I estimated the 19km climb would take almost three hours, so I put my headphones in and got to work. I completely forgot to grab the extra water bottle from my gear bag (which Malcolm had been lugging around all morning). I had enough water for a couple of hours, but given the steep terrain, I knew I could quickly get dehydrated if I didn’t find some along the way. It was early in this section I fell in behind Freddie, a quiet guy from California who I’d go on to spend the next 7 hours leapfrogging. The trail was much steeper than I expected and I quickly ran out of water. Apparently Freddie did too. We were standing over a puddle of murky brown water. “If I go down, you go down with me”, he said with a smile. I decided we could do better and held off. There had been plenty of flowing water in the previous section that I had filled up from. Surely there would be more up ahead.
An hour later, my throat was dry and my bet hadn’t paid off. The climb was brutal and only got more challenging as we got closer to the top. We were soon above the tree line where it was completely socked in. I tried to get my bearings in the fog. For some reason I’d thought the “peak” was the Roundhouse Lodge, but judging by the rocky terrain and the ski run signs, it was clear we were headed to the actual peak of Whistler. After three hours of ascending, we reached a road and a white tent appeared in the distance. We arrived to find a crew of five volunteers cooking pancakes and ramen noodles. They were bundled up in warm jackets and within minutes I understood why. It was freezing! I drank half a litre of water right away and put in a request for a pancake and cup of soup.
Up, up and more up on the way to Whistler peak
There was a fire nearby where a group of 100 mile runners were bundled up and chatting. I was 9 hours into my day; they were 27 hours into theirs. “How’s it been going?”, I asked. Pause. “It’s been really hard,” one of them replied. No kidding! 100 miles is hard enough when it’s flat, let alone when you add steep climbs and technical terrain. After a few minutes of chatting, my core temperature started dropping, so I put on my jacket, gloves and a buff around my head. It was hard to leave, but I needed to keep moving. I was behind schedule and wanted to make up time on the descent. I saw Freddie leave, so I filled up my bottles, thanked the volunteers, and made off after him.
There was zero visibility on the way down, but the course was easy to find. Gary wasn’t kidding when he said they’d placed 10,000 flags along the course. I knew we were heading down to Whistler Village, but given where we were on the mountain, I had no idea how we would get there. We soon discovered there was still plenty of ascending to do before we actually went down. In the fog, I lost all bearings and just focused on moving forward. I was actually moving very quickly and I passed Freddie and another runner. After a few kilometres of rocky terrain, the trail evened out into a winding single track with a consistent grade. We were going down, and fast.
After an hour, I was feeling alright, but I wasn’t moving as efficiently as I wanted to. My quads were taking a beating and started to ache. I rolled the dice and took an ibuprofen which always carries a risk of disrupting one’s stomach. While I had stopped, Freddie and the other runner came flying past me. I hadn’t heard them coming and it made me jump. Somewhat dazed, I got back on my horse and continued on behind them. Within no time we were at the base of the village.
We then had to hike up a mean climb to get up to Blackcomb Base II where the aid station was set up at 82km. I finally rolled in with Freddie and the runner I’d deduced was from Quebec. It was about 3:30pm and the sun had poked its way through the clouds. It was glorious. Malcolm was there, with my goodie bag and all. I filled my water bottles, looked around for some pizza or any other real food at the aid station, but settled for cold potatoes, chips and candy. Slim pickins.
I sat down on the steps where Malcolm was set up, surrounded by people that he had evidently been getting to know. I was greeted with lots of smiles and words of support. I ate some Oreos, changed my shirt, grabbed a fresh headlamp and filled my pockets with more gels and bars. I was 40 minutes behind my A goal, but Malcolm estimated I was somewhere between 9th and 14th place, and that the top three had fallen back to the 4th-6th spots. Exciting! Again I saw Freddie head off ahead of me, indicating my cue. I packed my things, gave Malcolm the nod, and set off.
The section from Base II to 7th Heaven is the steepest of the entire race, gaining 850m in only 4.5km, similar to North Vancouver’s famous Grouse Grind. It was really hard work. I took a few breaks to simply lean on my poles and let out a big sigh. Halfway up, I passed the guy from Quebec who looked exhausted as he leaned against a large boulder. We exchanged a few words and I marched on. I got to the top of the climb in about 1h10m, putting me at 87km in about 13 hours. I saw Freddie leave the aid station just as I was arriving. He gave me a fist pump of encouragement as he set off along the service road. What a guy, that Freddie!
There were three volunteers at this remote outpost. We would return to this aid station once more before the final stretch. One of the volunteers told me I was in 9th place and within striking distance of those ahead. This was great news. The last climb had been tough, but I still had lots of energy left and was ready to make moves. As I got ready to leave, the first place runner — Mike Sidic — popped out of the trees. He looked strong and was apparently a full hour ahead of second place. I told him to keep up the good work and asked about the section ahead of me. His sigh told me all I needed to know.
