Sunday, 6 November 2011

Whistler 50 Mile Ultra Race Recap

I have not logged many miles on the road since I started trail running three years ago. For me there is no comparison between the two pursuits - on trails in the mountains is where I would rather be. That being said, there is a certain zen attached to road running. To maintain a fast, consistent pace for miles on asphalt requires a different type of strength and discipline. Stride length stays the same for the most part and the body becomes a metronome.

Since my initial foray into competitive running 6 years ago I have learned how to train smarter and each year I delight in my progress.  I was never a super fast road runner but I found that I have a pretty good talent for ultra running. My natural build of 6 feet and 200 pounds somewhat limits my ability to run a 30 minute 10k or a 2:30 marathon but not so much with long off-road races.

As much as I enjoy recreational running and adventuring, I am competitive by nature and as a result I am always looking for challenges. Over the last two years I have decided that I would like to represent Canada at an endurance event.  Both the World 100km Championship and the
Commonwealth 100km Championship are road running events so in the past I have doubted my ability to compete at such events.

Locally, the Haney to Harrison 100k Ultra has been the testing ground for long distance road runners and winners have gone on to race for Canada on the international stage. I decided that 2011 would be my debut at H2H but unfortunately it was discontinued after 2010.

The Whistler 50 Mile Ultra would replace it as a certified ultra.  I was hesitant to enter this inaugural event since the first year of any race is kind of like a mad experiment and the racers are the guinea pigs. Luckily I decided to go for it.

My estimated finishing time for these 50miles was 6 hours. I suspected it was going to take everything I had to meet this time but this was my challenge.  Entrants' estimated times were posted on the web site and looking over them I noticed that the next fastest time was to be Hassan Lofti-Pour, a member of the Canadian Ultramarathon Team. He had estimated 7 hours for his time.  After that there seemed to be zero competition. Darin Bentley, another member of the Canadian team, posted an estimated time of 10:30 so I naively guessed that he was just doing a training run.

The race started at 6am in Whistler so I was up at 3am to get there for check-in at 5am. Despite the early morning I felt really great and rested. My training up to this point was spot on so I was feeling fit as well. The forecast had been calling for rain and/or snow but luckily it was clear and cold. Fresh snow was on the mountains but only on the highest portions of the course.

My day in Whistler started off in a strange way. I parked my truck in one of the day lots beside a smallish car to my right. I guess I notice something unusual out of the corner of my eye because I looked over to the car. Sitting in the passenger seat was a naked woman. I looked away after a moment and wondered about this and that and why she was sitting by herself without any clothes on and if a person can hallucinate from pre-race excitement. So then I obviously turned and looked again. Lo and behold there is a naked man sitting in the driver's seat. I keep staring just to see if they acknowledge me and freak out a little bit but nope, they just fiddle with the heat or radio or something and lay their seats back down. It had to be 5am at this point so I wondered if maybe they were racers doing their warm-up...

At the check-in I mingled with the other racers and as usual everyone was whining about injuries, illness, etc. Why do runners insist on doing this?  Hassan had a bad back and his knee was hurting so it sounded like I wouldn't be running with him at all.

My plan was to run four laps of the 20km course (actually 17,21,21,21 ) with even splits of 1:30 to pull off a 6hr finish.  The required pace was 4:28/km which seems like a pretty easy pace early in race. I was wearing my foot pod so right from the start I settled into my pace. A little faster for down hill a bit slower for the ups. Luckily the course had a cumulative elevation gain of only 2000 feet so was gently undulating for the most part.

Right from the start I was running alone which is how I prefer to race. I'm not a talker and I really like to focus while I'm out there. Not five minutes later Jenn Segger had caught up to me running the same 6 hour finish pace.  I hadn't seen her on the starter list and she is a really good runner so I was looking at a bit of competition. I decided to pick up the pace just to distance myself and soon she was behind me. Shortly after that I was joined by Hassan running at my new faster pace - about 4:20/km. I was pretty surprised but I didn't want to pick up my pace any more so we ran together with Jen a short distance behind us.

The first 8km of each loop is paved and mostly flat - very fast. After that is 8km of rolling gravel road/trail with some good short but steep hills. Hassan would really pick it up on the hills but I would catch him on flats and pass him on the down sections. Our pace was truly too fast to hold for the remainder of the race but I really just wanted to bury him so I could once again race alone.  We stayed together until the the aid station at 16km where I dropped my headlamp and refilled my bottle. I also finally succumbed to having a pee which I had been holding for 10km. Hassan and Jen took off and by the time I was off and running again they were nowhere to be seen.  Somewhat foolhardedly I took off and ran hard for a few kms until I passed Jen and caught Hassan. Invigorated, I kept up a faster than required pace to push Hassan a bit harder. Finally, 2km into the next loop I dropped him for good.  Now I was where I wanted to be, leading the race and not pressured into any pace other than my own. Daylight was starting to break, I would drop my shell and gloves and other light and get down to business.  Since the first go around was only 17km I didn't really know how my pace was so I would catch my split after the next one and go from there.

