2018 Finlayson Arm 100K Ultramarathon Race Report | “When everything goes exactly to plan”

“You’re here well trained, and without injury. You can’t ask for more.”

This affirmation repeated in my head as I waited in the small group at the startline of the 2018 Finalyson Arm 100k. The countdown from ten had begun, the imperial march was playing faintly over the loudspeakers, and I was fastening the hood of my raincoat to sheepishly hide a polka dot headband (and keep out the rain).

“The only unknowns are the night, and now the rain.”

I felt calm, but could sense the weight of my expectations as the clock hit zero, and we comfortably trotted the ~100 meters up Finalyson Arm road before turning left onto (and into) the trails.

Little did I know that while running in the dark would be trancelike and soothing, and the rain for the most part pleasantly cooling – there was one big unknown that I was underappreciating: the shear scale of the journey.

Only 104.8 kilometers (and 6136 meters of both climb and descent) to go.

We’ve sprung a leak

I started out following along in a lead group of five.

My pre-race plan was to start out overly conservative, so that I could enjoy running strong while going “hunting” for positions over the second half of the race. That’s how things went during my first ultra experience at last year’s Squamish 50 mile, and my mouth was watering in anticipation of doing it again. As the early kilometers typically do when combining a taper + adrenaline – the pace we were moving did feel comfortable, and I casually chatted with the guy beside me about previous races, race ideas for the future, and what had led us to the start line today.

The first section of the double out-and-back race – from the start line to aid station #1 (Rowntree) – is an 11 kilometer stretch. Within a few minutes, you reach the much-anticipated “river crossing”. It’s really not that bad, but you will unavoidably be fully submerged up to your shins, so prepare for it. I followed the lead of others in our group by using the rope for balance for the first ~20 meters of river, before hopping over to the left-side wall as we went under the highway (the water is quite shallow here – mid-foot at most), and then we were up and out and done.

Following the river crossing, there is roughly 5 kilometers of squish squashing to go before reaching the foot of the Mt. Finlayson climb. Before the race I had discounted this section completely, thinking that with no major climbs, and at a peasly 5km, it would be over before it began. In reality, not a single kilometer in this race should be thought of as a traditional kilometer. It is always technical, always ascending or descending, and always requires your complete attention. And as I was about to discover, this section had probably the most significant impact on my race of all.

The rain was still coming down, but thanks to partial tree cover and our fivesome’s honest pace warming me up, I decided it was time to remove the raincoat. To avoid being left behind I attempted this on the move. Getting it off was easy, but I miffed the dismount – dropping the coat on the ground rather than smoothly into my pack like I was expecting. Thankfully, the kind runner behind me picked it up in-stride and handed it back, and I fatefully swung my pack off my shoulders to properly stuff the coat inside. I latched on to the back of our group as I fastened the pack back up, and unknowingly waited for a disheartening discovery only a few minutes up the trail.

My only water bottle (plus the 200 calories of Tailwind it contained) were lost. This is what I learned when I first reached into the kangaroo pouch at the back of my pack where my sustenance had been stowed.


Wordy nerdy description of my flawless nutrition plan, and why losing this bottle kinda sucked.

My nutrition plan for the race was to consume approximately 200 calories of Tailwind (powdered drink mix dissolved in water) per hour, along with anywhere between 33 – 99 calories in Salted Watermelon Cliff Bloks (fancy runner jube jubes) depending on what my body seemed to crave.

My pack (the Nathan VaporZack), has space for two 350ml soft flasks up front, and a 500ml soft flask in the kangaroo pouch at back. I’d planned to put 2 scoops of Tailwind in the 500ml flask (200 calories), 1 scoop in one of the 350ml flasks, and the freshest of lava-fed angel-distilled glacier water in the other 350ml flask. Then I’d stuffed dozens of the Cliff Bloks into one of the stretchy front pockets of the vest, so that everything would be easy, accessible, and seamless. I also packed more Honey Stinger Waffles (Ginger flavour) than I knew what to do with into both drop bags, had Gin Gins in my shorts pocket in case my stomach started to turn, and was planning to start injecting the NOS (Coca Cola) after about 60k.

