I tried to look up to see where I was going but the rain stung my face. The visibility was down to a few metres and the wind was gale force. My nose was running and the wind was creating a stream of snot trailing over my shoulder, metres long. Lovely. I had my light jacket zipped up over my chin and I was breathing down onto my chest to capture some warmth from my breath. I was freezing. I was dangerously cold, and things were getting worse. My hands were numb, clenched like frozen blocks of wood with my fingers wrapped tight around the handles of my trekking poles. My lower legs were bare and the skin was burning where the wind whipped against it. Not just the icy wind. The pelting hail was stinging as well. I could hardly feel my feet. They were just sodden lumps moving mechanically forward on autopilot. I was soaked through. The temperature had plummeted and the wind was ripping right through me. This was getting serious. I was genuinely concerned for my safety. It might sound melodramatic but it was the first time in an ultra that I believed my life was genuinely at risk.
What the hell was I doing out here? And why the hell did I decide to throw my waterproof jacket in with my night gear rather than carry it with me, like I would normally do? The day before the race had seen a record high temperature for the region. Race morning had dawned hot and sunny. The only mandatory gear for the day was a water-resistant jacket (ie a windshirt). Our waterproof jacket and warm clothes had to be in our night drop bag. Runners had started the race in tshirts, singlets and some even bare-chested. There seemed no possible reason to carry the extra weight of a waterproof jacket and a thermal top in such conditions. They were all safe in my drop bag at Bonnevier.
This was Fat Dog120, 2015. And there were times when I really believed I might not live to tell the story. But this is it.
Fat Dog120 drew my attention because of its remoteness, the small fields, it was relatively new on the scene, had lots of singletrack and was apparently very tough. It was often compared to Hardrock. Those who had run both Fat Dog and Hardrock described it as not being as tough but ranking probably second to Hardrock in North America. The bonus was it also served as a Hardrock qualifier (and Western States I believe). It took little effort to convince my regular partner in crime, Phil Murphy, to join me.
We flew into Vancouver a week before the race and spent a few days sweltering in high 30s after leaving a bitterly cold Melbourne winter. After a short stay in Vancouver with Craig Slagel who had run Fat Dog a couple of times and was entered again this year, we drove several hours to the small town of Princeton, which serves as the race headquarters. A quaint little old mining town in central British Columbia, we had a few days to settle in, explore some trails and try to buy bear spray. The streets were filled with huge four wheel drives, or pick-up trucks and it wasn't unusual to see wild deer wandering down the main street. Literally.
Thursday was race eve and we drove our drop bags over to Manning Park, less than an hour away, which is where the race finishes. Race rules changed this year adding extra mandatory gear for the night sections after some runners had issues with hypothermia last year. The gear list was not unlike what we get in an aussie ultra except most of it wasn't required to be carried until the first night section. This night gear had to be at Bonnevier aid station. Fortunately, I put my heavy headlamp in the drop-bag prior, at Cascade, as I was likely not to get to Bonnevier until well after dark. Having my warm night gear at Bonnevier and not in my pack, came back to haunt me later and nearly cost me the race.
We left our car at Manning Park, a short ride from the finish line, and hopped on a bus back to Princeton for the mandatory briefing. A simple, efficient, no fuss affair. A bit like the rest of the race organisation.
The logistics of this race must present a huge challenge to the organisers. Hats off, they manage it very well. We had buses provided again on race morning. It took about an hour along some bumpy back-roads and we were finally deposited just south of Keremeos, deep in the bush. A large crowd of runners, supporters and crew milled around, burning up nervous energy, until it was time to go.
A 10am start is eminently civilised. But we pay for that by being robbed of daylight hours late on the first day. Any race where you are facing two full nights on the course is very scary. That second night is a killer. I hoped not to be out there for all of it. A 36 hour finish scores you a coloured buckle. They are very funky and worth shooting for. Realistically, I knew that was probably well out of my reach. But just maybe 38 hours was possible. My plan B was a sub 40 finish and that would be more than acceptable. Plan C was to just get to the finish under the 48hr cut. With limited prep for such a big race, I always knew Plan C was where I might end up.
The start was fashionably low-key despite the overwhelming sense of anticipation mixed with a healthy dose of trepidation.
