Tim doesn’t really need a pacer for Fat Dog, right? It’s only 100k. I was a little hesitant to ask, but I really wanted to run the inaugural Fat Dog 100, even if I couldn’t make it out to the starting line to race it myself.
The course is gorgeous. Photos of the Fat Dog route show a largely single-track course over breathtaking mountain vistas in Manning Provincial Park, down through the Skagit valley and back up into Manning over another set of stunningly beautiful mountain ridges to finish beside Lightning Lake in the heart of the park. Sure, pacing Tim was my way of enjoying this gem of a course, but I had other reasons.
I’ve known Tim Wiens since 2005 and in that time I’ve seen him push his body, mind, and the patience of his wife Maureen, to limits I can only imagine. He’s always aspired to run 100 miles but he’s come up short on three attempts. Tim’s first try at Stormy in 2007 lasted 75 miles before stomach problems forced him to abandon. In 2009, again at Stormy, I paced Tim and his troublesome stomach to a lawn chair at the 80-mile mark. Most recently Tim flew to Texas in January to snag a sheriff’s badge-shaped buckle at Rocky Raccoon, only to return with little more than a sore gut and a newly self-imposed racing limit of 100 kilometres. Tim’s Fat Dog wouldn’t be a hundred miles, but under the terms of his embargo it was as close as we were going to get.
Tim has vowed many times to give it up, but the lure of hundred-mile glory is too great for him to ever completely shut the door on the dream. Making it harder to walk away is the fact that Tim is guaranteed entry in next year’s Western States Endurance Run through the final year of their ‘Two-Time Loser‘ entry, a provision through which WS race organizers once granted entrance to the race to people who missed getting in through the lottery system two years in a row. The booming popularity of the race led to the phasing out of the TTL list a couple of years ago, but ‘losers’ like Tim who were already in the system were grandfathered until each had a chance to get in. (For the record, Tim was actually a Four-Time Loser of the Western States lottery, adding to the hard-luck legend of Tim Wiens.) It would be a shame to waste a guaranteed spot in the granddaddy of all hundreds, so whether we actually said so or not, Fat Dog would serve as a test to see if there is a chance of getting him to Western States. He has sworn on countless occasions that he’s not running, but I’ll believe it when I see the starter’s list on June 25, 2011.
My day began knee-deep in the Sumallo River, just upstream of its confluence with the Skagit River and a stone’s throw from where the Sumallo Grove aid station would be erected at kilometre 49 of the 100k route. I was an avid flyfisherman before I started running again in 2003 and haven’t fished the Skagit valley in a few years so I brought my gear along to kill time waiting for Tim. A little flyfishing on a beautiful stream, a lot of running over a beautiful course; this this had all the makings of a magical day. (For you anglers out there, yes, I caught three scrappy rainbows on a small orange stimulator in my first hour on the river.)
Race day communication was limited — there is no cell phone service in Manning Park and radio signals can’t travel very far in the mountains — but word trickled in that the runners were well behind expected pace. Tim was first into Sumallo Grove at about 3:45pm, two hours behind his estimated pace. Scorched Sole race director, Dan Crockett, of Kelowna, followed shortly after but blew through the station and into the lead.
Tim was doing okay for a guy at the halfway point of a 100k race. His stomach was fine but he was experiencing some blistering and cracking of his heels from his Asics trail shoes, and his back-up shoes — a worn-out pair of Asics DS Trainer road shoes — were in his drop bag at the next aid station, 15k away.
Tim’s other concern, which soon became the theme of the day, was that his Garmin showed that at halfway in the Fat Dog 100k, Tim had already run 61k. After our training run on the Skagit valley leg of the course in June, Tim knew the course would be long. He just didn’t think it would be this much too long.