I had visualized each aid station pit stop a thousand times over, and honestly felt like I belonged in Formula 1. For the stretches between the startline and Rowntree (11km on the way out, 6km on the way back) I would carry only the 500ml soft flask, and stow the two smaller flasks in my drop bag at Rowntree for an even faster transition (this is why I found myself completely liquidless upon losing my bottle). Between Rowntree and the start of Mt. Work (a 12km stretch with serious climbing) I would carry all three bottles, before going back to just the 500ml flasks for the double summiting of Mt. Work at the mid-loop turnaround.

While I would need to endure a dry mouth until the first aid station, losing this bottle didn’t seem like the end of the world. I’d also packed two 650ml handhelds into my drop bag at aid station #1. I decided that once I got there I’d grab one of those to replace my lost bottle, and continue following my original plan. The flawlessless shan’t be stopped!

Being the genius that I am, the only things I hadn’t had a chance to test ahead of time were (1) storing the 500ml soft flask in the kangaroo pouch at the back of my pack (went seamlessly…), and (2) actually running while fueling with the Clif Bloks (Jim Walmsley used them for his Western States win, surely nothing could go wrong…).


I did my best to convince myself that I’d be fine without water or liquid calories. Over the past few days I’d carb’d up, and soaked up liquids like a sponge – I could easily survive a 1 – 1.5 hour run on that pre-fueling (I’d done so countless times in training). Still, I decided that the safe bet was to be even more conservative, start hiking every incline, and let this front group go a bit (fully confident that I’d be seeing them again when I had my triumphant resurgance over the final 10–20k).

Around a kilometer before the Mt. Finlayson climb begins, you re-cross under the highway via a (dry) tunnel. This was pitch black, so I was glad I had my headlamp in my pocket to shed a quick ray of light. From the tunnel I followed the flat and fast gravel trail to the main Goldstream parking lot, briefly onto the road, and then sharply up to the right to begin the climb.

Due to my inability to abandon fear on treacherous terrain, I loathe racing up Mt. Finlayson, especially in the rain.

The first two thirds of the climb (in terms of distance) are fine, just very steep, often very rocky and rooty trail. The final third however, is all scrambly, smooth granite slabs. Hastening up it the rain, while stressed about conserving energy due to a lost bottle, while wearing my most worn out trail shoes (my plan was to change shoes at Rowntree each loop after having done the river crossing, and after over a year of use this particular pair was better suited to a bowling alley), was not a fun experience.

I started Mt. Finlayson in sight of the entire lead group, but reached the summit completely alone in the rain and fog, stumbling around trying to figure out where the route continued (tip: run up and over the top and you’ll decend down the backside. As far as I could tell the flagging slightly assumed that you knew this, but I might have missed a couple in the mist). The summit is also where I decided that it was high-time I start pounding Clif Bloks (without the recommended water to wash them down), and had about four.

The descent down Finlayson wasn’t memorable. I recall it being fairly technical, but nothing compared to the steepness, technicality, or length of Jocelyn Hill and Mt. Work. Once you reach the bottom, you begin the only paved section of the entire course – approximately 1km on winding, undulating pavement, before a final ~500 meter gradual ascent up a gravel path to the (much longer awaited than anticipated) Rowntree Aid Station.

The tabby that thinks he’s a tiger

The transition at aid station #1 went exactly to plan: add the two pre-filled 350ml soft flasks to vest; change shoes and socks; re-apply Body Glide; learn that I’m about 12–13 minutes behind the leaders; realize that the first place female caught and passed me while I was fiddling with my wet laces; begin chugging my Tailwind stores like I’d been stranded on a desert island for weeks, pop back even more Clif Bloks because who’s counting calories anymore…

At last I found myself in a section that I had covered fully in training. Despite a growing bloating from my frantic replenishing, I set forth confidently on the grueling 12km trail to aid station #2. Between Rowntree aid station and the tippy top of Jocelyn Hill is about 5km. In the middle is Holmes Peak (a relatively simple climb), countless false summits of Jocelyn Hill, and many sections of exhaustingly steep and technical rock that is best “dance hopped” over. On the plus side, the views down to the ocean along the way would leave you speachless if you had the energy or wind to talk. Seriously – the views in this section are worthy of pulling one’s self out of race mode to pause and take in (ideally everyone other than me would do this, to help me catch up, but it turned out all the front runners this year were a bunch of nature-hating monsters). Throughout this section I didn’t feel amazing, but was still moving steadily yet conservatively, and enjoying being alone.

