Start slow, finish fast: a lesson in pacing

This past Saturday, August 15th, marked the longest ultramarathon race that I have run to date, the Fat Dog 70Mile (~112km) race, held in beautiful Manning Park. With 4,055 metres of elevation gain and 4,800 metres of elevation loss, this course is both incredibly challenging and scenic, with the majority of the elevation gain occurring in the last 33km of the race.

I put this race on my calendar as my goal race for 2015 over 8 months ago, and I have been steadily working towards it ever since. It might sound counterintuitive, but I often treat races as training runs or simply as fun excuses to travel with friends – ie. I don’t often push myself into “race” mode, preferring instead to just “get ‘er done”. However, I knew that I wanted this race to be different. I wanted to do well, and I was willing to push myself outside of my comfort zone to do so.

In the final week before the race, I spoke extensively with coach Gary Robbins about the course and how to approach it. Because so much of the descent terrain falls near the beginning of the race (20km of downhill between KM 20 and 40 alone!), I knew that the key to the race was going to be pacing myself so that I didn’t go out too hard and blow out my quads early on. Trust me, that is easier said than done. When an entire race field takes off at a good clip down what looks like a flowy, downhill single track, my basic instincts start begging me to bomb down the slopes as well…knocking off 20 easy kilometres of descent must be a good thing, right?

However, if I’ve learned one thing in the year and a half that I’ve been with Ridgeline Athletics, it’s that Gary usually knows what he’s talking about. Ok fine, he always knows what he’s talking about (happy, Gary??). I’ve learned the hard way that it’s best to listen to him, and so for this race I was bound and determined to stick to “the plan”. Go slower than what feels painfully slow through the long downhill section, start to think about picking up the pace slightly once I make it through Cascade Aid Station (AS) at KM 46ish, but focus on saving my legs for the meat and potatoes of the race: the final and incredibly intimidating 32ishkm Skyline section of Fat Dog. With brutal climb after climb and punishing descents on tired legs, this section can reduce racers to a literal crawl. Average times through this section for the 70 mile race can range from 4.5 hours to 10 hours, and the thought of having jelly legs through the biggest climbs of the whole race totally terrified me.

Race weekend arrived, and Brice, my pacer/crew/driver extraordinaire and I set up shop at Coldspring campsite early Friday afternoon, just down the road from the finish line at Lightning Lakes. All seemed good – the weather was a bit humid but not that bad, high 20’s, with blue skies and some wispy clouds. Once we set up our campsite, we headed up to the top of Blackwell Peak to scope out the start line (my slightly-paranoid-self wanted to make sure that we knew where we were going for the start ahead of time, rather than finding out at 6am on race morning that we weren’t sure where to go). We arrived at the Heather trail junction without issues, and were treated to beautiful, sweeping vistas. It was chillier up there than I expected it to be, and with darker clouds moving in courtesy of a stiff wind, we grabbed our jackets and went for a shakeout stroll down the Heather trail. Not even 10 minutes down the trail, it became apparent that the weather was changing rapidly, and big fat raindrops soon punctuated our retreat to the parking lot. As we got back into the car, the storm hit. Thunder crashed around us, lightning forked through the sky, illuminating ridges as it sought the ground, and hail the size of chickpeas started to crash down around us.

During our escape down the mountain, cocooned in a dry, warm car as the weather wailed around us, all I could think about was the 120 mile racers, who were 6 hours into their race and no doubt right in the middle of the storm. (Horror stories that emerged from these poor, brave souls later confirmed that this was indeed the case, and their race became more a battle of avoiding hypothermia than conquering distance. I have so much respect for everyone who fought through this weather… whether you made it to the finish line or listened to your body and ended your race early, you are all incredibly strong athletes and winners in my books!).

Suffice to say that my night before the race began was not exactly restful. Our tent had flooded during the storm, so after dumping out the water pooling inside of it and making it “sort of” waterproof with the aid of glorified garbage bags, I tossed and turned my way through the night, feeling that at any second the howling winds would just pick our tent up and send it flying.

Through all of this chaotic weather, I kept clinging to the belief that when I woke up at 5:15am the next morning, there would be sunshine and birds chirping merrily at me. Sadly, the only bone that Mother Nature threw me on Saturday morning was no immediate rain as we stumbled around the campsite making coffee and sorting gear… but the storm showed no signs of having run its course as we set off to begin my very long day.

