Like most newcomers to Vancouver, I have always been amazed how the North Shore mountains rise out of the Pacific and form an imposing, yet spectacular wall behind Vancouver's downtown core of glass buildings. The (in)famous trails that scar the slopes of the peaks have gained an international reputation and have redefined what is possible on mountain bikes, with steep, gnarly trails and the mountains have become the playground of many an outdoor athlete across the seasons.
Looking out across the Vancouver skyline and being able to trace a route across Cypress, Grouse and Seymour mountains has a natural draw and an interesting aesthetic about it. I fully understand the initial attraction and why people would want to tackle the challenging journey. Luckily, others share my passion for covering ground on foot and the annual Knee Knacker trail race, a West Coast running institution, runs across the route from west to east.
My description won't do the race justice, so this is taken from the race website:
The Knee Knacker(ing) course essentially follows the Baden Powell trail which traverses Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove. Both ends of the trail are close to or at Sea Level and the high point on the course is 4,000 feet at the peak of Black Mountain. The race as a whole has some 16,000 feet of vertical climb and descent. The Baden Powell trail is a scenic and very technical trail through a Pacific Northwest rain forest. Most of the trail is within the forest, although there are some absolutely spectacular vistas at a number of points along the trail. The course is 30 miles long and the field is limited to about 200 starters.
Because of its proximity to the city, beautiful setting, challenging course and natural appeal, the race has become very popular, with demand exceeding capacity. Participants register via lottery several months in advance and a draw determines the participant list for the upcoming year. Previous winners and a few long term participants have guaranteed entries, so I actually registered for the lottery several months ago and was lucky enough to get in on my first go (not sure why I win race lotteries, with the prize being guaranteed suffering, but never any with millions of dollars for prizes).
I have been running sections of the course quite frequently, making my way over the Lions Gate bridge after work and on weekends and my last two races were on sections of the trail (Summer Solstice marathon and the Iron Knee) and although I love the setting, the style of running on the course is definitely not my strength. I like smooth flowing courses with long ascents and descents, where you can get into a nice rhythm more suited to my road running background, whereas most of the Baden Powell is a rooty, rocky, twisty, up-and down trail, with significant erosion, more like a nightmarish staircase than pristine trail.
Most off-road 50 km races have course records within the 3:30-4 hour range, but Knee Knackers' record was set last year at 4:39, by my Trans Rockies partner Aaron Heidt, so it is anything but a fast course. With Aaron returning as the clear favourite and a few other Knee Knacker veterans toeing the line, I knew that it would take a significant effort to do well and honestly, I did not expect to win the race. I actually reconsidered racing it a week before, knowing just how difficult a challenge it would be.
On race day, after the usual pre-race banter and jitters at the early morning start, I resolved to try to run with the leaders for as long as possible. As expected, when the race finally got underway, former national team marathoner Ollie Utting, who beat me quite handily at a few shorter races at the start of the season and Aaron took off at a solid pace and I followed along. We hit the first section of trail and right away, the course starts to head up, climbing 4,000 feet into Cypress Park along a soft bark mulch forest floor, with a few stream crossings. Although very early into the race, this sort of running is my bread and butter, so I pushed the pace a bit and quickly found myself alone up front. I was a bit surprised that Aaron let me go and I assumed that Ollie was smartly keying off of Aaron, who knows how to run this course faster than anyone. I was a bit worried that I was gambling too early, but I trusted my fitness to be able to handle a hard early pace and I wanted to get the others out of their comfort zone, but they weren’t biting. As the course continued to climb, my lead grew and I tried not to second guess my strategy.
Finally, after about 25 min of running alone up front, I heard Aaron and Ollie rolling up to me and I was more than happy to have some company. We stuck close together through these early sections, not giving each other an inch and throwing around a bit of light banter under our strained breath. The pace felt quite high and I was already starting to sweat a lot, as the day started to heat up. We made our way to the half way point in the opening section, 2,000 feet up, which is an open area of large rocks and boulders separated by sections of very steep switchback trail. Most of the scree slopes have a more or less easy way built across them, but it is sometimes difficult to find and often no faster than just clambering over the rocks. Some scree slopes are made of very large boulders so that climbing this section is quite technical. As the course describes explains it: “You may be looking for hand holds to help you (although it is not rock climbing per se).” There isn’t much running through this section, but I also couldn’t see any other runners behind us, so I knew that the race would come down to the three of us, if we didn’t kill each other in the process.
