Ultrarunner fighting Atrial Fibrilation (AF)

This blog has pretty much always been about running ultras, mostly Hardrock. It still is but now it is also about running after AFib. I was forced to miss Hardrock in 2011 due to the onset of AF but my long term goal was to get back to running milers. And hopefully help any other runners with AF who stumble upon this site. I never made it into Hardrock in 2012, or 2013, or 2014. I didn't have a qualifier for 2015. I ran Fatdog in Canada instead. That was tough. I finished my 4th Hardrock in 2016 and now I'm back to try for the magical number 5.

If you want the history of my AF the heart problems all started back on May 25 2011: http://howmanysleeps.blogspot.com/2011/05/out-of-hardrock.html

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Preparation for Hardrock 2018

Time for another crack at Hardrock.

July 1: Fly to Durango via LAX.
July 2: 13km for 3hrs (400m) of easy running on the trails above Durango. 3km walk in and then 3km out of Durango.

July 3: 14km for 4hrs (761m) up Kendall Mtn with Larry Hall.
July 4: drove over to Silverton for July 4 parade with Dale, Larry, Liz, Robert and Howie.

July 5: 6km for 1hr around Durango. Smoke still pretty bad. Moved to Silverton.

July 6: 16km for 5hrs (1,300m) up to Handies and back with Larry from Grouse.

July 7: 9km for 2hrs (300m) up Kendall solo to box car and back.

July 8: 16km for 6hrs (800m) Cunningham to Silverton with Larry and Beth. 

July 9: 13km for 2:40hrs (325m) out to creek crossing and further out along Nute's Shute.

July 10: 16.7km for 6:48hrs (1,383m) up Handies again with Larry, Beth, Rachel (Beth's daughter), Roger and Hailey. 

July 11: 12km for 4:28hrs (800m) up Grant-Swamp pass from Chapman with Larry and Roger. Drove over Ophir Pass and back the long way via Telluride to avoid sketchy road in storm. 

July 12: 8km for 1:36hrs (182m) out via beaver dam trail to white ski hut, Arrastra Gulch, solo. The beaver dam has been breached and is now fully drained, sadly.

July 13: 11km for 3:23hrs (680m) Governor Aid Station to Virginius Pass with Larry, Roger and course marking team.  Then hot baths (pool) and mexican to round out the day. 

July 14: hiked low on Kendall to watch the Mtn Race.

July 15: 

Sunday, July 15, 2018

Hardrock Endurance Run 15-16 July 2016 (the view from the back of the pack)

The Hardrock 2016 lottery was drawn in December 2015 and both Phil Murphy (Spud) and I were pulled from the barrel. We haven't tried to calculate the odds of both of us getting drawn in the same lottery (they would be substantial), we just thanked the running gods and packed our bags. This would be my 4th Hardrock and Spud's 2nd. Freakishly, we had both been drawn in the lottery back in 2010 as well. Again, what odds? Whenever I return from a trip to Silverton, people ask me how my trip went or how my run went. As hard as I try, I find it impossible to capture the real essence of such an adventure in a few simple words. It is difficult trying to convey the experience in a written report like this but I will try to give you some idea of what it was like. Even now after having run Hardrock four times, I still struggle to come to terms with the sheer magnitude of it. The physical and emotional scale can be overwhelming. Words seem inadequate.

The short version, a.k.a. the executive summary.

The Hardrock Hundred Endurance Run trail ultramarathon is a 100.5 mile (161km) loop course through the San Juan mountains in south-western Colorado. Runners must climb the equivalent of Mount Everest from sea level (plus another 1,000ft) and then return, all done at an average elevation of 2 miles above sea level, and inside 48hours. I would add - do all of this while breathing through a straw. Seriously, try breathing through a straw. Now walk up a flight of stairs breathing through that straw. Do some of it on your hands and knees. And continue doing that for 40 plus hours. Now you are starting to get the idea.

Hardrock is run at an average altitude of over 11,000ft (3,400m). The lowest point on the course is the quaint mountain town of Ouray at 7,792ft (2,375m). The highest point is the summit of Handies peak at 14,048ft (4,281m). Runners have to cross 13 passes or summits over 13,000ft (3,962m). For some perspective, the highest mountain in Australia is Kosciuszko at 2,228m (7,310ft). 

Let's get this part out of the way. No need for suspense here. I finished. It wasn't pretty but I got the job done. Some would say I was getting my moneys worth, being out there until close to the final cut. In reality, I struggled from early on and the second day and second night were what is commonly known in the ultra world as a sufferfest. Yes, you read that right, the second day and the second night, without sleep. I took 47 hours and 9 minutes (the cut-off is 48hrs). But at Hardrock a finish is a finish is a finish. And I will take that every time.

The long version, a.k.a. what actually happened out there. (No apologies for length, only read this if you like to hear about self-indulgent, masochistic/narcissistic reflections.)

