Runner’s blog – Keith Wakelin
Keith Wakelin is a veteran Knee Knacker runner. Here’s his 2011 experience. It was his 18th run…and yes, he’s going for number 19 this year!
SNOW WONDER THE TIMES WERE SLOW!
When the guy asked if it was too late for a full refund, Kelsy, the Kneeknacker race director, laughed and said that she didn’t mean to terrify everyone. Yes, the stark realities conveyed at the pre-race briefing the night before the race can be alarming. Was it the fact that the runners gain 4,000 feet in the first 5 miles and negotiate a total of 16,000 feet elevation change over the 30 miles on the Baden Powell Trail? Or was it the fact that there was still at least 7 miles of snow on the course and in places was 8 feet thick?
The race is billed as one of the gnarliest in North America and has been going for 23 years. This will be my 18th running. Only 4 others have run more. My goals this year were threefold; 1. Top ten finish, 2. Top three in category, (50-59), 3. Faster than last year. Coming into the race I weighed 148 lbs. I had lost 9 lbs in 7 weeks to prepare. I used a blog on this forum to help motivate myself to achieve optimal weight. I raced a 50 miler in May and managed some super long runs in training including a 24 miler several weeks before the race. Mentally and physically I was ready. This was the ten year anniversary of my win and I wanted to perform well.
Waking up at 4:30 at the B&B in Deep Cove, I looked out and saw the morning shaping up to be perfect. No wind, cloudless and cool temperatures. We packed up the cooler, drove down the road to pick up my brother, Neil and headed for the start near Horseshoe Bay. Finding my nemesis, Peter Findlay, we had a laugh as we both chose the 2003 version of the KK muscle shirt to wear. I lined up behind the favourites and soon we were off and running down the gravel road which winds underneath the Upper Levels viaduct crossing Nelson Creek.
Feeling good, I tucked in behind Adam Campbell, the defending champion and Aaron Heidt, the course record holder. A voice of reason popped into my head, asking why I was running in third right behind the leaders. I ignored it. Soon we entered the forest on single track trail following the creek up. After about 15 minutes I was passed by Oliver Utting and Mark Bennett. Peter Findlay was running right behind me. I could tell it was going to be a good race at this early stage. I felt strong and well within myself.
Eventually we hit the first of three rock slides and broke into fast uphill hiking. It was around this point that Peter forged ahead, as he usually does. In another few minutes, Ryan Ervin appeared and we chatted for awhile before he too took off ahead of me. Note to self; practice fast hiking for next year. The first hour was relatively enjoyable as a few other guys were around and we chatted whilst climbing/hiking/walking/jogging up the mountain.
Incredibly, Adam suddenly appeared and proceeded to tell us he had gone off course while leading and when he backtracked, found himself in 12th. Now he was in panic mode trying to get back to the front and expending a lot of energy. He got ahead of us and after a few minutes I see him crawling under a fallen tree, muttering to himself to pay attention. He had wandered off course again. We continued up Eagle Bluffs, turned to take in the incredible view and headed back into the woods toward the summit of Black Mountain. This was my first checkpoint and I made it in 1:04. Anything between 1:00 and 1:05 was a good time so I knew I was off to a great start.
A fellow named Jeremy from Nanaimo was running with me and it was good to have company as we hit the first part of the snow. Now it got tricky to stay on course as the trail was non-existent. We had to focus in order to stay on our feet and avoid post-holing. Some sections were only 8 inches wide with sweeping bowls on either side. A fall here could waste a lot of time climbing back up. For the most part, it was a matter of following the footprints and some corners were indicated with red arrows painted on the snow.
