An extra grain of salt and finding the joy of ultra
Running for hours has the effect of stripping back the first few layers of your ego and scraping at the “you” underneath. What’s revealed can be surprising: sometimes it’s revelatory, other times it’s disappointing, but it’s always a journey.
Where Fat Dog 120 was a lesson in humility, Finlayson Arm 100k was a discovery of the joy of ultra running, and of the abundant energy that’s within me when I can make it available.
After my disappointing Fat Dog, I had four weeks to regroup for Finlayson. The strain of what had been an emotional DNF had given way to a bizarre but welcome state of calm. This new adventure felt strangely sane – for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to worry about it.
Like Fat Dog, I first learned about the Finlayson Arm races from a video made by Project Talaria. It looked like an amazing course, and it was practically in my back yard. The fact that race organizers, Coastline Endurance Running, had added a 100 km distance this year raised the intrigue level, but being four weeks after Fat Dog it hadn’t been on my race calendar for 2017. Then, after being sidelined by a stomach ulcer in May and unable to run the Orcas Island 50-miler, and my abbreviated effort at Fat Dog, I really wanted to cap off a long year of training with, at the very least, a completed race.
Despite its close proximity to where I live, I really didn’t know much about the course. There wasn’t a lot of detail on their website where it was described as “a mix of single track, double track and coastal mountain trails.” But given its southern Vancouver Island location, I assumed the terrain would be similar to what I’m used to: Pacific Northwest rain forest. The big distinguishing feature of the race, though, is its elevation profile:
The 100k course is a double out-and-back with three mountain climbs along the way: Mt Finlayson, Jocelyn Hill and Mount Work. Though none of these are tall, with summits under 450 m (1475 ft), the total elevation gain/loss of the course is 6141 m (20150 ft). Pound-for-pound, this race promises more elevation gain per kilometre than Fat Dog and truly, most other 100k’s in North America.
The other unique feature of the race is that it starts at 5 pm on a Friday. More common in Europe, an evening start means the early part of the race is run at night. This was also intriguing to me, as I had never done an all-night run before. After considering the elevation, some simple math told me that it was likely an 18-20 hour run. Okay.
After the logistics of planning and traveling to Fat Dog, which is a point-to-point race with over 100 km (by car) between the start and finish, this race was a snap: it’s about an hour drive from the ferry terminal (or 45 minutes from the airport) and, because of its proximity to Langford and Victoria, accommodations and food are abundant. The race starts at Goldstream group campsite, so you can choose to stay there, or like my family, at the individual campsites 5 minutes away.
Next up, food – how and when do you eat for a 5 pm start? Ever since adopting a low-carb, high-fat way of eating, I don’t really suffer from hunger pangs and swings in energy levels throughout the day, so I didn’t really think the odd start time was going to be a problem. That said, I figured an early afternoon big meal would likely do the trick, so we opted for my favourite meal of the day, breakfast! Spoons Diner offered tasty, (dare I say it?) funky and in-your-face large breakfast fare made with good, fresh ingredients. It checked all the boxes for a good pre-race meal. ‘Dinner’ would have to be out on the course.
With only forty-five people registered for this inaugural 100k, the start/finish area was uncrowded and check-in was relaxed and easy. Matt Cecill, whose name I recognized from the aforementioned Project Talaria, was taking pre-race portraits – the results of which you can see here. A cool project which highlights the transformational effects of a long-distance race.
Myke Labelle, the youthful race director, went through the pre-race briefing touching on important details such as the river crossing one kilometre into the race, and the fact that trekking poles weren’t permitted until the first aid station, “so no one gets poked in the eye with a pole and because I want you to experience Mt. Finlayson without help.”
When 5 pm arrived, we counted down to the start and were off. The “Imperial March” from the Empire Strikes Back was blaring over speakers as we headed up to the trail head, which might have created an air of impending doom had it not been so damn beautiful. It was perfect running weather, coolish and partly cloudy with occasional dappled sunlight. The race began by wending its way down some wide park trail and under the highway (through a river) before quickly moving onto single track and on to the first big climb within about 5k.
The climb up Mt. Finlayson, popular with hikers and runners in the area, begins with steep forest trail and passes over an amazing, vast tangle of roots that must be seen to be believed. Then it ascends staircase-steep rocky sections and finally emerges from the tree line onto an exposed granite, class 2 scramble to the summit. The top of the climb is mildly precarious, (especially when you have to do it again in 50k, in the dark), but you are treated to panoramic views over the City of Langford and far beyond.
