Last month, I tackled my third ultramarathon since moving out to BC: the Whistler Alpine Meadows (WAM) 100k. WAM is notorious for being a beast of a course, and let me tell you, it lives up to the reputation. Over the course of 102 kilometres, you get the privilege of scaling and descending Blackcomb Mountain and trekking up and down Whistler Mountain (twice!)—covering ~6,000m of elevation gain throughout the duration of the race. While there are a few “flatter sections” throughout the course, they are minimal at best.
This course is not for the faint of heart; you don’t come out the other side as the same person from when you started. I have done longer courses before—running a 100-miler (160km) trail race in Haliburton back in 2019—but WAM, despite being 60km less mileage, was more physically and mentally taxing. Before I take you through the experience, let’s start by taking it back to when I first signed up for the race.
Earlier this year, I planned to tackle three organized races in 2022: 1 marathon and 2 ultra marathons with varying distances. I settled on the Vancouver Marathon (in May), Buckin’ Hell 50k (in July), and finally WAM 100k (in September). I figured each race would serve as a small dose of training towards the next one; building up my physical capabilities to tackle harder courses over longer durations. I would say I’m pretty new to trail running and would identify as a true-and-true road runner (I’ve been an avid road runner since 2008). However, over the last few months, I’ve become borderline obsessed with trail running. One of the main reasons I moved from Ontario to British Columbia was to capitalize on all the outdoor adventures the province had to offer; to get outside and enjoy the beautiful scenery and all the incredible trails within close proximity to Vancouver. I can now say wholeheartedly that I would much rather enjoy my runs on the trails than the roads. I do most of my daily runs along the Seawall (a running route alongside the ocean), but prefer to be enmeshed deep in the forest. After a long day on the trails, I feel rejuvenated and have an inner state of unshakeable calm that I’m able to carry with me throughout the remainder of the day, and into the next. When I’m in the trails, the miles and hours fly by—I lose track of time and become completely immersed in the experience. Before I ran my first ultra, I couldn’t fathom running 50-miles (80k) or 100k. It seemed impossible; so out of the realm of my capabilities. However, when I ran my first 50-miler in 2018, and while it certainly wasn’t easy, it was a lot more manageable than I thought. In fact, it just felt like a really long day in the woods. With ultramarathons, the long game is important—taking it slow and easy is the key to sustainability. Always keeping energy conservation top of mind (especially at the beginning), is so important to help you cross that finish line. The pace I maintain is at times painfully slow, uphills are all walked, and there’s a whole lot of eating. With mountainous ultras, I would personally say they resemble more of a hiking vibe than a run.
As I’ve gotten older, traditional marathons have kind of lost their appeal to me. I find them crowded, a bit hectic and there’s this anxious energy radiating at the start line. I always feel an underlying pressure to perform and to compete; to continue to better myself and set a new PB. While ultras do also have all the aforementioned attributes, it’s dimmed down substantially in a more digestible—and calming—way... I find that people are so much more chill and friendly. Everyone wants to just have a good time and enjoy the experience. I see a lot more people in an older demographic doing ultras (over 30) and I think because it’s such a mental game rather than strictly, a physical race. Life experiences and the many trials and tribulations life throws our way can harden us in a sense. We’ve gone through emotional pain and suffering, which we can turn into fuel. My own emotional pain has become a source of energy I can tap into when I’m in the midst of some of my hardest physical challenges—it’s a potent source of energy that helps me better withstand, and push through, physical pain and discomfort. That source of energy has only increased as I’ve gotten older, strengthened with age.
