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2016 Fat Dog 120 Race Report


200km, ultra scenic mountains, 96% single trail, wildflowers and shooting stars (with a dash of hallucinations, fatigue and elation)

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200km is a bloody long way. Especially on foot.  Over mountains.  In the heat.  On rutted trails.. But as the saying goes: Any idiot can run a marathon, but it takes a special kind of idiot to run an ultra marathon! Maybe I’m an idiot but after completing some grueling ultras like the Great North Walk (GNW) 110 miler and UTMB, I needed a new challenge - cue Fat Dog 120:

The Fat Dog 120 is a 122 mile (197km) race in South Western Canada, roughly three hours from Vancouver. Its claim to fame is being the most scenic ultra in Canada, something that’s hard to argue with as it straddles three stunning provincial parks in the Cascades Mountains. It also has the credentials to go with it being listed as one of the nine toughest ultras by Outside Online: The 9 Toughest Ultramarathons. Competitor Magazine also lists Fat Dog as one of North America's hardest running races. See number 11. Personally, I think it’s obviously no cakewalk but generous cut offs make this race very attainable as long as you can stay on your feet (and awake!) for a very long time!

Rumour has it that the race was first run as a 100 mile race and only afterwards they realised it was actually 120 miles. This year, they’ve moved an aid station making it 122 miles with over 8900m of elevation. It’s a gem of a course consisting of 96% single track (a lot of it rutted), 2% fire trail and 2% road as well as a river crossing. The terrain is very runnable with some long climbs. It is, as they say, seriously scenic! It is also incredibly well marked and I was never worried I was on the wrong track. As well as the 122 mile race there are 70, 50, 40 mile options and a relay. There’s a cap of 250 runners in 122 mile race. Only 112 finished this year.

Fat Dog 120 mile event is a qualifier for Western States  and for Hardrock. For Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc, the 120 mile gets 6 points, 70 mile gets 5 points, 50 mile gets 4 points.

The next section is a breakdown of the race itself and may be useful for anyone wanting to do this race. I’ve also included a few hints and tips at the end.

The race

The race starts in remote Cathedral Provincial Park, near Keremeos. It has a very relaxed all of the runners funnelled across a narrow bridge at the start before starting the longest climb of the course (14km). The weather has varied significantly in the past years from burning hot to hail and storms last year. Luckily this year the weather was warm but pleasant. The first aid station is at 12km and you still have a few km to go until reaching the scenic summit before running across the top of the mountain. I was only a few km into the first climb before I feel my heels starting to blister. I stop and put on a blister pad, but unfortunately I was unable to find Compeed blister shields in the US/Canada and the local variant failed shortly after application. Lesson learned – bring all required medical gear from home.

The first climb is steep but not technical with some runnable sections. I reach the first aid station in a little under 3 hours and stop to sort out my blisters with a big Band-Aid. After a few more km of climbing we arrive at the top and run across seeing plenty of snowy patches and I briefly consider running over to toboggan down..

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Realising I still have 180km to go I take it easy and start the descent.  I’m greeted by the most gorgeous meadows of wildflowers in purple, blue and white.

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It’s a gentle downhill run through these meadows down to the Ashnola aid station at 29km. Just a note on aidstations, some aidstations along the course are very remote and all of the provisions (including water) need to be hiked in. This means that the minor aid stations have very limited support and in some cases rations on water (although we never had an issue). Ashnola is a major aid station with all the trimmings including a cool water bucket with sponges and homemade quesadillas. After cooling down and stocking up I’m away. The next section is quite exposed and can get really hot but luckily some clouds move in and cool things down. The top of the next climb is pretty boggy but runnable and I reach Trapper lake in under two hours. After some coke and food I am ready for the gorgeous next section up to Flat Top Mountain. This section is very runnable with a gorgeous section going up to Flat top.

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The sun is going down and my breath is taken away by the beauty of the mountains at sunset. No matter how this race pans out, seeing this view makes it all worth it. It’s capped off with amazing flowing downhill single trail almost all the to the Calcite aid station. It would have been a sin to not run this single trail despite the warnings I’d received before the race to save my quads.

After a quick stop at the Calcite aid station (57km) and having some Canadian fried bread, I feel good running down towards the river crossing. The trail is easy and runnable. The last section down to the river crossing however is really steep and the organisers have put up ropes to ensure people don’t get injured. Last year it was a mud slide. This year it is relatively dry and I can negotiate it using my poles. The river is quite wide but the property owner has put up floodlights and there’s a rope to hang onto. It is a little over knee deep but easily negotiated with one hand on the rope and the other using the poles. It’s just after dark but the water is refreshing and I have new socks three km up the road.

