Running is difficult to describe. I’ve heard it called, hard, painful, tough, exhausting, exhilarating, fun, nourishing, blissful and rewarding. I think I agree with that.
(My boy and me at a race registration – photo thanks to Matt Cecill)
I grew up in Victoria, and have been part of the running culture for years. I’ve built some strong relationships in the trails in and around the city. When we started Cook Culture, and hoped that it would be part of the culture of the city, I also hoped that we could one day support the sport that gave me so much.
This became a reality when this guy dreamt up the Finlayson Arm Ultra Marathon .
(This is Myke LaBelle – mastermind and race director of the Finlayson 100km, 50kn and 28km race)
Cook Culture has been a part of the race for the last 3 years and because of that Myke let me run in the race. I hadn’t had an issue with that over the last few years because I took on the 50km distance, not the hundred. Not to say that the 50km isn’t hard but it’s reasonable for any marathoner to do it with the right training.
What sets the Finlayson Arm race apart from most is the elevation – the 50km is 10,075 feet, and because it’s a repeat course, which means that it’s an out and back that you do twice, it’s a combined 20,150 ft, which is more vertical than Mt. Logan, which is the tallest mountain in Canada at 19,551 ft
I love to run (especially trails), and do it for mental clarity and general health. I marathon a few times a year to make sure that my fitness stays in check but I was not looking for a 100km ultralong-ultrasteep race. Not saying that I wasn’t interested, it just takes a lot of time to train for big races. The tipping point was my kids – they’ve watched me come in from the 50km race a few times, and had such a blast at the after party at Goldstream Park camp ground
(My daughter and me coming into the finish in 2017 50km race – photo thanks to Matt Cecill)
They asked if I was going to do the race this year and I said ‘yeah, I think so’. Chloe, my daughter asked, ‘what about the 100! You should do the 100!’ ‘Why?’ I asked. She told me that I like that sort of stuff and I would like it. True, but 2 times what I already thought was a punishing race? Running all through the night, chafing, blisters, up mountains, down mountains, more sugar calories than anyone should eat? I dunno. Time to noodle.
I ran through the summer, getting in some great early morning long and steep runs/hikes. I did the Grouse Grind many times. On the Island, I hit up Mt. Coakly around 3 times, had a fun day going up Mt. Albert Edward and even got over to Powell River to run on the Sunshine Coast Trail. I had some solid vertical in my legs and had a feeling that I at least had the distance in me – but the mind, I still knew clearly what I was getting myself into.
(Kevin, John and me up Mt. Albert Edward)
Mid August came around and it was time for the Island Trail Race at Mt. Washington. This is a super fun but hard course – perfect training. A day before I asked my kids if they wanted to run and my 7 year old boy said yes. Great! To me, as a runner, and a father, this is what dreams are made of. So I asked Myke, who is also the race director for the Island Trail Series, if someone as young as 7 could go in the race. His response – ‘if you do the Finny 100, he’s in!’ You know the old saying, it’s not what you know….
My boy came in 4th under 15, so Nick from Frontrunners and Myke made a new age category for 10 and under. I can’t really explain how great having friends like this is, and the amazing feeling to see my son with a first place medal around his neck,
(My son Taylor and me at the top of Mt. Washington – photo thanks to Matt Cecill)
(My daughter, son and wife at the end of the race – photo thanks to Matt Cecill)
So now I’m registered for the 100km race. My wife is just shaking her head, with a smile. That’s her way of giving me the ‘ok, just don’t kill yourself’.
At this point the race is a month or so away but the endurance is in me. I have one more big weekend of training and then start to slowly taper. Race week comes way faster than I thought it would. Life seems to do that to me these days.
The race started at 5pm on Friday and we planned to take the 10 ferry from Vancouver and do a few things before. I had all my gear (I thought) with me and had already made my drop bags (bags of food and stuff that you need at stations along the route). Myke had emailed the day before about the traffic to the race but I kinda disregarded what he was saying. I thought we were leaving town in enough time but once in the dreaded Colwood Crawl I knew we were going to be late.
I know the roads like the back of my hand, so I thought I would take a shortcut. Wrong…traffic everywhere,,,,what, is this LA!
So we pull into the Goldstream Camp Ground at 4:54…with me thinking, ‘Myke’s not always on time’. Wrong again. The group of 40 some-odd runners were hanging around the starting area. The safety briefing is over (that’s where they tell you anything that may be useful as you are running all through the night), and with only a few minutes to spare, I threw on my pack and hat (I hoped that I had everything I needed in my pack???), checked my watch, passed my drop bags to my good friend Ryan to deal with and we’re off. 105km of my very favourite trails in front of me.