Misery loves company. So the saying goes. Well, I had plenty of company and I had plenty of misery. 152 runners started the 2016 Hardrock100. Right now I was halfway up Oscars Pass, the third of 13 big climbs of the race. There were runners all around me, labouring in the midday sun, just slogging it out. This is a race against the course, not against each other, and I only had enough energy to deal with the world directly at my feet. Heads were lowered. Hands were on knees. Misery might love company but it doesn't have too many friends. I felt very much alone in my anguish. And worse still, misery has no volume control. And right now it was screaming in my head.

It was hot. Damn hot. This year was predicted to possibly be one of the hottest Hardrocks on record. This was where my race started to unravel. I was only on number three of 13 big climbs I had to get over. And I was already struggling. How the hell was I going to do this? The mind games had begun. To finish Hardrock I had to first win this game in my mind.

At most ultras I like to break the race down into bite-sized chunks. Usually best measured by aid-stations. At Hardrock I count the climbs instead. The aid-stations are a bonus that merely punctuate the climbs. The climbs are what make or break you. If you can't conquer the climbs, then pack your bat and ball and go home now. But let's start back at the beginning.

Silverton to KT

The race director, Dale Garland, sent us on our way from Silverton in the traditional low-key style that Hardrock is famous for, simply shouting: "get outa here!". After crossing Highway 550 to cheers from spectators and then splashing through Mineral Creek we started the first climb up to Putnam. All good so far. I started conservatively at the back of the pack as planned and gradually built my rhythm on the long, scenic, singletrack track climb up to Putnam. About halfway up I got stuck behind someone moving much slower than me and with limited passing opportunities he stepped partially off the track and ushered me past. As I stepped around him, I kicked a rock and jerked forward, almost falling onto my face. In the lead-up to Hardrock I had been battling to overcome a bad low-back injury. Now, this simple and otherwise benign trip and stumble caused me to jerk my back and bam, I felt the familiar stabbing in my lower back! I tried to ignore it but from then on it became a constant source of annoying pain, definitely not enough to stop me, but still limiting my movements.

Just to make matters worse, on the descent down to South Mineral Creek and KT, I moved sideways to pass another runner, and tripped again, this time literally somersaulting and rolling down the steep slope. Crap. I lay on my back and did a mini self-assessment. All good but if this continued I was going to have serious problems with my back. I refocussed and never tripped again for the rest of the race. But I spent the rest of the race bracing myself whenever stepping up or down off rocks. It's not like I was going to encounter many rocks on the Hardrock course, right?

KT to Chapman 

I still got to Kamm Traverse (KT), the first aid-station a little ahead of my schedule. I felt pretty good on the slow, steady climb up the traverse away from the checkpoint. A bunch of runners passed me again on the steep climb to Grant-Swamp Pass but I wasn't concerned. I was keeping well within myself. There were dozens of people (spectators) and photographers coming back down the trail after hiking up to watch the leaders come through the Pass. They cheered and offered support and that really helped break-up the climb and kept my momentum up. This is a spectacular part of the course, vibrantly green with lush grass and abundant wild cabbage leaf plants and dotted with an array of wild flowers.

There were still a few crew and spectators up on the pass when I topped out on Grant-Swamp pass. I placed a small rock on the Joel Zucker memorial cairn. I had never met Joel, but I would have liked to. The views were spectacular. Looking across to Oscar's Pass I could see the tormenting zig-zagging path up the bare rocky mountain face.

The scree slope descent off Grant-Swamp was a stodgy mess. I usually love sliding down this loose scree slope of gravel and dirt. Today it was dry, dusty and treacherous. It was kind of like skating on marbles. You couldn't follow anyone else's line for fear of sending rocks down on top of them. I went left and just launched into it. There was no holding back here. Once you committed you were on your way. It was an uncontrolled scramble-slide but I stayed essentially upright by leaning back a little using one hand for balance, just like surfing with my back hand buried in the wave behind me as a brake.

From the base of the scree slope I scrambled across the rock fields, then down the long valley towards Chapman aid station along some nice runnable singletrack. Finally descending through the pine forest near the valley floor was a sweet way to finish this segment. My heart rate was up after the scrambling scree descent and the long run gravity fuelled run into the checkpoint but I felt good. Despite my shoes being full of grit and gravel, I didn't bother to stop and empty them. As much as I should have, reaching down to my feet was dodgy with my back so I left them alone.

Chapman to Telluride

Things start to go south.

This years Hardrock was run in the clockwise direction. The climbs and descents are described as a series of ramps and walls. In this direction we climb the walls and you get to run down the ramps. That means that in this direction you should be faster, especially if you are a better downhill runner than climber, like me. I didn't say this direction was any easier. You never use the word easy in the same sentence as Hardrock. Faster, that's the theory anyhow. Right now I was more concerned with my ability to simply finish. Consideration of times went out the window. The focus was on the old cliche of just putting one foot in front of the other.