After reaching the top of Jocelyn Hill, comes a plateau-y run across the summit, before beginning the 6km descent down the opposite side (down, all the way down, and then down some more, until you reach the ocean). It’s not a straight descent the entire way, as there is plenty of climbing too, but by the end your legs will certainly know what you’ve been up to. Yet again, this section is also very technical, meaning you can never truly let go or feel like you’re really flying.

During this roughly 45 min – 1 hour descent is when the sun finished setting, and when I first heard the sound that would track me for the next 10+ hours. I can only describe it as a “bellow from the deep”.

In reality it was another runner burping. But when it’s dark, rainy, and foggy, you’re not sure where it’s coming from, and you’re running in a semi-trance – it sounds like much more.

That other runner was part of a threesome that I first noticed gaining on me shortly after beginning the descent. I used their presence to keep my pace honest, and tried to stay just out of their reach while remaining “conservative”. This continued for a good half hour before the two non-burpers at last caught and passed me. But oddly, literally seconds after they ran passed, both abruptuly stopped, stepped to the right of the trail, and started peeing. I never saw either again for the rest of the race.

The descent went on, and on, and on, until finally it went on some more. Then after going on and on, it turned left for the final (even steeper) section down to the ocean. I was alone again at this point, but could hear the consistent belowing not too far behind, and I probably exhausted my quads a bit by moving quickly and heavily down the sets of stairs and last bit of steep trail (both trying to stay ahead of the burps, and just wanting to get to the f&%$ing water already).

The pleasure of reaching the water is short lived, because you immediately head straight back up a steep (but thankfully non-technical) trail to reach aid station #2 (Durrance). One of my key workouts during training was to run from this beach straight to the summit of Mt. Work, and then bomb back down the descent, and repeat. I knew I could run the rest of the way to the aid station in 8 minutes, or power hike it in about 12, so to remain conservative I hiked it at about 80% effort.

I was expecting this aid station to be in the Mt. Work parking lot, but it actually comes a tad sooner, being just off the side of the trail about 50 meters before you cross the road to head up the mountain. By now the night was pitch dark, and it was warming (and eery) to see the trail completely lit by white christmas lights leading up to and surrounding the aid station. This was my first time meeting my crew (my girlfriend plus a friend, and both my parents were waiting here) which gave me another boost of energy (or at least led me to pretened like I had one).

Before the race I’d asked to be updated on my gap to the leaders each time I saw my crew. It had been 12–13 minutes back at Roundtree, and now my Dad held up his phone to display a stopwatch that read “35”. That’s more than I was expecting.

In training I had never run the backside (Munn Road side) of Mt. Work, but I’d run up to (what I thought was) the summit on the Durrance side countless times. The whole over and back loop is 10k, but given my experience in training I was confident that it wouldn’t take me much more than an hour. I ditched my pack for just a handheld, took off my raincoat, swapped my headlamp (now using my main headlamp, which I hoped would survive 5–6 hours, at which point I’d go back to my less-bright backup), and naively told my loved ones that I’d be back to them shortly as I trotted off to go and have a pretty miserable time.

Oops, miscalculated

In short, Mt. Work did not summit where I expected. In fact it was nowhere close. Instead of the 20–25 minute effort I was anticipating, the path branched left near the top to continue on for another 10–15 minutes of highly technical, confusing, and demoralizing false summits. To this point I’d been propelled up the mountain by a stubbornness to not be caught by the chasing belches, but at last their creator tucked in right behind me (this runner and I would go on to yo-yo back and forth for the next ~50 kilometers, and share some of my favourite times of the entire race. Turns out he’s a really nice guy named Brandon, but I wouldn’t learn his name for several more hours).

