Fear and Loafing in Manning Park – Fat Dog 70 Race Recap

Today my feet look almost normal. Since running the Fat Dog 70, they have been swollen and puffy like baby feet – especially the right one.

Now, a week after the race, I find myself sitting on the sofa with my baby feet elevated, wondering what is wrong with me. Why, not a week after running 70 miles in one day, do I find myself contemplating the logistics of running even farther? What’s happening inside my mind (and body) that would cause such a clear defiance of logic?

When I made the decision to enter the 70-mile race I was definitely scared. The Fat Dog 120 has a reputation for being extremely tough, very remote, and a little unpredictable. Still, I had been seduced by the race reports, podcast interviews and Project Talaria’s fabulous race films. Although I was signing up for the 70-mile version of the race, not the full 120, I’d never run more than 50. So when my pointer landed on the “Register” button on Ultrasignup I felt only one emotion: fear.

I registered in December of 2015, a full eight months before the race. I had completed my first 50-miler in September and, in a cloud of post-race euphoria, had immediately decided that it wasn’t enough: I hadn’t suffered enough; I hadn’t gone to that mythical “dark place” that so many ultra-runners talk about. Not that I have a thing for suffering, but then again, do I?

Such is my conundrum with running ultra distances – I’m compelled to do it but I don’t know why. When I consider the race on paper: “114 km, 16-20 hours, 4000 m of climbing, one day,” it all seems totally insane. But when I mash it all together so it abstracts and put it in the context of my entire life: it’s just one day. A day that could be spent at work, or relaxing by the ocean, or binge-watching House of Cards. “Just one day. How bad could it be?”

But back to the fear. The numbers are scary enough, but then there’s the fact that the course winds through forest and over several peaks in the Cascade Mountains – I’d be out in remote wilderness with hours between aid stations; no teenagers handing out cups of Gatorade every couple of clicks. I would need to be ready for anything, which means gear, lots of gear. The mandatory equipment list included: two emergency blankets, two light sources, a full set of clothes, gloves, a rain jacket, food and a minimum of two litres of water. All told, 7-8 lbs that I would be required to carry for the duration of the race. Further, the course’s level of difficulty guaranteed that I would  be running the last leg in total darkness. And don’t even get me started on the topic of bears.

The subtext of all of this is: don’t die. No, really… don’t.

Fat Dog 70 is a point-to-point race that starts at the top of Blackwell Peak, across the highway from Manning Park Resort. From there, you follow a trail called Heather through some alpine meadows and minor climbs before a long, long descent. It’s an understatement to say that the scenery is spectacular. You are mostly exposed with a panorama of rocky peaks as far as the eye can see. You traverse grassy, wild-flower filled meadows and awe-inspiring scree fields that drop off for hundreds of feet beside the trail.

Fat-Dog-70-start

The first part of the race was casual and easy-going, with plenty of conversation and “tourist” moments. There were a few small climbs, in the 250 m range, and though I was trying to exercise my “no-effort-early” race strategy my legs felt like they’d never known a hill before. I kept a handy course elevation profile on a tiny piece of paper in my back pocket. Glancing at it periodically, I was concerned that these little peaks, the Three Brothers, barely warranted a squiggle compared to what was to come.

Fat-Dog-70-Course-Profile

The 70-miler starts 50 miles into the 120 mile course. This results in what becomes a “token” aid station at the 4k mark. The first “real” aid, then, is at Nicomen Lake which at 20 km, is a long gap, even by ultra standards.

Fat Dog has two types of aid stations: Major ones, in parks and areas with easy road access, and Minor ones, which are literally out in the bush. These aid stations are only “minor” because they are remote, well away from any roads, and it takes a huge amount of dedication and effort to set up and work them. All supplies, including gallons and gallons of water must be hiked in, and at the end of the race, what isn’t used must be hiked back out. Nicomen Lake was one such station and after almost a half-marathon it appeared, like an oasis in the trees.

