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"Help Is Not Coming" - The 2018 Barkley Marathons

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"Help Is Not Coming" - The 2018 Barkley Marathons

Howie Stern Photography

 

It was 1:30am on Wednesday, March 21st and we were in Knoxville, TN. The temps were just below freezing, with a stiff wind gusting over people. Snow was accumulating on the ground and my family, collectively my parents, wife and son, were walking between the hotels in the immediate vicinity asking if they had any available beds for the night. We had of course booked our own hotel that evening, and we were all in fact sleeping soundly just minutes before, but currently there were a few hundred people braving the winter conditions in their pajamas as firefighters streamed into the building.

When the hotel alarms were triggered my mother thought it was her alarm clock, and she called front desk complaining that she couldn’t turn it off. She was informed that this was the fire alarm and she was to evacuate immediately. My own room, with my wife and son, was half a hallway away from my parents, but my mother and I somehow opened our doors into the main hallway in unison and I waved at her with that look that says “damn fire alarm, I guess we should evacuate just to be on the safe side.”

I walked down the hall with Linda and Reed, towards my parents, whose room was directly across from the second floor stairwell. As I was getting them all set someone barreled through the door onto the second floor, with their full rolling luggage bag in tow. He looked like he was being chased by a bear and he simply yelled, “FIRE!!” then promptly dove back into the stairwell and outta site.

Okay, shit, this is actually happening right now!

I direct my family down the stairs and then walk back the length of the second floor saying in a calm but loud voice, “There is a fire in the building, please evacuate immediately. There is a fire in the building, please evacuate immediately.”

It was amazing to me in that moment how many people were still attempting to wait this out in their rooms. The alarm noise leaves no doubt and certainly no desire to attempt to ignore it. My head hurts now just recreating this and thinking about it. I ducked back into my own room to grab my wallet and keys to our rental SUV, as I was now envisioning that we’d be spending a few hours out in the cold. I had thousands of dollars in electronics with me, between my computer, battery packs, watches, etc, etc, but I stayed calm and rational, all of that was replaceable and I wanted to be in and out of my room in a matter of seconds, so I didn't even attempt to take more than my wallet and keys.

I did one final check of the entire second floor and no one remained, so I headed down the stairwell and out into the frigid night to locate my family.

 

When Linda and I had checked in exactly 24 hours earlier we were placed in a “non-smoking room” on a smoking floor. I had no idea smoking was even allowed in hotels any longer, but here we were. I retreated to the front desk and asked if in fact there was a non-smoking room available on a “non-smoking floor”, what a concept. The front desk attendant was helpful enough and we were moved one floor lower. I mentioned my folks were checking in the following day and requested the same for them. Linda and I were initially placed in hotel room #313 and I’d later discover that the person in room #312 (the one we would have been sharing a wall with) had fallen asleep while smoking in bed.

 

My wife, son and I had arrived in Tennessee 26 hours earlier, and it had already been an eventful first day up to this point, what with an ER visit for our two-and-a-half-year-old son’s first ear infection, and our rental car agency messing up our reservation and not having a child seat available for us upon arrival. I had a full Jerry Seinfeld moment;

“You see, you know how to *take* the reservation, you just don't know how to *hold* the reservation. And that's really the most important *part* of the reservation: the holding. Anybody can just take them.”

Hands up in the air and all.

By all accounts our first day had not gone so smoothly, but that’s why we decided to fly in a day earlier this year, to get all of the rental car issues, hospital visits and hotel’s burning down out of the way early.

I eventually located two available rooms at an adjacent hotel, and at 3am we all attempted some fitful shuteye.

I don’t believe in omens. I don’t subscribe to luck, but it was undeniable by this point, I’d been sensing for quite a time that nothing was going to unfold the way I’d hoped it would at this year’s Barkley. Every time I had this fleeting thought of impending doom, which had been ongoing for weeks, I’d repeat a Macklemore lyric in my head (mock me if you will, I really don’t care. That’s not the lyric, that’s me talking to you) “they ain’t givin’ it, I’m takin’ it” and it was just a reminder that I had to get my headspace right and to not allow any expectations, distractions, or excuses to creep in. Nothing about the Barkley is supposed to be easy, you want an excuse, I’ll give you 100 of em in under a minute, “they ain’t givin’ it I’m takin’ it”… “nobody’s gonna make this happen but you Gary, control what you can control and forget about the rest.” The hotel fire would make for a great story and It was but one night of lost sleep. I didn’t even talk about it again until after the race, because as we drove out of Knoxville and towards Wartburg, it was already literally and figuratively, behind us.

Frozen Head

We arrived at Frozen Head late on Wednesday and were greeted by a familiar site in an unfamiliar location, snow, and lots of it. I managed to get out for a sundown run up England Mountain and the snow drifts along the top were shocking, some being knee deep. “This could get interesting” I thought, but the forecast for the following days was promising enough and most people expected the course to be free of snow come race day.

 

One of the rules of the Barkley, and Frozen Head State Park, is that you’re not allowed to depart the ‘candyass’ maintained trails at any point outside of the race. If you are caught going off-trail outside of the 60 hours of the race you are removed from the race by Laz immediately and escorted out of camp, likely to never be drawn back into the event again. I was hoping for a bit more daylight so I could scout my end of lap five error from 2017 a bit further, but within minutes of cresting the high point I had all the information I needed. Twenty feet. Six meters. That is the actual margin of error that lead to my coming in from the wrong direction one year ago. Twenty feet at the end of 60 hours of effort. I never did write a race report about it. I sat in an internet café for seven hours on a rainy day in April last year and I had managed to recreate all but one paragraph of my experience. I just didn’t have the desire to relieve it blow for blow. A common misconception that’s taken hold is that I hit the trail and simply turned the wrong way, going right instead of left. I knew I was to go left and was expecting to T-junction with the trail. If I had, I would have turned left and run down into camp to close out the race with a few minutes to spare. I would have become the 16th finisher of the Barkley Marathons, and I wouldn’t have been standing there now, staring down thoughts of why and how, and attempting to put a positive spin on things.

 In the end I learned that in 2017 I was about twenty feet too far west, and the trail curls away at that point. When I finally found the trail I was parallel to it, while knowing I was supposed to T-junction with it, then I trended into it, more of a merge really, and somehow as the trail was on my left at this point my 60-hour sleep deprived brain went “left side, left turn, all the same, you’re on the trail now run it in!”

Anyways, they say American football is a game of inches, and the Barkley is no different. Small mistakes rapidly become big mistakes, and that was one of my mantras this year, along with "go slower, to go faster.”

 

Friday arrived in no time and before we knew it the map was out and things were getting real. There were three changes to the course for 2018, two of which favoured the runners in terms of appearing to be slightly faster than the previous book locations, whereas one book location was most certainly much longer than the year prior. In the end I guessed this 2018 course to maybe be in the range of 7-12 minutes longer per loop, or 30-60 minutes harder overall.

The total climbing stats for 2018 would come in at 13,484ft per loop, or a whopping 67,420ft for the full pull. If Laz adds one more 500ft climb to the mix in the coming years, the Barkley will be a 70,000ft race! Read that again and let that sink in.

The Conch Is Blown

Save for our fire alarm evac on Tuesday, I’d slept great all week, and thankfully Friday night proved no different. I passed our just after midnight, after already being in bed for three hours, and likely ended up with about six hours of reasonable sleep. When I awoke just after 7am I eased into the morning and the conch was eventually blown at 8:33am for a 9:33am start. Jamil Courey and I were the first two runners to greet Laz as we awaited our official “Barkley watch”, the $10 Timex piece that is the only watch you are allowed to carry for the race. This watch is set to “race time” or “zero time” so when the 24hr watch goes to zeroes you start running. When the watch hits 12:00 on your third day, time has officially expired (60 hours).

My strategy was simple going into the first loop, go slower to be faster, get through it mistake free, refresh my memory as to the nuances of the course and go from there.

Just prior to the start I’d somehow managed to bump my watch and it reset the seconds back to zero. The seconds must’ve been counting up in the 50’s, about to turn over to a new minute, because my watch showed the race starting about a minute early, and I was scrambling just a bit to get through the pack at the back and up near the front as we all streamed past the yellow gate. We were about ten minutes into the first climb when I questioned someone else as to the start time and then realized my watch was out by over a minute. Runners know that the watches will be out vs the “master watch” that Laz wears but only by a few seconds over the duration of the 60 hours, and by coincidence when I initially compared my watch with Laz’s we realized my total time variance for the 60 hours would be seven seconds, meaning my watch, set to race time, could not go above 11:59:53 on day three. Not that any of this ended up mattering in the end, but it is just another example of the attributes that make the Barkley so unique.

As we worked our way up the first climb, on a few miles of candyass trail, this was the slowest I’d ever started The Barkley, following my race plan perfectly. In the previous two editions a lead pack pushes off the front and crests the first climb in about twenty-five minutes. We were closer to thirty minutes and there were at least 8-10 runners in front of or around me. We snagged our first page and proceeded to drop off the mountain towards book two. The race always seems to splinter here, as runners scramble for position after the first backlog of pages being pulled, and this year was no different. By the time we intersected the river below I’d found myself at the front of the race, earlier than anticipated, and already down to a group of about six.

The more eyes the better, was also something I’d been telling myself. No need to shrink the field until we’ve at least collectively located the new books together. I had mentioned to Guillaume Calmettes a day earlier that I intended to up the pace a bit after book seven, which in the clockwise direction would be the third and final “new book location”, but until then I saw no reason thin out the field.

Our now lead group nailed book two, thanks in no small part to Nova Scotia’s Jodi Isenor (a previous fun run finisher) and as the book gets handed around to pull pages I glance at the cover. The book is titled “Six Seconds” and I temporarily lose my mind. “F@#K YOU LAZ!!” He is an expert at mental warfare. As we started up “hillpocolypse” which in the clockwise direction is the first off trail ascent of the race, our group consisted of myself, Jodi, Guillaume, Jamil, a Scottish bloke named Ally Beaven and another overseas runner whose name was James. Before we topped out on this climb we’d be down to four runners and I’d be down to one trekking pole, somehow managing to snap one of my poles within minutes of pulling them out.

Jamil Courey certainly knows the course well and he was a huge asset as we proceeded along without issue. When we arrived at book five, the biggest change of the year, he zoned in on it like a hawk. It was really impressive and I knew my decision to not forge on was paying dividends.

What was really surprising to me was how well Guillaume know the course. He’d done his homework, having travelled out just a month or so earlier to run all of the trails you’re allowed to scout outside of race weekend, and Guillaume took the lead on some sections as he was in fact the person in our group who’d been over some of the terrain the most recently. All in all, we were moving right along and accomplishing exactly what I’d set out to do, which was to put in an error free first loop.

At book seven, the third and final alteration to the 2018 course, I went right to a set of trees that matched the description, had a poke around, saw nothing, and began moving away from there, then Jamil comes in just behind us, goes to the exact set of trees and pulls out the book. This is one of the things that people fail to recognize about this race, you can literally be standing on top of the book at times and you still won’t see it unless you dig for it. Books are buried in tree stumps, under rocks or just anywhere that makes it as hard to locate as possible. Jamil informs us that “this was the location of this book in 2014.” Cool, good to know. Okay, all new books have now been established and it’s mostly smooth sailing in regards to my own course knowledge.

For the first time in my three attempts, the course goes up the infamous “Testicle Spectacle”. Over the past two years the book near Testicle has been off to one side of it, in 2016 it was in the left hip, if you will, and 2017 was in the right hip, so I’ve never done this route in its entirety, and I’m excited as it feels like a right of passage.  

It had rained overnight from Friday into Saturday and we were warned of an incoming “weather event” from late day Saturday into Sunday. As we started up Testicle the hill just continues to slop away from under us. It was a complete pile of mud and not a single inch was gained without slipping backwards to some degree. I was no longer enjoying my right of passage. The thrill of the new climb had lasted all of, well, six seconds really.

We crested the climb, now down to three, myself, Guillaume and Ally, and proceeded towards book eight. My line was off a bit and sure enough captain consistent Jamil catches back up to us. I lead us all up Danger Dave’s Climbing Wall and the onwards towards Rat Jaw.

Rat Jaw is a bitch. There is not a single picture ever taken of Rat Jaw that can accurately display its gradient and inherent challenges. Every year pics are posted from Rat Jaw and inevitably people following along online think “oh that doesn’t look so bad” “oh hill x-y-z that we have here locally is at least that steep.”

We were in for a special treat on Rat Jaw this year as the recent rains, not just overnight but over the last few weeks, had turned its clay like dirt into a vertical skating rink. No matter how fast you are moving up until that point, or how strong you might feel, Rat Jaw is am absolute soul destroying grind from bottom to top. There is an old cable that lays on the ground along some sections, and this cable becomes a life line. You drag yourself up this slope, one agonizing step at a time, and then you hang on for dear life on the downslope, using the cable as you would a climbing rope that’s been strung over a rocky slope to allow for safe passage.

By the time we’d topped out it was but myself, Guillaume and Ally. We might have been a few minutes slower going up than I’ve been in previous years on the first lap, but we’d exerted so much more energy in doing so. It was a fight for every step and for the first time in my three years at the race I actually had the thought, on the first lap, of “I can’t even imagine the effort that’ll be needed to get up this thing on laps three, four and five.”

Bottles filled, page pulled and careening down the mountain. I slam hard at one point but immediately bounce back up and keep running. My tricep is screaming at me and I think it’ll dissipate, but it never does. I attempted to arrest the fall by leaning into a pole and ended up straining my arm. Even as I type this almost a week later the tricep still has a ways to go to get back to 100%. Only at the Barkley are you as likely to experience an upper body injury as you are a lower body injury. The amount of upper body strength needed for the Barkley is often underestimated, and it’s a whole-body workout for two and a half straight days.

We went through the prison, up and over the final two climbs and down into camp after what could readily be described as a perfect first lap.

With about a mile to go, Guillaume says to me, “so how long do you think you’ll spend in camp?”

I’ve had a year to digest last year’s failure. I’ve watched Ethan Newberry’s documentary about it 17 times on the big screen (WhereDreamsGoToDie.com). I do not see six seconds as being the difference, I see the better part of 45 minutes that could have been improved upon. Goal #1 for 2018 was to be more dialed in camp, to be better organized from the start, and to “leave no doubt”. Leave nothing for chance. Be better, from lap one through lap five.

Laz changed the rules around camp for 2018 and each runner was allowed but two crew members. This meant Linda +1. This meant no Ethan, no Kim and no Shaun Martin. In the end my crew ended up being Linda + John Kelly, and we shared John Kelly with another runner, the aforementioned Jodi Isenor. John would have his hands full, crewing for two people, but there was no better person for the job. I was honoured that he’d dedicate his weekend towards my own hopeful success. My parents were staying at a hotel in Oak Ridge and would come to camp for Interloopal, taking Reed off of Linda’s hands so Linda and John could focus on the task at hand. Every – second – counts.

Me to Guillaume, “five minutes best case, seven minutes worst case.”

Guillaume, with a pause…”okay”.

We hit camp in 8h38m.

In 8h45m, after a full gear change from head to toe, socks, shoes, shirts, lube, everything,  I was sprinting back out of camp. It was, easily, the best I’ve ever felt after a lap at the Barkley. Things were going perfectly.

I spotted Guillaume and Ally scrambling to get to the gate to claim their second lap bib, as I was exiting the campground. I did not have a desire to move on without them, I had a desire to finish the race. Every – second – counts.

There was about ninety minutes of daylight remaining when I departed camp on lap two. For 2018 the direction of the loops was set as;

1. clockwise

2. counter

3. counter

4. clockwise

5. choice

The Second Lap - Counterclockwise

I put in a good push to get up and over the first climb, claiming book #13 (or the first book going ccw). As I dropped down the first off trail section of lap two I thought it about the right time to pull out my headlamp. The weather, as had been predicted, was setting in and it was foggy, cold and starting to rain. They were calling for up to 30mm of rain. The “weather event” had begun.

I clicked on my headlamp but nothing happened. I tried again…nothing. Tried one final time, but still zero. I always carry two primary headlamps of 350 lumens, the Princeton Tec Apex rechargeable, and a third emergency light of just 100 lumens, the PT Remix.

I attempted to fire up my second Apex light but it too was dead. This had never happened before. I pulled out my backup, backup light and turned it on. There was no way in hell that this emergency light was sufficient for navigating in the dark, and I didn’t even have spare batteries for it. I was far too far out of camp to head back and fix this. The sun was all but gone, the fog had rolled in, and my race, was about, to end…

“GUILLAUME! ALLY! GUILLAUME!! ALLY!!”

I knew they’d be close, but if I was unable to locate them I’d be hooped as there were no other runners close to us at this point.

Thankfully Guillaume started whistling back to me and we worked towards each other through the dense laurel brush.

“Oh my god, thank you! My headlamps are both dead, do either of you have a backup main light?”

