My goal for the 2015 Mountain Madness Fat Dog 120 mile had been to finish strong within 32-35 hours. The race is said to be Canada’s most scenic ultra, starting in Cathedral Lakes and continuing through Manning Park on an almost point-to-point course with 8,673 metres (28,455 feet) of climbing through the Cascade Mountains. It’s also considered Canada’s Hardrock 100, and is one of the few races in the world tough enough to be a Hardrock qualifier.
It was to be my longest run ever, both in mileage and time on feet. If I could just pace myself properly through the first day, then make it through the night, I’d only have one more day of running. Just three shifts.
While I consider my race a success, things didn’t go entirely as planned.
A Season of Training
Coming into the race, my training volume hadn’t been quite as high as I would have liked. In fact, I averaged just 350 km’s and 14,000 metres of climbing over roughly 50 hours on feet in May through July. But I knew that I’d have to look at my entire season as training for the big day.
I’d hit all of my goals for my races throughout the season, and put in a solid week of training at altitude while pacing for a friend at Hardrock 100 during my last training block. My week spent in Colorado, braving the extreme weather of the San Juan Mountains would turn out to have prepared me even more than I could have anticipated for the conditions we’d be facing during Fat Dog.
The First Day
After a big breakfast on Friday morning, we boarded the bus from Princeton for the race start at Cathedral Lakes. Princeton is where the mandatory briefing had been held the day before and where the majority of runners had stayed, being the closest town with adequate accommodations.
The 10am start felt oh so civilized compared to the usual 5am gun, and the weather couldn’t have been more perfect for racing – not too cool, not too warm, and just enough cloud cover to avoid a sunburn. Thundershowers had been forecast for Princeton, but we figured we had a good chance of avoiding them as we passed through the various microclimates heading West through the three parks. I’d somehow managed to pack my shirt along with a spare in my first drop bag – good thing the race provided finishing shirts!
I settled in with great company – my friends Matt and Alexa, who I’d spent a considerable amount of time training with, and Nicola who happens to have won the women’s race the year before. We yo-yo’d a bit but seemed to keep regrouping as the hours ticked by.
As soon as we felt the first few drops of rain, we knew things were about to change for the worse. What we couldn’t have anticipated was the heavy showers and dimed-size hail that would bombard us for hours, the rain turning the trails into freezing cold streams, eventually forcing many running to drop on the first day due to hypothermia.
As we climbed into the clouds on Flat Top Mountain, the lighting was no longer visible in the distance but was instead all around us in the abyss. Our light wind breakers did little to protect us from rain and gale force winds, and our cold bare hands, clamped tightly around our hiking poles, were of little use in opening gels.
A decision had to be made: Was it safer to hunker down and face probable hypothermia or to move as quickly as possible to get off the ridge? We decided to pick up the pace and press on to the next point of refuge.
The four of us somehow managed to re-group after finally making it safely off the ridge, the temperature rising again under the canopy as we descended towards Calcite AS where fresh, warm Bannock awaited us, along with my drop bag of dry, warm clothes, a waterproof jacket, and gloves. We’d passed Kim who’d made the decision to drop after becoming completely hypothermic. Many had questioned the seemingly excessive amount of mandatory gear required for the nighttime leg, all of which I now wish I’d had from the beginning of the race!
When the other three were ready to leave, bellies (and pockets) full of bannock, I found myself still fumbling to get my bladder transferred into my larger pack which I’d pre-packed with my nighttime gear, and told them to go on without me as I was sure I could catch up. A last-minute scheduling conflict left me without a pacer for the night, so I wanted to try to hang with Matt and Adam who was joining him, so that I wouldn’t be faced with running it alone.
Just after leaving the aid station and hitting a road section, as I continued to fumble with my gear while doing my best to gain ground on the group, I managed to miss a flag leading back into the forest. After a couple of miles, I realized it had been some time since I’d seen any flagging at all. But just as I was about to finally turn around – voila! A pink Fat Dog 120 flag appeared at a key intersection. This continued for another 4 or 5 or so miles, until I finally accepted that something was wrong. I knew there was a fire road section at some point on the course but this seemed way too long, and I should have arrived at the aid station a couple of miles ago. Comparing the GPS coordinates from my Suunto Ambit 2 against the race map confirmed that I was way off course.
The flagging, it would turn out, had been intended for drivers en route to Calcite AS. Flagging or no flagging, it’s ultimately up to the runner to know the course and, in retrospect, I should have turned around after not having seen a flag within 1-2 km’s since this is outside of the race’s normally frequency of flagging. But the same stubbornness that gets me through these kinds of events also gets me into these kinds of situations and keeps me going when I should stop or turn around.
There was little cell service throughout the race, but I felt safe in knowing that I had my Lifestraw in case I ran out of water, and my Delorme inReach Explorer in case I had to call to help – apparently a few people had been able to watch my course detour unfolding live thanks to my live tracking.
On my way back, I managed to stop two other runners who had also missed the turn and I’d later find out that my friend Erin had done the same thing and gone just as far, as did Glenn in last year’s race – so I didn’t feel quite as silly.
Back on course, I’d now wasted close to 3 hours and run over an additional 10 miles. I began to wonder if I was physically even capable of running more than 130 miles, but I still wanted that buckle, I still wanted my Hardrock qualifier, and I really had no excuse not to try.
