It’s been two weeks since I completed the Fat Dog 120 miler, one of the most gruelling endurance races in the world. I’m still recovering physically, mentally, and emotionally from what has been the most exhausting and emotionally draining experiences I have put myself through. I went into this race with zero doubt in my mind that I would finish, and not once did failure cross my mind; there were dark times – some of which I’m sure made any onlooker assume I was on my last few miles before dropping from the race. Looking back, this experience would have been torturous if it weren’t for my unwavering focus on completing the race regardless of how I physically felt. At every step, my mind noted the ups and downs that were happening, however, these instances of physical challenges were only in my peripherals. At the core of my focus, these issues didn’t concern the deepest levels of my relentless pursuit of the finish line.
Before I get into the details of my race, I want to extend a HUGE thank you to everyone that came out to help me accomplish this goal. This experience meant so much more to me having friends support me along the way. Cassidy, Kelsey, Ben, Coleene, Connor – you were all a huge part of my success at the race.
Although it may not have seemed like it on the course as our interactions were very quick, seeing you all at various points along the race brought me back to reality and reaffirmed my drive to complete this journey. An extra special thanks to Cassidy for helping to organize the crew – I don’t think I would have had anyone there crewing if it weren’t for you. Thanks to everyone for putting up with me!
One more person deserves a huge amount of recognition for helping me to finish as strong as I did. Dave, not only did you put up with “Princess Greg – Master of the Whine” but you also helped me diagnose and overcome some serious issues that could have not only put me out of the race, but could have turned into something way more serious. This race was a great example of just how seriously you need to take this sport and how important it is to have an experienced pacer on these huge endeavours when they are permitted.
Alright… now what the heck went on for those 36 hours and 44 minutes…
I was very fit going into this race. After my last big training effort with my pacer Dave Proctor, we agreed that shooting for 30 hours wasn’t out of reach. The winner usually finishes somewhere between 26 to 28 hours, and anyone under 30 hours usually has a shot of top three. Needless to say I was cautiously optimistic that I could pull off a successful race if everything came together. My body and mind were responding very well to the bigger training days and I was prepared to suffer.
There’s something special about this point to point race. Pre-race package pickup is at Manning Park near the finish line, followed by an hour’s drive to Princeton for the pre-race meeting. All this pre-race driving around the course gives you a serious appreciation for the ground you are about to cover. By the end of the race you see many different ecosystems and develop a deep appreciation for this beautiful area of the country and what it offers. Truly a race any capable person needs to experience.
Once we got settled in Princeton the night before the race, Dave and I had a good sit-down with the crew to prepare them for what was going to happen during the race. Most of my crew hadn’t experienced this race before and were baffled by the distances they were going to have to travel to meet me at the five crewing stations. Literally hours of driving between stations… This truly puts the race into perspective. We tried to emphasize the importance of my crew being on top of things; there is very little support over the 120 miles and where we do get it, it’s gotta count. The two biggest points that we hammered home were that we would be (1) in-and-out within minutes at each station, and (2) I’d be doing everything I can to manipulate them into letting me sit down and waste time at each station – don’t allow me to do this; be efficient, and don’t take any of my complaining. Crewing isn’t the most glorious of tasks, but it’s necessary and oh so important for a successful race. Again, I’m so grateful for everyone that came out!
Game Time – Race Start
Cassidy and Kelsey brought me to the start line an hour before the late morning start at 10am and would be my crew for the first station. Everyone else was busy moving our base camp from Princeton to Manning Park for the remainder of the journey.
At the start line, there’s plenty of cheerful yet nervous energy flowing amongst everyone. Rumours of runners attempting a sub-24 hour finish, others going out strictly to enjoy the experience, and many more with goals kept to themselves. Getting closer to the gun, you can feel time going by steady and unrelenting, wanting to just get on with it, yet knowing the impending sufferfest that is just moments away.
Gun goes off – all my anxiety and nervousness melts away as I accept my fate of being on my feet for the next 30+ hours. It’s incredibly freeing in these first few hours of a race, knowing that I’ve done all I can to prepare for this challenge and I no longer need to worry about getting in enough training… or training too much. All focus is now on the present task and these first few hours are where things still feel really, really fresh and easy…
… until they weren’t.
