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Or Finlayson Arm 100 km race report

When Myke Labelle revealed his plans to add a 100 km event to his Finlayson Arm 28 km/50 km event, I immediately thought, “Why? Who?”. The 50 km is already the most difficult one that I know and I couldn’t imagine who would sign up to run out and back and then out and back again. But, without a moment’s hesitation, Bruce nodded, voiced his support for the idea and committed on-the-spot to be there. For me, I had to mull the idea over for a few months and, even then, I had my doubts. Beyond registration day and right up to race day, I truly wondered if this would turn out to be a regrettable idea.

Finny map

The race route runs north along the edge of Finlayson Arm. The 50 km event is an out-and-back and the 100 km event does the whole out-and-back route twice.

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This is the course profile for the 50 km event (which is actually 54 km btw). One loop equals 10 075 ft of gain; two loops=20 150 ft.  As a comparison, the much-touted Squamish 50 miler has 11 000 ft of gain.

Having run the 50 km for the past two years, it was a no-brainer to sign up again but this time I opted for the unknown and untested – the 100 km. This is a beauty of a route, with steep climbs and descents, inspiring views, fantastic organization and an old-school race party feel. My doubts had nothing to do with what the race would offer – only with my ability to hold it together mentally and physically for the duration. With only 46 registered in the 100 km event and, at 5:00 pm on Friday afternoon, only 40 of us toeing the start line, I knew that solitude would be the word of the day, and the night, and the following day.

Me and my best buddy at the 100 km start line. The best part of an out-and-back course is being able to have multiple visits with each other.

No sooner had Myke sent us on our way when I had my first equipment issue of the race. Within fifteen steps, one of my holstered trekking poles came loose and began to dangle down my back. If I had known the problems that lay ahead with these damn poles, I would have chucked them into our tent right then. But instead, I pretzeled my arms around and sort of managed to re-holster them while running along with the crowd.

We headed down the switchback to Goldstream River at a casual pace and somehow ended up self-seeding. At the river crossing (1 km), I opted to avoid the rope which was loosely-strung across the river and simply waded into the calf-deep water. A few folks were trying to keep their feet dry by hugging the bank but soon discovered that wet shoes were unavoidable. As I headed up into the hills on the far side, I quickly found myself alone. And that is the way it was for the remaining 106 km.

I suppose I can’t say that I was really alone since the out-and-back route allowed for multiple, brief visits with on-coming racers but I didn’t have anyone to run with, to chase down or even to run away from for almost the entire race. As we climbed up the bare rock of Mt Finlayson an hour later, I could see that I was close to a few other runners and even caught up to Bruce in time for a summit kiss but, as we re-entered the forest and dusk set in, I withdrew and embraced the time I had set aside to be with my running thoughts. Isn’t that exactly what a race is?

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Margaret got this action shot of me as I approached Rowntree AS for the first time. There is very little pavement this race – less than 5 km over the 107 km. In fact, this is it in its entirety! (photo credit: Margaret Lam)

After the excitement of seeing Margaret, Lisa and Lisa (and others!) at Rowntree aid station, I focused on the upcoming climbs – Holmes and Jocelyn – and tried to figure out when to pull out those trekking poles. Despite the climbs ahead, much of this Ridgetop Trail is quite runnable and undulating. I spent a long time debating if this was the point where I should use poles. Eventually I unholstered them but soon found that I didn’t want them for the next part. Reholstering them on-the-fly was possible but awkward so instead I carried them for most of this section, thinking that they would be useful soon. Indeed they were helpful on the final pitches of both climbs but they were not necessary and didn’t warrant the energy they were sucking from me.

In the months before the race, I spent a lot of time visualizing certain parts of the course – junctions, vistas, landmarks – and I set some race-day goals that I was determined to meet, no matter how arbitrary. One goal was to be at Jocelyn Hill summit (17 km) before sundown. The sun would set at 7:38 pm and, in my two previous races, I had taken 2hr36min to get to this point. Why not aim to be at the most beautiful point of the course exactly when the sun sinks below the horizon? As I left Holmes Peak, the sun was giving off that telling amber glow and I knew that I would have to push it. Time-wise, I was on target but the sun seemed to set each time I entered the trees or rounded a corner. Also Jocelyn Hill has a couple of false summits but, when I finally reached to top, Matt Cecill cheered me on and clicked my sunset photo with mere seconds to spare. Phew! Goal #1 met!

