“What are you doing to us, Gary!?” These were the first words that left my mouth as I crossed the finish line. “We’re just making you stronger, one race at a time,” Gary replied as I accepted his congratulatory hug. 17 hours and 43 minutes earlier I’d set off in the middle of the night, along with 100 or so others, on the second annual running of Gary Robbin’s 110km mountain race in Whistler, BC. This was my longest pure race to date and by far the most challenging.
Whistler Alpine Meadows — “WAM” for short — included five races: an ascent race, a 25k, 55k, 110k (ish) and 160k (ish) and each promised a “true mountain running experience”. All races traversed the rugged terrain of the Blackcomb/Whistler area and the distances tended to be rounded up by 5-10kms so, we all got our money’s worth and then some. But first, let me tell you about Gary.
Gary Robbins is the race director for the Coast Mountain Trail Series and organizes a number of rugged races in the Vancouver/Squamish/Whistler region. If you run the trails in this area, chances are you’ve at least heard of him. In the ultrarunning community, however, Gary is well known for a number of impressive feats. He has many wins and podium finishes under his belt and has set some impressive fastest known time (FKT) records, including an 18h50m supported run of the challenging 93 mile Wonderland Trail. The route, which circumnavigates Mount Rainier, took me and a few friends 3 long days to backpack earlier this summer. In short: Gary’s no slouch.
Gary Robbins. Image from Running Magazine
What’s most interesting about Gary is that he doesn’t have a running background. He ran his first ultra about 15 years ago while in his mid twenties when ultra running was much more of a fringe sport than it is now. After only a few years, he was winning or placing well in local races, and then in 2010, he won the aptly named “HURT 100” in Hawaii and finished top 10 at Western States, one of the most competitive races in the world. I ran my first trail race when I was 27. I’m 31 now, so I can appreciate the amount of work he must have put in to get so good so quickly.
Over the past few years, Gary has turned his attention to the infamous Barkley Marathons, the brain child of “Lazarus Lake” whom I had the privilege of meeting in Calgary this past spring during the Outrun Backyard Ultra. Gary, at this point, is the most famous person not to have finished the Barkley. He’s attempted the nearly impossible 100+ mile event three times, completing a remarkable four of five loops in his first attempt. He is better known, however, for his second attempt when he completed 4.9 loops, going off course two miles from the end and hobbling to the finish from the wrong direction , a mere 6 seconds after the 60 hour time limit. There’s a heartbreaking video of the event here: Gary’s almost finish. He has since turned this moment into a bittersweet pre-race joke at his own races when telling runners to be respectful to the volunteers that enforce the time cut offs. “I missed a cut off once,” he’ll say with a smile.
At this point, most people who know me are aware of my running exploits. I post pictures online of myself on the trails, I write blog posts like this, and it naturally comes up in conversation. I try not to let my adventures take up too much space, but it’s inevitable that I get asked the “why?” question.
I can wax poetic about the lure of the mountains and the beauty of the trees, but that’s really only half of the equation. There’s a deeper aspect too. No matter how you measure them, these races are hard. And that’s the draw: suffering is the foundation of the sport. It is this open embrace of pain that makes it quite unique. I don’t enjoy pain, but I know I grow stronger when I embrace it consciously. This voluntary kind of suffering is the the special ingredient of extreme endurance sports that keeps me coming back for more.
Not that it’s all suffering, of course. In a typical ultramarathon, there are several dynamics unfolding simultaneously. First, you’re competing with yourself, striving to accomplish your personal goal for that particular event, which may just be to finish. Second, you’re competing with the other runners, jockeying for positions (though usually in a friendly, supportive sort of way). And lastly, you’re doing battle with the course itself. It is the collective adversary, that each runner must overcome one step at a time. When we battle the course, we are, by extension, facing off against the course’s creator. In the case of WAM, this is Gary.
Of course, race directors do not organize these events alone. Gary has a tremendous amount of support from his team at CMTS and all of the generous volunteers. But when you’re out on this course, you’re out on his course. He is the auteur. When you have to slog up a steep incline without switchbacks, it’s Gary who’s to blame. I’m sure just about every ultra-runner can attest to cursing the name of a race director late in a race when facing an unexpected hill, some gnarly rocks, or just about anything other than smooth, flat, “easy” trail.
A good race course is like a good teacher or a good coach: tough, but fair. They exist to push you outside of your comfort zone for your benefit above all else. Like a devout disciple from the Lazarus Lake School of Suffering, Gary Robbins also wants us to push ourselves further than we would otherwise. He might appear to be a sadist, but he walks the walk, and he understands the ways we grow as people when we stretch our perceived limits.
But enough about Gary. He’s a dangerous man. That’s all you need to know.
