The title of this says it all really…a couple of weeks ago, I ran my first ever ultra marathon – the Chuckanut 50k. Put the kettle on folks, it’s a long one.
Running an ultra (anything longer than a marathon distance) has been on my radar for pretty much as long as I’ve lived in Canada, which is not much longer than I’ve known of their existence. Although we all know by now that I don’t ‘race’ in the way some people do, ultras were sold to me as something you could do without any concern over pace or finish time – something a lot of people seem very keen to ask you when you complete marathon, whether or not they really know/care anything about marathon times. Eating was another appeal of running an ultra – lots of long distance running means lots of eating. I did not struggle with this aspect of the training.
I signed up for Chuckanut mostly because I knew a load of other people who were doing it too – nothing like a bit of FOMO to force you into doing something a bit stupid. Hollie agreed to do it with me so I knew I’d have someone to keep me accountable for training, so before I knew it I was planning several runs of 30km+ in for January and February.
Race day rolled around with alarming speed, and while my training had gone pretty well I was a little worried about not having done as much running on trails as I would’ve liked, given that Chuckanut is a trail race. I needn’t have worried too much as it is well known that the trails on Vancouver’s North Shore are about as technical as you can get pretty much anywhere in North America, so Chuckanut was pretty tame in comparison.
Anywho, back to race morning. Somehow, against all the odds, we woke up to a beautifully sunny and crisp morning, and not the torrential downpour I had assumed it would be when I signed up. I had been peer pressured into wearing shorts (mostly so four of us could show off our calf height matching socks) so there was quite a bit of jumping around to keep warm as we waited for the shuttle to the start line. We hadn’t waited too long for the shuttle, but three buses came at once meaning everyone arrived at the start line together, and of course then there was a huge queue for the loos. I was literally watching the minutes tick by on my watch, but we managed to drop our bags at 7.57, which although was quite stressful, meant minimal standing around worrying about the impending distance ahead.
Weirdly, I wasn’t actually that worried about the distance I was tackling, it was the sheer amount of time the race would last that was a bit concerning. Both marathons I’ve run I have completed in around 4hrs, which is a long time to be running, but I knew this would probably take me around 7hrs – a REALLY long time to be running, and most importantly, it would mean missing lunch.
Due to the slightly rushed arrival, we were right at the back of the pack as the gun went off, and while we certainly didn’t want to go out too fast, we did spend the first kilometre or so weaving our way through people. The map below shows the course – the first and last 10km of the race are on the same stretch of fairly flat, gravel trail, making it a fairly quick race in the grand scheme of ultras (to give you an idea, this years winner crossed the line in 3hrs 36mins – if I could run a flat marathon that fast I’d be a very happy runner). As we eased into that first 10km and found our rhythm, as much as I tried not to, I couldn’t help but think about the fact that we were going to have to come back along that trail again (much) later on…
One of the main reasons people really seem to like running trail races is because of the community of people that surrounds them, and the atmosphere at most of the aid stations certainly did a good job of showcasing this. We’d been able to hear the aid station long before we could see it, and were greeted with people cheering and a veritable buffet of food and drink options (reason number 2 people like trail races). At this point I still had plenty of food and drink on me, so we just stopped briefly to say hi to some friends who’d come down to cheer us on, and off we went.
The second part of the race went off the gravel trail, and up into the forest – more like a ‘proper’ trail than the previous section – and Hollie and I chatted away as we climbed up some hills, and ran down some others. We ran along the side of a lake for a while, up a couple more hills and then down down down to the next aid station. Somehow, we’d already run 15km and we were having a great time.
Up to this point I’d been running with Hollie, and our friend Steph had also been with us off and on too. The next section of the course was 5km of almost continuous uphill on a pretty boring access road, so the three of us stuck together – I personally was extremely glad for the company. It actually went by pretty quickly, as we adopted a ‘fun’ game of running (more like jogging) the flats and gradual ups, and forcing ourselves to keep running to a landmark up ahead – ‘that tree!’ – before we were allowed to walk again. The walking also gave us a good opportunity to stuff our faces with snacks – another crucial part of ultra running.
We rounded the corner into the next aid station, to find not only the usual buffet affair, but also makeshift Irish themed ‘bar’ offering shots of several different types of whiskey in honour of St Patricks Day. Not being a whiskey person myself, I declined the mid-race shot in favour of some orange segments, but I did see a guy talking quite seriously to the volunteer (bartender?) about what they had on offer.
At this point we also bumped into three friends who were out and about running and cheering their way around part of the course, so we enjoyed a little chat with them before thinking about moving on. With all this stopping to chat and eat, it was very tempting at times to just carry on with that instead of continuing with the running part. The next section of the course was the most technical underfoot, along the top of a ridge, but the views were a pleasant distraction from the more difficult terrain. It being such a clear day, when the trees opened up to the right of us, we caught glimpses of Mount Baker in the distance, and miles and miles of beautiful forest in between.
As we came down off the ridge, we were about 28km into the race, and while I was extremely glad to be over half way through, I was also becoming quite aware that there was still a LONG way to go. It also didn’t help that we headed into a part of the course that felt quite lonely and remote, and my feet had really started to hurt. The trail was also an annoying mix of pretty flat and runnable for a bit, then it would start to slope up again, so just when I’d get into a rhythm of running, I’d have to stop and walk. Hollie is a much stronger runner than me, so she had pulled ahead of me a bit at this stage, and Steph was a bit behind me so I was without the friendly chatter that I’d enjoyed for the rest of the run. All in all, this bit of the race was not my favourite.