It was warm, but not hot for the Skagit leg of the race. The forest was muggy, but we were thankful for the shade for nearly the entire stretch to the Skyline aid station and I took the opportunity to soak our hats in the numerous Skagit tributaries we crossed along the way. The trail was drier than when we ran it last month and the pine cones gave it a crunchy consistency underfoot. The course was very well marked, both with flagging tape and reflective tent pegs which would become crucial to navigation later in the race.
We passed Dan early on, but again he caught up at the aid station while Tim took it easy, changed his shoes and contemplated the stack of rice crackers I set beside him.
Tim’s heels continued to burn along Centennial Trail and he said a few times that all he wanted to do was get to Gary Robbin‘s aid station and then reassess his condition. We hiked anything remotely uphill and tried to run the rest to maintain or increase our gap over Dan.
As we neared Skyline, I started humming Joy Division songs. Or song. Twenty-five kilometres into my run with Tim and I’m off in my own little world singing ‘Love Will Tear Us Apart.’ Amateur psychiatrists, have at it!
I had heard from Nicola Gildersleeve at Sumallo Grove that Gary was going to be cooking up hot dogs at his aid station and started sniffing the air for signs we were drawing near. Nothing. I even called out him. Nada. We hit the junction and found out why: Gary had moved his aid station half a mile downhill to the Silver-Skagit access road. Sure it gave him much more room to have a proper aid station, but he also said it was to accommodate all the runners he expected to be dropping at that point. But what about the poor slobs who plan to continue? Y’know, the ones still IN the race, the unwitting schmucks who have already run 15k further than posted to this point? Shouldn’t THEY be your main focus here?
I like Gary Robbins a lot but I was in a pissy mood when we arrived and clearly unnerved him with my reaction to the aid station move and the course measurement in general. We were the first runners through, but it was obvious that Gary had already run out of patience for people complaining to him about the length of the course, so I dropped it and switched my attention back to Tim.
Lorie Alexander was on Tim like a mother hen making sure he had everything he needed and even a few things he didn’t. I made nice with Gary, refilled my bottles, grabbed a few bites to eat and then… ooooooh! What do we have here? Like any good Newfie, Gary came equipped with a bottle of Screech. Normally, I wouldn’t even think of taking a shot on course, but there was nothing normal about this race. So I had my own little Screech In, minus the Nor’easter, the bucket of salt water, and the cod. Long may your big jib draw!
Tim took off up the Skyline II trail and after that shot of Screech, those hot dog seemed all the more inviting so I grabbed one for the road. I took one bite and had to grab another. It was going to be a long, steep climb so I figured I’d have no trouble eating as we hiked. Had I known how long a hike it would be, I probably would have had Gary pack me a dozen of them!
We had put time on Dan on Centennial, but he pulled in again while we were refuelling so I spent a lot of the climb from Skyline looking over my shoulder and reassuring Tim we were still alone. Tim was hurting and stopped a few times to check out the tops of his shoes and admire the trailside vegetation (no, there were no reports of vomiting yet). I kept looking ahead for signs that we were entering the subalpine but all I saw were more trees. Night slowly descended and through the forest I could make out the glow of the setting sun against picturesque Hozameen Mountain, which frames the southern end of the Skagit valley, still looming far too high on the horizon. I’d been hoping to see the sunset as we approached the final descent to the finish and here we still had a long way to go before we’d even hit the tree line!
It got darker and as I contemplated grabbing my headlamp out of the Camelbak, Tim groaned, “uh-oh… red shirt.” Dan appeared out of nowhere behind us, chugging along with a lively and compact hiking stride that made Tim’s plodding steps look like Tim was… well, climbing a mountain. I swear Dan was even whistling. Dan stuck with us for a bit before Tim moved aside and let him go… and go… and go. We saw Dan turn on his headlamp and a flashlight and then vanish into the darkness ahead.
The climb seemed to go on forever, the trail linked with reflective trail pegs that always seemed further away than they actually were. At one point I thought I saw floodlights through a clearing ahead. What a waste of resources to light a minor aid station out here. It turned out to be the moon, which was full and huge against the clear night sky.
