Thursday, August 21, 2014

Fat Dog 120

Over a year ago I heard about this race, Fat Dog 120, in Canada.  Tough, rugged, remote... and it immediately caught my eye.  This is exactly the kind of race that gets me going and Fat Dog 120 made the short list of ultras to run immediately.  When I set my schedule for 2014 I really wanted FD to be part of it.  With a slight pause to consider what it'll be like running over 100 miles - I signed up.

I didn't change a lot about my training to prepare for the extra distance.  I did try to add more vertical in my runs and added slightly more volume for a few weeks - but nothing drastic.  Unfortunately, I developed some tendonitis in my anterior tibialis about 2 weeks before FD.  I ran on it once in some pain and hoped it was nothing.  It returned the following day in earnest and I knew I needed to take action.  I started icing it and had my PT take a look at it.  The words were cease and desist.  Stop all activity.  Now.  So for 6 long days I sat and did nothing.  I didn't run, I didn't bike, I didn't hike.  I tried to stay off it, iced it, rested.  And stressed about whether I could still run FD.  I'd all but given up on FD when my PT said things had calmed down enough that I could try to run again.  I ran one day and then the next.  And the A/T seemed no worse for the wear.  PT gave green light to race.  I'd never done a taper quite like this before a big race but I still wanted to race.  (nothing like losing the hope of doing something to make you realize how much you wanted it)  I rushed to put my gear together and set off for Canada!

I hadn't done a lot of prep for the race.  I knew the race elevation profile and sort of understood where the aid stations were.  I knew several were far apart and that was the reason for the extra gear they require of us.  I also knew the climbing was nothing short of remarkable and that I was headed into the unknown beyond 120 miles.  That basically is all I knew.  Not much.  As it turned out, I think the ignorance served me well at several points in the race.

Driving into Hope to get to the pre-race meeting on Thursday
Nick (my friend and pacer) and I drove up from Olympia on Thursday.  We headed to packet pickup and the pre-race meeting straight away and managed to make it there with only 5 minutes to spare.  Border patrol takes ages!  I started listening to the meeting but then walked off - those things make me so nervous!  It was a great place to meet some old and new friends - most importantly Grant Maughan, who we were rooming with before and after the race.

Thursday night we headed to Princeton where Grant had booked a room.  The night passed with some fun and a little conversation, but a lot of legs resting and introspective thoughts by us all.  I picked Grant's brain for a few thoughts - most notably he told me that the last climb has a bunch of false summits.  Grant is an amazing athlete (just took 2nd at Badwater this year and 3rd in a stage race across eastern Canada the week before FD!) and his excitement to run the course had me pretty pumped for what was coming.

We all tried to stay calm before the race and other racers were friendly and social to ease the mind.  We had some fun waiting to follow the bus to the start.  Grant called me a Japanese pop star with my mini-pigtails and I got the gangster thing going on with my hat as well.  Laughs are good before big events and I loved being in the company of some fun guys before the start.

Once we got to the start, we all lined up for a last check-in right before the race.  We then lined up on a precarious little bridge and waited for the start straight up the first climb.

My race plan was pretty simple.  This was going to be a LONG race and I needed to go very slow and EAT from the beginning.  No deficits and no effort should be felt for a while.  The first climb went quickly and I enjoyed chatting with other racers as we hiked.  Right from the get-go I felt like this race was in a league of it's own.  Not only was the course going to be challenging but the people this race draws are just top notch groupies of the ultra community.  We are all the tough ones who thrive under huge challenges.  And we treat everyone else as if we'd known them for decades.  Even though I was racing with people I'd never met, I felt like I was surrounded by family.  Maybe it's because we bond in our pain and challenge - or maybe it's just because we are all good people who love our sport.  I think it's a bit of both.

It was evident to me from the start that my anterior tibialis was going to be an issue for the race.  It felt tight and overworked on the first climb and I had a spot on the front of my shin that was painful.  I think I started compensating to make my left leg work harder right from the beginning and likely started striking differently with my right foot.  The level of pain wasn't terrible but it was bothersome that I had pain from the start of the race.

