It’s 9:30 PM and there’s a drunken karaoke party going on upstairs – tortured strains of the worst possible vocal challenges: Celine, Whitney, Christina. It’s so unspeakably bad that it makes me laugh out loud before I lament the fact that it’s keeping me awake the night before the Diez Vista 100k Trail Race. Somewhere in the bowels of my semi-consciousness I recall a pair of earplugs that I kept from a float plane ride, packed in a pocket of my suitcase – I am saved.
My alarm clock jolts me a awake – it’s 2:30 AM and the race starts at 4:00 – and my first impulse is to check the weather forecast.
Diez Vista is a mainstay amongst Vancouver trail races. The 50k event, at 21 years old, has developed a loyal following of repeat entrants, and is popular enough to sell out in mere hours. The 100k distance was only introduced in 2017, but has already achieved legendary status due to the fact that it debuted to the worst conditions in the event’s history: 19 hours of continuous rain. The weather, combined with an unkind time limit of 16.5 hours, resulted in only 20 finishers. Thankfully this year the course was rejigged to allow for a longer cutoff time – the weather, however, was another matter. As race-day approached, the spectre of 2017’s gloom quite literally hung over the course – the forecast was for rain, and a lot of it.
In the week before the race, I pathologically monitored the Weather Network, and my gear pile grew accordingly: Light jacket? Rain jacket. Thin gloves? Heavier gloves? Mitts… more socks, more shoes. Rain went from a possibility to a certainty. I wasn’t too worried about running in the rain – I’d done it all winter – but I was concerned about how my feet would fare marinating in shoe juice all day long. Now at 2:30 AM on race morning, the weather app on my phone is telling me that it’s not raining. I scroll down the screen disbelievingly – the first rain drops don’t show up until 3 pm. In shock, I pull up the blinds and peer outside – dry. With a mixture of joy and panic, I tear apart my drop bag, put on my reserve clothing and stash the layers for later.
The race starts in Belcarra Regional Park, just east of Vancouver. My confused cabbie, who has just come from dropping off drunk clubbers at the end of their Friday night, asks why people are gathering in the park at 3:30 in the morning, in the dark. When I tell him it’s not a cult, that we’re running 100 km, he gets animated and energized: “Wow, this is so great! This makes me happy! Wow!” This is not the usual reaction I get when I tell someone I’m running an ultra. Usually it’s incredulity, distaste, and occasionally just a one-word question: “why?”
Ninety or so racers are huddled under the inflatable start/finish arch. I’m nervously sizing up the “competition”, judging them by how much they resemble photographs in Trail Runner Magazine, when race director Gary Robbins begins the pre-race briefing. This is the first time I’ve seen Gary in real life, though I’ve casually followed his ultra-running career for several years. Energetic and impressively bearded, Gary is every bit the good-natured and ebullient character that I’ve seen on screen, which of course, belies the unbelievably tough and intense competitor that he has shown himself to be time and again. As I’m contemplating how Gary’s high pain threshold and intimate relationship with suffering translate into race course design the countdown begins. On “go!” I explode across the start line into what is best described as a “slow jog.” – my basic strategy for ultras is to go out with low effort, hang on, and hopefully finish strong. This means walking all but the mildest uphills and maintaining a pace where I’m never breathing hard. I don’t have nearly enough racing experience to know what my upper limit of a sustainable effort is, so I err on the safe side. I also don’t want it to suck too much.
It’s not crazy – it’s all in your head
To the average runner who participates in anything from a fun-run to a marathon, running an ultra marathon seems moderately to totally insane, but the truth is it’s not crazy, it’s just different. Sure, if you take your experience of a 5 or 10k and try and translate it to 100k, it doesn’t compute, but that is because you are comparing fundamentally different sports. Comparing an ultra to a 10k is like comparing a novel to a haiku. One is lengthy, complex and filled with highs lows the other is short, efficient and elegant.
