The Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run has 27 years of history in the North Shore mountains. The race covers 48km from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove along the Baden Powell trail with 2400+ meters (8000 feet) of elevation gain and equal descent. The race is unique not only in its technically demanding nature but also the spirit of the community that surrounds it.
Each year the race is so popular that a lottery process is required to enter and 200 lucky names are drawn. Volunteers are routinely turned away as spots to assist at aid stations and along the course quickly fill up. A few runners even lined up on Saturday morning to attempt their 25th finish at the race (48km x 25 years = 1,2ookm of Knee Knackering!) Over the years many of Canada’s best trail runners have toed the line and this year was no different.
My training leading up to into the event was quite focused compared to past races I’ve run. I felt confident coming out of the Sun Mountain 50km in May but knew I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to be competitive at Knee Knacker. Sun Mountain is a very fast, smooth and runnable course… completely different from Knee Knacker. I knew I had to switch my focus from moving fast to moving efficiently over varied terrain.
I like to think I’m a strong downhiller and technical runner but my weakness is definitely in climbing. During Sun Mountain I would fall behind on climbs but make it up on the descents. I made a point of running nearly every step over the next 7 weeks on the Knee Knacker course, with a few adventure runs thrown in to keep me sane.
My workouts mainly consisted of longer intervals (8 – 10 minutes), long steady climbs, and fast downhill running over technical terrain. I also mixed in some longer hiking days to build strength and take a break from the Baden Powell. A few key runs in the lead-up to Knee Knacker were a 5 hour loop above Lions Bay with 2100m+ of elevation gain over 22km (Mt Brunswick summit to HSCT and down the Binkert trail) and a great (but hot) weekend of back-to-back 3 hour out-and-backs over the first quarter and last quarter of the course.
This being my first Knee Knacker my goal for the race was to finish under 5 hours. I wasn’t focused on placing. If I was on pace to finish under 5 I figured I’d have a decent shot a placing somewhere in the top 5 anyways. If under 5 hours wasn’t going to happen I wanted to run it in feeling strong and ready to put in a big block of training for Squamish 50 mile in August.
The 2015 event was set to be a battle royale with what looked to be one of the most competitive fields in recent history. I was hoping to lay it all out there with some of the best runners on the West Coast. It was quite disappointing to hear that the defending champ, Mike Murphy, had to drop from the race early with back problems and that Maxwell Ferguson and Jeremy Clegg were not able start. I ended up toeing the line with Mike, Ed McCarthy, Oliver Utting, and 214 other participants. Needless to say I felt intimidated by the combined experience and talent of those three.
The race started out easier than anticipated but I was comfortable to slot in behind Ed, Mike and Oliver and cruise up towards White Lake. I passed Mike and Oliver and moved into 2nd just before White Lake but watched as Ed took off the front of the pack. I stayed within myself on the way up to Eagle Bluffs, going over my motto for the day, “play your strengths.” I glanced back occasionally but didn’t see anyone behind. When I crested Eagle Bluffs I was surprised to see Alex close behind me. I made a bit of a push up to Black Mountain and didn’t see him again.
Nick Elson and the Black Sabbath themed aid station at the top of Black Mountain were a welcome relief. I grabbed a quick swig of water and pushed over the top of Black. I have to thank Gary Robbins for the excellent post he wrote on his successful 2013 race. I paid close attention to his invaluable advice: “come over the top just a few minutes faster than you physically should and you’ll suffer the consequences all day long, come over the top a few minutes slower than you should and you’ll be playing catch up all day long.”
Nick let me know that Ed was 4 minutes ahead. I was feeling fresh and in a good position knowing that Ed may have gone out too strong. I ran quickly down to Cypress Bowl and hit my goal split of 1:20. I ditched my shirt as I was feeling pretty warm despite the cool weather and mist. Steph handed me a fresh water bottle and a few gels and I was out.
From Cypress to Capilano Dam I pushed fairly hard and ran a 58:25 split putting me in at 2:19. Capilano Dam was a highlight for me. I felt a huge rush seeing my parents and friends for the first time. Adam Harris gave me an update on how Ed was looking and told me I had picked up 2 minutes on him. We quickly discussed my strategy over the next section to the Lower Seymour Conservation Reserve.
Running up Nancy Greene I started to feel my legs. The climb across Grouse before descending to Skyline wasn’t pretty but I stayed controlled, took it easy and hiked, and conserved energy for the descent. I thought I lost a lot of ground to Ed over this section but at Skyline was told he was only 3 minutes ahead. I felt confident that I was racing smart. Skyline to LSCR was as I expected it to be. I’ve run this section more than any other over the past few weeks of training. I ran relaxed and steady into LSCR.
Grind It Out
From LSCR my goal was to hammer home to the finish line… but that didn’t quite happen. I ran hard out of LSCR and quickly realized there was a good chance of a blow-up if I powered up the last two climbs as hard as I planned to. Climbing up to Lillooet Road I started thinking about my race so far and the idea of running it in easy for second place sounded nice. I didn’t really want to kill myself trying to close a gap on Ed that hadn’t really budged much all day. I knew that getting to the top of the Seymour Grind in good shape would give me a solid chance at closing strong and getting in under 5 hours. I decided to keep running within myself and moved steadily to the toga party that was Hyannis aid station.
The slow steady incline to the base of Seymour Grind taunted me. It was steep enough to test my tired legs but not steep enough to warrant hiking. I grunted it out and welcomed the idea of switching gears to a hike when I made it to the base of the Seymour Grind. Hands on knees, I hiked the whole Grind, even opting to walk the sections between switchbacks I would normally run. I again told myself to “play my strengths” and came to the top of the Grind feeling relatively fresh and ready to hammer home. The thought of catching Ed briefly crossed my mind but I didn’t give it much attention.
I pushed the downhill hard, filled up quickly with ice water at Mt Seymour road and kept pushing. Just after crossing Indian River road I saw the neon yellow swoosh of Ed’s shirt 100 meters down the trail. “Dammit” I thought, “now I have to run hard”… There was a quick internal debate about how deep I was willing to go into the pain cave. I then thought about my friends and family who had been out all morning cheering me on. The only thing I could do was push.
I locked in on Ed and ran within 20 meters of him, slowed a bit to match his pace and realized he must be hurting. I quickly tossed back a gel and made the decision to go for it. Just as I caught him I asked jokingly if he wanted to run it in together. I have nothing but respect for Ed. Knowing his blazing fast road times and how he crushed me by 37 minutes at Diez Vista 50km in 2014, I was secretly hoping he would say yes to a tie. A battle over the next 3km from Quarry Rock to the finish line would be carnage. He politely declined saying he thought he went out too hard. I knew, unfortunately, he was done. I pushed past and never looked back.
As I jumped from root to root politely asking (yelling at) Quarry Rock hikers to get out of the way, the idea that I was about to win the Knee Knacker crept into my head. I didn’t entertain the thought for long as I knew I still had 2 highly technical kilometers to make it through unscathed. The final sea of roots quickly turned to steps and then pavement. I knew I had this one in the bag. Coming down the finish line chute to Panorama Park in Deep Cove was something I’ll never forget.
I crossed the line for first place in 4:51:33.
I’m incredibly happy with my result and how the race played out but know there is a lot of room for improvement. I’d like to thank my girlfriend, Stephanie, for crewing me all day long, my parents and friends for their support, strategic input and encouragement along the way, and finally the amazing volunteers and that make this event happen every year.