Neither did but both offered what they did have. Nothing added up to a working solution though (extra batteries specific to each lamp) and I was forced to continue with my “AAA” powered Remix. I need to explicitly state at this point that my headlamps were not malfunctioning. It was not a product issue but a user mistake. We as a crew made an error and learned a valuable lesson in real time. The lamps were both dead, but through no fault of the manufacturer.

Myself, Guillaume and Ally were a team again, whether they liked it or not 😊

I lead us to our second book and as we made our move towards the third book a pack of runners headed our way at the end of their first lap. I asked everyone if they had any light source or “AAA” batteries to spare and a TN runner was kind enough to spot me his emergency light which was also “AAA”. This would at least get me closer to being able to cover the 12hrs of darkness we were now confronted with. (if you are reading this please message me so I can get your light back to you)

As we navigated towards our next book the epicenter of the storm started to unleash on us. We had curtains of rain rolling over us and visibility was down to about a foot or two at most. Neither Guillaume nor Ally had ever been on the Barkley course at night before, this was their first counterclockwise loop, we were in a rainstorm, on a pile of mud, in the Tennessee wilderness, with temperatures in the single digits, and their fearless leader had 100 lumens of light to work with.

The death by a thousand briar cuts had begun.

We blew this book in significant fashion and by the time we did locate it we were all soaked through to the bone and on the cusp of hypothermia.

“Guys, put on every layer you have, this is not going to get any better and we won’t regret it if we somehow end up being a smidge too warm on the next climb up Rat Jaw.”

I was now wearing a long sleeve merino wool base, a short sleeve tech shirt, and hooded wind jacket, a waterproof jacket, a buff, a toque, I had a second thicker pair of gloves that I switched into, I had on a short pair of tights under a full pair of tights, and now pulled on my waterproof pants. On the bright side, my pack was now much, much lighter.

Guillaume Calmettes is certainly one of the most positive people you’ll ever meet, and he exclaimed with a smile, in his thick French accent, but with perfect English “ADVENTURE!”

Ally Beaven possessed a great sense of humour, the ability to tell a good story, and most importantly he understood the golden rule of not complaining out loud.

I would have classified us squarely in the middle of being a “Dream Team” and “The Three Stooges”.

We dropped down towards the prison in the most deranged conditions I’d ever witnessed on this slope. It was like the ground was no longer solid but had somehow decayed into a foreign, much more malleable surface. If I could not visually process that I was moving across a supposedly solid slope I would have guessed it to be ice and snow underfoot. Each time we slipped, and we slipped plenty, we’d go for a ride downslope of about five to six feet before coming to a halt, often against a rock or tree, and then we’d be forced to pick ourselves up and attempt a few more feet of actual forward progress. It reminded me all too much of this:

I mostly nailed this descent, placing us just a tiny bit south of our intended target. We claimed our book and proceeded to the prison tunnel.

I have done the prison tunnel and Rat Jaw ten times in my first two years, this was now my 12th pass of the tunnel. Down the center of the tunnel is a cement strip that’s about five inches wide and six inches high. If you are not wearing a headlamp you loose site completely for about 25% of the tunnel in a complete blackout. Jared called this one of his Barkley games, to see if you could navigate this while essentially blind and I’ve adapted this game. On lap one I’d make it through the tunnel without falling off and getting wet, now on lap two, by headlamp, I was presented with something new to me. The tunnel no longer offered a slab of concrete down the middle as an option. There was one steady stream of water flowing through the tunnel, seven plus inches deep throughout. We still tried to stay on the concrete as the water was only an inch above this, but unbeknownst to me there are “inflow” pipes up above and at one point a rather vicious waterfall from above forced us to hug a sidewall. We were essentially fording a river, through a tunnel, at night, under a prison. It was right about then that I started questioning where I’d gone wrong with my life? Up until that point I'd mostly believed that I'd made reasonably good decisions with my life, but in retrospect, my epiphany was that I’d just managed a positive spin on a series of really bad decisions. I do really stupid things, and I do them with stunning regularity.

Anyways, not like I'm making any big life changes at 41 year's old, might as well forge ahead as is...at the exit of the tunnel there was genuine concern for not getting washed over the edge, into a five plus foot drop.

“ADVENTURE!”

We cleared the tunnel and heaved ourselves up Rat Jaw, crawling through the mud and briars every step of the way.

John freaking Kelly was waiting up top yelling encouragement at us through the fog. There’s a fire tower up top and I couldn’t help but picture Lieutenant Dan in the Forrest Gump film, sitting on the topsail yelling out into the storm,

“IS THAT ALL YOU’VE GOT!?”

John informed us that we had at least another six hours in this weather, but that it should start to ease through the night and, as forecast, it would blow through and the next 48 hours were in fact promising. He also admitted to me later that he got lost in the fog, on maintained and sign-posted trails, while heading up to the fire tower to cheer us on. I was uncertain in that moment who was more miserable, us, while plodding through this thing, or John, wearing every layer he owned and standing out in this mess awaiting our arrival.

We were effective through the next few books, skiing down a mountain of mud on both Rat Jaw and then Testicle, and fording the New River to start up what’s known as Stallion Mountain and the back-half of the course going CCW. I couldn’t help but think of Blake Wood, a true legend of the sport and Barkley finisher who during one particularly rough year found the New River impassable on lap five due to heavy rains, and he subsequently was unable to finish that year through no other reason than he didn’t have a boat with him. Laz instituted a workaround for any future years should this happen again, with a prescribed reroute, so we couldn’t even claim that this was the worst year on record, though we were later informed that it did rank right up there.

We made good time all the way to the top, snagged our book page and then turned to descend towards our next book, dropping through a feature known as Cougar Rock.

Guillaume was on lead, he was near perfect through this section in daylight on lap one, but this was a different beast entirely at night. In hindsight, I became a passenger, and it cost us dearly. When you’re dealing with conditions like we were it hinders your judgement, there’s no time to stop and reset because stopping for even a moment leads to a deep shiver that originates in your core. To move is to stay warm, to stop is to freeze. If you start shivering you might not be able to recover from it, so you push on. It is not until we are fully cliffed out that the severity of our situation overwhelms us. We’re in a bad spot, we’re lost, we’re bleeding time, and a misstep by any of us could lead to a serious incident. We retreat, we reset, we work together to figure things out, but the damage is done. We right the ship, find Cougar Rock, nail our next two books through what’s known as The Garden Spot, and find ourselves correcting for a small error on the third to last book.

We’re now down to the final two books and our best case scenario for this lap is 13hrs – high.

The lead is back to me and with limited light I struggle. I’ve already gone through two sets of batteries for my own headlamp and am now borrowing Guillaume’s backup light. A major marker I’m searching for is a sign off the side of the trail, it is less than two feet from the trail, I know this, I am looking for it, I completely proceed right past it and start down an unfamiliar trail and am confronted by a sign I’ve never seen before that reads “legacy tree”.

“F#@K.”

I scream back up slope to Guillaume who is third in our line,

“Did I miss the sign!? Can you see it?”

“Yes, it’s here!”

We retreat, reset, and then struggle with this descent. For the second straight lap, I snap my pole in pretty much the exact same location. We are anything but smooth and the clock is ticking. We eventually locate the second to last book and start up the second to last climb of the lap.

In the fog mistakes are made, I miss by a few degrees and we’re once again scrambling. I have a deep pit in my stomach. This feels fatal.

We locate the trail right at daybreak and I ask the guys if they’re okay with me pushing onward, saying every second is vital right now. They’re totally cool and off I went, somehow feeling like I was up against the clock on lap two, instead of lap five.

I got chased off the trail a short time later by four wild hogs but no harm was done. I get up and over “Checkmate Hill” snag my page and absolutely careen down into camp. Lap time was something like 14h30m. My entire body is numb, not from pain, but from fear and frustration.

The weather has passed and the forecast for the day is nice. I did a full gear change and bathroom stop, but there was a lot to address after that loop.

To add insult to injury I was up against the absolute worst chafing I’ve ever experienced in my life. My Squirrel’s Nut Butter had more than done the trick on loop one, but something went wrong on the second lap. I was continually reapplying but things were getting worse. It was not until I stripped down that I could spot the cause. I was caked in mud from head to toe, and we were so cold overnight that removing gloves just wasn’t an option. Every time I relieved myself I was inadvertently introducing mud into my tights and I’d created a sandpaper grit effect. I was officially no longer having any fun, though at least I knew it’d help keep me awake from here on out.

Linda learned to make sushi in the months leading into the race. If you want an idea of how all encompassing this race has become for our family, Linda spent months this year helping me with my food options for race weekend, and Reed has a tattoo across his shoulders that says “My Daddy has made it further in the Barkley than your Daddy.” Of course this means we can’t hang out with John Kelly, or Jared Campbell, or Blake Wood, or David Horton, but that’s besides the point, this thing never really leaves us alone for too long at a time. Linda stuffed a sushi burrito into my hand and walked me to the gate for my third lap.

I got out of camp before Guillaume and Ally arrived, and it was once again daylight. There was 12h15m left on the clock for the 36hr cutoff to begin my fourth lap. I knew I could manage an 11h30m lap if I pushed hard, and if I was calculated and focused. This wasn’t over yet. I also finally established my favourite direction of travel, clockwise, which would be the direction of the final two laps should I make it that far. In the CCW direction the “handrails” into books are a bit subtler than in the CW direction, and I am therefore faster and far less prone to errors going CW. I just had to lay down an 11h30m lap and to leave 12h45m on the clock for lap four. I believed in my heart that going clockwise was faster and that this was still within reach.

“I can do this, and I will do this.”

 

Lap 3 - Counterclockwise

I ran out of camp and focused on going fast when things were certain and slowing right down when they were not. I tripled checked everything, and though this lead to a few more minutes being eaten up, it subscribed to the “go slower to go faster” race plan.

I arrived a Rat Jaw a full 40 minutes quicker than lap two and there were a ton of people there to cheer me on. I was getting into some eating issues now, as I approached 27 hours of continual movement. I’d find myself dry heaving a bit here and there, but was thankfully still keeping things under control. It is a fight to keep the calories coming, and if you’re not dedicated to the fight than you’re all but done. At one point I opened an Endurance Tap maple syrup gel, sucked it into my mouth, but realized I was going to dry-heave again, so I promptly spit it right back out, but I spit it back into the resealable pouch, got over my dry-heaving, and then sucked down the vital 100 calories on my second attempt. I actually patted myself on the back for that one. “Nicely done” I thought, “that’s a first”.

I dropped off Rat Jaw and had legs. I was moving well and the rains were behind us. I just had to keep pushing and stay focused.

I made great time through Armes Gap, across the New River, and back up Stallion. A small bump once again near where we messed up one lap earlier, but I was triple checking things so my small mistake stayed as just that, a small mistake.

Howie Stern Photography - descending Testicle Spectacle

The next few books were uneventful and I have ten pages in my pocket. I was doing some math and figured I was on pace for 11h45m at worst. I would have 7-10 mins camp time and be out on lap four with maybe 12h20m or so to work with. I was thinking about a lot of things, about if it were possible, about how this had gone wrong, about what it would mean to finish under these circumstances, about how fortunate I am to have such a wonderful family, my parents, my wife, our beautiful son. I was thinking about how much I wanted this, how much me and my wife have invested into this already, how much a finish would mean to us, forget everything else, that’s all white noise, this is for us. I’ve dreamt of becoming a Barkley finisher for ten years now. I was thinking about how good I felt overall, now having eclipsed 32 hours. This is probably the best I’ve ever felt at this point, though I was already on loop four by this point in my two previous attempts.

I was thinking about so much and getting into a nice running rhythm, I was thinking about absolutely everything BUT the one thing I should have been thinking about, book three.

There are varying levels of difficulty between books and some are considered “a gimme” compared to others. Book three is a gimme so you can often treat it as such…

“Whoa, did I miss Bald Knob!?”

I continued around the corner, seemingly confirming in that moment that I had gone too far, then I backtracked and headed up to claim my page.

I was about ten minutes up the slope when things started not adding up so much…

“Did I f@#K this up!?”

I pulled out my map, confirmed direction, moved up slope about another minute, and there it was, the Emory Gap Campground site…

“F@#K! F@#K! F@#K!”

Jared and I ended up here two years ago, at least I knew where I was. I shot a bearing and went to work on correcting my mistake. Maybe ten minutes later I pulled my page from the third book. This error, in and of itself was shitty and detrimental, but not fatal, it’s what happened next that buried me. I somehow dropped down off of Bald Knob too far North, thinking I was West. I thought I’d missed a prominent trail intersection and that I was South of where I needed to be. It’s at this point that I should point out that I’ve never gone more than 31 hours at the Barkley without sleep. I didn’t feel like I was necessarily sleep deprived, but this entire thought process is rather inexplicable to me post-race. I ditched another fifteen minutes piecing this back together, then really wanted to puke when I did a time check.

“GO, for f@#k sakes Gary, GO!”

I ran to my next handrail and then did something I’ve always struggled to do, I got the CCW descent into book two absolutely perfectly. I was still in this thing! About a quarter of the way down I spooked a dozen hogs of varying sizes though, and they continued down the exact line that I was. The last thing I needed was a standoff or a charge from one of them so I made as much noise as possible and after what felt like an eternity they finally dropped off of my line and to the west.

I ripped my page from book two and leaned into the second to last climb in the CCW direction. The sun was setting and my headlamp, which we’d figured out, was back on my head and shining brightly, all 350 lumens of it.

I made good time up Checkmate Hill and ripped my final page. I know my best case time from here to the campground and it didn’t look good. I had to get up and over England in record time and then lean into the descent to camp like my life depended on it.

I got over England, found the trail, hooked a left, and flipped my watch…I double checked the math, then triple checked it…checkmate.

Even if I found another plain to exist on for the next few miles I’d still come in about 90 – 120 seconds over time. I took my time dropping down into camp, not wanting Linda to worry about me once time expired, but also not wanting to rush the inevitable. I wasn’t ready to step aside, I hadn’t even gotten to the hallucination phase of the race yet. I trained for a 60-hour effort, not a 36-hour effort. “I’m not even going to lose all my toenails” I thought. Is there a greater indicator of failure at the Barkley than NOT losing all of your toenails? Probably not.

 

 

The Barkley Marathons is a personal goal that I am dedicated to. To finish, is akin to breaking a course record at a lot of other events, things have to go right, and some years it can feel like the odds are stacked against you. I want to go on record right now as saying the race was doable this year, I have no doubt of that. If you look back through the history of the event there is a higher likelihood of a finish when two knowledgeable veterans are able to work together through four full laps. Just one year ago John and I formed a great team in which we were continually correcting each other’s errors to prevent any small mistakes from becoming big ones. Having said that, the course has been completed numerous times by an individual, Jared being just one of them, and I believed that I had the skills to do that myself as well. I have the physical capabilities to outwork many of my mistakes, but until I eliminate those “zone outs” and “passenger periods” for 60 full hours, a finish will elude me, for as John Kelly so eloquently stated,

“The Barkley will find your weaknesses, and it will exploit them.”

I had described the experience going into this year like I was a prize fighter. One year ago, after being decisively ahead on the cards going into the 12th and final round, the Barkley got me with a lucky punch and left me TKO’d. It was the hardest defeat of my life and I’ve had to wait a full year for my rematch. This loss is more shocking, but somehow slightly less devastating, since I never even made it to the championship rounds.

As I sit here typing this I have but one “Barkley toe”, not ten (a completely numb toe). I will likely loose but three toenails, not the full set. I am tired, but not obliterated. I am sore from head to toe, cut up by briars, and flush with the usual unique recovery issues post-Barkley, but I will probably head out for a short run sometime this weekend. I did a 36-hour race, not the 60 hour event I’d set out to, and I am unsettled and rife with emotion.  

A Barkley finish likely means more to me than it should at this point and there’s been a crescendo through three years now that would have made for a perfect storybook ending this year, but that’s not how life works sometimes. I simply cannot express my true gratitude to everyone who has followed along and sent well wishes and words of encouragement along the way. This is my purge, please understand that this is my way of telling my story, and it is my preference to not have my life and every single interaction become about the Barkley Marathons. This has evolved into so much more than it should have. There was one goal, it was not accomplished, I’m proud of what I did do, but finishing a Fun Run is not even close to finishing the actual race. I don’t want to be “picked up from this”, that’s the reality and that’s where motivations are forged from. If I was okay with this already I would question how much I really wanted it to begin with. I will stand tall again when I am ready to, but right now I am processing my shortcomings and this is as valuable as any BCMC mountain lap repeat I’d perform in training. This is a period for introspection.

I will return for a fourth go, but honestly we don’t know when that will be. This is not like a year ago where we knew we were going again the following year but we didn’t want to talk about it, we really don’t know when we’ll go back and a decision won’t be made until well into the fall. I’ve missed my skis quite a bit this winter. I’ve missed having more days to teach my son to ski. I’ve missed having more adventures with my wife on a day to day and week to week basis. There are a lot of variables here.