The race follows a pattern for the first 40 miles of the race.  We climbed a long gradual climb - then descended back to basically the elevation where we started.  There was usually a minimal aid station along the way, but the major aid station was at the bottom of each descent.  The weather was overcast and cool - with some passing light showers now and then.  I think in prior years this section can be very hot as the aid stations are far apart and there isn't much protection from the sun.

By the 2nd climb I was starting to really feel pain in my shin.  The uphills seemed to be easier on it but as soon as I turned downhill I started to trip over things with my right leg and when I'd catch my foot on a rock and my ankle would bend forward it was causing excruciating pain in my shin.  And with a technical and rocky course you can imagine this happened a lot!  The 2nd climb took us through a burned out section that I really loved.  Something about the green growth on the ground mixed with the dead sticks of trees above made it very beautiful.  I met up with a runner who is doing HURT this January along this section and had a fun time talking about that race coming up.

The descent off the first climb brought you down to the big river crossing.  I reached this point just after 7:30pm.  It was good to cross this in the daylight.  My shin complained horribly in the water - it did not like the rocks and precarious footing in the river. The current moved pretty quickly and I found myself almost falling down several times.  The fixed rope saved me!  The water was pretty deep - it reached the bottom of my skirt at the deepest section.  I climbed out of the water and fed myself at the aid station before doing the road section up to Bonnevier - the 41 mile mark of the race.

At Bonnevier I saw Nick, my pacer, who would start with me at mile 78.  He gave me some good cheer and help through the aid station - getting some more clothes on and putting my headlamp on for the night section ahead.  He sent me on my way and yep, you guessed it, the course started to climb.  This first part of the climb was on a gravel road that made it easy to see with the waning daylight.  I was a little paranoid I'd miss a course marking along here because it was getting dark and the flags weren't as easy to see - but I had enough people around me that I figured we wouldn't all miss them.  The course eventually turns back to trail and at this point it was time for lights.  My anterior tib continued to hurt very badly and I had to consider what to do through the night.

I tried to channel my PT's voice into my head.  Figure out what he would tell me to do.  Reality was that the pain had worsened during the first 45 miles of the race.  But it wasn't getting worse at the moment.  I decided that I'd continue cautiously and if it felt much worse then I'd have to make a call about whether to stop.  Because of the pain in my shin I didn't run much at all during the night.  I hiked and tried to eat.  The course spent much of the night along a ridge which was quite cold and windy.  There was also fog and clouds obstructing our view and ability to see.  Headlamps only seemed to reflect the light back at you.  At several points it was difficult to find out where to go and I was grateful to have a veteran along the course with me at that point who steered me along.  Once he pressed forward I had another buddy who at least helped me look for markers and yelled to me about turns to make.  These are the gems in ultras that really make a difference.  :)

At the end of the dark hours is when I reached my low point.  The aid station was much much further than I anticipated, so I was out of water and out of food for miles before I came to the station.  My A/T was in pain from the descent and I feared my race was about to become a death march and hike to the finish.  (I tried not to think about the fact that there were 55 miles to go)  Several people passed me and asked if I needed anything.  I turned down the first two but then when a guy named John came by he held out some Shot Blocks - and the sight of them was just too hard to resist.  I wolfed them down and continued on my way.  The transformation was immediate.  I started to feel better, more positive and more energetic.  I was able to start running again and felt my energy levels rise. It was still several more miles to the aid station and I am still grateful to John for offering those blocks!

