Early in the season I was looking at exciting races and saw the Knee Knacker, a 50 KM trail race (intro video) that basically covers the North Shore of Vancouver. It starts at Horseshoe Bay and ends at Deep cove with three mountains in the way: Cypress, Grouse and Seymour. It has a total elevation of about 14,000 feet and starts with a scramble up Black Mountain. Looked really “exciting” and for only $10 you could enter the lottery in an attempt to get a spot at the start line.
So without much thinking, I put my name in. A few weeks later I was billed the total amount and notified by email that I was now a confirmed participant in the event. Gulp! What had I done (again)….
The longest I had run in the past was just over 20 km. While I run a fair bit, I was by no means an ultra runner. My runs averaged about 10 km. While a 10 km trail race was relatively easy for me, I was smart enough to understand that 50 km was a whole different story. My friends immediate reaction when I told them about this was all the same: “Are you stupid??? Do you know how far that is????” My reply was a rather subdued, “ahhhh, ya it’s about 5 x 10 km runs.” They would then shake their head and walk away muttering something about my weird math. I wasn’t fooling anyone, not even myself. I was on the train to pain and the clock was ticking.
I started to really freak out about a month before race day. My training was hit and miss and I just wasn’t getting the mileage or distance in. My runs around Buntzen Lake were getting better and better but I knew I needed to get more familiar with the North Shore. About this time my buddy Steve talked to me about doing a run of the first half for trail familiarization and to shake out the legs on Black Mountain. I happily agreed to this idea as Steve was an experienced ultra runner and had done this race before. Steve was awesome and showed me the trail and ran with me the entire way. He explained problematic areas and spots where it was easy to take the wrong turn. We ran it three weeks prior to race day and met others on the trail who were also enrolled in the race. When we told them we were training for the race they wondered why we weren’t tapering. I wasn’t really sure how that concept worked but figured we should be doing it soon. The day was super hot and we went through over 3 litres of water. We were brutal slow due the extreme heat and my slow pace. Yet afterwards I was super excited as I now figured I had done the worst of it and survived. Little did I know…
I did a few more shorter runs and then started to do the tapering thing. The next step was the package pick up and race orientation at the West Vancouver Salomon store. They scheduled it on a Thursday night which was great. The previous years was on Friday before the race which meant many people had a late night before the race. Besides all the very well done emails and informative website this event was a big eye opener for me. I suddenly realized how well organized this race was. I have done over 30 races and this was by far the most professional and well run even ever. I can’t say enough about the Race Director, assistants and volunteers. You won’t find many races that do as good of a job. Even the flagging was excellent!
The Race Orientation was very useful for a first timer to the event as it allowed me to see how many other first timers there were and that they also had lots of questions. The session went through a few speakers who discussed their roles and then to some Q&A. It was very well organized and a polished event. I left there feeling much more confident as they stated that while some people don’t show up for the race, more than 95% of the people who start the race, finish the race. This was also consistent with my experience. I saw at least one person drop out at Cleveland Dam due to injury and others who went over time on the last leg but who still managed to finish.
I left the Package Pickup / Race Orientation with a nice race shirt, water bottle and positive outlook on the race.
In preparation for the race I did a lot of experiments and firsts. Yes I know, you are not supposed to experiment during a race but I threw caution to the wind and it turned out okay. Some of this was due to my inexperience and some of this was to compensate for my lack of ability. Here are some of those things:
Drop Bag: I think I took the largest drop bag the race volunteers had ever seen. I actually used an old cooler that was about six pack size. I emailed the race director if this was okay and she said, no problem. The hard container worked out well for me. The picture below shows some of the gear I had to put in. I narrowed this down substantially before race day. I put the following in my 30 km drop bag (cooler):
A small can of coke
A frozen half litre of chocolate milk (which I drank)
Change of socks (which I never used)
Medical leg wrap
Spare Gu Chomps
Spare Stinger candies
Wet Ones (which I used to wipe the dirt off my legs before applying pain relief gel)
Voltaran (pain relief gel you can buy at Costco. Looks like toothpaste. Works great on the calves)
I wore a wide sweatband on my right arm which was super helpful. Had my Fitbit on my other arm and the day before sent a day challenge request out to my Fitbit friends. They accepted but didn’t realize what I was doing the next day. When they woke up I already had hundreds of steps and stairs. I remember the total flights of stairs was over 700. I wore wool socks which never fail. I have gone into running stores like the Running Room who push some crappy synthetic socks and anti-blister socks which are all crap. I never blister with the wool and my foot slides in the shoe much less. That’s all I use and my feet do very well. At the end of 50 km my feet were still fresh without any signs of wear. On my feet I wore the go-to trail running shoe: Salomon SpeedCross 3. Now I used to be a huge fan of this shoe but am slowly migrating away from it. While the SpeedCross is a great shoe it has a lot of heel and I find I sometimes twist my ankle due to the shape of the mid foot as it connects to the sole. Instead I am running with the Sense Ultra and Sense Pro a lot now and liking that even better. Takes a bit to get used to less shoe but once you do, oh boy it is nice.