The Pasayten aid station is just across the river and is very basic, however it’s only a quick 3km to Bonnevier which is mostly on road.

At Bonnevier (66km) I change socks and put on my shin compression guards. I use them mostly for heat as I know the mountain will be cold. I also put on my thin wool top. At this stage I visit the first aid tent to have my blisters looked at. My right heel didn’t look too good but they clean and wrap it up nicely. Before leaving the aid station, you have to report to the checkout warden who ensures you have everything you need for the arduous next section up to Heather. This section is 21km with mainly ascent and according to the course notes ‘takes longer than you think’. They are right, it takes me 5 hours which includes the new 2km out and back section to aid station. I spend some time sitting in a meadow of white flowers looking up at the stars. The moon has gone down and the stars are mesmerising on a clear night at 2000m altitude. This is the day after the Perseid metor shower and numerous shooting stars light up the sky and keep us company as we hike uphill. This is also the section that I later heard other racers saw a gnawed off deer leg on the trail.. This is bear country after all..

Heather aid station (87km) is one of the most remote aid stations and feels a bit like the wild west. They still have amazing quesadillas and enough food and water for everyone. Climbing out of the aid station I pass many runners coming down, many annoyed at the additional 4km and 250-odd meters of additional elevation. As I make my way over the mountain the sun starts to rise and the gorgeous colours above the mountains is something I will never forget.

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The terrain is undulating but runnable and ascends slightly before I round a corner and the gorgeous Nicomen Lake appears below. The water is so clear and transparent that you just want to jump in. The switchback trail leading down to the lake is steep and takes its toll on the quads.

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The Nicomen lake aid station (103km) is very basic with some potato chips, gels, hot broth and water. It’s manned by a bunch of friends who hiked in and has a very relaxed feel.

The next section is pretty much a continuous downhill for 18km to the next aid station. It’s runnable in some sections but also very rutted in others making for slow progress and taking 3.5 hours. Finally reaching Cayuse Flats (121km), I’m happy the downhill is over (for a while) and I’m looking forward to seeing my family at the next aid station a mere 8km away. Little did I know that this short 8km had the steepest and slowest hills of the whole course. Essentially you end up climbing half the way up the side of the mountain and then down again. I was already behind my scheduled meeting time and pushed through this section to try to make up time but it still took me 1.5 hours. I curse the trail wondering what the point of it is because all it does is go up the mountain for no reason and then all the way down to the next aid station.

Finally at Cascades (129km) I meet my family and relax in a chair eating fruit and cooling down. I change socks and shirt and arrange to meet up at Skyline aid station later that night. After about 40 minutes I’m finally on my way. The next section takes you under a road bridge and onto the side of a highway for a few km of easy running before turning into a forest trail. The next section is described as the easiest and flattest part of the course. It isn’t. Well, the first two km of the trail is easy and flat, followed by 13km of undulating, rutted, and in one section, scree (!)  followed by two km of easy trail before the Shawatum aid station.

This is by far the most difficult section for me. The heat of the afternoon and a warm wind in the forest makes me drowsy and I start to hallucinate. I see elaborate wood carvings and cabins in downed trees, a snow owl, my step dad as well as a bowlegged black bear (I realise I am hallucinating at this point because there’s no such thing as a bowlegged bear.. or is there?). The bear turned out to be a giant root. Luckily there are no vivid hallucinations, just my mind turning shapes into things. To try to cool down and wake up I duck down to the river and put my feet in and splash my face. I swear that after half an hour my feet and socks have dried. The wind is warm and dry and seems to suck the moisture out of my pores.

I also experience a curious slowing of time – I feel like I’ve been hiking purposely for 20 minutes but my watch tells me I’ve only moved 500m. I start wondering if it is wrong, maybe the trees are blocking the GPS signal? After checking my watch ever more frequently I realise that my pace is ok but my experience of time has slowed down. So I resort to not look at my watch. I then promptly run out of water a few km short of the aid station. This is the closest I’ll get to dropping out of the race.