The race starts in Goldstream Park, goes over to the west side and then back to go up Mt. Finlayson. Then to Caleb Pike and the ridge to Jocelyn Hill, down to Mackenzie Bight and then up and over Mt. Work. At this point, at Munns road, it’s the half way point and then you return, without doing Mt. Finlayson, thankfully. That is 50-ish km, then you do it again for the entire 100km journey.
The race started fast, as they always do. Every experienced ultra-runner tells you to go super slow at the beginning and this wasn’t happening. I was really trying to find the right gear and felt great, which was a problem as I was going too fast. I had met up with a buddy, Cam, and we hung together with another racer from Vancouver for several hours. Going up Mt. Finlayson, is the first big climb and I was taking it easier at about an hour in but in reality I was pushing too hard. I was thinking of getting back to the finish after the first half of the race as I knew from the very beginning that the hardest part of the race was going to start out on lap #2 so I was eager to get lap #1 done.
There are 3 aid stations on the course, which are absolutely amazing, that you go through several times. Volunteers spend hours and hours preparing the stations set up way out in the bush to support the runners with whatever they need. Food, water, coffee, medical supplies, a joke, a hug, a chair – they’re the points that you really look forward to every few hours. The people at these stations are the back bone of our Victoria running community and I was fortunate to have some great friends there to help me.
Around 8pm it was getting dim in the trails and I stopped to get my head lamp on. At this point the group I was with started to fan out and I was on my own for the first time. I struggled with my lamp as I didn’t put the time in to get it fitted before I left – which was a mistake. I have lots of extra batteries but I had stupidly not grabbed my second lamp, which was bothering me.
The most grueling part of the race is from the top of Joyceln Hill down to Mackenzie Bight and then up to the top of Mt. Work. This is the equivalent to starting at the top of the Malahat, running down to the water, then back up. This is the time to pace and stay in control.
Coming up the long trail from the water, we pass through station #2 near the Mt. Work parking lot (which is also station #4, #8, and #10). It was around 8:30 pm and fairly dark. I was so happy to see my wife, kids and mother-in-law had come out to see me through this part. It was still early going and I was feeling great. To this point my calorie intake was good but it was time to eat some real food. My kids, and a running buddy Ed, helped me with all my gear, changing up my water and sugar powder. I grabbed some cookies and a PB&J sangy, kissed my wife and kids and I was off into the dark again to climb Mt. Work.
Up and over without too much of an issue but I was nervous because this is the easiest area to get off course, which I’ve done in previous years. Down into station #3 at Munns Road, where I was greeted by an awesome crew of people, including a very close old friend who I’ve been friends with since we were 16. Her dad was a long distance runner, and I have fond memories of talking to him about his adventures with his buddies running the West Coast Trail back in the 80’s. These guys are the pioneers of Victoria trail running.
So 1/4 through and I’m heading back up the back side of Mt.Work. I’m taking stock, feeling good but getting a little worked and was starting to feel it in my legs. I was thinking about the next 4 or so hours that it will take me to get back to the starting line and then SMASH! I went head first into a low hanging Arbutus tree limb. I hit it really hard. I was fine but my lamp took all of the blow. It was flickering, I pulled it off, pulled my phone out for some light to figure out what was wrong. Nothing, it was dead. At this point I was like, what the? This is it, 30km in and I’m done because of my lamp and my stupidity of not packing a spare, that I had, and knew that I should have with me. Frustrated.
I’ve blown about 5 minutes trying to get the thing back on but nothing, I have lots of power in my phone and so I have a way out but I’m really not into calling it and getting a ride home, even through a shower and a bed would feel really nice.
Up from behind comes another runner. I tell him my issue and he’s like ‘Oh, I have 2 spares, have this one, and some fresh batteries’. Really? This just happened? Yup, within 2 minutes, he’s off and I’m quickly back in the race like nothing happened, with a fresh lamp at full power. It was like a shot in the arm. I couldn’t tell you who the racer was because of the dark but I could make out his bib number, #8.
Back down into Mt. Work into station #4, This is a really important station heading back because it’s a big 12km gap, with a load of climbing, to the next one. I keep trying to get solid food in me and focus on a minimum of 400 calories per hour. I’m starting to get tired of the powder that I have in my water, which tastes like icing sugar. It was OK at first but now it’s too much. I anticipated this and start to work a blend of powder and straight water with energy blocks and more PB&J’s. This is working fine.