Leg 1 – Cathedral – 0 to 29 km – first big climb (1974m)
I stayed very relaxed over the first climb knowing there was much more in this race’s bag of tricks. There were a few more people that passed me than I expected, though I attributed this to runners being a bit overzealous at the start. Sure enough, I passed at least as many, if not more, coming down from the first climb. I’m definitely a better descender than climber, so I was happy to see my downhill legs were making up for lost time on the uphills.
With about 5km to go until the first crew station at mile 18 (Ashnola), I started breathing harder than I expected to be from a relaxed downhill effort. My focus turned to loose, quick turnover with my legs to try to minimize my effort. As I descended down the valley, things started getting quite warm as we were heading into the peak heat of the day. When I got within a kilometre of Ashnola on the flatter section I knew something was definitely off. No matter the terrain I was on, I was having a very difficult time catching my breath.
I get into the aid station and meet my crew. I feel like I’ve just held my head under water and was grasping for air. It was VERY hot. Everyone can clearly see I’m not well. I stand there for a few minutes trying my best not to have to sit down in case I started to cramp up. Thankfully at no point in the race did cramping become an issue. Cassidy was asking me if I need to cool down and all I can think about is not passing out. Finally, after I almost fell over for the second time, I sit down and get some nice, ice cold water poured over my neck and back. SWEET BABY JESUS was that good. Put on my arm sleeves with ice stuffed in them, a few ice buffs around the neck and wrists, and I was on my way. I still wasn’t sure what was going on with my breathing, but no time to worry about it… I’m still conscious and moving so I press on.
Leg 2 – Trapper Lake – 29 to 66 km – second big climb (1589m)
Right off the bat I run into Josefina Kaderabek and we start what will become a very long journey together. Josefina was a bit quicker on the climbs and I was a bit quicker on the descents so we worked quite well as a team to push each other on the more challenging sections. After a few miles into this section we realized how beneficial it was to keep this teamwork up and decided to run the entire leg together. We would then pick up our pacers at the next crew station and eliminate having to run any section of the race alone.
Throughout this leg I was getting some feedback on my breathing issue by assessing my pace and effort level with Jose’s. It seemed to come and go in waves that were triggered randomly by a higher than average effort. This would cause me to lose my breath for 10-15 minutes and then I’d be good for another 10-20 minutes as long as I didn’t push too hard. Things were getting tougher and tougher as the day went on, however. Over the last hour I started thinking about a change to my race strategy as I knew a 30 hour finish had already slipped away from me and it wasn’t going to get any easier.
The approach to the next crew station, Bonnevier, was more gradual than the last one, having a river crossing to cool off in, and then an easy couple of km on gravel road and pavement. This allowed me to look much fresher meeting up with my crew than I did at the last station. When I saw Dave he was clearly relieved that I didn’t look as bad as he had heard from Ashnola. I explained my issues to him but I got the feeling he passed these off as me wanting some sympathy. Sure, some sympathy would have been nice, but in reality I was seriously concerned about this breathing issue. Dave noted my complaints and we continued our prep for the night of running ahead of us at the aid station without any more talk of the issue.
Leg 3 – Bonnevier – 66 to 87 km – third big climb (1600m)
It didn’t take long for my pacer “Race Dave” to show himself as he was barking orders at me even before we left Bonnevier. As much as I may make Dave out to sound like a mean old ultra running drill sergeant throughout this race report, he was exactly what I needed to push through this race as strong as I did. I am super thankful that he was gracious enough to come experience 82 miles of Fat Dog with me; I learned so, so much from him. We made a great team, especially considering my growing issues that we soon would start getting a hold of. I was 100% focused on listening to Dave’s direction, and Dave was 100% focused on
being a dick getting me to the finish line as strong as possible.
So as soon as I grabbed a mouthful of bacon, we were off. Oh wait! Quick stop at the port-a-potty…
…okay, now we are off!