About two hours into the climb we were ambushed by John Machray dressed like a Christmas tree, glow-sticks dangling from each arm. Apparently hardcore ultrarunners find it funny to turn off their headlamps and wait behind a tree to scare the crap out of two grumpy runners on an endless uphill death march (to be honest, it was hilarious). Running in reverse from the finish to hang glow sticks along the route, John was in great spirits and raved about the views along Skyline II and how the trail “doesn’t get any more difficult” than what were on. He also told us that ahead were three creeks we could get water from and that beyond that, about three miles from where we were, there was water at Mowich Camp.
We eventually emerged above the trees and I could only imagine the open mountainside in daylight, resplendent with the variety of wildflowers I could see within the radius of my headlamp beam. We dodged the occasional toad — toads??? up here??? as we approached the upper part of the climb, and then suddenly we saw a flash of light as Dan called out to us from a switchback in the darkness above. “Howdy boys!” I’m pretty sure we had seen no sign of Dan for close to an hour, so it was a huge surprise to see him only a minute or two ahead. And as quick as that, he was gone again.
We crossed the streams John mentioned and I briefly considered filling a bottle, but figured I could wait until Mowich Camp for the good stuff. As we descended into the meadow which was home to the camp, we saw the flash of Dan’s headlamp disappearing into the forest on the other side. We found the camp’s lean-to cabin, a fire pit and a couple of benches, several propane cannisters and even a water reservoir from a backpack. But no water. Gary had told us there were 120 litres (Tim heard 200). John told us there was water. Where the hell was it? This is Mowich Camp, right? Tim sat on the bench while I looked around. Nothing. [bleep] Tim tried the Red Bull that Lorie Alexander had packed him down at the Skyline aid station and nearly threw up. Red Bull and glow sticks. All we were missing was a douchebag in a Hummer wearing an Ed Hardy shirt. Hmmm… maybe he took the water???
My Princeton Tec Apex headlamp had given me the warning blink on the way up so I changed the batteries while we pondered the whereabouts of the water. I dropped a battery and the rubber gasket came loose and I couldn’t figure out how to get back on properly, so it took a little longer than it should have taken, but don’t believe Tim if he calls it my ‘Five-Minute Battery Change.’
We headed off thinking we must have misheard the location of the water. Maybe it was just close to Mowich Camp. Soon we were far enough away that we knew we were not getting water at Mowich. There also weren’t any more streams we could use as a back-up. I considered grabbing some of the snow from the occasional patch still around, but it looked pretty dirty and the air temperature had cooled off enough that it likely would not have melted sufficiently to drink any time soon.
Without water, and within a couple of kilometres of Mowich, Tim started to fade. I gave him what I had left in my Camelbak and he almost instantly perked up and even started running until we hit one of many sections of razor-thin ‘trail’ stretched across a barren, sandy slope which descended sharply down into the darkness to our right. As much as I regretted hitting the high country in the dark and missing out on the stellar views, there were some things we were probably better off not seeing in broad daylight.
I pulled out the small map I had stashed in my fanny pack and tried to get a sense of how far we still had to go, a task made all the more difficult by the fact it was the middle of the night. We had wound around a few mountains but the great silhouette of Hozameen was still behind us in pretty much the same position it had been for hours. Somehow we were going in circles despite moving in a straight line! At one point we crossed a saddle between two mountains — which I took to be Despair Pass — and ran the north side of a ridge. We crossed back over and were soon descending. I was convinced it was the final drop to Lightning Lake… until we started climbing back up again. And up. And up.
Tim’s stomach was starting to go and he really struggled again. All I had left was a mouthful of Vega Sport in one of my bottles but he said the smell almost made him sick. Suddenly, I spotted sign posts ahead. And water! Water? We were at the junction of Skyline I, Skyline II and Strawberry Flats trails. I knew Strawberry Flats was a long way from the finish, but I knew we weren’t. Why there was water so close to the finish didn’t concern me. We had water.
