This was (kind of) the inaugural year of the official Finlayson Arm 25 K and 50K race. Last year, it was offered as a “fat ass” race (translation: no fee, no frills, minimal trail markings, and minimal support). I raced the 25K last year, and was overwhelmed by the thought of doing the 50K. The trails were very technical, and there was a ridiculous amount of elevation gain. However, upon completion of the race I saw that no women had attempted the 50K, and decided that someone needed to represent.
And so it began.
September 12 dawned early….so early, it was dark. I awoke with my usual pre-race excitement, but felt more nerves than ever before. I recognized it, and tried to pull my head back into a positive space. My ride arrived at 5:40 AM, and 3 of us chatted in the car about watches and race strategies. Pulling up at the startline (Goldstream group campground), the sight of a campfire burning seemed calming in the pitch black of the morning. Race director Myke Labelle dashed past with his headlamp on, muttering something about equipment malfunctions. We stood around for a bit, warming by the fire, and then pinned on our race bibs as the daylight increased. Friends and strangers mingled, all joined by a common purpose: to run that beast of a course.
Myke called us all together for a quick pre-race briefing, and then we were off. In true trail racing fashion, almost no one crowded the line and people hung back, knowing there was no hurry at this point. We had 50 very long and very hilly kilometres to get through. 3 of us had trained together- Andrew Barclay, David Marlor, and myself- and we started out together. The plan was to run our own races, but to at least start out together, and see how it went. There was no promise to stay together, and no guilt if we ran ahead. We chatted as we ran. Before we knew it, it was time to “cross the highway” to the other side of the park. Our illustrious race director was so incredibly concerned for our safety that rather than have us run across the highway, frogger style, he routed us beneath the highway instead……thru the Goldstream river for about 50 metres. A half-inch rope was thoughtfully strung along, to grab onto as we waded downstream, kneedeep in water and slipping on the volleyball sized rocks while we cracked jokes. Now soaking wet less than 1 km into our journey, we clambered up the riverbank and back up to the trail. 2 of the runners got stung by bees as we headed back into the trees, but thankfully I (narrowly) avoided this. Strangely, I found myself having a hard time warming up. My legs did not have their usual spring, and I struggled to keep up with the guys that I regularly kept pace with. I also struggled mentally, but tried to step outside of that, as I knew that my mental game would be key for this very long and taxing race. Andrew began to pull ahead, and called for us to join him, but I knew that if I ran any faster, it would hurt me later on so I kept my pace and carried on with David and a few others. We reached the base of Mt. Finlayson, and began to climb. I rationalized that I was fine, since I had trained by doing repeats on this evil mountain every week. Today, though, my body did not want to do what I was asking of it, not even for a single ascent up to the summit. By now Andrew was out of sight, and there was a small group of us climbing. About 2/3 of the way up, I admitted to David that I was struggling, badly, and also that my mental game was off. His calm reply surprised me: “OK, so what do you need to do to get it back?” And at that point, I realized that I needed to re-frame the race, and instead, I began to look at it as a series of shorter runs, broken up by aid stations. We hit the top of the mountain, and ran right over it and started our descent. I ran steadily, but did not overdo it. It was so familiar, and that made it easier. We made our way to the road, and very quickly found our way to the first aid station. Taking off my pack to refill water, I was stunned to realize that it was still almost completely full. Oooops. That might have explained part of why I was struggling with pace. I grabbed a couple of orange slices, some amazing ice cold water, a few chips, and off we went.
Now, we headed up towards Holmes peak and Jocelyn Hill. The next aid station was about 12 kms away. I made a point of pounding back the GU brew I was carrying, and within the next half an hour, I suddenly felt fantastic. I was back- physically, and mentally. I found myself smiling more, and cracking jokes. We switched to powerhiking for the uphills here, and were rewarded with some breathtaking views as we ran along the ridge overlooking Saanich Inlet. It was getting warm, but we still had plenty of water, and gels. A quick checkpoint with a handwritten sign at Jocelyn Hill marked the spot where the 25k runners turned around, and where us 50 k runners would keep going. It was about 10 minutes before reaching this that we were passed by the leader of the 25k race. It was inspiring and demoralizing all at the same time. He had started a full hour later than us, and was passing us as he leapt over rocks like a gazelle. About 5 minutes later, he glided effortlessly past us again, on his return back to his finish line. We carried on. The trail went on much longer than I remembered it being. One of my favourite pieces to run has always been the backside of Jocelyn Hill, as it heads down towards the Cascade trail. The trail just banks back and forth…and today was no exception. It was fun, letting the trail move me down the mountain over rocks and between the trees. Finally, we reached the aid station at Ross Durrance Road: the Jade Station. Our friend Jade (who had done several training runs with us) was manning this station, and it was truly the epitomy of the “oasis” aid station. Cheery music and a Canadian flag hung for shade, smiling volunteers offered to take my pack and replenish the water, while Chris took my bib number Returning with my drop bag, she handed it to me and started asking questions and cracking jokes. It was perfect. I was excited to also see Andrew’s wife Cindy there! We chatted briefly, and she mentioned that Andrew had been thru about 10 minutes ahead of us, and was running a strong race. After a quick pep talk from Jade and a quip about meatless brownies, we were off again. As we headed up Mount Work, we had our work cut out for us. The terrain was rocky, and hard to get a proper stride anywhere. Our legs began to cramp, and I was thankful for the pickle juice in my pack. It was awful but it worked. We made it to the summit of Mt Work, and began our descent down the back. There were a couple spots where it was difficult to spot the trail markings, but in all fairness, the sun made it difficult to see- and this was part of the trail I was not overly familiar with. As we ran, I was hoping we could catch up to Andrew. We had trained together, the 3 of us, and would be fun to get at least a few kms to run together. Down the back, we came into another aid station at Munns Road. We didn’t stop for very long at this one. I remember seeing gluten free cookies and wishing I could eat one, but I knew that it wouldn’t sit well in my stomach so I passed, choosing orange slices and potato chips instead. We headed off, back over the same mountain we had just gone up and over. The climb up the back was difficult, but we had done it before. I somehow missed seeing the official summit, but realized that we had gone past it, and I was so glad we were descending. It felt like we had been on that mountain forever. The weather was beautiful, but it was hot, and I couldn’t wait to get off Mount Work. As we came close to the aid station, we passed a group of men, who were smoking cigarettes, and driving remote control trucks over the rocks — in the middle of the trail– while their sons watched. The stench of the smoke made me angry, but the look on the boys faces was pure sadness. I wanted to kick the stupid trucks off the trail- they were in my way, and I was out of patience. However, I didn’t. As we closed in on the aid station, we came across Andrew, and so we ran in together.
