The Squamish 50 mile is a tough race. There’s no denying that. The course is an unrelenting network of twisty-technical mountain bike trails which constantly demand your attention but reward with beautiful forests and peek-a-boo views of the mountains surrounding Squamish, BC. Although the race has 3350 meters of elevation gain, the course is largely “runnable” (if you happen to be Nick Elson), which makes for some very interesting why the hell am I running this? debates in the later stages of the race.
I was feeling confident coming into this years event after successful runs at the Sun Mountain 50km and Knee Knacker earlier this year. I was excited to race against a strong line-up of international runners but, more importantly, I wanted to see how I stacked up against my own fitness and efforts of the year previous.
The 2014 Squamish 50 mile was my first attempt at the distance. I went into the race well rested but with a lot of unknowns. I came out with 7th place overall in 8:10. My goal this year was to improve upon that, if nothing else.
I’d like to say that I had a stellar run and everything went to plan but, as I’m beginning to learn with this sport, things don’t always play out the way you’d like them to.
My preparation was largely focused on recovering from the Knee Knacker and getting a few quality runs in. I had 6 weeks to the day to make sure all systems were a go. Luckily I didn’t have any major injuries coming out of KK. Given the nature of the Squamish trails and where I felt my weaknesses were in KK, I wanted focus my efforts on climbing. I made a point of getting up Skyline, a 1.5km direct line up Grouse Mountain with 500 meters of largely runnable elevation gain, a few times a week.
Two weeks out from race day Adam and I got out for a 42km trot around the North Shore Mountains, linking up the Seymour Valley Lookout, Coliseum, and Hanes Valley. It was a nice long day in the mountains. Unfortunately, going into the run I had a small issue with my left glute which was then compounded by 7 hours on my feet. The small issue turned into a much larger issue and stayed with me through my taper and into race week. I did my best to correct it but noticed a small twinge of pain even when walking on flat ground. I knew it would give me trouble on race day… it was just a question of how much and how soon into the race.
Keep it Easy
I lined up on race morning next to Nick Elson, Mike Murphy, Mike Foote, and Jeremy Wolf. 5:30am struck and the race director, Gary Robbins, sent 200 of us off into the dark, headlamps blazing. We did a confused loop around the parking lot and then were off onto the trails. I slotted in behind Foote and Wolf and we ran an easy 10km into Aid Station 1 just behind Nick, Murphy and Phil.
My strategy for the race was to run with the lead pack (as long as I considered it a conservative pace) until Quest (50km) and then put in a solid effort with everything I had left until the end.
Out of AS 1 and into the woods again, I closed the small gap up to Nick, Murphy, and Phil and we started up the first climb of the day towards Crouching Squirrel Hidden Monkey. Although moving at an easy effort I immediately felt my left glute starting to give. At only 13km in this was going to be a long day.
The descent into AS 2 (20km) was quick. My amazing crew of Steph and Connor swapped handhelds, loaded me up with gels and sent me back out in first position with Murphy. Although short lived, it felt damn good to lead the pack, like I was supposed to be up there, something that wouldn’t have crossed my mind a year ago.
A few minutes out of AS 2 I stopped quickly to adjust my bib number. The pack of Nick, Murphy, Foote, Wolf and Phil ran ahead and I found myself running alone for the first time in the race. I had a strangely euphoric moment and an overwhelming sense of appreciation for where I was and what I was doing. I told myself to remember this moment when I’d need it later in the race.
I joined up with the pack and we climbed easily up Made in the Shade. I took care to hike extra steps to conserve energy and was pleasantly surprised to find myself just as quick as the others who ran. We ran as a group into and out of AS 3 (28km) but dropped Phil and Wolfe somewhere along Cliff’s Corners / Tracks From Hell.
Here Comes the Suck
On the second pass through AS 3 (38km) I loaded up on water for the long climb ahead. Nick, Murphy, Foote and I ran together to the start of the climb up Plastic Scheisse. It was then that Nick let us all know just how strong of a runner he really is. He put it into a gear none of us could match and took off up the climb. Foote followed, but from my vantage it didn’t look like he was going to hang on to Nick.
My left glute was starting to give me some serious trouble on the long gradual climb up Scheisse. I had almost no power in my left side and was quickly reduced to hiking, running a few steps when I could. It was somewhat reassuring to see Murphy only 10 – 15 seconds ahead doing the same. I made sure to keep him in my sights and we crested the climb together. On the run down Power Smart I kept pace with Murphy although my glute was getting weaker with every step.
