We are capable of much more than we think.
Sometimes it’s better not to think.
It’s two days before the start of Fat Dog 120, a point-to-point ultra-trail race in the Coastal Mountains around Manning Park, BC. This year is my fourth Fat Dog entry : in 2016, I completed the 70-mile version, in 2017, I DNF’d the 120; in 2018 I planned to redeem myself in the 120, but the race was cancelled at the last minute due to forest fire activity. This year I’m back again for the 120.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Fat Dog has become a monkey on my back—it’s been more like a slow-motion emotional roller coaster, with the last two years being disappointing rides. That’s not to say that I haven’t learned a lot over this time— about how to run these races and more importantly, why I run them—but no matter how Zen I am about the process, I feel the Fat Dog weighing on me.
A few days ago, over dinner, our eldest son Ando got onto the idea of mottos. “Dad, what would your motto be?” he asked. My marketing brain immediately wracked itself for a piece of catchiness that would sum me up with enough poetic elegance to suitably impress a ten-year-old. But being neither poetic nor elegant, I fell back on a piece of banal but practical wisdom that has carried me through many difficult situations:
“Just don’t think about it” I replied.
“That would be my motto: just don’t think about it.”
When Ando met my motto with a resounding “meh,” I explained that it was the single most valuable skill I’d learned in my life so far. There’s a linear relationship between my anxiety about an undertaking and its distance from my comfort zone. With Fat Dog, that distance is about 120 miles—squarely in “brick-shitting” territory. Sure, I’ve done ultras before but that doesn’t mean I can easily wrap my head around them—running 120 miles still stretches the imagination—so instead, I “just don’t think about it.” I haven’t thought about Fat Dog since I signed up for it in January, I continued to not think about it through months of training, and I’m still not thinking about it, thirty-six hours before the race begins.
At some point though, I have to admit that I’m actually going to run the race so that I can make some, y’know… plans. If I open my mental door a crack, just enough to do the absolute minimum amount of planning, then maybe I can get ready enough without letting in all the fears and worries lurking on the peripheries. Maybe.
My most recent ultra experiences have proven that it’s possible to do minimal pre-race planning and still be successful. Admittedly, I’m a pretty low-maintenance runner—I’ve never changed shoes, socks or any other item of clothing during a race, I’ve generally relied on aid station fare for nutrition, and while I’ve painstakingly packed many drop bags, I’ve never opened a single one. Furthermore, I don’t have the patience to study a course map, instead preferring the “executive summary”: where are the aid stations and the big climbs? My general philosophy has become: if it’s all a surprise, then I can’t be surprised. And though it’s reasonable to assume that there’s a fine line between cavalier and foolhardy, I’ve had no reason to think that I’d be crossing it.
In 2017, the year I DNF’d, I had pored over course descriptions, made homemade energy bars, maps and elevation charts, prepared 6 drop bags and worked out the complex logistics of when and where Elise and the kids would meet me. This year, planning of this kind is, well, not in the plans.
Fat Dog 120’s top line reads something like this: “Most scenic ultra race in Canada” and “just short of Everest for elevation gain.” For 2019, the course has been altered due to trail repairs in the Skagit Valley, so the total distance is now 195.9 km/122.9 miles with 8190 m of elevation gain and 8492 m of loss, but these numbers are best left in the abstract. The graspable data, the points I pay attention to, are the distances between aid stations.
I’ve done enough races now to understand the importance of aid stations—they really have magical powers: amazing and helpful volunteers, positive energy, sustenance. But perhaps most significantly, they offer mental resets during the race. I’ve written about this “doorway effect” before, and in my experience, aid stations are powerful doorways that create distinct chapters in a race, breaking it into bite-size pieces. It’s for this reason that I’m finding the distance between aid stations at this year’s version of Fat Dog somewhat intimidating. There are a few biggies: 22 km from Cascade to Whitecloud and 26.3 between Nicomen 2 and Blackwall. With course conditions and elevation changes, this could mean four or more hours between stations. The way I’m seeing it, these stretches will be the race’s key challenges so I deposit them in my mental bank, to the exclusion of almost everything else. More to the point, given the linear relationship between information and worry, it’s about all I want to know.
