10:00 am Friday morning, August 15, 2014, I began the Fat Dog 120 Mile Trail Race in the mountains of British Columbia. The race had close to 29,000 ft of climbing, unknown terrain, I had no crew, 1 pacer and 9 drop bags.
The race started with a climb that began around 800 ft in elevation and topped out just below 8,000 ft. This climb was unrelenting, my heart was racing and my breathe was erratic. I began to think maybe I bit off more than I can chew. My heart continued to pump and my breathing became more difficult with every foot step. I tried to slow down my pace and loosened up my chest straps to see if that would offer relief. I didn’t even cover 5 miles yet and I’m already feeling like this. Then I remembered this is me in altitude, even if only 7,000 ft, I always feel like crap in the beginning. I calmed myself down, took some deep breaths, told myself to be present with in my surroundings and not to get caught up in my head already.
Wow, this place is so beautiful! The lush forest reminded me of the temperate rainforest of Southeast Alaska. Suddenly the excitement of this massive adventure and the unknown that lied ahead returned and my fear subsided. I continued to press forward awaiting for the tree line to end, this would give us the first signal that we were close to the top.
I made it to the first very minor water stop/aid station where I topped off my water and continued on. Uphill switchbacks greeted us to make the final push to the top. The views were spectacular, with colorful wild flowers and snow capped peaks surrounding us.
Where am I? This question often popped in my head. Yesterday I was in New York and today I’m on top of a mountain in the extreme wilderness of British Columbia, crazy stuff! At this point I was chatting with a group of runners, mostly local except for this one man who was from MA, he was wearing a NJ Trails Series shirt. We laughed about that and talked about his past races. We enjoyed a nice downhill stretch into the mile 18 aid station (AS). I went straight to my drop bag, fueled up and left pretty quickly. Nicola, the female winner of last year’s race was working at the aid station and helped me fill my bladder. I took off at a strong pace feeling much better than I did 3 hours ago.
The next climb was up to Trapper AS mile 22. This was a steep climb that led you through an amazing section of forest that was dead but was very much alive. The trees were black and burned from a forest fire, and the grass & moss were green with vibrant purple flowers bursting out of the ground. New bright green bushes and small trees were beginning to flourish. All wonderful signs of rebirth.
I reached Trapper AS, grabbed my drop bag which had some cold weather clothing, headlamps, extra batteries, etc. I didn’t feel the need to change yet so I wrapped a long shirt around my waist and carried on. Yes, this was only mile 22, but we started at 10:00 am and the next aid station was 13 miles away, with a definite chance of darkness hitting during this stretch.
This section was extremely spooky, the trail was very narrow and technical, more like a game trail. The woods were very dark and I was alone; no one in front or behind me. Long grassy sections and many different varieties of scat (yep, animal poop) littered the trail. I noticed a huge pile of bear scat, I hovered my hand over it to check if it was warm which would mean it was very recently delivered and sure enough it was! Time to start talking loudly, this is brown bear country.
I would come around a tight corner fully convinced a moose or bear would be standing there waiting for me. I was so happy it wasn’t completely dark outside just yet. Why do I always end up alone during these races? lol...
This stretch took forever, winding through game trails, up and over foot bridges. Finally I made my way out into an open meadow and up ahead was a ridgeline we needed to get to. I turned to look behind me, still nothing but I think I see some people ahead of me in the distance, sweet! Just the sight of them made me feel better. As I started climbing the wind began to pick up and almost instantly the temperature dropped. I was suddenly exposed on the ridge, I looked for a big rock or small outcropping of trees to stand behind to block the wind so I could put a layer of clothing on. This was the perfect time for the Patagonia Houdini shell and pair of gloves.
These were gorgeous miles, with distant snow capped mountain ranges in view, the trail was in great condition and not to mention we were going downhill, it was perfect! I caught up with some runners, we shared small talk and then I continued to the next minor aid station. My main goal was to get to my drop bag at Calcite, mile 35 before dark.
Before I knew it, I was at Calcite AS. I found my drop bag, gathered my nutrition and gear, made sure my headlamp was working; the last thing you want is to be without light. I was also carrying water proof matches and all the mandatory gear which consisted of a space blanket, sunscreen, bug spray, lightweight jacket, gloves and a cap. There was no going lite during this race. This was an advanced ultra with long distances between aid stations and mountain weather that could change quickly. I left Calcite feeling great just a little lonely. From this point on, my head lamp would help me lead the way.
During this section I had a water crossing to contend with, which should be fun. Headed to Pasayten River, If you weren’t paying attention here you could easily get off track, the flagging was a little confusing and the trail was very overgrown and narrow. Bats had a fun time diving toward my light but at this point I was happy to have their company.