In the grand scheme of things, this is just a race and these are trivial matters. My wife and I have our health, we have our happiness, and we have each other, and in the end, that’s all that I’ve ever wanted or needed. I will say that in three years the Barkley has brought us closer together and for that I’m forever thankful. Linda and I have always been a team, but we’re a tighter more cohesive unit than ever before, and our son Reed will reap those benefits throughout his life. Linda said this to Laz before we departed the park;

“In the end this is just a stupid race, put on by a funny man.”

True dat babe, true dat.

You can’t put yourself out there without expecting to fall flat on your face from time to time, sometimes literally. Life is not easy and pursuing the limitations of who you are will certainly be wrought with unforeseen challenges, but as long as you keep your head up and keep pushing onward towards your truth, towards your belief in who you can be, you will learn to enjoy and cherish the journey, to find positives where others only see negatives…even if you end up reaching your ultimate goal a little later than you may have expected to. Even if you find yourself at that destination a few years further along than your planned arrival time. 

GR

To Guillaume and Ally, I have no idea what either of you said at any point in time (that whole French and Scottish accent thing), but I did enjoy your company, and I really enjoyed your headlamps. Well done out there! Very impressive first go for both of you. 

To the Kelly family, John, Jessi, kids and John’s parents and cousin: Thank you for extending your home to us and for taking such great care of my wife, son and parents while I was on course. You’ve taken a race that’s already special to us and brought it to another level.

To the Barkley family, Laz, Sandra, Rawdog, Kathy, Dave, Ed, Gail, Keith, Rich, Mike and on and on, and all of the runners from around the globe. You are what make this so special. You are why we keep coming back. You are why we as a family will return again, at some point, because believe it or not, we really like you guys 😊

To my sponsors, thank you for believing in and investing in me. Salomon, Suunto, Princeton Tec, Drymax Socks, Trail Butter, Endurance Tap, Squirrel's Nut Butter.

and supporters: Fortius Sport & Health / Matt Thompson RMT 

To my parents, I love you so much and I'm so happy you were there and that you got to establish such a wonderful bond with Reed throughout the week. (this is but the second time my father has seen me race and the first time my mother has been to one of my races, given that we live over 7000km apart and I didn't start running till I was long free of the nest.)

To my son. You'll regret that tattoo when you're older.

To my wife. I'm sorry you learned to make sushi for nothing, maybe we should have relied more on the ketchup this year. #backtoketchup20??

Photo Thanks to Michael Doyle / Canadian Running Magazine

The following eight images are thanks to Howie Stern Photography

These final eight images are some of my own from the week

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Finding My Way, at the Cascade Crest 100


Pre-Race

When I signed up for the Cascade Crest 100 miler it was with the full knowledge that attempting to run 100 miles just six days after directing three trails races over two days, plus a film festival component was never going to be easy. The Squamish 50 is my baby and I’d never do anything to compromise the race day experience, so I went about business as usual and waited until the show had concluded on Monday to take stock. Nine hours of sleep was what I’d managed over the three days of the race and in all honesty that was more sleep than I’d expected and right in line with what I was hoping to pull off.

The week leading into Cascade involved unavoidable daily naps flanked by pulling course flagging and attempting to tackle all the post-race logistics. Our very close friends Eric Purpus and Kelly Bolinger had rented a cabin (house) in the forest just fifteen minutes from the starting line of Cascade Crest and on Friday Linda and I drove down to Easton, WA. Around dinner time I realized I hadn’t run at all in four days and thinking that couldn’t possibly be good prep for running 100 miles the following morning I hopped out the door to run up and down the service road for twenty minutes.

“That should just about do it. Alright body, you ready for this?”

“Not at all.”

“Perfect! Nothing could possibly go wrong.”

Cascade Crest is a race that Linda’s been trying to get me to do for quite a few years now. The only reason I hadn’t yet targeted it was due to the timing surrounding UTMB. Having gotten sick in France last summer and failing miserably in my attempt at a top ten finish I was starting to wonder if it were possible to direct a high level and highly stressful event just a few weeks before a big goal race. Cascade Crest was an experiment in timing as much as a test of fitness and resolve. Given that the start/finish is all but a six hour drive from our door in North Vancouver there was little to lose, at least in terms of the financial investment surrounding international travel.

Race morning came early, though with a 10am start time it’s quite a civil environment. The CCC (Cascade Crest Classic) has a strong family feel to it, especially for us given that Linda is from Washington and has run the race herself before. The RD, Rich White was in Linda’s wedding party and most of the aid station captains and volunteers are good friends of ours. We arrived on site about an hour early and simply got wrapped up in social hour, which is quite pleasant in contrast to the stress that normally prefaces such endeavors. In hindsight, I realized that I only drank a few cups of coffee prior to the 10am start, as in no water, no other fluids and a very slight breakfast. Fatigue and dehydration were about to become the themes of the day.

That National Anthems were sung and off we went. A competitive field had gathered which included pre-race favorite and recent 2nd place Western States finisher Seth Swanson (15h19m!). In all honesty, my goals going into CCC were to shoot to better the course record time of 18h27m (Rod Bien) while also recognizing that barring injury, Seth was sure to better this mark himself. Secondary goals included shooting for sub 18 hours and attempting to be within fifteen minutes of Seth with twenty miles to go.


Go Time

After a few flat and easy miles the race climbs over 3000ft through Tacoma Pass. I told myself going into this race that I’d be certain to start off slow and easy and I’d successfully done just that over the first sixty minutes. Seth was leading away with Matt Hart in 2nd and myself, feeling comfortable in 3rd. A pack of runners including Phil Shaw (former winner), Jeff Hashimoto and Andy Reed trundled along just behind us.

Two and a half hours passed without issue. I’d let Seth and Matt pull away slightly as I stuck to my “take it out super easy strategy” and I found myself running alone in 3rd. We started into what appeared to be our first sizeable descent and it was evident very quickly that things were off, way off. My legs started cramping up. It was a warm, sunny day with temps getting up into the thirties, but it was also the end of August and I’d been running in these temps all summer long. It was mid-day and the sun was beating down, but this was very abnormal pain. I started the self-assessment, where had I gone wrong? What did I f#$k up already? I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that I hadn’t take it out too hard. I was on top of my calories and fluids. Was it just pure fatigue from the weeks leading into the race? I had no idea, but I went about rectifying it in the only way I could, I slowed down further and ate more.

By three and a half hours in it had only gotten worse as my legs were fully seizing up on me. I’d only had this happen to me during a race twice before, in the 2009 Western States 100 and the 2011 CSP115 in Spain. At Western I was 80 miles in and at CSP I was half way to the 115km finish line. In both instances I sucked it up and walked my ass to the finish line. In both races race day temps were pushing 40 degrees.

I was now forced into a full walk on any downhill terrain as my legs were completely tweaking out on me. I could power-hike uphill just fine but could not run uphill. Flat terrain was runnable but not without shooting pain in my quads. WTF was going on?

Stampeded Pass is at mile 33 / kilometer 55 and I was death marching my ass there with what seemed to be a certain DNF awaiting me. This angered me to no end. I had DNF’d UTMF back in April with a foot injury and UTMB one year prior after falling sick on race day. Prior to that I’d never DNF’d a 100 miler in my life and for a brief period in time I was convinced I never would quit on myself in a 100 mile race, yet here I was, about to quit for the third time in my last four 100s. There wasn’t a monkey on my back; there was an ape that had me in a headlock. How could I be so weak? What has happened to my resolve? Who am I and what’s happened to character I used to know as being stubborn and tough enough to finish anything no matter the cost? Why, just why?

As I slogged my way towards Stampede runners started streaming past me. Canadian Andy Reed was first to do so and I patted him on the back and told him to have a great run and to make Canada proud. The towel had been tossed. My day was done and the self-loathing had already begun.

“I’m done with this sport. I suck at this. I’m too old for this shit. I’m a quitter and I’m okay with it.”

“Are you Gary? Are you really? Does any of this sit well with you?”

“F#$K no, of course not!”

“Then find a way. You used to be really good at just finding a way.”

“The finish line is still over 110 kilometers away.”

“How much time do you have left to get there?”

“All damn day, 24 hours or so.”

“Then let’s go just go for a walk and see what happens. You can do that right?”

“Yeah.”


 “Sometimes the moments that challenge us the most, define us.”
―Lewis Gordon Pugh


I had to let it all go. Ego, expectation, hope, every single goal I’d had for CCC save for one. Just to finish.

As I approached Stampede Pass good friend Phil Kochik from Seven Hills Run Shop was out cheering runners in.

“G-Rob! Yeah man, good stuff!”

“It’s not my day Phil.”

“Sure it is! Still lots of race left to go buddy!”

I stumbled into the Stampede Pass aid station. my crew consisted of my wife Linda Barton-Robbins, Justin Jablonowski (5th CCC 2013), elite WA based runner Maxwell Ferguson who was to meet up with us later in the race, and Ben Gibbard who ran my SQ50k race in 2013.

This was the second time my crew had seen me, and even a few hours earlier they knew that my day was not progressing as we’d all hoped. As I arrived plenty of friends were cheering me along, but I stepped aside to chat with my crew and I asked to sit down. Aid station captain James Kirby looked at me in disbelief,

“YOU DON’T SIT DOWN! YOU CAN’T SIT DOWN HERE!”

It was the tough love that any great aid station captain should deliver, but Linda gave him a solemn look and he understood immediately.

“What can we get you Gary?”

“I don’t know, watermelon I guess.”

Ben darted away only to return a few seconds later with the lowest chair in the history of mankind. I sat down all of two inches from the ground and questioned if I’d ever get out of the thing under my own steam.

I ate, I drank, I sobbed internally and maybe even a bit externally. Runner after runner came through, spent less than a minute on site and continued on. Linda, Justin, Ben and now race director Rich White were all gathered around attending to me. Time stood still for me but not for anyone else and twenty minutes had passed before they were all attempting to get me out of there. James Varner of Rainshadow Running came over in his coconut shell bra and frilly grass skirt. James has been a good friend for years.

“What’s going on Gary?”

“I don’t know, my legs just aren’t working; they’ve seized up solid over the last few hours. I can’t run at all and it’s gotten to the point where even walking downhill is painful.”

“What have you eaten? How much fluid have you consumed? How’s your electrolyte intake?”

“Lots. Lots. Not much actually.”

“It’s pretty hot out here today, here take four of these electrolyte tabs now and two more every thirty minutes for the next little bit. What’s the worst that can happen right?”

James’s words rang out like an air raid siren in my head. Had I really made a rookie mistake like this? I know electrolytes are a “hot topic” of debate these days, but on a personal level I’ve always needed a regular consumption of electrolyte tablets to race cramp free, especially during hotter races.
James Kirby came over to check on me and give me a nudge that it was time to get out of his aid station. He saw what was going on and had heard everything I’d said. He asked me point blank:

“Do you want to finish this race?”

I looked at him, “Hell yeah I do.” And I did. I didn’t care how. I just did.

While I was downing my electrolytes and going over things in my head my crew were up in my face mocking me to no end, in that loving “you need to get the f#$k outta here way.”

Justin “Do you need to poop? Maybe you just need to poop?”

Rich “I always feel better after I poop. You should poop.

Linda “Don’t poop your pants?”

Ben “Pooping your pants would be bad, you should poop.”

Me “FUCK YOU GUYS! I’M OUTTA HERE!”

Having the right crew saved my ass, from poop. They got my poopy pants off and got me moving again. I walked outta Stampede in 8th or 9th place, but at least I was moving again and I now knew that no matter what, I was going to finish the damn race, even if I had to walk the damn 110km to get there.

Maybe the heat was getting the better of me. Maybe fatigue from race directing the week before had taken it outta me. Maybe my lack of actual water consumption prior to the race had dehydrated me. Maybe I just gaffed on my electrolyte consumption. Core body temperature can also be a factor in cramping, so on top of adding in regular electrolyte consumption I started detouring to every water source on course to get myself cooled down.

Go Time - Take Two

Within thirty minutes of departing Stampede, I started to rally. I had honestly given up on much of a turn around and was just content to continue working towards an actual finish, but all of a sudden the seizing ceased. My legs started to work again. The damage had been done, however. My quads were fried. I felt every single step in each quad muscle, but something wonderful was also occurring: it wasn’t getting any worse. I started to up my cadence a bit and shortly thereafter I passed a runner. This simple act of passing one person completely triggered my compete level again.

“Maybe it’s not over just yet.”

Mile 38 and I passed Phil Shaw who was also suffering from what appeared to be cramping. I offered up what I had but he said he was “fine” and he cheered me on as I ran past. Gotta love the comradery of ultra running.

By mile 40 I was feeling better than I had all damn day, minus the quad tightness, but again, it had gotten no worse. I resolved myself to the fact that I’d feel every step all the way to the finish line; however, not only would I reach the finish line, I would do so while competing and attempting to salvage my race.

At the mile 40 aid station I congratulated Ultra Pedestrian Raz on his then recent accomplishment of a fully self-supported traverse of Washington State, though in the moment the details eluded me and I spit out something along the lines of,

“Raz, congrats on your, uh, thingy-mer-bob. Nicely done and stuff.”

To which of course he laughed. My crew were here including my dog Roxy and I went about my new mission of eating each aid station out of soup. After about five minutes I was politely ushered out.
At mile 47, Scott McCoubrey of Seattle Run Co. and White River fame was taking care of business, as he does every year.

“You look great! You’re in sixth. Second through sixth are all within ten minutes of you. Second looks terrible and is likely gonna be the first to falter.”

“What! Really?”

“Yeah man, they’re all within striking distance.”

“What about Seth.”

“Off the front.”

“Figured as much.”

I delved into the soup and spent far too long at the aid station, but I knew that my body was still fickle and the best way to ensure success over the final 53 miles was going to be utilizing the aid stations and not rushing through them.

“Time for you to go Gary!”

“Yeah yeah.”

Hyak Lodge is the virtual mid-way point of the race at mile 52. You arrive at Hyak via a decommissioned rail tunnel that’s two and a half miles long! Hyak was but five miles away and the pack were about ten minutes up on me. I wanted to get back on board while I was feeling well and I told myself I’d close that gap now before it became too late and in case things started to truly go sour again. I pushed harder than I had all day, a little too hard however for as I was clicking out the flat miles through the tunnel at slightly under seven minute mile pace my entire left chain, from calf to hip, completely lit up. I hadn’t experienced pain like that since my first 100 miler at Stormy back in ‘08, but I didn’t even care. I felt like I’d already been through too much to give it a second thought and I grimaced as I plowed through. I knew that the flat running was brief and it seemed to be aggravated by flat more than anything.

Hyak Lodge, the mid-way point. My full crew in attendance including Max as he was now ready to jump in and pace me. They erupted.

“You look amazing! One guy hasn’t left yet, he’s still sitting in a chair. The rest have only been gone five minutes and they all took their time getting out of here. You definitely looked the strongest coming in just now.” (minus Seth who for all intents and purposes won’t make an appearance in this write up again until the finish line, much like on race day :)).

I took this with the grain of salt that a parent compliments their child, but outside of the shooting pain in my left side, I did feel great. My head was in a wonderful space and I was 100% back in the race and shooting for 2nd, 1st if Seth faltered at all.

“Okay, headlamp, soup, electrolytes. Let’s GO!”

I had scouted the CCC course with RD Rich White in early July and knew what lay ahead. Fifteen miles of service road with a few thousand foot climb at the apex. I thought there was no way I’d have the legs to run this, but with my music in one ear and chatting and singing with Max we collectively lay into this climb. We picked off a runner after about twenty minutes to put me in 5th. Ten minutes later we caught good buddy and my former teammate while I ran for Montrail, Matt Hart. Matt definitely looked rough and in that moment I didn’t think he would finish. I said hey and cheered him on as we ran past but he said little in response. Post-race he says to me,

“I had so many things I wanted to say to you there, most of them really funny, jokes, but my brain wasn’t fast enough and you were gone before I knew what’d happened.”

Post-race I say to him “Nice work on toughing it out. You looked like you were in a rough spot when I passed you.”

Fourth.

Max and I pulled into the Kacheelus Ridge, mile 60 aid station just as Jeff Hashimoto and Andy Reed were departing.

“Hey guys.”

“Gary! Nice rally.”

Max to me: “You just ran the fastest split for that section in the history of the race.” (1h27m) (at which point we did not know that Seth was faster still 1h20m)

“You’ve gotta be shitting me!”

“We’re crushing it, man.”

I had just made up an eleven minute gap (splits from aid station to aid station), in eight miles. Game on! The sun had since set and after taking down another half-liter of soup, we were outta there and chasing two beams in the darkness.

I dialed it back a notch on the descent into Lake Kachess aid station. Lake Kachess prefaces The Trail from Hell. In my pre-race course scout this was the one section where I knew conclusively that I would outpace everyone else. The Trail from Hell is a five mile stretch in which the fastest times in the history of the race are all about ninety minutes. It’s non-stop undulation with short steep climbs and descents that are littered with highly technical roots, rocks and natural obstacles, and it’s run at night after 70 miles are already on your legs. In my scouting run, I’d knocked it off in 45 minutes. I hit the aid station at mile 68, continued on my soup mission and after another five plus minutes, Ben and Linda were pushing me outta there. I walked the road through the campground while finishing the cup of soup I took to go, then I looked at Max. After my soup consumption mission at Kachess and my walk through the campground 2nd was 10+ minutes up and 3rd was 7+ minutes up.