I sat Tim down against a bank and filled his pack. He took a swig and immediately threw up. He tried again and held it in. Tim could barely stay upright so it was a little tough to control the soft-sided water jug while keeping Tim’s pack steady on my own and I only managed to fill his bladder about two-thirds full. No worries. We’re almost there. I got Tim to his feet, threaded his arms through the straps of the pack and sent him on his way before filling my own bottles.
I didn’t think it took me that long, but by the time I headed up Skyline I, I could see no sign of Tim or the glow of his headlamp. I called out to him. No answer. Crap, did he stumble off the trail and pass out? Did he take a wrong turn at the junction when I wasn’t looking? Did he fall off a cliff?
I called out again. He answered from up the trail. I started running. How did a guy barely able to stand one minute get so far ahead, going uphill, in the time it took me to fill two bottles?
When I reached Tim he was a different guy. He was talking again and moving his feet quickly enough to qualify as running. Huh? All it took was water?
I let Tim lead for a while and he was going at a pretty good clip. We didn’t have far to go and I wanted to see him finish strong. We climbed back up and Tim gave me another of his regular altitude reports: we were back up over 6500′ again. Hmmm… that sounds awfully high, but this must be the proverbial calm before the storm and our downhill flurry to the finish! Our spirits were renewed and we could sense that the end was near. Then we were visited by the Angel of No Mercy, pacer for fourth-place finisher, Jay Solman. Bumping into someone coming from the other direction means we are close, right? No, she informed us that we were about 10k from the finish and that there were a few “irritating climbs” before the final descent. You’ve got to be f-ing kidding! I wanted to put my hands over Tim’s ears and whisk him away, but it was too late. The damage was done. It was a kick in the gut to both of us, and Tim’s gut couldn’t take much more kicking.
But that would put the total distance over 120k?!? Maybe it just seemed like 10k to her. She was going uphill for most of it after all. Well, the Angel was right about the annoying climbs. They kept coming, sucking a little more life out of us with each one, and with that we concluded that she must be right about us being 10k away as well. TEN MORE KILOMETRES?!?
I was pretty pissed about how this was turning out. Tim didn’t need this. He’d attempted three hundred-milers and DNFed each one. After Rocky Raccoon I told Tim he has a hundred-mile heart but a hundred-kilometre stomach. Then he DNFed his last 100k at Elk-Beaver. Make that an eighty-kilometre stomach. He’d suffered through the course-marking gong-show that was Tenderfoot Boogie in May. And then most recently, after he and I shared the glory of finishing first at the Club Fat Ass Skyline XTC 50k, he fainted at the post-race get-together and ended up in the hospital getting pumped with bags of saline. Tim, his 100-mile heart, 80k stomach, and 40k kidneys needed a frickin’ break.
We finally reached a rocky ledge with nowhere to go ahead of us but down. This was FINALLY the beginning of the descent to Lightning Lake. We could see the lights of Manning Park Lodge far below in the darkness to the northeast. The initial climb down was rocky and steep and Tim’s legs screamed their disapproval. He’d run out of water again and his stomach was once again in rebellion. There weren’t a lot of trees higher up, but there were plenty of fallen ones blocking the trail before us. We hit patches of snow which presented more of a challenge than they should, but with Tim on tired legs, sore feet, well-worn road shoes, and with an uncertain ending point should he slip into the darkness below, we played it safe.
Farther below, the trail turned softer and slightly less steep. The odd trickle of stream we crossed looked less and less inviting as drinking water so we just struggled on. Tim had frequent stops to wretch, but little came out. Earlier we had considered that a good thing since to us it meant that Tim was keeping in what food he was able to eat. But it had been a while at this point since he’d had water, so he hadn’t had a chance to eat much either.