Canadian adventurer Ray Zahab uses the phrase: “Limitations are 90% mental…and the other 10% is all in your head”. This adage applies perfectly to ultra running – it is primarily a mental challenge sadistically designed to force you into your own head. It is a fundamentally simple physical activity, not a skill sport where you aim to achieve a singular act like a three-point shot, home run hit or perfect golf putt. Skilled actions like these require such consuming focus that when well-executed, athletes describe time as slowing down or other shifts in their space-time perception. Endurance running, on the other hand, is repetitive to the point of being autonomic – you don’t think about each footfall and arm swing, it just happens. The movement component slips into the subconscious and you are enveloped in a rhythmic, abstract state of being. Yes, there are moments requiring intense concentration, like when racing down rooty, rocky hills, but if you have trained to run an ultra marathon then you have already practiced the motion of running long enough that it requires virtually no mental effort. That leaves you with only your mind to contend with.
Slow, like a newt
Headlamps are bobbing up and down ahead of me like lonely fireflies. I’m running on the road in the middle of the first section of the course, an out-and-back of about 15 km. It’s easy-going, on a combination of pavement and well-groomed park trail with little elevation change, which is just as well as we are running in total darkness. The lead runners have hit the turnaround and are starting to pass me coming the other way. I pass a “Slow, newts crossing 1 km” sign, or is it “Slow newts crossing, 1 km”? Why did the newt cross the road? To get off the road and onto the trail? Like the newts, I’d rather be in the forest than in the middle of the road, but for now, I’m happy to just cruise along in the dark without taxing body or mind too much. I’ll be tested soon enough.
On the Diez Vista website, the course is described as “West coast rainforest trails and gravel service roads with some roots, some rocks, some mud & some nice trail” with about 3800 m (>12000 ft) of elevation gain and loss. The apex of the course traverses the Sendero Diez Vistas, the “ten view path”, a popular hiking trail that offers spectacular viewpoints (ten of them) overlooking Indian Arm.
Despite the best efforts of the race organizers, the course map is confusing. It describes several sections that are run 2, 3 and 4 times in different directions, and while the map is well-crafted—neatly colour-coded and marked with directional arrows— I ran out of patience for it and decided to throw my fate into the hands of the course markings and volunteers. As a result, I didn’t have a good sense of what to expect from the course and where, but this did help me to not overthink things.
The sky is lightening and I’m hiking uphill in ankle-deep water. Though we’ve managed to escape rain today, weeks of prior precipitation have turned sections of trail into rivers. A runner up ahead is picking his way up, balancing on larger rocks to keep his feet dry. I’ve given in and am plunging my feet into the icy water with abandon, trying to revel in this child-like splashing – this seems mildly fun at 20 km in. Also, my lack of course knowledge prevents me from dreading the fact that I’ll have to revisit this section three more times. I guess I’ll get to answer the wet foot question after all. Just as my feet are starting to get really cold, the creek relents and the course moves onto rolling dirt service roads that wend their way to the bottom of the Diez Vistas climb.
The Legacy of Halvor Lunden
By far, the gnarliest section of the course is the Diez Vistas Trail, built by Norwegian-Canadian mountaineer Halvor Lunden. The climb switchbacks up progressively steeper grades until the switchbacks sort of “give up”. It’s as if at some point Halvor said “eff-it” (perhaps in Norwegian) and decided to go straight up.
I tuck in behind two other runners and we make our way across the Diez Vista ridge. The trail here is classic Pacific Northwest single track, with endless slippery roots, patches of mud and massive trees. Every now and again, we move out of the forest onto rocky outcroppings where the ridge delivers on its promise of breathtaking views. The two runners ahead of me are having what seems to be an in-depth conversation about renewable energy – perhaps a metaphor for race fueling? For my part, it is taking all my mental focus not to fall down. As we complete the ridge and move on to the descent, the ponytailed runner takes off like a mountain goat, bounding down the precarious terrain at enviable speed. I’m happy just to tuck in behind the taller runner, who introduces himself as Tom, and we steadily pummel our way down the mountain.
The descent is long, rugged and punishing, and it’s impossible to get into any kind of rhythm. Just as the thought dawns on me that we will have to do this again later, the trail finishes chewing us up and spits us out, back onto groomed path – ahh, the sweet relief of being able to run again. We are on to the next stage of the race which circumnavigates Buntzen Lake, after a little dog-leg out to Aid Station 2.
