Finlayson arm 100km. Just, wow. A 100km course, packed with more than 6000m of elevation gain, where the highest point is something like 450m above sea level. I knew there would be a lot of up and down, and I had heard the trails were relatively technical in nature, but I still had no idea what I was in for as I attempted to conquer this course in its inaugural year.
The course is two “laps” of the 50km course, which is a beast in of itself. Each lap is actually an out and back, with a small section at the turnaround and near the finish that creates a small loop. You end up going out 28 km, and coming back 23, so the course total must really end up being closer to 102km? Don’t worry though, you’re not all that likely to feel like you’re repeating the same terrain twice since you will almost certainly get to do it once in the dark, and once in daylight. One of the interesting quirks of the race is that it starts at 5pm so that even the fastest can’t get away without running through the full night. As it does in early September, the sun set on Vancouver Island around 8pm and rose around 7am, so I braced myself for 11 hours of quality time with my head lamp.
The race began with about 1km of nice, enjoyable, mellow trail. Other runners around me joked that we better run this section, even if there were some hills, because it was one of the only runnable sections of the course. We then dropped under an overpass and were forced to run through a river for a very short, but completely unavoidable section that left everyone no choice but to embrace wet feet. I emerged from the creek and squish-squish-squished my wet feet up the trail, managing a mix between running and powerhiking for another 5km or so with minimal effort. The road runner in me enjoyed a few hundred metres of flat, paved road until we joined up with the trail up Mount Finlayson, which gave me a run for my money. The trail became steep, then it became more of a staircase of roots until we emerged from the trees and essentially climbed up a bunch of increasingly steep slabs, the “trail” marked by orange arrows drilled into the rock. It was fun, and I grateful to be wearing my La Sportivas (once again) which I feel are built for this kind of terrain, when the worlds of trail running and rock climbing seem to collide. I wish I had stopped to take a photo here, since the views down to the ocean were spectacular. Luckily I would get to enjoy them from the top of a few more climbs.
I wanted to finish in 18 hours, which meant I had to cover 5.5km per hour on average. This felt totally achievable, but when I rolled into the 1st aid station around 2 hours, barely on pace, I started to become doubtful. I wasn’t even tired yet, but I was having trouble moving quickly, and only 11km in, I started to feel my goal slipping away. I set out from the first aid station, poles in hand, bracing for the sun to set, which it did about an hour later.
I moved steadily along the trail, mostly in solitude, and most of the 11 ish km to the next aid station blurred together in a series of moderate ups and downs. The only thing that stuck out was what felt like a brutally long descent, punctuated by wooden steps built into the trail. I felt lonely, and as I neared the aid station, my morale picked up when I saw the headlamp of a runner bouncing along the trail ahead, disappearing as the trail wound from side to side and up and down. Each time the light came back into view, it was closer and closer, and I felt a surge of positive energy to know that I was actually catching up to someone else. I heard the unmistakable sound of a woman cursing loudly in the night as I came over a hill and looked down to see a lady knocked on her ass.
Me: “Aw, did you bail”
Lady: “Well I wouldn’t be sitting on my ass on the trail for fun now would I”
Sassy. I like her.
She seemed okay, picked herself off the ground and we puttered down the descent together. I think she was in a bad mood from the tumble because she didn’t seem all that stoked when I tried to make conversation (or maybe she just couldn’t hear me too well). But by the time we finished the descent and started up the last climb to the next aid station she had become chattier and I learned her name was Iris, from Calgary. We bonded over our shared horror at the HUGE DISGUSTING SLUGS all over the god damned trail. I swear these things were the size of hot dogs and I shuddered at what would happen if I happened to step on one of them. But they were kind of cool.
Aid stations are extra magical at night and I was so stoked to arrive at the cluster of Hawaiian themed tents, glowing with lights and sea-shell-bra-clad volunteers that was the Ross-Durrance aid station. I didn’t feel bad, but I didn’t feel good, and I still couldn’t get over how slow I felt I was going. The aid stations were bomb, and I shoveled warm quesadilla pieces, bacon and potatoes into my face. Joedy was there crewing Jayden (who would later finish in second place in a display of total badassery), and even though I’ve only met him briefly once or twice, it was nice to see a familiar face around.
