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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) 

Finlayson Arm 50 km Race Report

As soon as I crossed the finish line last year, I knew that I would be back for more in 2016. This race offers more challenge and more beauty than any other 50 km I have run. When social media started buzzing with registration reminders, I jumped in on the action and eagerly anticipated my second tour of the Arm.

Last year, I was caught a little by surprise by the numerous steep climbs from sea level to 450 m. I vowed to be more prepared, both mentally and physically this year.  But life often gets in the way of our grandiose plans and, as I completed the Squamish 50/50 three weeks before this race, I realized that I was going to have to muscle through on mental strength and fatigued legs. Knowing what was coming was both helpful and frightening and, many times before race day as I drifted off to sleep, I visualized the climbs, junctions and vistas that had been burned into my memory. I hoped that my memory was reliable.

The proof is in the profile!

The proof is in the profile!

From the start line, we cruised beside the campsite, turned down the slope towards the calf-deep Goldstream creek crossing and under Malahat Drive. I had remembered this first 6 km section as soft and flowy but I had my first jolt into reality when I was faced with loose rocks, eroded roots and short steep climbs. Although it wasn’t as difficult as what was to come, it would be completely inaccurate to call it soft and flowy. Within that section, I pushed hard to get ahead of the bell curve so that I would have space to negotiate the big Finlayson knob ascent. I found myself gasping and feeling nauseous from the hard effort and had to throttle back to avoid losing my breakfast so early in the day. We crossed back over to the eastern side of Finlayson Arm and began the main attraction of the day.

Mount Finlayson is a big climb. It is the sort of scramble that is stupid-fun to go up but would be plain stupid to go down. Perhaps some folks do but I wouldn’t. It often requires three points of contact and a lot of neck-craning to see the trail blazes up ahead. We got way up above the Bear Mountain community where the race photographers captured the perspective.

Almost as the summit of Finlayson, we can see where we were two km ago.

At a false summit of Mt. Finlayson, you can see past us, over Langford and out towards the Salish Sea. (photo credit: Brian McCurdy)

When I arrived at the summit, I glanced at my watch and saw that I was about 10 minutes faster than last year for the climb. This boosted my confidence in a PR for the course. If I avoided the toils of last year – a rolled ankle and dehydration – I could certainly take 20 to 30 minutes off my time. I simply needed to continue to run smart and save something for the dreaded return climb up Jocelyn Hill around the 36 km mark.

The race is essentially an out-and-back course except for these first 8 km and the final 4 km. It isn’t until we descended about a kilometer off of Mount Finlayson that we began the out-and-back. It was here that I began to notice the improvements in the course flagging. The flagging was not excessive but the corners, intersections and junctions were smartly marked with no room for error. There were blissfully, long sections where no ribbons were visible, allowing me to forget about the race and simply enjoy my peaceful, morning cruise.

After passing under the power lines of Holmes Peak and making my way down and then up towards the Jocelyn Hill climb, I came across the water stash, a new addition this year. Although I was in no need to extra water during these early morning hours, I took note of its location for my return trip. This route is remote, despite being in view of our provincial capital, and I recognized that this water was truly precious, having been hauled in on foot by a couple of very dedicated volunteers.

Once again the view attained at the summit of Jocelyn Hill makes the climb worth every step. This rocky outcrop allows you to glimpse over the edge of the abyss, down to the ocean below, where you started the day a couple of hours ago.

Bruce in mid-stride on Jocelyn Hill's summit

Bruce in mid-stride on Jocelyn Hill’s summit. (photo credit: Matt Cecill)

In the exact same spot as B, I stride pass before stopping to take in the amazing view. (photo credit: Matt Cecill)

In the exact same spot as B (a little later), I sashay past before stopping to take in the amazing view. (photo credit: Matt Cecill)

Surprisingly, none of these climbs was as grueling as I had remembered. Every uphill had small downhill sections within them which allowed those climbing muscles a brief respite. Every downhill had a few climbs. I stayed comfortable, I ate on schedule, I drank plenty and I felt great.

As I began my descent from 450 m down to sea level, it seemed unfathomable that I would be back up at the 425 m summit of Mt. Work in another 10 km. Six km later, I strode along the sea-shore beside seaweed on the tidal mark and turned to begin the next climb. The wide trail up to aid station #2/4 was not the runnable track that I recalled. Instead I was surprised to be reduced to a purposeful walk and was treated to see the most enormous pile of very fresh bear scat that I have ever seen.

