I’m number 666!!! I text to Peter.
Is that good???? He messages a few minutes later.
Hell yeah!!!! I text back.
A Saturday in August. I’m in downtown Squamish at the finish line of the super hard Squamish 50 mile ultra, waiting to see the winner. My race, the 50km, is the next day and I’ve just picked up my race package with my T-shirt and number.
I can’t remember the significance of 666, but I recall it’s association with a really scary movie from my childhood, The Omen. It’s something to do with the devil, I’m sure. But no way can I see it as bad luck, so I tell myself it’s an auspicious number – one that’s going to bring me not bad but GOOD luck! So, with my apocalyptic number, I watch, inspired, as the 50 mile front runners cross the finish line and get their hugs from always-happy Gary Robbins who’s one of the race directors.
And here’s a couple of photos of Mike Murphy crossing the 50 mile finish line in first place and getting his warm hugs from Gary. Congratulations Mike!
Squamish is a town sandwiched between Vancouver and Whistler on the Sea to Sky Highway. Its trails are fantastic. Running on them is so much fun. They wind their way through lush rainforest. Many are rocky and rooty and steep, and often they’re muddy, but this year they are dry and dusty. Hardly any rain has fallen this summer.
I’ve done the Squamish 50km twice before this year. It’s awesomely organised and has wonderful volunteers. The race is recognised for being tough with gnarly single track trails. It’s point-to-point and has a total of 2500m of elevation gain.
There are four events over the weekend: 50 miles, 50km, 23km, and if that’s not enough you can do the 50/50 where you get to run 50 miles on Saturday and, after a short rest, 50km on Sunday…Now that’s crazy.
And so to Sunday and my race!
I leave the hotel in the dark at 4.30am and drive to the race’s designated parking area and spot where you catch the bus to the start. The start is at Alice Lake Provincial Park. It’s about a 15 minute drive.
At Alice Lake, I peer into the dark. I see the vans where you put your drop bags. I’ve two drop bags – one with 3 Cliff Bars in it for the aid station at Quest, and one for the finish line. I get them to the correct place then scope out the rest of the starting area. After a couple of trips to the toilets, and a final mad dash to the bushes (whoever invents a way to get rid of long toilet queues at races will be a hero) it’s time for Gary’s pre-race briefing in the dawn-light.
I look around. Everyone seems relaxed. I soak it all up, relax and wander to the back of the pack. I look at the runners who are wearing 50/50 numbers, and I study them, trying to figure out what it takes to be one of them. None of them looks too crazy. None of them looks too beat up even after running 50 challenging miles a few hours previously. Superhuman is all I can think.
Then . . . GO! We’re off!
For the first few minutes, I check in with myself. I feel OK. My hamstrings feel better than they have in a long, long time. I think to myself that, despite my lack of specific training, I can do this. There’s no rush. Chill. Relax, You’ll get to the finish line.
While I’m deep in my thoughts, two girls run past. I recognise them. They recognise me. Trail friends! They are the two girls I had met during the Be Fearless Trail Marathon on these same trails in June (my only long training run this summer). We chat and laugh. They too haven’t done much running since Be Fearless. We’re all pumped at our impromptu get-together. This is what it’s all about.
I hear other runners’ conversations. One guy is saying he just hiked the West Coast Trail. Well, Peter and I hiked the West Coast Trail a month before (that trail is awesome). And so I join in and chat about that fantastic backpacking trip. I hear another guy say he’s done no running for 6 weeks because he ripped some muscle or other. This makes me feel better. At least I’ve done SOME running. Another guy says he’s from Texas. “The hills are going to be tough,” he says. There are a lot of hills on this course!! And so with some smooth running and hiking and camaraderie the section to the first aid station passes.
I’m energised with some snacks. Good! Because the section between aid stations 1 and 2 is a biggie. It has a huge climb. After running a bit on forest service road, you duck left into the trees and onto a trail called Plastic Scheisse which leads to Galactic Scheisse. It’s a steady climb of 2500ft over 4km. I go slow here. There are lots of runners around me. It’s challenging, but at least it’s early in the day, and my legs and feet (and stomach!) aren’t too beat up. I chat with a 50/50 runner. He feels OK. I’m inspired by his achievement.
Cresting the top of the climb, I get chatting to Lara, and we leapfrog each other and encourage each other for much of the rest of the day.