The first climb is brutal. Simply brutal. In fact I could cut this whole story short and just summarise Fat Dog with one word: brutal. They warn you that you are never finished climbing a hill until you get to the other side. There are lots of false summits and they crush you mentally when you think you have achieved a summit only to find the climb keeps going. Basically, you just go up and up for hours on end. From the start, runners were bunched up with some singletrack conga-line action but a wider carriageway eventually allowed runners to spread out. The sound of heavy breathing was loud in the still, dry, hot sun. Shirts were off. Dust was rising. It was hot. Bloody hot. But that wouldn't last.
I was taking it easy, in no hurry. I was hoping to find Crystal Shiu and Gary Pickering, the two other aussies in the field and try to hang with them. But with nearly 200 runners crammed into the narrow start area, I had lost them on the start line. I knew Phil would be well ahead of me. I just settled into a steady rhythm, punching out slow kilometres, tapping away with my trekking poles.
The first aid station, Cathedral, was a rudimentary affair and I passed straight through. The day was unfolding and still getting hotter. Eventually we climbed well above the tree-line and just as soon, we started descending again. I held back, saving my quads for the long, long journey ahead. Fat Dog is 120 miles long. That is 20 miles longer than a regular miler. With 8,600m of elevation gain, you have to respect this course.
The long ride down to Ashnola aid station is one I would love to run without the 100 miles that follows hanging over me. I reigned in my ego and let runner after runner file past me. I hooked up with another runner from Alberta, Canada, and we talked trail stories and compared notes. Ashnola was an elaborate set-up. I took advantage and loaded up, topped up my Tailwind bottle and checked out. I couldn't see Alberta but found him further down the road at his crew car. He joined me again on this long, runnable, gravel road section. I welcomed the company.
After a section of flat easy running, we eventually left the road and started climbing long solid switch-backs through dense conifers. I got into a rhythm with my poles and pulled ahead of Alberta. And once again I was alone, climbing mountains, deep in the Canadian wilderness. Out of nowhere the rain started. At first it was just big splotches of rain so far apart you could almost dodge them. Big drops, like tropical rain. Then it got heavier. I put on my light, water resistant jacket. The rain got still heavier. My light jacket was wet through in minutes. The rain kept getting heavier, the wind started shaking the trees and the temperature plummeted. And then it really got cold. And the wind continued to pick up. I could hear the tree-tops crashing about high above me. Leaves and sticks were flying around. And then the lightning flashed followed closely followed by deafening claps of thunder. The ground shook. As they like to say, all hell was breaking loose. And it was right here, right now and I was right in the middle of it. In the middle of nowhere.
I kept climbing. There was nothing else to do. I passed a runner who was coming back down the path. He said "This is crazy, I am not going up there", gesticulating wildly at the trail ahead that led to the open ridgeline. Another runner stopped in front of me and asked of no-one in particular 'Should we be thinking about this?' I was the only person close by so I responded: 'Yes', but then I continued on past him. Yes, I was giving it plenty of thought but I wasn't stopping. No way was I quitting. How bad could it really get? I figured this was just a summer storm and it would blow over.
By the time I reached Trapper aid station I was a sodden mess and bitterly cold, soaked to the skin. It was a remote aid station with 4wd access and only and a few flapping marquees and tarps. A volunteer asked what I needed. He was hard to hear over the flapping tarps, pelting rain and howling wind. I said I was going to wrap my space blanket around my torso and put my jacket back over the top. He told me to save my space blanket for later and ripped open a new one from his stock-pile. We peeled my jacket off like it was cling-wrap. The cold wind ripped at my wet, bare chest. I was starting to shake uncontrollably. We wrapped the space blanket around my torso and duct taped it in place. Jacket back on and I was off, a shivering mess, rustling with the silver paper sticking to my wet skin. Another volunteer had pulled his truck in close and had the engine running and the heater on in the cab. He was offering to warm runners up. I declined, fearing once in that warmth I would never come out again. Possibly my second mistake of the day to pass up that offer. I found some strips of space blanket strewn on the ground that had blown off other runners as they left the checkpoint. I gathered these up and randomly stuffed them up my sleeves and into my bike gloves to help with the little insulation they could afford. I felt like a scarecrow with tufts of silver foil poking out of all my orifices.
