Saturday, August 23, 2008

Knee Knacker 50km Trail Race

The Knee Knackering course essentially follows the Baden Powell trail which traverses Vancouver's North Shore Mountains from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove. Both ends of the trail are close to or at Sea Level and the high point on the course is 4,000 feet at the peak of Black Mountain. The race as a whole has some 16,000 feet of vertical climb and descent. The Baden Powell trail is a scenic and very technical trail through a Pacific Northwest rain forest. Most of the trail is within the forest, although there are some absolutely spectacular vistas at a number of points along the trail. The course is 30 miles long and the field is limited to about 200 starters. Today was the 20th anniversary of the Knee Knacker and I was glad to be apart of it for my 3rd year in a row. A little history about me and Knee Knacker. The first year I ran it I finished in 6 hours 40 minutes. It was my first ultramarathon and things happened to my body that I had never experienced. I had muscle cramping for the first time ever. I remember falling down and not being able to get up for 3 minutes because my muscles would cramp up. I had major acid reflux which prevented me from ingesting food and fluid. I did not have a set nutrition plan that year and was taking random items for fuel. I learned that to do well in this race, proper nutrition is a must. The next year I ran it in 5:48 and was 2nd female overall. This time I only drank water and used GU gels for fuel. I have been using that combination for the past year now and it has served me nicely. This year, the woman who normally wins year after year, Susan Evans, was not competing. This meant that I had a good chance of winning the female category. That was my goal this year for this race.

I was woken at an alarming 3:45am. The race started at 6am. I like to eat breakfast (plain oatmeal w/ banana and honey) at least 2 hours before. I got my drop bag, camelbak, and post race gear all in order and waited for my training partner Peter to come pick me up. We drove to Deep Cove to meet a friend and he drove us to the start of the race in horseshoe bay. It is much more convenient to have your car at the end of the race instead of having to get a ride back to the start. Most people drive to Deep Cove, leave their car, and take a shuttle bus to the start of the race.
The week of the race I am usually pretty calm, the day before I am really excited, and the morning of I am super nervous. People were coming up to me and asking me what time I was planning on pulling off this year and whether or not I was going to win. All these kinds of questions add unneeded pressure and I prefer to focus on other things. The same people come year after year to this event and catching up with everyone is one of my favorite things. Participants are selected based on a lottery format because they only accept 250 runners. The last 2 years I have ran this race, everyone has got in. This year there were so many applicants, that 75 people weren’t allowed in. I knew many of them and it was nice to see that even though they couldn’t run today they were out volunteering or race crewing for someone, providing support all along the way.

I checked my bags and got my spot in the start line. I did not start near the front. The thing about this race is that the first hour and a half are directly up Black Mountain with an elevation gain of 4000 vertical feet. I have received a lot of advice over the years and everyone says to take it easy up this section. Not starting at the front allows me to relax and not get caught up in someone else’s pace. I ran and power hiked very consistently through this section. A girl named Sasha Brown has done very well the last 3 years of this race. Last year, I was right behind her going up Black Mt and I was hoping to pace myself off her again this year. I caught her as we started the ascent and stayed pretty close the entire way up. The single track terrain up the hill is unreal and quite steep. You even find yourself using your hands to pull yourself up, especially when you start to ascend up the scree slope. This looks like a massive boulder field but it is one of my favorite parts. It is the only part of the race where runners are close together (looks like an ant colony) and as soon as you get to the top everyone starts to spread out. The view from the top of Black is a reason to do the race alone. It looks over the entire Georgia Straight. You feel like you are on top of the world. I took a moment and looked behind me at that spectacular beauty I continue climbing. Shortly after, we started the descent into Cypress Bowl. There was a lot more snow this year then in years past. The course was well marked which made it easier to know where to go. I passed a few racers and picked up the pace. My strengths lie on the downhill’s and flats and this is where I gain the most time on people. I purposely try to conserve going uphill so I can have more energy for the descents. Downhill mountain running is one of my favorite things in the world. It sounds weird but I get an amazing sense of freedom from flying down a hill as fast as I can. I feel like a little kid again without a care in the world. Many people are afraid of falling and that is what holds them back from being a good down hill runner. I consider that part of the game, if you fall you fall, it is not something I think about when I run. I came into the first ¼ aid station at the Cypress Downhill ticket centre. There are always a ton of people cheering here and it is the first convenient place to view racers. I came into this section 5 minutes faster than last year and I could tell because my heart rate was significantly higher than years past.