So with that little preface, let’s get into the WAM race experience. After I completed the Buckin’ Hell 50k in late July, I asked two of my ultrarunning mentors and friends, April Boultbee and Mel Boultbee, if they’d take me on as a coaching client. While I should have started formally training for WAM more than just a month before the start (oops), I thought it was way better to start at that point with a formalized training program vs. devising one myself. The Boultbees loaded my workouts in TrainingPeaks (which syncs with Strava). I followed the program diligently which consisted of long runs, hills, runs with strides, and weekly hikes. In addition to the endurance training, I also kept up with my strength training regimen with a 5-6 day split (depending on my training load that particular week). Let me just say that training for WAM was a big time commitment—one that yielded many sacrifices in my day-to-day. On average, I’d be training for at least 2-3 hours/day which included my strength training. Luckily, my freelance work was a bit quieter over the summer and I wasn’t working on a big creative project, so I had the time in my day to allocate to training. For an event like this, a training commitment is necessary which means you have to make sacrifices. I’m not going to get into too much detail about my training in this post, but I did log all my workouts titled “WAM100 Training” in Strava if you want to reference my program.
With the continuous running and training, my social life took a bit of a hit. When I get immersed in something big like this, I go all in. I still kept up my morning routine of reading and writing, albeit the time allocation wasn’t as big. I did have time in the evenings of course, but when I was training hard, I felt mentally taxed, and just wanted to relax with a book or watch a good docuseries on Netflix—it was hard to muster up the energy to make plans or honestly, even leave the comfort of my home.
My friends and family were supportive—as they always are—when I had to say “no” to plans repeatedly. Despite become a bit of a recluse, I was having an absolute blast! My training was a ton of fun. Trail running is new for me, especially out here in BC. I needed to learn how to improve my long ascents, acclimatize to running in higher altitudes, and work on my technical downhill running. I needed to learn how to use new gear like poles, and get used to running with a hydration vest. There was a big learning curve. My favorite training weekend was in Whistler with my friend Sarah and her boyfriend Richard. I learned so much from Sarah—a very experienced trail runner who was so generous in the information she shared with me. She was patient in teaching me how to use poles, tips for long ascents, and literally anything else trail-running related. Sarah has been a fantastic resource and I was so lucky to have her throughout this journey.
The best way for me to learn was to just go through the motions—getting out there on the trails, further familiarizing myself with trail running and testing out what worked best for me. Repeated exposure and practice helped me gain competency which, in turn, improved my self-confidence and helped mentally equip me for WAM. I practiced doing long hikes (4-6 hours) without listening to a single thing—developing my own mental tools that I could stash away in my mental toolbox and retrieve on race day.
Training was going great and I was feeling better about my upcoming race up until the last few weeks before my taper. On my last training weekend of heavier mileage, I was about 2 hours into a 3 hour run, when I stepped between some sand on the beach and a sidewalk, rolling my ankle HARD and scraping my knee (alongside my pride). While I had rolled my ankle minorly on some of my hikes over the past few weeks, this one hurt a lot—more than any other. I plopped down on a log to regain my composure and let the pain settle. I sat on that log for about 5 minutes, taking some deep breaths, and feeling frustrated with myself for being so foolish and sloppy with my running. I felt discouraged and annoyed at myself. I got back up and “jog-hobbled” back home. After a shower, I assessed the damage and it was very evident that I had a very swollen right ankle.
I followed my coach’s advice by wrapping it up with some ice and rested it for the remainder of the day. I called my newfound cankle Charles because I like to personify my limbs and find some lightness in an otherwise shitty situation. I was supposed to do my last long 2 hour run on Sunday, but my coaches adjusted the plan with a new priority: getting that ankle healed and recovered for race day, which was now only two weeks away. Not ideal.
So the week that followed, I took it real easy with my training and tried not to push it. I wasn’t planning any more hikes before WAM, so I could focus on keeping my ankle sturdy and give it the down time it needed. I decided to go to consult with my PT and sure enough, he told me I had a sprained ankle, albeit a minor one (luckily). April and Mel both suggested taping my ankle to provide it with some much needed stability while I continued my training. The tape would hold the ankle in place and stop it from doing a full roll. With just a few days away from the start, I ran the next day on the newly taped ankle to get a feel for it. It felt pretty good so I decided to make an appointment with a PT in Whistler the afternoon before the race to get my ankle all taped up and ready to rock & roll, with the hopeful wish that it would just rock and not roll.