The sky looked clear which I was happy about, meaning no storms were in the near forecast. Here comes the river, this is no Rucky Chucky (a river crossing on the Western states course), I could see glow sticks attached to the support rope leading the way across but no people or rafts, lol. At the race meeting the RD said the water level was low and should be fine. I gingerly placed one foot in, it was cold but it felt good. I held on to the rope for dear life and slowly made my way. At about midpoint the river was rushing and I lost my footing, Oh shit! I am a small women, the water was just below my waist, now my shorts were soaked. I caught myself, regained my composure and footing and made it across to the aid station.
I asked how long to the next one, they said 3 miles. Dry socks and shoes were waiting for me at Bonniver (mile 41). For some reason I didn’t place anything here, my mistake. I was getting very cold, I told the volunteers I had to keep moving, they placed a reflective vest on me for the upcoming highway section.
Yeah, this race kept you on your toes the entire time, from a cold river crossing to running 2 miles on a highway where cars and trucks were going 60 mph or faster. I felt like I was running for my life on the shoulder of a highway, boy did the cars and trucks seem very close. I’m sure they didn’t expect to see a runner on the side of the highway at 11:00pm on a friday night.
Bonniver AS, mile 41. This was where pacers and crew could meet their runner. The volunteers were awesome and helped me along the way. I sat in a chair to change my shoes and socks, made sure I had enough calories in me and on me to make it through the next 12 miles, which was all climbing. I hadn’t listened to music the entire time but decided I would during the next stretch. Adam, teammate/pacer will be waiting for me at the top of this mountain, yay!
The entire day I tried not to think about the fact I was trying to cover 120 miles, it was very hard to comprehend the two nights and two sunrises. Do I just run it like a 100 and suffer the last 20 or do I micro manage myself and take it one aid station at a time, keeping myself under control for fear of the unknown. Yes, I completed Badwater which was 135 miles in desert heat but this is completely opposite in nature. The only things the two have in common is tapping into your true grit and knowledge of how to take care of yourself. But things can still go wrong and no one is here to pick up the pieces.
The climb up Heather Mtn. was a beast. I came up on a runner, a fellow east coaster, Joe Giolato. We talked for a while about the course, training, etc. Then I carried on thinking I can’t even believe we are not at the halfway point of this race yet.
Finally I made it to the top of Heather, swear this climb took close to 4 hours. We were starting to lose visibility, temperature began to fall and its got to be 2:00 am or so. I can see the aid station, its exposed on the top of a mountain with little shelter blocking the elements. Three or four people were there volunteering, awesome! Adam had been there since 9:00pm waiting for me patiently. Everyone was freezing, it must have been 30 degrees. I ate avocado quesadilla, yes fancy dining on top of a cold mountain peak. Adam helped fill my bladder and we were off into the fog.
The visibility was extremely poor at times we would catch a glimpse of our surroundings and the extreme drop offs to each side of us, one false move and you would be in serious trouble. We ran along waiting for the sun to rise. Adam talked about his day and gave me updates on how Julian was doing; which at this point, he was doing well and came in around midnight but a little behind on his nutrition.
We ran strong into Nicomen Lake, a minor aid station that consisted of a lean-to right on a beautiful mountain lake, two men, 1 of them asleep. They were simply filtering water from the lake. Awesome that this marked the halfway point at mile 62!
11 miles until the next aid station and drop bags which consisted of downhill running on beautiful single track that ran through a thick spruce forest. We ran strong passing at least 5 people and came into Cayuse flats aid station mile 73 and feeling great. My new goal was to get to mile 99 before dark.
As I was leaving the aid station a volunteer yelled out, “are you Elizabeth?”, yes I replied. She said, “Julian is here”! Julian is a good friend and teammate of mine. We covered many miles together over the years. I immediately shouted, “JULIAN GET THE FUCK UP!! LETS GO!”. Everyone started laughing, applauding and were happy to see he was going to continue his journey. I saw his head pop up from a sleeping bag, he quickly gathered his things, I kept walking slowly giving him a chance to catch up.
From Heather Mtn. down to Cayuse he got behind on his nutrition. He forgot to place a drop bag somewhere containing his Tail Wind Endurance Fuel powder. Yup, one missed drop bag especially when you’re a vegan can make or break your race. The tough thing about this race was the organization it required. I used 9 drop bags, containing cold weather clothing, summer clothes, extra socks, shoes, nutrition, headlamps, batteries, bug spray, etc. It was difficult to figure out where you were going to be and when. I spent the entire week prior trying to nail it just right.
Now we were three, with renewed energy to finish this beast! Team work was in full effect and it was electrifying! I led the team, making sure everyone felt good as we ran/hiked our way to the next AS.
