Mountains? Check. Epic views? Check and, once more, check. Unbelievably awesome race conditions? Absolutely check. On reflection the decision to throw caution to the wind and sign up for the Whistler 50 – the 50 in this case referring to the number of miles – was a very good one as in terms of manners by which to experience the alpine landmark that is Whistler, BC outside of the ski season this turned out to be one of the best. As a social experience it was also an exceptional weekend.
The fact that it has taken me so long to actually write and publish this report is on account of having learnt one very important lesson the hard way: the vital importance of adequate rest and recuperation following a big race, and the very real risks of succumbing to illness that accompany big race-day efforts. Needless to say I succumbed and part of my report will delve into the important lessons taken from what has been a very unpleasant several days.
If truth be told I was apprehensive about this race in spite of the weeks of good, solid training that I was fortunate enough to be able to commit to, with more time at hand on account of being on a sabbatical and setting my own schedule, the plethora of amazing trails and run routes on offer around my apartment and Vancouver in general, and the availability of both gym facilities and a high spec athletics track a mere stone’s throw from my place. So as far as training went I was, on paper, set for a great race. However, concerns remained as in spite of feeling physically fit – in fact, as fit, I think, as I ever have, save perhaps for when I was at peak Ironman training – I was concerned that my mental game was going to let me down, especially coming off the back of not completing the Eiger 101 and the issues I had halfway through my last 50km race back in Dubai, when I hit a mental wall big time. Ultras are unlike any other endurance sport I have engaged in so far – they properly mess with your head in addition to the sheer physical demands that come with running such long distances. As much as I would love to claim to be the most mentally resilient athlete there is I know that I’m not and my tolerance for real discomfort is actually pretty low. So why did I choose this sport again?!
Whilst the distance was set to be longer than anything I’ve run to date – Wadi Bih was 72km – the profile, according to that published on the event website, was relatively tame in comparison to many alpine races. That doesn’t mean it was a walk in the park, especially with most of the climbing taking place in one relatively short but intense section of the second loop. The course itself comprised four repeated loops of 20km each, with those then split into two separate loops that started and ended back in the Olympic Plaza – yep, complete with giant Olympic rings – right in the centre of Whistler village. The first of the two was 13km and essentially traced a course around the perimeter of the golf course and was almost entirely on paved surface, whilst the second felt a little more ‘trail.’ That one was shorter, at 7km, and headed out from the village along the river as it tumbled and rolled over boulders and rocks on its long route from peak to sea, before climbing up to and past Lost Lake, providing absolutely breathtaking views and a picture of alpine serenity, before descending back down to the river and the village. The looping nature of the course meant that we were able to access both the main aid station and our drop bags multiple times, a blessing for the most part but, as the race wore on, the mileage ramped up and the fatigue really started to set in, a real temptation to take perhaps too long between loops and, with those mental niggles becoming louder shouts, an easy option to throw in the towel.
Nutrition has, in previous races, been an Achilles heel of mine and has almost certainly played a role in some of my tougher moments. Basically the issue is that I just don’t eat enough during the race and when I do start feeling hungry then unfortunately that is often the point at which it’s too late to really make a significant difference. As such, a priority for me in this race was to pay closer attention to eating and drinking enough to stay hydrated and adequately fueled. Whilst I do have Tailwind, the liquid nutrition that many in the ultra community appear to use, I am yet to get my head around, or even my stomach for that matter, the recommendation to consume the quantities they do. As such, I still very much make use of good old fashioned ‘solids,’ with my particular choice of fuel for this race coming in the form of various candy bars (Snickers & Mars to be specific), bananas, cereal bars and, at the halfway point, some mouthfuls of delicious beef jerky, which does absolute wonders for sating that inevitable salt craving that develops at some point and, well, just a nice break from all the sugary shit. In hindsight I probably should have eaten more still, as there were definitely some moments when I did actually feel hungry and I know that my fluid intake should definitely have been greater. I had been pretty good during the earlier stages of the race, remembering to sip regularly and feeling happy to have to visit the little runners room now and then, but as the day wore on and my mind became set firmly on the finish I confess to taking my eye off the ball and consuming less. The fact that I finished the race with some of my original 2 litres of fluid in my pack somewhat drove this fact home as I had fully expected to fill it at least once or twice during the day. Definitely something to ruminate on in preparation for future races.
