Race Report - 2017 Fat Dog 120 Mile Race

8/13/2017 07:37:00 AM

Sunrise on a beautiful ridge line peak on day 2 in E.C. Manning Provincial Park
After missing out in all race lotteries (total of 4) for the second year in a row, my running buddies and I started to research other epic races that required neither a lottery nor special qualifiers to sign up. We had narrowed it down to a couple, but ultimately, Paul and I decided to go for the most challenging in the mix, the Fat Dog 120 Mile race in British Columbia, Canada. After a couple of days of research into travel costs, Paul and I registered and started specificity training pretty soon after. 
Trail runners representing the Southeast at the Fat Dog 120 start line (left to right: Caleb Yawn, me, Paul Morris, Daniel Lucas)
The Fat Dog 120 Mile Race takes place in the beautiful Cascades Mountains in British Columbia, Canada. It's a point to point race with both very technical and less technical terrain run mostly on single track trails with a total of nearly 30,000ft of elevation gain and since 120 miles is not enough, it actually spans 122 miles. While it is considered the most scenic trail race in Canada offering stunning alpine vistas and wildflower meadows, it is also considered by many to be one of the hardest ultras in the world, including Outside Online which ranks it as one of the 9 most toughest ultramarathons.

A race like this requires some serious training and commitment and while I've previously trained for extremely challenging ultras (Ultra-Trail Du Mont-Blanc 106M and Cruel Jewel 105M races), I kicked it up a couple of notches for this one. I prescribed myself a heavy dose of long and steep hill repeats. In the 6 months leading up to race day I climbed a total of 300,000ft vertical gain. While I didn't focus on mileage as much, I still ran at least 6 times a week with quite a few twoadays during peak training weeks for a total of almost 2,000 miles leading up to the race. Luckily, I was also able to sprinkle quite a few tough mountain races from 50k-100k distances throughout my training cycle to break up the monotony of repetitive hill repeats on our local mountain(s). We scheduled a serious 3 week taper with heavy focus on rest to allow our legs to recover from the months of miles and elevation gain. Early on in my training I also managed to hit the gym twice a week for core training, but that fizzled a litte when I started to do twoaday runs to get more miles and vert.
But the training regimen wasn't the only important factor to prepare for this beast. Similar to European mountain races, Fat Dog also requires a long list of mandatory safety gear along with a minimum of 2 liters of water due to an extensive number of aid stations that are 10 miles or further apart. That amount of gear and water requires some serious planning to ensure both highly functional gear that needs to weigh as little as possible. Some of the mandatory items include a waterproof rain jacket, long pants, a heavy midlayer, hat, gloves, emergency whistle and blanket, headlamp and various other items. I meticulously tracked every piece of gear in a giant spreadsheet listing its exact weight and other information.
Finally, we needed to plan our travel and lodging very carefully. Our trip included multi leg flights across the North American continent, 4 different lodging locations and a rental car large enough to hold all of our gear. Thankfully, Paul's longtime friend and fellow ultrarunner John Gray offered to crew and even pace us some during this adventure. That definitely provided some peace of mind.
After a full day of travel, Paul and I arrived at Vancouver International Airport, where John was already waiting for us at the car rental counter. While Vancouver airport was pretty efficient in getting us off the plane, everything else was pretty slow, especially picking up our rental car. In any case, it all ended well as we picked up a German SUV that provided just enough space for all of our gear. We spent the first night in Vancouver in a cool little B&B before heading 2 hours East towards Manning Park and Manning Lodge near the race start to pick up our race packets. Later that day, we headed to Princeton, BC about 45 minutes east of Manning, where we would spend the night in a small motel to attend the mandatory pre-race briefing that evening. 
The burnt forest
A large number of forest fires in the Northwest had created extremely bad air quality for the past 2 weeks and flying into Vancouver and driving east, visibility was so poor, we could barely make out any of the nearby mountains. As a result, there was a real risk that the race would have to be cancelled due to dangerous air quality. Thankfully, the RD Heather McDonald was able to confirm that it wasn't expected to get any worse and that we would b able to go ahead with the race. However, warnings had been emailed to all participants a few days earlier suggesting that anyone with Asthma not attempt the race at all this year.
E.C. Manning Provincial Park
