This report is dedicated to Jen Jurynek’s jacket, whose taped seams were vital to my keeping my fingers.
The Fat Dog 120 hasn’t developed an oversized reputation yet, but it inevitably will. I heard about it first through the colorful, liquor-tinged tellings of Roch Horton at a mutual friend’s annual Christmas party. He sold me on it within 10 minutes with tall tales of thick-trunked trees, mossy cross country underfooting, fist-sized mosquitos, expansive views, homemade smoothies, and an off-the-radar but rowdy Canadian “eh” vibe. I immediately signed up for it as a back-up race to Hardrock. I then proceeded to forget about it.
In December I was 14th on the newbie waitlist for Hardrock. Over the spring I diligently converted myself into a butt-swinging speed hiker in order to get myself Hardrock-ready. Second on the waitlist as the gun went off in Silverton, I tried to feel some satisfaction as best-trained pacer on the course. My mind trick apparently worked as Ben and I had solid symbiosis from Grouse to Chapman as he rocked the San Juans in his habitual understated, high-socked, short-shorted fashion.
Following our Colorado trip, the combination of a 6 week bronchitis and frustratingly prolonged reactive airway issues (as anybody timing the Speedgoat Vertical Mile will attest to), a lot of call shifts at work, a certain foolhardiness that came from having “conquered” part of Hardrock, and likely a healthy dose of denial all prevented me from taking a serious look at what I was in for at Fat Dog until the week before the race. This meant I had no crew, no pacer, ragged lungs, and no hotel arrangements. That, paired with the prospect of 120 miles, was enough uncertainty for me to be pretty jiggly on the insides. This may have been the “back-up” for Hardrock but it sure as hell was going to put me outside my comfort zone. Little did I know that simple logistics were going to be the least of this race’s ability to give me the middle finger.
Fast forward to the start line: mild mannered mentions of rain at the start line, no clouds in sight, we take off. I’m mid-pack and we are casually walking because the crowd can’t cram easily onto immediate single track. My butt’s wagging happily. It was easygoing to my first and, ultimately, last mountain view during the race, at mile 9. The Fat Dog is somewhat Hardrock-esque in it’s gonzo ascents and descents: in the case of the first section, 9 miles of ascent followed by equivalent descent. I successfully keep myself in check on the moderately technical downhill I adore. When not in eyesight of other runners, I let my arms out like wings and feel that 100-mile flow I’ve craved since the Bear 100 two years ago. Ashnola aid station at mile 18 now reached, I take my time because that is what no crew and no pacer means: relishing any human contact at aid stations. I’ve even got a few quips for folks, suddenly the extrovert when no crew awaits me. The volunteers are lovely and the cheeky race co-director Peter fills up my water bladder for me – incredible service. I walk out with a chatty and brute-strong appearing artist from Ontario, Peter, and we quickly get lost on – of course – the dirt roads that lull us into complacency. We lose 15-20 minutes but aren’t too fazed. The next ascent will be my last in which one can discern the surrounding landscape and appreciate it. Wildflowers pepper grassy fields with burned out aspen creating that Manet-style juxtaposition of black and color that gets my mind dancing. I can’t help but start singing aloud some TV on the Radio’s “Seeds” album that is blaring in my headphones. These few hours, in retrospect, were my 100-mile-bliss moments, and I feel simultaneously so invincible and so insignificant. That’s one powerful cocktail of feelings, right there.
