“There are mountains to cross, for all that are willing. There are never-ending treasures that await you.” – Reroute To Remain by In Flames
The morning was considerably darker in Squamish, British Columbia than was typical back in my hometown of Portland, Oregon. Without a cloud in the sky, I quickly spotted 4 satellites moving amongst the innumerable stars above. The record heat of the previous day lingered in the air and defanged the morning chill. I stood alone on a rooftop terrace and faced the south. The silhouette of the iconic rock face known as the Squamish Chief stood out only as a faint juxtaposition of black on black. It was just after 3am.
Squamish Chief the evening before the 50K.
The day before the 50k and 23k races in Squamish features the 50 mile race. The heat during the race was incredible. In fact, Squamish was the hottest place in Canada that day when it was all said and done. The air hung heavy in less measurable ways as tragedy threatened to mar the otherwise festival-like atmosphere of the weekend. Days before, a local, well-respected trail runner and experienced hiker went missing while out on a hike with friends. As of this writing, he still has not been found. Authorities have suspended search efforts, but his family remains hopeful and wishes to continue the search privately. They are currently accepting donations towards this effort here. Less locally, it was a bittersweet day for Canada, as beloved rock band the Tragically Hip were performing their final concert after lead vocalist Gord Downie was diagnosed with an aggressive form of inoperable brain cancer earlier in the year. The concert in their hometown of Kingston, Ontario was being broadcast by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for free to all Canadians. Two blocks away from the house I was staying in, a couple thousand fans of The Hip gathered in the street to watch the concert together on a large screen. Despite the sadness of the day, locals expressed and shared their joy and hope with one another and with we visitors. It was genuinely inspiring.
The events served to offer perspective ahead of what was for me a considerable undertaking. Any obstacle I would personally face in the mountains would be nothing compared to what so many others were enduring. Under no circumstances would self-pity and despair be allowed to share my day. In some ways, this is the essence of endurance sports, and specifically trail running. No pity must ever be extended towards those of us lucky enough to voluntarily punish our bodies in such a manner.
Dakota Jones wins the Squamish 50 mile.
Together with my wife, Cherry, and her sister, Jessica, I spent the afternoon hours at the finish line of the 50 mile race. Reports came in from the last aid station that Dakota Jones had a commanding 40+ minute lead on his nearest competitor. In the face of what is considered by many to be amongst the most demanding of all races in Canada being held in uncharacteristic and unforgiving heat, Dakota was under course record pace. I could not fathom the pressure he must have been feeling with each grueling step towards the finish. While victory was assured, the slightest misstep threatened to derail his historic performance. I watched Dakota step out into the final street. His stride showed no obvious signs of fatigue as he flowed into the finishing chute and across the finish line. Minutes ticked by waiting for his official results. The course record holder — who is a Squamish local — stood next to him as race director Gary Robbins announced that Dakota had officially set a new 50 mile course record with a margin of 47 seconds. It was incredible to witness.
I stayed at the finish line to watch the next several racers complete their journeys on the day. Chris DeNucci took second place and added to his already stellar record of performances. Coming around the final turn into the chute, Chris turned to me as I applauded and offered the most genuine of smiles and a thumbs up as he approached the finish. He would go on to compete in the 50 kilometer distance the following day in order to challenge for the title in what is known as the Squamish 50/50. He placed second in the 50 mile, fifth overall in the 50K, and won the Squamish 50/50 with his combined finishing times. The incredible Colin Miller from Canada took third in the 50 mile. Hannah Greene crossed the finish first for the women and fifth overall after what she astutely described as “a lot of running.” I have nothing but the utmost in admiration and respect for everyone who lines up to even attempt these distances, but seeing these incredible athletes conquer the course was truly a unique pleasure. Watching Dakota, Chris, and Colin gingerly shuffle to pose together for a podium photo was oddly reassuring as even the elites suffer out on these types of races.
