July 12, 2010

Returning to the Knarly North Shore

This past weekend was 'Canada's Knarliest 30-miler' - the Kneeknackering North Shore Trail Run - which winds it's way up and over the mountains of Vancouver's north shore from near Horse Shoe Bay all the way to Deep Cove. With 200 racers making the journey along the Baden Powell trail this is one of the biggest ultras in Canada and numbers would be far larger if it was not for a cap imposed by the various districts the trail passes through. With a lottery to get into the race, many who don't get picked end up volunteering anyway and so come race day there is one volunteer to every racer! Needless to say this is one seriously slick and professional trail race with a kick ass party atmosphere of sunshine, great trails and practically the whole of Vancouver's trail running community out in force. I love it! In 2008 I didn't make it through the lottery, so in a sense I trained for 2 years for the 2009 edition of the race and ended up far exceeding my goal of 'about 6hrs' and posted 5h36mins, placing 1st female, 8th overall and 4th fastest female time ever!

Coming back in 2010 (with a lottery exemption) I was unsure how the race would unfold. I had not been on the technical north shore trails since Septemeber of last year and was unsure of my climbing fitness. Might seem lame - but just get out on a section of this trail and you will realise why I had my doubts - there are rocks and roots all over the place like no other trail I know and the first 1/4 of the course involves pretty much a power hike up Black Mountain (some of which involves clambering over boulders). The course climbs 8, 000ft and descends another 8, 300ft so flat sections are few and far between!

I had got to Vancouver the week prior and went for a couple of runs - one from Cleveland Dam up to Hollyburn Lodge and back, and one from the Dam to Deep Cove (the final 1/2) - on the course to refamiliarise myself. This was great, I was pleasantly suprised that some sections semed to have got shorter (!), but I was also mildly alarmed that I appeared to have lost my nimble footing on the technical terrain. I therefore went into race day knowing I was fit but doubting my ability on the course. I took it easy the week prior, maybe not the best game plan for Death Race in 3 weeks time but I couldn't bear the thought of hitting KK tired given the nature of the course.

The course splits neatly into 4 quarters - start to Cypress (mostly the Black Mountain climb), Cypress to Cleveland Dam (lots of downhill, little significant uphill), the Dam to Lynn gazebo (ups, downs, twists & turns), the then to the finish (inc. Seymour mini-grind and a downhill blast to the finish). I knew that I was never going to fly up Black so I went out steady and focused on getting this least favourite section of the course out of the way. Suprisingly I found I really enjoyed it and for 20mins even had the privelege of being ahead of Gary Robbins - a new race experience for me! I didn't think I would have much female competition so hoped to stay fairly close to the top 10 men and also had my sights on Suzanne Evans' CR of 5:18:57. When I had finished last year I thought 5:18 would be tough but possible, and came into the race this year in the same mind set. With this being a pretty competitive race of 22yrs standing and Suzanne being an amazing runner I would be priveleged of I could snag the CR at KK.

After peaking at Black I powered down to Cypress and passed two men just before the aid station. Friends from Pacific Road Runners man this major aid station each year so it was great to see familiar faces, though I didn't want to get too caught up in the party hoopla this early on. Later on RD Kelsy Trigg said she had noticed that I had my 'race face' on - into the station, grab a few mouthfulls of coke, and off! As I left Cypress I knew I was in 11th place (and I later found out, about 1 min up on my time from last year).

As I had just passed 2 guys I didn't want to get caught so this kept me pushing on the ups and downs that were to come. Soon I had hit Hollyburn Lodge from where it is practically all down hill to the dam. I LOVE this section, I was skipping and dancing over rocks and logs and just enjoying myself, as well as being happy to see that there was really very little mud on the course. I was totally on my own (and pretty much had been since the start of the race) but didn't mind at all. It was also great that the temperature was still cool and cloud cover was keeping us out of the direct sun on the open sections, it had been upto 28 degrees in the week and there had been a lot of talk about the humid heat being a factor in the race. Down the Hollyburn chute, over Brothers creek and I spotted a vollie by a sharp turn that we had to take. I cornered tight and bam! Man down! Feeling a little silly I got right up and carried on running without so much as dusting myself off. As I ran I got over the shock and knew it would just be some surface scrapes.

Cleveland dam is an open section - a tarmacked parking area and lots of walkers out and about. I knew that Sibylle of Club Fat Ass was manning this station so it was great to get cheered in by the 20 or so vollies and lots of speactators there. I decided not to spend time filling my Nathan pack and instead drank off the stations (water and gatorade) and just use my pack for my Clif electrolyte drink and shot blocks in between. I had purposely decided not to check my 1/4 splits from last year either, I didn't want to be obsessing about time the whole race. I'm a true believer that you have to run what you feel on the day and can't look at targtet times too much. I later found out that I was 6 mins up on my 2009 time at the dam and I knew at the time that I was lead female and about 9th overall.

