Kerry Ward, Bruce Grant and Mike Palichuk at 1 km
Photo: Kerry Ward
Tim really took off from me at that point, pulling away on a long road section until he was out of sight. I was really surprised to see Tracy just after the aid station, in a jacket walking her dog and yakking on her cell phone – I don’t know what was up, but she was out of the race. That was too bad, she was on track to do really well. As Tim disappeared into the distance, my groove was definitely taking its time coming on, but I felt steady and focussed on getting fluids and calories into me. The quest for marker ribbons began in earnest now, as I was on an unfamiliar part of the course and trails I had never seen before. After a long segment on the gravel road, the route – finally – pitched upward on a rocky track that took us way up above the river we had been following. Apparently the trail was a historic track from 1910 used when the railway was built, and the only off-road section through a very narrow part of the valley. As it got to its summit, the views over the river were fantastic, and the surrounding snow-covered peaks glistened in the early-morning sunlight.
Unfortunately, this track spat us out onto the busy highway. I automatically headed north towards Whistler, but there were no ribbons. The road was heading downhill, and I stopped after a kilometre or so, still not seeing any course markers. Before going too far down, I turned to retrace my steps to make sure I had not missed something where the trail ended. After 100 metres or so, I stepped over the highway barrier at the side of the road, and noticed show prints in the dirt there. OK, so some other runners had gone this way too. I turned around again and headed along the highway northbound once more. And on and on it went, cars and trucks zipping by at 100km/h for a number of interminable kilometres. Finally, I could see a red marker ribbon ahead, and a chalk arrow (wow!) pointing off the road into a bunch of trees.
It wasn’t really a trail, but it wasn’t the highway either. There were lots of ribbons indicating the path through this semi-bushwhack, although there were vestiges of an old trail there in places. Unfortunately, this was all just a bend in the river and we had to climb back onto the highway again. Zzzoooom!! Shhhwwwooosh! Plod plod plod plod. I cursed the highway, but knew that there was nowhere else the route could go.
After a few more km’s of gradually uphill road and approaching the limit of my patience, we flipped off the highway to an aid station and the entrance to an old gravel road. Hey, at least it wasn’t pavement. This was about halfway in the race, and I was there in just under four hours. Fanciful finish times started bouncing around in my head, but there was still a long way to go, as well as the bulk of the race’s elevation gains including, apparently, some snow. The snowline was ~2000’ higher than where I was, so something was going to turn up sometime soon.
I filled my two bottles with nuun, said Hi to my friend Gail who was there crewing for her hubby George, and asked her to pass on my good wishes to George and my wife Martha running behind me. Not too far in, and after stopping to assess a poorly-flagged fork in the road, I caught up to the first of the 50km racers who had started up the trail an hour after the 50-milers did. Actually, it ended up being a string of runners I passed and chatted briefly to – until there appeared three runners coming back along the road towards me. They said they hit the highway again, and there were no ribbons there. Well crap, I hadn’t seen any ribbons for the past kilometre or two, but wasn’t surprised. I knew we had to hit the road again to get up to Brandywine Falls. There was a side road off to the left a little while back, but no markers I could see; the trend of marking had so far been to not flag anything that kept to the main trail, so I said screw it and kept going to the highway. As indicated, there were no ribbons or chalk arrows there, but quite a number of northbound shoe prints in the dirt shoulder. I headed on up the highway, followed by a couple of the 50k runners behind me. I could see no one ahead of me along the road.
The highway kept going and going, with no ribbons or chalk anywhere. I stopped and looked around each time a side road entered the highway, but there was nothing I could see. After about 4km’s, with an irritation exacerbated by fast vehicles, black asphalt, and bright sun beating down while reflected off a cliff beside me, and still no marker ribbons, I was feeling that I was off course and had blown something. I was of ill-humour. I have a pretty good navigational sense and rarely miss course markers, but I was losing confidence I was on the right track although I couldn’t figure out where I might have gone wrong. But then, heading past in his truck honking and waving at me, was RD Gottfried. I turned, expecting him to pull over to tell me I was off course, but he kept on going. What the- ?? That must mean I’m on track. Then why haven’t I seen any ribbons anywhere? Amazingly, after another kilometre, out of the blue appeared a metre-long red ribbon attached to a highway sign, fluttering in the breeze. OK, so I am on course, but we could have used 30cm of that ribbon further back somewhere.