As we kept climbing up the rocks and roots, I started to feel worse and worse, with a light headache and tired legs, I tried to stick with Aaron and Ollie, but was yo-yoing off the back as the pace stayed quick. I focused on trying to get some food into me, but I was starting to worry that I would have a long day ahead of me. When we finally hit Eagle Bluffs, a ridge with a great view of the city and over the Ocean, I took the time to take it in on a rare sunny and warm day and it was spectacular, but it didn’t do much for my energy levels. When we finally ran through the last section of climbing along Black Mountain peak and hit the alpine meadows and lakes, I was surprised at how dry it was. A week of warm and dry conditions had changed the area from a muddy, snowy mess two weeks ago to a very enjoyable alpine run.
Aaron kept pushing the pace, with Ollie hot on his heels and I kept yo-yoing off the back. Finally, after about an hour of running, I came unhinged from the pace and had to let them go. I knew that there was a lot of running to go, so I tried not to dwell on the fact that the race win was likely bounding away from me down the trail. With no one behind me, I resolved myself to a long lonely run across the mountains. I would catch the odd glimpse of Aaron’s blue jersey up the trail, but every time I would see it, it was a bit farther along through the woods.
As I ran past the first major aide station, about 1:18 into the run, I looked back again and couldn’t see anyone behind me, so I prepared my legs for the long slog down the mountain. My stomach wasn’t feeling great, but I still felt like I was moving at a decent clip, so I assumed the rough patch would pass. I tried to focus on getting off and down Cypress as quickly as possible and to try and consolidate my position as well as I could.
The next hour and a bit of the run were quite uneventful, I ran the long 7.5 mile (11-12 kms) down the mountain to Cleveland dam, trying to imagine myself in a race, but with no else in sight, I had to wrestle with my motivation. With a few fun technical sections and some other open downhill stretches, with sharp corners thrown in for good measure, I lost track of time as the miles ticked away.
When I got to the Clevland dam, the half-way point in the run, it was nice to hear people cheering and it was a great pick me up. I was also looking forward to the aide station and the sugary supplies and cooling drinks that come with it, however, when I got there I was shocked to find out that they didn’t have any gels. I was not able to attend the pre-race meeting the night before, so I missed this little detail. I loaded up on coke, gummy gels and electrolyte drink, but was a bit worried that I would be running low on calories for the rest of the run. I was also told that I was 7 minutes behind Aaron and Ollie at this point. This was actually a bit of relief and I put the thought of catching them out of my mind completely, thinking that they were long gone. I resolved to keep focusing on myself and trying to get in under 5 hours.
I noticed that the day had really warmed up at this point, but my legs felt okay and as I climbed my way up from the dam and back onto the trail along Nancy Green Way. From the dam, the course climbs another 1,000 or so feet up along road and then back onto the trail, Although I didn’t feel super peppy, I felt like I was moving at a respectable clip and was looking forward to running home.
When we cut back onto the Baden Powell trail, it was really strange to be passing bus loads of tourists and locals getting ready to head up the Grouse Grind. It made me feel a bit silly as I coughed up innumerable “on your left” and “trail” yelps as I ran up the trail, pushing my way past the hikers. Once I broke away from the hoards, I really enjoyed the idea that I was out for a long weekend run and had to keep reminding myself that I was in a race to keep my effort up.
Somewhere along the Grouse section of the trail, as we made our way down to Mountain Highway, I was surprised to see a white singlet up the trail and suddenly realized that it was Ollie. I ran up to him and after making sure that he was okay, I made my way down the trail away from him, thinking it was pretty cool that I was in second. It was a remarkably uneventful pass. He is a fantastic runner and having finished second at the Knee Knacker the previous two years, I correctly assumed that he really wanted the win and pushed a bit beyond his limit to try and take on Aaron for the win. I have a tremendous amount of respect for him for pushing so hard, it takes a lot of guts to go for it like that and Aaron later told me that Ollie had him on the rivet for a lot of the day.
