Knee Knacker – My First Ultramarathon
My first Ultra – Billed as Canada’s “gnarliest”, oldest Ultra Races. It was established in 1989 and is a 30mile ultramarathon trail run comprising about 16,000 feet of vertical climb and descent, generally follows the Baden-Powell Trail, and traverses the North Shore Mountains from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove.
I first went to watch the finish of this event back in 2009 as a couple of people from my road running club were running in the event. I thought they must be slightly mad to run so far and I honestly don’t think I even had any idea how much elevation there was. I’m never doing that was my initial reaction. A couple of them finished in just over 5hrs which I thought was way too long to be out running in a race – yes, most take way longer that, as I would later find out.
Anyways, I watched a few more finishes and more friends doing it – most of them over the 6hr mark but still a long time to be out running in my world. Then I started thinking, maybe I could do this after all…So, after doing a couple of the training runs last year, which I really enjoyed I thought, why not. However, with this race you can’t decide just to go into it – there is a lottery to get in! The race is limited to two hundred and five (205) runners, so 270 will be selected in the race lottery from all registered entries. Allowing for an attrition rate of approximately 24% prior to race day (consistent with past race experience), this will result in 205 runners on race day). So, on 3rd March a live draw was held. I didn’t even have to wait long – drawn out in the first 10 names – uh oh – I’m in! I do have friends who took 3 years to get in so realised how lucky I was. Fortunately, my trail running buddy got in too – okay, now we have to do it!
I will skip the detail on the training but let’s say it is super important to train and they have an awesome schedule of training runs on various sections of the course every Sunday from the beginning of May. I will also say it is good to train on the downhill as much as the uphill as the descents can be very tough on the quads.
The race starts at Nelson Canyon Park (Horseshoe Bay) – it was great to see lots of familiar faces – excited, nervous but ready to race. Not 100% but I think it was already at around 20C when we started at 6 am
Ok – race plan – I really wanted to enjoy this race, my first Ultra and I knew that it was super important not to go out too fast. I’d never run this far or for this long before and really didn’t want to be struggling by the time I got to Cleveland Dam (half way). Love the start of this race anyway as you run for a few mins and then have to start walking uphill – that’ll slow you down! Some nice rolling trails to warm you up before heading up Black Mountain which is 1217meters high.
Views from Black Mountain
The view from the top is pretty amazing and I made sure I took a moment to glance back and take it in.
I knew the first aid station was at the top of Black Mountain and a couple of people I knew were volunteering there. What I didn’t know is that the whole volunteer crew there would be wearing tuxedos and offering water from a silver tray! There was also orchestra music along with a few live performers – pretty awesome. Gave me a big smile as I then started on the descent down to Cypress.
Lots of boardwalks lead to a dusty switchback downhill. I was a little more cautious than usual on this segment, in fact on all of the downhills. Several ankle sprain on training runs – a couple of bad ones – both ankles too – had made the decision that I had to be careful not to sprain or twist them in the race. Made it down in one piece to an awesome crowd at the foot of cypress – way more people than I expected so great to have lots of cheering.
Back into the Trees
Then back into the trees – kinda nice as much cooler in the shade. Very rolling but difficult to run smoothly due lots of roots on this part of the trail, and still moving upwards albeit way more gently than on Black Mountain.
Hollyburn chute – steady pace on a good downhill for a nice stretch. I honestly think looking back the fact that I had to hold back a little on the downhills probably did help me not suffer so much with sore quads both during and after the race.
Although I confess it’s hard to hold back when you love to push it a little on the downhills but you always have to think “Big Picture.” After Hollyburn, there are some nice rolling, runnable trails which then lead onto the British properties (the Dam is insight, well coming up anyways). Lots of steps but it’s all downhill from here to the Dam. I had advised my “crew” I would be there sometime between 3.15 and 3.30 and arrived at 3.21 feeling really good.
