Monday, November 4, 2013

Whistler 50

It's one of the peculiarities of ultramarathons that race directors are not content with making their participants merely run a very long way, but they'll also do what they can to make that distance as difficult as possible. Steep climbs, technical trails , suffocatingly hot temperatures and stinging insects were all features of my last race. So when the opportunity came up to race a relatively flat race in cool weather on even terrain, I was intrigued. Excited, even. So I signed myself up for the Whistler 50 as my last big race of 2013.

Now in its third year, the Whistler 50 is more popular as a relay with over a hundred teams taking part each year. The race consists of 4 laps of a 20-km loop; each loop is broken up into a 13 km and 7 km leg. So, an 8-stage relay or a solo 50-mile race. When signing up for the ultra, you're asked for a predicted finish time. I was a little surprised to see that my estimate - 6 hours and 20 minutes - was the fastest so far, with the next quickest being seven-and-a-half hours. Assuming everyone was being realistic I imagined I could be in for a lonely day with motivation being an issue. Fortunately, shortly before registration closed, one more name appeared on the list: Hassan Lofti-Pour, aka Sammy. This changed everything. Sammy's a hugely accomplished runner having won the Whistler 50's predecessor race, the Haney-to-Harrison 100km, and twice won the 120-mile Fat Dog ultra. He's a bit of a local legend, and if he's not running and winning a race, he'll more than likely be out there selflessly volunteering and cheering everyone on. Now I knew I had a race on my hands - Sammy would be a tough competitor, but I was relishing the challenge. I'd tried to put a bit of late-season effort into speed work with some interval training and track workouts, so I hoped that little bit of extra zip might help.

Race day approached and conditions looked perfect. It was forecast to be cool - around 3 °C, but dry and clear. A welcome change from the snow and freezing rain that I'd endured in the relay last year. I met up with Sammy at the pre-race briefing in a Whistler pub and he confessed to not feeling 100%. He'd been suffering from a bad cold and hadn't been able to find anyone able to crew for him during the race. I realize I'm a terrible person for thinking about this, but I couldn't help but feel a little confidence boost. Before long we were heading back into the cold pre-dawn air, to stroll the 400m up the road that were added to the course to make it exactly 50-miles. After a mercifully short time standing around trying to stay warm, we were off.
Pretty shiny, huh?
Sammy and I immediately fell into stride together. I glanced over my shoulder maybe a minute into the race and noticed the rest of the field were already some distance back. "I guess it's just you and me then!" I commented as we trotted briskly towards the village plaza. We were fortunate to have Michael ahead of us as lead bike to guide us through the dark first loop - we still had over an hour until sunrise. We chatted a little, but not too much as we'd settled into a comfortably quick pace. I felt a sense of relief as my body warmed up - the bruised ribs and rolled ankle I'd sustained a couple of weeks earlier at the Stump Jump 50k seemed to have faded somewhat and I felt like I was cruising along pretty smoothly.

After perhaps 3 km I noticed that I'd pulled a few seconds ahead of Sammy. Various scenarios passed through my head. It would be nice to have some company... on the other hand, if I try to stick with him, is his legendary endurance going to make it impossible for me to keep up later in the race? What the hell, I decided. I feel pretty good right now. Let's just go with it. So I kept the pace brisk and gradually opened up a bigger gap over the next few kilometres. I knew the first leg of the course reasonably well from having run it previously as the relay. The first 9 km are essentially flat, but after that there's a steep climb and a much more rolling section of trail ensues. Sammy's an amazing hill-runner so I didn't want to be trying to compete with him on this section. So when I hit that first climb I put my head down and pushed up it as hard as I thought I could reasonably afford to. If he doesn't catch me by the top of the hill, I might just be okay.

It seemed to work; I could see his headlamp bobbing in the distance behind me, but there was still something of a gap between us. I threw myself into the short downhill sections that followed and before long hit the exchange at 13km. Amber, who was crewing for me, was the lone spectator along with the volunteers, but her cheer gave me a welcome boost as I pushed into the second leg of the loop. This part of the course I wasn't familiar with; all I knew that it was fairly rolling for a few kilometres before dropping back down to the paved Valley trail. So I pushed on, maintaining what I hoped was a reasonable pace. The only surprise was a short downhill section that was strewn with rocks - nothing too challenging, but with a gimpy ankle and my flimsiest road shoes on I was a little wary. Still, I survived unscathed and after passing a couple of fellow ultra competitors who'd taken the option of the early start I pressed on for the next 3 km that would take me back to the village plaza and the end of the first loop. 20.5 km down in about 1 hour 28 mins.

This was where I'd decided I'd pick up my hydration pack and gels from Amber; I figured I could manage the first 20 km unaided and liked the idea of running unencumbered. Unfortunately, I'd neglected to plan exactly where we were going to rendezvous and in my panic completely missed her, despite her yelling and wild gesticulating. I was annoyed at having messed this part up, but tried to reassure myself that I could always use the aid stations if necessary. Still, I wouldn't be seeing her again until 33 km into the race. But by the time all these thoughts had gone through my head I was well clear of the plaza and wasn't about to turn around. The best laid plans...

