I first heard about the Kneeknacker North Shore Trail Race a few years ago while training for a marathon. It sounded nearly impossible at the time, running from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove along the Baden Powell trail with 8,000 feet of climbing over 30 miles, when having to run up even a small hill in a marathon seemed like a challenge.
With Waldo 100k coming up in 4 weeks, Kneeknacker was technically a training run. I did take a short taper of a week or so, but was still running 75-100k per week in the two weeks prior. So I felt a little over-trained for a race of this distance and relatively fast pace (I never thought I’d consider a 50k to be too short and fast) and perhaps a little under-rested. But don’t get me wrong – I was definitely there to race and gave it my all.
I was really excited with it being my first opportunity to officially represent the Salomon West Vancouver Shop Team in a race and for a chance to run with so many people I had met in the past few months from the local trail running community.
This year was also very special in that it was the 25th running of the race, with a record 244 starters (and 237 finishers) and I was pretty lucky to have gotten in through the lottery my first time trying.
While it was my first time running the KKNSTR, it definitely wasn’t my first time on the course. Aside from the first quarter, I’ve run most of the BP dozens of times over the past year or so of trail running. In fact, it was the first trail race I had ever run where I was so familiar with the course, as all of my other races have been down South.
The course should really be thought of as two distinct halves or perhaps four quarters. My plan was to take it pretty easy for the first quarter up Black Mountain, pick it up for the second quarter down to Cleveland Dam, try to maintain pace through the technical, third quarter, and then drop the hammer for the final stretch to hopefully finish in under 6 hours with slightly negative splits.
One of the lessons I learned during my first 50 miler at Sun Mountain was that I needed to stay on top of my fluids since I rely on drinks like Cytomax for some of my calories. I prefer a hand-held water bottle over a bladder so that I can better monitor my fluid intake. It’s also quicker to re-fill at aid stations and I find I’m actually more inclined to drink from it for some reason.
Since the climb up Black involved some (super fun) scrambling requiring both hands, I figured I’d use my Salomon S-Lab hydration pack until Cleveland Dam and then would switch to a single hand-held from my drop bag for the rest of the race. I usually aim for between 500-1000 ml of fluids per hour, along with 2 gels and some electrolyte tablets, so I planned on finishing my 1.5 L bladder plus maybe a little extra from the aid stations if need-be before making the switch.
I had a solid pacing and nutrition strategy… But I unfortunately made a few tactical errors in the first half.
The First Half: Horseshoe Bay to Cleveland Dam
I had been warned not to start too far back from the front, despite the risk of going out too fast. The reason is that, after a short and steep climb up a gravel road, you hit a narrow and technical trail that can act as a bit of a bottle-neck.
I unfortunately had spent too much time hanging around and socializing before the race to really get organized and a long line-up for a last-minute trip to the porta potties meant literally running to the line right as the race was starting. I managed to force my way to about mid-pack pretty quickly but, sure enough, found myself stuck as we entered the narrow single track.
Tactical error #1: Starting mid-pack instead of at the front.
Having said that, running faster through the start of the race would have only contributed to even more of a positive split, possibly at the risk of slowing me down further in the second half.
The climb up Black was great. I saw Jackie, Chloé and fellow Salomon Shop Team-mate Solana, and eventually ran into Josh and his brother who I hung out for a bit with, some great banter helping to pass the time as we neared the scree.
The view from Eagle Bluffs was even more amazing than usual in the early morning light and it was pretty neat hearing the reaction of a few runners from out of town who were seeing it for the first time.
The air was quite cool at the top – so cool, in fact, that you could see your breath – and the passing helicopter was creating a refreshing wake. I had finally caught up with my friend Jonathan who I’d run this section of the trail with for the first time just a few weeks before and we were having a blast running through what had become my favourite part of the course, made even more exciting with the film crew overhead.
We flew through the first aid station and hit the first checkpoint at 7.5 miles where I kept on as Jonathan took a moment to re-fuel.
The second quarter of the race begins with quite a bit of ‘up and down’ on some fairly technical trail before you hit the cross-country ski trails where you can really motor. I had slowly been picking runners off one by one and was really able to open up the stride on this section and pass quite a few more.
Now, it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve gotten a little lost during a race, but the Kneeknacker course is marked so meticulously well that I’m still kicking myself for not having noticed when the runner in front of me took a wrong turn sometime after Hollyburn.
I was totally focused on trying to slowly reel him in as we climbed up instead of continuing down when he suddenly stopped and turned to announce that he thought we were off-course, not having seen a flag in a while. We continued up another minute or so to make sure before admitting defeat and turning around.
I ran into Chloé back at the intersection (who joked about me trying to get in some extra miles), before I began trying to make up the 4 minutes I had just lost. I caught up with Jonathan who was more than a little surprised to see me and began trying to make up for lost time as we dropped – and dropped – to Cleveland Dam.
Tactical error #2: Following others and not paying attention to flagging.