Then, poof! Feelings of invincibility are pulled out from under me as the first storm hits out of nowhere. There is seemingly an immediate downpouring requiring first a windbreaker stop and then, as the severity sinks in, an arm warmers stop. That’s all I had in my pack, gear-wise, and it was on and barely enough as I worked my way into more exposed terrain called Flat Top mountain, a cross country section that headed straight into the eye of the storm. Hail, sleet, lightning, and thunder broke above me, around me, and seemingly underneath me as the trail turned to icy ankle-deep water. I made the amygdala-driven decision to push forward despite the lightning, bending over to make myself small, running like a hunchback over the mountain’s crest until I had descended into tree cover. Wind hit on the descent and it took several miles of semi-frantic downhilling to shake the numbness out of my hands. I reached Calcite aid station and spent 10 minutes there drinking broth, warming hands, thanking volunteers with an edge of desperation, and witnessing but trying not to register the first carnage of the race. I consciously pushed the thought out of my sodden mind that this was only mile 35. Fat Dog 120, you were turning into more than I had bargained for.
Knowing mile 41 Bonnevier aid station was close and warm nighttime gear awaited me there, I pushed on. A mudslide and river crossing later, I arrived warm and sopping wet, ready to get my game face on for the night. In my peripheral vision and hearing, I detachedly absorbed the image of somebody’s arm being set from a break and overheard tales of dislocated shoulders from the mudslide. I gathered strength, in twisted fashion, from this new understanding as to how hardcore this race had become thanks to the weather. It took 20 minutes to get compression socks, capris, and arm warmers on over squeaky wet skin. I changed out packs and made sure I had all the mandatory night gear which included a waterproof jacket, gloves and winter hat, wind pants, emergency blankets, and 2 headlamps: no more messing around in this weather, lesson learned. I set off happily, energy good, still trying to rework the math in case I happened to be anything other than 1/3 done. No deal. I was only 1/3 done.
The next ascent was over 10 miles to Heather aid station and a total blur. The rain intensified yet again, to the point that my 15-year-old Timex Ironman watch flooded and I lost any sense of time of day or pace. Gale force winds added a unique surreality, and I was thankful for my homie-sized wind pants lent by my husband as they added just enough warmth (and, let’s be honest, style) to keep me unpanicked. I reached Heather aid station where more shivering runners under blankets looked stricken and miserable. Volunteers were overwhelmed trying to keep their makeshift aid-station tarps from blowing over. I needed help opening up a 5 Hour Energy here as my hands were dumb with cold. Given the roaring of the wind around us it was impossible to get warm at this aid station and so I left quickly, desperate to keep moving, worried that if I stayed I’d end up zombie-looking as well.
At this point the fog rolled in thick with horizontal rain, just in time for the long descent to mile 73 Cayuse Flats. My headlamp reflected back in my eyes, blinding me, and I almost ran off a cliff close to Heather aid station in a very eerie, eroded section that resembled sand dunes were I not in – where was I? Oh yes, freaking middle of nowhere British Columbia. Once I dropped into the trees again, the wind slowed down but the trail frequently returned to ankle deep stream. I yo-yo’d with nameless male racers, all of us struggling and silent, all of them kind despite duress, and reached Cayuse Flats in one piece. Unable to see the trail very well during this long 20 mile descent I had my quad-brakes on the entire time which, later on, would prove to be the likely reason behind my physical unraveling.
Cayuse Flats then a happy switch of terrain with two steep humps over to Cascades aid at mile 78. Cascades was presumably “the point of no return” according to co-director Peter whose comments at the pre-race meeting inexplicably held traction for me. I am a born skeptic, so part of what I love about these long races is how malleable I can become with enough physical wear and tear. I somehow took his advice as mantra and thought, “wow, I’ve made it!” once I reached this 78 mile point. But I still had 40 miles to go, and the weather was only going to get worse. Thank goodness for a healthy dose of gullibility.