The course then descends the other side of Mt Finlayson before starting the next series of climbs to Jocelyn Hill. On the way, you reach the first aid station, Rowntree, which for most mortals arrives 2-3 hours into the race. I wasn’t really hungry yet, but thought I should eat something, so I took some banana pieces and watermelon.
Eating during races has never really been a problem for me, but it’s also not something that I’ve figured out either. Coming into this race, I didn’t have a defined nutrition strategy, but I did know a few things: the food that I had prepared in the past, usually date-based energy bars, morphed into inedible poo-balls very quickly – I didn’t want to do that again; I wanted to race without eating any sugar; and finally,I should eat more salt – a lot more salt. This wasn’t much of a food plan, so I decided to risk just eating off the tables. I did put some emergency food in my drop bags, but I was really hoping that the aid station fare was going to be enough. Also, I was determined to take a “real food” approach. Even if I passed on the usual assortment of gels, candy, cookies and other sugary treats, at minimum there would most certainly be fruit and in a pinch, potato chips.
By this point in the race, the field had started to spread out. As I left Rowntree, I found myself behind a woman, Mirjam from Canmore, Alberta, who had smoothly cruised past me on the scramble up Mt. Finlayson. As I adopted her pace, my honest thought was “is this wise? This seems faster than I should be going at this point in the race.” But I was feeling good and she seemed to know what she was doing, so I stayed with her.
When we got to the top of Jocelyn Hill, we emerged from the trees and I had an authentic trail running “moment”. The sun was getting low in the sky – we were approaching the ‘golden hour’ – and we were running on a beautiful ridge with a stunning and expansive view over Finlayson Arm. I felt somewhere between ‘dancing for joy’ and ‘tears of joy’ for those few minutes – I was literally awestruck.
I stayed with Mirjam as we passed back into forest towards the next aid, Durrance. Feeling a bit self-conscious about being constantly on her heels, I asked if she was okay with leading. She said yes, she preferred it, and that it helped to push her along. This suited me fine as, at least in this stage of my running life, I prefer to follow – I feel like when there is someone behind me, I will be compelled to go too fast.
We ran together until darkness descended and it was time to don our headlamps, chatting about race strategy, UTMB ambitions, and her study of wolverines. Under the cover of trees, it was inky black, and we could only gauge the changes in terrain by the next reflective course marker or the glow of the occasional headlamp. One such headlamp floated up ahead as we approached what would be Durrance aid. As we moved on to wide gravel road, the headlamp just kept getting higher and higher. We were discovering the seemingly endless climb up to Durrance, where, apparently, a Luau was in full swing.
As we crested the hill at the aid station, I saw the silhouettes of two children whom I quickly recognized as belonging to me. Feeling so grateful to see them, I stretched my arms out in a wide embrace. Of course, with our lamps blinding them, it took them a moment to realize who this person was, enthusiastically trying to hug them. They quickly ushered me over to my wife, Elise, where she greeted me with dinner – some kind of wrap in a Starbucks bag – ah, civilization! As I demolished it, she asked me how I was feeling, a little wary now that she had seen me at my worst (see Fat Dog 120). “I feel good!” I replied, to her relief. “I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Having just run with Mirjam for a couple of hours, I wondered what would happen next. We hadn’t spoken about continuing on together, but when she looked at me and said “let’s go!” I was happy to oblige. And so it was, that for the next eight hours, we became an unspoken team, waiting for each other at aid stations, checking in on how the other was feeling and setting the pace together in our now established formation with her out front.
From Durrance, it was roughly 5 kilometres to the turnaround at 28k, which, after the longer stretches prior, seemed to come quickly, despite the major climb up the appropriately named Mt. Work. Then came the whole course in reverse, thankfully minus a diversion around Mt. Finlayson which meant not having to descend its dangerously steep south side in the dark.
On the return trip the aid stations went into full service mode, with chains of coloured lights to announce our arrival and hot quesadillas, bacon, grilled cheese and pirogies along with the more usual fare of hot broth and salted potatoes. I quite honestly stuffed my face at each station – the food was like manna – and it seemed to be working; my energy levels were not flagging and my mood was at times buoyant. And I ate lots of salt.
As we moved steadily back towards the start/finish area, we started to speculate on what time we would get there, what time we might finish the race in and most importantly, whether we could finish the race without getting passed by 50k racers who would be starting at 7 am that morning. At that point I thought Mirjam and I would go the distance together, and started pondering whether we should cross the finish line together or whether I should let her go first because she would have been leading the entire time.
As we reached the half-way point, however, at just after 2 in the morning, Mirjam was starting to falter. She had mentioned pain that she was experiencing from a prior injury, but the way she had been moving gave no indication that it was affecting her. She lay down on the ground to put her feet up as I scarfed down a plate of pirogies and a grilled cheese sandwich. I was feeling unreasonably good and lucid enough to give my honest opinion when RD Myke Labelle asked me if I was having fun. “Um… yes! Some parts are fun, and some parts are, well, hard, but also fun.” I felt like an insane person.
