Fat Dog 120 Race Report

**Warning**  This post acknowledges the existence of curse words.    

I was standing at the start line of Fat Dog 120—an 193 kilometre ultra-marathon with 8,673 metres of elevation gain.  My pack was full of food, water, and the extensive mandatory kit list.  Runners mingled and chatted like reunited pen pals.  The relaxed atmosphere stood out in bold juxtaposition to the immense severity of the challenge that lay ahead.  

 Others mingled, I just wanted to start.

Others mingled, I just wanted to start.

In my head I was not running 193 kilometres; I was running 29 kilometres to the first major aid station, the end of leg one.  If I had actuallyconsidered the entirety of the race at once I probably would have started to cry.  However, running 29 kilometres was something I knew I could do, so I started with just that.  After leg one was finished I would focus on leg two.  One leg at a time.  One aid station at a time.  One step at a time.  Patience. Persistence.  

 Feeling incredibly focused.

Feeling incredibly focused.

At 10:00 am on Friday August 11th an air horn sounded.  The race began.

After a short out and back section to thin the field, the racers entered the trail proper.  Up.  It went up.  There was no easing into this race.  In the beginning I most certainly got passed more than I passed others.  However, being a rookie, I was wary of starting too quickly.  I did my best to stay hydrated, but that was easier said than done.  The morning sun was strong, and soon after lots of steep climbing my shirt was thoroughly drenched. 

My race strategy was to take it easier on the climbs and run quicker on the descents.  The advantage to this was having less variance in my heart rate, and hopefully a faster time.  The risk was running too fast on the downs and destroying my quads.  As much as Fat Dog 120 featured a ton of climbing, it also boasted a lot of downhill.

After 29 kilometres I comfortably ran into Ashnola aid station.  Seeing all the volunteers and crew was like seeing a rainbow after staring at a white wall for five hours.   I saw my mom, sat down, and took my shoes off.  I had been feeling some friction around my toes and heels.  Thankfully no blisters had formed.  After a quick rub of anti-chafe on my feet, my shoes were back on.  I downed some orange juice and headed for the trail.  

I settled into a steady uphill rhythm.  Then I got blown away by a relay runner who was sprinting uphill.  Oh to have fresh legs, I thought…not for the last time.  

 Training run.  Somewhere in here is the trail to Trapper Lake. 

Training run.  Somewhere in here is the trail to Trapper Lake. 

At Trapper Lake aid station I saw Daniel, a friend and fellow racer.  We filled up on water and slowly settled into a light trot.  Soon his uphill pace proved too quick for me and the distance between us starting to slowly grow.  

After rounding Trapper Lake I started to climb passed Flattop Mountain.  The earth sloped up gradually.  The occasional tree stood out against a field of waist high grass—grass that had faded to a light brown after months of little rain.  Standing tallest was Flattop Mountain, which jutted out from the rest of the land like the top layer of a wedding cake.  I stole a glance backwards and was mesmerized by the deep navy waters.  

As I left the lake behind I started to feel incredibly tired.  It was not dark, yet all I wanted was sleep.  I was still miles away from the next aid station and I had no stimulants with me.  I got out my phone and started listening to a podcast.  Soon into the story I crested the climb and started the descent.  I felt way better.  I do not know what it was, but throughout the race a little bit of flat or downhill running always broke me out my of stupors.  

Shortly after running out of water, I ran into Flattop descent water drop.  No volunteers or food were present.  Just a couple of big jugs of water for thirsty runners.   

At 57 kilometres I reached Calcite aid station.   I grabbed some pickles and kept going.  I was feeling good and wanted to keep the momentum going while I could.

After a short, but steep descent I saw the Pasayten River, which I was about to cross.  It was now completely dark; the light from head lamps reflected off the dark depths.  A rope stretched the length of the river, guiding runners to a host of happy smiles from the aid station volunteers.  This is so cool, I thought.  After a long day in the heat stepping into the water was refreshing.  

After crossing the river I ran a few kilometres along the highway to Bonnevier aid station.  At 66 kilometres leg two was officially done.  I had been racing just under twelve hours.  

As I entered the aid station my mom ran to follow with all the gear and food I might need.  I was still feeling good and wanted to get going.  I proceeded to change my shoes while I drank some orange juice.  A couple of friends came over to see how I was doing and to offer words of encouragement.  Seeing their smiles made me happy.  

Feet dry, lettuce in hand, I headed back into the wilderness.  

