Twas a Dark and Stormy 50-miler…
Banged up, hobbling on a sore hip and generally feeling like crap, I was ready to pass, but deep down I knew the 10th running of the Stormy Ultras in Squamish was going to be a blast and I didn’t want to be left out. So, with a few hours to go before the registration deadline, I signed up for the 50-miler. It may not have been the smartest decision I’ve ever made, but with Tim, Dario and a host of other great runners participating, it was hard to pass up.
With the 50-mile relay starting at the same time as the solo 50-miler, the start/finish area was more energetic and chaotic than you’d expect for a 50-miler at 6:00am on a Sunday morning. The chaos continued through the first mile or so of the race and as we’d expected, Tim, Dario and I soon found ourselves in a large pack with Darin Bentley, Hozumi Nakai, and a handful of other 50-milers and relay runners.
With runners going off-course at every turn, Tim quickly took over, like a cool-handed school bus driver trying to control a load of rowdy kids hell-bent on crawling out the windows. Tim is a Stormy veteran and has led a Club Fat Ass training weekend on the Stormy course for the past three years, so if you’re unsure where you’re going, the smart thing to do is sit down, keep your hands inside the vehicle and enjoy the ride. And not question Tim when you think he’s driving a little too quickly.
Tim pulled the bus into the first aid station in 40 minutes — a little quick for my liking but apparently perfect for Darin — and while Tim, Dario and I lined up for water and souvenirs at the gift shop, Darin and Hozumi cruised straight on through. Aside from a brief glimpse a few minutes further down the trail, Darin was gone like the mythical sasquatch Tim and I spotted last year during the 100-miler. Hoz stopped briefly to admire the trailside vegetation and soon the four of us were cruising out to Alice Lake as a pack.
Feeling okay, I led the way through the Dead End Loop but by the time I reached the top of Rock and Roll Hill my hip started to prepare its case for withdrawing from the race. The hip was okay going uphill, but the zig-zagging downhill sections on Rob’s and Cliff’s Corners were an adventure in pain management. Dario eventually caught up and by the time we reached the boardwalks of Tracks From Hell on the way to Edith Lake, Hozumi was right on our tails.
For me the highlight of pacing Tim at the 2009 Stormy 100 was Bruce Grant‘s aid station. Tucked away in the trees along the shore of Edith Lake, we were first greeted by a life-size cutout of Elvis and then Bruce himself, all alone, in the dark, with an amazing spread of food before him. It was like encountering Yoda at a secret swampside deli on Dagobah. By this point, Tim had begun the downhill spiral that would eventually conclude with him DNFing around Mile 80 and Bruce did his best to help him through the rough patch, offering the sage advice of an ultrarunning Jedi master with a cup of soup on the side. While Tim’s stomach churned, I had no trouble eating my way through the assorted treats on Bruce’s buffet table, a menu featuring turkey-avocado wraps and olives. Mmm mmm mmmmm!!! Tim still goes pale to this day when he hears turkey and avocado in the same sentence!
By contrast, this year Dario and I arrived at the Edith Lake aid station to a veritable fiesta: people everywhere, noise, even a big open-sided tent. I half-expected a DJ and a mirror ball. It was like finding out your favourite roadside diner had been levelled and replaced by a Wal-Mart, but as I filled my bottle, a quiet, unmistakable voice eerily reminiscent of HAL from the Space Odyssey cut through the cacophony of hypercaffeinated relay runners and volunteers.
Bruce? Heyyy! It was good to see a familiar face and instantly I remembered what I really came for and glanced around the table, spotting the turkey-avocado wraps on the far corner. Well I can’t stop here without grabbing a couple of these. Ooh, and a handful of olives… yes please! And off I went after Dario and Hozumi who had passed through while I was chowing down. Note to self: olives are great and all, but when you grab a handful you end up with a greasy water bottle.
Chewing a mouthful of olives made catching up a little tougher, but I did and we made our way together toward my least favourite part of the entire course: Marc My Word, a technical section of steep drops over slick granite, with a few rickety wooden bridges and ladders thrown in for fun. Squamish mountain bikers love Marc My Word. Me? Not so much.Knowing the course is much more runnable further below, I figured I’d be okay if I could just stick with Hozumi and Dario through this section, but my hip would have none of it. Hozumi glided through Marc My Word like a butterfly and it wasn’t long before he vanished in the maze of rock and cedar before me. Dario wasn’t a butterfly, but he wasn’t a lumbering bull with a gimpy hip either, and he too pulled out of sight.