Cherry, Jessica, and I ended our day back at the house with a spaghetti dinner. It is a simple tradition of mine before race day. I like a dinner of pasta with a sweet and garlicky sauce, some sort of vegan Italian sausage (Tofurkey brand, in this case), garlic bread, and a green salad. It is one of my most favorite meals on any given day, but I tend to reserve it for the nights before races. I did my best in the months, weeks, days, and hours leading up to this point to prepare my gear as well as my mind and my body. I went through last minute checks ensuring all was set for what would be an undoubtedly early morning. My race bib was secured to my shorts which were folded neatly and stacked with a pair of underwear, socks, a shirt, three Buffs, a hat, and my shoes. My breakfast of a banana along with a tortilla covered on one half with almond butter and the other with blueberry preserves and folded over was waiting in the refrigerator next to the two bottles I would carry throughout the race. With the heat of the weekend, I thought it best to carry a second water bottle in addition to my usual one. My left hand bottle would be filled with water and three scoops of Tailwind liquid nutrition. My right hand would be fresh water.
Cherry woke up and made herself some coffee. Jessica was buried under her covers as her race wouldn’t start for a couple hours after mine began. Her course started at roughly the halfway point of mine. In addition to a shorter course, she is also much faster than me and would finish her race hours before I could possibly finish mine. I was showered and dressed and fed. There was nothing left to do but head out to the starting line at Alice Lake up the Sea To Sky Highway.
Arriving at Alice Lake, there was a scattering of headlamps in the dark. Gary Robbins was organizing a group of volunteers who were gearing up to assemble the race start and guide the runners into the woods beyond the campgrounds and parking lots. I live by the concept that if you are early, you are on time. If you are on time, you are late. If you are late, you might as well never show up. I was plenty early. The first of three busses shuttling racers from a central parking area in downtown Squamish had not yet arrived. This afforded me the rare opportunity of a pre-race bathroom trip completely unaccompanied. I did not pass it up.
There are always goals entering any given race. Many of my fellow runners arrived at the starting line burdened by expectation and weighed down by hope. Some were seeking redemption from years gone by with races unfinished. Others were racing themselves, hoping to better a previous finishing time. Yet others like Chris DeNucci and Anna Frost were racing for podium finishes, and carrying the expectations of thousands every step of the way. Being my very first ultramarathon even attempted, I had the luxury of running without any expectations whatsoever. My goals were simple. I wanted to finish. I wanted to experience all the course had to offer. I wanted to end the day as unscathed as possible. It should be noted that this was also the order of priority for these goals. The most important thing for me on the day was to finish. And I was willing to bleed to do it.
Alice Lake before the race began.
We runners stood together as Gary gave his pre-race instructions. I was surprisingly not nervous. I made the conscious decision that no matter what happened on the day, I would remain my biggest fan, strongest supporter, and kindest companion. Having such a person as Cherry in my life made this more lofty of a goal than it might outwardly seem. Her love and support are beyond measure. She set the template I was determined to follow. Mindfulness and self-awareness guided my training over the previous 6 months, and I knew they would be needed to get me through the day. I decided to trust my efforts in my training leading up to the start of the race. I decided to trust myself to make the best decisions to put me in a position to be successful in meeting my goals. And I decided to cease imagining all that could go wrong, and instead imagined all that could go right. When the countdown reached zero and the official race clock began, I stepped out onto the the Squamish 50 course as ready as I could possibly be.
The first miles of the 50 kilometer course are a joy. The pavement lasts only a matter of minutes and is quickly replaced by the soft, rolling trails of the lower elevations of western British Columbia. I had run these miles before, weeks earlier in the summer. I wanted to experience the first half of the race course before race day, most specifically the notorious climb known as Galactic. On race morning, I was glad I had. I was able to shuffle off the nerves of navigating unfamiliar terrain and instead check fully in with my body, my pacing, my effort, and my thoughts. The majority of runners quickly disappeared in front of me as the trails undulated between small yet beautiful lakes, leading us ever closer to mountain biking trails and our first real climb of the day.