 Training run.  Somewhere in the is distance Bonnevier Trail.

Training run.  Somewhere in the is distance Bonnevier Trail.

For quite some time the trail wound its way up a gravel road.  It was nice, for a time, to walk without so many rocks or tree roots on the path, but as always the race returned to the trails. 

The path shrunk and the trees closed in; the darkness seemed more ominous than ever.  In that darkness I met Pargol and Katie.  “We are talking about boys,” Katie informed me. “Do you want to talk about boys?”  I complied, and so, we talked about boys.

As I left Heather aid station after 85 kilometres, my world was reduced.  Everything became about following this bright circle of light in front of me.  The night section—at times—feels like a blur.  I have trouble distinguishing very many specific moments.  

At approximately 2:00 am, I finally started to wane.  The focus and strength I had felt since the descent from Flattop Mountain some six hours ago finally dissipated.  I reached into my pack and ate a small handful of cocoa nibs.  It was just enough to keep me focused without feeling overstimulated.  

At 99 kilometres I reached Nicomen Lake aid station.  I quickly sat on the cool earth as a volunteer filled my cup with water—I had run out some 45 minutes ago.  With my survival blanket wrapped around me I drank my second and third cup.   Feeling properly hydrated, I left.

 Training run.  Nicomen Lake.

Training run.  Nicomen Lake.

At sunrise as light flooded the land, I was roughly half finished the race.  However, I did not feel like I had run half the race, nor did I feel like I still had half to go to the finish.  I simply felt that I just happened to be in this particular section in Manning Park at this particular moment.  My only thought or concern was to keep moving forward.  

 After leaving Nicomen Lake I ran with Pargol and Katie.  The easy, pleasant conversation helped pass some of the many miles we still had to run.  

At one point—around 110 kilometres—I felt a blister pop on my right foot.  Pain.  Sharp, stinging pain.  Fuck!  I thought.  Despite the pain, I did not break stride, and eventually the pain subsided.  So often as it was with running ultras, the body eventually reaches a pain threshold where things stop getting worse.   

I entered Cayuse Flats aid station at 117 kilometres and left with a bowl of watermelon.  The trail followed the highway and I had heard it described as “rolling.”   Rolling my ass!   I was hoping for some solid, casual, running.  Instead I was climbing up steep slopes and scrambling on loose trail.  At one point I looked up and saw a Fedex delivery van.  I could see the white vehicle and the orange lettering.  I took a few more strides, adjusted my vantage point, and then I saw it.  It was trees.  After 24 hours of racing my mind was starting to play tricks on me.  

I ran into Cascade aid station at kilometre 125 just before 10:00 am.  It had been nearly twelve hours since I had last seen my mom.  After attending to my needs I decided to take a fifteen minute nap.  I only lasted six minutes, and I did not sleep; I wanted to keep going.  Thankfully, the short shut eye was refreshing, my mind sharper than it had been a few moments ago.  

 Chugging back a watermelon smoothie.

Chugging back a watermelon smoothie.

I waved goodbye to my mom and headed for the highway with a peach in my mouth.  

Entering Skagit River Trail felt like a new day.  I quickly covered the 21 kilometres to Shawatum aid station thanks to some very runnable sections.  I was now just 11 kilometres away from the start of the final leg of the race: Skyline.  As much as I had been focusing on one leg at time, or one aid station at time, reaching Skyline at 160 kilometres had loomed in the back of my head.  I knew at Skyline I would be on the home stretch.  At Skyline I would no longer be counting the distance up, instead I would be counting down the miles to the finish.  The previous 21 kilometres had gone by fast and smoothly, I expected the following 11 to be the same.  Oh how wrong I was!  

The trail was littered with rocks and tree roots.  It was not hilly, but on tired legs, it was not that easily runnable.   Everything looked the same, and I could not wait to get out that fucking forest!  What should have been a fast section was proving to be a lesson in slow monotonous torture.  Finally I reached the junction to Skyline aid station.  I was so relieved that I almost sprinted the last couple hundred metres to the end of leg five.  

I was all business at Skyline.  I got water.  I made sure I had enough food.  I doubled checked…actually I probably triple checked…that I had my head lamp and spare batteries.  I pounded a mango smoothie.  And then I left it. This was it; the home stretch.  At this point there was no turning back

 Triple checking that I have my head lamp before leaving Skyline aid station.

Triple checking that I have my head lamp before leaving Skyline aid station.