Training for WAM
Last year I only ran two races, one of which was the Squamish 50 miler (80km) — the best known of the CMTS races. After a year of injuries and mixed feelings about running in general, it marked my return to the sport. It was a great race, rugged and steep, but mostly a lot of fun. I had intended to return this year, train for it specifically, and improve my time, but fate intervened the day registration opened for 2019. I slept in and the 450 tickets were sold out before I’d taken a sip of my morning coffee.
I was bummed, but there’s no shortage of races to run these days. After clicking around on the CMTS website, I noticed they also organized a series of races in Whistler. The 170km “100 miler” — new for 2019 — caught my attention, but when I saw there was 9500m of vertical gain, I registered for the the 110km race instead. It “only” had 6000m of gain. This is still more climbing than most 100-miler races, however, so I knew it was going to be a long day. And like that, WAM became my “A” race for the year.
I’d sat around most of the winter and my unstructured, “run when you feel like” approach to training wasn’t going to cut it if I expected to finish, let alone compete in the race. The amount of up required for WAM was twice as much as anything I had done before, so I was also going need to find some mountains.
My spring was filled with travel which kept things interesting as I eased back into running 6 days a week. I ran the service roads around Merritt, BC as I waited for the snow to melt; I ran around the town of Terrace in Northern BC; I ran the technical mountain bike trails in Cumberland on Vancouver Island while visiting with my uncle and aunt. I even squeezed in a few long runs in the spectacular Jasper National Park.
Over the summer, Ella introduced me to two books: (1) Training for the Uphill Athlete by Steve House, Scott Johnson and Kilian Jornet; and (2) Training Essentials for Ultrarunning by Jason Koop. As Ella will tell you, there are some conflicting philosophies between the two books, but when it comes to uphill training, both agree that you need to do it, and do lots of it. With all the travel, staying organized had become increasingly challenging, so I combined these books with a TrainingPeaks subscription to plan my schedule. Coaches are expensive, so “coaching myself” was the more economical option.
After the Outrun Backyard Ultra in Calgary, I drove up to Yellowknife, back down to Vancouver, and then spent a few weeks of hanging out in the Seattle area. This trip included the White River 50M and backpacking trip on The Wonderland Trail, a spectacular (and spectacularly steep!) circumnavigation of Mount Rainier. From there, I packed up and made my way down to Southern California to see my parents and rack up some serious “vert” in the final weeks before WAM. In the month of August, I climbed Mount Shasta, ran up Mount Whitney, hiked up San Gorgonio and ran up San Jacinto (twice!). By the end of the summer, my body had become hardened in a way I hadn’t felt since the PCT. I was excited to see how all this hard work would translate on race day.
My original plan was to drive back to Vancouver for the race, but part of the reason I drove to California in the first place was to work on the van itself. My renovation project was turning into a never-ending affair. As race day loomed closer, the van was nowhere near ready for me to drive back home, so I decided to fly instead. I booked a flight, a rental car, and a room at the Whistler Athletes Centre. The only missing piece was a crew.
Ella had volunteered to help me earlier in the year, but the dates were no longer favourable for her. Going solo would have been fine, but not nearly as much fun. I thought about who else I could ask and then bingo: Malcolm’s name popped into my head. A friend and fellow runner with a flexible schedule, Malcolm knew a great deal about the lore of ultrarunning, but hadn’t yet experienced either running or attending an event. I floated the idea by him and he was immediately game.
In the week leading up the race, I shared my planning spreadsheets and forwarded him Gary’s pre-race emails about bear safety, shuttle bus logistics, gear requirements, course changes, aid station adjustments, additional course changes, snow reports, and other related material. I’m happy to say, in spite of all this, he was still gung-ho! Meanwhile I was finalizing my gear list, nutrition plan, and pace goals for a course I’d never seen before. Days before my flight, I had a strange dream that Malcolm and I arrived late for the race and I had to negotiate with Gary for permission to start running (he wouldn’t budge).
At the last minute, I received a welcome surprise from Jean-Nic, my old running buddy in Montreal. He introduced me to a fellow 110k runner named Martin who would also be flying in from Montreal. I offered Martin a ride to Whistler and he happily accepted. We were now a team of three. Even better!
I flew to Vancouver on Thursday where I spent the night with my long time friends, Chris and Victoria. After catching up with them and a few of their friends over Indian food — a risky choice in hindsight — I called it a night and got some sleep. Friday morning, I loaded up the car, ran a few errands and then picked up Malcolm and Marty. Traffic was terrible getting out of the city, but the three of us were all enjoying the conversation, so it didn’t matter.
