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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

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.

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.

SQ50m course map

SQ50m elevation

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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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.

DSCN1238.JPG

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

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.

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, I was treated to crewing in the style of a Formula 1 pit stop

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!

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.

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.

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 snuck a photo with the other Martha's parents since they had

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!

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 his comment about racing in the day when you had to have a map since there were only 8 ribbons used for the entire route. Oh, how things have changed!

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! With RD Gary Robbins, Adrienne Dundar (2nd), Kaytlyn Gerbin(1st), me (3rd) and RD Geoff Langford

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 finisher and the yellow my other favourite colour) is for three. Hmmmm....

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

 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

More Post-TDG Thoughts and Lists

A year after the fact, I am finally posting all the information that I wish I had before I toed the starting line of the Tor Des Géants in 2014. Although I hope that this is useful to someone heading out for the same event, it truly is for my own memory bank and could be helpful when I begin packing for the next adventure. This, partnered with my 7 blog-post account of our journey, keep those memories of the race crystal clear (except, of course, for all the sleep deprivation hallucinations – but that is another story)!

Stuff I Found Helpful /  Stuff I Wish I Had Known:

-shirt/garment sizing is all in men’s sizes but I ordered medium since I thought I was ordering a women’s medium. Being a small woman, I wish I had ordered a men’s extra small. When I wear my finisher jacket, it looks like I borrowed my boyfriend’s rather than earned it myself. Luckily, I was able to trade my participant technical top for an extra small which fits perfectly.

I am wearing a men's medium finisher jacket. It is a superb jacket but it is way too large for me.

I am wearing a men’s medium finisher jacket. It is a superb jacket but it is way too large for me. B is also wearing a men’s medium which is a perfect fit.

-pre-race gear check was an absolute gong show with only four volunteers checking every racer’s pack. We spent about 3 hours waiting in line where we met some amazing people.

Gear Check Line-Up - Socialize with those around you for those three hours! We met Jason and a few other characters who we have kept in touch with since.

Gear Check Line-Up – Socialize with those around you for those three hours! We met Jason and a few other characters who we have kept in touch with since.

-make sure that you have everything on the mandatory gear list and anticipate random controller checks throughout the event. Our friend, Pieter, was randomly checked at approximately 200 km and was lectured for having a wool top, rather than a microfleece top, but luckily was not given a time penalty for this infraction (although I believe that wool is a superior fabric to microfleece and I, myself, was also carrying only wool, which had been approved at the gear check)

After almost three hours, i made it to the gear check table. There were only two gear check stations for all 750 racers and they wanted to see every mandatory item.

After almost three hours, I made it to the gear check table. There were only two gear check stations for all 750 racers and they wanted to see every mandatory item.

-the mountains have a predictable tree line at 2200 m. Above this point, trails are usually open and rocky. If bad weather rolls in, you will be very exposed above this line. Rifugios are often just above the treeline in a basin below the pass.

-refreshment aid stations are far more frequent than what is shown on the main map. I carried two 600ml bottles as well as a 1.5L water bladder in my pack. I removed the bladder in Donnas since water availability was never an issue. But do not drink from streams! There are far too many cows, goats and other livestock around.

-watch the clock in life bases. We spent 7 hours in both Donnas and Gressoney even though we only spent 3 hours sleeping in each. It is very easy to lose track of time in life bases.

-Donnas is a very difficult life base to leave and many racers drop out there. It is the lowest elevation of the route (330m) and the following 17km climb to Rifugio Coda is a tough 1900m ascent (6200ft). Expect to feel terrible in Donnas and anticipate the desire to drop. Develop a plan to get yourself refreshed and out the door. For me, after an emotional meltdown and a few pointed words from my husband, I ate a large, hot meal, drank a lot of both water and wine and slept for three hours. When we woke, I simply went through the routine of getting ready to go with no opportunity to further reflect on abandoning.

-look for and ask the volunteers if there are any unique foods at their aid station. Many volunteers bring their own delicacies and are delighted to share them with you but they may not be out on display or you may overlook them in your rush to move on. We enjoyed chocolate mousse, hunks of parmesan cheese, baked polenta, barbecued pork and a pastry twist called Torteccini di St Vincent. Each of these was a delicious treat after eating the same aid station food over and over (and over)

-write a list of things to do while in a life base. My list included lists of food, pills and drink mixes that I needed to top up each time as well as options for shoes, clothes, etc. When I got severely fatigued, it really helped me to stay focussed and follow my plan. Because of my lists, I never left a life base forgetting something.

Life Base Check List - I had this list in my life base bag and referred to it each time. I never forgot to top up or refill something and it reminded me to think about things like sunburn, chafing and foot care.