We quickly catch up with Josefina and her pacer, Troy. The goal was to maintain our 4-person team as long as possible. Strength in numbers was the philosophy we were running with. This leg was almost entirely going to be run through the night so the more people we have in our group, the easier this was going to be on the mind. From my experience of getting caught in bad shape on this leg last year, it can be a very, very lonely night.
I quickly hit one of the lowest points in the entire race very near the beginning of the climb. I physically could not push myself past a certain effort level. It was like the pathway that my mind follows to tell my muscles to work harder was completely blocked off. Not that it required extra mental effort, it just wasn’t there. The only thing I could do to keep up with everyone was to completely disassociate my mind from my body, in a sort of trance-like state. This was way too early in the race for this type of coping strategy and Dave could clearly see this. At this rate, forget about 30 hours, or even 40 hours… I would be lucky to not get pulled from the course. We let Josefina pull ahead of us so we could focus on bringing me back from the dead. Plus, if I start feeling better, we’ll hopefully be able to catch up on the downhill.
So… we start diagnosing the problem. Our initial indicator was to figure out what my body was craving and then fine-tune this feedback to ensure we replenished what I was lacking. We hoped that my body could tell us what was going on. After trying a few different types of foods and making sure I was drinking enough water, we came to electrolytes. Dave prepares a hyper concentrated salt solution using a couple nuun tabs in a small flask – seriously salty. This was the last ditch effort, we both knew that if this didn’t work there was nothing we could do to fix this. I pound back a third of it and it tastes DELICIOUS. This… should be far from tasty… it should have been disgusting… super salty water, right? Alright, bingo we found it.
Over the next 3 hours, I proceed to down twelve nuun tabs and start to rise from the ashes. TWELVE NUUN TABS?!? Ya… I’m still trying to figure that one out… I was completely under Dave’s care at this point and he was very mindful of what I was ingesting. Electrolyte imbalance can be very serious if not handled properly and thankfully I had someone as experienced as Dave to ensure nothing went horribly wrong. I was constantly giving him updates on how I was feeling so we could adjust our approach to getting me back in shape.
We start to see some improvements. Dave trips over some roots and I make a point of ensuring he knows I saw him… alright, my sense of humour was
coming back. My pace improved, and a bit of relief surfaces as we both realize that I’m turning a corner for the better.
As we near the top of the climb, all the hiking has taken a toll on my feet. Seems I didn’t realize how badly my feet were being chaffed and I get some assistance from Dave to put on some clean socks. Part of me felt bad for forcing Dave to help me with my disgusting, blistered feet, though part of me was fairly amused by this. Sorry Dave!
Leg 4 – Heather – 87 to 129 km – descent down to Cayuse Flats
We made it to Heather aid station, which had added on an extra 2 miles of out-and-back to accommodate a request by BC Parks one week prior to race day. This was the most interesting aid station I’ve ever been at. After running down through thick forest in pitch black, we arrive at this other-worldly camp with lights, music, and apparently someone playing a didgeridoo. I was too loopy at the time to notice the didgeridoo and Dave told me about it after the fact. We see Josefina just as she is leaving, and she suggests I try the soup… Dave tries the cauliflower soup and forces me into having a cup. Nice and salty, perfect mild flavour, exactly what I needed! On the way back up the mountain, Dave
demanded people eat the soup recommended the soup to everyone descending into the aid station. Dave couldn’t stop talking about this damn soup throughout the rest of the race, it was THAT GOOD. Seriously, don’t ask Dave about the cauliflower soup or you’ll have to endure a half-hour conversation about… soup.
That aid station re-energized both Dave and I. After a mentally tough slog up the Bonnevier trail, we were now refreshed and feeling MUCH better than I had in over 6 hours. Time to kick things into high gear. As we were nearing the top of the small climb out of Heather, we decide it’s about time to get the caffeine going. I pop a caffeine pill and as soon as we hit the top we start banging off the miles on the descent. Soon we run into Team Jose and stick together throughout this very remote section down to Nicomen Lake, the halfway point of the race. Partway through this section, I suggest to Dave that we need to take a quick break and soak up the meteor shower that was going on. We stop on an exposed section and lie down to look up at the stars… holding hands… staring into each other’s eyes… uhhh…. wait a minute…
…anyways… off we go down to Nicomen Lake! Halfway done! Wait… ONLY HALFWAY???
