The last time I was in Vancouver it was 2012 when I was running the SeaWheeze Half Marathon. While there I learned a trail race was going on at the same time just north of us in Squamish. I had driven through that part of coastal British Columbia several times, mostly on my way to Whistler, and it’s drop dead gorgeous. I really wanted to run that race one day.

It turns out that had been the inaugural running of the Squamish 50. It’s evolved over the years dropping the relays in favor of 23k, 50k, and 50 mile races. It’s also become a two-day event. The 50 mile is on Saturday and the 23k/50k is on Sunday. Those who want even more fun can sign up for the Squamish 50/50. One guess what that means.

The 50k course and elevation profile. Map: Squamish 50

The Day Before the Day Before

The Squamish 50 was the fifth event I was covering this year for Ultra Sports Live.TV so I was starting to get the packing and travel thing down. Karen and I were at the Vancouver airport waiting for George’s flight to come in. We’d be here long enough to have two meals so hanging out in the food court above baggage claim made sense. It’s the nature of the beast with group travel. You learn to roll with it. I had left my house at 8am. It was after 10pm by the time we arrived at Squamish, discussed updates for the next day with the rest of the crew, and went to bed.

The Day Before

The alarm at 5:00am came too soon. When doesn’t it? Pete and I had to “go live” at 7:10am at Alice Lake, which was around mile 12.5 for the 50 mile course and the start line for the 50k the next day. We arrived to a locked gate which provided a lot more excitement than I’d like to start a broadcast morning with. Pete had covered this race last year so he was familiar with the area and we were able to sneak in through an exit. Nerves calmed, disaster averted.

Final checks before we “go live” in the shelter of shade at Smoke Bluffs. Photo: Peter Beck

We had a bit of time before setting up our next camera location at Smoke Bluffs, enough anyway to eat an early lunch and catch a disco nap in the parking lot. We were about 1.5 miles away from the finish line, the last bit of trail before the runners hit the asphalt and home. We ended our broadcast shortly after 8pm then headed back to the finish line to check in with everybody. I had a quick bite to eat, got my gear ready for the race, and went to sleep. Or tried. I was wound up from the day and it took awhile for me to settle down.

The finish line area at night. Photo: Karen Tancuan
USL crew interviewing each other at the finish line. Photo: Brian McCurdy Photography

The Day Of

4:30am. I slept well but I could have used more of it. We didn’t have to take the shuttle because George, who wasn’t running any of the races, was kind enough to get up at the crack of before dawn and chauffeur us around – Marie and I to Alice Lake and later Pete and Karen for the 23k and their start line at Quest University. I dubbed him Pocket George because everyone needs a George in their back pocket to use in a time of need and I needed the few extra minutes of sleep he was able to give me.

Pete and Karen at the start of their 23k with star chauffeur, George. Photo: Brian McCurdy Photography

When I look at the photos Karen took before the race my smile says it all. I don’t think there is a start line photo of me in existence where I look more terrified. What usually happens when I’m this overwhelmed before a race is I cry. It’s cathartic. I was too scared to have the good sense to hide. Instead I’m a deer in headlights captured for eternity or until I hit the delete button.

Marie and I at the start. The fear demon is alive and well and showing itself on my face. Photo: Karen Tancuan

I usually reserve this much terror for races with two zeros in their distance. Knowing this race has an 11 hour cut-off was not reassuring. It means it’s hard. Everything I’d heard and read said it was hard. And technical. 8500 feet of gain does not engender warm, fuzzy feelings. But the truth is this was my last long run before Pine to Palm, my second hundred. I’d been nurturing a thriving fear demon all summer on a healthy diet of insecurity around my impending hundred and the last thing I needed was to emerge on the other side of this race feeding it a heaping spoonful of failure. It’s a terrible burden to place on a “training run” but I desperately needed a confidence booster.

Race director Gary Robbins giving the 50k race briefing at Alice Lake. Photo: Brian McCurdy Photography

The miles to Aid #1 (mile 5) had no climbs of significance and it gave me the opportunity to see how my legs were feeling which, to my surprise, was good, really good. They were dead and tired the day before when I had hauled gear up to our spot at Smoke Bluffs so this was welcome news. I also ran a lot of that early section with Alyssa, who I didn’t know was running, until I bumped into her the night before. Rolling through some easy miles catching up with a friend I hadn’t seen in a while is a pleasant way to start any morning.

A sharp left a short distance from the aid station brought me to the start of the climb up Galactic Scheisse, 2500 feet of gain in 2.5 miles. I took a deep breath and got to work. As my legs warmed to the climb I realized, though I wasn’t going to break any land speed records, I felt great. I knew it was still early but I’m not usually this positive going uphill. I was leading a couple of people to the top and our chatter was a nice distraction. I asked Melanie, who was familiar with the course, about the other climbs.