"The viewpoint"
What a view.

The summit of Blackwell Peak, which had appeared so inviting the day before, was now shrouded in dark, damp clouds. The car thermometer read 3 degrees Celsius, and I shivered in my short shorts and puffy jacket as I checked in, triple checked gear, and dashed to the outhouse for my third nervous pee in a row.

Trying to stay warm at the start. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy
Trying to stay warm at the start. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy
Not quite ready for this whole running all day thing, but sureee. Photo credit to Alley Vause
Fake it till ya make it. Photo credit to Alley Vause

As the race started I drifted into the back third of the pack, consciously staying back and reminding myself that I wasn’t going to get caught up with the fasties out front and risk sabotaging the rest of my race by going out too hard. Easier said than done, watching them all bound down the trails and out of sight. I soon fell into a conga line with my awesome friend Dennis and we chatted our way through the first hour or so, the front of the race long out of sight and mind. I eventually said goodbye to him as our paces began to differ, and shortly afterwards another good friend of mine, Pascal Gray caught up to me and decided to hang out for a while. We fell into an easy routine that lasted for the next 40km or so, and the company helped me ignore the miserable rain and wind that refused to let up on us. At Nicomen Lake Aid Station, the volunteers were cooking up bacon in a skillet (seriously??!! My mind was blown!), and this bacon became my lifesaver repeatedly as the race went on. I actually think it was some of the best food I have ever tasted. MMMmm bacon.

Pascal enjoying the gorgeous trails.
Pascal enjoying the gorgeous trails.

This section is full of some of the most gorgeous, flowy singletrack that I have run in a long time, and the rain only added to the lush rainforest atmosphere. By this point I had forgotten that we were racing completely, and I was just enjoying a beautiful day on the trails. We soon started to pass runners who were racing the 120 mile distance, and I’ve honestly never seen anything like it. They had been on their feet for 25+ hours by this point, and exhaustion and the weather had clearly taken its toll. We stopped to chat with a few of them as we went (running into our friends Karl and Erin was a nice surprise), and I found myself struck repeatedly by the tenacity of the human spirit in the face of such obvious suffering. It certainly put my day and pain in perspective. We cruised through Cayuse Flats as a lean, mean, coke drinking machine, and arrived at Cascade AS (first major checkpoint and roughly 1/3 of the way through the race), having successfully managed to navigate the downhill kilometres without destroying our quads – first goal of the day accomplished!

Stoke factor = high!
Stoke factor = high!

As we hit Cascade, I tried to get in and out of the aid station as fast as possible, noticing that as soon as I stopped moving my body temperature dropped and I started to get cold. Pascal stayed a bit longer to change his shoes, but I knew he would catch me again without too much effort. This next section was mostly flat, with 3km of wet and miserable road running along Hwy 3 as we connected to the Skagit valley trails. I put my head down, gutted out the road section, which actually went by pretty quickly, and headed into 15km of rolling but overall mostly flat trails. Pascal caught up to me as predicted, and he looked really strong so I waved him on with a “see you soon”!

I putzed along through this section, feeling my legs getting sore and tired but also appreciating the soft, amazing trails that I was running on. The hardest part of this section was that I didn’t have my GPS watch on (due to conserving batteries), and I had no way of knowing when I was close to the next AS. That 15km felt like 30km, and I kept overestimating how fast I was going and thinking I should be hitting Shawatum at any minute. By the time I actually reached the aid station, I had convinced myself three or four times that I’d accidentally passed the turnoff without noticing and was going to be disqualified for missing a checkpoint. Dangerous downward spiral, and I’m glad I finally pulled into the AS before it got any worse! This was probably my darkest section of the race, actually, and I shuffled along feeling cranky, tired, and definitely hangry.

As I rolled into the out and back trail that led to Shawatum AS, Pascal was just heading out with his pacer Joe, who was joining him for the rest of the race. Those two guys are like peas in a pod, and it cracked me up to see them bouncing along and psyching each other up, true bromance style.

I came into the AS only to find out that I had missed seeing my crew (my bf Jer and Brice) by literally 15 seconds, as they had had to take off to get to Skyline AS to drop another pacer off. Given the difficult section I had just run, it would have been so nice to get some hugs and words of encouragement, but I gave myself a little pep talk, drank a couple of glasses of coke for good measure, and decided to just blitz my way through the next 15km to get to Skyline, where I knew for sure that they would be waiting for me.

