A few weeks ago, I tackled my second 50-kilometer ultramarathon since moving out to BC. The race is organized by Coast Mountain Trail Running, an organization famous for their challenging mountain courses which consist of very little ‘flat’ terrain. For most of the courses, you’re running on technical trails up and down mountains. Before moving out to BC, I ran two formal ultramarathons that were both in Haliburton, Ontario; a 50-mile and 100-mile trail event, along with an informal 50k on my own. While there was certainly some technical terrain and a few minor climbs in Hali, racing out in BC is a different can of worms.
My first race was the Squamish50, which I ran last October. I won’t go into too much detail in this post, but overall, it was a pretty miserable experience (which can mostly be chalked up to the poor weather). Luckily for me, Squamish was experiencing ‘‘atmospheric rivers’’ during my race—or in other words, an extreme, torrential downpour. From the moment I lined up at the start, to finishing almost 8 hours later, the rain never let up. It also didn’t help that I ran this race in road running shoes. I spent a good chunk of the race on my ass. The wet rat aesthetic is not a good look on me—physically or mentally. Never, in my entire life, had I ever been one more rolled ankle-away from dropping out of a race.
However, after crossing the mid-way point, I pushed those thoughts of quitting aside and pushed through. After the traumatizing effects from that experience wore off slightly (and waking up multiple times throughout the night from reliving the horror of those trails), I spent some time journaling and reflecting on the experience—a practice I continue to do after most races. When I reflected back, I was grateful for the experience and how it played out. Why? Because hellish kinds of conditions breed resiliency and confidence for future races. If I was able to tackle this super challenging course in astonishingly shitty conditions, I could certainly do another 50k in better weather. This was the idea that I subscribed to when I signed up for the Buckin’ Hell 50k—another mountain trail ultra that takes place on Mt. Seymour.
I learned a few hard lessons after Squamish—one being that my road runners were not made for trails. Blatantly obvious, but an epiphany I only came to a few ankle twists into the race. With the help of my fellow ultra-friends and IG community, I invested in the right gear: a pair of proper trail running shoes and a hydration vest. Now that I have these necessities and use them regularly, I can’t really imagine how I ran previous races without them. For this race, my training departed from your standard marathon. First, I would do weekly hikes/trail runs that helped me acclimatize to the altitude, work on my power hiking abilities throughout the accents, and mix in some technical downhill running. I also mixed in long runs almost weekly (20-30ks), a full marathon run on flat terrain (Vancouver’s seawall), and ran some longer trail runs through Lynn Canyon with my friend Sarah. I also included resistance training following a push/pull upper body and lower body/core split that I outline in more detail here, with some stationary biking. With this training plan, I definitely felt more equipped to tackle the Buckin’ Hell course than I did with Squamish.
At first glance, the Buckin’ Hell course looks horrible. The race starts at the top of Mt. Seymour and racers begin by climbing up ~200m to the top of Pump Peak, then proceed to descend ~1200m below. There’s a bit of flatter terrain in-between, but then before the halfway mark, the ascent begins—a 1,000m ascent back to the top of Mt. Seymour. That’s right; the second half of the race is basically all uphill.
With this in mind, I needed to be strategic on how to tackle the descent. Downhill running is very tough on the body. Technical downhill running—trails covered with roots, rocks, and other trail-related obstacles—is another level of pain. Many think downhill running is ‘easy’ and will neglect to pace themselves properly. While running downhill is easier from a cardiovascular perspective, it’s much harder on the muscles and joints in comparison to uphill running. I knew if I didn’t execute this portion properly, the second half of the race would be literal Buckin’ Hell for me. We will circle back to this soon.
My Pre-Race Ritual
I’m going to take you back to 24 hours before the start because for me, that’s really where my race began. I’ve never slept more than a few hours before the night of a big race so for me, it was vital that I had a good rest on Thursday (2 nights prior). I blocked off my calendar Friday morning and didn’t set my alarm—I wanted to sleep in and get as much rest as I could. I felt well rested on Friday and my focus on the day was to take it easy, try to relax and conserve my energy. I did an easy 5-mile shakeout run on the treadmill, a bit of upper body strength training, and a light 15-minute ride on the stationary bike. This may sound like a lot, but it wasn’t. For me, moving my body in a light capacity (RPE: 4-5) helps me loosen up before a big race, not to mention that it also helps reduce my pre-race anxiety and stress levels. Everyone has a different tolerance for the amount of activity they can withstand—it’s a matter of experimentation and trying to stay low on the RPE scale.