We don’t stay long at Nicomen, have a few perogies (!) and then make our way down to Cayuse Flats. This section was fairly uneventful, other than being way, way too long to get to the next aid station. It was almost a half marathon in distance, which at over 100km into the race seems like forever… Troy was getting some serious back pain and decided to let us go ahead without him. Jose tagged along with us until she picked up her next pacer at mile 80.
We were now past Cayuse and on a difficult 5 mile section before meeting our crews at Cascade, the first point of contact with the outside world since the day before. We were slowly becoming more awake as the day got brighter and we knew we had a very runnable 20 miles coming up soon. Dave began prepping us for how we should attack this next leg, and got us super pumped up. Both Jose and I were feeling very good, finished battling through a night of suffering, and now it was time for the only real sustained runnable section of the entire race. This was where we planned to make up a pile of time that I lost through the previous day’s electrolyte issues.
Only a couple of kilometres to go, we start really pushing the pace. The legs felt really good and our spirits were higher than they had been in over 12 hours. We were still on pace for a strong finish and we wanted to make the most of it.
Out of nowhere, this tiny ball of positivity came bouncing down the trails and hugged Josefina. Her second pacer Jayden just couldn’t wait until Cascade to join up and told us we only had another half a kilometre to go. This was a huge boost as we thought for sure we had at least another couple kilometres left! Now we were really cruising as the positivity was flowing like crazy through the four of us. The party had started!
We get into Cascade feeling super pumped and we’re told Jose and I look better than almost everyone else that’s come through. This was setting up to be an incredibly productive next 20 miles…
Leg 5 – Skagit – 129 to 164 km – flat and fast!
After getting re-fuelled and downing half a redbull at Cascade, we were ready to go… Our crew was permitted to meet us two miles down the course at Sumallo Grove but we decided there was no point, so we set off and told them to meet us at Shawatum at mile 92.
We run at a ‘blistering’ 6:00/km pace into Summalo Grove and run into Vincent Bouchard who we thought would be nearing Skyline by then… turns out he tore a calf and was dropping. It was bittersweet getting to see a familiar face and then hearing the bad news… His pacer Joe Huising was there with him and said he was likely going to hook up with another runner who didn’t have a pacer. So we run along, wishing Vincent a speedy recovery.
I can’t believe I’m saying this, but miles 80 to 90 were the most fun I had over the entire course. In reality we were lucky to be pushing a 7:00/km pace, but it felt lighting quick! I think at one point I even said to Dave that I was actually having fun… not something I expected to say this far into the race!
After a few miles, I started noticing we were picking up a few friends… runners that were starting to slow down were grabbing on to our train and before I knew it, I was leading a pack of around 8-10 runners and pacers, all of us feeding off one another to push the pace as much as we could. It was quite an incredible feeling as several of these runners had no business keeping up in their current condition but mentally it was such a boost to hang on to us that the benefits outweighed the physical toll it might take. We undoubtedly helped out a few runners push through serious lows during a time that was so easy to either gain or lose a huge amount of time due to the very runnable terrain.
After a couple of hours, people started to drop off the train. A few relay racers pass by. The day two heat began to arrive… We were starting to really look forward to that next aid station, should only be another half hour or so.
Or so we thought…
Another half hour goes by and we still haven’t reached Shawatum. We start wondering if we missed it. No.. can’t be? After a bit of pondering, Dave and Jayden decide to go run up ahead and see if they can find the station.
The day was getting very hot… I was running out of water and there was no indication that we were getting any closer to the aid station. Finally, we see our two pacers running back towards us and we were greeted with some water poured over our heads and ice buffs to cool down with! So… good… except for the resulting wet shorts… holy chaffing, Batman!