At one point Tim barked that this was worse than Stormy. “Not even close, Tim. The difference here is you’re almost finished, you’re talking and you’re still moving! Now keep quiet and keep going!”
The long stretches of descending trail were disorienting since everything was dark and what sky I had been able to make out earlier was rapidly disappearing behind the ridges above us as we dropped deeper into the valley.
On the way down to Lightning Lake, at about 116k and over 19 hours, Tim’s Garmin battery finally died. And we were still a long way from the finish.
We eventually hit bottom and saw a sign with a map of the trails around Lightning Lake. A ‘You Are Here’ arrow would have been nice. We’re getting close!
A little further along was another sign, this time WITH a ‘You Are Here’ arrow. I scanned around and spotted a scale bar. A fingertip width is about 500m… 500m to the bridge plus another 500m to the campground. About a kilometre to go! That put a little jump in our stride. The problem was that we weren’t finishing at the campground. We hit the bridge anticipating a straight shot to the finish and Tim jokingly remarked that Heather will probably send us over the bridge because it’s more scenic. Oh crap. She is. Flagging tape directed us over the bridge. You’ve got to be kidding!
We struggled on and eventually heard a familiar cheer from the far side of the lake as the people gathered at the finish spotted our headlamps bobbing along in the darkness. “That sounds like Maureen,” Tim said. Then we heard the clangs of a cow bell. “Yep, that’s Maureen… waking up everyone in the campground.” I could almost hear Tim’s eyes roll.
I encouraged Tim to finish hard — or at least make it look like we were running — as we made our way around the top end of the lake and into the finishing chute which was lined like an airport runway with glow sticks. It was just before 4:00am and the finish line clock read 19:51! For 100 kilometres! The original race schedule showed they expected the first 100-milers to come in around 18:00!
I was happy for Tim for overcoming all that adversity and finishing that beast of a race, but at the same time I was upset that he had to go through that and I slammed my bottles down at the finish and marched around in a huff. What the hell was that?!? I told myself an hour or so earlier that I wasn’t going to get angry and lose my cool at the finish, but… I lost my cool. No, seriously, what the HELL was that? I was upset that Maureen had to endure hours of worry. I was upset that my wife who really had nothing vested in this race had to go through that.
I know it’s an ultra and we know what kind of challenges we can expect when we sign up for these things, but really, is it reasonable to expect an already difficult 100k to be over by at least twenty kilometres? The race was so well-managed and professional in every regard that I can even accept the odd screw-up like the missing water at Mowich because shit happens, but the length of the course shouldn’t be an issue at a time when it seems like everyone has a GPS. Yes, distances aren’t as relevant in trail ultras because no two courses are alike, but a hundred-kilometre race should at least be close to a hundred kilometres.
As usual, Tim announced at the finish line that he would never do it again. I am now convinced that when ultrarunners say ‘never again’, they do sincerely and absolutely mean it. They just mean it for the moment it takes the words to leave their lips.
As brutal as the event was, I saw a lot of positives in Tim’s race. He managed to take in solid food, even later in the race (Tim must have nibbled on a Mars bar Lorie gave him for hours up the Skyline II climb!) When Tim faded at Stormy, it was a sudden but steady decline. Fat Dog was completely different. Tim had multiple ups and downs. I’m sure a slightly slower overall pace and the solid food contributed to keeping him going longer, but it was obvious that getting water was like magic to Tim. There were three separate occasions when Tim was almost instantly transformed after hydrating following long periods without water. With all the trouble Tim had with his stomach, he still finished only 11 minutes back of Dan. I have no doubt that had we found the water at Mowich, Fat Dog would have been a different race.
I have more faith than ever that Tim can finish a 100-miler. His appetite was better for longer and for a greater variety of foods (just not for Red Bull). Tim lost a staggering 8 kg during the run so he needs to build on his success at the aid station buffet table and be even more diligent about his hydration than he has been since XTC.
It’s not time to go belt shopping just yet, but I think the time is coming.