There is an adage in long distance running; start slow, run slower. This has become my strategy as it has proven its own usefulness with each race I have run. I was not running hard enough to break a significant sweat, though the morning air was quite humid. My breathing was deep and slow. After a couple of miles, I started to approach some of the runners who had left me behind earlier. I prefer not to pass anyone for as long as I can during a race, but I felt it was time as my pace was just not the same as theirs. I greeted a woman as I passed her on her left. She seemed to be struggling early. I left behind a man I had shared the trail with for nearly 5k 0f our 50. I checked in with myself in order to make sure I was not overextending myself too early. I wasn’t. The hiking trail soon merged with a mountain biking trail and the fun began.
The trail soon formed a straightaway which emerged from the tree line and crossed under massive utility towers leading down the mountains and towards the town below. The terrain began to buck and twist as we neared a section of fast-flowing water. I caught a group of three runners who were taking a momentary break on the trail. They fell in behind me. The group was a woman and two men, one her husband and the other her brother. The woman was the clear leader of the group. She soon let me know they had traveled from Calgary to run the race. Her young son was back in a hotel room in town being watched over by her mother. She asked if I had ever run the race before. I told her I had run this section of the course before, but this was my first time running the race. In fact, I said, it was my first time running an ultramarathon at all. She congratulated me and wished me luck, and asked if I knew how far the first aid station of the day was from where we were. I broke the news to her that the station was not far, but that the first significant climb of the day separated us from it. Within moments, we were upon the first steps of Made In The Shade, a steep and technical trail leading us upwards.
Here is where I truly began to benefit from my course recon. If I had hit Made In The Shade for the first time on race day, it would have been a serious blow to my confidence. The section of trail barely registers on the elevation chart below the race map, dwarfed by Galactic which comes shortly after. The climb is intense. Brutally intense in places. Hands are needed to pull the runner up and over the roots, rocks, and mud that seems to go nearly completely vertical. While difficult, the climb is mercifully short. Knowing this helped me to lock into a slow and steady mode of climbing. The top of the trail is marked by a stationary exercise bike someone hauled out into the middle of nowhere for a joke. I greeted it like an old friend and stretched my legs to run again.
Winding towards the first aid station.
The trail from here winds downwards through the trees before slaloming under more power lines. I knew this section would end at aid station number one. This was roughly 10K into the day. I finished off the remaining Tailwind in my bottle and shook my water. I had probably two-thirds of a bottle remaining. Entering the aid station, volunteers called out my number and marked my entrance on a chart. I pulled out a bag of Tailwind powder and dumped the contents into my empty bottle. A volunteer asked to take the bottle from me to finish the job. This would be the most effort I would ever have to expend on refilling my own water the entire day. Each and every volunteer I encountered was friendly, knowledgeable, and could not do enough to help make sure all of us had what we needed to survive until the next aid station. I cannot thank them or sing their praises highly enough. They were simply incredible.
I perused the foods available on a table before me. I decided to eat whatever I felt like eating, within reason, during the race. Listening to one’s body is critically important in these types of things. The first thing I grabbed was a small wedge of watermelon. It tasted like heaven. Being in the early stages of the race, this first aid station was not stocked as deeply as other might be. There were potato chips, cookies, and other snack foods. A jar of pickles caught my eye. My body told me to eat one. I grabbed a mini dill pickle from the jar, retrieved my bottles from the volunteer who had filled them, thanked everyone for being there, and set off on the trail. There was a gentle, slow climb before some more rolling gravel road sections ahead. I knew this was a good section to get the legs turning over beneath me again. Galactic was nearing with each step.
I didn’t exit the aid station alone. I found myself running next to a man and we introduced ourselves. Exchanging names and hometowns on the trails is pretty common. Most of the runners I had met thus far were from Canada. Many were surprised when I said I was from Portland, Oregon. This runner, Ben, was surprised as well, because he was also from Portland. People from Portland generally love to talk about Portland as much as runners tend to love to talk about running. Over the next few minutes of conversation, we discovered we lived only a few blocks apart in the same neighborhood in north Portland. We had also lived a couple of blocks apart in downtown northwest Portland when we each were living the single life in apartments. We talked about our favorite routes to run in Forest Park. The trail flowed beneath our feet with ease. Shortly, I recognized the sharp left run off of the service road and into the trees. A sign greeted us. Galactic.