As usual, Fat Dog will be a family trip where Elise and the boys will be, in the loosest possible sense, my crew. In 2017, we learned that due to the highly variable nature of ultras, particularly ones that go through the night, meeting at aid stations can be challenging. Therefore, we came to the conclusion that it’s best for everyone if we don’t count on it happening. This way, no one has to worry about being at a particular place at a particular time, and with our two young sons in tow, we reduce the possibility of having to deal with excessive boredom or fatigue. So we make some loose plans about when and where we might meet, I pack two token drop bags (spoiler alert: I don’t use them) and we’re off to the races.
The Start: Bonnevier – 18 km to the first aid station
I am cruising along with a line of runners, snaking its way along Bonnevier Trail. Though the pace is easy and the trail is smooth, my head is busy, caught up in thoughts of the journey ahead. When I start a long race—50, 100 miles or more—the early miles seem like any other run. It’s inconceivable that they will somehow lead to—be connected to—the ones that will come hours or even days later. Someone yells: “we’re one one-hundred-and-twentieth of the way there!” emphasizing the incomprehensibility of it all. It’s not useful to think about distance and time right now—it can be self-sabotaging—but I’m doing it anyway, obsessing over those aid stations: “16 km to Heather, 17 more to Nicomen, another 17 to Cayuse, six more to Cascade, where I’ll see my family. Simple math: Cascade will mark 56 km and more than a quarter done!” Except that I’m only at kilometre 3.
The route to Cascade is familiar to me—I ran much of it three years ago during the 70-mile version of this race—so I know what to expect, at least I think I do. That experience, though, has left no more than a bunch of memory fragments and impressions, about 30 seconds worth of “data” with which I construct the next 8 hours of expectations. I remember the beautiful traverses of Heather Trail and a spectacular slope of shale. I remember that it’s a really long way to Nicomen Lake Aid Station and a nice runnable descent to Cayuse Flats. More than anything, I remember it being a lot harder than I thought it was going to be. If I can arrive at Cascade today feeling better than I did in 2016, then maybe I’ll have a chance at pulling this thing off. But I’ll need to stop thinking about it.
Food for thoughts: Cascade Aid Station – 56 kms
I see Elise through the trees as I enter Cascade Aid Station and I wave my arm in the air. Ando runs to greet me and gives me a big hug. Elise steers me over to the food tables, ignoring anything I have to say—she’s been through enough of these things with me: “What can I get you to eat? Have you had enough salt? Here, eat this… how about this?…eat…eat.”
I’m feeling okay, but not what I would describe as “peppy.” Doubt has been beating its drum against my skull for the last few hours but for the moment, I suspend disbelief to plan for the road ahead. The next place that I could see my family is at Blackwall Peak at the 140 km mark. Pre-race, I’d figured that would arrive there at 24-25 hours but in my current state of mind, I tell Elise to plan on it taking me longer. I still can’t quite conceive of the idea that if, when I make it that far, I will still have 55 km to go. But conceptions are for another time.
Leaving Cascade, I’m feeling a little foggy, but I know that I have steep climb ahead—Whatcom, an older trail described as “built before switchbacks”—so I move quickly, trying to take advantage of flat running while I can. I’m pushing the pace a little, rushing even, and as I barrel forward I notice that the underbrush is starting to encroach onto the trail. A bit odd, but they did mention in the briefing that this was not well-used trail. When I’m faced with having to climb over some fallen trees though, it occurs to me that I haven’t seen a course marker in a while. “Damnit!” In a minor panic, I backtrack almost a kilometre and sure enough, there’s the marked intersection that in my fog and haste, I missed.