Oscars Pass is a brute of a climb and my least favourite on the course. Now there's a concept: favourite climbs. Did I mention that I am essentially a downhill runner?  The climb started pretty well. I caught up to Larry from Canada (and a comrade from Fat Dog120 last year) who was clearly struggling. I encouraged him to hang in there. Larry is a much stronger climber than me so I knew he must be struggling if I caught him on a climb. He had left me for dead climbing Putnam earlier. Then I had re-passed him on the long knee-crushing, arse-sliding, out-of-control descent off Grant-Swamp. Then he pulled away from me again on the climb out of Chapman. But here I was passing him on a climb. But not for long.

The heat was becoming overwhelming. While generally, I like the heat, on this climb it was oppressive. The altitude was sucking the life out of me. Larry looked terrible. Amazingly, almost as if I had passed all my energy over to Larry, he came good and started to pull away from me. I sat down on a log. Suddenly I was alone again, me and my new friend misery.

I pushed on, it seemed way too early to be going into survival mode. I was less than 50km into the race. Instead, I concentrated on getting through each switch back. I wasn't thinking about the next checkpoint, or even the next summit. Just the next switch-back. I noticed a sharp pain growing in my buttock (left gluteus medius). I tried to ignore it and relied more heavily on my poles to push forward. Again, it wasn't going to stop me but it was a constant annoyance.

After what seemed like an eternity, I topped out and started traversing towards the Wasatch basin. I breathed a sigh of relief in the thin mountain air and started the long, long descent into Telluride. As I descended into lower altitude again, I found more energy to run and was soon well down the trail into town. And then a new problem. My inner thighs (adductors) on both legs, started cramping badly. Just as the relief of descending had released my glute pain, my inner thighs started seizing up with cramp. I would back off and it would settle but then seize up again as soon as I started running. I struck a happy medium and settled for a shuffle to keep things moving. Wow, this was going to be an interesting day. Or two.

As I got close to Telluride I cam around a bend and there were Gavin and Rebekah Markey on the trail. Gav and Bek are the Aussie Tailwind distributors and had come out to support the race (tailwind is a major partner of Hardrock). They were crewing for Spud at Telluride and hung around to see me come in and help me out as well. I was so far behind him they had wandered a couple of kilometres up the trail to find me. It was great to see familiar faces and we jog/walked into the aid station together. They helped me sort my gear and I was out of there in no time. Well the splits say it was 19 minutes but it seemed like a lot less. It was amazing how much better I felt at this lower altitude. The boost of some homegrown support reinvigorated me and I forgot all my woes. Back to the trail.

Telluride to Ouray

Getting through Telluride is a huge mental boost. It is still very early in the race but it signifies ticking off three of the toughest climbs. And being the first big aid-station with lots of support and activity it really lifts your spirits. The next climb to Mendotta Saddle and then around to Virginius soon brings you back down to earth and kills that euphoria!

Leaving town I actually started passing a few people. All things are relative and it wasn't so much that I had picked up pace but rather they were suffering more than me.

It was getting late in the afternoon. I wanted to get as close to Ouray in daylight as possible. I really wanted to get there in daylight but knew there was no chance of that. The climb to Mendotta Saddle is long and hard. Really long and really hard. That describes several hours of pain in my life with my new buddy misery riding on my back. But you get the idea. What hurt the most was successfully traversing the dodgy narrow goat-track on the steep gravel mountain side that led up to the saddle and then realising I was still actually a long way from the high point of Virginius Pass.

People always talk about how tough Hardrock is, but they rarely mention how dangerous it is. You need to treat this course with a healthy dose of respect and check your ego at the door. One slip here and you are gone. The course director, Charlie Thorn, always says the most dangerous part of Hardrock is the car ride to the start. I agree, but there is also a thousand places out on the course that if you fell you would die. Pretty simple really, try not to fall.

The final ascent to Virginius Pass and the legendary Kroger's Canteen aid station was on hands and knees. It is that steep, and crumbly. Again, while sucking in air through a straw. The aid-station consists of only a few square metres of bare hard rock wedged precipitously on a rocky ridge. The supplies carried in by backpack and hauled by rope up the steep slopes. I sat on a rock bench seat, softened by someone's thermarest and the late afternoon sun feebly tried to warm me up. It felt glorious and for a few moments I was oblivious to the challenge ahead and the effort behind. One of the hardy volunteers, handed me a short cup full of coke. I hadn't drunk coke (or coffee or alcohol) since my heart went bad 5 years before. But I chugged that shot of liquid gold without a second thought. It was pure liquid joy.

Refreshed and reinvigorated, I was ready to push on (2 minutes total stop but it felt much longer). I thanked Roch Horton and his crew for being there and headed over to cliff edge leading to the first pitch. The descent off Virginius is made up of three pitches. The middle one is fairly benign but the top and bottom ones are real doozies.

A fixed climbing rope was in place to get us down the first pitch. There were two runners already part way down the rope so I waited until they were close to the bottom and grabbed the rope and slid, almost abseiling style, down the steep slope. My canvas gloves worked a treat and I caught the other two runners before they had even left the bottom of the rope.

