My First Ultra Marathon

Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place.

— Red Queen, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland

“Are you excited about it?”

“… I don’t know …” I try to find the right words for it.

It’s my first ultra marathon. Sitting in the darkness by myself, watching people moving around, fixing their running gear, chitchatting with excitement, some brushing their teeth – this experience is all new to me, I feel kind of excited but mostly relaxed. Maybe because I got up at 2 am and my body is still half asleep.

“Too bad it’s raining …” I want to say. But I decide to keep it to myself. No one seems to notice the rain. No one is talking about the rain. They are all seasoned trail runners. Rain only adds challenge and fun to the race. My complaint of rain will be out of place and frowned on.

But I am genuinely happy to see Greg and Les, and chat with them. I ran with them before at weekend club runs. They all seem excited and ready for it, and their excitement is contagious. I tell them my goal is to finish it. It’s only my second year into running. 55 km and 2800 meter elevation gain is hard to fathom. I wasn’t sure if I was going to do it until the last minute. My curiosity led me to this place – I want to see if I could finish it.

Whistler Olympic Village (Start Line)

Before 6 am, red beard Gary Robbins appeared and started to give his speech. He made a joke about how we were the luckiest among three day races to have a whole day raining. I couldn’t hear the rest because of the crowd and the rain.

At 6 am he announced the race began. Hundreds of runners started to move toward one direction. I didn’t know where we were going, but simply followed the crowd. Soon we left the dimly lit street and entered into the pitch dark woods. The traffic slowed down by the bottle neck and became a single line. Suddenly I noticed it was quiet. All the previous chitchatting and excitement were gone, as if they were swallowed by the thick darkness. All we could hear were footsteps and rain hitting trees. All we could see were the feet of the person ahead of us. Looking up I saw a long line of headlamps winding up through the woods and disappeared in the darkness. (A thought flashed across my mind – The Long March of the Red Army of the Communist Party of China must have been done in silence.)

For a second, the past and present mixed together like a dream. But nothing was more real than this. The race began. I was in it. There was nothing else I could do but to put one foot ahead of another until the finish line. And I was glad that I was not alone.

Olympic Village to Whistler Mountain Peak, 0 km – 15 km

I didn’t have experience in night trail run, so I closely followed the person ahead of me. Maybe too close. She asked me if I wanted to pass her. I told her no, I could see more clearly by closely following her. She understood. The trail gradually got steeper and more slippery. I constantly told myself: focus, don’t slip, don’t roll your ankles, there is no room for errors.

Our silent march continued moving fast through the darkness. Occasionally the silence was broken by people asking for passing or exchanging encouraging words. For a brief moment, I noticed the first dim daylight. I could see the ground and the woods. We came to a clearing, but soon the trail reentered into the dark woods.

From the start line, the Olympic Village, to the peak of Whistler Mountain, the first 15 km is a tough steep climb with 1600 meter elevation gain. After the first 3 km gentle slope up, the trail becomes so steep that chains and ropes are installed at some places.

After one hour of relentless climbing, I started to feel the burn in my calves. But there was the pressure to keep up with the traffic, especially at the extremely steep sections. I didn’t want to block the bottle necks. Once I climbed up the bottle neck, I stepped aside to catch up my breath and let fast people pass. It was going to be a long day, and I was not in a hurry.

Suddenly I heard loud noises ahead of me. There were volunteers waiting at certain spots on the course to cheer people up. They told us this extremely steep and slippery section was going to last about 1 km and then it would get better. I noticed some people already wiped out. One girl’s knee was covered in blood and mud but she didn’t stop. She kept pushing up. I believe even if they announced it would last all the way to the end, we were going to make it. We were not going to quit. Suffering as a group makes people stronger.

After two hours climbing up, we finally passed all the chains, ropes, ladders, half rotten bridges and got above the tree line. The sky looked gloomy, thick grey clouds totally enshrouded the world renowned Whistler vista. The rain and gust of wind were relentlessly beating our already soaked thin layer. From here up to the peak, the trail was totally exposed, and the temperature dropped to close to zero. Everyone’s lips looked blue. My hands were freezing and turning numb. The only sign that gave me strength was the peak about 3 km away. I couldn’t wait to get to the first aid station to warm up my hands and have a nice warm soup.

The last 3 km before the peak was extremely steep. I stopped many times to rest and let people pass by me. It felt like eternal, but finally my ordeal came to an end temporarily. I entered the makeshift canvas tent, checked my watch, it was 15 km and 3.5 hours elapsed. I arrived 1.5 hours earlier than the cutoff time.

Whistler Mountain Peak to Whistler Village, 15 km – 35 km

Holding the hot noodle soup, my fingers started to ache. Some people were circling around the fire pit warming up their hands. I eagerly joined them and sticked out my hands over the fire. Once my hands could work properly, I wringed the dirty water out of my soaked gloves. Steams came out of my tights and gloves. I felt warm and a little tired. There was a three legged hiking chair empty. I sat down. It never felt so nice and comfortable to sit down. I enjoyed every second of this moment and didn’t want to think about there’s another 40 km to go.

