The Fat Dog 120 takes place in British Columbia. In addition to the 120 miler, the race offers distances of 70, 50 and 40 miles.
I had registered for the 40 miler months in advance. If there had been a shorter distance, I would have dropped down in a heartbeat.
The 120 mile event has more elevation gain than Everest and made Outside Online’s list of the 9 toughest Ultras. The 40 miler doesn’t even compare to the 120, but it’s still no joke.
Looking at the profile map before the race, it seemed like the climb in the second half was comparable to the climbs I’m used to doing here in the Shenendoahs. It starts at about 500 and climbs to about 2000. But then I realized the scale was in meters, not feet. The 4 hours and 45 minutes to 10 hours (6:30 to 11 hours for the 120 milers) that the website claims it takes most runners to complete this 20 mile section made a little more sense once I realized that.
This profile is from Wild Sead’s race report. She ran the 50 miler in 2015 (in less time than it took me to run the 40 miler, but we don’t have to talk about that.) The portion I ran starts at about 15k on this graph.
In addition to the huge climb, there’s also the risk of running into grizzly bears (the race guide suggests waiting for other runners to join you if this happens, “hold on bear, don’t eat me just yet. I’ve got friends coming along any time now…”), mountain lions and snakes. And of course there’s the danger of being caught on exposed ridges during lightning storms (runners last year had to deal with bad storms and near-freezing temperatures.) I also knew that it was very likely that I’d be running for several hours in the dark. For all of these reasons, my trail running friend Brian and I agreed to run this race together. I’ve never run an ultra with another person before and I’m generally not very good at running with people. I was a little too nervous about attempting this one solo, though.
Most of the course is remote and the aid stations are further apart than they are at many ultras. Because of this, the race director has a list of mandatory gear that every runner must carry with them at ALL times.
That list includes:
*Personal cup to be used at aid stations for beverages and food.
*Minimum of 2 liters of fluids with you at all times.
*Two lighting sources, such as headlamp and hand torch, both in working condition.
*Two survival blankets or one bivy.
*Whistle attached to outside of pack or clothing (to scare off bears).
*Extra food reserve, fuel, drink powder, etc.
*Waterproof jacket (type that has taped seams) with hood, no soft shell sections to jacket allowed.
*Long running trousers or leggings and long socks which cover the legs completely (optional waterproof pants, depends on forecast in our opinion.)
*Additional mid-layer clothing; one thermal jacket or two long-sleeved shirts.
*Cap or bandana
*Warm hat and gloves
*If you don’t have crew, carry your car key in case you have to drop out.
This is what all of that looks like:
I also carried a collapsible hand-held bottle that somehow didn’t make it into the picture. I had to buy a bigger hydration pack just to accommodate all the extra gear we were required to carry.
They were strict about the mandatory gear. There was a gear check at the start and even though we were starting at 10am and there was an aid station with drop bags 10 miles away, we could not put our headlamps, flashlights or warm clothing in our drop bags. They had to be ON us for the entire race.
All of the distances follow a point to point course that ends at Lightning Lake in Manning Park. The 120 miler started at 10am on Friday. The rest of the races began on Saturday at different times and points along the course. There were buses to take runners to their respective starting lines.
The 40 milers were the last to start, at 10am on Saturday.
Our starting line at Sumallo Grove was an aid station for everyone else.
The majority of runners were doing the longer races. Only 21 of us lined up for the 40 Miler. Well, there were 21 finishers and no DNFs listed in the results so I’m assuming there were 21 of us.
The race director (Heather) did a gear check before the start.
The 10 miles to the first aid station were in the Skagit river valley through a forest of huge red cedars and Frasier firs. We’d been warned about the mosquitoes on this section. And by warned, I mean we were told horror stories about meltdowns, tantrums and swollen faces. We had sprayed ourselves with DEET and I was carrying some back-up spray, but the mosquitoes didn’t bother us much at all in this section.
I didn’t get any good pictures, but some of the trees were humongous.
After about ten miles of relatively easy running, we reached our first aid station of the day; Shawatum. A volunteer filled my bladder for me while I used the port-a-john and ate a few slices of watermelon and peanut butter tortilla roll-ups.
Brian’s energy had been really low heading into the first aid station and it pretty much tanked as we made our way out of the aid station and onto the next leg. The day had gotten hot and there were long sections that were exposed to the sun. My shorts are usually soaked when I finish a run at home, but now they were dry and crusty with salt. The Centennial Trail that we were following had more ups and downs than the trail we’d been on earlier.
Going into the race, I was worried that I was going to be the one slowing Brian down. I’ve been struggling with my running again this summer. So I was relieved that he was the one wanting to walk more, not me. But we were going slow enough and he seemed unhappy and depleted enough that I started worrying about our chances of finishing the race at all.
I really wanted to finish before the cut-off time. I wasn’t thrilled with the idea of finishing in the wee hours of the morning, either.
After walking for several miles at what felt like a leisurely pace, I voiced some of my concerns to Brian.
He made it clear that he was determined to finish and I felt bad about having said anything.
I put my head down and focused on swatting at the mosquitoes that had appeared out of nowhere and kept landing on my legs and arms. We trudged on in silence, and eventually made it to Skyline, the second aid station.
Again, a volunteer came over and took my bladder to fill. I used the port-a-john, ate some more watermelon and several quesadilla wedges. I also had a little vegetable broth and downed two bottles of whatever electrolyte drink it was that they were serving. I dipped my bandanna in the ice bucket and wrapped it around my neck and asked the volunteer if there was any sunblock. She went and got a bottle and sprayed me down.