We took off across rocks and snow and after descending the second pitch, picked our way to the top of the final pitch. I decided to slide the snow on my bum, digging my poles in behind me as a rudder-come-brake. I ended up crashing through the melting ice over a small creek but there was no real damage. I picked up the trail again at the bottom and it was time to really start running.

The trail from here to Ouray is about 15km of solid jeep road that eventually becomes a proper gravel road. Nearly all of this is downhill. On hard, hard packed dirt and gravel road. It is a great place to make up time if you can run. And now feeling unfettered I did run. Restricted really only by the lack of oxygen (still sucking on that straw) and again those pesky intermittent adductor cramps.

I breezed through Governor aid-station, just pausing to check I had enough fluids. The sun was getting low, just as the altitude got lower. Finally I was in the dark, sans headlight, but comfortable enough to keep running on the wide open road. I caught up to another runner and when I realised it was Mark Heaphy I stopped to walk and talk for a while. Mark is a Hardrock legend and was looking for his 17th finish. I knew from previous years how consistent Mark was at pacing so I was more than happy to hang with him for a while.

Another runner joined us and we walked and talked our way through the last few miles to the town limits, almost missing the sharp left turn-off onto the town perimeter trail before dropping through the tunnel and entering town.

Ouray to Grouse Gulch

Ouray aid station is a big and busy place. At the 44 mile mark it was not quite halfway but felt a bit like it. I was disorientated by all the bright lights and activity. A volunteer found me and set me up with my drop bag contents, spread out across the table in front of me. Coming into town I decided that my feet felt good so simply emptied the gravel out but didn't bother changing socks. I had some hot soup. And a cup of tea. Then some more hot soup. I refilled my water, Tailwind and dry ginger ale bottles. I went to use the toilet but then remembered how primitive they were. In a country that does public restrooms better than anywhere else I have ever been, the public toilet in the Ouray park is one of the worst I have encountered. There is no privacy and there was someone in there only partly protected by a shabby shower curtain, so I retreated and left.

Leaving Ouray in the dark shouldn't pose too many problems but I was a bit disorientated and I had a minor navigational hiccup. A marking flag was placed somewhat ambiguously at the junction of a trail-head on the side of the road. Traditionally markers are placed on the left side of the trail, where possible. If I kept the marker on my left I would have to take this trail but I was sure I was meant to stay on the road. I was getting a little tired and it wasn't clear so I went back and forth trying to spot the next marker but to no avail. I tried turning on the navigational App on my phone but it wouldn't register my location (I later realised I had turned off all settings to save the battery including location so the App didn't know where I was). Frustrated, I waited for another runner to come along and he convinced me the course followed the road so I followed him and soon we found another marker. Some time wasted but nothing fatal.

Crossing Highway 550 tunnel is always a highlight as it signifies the start of the Bear Creek trail out of Ouray. This classic piece of Hardrock trail starts with a series of big long switch-backs over the tinkling shale. It really sounds like you are walking on broken crockery. Next we hug the wall of a steep rocky canyon on a narrow foot path that was literally blasted out of the cliff wall by miners . In the dark you can't appreciate the danger posed by this narrow, winding path. But one trip here would be fatal.

Eventually the canyon opens into a wooded valley and after criss-crossing the river and getting your feet nice and wet, you pop out at the Engineer aid station. By now I was really regretting not changing my socks. The soles of my feet were getting really sore due to a combination of grit and what I later discovered was the shredding of the soles of my socks.

Engineer is a rudimentary, pack-in aid station so I didn't stay long. A big fire pit was blazing away in the cold of night and was very alluring. But I resisted getting comfortable and started the long slog up through the basin towards Oh! Point. The trail ahead was dotted with runner headlights that blended with the stars on the distant horizon not far above them.

Once over Oh! Point, the jeep road down to Grouse was just a rough, tough, rocky slog. I managed to jog some of this but it wasn't pretty and my feet weren't happy. Grouse aid station holds lots of bad memories for me so I resolved not to stop for too long. I was feeling pretty good overall, apart from my feet. There was a row of portaloos and I made use of the amenities. Refreshed, I stocked up with more food and fluid, and headed back into the night and the long climb up to Grouse-American pass.

Grouse to Sherman

This section could be a race report all on its own. In fact I have run full ultras in less time than I took to get over Handies. (6hrs 50mins). I could probably better name this section the Bermuda Triangle of the San Juans. What went wrong? I don't really want to delve into it too much but I had a bit of a lower tummy issue. Handies is pretty exposed and there is no-where to hide up there. No trees, no big rocks. The sun was climbing over the surrounding mountains, filling the valley with warm sunlight. Touristy day trippers were filing past and modesty, dignity and self respect kept me sitting on a rock and contemplating my options.

The sun was now well up in the morning sky and starting to sting my exposed skin. I was wishing I had some sunscreen with me. In somewhat of a Twilight Zone moment, i suddenly noticed a bottle of sunscreen on a rock not two metres in front of me. Really? It was full and icy cold, so clearly had been sitting on there all night. I lathered up and replaced it for the next needy runner or hiker to enjoy. That was kind of surreal and weird.

