Photo Credit: Matt Cecill - Finish Line, Fat Dog 120
Hard things are hard.
It’s day two, and after 28 hours of running I find myself deep in the pain cave. My watch is reading 78 miles, and I have yet to come across Hope Pass Aid Station at mile 76.9. I’m trying to push hard up yet another very steep, never-ending hill, and I find myself dehydrated and low on calories. I’m lightheaded, dizzy, and my feet feel like they are on fire. ‘She Talks to Angels’ is blaring through my headphones.
She never mentions the word "addiction"
In certain company
Yes, she'll tell you she's an orphan
After you meet her family
She paints her eyes as black as night now
Pulls those shades down tight
Yeah, she gives a smile when the pain come
The pains gonna make everything alright……
I ponder in my head if this song was written for me; surely many others have thought the same. I press on as I focus on getting to the aid station.
Photo Credit: Marcus Janzow - Approaching Hope Pass Aid Staion
Like many of the other runners, I signed up to run Fat Dog 120 in 2020. And like most events out there, this race became a victim of Covid. So, two years of cancelations later, on August 4, I found myself at the pre-race meeting in a room full of runners at Manning Park Resort, BC. Somewhere between the nervous chattering, faint laughs, and infectious pre-race energy, we were told the race re-route would add more miles to the actual distance we’d be running race day. Fat Dog 120 will now be Fat Dog 123, but as we all know trail miles are approximations. The question that resonated in my head was “How much longer?” I knew when I had signed up that this race would take me well out of my comfort zone. I had only ever covered 108 miles in my previous 100-mile races. Unable to wrap my head around all the logistics, I focused on a text I had received earlier in the week from friend I had only met two weeks earlier while volunteering to course sweep for Hardrock 100 in Colorado. The text read, “Have fun and stay in the moment! The light is always there if you remember to listen.” It was followed by these lyrics from ‘Closer To Fine’ by The Indigo Girls.
Well, darkness has a hunger that’s insatiable
And lightness has a call that’s hard to hear
This good luck text became my race day mantra, and for that I thank you, Michael Chavez! I held onto this the entire 127, that’s right… 127 miles that I ran. I chose to stay in the moment even when the going got tough and I questioned my ability to complete what I had started.
Photo Credit: Marcus Janzow - Some shots from the start of the race
My partner and my crew, Marcus, drove Chuck Collins, a good friend and St. Louis ultra-runner, and me to the start line of Fat Dog 120. Chuck and I began our journey into the unknown at 10am Friday. We agreed to pace with each other and run as much of the race as possible together with the understanding that neither one of us will hold the other one back. But you see, agreeing to run with someone else puts you in a precarious position as at some point both of us would be running the other person’s race. This was not something I was used to. Like everyone else I take my highs and run them until I hit a low, then repeat. There is no way to coordinate those highs and lows with another person when you choose to run with them.
Going into Fat Dog 120, I had a lot of self-doubt… not because my training wasn’t all there, but simply because each time you find yourself at the start of yet another 100-mile race, you are journeying into the unknown. The outcome is never guaranteed. I had no real time goals except a best-case scenario of somewhere between 40-45 hours finish and a worst-case scenario to finish within the 48 hours cutoff.
Photo Credit: Matt Cecill - Crossing Pasayten River
Start – Pasayten River Aid Station
Almost immediately we start with a 4,800 foot climb to the Cathedral Aid station at approximately 10 miles. Both the climb and the scenery left me breathless; I was on fresh legs and felt invincible! Following the ascent, we had a 4,200 foot decent into the Ashnola aid station. It was late afternoon by the time we got there, and the infestation of black flies and mosquitoes was at its prime, along with rising temperatures. This was the first time since the start that we had seen Marcus, and I was thankful to have him along for this wild ride! A quick stop for food, bug spray spritz, and ice, and we were back to running. As we left Ashnola, I noticed that my GPS watch read 18 miles, but the race guide had this aid station at 16.8 miles. I was following the GPS course file that I had uploaded to my watch, so the variance in distance was a bit unnerving. I realized that I couldn’t rely on the aid station distances that were provided to us in the race guide. As we left the Ashnola aid station I wondered in my head, “How far to the next aid station?”