Leaving the dam there is the only real road section of the KK - one mile all up hill to the base of the Grouse Grind. I ran a bit, walked a bit, ran a bit walked a bit. And in doing so passed one guy and spotted my friend Mike up ahead. I had to laugh at this, only days prior Mike had claimed that he ran this road every single time in training. Well I guess not on race day - though to be fair his power hike wasn't slow either! We got back into the trails and negotiated a few minutes of lots of hikers heading off to go up the Grind, and we bracnhed off to continue on BCMC. I was feeling pretty good and although hiking a lot I soon caught Mike. We chatted for a bit, I hadn't expected to pass him so soon but he wasn't having the best day so it was good to talk a bit and check in on each other. But I knew I had to power on so I left Mike and was glad to get to a more rolling section where I could get back into my running groove a bit. Once again I was on my own on the trail but didn't mind as I was feeling good, the course is exceptionally well marked and I know the route inside out so didn't have to worry about taking a wrong turn.
I popped out to cross Mountain Highway and stopped briefly to take on some fluid at the aid station and hear that Gary was only about 5 mins ahead! I soon passed my friend Kerry who had pre-swept some of the course and was now running to the finish whiist shooting a cool little video montage. Kerry gave me some encouraging words and told me I was running faster than the guys ahead of me, which I wasn't sure whether to believe or not!

The three quarter mark at Lynn gazebo aid station is at the top of a little hill which I sometimes struggle to run, but today I didn't have to force the run just to look good coming into the station! Again, there were lots of familiar faces ready to assist at the aid station if needs be, but with a quick check on my watch whilst taking on more fluids (it was getting hotter) I knew i shouldn't hang round if I wanted to still have a shot at the CR. the next section is in the busy Lynn canyon area but I managed to avoid knocking over any tousists by just shouting loudly - figuring that they would hear me even of they didn't speak English! This section also forms part of the Dirty Duo 50km and I was recalling training runs on these trails from years ago - every little section of trail has it's own memories! After some downhill there is quite a stretch of gradual uphill before the approach to the Seymour grind. The Seymour grind is a short, steep hike made hard because it is at a stage in the race when you are feeling tired. Just at the base section I saw a runner ahead and was alarmed to se it was Peter Findlay!! Peter is in his early 50s, held the KK course record for years and is KK royalty! He looked like he was running steady but slower than me so I snuck past him with a quick hello and tried not be be psyched out that I had just passed the KK King! At this stage in 2009 I was tired. I remember strumbling and tripping simply because I wasn't picking my feet up enough. This year, I was obviosuly getting a little tired but basically felt strong to power up the hills and to the top of the grind. From the top of the grind it is downhill to the finish, bar a few little killer ups very close to Deep Cove. I got to the top of Seymour grind and saw my watch flick over to 4h40 even. I had exactly 38min 57secs if I wanted to get this CR! I knew it was possible but could be tight and I could not let up at all. I didn't pause for a second, I simply hit the downhill and began to hammer. Down, down, down, try avoid mountain biker. Down, down, down, little up, down, down, cross first road and be very glad the vollies were there to stop the traffic. Down, down, down, oh..runner ahead ...oh, that looks mighty like Mark Bennet..oh, I've gone past him..oh, he's quite (ok, very) fast..oh well, down, down, down, gotta try for this course record and really don't want sprint finish. Down, down, cross next road (more nice trafffic warden vollies, thank you), freak...that's Gary ahead, re-enter trail, down down, 'Hey Gary, how's it going'. 'Ellie!!!!! What the.....?!!'. 'Excuse me Gary, I don't care about beating you but I'm just sneaking past, I need to get this CR!'. Down, down, chit chat to Gary, down, down, oh... little ups, little ups seem like mountains, Gary blast past, try keep up, man can he power hike, down, down, lost sight of Gary, up, up, man these ups are tough but gotta keep powering, gotta get CR. Feel better than last year, no drunken stumbling into tourists, good footing, down, down, oh, there's the daylight of Deep Cove-yay! Outta the trail, onto the tarmac, woo hoo, darn that Gary-man, he's just finished, sprint, push hard, only enough energy to raise one arm at the finish, oh, I do believe I just ran 5h 06 something!

So, I managed to snag 5th place overall, 1st place female and a CR by 12m48s. In charging for that CR at the end I also manged to run the fastest time of the day on the final leg. On the 1st 1/4 I gained 1min on my 2009 time, on the 2nd I gained a further 5 1/2mins, on the 3rd leg I was picking it up and ran 9 mins faster than in 2009. But on the 4th and final leg I had smoke coming out of my Montrail Rockridges and ran 14m29s faster than in 2009! Nothing like a good bit of running scared to get those legs a'movin!

By the finish it had got to be a pretty toasty day so ideal for hanging out at Deep Cove, soaking the legs in the tepid ocean and catching up with lots of friends and fellow runners. Definitely for the slower runners it would have been a tough day out there as the cloud cover lifted and the heat really hit come midday. But there were only a few runners that dropped or didn't make the cut off, everyone else was clearly powered along by the thought of Kelsy waiting to present them with their medal at the finish line, and the thought of Honey's donuts at the finish line aid station :) It is amazing that of just over 200 starters, 120 were first time KKs, and I would guess many of them, first time ultra runners. It is a credit to the immaculate organisation of Kneknacker that so many runners are prepared to pit themselves up against some of North America's knarliest trails.

Full race details are at http://www.kneeknacker.com/
and race results are at http://www.raceheadquarters.com/

Side note: I should concede that although I can say that I finished 17secs behind Gary Robbins, in all fairness he had placed 6th at Western States 100miler just 14 days previously. But at least I made him sweat a bit.