We left Goldstream Campsite for the second loop. As we got to the single track, Mirjam resumed her position up front and she was still moving well. But as we scaled Mt. Finlayson for the second time, she said she was starting to feel sleepy and I started to notice that her running pace was slowing – I could sometimes maintain the pace with a fast walk. Of course, this suited me fine as I was still conserving energy for the long road ahead.
By the time we got to Rowntree though, Mirjam was clearly tired or hurting, or both. When it was time to leave, she was still lying on the ground. I looked down at her and said “I’m not leaving you here.” She obliged and followed me saying, “okay, your turn to go in front.” Leading in the dark took me somewhat by surprise, as, for literally the last eight hours, I had been following Mirjam. At first, I was concerned that I was going to take us on a wrong turn, and it was a bit discombobulating having my own shadow thrown in front of me by Mirjam’s headlamp behind me, but soon I found a rhythm in it, following each glowing beacon in the night. It was about this time that it occurred to me, somewhat incongruously, that I was feeling genuinely happy.
My energy levels still remained high and as I pushed on, I could occasionally see my shadow out front fade as Mirjam’s headlamp lost contact. Slowly but surely, it disappeared completely and like that, silently in the night, our journey together was over. Now, alone in the dark, though I had some 35 km left in the race, I had the distinct sensation of ‘smelling the barn.’ I began to plot out the final stages of the race in my head: After Durrance, two “short” sections – to the turnaround and back – and only one more painfully long stretch before the final 6k push to the finish. No problem. There was, however, one problem: my right knee which I had felt murmur on and off earlier in the race was now causing me consistent grief on any steep downhill grade. But it’s amazing what feeling good can do for your attitude – even though I was going to have to hobble down the many steep pitches with the help of my poles, I resolved to make up for it on any runnable sections. And that is what I did for the next 24 km, sticking to what was working and shovelling down quesadillas, bacon and salt at each aid station.
As daylight returned it began to rain, and I started to encounter the 50 km runners coming towards me. The leaders were flying, but almost without exception, each runner shouted their encouragement to any 100k runner they passed along the way. It felt good, after running all night, to absorb some of this fresh energy. In the final 5 km, the imminence of the finish line caused my adrenaline to spike and I was on the verge of tears (of joy) at times and feeling no pain. I was powering up the remaining small, steep climbs and running hard down the descents with somewhat reckless abandon.
As the rain came down steadily, I cruised into the finish feeling elated and energized. Race Director Myke was there, smiling, and offering a “high-five or a hug,” but for me, the choice was simple: all hug. A hug to encapsulate what was a truly incredible experience. A hug to all the work that Myke and his team put in to create this event. And an especially big hug to the incredible aid station volunteers who really did something special out there.
It was a great race experience for me. I should mention, though, that in my excitement, I’ve left out some important specifics about the course:
It’s hard: The course has a bit of everything: steep climbs and descents, rooty single track, loose, rocky sections, forest, exposed granite and extremely technical sections reminiscent of mountain races you might see in Europe. The climbs are frequent and the descents punishing. There is even some wide, runnable, soft forest trail, a little bit of road and a river crossing.
It’s gorgeous: Between the old-growth Douglas firs, twisting arbutus trees and sweeping views from exposed mountain tops, you get to experience what running in the Pacific Northwest is all about: lush, green and full of life, and yes, that’s the ocean you see. It feels, at times, like you’re in a remote forest, even though you’re only stone’s throw from a major city.
It’s relentless: 20150 feet of vertical is no joke. What it lacks in ‘high’ it makes up for in ‘many.’ The course is a litany of steep little climbs and descents, punctuated by a few big ones and the occasional flat or rolling section. Though it is as continuously up-and-down as the course profile suggests, there are many fast sections throughout – the course changes quickly and unceasingly, which makes it equally interesting and challenging, savage and beautiful.
Admittedly, my ability to be objective about this race is somewhat skewed. I really had a great time on the course: I held a reasonable enough pace, my energy level stayed consistent throughout, and though we ran through the night, I did not get sleepy. So rationally, I know it was hard, but it didn’t feel that way. I’ve definitely had races where I suffered, but for reasons that I cannot entirely explain, this was not one of them.
When I’ve suffered, I lamented the difficulty, fixated on the future, and ached for relief. But for 20 brief hours in the forest just west of Victoria BC, I revelled in the present and savoured the moment like I didn’t want it to end.