Brian reminded me that the last two aid stations were remote and would have limited supplies (the volunteers had to hike everything in) so I stuffed as much food from my drop bag into my pack as I could. Any food we wanted to eat between aid stations for the next 20 miles, we would need to carry with us.
On the way out of the aid station, another volunteer asked us if we had filled up on water. I had filled my two liter bladder, but not my extra bottle. I was thinking 2 liters would be enough to get me the 8 miles to Camp Mowich, the next aid station. But her question made me reconsider. It was really hot and we had a lot of climbing to do. I figured it was a good idea to go back and fill up my bottle. It ended up being a good decision. We did nothing but climb all the way to the next aid station.
Brian slowly regained his energy, which surprised me because we were climbing and the only thing Brian hates more than running, is running uphill. Although, if I’m being honest, there was very little (if any) actual running going on. Brian realized that he hadn’t been drinking enough and was probably feeling so terrible earlier because he had been dehydrated. He hadn’t been eating much either. So he’d likely been low on fuel as well.
We caught up to one of the 120 milers, her pacer, and a friend of hers who was doing the 40 miler as her first ultra. Talking to them really seemed to perk Brian up. I think it helped all of us take our minds off of the climb for a while. It also helped put things in perspective for me and Brian. She had run 100 miles before starting this climb.
We had only done 20.
It took a long time, but we eventually made it to Camp Mowich.
I loved Camp Mowich. It was a cool little alpine meadow oasis with a shelter (ok, an old barely-standing horse shelter) and a privy. A volunteer filled my water bladder and I helped myself to some broth, potato chips and fig newtons.
I overheard someone ask a volunteer if he were to drop out here, if there was any way out other than on foot. The volunteer told him no. I felt bad for him. His knees were killing him and he had no choice but to continue on.
We had a lot more climbing, but also some incredible views to enjoy after we left Mowich aid station. I was now the one slowing Brian down. I was stopping every five minutes to take pictures. He was really nice about it, though. Even when I made him stop and take my picture.
He’s generally a better person than I am.
This section included a lot of beautiful alpine meadows, some narrow trail that dropped off steeply, and a few dips into the valleys between peaks. Even the “runnable” sections along the side of the mountain weren’t runnable for me. A stumble could send you right over the edge and off the mountain. I wasn’t taking any chances.
The sun was sinking lower in the sky. Eventually, on one of the dips into a valley, we needed to turn our headlamps on. Not long after that, we saw the lights of the last aid station, Sky Junction, on a switchback up ahead. This aid station was literally two people with a tarp on the side of the trail. Considering the remote location and size of the aid station, I wasn’t expecting much. But they had the magical veggie broth that everyone (including me) had been raving about all day. They also had pizza, which totally made my day. I had been dreaming about pizza for the last 10 hours, at least.
Apparently, it’s common for ultra runners to lose their appetite and have to force themselves to eat. Unless it’s an unusually hot and humid day and I’m really dehydrated, that doesn’t happen to me. I almost always want to eat. Brian thinks it’s weird that I get excited about the food at the aid stations.
Anyway, the pizza tasted wonderful and I really wanted a second slice, but I didn’t feel right taking one. I knew there were a lot of hundred milers coming up behind me who would need (and deserve) that pizza more than I did.
The rest of our run was in the dark. The moon had been out all afternoon, but it got brighter and brighter in the darkening sky as we made our way up and over the many false peaks between the last aid station and the final descent. The climbs were so steep that our feet sometimes slid back down the loose gravel as we tried to climb up.
Before the race, I’d been worried about spending hours in the woods after dark, but in reality it wasn’t that bad. There were quite a few 50 and 70 miler runners passing us, so we never went for very long without seeing other people.
We’d been told that the descent back down to Lightning Lake was not too steep or technical. I was not happy with the person who had told us that. I was slowly picking my way down a steep, rocky slope. My knees and lower back were killing me. Brian had brought some hiking poles. He offered them to me and I gratefully accepted. They kept me upright and helped relieve a lot of the pain. Brian assured me that he wouldn’t be running this section, even if he was by himself. But I’m pretty sure he was lying.
The trail did get less steep and rocky the closer we got to the bottom, but there were still a lot of sections that were just too steep for my knees to handle. I had to keep asking Brian to stop and walk. Eventually, I suggested that I just go in front and run what I could. That seemed to work much better. The trail DID eventually become runable again and I started feeling much better. I was determined to run the rest of the way to make up for all the downhill sections that I’d made us walk, but Brian suggested we still walk the inclines. I didn’t argue.
The final couple of miles were really cool. The path was wide and smooth. There were glow sticks on the ground every few feet, guiding our way. We followed the warm light of the glowing sticks around the lake to the finish line, which we crossed just before midnight.
Everyone was wearing long pants and coats, but I still felt warm from the hours of exertion. We got some food and tried to find our drop bags, but the pile of bags was huge and it was hard to see in the dark, so we gave up.
We went back to the finish line a little before 10 the next morning for the award ceremony and to pick up the bags that we hadn’t been able to find the night before. We got to cheer for several 100 milers as they finished, which was really cool.
The finish line looked different in daylight.
If we had finished earlier, a dip in the crystal clear waters of Lightening Lake would have been amazing.
I got in for a swim a little later in the day, and it still felt pretty damn good.
The view wasn’t too shabby, either.
Oh, and I’ve always said that I don’t have any interest in doing a 100 mile race. Mostly because of the whole staying awake all night thing. I need my sleep. I get really crabby when I’m tired (just ask my dad about the time I was helping him with the well pump and it was past my bedtime.) But I have to say, seeing people finish this race might have changed my mind.