Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Squamish 50

Two days after racing White River, I was engaging in some solid recovery drinking with a work colleague who was about to leave the world of research for medical school. What started at as a mostly civilized afternoon on a False Creek patio ended somewhat incoherently several hours later in a backstreet bar off Main St. I made the mistake of checking Facebook before I passed out on my bed, where I saw a post from Gary Robbins announcing that he was re-opening the wait-list for the Squamish 50 race due to a greater-than-expected attrition rate. The race was only twelve days away - two weeks after White River and four weeks after Mt Hood. My legs were angry with me, so signing up for another 50-mile race this soon would be out of the question.

I awoke the next morning, confused at how I could feel so dehydrated despite all the fluids I'd taken on the previous evening. And then it hit me, the groggy recollection of a few clicks, hey, they've saved my credit card details, how convenient. I checked my Inbox. Yep, there was the confirmation email. In addition to the 50-mile option, there were also 23 km and 50 km courses which I could have signed up for. I don't think I need to tell you what happened.

The next couple of weeks were all about damage limitation. I decided to follow the Joe Kulak plan for training for peaking for multiple races. Nevertheless, I was weirdly looking forward to it. The 2012 Squamish 50 was my first 50-mile race, and despite some questionable pacing decisions I had a reasonably good day. Looking down the list of entrants, it seemed that half of the Vancouver trail-running community were running one of the distances this year; the other half were volunteering. It's difficult to underestimate the value of seeing friendly faces at events like this.

Race morning soon rolled around. The Squamish music festival was on the same weekend, which meant that all of the hotels in Squamish had been booked solid for months. So we were going to drive up from Vancouver in the morning. The plan was to rendezvous with David (50 mile), Nick (23 km), Hannah (50 mile) and Julia (crewing) at 4 am, which should just about be comfortable for the 5:30 am start. There were no buses running at 3:45 am, so in order to meet the others I was going to hop in a car2go - a local car-sharing service - and drive the few kilometres to our meeting spot. I'd checked online, saw there was a car just round the corner, and approached it with my brand new membership card in my hand.

It was my first time using the service, but it sounded like it should be fairly straightforward. Just wave your membership card over the white box mounted on the dash, it unlocks, and you can get in and drive away. Except I couldn't see the white box. I started randomly waving the card over every square-inch of the vehicle, yet it remained stubbornly uncooperative. This, I thought to myself, is not a very user-friendly service. Panic mounting, I called David and explained to him that there was clearly some problem with my card, or the car, or something. He patiently guided me through the steps, but I still couldn't find this mysterious white box. Exasperated, he asked: "Barry, you are standing in front of a car2go car, aren't you? It's not just someone's Smart Car, is it?". I looked again. There was a distinct absence of the car2go logo which should have been plastered over the vehicle in large, bright letters. "Oh. Ah. I'll see you in a few minutes".

The rest of the journey was largely uneventful, with the exception of the sighting of a bear strolling across the highway just outside downtown Squamish. He looked like he was walking somewhat sheepishly back from McDonalds. Perhaps he'd been at the festival and had a case of the late-night munchies.
Photo courtsey of Rob Shaer.

As we assembled at the start line, the sky lightened just enough to see where we were going. The first 11 km of the race are deceptively simple. It's flat and run over a mixture of gravel roads, single track trail and paved roads. Last year, my own excitement got the better of me and I went out *way* too fast, passing a concerned Ellie Greenwood within the first 2 km (bad idea, she ended up beating me by nearly two hours) and splitting the first 10 km in about 43 minutes. Which, while not blazing fast, is a little too brisk for me, especially when there's a long, long day ahead.
I will *not* go out to fast. Seriously.
So this time, I was determined to take my time to gradually ease into the race. After the initial jostling for position, I found myself once again running next to Ather Haleem, who'd also made the brave/foolish decision to race here two weeks after White River. After a brief chat, I gradually pulled ahead and found myself running with Kevin Douglas. We chatted away for the next few miles, a welcome distraction from the flatness of the terrain. We passed through 10 km in 47 minutes and I was happy to be running that bit more conservatively than last year. Gary had made a point of making this year's course even more challenging than last year's version, so saving my legs for as long as possible seemed like a smart idea.
Strolling into the first aid station with Kevin.

