or Running the Squamish 50/50
This whole thing started off with an offer I couldn’t refuse. Sometime last November, RD Gary Robbins dropped me an email invitation to return to the Squamish 50 miler this year. It turns out that my top ten finish in the event last year secured me a place in this year’s race at an unbeatable price. Caught off-guard and slightly awe-struck, in that moment of weakness (or was it strength??), I asked if I could register for the longer 50 mile/50 km race combination. Without a second thought, I was on the list of entrants. Nine months later, I was toeing the start line and wondering if a hat and a couple of Gary’s famous finish line hugs would be worth it all.
Day one – 50 miles (80 km); 3500 m (11 000 ft) elevation change
Smiling and feeling pretty good at the start of day #1. (Every race start picture looks the same!)
Heat management was the factor for the day. Temperatures in Squamish had topped out at 37°C (98°F) the day before which had me plenty scared. I decided to take advantage of the early morning coolness and the initial flat section to get ahead of the bell curve but I knew I would have to slow down and be more cautious than last year. After the first 11 km, I was ready to take on the Rigs in Zen climb with vengeance. This climb is so significant although it is easy to overlook when glancing at the course profile. With multiple false summits and rock face scrambling, this 420 m climb took me about 45 minutes. After topping out at the radio towers, I gave myself a mental ‘high-five’, knowing that the course would not take me by surprise this year.
The upper elevation profile is snipped from the Squamish 50 mile map on the website. The second profile is from my Strava track of the 50 mile course last year. Those climbs look a little different, don’t they? A new perspective brings on a higher respect for the course.
After leaving the Alice Lake aid station, the sweet Four Lakes trail swept us along effortlessly. But suddenly I felt something on my neck and I noticed the guy in front of me swatting his cap around. Then I felt a sharp pain near my belly button. I slowed down, took off my cap and tried to swat away the buzzing. We were in the thick of a ground wasp swarm and I realized that I had to get out of there! Everyone around was yelling or calling out ‘Wasps!’. I had two wasps in my cap and one under my shirt. Other runners were whipping off their packs and shirts, trying to free the angry insects. Once we were clear of the area, nearby runners took stock, compared wounds and asked if anyone was allergic. With adrenaline pumping from three stings, I had to stop and regroup for a few moments before gathering my wits and carrying on.
Upon reaching the 37 km mark at the Corners aid station, I was treated to some TLC by Bruce.
Having a support crew like Bruce is truly an unfair advantage. His wise words, questions, support, encouragement and instant action on my requests put me far ahead of so many others.
He had ridden his bike out to the station, weighed down with homemade turkey/avocado wraps and other tasty distractions. Last year, I set my sights on Quest aid station (#5) as my main refueling center but found that 53 km is really too late to remedy many issues. This time, it was here at Corners (#3) where I took time to really assess myself as Bruce refilled my bottles and reloaded my pack with treats for the big climb of the day. With almost half of the race done, I felt fantastic!
Heading back out onto the trails after Corners, delicious wrap in hand (and in mouth!).
At the base of the big Galactic climb, I settled into a strong climbing rhythm, knowing that this 6 km effort would take at least 1 hour 10 min. Although this climb looks intimidating, the grade is forgiving and there are many parts where I was able to run. On fresh legs, this could be a mostly runnable climb (and I’m sure that Dakota ran up it earlier in the day). This is where the heat of the day started to take its toll. We were in the shade of big evergreens all the way up and down Galactic but the air temperature was starting to rise as we neared high noon. For this race, I borrowed Bruce’s old-school hand-crafted bandanna from his early Western States races to keep me cool. With a cloth chamois sewn inside and a secret opening for crushed ice, I was able to beat the heat. I saw others rolling ice into buffs and wrapping either head or neck in the icy turban.
Secret weapon! The circa-2000 bandanna chamois was a game-changer! I barely even noticed the 31°C scorcher day.
Without going into detail ad nauseam, I flew downhill and felt good as I arrived at Quest aid station (53 km). On Bruce’s wise advice, I topped up my salts to avoid further leg cramps, washed my feet and changed my socks to offset the hot spots on the balls of my feet. After about 10 minutes, I headed on my way with another turkey/avocado wrap to-go. The next climb was another almost runnable hill called The Climb or Legacy, which riders use to access the black diamond descents like Half Nelson and Angry Midget. The switchbacks go on and on and on so it was important to remember that this would be another 1 hour 15 min grunt. Keeping an eye out for any change of grade, I challenged myself to run/shuffle as often as possible. I passed so many runners with this strategy as they struggled with the heat of direct sunlight or, once again, had underestimated the difficulty of these small bumps on the elevation profile. The most dedicated volunteer was waiting for us at the high point, same place she was last year, directing us down the sweet and steep descent as a reward for our efforts. She truly is an angel of mercy!
