Starting near Keremeos, BC, the Fat Dog course travels west through 120 miles of remote and stunningly beautiful alpine terrain from Cathedral Provincial Park and Protected Area to Manning Park. It’s increasingly being referred to as Canada’s Hardrock, for which it’s now a qualifier, and with around 28,000 feet of elevation gain over rugged, mostly single-track trails, it’s certainly one of the toughest 100 (plus) mile races around.
Last year, I crewed my friend Neil. In exchange, he offered to crew/pace me this year. That’s really the main reason I signed up. I also had this inkling that it wouldn’t really be that hard. I was wrong about that, of course, but the point is that I didn’t really have any deep, burning motivation to run a “hundo”. I just happen to love being out on those trails, and was curious about what it might be like to go such a long way on foot.
Things started out great, as I imagine they usually do. The first 20 miles of the course climbs around 6,000 feet up into the Canadian side of the Pasayton Wilderness in the Cathedral Protected area, which is really beautiful alpine geography with vast larch forests until you get above treeline. Then you drop back down almost as far as you’d climbed, to the first crew station. I took it really easy and arrived there in 5 hours. Andy and Neil were there to meet me, and they did stuff like fill up my hydration bladder while I ate a piece of pizza, cleaned up and re-lubed my feet. It was sunny and felt like 90 degrees out, so I wasn’t too worried about the fact that there was rain on the forecast. Andy asked me if I wanted to bring a long sleeved shirt with me for the next leg. Nah, I said. It’s too warm out for that.
(Single-track through the Cathedral Park alpine. Photo credit: me.)
(Took this photo of the Cathedral Lakes Protected Area last summer. The race doesn’t get you to this precise view, but it does give you a good idea of what the geography looks like. Photo credit: me.)
An epic electrical storm, pounding rain and hail, and hypothermia defined the next 20 miles. I’d barely left the Ashnola aid station and was hiking up the second big climb of the race toward Trapper Lake when the sky turned dark – really dark – like, 8 p.m. get-your-headlamp-out dark. Then it started raining. Thunder rumbled. Rain showers evolved into a heavy downpour and the temperature plummeted. By the time I got to the Trapper aid station, I was soaked to the bone, my teeth were chattering, and I couldn’t feel my hands. All of my really serious rain and cold weather clothes were waiting miles ahead down the trail at Bonnevier, the last real aid station before you head into the night, and my Patagonia Houdini just wasn’t cutting it. I was cold and worried, and even considered going back to Ashnola; but I knew Andy and Neil would be long gone, and with no cell service, there’d be no way to reach them. Dropping at Trapper wasn’t an option either. It’s a remote aid station with no vehicle access and, of course, no cell service. Plus I’d barely started the race. No way was I going to bail this soon. So I asked how far to the next aid station – Calcite. 13 miles and at least 3,000 feet of climb.
As I ran away from Trapper, I noticed coin-sized chunks of ice on my gloves. Hail. Every couple of minutes, lightning forked into the stumpy burned-out Lord-of-the-Rings forest. Everyone, it seemed, had given up on running, but I couldn’t think of any other way to at least try to stay warm, so I hammered. Well … let’s say … “hammered”. I did pass a lot of people though, including a couple of Mexicans who looked like superheros with their silver and gold colored emergency blankets tied around their necks, flapping behind them in the wind. “This is what we expect from Canadian weather,” they shouted. They seemed oddly gleeful. I dug my emergency blanket out of my pack and tied it around my head.
As I approached the treeline near Flattop Mountain, and then a long, exposed plateau, I weighed the pros and cons of finding somewhere to hide from the lightning. But every time I stopped running, my core temperature would plummet. And so, out I ran, into the open, praying I wasn’t about to become a statistic. My body shook and my teeth chattered even though I was running as fast as I could. And then, as if I wasn’t already sufficiently hypothermic, side winds started ripping across the plateau. I thought about the “wisdom” of running through a lightning storm with a metallic emergency blanket tied around my head, but I couldn’t bring myself to take it off. I needed to preserve whatever heat I could. Oddly enough, it didn’t even occur to me to toss my metal poles.