Some races are notorious in their entirety, such as the Badwater 135. Yet others have specific sections that are known to bring many a runner low, such as the Powerline on Orcas Island. Galactic is one such section. It is a slow and steady slog up a mountain. It is unrelenting, mostly dark, and in some places, quite treacherous. The runner must enter a different mindset entirely when making climbs of this sort. Aside from the most elite runners, the vast majority of the pack are relegated to a steady march upwards. Such was the case with me and Ben. He insisted I take the lead.
Our pace was respectable on the climb. We soon encountered a line of runners who had left me behind many miles before. This is fairly predictable for my experience in races. I am not fast, so straightaways are where I tend to lose ground to sprinters. What I am is strong, tough, and stubborn. When the terrain and weather get bad, I tend to perform better. I typically catch and pass people on both uphill and downhill sections of races, especially if they are particularly technical trails. Catching a dozen runners in front of me on Galactic was no problem. Passing them was impossible. I knew the trail. I knew how narrow and potentially hazardous it was. I checked in with Ben and he agreed that our pace was tolerable. We locked into step behind the group and pressed on.
Sections of Galactic open up with no warning offering runners and hikers views which are equally breathtaking in their beauty and the effort expended to experience them. Moments like these remind me of why I venture out onto the trails in the first place. They remind me of the immeasurable beauty our planet contains at any given time regardless of our own often petty circumstances. I turned to Ben. “That is worth training for.” He looked out over the expanse of trees we had navigated earlier in the morning. “Yes, it is.”
Worth training for.
The climb continued with many a false summit to the trail. The group would scurry forward whenever the trail became even the slightest measure more forgiving. I knew we still had a ways to go, so I would close the gap when the runners ahead of me would slow for another climb. The relatively slow pace of a long climb is an opportune time to conserve resources. The climb, while considerable, was not usually what breaks runners. It is the descent on the other side. We topped out on Galactic after 2,500 feet of climbing. We had over 3,000 feet of descending to do, nearly every inch of it technical and punishing.
Descending a technical trail is not generally the most appropriate place for a group effort. Attempting to match a pace faster or slower than your own while at the mercy of gravity can lead to disaster. I needed to pass some people, while Ben needed to pass and leave me. We shouted our contact info and our well wishes to one another before he disappeared around a steep corner. I set my entire focus on the trail directly before my feet. The descent down Mt. Constitution following the climb up the Powerline trail in January nearly ended my day during the Orcas Island 25K. I spent the months afterwards preparing myself mentally and physically for the punishment ahead.
Ankles buckled. Runners fell and cursed in front of me. Gravity won again and again as fatigue started to set in on the course. I shifted both water bottles to my right hand to leave my left open to help guide me. I generally look to follow the path of flowing water when descending, but the trail in this section was particularly dry and dusty and seemed to mock my attempts at strategy. I decided to enter into short bursts of controlled falling down the steep sections, catching myself with my left hand and using the trees to break my fall. Downward, downward. I continued. I knew the second aid station was not far. The distance between that and the third at the midway point of the race was short compared to all others.
Entering the second aid station, I sent a text to Cherry to update her on my progress. She was set up at Quest University at aid station three. In my preparation for Squamish, I knew how difficult the front half of the course was. I figured if I could make it into Quest before the time cutoff, I would finish the race. The course winded away from aid station two and through the woods. I locked into a comfortable pace and ran while basically meditating as the terrain no longer required my full attention. I passed a few cars on the right side of the trail where people were camping in their vehicles. Without warning, there was a woman clapping above my head. I looked up. She was on the balcony of a large faculty building in order to greet runners into Quest University. I waved my appreciation and exited the tree line. I turned left around the corner of the building. Volunteers called out my number on the radio and that I was looking strong. I thanked them and told them I felt strong. Up a short hill, I saw Cherry waiting for me. I waved and entered the aid station for the midpoint of my first ultramarathon.