We arrived at the Hilton in Whistler for packet pick up around 6pm. It felt like we had lots of time, but we had be awake in 8 hours and we still hadn’t prepared our drop bags or eaten dinner. We walked back to the car and sorted through our gear in the parking lot. Drop bags could be sent to the 49km and 82km aid stations where I estimated I’d arrive at roughly the 6h and 11h marks, respectively. I sorted my gels, bars and other race food into three piles, and put two into my bags adorned with rainbow coloured ribbon to make them easier to find later.
We went back to to our hotel, dropped off the bags and drove into the village to find somewhere to eat. I was suddenly starving. I wolfed down a slice of pizza and a panini. We relaxed and chatted about the minutiae of ultra running. Next thing we knew, it was 9pm, only 5 hours until wake up time, and none of us had checked into where we were staying. We drove Marty to his campsite at the Riverside Resort where the race would start and finish the following day. Malcolm and I then went to pick up some groceries for the morning and drove back to the Whistler Athletes Centre (WAC).
When we arrived, there was a crowd of people gathered outside the building waiting for the leader of the 100 mile race to arrive. I spoke to a woman there whose nephew was the one they were expecting any minute. She told me we were at the 90km aid station. It was 10pm and that race had started at 10am that morning. 12 hours in and only those at the front of the pack were around the halfway mark! I wanted to stick around, but when I told the woman I was running 110k race, she simply asked, “Shouldn’t you be in bed?”. I laughed, but sure enough, 5 minutes later, Malcolm and I went upstairs and got everything sorted for the following day. By the time I finally lay down to sleep it was almost midnight. So much for getting a good night’s sleep.
Race day started at 2am. My alarm went off after only two hours of sleep. I stared at the ceiling for five minutes, took a deep breath, then got up to face the day ahead. I put on my running gear which I’d neatly laid out the night before then knocked on Malcolm’s door. “You up?” He was ready to go. We went downstairs to the shared kitchen of the WAC to eat some breakfast.
Malcolm had already started filming and documenting the day via Instagram stories. Video of me walking down the hall; video of me in the elevator; video of me eating a parfait. “Is it true you started running to become an Instagram influencer?”, Malcolm asked. I laughed. This cinéma vérité approach wasn’t exactly what I was in the mood for at two in the morning. We joked about how “utterly unwatchable” ultrarunning is as a sport, so perhaps this would liven things up.
In the kitchen, we sat down at a table with two other runners and chatted to them while we ate. “We may not have to run as far as the 100 mile runners, but we’re getting just as little sleep,” one of them joked. At 2:45am, Malcolm and I loaded up the car and drove to the shuttle bus pick up point in the village. I don’t remember what started it, but we found ourselves deep in a conversation about The Big Lebowski. Our discussion continued on to the bus, to the Riverside Cafe, and then to the race starting area. “Did you ever hear of the Seattle Seven?” We weren’t just quoting the script; we were really getting into it. Was I merely distracting myself from the hours of suffering to come? Maybe, but I also never turned down an opportunity to discuss all things Dude.
Gary Robbins gave his pre-race talk at 3:45am. It was as information-heavy as his 15 pre-race emails. We looked around in the dark for Marty and when we found him, Malcolm took a picture of the two of us. With minutes to go, we wished each other luck, and then at 4am sharp, we set off.
I’d never experienced such a lack of pre-race nerves before. We started running and I soon realized I hadn’t started my watch. I was still in Dude-land, laughing to myself about the “Little Lebowski Urban Achievers”. Gary rode ahead of us for a couple kilometers on a lit up bike. We cruised along a paved path when up ahead we heard Gary yell, “Bear! Bear! Bear!” I couldn’t see anything, but I also figured a bear wasn’t about to jump a conga line of 100 humans.
I started near the middle of the pack where the pace was surprisingly fast. I kept reminding myself that it was going to be a long day and these early kilometres would be negligible by the end. I figured the race wouldn’t really start until the 80km mark, and almost everyone goes out too fast anyway. Plus, I’m like a diesel engine: it takes me a good hour to properly warm up.
The conditions were cool, but not cold. The trail was soft and damp, but not water logged. “Beautiful evening”, I said to another runner as I came up alongside them. And I meant it! The forecast had been iffy, but so far, this was perfect running weather. I took it easy for the first few hours, walking the hills and chatting with the people around me. There was a pilot from Florida, a Kiwi who lived in Squamish, an American from Seattle. My body was moving well. I fell into a rhythm quickly and started passing people.
I arrived at the first aid station 15 minutes ahead of schedule. My watch said 13km when it was supposed to be 15km. I knew we’d make up those extra miles later, but I was a little annoyed as it might affect my ETAs for linking up with Malcolm later. I’d told him not to bother meeting me at this stop, and to go back and get some sleep. I handed my water bottles to a volunteer for a refill, grabbed a few snacks, and set off again.
