20 September 2019

Whistler Alpine Meadows 100 mile - my first DNF

I was super psyched for the Whistler Alpine Meadows 100 mile race! For so many reasons.
  • It's in freaking Whistler!
  • Gary Robbins is the promotor.
  • It's the same distance and elevation gain as UTMB (legit!) and a qualifying race.
  • It would be my biggest challenge to date.
In truth, considering what I was up against on race day I should be very proud of how long I lasted which was 60 km. But it took me a few days to go from super disappointed to proud... understandable I guess when this is your "A" race for the year. :)

Here I am after calling it quits.

Let's walk (pun intended) through the race and the days leading up to it, shall we?
I first heard about this event over one year ago. The Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) races had been around for a few years but this was the inaugural 100-mile race and running the first of anything is always exciting. From the day I started running ultras, being able to participate in UTMB has been my goal but UTMB is super hard to get into! When it was conceived, this event was officially billed as a 175 km race which happens to be exactly the same distance as UTMB. And with 30,000' of elevation gain, here was the opportunity to run a race with the same stats as UTMB without flying to Europe. So cool! There was a last-minute course change that prompted Gary to refer to this as a 100-mile distance instead of 175 km but from a runner's perspective, the change was minor. Plus, 100 Gary miles are about 105 actual miles.

For the first time ever, I did not run any long ultras in preparation, instead, I ran a bunch of 50 km events and even some very short trail races and a half marathon and hired a coach. But I figured that since I have finished three 100-mile races, and that coming in rested is way more important than logging the big miles for me, I would be good. In retrospect, this strategy was sound.

Here I am with my support crew.

I like to joke that I have made all the rookie mistakes and had all the injuries that someone new to ultras will encounter. Unfortunately, I keep managing to find more mistakes to make and more things to injure. I'm just thankful that once I figure something out, I don't repeat the mistake or injury.

About three weeks prior to race day, I woke up with a very painful pinched nerve in my right shoulder. The pain traveled from the base of my skull, down the right side of my neck and out to my right shoulder. For the longest time, there was nothing I could do to alleviate the discomfort except lie flat on my back. Being a side and stomach sleeper, this was a bummer.

The weather at the start was unexpectedly nice! I took off all the extras and just started in a short sleeve shirt.

A little over two weeks prior to race day I noticed a dull ache in my left heel. This feeling was new to me so I didn't recognize it and just kept running. I had bruised the ball of my right foot once in the past and figured I had perhaps bruised my heel so I made sure to always wear my most comfy shoes.

On Thursday, September 12 I ran two times. The morning run aggravated my left foot more than any previous run but it still didn't really "hurt" while I was running, it just made it more difficult to walk around in (my super flat, super non-supportive, super bad in this case) casual and work shoes. My foot was so uncomfortable that I walked to my afternoon run which in retrospect was a BIG, GIANT, RED FLAG. During the afternoon run my foot felt like it "warmed up" again and the actual run was not so uncomfortable that I was worried. After all, as long as I could run in Whistler I was going.

The trails up here are so much fun!

That weekend I rode my bike to give my foot a break. Cycling felt great! And for a short time, I forgot about how messed up my body was.

We got very lucky with the weather, the views on race day were not too shabby.

But just a couple of days later I was in constant discomfort from my pinched nerve and my foot so on Wednesday, September 18 went to see my Chiropractor, a care provider for my foot, and to get a massage. Pretty laughable, this was Martin trying to throw everything including the kitchen sink at my body in an attempt to find an advantage. A classic, last-ditch effort.
  • My Chiropractor confirmed the pinched nerve and gave me some movements that would "floss" the nerve and hopefully ease the impingement. I was told that heat was good and that aggravating the nerve, i.e. massage, was bad.
  • My Podiatrist was not free on such short notice but the nurse said she was pretty sure I had Plantar Fasciitis. I had come to this conclusion on my own in the previous week, it just did not act like a bruise. She gave me some recommendations and said that I could run the race if I wanted...
  • By the time I got to my Massage Therapist, my spirits were kind of low. But when I told her what my issues were and that she could not mess with my shoulder, she worked on my legs and foot instead which was awesome!
Remember, this is September 18 and my race was on the 20th!