We popped out onto a road and quickly ducked back into the trees and onto Fred (45km). Murphy took a tumble just in front of me, got up and dusted himself off. A few seconds later my left glute seemed to give completely. Things really came off the tracks here. With every step my left side collapsed, my hip dropped, and ankle rolled out. I was incredibly frustrated to find that I had almost no power going downhill now too. I intended on making up some ground on Foote and Murphy on the descent to Quest. That was now completely out of the question. I slowed down considerably and watched Murphy take off down the trail.
The next 5km were the worst I’ve ever run. Each step was a shot of pain, radiating from my glute down my to my ankle and up my spine. My mind was screaming drop out. I knew this was out of the question but I certainly entertained the idea more than I ever have in a race before.
It was a relief, both physically and mentally, to get into the Quest Aid Station (50km) at 5 hours, right on my expected split time and 10 minutes ahead of last year. I was happy to see my family there who let me know Murphy was in the aid station only a few minutes ahead. Foote was just ahead of him. I could have pushed here and made a move on the two but I took my time to stretch my glute and gave myself a mental break from the barrage of self-doubt I’d experienced for the last 30 minutes. Murphy ran out of the aid station and I followed a few minutes later, determined to catch him.
The climb out of Quest is a long and gradual approach to the popular bike trail Angry Midget. I felt surprisingly spry going up as the stretching helped my glute immensely. I managed to run almost every step and was impressed with my improvement over last year when I had walked the majority of the climb. I was certain I would catch Murphy or Foote. Part way up the climb, Gary gave me a split that I was only 2 minutes back and looking much fresher than they were. In hindsight he was probably just being nice, but it was the motivation I needed to keep pushing up. Just before the top of Angry Midget my left glute fired up again and I knew the descent was going to be difficult.
I stopped briefly to stretch before digging into the technical downhill but there was no reviving relieving things this time. The descent was a complete disaster. As my left side continued to collapse my ankle took the brunt of it and began to swell. At this point I knew there was no catching Murphy or Foote unless one of them completely blew up… worse than I had.
By AS 6 (60km) I had mentally packed it in. Each step was a shot of pain and I had no power going uphill or down. This isn’t something I’d ever like to admit in a race but I knew that mechanically I just didn’t have it together anymore. I tried to surge again and again but physically couldn’t make it happen. I resigned my efforts and told myself to just keep moving forward. The sooner you finish the sooner it’s over…
Just Get it Done
At AS 7 (70km) I was told Murphy was only a few minutes ahead. This was a real blow to the ego as I wanted to put on a chase but knew I didn’t have the power to do so. I had to accept that as close as he was, I wasn’t going to catch him. The final 10km dragged on much longer than necessary. I paused every 15 minutes to stretch just so I could continue on. I was discouraged to watch my split times crumble and aspirations of running under my 2014 time slip out of reach.
Somewhere on the climb up Mountain of Phlegm I thought back to that moment of appreciation just outside of AS2, 20km into the race, and tried to channel that state of mind. I thought about how fortunate I was to be on beautiful trail, running in a competitive race, and being supported by my friends and family. This gave me the energy to push on.
I made my way through the Smoke Bluffs and down to the finish line to secure 4th place in 8 hours and 20 minutes.
I’m happy with elements of my race but discouraged it didn’t go to plan. I’m very happy to take 4th place behind Nick, Foote and Murphy. They are all incredibly talented runners. It’s motivating to know that I felt comfortable and relaxed running with them for the first 50km. From a cardio and fatigue standpoint I felt excellent… sometimes things just don’t go to plan. All we can do it push forward and learn from our experiences. If nothing else, the final 30km was a great lesson in mental power. I really do believe that this sport is 90% mental. Once you have the physical fitness to go the distance, it comes down to your willingness to endure.
I came out of the race with a few minor injuries that I hope to clear up quickly. On October 3rd I’m planning to run my first 100km race, the Cuyamaca100k in San Diego. The next few weeks will be focused on recovery and building strength to prevent another muscular disaster.
The funny thing about ultras is that no matter how crushed and broken I am at the end of a race, I always walk (hobble) away wanting more.
On Sunday Steph and I made our way back to Squamish where she ran her first trail race, the Squamish 23km. She had an awesome run and beat her goal time with a smile on her face. It was great to see the race from another perspective and cheer on runners in the 50km and 23km events.
Gary Robbins and his crew of amazing volunteers did an exceptional job putting on the entire weekend. If you haven’t run one of his races, go sign up now. You wont regret it.