So we finally reach Shawatum… time to reapply the bodyglide…
That was the LONGEST 10 miles of my life!!! After a few snarky comments to the volunteers, we were assured the next 9 miles to Skyline were much… shorter. Well that’s a relief.
After a quick refuelling, we were off again! We were praying this section was shorter, because I don’t think either me or Jose could take another “10 miles”.
This is where things start to get a bit dicey. At this point I have been awake for close to 30 hours and running for over 26. Up to this point I still feel relatively good. After a few more miles, my legs start to die on me a bit. I tell Dave that my quads are trashed but he says that doesn’t sound right. I mean, I’ve only covered 6500 m of descending, right? But in reality he was right. My legs had felt fine up to this point and we had been running flats for the last 3 hours. They should be fine, so it must be an electrolyte issue again. I’d been taking in sufficient electrolytes, but considering the heat I’d likely been lacking the needed water. He says to push through and as soon as we make it to Skyline I needed to down half a litre of water.
We push, mile after mile, until we are within a half hour of Skyline. I finish my two bottles and go to my bladder. Nothing is coming out. In my sleep-deprived stupor I assume it’s pooched and there’s nothing I can do. Turns out it was just a kinked hose but I don’t figure this out until the next aid station… I try and mention something to Dave but I really don’t know how coherent I was at the time, and then he runs off. Wtf?
Alright. I’m out of water and my pacer just leaves me. WTF! I am not happy. Did he not hear me? I’m getting dehydrated, and he just LEAVES ME? It took me a good 15 minute tantrum to realize that he was in fact running ahead to see where the next aid station was… Okay, that makes sense. I stop a relay racer as they were passing me and were gracious enough to give me some water to carry me through until the next aid station. All is well!
I see Jayden. He tells me the aid station is really close and pours some water over my head for some sweet sweet relief… and more chaffing! Worth it… I meet up with Dave at the start of the out and back to Skyline. We run down and meet up with the crew. 102 miles down, 20 miles and one big climb to go…
Leg 6 – Skyline – 164 to 197 km – last big climb(s)! (2193m)
As we are about to leave Skyline, we see Josefina come in and she doesn’t look good… her feet are trashed… As we leave we are convinced she’ll be dropping… so close to the finish!
Alright, I down half a litre of water as Dave requested, chug a redbull, and eat as much as I can stomach before heading out again. One last climb, finally! Right before leaving, I couldn’t believe it but I was able to say to my crew, “see you at the finish line!”. They’d have another 6-10 hours before they saw us again, but when they did, I’d be finished!
First hour goes very well. This climb isn’t so bad! We pass some people, I’m doing VERY well! We are caught by Kristina Marvin who was in the 50 mile event. She makes the silly decision to give me a hug in all my sweaty, stinky glory and then proceeds on her way to finish second in her race! Go Kristina!!
I’m super pumped to get to the top of this monster… almost the entire trail is under treeline, so I can’t really see how much further we have to go, other than a few small reprieves that allow us to look up the mountain… way, way up the mountain… on and on and on…
Okay. We should be done. I was constantly comparing this climb to other mountains I’ve hiked up and this was… different. Certainly we should be done! We’ve been hiking FOREVER! Okay, after this corner we should see the top. Oh no… that’s like an entire other mountain we need to get up!!! OMG, this is insane.
My hip flexor starts to lock up. I start slowing down. The mental mountain I needed to overcome was far larger than the physical one. After awhile, Dave decides it’s time to quit pushing me and hand the reigns over to me entirely, letting me work through this one myself. Sure, he could have told me to lock onto his pace, bark orders at me, and make it up under his direction but this was my race. There’s not any more he could do to line me up for the best race I could run. It was time for me to stand on the foundation he had given me through the previous 60 miles. After much whining, a few VERY slow kilometres, and a pep talk or two, I took a turn and started making some progress under my own drive.
We make it up to the top after what seemed like an eternity, and made our way to the first remote aid station. With a look of despair in my eyes, I ask the volunteers what we are up against between us and the finish line. As I look back on this encounter, I think they were trying to soften the blow of what was to come. They tell us the hard work was done and we just have seven easy, small false summits to complete before descending down to Lightning Lake. Okay, that’s doable.
