(Thanks to Randy Duncan for the photos!)
After making all the pre-event arrangements, I picked up my buddy Myke Labelle at Peninsula Runners and then headed North, up the Island. Our next stop would be Mill Bay, where we picked up another friend, Buddy Bhander. Now that the car was full, we drove up to Campbell River, which is where we would stay that night.
Bob Wall was excited to see us when we arrived in Campbell River. I gave him the usual hug, and stared in awe of the guy who had run over 100k last weekend, in a cancer fundraiser. The first thing we did was to set up our tents. My tent went up easily, and Myke and I then watch Buddy set up his 9 person family tent. The tent was large enough for a regulation game of basketball inside.
Once we were setup, Bob made arrangements for us to go to dinner. At the Riptide Restaurant, we would be joined by two of Bob's running buddies: Rob Fontaine and Steve Spiers. We had an excellent dinner, and the banter kept us enthused throughout.
We then said our goodbyes, and Bob took us for a post dinner walk, nearby at Elk River. This is the site where Bob hosts the CR 50k trail challenge race. We had a beautiful walk, but then we all felt tired, so we drove back home, got our gear ready, and went to sleep.
My sleep was not a great one. I woke up at 4 am with a nosebleed, so I spent the next hour trying to resolve that. At 5 am, we all were up, and it was time to get a move on.
It was about a 1 hour drive to the race start in Sayward. There were already a ton of people there, and most of them looked like serious trail runners. Within a few minutes, I scoped out who was there for the race, and it was definitely apparent that it was going to be an elite field this year. Furthermore, the Frontrunners Westshore gang (Nick, Mark, Shawn and Josh) was there, so there would easily be 4 people who would beat me. It was around this point that my expectations had changed of possibly finishing top 5, to just wanting to finish top 20.
After we picked up our race numbers, it was pretty much time to start the race.
It was a 23k trail race. Most people had told me that your finishing time would be pretty much bang on your marathon time. I would make it my goal to finish sub 3 hours.
The race began with about 2 km of pavement. The usual suspects headed out infront, including Myke. However, as expected, the pavement did not last very long, and we made the turn onto Bill's Trail. The trail started out steep and I had been forwarded that the Klimb was difficult, steep and long. It was not very long before all the runners had adapted to a power hike, rather than a run. The trail begins pretty much at sea level, but over the next 1.5 hours, we would make our way up to 5000 ft. This was the hardest climb of my life, bar none. It was steep. Very steep. The steepness ranged from being able to power hike, to pretty much using all 4 limbs to scramble up the trail. After a while, it was apparent that there was just no end in sight to all this climbing. It went on, and on, and on. It went up, and up, and up. This trail would make the Grouse Grind look like child's play.
Up ahead, I could see the red shirt of Myke waiting for me. No doubt, he had struggled to keep up with the fastees at the front. He asked how I was doing, and I said "Ok". I also looked at him and said, "Isn't this insane?" I wasn't lying when I said I was doing fine. The heartrate was high, the sweat was pouring off me, but I was up to the challenge. Deep down, I knew I was a solid climber. Myke, on the other hand was struggling. He commented that he was having a difficult time mentally staying in it. I knew this experience oh too well, from my past adventures. After about 15 minutes or so, I left him behind and kept on going. I then found my way up to the next guy and climbed with him for a while. His name was Peter, and he was a master from Port McNeill. He had said that he had done the trail before, so I asked him if we were half way up yet. I was actually joking when I said this, as I figured we must be close to the clouds, and close to the top. He replied, in a serious tone, "Probably not quite half way yet." Oh my God, I thought.
I persevered on, and eventually the trail came up to a magnificent lookout. Peter stopped briefly to take it all in, and I passed him. Soon after, the trail showed signs of snow, and it wasn't long before the trail flattened out a tiny bit, and we were running again, completely on snow.
The trail came out to Keta Lake. The lake was frozen over, so the trail, now marked exclusively by pink flagging tape, went around the lake. As we got to the other side of the lake, I followed a set of footprints, as I had been doing much of the way now, but quickly realized that there was no pink flagging tape, and there was nobody around me, at all. I searched and searched for pink flagging tape, but when I did not find any, I actually went back along my footprints in an effort to ge the trail again. After about a minute, I noticed flagging tape at the top of a hill. I b-lined it and dug in my toes into the crunchy snow and made my way up the hill. I then saw Peter and another climber who I had passed much earlier now infront of me. Damn. I figure this mistake had cost me 2-3 minutes. This hike up the hill was to the summit. I passed one of the guys up to the summit, but Peter was now right infront of me. There were two yellow shirts at the summit, and these were the checkpoint guys. The guys said, "It's all downhill from here". Thank the lord. Now the fun could begin.