“Whadaya say we go about getting back into 2nd place right now?”

I devoured the trail, dropping Max three times in the process as I danced through the nastiest bits of the route. Max would push hard on the less technical to catch back up and by the half-way point we caught up to Andy and his pacer Simon Donato.

“Nice work, Andy.”

“Great job, Gary.”

And then a perfectly timed high-five from Simon as we flew past, into the darkness and into 3rd place.

Jeff Hashimoto was no slouch on technical apparently and it took right up until the final mile heading into Mineral Creek to catch him. Turns out Max knew him and they started chatting as we all hit Mineral Creek collectively. Two miles from Mineral Creek you’re allowed to have your crew drive in to meet you. I was switching pacers here between Max and Justin, so we simply tagged the aid station and continued up. It was the horrible grade in which you’d run if you had the legs and you know that others around you are running it and gaining time on you. I’d put forth the effort I’d hoped to on The Trail from Hell and bettered the fastest times by over ten minutes at 1h19m, and I even gained ten minutes on Seth in the process, not that that was going to change anything in the running for first though :)

As I walked the two miles up the road to my crew, Jeff cruised on past like it was nothing. My brief stint in 2nd lasted about twenty minutes but I still held hopes of regaining it again before the finish.
Max and I reached the crew and I decided to sit down for a minute to get some hot fluids and calories into me. This proved to be a terrible idea though as the warm day had given way to a very cool evening and within minutes of taking a seat I started to shake, eventually violently. Shit, I thought, this is bad. Linda and Ben threw a blanket on me as I took down the final calories. Max’s pacing duties were done and Justin was in. He was sporting a blue wig I’d worn to pace Linda at Grindstone and a crazy mish-mash of brightly coloured clothing, including some insane print tights. I put on every layer I was willing to carry to the finish and as I shakily stood up to depart, I turned to Andy Reed’s family and crew, teeth fully chattering:

“Be sure to tell Andy I looked like a million bucks when I left here, okay? :)”

Justin and I headed out on a painfully long six mile uphill walk. I knew that the final 20 miles are almost all single track while going over what are known as the Cardiac Needles. Smack dab in the middle of that you reach your highest point on the course, Thorpe Mountain at around 8,000ft and there is a 4,000ft descent into a flat final four miles to the finish. Like is the case in most 100’s, the race doesn’t even really begin ‘til mile 80.

Seth was gone and he was all but guaranteed to smash the course record. Jeff had passed me before I sat down so he was likely closing in on a ten minute gap ahead of me and Andy was just minutes behind me. It appeared that I was fighting for 2nd, 3rd, or 4th. I really wanted 2nd, but also really didn’t want 4th, so I started playing a bit more defense rather than offense.

Up, up we went. Justin almost begging me to run.

“I need this. I’ll run the final 20, promise, but right now I need the physical and mental break until we get to No Name AS.”

Good friend Laura Houston manages No Name year after year and this year another good friend, Besty Rogers joined her. Less than a mile from the top there is a quarter mile long sweeping switchback in the service road. All of a sudden my light was shining directly down towards Andy’s, him being all of a few minutes behind me now.

Hi to Betsy and Laura, more soup and more soup to go and Justin and I were out. It was now back to offense for the remainder of the race and I got my mind locked solidly into catching back up to 2nd place.

At Thorpe Mountain there is a one mile out and back. I crossed paths with Jeff just as he was completing his out and back and Andy crossed paths with me just as I had completed my own. We were all about evenly spaced in ten minute intervals. This meant that I had made up a few minutes on both Jeff and Andy over the last few miles.

French Cabin is the second to last aid station on course and Eric Purpus told me that if you’ve got the legs, it’s less than two hours from there to the finish. I arrived in about 17:03. Sub 19 hours was somehow still in range and that became my only goal. If I could close out in under two hours I’d happily take whatever position that gave me, whether it was 2nd, 3rd or 4th.

I absolutely thumped down the final 4000ft descent with a complete disregard for the now excruciating pain my quads were suffering through. Nothing else mattered and I simply cranked up my music and let gravity do its job. I still held illusions of catching 2nd as I knew I was moving incredibly well.

Along with Justin, we came screaming into the final aid station. I didn’t even ask for splits I just grabbed some chocolate and started in on the last four miles to the finish. The barn was near, the result all but certain. Neither Jeff nor Andy were anywhere in sight, but I wanted this thing over, and I wanted my sub 19 hour finish time.

Justin to me: “If I knew we were start sprinting for the finish at mile 95 I would have packed my track spikes.”

I felt no pain, only pride. Some twelve hours earlier I had my head in my hands, anger in my heart and my butt in a really low chair. The finish line wasn’t just in doubt at that point, it felt like mission impossible, yet here I was about to snag 3rd while closing out with a faster pace than I’d sustained all day long. We made our way through Easton and the finish line came into view. Emotions swelled up inside me and I damn near sprinted across the line.

18h54m. 3rd place and the 7th fastest time in the history of the race, and somehow, all of this after facing demons, doubt, cramping, crying and having my crew use the word poop no fewer than a dozen times. It’s a funny sport this ultra running. Just when you think you know something, it’s time to step back and remind yourself that you know nothing. No two days are alike, no two races are alike. Show up, put your heart into it and don’t quit on yourself. Sometimes you might just surprise yourself with the outcome and the resolve you find.

Race Director Rich White handed me my belt buckle and almost immediately it lept outta my hands and onto the rocks below, getting dented and scratched all to hell in the process.

“Shit, do you want me to get you another one?”

“No. It’s perfect. Just like my race.”

GR

Some Splits


Gotta throw a huge shout out to the best crew ever.

Linda Barton Robbins, Maxwell Ferguson, Justin Jablonowski and Ben Gibbard. I honestly have no idea how I would have finished this race without all of your contributions to it. Thank you so much for helping to make this race such a special experience for me.

Sponsor Shout Out:
Salomon – Sense Pro / S-Lab Adv Skin 5 / S-Lab Light Jacket / Start Tee / Trail Short
Suunto – Ambit2
Princeton Tec – Apex rechargeable
Hammer – Bars, gels, endurolytes, seat saver
Drymax – Maximum protection trail running
Moveo Sport and Rehab – for keeping my body from breaking down on me and allowed me to start these races in the first place.





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The Fine Line Between Race Successes and Failures

There's a Japanese proverb that goes "He who climbs Mt. Fuji is a wise man, he who climbs it twice is a fool."

Photo Credit Yuma Hamayoshi
Why did I return to UTMF this year? What were my true motivations in travelling around the world to run a 100 miler in which I'd already had my day and already experienced the journey around Fuji? The answer is simple, it was to run against a perceived deeper field of runners and to ideally have my day on what was going to be a much more public stage this year. That was the main driving factor in my choice to return. After Krissy Moehl won UTMF last year she gushed "Wow, this is a huge breakout race for you!"

I felt the same. I had shown, at least to myself, that I could run with and even ahead of such great runners as Seb and Julien as I found myself in second place at mile 85. I definitely faded before the finish, but snagging fourth simply felt incredible. It was one of the absolute highlights of my 2013. Upon returning home however, I was surprised to see how little attention UTMF had gotten. If you weren't directly paying attention or emotionally invested in the race, you likely didn't even notice. My main motivations in returning this year were rooted firmly around simply replicating my 2013 run in front of a much more engaged ultra community. Though these motivations are not flawed per se, they are fairly far removed from the usual driving factors that draw me to international events. By no means am I saying that I did not want to return to Japan for all that it offers outside of the race itself, just that I very likely would have waited at least another year before returning, had I not seen just how competitive the race was going to be and as such just how much of a following it would garner.

I've struggled to move past what transpired at Mt. Fuji for UTMF, primarily because I know that even though I was forced to drop out when a foot injury flared up, I was in no way shape or form having the race I was capable of having on that day up until that point in time. Even if I had managed to continue to rally and to have somehow fought my way back into the top ten, I would have been left wondering how and why I was unable to have pulled off a near top five performance on the day. I was fit enough, I was rested enough, I was primed for a great race. So what went wrong, before it all went wrong? What could I have done differently? How much was beyond my control and how many small consecutive errors had I made to eventually bring down the ship?

Photo Credit Yuma Hamayoshi
I watched a documentary once about how the average plane crash is not caused by one major failure, it's caused by up to a half a dozen small errors that when combined can lead to tragic consequences. It raises the question of how many near misses are we never aware of? To parlay this into ultra running, and my own ultra running, how many mistakes did I make in Japan? How many mistakes are maybe typical and preventable going forward? Are there some that have become habitual, yet in their own right have not lead directly to race failures? Basically, it's time to slice and dice things a bit more as these thoughts won't be put to rest in any other manner. 

I figure the best way to do this is to take my five best efforts and contrast them with my five worst, my DNF's and "I should have DNFeds"...yes, that's a word.

First and foremost though to dispel one thing in regards to UTMF 2014 vs 2013. I did not start off any faster this year than I did last year. In 2013 we had the lead runners blasting off the front at near sub six minute mile pace. I held back in 12th or so in six minute thirty pace. This year the lead guys weren't blasting off quite so quickly and when I found myself mimicking my 2013 start I was much higher up in the field at the very start. Through the first mile I was in second place, high fiving all the spectators and attempting to take in as much positive support as possible. I continually referenced my watch to ensure I wasn't getting carried away and as I stayed on a high six minute mile pace eventually a few more runners caught up to and surpassed me. My first two miles in 2014 were about ten seconds faster than my first two in 2013. I did not start out faster than I had already proven I could upon that course. But is there still a lesson to be learned here?
Also worth mentioning is just how well the returning top ten runners from 2013 did in comparison to the much more famous group of runners that showed up this year. Outside of myself, Hara and Seb, the rest of the top returning runners all had similar or better performances than they did just one year ago. I show this to make a point, that this year's race, outside of Francois D'Haene's simply astonishing run, was no faster than last year's field. The race was a bit deeper, but if I had even come close to my race from one year ago I would have been right where I knew I could have been, and that was fighting for a top five finish.


So here we go: Best Five Races vs Worst Five Races (I settled on six races in the end)

Worst six are relatively easy as all but one are a DNFs. Listing DNFs in this format is to explore the idea that these DNFs could have been prevented with a better race day and pre-race strategy 
-UTMF 2014
-UTMB 2013
-Speedgoat 2012
-Knee Knacker 2012
-Miwok 2010
-49th place finish at Western States 2009

Best six results
-UTMF 2013 - 4th
-HURT 2013 - 1st CR
-Knee Knacker 50k 2013 - 1st
-HURT 2010 - 1st CR
-WS100 2010 - 6th
-Mountain Masochist 50m 2009 - 3rd
-I purposely left out more top local and close to home results in an attempt to get a better cross section

How best to assess the similarities and differences in these races and these results? I've come up with a standard list of questions and a point score associated with them. A lower score is better. The highest/worst score would be 41 while the lowest/best score would be 14, though that would only be possible by running a local race that you've run before while having zero expectations and zero stress, both internally and externally. Pre-race is the combined sum of the eleven questions posed that can be answered before you even line up, and Race Day is the combined sum of the three questions surrounding your own race day decisions.

The questions and associated points:

Travel/unknown and unfamiliar surroundings 
(1: no travel 2: continental travel 3: international travel)
Jetlag / time change 
(1: no jetlag 2: different time zone 3: proper jetlag)
Familiar with course / run it previously 
(1: run it before 2: trained specific to terrain 3: no course experience)
Internal stress/pressure/expectations 
(1: low 2: med 3: high)
External stress/pressure/expectations
(1: low 2: med 3: high)
Motivations / what lead to the choice to run that event 
(1: new area/beautiful course/travel 2: mix of travel and competition 3: competition, to compete against best)
Environmental, heat, elevation, fast, mountainous
(1: similar to home 2: slight challenge 3: major challenge)
Competition, how deep was the field of runners
(1: not super deep 2: reasonably competitive 3: internationally recognized runners)
Pacing, specifically pacing in the first 30 - 45 minutes of the race
(1: started slow 2: started reasonable 3: started fast)
Own race vs getting caught up
(1: throughout 2:  reasonably influenced by other runners 3: completely influenced by other runners)
Fueling during race
(1: wasn't an issue 2: some issues 3: major issues)
Training leading up to race
(1: solid training block 2: average training block 3: low training block)
Tapering into race
(1: normal taper 2: abnormal taper)
Confidence
(1: overly confident 2: reasonably confident 3: self doubt)
Music during race
(can't effectively assign a number ratio to this, I have become a big believe in the benefits of music while racing and simply have this here as a personal reference)

The Findings
A full list of more specific race breakdowns is below should you care to delve further. The results are interesting but not surprising, and all around fairly predictable, though it's much more meaningful when you lay it all out like this.


My best races have a statistical overall score of about 17% lower than my worst races.
My best races have a statistical pre-race score of about 15% lower than my worst races.
My best races have a statistical race day score of about 35% lower than my worst race.

What does it all mean?

The very first conclusion to draw from all of this is of course the glaringly obvious race day mistakes. In all but one of my best races I had a score of about half that of my worst races. Race day mistakes, by and large, are the number one contributor to race day disappointments.

My best races also have a pre-race correlation to success. There is an obvious link that can be drawn here between lack of major travel, and lack of true depth of the fields. The further you travel, for the more competitive events, the higher stresses you place on your body and mind. Knowing this in advance of the races may allow you to address things differently or at the very least to anticipate things better. If I'm going to travel to the ends of the earth for competitive races, I'm going to need to give myself ample travel time, and to learn to deal with all the additional stresses that come with big time events. Gaining course insights in advance of a race is also hugely beneficial if at all possible.

I think the biggest thing I'll take away from this mini-study of my own racing habits is just to know that I have rarely had racing disappointments around events where I've run my own race and started conservatively. To compete in ultra running today you absolutely have to take some chances and to lay it all out there from time to time, however, going into my future events I am going to reel myself in a bit at the beginning. There is very little detriment to starting conservatively, especially when you're looking at races with average finishing times of over fifteen and close to twenty-four hours.

I think my UTMF 2013 race had an anomaly in it in terms of the fact that I started off fast and still had success. I think I took a race day chance and it paid off, though I took that information to mean that I could always successfully start 100 milers at six and a half minute mile pace. Even if this information contains some truth to it, it is still not an effective racing strategy. I need to slow it down a bit off the start in my upcoming 100s.

Not readily available within this small data sample is just how difficult it is to run your own race while lined up at super competitive events. A primary example is UTMB. These races start off far too fast for 90% of the runners, yet everyone just gets towed along for the ride. The level of confidence in one's own abilities and racing strategies to start conservatively at such events is one of the hardest skill sets to attain in ultra running. A fairly unknown runner by the name of John Tidd is a master of this. In 2013 he finished 6th at UTMF and 10th at UTMB, both times coming from way back in the race to snag top ten positions. If the average runner had as much insight and confidence into their own abilities as John does they'd end up with better results across the board. I possess this insight and confidence, but I seem to have temporarily misplaced it.

I want to continue to show up and compete at the most competitive of mountain ultra races, but I am ready to turn a corner in my own racing to start running smarter, to own my results, and to move past these race day debacles. I'm glad I took the time to look at this a bit further. It's exactly as I'd expected, but it just hammers home the point so much more while looking at it all in this light.

So, what race day mistakes do you seem to continue to make?

What strategies do you have in place to prevent race day errors?

What questions would you have added or removed from my personal assessment above?

Have you ever broken down your successes and failures in this manor? If so what did you find and did it allow you to address it going forward?

Full list of race assessments below.
GR
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BEST RACES



UTMF 2013
4th, 20h20m
Score 31/41
Pre-race 24/32
Race Day 7/9
Travel: (3) / Jetlag: (3) / Familiar: (3) / Internal: (3) / External: (2)  / Motivations: (1) to run in Japan on a course that was known to be techincal / Environmental: (1) a beautiful spring day / Competition: (3) a very deep field of European runners / Pacing: (3) I started way faster than I usually do / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (2) some issues eating later in the race / Training: (2) was pretty much sustaining fitness off of HURT / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (2) I was stressed but confident in what I could do / Music: yes, for five hours during the night
Assessment: I stared off much faster than I normally would, and I was rewarded for it with a strong race. In hindsight though, this is against my normal running strategy and likely against my best interest. In comparison to my other best races this race was the one where I took the greatest chances early on. Taking chances like this can go either way though, especially over the 100 mile distance, and the best racing strategy, for me at least, likely resides somewhere slower than how I started here and a step faster than how I have started at other races.
I faded significantly late in the race and dropped from 2nd down to 4th, while 5th was closing ground on me. I believe that had I started slightly more conservatively I would have been rewarded with a stronger finish and potentially a higher placing. I believe this one off, though not blind luck, would be the exception to how I should run and may have contributed to me believing that I could and even should be starting faster in my longer races. I have not come to terms with this until just now as I've only looked at this race as a successful template and not critically assessed it prior to today.