If you are a Monty Python fan, you would love aid station #2/4. Complete with a riot of bells ringing in your arrival, there were hilarious quotes in the outhouse, knights and maidens serving you and even killer rabbits nipping at your heels. After a good chuckle, I pressed on, wondering when I would see the leaders on their return trip.

Once again, my memory proved unreliable as I expected crowds of walkers and hikers on my way up Mt. Work but today the trails were relatively empty and I only came across a few day hikers. In almost the same spot as last year, the lead runner came flying around a corner, barely touching the ground on his descent. I always find it awe-inspiring to see how confident and beautiful those gifted runners are. I called out my praise and watched as he leapt past me effortlessly. I felt buoyed by his speed and eagerly anticipated the runners in pursuit.

In no time, I was at the summit of Mt. Work and heading down the well-flagged switchbacks on the far side towards the turnaround point (approx 30 km). I heard Bruce’s voice call out to me and met him in the same place that we met last year as he was re-ascending Mt. Work. He was looking strong and admitted to feeling pretty good, despite his ongoing recovery from the 850 km TransPyrenean race he had recently completed. We parted ways and I hustled along the flats towards the third aid station.

The entertainment of an out-and-back continued as I re-ascended Mt. Work. I got to see who was hot on my heels and where my training buddies were. I came across Todd and J.P. as they made their way towards the turnaround. Both were in great spirits and in awe of this course’s difficulty. Brianna was close by, feeling wretched at that moment, and seemed surprised at the endless climbs. As I reached the summit a second time, I was serenaded by a rookery of ravens who were diving and swooping just above my head. They were making calls that were unfamiliar to me but seemingly filled with joy. I began my descent and reminded myself to pay close attention to the fine dust and loose gravel on the rocky surface as this is where I had tweaked my ankle last year. When the tricky section was over, I focused on the dreaded return up Jocelyn Hill. That climb had flattened me with its endless steepness and I became terribly dehydrated. I had spent most of today reminding myself to save a lot for that climb.

One of the Knights who say 'Ni' helped fill a third water bottle for the dreaded return climb up Jocelyn Hill.

At AS#2/4, one of the Knights Who Say ‘Ni’ helped fill a third water bottle for the dreaded return climb up Jocelyn Hill. (photo credit: Brian McCurdy)

As I returned to the Monty Python aid station and was inducted into the Ministry of Silly Walks at 34 km, I was solely focused on the next climb. Obsessed. Conserving. Holding back. Ready for it. Ready for disaster. So, of course, as I approached the top of Jocelyn Hill an hour and a bit later, I was sort of stunned at how easily it had come. It was nothing like how I remembered. Perhaps all that conserving had served me well. Or perhaps the cooler day with cloudy skies made the difference. Whatever it was, I could finally think about my time and maybe even push the pace a bit. How big was this PR going to be?

I started to do my mental math calculations on the descent and I began to realize that I was not going to improve my time this year. Somehow I had fallen way back on my time and now I was in a race with myself to simply match last year’s time. I guess all that conserving had slowed me down. But it wasn’t over yet – I still had about 14 km and two hours to speed up. With that realization, I turned the afterburners on and raced. I passed people I had been with all day and flew down switchbacks. I ran up steep grinds and pushed the pace over the next two climbs. I barely hesitated at the final aid station, knowing that I had to keep track of every second.

The welcoming committee of hand-slappers was in full attendance this year.

The welcoming committee of hand-slappers was in full attendance this year. (photo credit: Matt Cecill)

As I neared the campsite, I could hear the finish line announcer call out my name. I crossed the line in 8:27:37, three minutes faster than last year. During those last few kilometers, I truly earned my awesome engraved Driftwood beer glass and the pints of recovery beer that accompanied the post-race barbecue. I managed to improve my time after all and I recognize how impressive this is on such a challenging course. Yet I still wonder what happened to my PR cushion of 10+ minutes since I had no issues that slowed me down and there were so many logistical improvements to the course this year. I can only speculate that sometimes knowing what lies ahead can actually work against you. So now I have the task of wiping my mind clear of everything related to Finlayson Arm so that next year it will all appear new again.