And what fun it was. The ascent was steep getting up here, and the decent would be no different. I looked down and saw ropes, lots of them. Peter went quickly down the course, and I followed him. At this point, my gloves were on and I was ready to use the ropes quickly and effectively. This however did not happen, as I stopped and stood amazed at what Peter just did infront of me. Peter was now acting like a human tobaggan, and he was using the ropes and his hands to guide him down the snowy hill. I tried to run down the hill, but fell, and in no time, I was now a human tobaggan as well. The marks in the snow would indicate that all the trail runners had slid down the hill, some clearly more effectively than others. Peter was going at a crazy rate for an older fellow. However, when Peter got off course and veered into a tree well, I took the opportunity and slid past him. The ropes didn't last long though, and before too long, I was running quickly in the crunchy snow, following the flagging tape as best as I could.
This is where I think I made excellent time. I was totally flying now, and Peter and the others were well behind me. I could hear a rushing creek on my left, and I had to make sure not to get too close to the icy river. At this point, I saw a red shirt ahead of me. This guy was walking, and it was Nick Walker. As I passed him, I asked if he was alright, and he said yes, but I had never seen Nick walk before, and I had actually never passed him in any race or training run.
I sped ahead and I saw another checkpoint at Raccoon Bridge. I stopped momentarily to have a drink of water and Gatorade, and then flew ahead on the slow downhill. The snow slowly gave way to a real trail, and I could tell now that we were now on an old logging road. The logging road had many, many river crossings on it, and I just did my best to blast through them. It wasn't too long before I saw another runner ahead of me. This guy was Shawn O'Toole, from Ladysmith and he was running at a great pace, but slowed down significantly at the river crossings. I caught him up, and the two of us ran together for much of the next few km.
After a while of cranking it out on the slow downhill, I saw another checkpoint, and I stopped again to get water and Gatorade. Shawn did as well. The checkpoint guys said that we were in 15th and 16th place. I was thrilled hearing this.
We continued on at a great pace, and it wasn't long before we both passed another guy. We didn't chat to this guy much, as we were busy trying to find our breath most of the time. We now had been running for 2:10, and I thought to myself it would all be over soon enough.
We then saw another guy walking ahead, and I was in disbelief to see it was Mark Nelson. When we got to him, he joined us in our jog, and he began to tell us how fatigued he was. The reality was, that all of us were tired now, and to continue running was bloody difficult. The trail was a slow downhill, which sounds easy enough, but every 50m or so, there was a natural river/drainage dip in the logging road, which pulverised the muscles every time we went over them. Mark then said "Stand aside!", and we ran on the side, and watched Nick Walker fly right by the pack of us. Clearly, Nick was just fine, and he had intentions of making up significant time on the last stretch of the course.
Shortly after, Shawn and I left Mark behind and we continued on ahead. I wasn't sure whether to try and pass Shawn or not, but my body was starting to cramp and I knew I was on my last legs. At the final river crossing, there was a ladder, and I sped past Shawn and took to the ladder first. On the other side of this river was the final checkpoint, and they said that we had 3.5k to go. Again, I could not believe it. I figured we must have been almost done.
As I passed the checkpoint, I heard the guys radio blaring that someone had finished and broken the course record. Later, I would find out that last year's champ, Shane, would repeat as champion, and do it in an amazing 2:23.
After a short last stretch of trail, the course hit pavement and I now was just hoping to bring it in. Shawn passed me, and I said "Good job buddy, I'm done". He replied and said "The race isn't over yet." But it was for me. As we made our way down the pavement, I turned my head and saw nobody coming from behind. This was good, as I could have been passed by a fast slug at this point. At the bottom of a hill, there was a sign saying 0.5 km to go, and I was thrilled. I figured we still had about 2k to go (judging from the last checkpoint call), so I momentarily considered hammering the last bit, in an attempt to catch Shawn. I decided not. Shawn would finish ahead of me by about 10 seconds, and I would finish in 2:50:41. I finished in 13th place (out of 320)!
I was ecstatic. This was the hardest race ever, and I had a great one. I had beat many solid trail runners, and had established myself as a genuine trail racer. Would I do it again next year? Only time will tell. Right now, I am as sore as I have ever been from any running adventure. I can tell that it will be many days before my body will be 100%. But, as the kids say, it's all good.