Since John would crew and drive us, we were able to eliminate the hassle of catching the various shuttles. We grabbed an early dinner at a local gym/restaurant (yup, you read that correctly and it was both in the same room as well) before heading to the motel to make final gear preparations and get an early night's sleep.
Even though the race didn't start until 10AM on Friday morning, we had set our alarm for 6AM to have enough time to shower, get ready and eat a proper breakfast before driving 1 hour 15 minutes to the race start. About 200 runners were slowly assembling near the starting line located in the middle of nowhere. It was a beautiful spot and we knew that we would be immediately starting a 5000ft climb after starting the race. To make matters worse, temps had already climbed well north of 80 degrees by the time the RD sent us off. This as highly unusual for this region and this time of year. I had planned for freezing cold overnight temps, freak lightning and rain storms and muddy conditions. Instead, we were dealt super hot, dry and smoky conditions.
Sunrise at E.C. Manning Provincial Park
Just before the start of the race, I was able to gather some of my fellow Southeast trail runners for a group pic, before Heather McDonald sent us on our way. Everyone seemed in great spirits, but I was still wondering whether I had done enough to get ready for this beast. Thankfully, the smoke really only bothered me on a few occasions and usually at the higher elevations, but the heat really got to all of us from the get go. Folks stepped off the trail early on to slow down their heart rates. By mile 20, people were either puking off the side of the trail or slouched over on a tree stomp for a rest break.
Paul and I had planned to run together for the entire race as long as both of us were moving at a reasonable pace. We only wanted to deviate from this plan if either one of us had problems keeping at least cutoff pace. Thankfully, that was not the case and we were able to stay together for the entire duration of the race.
That does mean we didn't have any problems or low points during this race, oh no, there was plenty of that. For starters, as mentioned earlier, the race started off with the first of 4 major climbs, 5000ft straight up over 10 miles. As we continued to climb, temperatures rose ride along with it. We didn't feel it right away due to the higher elevation, but as we arrived at the bottom on the other side of the first climb around mile 20, the heat had become somewhat oppressive, just in time to start our second major climb of 3000ft over the next 10 miles. 
It was during the early stages of this second major climb during what was likely the hottest part of the day about 6 hours into the race that I witnessed the second most carnage of the day. Runners were sitting on the side of the trail trying to lower their heart rates, overheated, nauseous, you name it, they had it. Unfortunately, Paul was also affected. He started projectile vomiting all fluids he had taken in over the last couple of hours. We figured it must have been too much water and not enough electrolytes, causing his stomach to slosh and eventually empty itself as the heart rate and heat continued to climb. Thankfully, it acted like a reset button for Paul and an hour or so later after slowly taking in more electrolytes and salt along with water, Paul started to bounce back. 
Luckily, I never had any issues with fluid or food intake other than occasionally falling behind on nutrition. I would slow and tire, but I never had any stomach issues. That, as they say, seems to always the only constant in my races. Unfortunately, I also experience another constant when having to run extensive downhills...blisters. No matter how many repeats I run or training races I schedule, none of them ever prepare me adequately for the sustained downhill running that is required at events like UTMB, Fat Dog, and other similar events. A 100K may get me close to having foot problems, but never to this extent. In anticipation of this issue, I had brought 5 pairs of socks and 4 pairs of shoes to change into at miles 40, 70 and 100. I cleaned my feet each time and generously reapplied 2Toms every time as well. In addition, I had been in the habit of nearly completely removing my foot calluses about a week prior to each major event. None of this seemed to matter or help.
By the time we reached the backside of the second climb around mile 41, hotspots had started to develop. There weren't any blisters, yet, so I was hopeful that new socks and shoes would self-correct  or remedy any hotspots. Those hopes were squashed pretty soon after. In fact, I even started to adjust my gait on the downhills to reduce the impact on my heels and land more on my midfoot/forefoot. This just added more hotspots/blisters, now also evident under my forefoot and on the inside of my big toes. However, all this was still manageable at this stage and the amazing scenery deserves most of the credit for that.