I eventually got to the top of the Lost Lake trail, and there was a lovely, downhill section with views out to the ocean on my left, which restored my good mood and gave me a bit of faith that I could probably get through the distance. We came to the next aid station and I stalled a bit as I knew what was coming next – a rather steep climb, aptly named Chinscraper. It was about 3km in total from the aid station to the very top, and while in normal circumstances I wouldn’t be too bothered by it, I had at this point already run about 35km so I wasn’t overjoyed at the prospect of such a steep incline.
I knew there would be a photographer on this part of the course (I had seen photos from previous years) but I wrongly assumed he was at the very top of the climb, so I wasn’t too pleased to see the hill continuing on ahead after we passed him (see main photo for the not so terrible climbing shot). I was back with Hollie again at this point though, so we chatted (complained) our way up the rest of the climb and finally found ourselves at the highest point of the course, randomly in a car park with a viewpoint and a bathroom. Hollie made me do a jumping photo as a memento, and at this point I was just extremely happy to know that it was (literally) all downhill from there on.
Despite the initial joy of the upcoming downhill section, once I started running again I discovered it wasn’t as joyous as I hoped. I thought I must be running a pretty decent clip as my pace felt like an effort, and it was downhill, but when I looked at my watch I wanted to cry when I saw what would be a relatively slow pace on a flat road, let alone on a decent downhill. I had also thought this section would be on nice, flowing trails, but it we were back on the access road we had climbed earlier, so while the views into the forest either side were nice, I was trudging down a gravel road. Hollie and Steph were ahead of me at this point and I had to have a little word with myself – I definitely could’ve sat down on the side of the road and had a mope, but I at least had enough brain power left to know that if I kept moving forward I would reach the finish eventually.
After what seemed like a decade, I got to the final aid station (the same as the first one), and while the party we had witnessed earlier was a bit more subdued than before, there was still plenty of food to choose from and we stocked up for the last time before heading out for the final 10km of the race.
Steph told us to go ahead at this point, so it was just Hollie and I for the final part of the race – all I can say is poor Hollie. I knew this part would be awful, and I also knew that the Chuckanut course is a ‘little’ longer than 50km, but that last hour of running was not the most fun I’ve ever had. You might recall from previous blogs about races that I tend to get a little impatient towards the end, and I will often pick up the pace if I can, to just get it over with. I really wanted to do that in this case, but it’s harder than you think to run fast when you’ve already been on your feet for more than 5 hours.
The saving grace of the last part of the race was that thanks to my extensive road running training, we overtook a LOT of people over the last 10km. We stopped to walk a couple of times, but I was pretty proud of myself for the amount we did run, and the pace at which we were running. A small low point came about 3km from the end when a course marshall started cheering us along, and as I passed him, he said to me with a look of concern on his face ‘are you OK?’ – I lost it with delirious laughter at that stage, at the thought that I did in fact look like I’d been running all bloody day.
As my watch ticked over to 50km I have never been so ready to stop running in my life. Based on the route Hollie downloaded to her watch beforehand, we knew the course was about 51.5km, so we kept trucking along, me intermittently cursing (both out loud and in my head) about this stupid thing I’d agreed to do. 51km came and went, and we came across a few supporters shouting ‘you’re SO nearly there!’, but I didn’t trust them as all I could see in front of my was a long straight path that seemingly never ended.
Finally, just as I was losing the will to live, and poor Hollie probably wanted to kill me, we crossed a road and saw a sign that said ‘Fairhaven Park Apartments’, and given that the race started and finished in Fairhaven Park, we knew we must be almost there. We passed guy who asked us desperately if we were nearly there (he looked like he might cry, bless him), and we shouted ‘YES’ before rounding a corner and hearing the noise of supporters at the finish line. FINALLY, almost 7hrs, and 52km after we started, we finished and I had run an ultramarathon.
My immediate concern went to my feet, which were in agony. After a couple of hugs from other friends who had finished before us, I could think of nothing else but getting my shoes off. We shuffled over to get our bags, watched and cheered as Steph finished a few minutes later, and went to get changed and have a wet wipe shower – the most underrated post-race luxury around. Racers got a voucher for food from one of the food trucks at the finish (there was only one option left by the time I finished – I was definitely ‘slow’ in Chuckanut terms) so I inhaled a random hot dog and some crisps from a grumpy food truck man, and after a few more celebratory hugs with those who’d come down to cheer, and we were making our way back to the shuttle bus to find the car.
We headed off for a celebratory beer, and it was all a bit surreal. It was now after 4pm, and I realised I’d been running ALL DAY. No wonder my feet were killing me. I felt proud of myself (still do) for finishing, but I didn’t get the same elation that I’ve had for both the marathons I’ve run, and I think that’s partly because I didn’t push myself in the same way, the goal was simply to finish. So that’s a huge reason why, when people have asked me if I’ll do another one, I can’t say for certain that I will. Never say never though I suppose.
I literally couldn’t have even contemplated finishing (or even starting) Chuckanut without Hollie’s absolutely unwavering support and help, so I owe her a heck of a lot. Someone suggested (jokingly, I hope) afterwards that I should pace Hollie at her upcoming 50 mile race – I think I nearly spat my beer out. I’ll have to stick to awkward social media shout outs and a regular stream of baked goods I think – hopefully that’s enough.
I should also mention that most trail races and ultras don’t give out medals (we got a fridge magnet instead, which I guess is more useful) so Hollie, plus two other friends who ran it, Katie and Pargol, presented me with a trophy and my own personal finish line goody bag, which I think you’ll agree, is better than any medal.