Fog had settled at the top of Mt. Work, and Brandon and I moved along frustratingly slowly trying to discern where the trail led next. Between the fog dispersing the beam of my headlamp, the flagging being further spaced than I would like, and a continued bloating rising in my stomach – I was having a bad time. I said as much to the first place runner, who we saw re-ascending the mountain shortly after beginning our first journey down, and as he powered past us he called out that he “hoped I feel better” in far too chipper, kind, and sincere a voice compared to what my current mood desired.

Throughout this descent we saw the rest of the runners ahead of us spaced apart evenly, and again everyone was friendly and supportive with none looking much stronger or more exhausted than the rest. At some point during this descent I re-gained my gap on Brandon, which was further increased by my decision to run straight through the Munn Road aid station, and immediately begin my climb back up and over Mt. Work.

The second climbing of this mountain in such quick succession was rough. For most of it I tried to simply picture time passing, and how nice it would be to soon run into my girlfriend’s arms back on the other side, have a good cry, and go home. Unfortunately, I started feeling a bit better during the charge down the Durrance side of the mountain (likely the route I trained on most), and when I arrived back at the aid station my crew had dried out all my gear, prepped my bottles perfectly, and were acting all supportive.

And so, after a few pity-seeking hugs, I was ready to head back out for my most dreaded section of the race. Just as I was leaving my Dad put his phone timer in front of my face: “45 minutes”. “You can stop showing me that for the rest of the race.” I told him with more acceptance than disappointment, as I trotted away from the lights into the literal and metaphorical dark.

Finding new goals

Thankfully, I don’t remember much of the journey back from Mt. Work. However, I do know the route well, so I can describe why I dread it.

I mentioned that the descent from Jocelyn Hill to the ocean seemed like it went on and on forever. Well in this return direction, you have to cover the exact same path, only uphill. And it’s not smooth, fun, “oh yay it’s just like I practiced on the treadmill” uphill either. It’s “this is so steep that every step is something I have to think about”, and “this is so technical that my brain feels like it’s doing math”, and “this has been going on so long that this might literally be limbo” kinda uphill.

My strategy to survive it was to promise myself that “no matter what, this will eventually end.” I just needed to transport my mind out of the present as much as possible. Unfortunately for most of the ~2 – 2.5 hours it took me to travel the 12km to Rowntree aid station, all I could think about was how I was having a really hard time breathing, and how my heartbeat felt like a doctor should be telling me to stop.

I was throwing my pre-race goals and aspirations in the garbage, and asking myself what reason(s) I had to continue. The best answer I came up with: solving this challenge.

Why was I feeling so awful? My fitness is great and I’d run much farther than this in training.
How can I possibly get my body to the finish line? Inconceivably and laughably, I was not even close to halfway yet.

It worked to keep me moving. Regarding my current state, I diagnosed by process of elimination. I hadn’t overexerted myself to my knowledge (in fact I’d be running overly conservative). I wasn’t behind on calories (I’d been popping Clif Bloks and chugging Tailwind like a fiend). I wasn’t dehydrated (thanks to the rain and night I was barely sweating, and I’d been pounding Tailwind and water like a……………………. dummy).

As I laboured to inhale each breath, and winced in discomfort with each heartbeat, I realized that I’d been overwhelming my stomach with fluids that it didn’t need, and pumping it full of Clif Bloks that it clearly wasn’t enjoying.

With that epiphany, I stuffed a Gin Gin in my mouth, abandoned all Clif Bloks for the rest of the race, and didn’t have another sip of water until Roundtree (which still took a really, really long time to get to).

At Roundtree I ate my first Honey Stinger waffle, filled just one handheld with only water, and rolled my body onwards for the final 6km to the halfway point (where I was intensely eager to unleash the secret weapon that would be sure to turn all my misery into magic).

Coke’d up

That first sip was bliss.

I pounded about a can’s worth, and then filled the handheld with Tailwind before heading out for loop two. My time for loop one had been 8 hours, 23 minutes, and some seconds. This helped me diminish the thoughts of how ridiculous it was that I had to now go do EVERYTHING all over again, by presenting a new goal of finishing the race in under 17 hours.