The next aid station was the official turnaround at 28km and was only 5km from the luau station, you just had to climb up and over a mountain to get there. The climb was sustained and had some more technical parts where you were scrambling up and over slabs, but I was energized because I started to see runners on their way back from the turnaround, and the night felt less lonely. The descent came quickly and which the first few hundred metres were a technical bitch, the trail opened up into easy, runnable single track, and then wide, soft trail as I cruised into the aid station.
More familiar faces as I got to see Kevin “Kev-Bob” Swayze, a new friend made during the Squamish 50/50 weekend, which gave me a boost at the 28km turnaround. I was tempted to stay, but forced myself back out and enjoyed the runnable sections before the climb up and over Mt. Work again. I don’t even remember the climb so it cant have been so bad, but I remember feeling the wheels start to come off during the descent and by the time I rolled back into the tropical Hawaain age station the DNF thoughts were circulating in my head. I felt tired, and slow, and unmotivated and just plain blagh. Iris rolled into the aid station after me and she could tell I was in a low, so suggested we leave together and I took her up on that offer.
Everything fell to shit in the next hour. I felt myself sinking deeper into a low, and if the descent on the way into the aid station had felt long, the climb out felt endless. I was like one of the slugs, lethargically and half-assedly slinking my way up the trail. I felt slow, and any additional effort felt like so much work for marginal increases in speed that my motivation to try leaked away. I started to really acknowledge that I was not going to finish this thing in 18 hours and as I tried to accept that it might take me 20, or 24, or 26, I started to add up the additional number of hours I had left and I just lost it. I had not mentally prepared myself to be out on the course that long, and when I realized that’s how it was going to be, I crumbled. There was a dude having equally as much fun, if not more, behind me. I heard him steadily puking up the trail in my wake.
At 12:30am I sat down in the crunchy leaves and decided to quit (making sure to face downhill, in case puker-dude caught up). I told myself that if I couldn’t complete the course “fast”, then I didn’t care if I finished at all. Tears bubbled over and started streaming down my face, and I called Antoine just to have someone to talk to. Eventually it occurred to me that to quit, I still had to get somewhere to actually quit. For the next 8-9 km / 2.5 hours, my desire to quit was unwavering and constant. Hey, at least I was sticking to something! I started to go crazy, feeling like I was doing the exact same climbs and trails over and over as the path undulated in the night. I was so relieved to run into two volunteers at, according to my watch, about 1.5 km from the aid station. I asked them how far it was and when they told me 4-5km and another hour, nothing added up and I could not mentally cope with the fact that I was NOT FUCKING THERE YET. My spirits rose slightly as I started to see one, then two runners coming back in the opposite direction. That meant they had completed the entire first loop and were heading out for number two, about 20-25km ahead of me.
Glowing Christmas lights lit the tunnel of trees for the last 100 metres into Rowntree, and I must say, THAT made me smile. I saw Jayden, now in third place, and he extended a friendly “Elizabethhhhhhhhh!” which lifted my spirits, but not enough. He was continuing his second lap, looking strong, but before he left he said “So do you feel like this course is repeatedly punching you in the face too!?” Why yes, yes I do!
I was able to lay low for a few minutes, I put my head in my hands and let more tears flow silently. I took my pack off, and that got some attention from the aid station volunteers, and a few of the volunteers took turns trying to get me off the DNF ledge. They tried some pretty good tactics!
“Okay so, why don’t you just do the next 6km to the next aid station and then see!?”
“The next section is downhill and lot easier!”
I do not believe you.
“I’ll run the first few hundred metres out with you, let’s go!”
Ohhhhh, that one almost got me! But no.