I was very much on auto pilot through this whole next section, and managed to run almost all of it. I had been worried going into the race that this 30km section would be an issue for me, as the monotony of running on mostly flat terrain can make me less than enthusiastic about maintaining forward momentum after a while. I get bored, I slow down, and before you know it I’m strolling along without a care in the world. A road runner I am not. Also of note, the wear and tear from the repetitive motion can take a sneaky toll, and Skyline still loomed over me.

At least it stopped raining finally! Totally blown away by these trails.
At least it stopped raining finally! Totally blown away by these trails.

I stumbled into more friends (Andy and Alley!) at various points along this section. Saying hi to them and chatting as I went by helped me stay out of my head, and by the time I reached Skyline I was feeling alright. Not great, but alright. Jer and Brice were waiting for me (yeah!), and both got to work reloading my pack, feeding me, and helping me to restock water, food, and all of the mandatory nighttime gear required for the final and most challenging stretch of trail ahead.

A side note on the mandatory gear: before the race started, I was definitely guilty of bitching about how comprehensive (cough, overkill) the list was. A Gore-tex jacket, pants, two mid layer long sleeves, a toque and gloves, not to mention two headlamps and spare batteries for each?? Excessive for an August race, I thought. However, having just run through temperatures that felt like January, and seeing firsthand how quickly the weather in the mountains can change, I wasn’t complaining at all as we loaded up my pack. Okay, I might have mentioned how heavy it was once I strapped it back on, along with my 2L of water, but other than that I did realize how important it was to be prepared, especially as the “sun” went down.

All told I probably spent 20 minutes at Skyline AS changing my top (hurray for dry merino after being in my soaking wet tshirt and windbreaker all day), eating an eclectic mixture of smoothie, broth, and avocado, and spending 5 glorious minutes just sitting still in a camp chair. Heaven. My nutrition had been solid all day, and I was happily living off of a combination of avocado, dates, bacon, and coke (not all at once tho!). Luckily my gear was also working really well for me despite the rain, and I decided not to change out of my shorts into pants (purely lazy), and because I was having zero issues with my feet despite taking my shoes and socks for a swim all day, I didn’t even change those out. Cannot say enough good things about my Pearl Izumi N2’s – these shoes make my feet so happy! With a kiss goodbye to Jer and a promise to see him at the finish line sometime between 12am (very optimistic) and 1:30am (more likely), Brice and I took off from the AS. 81 km done, 32km to go.

Oh hey look, the sun came out....right before it set!
Oh hey look, the sun came out….right before it set!

Stopping, even for those few minutes, had made me stiffen up, and it took about 15 minutes of peg-legged walking to limber up again. Prior to race day I had never set foot on any of the Fat Dog course, but the one thing I kept hearing repeatedly was that this section of the race was make or break, and that it was to be feared and respected. Having spent all day mentally preparing myself to tackle this section, I was pleasantly surprised to find that my legs were feeling pretty solid as we powered up the gradual incline. Considering that the entire focus of my day had been to preserve legs for these climbs, I felt happy knowing that I’d paced myself well to get here. Now, here I was, in the final stretch of the longest race I’d ever done, and it was time to pick up the pace and bring it home. I started pushing up the hills, finding a rhythm with my hands on my quads, and Brice fell in behind me, following my lead. The beauty of having your training partner as a pacer means that I didn’t have to spell anything out for him – he perfectly read my moods and energy and just adapted around it. So good.

After around half an hour of climbing up a gradual incline that really wasn’t as fearsome as I’d been expecting, we rounded the corner and saw Joe and Pascal ahead of us. I hadn’t expected to see them again once they took off together earlier, so it was a nice to surprise to catch up. We said hi all around, and then I decided to be bold and pass them, even though I am definitely not as strong a climber as Pascal is. For whatever reason, I was feeling stronger and stronger as I went, and I couldn’t stop the momentum. We said goodbye to them, thinking we’d see them in a few minutes, and I allowed myself to be swept up in this crazy racing adrenaline that was taking over me. Faster, stronger, my pace kept picking up, and Brice yelled out at me: “this is faster than you ever go in training, and that isn’t accounting for the 85km you’ve already run today”!