One of the advantages of being free to set my own agenda – primarily on account of the VR/AR “course” I came to Vancouver to partake it turning out to be a dud, thus forcing me to go completely independent – is that I was able to take the time and head up to Whistler in advance of the race, get settled and not have to rush come race day. The easiest option was to book a seat on one of the various buses that operate a shuttle service to and from the resort, with Epic Rides being the operator I ultimately chose, paying CA $35 for a ticket each way. The advantage of just getting to kick back on a bus was that a) I was able to actually enjoy the views en route rather than focus on not killing myself behind the wheel, and b) eliminated all the expense and hassle of dealing with a hire car. After all, I wasn’t planning on doing any driving once up in the mountains anyway so having a car parked all weekend would have been redundant.
Another advantage of the bus was that it was a nice way of meeting some new people, with one person being a fellow solo ultra runner, Ingrid, who originally hails from Brazil but is now based in Victoria, BC and was heading up to Whistler clearly looking to put in a good solid performance.
Once in Whistler I was struck not by the overwhelming beauty of the place, because, well, I knew it was going to be and had been able to admire the changing scenery en route, but rather by how happy I felt to be back up in the mountains. For a lad who grew up in flat, rural Norfolk I do have this affinity for peaks that means that I just feel happy in the mountains. It was the same in Tahoe, the same in Switzerland and now here in Canada – there is just something mesmerisingly majestic about being able to peer up and drink in the view of snow-capped mountains, knowing that they’ve been there way before us and will, almost certainly, be there long after we’ve all pushed ourselves out of existence. Its humbling. Levelling.
The town of Whistler was much like the ski towns I have visited in other parts of the world, and as I strolled down through the village in search of my hotel the usual, familiar names were evident – Patagonia, North Face, Starbucks etc – albeit sitting alongside as many independents. It was clearly a popular town and was busy even in the absence of any skiable snowfall. My hotel, the Summit Lodge Boutique Hotel, was located just a stone’s throw from Olympic Plaza and the main focus of activity on race day, and was extremely comfortable, even coming with a hot tub and pool, welcome amenities when it came to after the race.
It took a good amount of willpower not to give in to the temptation to wander off on a long hike such was the allure of the surrounding countryside and the fact that it was a stunning Autumn day, although I did do a decent explore of the town itself, stopping off for some exquisite pizza and sitting by the river to join the Thinking Man sculpture in some quiet contemplation – good spot for it! At 5pm we were able to call in and pick up our race packs, with the solo runners dealt with at a smaller table by the race organiser, Ron. Apparently there were about 44 runners registered in total for the race and so it was set to be a great day, especially with the forecast remaining as good as it had been all week – quite the contrast to the year before by all accounts. I was definitely going to need to remember to pack my camera for the race!
With my race gear placed out, nutrition organised and bagged up and one, final high-carb meal safely put away I was tucked up in bed by 9pm, meaning that I actually, remarkably, got a full 7 hours of sleep in by the time the alarm pierced the ambience in the morning.
I was eager to get going and see what the day had in store. I knew I’d prepared, I knew I was fit and I knew that I was feeling as good as I could expect to just a short time away from hearing the starter’s horn. As such it was just a matter of going through the usual race-prep motions: food in, anxiety out, get dressed, final bag checks and then head out the door. Given the forecast for very chilly temperatures to start I opted for multiple layers fully expecting that I had likely overdone it and would be removing at least one a short distance into the race. In the end, however, my choice of trail top, thermal layer, cycling thermal layer, gloves, snood and a beanie proved to be more than required and all remained in place for at least the first two laps of the course – it was freeeeezzzziiiinnnnggg!!!
As 6am rolled around those of us mad enough to choose to run 80km collected at the start, having dropped off our aid station bags, and counted down until we were officially off! My tactic, as far as I had one, was to keep my pace really steady to start, aiming to run no harder than would have been comfortable to chat at and to focus on remembering the route as best I could. It was extremely dark for most of the first loop, with headlamps mandatory and actually very much needed. Whilst the views in the dark were lacking it did help to ensure that focus remained on running sensibly and on both eating and drinking regularly. To say that there wasn’t a part of me that was a little nervous/ excited at the very real prospect of some sort of wildlife to come leaping out of the dark depths would be a lie – after all, we were running in actual bear country!
By the time we were about 7km in I really started to find my pace and was feeling strong, with the going perfect, the air crisp and fresh and the only sounds to be heard the rustle of leaves in the gentle breeze, the rhythmic pad of feet on the path and the sound of my thoughts. It is moments like those that we run for – being one of the only people for miles around to be up and out, enjoying nature and just drinking it all in! Blissful.