In addition to food, aid stations offer many things: relief, support, mini-goals and opportunities to see friendly faces and family after what can be hours alone on the trail, but something that I discovered that day is that they are also like doorways. There is a phenomenon that I experience, more often than I prefer, that when I walk from one room into another I will lose the thought stream that I was just in the midst of. A team of researchers at the University of Notre Dame has done a study on this “doorway effect”, which supports a theory that some memories have a useful shelf-life, after which they disappear to be replaced by something new. Perhaps there’s some evolutionary basis to this: as you can’t hold on to every single memory, the brain purges some short-term memories based on circumstances to make room for more current, relevant information.

Early in a long race like Fat Dog, you may not need the real goods that an aid station provides as much as you will later. Your own food and water supplies are still okay, your feet are still relatively fresh, and the suffering has not yet begun, but aid stations facilitate a form of mental reset. You can walk through that doorway and forget all the thought-patterns that were swirling around your head and replace them with something more useful. Or maybe a just a new ear-worm.

Leaving Nicomen, I knew that there was 18 km (another long way!) to the next station at Cayuse Flats. From there it was only another 8 km to my first major goal, the aid station at Cascade, where I would see my family. The voice in my head said: “It’s a long way to Cayuse, but once I get there, a mere 8 km to my family, and lunch.”

The rockier, exposed aspects of Heather Trail give way to a rooty and forested descent to Cayuse Flats. Though mostly runnable, you descend for a long time. When you think you’ve reached the bottom, it descends some more. You keep on descending before finally reaching a steep descent to a river crossing spanned by a couple of giant logs, the marker that you’ve reached Cayuse Flats aid station.

Fat-Dog-70-Khai
Heather Trail

Long downhills are a blessing and a curse. Run wisely, and you can save a lot of energy but because the impact forces are much greater than on the flats, you’re always treading a fine line between free speed and pounding your legs into pudding. I also experience more foot abuse running downhills, with black toenails, corns and blisters to show for it. After about 10k of descent, my body was starting to object, and I could feel the spectre of doubt creeping into my consciousness. “Ooh, my hips and back are really tight, and is that a blister forming on my big toe? I am one-third into this race, if this gets worse and worse… if…if…if…” But it was only 8 more km to Cascade, where Elise and our kids would be waiting.

As I left Cayuse, I heard someone ask: “only 8 k?” To which someone else responded: “yeah, but it’s deceiving.” The course map showed the Cayuse-Cascade section running beside the Crowsnest Highway but what was not apparent was that the trail climbed up and down the side of the adjacent mountain. At times you could look to your left and see the highway hundreds of feet below you. As I hiked up yet another steep incline, I was starting to feel like Sisyphus, the disgraced king from Greek mythology whose punishment was to push a boulder up to the top of a hill, only to watch it roll back to the bottom – for all eternity. But it was only eight more kilometres.

I started to have difficulty fantasies: daydreaming about how difficult a task I was involved in. “This is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.” Or more accurately, “if this gets harder and harder and I finish this thing, it will definitely be the hardest thing I have ever done.” But then I realized it wasn’t so much that it was the hardest thing that I had ever done, but that I was projecting forward to when I would meet Elise and I would tell her about how this was the hardest thing I had ever done, and how cathartic it would be to tell her this when in fact, in that isolated moment, it really wasn’t.

When I stumbled into Cascade aid station at 46 km, predictably, I said to Elise: “this is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I think I may need to recalibrate my goals.” I was feeling rough and starting to give serious consideration to the question of whether I would make it to the finish line. I didn’t know if the soles of my feet were going to hold out, or my hips. I chugged back some high fat yoghurt while Elise helped me prepare for the next leg. I wouldn’t see her again until the 50 mile mark so I was concerned that I would not have enough food for the next 35 km. She stuffed most of what she had into various pockets on my pack and said “Remember, you are in the most beautiful place in the world!”