Having a crew is so awesome. I almost think I would run the race again just for the crew experience! I am so lucky to have such wonderful friends who left home at 4am to take us to the start (giving us at least an extra hour in bed as it meant we did not have to shuttle from Deep Cove). Lots of crowds at the Dam and a wonderful atmosphere. My crew were waiting with coke, coconut water, a new hydration pack (quicker than filling up) and a change of t-shirt. But the best thing was probably the icing the gave me. Someone was rubbing my legs with ice, someone put some down my sports bra, my t-shirt, in my hat. I could have just stayed there for 5 mins but figured I better get on with it.
So off I went to tackle Nancy Green Way – cooled off and refreshed. I had run this one in training runs but after speaking to a couple of previous knee knackers I was told it was better to run a little but power hike a fair bit. This would lead to a better experience on the tough section of Baden Powell at the base of Grouse. They were totally right too – oh it certainly pays to listen to good advice! I ran a little, passed a few guys, power hiked, ran a little more and power hiked the rest. I was loving being cooled off from the ice and being amused when I’d find an ice cube in another spot I’d not noticed.
So, the next section, although tough as you are hiking just wasn’t so bad as the other times I had done it in training and I actually got to the top of the main climbing part before I knew it, passing a couple more guys along the way. Stopped at the next aid station and had a couple of small potato pieces and a little coke before heading back down into the trails. I did slip and fall once but was going pretty slow so just scraped my shin which hurt for 10 mins or so then I forgot all about it. Gotta have a couple of battle scars after running the Knee Knacker.
Love the next bit of gentle downhill and was delighted to see my friend Anne-Marie out running on the trails as she gave me an update on the top 3 women in the race. Not long to 3/4rs now and still feeling good. I was pretty hot by this point – shirt and shorts completely soaked. Out onto the road and onto the lovely Varley trail – totally runnable, flat – so nice. Then I was at the Gazebo and the ref carpet aid station – these guys certainly know how to put on an awesome race. I was super excited to see my crew as I’d planned to run the last quarter in my sports bra – so nice to take off the soaked t-shirt and pack – cooler already. So a little more icing, some vaseline in case of chafing and a couple of gels to hopefully see me to the end of the race. Still feeling good.
Nice bit of steady running, stopped at a couple of aid stations for a quick sip of water and final 2 gels. Next thing I know I see a sign for Snow-white and the Seven Dwarfs sponge bath – yes please! Very nice to be sponged down with some cold water – this race really does have the best volunteers.
Seymour Grind to the Finish!
Ok – better get back on with it – almost there. Well, several kilometres, then Seymour Grind and I’d be seeing Deep Cove. I passed a couple more guys as I was going up the Grind which seemed okay today and if anything shorter than I remembered (nice!). All good until I felt a weird, very painful sensation in both calves which actually caused me to scream out in pain. A new one on me – well, whilst running anyways. I had to stop for a moment, gave them a quick rub and carried on. Meanwhile, I hear this voice behind me – Hi Janette – it was Tory, another runner from my road running club – looking strong too. She passed me asking if I thought there was any way she would finish sub 7hrs. For sure I told her as that was my goal and she’d just passed me. From the top of the Grind, it’s pretty runnable with some nice downhill but those calf cramps definitely slowed me down – funny how they come and go but almost stop you in your tracks.
A slightly longer stop, a little self-massage and okay, let’s just get this finished. Once down into the final section I knew there were several small sets of steps to get through but I was almost there and bar the leg cramps feeling great.
The tourists and locals out for their Saturday morning walk were pretty awesome – stopping, moving out of the way, cheering – super accommodating. A friend of mine told me that one of the volunteers doesn’t do the usual – “watch out there’s a race on” but takes the time to tell people where we’ve been running from and for how long, making it a better experience for them and us – hats off that volunteer.
And suddenly I see the last tricky little downhill out onto the road – I can hear the announcer and I see the water. I run in, arms high, beaming as I am delighted to have not only completed my first Knee Knacker but thoroughly enjoyed the whole experience too! My time, 6hrs 58mins – yes, pretty happy to be under 7 hrs too. Awesome to see so many supporters and friends at the finish line on such a beautiful day.
Will I do it again – for sure!
Thanks to all of the volunteers and organizers who did an amazing job and made the race one of the best race experiences I’ve had. Thanks to Kintec for continued support.
All pics were taken by volunteers and the proceeds from buying them went to North Shore Search and Rescue who do an amazing job.