Normally a long ultra requires lots of coordinated support, planning nutrition and clothing, determining your pace and splits, etc. But my optimism was at an all-time low and my brain was fried! As we drove up to Whistler there were no predicted splits, no nutrition plan, and if Gary hadn't provided a list of required gear I might have forgotten my jacket.

We pulled into a parking garage in Whistler Village, I got out of the car and walked to the back to grab my running vest and mandatory gear so I could check in and get my number bib. My vest was not in the car, I had forgotten it at home.

This was the proverbial straw that broke the camels back and I had a little breakdown in the parking garage. I already had very little confidence in my ability to finish and not having a concrete plan for my race had me pretty ragged. Now I was sitting in the back of our car with tears streaming down my face practically paralyzed and not knowing what to do.

Somewhere between aid station #1 and #2, I caught up to Jamil Coury. He finished this race just so you know.

As I was wallowing in self-pity and anxiety I tried to think about all the hard things my friends had done and all the adversity other people have overcome. In comparison, forgetting my dumb running vest was trivial! But yet here I was crying in a parking garage. I kept telling Shelley it made no sense to buy a new vest when I already had a couple at home that were not getting used, especially when I was fairly certain I was not going to finish.

Mountain biking? Yeah, they do that in Whistler.

There are so many special times when people come through for you or support you when it really matters. In the parking garage Shelley - who usually tells me to take it easy or to err on the side of caution - put her hand on my shoulder, looked me in the eye and said, "I think you should go buy a vest and I think you should start the race." I thought I was crying earlier but now I was bawling.

I put my mandatory gear in a plastic bag and we walked to the check in. I was an emotional basket case but I was also a little happier.

We ran on such a variety of terrain!

After checking in, getting my gear varified, picking up my number, dropping off my drop bags (which contained a ridiculous amount of gear, shoes & socks - done), it was time to look for a running store to buy a vest. This was another exercise in stress. The first store we went to didn't have anything except for hiking backpacks. Too big and too heavy and not comfy for running. In desperation, I messaged a friend that was up here for the Triple Wammy and asked him if he had a spare. No dice. But he did suggest the Salomon store - brilliant. The time of day? It was 5:55 PM, the store closed at 6:00 and we were about 1 km away. Good grief. As we walked (not very) fast, which was really difficult in my condition, I was calling the store and asking the salesperson to please keep the door open for five extra minutes. He did, they had plenty of vests, and now I own another. :)

We ran through some sort of unofficial graffiti park. Turns out it's the site of an old train wreck.

That night I sorted all of my food and clothes, stuffed my new running vest full of... everything, had a glass of wine (it might have been two) and went to bed. The start was at 10:00 AM so at least that was not stressful.

We ran on wide gravel paths and on super narrow singletrack and everything in between.

Race day was a little anti-climactic. My deterioration wasn't that spectacular, just slow and steady. The terrain WAS spectacular on the other hand. The trails were so varied, and I didn't even make it to the big climbs. In just the first half, we ran on dry trails, moist trails, green trails, rooty trails, mountain bike trails, along train tracks, past multi-million dollar homes, across ski slopes, in areas that felt beyond remote, and right past the Red Bull Joyride course.

I started toward the back of the pack with zero expectations. At first, running was very uncomfortable but I had resolved to at least walk to the first aid station. Funny how we set such arbitrary goals for ourselves. By the time I got there and met Shelley, my foot was feeling better and I suspect endorphins were giving me a huge boost as I felt pretty good considering. I kissed my wife and got on with it. Later on, Shelley told me she was very surprised to see me in such good spirits.

From aid station #1 to #2 we did a lot of descending and I got there way ahead of schedule (yes, Shelley and I did finally come up with a very makeshift list of splits) and I missed Shelley. I still felt okay tho and I was trying to just take it one mile and one aid station at a time. Each bit of progress was a bonus as far as I was concerned.

Truth be told, at this point I was letting my brain get way ahead of my body. I kept thinking, "this is not that bad..." and was already starting to let myself entertain the idea of finishing this thing. At least I was staying on top of my pacing and after having started at the back, I was slowly pulling other runners back.

From aid station #2 to #3 the endorphins started wearing off and my pinched nerve and sore foot were no longer background noise. But for some reason I passed a slew of racers in this stretch. I met Shelley at aid station #3 and my smile of happiness had been replaced by a smile of guarded optimism/apprehension and appreciation of her. Shelley told me that my sister Lucca was cheering me on from afar. Ditto for all of my friends that were up here for various other distances of the WAM races. I left the third aid station trying to channel all of that support into forward progress.