Eventually I stood up and gave the chair to other people. I decided to have another hot noodle soup before I head out. There would be no aid station for the next 20 km. But once l left the fire ring, waiting for my hot noodle soup, my thighs started to seize up in cold wind. I had to move back to the fire pit to warm up my thighs. Once the muscles were relaxed, I immediately ran out of the tent and into the pouring rain. I had to keep moving so the muscles wouldn’t seize up again.

Compared to the strenuous uphill, the downhill was much easier but sketchy. I had to constantly watch my footing, make sure I don’t roll my ankles or fall to my face. The trail was not crowded anymore. I guess most people got ahead of me while I was warming up at the peak. To make up the time lose and take advantage of the downhill, I ran as much as I can, but meantime I reminded myself the race starts at the second half, I have to preserve my energy and legs for that.

But it was hard to go slow on steep downhills. Pounding 20 km downhills was a real test to my quads. It was screaming stop loudly at me. By the time I reached the second aid station, I was not sure how I was going to do another 20 km. I considered dropping out. My car parked not far away. There were crews waiting at the parking lot for their family or friends. I could get a ride or I could just walk to my car. It was not far and I was not tired.

I debated my options while refueling on potatoes and noodle soup. I still had 5.5 hours before the cutoff time. Theoretically, if I just hiked the rest 20 km at my normal hiking pace which was two hours per 10 km with moderate elevation gain, or slower than that, I still could finish the remaining 20 km within 5.5 hours. Optimistically speaking, I could finish it in 4.5 hours which would give me an hour wiggle room for any unforeseeable situations and slowdowns. I decided to continue. Little did I know how much more pain was waiting for me.

I threw the banana peel in the green bag, fixed my vest and headed out in the rain. People started to cheer, I flashed a smile, but couldn’t respond with a swift jog like other stronger runners did. I managed to walk out of the parking lot, using my poles to support my body weight, so my legs could carry less weight.

Whistler Village to Green Lake, 35 km – 49 km

Leaving the aid station, the trail continued to wind up into the wooded mountain. Going up actually wasn’t too hard. My butt and hamstrings hadn’t given up. Besides, I could lean forward on my poles going up. Gentle downhills were not too difficult either. I leaned back, and set my feet side way, so I didn’t have to put all my body weight on my quads. That way, I managed power hiking 5 km up.

At 40 km spot, I saw a girl sitting in a tent pointing at one direction. First I thought she was camping in the middle of the woods, then I realized she was volunteering and it was raining. The rain had been dropping off the beak of my cap all day, but I was so focused on managing my pain that I stopped to notice it any more. She said, you are doing well, keep going. Only 15 km left.

But the trail turned a real challenge to me. All the elevation gained now had to be lost. And the trail conditions turned muddy and slippery from the traffic. Some slopes were huge bolder faces covered by mosses and mud which required strong hold of legs. My quads trembled and screamed under my whole body weight. I felt they could give up on me at any minute. I cursed and mourned with every step I made, and my stomach started to feel sick because of the pain I endured. I longed to go to the next aid station. With every 500 meters I had to check my watch as if that made the distance shorter. Finally, my watched said 45 km. I wasn’t feeling tired at this point, but my legs were in great pain. And I was embarrassed that people passing by might hear my mourning and cursing.

I don’t know how but I made to the third aid station. My memory of that 4 km downhill was blurry. All I knew was I endured great pain. I told the volunteer at the aid station that I was in great pain. To my surprise, she said she had Advil. I never thought about taking painkillers during the run, and I never did. But I couldn’t care less. I wanted the pain to stop. So I took two pills. And another girl saw it and took two pills too. I was glad to know that I wasn’t the only one in ordeal.

Green Lake to Riverside Resort (Finish Line), 49 km – 55 km

The rain stopped briefly when I reached the Green Lake aid station. There was no wind in the valley, and the sun was warmly shinning on me, and the Green Lake looked so green. People didn’t stay long at the last aid station. There was only 6 km left to the finish line. To a distance runner, 6 km literally means picnic. I wanted to run too. The trail was nice gravel, very runable, but I couldn’t. Even walking was like stepping on knives. I endured the pain with every step, and tried to put my mind into the beautiful view. After twenty minutes, the painkiller started to kick in. Suddenly all the pain disappeared. I immediately started running towards the finish line.

It was such a great release to across the finish line, and I got a big hug from red beard Gary Robbins as tradition. I felt so happy that I did it with 11 hours and 33 minutes as I expected. And I was so grateful that I crossed the finish line wearing a smile and running, thanks to the volunteer who gave me the painkiller. I was also so happy to see my friend volunteering at the BBQ stand who gave me hugs and congratulations.

Epilogue

If you ask me why do I run, I would say, why not. It is fun to run in the nature. Even this race which really hurt a lot, was fun experience.

I know people run for different reasons. Besides the obvious physical and mental health benefits, some run to get out of depression, as news reported. Some are addicted to running. Some seek salvation in running. As one friend said, there is meaning at the end of suffering.

I don’t like to tie any meaning to running. I don’t want to make running another accomplishment for my ego’s satisfaction. To quote Elkhart Tolle,

Suffering is necessary until you realize it’s unnecessary.

— Eckhart Tolle

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