The section after the summit of Galactic is, for me, the best part of the race. It’s a long, steep single-track downhill. It’s rocky and rooty. I’ve loved running down hills ever since I was a kid, the steeper the better – and this gnarly downhill is a thrill. I let myself go, on this long dusty drop, passing quite a few runners on the way. I love it.
We shoot out at another aid station (number 2). I stock up on water then there’s a 5km section of really nice rolling trail before the busy aid station (number 3) at Quest University.
Leaving Quest, after a short section of forest service road, you nip into the trees and the single track again. This is the Climb Trail, and it does what it says: climb! Like previous years I walk most of this section, up the dusty switch backs, enjoying the views at one spot where you can see the Tantalus Mountain Range. I’m with quite a few runners here including another 50/50 female runner. These 50/50 runners are so tough. With 50 miles in her legs, she’s still crushing me going up these switch backs.
At the top of Climb Trail, taking numbers and shouting encouragement, is a lovely volunteer who I recognise from previous races. “Be careful going down the next section,” she says, referring to what we are about to drop into – Angry Midget Trail. It’s another lovely downhill!
The two girls I’m with here had been together, ahead of me, all the way up Climb Trail. I had heard them chatting away (one of them was the 50/50 runner). Now I’m in their little group, and we chit-chat going down. One of them tells a heart-warming story; her boyfriend had just proposed to her on a mountain top at the end of a multi-pitch climb. She’s thrilled!
Whooshing down this steep trail through the trees, while chatting, I feel the first grumblings of stomach pain. Oh Oh, I think.
This downhill ejects us onto another forest service road. I’ve overtaken some more runners on the way down, but as I make my way along the road to aid station number 4, my stomach complains even more. A girl flies by me as I slow down.
I’m hurting. This could get worse. This WILL get worse: I know from past experience. I try to keep on top of calories during an ultra. This tactic is supposed to prevent the dreaded bonk. But…it’s a fine line between avoiding bonking and overeating. Right now I think I’ve overeaten: too many jelly sweeties grabbed at the aid station. I should have stuck to my Cliff Bars, I keep berating myself.
At the aid station, a kind volunteer fills my hydration pack. I stuff my pockets with salty snacks, leaving the sweet ones alone, and look around me. How’s everyone doing? Everyone looks great. Not me. My stomach! I stand around hoping the rest will help. I see a volunteer I know – David! David sees me taking photos and offers to take one of me. I forget my pain and smile.
David is a friend of a dear friend. That dear friend was Betty. Betty loved to hike and run and bike, but sadly she passed away last year with bowel cancer.
With emotions bubbling thinking of Betty, I leave the aid station and go down the hill into the woods again wondering how my stomach will do. I feel ok for the next 10 minutes, but then my GI distress explodes. There’s a ball of gas in my upper intestines. It hurts! A lot! OK, this run is about to get a whole lot more difficult. I burp away trying to get relief and apologise to all who pass me.
A girl who had been in her own distress just moments earlier passes me as I’m crawling along. Be patient I say to myself, you’ll recover in time like that runner. The next hour or two goes like this: walk, moan to myself, burp, chat to anyone I see to keep my spirits up, burp, try to jog, stop as the pain’s too bad, start walking again.
But, I’m still going forward. Still making progress.
I pass a girl going very slowly. I actually pass someone, and I think there must be something wrong with her too. “What’s up I say to her. Is it your stomach too?”
“No, it’s my knees,” she replies. She’s hobbling.
I’m glad it’s my stomach that’s hurting and not my knees; my stomach’s got a better chance of recovering in the next while than beat up knees.
There’s a part of this section, between aid stations 4 and 5, where you leave the forest, and you’re out in the open under the full glare of the midday sun. I’m scorched and sweating here, but glad I’d soaked my Buff in water. I mop my brow. Overheating with stomach pain – what fun!
I’m delighted to leave the blazing sun when the trail goes into the shaded forest once more. It’s undulating here: up, down, ouch, up, down, ouch. There’s a final down and then a final ouch, before some flat road and gentle uphill, which is easier on my stomach. But, the trail is in the full glare of the sun again.
Feeling very hot, I slowly make my way along. But at least my stomach feels better. I catch up with a guy who looks in worse shape than me. I say hello to my comrade. Then, finally, I know I’m at the aid station because I see a crowd of people: crew and volunteers. It’s the final aid station of the day, at the entrance to The Far Side – the trail we’ll leave this aid station on.
Forty kilometres have passed.
With gratitude, I stop. I need a rest. First, I fill up my hydration pack. A volunteer asks me if I want ice. ICE! ICE!!! Yeah, if you’ve got it I’ll have it. She pours it down my shirt. It’s bliss.