Sometimes the trail was so soft! But without being wet, very pacific northwest.

When you are already frayed and not 100% confident of finishing what you set out to do, little things can pull you under.

Little thing #1 - aid station food.

Yes, this race had all the usual goodies like boiled potatoes with salt, pretzels, M&Ms, orange slices, and even Hammer Gel and HEED! But in a long race I crave something more substantial and by the time I got to aid station #3 I don't think I had consumed enough calories. I wasn't bonking mind you, I was just wishing there was something more appealing at these aid stations... I was drinking enough, and I had Perpetuem in my bottles, and I had consumed a couple of bars, but as most ultra runners know, bars only get you so far. One of the volunteers at this aid station told me that they would had soup and pizza starting at aid station #6, too bad for me they didn't have stuff like this earlier.

Little thing #2 - my malfunctioning GPS watch.

My f'ing watch is on its last leg. It's a little over three years old and several times now it has randomly stopped recording my run (even though I have it set to lock all the buttons during an activity) or just shut down altogether for no apparent reason. As I was walking out of aid station #3 it happened again. Argh!

As I looked down the display on my watch was black. I was carrying a battery pack since I knew I would need to charge my watch at least a couple of times (the battery only lasts about 9-10 hours in the most accurate mode these days) so I connected the battery while walking. But nothing happened. Normally the display of my watch will tell me what percentage of the battery is left and the number will increase as it charges as soon as I connect a battery or plug it in. Today, nothing. I kept moving but I was getting more and more frustrated. I had my phone with me to take pictures but pulling it out just to check the time seemed laborious (funny how the simplest tasks become a chore during an ultra). Plus I was feeling very isolated. Not knowing how far I had gone or had left to go felt daunting. I tried holding down the power button several times to turn it off (even though it appeared to be off already) and that didn't work either. Finally I just put my battery pack away as running with the cable attached to my wrist was becoming annoying. Screw the watch.

The flagging and course marking were incredible! There were pin flags every few feet in most sections. At the start, Gary bragged that he had placed 10,000 flags on this course, literally every single one that he had.

As I left aid station #3 my day started to deteriorate. My left foot was really aching and running the flat and downhill sections was becoming more and more difficult. Hiking was still okay but as the focus of my attention strayed from the next mile to the big picture, I was struggling to imagine hiking another 100 km... And now a few people that I had caught earlier passed me back. :(

Then we hit the first longer, really steep climb.

So many of the trails that we ran on in the first half were also mountain bike trails.

The climb took us up the ski slope adjacent to/south of Creekside. It was mostly on dirt "roads" and we wound our way through unbelievably large and obnoxiously ostentatious and expensive homes that I stopped a few times just to exclaim my astonishment out loud. Most of these houses were "ski in ski out" with enormous decks (or numerous decks), had GIANT windows, outdoor hot tubs, and made liberal use of concrete and modern/pricy exterior materials like steel.

In longer ultras or races that incorporate significant climbs, I always take trekking poles. I had started this race with my poles in my hands and had never even considered stowing them. And the second half of this course was the "hilly" half! Whew.

When you're tired or hungry or suffering, your mind starts to play tricks on you. I had just met a friend who had caught me, I managed to hang with him for a while and the entire time we were together he talked about how he was not feeling 100% but that he was going to tough it out and just try to finish no matter what the pace. For a short time this conversation motivated me to do likewise but then he pulled away from me and I made the mistake of doing the math required to calculate my finishing time. If he wasn't feeling great and if he was leaving me behind, what was I doing out here? Ouch!

The time of the day was beautiful! As the sun started to set I noticed that all the clouds had disappeared. The long shadows and slightly cooler temperatures were really pretty and comfy. But by now I was pretty much walking every flat and downhill section of trail.

Popping out on a ski slope I have skied several times was fun.

Somewhere around here I stopped to cry again. It was mostly frustration! My body did hurt but not so much that if I stopped moving I was in pain, I was just so pissed and disappointed that my race was coming apart. I needed this finish to qualify for a future UTMB lottery and the 2020 Western States lottery and all I could think of was how hard it is to get into these super popular events and how much longer my body would tolerate me running 100-mile races.

Pro tip, feeling sorry for yourself is not the best way to stay motivated.