WAM started at 5:00am sharp. My pre-race morning routine is pretty robust so I arose of 2:30am. I like to give myself at least 2 hours before the start of a race to get organized, drink my coffee, eat, and get those bowels a movin’. With an ultra like WAM that requires a lot of gear, drop bags, and proper nutrition, I wanted to give myself a bit more time to account for the extra organization. I woke up, made coffee, and got dressed. I doused my entire body in anti-chafe (I used Squirrel’s Nut Butter which was recommended repeatedly by my IG community), while I downed my coffee and breakfast. Over the last several years I stuck with the same pre-race meal which consisted of oats, protein powder, almond milk, and nut butter. However, I’ve made what I like to call my magical protein pancake which has kept me satiated during my long training runs over the summer. I blend oats, egg whites, cottage cheese, and Vanilla Cupcake Batter flavored Vegan protein, fry it up, then top it with nut & seed butter and some low sugar maple syrup. It clocks in at around 600 calories or so, which keeps me satiated, energized, and never upsets my tummy. Since I ate that meal so many times in my training, I stuck with it for race day—consistency is key. Race morning is never a good time to experiment with new foods.
It was my lucky morning! I had 6 bowel movements before waking up my friend Betania to drive me to the start line. Feeling anxious and excited, we drove in the pitch black to the start line, arriving about 30 minutes before the race commenced. Race director Gary Robbins gave his spiel, and soon enough, it was time to get going. The gun went off and away we went. Yeehaw! Pretty much immediately, we began our first ascent of the day up Blackcomb. It seemed like people were going out very quickly, and I had to keep reminding myself about my pacing plan devised by April + Mel. My coaches told me to take the first climb super easy so I stuck to a RPE of 5. I let so many people pass me on that first climb, and stuck to the plan, forcing my pride take a backseat. As I reached the first aid station at the 10k mark, I looked to my right and saw a beautiful mountain sunrise.
After AS1, the climb continued. During that ascent, I could feel the altitude start to make me a little light-headed with heavier breathing, but I met a gal named Celine who was fantastic company and distracted me from the exertion. We finished our first ascent together while having a great chat and then I ran off, capitalizing on a bit of flat terrain before making my first descent. My strength, as a long time road runner, is in the flat sections. Unfortunately for me, the flat terrains were few and far between throughout the race. But when I got to the bits of flat, I booked it to make up for some lost time on my weaknesses.
Right before I hit AS2, I had a fall: a big fall. I fell, face forward and scraped my knee, which took a chunk out of my skin. Instantly, my wound started bleeding and dripping down my leg. I found a nearby stream and splashed some cold water on it, but knew I needed to get that baby patched up soon—the bleeding wouldn’t stop. Funny enough, the same thing happened to me in my training at Whistler with Sarah and Richard. I fell for no apparent reason and a rock took a chunk out of my leg—this fall was like deja vu. The pain wasn’t too bad, it was more the excessive bleeding I was worried about. I ran for about 5k before hitting AS2, and one of the amazing volunteers gave me a cold cloth and a bandaid to clean the wound and patch it up. Once I dealt with the cut, I grabbed a banana and made my way to the first descent.
During my training, I did the Ascent Tail (up Blackcomb) which happened to be the first descent, so I was familiar with the terrain. I told myself to go slow and not push it. However, I was feeling amazing and got caught up in the good feels—you know what I’m talking about. I think I pushed that first descent a bit too hard as I suffered quite badly later due to trashed quads. Oops. Regardless, when I emerged from the trail I arrived at AS3 (the 30k point) where I saw my friend Betania who was cheering me on. Even though I was feeling good at that point, the emotional support from a very good friend provided me with some comfort and a spark of energy to begin my second big ascent of the day up Whistler Mountain via the Singing Pass trail. In training, I also did this trail, but only the descent portion. From Singing Pass to the top of Whistler Mountain is close to 20k, so I knew this would be a grind…and I was right. My nutrition plan was to try and front load my calories for the first half of the race while I could still stomach hard food, so I left a burrito in my AS3 drop bag.