The volunteers could not have been more supportive or encouraging, with just the right amount of “get the fuck up and go”, but I knew what they were trying to do, and it was not going to work on me. I thought about everything I tried on runners at the Moosepackers aid station where I volunteered for Iron Legs 50 miler/100km a few weeks ago. I knew the tricks, but I was determined not to let them work on me. I thought about runners that we had convinced not to DNF that day at Iron Legs, and I tried to think who I reminded myself of. There was this one girl that day named Sam who came into the aid station looking horrendous, but I could tell by looking at her, she was fine. Her legs were fine, she was keeping food down, she was just full-on suffering mentally as exhibited by her puffy red eyes and steady flow of tears. That was me, I could do this but I was being lazy and about to let the suffering win today. (Sam finished her 50 mile race, btw).
The volunteers persisted for a while. “Guys, just let me suck, okay?”, I protested, half laughing and half crying. Eventually, as more runners trickled in, they left me alone, and I officially dropped at 44km and 10 ish hours. It was around 3am, and I didn’t want to wake up my friend to come pick me up until morning, so I crawled into a tent and tried to sleep time away. Unfortunately, when I laid down, my body turned into a phlegm-factory and I had to hack up a lung ever 0.5 seconds in order to keep breathing, so I gave up on the sleep thing pretty quick and sheepishly wandered outside to at least watch runners come through and hang out the super awesome aid station gang. Maybe they would think I was less of a quitting quitty-face loser if they got to know me. ALSO, there was a puppy husky there that was possibly the cutest thing I have ever seen in my life, and puppies make everything better.
I ate quesadillas and broth. The volunteers heckled me every now and then, and I watched other runners come through as I sat bundled in a warm blanket, cozy in my chair. I watched the last woman come and go on to finish her first lap. The wheels started to turn as I sat there and time passed. I’m stuck here for a few more hours, why don’t I at least go and run? What am I doing? Why don’t I just try? Do I really want to leave this warm, blanket-wrapped chair?
“Am I allowed to undrop?”, I said out loud, half regretting it. It was 5:15 am and I had 1 hour and 45 minutes to do 6km, to make the start line cutoff at 7am. Pfft, I could do that. I had already been updated to “dropped” on the online results, and no one was totally sure if I was actually able to undrop, but they told me I better get on my way and that when I got back to the start line, someone could tell me.
I bolted out, the sky still dark, but feeling energized. The volunteers hadn’t been lying, the next 6km was much cruisier and I was able to run and make good time. I hoped to make it into the aid station at 6:30am, and to start lap two with a 30 minute cutoff buffer. I started to grasp how badly I did want this, how important it was to me to finish even if I barely squeaked under the cutoff and was literally in dead last place (which I think I was). My mind trailed off as the sun came up, and suddenly I found myself back by the road, and realized I was on course, but not the right part of the course. I backtracked to where I had taken a turn, but then couldn’t figure out where I had come from, which direction was which, and where I should go. The entire course was marked impeccably, but my brain wasn’t working and I had sent myself in circles. I pulled out the course map and google maps, literally wandering around to understand which way I was facing, and I just couldn’t make sense of it. I bled about 20 minutes and panic brewed in my belly. I eventually concluded that there was only one way that made any remote sense and just went for it. There were course markings, I just wasn’t sure if I was going backwards on the course. Lucky for me I picked the right way, and before long I was back at the start line aid station with 8 minutes to spare.
I liked the 8 minute buffer much less than the 30 minute buffer and I was a wreck. More tears came (I need to make it a goal to cry less during races) as I was overwhelmed with the rollercoaster that had been the last two hours. I saw Myke, the race director, and he assured me I was good to go and still in the race. The best part was the 50km race was 8 minutes from starting, so every single 50km runner saw me roll in there like a drowned rat, simultaneously stuffing pierogis into my face and crying before getting out of dodge as fast as I could. As a side note, highly recommend pierogis as ultra fuel, kudos to whoever made that call. I had covered 51km in 14 hours. WTF.
I was texting with Stef, she had seen that I dropped online, but I updated her that I was back in and I was getting this shit done, only I used more swearwords that I probably shouldn’t even post here. I was 200% committed to finishing now. I tried to move as quickly as possible as I knew shortly, there would be approximately 150 50km runners that would overtake me one by one, and I was eager to get out of their way. I arrived at the river crossing for the second time, and saw a 100km runner staggering back towards me, going the wrong direction, all zombie-like.