I modified my Solomon hydration pack and took out the nice collapsible bottles and replaced with hard ones. This allowed much easier aid station refills and also allowed me to put in Trail Winds nutrition powder into them on the run. Those small crushable bottles are cool but not very good for fast refills.
Nutrition Plan: I planned (and did) to eat whenever I was power walking up the hills. I focused on watermelon and Coke at the aid stations and carried Stinger candies with me. I prefer these now over the Gu Chomps. For some reason this combination worked very well for me. I also like bananas and chips.
Parking: Getting up at 4am to arrive at the parking lot was brutal. Even though it was summer time it was pitch black out. The parking and bus ride to the start is very well organized. The bathrooms at Deep Cove were not open right away as the government worker who opens them was late. With about 30 guys holding their breath, there was a huge line up by the time he came by. This could have been an issue if I had to go but luckily I was fine.
Bus Ride: As we traveled on the bus I could tell most people were thinking to themselves, “wow this is a long ways…” I got on the first bus as I wanted a lot of time at the start line in case I needed a bathroom break. My nerves sometimes play tricks on me and make me want to do a check. The race start was exciting and I could tell some people were a bit nervous. Oh and it was still very early so it was a sleepy nervousness.
Registration: Check-in was fast and efficient. The start was a controlled rush of runners. I am always rear of the mid pack so I couldn’t really see the elites. They were gone before I even started moving. The first trek up to the base of Black Mountain is nice. Wide road and rolling hills. Good warm up to the hell that awaits. The climb up Black Mountain was brutal for me. It seems like an endless vertical ascend up terribly technical boulder fields and cliff scrambles. I’m not sure how anyone could possibly run this. Eagle Bluffs are likely beautiful for most people and the views are fantastic but on this day it was cloudy and cool so I didn’t stop to look. Hiking up those super technical verticals made me think this was more of a hiking race than a running race.
Cleveland Dam: Having reached the midway point at Cleveland Dam I was tired but not as bad as I expected. A volunteer came and took my water bottles and then never came back. I had to go hunting for the volunteer who went the other way. Not sure why she went that way but it gave me a minute of panic. Overall the volunteers were amazing and I’m not complaining. Just an odd experience. I have to also acknowledge the spirit of the people of North Vancouver. As I progressed along the trail everyone I met was super polite and encouraging. I’m not sure if they all knew what I was doing but they all jumped out of the way and gave me positive and encouraging words. Thank you!
I have to admit that my least favorite place in the race is Cleveland Dam. Coming up onto the pavement felt hard on my knees whereas all the other aid stations seemed better. I think Cleveland Dam is also pretty crowded with people which makes it feel a bit chaotic.
At KM 30 I was in unknown territory as I couldn’t remember running that far before. Interestingly, it wasn’t as bad as I had predicted. Just took longer and I seemed to slow down a bit.
Indian River: At the Indian River my legs were screaming but my knees were still in good shape. I just took it easy and kept a nice slow but steady pace. At this point in the race the big hills are done but it is still super technical. This can be frustrating if you are looking forward to opening up your pace.
Mental State: In preparation for this race people told me about the moments of despair that every runner has. The mood swings and negative thoughts you will have. I never had any of this. I was a bit tired and had waves of energy but never had any negative thoughts. Even the road climb at Grouse was okay for me. This is the most hated section of the race by runners. I power hiked it and chatted with a couple people and it was over before I knew it. No big deal.
About 5 KM from the finish line you begin to hear the music and announcer in Deep Cove. It is very uplifting at first as it sounds very close but then you realize it is still another 5 KM as you round the corner and begin the decent into Deep Cove. The last few KM are very technical and full of knarly roots. With tired legs I pretty much gave up trying to go fast over these things. I slowly trotted down the roots until I hit the open area.
I knew the end was near… but where? Everyone I saw said to me, “you are almost there!” yet the KMs kept clicking off and I still couldn’t see the finish. Then finally it opened up and I saw the end of the forest. I bolted down the hill to the finish as a new surge of energy pushed me to the finish.
I took a long time to finish so ate my food and listened to the award ceremony before going home. No dip in the ocean for me. The walk to the car was really hard after sitting down to eat some BBQ. My legs cramped up pretty bad afterwards but healed within a few days.
Overall the day was awesome. The weather was super mild and it even rained a bit during the race which was super refreshing. Most years this day is super hot and the sun drains a lot out of you. There are many exposed sections of this race so sun exposure can be a real concern. My hat is off to both the race director and the volunteers. This was a super well organized event with the friendliest of people. It has a good following and great culture.
I highly recommend this race to anyone who like a technical challenge at the 50km distance.