Knee Knacker 50k
1st, 4h41m
Score 24/41
Pre-race 19/32
Race Day 5/9
Travel: (1) / Jetlag: (1) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (3)  / Motivations: (2) / Environmental: (1)  / Competition: (2) a very talented albeit local field of runners / Pacing: (2) / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (1) / Training: (1) was in the middle of my largest training block ever / Tapering: (2) I didn't taper at all. I ran 120m the week prior / Confidence: (2) I had questions going into the race around if I'd simply not taken enough/any recovery time leading into the race / Music: yes, for full second half of the race
Assessment: A unique race in the fact that I did very little in the way of tapering. The week prior I ran 120 miles and the day before the race I had my hip seize up and briefly make me question if I'd even be able to start. A low stress race on home turf allowed for very intelligent race day decisions. Lack of external variables such as travel, unfamiliar terrain, external pressures all allowed me to completely run my own race and to not make any race day mistakes.

HURT 2013 
1st CR, 19h35m
Score 22/41
Pre-race 18/32
Race Day 4/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (2) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (2)  / External: (2)  / Motivations: (2) I broke my foot on the HURT course and this was a very emotional and pure journey. I wanted CR but just finishing would have been a success / Environmental: (2) a fairly hot and humid day / Competition: (2) I ran within six minutes of Jason L for 85 miles / Pacing: (1) / Own Race: (1) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (1) / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (1) I was in a very good head space heading into this race / Music: yes for final 20 miles
Assessment: The perfect day. A comeback race over the very course that I broke my foot on, while running toe to toe against the runner who'd won the two years I was away. I doubt I'll ever see another 100 mile race go as smoothly and almost as effortlessly as this one did. It's probably best to assume this race was a one off in all the positive ways a race could possibly go. 100 milers should be and almost always will be tougher than how this race played out for me.

Western States 2010 
6th, 17h06m
Score 29/41
Pre-race 24/32
Race Day 5/9
Travel: (2) Yes / Jetlag: (1) No / Familiar: (1) yes, I'd finished 49th one year prior / Internal: (3) yes, I was looking to prove to myself that I could succeed in high pressure, highly competitive environment / External: (2) yes and no. I was there as a part of the Montrail team but had recently suffered from overtaining symptoms and DNFed Miwok 100k/ Motivations: (3) To run the race I knew I was capable of against one of the deepest fields or runners/ Environmental: (3) a very hot race, and overall a very runnable course / Competition: (3) as per usual, the most competitive 100 in NA that year / Pacing: (2) I started off conservatively and worked my way up throughout the day / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (1) Very good. I was on it from the start and all day long / Training: (2) After DNFing Miwok I didn't run a step for three weeks. In the month of May I ran less than 100 miles, while everyone else in top ten ran at least 400-500 miles / Tapering: (2) kind of a reverse taper, I ran everyday for the two weeks leading up to the race, though most were short runs / Confidence: (2) I knew the course and I'd prepared for the heat better, but I ran very little in May after my Miwok DNF / Music: yes
Assessment: I had a very questionable final seven weeks leading into the race but a very strong year of training otherwise. I had nothing but top ten aspirations but was still very much an underdog on the day. I ran an intelligent race while allowing the lead pack to separate as I forced myself to stay calm and to work myself into a good race pace. It was a very solid race for me but in all likelihood I was helped along by my Miwok DNF and therefore eliminating an element of expectation both internally and externally.

HURT 100m 2010
1st CR, 20h12m
Score 21/41
Pre-race 17/32
Race Day 4/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (2) / Familiar: (2) the HURT course is identical to our North Van terrain/ Internal: (2) I was shooting for and attained Geoff Roes CR / External: (1) absolutely nobody knew who I was / Motivations: (2) to run in Hawaii / Environmental: (2) some heat issues / Competition: (1) there were some very talented runners but from 20m to the finish I ran alone in the lead / Pacing: (1) / Own Race: (1) / Fueling: (2) / Training:  (1) I had a then best ever training block heading into the race / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (1) nothing to lose and everything to gain. I felt very quietly confident heading into this race / Music: no
Assessment: I was so confident that I'd have a good day on the HURT course, in just my 3rd ever 100 miler, that I let everyone go off the start and just did my own thing. I need to get back to this. This is the only way you should ever start a 100 miler.

Mountain Masochist 50m 2009
3rd place 7h00m28s
Score 24/41
Pre-race 20/32
Race Day 4/9
CR before Geoff Roes killed it on that day was Dave Mackey 6h48m
Travel: (2) yes / Jetlag: (2) not noticeable, three hour time change / Familiar: (1) yes, I'd run it the year prior and finished 2nd, though with a slower time / Internal: (3) yes, I was shooting for top two and auto WS entry / External: (2) yes, I had finished 2nd one year earlier / Motivations: (3) WS entry, to improve upon 2009 time, to run sub 7hr / Environmental: (1) very runnable course, cool fall day / Competition: (2) / Pacing: (1) I started off conservative as I did with all my races at the time / Own Race: (1) / Fueling: (2) I remember struggling with calories in final two hours but fudging my way through it / Training: (2) Not crazy, I took down time in months leading up to race, but I knew course was all runnable and trained more for running all of my long runs / Tapering: (1) I don't recall, likely two weeks / Confidence: (1) I knew the course and had trained more specifically for it. I knew I was fit enough for my race goals / Music: no
Assessment: I had a great day and came within 29 seconds of breaking the seven hour mark, something only a handful of other runners had done. I completely ran my own race from start to finish and that's why I had success.

**Miwok 2008 (I fully accidentally assessed seven races. I'll leave this in since it only help to reaffirm the overall findings)
12th place 9h22m
Score 23/41
Pre-race 19/32
Race Day 4/9
First question might be why I'd chose this as a top result. This was beyond the unknown for me at the time. I'd only run a handful of 50k races plus one 67k race. I had calf issues in the months leading up to the race and spent two full months training only on a bike. I would have run sub nine hours and finished in 8th place if I had not taken a full five kilometer detour. The top four runners that year were Dave Mackey, Jon Olsen, Geoff Roes and Scott Jurek. I knew none of them. I knew f#@k all and yet I ran an incredibly well balanced race while up against a fairly deep field at the time. If there was ever a race I'd run where I would have had every excuse to mess it up, this was the one, yet I pretty much nailed it right out of the gates.

Travel: (2) yes, first time to San Fran / Jetlag: (1) no, same time zone / Familiar: (3) not at all / Internal stress: (2) I had expectations of myself by zero pressure / External: (1) nothing / Motivations: (1) new challenge, new area, travelled with great group of friends / Environmental: (1) a very runnable course on a hot day in May / Competition: (2) very competitive but I didn't even know / Pacing: (1) I started off way slow as it was such an unknown distance for me / Own Race: (1) /  Fueling: (2) I don't recall the specifics / Training: (2) I trained hard but a lot of it was on the mountain and road bike / Tapering: (2) I was kind of rushing to get time on my feet, off the bike in the weeks leading up to the race / Confidence: (2) I was scared but excited, confident but hesitant, it lead to holding back just enough early on and running a very smooth race / Music: no
Assessment: I was too inexperienced to make the mistake of trying to do anything I didn't already confidently know my body could handle. I ran my own race from start to finish and had a great 100k debut.


WORST RACES
Photo Credit Glenn Tachiyama
Western States 2009
49th, 23h07m
Score 32/41
Pre-race 23/32
Race Day 9/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (1) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (2) / Motivations: (2) / Environmental: (3) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (3) / Training: (1) / Tapering: (2) / Confidence: (3) / Music: no
Assessment: I ran a dumb race on a hot day and paid a price for it. I got caught up in the hype and by the third mile my fate on the day was likely sealed. I'm still incredible proud of even being able to gut this one out just to claim a finish. My kidneys were shutting down and I was peeing blood. It took me over a month to recover from this one.

Miwok 2010 
DNF around 50km mark
Score 29/41
Pre-race 21/32
Race Day 8/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (1) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (3) / Motivations: (2) / Environmental: (1) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (1) / Tapering: (1) / Confidence: (3) / Music: no
Assessment: I set out to run a race I was incapable of running, and I pretty much knew it all along. If I had set out on a more reasonable 8h45m'ish run pace I very likely would not have DNFed and not ended up getting the blood work done that told me I was having iron deficiency issues. The bad with the good I guess.

Knee Knacker 2012 
DNF after first climb
There's little need to dissect this race as I woke up with a fever on race morning and shouldn't have even started.
Assessment: Shit ass bad luck

Speedgoat 50k 2012 
DNF around 40km
Score 36/41
Pre-race 28/32
Race Day 8/9
Travel: (2) / Jetlag: (2) / Familiar: (3) / Internal: (3) / External: (2) / Motivations: (3) / Environmental: (3) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (3) being sick all of July didn't help things / Tapering: (2) was hardly training and just attempting to get better / Confidence: (3) being sick more of July let me know I wasn't fit enough for what I was hoping for / Music: no
Assessment: I did just about everything wrong for this race and it started with signing up for a super competitive race at altitude and just hoping for the best on race day. Though I made race day mistakes at Speedgoat there is very little, if anything I could have done differently to have prevented this DNF due to severe altitude sickness

UTMB 2013 
DNF after 30kms
Score 34/41
Pre-race 27/32
Race Day 8/9
Travel: (3) / Jetlag: (3) / Familiar: (1) / Internal: (3) / External: (3) / Motivations: (3) / Environmental: (2) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (2) / Own Race: (3) / Fueling: (2) I was already struggling with calories by the time my race ended / Training: (1) / Tapering: (2) directing the SQ50 less than three weeks prior throws a kink into things. In two years of directing I have yet to sit down for over 40hrs on race weekend / Confidence: (2) / Music: no
Assessment: I managed to get sick around race day but there's still a part of me that thinks I could have at least finished the race even while being under the weather. I headed in with high hopes and plenty of self imposed and perceived external expectations, though I was fully confident in my fitness and abilities. I still think of this as a lost opportunity to perform on a big stage. I had top ten fitness but was was likely still shooting for a result just beyond my fitness level. I should have gone into this with the goal of finishing 8th, 9th or 10th, not 4th, 5th or 6th.

UTMF 2014
DNF after 105km
Score 32/41
Pre-race 25/32
Race Day 7/9
Travel: (3) / Jetlag: (3) / Familiar: (2) I knew the course but it being run in the opposite direction made it slightly less than completely familiar / Internal: (3) / External: (2) / Motivations: (3) / Environmental: (1) / Competition: (3) / Pacing: (3) I started out at the same pace as last year, though I think started slower would have been beneficial to my overall race / Own Race: (2) / Fueling: (2) / Training: (2) / Tapering: (2) I had some funky issues with my legs after Salomon's Advanced Week / Confidence: (1) I had already succeeded on this exact course / Music: yes, for twelve full hours and it's all that kept me alive and from dropping out of the race early on.
Assessment: I was equal parts stressed and excited, but I never would have expected to not be in the mix for top five. I absolutely had it within me to be in the top five mix. If I could attempt the race all over again tomorrow I would start slower and just do my own thing. No matter the foot injury would have stopped my race, but at least I would have likely been having a better race when that all occurred. I was incredibly proud to have fought so hard to make it to 105km. This is one of the few positives to take away from the race. There's an element of misfortune and confusion over why my climbing legs / hamstrings never seemed to show up on race day though. I was doing great on the flats, the downhills and even the gradual grades, but the super steep terrain felt impossible on race day.

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Knee Knacker - Battle Royale

The 25th anniversary edition of the toughest 50k* (30 mile) trail race in Canada had attracted one of the deepest men's fields in the history of the race. The starter's list, though short a few key names due to injury in the end, was still five deep with guys who could legitimately push the pace at the front and potentially challenge the stout course record of 4h39m52s, held by good buddy Aaron Heidt.

In planning out a much more streamlined year of running which is designed to allow me to train more successfully I have only registered for six races this year, three 50k races and three 100 milers. My last race was a 100 miler in Japan at the end of April, and once I'd taken my requisite three weeks of downtime I laid into my training harder than I ever had before. My body has responded better than I could have hoped for and in the 42 day stretch prior to KK week I'd managed a full 1,000km / 621m of running. Almost all of my training has been on trail and it was capped off by a near 200km / 120m week with 9,000m / 30,000ft of climb and descent. My week of KK plan was to still get forty miles in advance of the race so that I could hit eighty miles on the week which would keep me at 200 miles through the first two weeks of July, in the hopes of eclipsing another 400 mile month of training. It's a numbers game leading up to the biggest race of my year, that being the UTMB in France on August 30th and although the KK was a goal race for me I have found it impossible to focus on anything other than the biggie in France. As such I was consistently pushing aside thoughts of "this isn't smart for the KK" and "you're gonna be pissed if you have a bad KK next week". As has been the case when I'm 100% focused on a big race goal it usually takes an injury to slow me down.

I knew I'd been toeing the knife edge of injury for a few weeks with a constant dull pulsating pain in my left hip. Since this specific pain is nothing new to me I successfully pushed it aside day in and day out. On Wednesday however I awoke to an acute pain that was only bearable while standing or laying down. To sit was completely excruciating and like nothing I'd experienced before. I was nearly certain I'd be one of the causalities of training and forced to the sidelines with a few of the other pre-race favorites. The disappointment of this seemingly inevitable outcome was nearly unbearable for me, especially after I'd dnf'd the Knacker just twelve months prior with an ill timed head cold that wiped out most of my July. On top of this, Linda was attending a family wedding in Minnesota in which I'd been granted a 'hall pass' because of just how much the Knee Knacker meant to me this year. I headed straight to Moveo and thankfully they were able to squeeze me in for not only an ART treatment but also an acupuncture treatment and I spent the rest of the day on my back while stretching as much as I could tolerate.

Thursday was promising as the intensity of the pain had subsided but it warranted another full day off. On Friday Geoff and I headed to Squamish to place signage on the SQ50 course and the time on my feet did me a world of good. I covered 20km but at a hike/run pace which not only got the blood flowing in my legs but allowed my mind to refocus on the task at hand. One more Moveo ART treatment after package pickup that night and I was confident that this '24 hour injury' would have zero bearing on my race outcome. These '24 hour injuries' are somewhat common when you're knocking out as much mileage as your body can handle and thankfully I have experienced a few of them now and I can talk myself off the ledge pretty quickly. In the end this was likely the best thing that could have happened to me on race week as I lined up on Saturday morning with fresh, trained legs that were ready to lay it all.

The Race


The Knee Knacker starts off with a near 4,000ft vertical ascent of Black Mountain up and into the Cypress Mountain ski resort. This is just one of the things that make this race such a classic, and so hard to nail your best time on the course. Come over the top just a few minutes faster than you physically should and you'll suffer the consequences all day long, come over the top a few minutes slower than you should and you'll be playing catch up all day long. It's a fine line and after our group of four let local mountain goat Shaun Stephens-Whale get off the front I settled in with Canadian Skimo racer and recent training buddy Nick Elson and road speedster Graeme Wilson (31min/10k). The guys were letting me lead and as I continually fell back into a power hike over the steeper terrain I was expecting them to pass. I sometimes underestimate my power hiking abilities and when we came through the first aid station in 1h19m45s it was not only a few minutes faster than I thought I could crest the climb, it was a few minutes faster than I'd hoped to crest the climb. I had intentions of challenging Aaron's CR but I knew I'd need to improve upon his second half time as his first half time seemed at the upper limits of my climbing abilities. IF I were able to push his CR I knew it would be by mere seconds and not minutes. The fact that Aaron set this time on a snow year and with no one within twenty minutes of him at the finish is another story. He attributes it as one of his best ever ultras and it's not hard to understand why.

Shaun was exactly one minute ahead of us as we entered Cypress and as a group of three we managed to close that gap in under ten minutes. From Cypress Mountain down into Cleveland Dam is a highly technical stretch (not that any of the course really isn't) and we could see Shaun's limiting factor exposed over this section as we eventually spit him out the back of our pack. I knew Nick would handle the technical downhill through here with ease but I didn't expect Graeme to be holding tight with us. He was a faster runner than both of us, but after a recent 3rd place finish at the Iron Knee (pretty much half the KK course) I'd assumed the technical trails would slow him down a bit more.

Coming down Hollyburn Chutes was fun for me because after all the early race stress of pushing so hard up and over Black Mountain, and slightly questioning my pace the entire time, I'd now fallen into the groove I'd hoped to. I kept preaching my same mantra that I stuck to during the HURT 100 in January, "don't judge your race on the uphills Gary, only assess how you're feeling and how you're doing on the descents".

