Whistler Alpine Meadows - 110km Course
Every race seems to be an adventure filled journey, but WAM truly takes the cake this year for most adventurous and turbulent races. This year offered the inaugural 110km course, in addition to the 55km, 25km, and 12km courses. Just like the racers, this 110km was not going down without a fight.
WAM, where to begin. Should I review the events leading up to the race? As a recap from the emails in the weeks prior and from the pre-race briefing:
Trail closures due to Grizzlies (foreshadowing….)
Trail closures due to more Grizzlies, rumour has it a pregnant Grizzly at that
New permits required for access to other trails for us to run on
Snow in the alpine and frigid temperatures predicted for race day(s)
I am sure there were others that the CMTS crew did not even bring up and dealt with before we could all know .. so let’s just leave a number 5 here for the anonymous almost cancellation-worthy #5.
So, all of that aside, the race went on!
I would like to start off by saying THANK YOU to all those who lost sleep over the above 1-5 challenges, and to those who lost sleep while volunteering on course throughout the 28 hour period that this race occurred over. There are likely some of you who lost more sleep that I did and for that I would like to say THANK YOU.
I would also like to say, I am sorry (don’t bother saying I shouldn’t apologize because I am Canadian so I will).
This race came to an end for me at 88km and one of the most challenging parts of this decision, apart from making sure I was medically safe, was giving in when I knew how many hours other people had put in. They put more hours into making this race happen than I did on course and that was (is) really freakin’ hard to accept. So thank you and I am sorry I did not stay out those extra hours and hit that finish line.
Ok, now let’s work backwards through the on-course ups and downs of what went on!
1-40km, Climbing: Things were going really well and I was in the lead for women. I felt so strong and so happy. I was running up a lot of gradual climbing which I did not anticipate being able to do. I zipped through the first aid station (first mistake) and kept pushing along just behind the lead racers. Once I reached the alpine I had the first inkling that I was hungrier than I should be and had not drank as much as I should have. I had consumed roughly 1L in about 30km and had another 10km before the next aid station, so as much as I wanted to drink everything to catch up I would not be able to refill for a while. So I got hungry and trucked on and stocked up at the aid station when I got there. I stopped to use the real outhouse (it was heated inside, I do not regret this one bit) but this is where I was passed by the woman who would eventually win the race.
40 - 55km, Descending: Ok, here is where my earlier mistakes first kicked in. With my hunger in place and me trying to make up for fuelling by having frequent gels and a few snacks I slipped a little into hangry mode and for most of my descent, which was slick-mucky and not my usual enthusiastic run downhill, I debated dropping at 55km. I actually told myself I would and that it would be ok. Then I texted Matt (my boyfriend and crew) and requested a cookie and a coke. He picked out the perfect soft, chocolatey, espresso cookie and it did the trick. Well, that and him pretty much refusing to drive me home from there. My favourite trick I did not know he had up his sleeve was him suggesting we ask the crowd at the aid station to vote on if I should continue or not! Though in the moment I threatened to never talk to him again and deeply wanted to cry, I changed my clothes, took my cookie, said thank you and went back on the course.
55km - 70km, Climbing: I headed back up telling myself this was the right thing, I had a cookie in one hand and a bag of potatoes in the other. I passed another fellow racer and strong ultra runner I have had the pleasure of racing with before who was heading back down to call it a day. Though I was very jealous, I also knew I was not done fighting yet. I did not have a physical reason to quit, I was feeling strong, I just needed to eat my potatoes and cookie and walk uphill. So I did. While chatting (expressing my jealousy) with the racer turning back the next female passed me, taking over her 2nd place (which I believe she finished in). In my mind I was walking up, however that looked for a good few hours and then I would push to catch her on the downhill. I knew I needed to eat and just grind out the work. Half way up I hit my second wave of what I will call the ‘I dont wannas.’ This time I called a friend. Thank you for cell reception, as in this moment I really wanted someone to tell me it was ok to turn around and call it a day and it was ok to not push on. You can probably guess what Katrina actually said…”it is supposed to suck, it’s not going to be easy, you are strong, you tell me these exact things, it’s ok that it’s hard.” F*#@% my friends are so wise and as stubborn as I am. Again, up I went. After that call I did change my thoughts. I knew it wasn’t meant to or going to be easy. I knew I was strong. I knew I was LUCKY to be feeling physically well enough to be where I was and at the time that I was. It was only like 2 or 3pm. So here, I took all the words I heard from the people I trusted and I moved up the mountain. I reached the top. I knew there were 2 more ‘false summits’ I had marked in my head and I knew I could get my other two favourite foods of the day at the aid station (pancakes and pickles!). I filled up my bag and pushed to get through the mountain top terrain and hit the beautiful descent to the village aid station. In my mind I was reset, I put on podcasts, naturally listening to the Science of Ultra, reinforcing just how capable the human body is. I pushed on and focused on getting to the downhill. I ate pancakes and I plugged away at the kilometers.