While I had an "A" goal of running and earning a sub 36 hour buckle, those plans were quickly corrected when we finished the first climb in terrible heat and smoke. I know everyone seemed to react differently to the smoke. Some were unfazed, I, on the other hand, started to have slight sinus issues that got worse as the day wore on. Nothing debilitating, just something to add to the difficulty of an event like this. Even before the time Paul started puking, we both had realized that sub 36 was likely unattainable at this point. Once we did start to discuss the goal, we both agreed that sub 40 should still be possible. I did not care one way or the other. Thankfully, the air had improved somewhat, allowing us some spectacular views on several occasions. I tried to capture these views with the photos in this blog, but you can never really truly replicate the vastness of majestic mountain ranges. The views are what kept me going and staying positive...mostly.
As with any 100 miler, there are dark times. These dark times usually don't start for me until I've been sufficiently sleep deprived, i.e. I have struggled midway through the first night. At that point, I usually take a Vivarin caffeine pill, chew it and wash it down with fluids for a quicker boost. That usually gets me over the hump. For me, dark moments usually don't start until a bit after that. As my mind becomes less functional and hallucinations start to take hold, I start to doubt myself. Hallucinations have become a serious issue for me over the last couple of years. I am fully aware that they are hallucinations, but I am unable to turn them off. Usually, they become extreme as I approach the second night of an event without sleep. In fact, I see more hallucinations than real objects at that point. There are writings all over the ground, every rock, stick, and other real objects becomes something shiny or manmade, and I mean everything. This was fun when it first happened, now it's more of a nuisance as I try to turn it off to focus on the trail ahead of me. Before arriving at mile 41 aid station, runners have to complete a fun river crossing that was secured with rope and safety volunteers. It felt pretty good to cool of our feet, but it was also great to know that dry socks and shoes would be waiting just a few short miles away at the 41 mile aid station.
Burnt forest
We arrived at aid station 41 at the backside of climb 2 a bit over 12 hours into the race. It was time for the first sock and shoe change and to see our crew/pacer John for the first time. It is always great to see a familiar face during an event like this. But to add to that, the aid station volunteers were all fantastic and encouraging, as was everyone else hanging out to support their own runners. Words of encouragement and support could always be heard as we entered or left an aid station. Every time we hit an aid station, Paul and I would make sure to get enough fluids and food whenever available. 
Burnt forest
There were a total of 6 sections, where there were 10 or more miles between aid stations and that meant that you needed to carry more than just a couple of bottles of water. Reluctantly, I had opted to add a hydration bladder to my already jam-packed running pack. I wanted to make sure to have my hands free at all times to use my trekking poles and carrying 4 bottles would have made that impossible without stopping and swapping bottles, etc. Even though I carried gels along with some chews, my main nutrition came from Sword. I carried ziplock baggies of that hydration mix with me and would always have at least one bottle filled with Sword all day. Later on in the race I would fill both bottles with Sword to get enough nutrition. I am excited to say that I never got sick of the taste, ever!
Paul still looking chipper early on in the race
Paul and I left aid station 41 and started the third major climb of the race in total darkness, which meant the use of headlamps was necessary. The third climb went up to nearly 7000ft again, but this time, there were a few downhills thrown in, making this the second longest climb of the day with nearly 15 miles. Luckily, we reached the top of this climb by the time day broke and we were treated to an amazing sunrise. I couldn't stop taking pictures. 
By the time we reached the 73 mile aid station, we had descended a total of 4000 feet over just 10 miles. I now had blisters. No matter, I continued my ritual. Take off shoes and socks, use baby wipes to clean feet, let dry, reapply 2Toms, put on new socks and shoes. Paul and I went on to the next aid station 5 miles away, where John would wait to meet us again. The only way to run these races is to break them down into small chunks, aid station to aid station, never having to "think" further than 13 miles at a time. At least that's the only way I can mentally manage these events.
Paul and I were still moving fairly well at this point. I managed a quick bathroom break at mile 78 before we continued on to the next aid station, just a short 2 miles away on the shoulder of a Highway. This was only the second road section of the day (the first was also a short 2 miles in the middle of the night after the river crossing). We ran our fastest mile of the race during this section and I realized that Paul was on a mission. I could barely keep up with him, but I wasn't going to admit that:-)