I connected back with Cam on the way out of the station and it’s great to have someone to talk to. Cam wasn’t at his best, and admitted to not getting his distance in over the summer. He started to fall back on the climb to Joycelyn and at some point he told me to go, he was done. He wasn’t going to make lap 2.
Around 12am my wife had woken up and texted me – so nice to hear from her! I was over an hour on my own and definitely starting to feel everything as the dark and time were taking their toll – this is the time of day where all little things seem so big and I had all the time in the world to allow my mind to dwell on things. Keeping mentally engaged was becoming a little tough – my spirit we starting to sink as the hours ticked by.
The last few km’s to the start are fairly flat but seem to drag on but I finally came into the start/finish area. I was feeling fairly done over, more mentally than physically but it didn’t really matter. I was going through the motions at the aid station to get my gear ready. I was starting to chaff and had to deal with that or I knew I would pay a big price. I had a change of socks and shirt here, and knew that I would feel somewhat better getting on fresh gear but I couldn’t get my head in the game. I’m thinking to myself over and over, ‘do you really have it in you, with how you feel now?’. The #8 racer, my headlamp guy, had just come in and I gave him a quick thanks.
At this point I let my body continue going through the paces of getting ready to head out. All of a sudden I’m on the trail out of the camp. #8 is just in front of me, and then he’s behind me and then in front. We’re then going at the same pace along the first ridge on the way to the Mt. Finlayson climb. We spark up a conversation and at 2 am, at 55km, I’m quite sure he’s as happy as I am to have someone to be with. His name was Sandor, and we talk about sticking together for as long as we can and start working off each other. We quickly realize that there’s about 2 degrees of separation in Victoria and he knows a bunch of people I know and so on. We get up and over Finny, and we’re going along the ridge to Jocelyn. It’s about 4am, I’m feeling worked, my feet are starting to talk to me but my spirit is rebounding, We’re at the 60km mark, I’m not alone, and I know that I have what I need in me to get this done.
This part of the race is one step at a time, managing fuel, hydration and discomfort. Fortunately other than my taste buds, everything was pretty good. My feet were starting to blister but nothing that I hadn’t dealt with before.
We dropped down into Mackenzie Bight as daylight broke, which is always beautiful. We then made it up to the Mt.Work aid station where another running buddy, John, was there to help me out. A quick load and we were on the way to the turn around. The daylight had changed the day and everything became that much easier. Each step was no longer a gamble like it can be at night, we came down into the Munns road station to a growing group of cheerleaders. It was again great to see my old friend, who had camped out with her daughter and partner (yes, they manned the station for the entire time..amazing!).
Heading back up Mt. Work, past the Arbutus limb where we first met many hours ago, we started to talk about finishing time. We calculated that we could probably get in under 20 hours if we could maintain pace. The plan was to keep doing what we were doing, one step at a time and to stick this thing out together. This really made it fun. I’ve done some huge support races, as a pacer. for my close friend Matt. He’s a very accomplished Ultra Trail racer and I’ve had the good fortune to be with him at Leadville 100 mile race and at the Fatdog 120 mile race in manning park, which he won in record time back in 2015. These races were some of the funnest times on the trail and I was missing Matt (and our wee hours of the night bickering) but was so thankful to be sharing the experience with Sandor.
Back through the Mt. Work station for the last time – big cup of coffee, food, pack right full, and off. The next 1 km is straight down to the water. At this point my thighs were getting pooched and I was really looking forward to the 1.5 hour climb up to Jocelyn. Somewhere in the climb I learnt that my watch only has about 16 hour battery. Here is my Strava Data Not complete but you can get an idea of the race.
We were kinda on cruise control by this time and making an ok pace. I’ve run many races where a time goal at the 3/4 mark starts to fade away but we keep on pace, maybe even making time? We hit the last aid station, quick fill, including watermelon that I can’t get enough of. 6km left and it’s not hard running. We’re both fully worked but know that we have it in the bag, We continue along the familiar route, around the side of Bear Mountain Resort and wrap around along above the Island highway and along the smooth swoopy trail to the finish. The finish is a very different place than when we were there 11.5 hours earlier – it’s full of rowdy people with Mike “The Trail Guy’ Suminski on the announcing mic. We cross the line in 19:27, tied for 10th spot. Hugs all around, my family’s there, and I couldn’t be happier to have stopped running. That was enough.
I really like being a part of a running community . It’s a lot like the food community that Cook Culture is involved with in each community. I really enjoy knowing that however we can support, we can make a difference. The Finlayson race has quickly become an important part of the Victoria community and I’m proud to be involved with it at many levels but at this point there is no guarantee that I’m going to be back for another 100km race. Time will tell!