Few things in life have the regenerative properties of a clean, dry change of clothes. This was my first priority entering Quest. I took my dry duds and headed off to change. I kept my shorts I had been running with, but changed my socks, underwear, and shirt. The change was dramatic and instant. I updated Cherry with my progress and my feelings. I felt good. As good as I could reasonably feel at this point in a race. I knew there was a long way to go and that I was far from hitting rock bottom, but I was ready. Just as I was at the starting line, I once again felt ready. I told Cherry I was going to eat lunch while in the aid station. This was only a slight exaggeration. More pickles, potato chips, watermelon, a cookie… I ate them all as I tried listening for what my body was telling me it needed. An arm wrapped around my shoulders. “What do you need?” asked a volunteer. I told him I thought I was good. We turned and took in the stunning view from the gorgeous campus.
Entering Quest Aid Station. Photo by Angela Modzelewski (Cherry)
“It is easy to suffer here. This is amazing.”
He squeezed my shoulders, “You are amazing!” he said. I felt like he meant it. Cherry stood with my two fresh bottles at the ready. I took them from her and said that I was ready. I kissed her, told her I loved her, and turned to continue the race. She told me she would see me at the finish line. The smile was impossible to erase from my face.
The course exited the opposite end of the small campus and began another immediate climb, the second longest of the day. I could see two runners who had left the campus minutes before me beginning their climb and disappearing into the trees. The paved road turned to gravel before I hit the trails once again. A volunteer sat at the opening in the trees and stood to cheer as I passed. She told me it was just another climb. No biggie. Nice and shady. I thanked her and pressed on.
Within minutes on this climb, things started to feel off. A wave of something resembling sadness came over me and washed away the euphoria of the halfway point. My stomach also started to turn. Reality came crashing in to remind me that the worst the day had to offer was yet to come. I knew this beforehand, but now I felt it. I locked into the climb and focused on keeping my feet moving. Shortly, I started catching glimpses of the two runners who left the university just before I did as they went around corners ahead of me. The gap was closing and I felt less alone. As I neared them, another runner I recognized from the university came down the trail past them both. I asked him if he was okay. He said his stomach was upset and he was done. He was returning to Quest to drop from the race.
It is always a sobering experience seeing someone’s race end before the finish line. I have not yet had the experience of a dreaded DNF; did not finish. This runner was the first I had seen formally ending his own day at Squamish. I felt awful for him. I wanted to tell him he had come so far and the end was nearing by the moment. His mind was clearly made up and trying to convince him otherwise seemed like it would prolong his suffering. He passed and we each continued on our own paths. Upward, upward.
The next section of the race is where I have the least memory. The race had turned into work, pure and simple. I was on my feet and moving forward. This is another key component of running long distances. It is part of what attracted me to attempt an ultra in the first place. Each progressive distance seems to provide its own challenges and mysteries. The allure of running beyond the familiar is intoxicating. I was quickly moving ahead of the trails I had scouted out earlier and past the maximum distances I had raced on trails before. Most of my races have been half marathons. I have run one marathon before in my life, and it was not on trails. Everything between me and the finish line would be brand new.
I set out on this section of the course with the idea of running only aid station to aid station. I would not allow myself to think beyond these shorter segments of the overall race. Moreover, I would do my very best to keep my attention exactly where I was and nowhere else. As miles and hours tick by, this becomes more of a challenge. Sometimes my thoughts on the trails echo the waning hours of the day when I try to sleep. Unwelcome thoughts find me when I am tired and unable to escape. I prepared for this. I almost welcomed it.
The fourth aid station brought me a bit of rejuvenation. Fatigue was building by the second with no real way to stop it, but the notion that I had checked off four of the five stops separating the start line from the finish felt like a tangible accomplishment. “I am here. I am doing this,” I thought. I felt a sense of gratitude. There wasn’t a particular object for this. I suppose maybe it was for myself, for challenging myself and for honoring my struggle through the day and the months before. I left the aid station ahead of the two men who were in front of me on the previous section. When I left, they were both sitting down. I made a mental note; no matter what happens ahead, there would be no sitting.