Life Base Check List – I had this list in my life base bag and referred to it each time. I never forgot to top up or refill something and it reminded me to think about things like sunburn, chafing and foot care.

-anticipate the desire to drop and write yourself motivating thoughts to avoid a DNF. My list included the names of friends and family who had supported me and who had to sacrifice something in order for me to be there. I carried this reminder note with me the entire race but referred to it only once.

-bring earplugs with you all the time. Rifugios are noisy and sleep minutes are precious. I also carried those eye shades that airlines hand out since some sleep was in mid-day.

Route Markings

Following the historical Alta Via 1 and 2, there was never any question about where to go. The whole route is well-marked with yellow triangles or yellow dots painted on rocks. When the route went through open pastures, it was marked with TDG surveyor flags, although some had been eaten by herds of cows. Within the towns, you need to pay closer attention as the route goes through back alleys and tiny streets but these are also marked with the yellow triangle or the ‘Tor’ markings.

The yellow triangles are painted all along the route. Since there is no shortage of rocks, there are plenty of triangles!

The yellow triangles and arrows are painted all along the route. Since there is no shortage of rocks, there are plenty of triangles!

Typical route flagging

Typical route flagging

Cows have been here!

Cows have been here!

This way to the Tor!

This way to the Tor!

Route Signs - At a trailhead or junction, these route signs were often visible. They never reveal distances but only time. We referred to this as

Route Signs – At a trailhead or junction, these route signs were often posted. They never reveal distances but only time and difficulty (EE being the most difficult!). Initially we laughed and referred to this as “Italian Grandmother Pace” but, towards the end of our journey, we were lucky to reach the next junction before that generous time elapsed. (I love the way the times have been adjusted recently!)

Mandatory Gear and Life Base Bag

Mandatory Gear - These items were with me at all times in my backpack.

Mandatory Gear – These items were with me at all times in my backpack. Label everything with your name! I used everything here except for the water bladder, the wool undershirt, one pair of gloves and the emergency blanket. I even used both headlamps each night- one around my waist for better shadowing. From back to front: Ultimate Directions PB vest (with 2 600ml bottles); 1.5L bladder; instant coffee; eye shades and ear plugs; headlamp batteries; sunscreen; body glide; lip balm; camera batteries; drink mix powder; various food/gels/Nuun; bandages/ID/emergency blanket; wool sweater; capri tights; wool undershirt; rain pants; rain jacket; two pairs gloves; sunglasses; two head lamps; toque; buff; collapsible cup (not shown: UD race belt; La Sportiva Bushido shoes; arm sleeves, camera)

Life Base Gear Bag - This bag met us at six times, at each life base (approx each 50 km).

Life Base Gear Bag – This bag met us at six times, at each life base (approx each 50 km). From back to front: warm coat; socks and underwear; calf sleeves; spare running top; spare microfleece sweater; food/gels/Nuun/drink mix powder/ instant potatoes/energy bars/candy bars; yaktrax (for snow or ice); batteries (headlamp and camera); sunscreen; foot care tape; wet wipes; sunscreen spray; toilet paper; two towels; refills of tape/meds/body glide/ginger candies (not shown: second pair of shoes (La Sportiva Ultra-Raptors); spare insoles; toothbrush)

I never needed the warm coat, the yaktrax, the instant mashed potatoes and most of the drink mix powder (blech!) I did shower once at the Gressoney life base but I did not change my running clothes at all for the six days. I washed my feet and changed my socks at every life base and switched shoes at halfway. It was good to have a warm sweater to put on while at the life base since they were often big, open gymnasiums. Next time (!), I would add sandals/flip-flops to this bag for Life Base wandering.

In my mind, trekking poles are an absolute necessity for the TDG. I taped the 160km of the elevation profile on each pole.

In my mind, trekking poles are an absolute necessity for the TDG. I taped 160km of the elevation profile onto each pole but I never bothered to look there for that info. Make your poles easily identifiable since you often have to leave them outdoors at rifugios and it would be easy to take the wrong pair.

Col Loson - the high point of the race at 3299 m

What I Wore: running cap; tech t-shirt; running bra; capris or shorts; socks; La Sportiva Bushido shoes; suunto altimeter watch; Ultimate Directions belt and PB vest; race number belt; sunglasses

Photos – We each had a camera and we took many photos. Although they are not yet captioned, you can see our entire gallery here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/lonerunman/sets/72157647815485339/

For the full story of our TDG trek, click HERE! If you have any questions about my experiences during the TDG event, please comment below. I would be happy to help in anyway possible.

The Happy Wanderer

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