Brandywine Falls approached, and I was interested to see that there was a highway crew there with cones and a flagperson to guide us across the busy highway. There were also two ambulances I could see. I stopped at the park gate and looked for the next ribbon, eased a bit when one of the first-aid people pointed across the park road. Ah. South-east, of course. It was nice to be off the pavement again and into some trail and trees. As the trail wound down, it crossed the railway. The railway had a sign saying “McGuire 1 Mile”: McGuire was our next aid station, and race notes indicated it was 2.5 km from Brandywine, so I downed the little that was left in my bottles. I was hot, thirsty, and getting a bit light on the fluids.
This was part of the new Sea-to-Sky Trail, freshly gravelled (unfortunately, they appear not to know about water bars to prevent instant erosion) with some steep climbs, exposed sections under power lines, and bits that were slow as I navigated around massive puddles or blowdown trees. I did note a fantastic view of the volcanic spire of Black Tusk in one of the clearings. Ribbons were again scarce, and more than a few times, my confidence was only there due to seeing other shoe prints in the dirt. The trail eventually turned away from the main Sea-to-Sky trail it was following, and onto an older, narrow trail that was one of the highlights of the route for me. It was so rocky with tricky footing, it reminded me of the Bruce Trail in Ontario or the Massanutten course in Virginia. I was slowing through here for reasons beyond the tricky footing, as I was drying out. I knew I had to get some fluids in me soon, so where the heck was that aid station?
Well, despite the “1-mile” sign on the railway, and though race documents indicated it was 2.5km to McGuire, my GPS track shows it was 5km. Combined with the slow terrain, and I had been running with no fluids for an hour in the increasing heat of the day. Now I was behind, and needed to catch up.
I rolled into the aid station to refill and refuel, and was surprised when people there said I was in second place. Hunh? I hadn’t seen Mike or Tim for several hours, and definitely had not passed them. They must have gone off course somewhere. With 28km to go in the race, the pressure was on now to maintain my placing through to the end, with a couple of potentially faster runners not far behind me. Good motivation to hoof it! I charged out of the aid station, determined to do what I could to hold my place.
…and onto a great section of trail that skirted the Brandywine River, dancing through the woods before crossing the raging torrent on a suspension bridge. After crossing the bridge, I looked around for ribbons, and not seeing any, ran straight and into the campsite there, which seemed odd. Before I got too far along, though, some campers yelled at me that the course was “over there” behind me and along the riverbank again. Oh – there are the ribbons, a few metres up from the small trail junction after the bridge….after the turn should have been made. Hay-soos!
I have to say that this section was my favourite in the whole race. It was a lot of sweet, winding single-track through the forest along an old trail, and was just lovely to run along. We popped onto the gravelled Sea-to-Sky trail again for a while, but left that after a bit to hit some more single-track again. All this time, I was trying to hammer back more nuun and some calories to make up my deficit, and finally managed to stop for a honey-coloured pee. Not good, but at least it was enough to have to let out. Keep drinking, man!
Eventually the fun trail spat me out on a road. Again, there were no ribbons to mark which way to go. I stopped and looked – nada, but to my right was some big municipal works yard or something, so we must go left. Along the street, across a bridge, and ah-ha! Ribbons that led down the bridge embankment. To a gravel road. And no ribbons. What the- ?? Frick! Walk along a bit – wait, there’s a small ribbon tied around a 3” rock up a gravel embankment….oh, and there’s some ribbons at that small trailhead in the woods. Cheese whiz, man. Run through some nice trail for a couple hundred metres, and plop out into a gravel parking lot with the highway through the trees just in front. And where to go from here? No ribbons. Again. I started along the gravel road off to my right, but paused and looked back the other way just to double check. Wait, that looks like a crew person reading a map, so I ran back towards her. She looked up and pointed me sort of back and towards the highway, but I still couldn’t see any course markers. I stopped and dragged my heel in the gravel to make an arrow pointing this direction where the trail came out.
I got to the end of the parking lot, and there
I was kind of fired up here, and charged up the hill until I saw someone not too far ahead. I kept on hiking the steep grind with good purpose, and caught up to the guy, Ward. We chatted for a while, and he lamented that he was DQ’d because he went off course along the railway to McGuire instead of the trail, but felt way better now and was loving the day because there was no pressure on him now. I enjoyed chatting to him, he was really enthusiastic and positive. He also said that this was a loooooong hill that got into the snow, so though I left him behind, I knew I had another 1000’ before the snowline and backed off my pace a bit to settle into a more sustainable stride, still aware of my overall placing and not wanting to give too much time up to the guys behind me. Eventually the climb did hit the snow, which got gradually deeper until all the dirt was gone and all footing was on top, and occasionally through, the snow. It was slow going, with the snow wet and slippery as it melted, but still mostly firm enough to walk on. There were lots of alder trees pulled down with the snow, laying across the trail that made for some careful stepping over or around to get by them, they really disrupted any flow you might be able to get in the snow.