So after a little pity party at the next aid station, where my good friend Solana force fed me to help get me back on track with my nutrition, I put my big boy pants back on and got to work.
The Night Shift
It was dark when I left Bonnevier AS and a volunteer had been sure to double check that I had all of my required gear for at night on my way out. I had been on roughly 32 hour pace, but was now catching up to runners who were looking at 35 hours or more. My plan was to now run at closer to 30-31 hour pace in order to make up as much time as I could to get back within my goal time.
I continued to pass runners and their pacers, including my good friend Karl and pacer Jay, as well as Glenn and pacer Julie (both would later drop). But I was on a mission and, as much as I would have loved the company, I had to press on.
The rest of the night was a little lonely but passed quickly enough. Graham and the other amazing volunteers up at Heather AS who were somehow still chipper and full of energy despite the freezing temperatures were a sight for sore eyes, and the soup broth and quesadillas helped to warm more than just my belly. But after just a few minutes, I began to shiver and knew I had to keep moving to stay warm.
I wandered through fog so thick along Heather Trail that I was forced to walk just to see the ground under my feet and to avoid running right off a cliff, passing Josh and pacer Daniel wearing space blankets as skirts like so many others. Josh had made the decision to drop, which still meant making the long trek off the mountain and back to civilization.
Seeing my buddies Dave and Matt who were volunteering at Heather AS was a welcome relief, and I was told that Jackie couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes ahead. I managed to latch on to another runner and his pacer for the long descent down to Cayuse Flats, finally catching up to Jackie as the sun rose and we neared Cascades AS where she too would make the decision to drop.
It’s amazing what a sunrise can do for the mind and body. I had a second wind and was about to be joined by my pacer Kevin Douglas who I had paced at Hardrock the month before. Kevin fortunately had a spare pair of socks he could give me, as mine had now all but disintegrated and my feet were bleeding (I should have had more drop bags!). All that was left was one more day of running.
Just One More Day
The leg after Cascades is surprisingly flat – I’m talking a marathon of flat running. And so we ran.
At just over 100 miles, I remember turning to Kevin and saying that I felt like I just started running. The weather had improved considerably and I had brand new legs. We passed Dana who was looking strong as well, before stopping briefly at Shawatam AS for my 2nd drop bag. I must have been buzzing like a hummingbird when I saw Tom at Centenniel AS before starting the climb which he said would take 3 hours – but I hoped to do it in under 2.
I tried running the 1,200 metres up Skyline but pretty quickly slowed to a hike. The more than 30 hours on feet was beginning to catch up with me and caffeine was now having little effect. I was bonking but my legs felt great. I’d now switched to exclusively Clif Bar gels but I just couldn’t seem to take in enough calories and the switch backs felt like they’d never end.
We continued to climb and to pass other runners, and finally made it to Camp Mowich. I was pretty sure it was all downhill from here, but they regretfully informed me that it was more like 8 kms of rolling terrain until the next aid station. Once there, I knew it had to be all downhill to the finish, but again I was told I’d still have to climb a good 250 metres.
My quads were tired and my knees began to hurt. My legs felt good otherwise, but I just didn’t know if I could keep climbing. Finally, we began to drop down what began as steep and technical terrain before smoothing out and become completely runnable. And so, again we ran, and then we ran a little faster. The sprint down to and around the lake over the last 7 km’s was possibly my strongest finish yet.
I crossed the line in 34:13, my first Fat Dog 120+10 miler a success, and I’m now pretty confident I could run a sub-32 hour Fat Dog 120 in the future.
I’d managed to make up a bit of time on Matt, who finished strong in 31:38, and Alexa who ran a really smart race and finished in 33:51 (Nicola unfortunately had to drop this year). We certainly didn’t get the views we had hoped for, but we did get to experience everything else that a true mountain race can offer. Next time, I’ll be sure to have a second pacer for the nighttime leg, a dedicated crew, and a couple more drop bags.
Special thanks to Lifestraw and EarthEasy.com for inviting me to run on their behalf, to Salomon, Suunto, Clif Bar, and inReach Canada for the continued support, and of course to the amazing volunteers and organizers who braved the cold and miserable weather along with us. Thanks as well to Kevin for getting me through that second day and leading me to such a strong finish – I knew I’d find a pacer I couldn’t drop!
I learned a few things out there, as tends to be the case, like how to channel frustration and disappointment into fuel and determination to go on. I’m not sure where to go from here, but I suspect a 200 miler won’t be too far off in the future. I’ve just got one more big race in 4 weeks, the Grand to Grand 6-day stage race, before I can think about that.
Last week, I had the opportunity to join Josh on Ethan Newberry’s Ginger Runner Live! Check it out below to hear more about our very different experiences during the race.
Gear: Suunto Ambit2 Sapphire (HR), Salomon S-Lab Adv Skin3 5Set, Delorme inReach Explorer, Black Diamond Carbon Z Poles
Clothing: Salomon Trail Short, Salomon Tee, Salomon Trail Runner Sleeve, Salomon S-Lab Light Running Jacket, Salomon Bonatti WP Jacket
Shoes: Salomon Sense Pro