In some ways, Squamish 50 was a year in the making. Melissa and I sat at the finish line of the Squamish 50 last August, having run our 23km, secretly envious of those who ran 50km or longer. Our friends stumbled in, delirious, broken, cursing the race director but no doubt thrilled with surviving a kind of mini – hell. (Side note: Two years ago, I volunteered at an aid station for the Squamish 50 miler, and thought the runners were out of their minds for wanting to run that far).
Come last September, when registration opened, I promptly signed up for 50km. Never mind I had not raced a single ultra before. Melissa had signed up for 50km, and Pargol, naturally signed up for 50 miles and we sweet talked Emma into signing up for 23km. It will be fun, we told her. August seemed such a long way off.
Meanwhile, I raced road races, ran my first 50km race and played on the trails and mountains many weekends, summer and winter. And reluctantly signed up for cross fit.
Views from our accommodations at Quest University – the night before..
Race morning dawned early. My alarm went off at 4 am. It was pitch black outside when I dressed in my room. I will spare you the selfie I took at 4 am.
It was still dark when a sleepy lot of us tumbled out of the car at Alice Lake at 5 am. David had kindly risen at a ridiculously early hour to drive the group of us to the 50km start. I was very happy to see tumblers of coffee. Besides dropping my race bags, that was my first stop.
Alice Lake at dawn – prior to 6 am..
A pre – race briefing was given (Gary Robbins standing on top of a picnic table and yelling to be heard) and at promptly six am we were off. My legs felt surprisingly good, not heavy, no injuries. Being able to start the race unscathed is half the battle, right?
At 6 am, the skies had just started to lighten. Running through the trails in Alice lake, it was shadowy. Beautiful. The first 10km were probably the best part of the day. Legs were still fresh, and even the switchbacks we had to climb did little to dampen my spirits. One of the best things about starting the race so early was being able to watch the sky turn from an inky darkness to light as we ran the trails. It was surreal. I love the trails and mountains, and once the race started, I could feel the tension in me begin to ease.
We came to an open, winding section and I tore through the trails, even recorded a whooping 5:29km. Just at the corner of Rob’s and Cliff corners, our friend David was
there, camera in hand…
I remembered how failing to eat was my downfall at my one and only previous ultra: (Orcas Island 50km). Volunteers filled my water bladder while I happily crammed jujubes and chips and m & m’s into my mouth. Double fisting banana quarters and a couple of fruit leathers, I marched off.
After Aid station # 1 and a nice long gravel stretch past a lovely waterfall, we approached our first big climb of the day, Plastic Schiesse to Galactic Scheisse.
On the orientation run, I had been alone during the climb up Plastic Schiesse. On race day, I passed one and then two people, and then caught up to three more. I marched steadily uphill. Passed a few people and then hit an entire conga line of people winding their way up a never-ending climb. I could hear snippets of conversation in front me. A woman behind me sounded like she was going to die. (I thought I might die too, but that would come later). I was getting antsy because I wanted to climb at my pace, but decided against passing. In retrospect, not being able to do a quick pace early on was a good thing.
After we reached the top (for now at least), mercifully we had a stretch of flattish (i.e. gently undulating trails), before the descents came. Landing on rocks constantly is not fun. I went lurching around a bend right behind Melissa. Trails: Upper Powersmart, IMBA Smart, Fred, and Word Of Mouth.
Though I was somewhat familiar with the treacherous descent, it wasn’t any easier on race day. Holding onto a tree and sliding down on your rear while a host of people are gingerly picking their way down, cursing the race director, was not my idea of a good time. Or at least that was what I told myself.
I might have mumbled a few epithets. The guy beside me said Gary Robbins, the race director had a lot to answer for. No kidding.
Thankfully at the bottom of the never- ending decent, we had our second aid station of the day – it was the last Aid station just before Quest University (which would be our third Aid station of the day and roughly the mid point of our race). I crammed food in (if jujubes, chips, and chocolate chip cookies are considered food) and chugged two cups of coke. Oh my word. So much sugar. I lost track of the number of gels, chews, chips, etc I ate. My teeth ached from the sugar.