I was soon sharing the trail with a young woman and we began talking. She told me she was from about an hour away from Squamish. She asked if I had ever run the race before. I told her it was my first attempt at an ultra. She told me I picked a doozie. There was something just beneath her words and threatening to break through. She was definitely struggling. I continued chatting as inanely as possible. “I am thinking about dropping,” she interrupted. I told her if she just kept moving exactly as she was, that she would finish. Her voice broke. “You’re so nice. I love our trail community. Thank you.” We proceeded along the trail. A couple of mountain bikers came up behind us. We pulled to the side of the trail to let them pass. They could see the anguish on her face. “Hey,” said one of the bikers in his signature Canadian style, “you know, this will be over sometime. Whatever this is.”
Another descent lie before us. It was steep and technical, but I knew from studying the map that it was not terribly long. My trail companion moved aside and told me to pass. She would need some time. I told her my name. She told me hers as I bounded downwards over a section of exposed roots. A corner separated us for the rest of the day. When I last saw her, she was hugging a tree with an expression of utter despair on her face. I looked up her name afterwards. She would not finish the race.
I soon passed a man in a yellow shirt as the trail opened up a bit. I had seen him on several sections early in the day, and I was happy to see he was still doing well. The fifth and final aid station lie ahead. I was aware of a time cutoff that I was working on beating. I exited aid station five with about 45 minutes to spare before the cutoff. Behind me lie three major and several relatively minor climbs. Ahead lie Mountain of Phlegm, a steep and technical climb up and over one last summit before the final push back into town and to the finish line.
The loosely formed group I had been leapfrogging with over the previous few hours set off from aid station five determined to notch our respective finishes. 39 kilometers had been conquered thus far. The 11 remaining held enough excitement for the entire race.
I had been running with a pair of teachers from the Squamish area when my pace led me ahead of one of them. The other ran with me for some time until she needed to scoot ahead of me down the trail. We were all locking into our own survival paces that we needed to maintain for the duration of the distance. Any faster or slower felt like torture. I carried on down a relatively smooth section of winding trail when the teacher in front of me suddenly appeared around a corner. She was running towards me and waving. “Bear.”
She stopped when she met me. “There are bears. Bears on the trail.” I kept moving forward, walking now. When I rounded the corner, a few runners were bunched up. They spoke in unison as I approached, all warning me of the bears. The woman from Calgary took out her phone to show me a picture. I have a bit of experience with bears, and certainly enough to know to treat the situation as serious. So long as there were no cubs around, I felt that things would probably be fine. As if on cue, a young tree ahead began to shake violently. Two bear cubs were climbing up it.
“Okay,” I said pointing to the phone, “Where is this bear now?” The group told me it was just around the next corner. I walked past the group and looked around the corner, announcing my presence with shouts and claps. I didn’t immediately see a bear. I continued forward. There she was. Just off to the left of the trail, the mama bear was staring down our group. She made no movement to flee, nor did she vocalize any aggression towards the group. She was standing her ground, and she wanted us to know it.
More runners caught our group as the minutes piled up with none of us able to continue. Seven runners now. One volunteer. The volunteer was on her phone trying to get some advice on how to proceed or to get someone to come out to handle the bears. Listening to her, it became clear that she didn’t know where we were. Others in the group were starting to panic as we held our position in the woods. Some were suggesting going off trail, which would have been a very bad idea in the very thickly forested mountain terrain. Cliffs were everywhere, and rarely evident in advance. The bear showed no intention of leaving. I am not sure exactly how long we were stopped, but it was considerable. Perhaps 45 minutes to an hour. At some point I thought to text Cherry.
“There is a bear and cubs blocking 8 of us. We can’t go anywhere.”