I almost caught Dario by the time Roller Coaster spat us back out on Perth Drive and we reunited at the buffet table we’d stopped at over two hours earlier. From the aid station, Perth Drive is a straight downhill shot to The Boulevard and a left turn that takes runners to Quest University. As we departed we caught our final glimpse of Hozumi for the day, a tiny green speck well down the road ahead.
Up at the university, with my hip stiffening up and three hours of running starting to weigh on my legs, I felt the tingling of a new kind of trouble. It was muggy and I had sweated off my bandaids. Crap! I’m not even halfway through this thing! In a preemptive strike, I decided to go ummm… topless to prevent my dainty nipples from turning to hamburger over the final thirty miles.
Dario and I ran and hiked the climb up Garibaldi Park Road above Quest. Relay runner Chris Price caught us right around the turn onto the Ring Creek North Forest Service Road and I admit it lit a bit of a fire under me. It was probably a tactical error on my part, but I kept running and soon realized I was alone. I presumed at the time that Dario was struggling but I’d find out later he was just being smart and preserving himself for later by hiking the climb.My hip screamed at me the whole way down Pseudo Tsuga and the other trails which flush runners back down to the Quest aid station. Ugh. Rolling into the station, I crossed paths with Kristin Ohm-Pedersen and Ryne Melcher all smiles on their way to snagging Kristin a Western States qualifier in her first 50-miler.
The road down from the Quest aid station toward Powerhouse hurt. My hip was stiff, my quads ached, and — oh crap — my calves were warming up for hours of Dueling Banjos. This is going to be a looong day.
As I approached Powerhouse a familiar shape appeared from around a bend. It was Alan Yu from the marathon clinic and wouldn’t you know it, he was wearing brand-spanking-new Cascadias that looked just like mine did four hours earlier. He was out to “warn” me that I had a cheering squad ahead. Oh great, here I come ladies, sweaty and shirtless.
I got into Powerhouse, got a refill and a second bottle, shovelled some food in my mouth and grabbed my Zune. On my way out I saw Noah Wallace who was running the Nine Mile Hill leg for his relay team, a relay team that I was pretty sure had been ahead of me for quite some time. That’s strange.
“We lost our runner and nobody’s heard from her. Hopefully I’ll see you in another hour,” he smiled and shrugged as I headed out on the access road.
Alan escorted me to the Mamquam Forest Service Road and the beginning of Nine Mile Hill. On the way we passed the girls from the clinic — soon to be dubbed the Babe Patrol by someone at the finish line — all holding cameras and, come to think of it, not really looking like they were dressed for their Sunday run. Hmmm… It was good to see them and their presence added a little more pressure for later on when I faced the really hard work of getting this damned thing done.
Alan offered to keep running with me up Nine Mile Hill, but not knowing what the race policy was on pacers in the 50-miler, I declined the offer. I also didn’t want to put Alan through the hell of Nine Mile Hill, though being the trooper that he is, he decided to give it a shot on his own later.
I have never raced with music before, but this stretch promised to be long and lonely. After having ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart‘ spontaneously pop into my head while pacing Tim at Fat Dog, I decided to ease into the climb by having Joy Division open for the Killers who would carry me through the remainder of the Nine Mile Hill loop. Thank you Brandon Flowers for being there when I needed a feather-covered epaulet to cry on.
Again I probably ran more of the uphills than I should have. The problem was uphill was the only direction I could run without cramping. It was also getting warmer and the cramps were coming on more strongly, so in my semi-delirious state, it made sense to run when I could. At one point Ward Beemer drove by in his landscaping truck and I laughed to myself about catching a ride. Until he disappeared around a bend. Then I cried for missing the opportunity to hop in the back and pretend I was an ornamental shrub.
As I descended the into the little valley that divides the Nine Mile Hill climb roughly in half, my Garmin flashed at me. Low Battery. Are you flippin’ kidding me?!? Nice one, rookie. In my defence, I’d only had the Forerunner 205 since Fat Dog and still had a few things to figure out. Like how to turn it on and how to plug it in.