The trip back to the start of Mt. Finlayson was a blur (in that I’ve chosen not to remember it – at the time I was overly aware of every endless second). The journey up Mt. Finlyson was a bullshit – filled mostly by my audible cursing at the fact that I was essentially rock climbing in the rain, in the deepest hours of the night, while completely alone apart from the unrelenting burping that echo’d behind me from its invisible source.

I endured the mountain alone, but Brandon and I arrived at Rowntree together, both eager to change our shoes (while the frigid waters of river crossing #2 felt amazing on my tired feet and ankles, this particular pair of shoes had refused to drain).

Rowntree aid station was awesome in that it had both lawn chairs and a propane fire, and we gladly took a short break to enjoy these perks while going through the motions of getting ready to move on. My parents were both here too (even though I’d asked them not to be), and it was nice to be able to take out my frustrations on someone each time they asked how they could help :).

After snorting up another solid chug of coke, and stashing more in one of my 350ml soft flasks, Brandon and I shuffled and shivered our way out of Roundtree without looking back.

This trip from Roundtree to Durrance was my favourite of the race. We were locked in as a duo with Brandon right at my heels, surrounded by the night but focused only on the narrow path ahead presented by our headlamps. I was climbing strong, running more of this stretch than I ever have before, and was thoroughly consumed by the sensations of the dark. Startled mice jumped at our feet, fat slugs acted like land mines, a deer on the path made my mind scream “COUGAR”, and all the while I pictured the pace I was setting slowly but surely breaking Brandon down.

In my mind I was a gazelle covering the trail with the agility of a ballerina. In reality, I imagine the scene looked more like an 85 year old man shuffling along with a twisted grin on his face while his counterpart comfortably and calmly sauntered behind.

Again this section continued on without end, and by the time we reached the final steep section with stairs I could sense my legs were in trouble. The climb from the water to the aid station was my strongest moment of the day – I power hiked like a fiend and finally gained a 1–2 minute gap over the relatively short stretch – but what I didn’t know was that this was also my final glimpse at happiness.

Dead legs

“Coke!” I pleaded as I stumbled back into the Durrance aid station after the trip over and back Mt. Work. “Cooooooooke.”

“Should you be having real food too rather than just Coca Cola?” my Mom innocently questioned.

The glare I shot her ceased her questions. Unless she knew of a way to inject caffeine, immense loads of sugar, carbonation, AND pure pleasure into a slice of baked potato – then at this moment, and at all moments, Coke would be my one and only answer.

I’d said “f&#k it” to my legs on the way back down Mt. Work, and tried to let myself fall freely down the mountain. This meant Brandon was again a couple minutes behind, but I knew it was over. There was nothing left.

Picturing the journey all the way back to the finish was absurd. I physically could not move my legs beyond a limp for anything less than an incline, and even then each and every step was painful. Many times during this section I was struck by the shock of how long this was going to take, and disbelief in the extent of the destruction to my legs.

Brandon caught up within minutes, seemingly bouncing up the path propelled by his poles (I decided that poles would have been a really good idea, even if they potentially could also be a hassle). As he began to pull away I wished him a fun time, and he replied that “I’m sure I’ll see you again”. That had been true all night long, for upwards of 60 kilometers, but this time it was more like he was telling a toddler that their furry friend had “gone to live at a farm where he’ll be happy forever”.

This was going to be a long, lonely trek home.

And it was.

So long, so painful, and so lonely, that I’d rather skim over it:

  • While traversing the plateau of Jocelyn Hill I saw the first of the 50km runners (they were absolutely flying).
  • By the summit of Jocelyn Hill I made the phone call to my girlfriend to say “If you’re not already at the finish line, please delay a couple hours. This is going to take, literally, forever.”
  • About 20 minutes later my cheers of encouragement to the 50k runners had turned to a simple nod and grunt.
  • About 30 minutes after that the audible moans of pain that I’d been trying to muffle became audible moans of pain that I wanted everyone to hear.
  • An eternity later, the feeling that both my feet had been shattered joined in with the deafening pain in my quads.
  • After time ceased to have meaning, I still could not shake my confusion that no other 100k runner had yet to come past me.
  • Who knows how long later (plus the endless climb back up from the base of Holmes Peak) I arrived at Rowntree for the fourth, and final, time.

