TL;DR: I finished Fat Dog 50. It was cold and wet and the course is hard yet beautiful.
The Fat Dog races are serious business because they run through the wilderness and parts of the course are incredibly remote with no easy exits. I knew that when I signed up (and it was one of the main reasons I did), but it hit home after we attended the mandatory race briefing the night before the start and I had my photo taken because, if I went missing, they needed to know what I looked like. The director, Heather, is a no nonsense lady who has every single base covered in her events. She takes everyone’s safety seriously. We were in excellent hands with her and the co-director in charge of the course marking, aid stations, and our mandatory items, and everything else.
The stormy afternoon the day before the race turned into a dark and stormy night. The thunderstorms and pouring rain eventually transitioned into showers by the next morning and then tapered off to a leaky faucet sky. There were still spurts and random bursts of moisture, but nothing I wasn’t used to from my years of living in western Washington. Of course we sometimes get downpours, but they don’t last long and we seldom get thunderstorms. I had hopes that the weather forecast would hold as predicted and we would only have small sprinkles during the rest of the day.
I hoped in vain. This was the north Cascades after all. Turbulent, unpredictable weather is to be expected.
My husband and daughter dropped me off at Manning Park Lodge to catch the school bus that would drop me and the other 50 runners off at the trailhead where we would begin our 50 mile journey through, out of, and back into E.C. Manning Provincial Park. I did a quick check of my pack to make sure I had all my mandatory and suggested items: rain jacket, lightweight windbreaker, gloves, whistle, hat, headlamp, hand torch, extra batteries, two emergency blankets (yes two are mandatory for good reason), midweight long sleeve layer, extra socks (not mandatory, but advised), hand warmers (not mandatory, but I am happy I had them), bear spray (also not mandatory, but advised if you are worried and I was slightly worried as Manning is full of bears and if I were to meet one, I’d like to have a can of bear spray with me). I was wearing my lightweight layer and I had everything I needed and I had a change of clothes and shoes and socks waiting for me at the Skyline aid station at mile 30. I would not be pulled off course for not having my gear. I was as ready as I would ever be.
It was raining again when I hopped out of the warm truck. “I wish you were staying with me,” said my daughter. “I love you,” I replied as I gave her one final hug and kiss. She was warm and snuggly and part of me wished I was staying with her too.
“Don’t screw up!” My husband yelled out the window. The other runners laughed at me as I ran for the shelter of the lodge. I was laughing too. That was my plan: not to screw up. I had no other goals. I was on my own with the other runners for the rest of the day. I was planning on the trip taking 13 to 14 hours, depending. 13 at best. 14 at worst. I’ll just cut the suspense right here: it took me 14 and a half hours to finish Fat Dog 50.
I immediately met some other runners as we stood around talking. We were discussing the weather the night before and the people tackling the 120 mile event. A lot of people were forced to drop during the night due to hypothermia. The conditions on the peaks were terrible. There were reports of snow, sideways rain and sleet, gale force winds. The director almost had to call the race due to aid stations almost falling down from the wind. But, despite the weather, the race was still on. People were still making their way through the park.
I felt like I was doing the baby event of the weekend, although 50 miles is a long way. It is nowhere near as far as 120 miles. I can’t quite fathom going that far, although I know I want to someday. Thinking about the people out there doing 120 miles inspired me as I thought about going 50 that day. I was excited to tour 50 quite a few of the trails in Manning Park and although the weather wasn’t ideal, I was still looking forward to the day.
During the ride out to the start, I talked with a runner from Calgary, Tony. It was his first 50 mile and we discussed Canadian races and Washington/Oregon races. I know what I want to do in Canada now! I ended up doing quite a bit of the race with Tony and he was great company.
Races like this are so different from road races. I know there are people out there competing, but I am not one of those people! And the rest of the runners are really laid back and just plain nice. I don’t know what it is, but the difference between road and ultras is big and I like it.
It took about 30 some minutes to get to our start and then we had some time to kill until our 9 AM start time. It was raining again. Soft, gentle rain. I still had high hopes for the weather to clear up a bit and just be overcast. We all did. Or we all said we did.
About 5 to 10 minutes before the start, Heather had us cross the road to the trail and line up. Fasties at the front, middle of the packers, then those who wanted to take lots of pictures and time. I went to the middle. Heather gave us a few last minute instructions/small pep talk and then we were off.
The first section of the trail has lots of smaller climbs and descents. It reminded me a lot of the Columbia River Gorge trails. And we sort of were running along the mountains beside a river valley. Parts of the trail were rocky, but it was mostly nice and soft. The trail was cambered and I was ready to move on to a new section, which we did after we came to the first aid station. At the aid station, volunteers put bright safety vests on us. We would need them for the road section. But first we had a short out and back that only the 50 milers had to complete. Our mission was to run to the turn around, grab a page from a book that was waiting for us and bring it back to Heather, who was waiting for us at the end of the out and back. I have to say, this little mission was pretty fun. It started to rain a little more during this section.