The bliss, however, soon changed to concern as the two runners I had caught up to and I passed a sign that stated the village was 4.2km in the opposite direction to that in which we were running despite it being clear that we should have been no more than a kilometre from home, having already run about 12km of what was meant to be a 13km loop. When the scenery started to look very familiar we decided that we had, in fact, gone wrong and started running back the way we came. As we passed another runner he seemed confident that we hadn’t gone wrong and so, given that I had zero idea either way, I swung back round and joined him – after all, he seemed pretty sure. It was about 2km down the route, when it was absolutely crystal clear that we’d passed that section before, that it did dawn on us that we had gone wrong. How wrong was unclear but there had been a route error at some point. The trouble was that on that first loop we’d seen nobody official at all and so trying to work out what had happened and where the error may have occurred was a guessing game. Feeling pretty annoyed at ourselves, especially given how early it was in the race to be adding unnecessary extra miles, we made the decision to just start tracking back towards the village, as signposted by the roadside signs. It transpired that where we’d gone wrong, and where a lot of others had made the same error, was at the 10km aid station. I recall running towards it, seeing two other runners ahead, and seeing a portable toilet, table and white gazebo, but no-one manning it. We’d been advised to look out for orange cones marking the route and so seeing that said cones went to the right most of us naturally followed them in that direction. What we hadn’t realised at the time was that it was a tricky station that actually represented a bidirectional split – on the outward leg of the loop we ran to the aid station, passing it on our right, but on the return leg we were actually meant to hang a left at it, to pick up the trail specifically back into town! Some people who had raced the same route before had apparently remembered this and so avoided the error whilst those of us blindly following the cones were the ones to get drawn into the trap.
In the end Mike and I ended up returning to the start via part of the second loop route and added on nearly 5km to our total for the day, an annoying way to start but thankfully not ruinous, especially after checking that our failure to come over the requisite timing mat was not going to result in a disqualification. If that had been a risk then I’d have been more peeved but as it all looked to be ok I just chalked it up to one of those ultra experiences to learn from and focused on the rest of the day, and trying to make up some of the lost time whilst trying to avoid pushing too hard or fast too early and blowing the rest of the race.
Back in the Race
With some more fuel on board it was off and out onto the second, shorter loop. I confess that I did jack up the pace for the first 2km but was thankfully slowed to something more sensible by the arrival of the first climb of the loop. I learnt pretty early on in ultra running that there is very little advantage to be gained from trying to run up gradients over a certain steepness – it’s just inefficient! As such, I power-hiked up most of the climbs, taking the opportunity to catch my breath, take on food and water and just gather my thoughts. The climbing in this race all seemed to be focused in one relatively short section of the second loop and by the time we reached Lost Lake, whose appearance changed with each lap and as the day progressed, it was a long, steady downhill run back to the village and the start of grand-loop number two.
With the route now manned with supporters and volunteers it was much clearer where we were supposed to go. As such it was easier to just relax into the race and not have to worry about going wrong again. I found the second loop to be my best as I was well warmed up by then, feeling energetic and just enjoying the experience and the views of being out in Whistler, with no hint of muscle pain setting in – just that lovely sense of flow that comes from running well in breathtaking surroundings and with perfect conditions.
By the time I made it out onto lap three I was aware of the relay runners, primarily on account of the fact that they rather unsurprisingly passed us solo runners at a decent clip and devoid of any pack on their backs. They were running a very different race to us – more of a sprint in their case – and so remembering this helped to avoid feeling disillusioned when they did sail past looking strong. The support everyone got from one another, and from the plethora of volunteers along the route, was wonderful and made a huge difference to the overall experience of the race, especially during those final laps when the fatigue was starting to kick in and the desire to walk became ever stronger. Seeing an aid station coming up with supporters whooping and hollering at you to keep going and telling you how well you’re doing does wonders for lifting even the most weary of spirits and I’m sure all of us put in PBs over those specific, short sections alone. One stand out memory for me was jogging along at what felt like a very slow pace on my final long loop when a relay runner zipped past me shouting as she did, “you are awesome!” I confess that put a smile smack bang on my face and really helped drive the legs home.
