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Many a time, during the course of a race, I have stood still on a trail, looking back from where I came, trying desperately to remember the last marker I saw.  Although the occasional confidence marker is appreciated, I enjoy this jolt of “oh no… how long have I been unconscious?”  This scenario is a reminder that trails are everywhere and I could easily end up in Halifax if I decided to ignore the course markings and zone out for a while.

Another scenario familiar to me is arriving at a trail junction that has a single ribbon hanging from a bush and I have to make a guess as to the direction of the course.  This time, I have to search my brain for the course map and try to remember the ‘junctions of significance’.  It is like uploading a pdf file in your brain – it takes a while to upload it and then it is out of focus for a few more moments, while you impatiently wait for the needed information.

White River '10

Simple course markings

But what about an over-marked course?  Earlier in the spring, we came across a 5 Peaks race course while we were out on our own little jaunt in the forest.  It was as if we had come across a circus in the middle of the woods.  Flagging stakes were placed about one foot apart for the entire 15 km route.  The responsibility for route finding was completely eliminated for these runners.  I half-expected to see neon-lit signs flashing ‘distance covered’ and ‘estimated finishing time’ to each runner as they passed.

I worry about what happens to these coddled racers when they make the jump to ultras.  If your first experiences on trails includes the ‘follow the lighted path’ 5 Peaks initiation, then you are in for a huge surprise when you run a trail race with ribbons tied only at significant junctions.  Unfortunately these newbie runners may be alone for a long while before a companion shows up if the event is a low-key grassroots affair with minimal environmental impact.

Marking a run course is a lost art.  Luckily, there are still a few who are able to communicate turns and other subtle nuances of a course through flagging ribbon, chalk, flour, paper plates and/or stakes.  To the unseasoned eye, ribbons may seem to be strung willy-nilly from tree branches and flour arrows poured haphazardly onto the dirt.  But it is time to appreciate this rare artistic form and learn from these masters as we attempt to recreate the work of an artiste.

I have always appreciated the simplicity of the Hardrock 100 course markings.  At the pre-race briefing, Charlie Thorn states the one rule – the markings always stand to the left of the runner.  Simple.   Think about that.  It truly is simple.

photo by B Powell

HR100 course markings

When running a course, racers need to prepare not only their bodies but also their brains, by studying the course maps and descriptions.  When marking a course, the volunteers may assume that the racers have knowledge of the course and the necessary route finding skills and they may mark the course accordingly.  So, don’t forget to upload that pdf file into your memory so that you can hike your way back from Halifax.

Tenderfoot Boogie 50 miler

This race took place on 15 May, 2010.  It has taken me 6 months to write a report, partly out of laziness and partly because it was hard to find positive things to say.  But, as I say at the end of the post, it was a day for learning.

The route from Squamish to Whistler is one that I have travelled many times yet I didn’t know of any trail system that linked the two cities.  My favourite running trails these days are those fabulous mountain bike trails in the Squamish area, so it seemed like a good fit for me.  The cherry on top was that my good buddy, George, was keen to run it as well.

The Tenderfoot race consists of 3 different distances – 28 km, 55 km and 50 miles – and an option for relay teams as well.  From my pre-race calculations, I knew that the shorter distance runners would hear their starting gun and be long gone by the time I arrived at those points.  There were only 14 people at the starting line for the 50 miler at 5 am, so I knew that it would be a pretty quiet day on the trails.  In the back of my mind, I expected to run with George only for the beginning of the day.  I was keen to run my own race on my own and let George do the same.  We both had different reasons for being out there and different goals to fulfil.  I would be lucky to see anyone out there at all.

The first section of the course was familiar since we had scoped it out during one of Gottfried’s orientation runs.  It all looked a little different in the early morning light, but we had no troubles figuring out which way to go at various junctions.  George and I ran together and were in pretty good spirits, knowing that the day would be long.  There were some long stretches of gravel trail on a river dike, beside the railroad and on the highway shoulder but there were also a few single track sections that were fun.  Since I knew this part of the course, nothing came as a surprise.

The first cause for worry was at aid station #1 (13 km).  There was a 10 litre jug of water and a 10 litre jug of something that looked like water.  In the crap-shoot, I lucked out and refilled both bottles with water.  George however was unlucky and ended up with two bottles full of some electrolyte drink that was quite undrinkable.  Even after adding a nuun tablet, we both found it unpalatable.  With knowledge of his common stomach issues, he decided to dump it and share some of mine until the next aid station.

At aid station #2 (28 km), we found that the 2 water jugs were now clearly labelled.  Gail was there with a cooler full of race treats for George and all the options for clothing and hydration that you could dream of.   We carried on and entered new territory of unknown trails.

The second cause for worry was just beyond aid station #2.  The course was sparsely marked with a translucent red flagging ribbon which was very hard for me to see.  Now is the time to mention that George is red/green colourblind.  Red flagging is his worst nightmare – especially this thin, clear kind. He honestly could not see any flagging.  At one point, I veered left when he continued going straight.  When he questioned me, I pointed to the ribbon and said:

The trail is this way.

He stopped and said:

Where is the ribbon?

