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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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