Shortly before the extreme downhill section to Cypress Bowl, Jeremy pulled away. He was barrelling down the slopes with Kamikaze precision. It was all I could do to stay on my feet. About halfway down the switchbacks, the snow petered out and I was back to running on a firmer surface. The first aid station at Cypress Bowl was coming up and I was surprised how quickly we had made it to that point. I think it was all the focus staying upright in the snow that helped pass the time. I entered the checkpoint in 10th place and realized I was about 5 minutes slower than last year. I felt that was good considering how strong I was feeling. I was sure that I would have been somewhat faster than last year if there was no snow. I switched water bottles with Deb and grabbed another couple of gels for the next section down to Cleveland Dam and the halfway point. No sooner had I entered the forest again after the Cypress Bowl checkpoint, but snow reappeared and the going got tough once more. Now the section known as Hollyburn was less steep but with many smaller ups and downs, creek crossings and the like, a real technical section made more difficult by the snow.
Having run for about 5 minutes through here I saw Jeremy crossing the trail heading downhill. At first I was confused. Why was he going down there? I realized that he was lost and wasted his minute that he had gained on me in the previous section. Incredibly he didn’t see me and for a fleeting moment I thought about not saying anything. Ashamed at myself for that indiscretionary contemplation, I yelled; “Jeremy, that way”, as I pointed directly ahead. He stopped in his tracks and tucked in with me deciding to run together until the trail became more obvious.
It was nice to have company again and we helped each other negotiate the snow covered forest floor. In awhile we came to a major creek crossing which was completely blanketed in thick snow but you could hear the water running underneath. A marshal was there to help with the traverse and ropes were rigged to climb up and out on the other side. We made it through with no mishaps and before long we emerged onto the cross-country runs. This section was slightly different than usual because the proper trail was too treacherous, so for about 3 or 4 k’s we ran straight down the x-country runs. It was nice to open up a bit, albeit cautiously because the danger of post-holing remained.
Soon I realized I had pulled away from Jeremy and couldn’t hear him anymore. I chanced a look back and he was probably 200 metres behind. That surprised me because I thought he was a great downhill runner. Trying to pick a safe line down the trail occupied my mind but I felt the snow give way underneath me and I was going down into a post -hole. The snow was fairly mushy here so I figured I would just fall and not catch my leg too deep. Thankfully that was the case and I pulled myself up and got going again. I immediately felt pain on my knees and as I looked down and saw the blood, realized the fall had scraped my knees raw on the ice. Oh well, this is the Kneeknacker after all!
Eventually the snow disappeared and I entered the Hollyburn Chute, a long technical descent full of rocks and roots. I opened it up and found that I felt strong. It was time to motor and try and catch some runners up ahead. Now that I had pulled away from Jeremy, I knew I was in 9th place. With the next 10k being downhill on technical terrain, I was hopeful that I would begin to reel in some of the fast starters. Negotiating the winding trail down Brothers Creek, I concentrated on a faster leg turnover and keeping my feet close to the ground. I knew that the longer my feet were airborne, the longer it would take to run. It’s very easy to leap higher than you need to on the steeper downhill sections and this will slow you down.
I was having fun through this section and soon arrived in British Properties. The trail descends several sets of steps and crosses half a dozen roads before entering Capilano Park. Running down the trail and onto the service road to the Cleveland Dam at halfway, I realized that I was not going to catch anyone before the checkpoint. However I had run hard and knew I was making up time on last year’s results. Coming into the checkpoint after crossing the dam, there were suddenly tons of people cheering and clapping. The encouragement gave me a lift and I located Deb to exchange my empty bottle for a full one and take on more gels. At this stage I stopped briefly to grab a couple of pieces of banana which I downed while running up Nancy Greene Way.
Before leaving the parking lot towards the road, I saw Mark Bennett walking back towards the checkpoint. It became apparent that he was pulling out of the race. I still have no idea why. He was not limping and did not appear to be in any kind of distress. Suddenly I had gained a place in my category and was in 8th place overall. This realization gave me a lift and I began to tackle the steep incline of Nancy Greene Way. This section of road goes from Cleveland Dam to the Grouse Mountain Skyride and is about 2k. It is the longest road section of the course. A lot of runners walk this road, but I never have and I wasn’t about to start now. As I started the climb I told myself I was feeling strong and as I ran I thought about the first half of the race. My split was 2:47, almost 5 minutes slower than last year. My 2nd quarter time was 1:11 and was 3 seconds faster than last year, so I was definitely gaining, because I had lost another 2 minutes through Hollyburn because of the snow, but gained it back on the subsequent downhill. Now I was steaming up Nancy Greene and gaining confidence with every stride. It turned out that I gained 4 minutes on Mark Bennett during the 2nd quarter so something was obviously not right with him.