While I was sitting there contemplating life, the next tipping point occurred. There was a guy out on course who was running a double Hardrock (unofficially). That means he started a couple of days before the official race and ran the whole course in reverse, the counterclockwise direction and then headed off again an hour ahead of the real race start in the clockwise direction. He came past me now with his pacer. Here I was sitting on a rock feeling sorry for myself and he had been going for 150 miles and was into his fourth day. I got up, gritted my teeth and started the long, slow climb up Handies.

I made it without any misadventure and gradually everything settled again. I thought the rest might have freshened me up, but disappointingly no. The summit of Handies is always inspiring but after spending so long getting there I was keen to keep moving. The first part of the descent is tricky with loose gravel and rocks and it was complicated by day-trippers climbing up towards me. I had to navigate gingerly to avoid sending rocks down on those below. Once finally off the steep rocky face, the trail zig-zags via a long, raking singletrack through Grizzly Gulch and down into the pine forrest below. This part of the course is simply a treat to run and this is definitely one of my favourite parts of the course.

The next aid station was Burrows Park. There used to just be an unmanned water drop here but these days it is a full aid station. There was a party going on and a guard of honour came out to welcome me. I felt a little guilty not taking much food but I really wanted to get to Sherman. To me Sherman is the point of no return. Once through there you have nowhere to go but the finish.

As an added incentive, I knew that Mark Heaphy was now just in front of me and being paced by his wife Margaret. With well over 20 Hardrocks between them, I knew if I could keep in touch with them I was safe for a finish. I also had bad memories of navigation issues on the start of the Pole Creek section and if I was with them, I wouldn't lose time navigating.

On the long, dusty road into Sherman I caught glimpses of them up ahead when the road straightened out, but try as I might, I couldn't catch them.

Sherman to Maggie

I have been known to spend a long time in Sherman with my head in my hands. This time I took just 11 minutes to refill, apply more sunscreen and grab something light to eat and get out of there. I had come in just a minute behind Mark but left nearly 20 minutes ahead of him. Which was perfect as he was much stronger on the climbs than me and that meant I could get well up the next climb before he caught me.

The climb out of Sherman always seems to go on forever. I met a few hikers but saw no other runner and I actually started to worry that I had missed a turn. Once up high and navigating the willows, I was doing well finding the trail until it just went straight into this deep icy pond. This can't be right I thought. But there on the other side of the water was clearly a course marker. Yep, waist deep complete with a soft muddy bottom, this was the Hardrock trail, camouflaged as a beaver dam.

Eventually Mark and Margaret caught and passed me again. I tried to hang on but they were just too strong. And I was just so weak. I kept them in sight for much of the Pole Creek section but gradually lost them as the shadows grew longer. I was calculating how long I still had to get home and it was becoming a case of metering out the energy needed just to stay on track to achieve that. There were no PB's on offer today, it was all about just finishing inside that 48 hour cut.

I barely stopped at Pole Creek aid station, definitely not doing justice to the amount of effort involved in lugging supplies all the way in there with mules. I wasn't particularly hungry and they didn't have any ginger ale so I just topped up my water and I was gone.

Maggie to Cunningham

After another climb, the long drop into Maggie is always a treat. Even if I was down to a pitiful shuffle by now. The night was approaching and I wanted to get as far as I could in daylight. I only spent a few minutes at Maggie but I did sit down just to rest my legs for a couple of minutes. It was bliss.

The climb out of Maggie is tough and relentless. And steep. Common theme. In fact by now I am out of suitable adjectives to describe the climbs. Think slow and painful. The course is untracked and made up of tussocky grass. It is very steep. And long. Remember sucking air through a straw thing? Yep, suck air in through a straw and to get the full effect, stick something sharp into one of your glute muscles and sprinkle some ground glass into your socks. And climb. Getting close now.

I was still ticking off the climbs, each one signified being just that little bit closer to finishing. There was never any real thought of failure. I was convinced I could finish. It was just how much pain and how long before it ended.

And then it was dark. Headlights on again. Did I mention the sheepdogs? Probably not, they are not usually an issue during an ultra. In the days leading up to the race, a local grazier dropped off several thousand sheep at Cunningham Gulch (site of the final aid station) and they all filed up the Hardrock trail and then spread out on the grassy alpine meadow above Cunningham. Not really a big deal but the sheep have a tendency to knock down the course markers. This can be more than a nuisance when navigating at night. But more importantly, they also have guard dogs who are left roaming with the flock to keep the coyotes away and protect the sheep. This is a big deal. In the days before the race reports came in of a hiker who had been attacked by one of these over-protective sheep dogs. The farmer was asked to push the sheep a bit further away from the race course. Here's hoping.