The next three kilometres were the lone stretch of course that was not on trail. It was 1 pm, we were closing in on peak heat and if you had asked me what I wanted to do at that precise moment, I would not have told you: “I want to put on an enormous, sweaty, fluorescent yellow safety vest and run 3 km down the side of the highway.” But that’s what I did. As my family drove by me screaming and hooting out the windows in encouragement, all I could muster was a slightly raised hand and a nausea-induced grimace. The highway was noisy, oncoming traffic was fast and aggressive and the day-glow vest was like a portable greenhouse. I pulled into Sumallo Aid Station and eagerly discarded the vest, grabbed some bacon (mmm, bacon) for the road and passed a fellow racer having a heart-felt conversation with an aid station volunteer about dropping out: “…but you’ve made it this far…” said the volunteer. At least I was still moving forward.

Another doorway.

All of sudden: buttery forest trail, a cool mountain creek and mildly undulating terrain. The 17 km stretch between Sumallo and Shawatum aid stations is a bit of a blur, but I found myself running again, feeling the soft, forgiving ground under my feet, marvelling at the giant, old-growth cedars and stopping occasionally to dip my hat into a cool creek. The rugged difficulty of the first 50 k had been replaced by much gentler terrain, and just in time.

My goals renewed: 17 km to aid, then 15 to Elise (at Skyline Aid Station). After that, I felt like if I had to hike the rest of the way, I could and would. Before the race, I had figured a finishing time of 17 to 18 hours, but as I ran, my perspective changed. I stopped fixating on the idea of finishing and started focusing on the reality of the 17 or 18 hours. This was not a running race, it was an endurance race. It was not a tidy little package that I could fit into a morning, and then be home in time for dinner and a movie. It was a messy, scrappy, scrabble to the finish, filled with mud and blood, sweat and mosquito bites, so I’d better just settle in for the ride.

Suddenly I had a keen sense of “just being out here” and strange comfort in the idea that all I needed to do was to keep moving forward and relax into the experience of it. Thinking about what came before, or what was ahead, except in the most practical terms, had no place here. Pressure and expectation melted away and with it, stress and suffering. I ran when I was able, and when I that became too much, I walked with purpose. It was all very surprising.

Shawatum aid station was lovely. The group of volunteers and runners that had congregated cheered everyone who came in. They had pizza, an outhouse labelled: the “Shawatty potty” and they just wanted to help. I left with spirits buoyed but unable to run, so I walked for a while. Just 15 more kilometres and then the “big hike.”

The section from Shawatum to Skyline – more rolling forest single track – introduced a new motivating factor: bugs. If I didn’t want to turn into a parasite buffet, I had to run. Though I cursed the little blood-suckers as I ran, I do owe them some gratitude for helping me pick up the pace.

At Skyline, Elise had gathered from the aid station volunteers that the average time for the final leg was 9 hours, and some runners were trying for five. Having had a lot of time to contemplate this in the last 30k, I estimated how long it would take me. By my calculations, hiking 13 km up a mountain to the next aid station would take me around 3 hours. Even if I did a moderate walk the rest of the way, at say 12-minute/km pace, I could finish the final 20 km in four hours. “I think seven hours,” I told her. Here was further proof that my attitude had shifted. It was 6 pm and after 50 miles and eleven hours of running, I had just told my wife that I was going for a seven hour hike – and this DID NOT SEEM INSANE. It was merely a statement of fact.

As I started up Lone Goat Mountain, which offers about 1250 m of elevation over 10k, I immediately felt terrible. My normally iron gut was squishy and the tightness in my shoulders from years of computer work was turning my hydration pack into a monkey with a death grip. Each footfall seemed torturously slow.

View-from-the-top
An actual view along the Fat Dog course

Then I had a minor revelation, or at least something that seems like a revelation when you are strung out in the midst of running 100 km. “My shoulders are killing me, so what if I use some walking sticks to support my arms?” The sides of the trail were littered with fallen branches. I found two of suitable length, gripped them, and marched on. My kids, both boys, love finding sticks to play with, but as they are usually used as weapons, I’ve had little appreciation for them. But these sticks! On the fly, in the most caveman of ways, I had discovered the profound mechanical advantage of trekking poles.

