I’ve been trail running since March of this year and have completed several “mountain” 25km runs but had never done a 50km. I had made it a goal this year to run a 50 but wasn’t really sure which race to do. It was while I was on a training run in Manning park that I had learned about the Frosty Mountain 50k. At first I was a little apprehensive about the elevation gain but after looking at the other 50k options in Western Canada, it seemdd about on par. I ramped up my training times and distance in addition to joining a trail running clinic to get advice on making the jump from 25k to 50. In addition to the races I worked up to a long runs of around 5 hours. I also pre-ran both halves of the course on two sepeprate weekends so I would know what to expect
I slept really well considering the nervousness I had felt all week. The temperature outside was perfect, 10C (10F) at 7am and no signs of rain. Perfect. I’m know to be an over-packer (over-prepared?) so I proceeded to go through my running pack and move some of the “in-case” items to the drop bag. I kept the hiking poles in my pack and filled up my water and was out the door.
We drove the 2km from Manning Park lodge to the start and I went through my gear once more. While I’m not one for peer pressure, I had a look around to see how other people were geared up. I was glad to see most people wearing shorts, compression socks and long sleeve shirts, since that was my choice for the day. I didn’t see anyone with hiking poles so I threw those into my drop bag (which I kind of regret since they don’t eight a lot and are great for the alpine). Looking around I had the biggest pack by far. I was actually surprised at how little some people had but I guess if you know the course and are confident in your training an aid stations, you can get away with that. Being my first 50k, & going into the alpine in late September, I wanted to have a little extra food and clothing just in case. This being my first, I brought a lot of “just in-cases” but still don’t feel like I over-packed. I had run with that load on my self-supported runs and was happy with my choices.
We lined up, and at the count of 3 were off and running. Since it was my first 50, I took it very slow and found my spot near the back of the pack. One thing everyone had said about the race was to not overdo the beginning since the elevation gain was so significant. I found a couple of people to chat with and settled in at around a 6min/k pace which was probably faster than I would have run solo. The first 2.5k was pretty flat so everyone just cruised along. But at the first hill the group broke up quite a bit and spread out. I found my temp and just plugged along and the Suunto showed a 6:15 finish time (I was shooting for 7-8hrs). The first section of the trail follows the final stretch of the PCT (Pacific Crest trail) and we saw quite a few backpackers coming down. I wondered to myself if any of them were in their final hour of a 2 month (or longer hike) from the southern US. That an entirely different endurance challenge in it’s own right.
At 7km we hit the first aid station, a hike-in one that was fairly simple. I haven’t really figured out what to do at these stations so I just kind of stare at the selections and if my body craves anything I go for it.( In hindsight I should have more of a plan but I’ll get to that later) It was still early in the race and I had my own food so I had a couple of pretzel sticks and kept going. I was feeling great, and the trail levelled out and rolled through a mixed forest full of fall colours. As the trail gained elevation, the pack dispersed and I was running without anyone ahead or behind me for quite some distance. This is the part I enjoy about trail running the most. You can bask in solitude and the sounds of your breathing/steps but you do feel like you aren’t all alone if something goes awry. As the trail gained altitude it broke above tree line and became a rocky exposed slope. I had never run this side of Frosty before (our training run was an out and back on the Lightning Lake side) so I was actually quite surprised at how technical the trail got near the top. By now the racers in front were visible again and at a walking pace clambering up the rocks to the summit. Mt Frosty was shrouded in mist and there was a cool wind coming down from the top. This is not a place I would want to be caught in during bad weather, so I was glad I had brought extra clothing (even if I didn’t need to use it). At the high point of the race, people were posing for photos in front of the signpost, so I snapped a quick photo and was on my way back down.
Km 17-27 Back to reality, Oh, there goes gravity.