As I was beginning my second ascent, I thought I would try to eat said burrito. I took a few bites, and instantly felt queasy. The avocado, beans, and rice were mushy and texturally, it made my stomach turn. For a few minutes I vacillated on what I should do…eat the nasty burrito and risk an upset tummy or carry this hefty mother fucker up to the top of Whistler Mountain, where I could then dispose of it. I chose the former. Spoiler alert: It did not sit well. I had an upset tummy for a few kilometres, but after a bit, the burrito nausea started to subside and I was feeling the energy from the carb-packed lunch. I took the second ascent slow again (as per my pace plan and because I’m just slow at ascents in general), and filled up my water bottles in the streams a few times on that climb. When I finally got to the top of Singing Pass, the views were out of this world. I now had to do about 8k or so of ups and downs (mostly ups) to get to the top of Whistler (AS4), which would be the halfway point.
The sun was HOT. It was about 30 degrees as I slowly worked my way through the musical bumps section of the course—while feeling like a sizzling piece of bacon.
However, I realized pretty quickly after emerging from Singing Pass that I was in a bit of a predicament: I was running very low on water. With likely 1.5 hours or so until I reached the next aid station, I began taking micro sips of the last of my water supply. The sun was blistering, and a big headache started to form. That stretch was so brutal. I was dehydrated, hot, my head pounding, and face contorted in pain and discomfort. When I finally reached the halfway point, I chugged back water so fast I almost choked. I also shoved some food down my throat, took a few deep breaths, and kept on moving. I was just about to begin my second big descent of the day, when all of a sudden, I felt a strong wave of nausea hit me like a ton of bricks. Just mere minutes after I left AS4, I puked. The altitude combined with the dehydration, and the amount of food and liquids I just consumed, made me literally projectile vomit. I took a few tums that my coaches recommended I pack, but still felt so sick. About 10 minutes later, I puked again. It wasn’t cute. As I made my way down Whistler Mountain and got closer to sea level, I started to feel a bit better. I still didn’t feel great, but I no longer felt like I was severely hungover.
When I reached AS5, I was feeling pretty good. I now had to do a 14k loop and was looking forward to some flatter sections of the course. Unfortunately, what I did not realize was that I was doing another ~500m descent and 500m ascent during that loop. The flat sections were indeed minimal. I picked up a bit of speed on the first half of the loop, sipping water slowly, and eating more snacks. As I was beginning my ascent, once again back to AS6, I realized I was running low on water. I became hyper aware of my surroundings; listening intently for a nearby stream. When alas! I finally heard some trickling water. I followed the noise, but realized that I had to climb down into a little gully in order to get to the stream. Feeling dehydrated once again, I hastily jumped down backwards, slipped and fell ass first into the stream, landing on a big branch, and breaking it in two. It wasn’t graceful and it didn’t feel great. I sat there for a few seconds in the water, trying to collect myself. After a few seconds of wondering what the fuck I’m doing, I got up, filled my bottles, and emerged from the ditch with a wet ass and a bruised ego. Either out of delusion or exhaustion, I was luckily able to find the humour in the situation so I laughed out loud to myself, while nearby runners thought I was probably losing it.