On lap two I ran steady trying to maintain that sweet spot at 4:28/km but often found myself having to slow myself down. 4:20 felt a lot easier and natural.  At 16km of lap two I passed Peter Watson who was working the race. "Nice job GT," he says. "You're a minute and a half back."  Funny, I thought, he means one and a half minutes ahead.  Oh well, moving on.

The last 4.5km to the start/finish was fun to run since it was the completion of the lap just run. Adrenaline kicks in and it's over in no time. There was also an announcer and a small crowd that grew each lap. As I approached to scan my chip and begin lap 3 I heard my name announced and my time so far. Cool. I also heard that I was only two and a half minutes behind first place Darin Bentley. Whhhaaatttt?  Unless I fell asleep at some point during the race I didn't recall Darin passing me. Maybe when I was taking a pee he tip-toed behind me?  Weird, oh well.  I was hopeful that his pace would eventually slow and I would catch him. After all his predicted time was 10 hours or something like that. Come on, nobody sandbags that much do they?

It took a lot will power to maintain my race pace and not go after him but I decided to be patient. For a while at least. After 7 more km I still had not caught a glimpse of him. Finally, filling my bottle at the 7.5km aid station, I saw him disappear 500m ahead of me. Good news.  I would catch him in 5 or 10 minutes. This was the start of the hilly section so I pushed hard on the hills and hammered on the downs. After 10 minutes no sign of Darin and I had to make a decision. Either hope that I catch him at some point before the finish or catch him now and see how he is running.

So I stopped, took another overdue pee, (what's with that?) and threw the hammer down. He must have been cruising because it was still another 5km before I caught up to him. "Finally," I exclaimed. "I was wondering what was taking you so long," he replied.  He mentioned that he was having a hard time with the hills, maybe the elevation was taking it's toll. That was it for him, it was all mine he added. Ya right. I ran with him for a bit but was caught up in my momentum and blew away hoping to put a sizable gap between us.  I finished the remainder of loop three quickly with the intent to follow through with a steady loop 4.

For the first time, with 20km remaining, I started to struggle with a 4:28/km pace.  I did the math and realized that I had an hour and 45 minutes to finish in 6hours. My surges had gained me 15 minutes but at what cost?  I was starting to feel the pain but I still believed I could be close to 6 hours. My wimpy brain was telling me a  few minutes over would be ok too.  My biggest concern at this point was the win. I really wanted this one.  I had no idea how far back Darin was but it probably wasn't far. I just couldn't let him catch me.

So the last lap was a fight.  When I caught myself running under 4:28 I pushed myself to run 4:20 instead. I mentally created small surges of energy, willing away the pain and fatigue, and crossing off each kilometre conquered.  The hardest section was the hilly area around Lost Lake. What was innocuous for the first three laps seemed like Everest on the last. At one point I slowed to a walk and was passed by a very slow relay runner/jogger. Ouch. So I would force myself to run up these hills until I couldn't feel my legs through the burning. I broke the rest of the race up into small sections and just concentrated on one at a time: after this hill there is a great long downhill to cruise; only 2km until the next aid station; from the aid station it's only a four and a half km to the finish and boy, that's nothing; you must have something left, use it.

And I looked at my watch, saw that with some extra effort I could finish under 6 hours, and ran like I was being chased. Funny how at the end of 50 miles that initially easy 4:28 pace can feel like 3:28.

I won with a time of 5:52:07.  Darin Bentley finished in 5:55:34.  Hassan finished with a time of 6:24:13.  Jenn Segger was first woman and fourth over all in 6:31:20.  Nicola Gildersleeve was second woman finishing in 6:37:40.

I'm really happy with my performance. Rarely do I exceed my lofty race goals. A huge confidence boost really.  I feel that I have reached another level in my running and the future is looking bright as I start preparation for my next race: The HURT 100 Mile Endurance Race. It's in Hawaii in January and it's going to be a killer


Derrick said...

Congrats again on an excellent run! Great read too!

Anonymous said...

What a race, that is one smoking time!

Chris GT Downie said...

Thanks Derrick. It was one of those lucky days where everything was on my side...

Chris GT Downie said...

Thanks Keith! And congrats on the big win at Haliburton!

lonerunman said...

Congratulations, Chris! I heard that the winning time was sub-6, but didn't know who the smoker was. Nice work on both your and Darin's parts - Jen's and Nicola's too! - it sounds like it was quite a race.

Train well for HURT, it would be nice to see another Canadian do well down there

Chris GT Downie said...

Thanks Bruce. The predicted rain/snow wasn't there and it was just a perfect day!

Sara said...

Very exciting result, congratulations!

Chris GT Downie said...

Thanks a lot Sarah! And good luck at Trailwalker!

Ellie Greenwood said...

Awesome race Chris, and hope that time gets you representing Canada, you'd be a great addition to the team! See you have Chuckanut on your blog - so hope to see you in March.

Chris GT Downie said...

Thanks a lot Ellie! See you soon...

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