The previous day, I’d given Malcolm a printed copy of the aid stations with my “A” and “B” time goals. I explained that these were very approximate since I hadn’t trained on the course or even seen the course, and was partly basing the splits on last year’s results which followed a different route anyway. My “A” time goal was 15h45m and my “B” goal was 18h10 (20% slower than the “A” goal). I wanted to finish in the top 10 with an eye on the top 5. If I could come close to my goal time, this was a definite possibility.
Aside from the steeper bits, the trail up to that point had been very runnable. The last few kilometres before the second aid station, however, were comically rugged and technical by comparison. We kept criss-crossing between a railroad track and a dense wooded area. The sun had started to rise by this point, but I still had my headlamp on. It was good timing too as my batteries had started to fade and I found it hard to see when going through the denser patches of forest. I took my first fall of the day here while trying to negotiate some large roots. “This feels more like a Gary Robbins race,” I thought as I dusted myself off.
The second aid station — Function Junction — was at 27.5 km. My ETA according to “the sheet” was about 7:15am and Malcolm was slated to meet me there. I grabbed some food and looked around, but I couldn’t see him anywhere. Damn. I was still 15 minutes ahead of schedule, but I thought he might have showed up early. I ate some sausages and potatoes and refilled my bottles. I had planned on filling my third water bottle as the next section was 21km long and I’d estimated 2h30m to complete, but I couldn’t find it anywhere in my back vest pouch. I filled my two front bottles — for a total of 1 litre— and counted on finding a stream along the way to grab more. I looked around for Malcolm again, but I didn’t want to linger. I sent him a text to explain that I’d set off for the next stop at the WAC at 49km.
The next section began with a few kilometres of incredibly smooth, hard trail. My pace dropped below 5 min/kms and I had to remind myself to take it easy and keep my heart rate down. After 45 minutes alone, I fell in with a group of about about seven runners. The course transitioned to wide service roads and then to a unique passage through the trees that was spongey and moss-covered. It was hard to actually run the stuff, but it was particularly beautiful, and captured the unique qualities of the Pacific Northwest.
It was around this time, about 4h30m in, that I faced my first obstacle of the day. I was adjusting my shorts when I felt a strange prick on my inner thigh. It was benign and far from painful, so I didn’t give it another thought. 15 minutes later, however, my throat started to feel strange, like something was lodged at the back. All I’d eaten was a gel — the consistency of honey — so that didn’t make much sense. I started coughing, intermittently at first, then it was every few seconds. I could breathe in fine through my nose, but my throat was closing up and I choked hard every time I tried to breathe in through my mouth.
When the single track trail spat us out at another service road, I keeled over and tried to cough hard in case there really was something in my throat. A couple of the guys around me stopped to see if I was alright. I considered asking one of them to perform the Heimlich manoeuvre, but I wasn’t sure that would do anything. “I’ll be fine”, I said, not entirely sure if I was being stoic or stupid, or both.
I stopped there for a minute and focused on taking deep breaths, in through my nose and out through my mouth. We were maybe an hour away from the WAC (aid station #3) where I’d seen paramedics stationed the day before. We were in the middle of the woods, so either way, I’d have to hang on until then. I started running again, finding a comfortable pace while I focused on my breath. Within 30 minutes, I was breathing much better and wasn’t coughing as much.
I arrived at the WAC at about 10am. We were 6 hours in, and the place was crawling with people. Someone took my water bottles and I looked around for Malcolm. There he was! On the lawn, sporting his bright orange jacket and an equally bright smile. It was so great to see him. He beckoned me over, so I walked to where he had laid out a very professional looking spread of bars, gels, gummies and other running accoutrements.
I told Malcolm about the morning’s events, how I was feeling, and how my throat had closed up. He told me my throat was red and swollen. I was breathing normally by this point, but I was still a bit nervous about the whole thing. I asked for the paramedics and a man nearby went to get them. My new hypothesis was that I’d had an allergic reaction though I’d never had one before, so I was still speculating. The medics arrived promptly. One of them checked my pulse and looked at my throat while the other asked me questions. They told me that all the adrenaline my body was producing from all the exercise had actually brought down the swelling naturally. They said it was probably hives, but that my heart rate was normal, and nothing to worry about. They offered me Benadryl which I gratefully accepted.
With a clean bill of health, I got my bearings and prepared to set off for the biggest climb of the day: 1500m (4900ft) to the top off Whistler Peak. I saw some pizza at the aid station, but stupidly left without taking any. Looking back, I’m not sure if I actually ate anything at that stop, but I’d filled my pockets with plenty of running food. Malcolm said I was probably in around 15th place, but the group at the front were only about 30 minutes ahead. This was good news. Despite the hives debacle, my legs felt fresh and I was raring to go. I said goodbye to Malcolm and headed back into the woods.