When I finally made it to the top of the road, I was feeling great and I entered the forest again at the start of the Grouse Grind. The trail immediately gets steeper here and most people alternate walking and running. Most years I experience some cramping in this area but I have learned to anticipate them and I slow the pace to allow my legs some recovery time before pushing again. I call this cramp management and this year I seem to be perfecting it as I never went into full blown cramp mode. In fact, I was running a lot more of the less steep sections and was soon at the summit. As I continued through the forest trails towards Mosquito Creek, I could feel very little fatigue in my legs. In fact as the minutes ticked by I felt stronger and stronger until I was virtually running at the fastest pace I could manage through this terrain. I realized I was making up massive amounts of time and my confidence level was peaking.
Still, I saw no runners and I was beginning to search through the trees ahead around each corner, feeling sure I was catching someone. It was in this section that I thought about Suzanne Evans and how she passed me a few years back at around this point and I had no answer. This year she would have to be running a whole lot harder to pass me and although I didn’t think this was possible, I half expected it to happen. She is an amazing runner and always has a faster 2nd half. So here I was tearing through the forest having no idea what was happening behind me or in front of me. All I knew was that something special was happening on this 3rd quarter.
I was closing in on 4 hours and quickly picked my way down the steep steps towards Lynn Valley Road and the Varley Trail. Once on the Varley and following the Seymour River down the Lynn Canyon I began to feel some tiredness and wondered if I pushed it too hard during the last hour. I pulled out a gel and continued on towards the Seymour Demonstration Forest, which is the checkpoint at the three-quarter mark. I pulled into the aid station and checked my watch. 4:06:14 to this point. Holy Cow! I had just run the 3rd quarter in 1:18 which is my 3rd fastest time ever for this section! I was ebullient at the realization and was now ahead of last year’s time. I made up nearly 6 minutes over the 7.5 miles, which was 43 seconds per mile faster than last year! As I left the checkpoint, it was apparent I was in an excellent position to achieve all three goals I had set for myself. I was feeling very good indeed, but surely I was going to catch someone soon? Now I was racing down beside the Seymour River past the Lynn Canyon Suspension Bridge and I was thinking how much training I’ve done for this race and how committed I was to losing weight so that I could feel stronger on the hills. I knew what was coming – the Seymour Grind. This mountain starts easy and gradually gets steeper until you are reduced to a crawl near the top which happens to coincide with the 26 mile mark of the race. Every muscle screams that raw, silent scream of exhaustion on the Grind, to the point where your mind is the only thing capable of dragging your wretched body up the rock strewn trail to hell.
But first I had to negotiate through something quite different, although very difficult. The Hyannis Drive Aid Station. An aid station, you say? Yes, but this is no ordinary aid station. Running through it is easy. It’s the mental torture that challenges even the most steely ultra runner. Situated at mile 24 where the route crosses Hyannis Drive, a crew of aid station volunteers awaits the tired runners with the most tantalizing array of food and drinks complete with leg rubdowns with cold sponges. These volunteers have totally mastered their craft of enticing you over and once succumbed to their spell, you are captured in a time warp that seems to last forever. The attention they lavish upon you and the intense feeling of pleasure you experience, brainwashes you into a lingering that is counterproductive to your goal; finishing. Yes I have become a victim here in the past, but this year I’m ready for them. Approaching the aid station, I delve deep within the reaches of my psyche and prepare myself for battle. Out of the trail and onto the road, at once I became aware of the volunteers drawing me in with their powers, like angels offering their arms outstretched to cradle your weary body within their bosom. Withdrawing into myself, I focused on the trail ahead, daring not to allow my eyes to wander. I made it across the road through the gauntlet and literally jumped into the forest, proud that I had avoided one of the most difficult sections on the course and saved many precious seconds. The Seymour Grind should now be a piece of cake. Little did I know.