The sticks relieved my shoulder pain and more than that, they helped me get into a rhythm. My legs felt lighter, my stride stronger. My upper body, which had been largely neglected for the last 12 hours, had fresh strength to give. Dana Krakaw, (3rd place woman), danced by me, poles delicately clicking. Then Chloe Gendron (second place woman) and her pacer marched steadily by me, poles swinging rhythmically. There was a trekking pole party going on and I had inadvertently crashed it.

By the time I reached the top of the first peak, I was running again and feeling stronger, and having something of a love affair with a pair of sticks. The sun was well down at this point and the drama and majesty of the moment was almost overwhelming. Under the light of the gibbous moon, sharp peaks silhouetted in the darkness all-around, I was moving through the cool air, alone, guided by a circle of light from my headlamp and the next reflective trail marker, shining like a beacon in the distance. I paused every now and again just to hear the silence (and distant whooping of a fellow runner).

Then, a cowbell: I was approaching Camp Mowich, a truly remote aid station where warm people and warm coffee awaited. Under the stars, the romance was not lost on me. They urged me to take food, as whatever wasn’t eaten would need to be packed out, but strangely, I was not hungry, just eager to push on. My sticks carried me to the final aid station at Sky Junction, which appeared out of the inky blackness, literally on the side of a mountain. Just being there, finally cracking 100 km, being offered a slice of salami and a soft seat to rest for a moment, I felt immense gratitude – the aid station team was so welcoming and kind. Nearing midnight in the middle of nowhere, I passed through the final doorway onto the final leg home.

But more challenges lay ahead: three “small” summits to clear, the second of which was so steep it reduced me, cursing, to a hobble, before the final long descent to Lightning Lakes, and the finish. From the top of the mountain, the trail dropped off, steep and rocky. A man in a tent emerged to say: “Almost there! 7 km to go and it’s all downhill.” I picked away at the initial steep, technical section, before plunging below the tree line and onto long runnable switchbacks. I tucked in behind a 120-miler and her pacer, who still had legs at the end of their long journey, and we cruised down the final descent with what seemed like speed – it was the perfect grade to just roll. Now, holding my newfound stick friends in each hand, I fantasized about carrying them to the finish line and showing them to my boys, glowing with my new appreciation for dead wood. Then my foot caught a root and I crashed hard, breaking them both.

I picked myself up and carried on without my faithful sticks, our five-hour relationship coming to a painful end. At the bottom of the descent the course markers were replaced by glow sticks. I didn’t know the exact distance remaining to the finish line, but I found myself running as fast as I could, feeling no pain. I didn’t know how long I’d be able to keep up the pace and I did pause for a moment to wonder if I could. But if there was one resounding lesson I learned that day, it was: don’t have doubts based on some possible future, what matters is how you feel right now. And now, I felt like running hard and running home.

So was it the hardest thing I’ve ever done? The answer is: it doesn’t matter. It was difficult and spectacular and painful and joyful and an experience like nothing else I’ve had before. Yes it was hard, but it was so much more. At the beginning of the journey I was filled with expectation and a little dread. By the end, it had all been stripped away. The only way that I was going to get through it was to crowd out thoughts of what might be, and what had been, and just keep moving.

I haven’t come any closer to answering the question “why?”, but I think I’ve learned that sometimes you don’t need to ask – that answers don’t always come from questions, sometimes they just come from taking the next step.

Fat-Dog-Swag
And great swag too!

Post Script:

Fat Dog is an amazing and special race put on by passionate and dedicated people. Despite my fears, there was never a time during the race when I had any real reason to be scared. The course markings were excellent – it would have been difficult to get lost. And the volunteers were truly awesome. If you don’t think you can run 40, 50, 70 or even 120 miles, don’t be so sure.

A huge thanks and massive hat tip to Race Directors Heather MacDonald and Peter Watson of Mountain Madness for putting on a race that fulfills its promise of being one of the toughest and most scenic ultras in the country.

And thank you Elise for supporting my habit, wrangling our kids, and for putting in seven hours of driving that day to help me during the race.

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