The next section was a blur of cold, wet, wind, hail and rain. The course was well marked, thank goodness, as visibility was down to just a few metres. I passed Trapper Lake, barely visible, and cleared the trees again, this time I was crossing an open grassy ridge. But still climbing. By now I was dangerously cold. My teeth were involuntarily chattering. I was genuinely worried I might shake loose a filling in one of my teeth. I had my jacket hood pulled tight over my cap but the near horizontal rain and hail was coming in under the brim and still hitting me in the face. I had a buff up over my face so that my warm breath was helping to stave off some of the cold around my chest. I couldn't look up so simply followed the track on the ground right in front of me. One tortuous step after another. My nose ran like a stream. About now my plan changed from finishing to pure survival. Forget Plan A-C, it was now Plan D! Don't die! As far as I was concerned, my race was over. The race meant nothing now. I just had to get to safety, to somehow get off this mountain and warm up. I was in survival mode.
I caught a glimpse of two runners just ahead of me, similarly hunched over and pressing into the wind making little progress. I desperately wanted to stop and curl up and try to get warm but knew this would be disastrous. I was almost beyond being cold. The noise of the wind all around me was deafening. There was nothing to do but dig deep and keep going. Eventually there must be an end. Either for me or the climb.
It seemed an eternity but finally there was a change in contour and I crested the blunt grassy ridge and traversed towards some sparse tree cover. Amongst the trees the wind gradually relented, punctuated by howling blasts when the trees parted. Feeling somewhat reassured, now I had to try to warm up and get feeling back into my extremities. As the trail started to descend, I broke into a pathetic shuffle. But it generated enough energy and warmth to keep me from getting worse. Only just. I was still on autopilot, concentrating on survival and still convinced my race was over.
The focus now was on just getting to the next checkpoint and safety. I stared at the ground right in front of me and it was one foot in front of the other. Much of this section is as foggy in my mind as it was in reality. I was still perilously cold. As the trail turned downhill I picked up pace and started to really run and gradually circulation began returning to my feet and hands. I was still soaked through but at least the dampness was not freezing me anymore.
By the time I reached Calcite, the next checkpoint, I was almost back to normal. Almost. I was still a soggy blob. The hot, dry wind of the preceding morning was like a distant dream.
The night had started closing in. I pulled out my headlight and got a volunteer to help me get it on as my fingers were still not functioning properly. Somehow the thought of pulling out subsided once I was back in the realm of safety and had people all around me. I had some food and refilled bottles with Tailwind and headed off into the night like it was business as usual.
With the night comes tiredness and cold. Not good ingredients on top of already being wet. There may have been more rain. Or maybe I was just still so wet and cold it seemed like it rained on me again. I simply can't remember. Parts of the track were just boggy mud. We had to slide down this muddy embankment and then cross a stream. The embankment was near vertical and with the rain and the many runners ahead of me, any feature that could offer traction had been washed away. It was only just a controlled slide on butt and heels and then splashing through the icy water to help wash off the clay stuck to my shoes. I found out later that a runner had broken his wrist sliding down that embankment.
After crossing a bitumen road, escorted by a volunteer, I found myself at Bonnevier aid station. It was a buzzing hive of activity. Being on a road there were lots of crew as well as volunteers. I have never been so glad to get a drop bag. I emptied the contents onto a chair and proceeded to put on all the additional clothes that were in my drop. I ate all the while and left the checkpoint feeling like the Michelin man. But I was confident I was back in the game again now.
A long gravel road that followed seemed to climb forever. There were some lights in front of me but I lost them on a bend. And then I was descending and then I reached a bitumen road intersection and there was no race signage. Crap. This is wrong. I shouldn't be at another road. I shouldn't have been descending. And there should definitely be flagging at an intersection of this size. I hiked back up the hill, retracing a couple of kilometres before finding a fork in the road and a couple of non-reflective markers lying on the ground. I have to assume the storm had washed them down from their place of visibility but I cursed my mistake and the lost time and energy it had taken to get back on track.