Having survived the Hyannis Aid Station, I proceeded through the forest toward the base of the climb. The first section of the Grind is very technical with large rocks and old makeshift boardwalks that have wide gaps in them. Although not very steep yet, you have to lift your legs quite often to negotiate the obstacles. Soon it gets steeper and I became aware of the eerie quietude. There was no wind or any other sound for that matter. All I could hear was my own breathing and footfalls. But wait! What was that? A distinct noise back down the trail that sounded like rolling gravel. Is someone catching me? I glanced back several times but could not make anything out through the trees. Still I could hear it from time to time as I slowly climbed up the steeper section of the grind. I knew that if I made it to the top without being seen I would have a good chance to pull away again on the long downhill section known as the Bridal Trail. My legs exhausted, I drove them forward trying to ignore the extreme discomfort. Finally I came over the top and hit Bridal. Normally I would fly down here but it was all I could do to just survive until the less rocky trail that takes you down to Indian River Road. Reaching this trail and trying to stretch it out, I started to feel better. I took my last gel and reminded myself that I was in a race and to keep pushing, even though I had not seen another runner for almost 3.5 hours!
Through the trees I could see the road and I wondered if I would finally see someone. This section of road is straight for about 500 metres before heading back into the forest for the final 2.5k. I burst out onto the road and looked ahead. Sure enough, there was another runner about 300 metres in front. About halfway down the road I looked back and saw someone coming out of the trail. Surely this was the mystery person causing the gravely sound back on the grind. Alright then. We finally have a race. I pushed it as hard as I could on the pavement, knowing that I would be catching the runner in front as he enters the forest. The last section contains 9 bridges with some very steep climbs out from the bridges, although the overall terrain is downhill. On one uphill, the fellow behind me called my name and I looked back to see Tom Craik, looking surprisingly fresh. I was disappointed that he caught me, but he gave me some very valuable information. Apparently Lisa Pollizzi was right behind him along with another woman who was closing fast. It didn’t take me very long to realize that I was now in 9th and if caught by two more runners, I would not attain my goal of finishing in the top ten. So I dug in deep and tried to stay with Tom. He gradually pulled away and eventually finished 47 seconds in front of me, but I continued to push as much as I could. Finally the road to Panorama Park and the finish line came into view down the hill. I negotiated the steps down and fled the forest onto the road. Now I was sprinting for all I was worth. Nobody was going to catch me now. I don’t think I’ve ever finished as fast as I came through the line in 9th, just under 5:41. Yes, faster than last year too.
As soon as I stopped, Enzo, the founder of the race, picked me up in a massive man hug and twirled me around. I was laughing when he put me down. Then I heard the cheering and looked back to see the first woman cross the line only 19 seconds behind me, but it wasn’t Lisa. No this was Louise and her first Kneeknacker. Lisa was 5 seconds behind her. My mind flashed back to the Hyannis Aid Station. If I had stopped there, things could have been very different in the final 100 metres. Yikes!
Having just finished my 18th Kneeknacker with a third quarter less than 2 minutes slower than my fastest ever 3rd quarter and having negotiated the second worse snow conditions in the history of the race in a time faster than half of my times, I was elated with my performance. Did the massive endurance training I completed in the winter, help me or hinder me? It helped. Did running a 50 mile race 10 weeks before, help me or hinder me? It helped. Did going on a diet and losing 9 pounds in 7 weeks, help me or hinder me? It helped.
I achieved all three goals I set for myself including almost catching my nemesis, Peter Findlay and winning the age group. All through the second half I gained on him and finished only 4 minutes behind him, the closest I’ve ever come to beating him. In fact he finished 5th overall, so was oh so close to being in the top 5 again. It all gives me inspiration for next year.