More runners caught the group. One of the final two to find us was a local man who had experience with the bear population. He and I positioned ourselves in the front and rear of a group of racers with the intent of moving past the bear while showing the remaining group how to do the same. We stood close together, waved our arms, clapped and shouted, and walked past the bear. She was utterly unimpressed. Her gaze followed us as we neared a small creek crossing. This creek was the unofficial second starting line of the race, about 42K in. Once we hit it, the group took off running.
I found myself alone in the woods. Running. Tired. A little stressed. For a good portion of the race, every dark shadow under a fern was a bear. Every stick snapping behind me was an angry mama bear chasing me down. I made up some time over the course of about a mile. It had been over twenty minutes since I texted Cherry about the delay. I let her know I was moving again.
Mountain of Phlegm was still ahead. The adrenaline of the bear encounter wore off quickly and a fresh level of fatigue cut deep into me. I was bleeding energy both physical and mental with each labored step. As I entered the final significant climb of the day, I was hitting a new low. The clouds are growing dark. The temperate began to drop.
The last couple hundred yards up Mountain of Phlegm are what I can only describe as a “motherfucker.” In fact, I repeatedly described it as such out loud while my heart felt as though it were going to burst from my throat. I could actually see my heartbeat in visual distortions of the world around me. My body was working in what it perceived as extreme overtime. There was a steep, muddy, root-covered scramble which lead to a large stone slab that I recognized as the summit. Hitting that stone leaves the runner but one way forward; you must summon a burst of speed and strength to carry you over the steep, smooth, featureless rock face. Cresting the summit of Phlegm, a volunteer gave me a reserved round of applause. Again, as if on cue, the weather now compelled me forward.
The dark clouds met directly overhead. Trees cracked and swayed as the winds suddenly picked up. There was a single rumble of thunder all around, and hail began to fall. The summit was no place for me to be. I began the final descent down the mountain.
At this point in the race, each and every step was painful in its own way. I found my concentration leaving me when I most needed it. I began to coach myself.
“You will never experience this again. Feel everything. Hear everything. See everything. Be right here, right now.”
The descent carried over all manner of terrain in a relatively short amount of time. There were roots and rocks, mud and sand, and, when my legs were at their most desperate, stairs. Coming down a steep descent late into a race, stairs are quite simply the last thing most runners want to see. It was a stroke of mad genius in designing the course though the mountains. One final kick in the gut to make one feel the full weight of the accomplishment which was coming to a close. The hail turned to rain, which in turn began to fall heavier with every inch I moved down the mountain.
Looking forward, I saw a house to my left. Then a neighborhood. There were steep rock faces to my right. Climbers poured out onto the trail in front of me, the weather chasing them to their cars. When one would see me coming and noticed my bib, they stood respectfully out of the way and congratulated me in the pouring rain. There were a couple of course marshals huddled under a small awning. “Keep going. You’ve got time. You are going to do this. Just keep going,” one said. The course then lead away from the rocks and through parking lots near the Squamish Adventure Centre, and then down the Sea To Sky Highway. The main city of Squamish was on the other side of the highway. I had wondered the entire day before how I was to cross the busy freeway. I was about to find out.
The driving rain made seeing down the road section of the course leading back into town and eventually to the finish line impossible. As per usual with me, the rain was a mercy. This was no time to be looking any further than the very next step. I had navigated 31 miles through the mountains of western British Columbia without significant incident or injury. This was more than could be said by more than a few of my fellow runners on the day. I was keenly aware of this and did not take it for granted. The bill of my cap kept the rain from flushing my contact lenses out of my eyes. I was completely drenched. I could not be any more wet had I jumped into Alice Lake. Each passing car would sound their horn in support. In my weakened state, this was startling. I smiled in spite of myself. The path lead behind a small park next to the waterfront before cutting right to a narrow path under a bridge allowing me to cross below the highway.