“Not as steep as this one but they all have …” There was a long pause and I could almost hear the gears turning, “… their charms.”

A typical view you can see while on Galactic Scheisse. Photo: Jenni Kirk

It flattened a bit at the top but it didn’t take long before the serious descent started. There were small pockets of people laid out before me trying to work their way down. So here is where everybody went. I don’t know what possessed me at that moment but I threw myself down the fall line. I soon passed a lot of familiar looking faces and some not so familiar ones.

“Welcome to your next seven miles!” I heard someone say.

I’d never run this aggressively downhill before, especially on such steep and technical terrain. I didn’t think I had it in me. Actually I wasn’t thinking at all but reacting to the rocks, roots, bumps, and turns in one smooth flow. At one point I saw a drop that a couple of runners had avoided by descending the alternate route next to it. Put on the brakes or jump? I jumped.

What the hell?

I continued unabated to Aid #2 (mile 12). All summer long Ann told me to push the downs a bit but I don’t think this is what she had in mind. I picked up a passenger along the way.

“I can’t believe I’m doing this,” she said as we continued our hard charge.

“Me neither,” I replied. I was well aware that I could end up paying dearly for that descent with blown quads in the later miles. I guess I’d find out.

The heroics ended in the most humbling of ways. After I left Aid #2 my gut decided to stage a revolt. Awesome. I was no longer on the steep stuff. Instead there were short ups and downs that I couldn’t seem to make heads or tails of. I got passed several times but there wasn’t much I could do about it but be patient.

I was like a boat stuck in the doldrums, my sails flapping uselessly in the air. It doesn’t surprise me that while I was in this malaise a root grabbed my foot and I went tumbling to the ground. I lay there for a bit as the dust settled. Figures. There was no damage. I’ve had worse falling on my bike while clipped into the pedals. It was a little over 2 miles between Aid #2 and Aid #3 at Quest University. It was the shortest section but in other ways the longest. If my gut would calm down I could get back on track.

Quest University was Aid Station #3. Photo: Karen Tancuan

Quest (mile 15) appears like a mirage in the desert. You are in the middle of nowhere then suddenly you step foot on a campus with manicured lawns and sidewalks. I was able to regroup at Quest. I doused in ice water and felt marginally better, good enough to start eating again with boiled potatoes which really hit the spot. While my gut was still a bit twitchy at this point, it continued to get better and was no longer an issue.

We ran on the road for a bit but it didn’t take long for the climbing to start again. This was a long one, almost five miles. My training focus all summer has been on long, sustained climbs so a grind like was familiar. Melanie had told me about Angry Midget and its many false summits and switchbacks but I couldn’t bite my tongue when I ask a guy who ran the 50 mile, “Are we there yet?”

“There are 3000 switchbacks on this climb and we are on number 1000.”

In ultras, as in relationships, if you aren’t ready to hear the answer, don’t ask. In reality it was more like 60 switchbacks (yes, I counted on my Garmin track), which still sounds awful, so we’ll round-up to 3000.

A unique feature of the race, the many board walks used by mountain bikers. I was told to run across these with my toes up.
A banked chicane.

When I reached the top of Angry Midget, a volunteer was there taking bib numbers. She looked completely incongruous. How did she get up here? Was she air dropped with a camp chair and clipboard? I’m sure there was an access road nearby but the thought of her floating down on a parachute was too amusing to me.

“Be careful going downhill. It’s slippery,” she said.

I took a look. There were several people cautiously making their way down. Of course that meant I should launch my body down the slope. Again. I remember seeing a tree and the trail turning left away from it. With the momentum I was carrying, it seemed easier to aim for the tree and push off it, so I did. Or maybe it was just for stupid fun. For some reason, on this day, these descents landed squarely in my wheelhouse. While the macrocosm of my racing life makes me uncomfortable, the microcosm of these descents did not. It might have looked reckless on the outside but I was fully in control.

Tempting to jump it but the water was moving really fast.

Everything was in sync and I felt great as in came into Aid #4 (mile 21). Douse in ice water, potatoes, Coke, get out. This routine worked at Quest and I saw no need to change it. Up to this point I had enjoyed the shelter of tree cover but we were now heading into the most exposed section of the course. It was hot, really hot. The heat scorched the back of my head as if focused by a giant magnifying glass. I don’t remember much of this section, my memory burned away by the sun.

The Mamquam River right before the last aid station, #5.

I had to cross the Mamquam River to get to Aid #5 (mile 25.5). It was so beautiful with its glacier blue water and white rock walls that it managed to knock me out of my single-minded drive to get to the aid station. I stopped for a moment to enjoy the view, wishing I could jump into the water.