Heading into Trapper, the third aid station, we were still climbing but making good time. By the time we made it to Calcite aid station, the bugs had settled down a bit and the sun was starting to set over the distant peaks. The course started to wear down on my legs, and we were only 30 miles into the race. I tried hard to focus on the present moment… the sunset, the gorgeous scenery, and the comradery of fellow runners. At this aid station both Chuck and I stopped to add a long sleeve shirt and grab our headlamps before continuing into the setting sun. While I was waiting on Chuck, one of the aid station’s crew who was dressed like a grim reaper offered me cold beer. I immediately refused and then followed up with, “What kind of beer?” I’ve never once in my 9 years of racing had beer mid-race, surely I wasn’t going to start now. As I stood on top of the mountain of one of the most difficult races I had ever tackled with 97 miles more to go, I surely wouldn’t drink beer. In that moment the little voice in my head reminded me to stay in the moment, and so I reached into the cooler and opened a can of SOL, the best damn beer I have ever tasted! I offered a beer to Chuck, who reminded me of an article I had shared on Facebook on the negative effects of alcohol during endurance events which was followed by, “No thanks.” I thought about it, threw back the rest of the beer in an instant, and told myself, “You will not relive this moment, so do what feels good.” The cold beer felt heavenly!
The sun had set and the temperatures were dropping by the time we descended to the Pasayten River aid station. The light from my head lamp revealed the river. I took my first steps into the water; it was cold and moving fast. The water in the river was at my knees as I struggled to find my footing while also trying to hold on to the rope overhead. I stumbled hard and almost lost it. I was waist deep into the river. Fact: I don’t swim, and I was panicking. I tried hard to focus on where I stepped, grasping at the rope. My heart was racing so hard, but I had made it across the river.
I was in a bit of a shock and trying to process what had just happened. What if I had lost my grip? While I was still pondering on that what if, from somewhere in the dark I heard Marcus call out for me. This was the moment I reminded myself of something I get told by Marcus repeatedly. “One can’t continue to live their life with what-ifs.” It was time for me to let go of the question in my head, “What if?”
Next stop, the Bonnevier aid station at 41.3 miles.
Bonnevier – Hope Pass Aid Station
Bonnevier aid station was only the second major, crew accessible aid station, and I was looking forward to changing my wet shoes and socks and getting enough food and fluids in me before we moved onto the next three minor aid stations. Not only were these next three aid stations remote and had limited food and water supplies, but they were also further apart in distance averaging 9.6 miles between them. The next major aid station was at Hope Pass, which wouldn’t be until 77 miles in mid-afternoon the following day.
Little did I know this 33-mile stretch would test every ounce of my fitness and my mental fortitude. By the time Chuck and I made it to Heather aid station at 51.5 miles, not only was my GPS watch reading 55 miles, but it was also the middle of the night, windy as hell, and temperatures had taken a nosedive into mid-30s. We stopped to add more layers, gloves, and long pants. In the short period of time, it took us to do so, we were both shivering as we headed out without any food to grab at this aid station.
Due to the remote nature of these minor aid stations, the volunteers had to hike in the supplies. By the time Chuck and I got to Heather aid station the first time, they were all out of hot water/broth and we had to wait a while for the volunteers to prepare hot food. I was growing increasingly hypothermic at this point, so we decided to grab some gels and press on to the Nicomen Lake aid station in the hopes that we’d be able to get some hot food and refuel there.
By the time we hit the Nicomen Lake aid station, it was dawn and once again the aid station didn’t have any food prepared ahead of time. I was lethargic, and it was pretty apparent that I would need real food if I were to continue moving forward. I decided to wait for the volunteers to prepare some ramen for me. I was given a cup full of luke-warm water and dry-crumbled ramen. I needed real food and didn’t want to wait for the ramen to fully dissolve, so I asked if they had anything else to eat. I was offered a cold slice of fatty bacon. I felt lightheaded; I needed food. I sipped the water and pitched the rest, as I grabbed two more gels and we carried on to the next aid station.