Night number one continued the theme of extreme alpine weather. Eventually I was up on the plateau renowned for bitter winds and freezing temperatures endured overnight. Tonight was no exception. My whole world was reduced to the narrow focus of my headlight in the misty rain-come-cloud. After stumbling along a narrow singletrack hemmed in by low brush for what seemed an eternity, I finally reached the Heather aid station. This was made up of a pitiful marquee, literally being held down by generous volunteers who had packed in all the supplies. The walls of the marquee flapped so loudly people were shouting to be heard. A bunch of cold, tired runners were huddled inside for what little shelter was on offer. I grabbed some soup but was out of there quickly realising this was a death zone for cold, wet runners.
I followed a couple of other runners with pacers into the misty fog. The trail dispersed as it started to descend and we lost sight of the markers in the poor visibility. We found ourselves spread out on the gravel mountainside trying to pick up the next marker. I'm not sure how long this went on for. Time had lost all meaning but it felt like forever. Finally, someone found a marker and shouted and the rest of us followed thankfully.
The dawn crept up on me, almost begrudgingly as the dullness of the low cloud made it feel like it was still night. Pre-dawn light lasted well beyond dawn. We ran around the edge of a haunting lake, the water still like a mirror, framed in fog and flanked with fallen dead trees. I stumbled into a small camp site with a basic back-country hut. Nicomen Lake checkpoint. There was a film crew here, trying to dry their equipment. They were filming a promotional video for the race but hadn't anticipated the apocalyptic weather we had encountered. Some volunteers had a small fire going but they had nothing I could eat so I didn't stop, knowing I still had a full day and possibly another night ahead of me.
I am sure this part of the course was quite scenic but I had lost all interest in everything except the trail under my feet.
At Cascade aid station Craig came out to greet me in civvies. He had missed the cut at an earlier aid station and was now just a spectator. He helped me reload and then came a long section of bitumen that I actually ran. Hard. I had been saving my quads all of day one to capitalise on this next section that showed as fairly flat on the course profile. But the profile lies. Leaving the road the trail followed Skagit Creek for hours of continually undulating technical trail that defied getting any run rhythm going. Once again I am sure this section was really scenic but my world was only as wide as the trail. Even in daylight. Sleep deprivation was kicking in and my feet were getting sore. Day 2 was a long day knowing there was another night on the trail still to go. The mental games you have to play to keep your body moving forward when it just wants to stop are a big part of making that finish line.
Late in the day the hallucinations started. At first I saw a few wombats on the trail side. Turns out they were just the blackened ends of sawn off dead fall trees. Next I could see a checkpoint up ahead. Complete with volunteers. Turns out it was just huge tree ferns. The golden retriever in a tree was a novelty. Counting wombats helped the miles tick by. Just on dusk Gary caught up with me and told me how he had had to leave Crystal around 100km when foot issues were slowing her to the point she ended up dropping. Bummer for Crystal, but it was great to have Gary's company for a while.
Night number two began. This is always dreaded in an ultra. I can survive two days and one night without sleep but add in a second night and things get very ugly. Very quickly. The body's self defence mechanisms kick in and try to get you to stop and sleep. Or, as commonly happens you sleep while walking. Don't try this at home.
The thing that separates Fat Dog from other 100 mile races is the last 20 miles. Which makes it 120 miles. Sounds simple when you say it fast enough. Skyline is the last big checkpoint before the finish. It sits right on the 100 mile mark. When you leave the Skyline aid-station you have just 20 miles to go. The average time from here is around 8 & 1/2 hours to reach the finish. That's around a 16 min/km average pace. If Fat Dog finished at 100 miles it would be a tough and scenic ultra. But that extra 20 miles sets it apart. Way apart. Those extra 20 miles makes it simply brutal. It is hard to adequately describe this section of the course in words. I focused on just getting to the finish. They tell you to just keep on climbing. And that there will always be another climb. Until you are done. They are not wrong.
After leaving Skyline the first climb goes on forever. And then when you think you have reached the top, you climb again. And then repeat. This series of steep pinches is unrelenting. They call them the needles. That has something to do with how they appear on the course profile. But even that doesn't do them justice. They would be tough fresh but coming as they do after 100 miles they are unimaginable tough.