After 7km of uphill, a cairn of rocks marked the top of the ascent, and it tipped downward. For a while, at least. Then it headed back up again, steeper this time, although there was marginally less snow since this part was either more exposed to the sun or underneath trees. Three cyclists were coming down the other way, and they said I was almost at the top. Good, I was getting pretty tired, and the grind was wearing my legs down. I pitched over the crest, and finally headed downhill for good. With 6km to go, I was still in second place, and no one in sight behind me although that didn’t mean I could dilly-dally. I was quite fatigued though, and unable to push the pace as hard as I would have liked. Still, I passed the last aid station with 5k to go and ran into the forest along the cool mountain bike trail “A River Runs Through It”. The ups and down, twist and turns, and bike rails to go over reminded me of my training route on Burnaby Mountain, so I enjoyed this part a lot as well. But still, the finish seemed to come so slowly. I knew there were 2km of paved trail that led to the finish line once I got off the dirt. Keep going, those guys are close behind.
I finally hit the paved Valley Trail, and tried to pick up the pace for the final couple of k’s. It was hard, and I was wrung-out at this point, feeling the gradual rises in the trail that slowed me to a walk. Motivation came from the unseen runners behind, and I tried to keep running as much as I could. And then, there it was, the clearing of the park the finish was in, and around the corner, the finish banner. I crossed the line in 9:22, and still in second place overall, behind Jacek who finished in an excellent 8:09. I was wise to have kept running, as Mike came charging to the line a mere four minutes behind, and then Tim cam into view seven minutes after Mike. Wow, the three of us were pretty close after all that.
After finishing, the post-race chit-chat with Mike, Tim and Jacek revealed that we all had some serious route-finding challenges out there, and most of us at some point spent some time off-course, lost, or trying to find the right way. Mike and Tim were as confused at how I got in front of them as I was, it was hard to figure out who may have been off or exactly what happened. We all agreed that on the whole, things were pretty poorly marked, so most people were probably off somewhere. As confident as I was that I was on–course after seeing Gottfried on the highway before Brandywine Falls, I had some niggling doubts after talking to the three other guys.
I waited for Martha to come in, she seemed to be taking longer than expected and I was worried she had a bad day. I ran back along the trail to see if I could meet her, and there she was, looking happy and strong. She had kindly run with George for most of the day, helping him find the course. George is colour-blind to red, so the red marker ribbons – where there were any and as hard as they were to see for normal eyes – were absolutely invisible to him. However, at his insistence, she left George at the last aid station to run to a very strong finish, and felt great. She should – Martha ended up being the first overall female finisher in the 50-mile race, and new course record holder! How cool is that?
George had a tough day, getting badly dehydrated and seriously low on sodium in the unexpectedly long section before Brandywine Falls. Some of the later aid stations were out of water by the time he came through and had nothing but Ultima drink left, which he wasn’t partial to drinking. But, in an amazing show of resilience and mental fortitude, he persevered to finish the race despite his challenges. I am really proud of him for doing so, it can be so easy to quit when things get tough. Way to go George!
As I said, I had some niggling doubts about how I managed to get ahead of Mike and Tim without ever seeing them. The next day, I pulled up my GPS track and compared it to the race map, and realised that it was me who had missed a turn after the Chance Aid Station, and cut about 1 – 1.5 km off the route. This put me in the wrong and despite any similar errors Mike or Tim may or may not have made, I was uncomfortable knowing I came out ahead due to an error and could not ethically let myself take advantage of this situation. I wrote to RD Gottfried and asked him to add 15 minutes to my time, enough to ensure that I was placed in fourth overall behind Mike and Tim (he added 19 minutes). I left the option to DQ me open to him, but to be fair, most of the field would also have to be DQ’d since most people went wrong somewhere due to the vague markings. So, congratulations to Mike and Tim for their overall placing, and Mike for being first in the M 40-49 age group!
Interestingly, except for Tracy dropping out, the finish this way was exactly as I had predicted to myself before the race.
Next year, instead of racing, I think I will volunteer to mark the course myself, there are definitely some improvements to be made there. On the whole though, this was a first-year event, and Gottfried did a good job putting together such a long event over such a logistically challenging route – thanks, Gottfried!