Arriving at mile 80 AS, we knew we had a rough (read: runnable) 13 mile section ahead of us. We ate aplenty and filled up all of our water reserves before taking off on the infamous (mosquito infested) Skagit Park section along the river. Only it did not even feel runnable to us at this point. Paul still appeared to have way more energy than me, so he asked me to lead as to make sure he wasn't going to run away. I had resorted to the ultra shuffle already and I was definitely relying on Paul's resolve at this point to keep moving. This section was the worst for me, personally. I prefer to climb all day. Running at this point of the race just wasn't in the cards for me, so I tried to do my best to just keep moving forward.
Moving forward we did, but this section still felt like the longest, both in time and distance. We knew that we would see our crew again at the next stop, so that was a mental crutch for sure. We also knew that we were getting closer to the finish. Another 6 mile section, I thought, and then comes the final 21 mile push to the finish. When we arrived at mile 93 AS, John had decided to join us to pace already, six miles earlier than originally planned. It was a welcome change of plans as it would allow us to kinda switch of a bit and let John do the thinking for a while...a long while. The next 6 miles felt as tough as the last 13. The race had finally become a struggle. We arrived at mile 99 and I was almost scared to take off my shoes and socks as I knew it would not be pretty. After much deliberation with a friendly aid station volunteer, I decided to just leave the blisters alone, clean my feet and put on new socks and shoes. 
Once again we made sure to eat and drink as much as possible to get the calories needed for the final climb(s). Paul was as determined as ever and I was hanging on just to get this monster done. As we started the final of 4 major climbs, we were in pretty good spirits and John was happy to see that we had no problems climbing. With that said, this climb took forever. It also had a few surprises left once you reached the "top", six surprises to be exact, in the form of false peaks. These false peaks were both demoralizing and infuriating at once. Paul and I had just finished discussing how happy we were that we were well on track to break 40 hours, when the false summits continued and seemed to get worse. They were relentless.
There were definitely a few choice words yelled into the sky, but we kept going. When we finally got to the actual descent, it became apparent that both Paul's and my feet had suffered greatly. Rather than "bomb" the final 6 mile downhill to the finish, we tenderly took one step after another, using our trekking poles (which we did not put away a single time during the race) softening the blow of every step downwards. When we finally reached the lake, we were left with one final cruel surprise. The finish line was on the opposite side of the lake, requiring runners to complete one final 1.5 km half loop around the lake. When we finally crossed the finish line, I was too exhausted to really celebrate. It also had not sunk in yet that we were actually done. 6 months of training had culminated in my first 120 mile finish. It felt fantastic to finally be handed my Fat Dog 120 buckle by RD Heather McDonald. 
When it was all said and done, it had taken me 40 hours and 13 minutes to complete this beast, finishing in the top 50 in a race that had 200 starters and 100 finishers. This race was definitely the hardest I've ever run and it pushed my to my limits and then some. Thanks to all the amazing volunteers who manned the aid stations and check points for 48 hours and more, some of them having hiked in supplies a day before the event even started. These adventures are not possible without you. Will I do this race again? Probably not. 120 miles is 120 miles. Do I recommend it to others? Hell yes, it is scenic, it is tough, it is mostly single track, it is point to point, what else could you want? Well, maybe a faster finish time:-)






















































Paul, John and I at the finish line after more than 40 hours of "running"

John Gray, Billy Simpson, me, Samuel Hammonds and Paul Morris indulging in a few beers hanging out at Manning Lodge Sunday

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4 comments

  1. Excellent write-up and photography, Martin. Beth and I love western Canada and have hiked in Manning before. Really a beautiful place.. Enjoyed following the training.. Great job!

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    1. Thanks man, it didn't go quite as planned, missed my A and B goals, but you can never be disappointed when you manage to cross the finish line of a 120 mile race:-)

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  2. Lovely recap—and lovely photos! I wish I'd taken a few more. That's me in the 6th shot down . . . I can't remember if we exchanged pleasantries, but well done nonetheless!

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    1. Thanks, Megan, and a huge congrats to you, too! I can't remember either, 40+ hours of "running" will do that to you:-)

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