Noah Wallace charged up behind me just before the water tower on the second half of Nine Mile Hill and roared past just as quickly. Yikes! Am I hurting that badly? The Garmin kept me entertained with my current pace, which was probably one of the reasons I tried to run when I should have been hiking. Like right after Noah passed me.
The cramps returned on the descent and the final, flatter stretch to the aid station at the end of Nine Mile dragged on much longer than I remembered.
At the aid station, I think it was 100-mile participant Al Harman who commented from a lawn chair, “I hate Lava Flow Hill. It’s the toughest climb on the course!” I couldn’t recall much about Lava Flow from the time Tim and I ran the course last year, but all of a sudden it came flashing back. Yeah, it’s tough, but is it really the toughest climb on the course? Gulp.
On the way up I started to get paranoid. I’d been slowing down, the cramps were getting worse and I’d been lingering a little too long at each aid station. So I ran as much of Lava Flow as I could, and practically gave myself whiplash checking for runners behind me over the next hour.
Ring Creek Rip, what should have been my favourite part of the course, was a disaster. Running it with Tim last year, I thought if there was one part of Stormy where I could really open it up, it was on Ring Creek Rip. It’s long, fairly straight, and all downhill, but not the stupid, technical kind of downhill I hate. But I couldn’t open it up. I can’t count how many times I had to stop to stretch out a calf that had locked up. The upper part of the Rip didn’t have a lot of large rocks to use as leverage for getting the deep stretch I needed, so I tried fallen trees instead. Unfortunately, it seemed like 9 out of 10 of them were rotten and crumbled as soon as put my weight on them, doing nothing to relieve my cramp, but plenty to drive me frickin’ crazy! I tried running through the cramps, but couldn’t handle that for long. If I can’t get through the Rip, HOW ON EARTH AM I GONNA GET MYSELF THROUGH THE POWERHOUSE PLUNGE?!?
Somehow I did get through it, though it wasn’t pretty. It’s tough jumping down sharp drops unsure of whether your calves might freeze up or your thrashed quads might not support your weight. Run. Stretch. Run. Stretch… How the hell haven’t I been passed by anyone yet?
Back down to the Powerhouse aid station, I was pretty fried, but had reason to be optimistic: remarkably I was still running third, the Garmin was still alive and telling me I wasn’t running fast enough, and in relative terms, I didn’t have much further to go. Hearing volunteers calling out that it was my second time through made it seem like a pretty big deal. Okay dude, let’s get this done! I got my bottles refilled, stuffed my face, pounded back a few cups of Coke and headed for home, hopeful for a decent finish.
That hope didn’t last long. I got through the first part without cramping, but my legs were shot. Into the Crumpit Woods trails that had been so runnable a year ago in training with Tim, I lasted about ten minutes before I started to struggle. Everything was tight and sore and it wasn’t long before the cramping started again and the death march began.
I did a run-walk-run — or run-stretch-run, walk-stretch-walk — spurred on by the Garmin which was still showing I was doing a reasonable pace all things considered. I passed 100-miler John Machray, who was hunched over like Quasimoto and lurched sideways to get out my way faster than he was able to move forward. Sadly, the reminder that there are people like John suffering far more than I was, didn’t have nearly the impact I could have hoped for and I soon resumed my walk-stretch-walk routine.
Soon, I was the example of suffering for relay runners, who began passing me at regular intervals. But still no 50-milers? As frustrating as it is being passed late in a race by a smiling young girl looking as fresh as the flowers in the print on her dress (unless I was hallucinating and just imagined being passed by a girl in a flowered dress), the relay event added a unique element to the race. I don’t usually like running solo among relay runners, but it was uplifting to see someone out there on the trail, especially someone who hadn’t had their enthusiasm drained by hours on the trail.In a profoundly symbolic moment, my Garmin battery died with about 5k to go. Shortly after, I heard the footsteps of what I presumed was another relay runner. Dario? Damn! He looked great — okay, maybe not great-great, but 50-mile great — and passed me like I was standing still. Actually, I think I was standing still, leaning against a tree trying to stretch out yet another calf cramp. We offered each other words of encouragement and when I asked if anyone else was behind him he said matter-of-factly, “no, they’re all cramping like you.” And just like that, he was gone.