I could feel the fatigue taking over, and the lack of food and water intake had slowed down my pace considerably. By the time we hit Granger Creek aid station, I felt fried but the volunteers at the Granger aid station had broth and other pre-prepared real food that was ready to go. I was finally able to throw down two cups of hot broth, saltines, and some fruit. The section from Granger Creek aid station to Hope Pass was incredibly challenging for me. We had a 3,300-foot descent that was followed by a 3,600-foot climb to Hope Pass aid station. It was mid-afternoon of day two, and the bugs had made their ugly return along with the intensity of the sun. I was low on calories, and with each step I struggled to stay up right as I was dizzy and nauseated.
Hope Pass aid station was littered with the carnage of runners dropping. We sat and started the process of getting this train back on track! I could barely speak as I choked on the dust I had been inhaling pretty much since the start of the race. I hacked some gross stuff out of my throat and felt better after chugging down two cups of coke. I was surprised and ecstatic to see Marcus at this aid station! Per our pre-race crewing discussion, Hope Pass was not one of the aid stations he was supposed to meet me at due to the challenging nature of the road getting up to the pass. But he had hitched a ride with another runner’s crew and had been waiting for us to get there with my drop bag ready to go. Both Chuck and I changed shoes, refreshed water, and ate a few perogies. At this point, knowing that I had almost 30 miles to the next major aid station at Blackwall, I decided to pack extra food for the trek back through the limited minor stations.
Hope Pass – Blackwall Aid Station
As we left Hope Pass aid station, I felt like a new person. I was determined to finish what I had started no matter how long it took. It’s amazing what a little food, coke, cold water, and change of gear can do for your mindset. I put my music on and pushed the pace for us to get to Nicomen. The sun was once more setting by the time we approached the Heather aid station; we were officially going into the second night and hadn’t quite hit 100 miles yet. I stopped to marvel at the insatiable depth of the mountains, the glorious sunset, and the slow cool breeze that carried the sweet smell of the wildflowers covering every stretch of ground as far as I could see. But there was something else the breeze was carrying... my own stench.
Just then I heard a low thrum. We had heard this low thrum earlier in the day when we had made the same trek from Heather to Nicomen, and Chuck and I had talked about it but hadn’t seen anything. There it was once again! I stopped to look around and saw a rustling in the field of wildflowers. Just then a Spruce Grouse scurried up the hillside to my left. I smiled and, in that instance, I was grateful for where I was standing, who I am, and what I was doing. Chuck and I both grabbed a gel at Heather and kept rolling to Blackwall aid station. The stretch from Heather to Blackwall aid station would have been ‘runnable’ had my feet not been trashed. To add to the agony, there was some technical terrain so I power-hiked until we hit the road.
It was around 11:30pm on Saturday, Aug 7 when we hit the Blackwall aid station and my GPS watch was reading 104 miles. Once more I was ecstatic to see Marcus and my pacer Zarah Hofer! Chuck and I both sat down at Blackwall aid station. We added layers as it was starting to get cold again and ate a ton of food knowing that this was going to be the last aid station with some decent real food to eat. We needed to refuel for the last 27 miles. The state of my feet was pretty bad. I fumbled to patch up some blisters and change my shoes and socks. Less than a marathon to go! I knew it would be a long stretch with approximately 5,900 feet of descent and 4,200 feet of ascent over East Skyline Trail before I’d cross Rainbow Bridge and see the finish line. In that moment I reminded myself of what I had endured and what I needed to do to finish!
At this point I knew Chuck and I had to part ways. I told him to go without me since I had a pacer, and I needed more time at Blackwall aid station for my feet. I felt a small tinge of panic as Chuck left, and I was about to start running with my pacer Zarah. Why a tinge of panic?