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Beauty Captured! Five minutes ahead of me, Bruce arrived at Jocelyn Hill’s summit where Matt Cecill composed this stunning photo. (photo credit: Matt Cecill)

Just after the summit, I stopped, removed my pack and put those poles away. I knew I wouldn’t need them until Mt Work. I pulled out my headlamp and hand-held flashlight at the same time. The next goal was to make it to McKenzie Bight (22.5 km) before turning on my headlamp. As with the sunset calculation, I had about 45 minutes of dusky light left and I knew that it had previously taken me 45 minutes to descend to the beach. This goal had more risk and the time frame was more uncertain. How do you gauge the need for your lamp? Variations in forest cover and running speed play into it. I cruised along for as long as I could, without taking too much risk, and I turned on my lamp while descending the gnarly stairway before the beach, about 5 minutes earlier than my goal. Better safe that sorry. Goal #2 missed.

Goal #3 was to arrive at the Ross-Durrance aid station (24 km) before 8:38 pm, which would mean I was running the same pace as I had for the 50 km last year. Would you believe it? I was on fire! Goal #3 met! I tried my best to stay focused on my needs at the aid station despite Lisa regaling me with tales of her Fat Dog experience and someone calling out that I was the second woman. “Shhh!” I called out. “I don’t want to hear that kind of information until at least 75 km!”

Upon leaving the aid station, I pulled out my trekking poles again, thinking that they would really help during this sustained, steep climb. But, lo and behold, this climb also has multiple false starts and I ended up regretting that choice. No sooner would I decide to get the straps on when my food beeper would sound or the climb would end or something. It was an endless distraction that really started to irk me. I just wanted to run unencumbered! This section went by quickly as I eagerly waited to see the race leaders on their first homeward trip. I came across them much farther along than I expected, at the crest the Mt Work. As I began the descent in full darkness, I wondered when I would see Bruce on his return trip. Would it be at the same switchback where we have met for the past two years? It was! Goal #4 met! We met at the same place as we have met during the 50 km twice before. We briefly exchanged encouraging words and headed off into the night.

Although it was 9:30pm and the race was 4.5 hours along, I felt fresh like I was just starting out. Upon reaching the superbly-stocked Munn Road aid station (30 km), I turned down a delicious-looking grilled cheese sandwich and stuck to my plan of eating gels and bars although I did take a rasher of bacon for the first trip home. I enjoyed the night climb back up Mt Work but I was a bit stunned at the huge gaps between 100 km racers. The almost-full moon rose in this early night section and, in the rocky clearing at the top of Mt Work, I was able to internally howl into the clear, starry night.

As the night progressed, time seemed to compress. The oncoming racers became fewer and farther apart. I fell deep into my running trance – thinking about that root, that rock, the upcoming section, my food alarm, my cumbersome trekking poles. Mostly I was comfortable, smooth, efficient and so happy to finally be in the midst of this long-anticipated goal. As I ran along the xmas light fairytale trail leading to Rowntree AS (47 km), I could see a runner was just leaving. It was the first time I had seen someone near me. Like a pit crew, I was refilled, refueled and on my way toward the halfway point in no time. As I climbed up the Prospector’s Trail below Mt Finlayson, I came across that same runner. He wasn’t really in the mood to chat but I did learn that he had rolled his ankle at the Squamish 50/50 three weeks earlier and was suffering as a result. I had run hard at the Squamish 50/50 last year and had found running the Finlayson 50 km three weeks later to be a stretch. I know only too well the fatigue he was feeling but he was only halfway through! As I have written before, this 100 km race has all the challenge of a 100 miler, compacted into 62 miles. I believe it is not something you can simply add on to the end of a busy race calendar.

As I descended down the loose rocks of Finlayson, I saw two parallel lights approaching. These were the two frontrunners of the 100 km and they were together step for step. In fact, when I first saw their lights, I briefly thought that it was an approaching car, rounding the steep corner until they called out good wishes and encouragement to me.

Before I knew it, I was back at Goldstream group site (53 km) with Bon Jovi’s “Livin’ On A Prayer” playing on repeat and heavy metal rock stars as AS crew. I could see another runner leaving the aid station and running past the tents as I ran through the chute. I took my time here, told stories of my day to Lori and anyone else who would listen, and ate a bunch of hot perogies. I had trouble deciding what food to take and whether or not I would need warmer clothes for the night. I simply was beyond pleased to have made it to this point just 20 minutes off my best time, especially considering that most of it had been run in the dark. As the clock struck 2:00 am, I bolted into action and headed out for my second loop, exactly on schedule. Goal #5 – met!