Me: You alright dude?
Dude: Yeah, I just fell asleep on a bench for a few hours and couldn’t figure out where I was, I’m done.
Me:……….are you SURE?
Dude: Well, it’s too late now anyways right?
Me: Nope. We’re about 8 minutes ahead of the cutoff. You want to stick with me?
And off we went. I soon learned that said dude was named Leon, and we stuck together for the next 7 hours. I would have dropped out another 5 times if it weren’t for him, but I knew he wouldn’t let me, and I wouldn’t let him. We were both happy to hike as much as we needed to, and run when we could, and we would both randomly repeat “we are getting this shit done”, “I want beer”,”I am never doing this course again” several times throughout the day. I hit a very bad low after the climb up Mt Finlayson and felt so bad I didn’t think I could take another step, my energy was pooched. It was raining and cool, and I had slowed so much during the climb that I don’t think I was moving fast enough to keep my body warm and I sat down on the ground again, dizzy and deciding to drop at the next aid station, if I could even get there.
“You are not dropping. If I hadn’t seen you, I would have dropped, so you are coming with me and that’s that” Leon said.
We made it to the next aid station, now with a 15 minute cutoff buffer, and set out as quickly as possible. I felt good again, and was back to 200% certainty we would finish! Over the next few hours, we started to see more and more 100km and 50km runners coming back from the turnaround. It was amazing how horrible we felt, but how pleasant we could be as we cheerfully said hello to everyone that passed. We joked about how the front pack 50km runners looked in worse shape than us, probably because this would not be an easy course to push the pace on. This part of the course seemed foreign since we had completed it in the dark the night before, and we searched for milestones that would assure us we were moving along. I had felt that Leon and I were matched in our pace up until now, but as we neared the Hawaiian-themed aid station again, I could feel that I was slowing.
We left for the final 5km to the turnaround point, which begins with a steady and technical climb, then a pretty cruisey descent into Munn’s aid station. We had 90 minutes to do 5km, and I was getting worried that I was holding Leon back, and told him he needed to go ahead, and he did. I think he thought I would be right behind him, but my momentum slowed and I just couldn’t do it anymore. My feet had begun to burn with every single step. They were so soaked and trench-foot-ish. Without Leon by my side, I just couldn’t do it. I had never relied so heavily on someone as an emotional crutch during an ultra before and while I was sad our time on the trail had ended, I knew he needed to run his own race.
I was done, and I knew I wouldn’t make the cutoff at the rate I was going unless I pushed really hard, and I could not push really hard. The tears returned and my ass made a final appearance on the ground. I called my friend Karen and asked her to meet me at the next aid station, and it took everything in me just to get there. I ran into Leon about 10 minutes from the aid station and when he saw me he put his hands up in the air and screamed “YEAHHHHHHH!” into the woods. He told me he would wait for me at the finish line and I was like “Yeah! See you there!”. I think we both knew I wouldn’t be there. It was like that scene from Titanic where Leonardo De Caprio is all, “Yeah, I’ll get in the next life boat, don’t worry about me!” but we’re all like yeah, no, Leo is gonna die. I knew there was no boat left for me, I was going down with this ship.
I rolled into the aid station at 2:09, 9 minutes past the cutoff. The volunteers had pretty much packed up and Karen was there. I think I could have begged them to let me keep going if I wanted to, but I didn’t try, I wanted an out. I was really, really sad. I’m still pretty sad, actually. Once I dropped back in, I truly believed I would be able to finish. Leon finished with about 25 minutes to spare, by the way!
So that’s what happened. I’m still working to swallow my pride and accept my admittance to the DNF club. I liked labeling myself as someone who never quits and who had yet to DNF an ultra, so it’s hard to let go of that. But, I know that failures, or bad races, can prove to be an invaluable source of learning and motivation to light a fire within you, and help you to bring your best the next time. Barring serious injury or death, I WILL return to this race next year. And hard as I make it sound, its a GREAT challenge and a beautiful course supported by hilarious and awesome volunteers. So no one like, get married or do anything important September 7-9, 2018, cause I’m busy. Let me know if you want to come with…….