My mishap gives me a strong case of navigation paranoia, which infects me for the rest of the race, but it also gives me a substantial energy boost. Whether its adrenaline or the result of the face-stuffing I did at Cascade, I’m feeling oddly lucid and ready to tackle the steep grades of Whatcom—and it does not disappoint.
Night one – 70 km or so
The moon has risen over the mountains and the late evening sun is casting long amber stripes over the landscape—I’m surrounded by beauty. I’ve completed the ascent on Mount Snass and I’m on the long traverse that leads to Whitecloud Aid Station. As night arrives it veils the world in a blanket of nothingness and has the same effect on me. Gone are the views, spectacular and serene, but so too are my excess ponderings and worries.
I love running into the night. As the light disappears and the world is reduced to the illuminated path in front of me, my thoughts are stripped down to the most raw and practical: find the next footstep, watch for the next reflector, guiding the path forward. Every now and then I stop to stare up into the sky, at the stars peeking out of indescribable darkness—I’m a tiny bubble bobbing along in an endless black ocean. But I’m not engulfed by it, I am buoyed. I feel a strange freedom in the dark, like a child who’s found the perfect hiding place.
My course marker challenges do continue—I end up doubling back a couple of times, each time meeting another runner who reassures me I’m on the right path. For the most part though, I find a rhythm through the night, of moving and eating, revelling in solitude, the troubles of the day rubbed out by a big black eraser.
One of the biggies: Nicomen Lake 2 – 114.4 km & 26.3 km to Blackwall Aid Station
I’m just leaving Nicomen Lake for the second time, about to embark on the longest leg between aid stations and the source of much pre-race dread. The journey through the night though, has been an elixir, stripping away those layers of fear. It’s dawn and sumptuously peaceful on the lake, the dim, flat light lending a blue cast to the world and matching my mood: emerging from darkness, calm, and brightening. A jubilant aid station volunteer is clearly pleased by the arrival of daylight. “This is a great time to be here!” Another runner is talking about finishing under 36 hours and getting the coveted full-colour belt buckle. The aid station captain says: “Yeah you can do it! You have basically 16 hours to run the last 50 miles!” At another time, I might have seized upon this idea, realistic or not, and allowed it to consume me with urgency and anxiety. This morning though, the words just roll off me—I am content to just keep moving and take it as it comes, and this makes me happy.
Yesterday, in the first leg of the race, we descended to Nicomen Lake. The trail was technical, rocky and punishing. I remember thinking that it would be easier on the return trip, coming back up—I’m right. On the climb, the highs and lows of ultras are on full display. Two runners with their two pacers: a woman plodding with seemingly nothing left; a man, chasing the 36-hour buckle, hiking inconceivably fast. His leg cadence is no greater than mine, but he quickly disappears up the scree field—incredible.
Heather Trail greets me again, this time in morning light, with its wild-flower meadows, hills rolling and runnable. Alone again in the mountains and lost in movement. Then, a fork in the road—a T-junction, straight or left—and yesterday’s signage signalling runners to turn. Looking down both paths, I see no markers, so I turn, but I’m not sure. 400, 500 metres with no new course markers, 700, 800 still nothing, have I chosen wrongly? Not taking any chances, I backtrack to the intersection and stare at the “TURN” arrow, trying to decipher it like it’s code—surely this should not be so hard! Then two people appear on the other tine of the fork, running towards me. When they reach me at the intersection, I stop them: “where are you going?” I ask.“Oh, are you in the race? We’re just out running, but the racers are definitely going that way,” one replies and points back the way they came—I chose wrongly. I thank them, quietly curse the confusing course markings, and run on.
(It’s only after the race, when I look back at the course map, that I am struck by two things: how obvious this intersection should have been had I bothered to study the map before the race; and the scary fact that if I had continued down the wrong path, I may have encountered a course marker, but it would have been one from the first leg, and would have led me back to the starting area.)