Thirsty and despondent I finally reach Shawatum aid station at 149km. I inhale lots of water, coke and fruit and collapse in a chair. Feeling a little worse for wear I decide to try out the toilet and boy am I glad I did! Unbeknownst to me the walls of the small toilet block are plastered with post-it notes saying things like: ‘You paid good money for this’, ‘You got yourself into this situation, you can work your way out’, ‘You can do it!’ And my favourite: ‘Today, you are my hero’.

That’s when something clicks in my head and I decide that today, I wanted to be a hero. Not for myself but for my little girl, to show her that anything is possible if you want it enough, for my parents who’s spent their holidays supporting me and for my worried girlfriend back home who has such faith in me. Today I am their hero and I’ll finish this damn race. I quickly stock up on water and food. Luckily I’d been warned about the next section and get one of the volunteers to spray me with bug spray. I later found out that over 50 runners had dropped out at this aid station. Maybe they should have visited the rest room..

The next section is notorious for mosquitos and has driven runners crazy in the past. This is a blessing in disguise because it forces me to move quickly to outrun the little critters and not stop. That, combined with continued hallucinations is enough to quickly cover the 15km section. The mosquitos are still annoying as the sun goes down but it is bearable. This section is also one of the most overgrown of the whole course and it feels like you’re bush bashing most of the time.

Coming into Skyline at 164km (101 miles) feels like a small victory as it is the last major aid station before the last push over the last mountain. I feel good and seeing my stepdad is wonderful. He’s brought new shoes and food. I also have my blisters wrapped up by the first aid officer (now on both heels because the Compeed has finally given up the ghost). This is also where I’m asked a number of control questions like what was your first car? What’s the name of your first school? They do this to make sure you’re still sharp after 36 odd hours of running. Luckily I was prepared and passed the test.

The last 20 miles (33 odd km) over the last mountain is apparently the hardest part of the course and I’d read that some runners spent over 10 hours on this section alone last year. I feel good and tell my parents to be at the finish line with my little girl nine hours later.

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The next section started with the second longest climb of the race at 12-13km followed by some undulation before Camp Mowich aid station. I know I have plenty of time (and I can’t finish faster than nine hours anyway) so I slow down to a grind and started climbing. It’s not too steep and there are some undulations on this climb but in general it is a steady climb in the dark. I see a few toads jumping over the trail and I’m still not sure if they were a hallucination or not. Both of my big toes are getting very painful at this stage, one has a half grown toe nail that I lost a few months prior, the other has a nail that is about to pop off. On several occasions I manage to drive a twig into my toes causing me to scream out in pain. In hindsight, some pain is a good thing at this stage because it keeps me focused and awake. As I climb, the trail becomes very exposed in some areas with sheer drops on one side. To be safe I make a point of leaning into the mountain so if I fall I’ll fall the right way..

Camp Mowich (178km) is a very basic aid station but they have coffee which is a Godsend at this stage. From the race briefing I remember the next section is ‘undulating’ with about seven false summits. I appreciate this information as it allows me to start counting the peaks as I run with two other racers. This is also the location of one of my favourite memories of the race – As we head up a hill, a massive shooting star lights up the sky above us. It is the biggest and closest I’ve ever been to a shooting star and it was magnificent. Luckily the other runners see it too, otherwise I would have been convinced it was a hallucination. Finally we are on the eight climb and I can see lights above, it is the last aid station Skyline Junction (186km)! It is manned by Peter, the course director and a few others and even though I arrive at 3.30am they are still in good spirits and we have a chat about the course and the amazing scenery. I ask about sunrise and they say I’m on schedule to be in the perfect spot for it. They aren’t wrong..  As I leave Pete tells me I have another four ‘short’ climbs to go (it was actually five). For some reason I thought that Sky Junction was the last peak but alas..

I’m not sure but it seems like Pete wants us to tag every peak in that area before we’re allowed to finish.. On the fourth peak I look at my watch and realise I have plenty of time before I am supposed to meet my parents so I go off course and scramble up to the peak to enjoy the view. Sunrise is close and I can glimpse the mountains in the distance. As I sit there admiring the gorgeous view I come upon a peculiar thought – I don’t want this to end. Maybe it is mountain madness but I’ve seen so much beauty and experienced such unbelievable trails that I’m not ready yet.. However, I’ve made a deal with my parents to get there so I slowly return to the course and make my way to what I think is the descent. To my dismay the trail starts climbing again to a final peak, but what a peak it is. All of the irritation of the last climb disappeared as I crest the last peak. To my left I can see Lightning Lake far below, surrounded by beautiful dawn coloured mountains and on my right are jagged peaks as far as the eye can see. Someone has decided to camp here and I can’t imagine a better place for it. The view is breathtaking and I pause for a while to take it in.