I realized (without slowing down) that he was right…I am usually pretty laidback when I run and race, and when I hit my pain threshold I tend to back off and hover in a more comfortable range – however, not so today. I almost craved that pain, and I wanted to push myself harder than I ever had. I had spent over 9 months slowly building up my mileage to run this race, and I didn’t want to cross the finish line feeling like I gave it any less than my best. I found that sweet spot between almost redlining it and feeling like I needed to puke – but managing not to, hurray – and I kept myself there as we bombed up the mountain. Brice would occasionally go in front of me at a particularly steep part, but I mostly led the way, tunnel vision focus in place. I don’t remember much of this whole section, to be honest. I was more focussed than I’ve ever been in my life, barely spoke at all to Brice, and the two of us laboured in silence, passing headlamps in the dark as we went. I had absolutely no idea if these runners were racing the 120 mile, 70 mile, or 50 mile distances, and I gave up trying to keep track. I could only worry about my own race and do the best I could.

It kind of shocked me as we hit each downhill slope how fast I was able to navigate the steep terrain. I recognized that my body hurt, but the adrenaline far superseded the pain, and I bombed down each peak in silent exhilaration. This has to be the most extreme form of the runner’s high that I have ever experienced, and it was practically euphoric. I could feel myself continuing to pick up steam, and we hunted headlamps in the dark with singleminded focus. The only time I felt this resolve falter was on the final climb – the steepest and highest point in this section. Brice saw me flagging as my legs lost their juice, and he jumped in front of me to lead the way. I somehow managed to get through this final ascent without losing my momentum, and I knew that once I reached the top it was all downhill to the finish.

I hadn’t been paying much attention to my watch except to track my nutrition, but at this point I looked at where I was. I had 9km to go, and it was just before 11pm. That meant that if I could finish before midnight, I would have run a sub 17 hour race. Not in a million years did I dream that I could do that! I felt my adrenaline take hold again, and I looked at Brice: “It’s go time – let’s do this.”

He led the charge, and I just worried about staying right behind him. We flew over the winding, rock studded trails at what felt like breakneck speed- one toepick away from a faceplant, one rolled ankle away from crawling to the finish line. I threw caution to the wind, and I gave it everything I had. I could feel pain everywhere, but it didn’t seem to matter. The only thing that mattered was going as fast as I possibly could. My watch beeped out each passing kilometre as we descended towards the lake, and I yelled them out to Brice as we went. 9…8…7…6… I couldn’t believe how close we were to the finish line, but I couldn’t let myself think of it for fear of falling on my face. Breathe, focus, follow. Repeat.

Apparently we flew by friends of ours on this section and they called out to us as we went by, but I have zero recollection of it. I was that focused. We rounded the corner on the Rainbow Bridge, and I suddenly could see the finish line glittering at us from across Lightning Lakes. I felt myself welling up with emotion as we ran this final kilometre in to the finish, and as we ran the final 20 metres across the finish line, I was laughing hysterically with the sheer power of that moment. I had done it.

I crossed the finish line at 16 hours, 39 minutes and change, at 11:39pm. As I crossed I worried that Jer wouldn’t be there yet since I had told him midnight at the absolute earliest, but I turned around and he was sweeping me into a big hug (he had literally just parked and walked over to the finish line as I came through.. talk about timing).

After basking in the glow of not having to run any longer for a few minutes and saying hi to all of the crazy Fat Dog 120 miler finishers who lay lined up at the finish line in their sleeping bags, unable to move, I hobbled over to Heather, the amazing Race Director of this crazy, incredible race, and asked her how many of the 70 Mile women were in. I would have been totally thrilled with a top 10 finish, but I had absolutely no idea where I was in the field.

She consulted with the volunteer who was recording finishing times, and I’ll never forget her words. She grinned at me and said “no one else has come in. You are the first one. You’re the first female”.

I almost fell over. WHAT! And then I made her repeat herself, and double check just to be sure. I simply couldn’t believe that I had won the race. I had won!! It was an incredible moment. I was giggling and babbling and just couldn’t help myself. It is the first time I’ve ever placed in the top 3, let alone won, and it shocked me more than anyone else.