After 13 miles of hypothermic hell, I finally got to the Calcite aid station. They had a fire going. A fucking fire. I was so happy I thought I might cry. I changed into the dry, long-sleeved shirt I’d put in my Calcite drop bag, held my Houdini over the fire to dry, and slurped cups of hot chicken broth. Calcite had backroad access and folks were dropping like flies at that point. Looking back, it’s hard not to shake my head at the amount of kevetching that went on at the pre-race briefing about the mandatory gear. As if it were somehow unreasonable to expect runners wearing singlets and shorts into rugged alpine terrain and mountain weather, miles from vehicle access or cell service, to carry a waterproof jacket, a long sleeved shirt, and a headlamp. In the end, the gear requirements may have actually been too light …
As for me, once I’d warmed up and dried off, everything seemed alright again, so I put on my headlamp and cruised the remaining 7 kilometers or so down to the Ashnola river crossing. Three miles along the shoulder of the highway from there, and I’d made it 66 kilometers to Bonnevier.
Having pacers and crew for this race really contributed to the overall experience. Seeing Andy at key junctions was such a mental lift, plus he saved me piles of time by helping switch out gear, refill water etc. Having Neil run through the night from Bonnevier with me was an incredible advantage as well. The fact that he knew the course meant not really having to worry about wandering off a cliff in the fog or getting lost. Plus he talked almost non-stop for the entire night – something I might not appreciate 100% on your average day, but which made it totally impossible for me to get lost in any dark or grumpy thoughts (well, any thoughts, really) for even a minute. I loved being out on the trail in the darkness; you can’t see much of anything, obviously, and I find the reduced stimuli to be quite relaxing. I did feel very sleepy for the first few hours of the climb from Bonnevier up to Heather, but that’s hardly surprising considering that it was around 11 p.m. when Neil and I left Bonnevier together – right around my normal bedtime.
(Getting geared up for the night. Photo credit: Andy)
Storm #2 hit as we trudged up and up the next 19 kilometers, and I later heard that the race organizers had almost shut down the race due to the severity of rain and wind up on that ridge between Heather and Nicomen Lake. I didn’t really mind it this time, as I was prepared with multiple warm shirts, running tights, a toque, hard-shell jacket, handwarmers – you get the idea. They’d actually checked both Neil and I (and everyone else) leaving Bonnevier to make sure we had all of the mandatory gear for the night, but even that wasn’t enough to prevent some runners from dropping out due to the stormy weather. “Welcome to hypothermia hotel,” someone said when we finally arrived at the aid station. I was shocked to learn it was 3:30 a.m. Time flies when you’re having fun? Anyway, that aid station had been set up on a ridge near the treeline, and it consisted, basically, of a large tarp held in place by a few poles and some rope, all of which flapped violently in the wind. Inside, around 15 people were huddled shoulder to shoulder, drinking the hot broth that the extremely nice and helpful volunteers offered to everyone the minute they arrived, & eating the quesadillas that some guy in ski gear sitting on the ground with a little MSR stove kept cranking out. The quesadillas, complete with fresh avocados and salsa, tasted amazing, and I would have loved to pour a little whisky, bundle up in a sleeping bag next to the three guys who’d zipped themselves into emergency bivvies & chat with the other runners as they trickled in one by one. But we had to keep on going. Neil, who had been focused on doing things I’m used to doing for myself, like refilling my water and Tailwind & making sure I ate, was still wearing just shorts and was visibly shaking with cold. I made him put some pants on & we hit the trail.
My right IT band was in pretty bad shape by now, such that every time the sometimes rocky and rooty trail stepped downhill, I had to stop and try to use my poles like crutches to support my right leg. I could hike uphill just fine, but anything downhill equaled excruciating knee pain. We had 20 miles and 7,000 feet to descend before we’d get to an aid station with vehicle access. It took 8 hours. Sorry, Neil.
Neil, who I’m sure thought I was just being a wuss, tried everything he could think of to persuade me to stay in the race. If I just kept on going, he said, my knee might right itself. I was well ahead of the cut-offs … None of this made an ounce of difference; I’d decided to drop and felt 100% fine with my decision. My kneecap felt like it had been shot off and I knew from experience that IT band inflammation doesn’t improve unless you stop and give it time to heal. If the rest of the course had been uphill, flat or even rolling, I might have pushed on, but the final 20 miles involved climbing and descending another 7,000 feet. No way was I going to risk getting stuck on a remote mountain I might not be able to get myself down from. Plus, it was still raining. Hard. It would be bad enough to be stranded in good conditions, but soaking wet & freezing cold? No thank you. I do these for the fun of it, and finishing just wasn’t important enough to me to risk a disaster.
I got to mile 73. I had an amazing time. Oddly enough, I have no regrets about DNFing. But I will be back next year, hopefully in better (stronger) condition to handle both the distance and the climb. A big thanks to both Andy and Neil for crewing and pacing, and to Andy for helping me get through the next few days of post-race DOMs, night sweats, hobbling around, and other recovery woes.
(Andy & Neil: crew & pacing team extraordinaire! Photo credit: me)