Fake it ’til you make it
Aid stations are like stat holidays – they offer periodic breaks in the everyday grind. In a 100k race, they’re often placed every 10k or so, splitting the toil into bite-size chunks and allowing you to avoid having to wrap your head around eating the whole elephant. I’ve tended to rely on aid stations for my race food, which perhaps shows limited wisdom, but it’s worked out so far — at worst, I can always stuff my face with those conveniently sliced bananas. More than food though, I’m always amazed at the “reset” that aid stations provide. I genuinely appreciate the efforts and encouragement of the volunteers and enjoy the experience of aid stations. No matter how I’m feeling, I try to arrive with an attitude of lightness and humour. The volunteers in turn, reflect that positivity back and we feed off each other. They are, after all, also in it for the long haul. It’s amazing what 5 minutes of happiness-pong can do to lift your spirits and your tired muscles.
As I leave Aid Station 2, one of the volunteers shouts: “See you again in about six hours!”
Dang! I was having such a good time not thinking about time and scale, but now I am brought crashing back down to the reality of the situation: I’m only four hours into a long day. I struggle to do the math on how six hours translates into distance and I am again confounded by my lack of course knowledge. Should I expect to be back in six hours? Would that mean I’m making good time? What am I doing again?
Exiting the dog-leg, I emerge onto Buntzen Lake Trail, which skirts the perimeter of the lake. From this vantage point I’m treated to some beautiful views, from serene glimpses across the misty lake to epic waterfalls cascading from the heights of Eagle Mountain. It’s forest trail that’s mostly groomed, gently rolling and runnable. “Runnable”, however, is a sword that cuts both ways, as I consider myself better on climbs and technical than on smooth and fast, and find long uninterrupted stretches of “easier” terrain more daunting than big climbs. I don’t know if this is because I’m actually a weaker runner or if it is that without needing to concentrate on course features and hazards my mind has more opportunity to spin out of control. With roughly a third of the course behind me and with the miles starting to take a toll, I allow the full weight of the task to bear down on me.
“Here I am, one third of the way through one hundred kilometres. One hundred kilometres! How did I let myself get here? I’ve got another seventy kilometres to run and I have to do that whole Diez Vistas horror-show again.” I project my current discomfort forward twenty, thirty, forty kilometres and imagine how bad that will feel. Then I imagine a world where I don’t do any of this, where I sell all of my running gear on Craigslist and pretend I never was this person. I could check out at the next aid station, get in the car and just drive…dreamy.
My alarm clock jolts me a awake – it’s 2:30 AM and the race starts at 4:00. No, it’s not 2:30 – I’ve been brought back to the present by the sound of footsteps and the presence of someone up ahead.
In yoga, zen, and other spiritual practices we are taught that one of the keys to happiness (or at least the avoidance of suffering) is to be in the present. Most of my suffering in running comes from considering the past and the future — I look back at what I did and look ahead to what I have yet to do, and the equation goes something like this: if I just completed 30 km and it hurt this much then all I need to do is multiply the past by a factor of “x”. Simple math, right? But soul destroying, and also totally false. The one truism of ultra racing is that things get worse, then they get better, then worse, and repeat. The arc of a race is not linear and one’s thinking shouldn’t be either—plan, prepare and strategize, and then forget about it and just run. Of course this is easier said than done.
We have moved from the scenic Buntzen Lake Trail and onto a gravel service road. My feet are making a crunch crunch crunch on the loose rocks as I approach a woman ahead of me. She is running with a very deliberate, consistent cadence that is unchanging whether on flat, uphill or down. I am also maintaining a very measured pace, but I am choosing to walk the uphills. Still, I do eventually pull up beside then pass her. Then on an uphill, as I change to a walk, she slowly passes me. We continue this back-and-forth a few more times. Crunch crunch crunch.
I always have mixed feelings about overtaking people in ultras. I try to run my own race and maintain my own pace, so if it happens that I pass someone, it’s not strategic. I’m not sure why, but I also feel the need to communicate, entirely through body language, that it is not an aggressive act, that I “just happen to be moving slightly faster than you at this particular juncture.” Admittedly, there is also a little fist-pumper inside me going “Woohoo! One more step up the imaginary ladder!” but thankfully, that guy is very tiny. Either way, there’s a certain comedy to it as it all happens in slow motion, like we’re duelling mall carts.
