bryan was quick in the station and left very quickly to continue the race.
Back to the race. I used the toilets at the dam but the visit didn’t resolve the upset I was feeling in my bowels. It had been nausea so far but something was brewing lower down as well and I couldn’t seem to shift it. I wasn’t really hungry and my stomach was rolling but I thought it was smart to eat something so I ate a few pieces of watermelon, some orange slices, and three pieces of boiled potato with salt provided at the aid station. Everyone lauds the potatoes: they’re instant but slow burn carbs without the sugar, and they get that salt into you. Personally, I think they were a mistake for me, but you just never know. After eating I looked around for any familiar runners. S was there, having entered the station soon after me, and she was ready to get back in the race. She left and we both thought I would catch up to her on the long road up to Grouse Mountain parking lot (this is the only section of the race on road). I waited and watched for Jane and she ran in about a minute later. I was so excited to see her but also really anxious to start racing again, so instead of waiting two minutes for her to prep, I left, again with the plan that she would catch me on the road. This was a mistake. Three things I’d been concerned about for the race were 1) Not hitting my damn head on that damn tree on Black Mountain that I’ve run into every training run! 2) Not running the Grouse section alone because it is soul destroying! And 3) Finishing the damn race upright and smiling! Well I accomplished number 1 to great cheers from runners around me who I had informed of my goal as we neared the tree, and number 2 I had been worrying about for weeks. I had the opportunity to wait two minutes for Jane so we could run that section together but I passed it up in my haste to get back into the race.
3rd quarter: I saw a few other runners on the long road but we were all very spaced out. The road winds up from the dam through heavy traffic to the entrance to the Grouse Grind, a famous local hike that attracts HORDES of people. Our route shares the approach to the Grind for about half a km, then stays low when they start their arduous climb. Volunteers were at the entrance trying to regulate hiker flow into the trails to give runners a chance to get through with less difficulty, but I reached the entrance just after they had let a large group onto the trail. The volunteer apologised sincerely (I was a little clueless and didn’t think it was a big deal), and as I entered the trail he cupped his hands around his mouth and yelled “RUNNER…COMING…THROU-OUGH!” Ha! I quickly piped up, “SLOWLY!” so that no one would get the wrong idea, and that got a few laughs from the hikers around me. Eventually I passed the hikers and began the long slog that is the third quarter. It’s a deceptive section because although it looks like it’s undulating along a relatively even altitude, this section actually climbs dramatically. I seriously think that it’s a mind f*ck because you can’t wrap your head around the fact that you’re going up, up, up since it looks like you’re just going up AND down, and so mentally you break down because you feel so very tired (knackered, even!) but think you shouldn’t be. Every runner I have talked to hates this section the most, seriously, which is why I desperately wanted to be with someone so that we could chat to pass the time and take our minds off it. But no, I screwed that up and covered about ¾ of this section all alone and depressed and fatigued. Plus, runners GI was rearing its ugly head and all I could think about was where the next toilet opportunity would be; unfortunately I had just entered a very long stretch without any toilet facilities except dense forest.
Eventually I did see that I was gaining on someone – it was D! I had missed her in the aid station somehow and she’d run on ahead. Guess what? I wasn’t the only one with GI issues! She was in rough shape and had been walking for about a half hour, she figured. We walked on together, quite happy to have caught up with each other but depressed that neither of us was feeling well enough to run. After a while she wanted to fix her shoe so she hurried ahead to the next aid station where she would wait for me. Almost as soon as she took off, Jane came up behind me! I was so glad to see her! She must have taken her time at the halfway point because she was moving along at a pretty good clip and would have caught me earlier, otherwise. Her splits show that she took this section seriously and had a solid run. Anyway, we were glad to be reunited and she slowed down a little to trot with me. We emerged from the worst part of the third quarter and suddenly saw Rocco and Steve again! I didn’t expect to see them and it was a great surprise. Then, 10 minutes later, running up towards the third checkpoint and major aid station, someone yelled Jane’s last name: two friends of hers who also know me, and they ran us in to the checkpoint. God, familiar faces work wonders on the spirit in this kind of challenge!
4th quarter: We didn’t stay long at the station, but I have to tell you a little about the fuel they put out for us. Some runners will have heard about the wonder drug that is flat Coke. I’d never tried it but let me tell you how much I salivated when I spotted those little Dixie cups of black gold! It’s the perfect fluid: instant sugar with no bubbles so you can simply gulp it down. Delicious! And chips! Each station had two or three flavours of salty, salty chips! Exactly what you’re craving after running for over 6 hours. But the best, the ultimate, the only thing that got me through, was the watermelon. I’m convinced now that it’s the perfect food. Cold, watery, sweet but not sugary, perfectly crunchy – total heaven. Every aid station had watermelon and I started to look forward to it when I was only steps away from the previous station. I spoke to another random runner after the race as we were gobbling watermelon at the finish line and he told me he had cut up a whole watermelon, frozen it over night, and carried all the pieces in his hydration pack! He was laughing at himself that he carried his own watermelon up the mountain when the race was providing it at every stop! Also, one of the minor aid stations in the second half had a kind of shower rigged up, and big buckets of cold water with sponges. My god, a soaked sponge has never felt so good!