I was on a descent, I was cruising along nicely, and I was leading the race, I felt great! I honestly had no expectation of leading the race at any point prior to the final stretch as I thought the strongest climbers would have their way with me early with my own endurance and pacing catching them late. I was mentally prepared to be fighting from behind all day long, yet now that I was in the lead and with two other less experienced ultra distance, though maybe more talented runners than myself, I had to play with some strategy. I knew I had another gear on the descent and I was fairly certain it would not take its toll on me later. The hope was that it might put the hurt on these guys earlier than they'd anticipated and as such I kicked it up a notch. I created a small gap which they quickly closed and together we went careening down the mountain together.

My own strategy nearly backfired though, for as we crossed the creek further down and were confronted with the steep staircase on the opposite side my quads flared in pain and started to seize. "Unbelievable" was all I could think to myself. I'm f#@king toasted. How the hell could I be cramping this early? It's not a super hot day, it's been nice for weeks and I'm as trained as I've ever been.

I had in fact cramped in this exact spot during the 2009 Knacker which I raced after death marching my way to a sub 24hr Western States finish just fourteen days prior. I never should have lined up that year yet here I was four years later on what should have been fresh legs and I was facing the same issues. I finished the 09 KK in 5h22m but in that moment four years prior, on those exact stairs I thought I was heading for a DNF. Experience is a wonderful thing and it's amazing the strength we can draw from the lowest moments we've come out on top of. I'd been here before. It was all too familiar and although I now seriously doubted my ability to win the race I simply accepted what was happening and attempted to work through it in a rational manner.

The one thing I'd made a pact with myself over in advance of the start was that I would not quit on myself at any point in the race. I promised myself that I'd not succumb at any point to the self doubt that can pervade while you're pushing yourself to your limits. All the way up Black Mountain I had successfully kept this at bay and now on these stairs all I wanted to do was to pull aside and wave the guys on. If I did this my race would be over and I knew it. I would spend minutes recovering from the effects of letting these guys go and even if my body manged to rally it'd be too late to get back in the mix at the front again.

Fake It Till Ya Make It

I've been training with Adam Campbell on a fairly regular basis this year and besides just being a fun person to run with he's really helped me to realize that I can push much harder earlier in a run than I ever thought I could handle, while still holding strong hours later. A typical run with Adam would have our day starting with a 3,000 - 4,000ft / 1200m climb in which I'm barely hanging on, yet time and time again as our long runs progressed hours later I'd still have reserves and the ability to push the pace on the descents. Adam said something at a presentation we once co-hosted along with Nicola Gildersleeve and Ryne Melcher. "In the end we're all just collecting data on ourselves. I have over 20 years of data on myself so I know what I can and can not do" or something to that effect. My 2013 has been about not only collecting data on myself that I have not yet possessed but also about rewriting some of that data that I had held tight to over the last 5+ years. I'm a different athlete than I was five years ago so I need to let go of some of those beliefs that I can't do some things as well as I'd like. This was new data. This was what I came for. The challenge of figuring out the rest of the day and managing my body had officially begun.

Calories. Electrolyes. Fluids. I was already on top of my nutrition but I'm continually learning that more calories can fix almost anything in ultra running, so I started choking back what I had on me while continuing to lead our group of three down into Cleveland Dam. I had managed to rally my quads in under a minute. A minute that had I let go of it would have had me off the front and in no position to catch the leaders. The cramping had been pushed aside just as rapidly as it had appeared and we continued our pace down into Cleveland Dam together.


The three of us arrived in unison in a time of 2h18m49s just eleven seconds slower than Aaron's CR pace. I knew that none of this really mattered just yet though, for the real race was about to being and as Aaron had pointed out before, he'd reached the Dam in sub 2h20m three times before, but only once had he managed to hold onto his pace all the way to the line.


My awesome one man crew of James Marshall was here to hand off another loaded and ready to go S-Lab 5L pack though I knew that Coke was now going to be integral to my day. I detoured to the aid station to down a few cups and while doing so Nick pulled into the lead and Graeme charged on just behind him.

I could see that Nick had already gained a minute on me while we climbed the 200 vertical meters over one mile up into the Grouse parking lot, and Graeme was pretty much perfectly splitting our gap in half. Once again I was prepared to lose some time to Nick over this section and I forced myself to not assess my race, instead I focused all my energy on calorie and electrolyte consumption via Hammer gel and Endurolytes. A mouth full of gel washed down by a mouthful of water, repeat, repeat, repeat until 100 calories at a time I was topping up my deficit.

From the Grouse parking lot the trail gets steeper still and is rife with rocks, roots, bridges and obstacles. It was near the top of this approximate twenty minutes of climbing, since departing the Dam, that early race leader Shaun ran past me while saying,

"C'mon, let's push hard and catch the leaders together"

He had the right fighting spirit, but I knew if I was going to win this thing it was going to be on the downs and not the ups. I stayed patient and once I crested the climb I managed to bring Shaun back to me in about five minutes. Just a minute further along and I passed Graeme and I was now back in 2nd place again. I was approaching the most familiar parts of the course for me. Living just down the street from here. The stretch between the bridge across Mosquito Creek and the water fountain at Mountain Highway is the one section of the course I'd run more than anywhere else. In training I can knock this section out in under twenty minutes, in the race I managed 22m30s and when I hit the aid station on Mountain Highway I knew I was moving well and that I was right where I needed to be.

The Last Quarter

Staying focused and pushing hard I came into the aid station near The Gazebo (the 3/4 mark of the race splits) and James told me I was 1m45s down on Nick. I was slightly more flustered than I had hoped to be as I scrambled between grabbing my pack from James and attempting to get more Coke and now watermelon into my system. This is about the time that people started relaying information ahead that "Gary is looking rough". Accurate to say the least. I was three minutes off of Aaron's CR pace. Could I do it? Could I really run the last section three minutes faster than his 1h14m44s? Could I even catch Nick for the win? Could I make it to the finish without seizing up completely? Could I stay on the podium? Could I please just shut up and run...yes, yes I can do that. Thank you brain now please go back to just asking me for sugar and stop wasting your time on actual thinking, something you struggle with at the best of times.

I now had a time. I now knew what I had to do to win this race. There is another aid station just fifteen minutes away and after a torturous climb that feels about ten times as long as it actually is I got another split from Nick's good buddy Eric Carter (thanks for the great race pics btw) "You're pretty much exactly sixty seconds behind Nick"

Alright I thought, that's it, he's cooked. He's a better climber than me and I just made up nearly a minute on him in fifteen minutes of running predominantly uphill terrain. Just keep doing what I'm doing and I should see him by the Seymour Grind.

I had had my music in since the half way point and was now focusing on completely zoning out and keeping everything else at bay. As I was approaching another aid station ten minutes later I took out one ear bud and started listening...cheering...time check...push on...45 seconds is the gap. Patience.

This aid station actually kinda blew my mind. I had my game plan in place which was gonna be to fill some water, down some coke and watermelon and sprint on outta there, then they said the magic words

"You want a Mr. Freezie?"

DO I WANT A MR. FREEZIE!!??

Mind = BLOWN

No water, no coke, no watermelon but I had a Mr. Freezie and I was about the happiest creature on this green earth. I think I even peed my pants a little in all the excitement, though my bodily functions may have been shutting down on their own as a means of self preservation.

I was in a state euphoric confusion, what with the Mr. Freezie coursing through my glycogen depleted veins, the sugar rush in full affect as it was lighting up my cerebrum, and this song on my playlist when a figure appeared in the forest. He looked strikingly familiar and was cheering me on, saying something like "your cadence is great, you're looking strong and killing this" to which all I could muster was "Adam?"

For a very brief moment I thought I'd dreamt him into being, but I didn't have time to figure that out. My brain needed sugar, me legs needed distraction and my friend Nick needed to be caught before he crested the Seymour Grind. You can smell the finish line from the top of this climb as it's less than thirty minutes away and almost all downhill. Funny things can happen to our bodies when we effectively smell the barn and I knew it was in my best interest to have a gap on him before the odour managed to rally his legs.

Sure enough and right on time I spotted Nick just as soon as the trail steepened. Slowly but surely I picked away the distance and on the flat bit near the top I put in a push and got my gap. Nick asked me if anyone was with me and I said no, I hadn't seen anyone since Mountain Highway, some sixty minutes earlier.

In all my training runs that had involved the Seymour Grind, which is a 400 meter / 1300ft climb less than 10km from the finish of the race, I had envisioned catching the leader, whoever it might be in exactly this position. Now it was unfolding just the way I had dreamed and hoped it would. I crested the top and laid into the descent that would take me to the finish in Deep Cove. A quick reference of my watch told me that Aaron's CR would stand at least another year and somewhere in the process of determining this and knowing that Nick was on the ropes I managed to shut it down ever so slightly. Instead of killing myself I was running 'conservatively hard' under the guise that the race was all but over. My mind had started to accept something that hadn't yet occurred, and inevitability that was not yet inevitable and in that minute degree of letting my focus slip everything started to hurt again. I was grunting and groaning my way down the trail, allowing the suffering to have a voice that it had thus far been denied. I turned up the music to drown out my own weakness.

I crossed Seymour Road and snagged a piece of watermelon from the final aid station. I knew the finish was less but fifteen minutes away. Just around the corner from here as you proceed to drop elevation through the forest there is one switchback that's longer than the others. With my music thumping I had zoned out, yet something inside me told me to look back up the trail, just to be sure. What I saw nearly brought tears to my eyes. Mike Murphy was coming in HOT. Mike is such a damn talented runner and when we ran the first half of the course together just a few weeks prior he had mentioned to me that his plan was to stay conservative early and simply hammer past people late. I had not seen Mike since about half way up Black Mountain, almost four hours prior. I had all but forgotten about him and simply assumed he'd played it too conservative on the day, yet here he was, noticeably out pacing me and just seconds away from blowing my doors off and leaving me to pick up my own emotional pieces from the dirt beneath my feet. Getting passed like this so late in a race, and completely unexpectedly is near impossible to recover from. By the time the hunter catches and passes the prey, the prey is left with a soiled diaper in a state of confusion as to what exactly just happened.

DON'T YOU DARE QUIT ON ME GARY!

That was all I could think to myself as I pushed my chest forward and leaned into the descent like I never had before. I'm either going to cramp up and fall flat on my face, or I'm going to win this race, but I am not conceding anything yet.

We popped out onto Indian River Drive together. This is a downhill stretch of about 400 meters of pavement less than two miles from the finish, and as such fewer sections are more painful. I absolutely knew that Mike was right behind me and pushing as hard as he could, and the only thing more challenging than how deep I was pushing myself was in fact forcing myself not to shoulder check. To even turn my head a degree towards the rear would sacrifice how hard I was driving away from him. To turn and acknowledge your hunter is a sign of weakness. It is to concede to yourself as much as to them that they will indeed catch and pass you. I have caught people out like this before and when they turn their head towards you it's all but over for them. I was being haunted by a Medusa, and my legs would turn to stone should I so much as glance in his direction.

I hit the trail post to take us off the road and back onto the BP and I simply unleashed into the terrain. The next quarter mile stacks up as one of the most technical quarter mile stretches in the full thirty miles. There's a pile of rocks before a staircase and as I thumped my way through this I had a brief recognition of the fact that if I bailed I might not make the finish, as there were major consequences to being so reckless. The Medusa trumped all of these fears and afforded me temporary reprieve from my lactic laden limbs.

There is an open stretch of trail just past here known as Quarry Rock. As I stammered through here, limbs flailing in all directions just to keep me perpendicular I implored myself to look. I had a gap and I could feel it, the Medusa's gaze was no longer searing into my veins. A microsecond flinch of my neck before focusing on the rocks that seem to arise from the vegetation encroaching upon track below. I had my gap.

For a downhill finish the final mile of the Knee Knacker is not bashful in its attempt to extend your suffering just a little while longer.

Stairs, roots, rocks, downhill, bridges, uphill, roots, rocks, hikers, tourists, down, up, down, up, me yelling

"HELLO! GOOD MORNING! HELLO! HELLO!"

In my head, 'Please move. Please God move. MOVE PEOPLE, MOVE ASIDE DAMMIT!"

With one group it was like I was a running back attempting to break through a defensive line. Thankfully most people were too astounded to move and they simply became pylons in my obstacle course to the tape.

The last descent appeared now and I rolled through it like a raging river. I hit the stairs at the bottom and took them two at a time. I was spit out onto the road where the volunteers were directing me to my right but my momentum carried me further left and in doing so I ended up with an impromptu hug from good friend Kathy McKay. She apologized and if I had time to laugh I would have, I put my head down and cranked up the tiny incline towards the finisher chute. I finally let myself accept what was now, finally, inevitable...






Mike ran the fastest closing 1/4 in Knee Knacker history. I ran a 1h13m37s split which would have been the fastest ever, but Mike laid down an astonishing 1h11m38s final leg!

I've never been tested like this in an ultra before and when the top three guys finish just 2m39s apart it's pretty obvious that there was zero room for error on the day. Congrats to Mike and Nick who were both making their Knee Knacker debuts and are surely poised to stand atop the podium in this race in the coming years.

As always, thanks to the incredible volunteers and race organizers, and congrats to all who toed the line on Saturday. We are so truly blessed to have the Knee Knacker in our community and to be such a driving force towards inspiring people into trail and ultra running for two and a half decades now!

Last but not least, I was incredibly fortunate to have numerous good friends make their way out onto course to help cheer me on throughout the day. You know who you are and I hope you truly know how much I appreciated it. Your energy always inspires me to push harder in those moments.

Gear
Salomon Sense Mantra
Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5
Suunto Ambit2
Hammer Nutrition
Drymax Socks

Full run stats via Movescount

CR splits: 1h18m01s / 1h00m37s / 1h06m30s / 1h14m44s = 4h39m52s
My hope: 1h21m / 58m / 1h08m / 1h12m = 4h39mXXs
Actual: 1h19m45s / 59m04s / 1h09m04s / 1h13m37s = 4h41m28s

Full Results
GR

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How To Go From 3rd To 19th In A Few Quick Steps - Mountain Masochist Race Report

This was my third time lining up for the Mountain Masochist Trail Run 50 miler with my last run being in a time of seven hours flat for 3rd overall in 2009.

The last time I lined for for a 50 mile race at all was 18 months ago during my short recluse from crutches. I was really excited for this one for after being sidelined for so long it was one of the few races I could use to really gauge where my fitness was. In the end hurricane Sandy removed any chance of fast times though as the upper portions of the course were blanketed in a decent amount of snow. I figured this could only play to my favor though, being Canadian and since we live in igloos up here.

This was the 30th rendition of the Mountain Masochist and it also involved a few course changes. The first six or seven miles used to be on the relatively flat paved Blue Ridge Parkway, now there was but a few miles of paved surface and a bit more climbing on trails.

I found myself inadvertently leading the race through the first trail section and then settled into a group of seven runners who included Eric Grossman, Brian Rusiecki, Chris Reed, Frank Gonzalez, Brian Schmidt, Ty Draney and David Hryuniak (a 2h32m marathoner attempting his first 50)

I was happy to follow the leaders but given the first hour was by headlamp and my Princeton Tec Apex was casting shadows over other runners legs as the brightest light, I got pushed back to the front. Eric Grossman joked,

"Is that some kind of crazy Canadian light you're wearing there?"

I think someone else piped in with,

"Yeah what is that a metric light?"

We clicked off the miles with occasional banter. Having run the race twice before I was surprised that our lead group was so large.

As we hit the first climb people laid into it. I'm a decent climber but my bread and butter is my descending so I slowly slipped back in the pack. I quickly found myself in 6th, from 1st and it always amazes me at how much this can affect your perception of how you're running. I immediately attempted to stifle my inner voice which was freaking out

"DROPPED! What are we five miles into this thing? You're dnf'ing for sure today"

I just kept reminding myself that the placings weren't accurate until after the equivalent descents. Sure enough as we crested and I let my legs roll out I found myself back in the lead within a mile.

A longer climb ensued and I found myself in 7th

"D-N-F. You're not a runner anymore. It's been too long and you haven't had a good race since getting back at this. You can't keep pushing like this and make it to the finish line today."

"We'll see what happens on the next descent!" Says positive me to negative me.

We topped out at an aid station where half the group stopped to grab fluids. My one handheld still had enough to get me to the next aid so I rounded the corner behind two others. It was singletrack and a bit rough and once I hopped back into the lead I was actually able to open up a decent gap. I figured it best to capitalize on this since I knew I'd be yo-yo'ing with guys in this fashion throughout the day.

Confirming my fondest memories of Masochist the sun rose, right on cue, as we were on a gravel road that allowed for relatively open views. Though a brisk wind pervaded and some cloud cover lingered, it was a beautiful morning.

"What are ya gonna do now that the suns up headlamp boy!?" Grossman jokes.

The pack had closed the gap and went about putting some distance into me on the long strung out gravel road climb.

The following descent was steeper and rockier and I managed to get myself up into second, just behind Eric. An obvious pattern was unfolding and it wasn't until about fifteen miles in that our pack started to thin. I was shocked to see that Brian Rusiecki was no longer with us as I considered him the pre-race favorite given the year he's having. 