It was inky dark out there. I started climbing with Gary. He is much stronger than me but waited at the top of each climb. We passed a few runners struggling with their pacers. But eventually I was struggling myself. I kept falling asleep on my feet and staggering off the trail. I told Gary I was going to try to nap and that he should go on. I collapsed in a ball on a wet bush beside the track. I closed my eyes and my mind swirled and whirled. I couldn't fall asleep. With everything else now switched off, the pain in my foot became intolerable and I realised I had been ignoring it. I couldn't sleep with so much pain. So I took my shoe off. There was bloody mess across the front of my ankle. Wtf? My sock had bunched up and chafed right through my skin. I cleaned it up and put some tape over it. My little toe had been screaming at me but it looked fine. I put some tape over the callous on my big toe that felt blistered even though it wasn't. And the ball of my foot felt macerated so I taped that as well. My new sock had worn through and the shredded threads had pilled up to feel like gravel. I scraped the crap off and put my sock and shoe back on and back to business. I was now wide awake again and my foot felt so much better. For a while at least.
The night was a jumble of ups and downs. I passed through the two small pack-in aid stations. I was ticking off the kilometres in a haze of hallucinations and pain. Just as the dawn was creeping across the sky I found myself traversing a wide gravel-scree slope. I hadn't seen a marker for some time and when I got across the slope, there was still no marker to be seen. I was getting worried. I was inside the cut but couldn't afford to get lost and lose any more time. So I back-tracked until I met two young women coming off the scree slope, a runner with her pacer. They were happy that we were still on track so I followed them up the next climb and eventually they yelled back that they had found a marker.
The light gradually spread and with it the world opened up around me. Suddenly I was alone on a ridge with a sea of clouds below me. I was literally up in the clouds. Distant snow capped peaks jutted out through the fluffy clouds, looking like islands. It was like I was on an ocean in a sea of clouds. The view was simply spectacular. Stunningly beautiful. Despite being close to the cut-off I stopped to take pictures that could never do justice to this panorama. This made it all worthwhile. The third sunrise, two nights without sleep, well over 100 miles travelled. The most horrific alpine weather. And with this visual feast of mountain vistas made it all melt away. I actually managed some running as the trail started descending. Just before the real descent began I came across a small tent. A volunteer poked his head out and wished me well. He told me how far it was to go but my mind had trouble comprehending english yet alone understanding numbers at this stage.
The final descent began, and in true Fat Dog style, it was so technical that my beat up feet couldn't manage a trot of any type. So more hiking. But it was downhill. And headed towards the finish, and that filled me with renewed vigour and resolve. Finally the rocky trail gave way to a more groomed brindle path and I could get some momentum going. I saw a few more wombats beside the trail. Not unsurprisingly they didn't move much as I passed them. I even heard a couple of supporters cheer and clap but when I turned the corner there was no-one there. My mind was really playing tricks on me but these hallucinations were so overwhelmingly real at the time.
Finally I reached the lake and knew I was close to the finish. But Fat Dog doesn't let go that easily. Once it bites you it won't let go. After what seemed like kilometres I reached a big wooden bridge decorated in race ribbons and now dead glowsticks. I thought I must be close to the finish. But I was now on the opposite side of the lake and had to run all the way to the end of the lake and then loop back around to the finish line. Oh, to be so close but yet still so far. I managed a shuffle for most of this, wanting to just get it done. The finish arch seemed a little surreal as I passed under it and the end was almost anti-climatic. I think I was emotionally and physically spent. I had given Fat Dog more than I thought possible. But this now very skinny dog had scored himself a new buckle. And still there were several hours more of vivid hallucinations before I could get some real sleep.
I finished in 46:18 and I was nowhere near last.
Gary finished in 44:20
Spud finished in 37:06
Crystal had to drop after 100 odd kilometres due to ankle and leg swelling.
Craig DNF'd due to missing a cut.
If you want a challenge and love mountains and singletrack you really should give this one a try. I can't imagine there is another race anywhere with as much singletrack as Fat Dog. The weather we encountered was particularly bad. The organisers admitted during the presentation that they wanted to stop the race but they couldn't because the communications were down because of the weather. I am just glad no-one died out there! It is the kind of race that you should put on your list as a must do. But for me, once is definitely enough!
The added bonus was that Fat Dog is a Hardrock qualifier. Spud and I threw our names in that lottery and we were both drawn to run Hardrock again in 2016. Another road trip. Another big adventure.