Up until midnight on Sunday, August 7, 2022, I hadn’t met Zarah Hofer. I had never run with her and had no idea of who she was and vice versa. Up until 3 weeks prior to the race, I had a pacer lined up and ready to go, or so I thought until my pacer was injured and couldn’t pace me anymore. Upon the recommendation of some friends, I had posted a pacer request on a women’s only running group, “Ladies of the Trails” based in Vancouver. Zarah had responded to my post and was willing to tag along with me for the last 20 miles of the race and get me to the finish! Zarah and I had exchanged texts and a couple of phone calls prior to race weekend just so we could connect on some level and review pacing/running strategies. Somewhere in my rambling, I had mentioned to Zarah that the only time she could push me would be a downhill section. Outside of the simple task of getting me to the finish line, I had no expectations.
Photo Credit: Zarah Hofer - East Skyline Trail
Blackwall Aid Station to the Finish Line
After what seemed like forever spent at this aid station, Zarah and I finally started on our trek so I could finish what I had started almost 40 hours earlier.
The next 6.6 miles to Windy Joe’s flew by as Zarah and I talked and ran a downhill section on the road in the stillness of the early hours of Sunday morning. Even though every rock I ran over felt like a stab to my feet, I was running and heading towards what would be the farthest distance I would have run thus far.
I grabbed a little food to eat at Windy Joe’s, and we kept rolling towards Strawberry Flats. Far out in the distance we could hear cheering and announcements for the 42 hour runners finishing the race. In that moment the two things that ran through my head were: One, I was going to finish this damn race and two, the 42 hours finish time was out, but could I still finish in 45 hours. Or at least I had to try!
I repeated this in my head, and we quickly moved the 4.9 miles to Strawberry Flats aid station. At this aid station both Zarah and I made sure we had plenty of food and water to get us through the final 11 miles to the finish.
Once we left this aid station, we started the brutal soul-crushing climb up the East Skyline Trail. Holy Shit! I can honestly say this was both physically and mentally the hardest section of the course for me. Just then we came to a halt and started climbing once again. With no end in sight, this trail segment was not only steep, but it was gnarly and technical. One misstep and death would be imminent. I tried hard to focus on continuing to move forward with encouragement from Zarah. I was 44 hours into the race, and my watch had already hit 123 miles which is what we were told the length of the race would be. How far was the finish line?
Race courses that challenge us as trail runners is why we keep finding events like Fat Dog 120 to suffer! With this thought, I pushed myself hard as we slowly crested what appeared to be the last hills. We started running downhill. Could this be the final descent to the finish!?!
My head was foggy, and I had lost all concept of time, thinking hurt my brain. I needed to be done. “Why was I hungry again? Now I’m hot. Why are we still running?” With all these thoughts rushing through my head all at once, I realized we were descending a very steep and never-ending downhill. I heard Zarah call back to me, “This is it! We are so close!!”
I was running the downhill as fast as I could push my legs. We turned a corner and the Lightning Loop Lake Bridge Rainbow Bridge came into view. We could hear cheering. I almost broke down in that moment, but then I looked at my watch and saw I was 46 hours and 30 minutes into the race. There was no more time to be wasted with the finish line in sight; I ran hard!
I saw Marcus running towards me as he cheered us on, and in a blink of an eye I found myself at the finish. Ok, ok, it wasn’t quite “in a blink of an eye”... more like 46:36:08!
Photo Credit: Marcus Janzow - Post-Finish Zarah and Me
Fast forward to the day after my return to the USA and I find myself surfing the internet trying to find yet another adventure to self-inflict pain. Hadn’t I had enough!?
I’m in love with British Columbia! Fat Dog 120 is a piece of heaven and hell that I got to experience over 48 hours and was by far the hardest race I’ve been fortunate enough to compete and complete. Fat Dog 120 was more than just a race, it was a much needed cathartic journey! So, I leave you with this: Hard things are HARD, but who you become at the end of that difficult journey is someone you should be proud of!
Oh, I’m seriously thinking about moving to British Columbia. Not sure what I will do there, but you only live once!
Photo Credit: Matt Cecill - Finish Line, Fat Dog 120
Special thanks to my one and only crew, Marcus and my pacer, Zarah.
Photo Credit: Marcus Janzow - Post-Finish Chuck and Me
Photo Credit: Zarah Hofer - East Skyline Trail
Our blog writers are members of Terrain Trail Runners, local athletes just like you, who want to share their love and knowledge of the sport.