Approaching the final descent into Cunningham, I started hearing the sheep bleating. The wind and the darkness made it difficult to work out exactly where they were and how far away. But then the dogs started barking. OK, that is not so good. Somewhere about now, Greg Trapp caught me up. I ran some of Hardrock 2010 with Greg so knew he would be good company. He asked if he could hang with me for some mutual support on the dangerous descent. I said no worries, but I was more concerned about the dogs than any descent. Safety in numbers was good.

We picked up our pace and the noise from the dogs and sheep was clearly getting closer. We ploughed on and made it to the steep drop-off in inky, black darkness. OK, sheep be gone. And so were we.

I had never been here in the dark before but knew exactly how steep and treacherous it was and paid due respect. Sometimes not being able to see the sheer drop off is a bonus. Cunningham took a long time coming. We were greeted by a couple of high-school kids who with their class, were running the aid station. I thanked Greg and decided I needed a brief kip before taking on the last segment. He grabbed Kathy Lang to pace him home and left well ahead of me.

Cunningham to Silverton

Sleep deprivation is an amazing thing. It can control your whole world. It is incredibly powerful. I asked for somewhere to lie down and they threw a tarp on the ground inside the marquee. I literally collapsed face-first into it, leaving my pack on. While I never actually slept, my mind switched off and swam in a woozy fog of blissful peace for a short while. Someone tugged at my pack thinking that would make me more comfortable. It wouldn't come off. Someone else prised my poles out of my death-grip hands. I had asked to be woken in 10 minutes. In what seemed like an eternity, always mildly conscious of the noises around me, I heard someone say, that's 10 minutes but let him sleep a little longer. No, I've had enough. I clawed my way back to the waking world from my delirious fog and despite my dodgy back, clambered to my feet almost with a spring. I was offered some food but it was far too dry for me to swallow, so I thanked everyone, looked around for any possible last-minute pacers and with no-one on offer, I grabbed my poles and headed out into the cold, dark night.

I don't know that I really want to remember too much of this last section. It was mentally and physically painful. I was still heavily sleep deprived. As cliché as it is, I just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I was not looking any further ahead than the next footstep. This tortuous climb is an endless series of steep switch backs and a couple of false summits. If I looked up I could see lights dancing on the mountain side far above me, where other runners and their pacers were winding their way up the steep slope. They almost blended in with the stars beyond them. I would stop regularly to pause and draw breath and almost fall asleep in that moment of stillness.

At one point, leaning on my poles, and my sleepy eyes read the name down the side: 'Distance Carbon Z'. In my foggy brain I had a cranky moment thinking someone had handed me the wrong poles. Then through the fog, I realised 'Distance Carbon' was the model of the poles not somebody's name. These were my poles and my name was clearly written higher up the shaft.

After an eternity, the broad summit ridge opened before me with a canopy of stars to cheer me on. I know this last section well, having trained on it many times. After traversing the summit pass I was almost on autopilot, just ticking off the landmarks, blunted by the dark. I passed a few runners stumbling down another short, steep rocky-scree slope. I wanted to run but everything hurt and I think I had swallowed that straw I had been sucking air through.

Eventually I was off the rocky singletrack and onto the wide, open jeep road above the old mine. Bliss. Down, down, downhill bliss. At first trying to jog and then resigned to shuffling. It all looked so different in the narrow focus of my headlight. After not seeing another runner for ages, and not having any markers to follow, I started to fear I was on the wrong road. In fact I started to think I was on the wrong mountain. My mind was really playing tricks on me.

I was staggering somewhat now. I fell asleep on my feet, walking down the middle of the road. Not once but several times. At one point I woke up only only because I was walking off the road. Jolted out of the micro-sleep, for a moment I wondered where I was and what I was doing. Then I remembered I was in a race. But for some reason I had lost all interest in finishing. I had lost all sense of purpose, all sense of time. It just didn't seem to matter anymore. Nothing mattered anymore. I was just wandering around in the dark, under the stars, in the mountains. Totally at peace and nothing really mattered.

Finally I shook off the malaise and decided I just had to get this done. I started hiking with more purpose. After leaving the road and crossing Arastra Creek, I passed the little white ski cabin that I knew was only 4km from the finish. I could crawl that if need be. I went past the beaver pond and picked my way around some mud and puddles.

The Kendall Mountain ski hut popped out and before me the lights of Silverton beckoned. For no good reason, memories of my previous Hardrock finishes flooded my mind. And I resolved that this would likely be my last Hardrock so I should really soak it up. Entering the township in the predawn darkness, the streets were empty and eery. I wound my way across town and then the gym was in sight.

The finish

I was fairly devoid of emotion by the finish. All emotion had been drained out of me long ago. Despite that, afterwards I was ecstatic to have finished. At the time it was all just a little surreal. I jogged down the finish chute and kissed the ram's head painted on the big rock. I made some colloquial quip to the ram, such as 'good to see you honey' and Dale laughed at me. He hung a medal around my neck and gave me a traditional big finisher's hug. I must have felt like a bundle of weary bones. That's sure what I felt like. At all of my past finishes I have climbed up onto the rock and held the aussie flag up for a ceremonial picture. Not today. Besides my back not allowing such antics anymore, I didn't feel the need for such a performance. I had completed the course, again. I was humbled by the mountains, yet again. I had kissed the rock, again. Right now, that was all that mattered. All was good.