With just the final 7km to go I dropped off everything bar my camera at the aid station before striking out, feeling pumped that this was it: the final push. 7km? What was that? Nothing! I knew that I could tick that off even if my legs and feet were definitely aching by that point. It was the length of a short training run, that was all. With one final set of pics taken at the lake viewing point – the best light of the day was absolutely during the fourth lap – it was time to dig in for one, final push down the hill and home. It always amazes me that no matter how much you’ve put into a race and how tired one might be feeling, there is always a sprint in the legs for the final few hundred meters. And so it was, as I saw the village come into view I stepped on the gas, literally sprinting down the last section of road before crossing over into the plaza and then left towards the finish! I was so pumped at that moment and felt absolutely elated as I crossed the line in a total time of 8 hours 24 mins, and a total distance of just under 85km. Not bad for a day’s work 🙂
Celebrate Good Times
Whilst I was feeling tired, very tired, and sore following an entire working-day of pretty much non-stop running I was also feeling elated. I’d put in a solid performance, dealt with an early setback in good humour and ultimately pushed on to have a great day. I was very pleased. Mike came through the finish a little after me and I made sure to hobble over to congratulate him – whilst we’d not necessarily run together together for most of the day, we were definitely close and I considered him my main ‘brother in arms’ for the day. Its an incredibly friendly sport and I am always amazed at the range of lovely people you end up meeting during ultras.
The social element of my experience continued as I made my way back over to the hotel – I knew it was a blessing to have booked one so close by – and ultimately into the blissfully soothing warm waters of the hot tub. There is nothing like lowering run-weary legs down into bubbling warm water! Lovely! It wasn’t long before others joined, with the first people climbing in being three guys who had run as part of a relay team from Vancouver. In short course the rest of their team, who were all staying at the hotel as well, joined, making for a cosily packed hot tub. I learned that they were part of a relay team put together from their run group, the Oak Street Runners, which I realised was fairly close to where I was based at UBC. They’d had a cracking day, coming in 17th overall, and no wonders with several very fast runners among their team, in addition to doing the race in fancy dress, which always scores awesome points in my book! They were even nice enough to invite me to join them for some drinks at the local bar that evening, something I eagerly took them up on given that a good beer and conversation is the best way to mark the completion of a successfully run race in my humble opinion.
Fast forward an hour or so, during which time I tried to catch a few much needed Z’s, and I sauntered across the road to the bar to meet everyone. To say they were a welcoming and riotously fun group to hang out with would be an understatement and those couple of initial drinks progressed to joining them for tapas (and more drinks) at an awesome local restaurant, before we hit the clubs and the night went from there. Short version of the story = very little sleep, a very fatigued Sunday but a perfect way to round out what had consistently proven itself to be an epic weekend. I would like to say a huge thank you to them all for making me a welcome part of their team that weekend – thanks to Yun, Dom, Mary, Davide, Dave, Marko, Carola and Joanna 🙂
The Price of No Rest
What surprised me following the weekend was just how surprisingly good I felt. My legs barely ached and I felt energetic, so much so that I quickly jumped into the mission I had set myself, which had been to learn how to do a hockey stop on the ice. With no running to officially do, although I did join Jo for a cheeky 10km on the Monday evening, I saw no problem in directing my energies elsewhere. Unbeknownst to me, however, was that in spite of feeling good I really should have forced myself to properly take it easy. According to some studies runners recovering from an ultra marathon can be at greater risk of developing, for example, upper respiratory infections. In hindsight, going out the night of the race and “having it large” probably wasn’t the smartest move either, as the liver is already pretty stressed from the race without having several drinks thrown in for good measure. Still, I didn’t really know or give much thought to any of this at the time and as far as I was concerned I felt great. Until that it is, I didn’t.
Almost a week to the day, during a trip over to Toronto to see some family, I started to feel feverish, then developed an acutely painful throat that ultimately saw me call in to a doctor. The initial diagnosis was Strep throat and I was issued with antibiotics and told to carry on taking Tylenol. Cue one of the most miserable weeks of my life so far, including a flight back to Vancouver during which I repeatedly felt like chucking up, and no let up in what felt like my head being in a slowly tightening vice, my teeth and jaw in a similarly badly fitted brace and throat feeling as though an army of spike-wearing devils were doing a constant jig on my tonsils. That an ongoing fever that all served to make me feel bloody wretched. The diagnosis after a second trip to see a doctor was actually severe pharyngitis, most likely viral and as a result of my immune system being in a weakened state following the exertions of the race the week before. Even as I write this I am still recovering and think I now have had some glimpse into what it might feel like to be 110! If my experience this past week had anything to do with failing to look after myself properly following running an ultra-marathon then I vow in future to be far, far better to myself. Health is one of those incredibly precious attributes we have and only truly appreciate when it is not present – if taking a few more days off, as in really off – and relaxing properly following a race can help avoid feeling as shitty as I have then sign me up! One thing I do know now is that I am absolutely not Superman! 🙂