I was super pleased to be on the final leg of the race…until the mosquitos came.  Swarms surged with succulent salivation, each mosquito seeking my flesh.  The bug spray I had recently applied might as well have been water.  It was vicious melee.  For the first time in the race I was using poles—my hands would not be dedicated to swatting, swiping, and squishing.  

After several hours of climbing, and a short descent, I reached Camp Mowich aid station at kilometre 174.  Christmas lights were strewn across the trees, bringing a smile to my face.   “You look good.”  A female aid station volunteer said.  

“Thanks.”  I replied.  “You look good too.”  She laughed and said she was not fishing for compliments.  I smiled and then told the two male aid stations volunteers that they looked good too.  Hearing that I looked good was always a help.  My brain was spending so much energy trying to convince my body that it was still good.  So it was nice when someone agreed with the voice in my head, it helped to reiterate that I was feeling good. 

 Training run.  The long climb up Skyline.

Training run.  The long climb up Skyline.

The Skyline leg is the hardest of the six legs that make up Fat Dog 120.  Even standing alone, Skyline would still be the hardest.  The fact that it is also the last leg is just cruel.  But that’s why we are all out here, isn’t it?  Skyline consists of a long 12 kilometre climb followed by another 12 or so kilometres along an undulating ridge.  There are about eight or nine descents and climbs before the final descent to the finish.  The rollers are steep, technical and exhausting.  This is what I was about to tackle.  

The eight kilometres to the final aid station—Skyline Junction, kilometre 182—were incredibly smooth.  I felt amazing.   Somewhere on this stretch I met Malcom who was not enjoying himself on the descents—he was using sticks to guide himself down.  I had been using poles, however, I felt they popped my foot up too high while climbing, thus increasing the impact on my feet.  And on the downhills they just got in my way.  Since Mowich they had been strapped to my vest.  “I am planning on using these…well…never.”  I said to Malcom.  I was having trouble formulating proper thoughts into sentences.  I spun around and he gratefully unhooked them.  I wished him luck and kept going.  I knew what it was like to have sore quads….

I reached the final climb and started to push it…only to discover it was not the final climb…there was another, in fact there were two more.  That second to last climb was a killer.  It was hella steep.  I would walk for a moment, and then stop to catch my breath.  I was running low on energy and resolve.  It was strange how impossible 10 kilometres felt after more than 36 hours of racing.  

 Training run.  Running through the burnout on the final descent on Skyline to Lightning Lake with Daniel. 

Training run.  Running through the burnout on the final descent on Skyline to Lightning Lake with Daniel. 

Finally I crested the actual final climb; I was resolved to walk to the finish.   

I continued to walk as I listened to music. Fuck it, I thought,  I did not come all this way to walk to the finish.  I started running.  

As I continued to run faster and faster I felt like a child who was running just for the fun of it.  I spread my arms out to the side as if I was a bird in flight.  Faster and faster I ran.  There was no pain in this moment just sheer pure bliss found in running.  Tears of happiness started to form in my eyes.  Faster and faster I ran.  My brain entered the equation, and ever analytical,  wondered how it was possible to be running this fast after 188 kilometres of racing.  I told my brain to shut up.  Faster and faster I ran.   I was flying downhill at startling speeds.  My head lamp lit my path at 950 lumens.  The bright light a reflection of how I felt on the inside.  Faster and faster I ran.  

The descent ended and I began to wind my way around the lake, but I did not slow.  I kept flying.  In the distant I could see the lights that marked the finish.  I tried to steal a glance, but my pace was too high.  I was breathing heavy, but still I ran uphill.  My legs felt no pain, only power.  I did not run in anger.  And I did not run for just the finish.  I ran for the simple love of running.  

As I saw the finishing banner I ran faster.  I sprinted across the line with a smile on my face and tears of happiness in my eyes.  As I ran under the banner I jumped in the air.  Fist raised, I screamed in joy.  

Happiness.

Release.

Peace.

Freedom.  

I was done.

Finish time: 38:14:49

 At the finish.  I felt like I could fly away on wings of happiness.

At the finish.  I felt like I could fly away on wings of happiness.

 After sleeping for a few hours I sat at the finish line and cheered the finishers.  This was a huge highlight for me.

After sleeping for a few hours I sat at the finish line and cheered the finishers.  This was a huge highlight for me.

More blogs to come on Fat Dog 120 nutrition strategy, as well as some reflection on a year training and racing for ultra-marathons

Jason ManningComment