The Vancouver 100 was first run by the Vancouver chapter of Club Fat Ass in 2005, and it was my first ultra in 2015. Starting and ending at the famous fire-hydrant at Panorama Park, it roughly follows the Baden Powell trail from Deep Cove to Horseshoe Bay, before turning around for the return leg. In the 100km of running, the race climbs approximately 6,000m, putting the intensity (vertical metres per kilometre run) on par with other hard races:
- Squamish 50 mile: 41.8m/km
- Fat Dog 120: 45.7m/km
- Squamish 50km: 50m/km
- HURT 100: 51.9m/km
- Vancouver 100: 60.0m/km
- Whistler Alpine Meadows 50km: 62.0m/km
- Hardrock 100: 68.9m/km
- Tour de Geants: 72.7m/m
The trail is also more consistently technical than many of these races, and snowpack is an annual X factor. In particular, the 2016/2017 winter was a heavy snow year, so this year’s Van100 was a very different beast to the past two years – some people saying as heavy as in 2012. In 2015 and 2016 there was no snow anywhere on the course; this year, we had 15km of snow.
I wanted to experiment with this year’s run, so I decided to go fully self-supported (a drop-bag at Grouse and one at Whyte Lake Parking), committed more fully to a fat/protein nutrition plan, and wanted to experiment with a pacing aimed at the longer runs I’m looking to do later in the year; I also wanted to start with a night leg – something I had never done. I was running with several pieces of relatively new gear (Arc’Teryx three-quarter tights and shirt, Black Diamond Storm torch, Salomon ADV Skin 12 pack), but has clocked 20-30km in most of these, so wasn’t expecting any surprises.
I planned to start around midnight, but ended up being ready early, so set off at 19:00 instead. This proved to be a poor choice, as I realized it would put me on the snow below Hollyburn well before dawn. Since navigation was going to be more challenging with the snow, and I wasn’t carrying equipment suitable for a bivvy on the snow, I decided it wasn’t a prudent decision. So I took the pace easy, concentrating on keeping my energy usage low – this was a ridiculously slow pace for 100km, but was intended as practice for longer distance. The first twenty five kilometres were uneventful, apart from a large tree which had fallen in Lynn Canyon below the Suspension Bridge, demolishing the boardwalk – impressive but hardly enough to slow progress for longer than to gawk at it. I arrived at Grouse, pulled out my drop-bag, and bedded down on a deck to sleep for a couple hours, to get back on the timeline. However after a couple hours, the night watchman found me, and told me (while being an ornery, utterly humourless SOB) that I couldn’t stay there. I looked at the time, and figured some movement would be good for me, anyway. So, after waiting for the bulldog to wander off, I threw my drop-bag back into its hiding place, and headed down Nancy Green Way.
Progress was again slow and steady. It felt good climbing through English Estates and up towards Hollyburn. After the trail turned off the powerline, the temperature started to drop quickly – I was nearing the snowline. Again I realized I was ahead of the timeline, and settled down just before the snow to bivvy until morning. Unfortunately, the ground was wet and I had left my hoodie at Grouse, so the sleep was not as good this time – I was sleeping in running tights and base layer, leg warmers, arm warmers, rainjacket and a buff, inside a SOL emergency bivvy (a space blanket folded over and taped to form a bag). In retrospect, I should have stopped a kilometre or so earlier, where the ground was dry and the air temperature hadn’t dropped.
With dawn, I started moving again, and within a hundred metres started to see snow. Within twenty minutes I was into the Hollyburn XC ski area. The snow was pretty firm to start with, and my footsteps only penetrated a centimetre or two – but the slippage with each step meant any attempt at speed caused efficiency to drop rapidly, so I was trudging up the wide pistes where in past years I’d held a respectable trot. At one point, I was following pretty fresh bear tracks for a way – probably from the day before, judging by the melt pattern. I was glad that I had uploaded the route to my phone, as I had to check the GPS several times to stay on track.
The upper warming hut was a welcome site – I stopped for several minutes to cat-nap. From there, it was an steady kilometre to the turn onto the connector. My friends Sean Lavin and Meg Peters had flagged this section the previous weekend, and reported that it was good going, and no spikes were needed. What a difference a week can make! After some deep post-holing for the first hundred metres, the crust hardened up, and the going got easier. However, much of the ground is fairly steep, and plunged into near-vertical cliffs as it entered the creeks – though the cliffs were only a couple metres in most places, a slip on this ground would have been serious, with no chance of arresting even a small slip before crashing into the creek.
Note to self: running shoes are not designed for front-pointing and step-kicking in crust!
Clearly some snow-bridges had collapsed since Sean and Meg had come through, as their flagging at times lead to un-crossable gaps, and I had to find creative ways around. In another two weeks, when the “official day” comes around, there could be some very interesting choices!
Eventually, I emerged onto the Cypress downhill pistes, found my way to a chair-lift, and sat down to catch my breath and dry my feet a bit.
In comparison, getting up Black Mountain and down to Eagle Bluffs was a dawdle – one foot in front of the other, no excitement, no surprises – though I did tick my first Peak Bagger Challenge tick of the year. The snow ended abruptly just before the end of the trees at the top of the Bluffs.
After another foot-care break, I dropped off the Bluffs, and was soon at the Whyte Lake parking, after stopping to pet several friendly dogs. I washed my feet, drank a bottle of Coke (my only carbohydrate-specific intake for the race was a Coke every 25km), and got back on the trail – this time carrying the spikes I had stashed in my drop-bag, just in case the Connector was more exciting than expected.
The climb back up the Bluffs was exactly as expected – a long grind, but nothing too bad provided I kept the intensity low. This time, just before entering the cold, snow-bound world inside the treeline, I treated myself to a five-minute cat-nap in the sun. The snow-trudge up to the summit was shorter than I remembered, and the slip-slide-fun-ride down back to Cypress was a highlight. After another foot-care and nap break, I started back through the Connector. Knowing the work-arounds and having the spikes made it relatively easy and stress-free, and I was again heading down the pistes.
Crossing Cleveland Dam, I saw two fire engines and all lots of emergency personnel – apparently someone had twisted an ankle and needed to be carried out. It seemed so foreign after coming off hours on the trail all by myself.
I felt in need of real food, and jumped on Google to check the hours of operation of Grouse Mountain Starbucks, and started up the 2km of Nancy Green Way… apparently when they said it was open until 10pm though, they meant Newfoundland time… because it was very solidly closed by the time I got there about 8:30! My feet were beginning to complain about the constant soaking, so I spent time airing them out, before donning my head torch and heading out into the gathering gloom.
The last 25km was my first time running through a second night, and it was a new experience. I had to take several cat-naps to keep moving, and navigation and mental coherency were becoming harder and harder. I will definitely need to do some solid sleep deprivation training in the coming months!
Eventually, as it was growing light, I ran down the last few kilometres to Deep Cove. After hugging the hydrant, I returned to my car, changed, and made for the nearest 24hr McD’s for a breakfast wrap and smoothie, then to Jen’s house for a few hours sleep and a shower. I had been considering tying on a few more kilometres, but decided I needed to review and process my mental state first.
The following day, I took my dog for a mission to explore a new trail up the east side of the Chief. I was pleasantly surprised to feel how well the legs had recovered. Although I had learned a lot on this run, I was a bit disappointed I hadn’t left it all on the trail, like I usually try to do for significant runs.