I finally crested this climb and started the descent to aid station #4. I kept thinking, "If I can run the descents I'd be okay with walking the flats..." but at this point, my foot was not even letting me run the downhills. Shoot.

Then the trail turned into a ski run and I could see the aid station below. And suddenly I was running! I guess my body had a little bit of adrenaline left to give and for those last few minutes, I tolerated my various ailments.

Shelley came up the hill to meet me and all I could do was lean on my poles and tell her I was done.

I suspect Shelley thought I was doing better than I was based on the two previous times she had seen me so far. As we walked down to some chairs by the aid station she held my hand and said, "Do you want me to talk you into continuing?" I love you Shelley! [Queue even more tears...] But now I had to convince her that I really needed to pull the plug. I sat down in a chair and cried again. Oh man, I was a mess.

After resting in the chair for a few minutes my body shut down. Hard! I had not realized how much energy I was expending by trying to compartmentalize the discomfort in my foot and in my shoulder, it had been exhausting! Suddenly I was shivering like mad in spite of putting on a dry shirt. No wonder I felt like I needed more calories earlier. And as we started to walk back down to Whistler Village my foot was suddenly killing me as that ailment rushed to the forefront of my consciousness. So impressive how much you can tolerate when you need to/choose to. But that was then, right now I was kaput.

As I hobbled back to the car propped up by Shelley I realized I had made the right choice. I wasn't even halfway through this monster and the "big" climbs and descents were all in the second half. And it was getting dark. And it was getting cold. Of course, doing the right thing didn't boost me up at this particular time. :)

During the (only two mile long!) drive back to the Airbnb I had to ask Shelley to crank the heat. Even so, it took a 20-minute hot shower after we arrived to bring me back to life. I was empty.

The weekend was not all darkness and disappointment (actually very little of it was, I always dramatize for effect), I learned a lot have a ton to be thankful for. See below.
  • It was educational to start a race in this mental and physical state. I have no desire to repeat this experience but now I know what I can and can't run through.
  • Having Shelley and my family and friends support me (Lucca and Shelley and my friends at the Airbnb were texting updates back and forth all day long) is huge. Every report I got that someone wished me well was a boost.
  • Take the time to plan your freaking race! Since I didn't have the confidence that I was going to finish, I started with no real aid station or support or drop bag strategy... I was carrying EVERYTHING (all my food, all my clothing, my light, etc.) with me right from the start. This resulted in a heavy pack that bounced around more than was comfortable when I ran. Not a huge deal but just one more chink in the armor that I could have avoided.
  • Double (triple?) check all your gear before you leave the house. Or print a list for crying out loud. How many ultras have I run? A few. And I know exactly what I need for a race. Forgetting my running vest was an easy thing to fix.
  • I really enjoyed the trails up to aid station #3 and I'm thankful for those memories. This course has an incredible variety of terrain.
  • Taking things as they come and focusing on just the next mile or the next 10 minutes or the next aid station is very helpful. Too often I let my mind try to wrap itself around the entire race. I suspect my injuries would have won in the end regardless but this technique of sectioning works and if you are just tired or hungry and not injured, it's a winner.
  • I used some Superfeet Run Comfort insoles because of my PF and am absolutely convinced they helped me make it as far as I did. I will continue to use these until I am 100% healed.
  • Use gear that works. Other than my too stretchy running vest, everything else was spot on. My shoes (as usual) were awesome! And I ran in some new gaiters that were so great. I also discovered some new shorts a couple of weeks ago and wore them today, they are the best!
  • You can get 7% milkfat and ELEVEN PERCENT MILFAT yogurt in Canada, I love it! Who needs ice cream.
  • I'm writing this race report three weeks after the fact and after finishing a 10k that I was able to run hard. You can heal from injuries, don't let them get you down. At least not for too long.
Here are all my pictures and videos.

Here is Jamil Coury's video recap. You can see me at 5:46.

  • DNF
  • I dropped out at 60 km/aid station #4
Nutrition (before)
  • around 6:00 AM I had some coffee, yogurt, and then I sipped some Endurolytes Fizz on the short drive to the start
Nutrition (during)
Nutrition (after)
  • I skipped the Recoverite this time, partly because I had nothing coming up and partly because I just wanted to sleep... I think I had a glass of wine, 2 REM Caps, 50 mg of Hammer CBD, and then fell into bed.

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