100 miles: Frosty Mountain
I’m with a small group of runners, clambering up sharp boulders. We have just emerged from the tree line on the way up Frosty Mountain and the view around us has opened up. Once again, it is spectacular—but it also reveals the task ahead. This is one area of the course that has no shortage of markers and they dot their way up the loose rock above us. Each one we conquer reveals the next one up higher, and higher, and higher. By the time we near the top, we are using our hands to pull us between boulders, scrambling to find footing. We reach a craggy, rocky peak that opens up on all sides and feels slightly dangerous.
The 100-mile mark of the course roughly coincides with what is also its highest point, at 2400 m, the summit of Frosty.—it’s equal parts cruel and breathtaking. The weather is perfect and the panoramic views of the Coastal Mountains all around are worth every mile. But now we must head back down.
Tom’s Bench Aid Station – 21 km to go
“A flat 6 k to the next aid station, then an 800 m climb on Skyline—not steep.” The aid station volunteer has just summarized the final leg of the race. “Huh? A flat 6 k?” I had mentally prepared for this last 21 k without actually knowing what it would entail. I assumed it would be a long, slow slog and final monster climb before descending to the finish, so this news of a “flat 6k” came as a shock to me. And I know the climb up Skyline: he’s right, smooth and not too steep. My watch reads 6:45 pm. I had stopped thinking about a sub-36-hour finish some 24 hours ago, but the bubble of possibility suddenly pops back into my head and I’m off and running—really running. I know what I need to do and I feel strangely fresh.
There’s one problem though, my navigation paranoia is still raging and now it’s exacerbated by sleep-deprivation. I quickly run out of course markers and twice double back to ask a camper, then an angler if they know the way to Strawberry Flats. Luckily, a fellow runner, Martin Katzenmeier, catches up with me and he knows which way to go—he drove around to the aid stations before the race. Saved again.
“Let me take you down, ‘cause I’m going to”… Strawberry Flats – 15 km to the finish
No one really knows why sleep-deprivation can cause hallucinations. In an article from Stanford University’s Neurosciences Institute website, Whitney Heavner hypothesizes that sleep deprivation, like schizophrenia, may impair the “top-down” processes, or the evaluation of what one sees, causing it to rely more heavily on the “bottom-up” processes of sensory input:
the brain has trouble balancing the interpretation of sensory input and the generation of correct “guesses”…
In their book, Sleights of Mind, neuroscientists and amateur magicians Susana Martinez-Conde and Stephen L. Macknik explain, “your brain is constantly making up its own reality whether it receives actual reality-driven input from your senses or not. In the absence of sensory input, your brain’s own world-making machinations keep on truckin’ nevertheless.”
Hmm, that doesn’t necessarily sound like a description of a hallucination, more like everyday life. Nevertheless, as I wind my way down the service road that leads to Strawberry Flats, my brain is indeed “constantly making up its own reality.” At every curve in the road, I see the aid station—someone standing with his arm up, trailers and tents that all transform into trees as I draw closer, and dogs… lots of dogs. The hallucinations are so consistent as to become comical. Then one of them moves, and I notice it looks a lot like Ando, and he’s waving excitedly at me.
Despite my visual disturbances, I’m actually feeling quite lucid and, all things considered, pretty great. I’m happy and surprised to see my family again at the Strawberry Flats Aid Station but I’m also ready to “get ‘er done,” so I forgo loading up on food or taking a rest break and simply take a Coke and a kiss. It is quarter to eight so if I want to break 36 hours, I have 2 hours and 15 minutes to go 15 km with 800 m of climbing—and I genuinely think I can do it.
The long way home: Skyline
I’m on the verge of despair. It’s pitch dark at the top of Skyline trail and I think I’m lost.