We eventually settled into groups with Eric leading and Hryuniak off his wing, third and forth paired off together as did sixth and seventh. I was in no mans land without a dance partner. No one spoke fluent Canadian though so I wasn't completely surprised.

At about twenty four miles in Rusiecki comes storming up out of nowhere,

"Man they were hot outta the gates weren't they"

"Yeah I was surprised by how many people stuck with the lead group"

and with that he was gone. I knew then and there that he was going to win. It wasn't even a question in my mind. It was almost the same spot where Geoff Roes pulled away from me in 09 to smash the CR. Geoff had apparently just warmed up that year while I was running to my capacity.

My good buddy Hays Poole and his wife Kathy and son Will who reside a few hours away in Raleigh NC had driven up to crew for me. It was Hays's third time doing as much yet the first time his wife and son could join. The long story short is that we met through NHL hockey as his Carolina Hurricanes defeated my Edmonton Oilers in seven games to win Stanley's Mug. This is relevant information because we're die hard fans. I came into the twenty six mile 'half way point' and while looking for Hays, Kathy and Will in the crowd I spotted an Edmonton Oilers shirt screaming at me like a beacon. Quality move, for not only did it allow for a flawless transition but it gave me something to laugh about for the next hour.

Right after the half way point you get into the largest climbs of the day. In my previous runs I had predominantly power hiked these areas I wanted to alter that to predominantly running them this year. My goal in 2009 was sub seven hour race and i missed by twenty nine seconds. I locked into a rhythm and started doing what I had not in these past races. This combined with the fact that I felt really good while doing so was showing me that I was outperforming my previous best run on the course. This is what I came for. This was the test I wanted and even though we all knew the course would run slower with the snow I was at least confirming to myself that my training has been paying off and I'm close to, if not finally back to where I was before my injuries derailed me. 

I picked up fifth within a few miles and then snagged fourth as we headed into 'The Loop' at mile thirty three. The Loop for me has been one of my favorite sections of the race. It's five miles long, all on singletrack and with a decent level of technicality to it. It's the closest section of MMTR that feels familiar to my home terrain. As I grabbed fourth heading into The Loop Horty tells me that third is only three minutes ahead and the leaders are fifteen minutes up. Immediately we get into the snow and Clarke's pre-race proclamation of

"It's like two different courses out there" in regards to the front half vs the back half is showing itself to be as literal as he intended it to be.

I went to work with the knowledge that from there to the finish is predominantly downhill. I liked where I was and had told myself throughout the day that I simply had to be within striking distance by this point in the race. The first half works a bit against my strengths while the back half aligns with them perfectly. 

I powered through the snow anticipating doing The Loop as in previous years. I follow the flagging through the snow and eventually see Brian and Eric running together and towards me,

"Waaa. What's goin on?!"

"Out and back"

Oh right I think to myself, I remember reading about the out and back section this year. I mark the spot where I crossed paths with the leaders and take a time check. A few seconds later I spot Frank a switchback ahead of me and as I close the gap we reach the top nearly in unison. There's an orienteering punch that you clip your bib with to show you've gone up. I was distracted by the views for a second and actually said to myself

"No you're racing, you can't hang out here and fully appreciate this"

"But, but, but...I hate racing, you suck" Again these are the internal conversations I have with myself when I run.

Hats off to Clarke though, the view from that perch was beyond anything the original course ever presented. It was the highlight of the entire race course for me.

The snow obviously became deeper as we climbed and near this high point it was shin deep in sections. Given that only the four of us runners had been through we were in essence breaking trail (Clarke and crew had been through so it wasn't 100% breaking trail)

I laid into the descent and having plenty of experience in the snow Frank graciously stepped aside and cheered me on. I time checked where I'd seen the leaders and was pleased to know that I had gained two minutes on them. I had flirting visions of maybe closing in on one of them by the final three to four mile long descent that takes you into the final mile of the race.

I flew through the snow and was buoyed mentally by the fact that I knew I'd at least crack top three unless something completely unforeseen arose.

"You're going the wrong way!"
"No I'm not, it's and out and back!"

"You're going the wrong way!"
"No I'm not, it's and out and back!"

"You're going the wrong way!"
"No I'm not, it's and out and back!"

x10

Couple that with my own recognition of where I was by thinking

"Its weird we're not doing the full loop this year. I wonder if there was just too much snow on that side?"

"You're going the wrong way!"
"No I'm not, it's and out and back!"

I had this exchange so many times that shortly before arriving back at the aid station (which is in fact the same aid station you hit after the loop) I wanted to say to Horty and Clarke,

'Can you please tell people it's an out and back this year. No one seems to understand this' (yes I'm a complete moron)

Instead I just look for my crew as I'm in full on race mode and feeding off of the slim hopes of catching 2nd.

"Hays! Hays! Hays?"

Clarke and Horty look like they're staring at a ghost as the approach me,

"What are you doing?'

"I'm looking for my crew. Hays!"

"No what are you doing here?"

"What?"

"You're supposed to come in from over there" As Horty points to the exit from the loop about a hundred feet away.

"No it's an out and back" I say, still not clicking into anything around me. Then it hits me. Then my eyes open as my racing goggles are ripped from my face, as the horse blinders are lifted I see twenty volunteers all stating at me with remorse. That look of "oh no" "I feel terrible for him right now" is just emanating off of everyone.

My brain snaps back into reality and I'm overwhelmed by the flood of emotions coursing through me. In my head,

"Are you f#@king kidding me! I did what!!? Don't speak Gary. Count to something. I don't want to f#@king count. Walk. Walk away and compose yourself dammit."

Out loud to Clarke,
"I'm just. I'm just gonna go over this way for a bit."

I walked around the corner and sat down in a pile of snow in front of a truck that put me out of sight. I slumped my head into my hands and started processing what had just occurred. Clarke found me a few minutes later.

"I'm sorry man. How ya doin?"

Both of us knowing it wasn't his fault of course.

"I'm alright"

"What are ya thinkin?"

The serious thought of being a poopy pants and not closing it out never crossed my mind. I just needed a few minutes to basically tell myself that a result on the day, whether 3rd or 30th, wasn't going to change how I ran, how I felt, how happy I was with what I had done up until that point. Yeah it sucked that I was no longer in the race, but there were exactly zero reasons not to finish. Couple that with the fact that I was staying with JB Basham who'd done a 112 mile version of the Hardrock hundred miler back in July and I really didn't even have a choice in the matter.

Five minutes further along and I started cooling off in the breeze and realized if I didn't get moving that I might end up with an actual reason not to continue. I said thanks to all the aid station crew and walked back out on course. Having absolutely nothing left to fight for I ambled my way along letting my body temperature determine when I'd actually start running again. I sauntered for a mile before the wind on my body coupled with the snow at my feet had cooled me to the point of needing to generate my own body heat.

A few miles in and I stopped at the intersection where I'd gone wrong. I distinctly remembered my thought process as I ran through the first time, which only strengthen my resolve in my ignorance.

There was a ton of flagging there and while running out it really stood out as being heavily marked. My eyes instinctively followed the majority the flagging towards the right and I never even noticed the additional flagging to the left that would guide us back around the loop. My thought while running through the first time,

"There's a ton of flagging here, they must really want to ensure we don't go left by mistake"

After I digested all this I proceeded to close out the final twelve miles of the course. I alternated between running walking and chatting along the way. Given that I've never been able to chat up the aid station workers while racing MMTR in the past two runs I spent a few minutes at each of the remaining four stations joking around with everyone. When I spotted watermelon at an aid station it necessitated a lengthier stop to help lighten their eventual pack down load later in the day. A runner I had passed came into the station while I was owning the watermelon and I looked at him with a piece hanging out of my mouth and deadpanned 

"Don't f@#king touch the watermelon"

Thankfully he got my sense of humor.

I ended up finishing with what my Garmin showed as fifty six miles in 8h55m for 19th place. Top Twenty! 

Brian won in 7h30 which many believe would equate to a low 6h50'ish time without snow and Eric was second in 7h45m. Local rockstar Frank Gonzales snagged third in a time 8h07m. Outside of my folly I had a fantastic weekend in Virginia.

Thanks as always to Clarke and his amazing team of volunteers. David Horton, for nothing more than his comment to me post race,

"That was impressive what ya did out there today. STUPID, but impressive that you stuck with it."

Hays, Kathy, Will, best crew ever!

Hilary and Jonathan Basham for adopting a Canadian stray for the weekend and then allowing their friends to endlessly mock me for the rest of the evening over our post race drinks.

Gear

Hammer Seat Saver (best running lube I've found)

I'll be back...(I'd return again no matter what the outcome)

GR

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Carkeek 12hr - The Custom 5hr Version

I ran the Carkeek 12hr today in Carkeek Park, Seattle. Race Directors Brock Gavery and Sam Thompson have been organizing the fun run for six years now and all proceeds go to charity. Couple that with it being a Halloween run where plenty of people show up in costume and it's one fun day out on the trails.

It's a looping course and at just 1.93 miles it might not sound like much but checkout their website and know that their claim to it being one of or indeed the hardest 12hr out there is legit.

Each loop has 430 feet of climbing and descent, and on this day in particular weather was a slight factor as it was rainy, windy and freezing to start in the dark and though the rains eventually subsided the trail became slightly more slick with each passing loop.

I never thought I'd draw this comparison but it really does run like a mini HURT course, though it certainly lacks the level of technicality that HURT has become famous for. The similarity starts with the fact that it's a looping course and continues with the fact that there are pretty much three climbs over the 1.93 miles, and of course the first is the longest, exactly like HURT. In fact if you were to complete a hundred miles on the Carkeek course you'd end up with 22,278 feet of climbing and descent, which is pretty damn close to the 25,000 that HURT presents.

The 12hr starts at 6am. We were late getting outta Tacoma and ended up arriving at 6:03am, which of course meant everyone but the RD's were gone, and even they were still setting up camp.

Given that we were in our Halloween costumes and not 100% ready to run anyways we were quickly sucked into the fire to help sustain our falling body temperatures. After a good thirty minutes and watching the lead crew come through I realized that if I didn't get my ass in gear that the nasty weather was gonna win out and I'd be ridden with guilt at cowering to our standard fall precipitation.

At 6:45am I headed out with the intention of simply trying to warm up sufficiently enough so that I could kill another mug of coffee by the campfire pit after one loop before actually getting on with my run shortly thereafter. Of course once actually running everything starts to make sense again, the body heats, the rain seems like a compliment rather than a hindrance to your day and the mind settles into a relaxed state that makes you wonder how you ever could have considered not running because of a few measly rain drops.

With one lap down I knew stopping would be a terrible idea and I found my groove and started to roll. Roxy was along with me and of course in costume herself. It wasn't going so well for either of us and after numerous stops to address her outfit I ended up stripping it off and carrying it along (she ran the rest completely naked).

After lap two I changed out myself and will point out for sake of accuracy later in the post that I in fact paused my watch for the few minutes it took me to switch outfits. Carkeek doesn't keep times, just laps, and I had a time goal in mind as a test of where I'm truly at right now.

After lap three I passed off Roxy to Linda as she was also running and typically Roxy prefers Linda's pace on long runs.

Lap four and I was on it, I felt good. I was on top of my calories, my electrolytes, and my fluids. I decided I would in fact shoot for my pre-race goal of the equivalent of a sub five hour 50km run. Due to the looping nature though it broke down to attempting to run 17 laps or 32.81 miles or 52.8km as a 16 loop run would only equal 49.7km. Blah blah blah

Over the next 13 loops I was really happy with my consistency. There were obvious highs and lows but a few other things I really wanted to test out on the day were my mental game, and my ability to really fight for something I had set out to achieve on the day. This race toughness has been lacking for me lately. I've fought hard to reach numerous finish lines this year but most of those were made more complex by my mind being months ahead of my fitness levels. I never set out to just finish the CSP115 in March, but that's what it ended up being. I never set out to finish 53rd at UTMB in early Sept, but that's all I had in me. Obviously Carkeek is a fairly low key event and for me I desired nothing more, for if I blew up at least I'd know where I was at right now. Heading into Mountain Masochist 50 miler in Virginia next weekend and then finally returning to HURT Hawaii again in Jan, I was really setting out to hopefully confirm what I'd been sensing as of late. This is the best I've felt since pre-crutches, since August 2010.
(Managed one slip during the race. Never suffered from road rash in a trail race before)
The highs were so beautiful. I was forced into a reminiscing phase that lasted hours. The repetitiveness of the terrain and the certainty that an aid station was always less than a few miles away allowed the mind to wander while the body did it's job.

One year ago at Carkeek I very tentatively walked two loops, a mere 6km, and it was a victorious day. I'd been out of a walking boot but a few weeks and off of crutches just over five weeks. The doctor advised that it was potentially doable but to stop at the sign of any pain. Every step was a struggle and yet I refused to stop because the only thing that scared me more than potentially breaking my foot a third time was having the inability to walk six bloody kilometers.

It was January before I was allowed to run ten kilometers. I have spent far too much time this year staring off into the distance at where I want to be with my running and racing, longing to simply match where I was in 2010. I've forced my body to do things it wasn't conditioned for and then been frustrated by my lack of ability to achieve my racing goals. I've never been completely fair with myself throughout this process and I've never properly celebrated what really boils down to some of my best race results when the entire journey is put into perspective. I had completely lost perspective on this, and thankfully today it hit me full force...of course the fact that today was the first time in this lengthy journey that I felt like I had glimpses of my previous running levels certainly helped the positive mindset and awareness along.

2012 has been one of the best years of my life and it's been capped off by asking the love of my life to marry me while we were in France AND she actually said yes!
I have nothing to complain about and I know this. Today was still an extra special day though as although I just missed out on my sub five hour 17 loop goal, running 5h01m24s, I was well over 50km by five hours as I closed out the 52.8k version of my own personal race today.

Splits
18.49
18.41
18.03
18.30
16.42
16.40
17.16
17.23
17.12
17.30
17.02
17.23
17.13
18.59 (Roxy left Linda and caught up to me. I had to hold her up:-) )
18.08
17.57
17.58

Gear

GR

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215km Of East Coast Trail, The Perfect 35hr Family Vacation!

I had been on my feet for over 24 straight hours,


and I had covered over 100 miles of ground for the first time in my life. The sun had risen on my second day only to reveal terrain that was completely overgrown and impossible to run. Navigation was not an issue, but I was down to a bushwhack hike of about 4km an hour. I was wearing running shorts and my primary thought, outside of reaffirming every curse word I'd ever learned before, was that I only wished I had enough foresight to pack a pair of running tights. Every step through the harsh overgrown Newfoundland brush was like grinding on a heavy grit sandpaper, and I truly wanted my legs to bleed more than they actually were so that I would at least have visual justification for all the frustrations I was dealing with.

To add to the anguish I was suffering through I had under budgeted my food and fluids for this section and I had completely run dry hours earlier. My left hip, which had been an on and off issue for months on end had started flaring up after just the first hour and a half of my journey and since then had gone completely numb. As painful as it was it had not spiked in pain in hours and I felt like the worst of that issue might be behind me. Over the years experience had taught me that if you ignore your own body's sensory perceptions they will eventually start to questions their own sanity. Which is of course directly in line with the conversation you will inevitably have with yourself at some point as well.

"Listen I've been telling him for hours that he's all messed up but he just ain't hearing it."

"Really? You sure we're right about sending out those pain signals?"

"I dunno. I just do what what comes naturally but if the big boss man is telling me to shut up I guess I might as well listen to him. He can deal with the consequences himself later."

Truth be told, had I registered for any race on that same weekend I would have pulled the plug, DNS (did not start) without question or any feeling of remorse whatsoever. Since early summer I felt like I was just hanging on. I managed a successful Western States in June yet I still had two major pursuits on the schedule that I'd made very public in March. There was a fundraising campaign for Right To Play that was gaining momentum and I had somehow been able to fight my way to a slightly better West Coast Trail time than ever before, just two weeks prior. Though three quarters of the way through that West Coast Trail attempt I found my mind on the opposite side of the country, in Newfoundland. I was wondering how in the hell I was going to pull off a 215km run just fourteen days after running the 75km WCT. Those thoughts lasted all of a few minutes before I realized I had to be present in that moment in BC before shifting my sights towards the next run in Nfld.

The weeks between runs had evaporated and I now found myself in a whole other world of hurt. I had once covered 200km in a weeks worth of training and it completely shattered me. I had never attempted a distance greater than 160km in one go, and I had never had the 'good fortune' to run into a second sunrise before. This was all new terrain for me, and none of it was going according to plan.

Ray Zahab had been kind enough to send me fourteen maps that made up the entire route, and in hindsight these maps were integral to our success as a family. Though the terrain had now slightly eased, at least in terms of the overgrowth, I found it impossible to run more than a few steps at a time. I would guilt myself into a trot of about a minute before my body would shut down on me. I continually repeated this process like a scratched LP stuck in a record player. Over, and over, and over again. Try, fail, walk, try, fail, walk, try, fail, walk.