At this point I mentioned to another racer (who had run in previous years) that I was glad the hard climb was over. His response was despite Skyline being 400m less elevation gain, its the harder of the two because it just keeps going and going. In my training runs I had run Skyline (on fresh legs) so I kind of dismissed this as his personal opinion, but in hindsight it was ominus foreshadowing (more later). He was having IT band issues so I thanked him for the tips and was on my way. After about 300m of rocks, it was back on the dirt trail and I picked up the pace on the rolling decent. The rolling trail through the subalpine made for a really great running. This was singletrack at its finest.. The smells, the colors, the downhill, it all jived. My watch said 19km and I felt like I could run another 100. The km flew by and before I knew it, I was at the 30km aid station. I did the usual “stare at the choices, grab some of this n that” (pretzels and coke this time) and was on my way. I picked up the pace but after a few close calls with some roots (catching myself just in time to prevent a faceplant), I decided to slow it down a bit. On the way down, there were a few openings in the tress and I glanced over at the Skyline ridge across the valley. “See you in an a couple hours” I thought to myself. After 3:45 I popped out at the 27km aid station which is bascially at the start/finish line of the race. Out of the wilderness and back into reality. The volunteer were super shipper and my girlfriend was there with my drop bag all ready to go in addition to a turkey/bacon/brie sandwich. “So what have you been up to the past 4 hours?” I asked her. I was in great spirits and actually took some time to chat while I ate and got organized for the 2nd half. The last thing I wanted to do was rush through everything and do something dumb like forget my food. I topped up my water, mixed my electrolyte mix, grabbed my second food supply from the drop bag and ditched the running tights I had carried to the top and back. A peck on the cheek and I was off again, at the 3:49 mark.
Km 27- The Bonk
The 2nd half of the course started off much like the first. Nice rolling singletrack bit this time it was alongside lightning lake. I passed another runner (the last racer I would pass) and was feeling energized again. As I glanced at my watch it showed an estimated finish of 7:12. Perfect, its all going to plan. And then I hit the 2nd hill. I ran up it for a bit but this was a much different hill than on the training run.. The “run mostly, walk a bit” that I was able to do on my training run turned into mostly walk with a bit of running. I plugged along but was definitely feeling the exhaustion setting in. I slowed down, took a big gulp of water & eLoad mix and kept going. I was able to run the less steep parts but everything else required walking. I glanced at my watch to see the elevation gain. 150m (out of 800m) . Crap. Keep going. Plug along. My mind was doing less drifiting off and more obsessing about the distance. I glanced at my watch often. 34km, just need to make it to the 34km aid station. I think I ate my Stinger waffle somewhere on the climb but don’t remember. While I was drinking a lot, I was so focused on the climb/distance that I forgot about eating. It was at this point that I also realized a poking sensation in my left foot. I tried to wiggle it around and determined my toenail was coming off. We’ll deal with this later I thought.
Climbing a bit more I made it above the 500m part where the trees start to open up. It seemed way easier last time. “I just need to make it to the aid station at 34km. Focus on that.” Suddenly there it was (at km 32 instead of 34). My first order of business should have been fuel but instead I yanked my shoe off and proceeded to fight to get my compression sock off. Once i did, lo and behold my toenail was fine, it was just rubbing a bit on the other toe. Cool. I got things back together and once again did my “ummmm, hmm” approach to the aid station and grabbed some pretzels. “We have lots of candy too” the guy said, but I said no thanks and moved on. The reason I kept going for the pretzels was in the training run my left calf cramped up really badly from what I figured was a lack of electrolytes/salt. So in the race I guess my mind was so focused on preventing salt loss that I didn’t think enough about basic sugars and fuel. Lesson learned. Off I went up along Skyline stealing glances over Frosty where just 2 hours ago things were just dandy. It seemed like forever ago. I was stopping to rest more and more. As I got over each hill another one appeared off in the distance. Swear words were used. My mind was just so focused on getting to the top that I forced myself to keep going at ay pace I could. I drank a bit and ate half a food bar along the way but was just completely focused on watching the km # on my watch tick by ever so sloowly. By now the finish time was approaching 8 hours..
Right before a big push to the top I stopped and sat at the side of the trail. My mind was starting to become less “in the moment” and more just.. numb. It was at this point (km 32) where I started to wonder if I was going to finish. I wasn’t out of breath but it was getting harder and harder to move and to convince myself to get moving after stopping. I was moving at maybe 4km an hour and still had 18km to go. In my mind, I had bitten off more than I could chew and wasn’t an ultra-runner. I was failing. I didn’t know this at the time, but I had bonked. I pulled out my phone to look at the track from last time to see how far along the ridge I was from where it starts to go down. It wasn’t even half way. Swear words. Exhaustion. I still had 4km to go after the upcoming 100m climb. Crap. I started to plan my exit. Do I go back to the last aid station and tell them I’m done? Do I go forward and hope I can make it to aid station 42? That was still 9km away. I very much doubted my ability to get down either way. If there had been an easy way to drop at this moment I would have FOR SURE.