We finally hit the trails at Coho Park, and as I expected, Kevin gradually pulled away from me as the terrain started to roll up and down. Within a couple of kilometres, the gradient steepened as we hit the first major climb of the day, up Debeck's Hill. Quite a few people passed me during the ascent, including Ather and Colin Miller, who I'd last seen in the furnace of Pine Creek at the San Diego 100. The view over Squamish from the peak was spectacular, but no-one was sticking around to enjoy it. Immediately, we embarked on a steep, highly technical descent. I'd wiped out painfully here last year, so I approached the descent timidly. I was passed by a few more adventurous souls, but I was content to save my energy.

So when I popped out on to Jack's Trail, I still felt pretty fresh and was rolling along happily as I passed by Alice Lake and cruised up the Four Lakes Trail. I passed one other runner, and bizarrely, found myself accompanied by someone's (lost) dog for a couple of miles. He (or she) was a pretty good pacer, apart from the habit of quite literally getting under my feet. We parted ways at the Bob Macintosh trail, I continued around Dead End Loop before embarking on the short, but steep climb of Made In The Shade. I hadn't seen anyone for a while, so the heckling I received from Nicola Gildersleeve - performing live social media duties for the race - was welcome.

A little later as I weaved down Rob's Corners, I passed a couple more runners. One of them hitting the rocky trail spectacularly and painfully just ahead of me (I didn't push him, really), and the other complaining that as a road runner, this was all a little different. Oh, but we're just getting started...

At the aid station at 28 km I made my first stop of the day, briefly pausing to grab a couple of gels and nibble on a few goodies. I was still feeling pretty fresh, so I pushed on. After navigating Cliff's Corners, I hit Mashiter Creek Road, one of the only out-and-back sections on the course. Ed McCarthy was steaming up the road, already several miles ahead of me and looking sharp. He'd also run (and come third at) White River and when I chatted to him after that race, he sounded pretty sure that Squamish was out of the question. I'd told him that I was planning on volunteering, so I'd see him on the course somewhere. And here we both are.

Heading back into the shaded trails, the course rolled up and down some more, and I spotted a cluster of runners up ahead. Before too long I caught them and passed a couple before settling into a fun stretch of slightly technical downhill with Ather and a couple of other guys. When we emerged back on to Mashiter Creek Road, I decided I felt strong enough to give a little push. I dropped the remainder of the group and put in a decent effort over the next couple of kilometres back to the aid station. Mentally, it was a great boost to know I was feeling stronger than some of the competition, even if at 35 km in, we still had a long way to go. During this ascent I passed Kevin, who'd unfortunately badly rolled his ankle earlier and was about to drop. Given the technical nature of the remainder of the course, this was a wise decision. I also passed local trail running legend Kathy McKay who was having  a bit of a bad patch and walking up the hill. "You can run this!" I shouted in what I hoped was an encouraging tone. From her body language, I'm not sure she took it that way.

Back into the aid station, and things were a lot busier than the first time through. As well as other 50-mile runners coming through for the first time, the 50k race was also now in progress. I grabbed a couple of gels, refilled my pack, and after a brief pep-talk from Chris "Pricey" Price, who I'd first met on these trails several months earlier, I was out again.

From hereon in, we were mingled with the 50k runners and the added social element was great. After a short stretch down a gravel road, it was back into the trails. This was one of the few parts of the course I wasn't familiar with, the climb up the delightfully named "Plastic Scheisse" and "Galactic Scheisse" trails. The centrepiece of the new course, this was a steep ascent over around 650 m over 4 km. There were a few short runnable sections, but for the most part it was a big ol' power-hike. So I settled into the climb, motivated to try and maintain the gap I'd built over the rest of the pack.

Eventually we hit the peak, where the trail rolled up and down a little over a few creeks. It was clearly "vicious stinging insect season", as something stabbed me in the leg. I'm not sure if this was a welcome distraction from all the other aches and pains that were starting to manifest themselves, or just an additional annoyance. Still, it was good to be descending, even if the technical nature of the trail made it difficult to really open up. Some time around this point a few 50k runners flew past me. Which seemed strange given the ease I'd seemed to have passed them with on the ascent. After the race it was explained to me that there was an early and regular start to the 50k course; the people I'd been passing earlier on had taken the early start. But I didn't really mind, as long as none of them were sporting the orange hue of the 50-miler bibs.