In the first half of the day, I focused on eating nutrient-dense foods with a good mix of protein, carbs and fat. I had a protein pancake in the AM where I blended a mixture of oats, egg whites, vegan protein powder, cottage cheese, and frozen spinach into a batter. I then fried it up on the skillet with a bit of olive oil and topped it with some organic seed & nut butter and some low sugar maple syrup (but the toppings are customizable based on what you fancy!). On the side, I had a bowl of cucumber and celery. For lunch, I had two poached eggs on tomato basil rice cakes (an Emily staple), and an avocado with a side of stir-fried cabbage (seasoned with soy sauce and sesame oil). I eat both of these meals pretty much every day (I’m a creature of habit), so I felt confident that these were safe foods to have before my race.
The Carb Load
While some people like to carb load a week before a big race, and some prefer a few days, I start by loading within 24 hours and usually heavy up the night before. When opting for a carb load nutrition strategy, I usually aim to get ~70% or more of my daily calories from a carb source. Our bodies have the capacity to store roughly ~1,600 carbs as fuel in the body (in the form of glycogen), which needs to be topped up continuously throughout the race as it depletes. 24 hours has worked best for me, and I always stick to foods I know—that have been tried and tested before previous races.
Pre-dinner snack: I’ll usually have a few bowls of popcorn with random snacks mixed in– for this year’s “random snack” I went with a huge bag of parmesan garlic pita chips which, simply put, was food porn.
Dinner: gnocchi with tomato sauce for dinner with vegan meatballs.
Dessert: 2 tubs of Halo Top ice cream with peanut butter granola and fudge-covered mint Oreos mixed in.
I stopped eating at around 8pm to allow myself time to digest before bed and also to ensure I’d have a few good pre-race bowel movements in the AM.
I usually wake up ~3 hours before a race so I’m a) not feeling rushed and b) so I can make time for plenty of bowel movements (sorry for the TMI, but you know this is par for the course on my blog). If you’ve followed my IG for a while, you’ll know that I have a visceral fear of shitting my pants in an endurance event, so my primary motivation for getting up early is to make sure that doesn’t happen—to empty out all my goods prior to the start. With that being said, my race start time was at 7:00am so I woke up at 3:45am to kick off my pre-race morning routine. Not to say that my pre-race routine is methodical, but it is: I get the coffee started and while it’s a brewin’, I have a quick body shower to wake myself up. I drink my coffee while taping my chest and nips with KT tape to prevent chafing and also put on my new Squirrel’s Nut Butter in my lower lady parts. I make breakfast (generally protein pancakes) and top it with as much nut + seed butter that my tummy can handle. I organize my gear, read for about 20 minutes to wake-up my brain and head out the door.
I was one of the first to arrive at the start (about an hour early). The bugs were really bad so I grabbed my race kit, dropped off my drop bag and chilled anxiously in the car until ~20 minutes before the start. I had time to have one last bathroom trip before the gun. Whenever I’m in the bathroom line before a big race, I always meet interesting people. It’s almost like the girl’s bathroom on a night out, everyone is complimentary, chatty and anxious to pee. I met this awesome gal/avid trail runner named Katrina who outlined her experience with WAM and some of the other ultras in the area. I’m so glad I met her because she did the exact race that I have coming up in September and was generous enough to share a few hot tips. So, after a quick, chat and bathroom trip, it was go-time.
I always find the start of ultra-races so much more chill than road marathons. People just casually roll up to the start laughing, chatting. With marathons there’s this aura of intensity and anxiety that ripples through the crowd—the intensity is, well, intense. When the Buckin’ Hell gun went off, I felt relaxed and was ready to start my big day.
The first leg, as I mentioned, was an ascent up the snow-covered Pump Peak. The trails were slippery, technical, and wet, but I knew that this was only going to last a short distance, so I didn’t freak out. After climbing to the top, racers were legit butt-sliding down the snowy part. A guy in front of me slid and lost his glasses behind him. I shouted, “I’ll get em’” and proceeded to slip backwards, fall on my ass, and slide down, accidently kicking his glasses to him then running right into the back of him. I had to regain my composure for a few seconds after we were both laughing so hard. I feel like this is a tight encapsulation of the vibe of these races.
