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 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.
Salomon Sense Mantra
Salomon Advanced Skin S-Lab 5
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