This was now our 4th aid station (of 5). The “Jade Station” was even more amazing the second time through. We handed off our packs for water refill, grabbed a quick snack, took time for a group selfie with Jade himself, and generally took a minute or 2 to laugh and joke. We said another quick hello to Cindy, and I joked with Chris as she handed me my drop bag. I took my other pickle juice flask, a couple more gels, and headed off- but not before dousing my head with water. The 3 of us headed off together now, down to Mackenzie Bight. Straight downhill. We were happy. We shared stories, but we quickly reached the bottom, and then the climb back up to Jocelyn Hill began. We were all tired, and legs were trashed. Andrew told us to go on ahead…and so the gap began to widen. I hated knowing our group of 3 was splitting, but the race plan was to run our own races.
David and I climbed. And climbed. And climbed. The trip back up to Jocelyn Hill seemed much longer than the outbound trip, and we were beginning to struggle. David and I took turns making conversation. Someone sang “This is the trail that never ends, it just goes on and on my friends, somebody STARTED singing….” Thankfully, one of us was usually in decent humour, so there was one to struggle, and one to cheer up. As we hit the ridge at the top of Jocelyn Hill, the view was incredible, and I insisted on slowing down to take a photo. With the sun beating down on us, the sparkling water taunted from below. I looked down at my arms at one point, and noticed they were white from salt. I lost track of how many litres of water I drank, and how many salt tabs. We carried on to Holmes Peak, and descended towards the aid station at Rowntree. I’m fairly certain that it moved about 10kms further away from where it had been on the outbound trip. Truly, those kilometres seemed to take forever to tick away. There was a fun piece of trail with a little hill just before that aid station that was entertaining….and then, we saw it. Angels heralded our arrival…..lol. Kidding. But we were SO excited to arrive!
The volunteers were tired. We were so grateful to see them, and decided they needed cheering up. I started cracking jokes, because I needed the break. I started dumping ice water on my head- and only then did I realize just how overheated I was. That water felt almost orgasmically good. Incredible. It ran down the back of my neck, and down my back….and it was awesome. We cracked a joke about how bad our language had become….and when one of the volunteers tried to mimic us, we had to correct her swearing. It was funny. As we left, we carried on laughing. We were now on the home stretch. According to the watch, we had about 4.5 or 5 kms to go.
Reality: we had 7 kms to go. We had run the trail around the side of Mt Finlayson by Bear Mountain many many many times. It had never seemed so difficult as it did now. I amused myself by remembering former training runs, and by cracking stupid jokes, trying to make David laugh. It was here that we had a conversation. I admitted I was getting tired, and needed to drop the pace a bit. I suggested that David go ahead….and he said no he was not leaving. We agreed to finish the race together. It would have felt almost rude to split at that point- and I don’t really think either one of us could have taken off. We were pulling each other along, and it was working. The trail turned, and I knew we were now on the trail that headed back to the campground- which was also the finish line. And I also knew that I was completely unfamiliar with this trail. I was aware that we had been running now for more than 9.5 hours, and I was getting hungry. We rounded a corner, and suddenly there was a photographer….and also a guy with a drone. The drone made me mad. It didn’t belong in the forest, and it was following me. I wanted to yell at it, but was worried that someone might find it funny, and use that footage in a video. Grrr. In that moment, I just wanted to be left alone, and gut out the rest of the race. When we heard the cheering of the finish line, we perked up. I remember smiling. We ran together, stride for stride, and crossed the finish line where Myke was standing there ready to high-five us. I remember a blur of hugs in the chute….friends….runners…..and I remember needing to walk, and then the relief of sitting down. I had done it. We had done it. We had conquered Finlayson Arm 50K. 9 hours, 49 minutes of running.
As I stood in the chute, I have never felt more exhausted by a race course. It was amazing, and hard, and overwhelming, and exhilarating. And I was so proud to have completed it. I soaked in the awesome post-race atmosphere, and sat there surrounded by friends. I didn’t think I would ever need to run it again. A few days later, I cannot shake the sense of needing redemption on that course. I’ve caught myself revising my training plan for “next time”…and I have a feeling that I am not yet done with you, Finlayson Arm 50K.