No alarms and no surprises
I’ve just left Aid Station 4 at about 45 km and I’m climbing steadily up some forest single-track. It’s the beginning of an out-and-back section that sandwiches the mid-point of the course. The lead runners are starting to pass me coming the other direction. Scott Maguire, the eventual second place finisher comes charging downhill with a big smile on his face. “Keep it up, you’re crushing it!” he says. The force of his enthusiasm makes me believe him. As I move from the forest out onto more dirt service road, I start to count the runners ahead of me. By the time I reach Aid Station 5 at the half-way point, I’ve counted seventeen.
Having completed half of the course, I now have some perspective on the remaining task at hand. Most of it is pretty runnable with the toughest section being the second visit to the Sendero Diez Vistas. I reframe the rest of the race around this central challenge, but again, without really knowing the entirety of the course, I’m not quite sure when it is going to happen. Still, armed with this amount of knowledge, I find myself more committed to being in the present, not tempering my effort based on some possible future. I am also relieved that the earworm that has been playing on my imaginary Walkman (yes, Walkman) for several hours, a single verse of “Perfect” by Ed Sheeran, has been replaced by a single verse of “No Surprises” by Radiohead, a much more fitting theme to carry me forward.
Alone again or
In long ultras, the further you get into a race, the fewer people you tend to see. Out-and-back sections are some of the few places where you are reminded of how many people are on the same journey as you. They are also great opportunities to cheer, be cheered on and to get energy from the other racers. In every race I’ve run though, there comes a time when I find myself alone and feeling an incredible sense of freedom. In those moments, I feel almost entirely unencumbered by the burdens of everyday life with no obligations but to get to the finish line. I feel at once intensely aware of myself in a moving body while being dwarfed by the magnitude of time and the scale of the landscape. I am alone, but connected by a common thread to others, moving unseen around me, engaged in an incredibly simple but personal act of moving forward. I am, for this finite time, in control of my destiny. To move faster or slower, to continue or quit, it’s all up to me.
Pain, or something like it
Passing through the start/finish area at about the 65k mark, I am starting to encounter fellow runners who look a lot worse than I feel – doing what some call the “ultra death march.” Ultras give you a window into the full spectrum of fatigue. At some point during a race, you will experience muscular, metabolic, mental and emotional fatigue, as well as ordinary tiredness. All serve to undermine your endurance which, as defined by researcher Samuele Marcora, is “the struggle to continue against a mounting desire to stop.” And boy is there a mounting desire to stop.
Running an ultra marathon places multiple forces upon your body that serve to throw it out of equilibrium. Your body doesn’t like this and fights you for it. It’s basic message is: “keep this up and you will do yourself harm, and I will do my darnedest to make sure you don’t.” Surprisingly, managing the strain of ultras comes down to doing the same things that you do in the rest of life: move at an appropriate pace, feed and water yourself, keep warm or cool enough, manage stress and get enough sleep. And try to smile.
By entering an ultra, you choose to put yourself into a state of duress and challenge yourself to keep your shit together. The task is not simply to endure pain, but to listen to your body under these acute circumstances and respond to the messages it is sending you. Respond poorly and your body/mind will move from more subtle messages like hunger, thirst or “loss of will” to stouter stuff like discomfort, sickness or actual pain. Act appropriately and you can keep many of the rowdies at bay before they trash the place. In other words, It’s not just about seeing how long you can hold your breath, it’s about discovering the many ways that you can breathe.The extent to which we have not perfected these skills is what makes ultra-distance running so interesting and, I think, such fertile ground for self-discovery.
Back out on Buntzen Lake trail, I’m hanging on, managing to run the “runnable” and moving reasonably well, but there is a thickening blanket of fog in my head – I’m getting increasingly stupid. At Aid Station 9, I see my family for the first time which gives me a big boost. Elise asks me how I’m doing to which I respond with the plainly obvious: “it’s hard, I’ve been running a lot.” Ever reasonable, she asks “are you pushing too hard? Should you slow down?” Too late for that though, there’s only 20 km to go. I ask the aid station team what the rest of course looks like and they tell me that there’s one more aid station, then the big climb.