The next part of the race takes you from the downhill ski area over to the cross country trails. It is a very technical undulating section with lots of rocks and routes, thick fallen logs, and patches of snow. I quite enjoy this section because you have just gone straight up for just over an hour and then straight done into Cypress. It is the first time in a while where you get to run for a consistent length of time. I passed a few runners here and was looking forward to the descent into Hollyburn Lodge. At this point I was the 3rd placed female and had my sights were set on catching the women ahead of me. I spent a lot of time looking down at my feet following muddy tracks in the snow. I knew I was near the end of this section but I kept going uphill. Knee Knacker uses pink with black stripes for flagging all along the course and the Baden Powell is marked by orange triangles on the trees. Because of the intensity I was working at I was only looking for pink markers, not realizing that the one’s I had been following for the last 5 minutes were missing their stripes. I knew something was not right and I noticed that the footprints on the ground were going in the opposite direction. I decided to backtrack in an attempt to find where I had gone off trail. As I was heading back down, other racers were coming up. I thought “Oh no! Maybe I WAS going the right way” but the person coming towards me was a racer I had passed 20 minutes prior to getting lost. There were at least 4 others behind her and we all headed back to where we had come from. At this moment I was very disappointed in myself. I know the course very well but I had not run the first 3rd of the race at all this year because of the amount of snow from this past winter. Before I got lost I was already wondering when I was going to catch up to the 2 women ahead of me and now having lost 10 minutes of time, I was unsure of how the rest of the race would unfold. I pretty much decided that I was going to pull the best comeback ever. I had been running at a solid steady pace before I got lost, but solid and steady quickly shifted into high gear. I literally started booking it and re-passed at least 10-15 people that I had already passed previously in the race. Right near the Hollyburn ranger station I saw my boyfriend and training partner Peter. I was excited and nervous all at the same time. Excited because I had someone to talk to and get guidance from; and nervous because I am usually quite a bit ahead of Peter in most races. I told him what happened and he reassured me that I would be fine; that the 2 ladies ahead of me were poor technical downhiller’s and that I would be able to catch up with them no problem. With his reassurance, I continued my mission to catching the lead females. I was lucky that the next section was completely downhill and as I have said earlier is where I excel and add time on other runners. I was passing male runners left right and centre and having a lot of fun. I was completely focused and had to wonder whether this quick pace was going to tire me out for the 2nd half of the race. I knew I couldn’t think about that and would have to deal with whatever conditions my body would face in my attempt to win today. I finally saw the first and 2nd place females running together about 5 minutes before heading into Cleveland Dam. This was an exciting place to pass them because there a lot of people cheering and it pumped me up to be in the 1st place female coming into this section. A few of my co-workers, their families, and personal friends were out cheering and the support I got from them was extremely meaningful. Cleveland Dam marks the 2nd half of the course and is the transition zone for many runners to change their socks and shoes and refill any fuel they will need for the next half of the race.

Nancy Green is the road that takes you to the base of Grouse Mountain. This time last year I was in 2nd place and passed the 2nd place female around the exact same time I passed 1st and 2nd today. In both cases I got passed heading up Nancy Green rd. I always walk run this hill because I want to conserve all my energy for Grouse. I couldn’t see the lead female as we ascended Baden Powell from Grouse Mountain, but as soon as the trail went downhill, I caught up and over took her. I pretty much never looked back. I knew that if I ran a solid race and pushed hard on the downhill’s I should have been able to keep my lead.

I was having a pretty good day and my nutrition seemed to be working well. I was having 1 gel approximately every half an hour and washing it down with plain water. I never took any food off the aid stations tables but did stop to refill my camelbak bladder in Lynn Headwaters. The day was starting to get hotter and I was starting to sweat. I have always cramped in this race but today it came sooner than expected. Fortunetly, I had my thermolyte salt tablets in an empty mini m&m’s container. I usually just start taking them when I start to cramp but I think the real trick is to start taking them early (approx. 1 every half hour) to prevent cramping. I must have had 15 within an hour and 10 more the hour after that. Cramping is very debilitating and can make or break you in a race. I was able to calm my cramping but it was an ongoing issue for the rest of the race.

After the Gazebo aid station at the Lynn headwaters, you encounter some fun downhill, undulating short hills and a 20 minute steep hill climb called the Seymour Grind. I sang my praise once I got to the top of it because the rest of the race is almost completely downhill. As long as you can hold on and run at a steady pace, its home free. My cramping came back and I was worried that it was going to slow me down. I had to stop and stretch out my muscles a few times but kept throwing back salt pills and kept moving. The last 2.5 km is said to be the longest 2.5 km of your life. You can hear the announcer from Indian River Rd. and it seems as though you are very close to the finish. In reality, you are about 20 minutes from the end. There are about 4 small hills but they seem like mountains after you’ve been running for over 5 ½ hours. I finally got to the road in Deep Cove and sprinted into the finish. Everyone was cheering so loud and I was super excited to have accomplished my goal as the first place female. I also found out that I was 9th overall which is an improvement from 14th last year. I hugged some friends and family members and cheered in other racers. My boyfriend had a personal best by an hour and 12 minutes and finished in a time of 6:17. I was so proud and excited for him as I knew this was going to make him very happy. After we both finished we walked into the ocean to soak our achy legs with some other participants. We also had a complimentary massage by the students of West Coast School of Massage that volunteer there every year.
One of the special things about Knee Knacker is that they have a big banquet at Parkgate Community Centre every year. There they have food catered, drink service and hand out awards and prizing. The banquet allows you catch up with other runners and share your experiences. The top 3 woman and men receive a hand crafted native carving; the top age group winners also receive a free pair of Montrail shoes. I was happy and proud to collect another carving to hang on my wall.

I would highly suggest this race to anyone who loves trail running and is looking for a serious challenge. I truly believe anyone who puts their mind to it can participate because I have seen people from all walks of life doing this event. I hope to see more first timers out next year to experience one of the North Shore’s toughest trail races.

Special thanks to all of the volunteers who repeatedly come out year after year to support all of us racers. It truly means a lot to have you out there!!

See you in the trail,
Nicola Gildersleeve

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