As I passed through AS#6 and continued to descend, my mind focused on the next climb, called Bonsai, which I had been dreading for months. Although it barely registers on the course profile, it threads its way up through a recent clear-cut in the intense heat of the afternoon. I was determined to make short work of it and I did just that, finding myself back in the shade of evergreens in no time, working my way to its summit. I arrived at the Farside aid station (#7), feeling strong but my emotional balloon was popped when I heard the time. It was 4:30 pm, 11:00 hours into the race, and that was my secret finish time goal. Since I was still at least 90 minutes away from the finish, there would be no PR for me today. There was no way I could complete the two events in my dream time of 19 hours. I should have known that the heat had forced me to move slower and I wish I’d recognized that I was feeling good and strong because I had reigned in my competitive side. But, at that time, I felt complete disappointment and I headed out onto the last section with a black cloud over my head.
And with that attitude, the wheels started to fall off. I knew that there were two climbs left, each about 125 m high and each needing about 30 minutes to summit. The Fartherside climb went well, as it is shady and gentle, but Mountain of Phlegm chewed me up. I knew that the climb ended at a helicopter pad but I just couldn’t get there. It took frickin’ forever and when I finally got to the lovely volunteer at the heli-pad summit, I sat down and whined for all my worth. As I worried aloud about the elapsed time and the course difficulty and having to do it all over again tomorrow, she replied with sweet words of praise and encouragement. She told me to sit and look around and she reminded me that I only had four km to go. She gave me exactly what I needed to get up and finish. I was still able to run so I used my frustration as fuel to power down those switchback, stairs, paths and roads. I was just able to hold off my tears of disappointment and negativity, realizing that I had to get this run done before I could worry about tomorrow. I set my jaw, clenched my fists and tried to hold my emotions at bay. I must have looked intense and half-crazed since volunteers looked at me warily and gave me very curt directions as I neared the finish.
But as the finish grew near, I could see Cathy C. and John I. taking photos. John M. was smiling just beyond the finish line. Bruce was waiting for me at the edge of the park and ran beside me with the go-pro video running as I entered the chute. I could hear my name over the loud-speaker and I saw Gary reach out with unbridled enthusiasm to be the first to congratulate me with his bear hug as I crossed the line.
Right after my well-earned hug, Gary spotted Bruce and dropped everything to congratulate him on his unbelievable TransPyrenean 850 km race. Our ultra-running community is small and everyone knows about everyone else’s achievements!
It was so difficult, so challenging and now so rewarding. As Gary assessed my lucidity, he asked, “Will you come back to do the 50 km tomorrow?”. And I said yes. I admitted to having second thoughts right up until he asked and I was glad he had forced me to re-commit right away.
Brent ran his first 50 miler in a stellar time of 11:35 and was able to enjoy a few tasty Howe Sound brews before I joined in the finish line fun.
Bruce and I sat with Brent and Erin on the steps of the bandshell and shared stories of the day. Eventually I limped over to the massage table and met Magic Fingers Paul who set to work on my aching foot arches and crampy quads.
Meet my new best friend, Magic Fingers Paul. Not only did he fix my tender tootsies, he did so without commenting on the layers of filth he had to touch.
His active release stretches made a world of difference to my throbbing feet and afterwards I was able to saunter around the finish area, re-hydrating and eating a burger, as the sun set. As the chill set in, we packed ourselves off to our campsite and I began the de-griming process and then the reloading of my gear for the following early morning start. Bruce whipped up a ravioli dinner which we enjoyed in the dark with a post-race IPA. I was asleep as soon as I was horizontal.
Day 2 – 50 km (31 miles) 2500 m (8500 ft)
At 4:30 am, as I was trying to will my legs into my running shorts, I heard Bruce call out from the picnic table. I peeked my head out of the tent to see that all my race gels and chews had been eaten by raccoons during the night. I had stupidly left a handful of packets out and now I had no fuel to start the day. As we ate breakfast and sipped a delicious mug of home-roasted coffee, the marauding band of four raccoons visited our campsite, even daring to venture under the table while we were sitting there! Luckily this was my only encounter with wildlife all weekend!
Still smiling at the start of day #2
At the Alice Lake race start, in the early light of day, I was able to find familiar faces in the crowd. There was a strong sense of camaraderie between the 50/50 runners, who were sporting a different style race number than the others, and each of us congratulated the others on finishing yesterday and daring to start this next event. It turns out that only 35 runners (out of 100?) returned for the second part of the 50/50 event. I found the Courtenay/Comox contingent and wished them well just as the starting gun went off.