5 more km to Quest I told myself. My shorts and tank were soaked, my legs were streaked with mud. I sponged myself off with the wet sponges. I ran briefly with a guy from Tennessee, named Tony, who asked me if there were snakes and wildlife. Instinctively I look at my feet. I hope not, I told him. Too many people on the trails for the bears to come out. That was my theory anyhow. He told me a story about how during an ultra race, he bought a bear whistle – which kept the bears away but attracted packs of dogs. I was not impressed.
Almost half way, and dry clothes and food await!
As I approached Quest University, I heard the screams of the volunteers, cheering us in. At the top of the stairs, Pargol, Alan and Sybille were waiting, cheering. I heard them before I saw them..
No words came out of my mouth, but my hydration bladder was whisked from me. Pargol fetched my drop bag, emptied my drop bag, asked me what I needed, and pushed me in the direction of the porta potties. I have never been so grateful. Having changed into dry clothes, I was much happier, and watched in bemusement as Pargol ordered Alan to pin my bib to my shorts (I had changed shorts because mine were soaking), as I was a bit of a mess. They were amazing.
Somewhat mollified because I am no long wearing wet clothes and I have eaten. Sometimes life is so simple…
I crammed more food in, chips, bananas, watermelon slices, a handful of chips, and the volunteers directed me downwards…..and then up. I had decided against changing my socks, but as I made my way up the paved road, I realized my feet felt like two ponds, and I felt my right ankle bone rubbing against my trail runners. I was not happy. I paused against a fire hydrant, removed my shoes and socks and inspected the offending ankle. I decided I would have to live with it as I was not turning around and returning to Quest university. So I kept going. The uphill stretch along the pavement seemed like a sick joke.
Soon, we re – entered the trail head and kept going, up and up and up (endless switchbacks). The views were stunning the higher we climbed, but I was too tired to pull my phone out for any photos. And then came the downhills. At one point, we came across a mountain bike ramp that towered over me. Pink streamers hung from the ramp, and I thought, Gary Robbins can’t be serious??? Thankfully, our route took us under the ramp. But my relief was short-lived.
Somewhere on course, can’t remember where – I see a sign for our race – “Slow down – danger,” and I can’t help chuckling to myself as I thought this adage applied to the whole course. But I slow down regardless; if the guy who makes a living racing and designing race courses intended to torture, tells you to slow down, it would be wise to slow down.
Just keep moving forward to the next Aid station, I told myself. As the race progressed, the aid stations felt further and further apart. And I began to sound like a petulant child. How far to the next aid station? Not my proudest moment.
The 32km aid station took forever to reach. But not before some surprises. Enter the bike ramp. I was happily running along the trails when a biking bridge loomed before me. I came to a screeching halt, looked to the left and the right of the bridge which hadplacards marked with an “X” – he wants us to run on this??? With a sigh I started up, but at the top I decided there had to be a safer way down. So I looked to the left of a bridge, and see I giant log. I stepped on the log and was promptly rewarded with a painful calf cramp – it took everything in me not to scream out loud. I sighed, sat there with a seized calf and crammed some more food in – thinking maybe electrolytes would help.
Meanwhile, I heard approaching footsteps. A runner appeared at the top of the bike bridge, stops: “this doesn’t seem like a good idea…” Well, no kidding. I am beginning to think the entire 50km has not been a good idea. I have been through the wringer and more than 18km remains in the race. This fact was not comforting.
I hobbled off after the runner passes, and thought I must be getting close to the 32 km aid station. I saw an enthusiastic volunteer with a sign, encouraging me. I promptly slipped on the face of a rock and slid down on my rear. Lovely.
Thankfully, the aid station was only about 150 meters away at this point. I pulled in to the aid station, had my hydration pack refilled (and crammed in two salt pills, chips), etc., more ju jubes and bananas quarters. As I bound down the trails, I saw Melissa pull into the aid station.
Only 8 more km till the next Aid station, I told myself. (I was moving at the blistering pace of 5km, 6km an hour if you were being generous).
And as I pulled into the 40km aid station, the last of the day, relief washed over me. My day was almost done, only 10km left. I am at about 6:15 – 6:20 (hours in) according to the garmin.
This was where David, bless his soul, came running up, giving us updates. He informed us that Susan repeated a loop and was not happy. I wouldn’t be happy either. Melissa literally pulled into the aid station a minute after me. He took my plastic wrappers etc, and whisked my leaky hydration bladder away. He grabbed his water bottle, filled it with ice and electrolytes and handed it to me. I made my way over to the bucket of sponges but he reached in and takes the sponge. Did I mention my friends are amazing?