At mile 80 Sumallo Grove I could sense dawn and overheard a volunteer (incorrectly) say it was going to be 28 degrees (C) that day. The combination of light’s downstream effects on my incredibly sensitive pineal gland (thank you, intern year) and this optimistic weather news made me feel brand new. The flattish Skagit River Valley portion of this race, from mile 80-100, is both revelatory as well as potentially race-ruining, thanks to its runnability. I broke out my running stride and had a blast, thinking of all the dripping gear I was going to dump at Shawatum aid station, mile 90. Somewhere in this section, however, my right medial knee started to ache as did my IT band. Ache turned to sharp pain the more I ran so I took a tiny dose of acetaminophen, then, very reluctantly, a whiff of ibuprofen in an effort to minimize the pain. I figured if I could reach Skyline intact then the rest was hiking or downhilling, manageable activities without a functioning knee, or so I thought. By Skyline, however, the pain had turned to limp, I was out of NSAIDs, and the aid station had no acetaminophen. Based off of the weather news I’d overheard earlier that morning, I dumped most of my wet gear at Skyline and changed into some dry shorts, giving the volunteers an unfortunate eyeful. I thankfully kept my jacket, soaking wet beanie hat, and gloves, mostly out of a sense of new but profound distrust of BC weather. I also picked up my poles here, in a race-saving but completely serendipitous move.
The final 21 miles from Skyline to the finish consists of a large 5000+ foot ascent followed by the endless ups and downs of 6 false summits and a final 6 mile descent. Although most found it particularly cruel to insert this type of terrain at mile 100 of a race, I actually thrilled at hiking instead of running, hoping my knee pain would improve with a change of terrain. I power hiked manically, energy fantastic for being over 100 miles into the race. I quickly realized, however, upon reaching some runnable sections, that my knee had now swollen to a point that flexion was reduced to about 30 degrees: no more running for me. This was highly frustrating as I had some serious energy reserves stored up from being forced to take it so easy overnight. I reached Camp Mowich aid station at mile 107 and the rain, again, intensified to a constant downpour just as I reached more exposed terrain. Given my tattered knee I couldn’t keep a pace that would keep me warm; cold truly started to settle into my bones and fear of hypothermia took root in my brain. Downhills were exquisitely painful as I was reduced to side-stepping and the trail had turned to a blur of yellow-brown slippery mud stream.
I reached Sky Junction aid station, mile 112, increasingly anxious that I wouldn’t be able to manage the descent at such slow pace and still keep warm. This aid station was exceptionally minimal: tarp over the trail, gummy bears and Pringles available to eat. There was a dog there, as I recall, starting at me most uncaringly. I had the obliging volunteer get out my emergency blanket and wrap it around me, stash my poles in my bag so I could stick my hands in my armpits, and I left Sky Junction aid in the company of a very generous 30 mile racer who stayed with me over the next 2 miles of exposed ridgeline despite my pitiable grunts and moans with each downhill step on that right leg. The last 6 miles of descent were a testament to the instinct for self-preservation over self-respect as I hobbled down below treeline, tied my silver emergency blanket cape in a knot around my neck, got out my poles, and hiked as rapidly as I could using my poles to propel my unbendable right leg forward. I finished, hobbled, objectively crazy-looking, with all reference points in terms of space, time, and bodily proprioception obliterated over the course of this Fat Dog 120 business. No pacer or crew from whom to ask sympathy. No watch as time gauge. No scenery for direction sense. And, finally, 30+ frustrating miles battling a breaking body (it turns out I had torn my vastus medialis) with bottled up energy and cardiovascular capacity for some serious wheeling. In typical and wonderful 100 mile fashion, I was reduced to a mere crumb of my athletic self although, as it turns out, I had broken the course record by over 3 hours. I hardly registered this fact as it paled in comparison to the other challenges I had overcome without complaint… if moans and grunts don’t count.
I’m here writing my first official race report primarily out of gratitude and respect for Heather and Peter, race directors of a fabulously managed scenic race, and their crew of volunteers on whom I relied heavily. A race run in conditions like this gets no facile Instagram-able love (as who in their proper mind would bring their selfie stick in that outrageous weather) and means zip in Stravaland. My watch is in the trash and I have a sum total of zero pictures to share. This race provides a story, and provided me with little left at the end but…me. Rock out, Canada.