Finally, at 82 km, I define the final challenge – they’ve saved the best for last: the Diez Vistas Trail is in the final 10 km – but in the reverse direction.
A sticky mixture of sugar and caffeine
The final aid station is 9 km of smooth trail away. On the way there I pull up beside Steven Fassezke and I briefly commiserate with him over the final climb ahead. The truth is, I am less concerned about the climb than I am about the descent – down Halvor Lunden’s bizarre idea of a “trail” on beaten legs. What seemed near-vertical coming up is sure to be a rare treat going down.
By the time I arrive at Aid Station 10, my legs are feeling okay, but the brain fog has increased to the point where my field of focus has tunnelled. As I search for something to pick me up for home stretch, my eyes fix on the uncannily white and perfect teeth of the volunteer working the table – it turns out, she’s a dentist. From between her magnificent teeth emerge the words “would you like some Coke?” And this is about the greatest idea I have ever heard. I inhale the sweet syrup and slam my cup back on the table for a refill, like a sad drunk alone at a bar. The irony of a dentist doling out Coke like it is mouthwash is not lost on anyone, but damn if it doesn’t do the trick.
You can do anything for the last time
Something happens near the end of a long race. No matter what I’ve gone through up to that point, no matter how I’m feeling, I feel the inexorable pull of the finish line. For most of the race I’ve been in self-preservation mode, moving “gently” and taking care of myself so that I am not prematurely wrecked. But with 10 km to go, I’m starting to feel the gravity of the finish pulling me towards it, leaving all caution behind.
I am alone on the Diez Vistas trail again overlooking Indian Arm, moving too quickly for legs that have just travelled 90 km. It’s taking all my effort to make sure I lift my feet high enough to avoid the tangled roots that threaten every step. The trail is unforgiving and on several occasions I have to use hands to clamber between trees and rocks, but I’ve made it to the top – just one final descent. I have no idea where any other runners are but I imagine a horde of racers (or are they zombies?) charging up behind me. This self-induced fear-cum-excitement has me stumbling ahead of myself so I begin to repeat a mantra in my head: “don’t get hurt, but don’t get passed.”
As it turns out, the steep “near-vertical” descent is surprisingly painless, or perhaps it’s just that I’d imagined it would be much worse. I am quickly past it and pounding down switchbacks, splashing down the creek, avoiding the softball-sized rocks. Somewhere, through the trees, I hear a voice through a megaphone, and cowbells. I can think of no other time when the sound of cowbells is so sweet. No time for anything now but running, moving free, forward to the end. I run past the cheering volunteers at the final intersection, burst out of the trees and there, suddenly, is Sasamat Beach and the beacon – the big inflatable arch.
As the inimitable joy of finishing wells within me I feel like I’m sprinting (I’m not), floating down the beach to the finish. I see my children and hear the unmistakeable hooting of Elise and I’m running, running to the waiting embrace of race director Gary Robbins. He is there to offer his congratulations, as he does with every race finisher. And just like that, it’s done: all the effort and emotion etched into me like a groove in a record.
As races go, Diez Vista lacked the more extreme highs and lows that I’ve been through in other events, but I could also say that about my forties – experience tends to soften the edges of things. At some point, the lessons that I learn while running an ultra and the lessons I learn about life begin to merge until they’re indistinguishable.
As for the ‘why’, I think it’s more about asking the question than finding an answer, because questions are fluid and answers are static: questions journeys, answers destinations. Though at very few points is the act of running truly ‘fun,’ the dividends of running are paid well past any single run in health, energy and generally feeling good. Similarly, the rewards of running an ultra long outlive any single event. It is a gift that keeps on giving and a reminder that I am alive, that I am able, and that life is not a problem to be solved, but an experience to be savoured.
Diez Vista is a top-notch event. Gary, Geoff and all the volunteers should be commended for putting on a logistically challenging event that ran flawlessly. Getting all those people in place for a 4 am start is no small feat. The sheer number of enthusiastic volunteers out on the trail was uplifting and made a confusing course completely worry free. My thanks to all of you and as always, for my wife Elise and two boys for encouraging and putting up with my habit.