As the fatigue of the day hit me, I sat down in a chair, convinced I would never move again. Jer handed me a celebratory shot of whisky (best boyfriend ever!), and we hung out at the finish line cheering as other racers finished. The second place female, Katie Wadden, came in looking incredibly strong half an hour after I did (apparently I’d passed her in the dark and had no idea at all), and then a little while after that Pascal and Joe finished together. This was Pascal’s first race over 50km’s, and he crushed it!

Eventually Brice, Jer and I packed up at around 2am and headed to our campsite to catch some sleep before coming back to the start line at 10am to see the final finishers and the awards ceremony (which I still couldn’t believe I was part of!). There was no showers at the campsite, and I went to bed incubating all of my sweaty glory in layers of sweatpants and hoodies. Pretty sure there was a HAZMAT situation happening underneath all the layers, but I was too tired to care or find out.

Despite my exhaustion, I barely slept a wink. Every time I rolled over something hurt, I was hacking up a lung (apparently caused from how damp the air was all day, and 16+ hours of shallow breathing), and at around 4 am I got insanely hungry and had to get up and prowl through the truck for a bag of chips, which I happily mowed down and went back to bed. I was so tired and yet so happy and content, and I had a permagrin on my face which wasn’t going to be budged.

The boys finally got up at 8am, we struck camp (or rather, they did, and I hobbled around trying to bend over to pick things up and getting stuck halfway), and I managed to fit in a glorious shower before we headed to the finish line. Human again!

Watching the final finishers race the clock was quite an experience. Some of these racers were from the 70 mile distance and many were from the 120 mile distance, and they had been out there for anywhere from 27 hours to 48 hours. The amount of determination and drive it takes to simply put one foot in front of the other and not give up in the face of such challenging conditions blows my mind, and it really speaks to the heart of what this sport is all about. It requires digging incredibly deep and refusing to quit no matter what, knowing that no fancy prize or recognition awaits you at the end… far from it, in this niche sport with little glory and fame. The satisfaction has to come from pushing yourself to do something that you maybe thought you couldn’t, and then realizing that you are stronger than you ever knew you were. There is life-altering power in that realization, and that is worth more than any trinket or prize.

The awards ceremony. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy Photography
The awards ceremony. Photo credit to Brian McCurdy Photography
Permagrin, post shower. Photo credit to Brice Ferre
Permagrin, post shower. Photo credit to Brice Ferre

I cannot end this novel (I’m sorry, I know it’s a doozy!!) without extending my heartfelt thanks to each and every volunteer who was involved with this race. You braved the elements to make us hot soup and bacon in remote, frigid areas, you tirelessly worked for hours and days to take care of every detail of this race, and you did it all with a smile on your faces. I remain humbled and grateful by your generosity and selflessness. Heather and Peter, my congratulations on a job well done. You put on one hell of a race, and I have to say that this race is undoubtedly the best one I have ever done. Thank you.

My coaches Eric Carter and Gary Robbins of Ridgeline Athletics have also been a huge part of my journey for the past year and a half. I’ve become a smarter, stronger, and faster runner due to all of their knowledge and expertise, and the fact that I can even do these crazy distances now (uninjured!), and do them well, pretty much says it all. Thank you guys so much, you da best.

To my bf Jer and pacer, Brice: you were both incredible, and I cannot thank you enough for your support. I truly can’t put it into words. Jer, you have put up with me disappearing for hours each weekend on long training runs for months and endured my incessant talking about races and training runs and nutrition plans, and I was so happy that you were there to share this experience with me. Thank you babe. Brice, there is no one else I would rather have asked to pace me for that final and most difficult section of the race, and you did an exceptional job of it. I know for a fact that you played an enormous role in my success this weekend – and in all of the training leading up to it – and having you on my team has made me a stronger runner for it. Onwards we go!

To every Fat Dog, Chubby Puppy, and starter-but-not-finisher of these epic races (which were made more so by the wrath of Mother Nature that we battled unexpectedly but with universal tenacity): I tip my hat to you all.

Until next time, Fat Dog. I’ll be back for you again.

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3 thoughts on “Start slow, finish fast: a lesson in pacing”

  1. Hilary what an amazing race recap and a great big congrats on being the 1st female to cross the finish line! I loved reading about your journey – thanks for sharing!

  2. So so so so so proud of you!!!!

    Wish wish wish wish wish I could see you more often…..oh gee, guess I’d have to run then! 😉

    So proud of you!!!!!!!!!!

    Love,
    Jacquie

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