I won’t (continue to) bore you with a step-by-step account of the 50 km run (since it is the final 30 miles of the 50 miler course) but I will note that once my legs warmed up, they responded well and thankfully the ground wasps slept in. Time flew by with trail chatter and I was heading towards the big Galactic climb in no time flat. As I reached the base of Galactic, I briefly ran with Christine S., a familiar face among the hundreds of strangers. We caught up on each other’s lives and compared stories of friends in common before she turned her retro-blasters on and took off.
As we made our way up the big Galactic climb, Christine took this parting action shot.
After the initial shock of running, I found that I was getting stronger on each climb but becoming more tentative on the descents. My feet were tender and I made every effort to plant each footfall solidly to avoid stubbing toes, moving blisters into new territory or inviting unwanted cramping. I had the royal treatment once again at Quest aid station (23 km) with both Bruce and KiCKiT Katie C. attending to my every need.
Thanks to Katie C. for the picture. Sitting on the same bench as yesterday, Bruce and Katie got me recharged in the style of a Formula 1 pit stop
The Legacy Climb felt shorter as I was able to march up, running whenever possible, and pass so many sufferers. My Angel of Mercy volunteer was once again awaiting my arrival at the summit, directing me down the crazy Angry Midget black diamond descent.
As I arrived at the Farside aid station (40 km), I was really concerned about that final climb up Mountain of Phlegm, which had taken so much out of me the previous day. I caught up to Christine at this station and decided to hold onto her shirttails and keep her in my sights for this final section. But as the climb unfolded, I recognized certain corners and junctions and knew exactly what was left. I honestly charged up that piece of nasty and was on my way home in no time.
My final descent into town was a blur of switchbacks and leg turnover. As I approached the Smoke Bluffs stairs, I passed two runners who were gingerly taking them backwards. I hit the pavement and turned on the afterburners, simply wanting this endless race weekend to be over. After crossing under Hwy 99, I heard a train whistle blow and I knew I still had to cross the train tracks. Breaking into a full sprint, I raced that train and I won. There was no way that I was going to stop within 500 m of the finish to watch a freight train pass!
Faster than a freight train!
As I rounded the final corner, I allowed myself to take in my accomplishment. It was a big challenge and I tackled it well. I raced smart and only allowed myself one small section of self-pity. As I entered the finish line park, Bruce called out “You are the second woman.” but my overloaded brain couldn’t figure out what he meant. As I leaped into Gary’s arms for the second time that weekend, he confirmed what Bruce had said. Only one other woman had completed the 50/50 event so far. He set my new 50/50 Finisher trucker hat atop my head and listened to my raw feedback about the day.
Gary’s methods are wise. All the racers remember is ‘the hug’ but Gary gets the opportunity to hear all their uncensored, untapped feedback which I’m sure he uses to ever-improve his events.
Bruce and I sat and enjoyed the finish line atmosphere, waiting for friends to cross the line, eating as much as my sore mouth could handle and cheering for everyone.
Christine and I finished close together and I was so thankful for her motivation to get out of the Farside aid station.
Who knew that there was a race between the Marthas today? I had to have a photo with the other Martha’s mum since they had my customized sign.
John Murray improved his Squamish 50 km time by more than 45 minutes this year, easily winning the under 20 age group category!
At some point, we heard the announcement that bumped me from 2nd to 3rd place. Adrienne crossed the line after me in the 50 km but had a superb finish in her first 50 miler the day before, making her combined race time faster than mine. There was a brief awards ceremony for the 50/50 finishers. When Gary called me up for my 3rd place award, he said the kindest things about my running history, making it sound like I am full of experience, not just getting old. Admittedly I have done a fair number of ultras, been running them for a big chunk of my adult life and can withstand a lot of adversity but I still have so much to learn and there are so many more places I want to visit on foot.
With a gleam in my eye, I chuckle at Gary’s comment about racing in the days when you had to have a map since there were only 8 ribbons used for the entire route. Oh, how things have changed!
Podium Finish! Here are the women’s 50/50 top three – RD Gary Robbins, Adrienne Dunbar (2nd), Kaytlyn Gerbin(1st), me (3rd) and RD Geoff Langford
I don’t know how I’ll react in November when I receive Gary’s invitation to race in Squamish next August. This race has a draw that I cannot resist – and my favourite colour is green!
The blue cap is for one 50/50 finish. The green is for two finishes and the yellow (my other favourite colour) is for three. Hmmmm….
50 miler Finish Time – 12:15.33
- 54/197 finishers; 10/50 women; 2/12 W40-49 age group
50 km Finish Time – 8:34.17
- 148/287 finishers; 44/110 women; 9/32 W40-49 age group
50/50 Finish Time – 20:49.50
- 12/35 finishers; 3/10 women; 1/3 W40-49 age group