Postscript:  Would I do it again?

My finish time of 47:09 hours was not a good time. But I am extremely happy with it. As I said, at Hardrock a finish is a finish is a finish. 47hrs is a very long time to maintain forward momentum over some of the steepest and most treacherous terrain that a trail runner is likely to experience. And for that I am extremely grateful. In fact, as a runner, I am grateful just to get an opportunity to run Hardrock. In 2011 the sudden onset of atrial fibrillation just months before the race forced me to withdraw. I was doubtful of ever being able to run ultras again, let alone run Hardrock. Now five years later and that much older (now well into my fifties) and with my heart scarred from the corrective ablation surgery,  and nursing a back injury, and generally struggling with chronic wear and tear issues, I knew this race would really challenge me. Hardrock still inspires but scares the crap out of me. But this is why we do it. To push ourselves and see what we are really capable of.

Hans Dieter who has multiple Hardrock finishes and more than 100 x 100 mile race finishes and well into his seventies, said in the short film doco of the 2015 Hardrock, Kissing the Rock by Matt Trappe:
"running Hardrock is 90% mental, and the other 90% is physical". Going into this Hardrock, the irony of this comment was not lost on me. While I was confident I could summons the mental strength needed, could I still surmount the physical challenge? Only just.

I made a promise to myself in that final hour of the race. I promised I would never enter this race again. In fact, I promised myself I would never enter any really tough mountain races ever again, not Hardrock, not Andorra, not Northburn, not anything that hurts. The pain and misery just didn't seem warranted. The next day when the topic of next years lottery came up I still said no way. A week later I was saying "if in some parallel universe I was ever to run Hardrock again....". You know what they say about pain being temporary. Do they really say that? More importantly, have they ever done Hardrock? I reserved my decision on tempting the lottery gods one more time. A fifth finish would be really nice to have.

Within weeks of arriving home I had entered Northburn 100 in New Zealand (with 10,000m of climbing) to be held the following March. And then even before Northburn I entered Ronda Dels Cims (170km and 13,500m) in Andorra for the following July. So much for promises! I also entered the 2017 Hardrock lottery and while I missed out Spud got in again. So in July 2017 I flew home from Andorra via Colorado and while I was in no condition to pace (I took nearly 62hours to finish Ronda), I did crew at a couple of checkpoints and got to watch the race. That was really cool. Spud ran another excellent race to gain his 3rd finish.

What worked:
My Olympus 2.0 from Altra were awesome. Altras were by far the most popular brand of shoes on the course, and the Olympus dominated, with a few wearing Lone Peaks and I even spotted the odd pair of Superiors. They are my go-to shoe for all ultras now. The enhanced tread pattern with a Vibram outsole makes them a great combination of fit, comfort, protection, ride and traction.

Black Diamond ultra distance carbon Z-poles. I bought a new pair at the merch stall the day before the race from the man, Roch Horton, himself. They saved me many times, giving me added traction and stability on steep climbs and traverses. They added balance in fast flowing creek crossings or on narrow slippery logs. They served as a brake to arrest my out-of-control slides on snow banks. When my glute went south I relied heavily on the push-off from the trekking poles. And when I had to pause to suck in more oxygen I could lean over and rest on them. Don't leave home without them.

Tailwind. I kept it dilute but constant small sips kept a slow stream of calories ticking over, even when I didn't feel like eating. The sachets were great, waterproof and portion controlled. A definite must. Tailwind was also the official sports drink for the race so they had it premixed at checkpoints but the strength varied and that made it a bit tricky. I have always suffered really bad nausea at Hardrock but not this time (thanks Gav and Bec).

Ginger ale. I carried an empty water bottle in my jersey back pocket and kept it half full of ginger ale from the checkpoints. The carbonation, ginger and sugar perked me up and served in place of coke or caffeine (which I can't take because of my heart).

Garden gloves ($2 variety from a reject shop). I always wear a pair of fingerless bike gloves on trails to protect my hands, particularly from falls. But for Hardrock I also carried a pair of light weight canvas gardening gloves in the stash pocket of my pack. I pulled them on for all the steep descents and regularly surfed down the scree slopes with one hand sliding in the gravel behind me to keep me semi-upright. Worked great on the rope descent off Virginius as well. Light, cheap and invaluable.

Salomon S-lab 12 pack, the latest version. Lightweight and comfortable. I made some changes, removing the standard chest closures and then fitting two proper elasticised straps with decent buckle clip closures. Much easier to do/undo with tired, cold or gloved fingers. It was pretty much brand new with less than a handful of training runs, yet one of the zips managed to break without any real stress. Turned out not to be broken but needed to be reset from the base. Otherwise this pack worked great. With the zip fixed I would definitely use it again.