I took the longest break when I hit AS6 (the 70k mark)—knowing that I’d be doing my last climb of the day and that it was going to be fucking brutal. I wasn’t wrong. I changed my clothes, put on a fresh pair of socks, topped up my water and my extra Katadyn bottle in my pack…I was not running out of water…AGAIN! Soon enough, I was on my way. During this last climb, I tried my best to avoid looking at my watch and counting down miles. I knew I’d be climbing for a few hours at least so I tried my best to keep my mind calm, stay present and put one foot in front of the other—focusing on each moment rather than the distance to the finish line. I still wasn’t listening to anything on my headphones, only my own thoughts, which were circular. I just kept saying mantras to myself like, “one foot in front of the other” and “just make it to the next aid station—that’s all you need to worry about, Em.” When I finally got near the stop, the climb became quite steep and painful. However, it was getting dark and I saw a beautiful mountain sunset. This temporary experience of awe helped withdraw me from the discomfort, and actually made me smile. I felt all warm and cozy inside–a stark contrast from my cold, sweaty body (on the outside). I was operating in a quite numb state at this point.
I finally made it to AS7 and saw some runners huddled around a little fire. The temperature was now chilly, so I put on a jacket. I inhaled some quesadillas, being grateful for my tummy holding it together despite exceeding 5,000 calories in my food intake for the day. I was so tempted to sit by the fire, but knew that if I went over there and popped down by that warm heat, I would not get back up. So, instead, I shoved another quesadilla in my mouth, and was ready to tackle the final 8k of the course. As expected, I was cursing those damn musical bumps. They were not musical at all, but rather, demonic. Satanic bumps are what they should be called I think. I hated it, and found myself swearing constantly. However, I knew once I finished Satan’s bumps, I’d be cruising down Singing Pass to the finish. Finally, after swearing out loud and cursing the damn rocks I kept tripping over due to my log legs, I finally hit the final stretch—it was all downhill from here, baby. Or so I thought.
My plan was to sprint down that last hill. The reality of the situation, however, was gonna have to be a slow job hobble. So many people flew past me on that last descent, but I pushed as hard as I could. Within the last 5k, I started to experience some unbearable chafing in my lower parts. Specifically, and without tact, between my ass cheeks. It was time to reapply the lube. Thinking that no one was around and it was dark, I grabbed my stick of anti-chafe, stuck it down my ass and lubed it up. Unfortunately, for the runners behind me that I didn’t hear until they passed me, they had to witness me running with my hand down my ass. My only hope is that it provided some comic relief for the last few kilometres of their journey. Because I’m altruistic like that.
When I finally emerged from Singing Pass, with my newly lubed ass cheeks, I was confused. I thought the finish line was supposed to be at the bottom of SP, but I didn’t hear any noise? I looked up ahead of me and saw two runners, climbing back up Blackcomb…. “is this a sick joke?” I said aloud to myself. After feeling cheated, I resentfully started climbing. I finally passed AS3 and asked the volunteer how much longer. “Just a few hundred more meters up,” she replied. “Fine”, I grumbled. Just kidding, I thanked the volunteer, like I always do.
After going back to my numb “one foot in front of the other” WAM mantra, I looked up and FINALLY saw that blessed, beautiful, wonderful, finish line. A few minutes later, I jogged in and that was it. My adventure was done. It was now close to 1:00am. While my initial goal was to just finish the damn thing, I was hoping to do it in 20 hours or less. I finished the 102km beast in 19 hours and 52 minutes. I got my hard earned metal, drank a bit of water, and called my friend Betania to pick me up. I texted my mom (Kate) who I knew would not be sleeping (she gets very anxious when I do these types of endurance events). I slept for exactly 2.5 hours that night due to throbbing foot pain, and the next day, while sore, I wasn’t feeling as terrible as I thought I would.
While WAM was extremely hard (the hardest course I’ve ever done in fact), the course was so beautiful. The Coast Mountain Trail Running races are notorious for being well marked, and WAM one was no different. I never veered off course once (a rarity for me). The volunteers were so wonderful, helpful, and made the experience. THANK YOU. My coaches, April and Mel provided me with the most fun training plan I’ve ever done and equipped me mentally and physically to get my ass to the finish. I sum, while WAM was tough, I would whole-heartedly recommend this one. Just make sure you train for this one and be cognizant of your water supply.