WHISTLER, BRITISH COLUMBIA – This wasn’t the post-race photo I envisioned taking prior to the Meet Your Maker 50-mile trail race.
The reality of our sport of ultra-running, however, is that races don’t always go as planned. Sometimes things go terribly wrong; the body doesn’t cooperate; we push the limit and pay dearly for it.
I imagined a photo gathered with my friends at the finish line, smiles on our faces, proudly displaying our finisher’s medals after successful completion of this bear of a race.
Maybe what happened was unavoidable. Perhaps I was too foolish and stubborn to quit and pushed too far. The journey from the rugged mountain trails to the medical center in Whistler and ultimately an emergency room in Vancouver was more than 12 hours in the making.
That’s why this photo captured my reality perfectly. On a day where nothing went as planned, I still got the post-race photo with my friends, only it was taken – as Alex later put it – in a unique venue.
In hindsight, the ending makes perfect sense. My race unraveled extremely early and grew progressively worse by the mile. At the same time it’s still hard to wrap my head around it because the day started so good …
THE MAKER AWAITS
The condo was buzzing by 3 a.m. Sunday. Shower water drizzled, feet pattered on the kitchen floor, and the aroma of stovetop coffee filled the air as we prepared for the 5 a.m. start of the Meet Your Maker 50, a 50-mile trail race that circled the mountains surrounding Whistler and featured a monster climb up Blackcomb Mountain, a steep and rugged descent of Whistler Mountain, and more than 11,000 feet of overall vertical gain. Alex, James, Katie, Laura and I filled our hydration packs, double-checked drop bags and got ready to run while Veronica and Joakim prepared to offer lots of moral support.
We arrived at the starting line in Rebagliati Park at 4:45, placed our drop bags in their designated bins, snapped a few photos, and joined the other 105 solo starters and about 40 relay teams at the line. We received final instructions, and then we were off. The crowd cheered as the swarm of headlamps trotted past and hit the trail.
James and I stuck together. It was his first 50-miler and my second, and neither of us wanted to go out too fast. Leg One of the seven-leg race was mostly smooth, rolling trail. We made good time, covering the six-plus miles to the first aid station at about a 12-minute mile pace. We chatted the whole way, enjoyed the views that the moonlight provided as it reflected off of Lost Lake and the glaciers that capped surrounding mountain peaks.
I topped off my hydration pack, snacked on some chips and a boiled potato at the aid station, and then headed out for Leg Two – a winding, root-covered mountain bike trail called Comfortably Numb. I felt great. The early pacing was perfect, my heart rate was calm, and my nutrition was good.
Two miles into Comfortably Numb, everything changed.
HEART RATE RISING
It was subtle at first, but my heart rate began to increase shortly after James and I began Leg Two on the winding, up-and-down Comfortably Numb trail. That’s nothing unusual. It happens frequently during races when the trail starts to climb, humidity gets sticky or I get going too fast. I did what I always do when that happens; I started hiking and taking slow, deep breaths to calm down my heart and get it back in check. My body calmed down a bit and I resumed running, but the heart sped right back up. I hiked again, took more deep breaths and tried to calm the body back down. It didn’t respond. This was unusual, although not too concerning considering the rate hadn’t ramped – it was just felt a little higher than I prefer.
I told James not to wait for me, instead to go on ahead and run his own race. That’s critical in ultras since there’s no telling how any runner will feel or how their body will behave on a different day. He was stronger, his pace faster, and he needed go.
I hiked a good portion of the final 11 miles of Comfortably Numb. The heart continued to fluctuate and never returned to my comfort zone. It probably didn’t help that three mud wasps stung my right leg during miles 13 and 14, and the possibility of an allergic reaction (there wasn’t one) lingered on my mind. After banking 40 minutes against the cutoff on Leg One, I’d added a bit to the cushion on Leg Two despite all of the hiking. I arrived at the second aid station, downed some ginger ale, refilled my hydration pack and wolfed down a few more potatoes before heading out for Leg Three, a seven-mile trek up Blackcomb Mountain.
Leg Three featured 3,800 feet of vertical gain, and it began with a steep, 500-foot march up the side of Blackcomb underneath the ski lift. Steps were slow – one foot barely in front of the other, and part of the time I marched with my hands gripping my quads for added support. I stopped every few minutes to gaze at the surrounding view and catch my breath, and soon I could feel my heartbeat in my ears thumping like a base drum as it ramped for the first time.
Eventually we tailed off to the left and hopped onto a service road that wound its way further up the mountain. I paused for a few seconds, put my hands on my head and breathed deep to slow my heart down. It dipped back to its elevated state, and I began hiking the road. Alex caught up to me within a mile, and we spent most of miles 22 and 23 hiking together at a 19-minute clip. We made good time, chatted a bit about the three mud wasp stings each of us endured on Comfortably Numb, and enjoyed the ever-expanding views as we climbed higher up Blackcomb.
