Scott Jurek, Rob Lang, William Emerson, Brian Morrison, Gary Robbins. The list of big time ultrarunners who have won the Diez Vista 50k during its previous fourteen editions is impressive. And those are just the two-time winners. Add to them other past winners like Jim Swadling, Phil Krochik, Eric Langhjelm, Aaron Heidt, and on the women’s side Krissy Moehl, Ellie Greenwood and the amazing Suzanne Evans who has been women’s champ a staggering six times and it is clear that Diez Vista is a special race even before you get a glimpse of the spectacular course.
Diez Vista covers the scenic, mostly single-track trails around Sasamat and Buntzen Lakes in the mountains above Port Moody. The crown jewel of this trail system is the Diez Vistas trail, built by Halvor Lunden to take in ten stunning viewpoints of the Vancouver area and Indian Arm from the ridge above the west side of Buntzen Lake. Diez Vista normally has a lot of climbing and descending, but high water levels in Buntzen Lake this year meant that the route would take in the Lakeview Trail instead of the more gentle Buntzen lake Trail and reportedly add another 1000′ of vertical. Gary Robbins‘s course record 4:10:18 would be untouchable.
I’ve had Diez Vista in the back of my mind since I got back into trail racing three years ago, but with it falling two or three weeks before the Vancouver Marathon each year, I’ve always been concerned that I may not be fully recovered for the marathon. I am running the marathon again this year, but with Western States being the main focus on my dance card, I told myself that if I can’t be ready to run a decent marathon three weeks after Diez Vista then perhaps I should make other plans for June 25.
I ran part of the course with Tim in March, but in the opposite direction we’d be racing, so aside from the big Eagle Trail climb to the powerline, the entire course was essentially new to me.
It was a nice, albeit early, morning for the race and there were a lot of familiar faces toeing the line and volunteering out on course.
Matt Clark shot from the gate and led the way for the opening lap around Sasamat Lake with a few other guys behind him. Justin Angle gradually pulled them all back and then another group of us which included Dario, Mike Palichuk, Bill Huggins, and Chase Mueller followed.
The first powerline climb from Sasamat Lake settled the running order and soon, Matt and Justin were the only two runners ahead of us. I hit the first aid station in third with Dario just behind me.
The Diez Vistas trail is a typical, technical, west coast rainforest trail which bounces runners over roots and rocks along the ridge on the west side of Buntzen Lake. Diez Vistas is named for the ten viewpoints along the ridge and the trail occasionally spat us out onto rocky bluffs with spectacular views of Indian Arm, Deep Cove and Vancouver in the distance.
Dario and I enjoyed a quiet run along the first stretch of Diez Vistas and just as I started to relax, we heard voices. Happy, laughing, far-too-social-sounding-to-be-running-this-gnarly-trail voices. Dario’s ears perked up like a cat and suddenly we were running with a little more urgency.
Things were going well until I caught a root or rock and jammed my already tender left knee. Sh*t! It hurt like hell and soon Dario was gone and then I was overtaken first by Darin Bentley — who hung with me long enough to chat about his plans to do Comrades and my plan to run Western States — then by Bill Huggins, and then finally by Mike Palichuk and Chase Mueller who hung with me until Mike sensed the downhill pull of gravity, like the distant roar of a waterfall, at the north end of the Diez Vistas trail.
I had heard about the massve, technical descent to Buntzen Lake but having never seen the Diez Vistas trail, I wasn’t sure when it would start until Mike politely informed me that he was coming through, indicating that he needed to get his downhill on in order to get enough of a lead on me to stay close by the time we hit the next uphill. And like that, he was gone.
The downhill off the north end of the Diez Vista trail kicked the crap out of me. I’m not a big fan of technical trails, so watching Mike Palichuk descend those endless rocky, rooty switchbacks was both humbling and impressive. He went from top to bottom so fast it was as if he skipped the zig-zagging of the switchbacks altogether and just walked down like they were stairs. Meanwhile, I tried to be as graceful as I could — which wasn’t much at all — and hoped I wasn’t holding Chase back too much. Judging from the grunting behind me I wasn’t.
I felt a bit banged-up by the time we hit bottom and made our way along Old Buntzen Lake Road to the Lakeview Trail. The knee wasn’t too bad and it had handled the jarring technical well enough, though I did wonder at what price later in the race. Having a challenging stretch of trail like that so early in a 50k race seemed cruel, but I suppose it is one of the features that makes Diez Vista unique. The Diez Vistas trail serves as an early reminder to eager runners who is really in charge, so barely 12k into the race, with a sore knee and a hip that I expected to eventually start to squeal, I wasn’t brimming with optimism. Misery loves company and luckily I had my small posse to get me through it.
I passed the time on the Lakeview trail — ironically named, since I don’t recall actually seeing the lake from any point on the trail — staring a little too longingly at Chase’s shiny new Brooks Pure Grits, the not-yet-released minimalist trail shoe Scott Jurek was sporting at Chuckanut.
We caught up with Mike again on the way up Lakeview and I tried to keep the knee together chasing him down the trail’s more-runnable descents. My knee screamed but I soon found a way to adjust my line around switchback corners to put less pressure on it. I also discovered I couldn’t bend it as much as I could the right knee but figured it probably wasn’t a big deal as long as my quads kept absorbing the impact.
Mike, Darin, Chase and I were reunited at aid station 3 and would stick together for much of the middle part of the race.
Shortly after turning onto Academy Trail we passed Matt, the early race leader, moving verrry slowly and a short time later passed Dario who was also paying for an aggressive start. All of a sudden, at about halfway, the complexion of the race had changed and I mentioned to Darin that we were running third.
