2013 Knee Knackering Trail Run Race Report by Jonathan French: Conquering Canada’s Gnarliest 30 Miler
John Muir once said to “climb the mountains and get their good tidings.” Living at a little over 100 feet above sea level, mountains never even break the horizon, much less my imagination. Ultra runners often speak of mountains as the mecca of ultra running, their cathedral of inspiration. The last time I ran in the mountains was the 2012 Jemez Mountain Trail Run. I didn’t go too well as I DNFed the 50 miler and made the death march to finish the 50K. Even had a 5-time Hardrock winner help me along the way. A humbling experience to say the least. Yet, I find myself over 2,000 miles away from home on the side of the Trans Canada Highway waiting for the start of my second mountain race on the Baden Powell Trail. While most Texans are looking to swimming pools and beach vacations to cool off, I’ve made the trek to Vancouver to take part in the 25th Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run. With 8,000 feet of ascent, about 4,000 feet in the first six miles, and about 8,000 feet of descent, I knew I was in for a long day. I didn’t harbor any illusions that it wouldn’t be a long day either.
Why did I pick a race that was close to 2,500 miles away? A race that was only 30 miles? A race with a lottery that only allows 200 runners, most of which are speedy locals from the Vancouver area? As a teacher with about three months of summer vacation, I knew running in Texas in 100 degree heat was not what I wanted to be doing with my time. Training for Bandera and Rocky would come soon enough. After Googling Canadian ultras the Knee Knacker caught my attention. I clicked on the link and perused the website, immediately finding the course elevation and realized it’s a point to point race, something we don’t have much of down this way. Running from Horseshoe Bay in West Vancouver to Deep Cove in North Vancouver appealed to me instantly, especially having to park my rental car at the finish and taking a bus to the start a couple miles from where I was staying. You feel that you’re covering some real distance.
The various videos on YouTube, which do not do this course justice, had me immediately. Having never run through a temperate rainforest I put my name in the lottery. Without Facebook I couldn’t follow the lottery process but I was stoked to find out that I had been chosen to run. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t like following the Western States lottery but when I read I was chosen I was excited and apprehensive. Would I regret my decision? Could my flatlander legs handle the climbing? Turns out, yes, and yes, although the former is something ultra runners are all too familiar with.
This race is special to trail runners in Vancouver and it is evident to anyone who runs this race. Four to five hundred runners apply for the lottery every year. Those who do not make it volunteer their time to assist their fellow runners, even hauling gallon water jugs 4,000 feet up Black Mountain where the only access point is straight up a boulder and scree field. What makes this race even more remarkable are the 250 volunteers out on the course. I have never run a trail race with that runner/volunteer ratio. Volunteers knew who each runner was, where they were from, acknowledged them by name. It was awesome to hear volunteers yell out “here comes the Texan!” This year’s race was going to be something special as it was the 25th anniversary and three of the race’s founders were running this year’s race. Did I mention the catered banquet dinner after the race where they acknowledge every runner who finished? Race organization is top notch here and it was a fantastic experience.
The course? This race is billed as “Canada’s gnarliest 30 miler” and it was true to its description. Yes, you get to run some of the most beautiful single track through a rainforest with old growth trees, over narrow boardwalks through bogs created from snowmelt, up and down Cypress Ski area, past waterfalls, over small creeks and the Capilano River, between the gnarliest tree roots smoothed over by thousands of shoes, a boulder and scree field topped off by the most spectacular view of Horseshoe Bay and the Strait of Georgia. Don’t let that fool you. This 30 mile race runs like a 50 miler and you feel every mile of it. I chose to run with two handhelds, which turned out to be a bad idea as I really needed my hands to scramble. I took my CamelBak but opted to not have the extra weight on the climbs. The first six miles were up Black Mountain and it was quite the climb that included the aforementioned boulder field. One slip and you ran the risk of getting seriously injured.
The trail was the most technical I’ve ever run and it took some concentration so as to not trip over the countless roots that seemed to reach out at you. A quick glance at your watch put you in a precarious position. The first 15 miles were really enjoyable with all the views and boardwalks you get to run across. Race organization had even secured a helicopter to film the leaders going up and over Black Mountain going into Cypress Ski area. By the time I had reached Cleveland Dam at 15 miles my stomach was giving me troubles and I just couldn’t turn it around. From the aid station at Cleveland Dam to the climb up Grouse Mountain is a mile’s worth of paved road up Nancy Greene Way to the base of the Grouse Grind. I was able to eat an apple and some potatoes and hoped it would be ok. The climb up Grouse runs parallel to the Grouse Grind which is packed with people out for a hike. Little did they know we had been running for 16 miles already. A bit demoralizing to say the least. This is where I lost some confidence and started questioning why I came this far for a 30 mile race. “You’re a flatlander, you don’t belong here. You’re getting schooled by men and women older than you who are making this look like a quick training run.”
I finally make it to the top and on through a couple aid stations. My stomach issues didn’t go way even after eating some ginger and I was dreading the final climb called Seymour Grind. I decided to fill one of my bottles with Coke at the Hyannis aid station. Why I hadn’t done this earlier is beyond me as it slowly took care of my queasy stomach. Seymour Grind beat me. After what seemed like forever I finally made it to the top and on to Seymour Road aid station. After contemplating dropping over the last 10 miles I seemed to pull it together for the last three and really enjoyed the remaining section despite the numerous staircases leading down to Panorama Park in Deep Cove. These are also public trails and you pass tourists and locals out for a day hike so one has to be careful to not scare of run over them. Most have no idea a race is going on. A few know and offer words of encouragement on your way to the finish. Some clap and say I’m almost there which bolsters my confidence that I will finish. While skipping over roots and taking the stairs a bit faster than I should, the number of tourists and day hikers increased. Finally I reach pavement!! Three hundred yards left! Of course I pick up the pace and enter the park where the finish line is. Two hundred yards and I see the finish line at the bottom of a short hill. One hundred yards and people are sitting on the grassy knoll and on the benches lining the paved trail. Fifty yards and I toss my water bottles and cross the line and get a great hug from Beverly along with a hearty smile and congratulations.
Crossing the line in 9:24 I was completely pleased with myself. The winner, Gary Robbins, course record holder for HURT 100, finished in 4:41. Yeah, he’s a Canadian beast and even that’s an understatement. Vancouver ultra runners are amazing people, as most ultra runners are no matter where you may find them. People of all backgrounds and abilities gathered just before sunrise for a 30 mile adventure and at the end of the day find camaraderie in each other’s struggles and triumphs over a catered dinner.
A huge thank you goes out to RD Kelsy Trigg for the opportunity to be a part of Canada’s “gnarliest 30 miler.”
– Jonathan French
Special thanks to Jonathan for sharing with the tribe!
Posted on 21 Aug 2013