70 - 88km, Descending: The wheels came off. Initially I thought to myself, ok this is fatigue at a high elevation, when you head down it will all feel better. But I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t push the last climb, literally stopping every time I tried to push like my legs were letting me. My breath went sporadic and panicky. Ok, now for all the things I always push upon others, happy mantras, fake smiling, think of jokes (I have some great ones), think of people and your dog, remind yourself this is your happy place, use your 4 second box breathing, ok try 4 in 6 out. This all went along with repetitive walk / run intervals. Trying to catch more than 200m of running before keeling over to catch my breath. Paired with some frustration and crying on roughly every 3rd attempt. Then I would laugh at how I was being the emotional runner (also known as creating my own breathing problems) and go through my positive self talk and try again. I truly knew all I wanted was to run and I would get a little further and then…nope. My chest felt tight and wheezy, I stayed calm and accepted the walk. I tried for roughly 3km before giving in to the power walk. It was faster than the run/walk/stop pattern. I cried a bit more, because I felt so done with fighting.
I went back through the race and knew I had made a few errors, but also felt really strong physically. I knew other people were struggling as well and that this was never supposed to be easy. No one was any more comfortable than I was, in fact I was quite sure there were some people who were way less comfortable. So what the heck was this crap? Why couldn’t I just catch my breath. It might have been a huge combination of all the evils I found and maybe raised throughout the day. My over analyzing human brain would like to think it could have been all of these factors combined:
The hunger that should have been avoided through smarter prep and taking the full day into consideration
A lacking ‘why’ in this race for me. My goal was to see the course and WAM was a bit of a bonus race in my calendar. A fun bonus where I want to see a course maybe isn’t enough when I have to see it twice to finish…
Hangry based thinking that likely caused greater fatigue and intolerance to the stress the 2nd and 3rd time around,
A pre-set idea that this would take between 16-18 hours and a true disinterest in spending 20 or more hours on course. 20 hours in retrospect, is a very admirable time on this course.
As I walked down, I tried to keep a brisk pace and still found that with any slight uphill or any quick jog I could muster up, my breathing would go sharp and my chest would feel tight. So I gave in to walking a steady pace to stay warm enough (as it was now dark and rainy). I was so grateful for every runner that passed (weird to say) and I did not want to cause them any concern or share any negativity so I often just said “Hi”, “Have fun”, and urged them to carry on. My ATRC friend Mike came along, I was so happy to see a familiar face. I let him know what was going on and he offered support including messaging my crew in advance so they would know what was up. He carried on (to a hugely successful finish, Go Mike!) and I walked the final kilometers until my amazing, supportive, ugh just the best in the world, friends, boyfriend, and dog, came up the trail to find me. They walked the last kilometer out with me, offering nothing but support. Somehow this time around they knew I was not going to be convinced to move on. I was done and so so so deeply happy to be done. I walked the final 12km of my race, all downhill. This was heartbreaking, confusing, very foreign, and had me feeling every emotion possible.
I knew what I would have done differently and I knew that at 55km I was not done. I needed to dig deeper and push another 33km. I needed to see what would come up and I needed to experience my first DNF on a race that pushed me in ways I have never been challenged before. I have had hard races, I have pushed my limits, but I have never had a truly TOUGH race where I spent hours wanting to be anywhere else. After all, the trails are my happy places, so having to push myself to stay on them was strange and new. Now I know where my mind goes when things get really tough. I’ll be ready for it next time and I also know how I want to plan my next year. I say this every year but maybe finally I can mean it. I will have true goal races like Transelkirks this year, and I won’t use the hardest, biggest distance race as a fun extra. If I do, I’ll know why I want to and it will be for the growth, the hours on trail, and the over night adventure.
I am proud of my fight and my push past the 55km mark. I know I need a few days to recover and let my breathing return to normal and chest to loosen. Maybe there’s a bug in there, but I think more than anything it is just fatigue.
WAM felt like being chewed up and spit out, but not in the beastly way, more in the cow chewing cud way where it gnawed on slowly but relentlessly until I was a pile of mush. But, hey! Like any ultra runner, I am truly beyond grateful for the race and for the community of trail races. I can’t thank you all enough for this amazing season! It has been more than I could have ever imagined. I finally went out harder than I should have, something I have been trying to get myself to do all year. And now, some R&R, wine, and building next years calendar.