I came into the aid station at Cayeuse Flats and was told I was the 2nd woman to reach that point.  I was stunned, I'd been hiking all night long!  This gave me some extra motivation to continue and to get to my pacer who was about 5 miles up the trail.  At this point it was morning - and I think I reached Nick at about 9am.  Nick had energy to spare and was a great pick me up at this point.  I'd been trying to calculate times that I could finish in and I was grateful for a distraction and some conversation after the long night.  Nick is what every great pacer should be - a good liar.  Told me I looked great, I was moving well, and encouraged me to run the flatter sections after the aid station.  He also kept prodding me to eat and drink.  I can be kind of grouchy about doing this late in a race and he handled it with finesse.  Acted like I was telling him exactly what he wanted to hear.

We motored along for the morning and tried to run as much as I could.  We then encountered what I call "mosquito hell."  It started with a few here and there.  And it turned into what can only be described as swarms of them.  Nick joked that we had just entered The Hunger Games and the mosquitoes were a challenge thrown at us.  It was annoying and ridiculous how many bites we got through here.  Through clothes and through bug spray.  Mosquitoes didn't care.  I probably got over 100 bites during the 3-4 hours we traversed this section.

Nick was taking pictures - so I have several from the section late in the race.  These are all indicative of the views we had during the whole race.  Spectacular!

Eventually we reached the Skyline aid station at mile 99.  This is where the real fun begins on this course.  I knew we'd be climbing for the good portion of the time remaining until the finish and I was anxious to get going.  I tried not to think about how I'd never run more than 100 miles before and here I was about to go up one of the most beastly climbs on tired legs.  This is where the ignorance of the course paid off somewhat.  I didn't know how LONG this climb was.  I honestly thought we were going to climb for about 8 miles and then gradually descend for 12.  As it turned out, Grant's advice about the false summits was absolutely correct... except it wasn't false summits - they were ACTUAL summits you had to traverse before reaching the final summit.  As Nick and I ran this ridge where we summited EVERY summit in the ridge we started to laugh.  If you could see a peak in front of you it was only a matter of time before you saw the trail going straight up the side of it.

These peaks took a while to traverse and time was running out for me if I hoped to make it under 36 hours.  When we traversed the first summit I thought it was a shoo in - but when we kept summiting for hours and hours I knew it was going to be close.  Nick continued to take some great photos of the views - I continued to focus on what had to be done.

Amazingly, the shin did not hurt on this final ascent.  I don't know how or why, but I was happy to not feel it.  It let me focus and actually climb like I love to.  :)

The sun set and it started to get pretty dark by the time we summited the final summit.  When we started the technical descent off the top it was time to turn on the headlamp for the 2nd time for the race.  I knew time was going to be short to get to the finish in under 36 hours - so I really tried to push down this descent.  The top was difficult and started to aggravate my shin again.  But then the trail seemed to open up and the running became easier and more fluid.  I got very thirsty along this section but didn't want to slow down even for a drink for fear that I was just going to miss the 36 hour mark.

Eventually we got down to the glow sticks and the lake... which felt like an oasis.  I saw a sign for 1.5 km to go and I knew I was going to make it barring disaster.  I felt like I was running fast along this section, but any "fast" is relative after 120 miles!

I finished in 35:49, for 2nd place female.  I sat down for the first time at the finish (I never sit during ultras) and it felt amazing.  My shin started to complain immediately but I savored the moment of a race well-run.  And a lot of fun and smiles along the way.

We met back up with Grant, who had finished in 5th place (30:30) and happy with his run as well.  Lots of smiles and fun was had on a difficult course!

And who knows, I won an entry into next year's race - so there may be room for some improvement.  :)

Keep smiling.

Grant and Jen post-race at the awards ceremony


  1. Congratulations! Those are fantastic trails up there.

  2. PS - I always do a lot of massage on my tib ant when it flares up (IE pinch the crap out of it!).

  3. Get your hands on the whole lower leg TriggerPoint systems. I use it on both of my ATs as they get incredibly aggravated at times...

  4. Also, AMAZING RUN Jen! Definitely inspiring me to get back to more running and hopefully back to trails in 2014. I love racing my bike, but I do miss mountain running!

  5. Great race and beautiful pics! Way to tough it out. Hope you heal fast!