So we run off, counting off the small, easy false summits as we pass. One… two… three… this is going well! Alright, this is doable… is that four? No, that wasn’t really a false summit… okay how about this one? No… What number are we on? Five? Ya, I think five… oh wait look at this one… wow this is a really big false summit! Wait a minute… is this what they were talking about? Omg… was that number one?!?!??!
This leg truly was the most challenging physically, mentally, and emotionally. Those false summits were never ending. The scenery was nice, but it was hard to soak it in at 110 miles in and nothing on the mind but finishing…
With 10 miles to go, it’s around 8pm and now both Dave and I are quite sleep deprived. Dave has been out with me for 24 hours, and we are both gassed. Since we weren’t expecting to go through the toughest climb either of us have ever endured, neither of us brought the amount of food we should have and things were looking bleak. Dave didn’t mention how low he was getting on food but he selflessly gave me more of his food than he should have so that I wouldn’t bonk. Unfortunately, this meant he was bonking hard. Thankfully our unknowing saviour came to the rescue!
Joe and his new runner caught up to us, looking REALLY strong. Joe was struggling to keep up in fact, so he decided it was in everyone’s best interest if he tagged along with us while his runner went on without him. I think Dave and I both felt a sigh of relief at the same time as we both could use another body with us. Dave got some much needed calories and I got a fresh pacer! Now, we had a fun little group to pound off the last 10km. Only a couple more false summits and then an easy descent down to the lake!
The sun was setting, we now had only one or two more false summits, and my hip flexor was toast. I was done. I couldn’t move my leg forward, so I was reduced to some sort of shuffle. I wanted to hike it in, take it easy, and minimize the amount of pain I was feeling. But… it was around 9:30pm and we had 7km of mostly downhill running to go. That meant if we pushed it, I could finish before 11pm, in time to receive one of the coveted coloured buckles. At the time, this meant absolutely nothing to me, I didn’t care, I just wanted to be done. That didn’t stop Dave, in his sleep deprived stupor, from trying to convince me of the important link between my manhood and a coloured buckle… Oh Dave…
In the end, Joe convinced me using a more ‘sensible’ approach, that it was very doable to push for the sub 37 hour finish, even with my stiff leg. Perhaps at this point I was desensitized to Dave’s voice, or Joe really did make more sense, but it really hit home that pushing to the finish was the right decision. So off we go down the trails, using my poles in some ‘interesting’ ways to move as quickly as I could without falling over. Thankfully there were few roots and rocks because my right foot would have been tripped up by an ant on the trail. My hip flexor was shot, my leg was stiff as a board. The pain was real and I was tired. My eyes were half closed, focusing on nothing in front of me but Joe’s shoes. I was literally half sleeping over the last 5km.
Finally, we see the lights across the lake and begin to hear the cheering… A short loop around the lake and we hit the home stretch. At this point, Dave and Joe step to the side to let me run it in by myself, as Dave made sure I knew this race was mine, and I need to be the one to step over that line by myself. As I past by both Dave and Joe, inside I was giving them the biggest high fives… yet all I could muster was a slight head bob and a grunt…
I ran through the finish line in 36:44 and received my coloured buckle!
I have a seat and immediately go into shock, shivering uncontrollably. Kelsey and Ben give me several layers of clothing which warm me up quite quickly. We then head back to our room, have a beer, and go to sleep.
The next morning, we find out Josefina did finish her race, only a few hours behind me! That must have taken some serious grit to push through with the condition of her feet… Great job, Jose!
We go to the finish line, I get my feet bandaged up at the medic, pick up my drop bags, and then we head out for a week of
margaritas relaxing at my cabin on Shuswap! Not a bad way to finish an incredible journey!
Overall, I’m quite happy with my race even if I didn’t finish as quickly as I planned. I’ve got a lot of lessons that I can take away from this race and learn from. I’ll be using the next few months to figure out what exactly went wrong, and how I can prevent it in future races.
Until next time Fat Dog… whenever that may be…