Coming up the path, I was met by three course marshals. All three were applauding. One with a clipboard instructed me to continue across a set of railway tracks and look for another marshal. I crossed the tracks after checking both ways. It would be a hell of a thing to get taken out by a train so late in a race. The marshal saw me approaching and started to cheer while I closed the hundred yards to where she stood. The rain was nearly done falling. Pedestrians stopped and joined her in congratulating me. There was a sharp left turn onto the street I had seen Dakota Jones running up the day before. A line of orange safety cones stretched ahead. “Follow the cones home,” said the marshal.
“Be here, right now.”
My mind briefly took me back to when I returned from Iraq. It was a moment I never gave myself the luxury of dreaming about before it happened. It was my third overseas deployment. I knew how special the experience was. I took the same approach with the race. I never allowed myself to think about crossing the finish line. I began the race without expectation. I would finish it the same.
The author and Gary Robbins. Photo by Angela Modzelewski.
I took each step as deliberately as any I have taken in my life. I stepped off the concrete road and onto the soft grass of the park leading down the finishing chute. 50 yards. I could hear Cherry and Jessica cheering, though I could not see them in my narrow field of vision. I kept my eyes on the ground about five feet in front of me. The inflatable arch marking the finish line loomed overhead. My feet stepped over the timing strip marking the official end of my day. My favorite ultrarunner in the world, Gary Robbins, stood before me as I stepped off the course. Gary caught me as I caught him and we held a tight embrace. My eyes closed to hold in warm tears. “I am so proud of you,” he said. I felt like he meant it.
On most every single time I have completed a new distance of long-distance running races, I had sworn that I would never run so far again. I said this after running my first 5K, which I followed with a half marathon. My first 10K had me making similar claims. Finishing my first marathon had me cursing the distance and wondering why I had done it in the first place. Something different occurred in the waning miles of my first ultramarathon. The levels of suffering in the previous miles were immense, but I understood it. It all made sense to me. I get why people do this. I knew immediately that I wanted to do it again. I will run more ultras, and I will definitely return to Squamish and beat my time on this course.
In a final little bit of humor, Gary looked me in the eye as we released one another at the finish line. “Listen,” he said, “I’m sorry, but we ran out of medals. We will mail you one.” I couldn’t help but crack a smile at this. Of course they ran out of medals before I crossed the line of my first ultra. It was perfect. I received an email today that I should expect my medal in about a month from now. I will proudly share a photo of it when it arrives.
I also must acknowledge the sacrifices made leading up to Squamish by my partner in life, my wife, Cherry. During the course of training leading up to this undertaking, Cherry coached me and spent countless hours on trails and in parking lots waiting for me as I ran over 900 miles during my training program. Her support never wavered and was instrumental in sustaining me when the novelty wore off and the hard work began. I cannot begin to express my gratitude for this.
Lastly, it’s a rare thing in life to be able to so effectively define oneself in such a clear way from the course of one moment to another. Much of what I am in terms of labels are things which are largely out of my control. When I am referred to as a vegan, an atheist, or something as inconsequential as a non-smoker, I am defined simply by way of not making the same choices others have made for themselves. It is an odd thing. There is no end to the things I am not, and to define myself in this way seems like an exercise in futility. Ultimately, these things are not concepts I spend much time at all thinking about. They operate in my periphery and only become defining traits when in the presence of those who choose differently than I have. Other labels define me strictly in the past tense, and they are the ones I find myself most at odds with on any given day. I am a veteran. I am an ex husband. They describe me as what I once was, but am no longer. In this undertaking, I have chosen to define a moment in my life that will remain with me by my own choosing. It is nothing that could ever be ascribed to me by anyone else or without my own efforts. It is nothing that can ever be altered or taken away by time or circumstance.
I am Joshua.
I am an ultrarunner.
Shoes: New Balance Leadville 3
Socks: Drymax Max Protection Sage Trail Running Socks
Underwear: Nike Pro Combat 6″ Compression Boxer Briefs
Shorts: Brooks Sherpa 7″ 2-In-1
Shirt: Nike Printed Miler
Hat: The North Face Better Than Naked Hat
Bottles: CamelBak 21oz Podium Chill with Nathan hand grips