Whistler. The name alone is instantly recognisable. Immediately it conjures up images of pristine alpine perfection and for anyone visiting Vancouver, it feels almost irresponsible not to make the effort to head out of the city to check Whistler out for yourself. I know Whistler more as a hallowed site of snow sports action, with the memory still firmly lodged in my mind of the Canadian friend I had way back in New Zealand, during my Gap Year travels, who playfully scoffed at the very idea of essentially slumming it on Kiwi slopes when she was used to the “perfect powder of Whistler.” Since then I have had this image and idea of the place firmly chiselled into my psyche. I had to check it out even though it would not be to engage in any snowboarding, a simple, irksome yet unavoidable feature of the fact that the snow doesn’t generally arrive and the resorts don’t open until after I am scheduled to fly back home. Still, it’s not just snow sports that attract visitors to Whistler and I didn’t have to search too long to find my excuse to go: an ultra marathon!
Fresh off the Eiger 101 experience in July, an alpine race that really showed me how tough this sport and the mountains can be, I was, initially, apprehensive about the idea of signing up for another long-distance mountain race. However, the one I found, a four loop course totalling 80km, and part of a main, team relay event, appears, on paper, to be way less brutal than the Eiger had proven to be. The event itself is the BC Athletics Whistler 50 Relay & Ultra. As far as I can tell, the course is relatively flat, sticking close to the centre of Whistler itself, and sounds as though it is set to be a really fun, sociable event, with a big post-race party featuring prominently on their marketing materials.
At the end of the day my priority was getting up to see Whistler and so if I can combine that with an actual sporting event then all the better. Of course I intend to finish the race but, ultimately, if the distance does end up beating me then it won’t be the end of the world as it was never the number one goal of going. Having said that, I have run (close to) the distance before, with Wadi Bih sitting at 72km in length, so with some good training and favourable race day conditions, I don’t see any reason to doubt myself in the solo category. Credit card swiped and I was in. The easy part done.
Whilst I was due to be physically located the other side of the world during the preparation for the race I knew full well that, once again, the expert advice and training guidance of my coach, Trace, was required and, once again, she needed no encouragement to join me on this new, crazy challenge. With all my belongings packed away in storage, essentials in a suitcase and eager to see what my three months in Vancouver were going to lead to, I jetted out of Dubai and, via Amsterdam, made my way to Canada. Ironically the first couple of weeks turned out to be less than desirable training conditions, with government air warnings being issued daily on account of the smoke and fine particulate matter in the air, a result of the forest fires raging away to the north and south. It was so bad the first week of my stay that I didn’t actually get to set eyes on the mountains that form the backdrop to North Vancouver until into week two of being there. My first day in the city did see me do a lap round Stanley Park’s sea wall, an iconic run but on reflection perhaps as healthy an experience as simply pulling up a bar stool in a local pub and chugging through a pack of cigarettes. Ironic then that I found myself advising Trace that in spite of having left the hot, dusty conditions of the UAE in summer – hostile training conditions for outdoor training – for what I expected to be the nirvana of run training, much of the planned ‘fresh air’ runs that were scheduled on my plan had to be canned until the air improved. It didn’t help matters that, almost certainly due to the bad air, I developed a sore throat, and found the first few weeks of running here in Canada surprisingly tough, with my legs feeling ridiculously stiff and sore whenever I headed out. I couldn’t figure out whether it was just a case of not being used to the temperate conditions or still feeling the Eiger in my muscles, although I’d surely had ample recovery(?) Thankfully it has all since resolved and the past few weeks of training have felt way more comfortable with the pain that I was, at times, experiencing gone and instead replaced by the all too familiar and infinitely more reassuring tiredness that comes with a good, solid workout. I recognise that feeling and embrace it as a training partner!
In addition to the legs regaining their mojo the air quality thankfully improved relatively swiftly and the smoke now feels like a weird, distant memory, replaced instead by what I had expected and excitedly anticipated by moving to Vancouver: crisp, clean air, nature-abundant trails and views that turn any training run into a sumptuous feast for the visual cortex. I ended up being extremely fortunate with my accommodation arrangements by finding a room in an apartment to rent just on the edge of the UBC (University of British Columbia) campus, out on the western tip of Vancouver and nestled within the stunning forests of the Pacific Spirit National Park, an extensive area of ancient woodland that’s criss-crossed by scores of trails, ranging from the wide, straight and relatively flat all the way through to the narrow, winding and undulating. It is a trail runners playground and one could be satisfied simply sticking to running in the immediate vicinity of my apartment, let alone the tempting offerings that come from venturing beyond this corner of Vancouver. Another stroke of luck was the fact that literally next door to my apartment building is a branch of a Canadian running store chain, The Running Room, that hosts weekly social runs. As such, every Sunday morning sees me join a lovely eclectic group of runners, ranging across age, nationality and all with the same goal: to come out and just enjoy running. This regular injection of social contact into my run training has been fantastic, especially as a lot of the time long-distance running can often feel like quite a solitary endeavour. To round out my good fortune with regard to training my place also happens to be less than a kilometre from the main UBC athletics track, which so far seems to be open to any and all to make use of, which is an absolute treat and one that has enabled some really excellent interval training to be built into my programme. I actually don’t think I could have asked to be in a better location for run training, and it all came about more by luck than design!
There have been a few standout moments so far in my running here in Vancouver, with one of the earliest being taking part in a Running Rooms event at Stanley Park: a night run. The Friday evening of my second week in the city saw me join scores of other enthusiastic pavement pounders as we adorned ourselves with glowsticks and hit either the 5km or 10km races that took in most of the sea wall that I’d run just the week before, except this time at night. I was especially pleased with my time and although a stitch set in at the 8km mark – an annoying performance curber – I posted a pretty fast time of just over 40 minutes for the full 10km. That really gave my confidence a shot in the arm and I feel as though the training has stepped up nicely since.
Another early experience was during my first solo run around the UBC area. As much an excuse to just explore as it was a training run, my ‘make it up as you go along’ route saw me head on down the steep woodland staircase from Marine Drive to Wreck Beach, a popular stretch of coastline that is well known for being ‘clothing optional.’ It transpired that way more of the punters at the beach that day opted NOT to wear any clothes and so I had my first real experience of Canadian liberalism, including at one point some dude who asked me for directions and then proceeded to try and engage me in a full conversation about how his wife was from the UK etc, all whilst his entire compliment of junk was out flip-flapping away. All I could think at the time was, “seriously dude! This is way too weird for me right now…. I just want to carry on running!” Very comical indeed!
One of the early advantages of throwing in with the local running store was that I was able to join a few of them on a couple of trips across to North Vancouver, with one to do a hike on the Baden Powell trail from Deep Cove, and another to tackle the punishably steep and heart-bursting Grouse Grind, that takes masochists like us from the base to the top of Grouse mountain in just under 2km! The record for it sits at about 25mins, which is insanely quick. It took me just under an hour and that was with me really giving it some welly! I doubt I’d have made it over to check out such spots if it were not for the generous spirit of the people I was with as to do so with public transport would take about 2 hours, whereas in a car it only takes about 30 to 40 mins to get to each place.
One other highlight to date has been running in Seattle during a weekend trip down to the US city. Similar in many regards to Vancouver, my long Saturday morning run was a fantastic way to explore yet another stunningly picturesque city. Running really is one of the best ways to explore new places!
And so with the race now less than a week away I am entering the final few days of tapered training. The forecast, at this stage anyway, is looking good for race day, with sunshine and mild to cool temperatures. If that remains the case then we should be set for an awesome weekend of running and fun. Bring it on!