Ok, running again, and feeling crappy in my belly but otherwise mostly back on track. Very glad to have Jane by my side, and we’re both excited about the fourth quarter since it’s our favourite section. The forest is lovely through here (from Lynn Canyon to Deep Cove) and although the first half of it is very technical terrain, the latter half to the finish line is mostly manicured paths that are fast and easy to run on. But to get there you have to first tackle the Seymour Grind. This isn’t a Grind that is famous like the Grouse Grind; in fact, I doubt if non-runners call it anything or even notice this section as being all that different from other portions of the Baden Powell trail. But among runners, it’s INfamous. We reached the Seymour Grind about seven hours into our race. SEVEN HOURS! We had already scaled Black Mountain, climbed the illusion of flat ground in the Grouse section, and by now we were very, very tired. The Seymour Grind climbs straight up over technical ground for a solid twenty minutes, and my legs were almost shot and my bowels were giving me hell. I had chosen not to use the toilets at the Lynn Canyon checkpoint because I didn’t think it would resolve anything and could have been more frustrating and demoralizing than useful. I still think that was the right choice, but this issue plagued me throughout the long race. It seemed to be more aggravated by going uphill…like on the Seymour Grind. I strode on, determined to be strong. Had to stop and rest a couple times which is very unlike me, and Jane and I couldn’t come up with a juicy topic of conversation for the life of us, so the climb seemed unending. But it did end. We were victorious. We got there. We…well, I stopped at the top, bent over double, and told Jane to save herself.
I’m glad she went ahead because I would have felt bad if she had stalled her race for me, but I also kind of wish she had stayed with me as I was feeling pretty low. But maybe because she left I was propelled to suck it up and continue. I think she couldn’t have been more than two minutes ahead of me, but unfortunately I didn’t see Jane again during the race. I was seriously trying to catch her, and I’m usually a bit faster than her on this final section, but she eluded me. She ran a very solid race, smashing her previous fastest time by over 15 minutes. I’m so proud of her!
I kept going. As I said, this final leg is pretty calm, manicured paths that are easy to run on, and of course knowing you’re closing in on the finish always gives you a final wind. Jogging on trail, jogging across the last road, dropping one last time down into technical trail…this last 20 minutes of the course is on a very busy section of trail where lots of hikers were out enjoying the beautiful summer day (it was 29degrees and cloudless!). They were so nice, knowing full well that this race was on and that we weren’t in any shape to be going around them. They would sidestep out of the way or wait for me to pass, and two hikers actually had to turn me around to face the correct trail when I might have headed the wrong way. My brain was definitely losing grip at this point! Something felt a bit funny between my legs suddenly, and I was a little freaked out that maybe my stomach issues were becoming more public than I was comfortable with. I slipped a hand down my leg and brought it back up with something stuck to it, something…blue? It took me a second to figure it out – part of my shorts had fallen off! My shorts were disintegrating but I just wanted to see the finish! Then suddenly I was on the last stairs down out of the trail, running towards the asphalt path through a small park, and hearing the crowds again. What a glorious sound! I started to tear up again and choked on my breath – but then, wait, who’s that? It’s my sister! And Ness! And a few steps further on Miranda and her stepson David! I had no idea they were coming! And then Rocco and Steve and Steve’s gf! My tears disappeared and I was just filled with joy! Sounds super cheesy, I know, but I did mention that my sanity was a little questionable by now, right? Anne leaned towards me out of the crowd and I thought she said, “Give me a hug!” I yelled, “No way! I’m FINISHING this!” and ran on! Sprinting, sprinting, charging toward the finish line feeling like the race had just started and I was chock a block with energy! I RAN across the finish line, 50km and over 8000ft change in elevation away from the start line. Man, I felt GOOD! I ran straight into Jane’s arms for a huge bear hug, the biggest grins on our faces! YES!
This is the biggest physical challenge I have ever taken on, and you know what, even before crossing the finish line I decided that I would do it again. I loved all the training runs. I loved meeting such great people on the trails and spending so much quality time with Jane. I LOVE that I ran through my shorts! They’re in tatters and will never run again, but thanks to a healthy dose of Bodyglide, I didn’t even chafe while my shorts were being torn asunder! My trail runners also definitely need to be retired. There is not much give or cushioning left in those puppies, and I wonder if the mud casing is doing a better job of holding them together than any of the original stitching. But they got me across the finish line in 8 hours, 16 minutes, and 34 seconds, smack dab in the middle of my goal range of 8 or 8 and a half hours. It looks like one toenail might go black, but 1 out of 10 ain’t bad, and the blisters that I think were due to the second pair of socks have already cleared up. In fact, I think recovery was worse after my first half marathon because I wasn’t trained for it. I was definitely trained for this race, and although I’m sore and a bit tired, I have very few complaints.
In spite of the heat, a new course record was set on Saturday: 4:39:52!!!!! The first woman finished in 5:36:24!!!! But overall the average time across all runners was up from other years, probably because it was so hot. Also, I was not alone with my stomach problems; I told you D had stomach pain too but so did a majority of the runners I spoke to afterwards. I think that has to do with the heat as well, as you’re drinking more while still trying to balance your salt levels by eating more and everything is sloshing around inside.
Well folks, that’s my story. I had an absolute blast, in spite of some rough patches, and if they had a sign up table to enter the lottery for next year at this year’s finish line, I would have signed up right then and there. If you got this far, thanks for reading! I wouldn't blame you at all if you quit many paragraphs ago, but I needed to document the race for myself, and I think one or two of you will actually be interested in the whole story. So thanks!