The weather began to shift over the next hour. The wind picked up and the clear sky clouded over. As I neared the summit of Mt Finlayson (62 km), I was blown around like a leaf and almost ended up on my butt due to strong wind gusts. With determination, I pushed up and over the top and back into the forest. The same scenario happened on the summit of Jocelyn Hill. Luckily, the wind was refreshing on an otherwise warm and slightly humid night. Around this time, I began to look forward to the first signs of day. At San Diego 100, I heard bird song at least an hour before twilight but not today. The first 100 km runner was climbing the long stairway up from McKenzie Bight as I was descending. He was about 15 km ahead of me and looked both strong and fresh!

I turned off my headlamp just before arriving at the Durrance AS (77 km) which meant that Goal #6 had been met. I was famished and ate a stack of piping hot quesadillas as well as soup and coffee while resupplying from my drop bag.

Exactly as forecast, rain started to fall at 7:00 am. I was climbing up Mt Work outbound when those first drops fell. It wasn’t too bad and it wasn’t too cold. In fact, it made the sandy soil more tacky and my footfall confidence increased, knowing that I wouldn’t slip and slide. But I felt for those 50 km racers who were just beginning their day as the rain came.

I came across Bruce high up on Mt Work. He was sitting in 9th or 10th place and had had a great night. There was a cluster of runners fairly close together with him and he was motivated to reel in a few more on his homeward journey. After parting ways, I hustled down to Munn Rd AS (83 km), ate a blackened grilled cheese sandwich (just like I usually make!) and made my final ascent of Mt Work.

Doing an out-and-back course twice was never dull or even repetitive. Each section of the course was done in completely different parts of the day or night so it never felt the same. I liked being able to anticipate obstacles or landmarks, making me feel lucid each time that I guessed correctly. It was a mental challenge but one that I enjoyed completely.

My homeward journey continued to be smooth and enjoyable, despite being tough and grueling. I looked forward to seeing the first 50 km racers coming towards me and, from then onwards, my spirit was buoyed by the endless compliments and encouraging words I received from the 50 km racers. I had only two goals left to meet. My first goal was to finish under 20 hours which by all accounts was going to happen. My second goal was far more obscure – to cross the finish line before the first 50 km racer. Who knew how fast those fellows would run? If there was a competitive group, the pace could be far faster than previous years. Course records could be broken.

On my fourth time through, the crew at Rowntree AS (100 km) knew exactly what I wanted and needed, even when I didn’t. I shrugged off the blanket they offered. When I told them that gels were making me gag, they had quick solutions. They did time calculations for me and assured me that I would meet my time goal. They figured that I would be done within the hour as long as I kept moving the way I was. I absorbed their energy and took their words as truth. With another stack of quesadillas (so good!), I was out of there quickly but that feeling of sleepy-tired weighed heavily.

Knowing that my time goal was in the bag (Goal #7 soon to be met!), I focused on staying ahead of those 50 km runners. This was the motivation I needed to run hard. I kept thinking to myself “You have to earn this finish. You have to earn second place. You cannot sit back and cruise or walk. Run it hard and earn your placing.” Because of the out-and-back course, I knew that I could never have caught Becky, the first place woman, as she was hours ahead of me. But I also knew that the third place woman, Mirjam, was not closing in on me. So I had to motivate myself to run hard. This eighth goal was my motivation through this final difficult section. Every straight stretch, I glanced back. I kept my ears open for chatter and footsteps. I pushed the pace whenever I could. I counted off the familiar landmarks and looked towards the next.

When I reached the edge of the campsite, I felt relief wash over me. Tears welled up and emotion tingled through my body. I still had 500 m and I had to hold it together. I came through the chute with blurry eyes and crossed the line with an out-of-character holler. Goal #8 met!

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Caught up in the glory of my moment, I ran down the finish chute, woop-wooping the whole way. I had 8 motivating goals in mind at the race start and I met 7 of them. Mental strength was my key. (photo credit: Matt Cecill)

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Forty minutes after my finish, the first 50 km racers arrived. Little did I know that I was being chased down by my own local running buddy, Graham Forsyth who came 2nd in the 50 km and broke the course record! (photo credit: Aislinn Deenihan)

This race had been my focus for the season and finishing 9th overall and 2nd woman was an amazing way to round out an otherwise disappointing race year. Finlayson Arm has earned a permanent spot in my race calendar. Having run and loved the 50 km event for its first two years and now with the inaugural 100 km under my belt, I know that I will forever be busy on the first Saturday after Labour Day.

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Teary-eyed and brimming with emotion – I worked hard to earn this custom-etched beer growler (100 km finisher gift) and this awesome framed print of the view from Jocelyn Hill (2nd place award) (photo credit: coastline endurance running)

Finish time – 19:13:22

9/27 finishers (40 starters); 2/5 women (8 starters) 

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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