The road grew steeper, my heart rate rose again, and I fell back off the pace as Alex pulled ahead.
Eventually the course veered off of the service road and onto a stretch of single-track that zig-zagged a few hundred feet higher. By now I was moving at around a 26- to 28-minute pace and pausing every few minutes to breathe deeply and calm the body down. My quads were shrieking from the climbing, and my calves and hamstrings were equally angry about the lack of oxygen being pumped to them. My ears were pounding again. Deep breaths became difficult to suck in with my system out of cadence. It took nearly 29 minutes for me to complete mile 25, and almost 26 minutes to complete the 26th mile and reach the aid station at the Peak-to-Peak gondola lift.
I was about 22 minutes ahead of cutoff. My goal had been to reach the aid station in 6 1/2 hours feeling good. It took more than 7 and my legs felt destroyed. Quitting wasn’t on my radar, but time wasn’t on my side.
COMING DOWN THE MOUNTAIN
Needing to make up time after a sluggish climb up Blackcomb, I hopped off the gondola atop Whistler Mountain, plugged in my headphones and let Van Halen’s “Right Now” carry me downward over the steep grade of a rocky service road for three miles at about a 10-minute pace. I blazed where I could, tip-toed through loose rocks when necessary, and rebuilt some space against the cutoff.
Eventually the course veered onto a single-track section that consisted primarily of large, slick rocks. The footing was treacherous, and I cleared a few of them by sitting down and sliding on my butt rather than risking a fall. The terrain forced my pace to slow a bit. Finally, I popped back out of the woods and onto the service road that led to the aid station.
I refilled my hydration pack with water and two Nuun tablets, slammed two cups of Coke, ate a boiled potato and a PB&J, and headed back out. I thought the tide was turning, but within the first mile of Leg Five I already gave back any extra time I’d made on the cutoff.
Leg Five begins with a 900-foot climb that spans nearly two miles, and this stretch was my breaking point. My body whispered that it was done, and my mind strained to listen.
I could no longer move at a pace that matched the beats on my iPod, so the sounds made me angry. The headphones went back in my pack. No more music; just me and my thoughts.
Three times I sat down on logs during mile 32, each time feeling lightheaded and dizzy, sweat gushing from my chest and back, and my calves, quads and hamstrings begging to stop. Mile 32 took almost 31 minutes. Mile 33 was a winding road through a neighborhood, and that stretch – despite being smooth and involving some downhill – took more than 20 minutes.
The course cutoff again was calling for me, and this time I felt hopeless. I would keep putting one foot in front of the other until a race official told me to stop, but I was certain that time was coming soon.
Another runner who knew the area and was familiar with the course infused me with hope when I needed it most. She had just come off of a dark patch, and the Coke from the aid station finally kicked in for her. She was back in a groove, and she informed me that when we reached the end of the road there would be a long stretch of downhill running.
“Just give it a little time, and you’ll be fine,” she said.
I knew I wasn’t going to be fine until this race was over, but I also knew I could take advantage of the downhill to make another cutoff.
For the next three miles I ran the downhills as long as I could before my legs would try to lock up, and then I’d hike again. Deep breath in, deep breath out, deep breath in, deep breath out, run, run, run. I knocked out two 13-minute miles and a 12-minute mile before my head began to spin again and my heart rate spiked once more. I hiked the final, mostly-flat mile to the aid station in just over 17 minutes.
I’d survived another cutoff, but the medical team member at the aid station was concerned. She asked how I felt, and I told her my heart rate was high and my legs had tried to cramp for miles. She asked if I was lightheaded or dizzy. I told her I’d been lightheaded a few times. She had me take a seat in the shade and put a bag of ice on my neck while I downed a Coke, two cups of electrolyte drink, and ate some chips.
About five minutes later I told her I was OK and headed out for Leg Six – a six-mile stretch that included 1,200 feet of climbing during the first three miles. I made it 3/4 of a mile out of the aid station and part way up the climb before throwing up everything I’d just taken in and taking a seat on a log. My heart rate ramped once more and my mind was woozy.
I should’ve dropped at the last aid station. There was no doubt in my mind that it would’ve been the smart thing to do. I’d been miserable for most of the last 30 miles – save for the two hiking with Alex – and there were still more than 11 to go.
I spent a few minutes sitting on the log trying to clear my mind. I didn’t want to backtrack to the aid station. I wanted to finish. I’d come this far and suffered so much that there was no way in hell I was going to quit without someone forcing me to stop.