Once again, with no thoughts that I might be able to catch Aaron, I kept heading along the trail, wondering how much longer the race would go on for as my legs became heavier and heavier. Endurance racing is all about managing expectations and emotions, which can swing wildly with poor pacing and nutrition, you really get whittled down to your basic needs, so I just focused in on getting in as much food and drink as possible and willing my legs to keep ticking away at the trail underfoot. I constantly set little goals along the route, either counting my steps, focusing on technique, giving myself little treats, like water at set intervals, to distract myself the tedious nature of the event.
As I ran through the last major aide station, at 22 miles, I ran in begging someone for gels. Luckily, I was handed 2 vanilla gels and felt like I was given a huge lifeline. Much to his dismay, I later found out that it was Aaron’s wife who gave me the gels, although to be fair to her, I wasn’t looking like much of a threat to anyone at that point. As I ran out of the aide station and onto the last section along Seymour, I still felt like crap, but it was good to know that I only had about 75 min or so of running to go and I was convinced that I would likely survive.
Somewhere along the trail, through the Seymour grind section, the final cruel uphill slog , which is described as a pleasant forest section in the race description, but which felt anything but that at the time, a group of mountain bikers told me that the leader was only a couple of minutes ahead. I assumed they were wrong, but still used that keep my feet moving along the trail. Once I got up and over the grind and was rolling back downhill, I caught a glimpse of Aaron’s blue jersey. I ran up to him quite quickly and after a brief “good work buddy”, ran past him as it dawned on me that I was leading the race.
Having raced shoulder to shoulder with Aaron for a week last summer and seeing him take a rock to his face, as we ran down a mountain pass before he dusted himself off and stormed back down the trail for a stage win at the Trans Rockies, I knew just how tough he is, so I pushed the pace a bit, not wanting him to follow me. However he was pretty gassed at that point and was fighting his own battle towards the finish line.
As I ran through the last aide station, where a few people called me Aaron, I was told that it was mostly downhill to the finish, and I could cruise home for the win. About 5 steps back onto the trail, both my legs seized with horrible cramps and I almost fell over. I laughed a bit, through clenched teeth, at how ridiculous it was that I had just taken over the lead of the race and now I was probably going to have to crawl my way to the finish. I tried to take a few walking steps and I changed my gait and luckily the legs eased off a bit. I started frantically sucking on my bottle, trying to get fluids back into me as I made my way very gingerly down the trail in a strange waddle/run.
The last section of trail is torturously long and although you can see the finish area, the trail mercilessly snakes its way up and down along a series of valleys with short, but painful climbs. I could feel my legs on the verge of cramping with every step and I swore incessantly at myself, mostly out loud, which shocked a few hikers and people out for a nice morning run as I awkwardly made my way by them. I literally cursed my way down the last bit of trail, hoping that my legs would hold out long enough to see me across the finish line.
Finally, as I dropped off the trail onto the last section of road, I let out a little roar, mostly of pain, but with a bit of satisfaction too, as I crossed the line in spectacular Deep Cove.
I stumbled around the finish area in a serious daze for quite a long time after the race, as my legs went through various stages of cramping. My feet would lock up, then my quads would give out on me. I was stumbling and hobbling around like a drunken soccer fan before finally collapsing into the Ocean after a few others crossed the finish line. I lay in the water with Aaron and Gary Robbins, enjoying the warm sunny afternoon, exhausted and depleted from the effort.
It was a strange race, mostly in that after the first hour of running, I barely thought about any other competitors. I felt tired, sore and awkward all day and not like I was in a race at any point really. It was a total race of attrition and I had one of the slowest winning time in quite a while, the hot conditions taking their toll on a lot of runners. I won by a little over a minute, with Jacek Doniec running a much smarter race and closing fast, overtaking Aaron close to the finish.
Aaron, Ollie and myself paid a hard price for our early quick pace, but that’s the nature of racing sometimes. There was nothing glamorous or effortless about how I won the race, it was winning ugly in every sense of the word.