As I left the aid station, another runner came up behind me, a man named Dominic from Whitehorse. As we walked up the hill, we chatted about life in the North and the steep races he’d run Europe. The road levelled out and I decided to run. “Go ahead, I won’t be trying to catch you”, he said. I laughed and replied, “You say that now…”
I quickly caught up to Freddie and we started running together. The terrain was relentless: rocky, steep, and not even a trail in some spots. The whole course was a mystery to me, but this section was particularly disorienting. I knew Blackcomb’s ski runs well, but I had no idea what the trail system was like on the backside of the mountain. Despite the challenge, however, it was one of the most scenic sections of the entire course.
The view from the Overlord trail during the 7th Heaven section.
Freddie and I soon passed the 7th place runner. He looked rough. We’d been passing a lot of 100 mile runners up until this point, so I assumed he was running that race given his pace. But sure enough he had the same white bib as us. I later learned he had been leading the race for a while until he started to slow — a tough way for an ultra to play out. But regardless, Freddie and I were moving well. We just had to keep up the pace. We were in 7th/8th place and I made an enthusiastic comment about reeling in the 6th place runner. Unfortunately, not long after this my day took a turn for the worse.
My stomach had started acting up during the Blackcomb ascent. A small knot had formed right in my solar plexus and I was having difficulty chewing. It was manageable at first, but it only got worse during the 7th Heaven section and within in hour, food had lost all appeal. I’d only eaten half a Larabar and a few potato chips in the previous two hours, no where near my 250 calories/hour goal. I needed to get a gel or something in me or I’d bonk, but I just couldn’t do it. I forced myself to keep drinking water, and told myself I’d sort it out when I returned to the aid station. I estimated there was another 3 hours to go — far too long to simply try and hold on.
Freddie let me lead for a while as we descended down a particularly technical section. It was comprised of mostly large boulders. Ascending was fine, but descending was tricky. I stepped on a benign looking rock and lost my balance, slamming my knee into a large boulder. “Ahh!” It was incredibly painful. I stopped and tried to shake it off, letting Freddie resume the lead. I hobbled for a bit, but fortunately my good friend “adrenaline” came to the rescue and numbed the pain. I hobbled for a short while longer and then started moving normally again.
I completely underestimated the section. It took well over 2 hours to travel its 12km. By the time I arrived at the Rendezvous on Blackcomb, Freddie had slowed down and I could no longer see him behind me. The sun was starting to go down and a chill was in the air. I returned to the 7th Heaven aid station, my stomach a complete mess. It felt like someone was squeezing my intestines. I took an antacid and I drank some Coke, hoping it would settle things. I was sitting for only a minute when Dominic came flying out of the woods behind me. In a whirlwind, he grabbed some water and a few snacks, and was off again in no time. I was stunned. I wanted to chase after him, so I forced down as much Coke as I could and set off again.
We started down a service road as a thick fog rolled in. My quads were aching, but this was some of the easiest terrain we’d seen in hours, so I wasn’t going to complain. As I rounded a wide turn, I looked back up the mountain and I saw some strange lights in the trees. At first I thought it was a lit-up tree house — this made perfect sense to me at the time — but as I moved nearer, I realized it was a truck! It must have gone off the side of the road. It was eerie. My first thought was to find someone to notify, but there wasn’t exactly anyone around. Fortunately, there didn’t appear to be any people inside the car, so I made a mental note to inform the folks at the finish line.
After a few more wide turns on the road, we took a trail into the woods. The sun had gone down by this point, so I turned on my headlamp. At first the softer ground was a relief from the gravel road, but this reprieve was short lived. The trail sprouted rocks and thick roots and sudden drops. I didn’t see anyone for about half an hour, and then in the distance I saw some headlamps. What was strange to me was that the headlamps were above me. We had more climbing to do? I was so sure it was all downhill to the finish. My legs were up for the challenge, but my stomach was screaming louder than ever. I just wanted this whole thing to be over.
I caught up to the headlamps which turned out to be a group of 100 mile runners. This was around the 36 hour mark for these brave souls, and the second time the sun had set on them since the start of their runs. “Good job! You got this! Keep it up!” I said as I passed, unsure if these words of encouragement were more for them or for me. A few minutes later I looked behind me and saw a headlamp barreling towards me. Was it Freddie? Nope, it was the Quebecer I’d seen leaning against the large rock 3 hours ago. He passed me at an incredible speed given the terrain. Talk about a second wind!
My plan to move up the field late in the race had backfired. Now I was a target for those behind me. Being passed in the late stages of a race can be demoralizing, but it’s also what makes racing exciting. I was still running where I could, but the terrain made it very hard to move quickly. Instead of letting it get to me, I used this moment to rally some energy and pick up my pace.