Bottles not bladder. I used 2 x hard 600ml bottles, one with water and one with Tailwind. I supplemented this with the ginger ale. I knew exactly how much I had drunk and how much was left at any time and could easily fill from a stream or at an aid station.

Merino arm sleeves. These were very thin, black arm-warmers from Aldi of all places. Yep, $13 Aldi merino arm-warmers. They kept me warm in the early mornings and over night. When it got hot I just pushed them down to my wrists where they protected my watch on the scree slopes. I regularly dipped my arms into cold streams during the day and pulled the arm sleeves up so the wet sleeves helped to cool me and also stop sunburn.

2 buffs. One on my head and one around my neck when it was cold. When it got hot they went double looped around each wrist and added to the cooling effect when dipped into the streams with the arm warmers. Great for pulling up over my mouth and nose on the dusty gravel roads when those pesky ATVs zoomed past.

Lycra gaiters. Kept most of the stones out. Except on the major scree slopes. If you go hard down those nothing will keep all the crap out.

Injinji socks. No blisters. Should have changed socks at Ouray as planned to freshen my feet up and remove all the grit.

Blistershield and Sportshield. No chafing and no blisters.

UltrAspire 170 Lumens waist light. Picked this up off Grant Guise (NZ distributor and top 10 Hardrock finisher) a few days before the race. Used it on the first night and loved the low angle of attack it produced. (I still wore my Princeton Tec EOS headlamp on low-beam to look around with.) Worked a treat. Now a definite part of my regular miler kit.

What didn't work:
My glutes. Clearly I didn't do anywhere near enough vertical work in training. Getting there barely 2 weeks before the race meant I missed a week of vertical training that would have helped but in reality I needed much more ascending work from a long way out.

The nav App on my phone. It worked great during training but by turning everything off to save the battery I had inadvertently blocked location services. It cost me time leaving Ouray while trying to get it going and then when I was uncertain about that junction decision so I ended up just waiting for the next runner. It was really frustrating and I was annoyed with myself that I was relying on technology instead of knowing where to go. During race prep we actually didn't bother to check the navigation in/out of Ouray because we had the App to guide us if needed. Mind you Spud missed a turn in Telluride as well, so easy to do. In and out of towns can be the trickiest places to nav.

My pacer. He had to pull out a few days before the race due to a genuine family emergency. At the time I didn't mind as I usually prefer to go without a pacer. But the immense fatigue on the second night especially on the last section had me sleep walking and wandering around aimlessly. A bit of support here would have saved some time and grief. A last leg pacer who knows the job is worth having. I have picked up unplanned pacers both times in this direction previously. Both from Cunningham. The first was great. The second was a disaster until I dropped him on the climb. If I did Hardrock again, I would definitely try to have a pacer for the second night or at least the last section.

Acclimation. Clearly I need more than 2 weeks. In future I would aim for at least 3 weeks minimum. Even that doesn't get me there really but I struggled much early this time with the shorter lead-up. Who am I kidding, I could live there for a whole year and the altitude would still beat me up. But it is a really cool place to hang out so the longer the better.

The cold hard numbers from OpenSplitTime (ouch!):

47:09:50 • 107th Place • 96th Male • Bib #140

SplitMileTime of DayElapsed TimeSegment TimeIn Aid
Kamm Traverse In / Out11.4Fri 9:32AM / Fri 9:34AM3h32m / 3h34m3h32m2m
Chapman In / Out18.4Fri 12:12PM / Fri 12:17PM6h12m / 6h17m2h38m5m
Telluride In / Out27.7Fri 3:49PM / Fri 4:08PM9h49m / 10h08m3h32m19m
Kroger In / Out32.7Fri 7:11PM / Fri 7:13PM13h11m / 13h13m3h03m2m
Governor In / Out36.0Fri 8:02PM / Fri 8:03PM14h02m / 14h03m0h49m1m
Ouray In / Out43.9Fri 9:56PM / Fri 10:23PM15h56m / 16h23m1h53m27m
Engineer In / Out51.8Sat 2:30AM / Sat 2:40AM20h30m / 20h40m4h07m10m
Grouse In / Out58.3Sat 5:22AM / Sat 6:07AM23h22m / 24h07m2h42m45m
Burrows In / Out67.9Sat 11:41AM / Sat 11:45AM29h41m / 29h45m5h34m4m
Sherman In / Out71.7Sat 12:57PM / Sat 1:08PM30h57m / 31h08m1h12m11m
Pole Creek In / Out80.8Sat 6:03PM / Sat 6:06PM36h03m / 36h06m4h55m3m
Maggie In / Out85.1Sat 7:54PM / Sat 8:04PM37h54m / 38h04m1h48m10m
Cunningham In / Out91.2Sat 11:41PM / Sun 12:07AM41h41m / 42h07m3h37m26m
Finish100.5Sun 5:09AM47h09m50s5h02m50s165m

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Fat Dog for this Skinny Whippet

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.