I decided I would make one more attempt at going forward. “Relentless forward progress” I said to myself and got up and attacked the final climb. Attacked might be too strong of a word, I plodded up wondering if I was going to pass out. At the top I didn’t even stop to admire the view like. I just walked. I walked and walked and then I would stop. At the brief downhill I started to jog but only kept that up for about 30 seconds or so. I cant even run downhill. This is bad. Crap, there’s another hill, I forgot about this part. I guess thats what the guy at the top of Frosty meant by the 2nd half being harder. Its all coming together. I plodded along the ridge walking and stopping a lot and generally getting depressed at my progress. I would stop and look up and see stars. At some point I did have the rest of the Kind bar I had opened up on the climb up but it didn’t have enough simple sugars to unbonk me. I started to worry about myself and my mental state. I was started to fade mentally. It was getting really hard to keep moving at all. The other thing freaking me out was that I hadn’t seen any other runners since leaving the 27km aid station. I knew I was on the right trail but it just really freaked me out. If I had more blood sugar I might have gone into full-blown panic. I’m going so slow, how was nobody else able to catch up to me? What if I pass out? What if I fall off a cliff? What the heck am I doing up here in this mental state?
I sat down again. For some reason I dug deep into the food pocket on my bag and behind my last food bar there was an e-Load gel there. I’m not a big fan of gels but it was a freebie that I had thrown into the pocket after a race. Wait, isn’t the golden rule not to try any new foods on race day? I cracked it open and forced it down, thinking if I was going to be out here for hours, I might as well use all the food I have. I plodded along the ridge again doing my “walk a bit, try running, back to walking” and suddenly heard voices back in the distance. I stopped and they were gone. Great, now I’m having auditory hallucinations I thought But I heard them again and saw way off behind me two people making their way down. Okay, so we’re not hallucinating, uncheck that as one of the many problems we’re facing. I continued along the ridge for another 5 mins or so and suddenly I was at the junction to the trail back down. 38km mark. “Okay, just 4km more and I’ll be at the aid station and can regroup and lie down and figure out how to get to the finish.”
Km 38-50 The comeback
Along the ridge my runaway mind had been intensely focusing on the logistics of getting me from the aid station to the finish line. It had car access but would anyone be able to drive me? I hiked up the short hill at the junction but then hit the downhill and was able to turn the walking in jogging again. Five minutes into the downhill and ten minutes after taking the gel it was like a lightswitch went back on. I was cruising down the trail and knew I would more than likely make it to the aid station under my own power and before dark. I thought to myself: “Holy crap, that gel saved my life”. This part of the trail was like the Frosty side, incredible single track through mixed forest and best of all it was the perfect grade of downhill. I spent less time looking at the distance on my watch and more looking around and really enjoying the trail again. “Holy crap, I’m back into it.” Before I knew it, I was at 42km and suddenly realized that this was a marathon distance. I had never run this far before. “I just ran a marathon!” I yelled out to no one in particular. It was also at this point that I thought “I might actually finish this thing!” I tried not to get too excited about that. Wait, isn;t the aid station supposed to be at km 42? Where is it? At km 43 i ran out of water. I wasn’t too alarmed but also didn’t want to run another 7km without any fluids. Thankfully I rounded a corner at km44 and there it was. It was great to see people again. I topped up my 600ml water bottle, had some coke and Oreos (learning my lesson from the top) and was off. “7km to go” the volunteer said as I looked again at my watch: 44.1 +7 equals… more than 50…
I remembered this part of the trail from my training run. While its rolling double track in the forest, it was something that kind of went on and on. Thankfully, I kind of zoned out and the km just seemed to roll by. “Holy crap I’m going to make it” I kept thinking. “Easy, you still have to finish, don’t trip or do anything dumb” I said to myself. At the final km through Lightning Lake campground, I got really excited. So excited that I missed the flagging tape. Twice. I was in autopilot mode (following the route we ran on the training run which was not the exact course). Thankfully on both occasions there were campers/strangers around me aware enough of the race to let me know I was off-course. Thank you kind strangers.. I rounded the final corner back to the start line and was greeted by music from a really loud sound system in the day use area. “Wow, thats surprising for a race of this size” I thought as the trees opened up and I spotted a bridge and groom walking down the aisle of an outdoor wedding. Orange pylons led me around the wedding-in-progress and the finish line was now in sight. I picked up the pace, rounded the final corner and passed through the finish line, greeted by the other finishers and my lady. I was officially an ultramarathoner.
TL;DR: Started a 50k race, went great, didn’t eat enough simple carbs, hit the wall, powered through and finished