Michael had left us after the first lap, and the relay runners had yet to start, so over the next stage I got to enjoy the still, beautiful morning breaking mostly to myself. I still seemed to be moving well and the pace had only dropped off slightly since that first quick loop. As I came back through the exchange I bellowed Amber's name and finally managed to pick up my supplies. I became aware of a slight tiredness in my legs as I hoisted my pack on to my back. It was a little concerning as I was less than half-way through the race, but then I reminded myself that I'd run a pretty quick 33km, so it's perfectly normal to feel something. Still, I wondered how much I was going to pay for that brisk start. The second leg passed uneventfully enough; I finally composed myself enough to force a gel down at about the 37 km mark - later than I'd planned, but I hoped those long fuel-deprived training runs would help me now. I completed the second lap (40.5 km) in a total time of 2:56:21.

I'd been meaning to record my individual lap splits on my Garmin but hadn't been doing a very good job of it. This continued at this stage where I accidentally hit the "Stop" button instead of "Lap". It took me about ten minutes to realize this, the upshot being that I didn't notice my marathon split - probably around 3:03. Which might have been a good thing as putting in that kind of an effort on a hilly course sounded a little rash. Of course, I'd not known how close Sammy had been to me since those first few kilometres, but I assumed he wasn't far back. And this is what kept me going for the second half of the race. The aid station staff asked if I was going to stop this time around; "Can't stop! Sammy'll catch me!" - and they understood entirely.

It had been a little unfortunate the way the race had panned out because it meant that the bulk of the relay runners were at the opposite end of the course to me, so I didn't get to see as much of my friends from VFAC and Pacific Road Runners as I'd hoped. The first relay runner to pass me did so when I was about 53 km into the race; he was laying down 3-minute kilometres to my 5-min pace which was a little disheartening. Fortunately I was seeing a few ultrarunners around this point as I started to lap a few people. I was occasionally a little jealous of the more leisurely pace they were enjoying.

Things were definitely slowing down for me as I finished the third loop in a time of 1:33 - four minutes slower than the previous lap, but still moving forward. As I passed through the exchange Amber gave me a precious update - "You're five minutes ahead!". This was good, I thought. A substantial lead, but obviously not enough to relax completely. And I knew I was starting to fade - could I hold on for one more lap?
And another loop begins...

Predictably, that final loop seemed to last an eternity. Inexplicable whole new sections of trail seemed to have materialized. Fortunately, the was more and more company on course as the relay runners became more spread out and a few familiar faces amongst the volunteers were around to cheer me on. On my fourth climb up that first steep hill, I finally relented and allowed myself to walk for a couple of minutes. Strategically, it seemed the right thing to do in order to save my legs for the easier runnable sections at the cost of a few seconds on the climb. A much larger crowd had assembled as I hit the exchange for the final time, and their cheers definitely helped as I stumbled into the last leg of the final lap. By now I was well aware that this rolling chunk of the course was the most challenging section of the loop and I struggled badly with the uphills. Around 75 km into the race I felt decidedly weary and wondered how I was going to carry on. I forced down a surprisingly tasty chocolate gel and promised myself a shot of coca-cola at the upcoming aid station. I got there, they didn't have any, so I downed some mysterious yellow liquid and forced myself to lurch on the last 3 km of the race.

Somehow I managed to hold down a reasonable impression of running forward over those last few kilometres and as I finally entered the plaza I allowed myself a little self-indulgence. Without stopping I hurled my hydration pack to the floor which enabled me to remove the lightweight jacket I'd had on all day, so everyone could see the shiny new VFAC shirt I'd been wearing underneath. Elated, and mightily relieved I crossed the line in 6:11:05, recording my first ever win in an ultra-distance race!

There were hugs and hand-shakes and a brief interview with a member of the local press. Sammy crossed the line about seven minutes after me - it sounded like he'd been having a tough day, but his dogged determination had seen him through. I'd been right not to let myself relax too much. To give an indication of how close the race was, and just how sad an obsessive I can get about these things, here are a couple of charts showing how we stacked up over the race.

Figure 1: Individual leg times.

Figure 2: Cumulative running time.
 As you can see, by the last leg, Sammy was started to gain ground on me... if this had been a 100-km race it could have been a very different story. The rest of the day was spent relaxing in Whistler, cheering on friends in the relay, eating voraciously, sitting in the hot tub, and enjoying maybe one or two beers.
Practical hardware.

Of course, there are lots of people to thank for making this such a special day. Amber, for crewing and cheering in the freezing cold morning when nearly everyone one else was sensibly still sleeping. Michael and the rest of the multitude of volunteers for helping to put on the race. Sammy, for being one of the most friendly, consistently smiley competitors you're ever likely to meet. And FITS Sock Co. and Powered By Chocolate Milk for continuing to support me in these questionable pursuits. And now, I'm taking a bit of a break for a few weeks.
Cheesy grin? I can do that.

Whistler 50 Official Web Site
Official Results

My Run on Strava (reconstructed to take into account my watch cock-up).