None of us were looking to win the race — at least we weren’t about to admit it — and it wasn’t like there was a giant cardboard cheque awaiting anyone who landed on the podium, but training race or not, it’s always gratifying to finish as high as you can in the standings, and it being an trail ultra anything can happen up front.
Running with Darin up the first climb on Powerhouse Road gave me just the nudge I needed to shake my earlier funk. I don’t know if we were getting stronger or if Mike and Chase were tiring, but soon Darin and I were on our own chatting about races and some of the other crazy trails around Buntzen Lake. Knowing we still had the big Eagle Trail climb left, I didn’t want to get too excited, but I felt pretty good and it helped having Darin there to work with.
Darin and I pulled into aid station 4 at the equestrian parking lot and as I got a bottle refill, a handful of jujubes and a few dried-out potatoes, Mike and Chase flew around the corner. Whoa. I took my potatoes to go and started walking, checking back for Darin. The Eagle Trail climb was the one part of the course I did know, but I also knew that Darin was good company so I didn’t really want to start the ascent without him. Soon, all three guys caught up and we began the climb to the clouds.
Darin and I alternated between short bursts of relaxed running and powerhiking and eventually pulled away from Mike and Chase again. I kept trying to imagine the abuse my knee would undoubtedly have to take going back down this trail and wondering if I would be up to it.
Once at the powerline, the trail joins a rough access road which climbs further under the hydro towers to a lookout before dropping sharply down the backside for a few too many kilometres to aid station 5 at Eagle Mountain Road in the upper reaches of Port Moody. Somewhere on the climb up to the lookout, Darin was no longer right behind me.
I kept scanning the ridge ahead looking for signs of Justin and Bill coming back down, but it wasn’t until after I’d begun the plunge to Eagle Mountain Road that I finally saw Justin coming back up. He was running and looked strong. We exchanged pleasantries and I asked how far it was to the turnaround.
“Five or six minutes,” he said. Yikes!
A few minutes later I saw Bill hiking up a steep section, and a couple more minutes later I finally hit the aid station.
The climb and descent took its toll on our earlier group, the extent to which was apparent on my way back up. Darin wasn’t too far back, but the gaps after him to Chase and Mike were big and I could see that Suzanne Evans had made up a lot of ground. Suzanne is a strong finisher and passed me late in the April Fools Half in 2008 and at the 2009 Victoria Marathon so the sight of her made me nervous.
I felt okay going back up and sensed an opportunity to grab third place or maybe better if I could just hold it together. By the time I crested the climb back to the powerline and back down, I had my sights on third and was officially running scared.
I flew the best I could down the steep powerline road strewn with loose softball-sized rocks, past the steady death-march of runners making their way up. My legs were tired and heavy but at some point I realized my knee wasn’t hurting me anymore. It was stiff and I couldn’t bend it much, but the pain was gone. Good news since I’d be hammering a lot of downhill for the next few miles.
It was on the descent down Eagle Trail however when I felt the first few calf twitches. I managed to fight them off until I hit the flats after crossing Powerhouse Road and felt a few, more serious spasms. Finally I stopped to stretch out my calves on a small bridge. I’m sure to the walkers coming toward me I looked like I was contemplating jumping. Jumping one, maybe two feet to imminent death in a tiny creek!
I got a refill, a few oranges, and a couple of potatoes at the final aid station. As I prepared to head up the final big climb to the saddle on Buntzen Ridge, Wendy Montgomery informed me I had “only” ten more kilometres to go. Huh? The Garmin said about 42k and I knew from Bruce Grant’s recent GPS map on the Diez Vista site that this year’s course was a little over 48k, so after the initial shock I smiled politely and reassured myself Wendy was way off.
The climb was tough but it came as a welcome relief for my calves with the uphill angle allowing me to stretch them without really stopping. I spent a little more time looking over my shoulder as I scaled the climb affectionately known as ‘F. U. George hill’ in honour of race director George Forshaw, certain that at any minute Darin or Suzanne would come charging up behind me. The climb went on longer than expected, but it eventually levelled out and veered south signalling that I was on my way back to Sasamat Lake. Twitchy calves had me replaying the opening few miles in reverse trying to guess how much course was left and to prepare myself for what kind of terrain I had to cover.
Back on the final powerline trail above Sasamat Lake, with what I estimated to be only a couple of kilometres to go, I had a major cramp and as I bent to stretch my right leg, it seized completely. Crap! My lower leg was completely locked and there was nothing to lean against to stretch it out. With no other options, I used Vulcan mind powers I didn’t realize I had. Sure, it might have been that the short stop was all it needed to release, but whatever it was it worked and the slight climb that followed helped calm it down a little further.
I hammered down the back side and hit the road, making a sharp right onto… STAIRS?! Yeah, stairs, just the first of of many between me and the finish line. On the shore of Sasamat Lake, I could see White Pine Beach, just downhill from the finish line, in the distance. It looked close but not close enough. A few stairs and boardwalks later, I lost site of White Pine but spotted another beach even further away and thought maybe that was it. Crap. Thankfully I was mistaken.
More stairs and boardwalks later and I spotted the legendary Harvey Nelson, who directed me to the final staircase up to the finish line. A finishing chute lit up with pylons and survey flags directed me to the line where Justin and Bill were waiting to see me come in. I finished in 5:02:35. Justin won in 4:52:42, with Bill second and top master in 4:59:33. Man, third overall and I can’t even win my age group! Darin was next in at 5:09:47 followed by Suzanne Evans who won the women’s race for the sixth time in 5:12:28 just ahead of Mike.
Congratulations to my carpool buddies, Dario, who ran a 5:36:25 and Jason Cagampan of Calgary, who ran just his second ultra, in 6:51:12.
Thanks to George Forshaw and Martha Grant for putting on a great event!