The journey from Rowntree to the finish was more of the same. Pain, less-than-walking, and disbelief with how slow time was moving. But then came one glimmer of relief.

My feet were in so much agony that I knew something must be off. I hadn’t stepped wrong, or fallen, but each step was bringing a searing pain that I didn’t think I could endure to the end. After some deducing, I realized that my feet had swollen up to the point where my laces were now cutting off the circulation. I loosened the laces to discover large welts on the tops of both feet where the garrottes had been pressing, and immediately the returning blood flow began providing relief.

For the final 4 or so kilometers, I managed to run most of the uphills (for this stretch they are all minor), and endure the slow struggle of the downhills. The centimeters ticked by, and with time I could sense I was actually, somehow, nearing the finish.

Before starting this race one of my main goals was to end completely depleted (you don’t sign up for an ultra to avoid pushing your body to its limits). While I’d definitely got there with my legs, all this walking had left too much in the tank of my lungs. So when I came across a family of hikers who told me there was only one kilometer to go (a good natured white lie, but lie nonetheless), I committed myself to start really running. Surprisingly, my legs were able to handle it as long as I didn’t brake, and I continued to gain speed (this is relative) ‘til the end.

The final, final stretch to the finish is a smooth and gradual downhill, and by the time I could hear the small crowd and announcer I was (at long last) really moving. After nearly face-planting over a miniature bridge with 100 meters to go, I managed to burn around the final corner, cross the line, and stumble over to do what I’d been dreaming of for most of the last 19 hours, 9 minutes, and 51 seconds… collapse.


Gear

Head: Tour de France “King of the Mountains” edition Buff

Headlamp 1: Petzl Nao+ (the brightness of the Nao was appreciated, battery lasted ~6 hours)

Headlamp 2: Black Diamond Storm

Pack: Nathan VaporZach

Shirt: Nike something

Shorts: Salomon Agile Short Tights

Shoes 1: Nike Wildhorse 3’s

Shoes 2: Nike Wildhorse 4’s

Shoes 3: Altra Lone Peak 3’s

Socks: Smartwool PHD Run Light Elite (the just-over-the-ankle types)

Arm Sleeves: Basic ones from MEC (really big help in balancing my temperature during the night)

Watch: None (and I’m glad, because not knowing felt much better than the alternative)

Bonus: Race number attachment belt (highly recommend – this made it easy to change shirts and layers throughout the night)

Takeaways

Fuelling is so important, and it’s a different beast for a race of this length. I think most of my misery, including the failure of my quad muscles, can be attributed to this (and maybe Coke isn’t always the only answer).

The night was actually nice, and nowhere near as scary as it always seemed in training.

If you’re going to do this race, train for long, steep downhills (highly recommend doing repeats of Jocelyn Hill down to McKenzie Blight ocean if possible).

Poles might actually be a worthwhile investment.

Swapping shoes at Rowntree was a really good idea.

Never take any section of this course for granted.

All in all, had I (a) done better with nutrition, and (b) not underestimated certain sections of the race, I imagine this report would paint the course in a more positive light. But, I did neither, so take that course — an eye for an eye.

Thanks

My crew: Ania, Liz, Mom, and Dad <3 (special thanks to Ania for putting up with the training schedule associated with an ultra over the entire summer, and for providing me with the unrelenting, inspiring example of how RUN can actually win out over SNOOZE).

Aid station volunteers: Awesome. Out there all night, always doing everything possible get runners the support they need as quickly as possible, and (even though I was only focused on getting Coke’d up) the food selection looked amazing.

Race organizers: I cursed you many times during the night every time I failed to see a flag, or had to run up a seemingly unnecessary hill - but thanks for putting this race on, it’s awesome that we have such an amazing ultra right here on the Island.

Post race massage: Whoever it was from Fix Healthcare who rescued me from my heap on the ground at the finish line to save my legs from the brink of the abyss – thank you.