We reached Cascades AS mile 78, pretty quickly. I hid behind a car to change my clothes, we all wiped down and put on new socks. A man we met from Oklahoma at the hotel was there crewing for his friend and helped us in every way. “What do you need? water, etc.” he asked. “Can you fill this up, throw this out, etc.” I asked. We each were barking out orders and he was awesome! Thank you for your help Trail Angel!
We ate a lot of food got recharged for the next push to mile 99. Had another dangerous 2 mile road section to the Sumallo minor AS. Thank god it was daylight! Now we really can see how close the cars were and boy they were closer than I thought, thank goodness we were in a group.
We quickly left here on our way to Shawatum, mile 90, this section was like running through a fantasy, bright lush green moss lined the trail, large Sitka Spruce, Ponderosa Pine and Broad Leaf Maples. Ferns and Wild Flowers were on full display. As I ran, I found myself reaching out touching the trees, my fingertips grazing over the tops of ferns. I felt so alive with their energy.
A beautiful clear glaciated river was to our right, it looked so pure I wouldn’t have hesitated to take a mouthful. A fly fisherman was even at one point casting his line. Definite bear country with every step. I looked back every so often to be sure everyone was on track. I was getting tired but I was motivated to push on.
I don’t remember too much about Shawatum, we ate and moved through. The next section was a nightmare. The RD warned us about this section during the race meeting. We ran/ walked along with 9 miles to the next AS. The mosquitos were out to kill us! As if this race wasn’t challenging enough. At times I felt people purposely set these obstacles before us as if we were characters in the Hunger Games and people were watching to see if we survived. Buzz, buzz, sting, holy smokes! I was smacking every part of my body. My arms were covered with bugs and blood, I can’t even express to you how annoying and energy sucking this section was . We flailed our arms like crazy people for 9 miles. At one point, I looked at Adams shirt and it was completely covered with bugs. Julian was smart enough to drop a mosquito hat in his bag. I sprayed so much deet on my body I thought my skin was going peel off from the chemicals but at this point I didn’t care.
We kept pushing on, able to see for miles in front of us. Frustration set in, I felt like we were on a treadmill not making any forward progress, an hour more goes by, finally the skyline aid station.
Mile 99, Skyline aid station the one I was looking forward too, I knew if I made it here before dark I wouldn’t have any trouble finishing in time. I believe it was 6:30ish pm when we arrived. Adam decided to call it a day after 50 miles, he couldn’t bear losing another night of sleep, especially with Wasatch coming up. We all agreed it was best for him to leave and handle the important details of getting our car and stuff to the finish.
We piled into enclosed screened tent to get relief from the bugs. We sat there eating and gathering all of our gear for the final 20, some participants were having shots and beer, lol. It looked good but I knew I should probably refrain.
One huge thing about this race it seemed that all the participants at least the ones I was around, had their shit together. I never saw one person suffering or without appropriate gear. Everyone was very experienced and extremely positive. It was very empowering and inspiring, Show no weakness was the name of the game.
We gathered everything we needed to make the final push of the day, which happened to be the 2nd hardest climb of the entire race. Yup, with 20 miles left they throw a massive 7,000 foot climb at you and a wicked descent. I felt like I just finished the Wasatch 100, now I have to spend 8 more hours pushing through exhaustion to finish this beast.
Julian and I left the AS around 7:00 pm. Here we go into our 2nd night. Julian and I barely said a word, we would occasionally laugh at what we were doing and where we were but most of the time we tuned out into our music and tried to place one foot in front of the other.
This climb was brutal, yet people were passing us looking fresh. The bugs were still out, but you couldn’t tell by the locals behavior. One guy part of the 70 mile race blazed by us, we asked him how he dealt with the bugs, he says I gave up on spray along time ago, I don’t pay any attention to them. We all laughed! Typical positive local response. I just let them feed on me and go on with my day.
We were at least 2 hours into the climb and it just kept going up, its going to be a long 7.5 miles to next water stop. We would go up then go down a little, then climb back up, then go down, this repeated like 5 times until we were finally just going up. Now we were on to something. I kept telling myself just keep putting one foot in front of the other and we will get there.
An orange glow took over the sky saying goodbye to another day. The views made it all worth it, the sun set was awesome! I felt so fortunate to be here covering this terrain! At this point in the race I always tend to get emotional about what we are able to do. Its amazing we have been out here climbing mountains for almost 2 days, no sleep, just moving forward. Epic!