The race was so well organized and with so many volunteers that, as I approached the aid station and before I could even ask “Where are the drop ba–” someone handed mine to me. It would appear that they had someone calling in the numbers of runners as they approach so that other volunteers could fetch their bags and have them ready. I retrieved and asked one person to fill my bottle, handed my empty pack to another, said a quick hello to friends and family, and was on my way pretty much on schedule.
A couple of hours into the race, I had started to get that familiar feeling of blurred vision that I would sometimes get on long training runs and realized I had to up my fluid intake and tried to drink as much as I could before arriving at Cleveland Dam (sure enough, when I checked my pack’s bladder after the race, I had about half of it left so had consumed half of my planned fluids).
The irony is that, had it been a warmer day instead of such perfect weather, I probably would have been forced to drink more and therefore consume more carbs. At least I was on target for gels though and, with my trusty water bottle now in-hand, could get back on track.
Tactical erorr #3: Not drinking enough in the first half of the race.
The second half would go a little smoother – for the most part.
The Second Half
Running up Nancy Green Way to Grouse gave me a chance to pass a few more runners before entering the trail in one of the more technical (and what I find more challenging) parts of the course. It was pretty cool to run through the parking lot and through the entrance to the Grind as there were a ton of people who all looked very impressed!
This section was a bit of a low point for me as I struggle with it at the best of times, but I managed to pass a few more people, despite running one my slowest splits of the race.
I found that being so familiar with a course – every climb and every decent – had both pros and cons. There are obvious benefits with regards to race strategy in terms of pacing, planning for gear and drop bags, and even nutrition. But sometimes ignorance is bliss and being all too aware at all times exactly what you have left in front of you – every climb and every decent – can be disheartening.
What I’ve learned in ultra running though is that, no matter how bad you feel, you will eventually feel good again (and vice versa). So when I was hurting like hell and picturing how much worse I was going to feel climbing up the Seymour Grind, I tried to tell myself that it in fact wouldn’t necessarily get much worse.
Then I fell.
Just past Skyline Drive, there’s a steep section of switchbacks taking you down into Mosquito Creek. I unfortunately took one of the turns a little quick and slid out on the dust, almost recovering before doing a drop and roll and landing upside down on the trail. More embarrassed than anything else, I dusted myself off, took a moment to regroup and began working on catching up to the guy who had just passed me.
By this time in the race, I had a pretty good system down of having my bottle refilled at each aid station with water or electrolytes (where available) while grabbing a slice or two of banana and some salt.
I passed a few more runners and eventually caught up to a young guy named Alex who was running his first ultra and we took turns pushing each other for the next 8 kms or so and worked together to pass a few more.
The downhill section after the aid station at LSCR offered a nice confidence boost but the climb back out was definitely tougher than I had remembered it being. After dipping down into Seymour Valley and back out the other side to Hyannis Point, I had found a second wind and was soon on my own again, managing to pass another couple of runners. This was good news since the Seymour Grind was coming up.
I caught up to a guy named Erik who was a Kneeknacker veteran, by the sounds of it, and asked if he thought we had a chance of sub-6. That had been his goal as well but, he said, “I think that door is closing fast”.
The Seymour Grind to me felt like a significant point in the course, with about 850 feet of elevation gained in mostly a steep 1 mile climb, before it’s mostly downhill to the finish. I had run it many times in training, trying to visualize what it would be like 40 kms into a race, and had it on my mind the entire race (where’s that blissful ignorance when you need it). Well, the training seemed to have paid off as I managed to pass a couple more people and catch up to my friend Ray near the top.
Ray and I ran together and chatted for a bit as we crested the hill and began jockeying for position. He was dealing with an injured toe which I’m sure is what allowed me to finally shake him before hitting Seymour Road (he’s usually much faster than me on the downhills).
With Ray on my tail, I was running scared and flew through the groomed section of trail to Indian River Road and down the paved stretch at close to 3:30 /km (there’s that marathon background). I entered the final stretch of trail and passed a few more runners who all seemed to be cramping up.
Then it started to hurt. The last trail section passing by Quarry Rock felt like it had almost as much uphill as down (there are about 5 serious valleys to drop into and climb out of) and there were a ton of tourists to negotiate your way through.
I was still running scared with Ray right behind me (I actually asked a few people as I passed if they could see any runners behind me), I could hear the megaphone at the finish line, and at some point I looked at my watch and saw 5:55 – was sub-6 hrs in my reach?
Finally, I recognized the last of the 8 bridge crossings and soon the last little (very rooted) descent to the road. I sprinted to the finish and crossed the line in 6:05 for 27th place / 18th male-39.
Friends and family at the finish, food and free massages, and a soak in the ocean capped off a great first Kneeknacker experience which definitely won’t be my last. I just hope that if I can make the lottery next year and avoid a few tactical errors I might just get that sub-6!
Next month I’ll be running my first 100k, the Waldo 100k Ultramarathon in Oregon – wish me luck! Special thanks to Diana for the race photos and congrats to Gary Robbins on the win and to Mike Murphy on a hard-fought 2nd and masters record.