Making my way down from the Smoke Bluffs was an ordeal and would have been comical if it wasn’t so damned painful. Trying to run down steep switchbacks with no quad strength and no control over your lower legs is a head-first flight into the dirt waiting to happen, and I took some sections like an old guy stepping off a bus. C’mon grandpa, down you go…
The Smoke Bluffs seemed to go on forever, as did the final flat, winding trail to the finish. The cramping eased slightly on the flats but I was toast. Where is that Finch Road crossing?!? Relay runner Bill Dagg flew past me, and — wait a minute, Bill Dagg just flew past me? — a couple of excruciating minutes later I made the sharp right-hand turn to the finish. Done!Officially, I finished in 8:29 though I was finished hours before that. Up front, Hozumi managed to catch Darin and “ride his coattails” to the finish to tie for the overall win in 7:23. Dario was third in 8:24 and I somehow held fourth and was first master, thanks to the timing of Mrs. Bentley’s labour just under forty years earlier (happy birthday Darin!) Tim was 8th overall in 8:49 and was tops in the 50-59 age group. Score a pair for the Broadway geezers!
The Bottom Line
After my second fifty this summer, I’ve learned a few things about 50-milers and me: a) we don’t mix b) I’m a shoo-in for 4th place every time out so maybe I should quit now while I’m ahead, and c) I should always add an hour to my predicted finishing time before telling my wife when to show up at the finish line.
As a marathon clinic instructor, I’m a little embarrassed to admit I broke one of the cardinal rules of racing: I wore brand new shoes. I had my reasons and am happy to report that my new Brooks Cascadias performed admirably. No hot spots, no blisters, one bruised toenail. I didn’t even trip over anything!
I’ve really got to figure out this cramping thing. I popped a lot of Thermolytes, but maybe not as many as I thought. I had a lot of gel, but again maybe not as much as I thought. I had a brief period after leaving Powerhouse the second time through when I didn’t cramp. Was it the brief stop or the sugar rush from the cups of Coke I pounded back? Was it from being less than 100%? Was it a lack of tough trail miles? Was it as Dario suggested later, because I ran too many hills when I should have hiked?
One thing that was made very clear to me was that I have been in serious denial about being injured. With it being summer, having a marathon clinic to lead and some races to run, I didn’t have the time to take off and get healthy. I had a lot of aches but as long as a major tendon hadn’t snapped or a bone hadn’t broken and I could still move forward, I bit my lip, blocked out the pain and kept running, hopeful that some of the aches would work themselves out, as they often had in the past.
The previous Sunday, a week before Stormy, I was a wreck and had pretty much written off running the 50-miler. Earlier that morning I’d led my marathon clinic on their 26k run and then headed up to the Okanagan with my girls to spend a few days with my mom. Everything in my legs was tight, I was constantly sore and my motivation was right around zero. Then I asked my wife to roll my legs with The Stick. I woke up the next morning feeling better than I had in weeks, had one of those momentary lapses in judgement that seem to afflict me around registration deadlines and signed up for Stormy.I certainly wouldn’t want to run a marathon feeling like this — heck, I wouldn’t sign up for a 5k if I felt like this! — so I don’t know why I would think I could run a 50-miler in this condition. No, wait, yes I do. For some reason I think of ultras as a less precise discipline, where guts matter more that outright speed. Marathons are all about sustained intensity and running consistent splits where seconds matter. Ultras, especially trail ultras, have such varied terrain that you can’t possibly go all-out for the entire distance. You are constantly shifting gears and using different muscle groups and it’s not a sin to walk. I’m certainly not going to powerhike a hill in a road marathon, but we do it all the time in ultras. And no offence to marathon volunteers, but I’m not going to stop and chat when one hands me a cup of Gatorade. In an ultra, why not? Generally speaking, ultras are more relaxed and casual and with there being less of an emphasis on going all-out all the time, you can even run a little injured. Or so I told myself.
And also on the topic of injuries, I found out that running a 50-miler with a broken finger is easier than writing a race report with one.
Every race is a learning experience, and as much as I love marathons, there is so much more to learn when you push beyond 26 miles. I feel no closer to figuring out how to run 50 miles than I did after my first one in June. I told myself many times during the race and in the days after Stormy that I’m not doing another one, but an ultrarunner’s promise only lasts about as long as it takes to say ‘never again.’ My first priority is to get healthy again. After that, who knows? I won’t be making other plans for the weekend of Stormy 2011 just in case.