From a trail-condition perspective, Pump was the worst part, but I knew that a big descent would now ensue; a 1,200m descent in fact. The descent is where I needed to be very strategic since the last half of the race was a 1,000m ascent back up a mountain. As I mentioned, downhill running, especially prolonged downhill running on technical terrain, is really hard on the muscles and joints. Runners who are not smart about their downhill running may kill their quads—quads that are much needed for that later ascent. I would say my downhill running on a normal, flat, road environment is decent. I’ve learned to pace myself over the years (and not fly down hills) in order to salvage my legs and keep them strong. Technical downhill running—that is, running on stick, stones, mud, and steeper sections— is a different story. I felt more equipped for this race with trail runners, but I would certainly say that technical downhill running is a big area of improvement for me. I tried to focus on leaning forward and keeping my eyes on the ground to prevent tripping, while also looking up intermittently to gauge my stunning surroundings. A bit of a juggling act. A silver-lining of this kind of terrain is that it’s difficult to stare at your watch to count down the mileage—it forces you to be present in the moment, which is truly exhilarating.
After the descent, there were finally some flatter sections and this is where I really gained time. I passed a bunch of runners who flew past me on the descent. One of my biggest strengths in endurance sports—and I think this comes with experience—is the ability to pace myself; to listen to my body and conserve my energy. I never push past a RPE of 6-7 in ultra-marathons. I keep the intensity low avoid burning myself out. This has worked for me for all my races. I’ve reeled in so my runners later on in the race by running my own race and not worrying about what other people are doing. I would say this is the biggest skill and strength I’ve developed that has pushed me past the finish line of my ultramarathons.
Between ~20-30k, I had many consecutive good miles and was smiling pretty much the entire time. My legs felt good, my energy was stable, I was well hydrated, and overall felt optimistic about the ascent. I stopped looking at my watch and just focused on being in the moment—on really living. Whether you call it the “power of now”, being present or whatever, endurance sports force you to be in the moment; to surrender to the circumstances and to learn to love the experience whatever it encapsulates (good or bad). After I reached the mid-way point, I shoveled some fruit and trail butter (which was so delicious and so much tastier/satisfying than regular gels), topped up my hydration vest and continued onwards.
The real ascent began at around 32k and it was pretty much straight uphill from there with small pockets of flat terrain in-between, long slogs of uphill which I was extremely grateful for. I kept with my plan: power hiking the uphills and slow jogging (at a RPE 5-6) on flatter terrain and downhills. In this stretch, I had a bit of a headache and started to get a bit of cramping, but after slogging back more water, both went away after 30 minutes. There’s nothing noteworthy to report on the ascent—I just placed one foot in front of the other, focused on my breathing, and paced myself. When I reached the last aid station, I asked how much further there was to go and one of the volunteers said about 7k. While normally I would be thrilled to hear this news (I’d tell myself, “Okay so I’ll be done in ~35 mins or so”), when you’re hiking up a mountain, 7k could be another few hours. Once you reach a number of hours, you kind of just lose track to be honest. Katrina, the gal I met at the start, told me during her experience at the WAM100, “at some point, you just go numb.” You just keep putting one foot in front of the other and slowly, you’ll make progress. At Squamish50, I was counting down the miles, and it made the experience painfully slow. 50k felt like 100k. When I hit the last 10 at Squamish, I was angry, bitter, and wanted it to be over so bad. Granted, the weather was, quite frankly, the most fucked up weather I had ever ran in, and it was also my first race out in BC. My Ontario legs were not used to this kind of terrain and the last ultra I had run before Squamish was in 2019 (pre-pandemic).
Eventually, I got to the top of Seymour, only to do one last little climb before rolling down to the finish. I stopped eating physical food after hitting the last aid station because my tummy was tired of eating, so I just topped up my hydration pack with electrolytes and drank my calories instead. After I crossed the finish, I felt tired, and physically fatigued, but not terrible. I finished in 8 hr: 03 mi: 56 sec, and placed 4th female.
After I got home, I had a shower, ate three bowls of snacks (popcorn mixed with garlic parmesan pita chips), 4 big tacos from Tacofino, a bowl of ice cream with peanut butter granola, and two bowls of cereal—all consumed in my bed because I’m a classy gal, then passed out before 8pm.
Overall, Buckin’ Hell was a great race. I felt really good with how I did and most importantly, how I felt during the race. My next big one is in September—I’m attempting to do the WAM100k. So, Buckin’ Hell is really just a warm-up for me. I’m working with two ultra-coaches for this one. If you want to follow my training from WAM, you can hit up my profile on Strava.