I thought about Leadville two weeks earlier. I saw first-hand as a pacer just how many dark miles Sherrie endured. It got to the point that she could no longer run late in the race, but she kept marching forward, dug deeper and deeper until she found herself at the finish line.
Sherrie didn’t quit. You don’t quit. Dig deeper, boy. Dig deeper. Get your ass up and move.
A few more log sits and a slow, steady march helped the next few miles go by at around a 24-minute pace. Finally, the climbing ended and I resumed the “run as long as you can until the legs try to cramp” strategy for three quicker downhill miles into the final aid station. I had about a 40-minute cushion on the cutoff, I was told, so I had time to sit for a few minutes and slurp down some chicken broth and ginger ale. I didn’t linger long. The final section had a few rolling climbs, but it was primarily flat or downhill. I just needed to keep moving for 6 1/2 more miles and I’d find the finish line.
I set out at a comfortable, relaxed pace for the first mile to make sure the chicken broth had a chance to soak in. I knew those calories were important to get me through the final stretch. From there, I trotted the downhills and death-marched anything flat or uphill. I kept doing math in my head, calculating my time against the cutoff to distract the brain. I repeatedly thought about Sherrie’s gritty effort at Leadville, her determination and no-excuses attitude. I thought about my friends who I was sure were already at the finish line. Alex and James had to be done by now – I wanted to hear all about their first 50-milers. I wanted to see them. I wanted this race to end.
Finally I heard the finish line in the distance. I trotted down the trail and onto the paved path that took me the final three tenths of a mile to the finish line. Soon I saw Joakim, then Laura, Katie, Alex and the rest of the gang. They were screaming. They gave me high-fives as I passed. I actually managed to smile as I went by – the only bit of enjoyment I’d had in hours – and crossed the finish line in 14:19:36.
James ran over and gave me a hug. Then Alex embraced me and I nearly fell over on her. A few seconds later, my legs began to wobble and my head started spinning.
Moments later, I found myself lying on my back with my feet elevated. I hadn’t lost consciousness or collapsed, rather Alex, a nurse in Boston, had taken control and ordered me to lie down. One of the others ran to get the medical staff. Alex told them I needed to be taken to a hospital.
The next few minutes were hazy. They tried to take my pulse, but it faded in and out. I was given oxygen, which helped my head to clear a bit. Alex asked if they had IVs on site. They didn’t, but IVs definitely were needed.
A couple minutes later I was loaded into a truck and taken to Whistler Medical Clinic.
Laura and Katie had been at the clinic when I arrived, and they’d checked me in. The rest of the crew arrived shortly thereafter and spent about two hours with me as I was pumped full of three bags of IV fluid and nurses ran various tests.
My heart rate was still abnormally high (in the 90s, I think). Blood tests were a mess, but all abnormalities were easily attributable to the recently completed race. The on-site doctor was concerned about the results of the EKG, however, when it revealed an irregular heartbeat.
Eventually, the doctor determined that they didn’t have enough resources at the clinic to monitor me overnight, and she was concerned enough about the irregular heartbeat that she wasn’t comfortable releasing me. She recommended I be taken by ambulance to Vancouver to Lions Gate Hospital for additional evaluation.
A few minutes after that decision was made, we finally took our post-race photo. The whole gang huddled around my bed, smiled for the camera, and we captured our final moment together before I was wheeled to the ambulance to head to Vancouver. James came along for the ride (he lives in Vancouver, and we’d planned to head there the next day anyway).
It wasn’t how I wanted to end the race, and it definitely wasn’t the way I wanted to say farewell to my friends after five days of sharing a condo and living like a family. I wanted to spend that night gathered around the kitchen table sipping victory beers and scarfing down pizza.
At the same time, maybe it was a fitting end. I don’t understand why my heart gave me so much trouble so early in the race, and why it didn’t respond to efforts to let it calm down. The race course was stunningly beautiful and a privilege to run on, but I spent to much time in a dark place mentally – most of the final 40 miles – that I’m still having trouble making sense of all that happened.
What I do understand – the one vividly clear detail I have of those minutes and hours after the race – was the concern on my friends’ faces as they looked after me, and their smiles and laughter as they sought to keep me from worrying while at the hospital. They had my back when I needed them most, and my lasting memory will be that post-race photo – that family photo – that captured such a bright spot after so many hours of darkness.
I finished, and I was lucky that I had some angels watching over me when I needed them.
(Editor’s note: Another EKG was done at the hospital in Vancouver, and it also showed an irregular beat. A cardiologist reviewed the tests and was not concerned, saying irregular beats happen in some people and aren’t necessarily bad or dangerous. Other tests showed zero damage to the heart muscle, and it is fully healthy).