Finish time – 8:27:237

28/82 finishers; 8/28 women; 1/7  W40-49 age group

 Finlayson Arm 50 km Race Report

Despite the immense beauty, rugged terrain and innumerable mountain trails here on Vancouver Island, there has been a notable shortage of ultradistance races. I am aware of two ultras – The Great Walk (63.5 km of gravel logging road) and Elk/Beaver Ultra (5 or 10 loops of a 10 km flat, lakeside trail). This dearth of mountain trail ultra races is not a reflection of the ultra running community since each weekend, ferry loads of local racers sail to the mainland to satisfy their race appetites. Luckily, this year, two more Island trail ultras appeared on the radar but unfortunately only 6 days separated them. Although I wanted to support them both, I chose to register for Finlayson Arm 50 km which would round out my season of ultra races. The Snowden Trail Challenge will have to wait one more year.

The Finlayson Arm 50 km is essentially an out-and-back course with an extra loop tacked onto the front end and a gracious skirting of Mt Finlayson’s rocky summit on the return trip. Mt Finlayson is a large rocky knob just east of Victoria BC. As we drove towards Goldstream Provincial Park the evening before, the setting sun illuminated it and I began to realize that perhaps I had underestimated the course. This giant of a mountain was the lowest elevation of the five that we would summit and it looked like a monster of a climb.

Mt Finlayson - a 400 m high rocky knob at the foot of Finlayson Arm in Goldstream Provincial Park.

Mt Finlayson – a 400 m high rocky knob at the foot of Finlayson Arm in Goldstream Provincial Park.

After camping with seven other tents in the group campsite, Bruce and I walked about 100 m to the start line and collected our race numbers.

A pre-race photo of Bruce and me at the group camp site, 100 m to the start line.

A pre-race photo of Bruce and me at the Goldstream group camp site. A chilly start before a glorious, cloudless September day.

At 7:00 am, 56 racers headed into the trails. Right away, we were calf-deep in a creek crossing and then chugging along beautiful, rolling single track. The first 7 km took us up along the western side of the highway and then dropped us steeply down into a pitch black tunnel to pass back to the eastern side. That was the warm-up. Things were about to get serious.

I wish this sign had said: WARNING - don't go out too fast. This climb is only a teaser for you 50 km runners.

I wish this sign had said: WARNING – don’t go out too fast. This climb is only a teaser for you 50 km runners.

The next 1.3 km included over 300 m (1000 ft) of ascent. As you can imagine, this means that both hands and both feet were involved with a whole lot of panting and grunting too. The exposed rocks had smooth, rounded corners from the thousands of hiker footsteps over this popular route. It zigged and zagged to the summit, marked with race flagging as well as permanent reflective markers drilled into the granite.

Working up a sweat on the first climb. (photo credit: Randy Beveridge of www.flashinthepanphotos.com)

Working up a sweat on the first climb. (photo credit: Randy Beveridge of http://www.flashinthepanphotos.com)

I had been pushing myself up the steep and knew that I was going out too fast. I paused on an outcrop and let a group of four pass me so that I could re-boot at a more reasonable pace. I hit the summit just as my watch beeped my food reminder. Exactly 1.5 hours had already gone by.

The descent was not anything like the climb. We were sent down a wide, double track trail that dropped us somewhat more gradually. But even though we were descending, there were still countless uphill grunts that smacked us out of any mind-wandering trance. Eventually we popped out on a paved road where a sign let us know that we were entering the municipality of Highlands. We cruised this residential neighbourhood, entered the trails of Gowlland Tod Park and found our first aid station (approx 12 km).

The next section included an upsy-downsie climb up to Holmes Peak and then onto Jocelyn Hill. It was not as grueling as I had predicted from studying the elevation profile. Although it was generally uphill, there were many opportunities to run or shuffle along unexpected downhills. Holmes Peak (329 m) is graced with powerline towers and incredible views of the ocean below. Farther along, Jocelyn Hill (434 m) provides a more stunning view of the coastal fjords that we call home. Again we had climbed above treeline on this rocky outcrop and could enjoy the morning heat radiating from the granite surface. A group of volunteers were at the summit, recording race numbers, marking the turn-around point for the 25 km racers and enjoying the spectacular 360° view.

After some sweet downhill switchbacks and a few more unexpected uphill grinds, we dropped severely down to the beach at McKenzie Bight. Yes – the beach. Although the elevation profile says 17 m, I can attest to running just above the tidal mark on the beach trail. As I looked out over the water, I tried not to think about the 420 m (1360 ft) climb that lay ahead of me. I simply focused on shuffling up the almost runnable trail leading to aid station #2 (approx 24 km).