We put on our headlamps and pressed on still climbing. My pace started to quicken. I’d slow when I didn’t see Julians lights behind me to make sure he was ok. I didn’t see his lights for awhile and went back to check, he was freezing. I helped him put a coat and wind pants on, then encouraged him to eat and drink more because that was why his body temperature was falling. Another reminder that things can get real ugly, really quick. He ate and drank, and about a half hour later he was feeling back to normal. We nipped that one in the butt quickly.
We continued on with hopes of stumbling upon the 107 mile AS. We would look straight up not in front of us and saw nothing but trail markers and headlamps, the climb just kept going. We came across a large pile of bear scat, I hovered my hand over it again, yup it was fresh. We decided that it was time to stop listening to music and start to make some noise to make ourselves known. The trail was very overgrown with hidden twist and turns. I was happy to have the company.
After hours passed by we finally made it to the aid station. All the volunteers were extremely nice and helpful. We had some broth and refilled our bladders and carried on to continue the seemingly endless climb. Funny that we have been out here for almost 2 days while most have had several meals and we were just happy to have some broth.
During this section I began to fall asleep. I remember resting on poles while standing and almost completely falling into a deep sleep. I woke myself up, looked up at the sky and said come on girls; Zsuzsanna and Jennifer should be making their way down the trail at the Leadville 100 & Eastern States 100, stay strong!
My energy was definitely lacking at this point but I am happy to say I never had any real lows. I managed to stay in check the whole day or days :).
Most of the time the grade was so steep I would place one foot up, then my pole to force myself up, then the other. We were moving so slow I stopped caring about finishing on time. More hours passed, we came to the final aid station where the assistant race director and Nicola were set up on a steep switchback. I had some coke and talked to the RD about the course etc. I asked what the time was, Nicola responded, “12:15”, nice, I thought it was 2:30 am. That was a boost. He said there were 3 more climbs then the final downhill which wasn’t very runnable.
We carried on in awe of 2 older folks actually running by us. I could tell they were chasing the sub 40 hour mark. We pretty much settled in at this point and said the climbs weren’t never going to come to an end so you might as well embrace it. We could see headlamps on top of the ridge in the distance. Julian would say those were the people behind us on the other ridge making their way up but I knew better. I knew if we were at the true summit the tree line would have to be below us. As long as there were trees around we still had plenty of climbing to do.
I wanted to sit down at this point so I tried for a moment. I need 2 minutes I told Julian but he pushed me on. We finally made it to the descent! The descent was made up loose rocks with steep declines as well as switchbacks, too bad our quads were shot and we couldn’t take advantage of the downhill. We inched our way down for miles in search of the tree line again. At this point I knew we were going to finish before the cut off. Into the trees in search of the finish.
The trail leading into the finish took forever. A female runner came shuffling by asking how far to the finish, I said I have no clue, I thought it should have been here over an hour ago. You forget when you’re moving at a snails pace things take a bit longer...
Julian said, “lets just walk to the lodge and forget about the finish”, we were so over it, lol. I could have mustered up a jog but I didn’t feel the need at this point. Finally we came to a fork in the trail, we saw the famous glow sticks that have been inviting us into every aid station for 2 days. This was it, this must be the finish line? We didn’t see or hear anything. Shouldn’t we have heard the woman who passed us with her pacer, but nothing!
We continued following the glow sticks, Julian said “I bet there will be 25 glow sticks”, we just laughed and continued to do so because we counted well over 25. We looked across the lake, finally we see the finish line! This race will now come to an end! Not that we didn’t enjoy it, it just didn’t seemed like it was going to happen.
We hear a couple of screams, the woman who passed us must have just finished, we are getting closer! The glow sticks continued around the lake and we continued walking. 41 hours and change have passed since the start and we were still going, finally crossing a bridge and I see the timer in the distance. Funny thing, we didn’t even bother running to the finish, we just sped up our walk to read the clock at 41:35.
This race was truly one of the hardest things I have done. Yes, I can probably do it faster but when up against unknown dangers without a crew and ensuring the team finished what we started, I am extremely happy with my performance. It was also great to be out in the mountains for a couple of days. I felt in charge and present during our whole adventure. I am a Fat Dog!
Thank you to the wonderful volunteers and race staff, the entire MPF Trail Running Team for their support, Adam Mayer for flying all the way to British Columbia to keep me company for 50 miles and to my husband Joe for his full support! Julian, I am so happy you waited for me before you dropped, we really showed what teamwork is all about! This race is a must do, extremely organized, tough and very scenic!
Until next year Fat Dogs!
Patagonia Houdini Jacket
Montrail Mountain Masochist Trail Shoe
Pearl iZumi N2 Trail Shoe (shoe review)
Nathan Vapor Shadow 2 Liter Hydration Vest
Nathan Speed Draw Water Bottles
Petzel Myo Headlamp
Black Diamond Z Poles