10km to go can’t be that bad – but unfortunately I have been duly warned (and if memory serves me right) the last 10km are the toughest. Plaintively, I asked long the last 10km would take. He looked at me, gave me a couple different time estimates, and finally said, Just keep moving forward. Best advice of the day.
I gulped down 2 more cups of coke, 1 cup of water, shoveled down more ju jubes, grabbed a quartered banana section. And off I go. But not before he gets this ultra flattering photo of me and Melissa…
My face is crammed full of food…can’t smile…
And the climbing is NOT done: the views were stunning though. Dappled sunlight through the trees. The sound of a rushing creek below. I felt a breeze and in that moment, I was blissfully happy.
I was tired. My hips ached, my calves were tender and as I mumbled incoherently to myself, I used my hands to hoist me up. Being short is not always helpful during trail races. I gave myself a pep talk, I have legs. I have lungs. I have come way too far to quit now.
Somewhere along the trail, my other calf seized. I sighed, held onto a tree, stretched the calf out and let more runners pass, and then off I go again.
My garmin has died so I am running blind, but that’s okay. I tried to eat the banana section, but for some reason, that made me want to vomit. I gave up and shove the quartered banana and peel into my pocket.
I caught up to a guy who is clearly suffering. In perhaps an ill – timed attempt to lighten the mood, I ventured to say, having fun yet? He grunted or whimpered or both. Oops.
We climbed, and climbed some more. Where is this Mountain of Phlegm from last year so I can get this over with???
I was tired, and in no rush so I climbed behind him, until he finally stepped aside to drink from his handheld. He looked really rough. I asked if he was ok. He nodded. I’m not sure I believed him, but I am also hurting and desperate to be done, so off I go.
I heard volunteers cheering in the distance, and I ran towards the sound of the cowbell. 4km to go the volunteer told me. He reassured me the course was all downhill from that point.
I ran downhill and encountered yet another slight uphill. Liar, I mumbled to myself, it is not all downhill. Soon enough, I reached a steep set of stairs that I had to descend.. My calves were screaming. I held on to the railings and gingerly made my way down, sideways at an angle. I couldn’t walk straight down without destroying my hamstrings.
I felt slightly relieved as I hit flat ground. I ran past people who were preparing to rock climb. They whoop and holler when they saw me run past. This made me feel a little better.
A stretch along the water, albeit flat, were among some of the longest kms of my life.
I ran into the parking lot. A car honked. I look up. The occupants are leaning out the window cheering. An elderly couple look up as I hobbled past and urged me on “Go, go.”
A volunteer at the end of the lot directed me to turn left onto the road, and as the pylons came into view, it is only about a km to go, and then half a km. I heard the screams in the distance. I ran along the railroad tracks (ok, maybe running was a generous term to use), landing on the rails as a means of propelling myself forward. I crossed the street, and started counting flags. 500 meters, a volunteer told me. I saw John running towards me, and he ran me in. Made me so happy. My feet hit the grass, and I have never been so ready to be done anything in my life. I crossed the finish line, into the arms of the waiting Gary Robbins and basically demanded a finish line hug.
And 8 hrs 15 minutes and change later, I was done. My friends came running up, pointing cameras. I heard my name. Someone tugged on my arm. I was bit overwhelmed. But so happy to be done.
What I really looked like after I crossed the finish line…
I have raced marathons, I have even run a 50km previously but Squamish 50km was one of the toughest races I have done to date. Although I was trained, was prepared for this race as much as one can be, it was a rough day out there. I experienced a roller coaster of emotions. I felt as though I had been hammered, thrown into a spin cycle in the laundry machine and then spit out by the finish line. Regardless of the calibre of runner you are, Squamish 50 will humble you.
At the end of the day, I have no regrets. As much as one can enjoy a course like Squamish, I did. I am so glad I came back to run 50km this year. I was reminded once again, of why I love trail running. The trail running community is incredible. The volunteers were fantastic. My friends and crew were amazing, and I could not have done this without them. I was spoiled rotten during this race. I know have chosen my friends in life well. Maybe, just maybe, I will come back and run 50 miles at Squamish next year.
Shiny happy faces – 50 miles (80km) for Pargol Saturday, and 50km for Melissa and I on the Sunday.
Cold beer at Howe Sound Brewery…so good