Now I need to sit.
Next to the table of snacks and under the trees in the shade, I see a small plastic box. I sit down on it…and rest. What joy! I breathe slowly and relax. Every part of my body gives in, and a feeling of peace comes over me. That elusive feeling. I sit with it…and remember it….and smile.
After a minute or two, I think I better get going. I don’t want to, but I get up. Then, I see another volunteer standing next to two buckets of icy water; he’s pouring some of this watery delight over a runner’s head. I go over to him, look at him and smile longingly. “Would you like some,” he says.
“Yes please,” I reply. The feeling of this coldness being poured onto my neck and my head is so good. So healing.
And with these loving encounters enveloping me, I head into the woods once more.
Ten kilometres to go.
A girl from Australia, who I’d seen during much of the previous section, leaves at the same time. We walk along together, and she says she’s happy to have company; she’s anxious about being on her own: there are bears in these woods, you see. I tell her I’ll be slow, but she says that’s OK. She has a pain in her leg – it’s her IT band – and tells me she’ll also be slow.
We walk and jog, and soon I realise my stomach doesn’t hurt anymore. The pain is gone! Yippee! I reward myself with a nibble of a pretzel that’s been in my shorts pocket for hours.
We keep making progress. We pass over some bear poo, and my Australian trail friend asks me, “Was that bear poo?”
“Yes, I think so.”
“Oh no, oh no, OH NO,” she replies, or at least something like that. She sounds anxious.
I feel bad to have caused her worry, so backtrack and say, “Well maybe it wasn’t. It was a small pile, perhaps too small for a bear. Let’s make lots of noise anyway.”
So we shout and sing and chase away any bears. And, for some reason, the songs that pop into my head are Christmas songs. I’m singing along with Wizard, “I wish it could be Christmas every day,” and hoping the bears are enjoying my festive cheer.
My trail friend is just behind me for the whole of this section. I hear her shouts behind me, and I keep shouting and singing too. There are a few other runners scattered about, so I’m sure the bears are staying away.
This section feels never ending. The names of the trails here are Endo, Seven Stitches and Pipe Trails. It’s all lush, beautiful single track. The foliage is thick. I focus on the beauty around me. I need to forget how tired I feel. I’ve lots to look at – stripy chipmunks and furry squirrels darting about and squeaking. They seem to be laughing at us. They’re so cute! As well, I admire the many blueberry bushes. They’re bursting with perfect looking dark purple berries. Yummy.
So with the help of nature’s beauty, I get through this section. After Pipe Trail, I’m scrambling up the final climb of the day: Mountain of Phlegm. Volunteers in their red T-shirts are at the top cheering everyone on. From this high ledge, it’s almost all downhill until the end. Yippee. I can smell the finish line.
I start down and see a runner who I recognise at the side of the trail. “Hello!” I shout.
“ I’m out of energy,” he says.
“Keep going,” I reply.
Then I scramble down terrain I know well. Soon I see something uplifting. Somebody’s put up a sign. It says 4km to go!
Just after this sign, I hear a rustle in the bushes to my left. I look over, and there’s a bear. I shout loudly, so he knows I’m there. He ignores me. He couldn’t care less. The blueberry bushes are much more interesting. He keeps his snout in those berries and keeps munching away. “Goodbye Mr Bear,” I shout.
Down and down I go. At the bottom of some steps, there’s another sign – 3km to go – and another volunteer with high fives and encouragement galore. I run through the rock climbing area (hello climbers!) and through the parking lot. A left turn, and it’s all flat road to the finish.
My earlier crawl results, now, in a stock of energy I didn’t know I had. Who would have thought? It’s 9 hours into my 50km, and I can run! Not just shuffle, actually run! And so, I “charge” along the flat final kilometre or two heading for the finish line, feeling alive. I pass people, not just one but a few. I always feel emotional coming to the end of any hard event, and I’m fighting back the tears. I turn the final corner into the little park where the finish line is. I sprint along the well-trodden grassy stretch and jump across the oh so sweet finish line.
A finish line is never guaranteed, but this time I had made it. I get my medal and my hug from Gary. He hugs every single dusty, sweaty finisher in all the events of the weekend. What a job Gary!
While standing at the food table waiting for my post race veggie burger, I get chatting. I show my number to the guy waiting beside me. He tells me what 666 is all about – satan…the devil….the bible…Jings!