I knew the direction I wanted to travel and I couldn't help but notice that I was getting farther away from my next town and what would end up being my saving grace of seeing my family and their rolling support vehicle again. It was already four hours beyond my predicted arrival time and though the sun was now shining bright upon a beautiful Sept day I was being bombarded by coastal winds that would leave my face wind burned by the end of it all. I pulled out my maps, careful not to let them get caught in the breeze, and I confirmed that I was indeed still on course. It just happened to be the long way round to my next intersection. It was blatantly evident why the trail meandored out to sea and not towards the safe haven community of Petty Harbor. The scenery was endless and this trail was designed to take in all the fantastic sights and sounds that help make the route such a rare gem. I however, no longer gave a shit about the sights, sounds, and vantage points, and in fact I was actually starting to loath all of it. My two cameras felt like dead weights that I had to carry to document the damn trek and I was sick of feeling the need to stop and capture beauty on film.

I glanced into the distance and could just make out what appeared to be the end of the inlet I had yet to turn towards. My next 'aid station' was all too far off and I very literally had thoughts of just laying down and shedding a few tears. I was a defeated man, completely deflated and devoid of motivation to continue onwards. I had always wanted to find my breaking point through my endurance pursuits and I was now being confronted by something I had never truly dealt with on such a low level before. I wanted to quit. I just didn't care anymore, about anything. Knowing that quitting simply was not an option was all that kept me moving, one step at a time. Then it happened, I started to hallucinate.

As I crested a small knoll I thought I could see my brother off in the distance. Part of the beauty of The ECT is the solitude of the experience, and after covering nearly 185km, and being on my feet for over 29 hours I'd seen but two other people. One was camping in the night as I ran past, and the other was enjoying breakfast (while I still had food and fluids) many hours earlier, and nearly fifty kilometers away from the first hiker.

I blinked a few times to get a grip on myself and when I rubbed my eyes open I could not believe what I was seeing. My brother Bryan had hiked in 4km to find me and he had huge smile on his face and simply extended a handful of tinfoil towards me,

"I thought you could use some breakfast."

I found those tears I fought back just minutes earlier now starting to form by means of sheer amazement and excitement. I felt like he'd saved my life, and more importantly, my run...and for the second time in the last twelve hours no less.

East Coast Trail 215km


The first twenty nine hours of the run had itself brought many a high and low, and much in the way of mental anguish and doubt, but all in all my Father's rough time estimates were proving to be incredibly accurate.

The biggest issue that I simply had not prepared for was that of being completely wet for nearly the entire effort. Though we did not really get rained on too badly at any point, it did rain fairly hard the previous night and with so many overgrown sections of trail I rarely went more than a few minutes after changing into dry clothes without getting soaked again. In fact in the first 24hr my feet were dry for fewer than two of those hours. At one point my Brother even utilized a laundry mat in a small town we crossed through to 'refresh' my clothes for me and it took him nearly an hour to remove all the moisture from everything

I was also not expecting The East Coast Trail to have so many steep climbs in it. This may sound foolish to say, but it is a coastal route and there are no mountains in the region. This did not stop my GPS from recording almost 20,000 feet of climbing, and that's after the data corrections have been applied to the file. I'm always weary of inflated elevation data from a GPS watch, but I'll confidently say there was over 15,000 feet of climbing for sure.

I had expected and was prepared for the mud upon the trail to be worse than it actually was. This is not to suggest that the terrain was not atrocious because it most certainly was. Mentally though I had told myself I'd swim through quicksand like bogs and ford surging rivers if I had to. Instead I simply felt like a child on hockey skates for the first time in my life. There were hours upon hours that passed where every singular step I took was a fight to stay upright. I had my fair share of tumbles with the worst landing me elbow deep in a mud bath that smelled like a barn yard. I unleashed my anger and frustrations into the universe only to be on my ass again not a minute later.

The trail was turning out to be a lesson in humility. It was not the clear shot run that I had dreamed of and I felt more like a speed hiker than an actual runner at times, yet the goals of both are always the same. Relentless Forward Motion. One step at a time, baby steps if the trail demanded, and all the way from Cappyhaden to St. John's. There would be no stopping until I reached my home, my true home, the city in which I was born 33 years earlier.

The number one concern I had going into the speed attempt was based around my hip injury. It had been bothering me for months and even on the nine hour flight across Canada I would have to continually walk around and stretch off the impending numbing of the area.

I took my first steps upon the trail at 6:15am on Friday August 20th, and by 7:45am that same morning I was locked into a war of wills against my own body.

"This really hurts"

"No it doesn't"

"Umm, yeah, it totally hurts right now"

"Like no it doesn't!"

"Like yeah! It totally does like, really, like, freaking hurt...like"

Yes, I have the internal dialogue of thirteen year old kid.

"Alright fine, it hurts, but you knew it was gonna hurt coming into this thing so how bout a little suck it up princess"

"But I still have over two hundred kilometers left to go...."

"SUCK..."

"I just started this thing. There's no way I can ignore this much this early...."

"IT..."

"I'm ninety minutes into what will likely be a 36hr run..."

"UP ALREADY!"

"I hate you"

"I know"

"I'm not talking to you"

"Good"

"You'll pay for this!"

"I'm ok with that"

The first 100km of the trail took around thirteen hours to complete, and I fully recall hours seven, nine, and eleven being the most painful to accept. At the eleventh hour, and around 80km, my body screamed at me louder than it had all day long,

"SERIOUSLY ROBBINS WHAT THE F?"

It was a brutal sixty minutes in which I stopped a few times to try to stretch out the pain, but to no avail. I noticed my stride was being compromised in an attempt to alleviate the issues, but again this wasn't making things any easier. I had my first true doubts about my ability to endure, and the mental math nearly debilitated me.

"Eleven hours, eighty kilometers in. Still 135 kilometers to go. Still at least a full day of running left to get me through this thing. I still have twenty four full hours to go...how, just how is all I'm asking you?"

"Honestly I don't know ok. I just don't know. I'm sure you'll figure something out, and besides when you see your family again I know you're going to come around, so deal with it."

That eleventh to twelfth hour on the trail was the most painful I've ever experienced from that specific injury, or any other injury for that matter. By the time I'd hit 90km mark though, it was as if the pain sensors had hit a steady state and simply started cancelling each other out. The hip would no longer make it to the top of my 'reasons to quit list' upon the run. I'd won a small battle, one of many that were waged along the way.

As the kilometers rolled by we got into a pretty smooth rhythm as a family. My Father (Fred), Mother (Gerri), Brother (Bryan), Niece (Kayla), and Brother's Girlfriend (Heather) were all along for the ride, in the form of two rolling support vehicles. The East Coast Trail has fairly regular intersections with small coastal communities and on average you spend about four kilometers running roads through small towns for every twenty or so kilometers you cover upon completely isolated trail.

These communities became our intersection points and my family would continually leap frog me throughout the entire process, always awaiting my arrival into each town. Every few hours I'd pop outta the trail to big smiles, hugs, cheers, and a rolling buffet. From time to time family members would hop outta the car and run with me to the next trail head, or until we hit the first wee bump in the landscape that created a bit of a climb. These moments were pure magic for me. Completely spontaneous and fueled by love. I felt no pain when I was with them and without my family the run would have been completely impossible on so many levels. They had even gone as far as to make signs that they hung on the car while they drove between towns.
In one community a rather large gentleman started chasing me down the road. Survival instincts kicked in and all I could think was,

"How in the hell am I gonna out run this guy right now!?"

Then I noticed he was waving money at me. He was donating to Right To Play!! When I stopped to accept his generosity he just looked at me and said,

"Get going already! Don't stop for us!"

How could you not be moved by something like this. How could you possibly not finish what you'd started. How could you not draw energy reserves from this the likes of which you didn't even know you previously possessed. I felt like I floated on air for an hour after this encounter, feeling no pain whatsoever. Such a simple human interaction, yet so powerful at its core.

Gettin Ruffed Up


As nightfall was approaching, and we were running through yet another small town, my brother hopped out of the car to join me while the rest of the family drove on ahead to find the next trail re-entrance sign. It was to be a ten minute jaunt at most. A 'hey howya doing, keep digging, you're doing great' pep talk run.

We were just passing the second to last home in the community of Brigus South when out of nowhere an overweight Golden Lab came screaming out of a driveway at us. It was brandishing its teeth and left no doubt as to its intentions. The dog gave chase, but unlike every other scary dog encounter I'd ever experienced this beast meant business. He was on our heels in no time and as we turned to face him he leapt up and grabbed my Brother by the leg! The owner was now sprinting down the road after all of us which eventually turned into the three humans yelling at the one dog until he finally cowered behind his master. Bryan was obviously now pumping with adrenaline and for a second I thought I was going to have to prevent him from biting the owner of the dog himself. After a brief screaming match and a multitude of apologies from the dog's owner we were on our way again, my Brother now hobbling a bit from the impact of the bite, which turned out to leave a mark but not break the skin. He'd eventually walk it off but I'm not convinced I could have fended off the dog on my own at that point. We were laughing about it by the time we caught up with my family again.

The funniest thing I witnessed during the run was about six hours later at 2am. As I came off of another section of trail and into the community of Witless Bay we awoke another angry mutt and up he got and at me he came. My Dad immediately positioned the car between the dog and I, as I watched in shock as my Mother threw open her car door and started positioning herself to defend her first born at all costs.

"I woulda tackled that dog if he'd come at ya ya know!"

"Oh I know you would have Mom, you left no doubt with me or the dog that he didn't stand a chance of getting past you!"

Once the adrenaline from that scare wore off I found that I was completely and utterly drained. Physically and mentally I just needed a break. At 2:30am, after covering approximately 135km in twenty hours of running, I simply came towards my parents car, now set up at the trail head ahead of me as an aid station, and said,

"I need a nap"

They were so focused on the task at hand and our end goal that no one even processed what I'd said. They were straight into filling bottles, offering up clothes, and changing headlamp batteries.

"I need a nap"

"What?"

"A nap. I'm done. Someone wake me in fifteen minutes please." I then looked at them with a serious expression which was to convey that though we all knew I needed more sleep that this, they were not allowed to let me go beyond fifteen minutes.

Ten seconds later they placed a blanket over me in the back seat of the car. I didn't anticipate needing a nap for the run, but having flown clear across the country and into a four and a half hour time change on Wednesday, arriving in Nfld at midnight, shopping for supplies on Thursday before driving the two hours to our starting point, and only getting five hours of sleep the night before the run began on Friday morning, I just had nothing left. I've done numerous 36hr adventure races and without fail a 15-20 minute nap had always gotten us through.

Nineteen minutes later, after my parents had let me 'sleep in', I was back on my feet. It was a lot like peeling myself out of a self constructed coffin. I didn't really know my name for a few seconds before grabbing my gear and hitting the trail again. Ten minutes later as my mind finally joined my body I found my legs moving better than they had in hours. The power nap had worked wonders. I now just had to make it till sunrise and my body's natural circadian rhythms would take care of the rest.

For the most part this strategy worked well. The sun rose a few hours later, right on time even, and I was awake. But the trail had thrown us for a loop and our time guesstimates for the longest non intersecting section of trail, 32km, proved grossly under estimated. It took a full seven and half hours to clear this section, yet I had carried sustenance for three and a half hours. If my brother had not unexpectedly shown up with the food and water I'd probably still be out there waiting for someone to drag my ass back to civilization.
My savior Brother had lifted my spirits and ripped me from the dead when he showed up with that tinfoil breakfast and two full water bottles. He started running to pace me, asking if he should go faster. I hadn't actually run for the better part of four hours and the fear of loosing him was all that propelled me along,

"No, this is good! No need to go any faster Bryan!"

He helped haul my ass back to my family, still four kilometers away, and upon seeing them a funny thing happened. Their smiles, cheers, hugs, and laughter seemed to caress through my body like pure energy, with it removing every singular bit of doubt, fatigue, and exhaustion that I still carried with me. I knew I'd overcome the worst the trail could throw at me. The worst my mind could throw at me. The worst my body could throw at me. I knew I was going to beat this thing. I knew WE, as a family, were going to succeed. It was noon on my second day of running, the sun was shining bright though it had forecast heavy rain, and I had but thirty kilometers of trail standing in my way. Thirty kilometers between me, beer, and sleep.

Those final thirty kilometers of the run were a bit of a blur,

not because I can't remember them now, but because I was fried and just going through the motions. I very literally had an hour of full on hallucinations, with everything from ski resort chair lifts, to road construction signs in the middle of the ocean and I was almost enjoying the distractions to be honest.

As I hit Cape Spear, The Most Easterly Point In North America, I was finally in my own backyard. I was on familiar ground, playing in my home rink, and that familiarity picked me up as much as the inevitability of completing the task at hand.
My parents called the local news network and gave them a finishing time of 5:30pm. I glanced at my watch and I thought I could do better, but like every good ultra runner I had completely forgotten just how tough the final section of the trail actually was, it being the only real part I had any previous experience upon.

As those final kilometers started to tick away I realized I was really going to have to dig deep to finish by 5:30 so I told myself I was going to leave it all out there.

"No use holding back now Gary, let's see what ya got in there?"

I effectively destroyed the final 15km of my 215km run along the coast. It was very near the strongest I had run at any point on the entire trail in the day and a half that I was out there. The climbs in this final section are long and steep, with technical footing, and rarely an easy or flat step. I ran the entire section minus the one obscene and endless scramble/climb in the middle of it all. I think I would be hard pressed to run all of this terrain on completely fresh legs. I have no idea exactly how this all worked, whether it was adrenaline, the need to be done, simply a newfound focus and motivation, or maybe a bit of all of the above. Either way I felt like a runner for the first time all day and I ended up finishing just two minutes behind my Dad's perfect guesstimate, at 5:32pm on Saturday August 21st.

A news crew, family members, and even some high school friends had turned up to welcome me home. I'd made it. Thirty five hours and seventeen minutes to complete two hundred and fifteen kilometers of incredibly challenging terrain. But beyond that, I'd had conquered doubts the likes of which I'd never experienced before, pain the likes of which I hope I never have to deal with again, and nutrient deficiencies that I will never subject myself to in a racing environment. After all of this I still managed to persevere. I came out on top, I didn't say uncle, I didn't listen to the quit now demons in my head, and I continually fought past all obstacles that were presented to me on the day.


In life it is rare that you will feel 100% prepared when faced with a new challenge, but you can ALWAYS give 100% of what you have in you on that day, and more often than not, that's plenty good enough to get you through




Way back in March when I decided to propose this project dubbed 'Conquer The Coasts' I really had no idea what to expect or exactly how I intended to pull it all off. Sitting here now in November I feel incredibly fortunate to be able to say that I achieved all I'd set out to over nine months ago. 

-The West Coast Trail Record now sits at 10h08
-The East Coast Trail Record now sits at 35h17
-An ECT film is being worked on
-A combined trail film will be completed as well

Thank you to everyone for their continual support and kind donations towards Right To Play. None of this would have been possible without you.

Special Thanks

My Family. Every single one of them were integral towards the success of this project, right down to my beautiful niece Kayla who took care of all of the twitter updates and found most of the nearly impossible to locate trail heads during the night.

Trevor Richmond. I don't know how I would have afforded to pull this all together without your assistance with flights. Your generosity is unmatched and I knew there was a reason I still talked to you after all these years!

Erik Nachtrieb. For offering to take all my raw solo shot footage and to make it into something worth actually watching!

David Papineau. That fantastic logo is compliments of Mr. Broadway Run Club, thank you!

Ray Zahab. Ray was more excited than anyone about my proposed runs this year and he provided me with plenty of insight about The East Coast Trail and the aforementioned invaluable maps

North Shore Athletics. Any other employer woulda fired my ass long ago, yet somehow you still keep me on payroll. Thanks for approving the time off necessary to pursue these things.

Drymax Socks. Of course all sponsors deserver their props but Drymax deserve their special mention here. I have run 4x100 mile races, and in each of them I have battled significant foot blistering over the final 20miles/30kms. I have never run more than a dozen hours without some sort of foot issue. I've learned to accept it and thought it was just a part of the game. Then Bob from Drymax spots me some socks, telling me they're bound to help. 'Yeah Right'. A sock is a sock is a sock. I'd tried no fewer than a dozen kinds so how is yours gonna be any different?

I NEVER GOT A SINGLE BLISTER ON MY FEET! MY FEET WERE SOAKING WET FOR OVER 2/3 OF THE 35HR RUN!

Even my Father, having seen me at WS 09 was completely speechless. These socks are the best. PERIOD!

Sponsor Shoutout

Montrail

Mountain Hardwear

Princeton Tec Sport Lights

Carbo-Pro

Moveo Sport Rehab

Curb Ivanic Strength & Conditioning

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3 Comments

Two More WCT Vids

Coupla more vids till I can get to my run report. I've been working every day since coming off of the trail on Wednesday afternoon so it's been tough for me to get to things so far. I finally have a big day off tomorrow which should allow me to catch up on things properly.





GR

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