On the ascent up “Skyline I” trail everything went flawlessly. The energy I thought I had was no illusion and I managed the climb in exactly one hour. The intersection where Skyline I meets Skyline II is marked by a large arrow which indicates the direction to Lightning Lakes and the finish line. Not long after passing this arrow the course markers once again, disappear. Frustrated, I double back and soon encounter another runner and her pacer. She has the course downloaded onto her phone and assures me that we’re headed in the right direction. I thank her and charge forward, still possessed with feral finish-seeking energy, but after some time, I find myself back at the big arrow! What? Somehow I’ve gotten turned around!
I try again and this time, to my relief, I do eventually encounter a course marker. Another runner comes up from behind me out of the darkness and asks to pass—she’s running the relay, which explains her uncanny speed. I oblige and attempt to follow her—she knows where she’s going—but she’s dancing down the rocky trail and is quickly out of sight. “Too bad, but at least I’m on the right track now” I think to myself as I take a sharp left which travels steeply uphill. It’s not long before I realize that somehow I’ve gotten turned around again and I’m on ground that I’ve already covered. I am now totally confused about which direction I should be moving in and absent of course markers or any other recognizable landmarks. Then, in a moment that is equal parts comedy and pathos, my light unceremoniously blinks out.
I’m instantaneously immersed in all-consuming blackness and as I fumble for my spare battery, my mind is racing. “I don’t know where I am or which way I need to go… there’s no one else around… I have no map or phone and even if I had a phone, there’s no service here…I told Elise and the kids I was aiming for 2 hours…what if I take three or four or eight?… I have no way of contacting them… aaahhh.” I say that last part out loud—it comes out as more of a feeble moan—and I seriously consider the option of climbing into my emergency bivvy and waiting it out until morning. But that’s just not my style.
I look around desperately, panning my light this way and that in hopes of catching one of the reflectors that mark the course—nothing. Then I remember something that I’d learned yesterday, during another wrong turn in an earlier stanza of this epic of a race: footprints. I scan the ground and sure enough, there are the distinct tracks of trail shoes, specifically, the unique chevrons I recognize as Saucony Peregrines—and I can tell which direction they are headed in. Like a bloodhound locked on to a new scent, I start moving, eyes fixed on the trail. Slowly but surely, I begin to cover ground. Eventually, I do start seeing an occasional course marker but the truth is that it’s the footprints that are leading me home.
Embarrassingly, I get turned around a couple more times in the final 5 kilometres, but I only have myself, and perhaps the lack of sleep, to blame. I really should have studied the course a little more than “not at all.” When I finally cross the finish line, I feel jacked up and immediately want to tell everyone about my ordeal on Skyline, but instead, I sit on the ground and watch the blades of grass neatly forming into geometric shapes before my eyes.
There is no sense of great relief or swell of emotion, or the feeling that I “finally did it.” I just feel calm and happy like everything is as it should be—and perfectly normal.
Looking back, I made some mistakes—took some wrong turns—but I don’t have any regrets, nor do I wish things went differently. Because what happened added up to what it was and continues to be: a grand adventure—and I loved it. Only now, in hindsight, do I realize that I never had the moments of desperation to get to the finish that I’ve had in prior ultras and, truly, in all running races of any distance. The longer the race went on, the more it normalized, like it was “just what I do,” and the idea of finishing diminished in importance. It’s not that I abandoned the goal of finishing, far from it. I had become so immersed in the experience that the very idea of “goal” just melted away.
Before the race, I’d avoided thinking about it because I wanted to staunch the fear and manage the stress. But during the race,I had unknowingly slipped into a place of “just not thinking about it.” I was engaged strategically: my mind visited all kinds of places, but never the place of projection, expectation and suffering. Will I plan a little better next time? Sure, but there is also something to be said to leaving some things unknown. You can only plan so much—the rest you just have to face when you get there.
This is what’s so great about long ultras: to get through them, you have to figure out how to get through them. You may follow a marked course, but the journey is the one you create for yourself, the true challenge, navigating the landscape of of your heart and mind. And if you’re very lucky, and have the support of friends and loved ones, you can simply move, soaking in the experience, from one aid station to the next.