The 4.5 km climb from McKenzie Bight beach to the summit of Mt Work took me 50 minutes of hard effort. The trail surface varies from wide dual track with loose rocks to narrow, steep clambers to exposed granite ridge line. All of it was relentless. I was still pushing my pace here, knowing that I was the 5th women but trying to remind myself that the ‘race’ shouldn’t begin until the final quarter. Upon reaching the summit, the real work began. Flagging ribbon was difficult to follow since we were above the main tree line and there were so many small, off-shoot trails. I spent a lot of time standing around, searching for a ribbon. It was impossible to have any flow on this much needed downhill section. With so much climbing in my legs already, I dreaded the thought of adding more so I was extra careful to be certain of the correct route. Finally the steep descent eased and we had about 1 km of flat trail before arriving at aid station #3 (approx 29.5 km).

There were only 20 (+4) km left to go but I knew what was in store. There would not be a moment’s rest during any of this race. No easy miles. No ‘gimme’ clicks.

I love an out-and-back course since you get to see other runners, call out words of encouragement and receive them back. I exchanged words with every one of the racers as I returned to the summit of Mt Work and descended down the far side. In one steep, narrow gap, the tread of my shoe skidded on a light dusting of sand and I slid down a short face. In an instant, I was seeing stars due to a tweeked ankle. Passers-by and other racers stopped to ensure I was okay as I gingerly tested if it could bear weight. After a few steps and a few minute walk, I recognized that my ankle felt okay as long as my foot placement was flat. I wondered if I had seen any flat footing so far on course. I cautiously continued along and was eventually able to muster back some confidence in my stride.

As I expected, climbing up from McKenzie Bight beach back up to Jocelyn Hill was far more difficult on the return route. It was hotter, the legs were more fatigued and the climb was steeper on this side. Those 6 km took me 1hr 20min. And from there, the descent and climb back up to Holmes Peak really took a toll. At that point, I was out of fluids and course markings were becoming an issue. It seemed that the course had been flagged with an eye to the out-bound route. But, upon return, intersections would be flagged up until we reached them but there would be no indication of which way to continue at that intersection. With a lot of guesswork, some memory and sheer stubbornness, I pressed on. I reveled in the sulpher smell of the Cowichan Valley mill, knowing that the smell was only evident as we reached each summit.

When I finally arrived at aid station #1 again (approx 47 km), I was depleted. I had been without water for over an hour and I knew that I still had another huge climb ahead of me. I took a seat, drank almost a litre of water and watched as a young woman passed through, taking 5th place from me. I summoned up my strength to follow her for the final ~5 km of the course. Although we did not have to go over the top of Mt Finlayson again, the side trail still had a significant climb and steep descent. Luckily, I instantly felt better after my re-hydration and made a mental note to bring a third water bottle next year.

The 53+ km course was challenging right to the end. As I ran on rugged mountain bike trails alongside a golf course, I had no idea where the finish line would be. It was a huge relief when I finally spied our tent through the trees, still pitched in the group campsite and knew the finish line was right around the corner. As I crossed the finish line, I was greeted by RD Myke LaBelle who handed me my awesome finisher award – a Driftwood Brewery chalice.

The beer chalice has the Driftwood Brewing logo on one side and the Finlayson Arm logo on the other - a great addition to our collection.

The beer chalice has the Driftwood Brewing logo on one side and the Finlayson Arm logo on the other – a great addition to our collection.

This course is the most difficult, stand-alone 50 km I have run (except, perhaps, a certain Chris Scott-Ojai-C4P event). It has all the punch of a 50 miler, packed into 30 miles. Imagine if Mt Frosty, Squamish Chief and Mt Kusam had a love child – the love child would be Finlayson Arm 50 km.

Here is my Strava elevation profile. I have noted the aid stations in pink and the most significant peaks in black (Finlayson, Holmes, Jocelyn and Work)

Here is my Strava elevation profile. I have noted the aid stations in pink and the most significant peaks in black (Finlayson, Holmes, Jocelyn and Work)

Out of 56 starters, only 45 made it to the finish line within the tight 11 hour cut-off. Aid stations are few and far between since the route is so remote. Even so, in its first year, it is a stand-out event and I can’t wait to return to it next year, but I will prepare differently, knowing that it is a race with not a moment’s rest permitted.

Here we are at the finish, sipping Driftwood's New Growth Pale Ale (and White Bark Wit).

Here we are at the finish, sipping Driftwood’s New Growth Pale Ale (and White Bark Wit) from the finish line beer garden.

Finish time – 8:30:28

21/45 finishers; 6/11 women; 1/3 40-49 age group

And here is the local paper write-up: Victoria Sports News

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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