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Getting down involves first some rock hopping and steep, short and rutted switchbacks before the most beautiful manicured trail appears. After so much wild and rutted single track I can’t believe how smooth the trail leading down to the lake is. It is a damn shame I can’t run any of it as my toes and feet are so painful that every step sends a jolt of pain up my leg.

The trail drops about 700m in elevation and seems to go on forever before I hit the lake. There’s still 3km to go around the lake and I cross a bridge and run along a beautiful lake trail until I finally see the finish arch across the water and I know I’m going to make it.

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There’s a strong sense of accomplishment combined with relief and happiness and despite being on my feet for 45 hours I start running. Before the final 200m I kick off my shoes to finish barefoot. My parents and my little girl greets me on side of the trail and I try to convince my girl to run the last 100m with me but she’s just woken up and is suddenly shy. I holler as I cross the finish line after 45 hours and 21 minutes of running and over 201km on my Garmin watch. Heather, the race director hands me the prized Fat Dog 120 belt buckle and we have a chat about the course and the incredible scenery. Finally I can collapse in a chair happy, content, delirious and utterly exhausted.

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This race is so much more than a race. It is an experience like no other. The trails, the scenery, the people and the experience is unbelievable. It is a small local race, not big and flashy like UTMB but it is all heart and you can tell how much everyone cares about it and how much they love this area. From the Fat Dog Sawyers who tirelessly clear the trail every year (this year they cleared more than 1500 trees!) to the volunteers who hike in supplies to remote aid stations to the organisers whose enthusiasm is contagious and makes everyone feel like family.

Post race, my feet were destroyed but this apparently is normal and most people I spoke to had feet issues. I think it’s mainly due to the rutted single track that covers most of the course but also just due to the sheer number of km and time on your feet.

Hints and tips

Some tips if you’re contemplating this race:
  • The majority of the course is very remote, there’s close to no mobile phone service on the trail (I only managed to get one message through the whole race) which makes communicating with crew difficult. There are also no live updates. This is a small local race after all.
  • Bears. Yes there are bears in this area and no you’re not likely to see one. Apparently only one has been spotted in the history of the race. According to the Washington Post, only four people have been killed by bears in (US) national parks in the seven years from 2007 to 2013. Considering 280 million people visit the parks every year that’s pretty low. What’s the most common cause? Drowning and vehicle accidents. If you’re worried, by all means get a bear bell and bear spray (though keep in mind the canister is roughly the size of a coke can and needs to be kept at hand to be of any use).
  • Prepare your feet well! I developed a heel blister in the first 5km in the same shoes I’d run the 100km Ultra Trail Australia in a few months before with no issues. Keep looking after your feet and use the first aid stations if required, those guys are great!
  • Use poles. I used the Black Diamond Carbon Distance Carbon Z and found them to be very beneficial on the climbs as well as on steep descents and during the river crossing. I didn’t have anywhere to store them but found that when collapsed they’d stay behind the chest straps of my Salomon hydration vest.
  • Prepare for long sustained climbs and descents. From Brisbane I traveled down to Mt Warning behind Murwillumbah and did four to five laps in a day.
  • Conserve your quads. Although I didn’t have any quad issues on the day, I heard that many had problems due to blown quads because the long downhills are so runnable early on in the race.
  • Prepare for all kinds of weather. We were lucky with warm but not too hot (except on the second day) conditions. However, last year was a mudfest with hail and storms and the trails turned into creeks.
  • Stay close to the race and spend the last night before the race in Princeton or near the start. The distances are huge and the roads are often dirt so the travel time to the start and the aid stations are significant if you have crew. We stayed in Hope which was great for the second day and close to the finish and the Cascades and Skyline aid stations.
  • Hang around for the prize giving ceremony! There’s essentially a free for all give away of merchandise and sponsor gear after the main ceremony is over.
  • Get a local pacer! A pacer is recommended, especially for the last 20 miles however it is not required. There is an online pacer board where you can sign up. My post didn’t save properly so I missed out but it would have been great to have some company on some part of the course.
  • Go hiking! There are so many beautiful trails in these national parks and if you have the chance, hike up the last 10km of the course and enjoy the spectacular view!



1 Comments

Great running read.
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