I saw hazy lights poking through the fog in the distance. When I arrived, a volunteer was there to separate the 100 milers from the 110k runners. This was the fork I’d heard about back at the previous aid station. Both races were on the home stretch, navigating the notorious twists and turns of a bike trail called “Comfortably Numb”, but Gary thought it would be nice to send the longer race on a detour around the most disorienting section as a “bonus”. Oh how grateful I was to be a 110km runner.
I was alone again. The trail was hard to navigate in the dark, but I was starting to make out lights of the village in the distance. When I reached a clearing with a proper view, I couldn’t believe how far below the lights were from the ridge I was standing on. Add this to the list of sections I’d completely underestimated. It just kept dragging on and on.
I have no idea how much water I was drinking at this point, and I certainly wasn’t eating anything. I was running on pure will. I looked at my watch and it said 110km, 17 hours. I’d missed my sub-17 hour goal and there was still 3.5km to go. My stomach was still in pain, but no worse than before. My banged up knee was sufficiently numb.
After what felt like ages later, the trail finally reached a road. I looked at my watch again and it said 135.5km. This was supposed to be the end. Goddamnit, Gary! The road was paved and followed a fence. I could just barely make out the pink flags and I almost took a wrong turn down a road. This was not the time for mistakes.
I was getting closer and closer. I was so desperate to stop, to rest, to see Malcolm. I couldn’t yet see the finish line, but the thought “You did it” kept repeating in my mind. I still had to hammer out the last few hundred metres, but I basked in the satisfaction of a job well done and a smile crept across my face. Despite feeling terrible during this slow jaunt along the road, it occurred to me that my legs had never felt this strong before. They had done everything I’d asked of them. Despite some mistakes with my nutrition and hydration, all that training had really paid off.
Moments later, I saw bright lights and some orange cones leading down into the back of the Riverside Resort. I could hear a voice on a loudspeaker. Seconds away now! Someone cheered me on as I rounded the final corner. I could see the finish line. Finally, it was over!
“What are doing to us, Gary??” My official finishing time was 17 hours and 43 minutes, good enough for 9th place. I was two hours “behind schedule”, but given the bout of hives, lost water bottles, rookie nutrition mistakes and a collision with a large boulder, I considered it a great success. So much had gone wrong on the day, but I had to remind myself how much had gone right. That’s the beauty of this sport. No matter how much you train and how much you prepare, you never know how everything’s going to pan out.
Malcolm was there at the finish line in great spirits. He turned on his camera for some candid post-finish footage while I tried to process the whole thing. I changed my clothes and I ordered a burger from the BBQ tent. I gave Malcolm a recap of the previous 6.5 hours. “That was the hardest race I’ve ever done,” I said emphatically. “Gary’s a sadist”.
It took me 45 minutes to finish eating my burger, but once I got it down, my stomach felt much better. I sat down with Malcolm next to a crew of runners and supporters, including the 100 mile race winner, who had finished 12 hours earlier in an incredible time of 24 and a half hours. Despite how exhausted I was, I was already considering the prospect of the longer race the following year.
Malcolm and I waited a little while longer to see Freddie finish, and then drove back to the WAC to crash. I woke up the next morning feeling achey, but relatively not bad. My left knee, however, forgotten the night before, was suddenly making itself known and was looking a little bruised and swollen. While Malcolm and I packed up, I received a text from Martin who had finished that morning. We picked him up from the finish line (where he was camped) and drove to a cafe in Creekside. Sitting waiting for a table was Dom, the runner from Whitehorse who had out kicked me in the last section. We chatted about the race and the challenges of the last couple sections.
A younger guy was sitting next to him who had also ran the 110km race. “Did you hike the trail?”, he asked. I didn’t really understand, but then I realized I was wearing my PCT hat. “Oh right! Yeah, I hiked in 2016”, I replied. His name was Josh and he had thru-hiked in 2017. Small world! Not that I was all that surprised to find another hiker at one of these events. We talked about the number of thru-hikers that get into ultras after the trail. It’s something about “condensed adventure”, we agreed.
So that’s it for 2019. My big “A” race is now over. There will always be regrets, things you wished had gone differently, but I’m grateful for how everything worked out. I also grateful for my excellent crew/crew chief, Malcolm, and to my parents for housing me, feeding me and putting up with me during my final weeks of training.
This year was a big transition for me. After a series of injuries through 2017 and 2018, I finally returned to health, took measures to stay healthy, and knocked out some of my biggest training blocks ever. I feel as fit as I’ve ever been. I might try and sneak in another shot at the Grand Canyon R2R2R later this year, but otherwise, I look forward to shifting my energies to other things in the coming months, like finishing the build out of my van. More on that soon…