Briefly dropping on to a short section of road, there was a welcome water station. A short pause, chug some kind of lurid yellow drink, chat to the vollies, then back into the trails. It was only about 5 km to the next aid station, but the twisting, rolling trails made progress slow. Popping out of the trails on to a dirt road, Ryne Melcher put in an appearance announcing something hilarious like "only 4 miles to the aid station!". It was in fact, a few hundred metres.
Look at those people, just having a nice picnic. Suckers!
This was the Quest University aid station, at about 53 km into the race. I had about 6 hours on the clock, which felt about right. Nick was here, having already run a storming race. Rather tactlessly I asked him "What went wrong?" when I found out he'd not won it. Look, he's been running really recently, and besides, I had race brain. Anyway, it was great to see him and fellow PRR runner Susan here. I paused a little longer, guzzling watermelon, M&Ms, and grabbing some gels. Then down one hill, and up another, passing a burnt-out looking 50-miler in the process.

It was now approaching the middle of the day, and it was getting hot. As an added bonus, the trails became nicely exposed at this point. A spot of mild confusion when I noticed two runner coming towards me, before I realised that it was Terry and Rik of PRR, taking photos. They offered some encouragement, but were vague about the trails ahead. For good reason. This was another section I was unfamiliar with, a loop of a few miles that had another substantial climb and descent. A wonderful surprise was an unadvertised mini aid station where freezies were being handed out. But after that it was climb, climb climb.

I think it was around this point that I started to become a little disheartened. I'd completely underestimated this climb and felt that it should have been over much, much sooner. Also, my stomach was getting a bit grouchy. Fortunately, things started looking up soon. A number of things happened in quick succesion:
  • Like a bear in the woods, I dealt with my GI issues.
  • I remembered I had a bunch of jelly beans in my pack and started on those I was now sick of gels. Yum.
  • The trail finally started to descend.
A short stretch along the road and there was the aid station. More familiar faces; Nathan and Brooke, who would have been serious contenders had they been running, were instead offering much-needed support. My appetite restored I wolfed down a questionable selection of items, refilled my pack one more time, and now, 62 km into the race, pressed on.

I'd run this section a few months earlier. I noted at the time how challenging it would be this late into a race, and was relieved that I hadn't signed up for it. Oh. There were a couple of miles of shaded ups and downs that went by reasonably enough before we emerged into a hot, exposed section. Full of scrambly steep climbs. Thanks, Gary. I was passed by David Papineau, who was running the 50k race and rocking the "shirtless but with taped nipples" look.

The final aid station was preceded by a short but steep climb, the runners strewn along the road ahead visibly trudging for some distance away. I stuffed a delicious looking cookie into my mouth and tried to chew it, only then realizing how dehydrated I was. It probably took a good minute to get that one down. Okay, 10k to go. Doesn't sound so far, but I knew we weren't out of the woods yet, in any sense.
Give me Gary Robbins' head on a stick. Now.
Fortunately there were quite a few other runners on the course at this point, so I latched on to whoever was around for company. I'd usually get a few minutes of distraction before one or other of us pulled ahead, but it all helped. The last climb, up Mt Phlegm was brutally steep. No doubt it had spectacular views. Not really interested at this point. But it was essentially all downhill from here. Before long I hit the familiar trails around Smoke Bluffs, all nicely runnable, before finally being spat out onto the last stretch of road. I knew it was around 2 km to the finish. I looked at my watch. 9:51. Maybe I can still make it in under ten hours... well that headwind is certainly... refreshing. One last little challenge, eh?

Still, I thought I'd give it a go and tried to empty whatever was left in the tank. I caught up with VFAC team-mate Mary Walsh who was just finishing up the 50k race. I yelled encouragement before nearly leading her off-course as we trotted through Rose's Garden. Under the highway, back into downtown Squamish. Nearly done. Up ahead was my friend Janette, with Will who'd run the 23k race many hours earlier. They probably said something motivating. Entering the finishing chute, I noticed a relaxed-looking Jason Louttit, who had the demeanour of a man who'd stopped running several hours ago (he'd come second to Adam Campbell in a nail-biting finale). "Why aren't you smiling, Barry?" he quite unreasonably asked. I saw the finish line ahead, and conceded his point. The clock had just rolled over 10:01 as I crossed, but truthfully, I was happy to be done. Tenth overall, out of about 180 starters, so not too shabby all things considered.

The next few hours were spent relaxing in the sunshine, chatting with friends who'd already finished the races of various distances, while waiting for others still out there to lurch across the line. The initial reaction of many people upon finishing was "I want to kill Gary Robbins". It was, without doubt, a very challenging course. But I think, after a bit of reflection, most of us appreciated that. We all felt like we'd been truly tested that day. More than many other races, just to survive it was a real achievement. I'll be back next year.

But now, I think, it's time to take a little break.

Squamish 50 web site
Official results
My run on Strava

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