I walked right up to the ribbon and held it out for him.  He still couldn’t identify it as a race marking.  He said that it looked like all the rest of the moss/trees/bushes and the only distinguishing feature was the long ribbon shape.  I didn’t have a true appreciation of colourblindness until then.  He was truly blind on this course.  The only option was for him to stick to me like glue and for me to do all the navigation.  To add to that, the markings were inconsistent.  Sometimes they were at trail junctions.  Sometimes they weren’t.  Sometimes they were on both sides of a junction causing us to take a 50/50 guess on which direction was correct.  It was like being mice in an endless maze.

Now I could go on about how difficult it was to find the route, but I will limit to say that there was a fair amount bush-whacking through some sort of imaginary trail and a few incredibly long sections of running right on Hwy 99 with cars whizzing past us at 100+km/hr speeds.   Due to poor markings, we ended up on Hwy 99 for a stretch of about 6 km, instead of the 2 km indicated in the race description.  When we finally reached Brandywine Falls parking area (52 km), there was no traffic marshal there to help us navigate the highway crossing.  Luckily for G and I, we had been travelling at a somewhat leisurely pace and still had our wits about us while we played real-life frogger.

At this point, things start to get foggy.  We knew that the aid station at Brandywine had been moved farther along, but from the pre-race emails, I thought it would be only a couple of km farther.  In hindsight, I can only guess that those were highway driving distances – not the distances that we runners would have to do on trail.  When we finally did arrive at McGuire (wherever that was) about 8 km later, there was nothing to eat.  The ‘loaded aid stations’ had been picked clean by the faster runners and relay teams who were awaiting exchange.  And worst of all, the aid station had no water.  Those 2 jugs that I mentioned earlier were now empty and Gail had dipped into her own personal stash to help other runners.  We took almost all that she had left, but left some for the runners who were still behind us.

With about 1 litre between us, G and I headed out to do the next section.  It was hot and we were moving slowly.  The new Sea-to-Sky trail was beautiful and easy to follow.  Finally I didn’t have to worry about trail markings.  There were still two more critical road junctions which had us wandering around and asking strangers, but mostly it was straight-forward.  But the fact was that George and I were out of water for about 1.5 hours.  It was hot and he was approaching a full-bonk , weaving and having to sit down every now and then.  He kept telling me to go on ahead and  leave him, but trail buddies just don’t do that.

At long last, we got to Function Junction (~70km).  Gail was waiting near the aid station with a meal and lots of water.  As we arrived, the aid station was shutting down.  The volunteer had to get to work.  Were we the final runners?  We had no idea.  G needed time to regroup and didn’t want me to wait around.  This last section was a popular mountain bike route and a well-established trail, so I left him.  This was the only real climb on the course and it went on for about 6 or 7 km.  But I felt strong.  I cranked the tunes in my ipod for the first time all day.  Once I reached the rock cairn at the summit, I began my downhill rip.  Was I ever surprised when I came across Margaret Paxton on the trail.  She had passed us hours earlier, but was being very cautious on this section of downhill.

I sent her my good wishes and carried on my way.  Finally, I hit the Valley Trail – a flat, paved bike path which winds its way throughout Whistler.  I know I was moving slowly, but I felt like I was flying.  There was Bruce walking towards me.  He whooped it up and joined me on the last km.  I was running scared, knowing that Margaret was hot on my heels.  It seems a bit funny to be lackadaisical all day and then begin a race at 81km.  As it turned out (much to my surprise), I was the first woman to come in.  I won, by some strange freak of nature.  I am proud to say that I hold the course record for the Tenderfoot 50 Miler with an astonishingly slow time of 12:32!  Let’s see how many hours get taken off that record next year, Ellie!

At the finish line, Bruce told me the trials and tribulations that he had encountered during his run.  He had much of the same story as I have told here, except that he was much faster and it seems that he was off course more than George and me.  He came through the finish chute in second place but, after hearing the race stories of the other top five runners, honourably declined his placing, having figured that he had been more off-course than they had been.  He accepted a placing of 4th overall and wins sportsman-of-the-year from me.  You can find his write up here.

George gathered himself together and followed me through the last 12 km.  He came in with good spirits, accompanied by Gail.  You could see his level of dehydration by looking at the salt stains on his shirt.  We had a long moment together at the finish line.  The day dealt out way more than either of us expected.  We only managed to accomplish what we did because of Gail’s tireless crewing and because of the strength we find in each other.

My eyes were opened to a few new things that day:

Firstly, colourblindness.  As a trail runner, it poses a far greater handicap than I ever realised.  RDs should avoid using red/orange/pink ribbon for course markings.

Secondly, back-of-the-pack running.  It was shocking to me how little food and drink was left for us at aid stations.  RDs need to be aware that the last runners will need the most aid.  Faster runners should only take what they truly need, especially if there isn’t very much there.  And, if you are a relay runner, step away from the table.

Thirdly, course descriptions. Don’t put too much faith in website descriptions.  Remember that ultrarunning is not marathoning and that there are a lot of unknown factors in store for you as the day unfolds.  Keep your wits about you and enjoy the adventure that you are undertaking.

Finally, victory. Keep on going, no matter how slowly.  You just might end up in first place.

The Happy Wanderer

My Paths on Strava

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