As I approached the aid station I saw Donato and Ashley walking towards me. He had done the 50 mile and we recognized each other when he passed my camera at Smoke Bluffs. They were waiting for a friend to come through but walked with me to the aid station and he filled my water bottles. Something so simple means so much. I went through my routine of ice water douse, potatoes, Coke. I’d been eating nothing but potatoes since Quest but I wasn’t going to question what was working. I asked Donato what I could expect ahead, especially the last climb called Mountain of Phlegm.

“It’s steep, technical, both up and down. When you hit these cool stairs you’ll know you’re near where you set up your camera yesterday.”

The fun never ends on this course. I lingered a bit talking to them because it was nice to talk to a couple of Bay Area folks. The climbing began again shortly after I left the aid station. It was tough to resume the purposeful power hike I’d been employing all day and at one point came to a complete stop to catch my breath. This was the first time I’d done this on a climb today. No stopping I told myself. Slow down if you have to but keep moving. I didn’t stop again.

I saw a course marshal sitting on a slab of granite. “This is really the top,” he promised me, after I questioned him the first time he said that. I thought the trail would go around him but no, it was up and over the slab.

Finally, the top of our last climb, Mountain of Phlegm. Photo: Jenni Kirk

I’d done enough rock climbing years ago that this didn’t feel strange. I scampered up the slab without a problem. After being mindful of rocks and roots all day I was really looking forward to the smooth trail I knew was ahead of me once I made it past the down hill. Although I wasn’t moving as fast as before I was still moving well. I hadn’t blown my quads after all.

Just what I need to wrap up my day, stairs! Photo: Peter Beck

I reach the stairs Donato had told me about. This was interesting. After a few steps I knew my legs could handle it and started running down them. This was fun and it was nice to have a smooth passage, even if it was stairs. I passed a woman who was gingerly making her way down.

“I don’t trust my legs right now,” she said.

I continued my hard charge on the stairs. I couldn’t believe how well my legs were holding up after all the abuse I’d heaped on them descending. I had watched the time since the last aid station and thought I might have a shot at going under 10 hours. I know that sounds absurd but I can finish a typical Bay Area 50k in 7+ hours to put things in perspective. I had figured on 10.5 hours so going sub-10 would be fantastic. It would be close and I needed to keep pushing all the way to the end.

Leaves at Smoke Bluffs.

I was finally on smooth, flat road. It was nice not to have to think about foot placement anymore. I kept looking at my watch, the minutes melting way, when I finally saw the beginnings of the finish line area. I heard Donato and Ashley calling my name and that put a big smile on my face, a real one not driven by my fear demon. I crossed the finish line into the waiting arms of Race Director Gary Robbins, who hugs everyone as they come in. 9:58. I was ecstatic. And profoundly relieved.

I don’t want to kill my fear demon but make friends with it. A bit of fear goes a long way and is useful if contained. It keeps you on your toes but I haven’t quite figured out how to not to let it take over to the degree that it has of late. Make no mistake, I’m still scared of Pine to Palm, but at least I feel better about than I did before. Confidence booster found.

Greeted by USL teammate, Karen, with relief clearly on my face. Photo: Brian McCurdy Photography

The Day After

I looked around me. Pete, Karen, and I had just been joined by George and Marie at our gate in the Vancouver airport. We’d just had breakfast together a few hours ago and yet I felt reunited with long-lost friends, our happy chatter filling my ears.

One of the views from downtown Squamish, our home for the last four days. Photo: Marie Lanka

“I can’t believe I’ve just spend the last four days with you guys,” I blurted out marveling at this jovial camaraderie.

None of us are perfect. We know each other to varying degrees and we certainly all have our quirks. We were together and apart enough not to want to kill each other. We worked hard and we played hard this weekend. That’s not hyperbole but a simple statement of fact. I’m not naïve enough to think it’s always this harmonious but I’m glad I can appreciate and be grateful for these moments when they do exist.

But it will be a while before I can look at another boiled potato.

Posted in 50k

2 thoughts on “Rictus of Fear: The Squamish 50k

  1. Hey! I know – try some salt on the boiled potatoes! (It’s funny how something can save your race and become detested at the same time.) This was a great report – thanks for putting it together.

    Did you have to run on that banked chicane? That looks horrific to me (both slippery and a trip hazard), but maybe it’s not so bad. Congrats on sub-10! That’s really impressive – almost as impressive as you becoming fearless on the downhill! Yikes! You really sound ready for Pine to Palm – go get ’em!

    1. Yes, we did have to run on the chicane. There were a lot of these ramps. They were another potential hazard since the spacing between the slats could vary and you can imagine what would happen if your toe were to catch an edge.

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