Then we were on a trail again for a short ways before we hit the road for roughly 3 kilometers. The road section was all downhill and it was nice to make up some time on this section. Another Calgary runner, Chandra, came zooming up to me. She said she had to make up time on the downhills too.
We came to the next aid station and set off on the Skagit River and Centennial trail sections. The trail along the river was really nice. There were some roots and downed trees and branches from the storm to navigate, but in general, this was the nicest section of the day. A few parts were more technical than I thought they would be from the course description, but everything was very beautiful.
And then the storm rolled in. I pulled my rain jacket out and put it on when I realized this was not just a passing shower. The rain was coming down hard and there was also the rumble of thunder. “Good thing we aren’t on the ridges,” I announced to no one in particular. In fact, by now the runners had spread out quite a bit and I went through long stretches where I was completely alone. Oh, I knew there were runners in front of and behind me, but I couldn’t see or hear them. I only knew they were there. I occasionally said “Hey-ohhhhh!” or sang a little song to the river in case a bear thought the coast was clear to come out. I wanted the wildlife to know I was there.
By the time I got to the Shawatum aid station around mile 20, the rain was coming down hard. I was soaked except for the parts of me covered by my rain jacket. I stopped to fuel up at the aid station and put my hand warmers in my gloves. It was hard to leave the cover of the aid station and head back into the storm. I took a deep breath and left the aid station with another runner, Tony.
I was worried about the rain not letting up and then not being able to continue on. This is when I started debating the wisdom of continuing on from Skyline if the weather hadn’t let up. I didn’t think it was a great idea for me to go up on the ridges of the last 20 miles and risk hypothermia. The weather conditions were perfect for getting chilled and then progressing to hypothermia. I knew I had dry clothes and shoes at mile 30, but I also knew the last 20 miles were exposed and remote.
The 10 miles between Shawatum Aid and Skyline Aid Station were more technical than I expected. I was walking more than I thought I would be based on the course profile. Even though the profile looked great when I glanced at it online, in reality there were lots of opportunities for the overgrown brush to trip me up. I was sloshing around in my shoes too (the Altra Olympus do not drain at all), so I did a run/walk and occasionally chanted out loud: dry shirt, dry pants, dry socks, dry shoes. I tried to stay on the bright side through the storm and look forward to what was ahead of me.
Fortunately the rain let up by the time I got to Skyline aid. I was really relieved with this weather development. The volunteers got me my drop bag and let me change in a van so I didn’t have to subject people to a show, although I heard that it would have been nothing that hadn’t already been happening all day. It felt good to put on dry leggings and a dry shirt plus put on dry socks and new shoes. My “new” shoes had gotten a little wet during the storm despite the volunteers best efforts, but they were nowhere near as wet as the ones I had on.
I ate some food and took a quesadilla to go then set off into the wild with Tony again, who was great company. I had expected to be alone, but it was really nice not to be. We immediately started a long climb. I was feeling peppy because the rain had stopped. Oh, it was misty and cloudy, but it wasn’t pouring and we were in the trees anyhow. It was nice. I was also buoyed by knowing I was going to get this done after all. Once you leave Skyline, you either have to finish or you have a long hike out with volunteers from the two remote aid stations between Skyline and the finish.
Our climb through the forest eventually turned into a climb above tree line along eery looking mountain ridges. It was amazing, but really hard work. Every time I looked far ahead to see where I thought the trail was going, I saw locations that would require big climbs. I’ve been on enough trails in the Cascades to know that if it looked ridiculous and hard, that would be where the trail went. And it was.
The weather was still misty and overcast. The valleys were covered in clouds, but the peaks and ridges were above the cloud layer. By this point I had waved good-bye to Tony and set out on my own.
At first it felt cool and fun in a new way to be all alone. I wasn’t too worried about bears at this point since I was loud enough as I scampered along. And then it was twilight. And I noticed big cat prints as I went along. And I thought stupid, stupid, stupid girl. You should never have forged ahead. Now you are all alone in cougar country during prime hunting hours. You are going to be some cougar’s dinner. I picked up the pace and looked around. I wanted to stop and take photos, but I also didn’t want to take the time to strip my pack off and dig my phone out. So I kept going. I eventually passed another 50 miler a little before Mowich Aid.
I didn’t stay long at Mowich. I just got some broth and salt and vinegar chips and left. I realized I hadn’t been eating enough, but at this point it was too late for me. I needed to just keep moving. I wanted to get to Skyline II before darkness settled in for good.
I was still alone between Mowich and Skyline II. I tried not to think of cougars and to focus on getting to the next aid station. I really regretted going ahead. I should have stayed with my new ultra friend. I was already behind schedule since it had taken longer to get through first 30 than I thought it would. I thought the first 30 would take me 6 to 6.5 hours, but it actually took me 7.5 hours! Which is kind of crazy because the course looked so flat on the online profile and photos, but I was not able to run as much of it as I thought.
At any rate, I should have taken out one of my candy bars and eaten it between Mowich and Skyline II, but I didn’t. Big mistake. I was beginning to bonk, but I was so tired and distracted by the thought of cougars I didn’t really realize it until later. About a mile before Skyline II I met up with a 120 miler and his pacer. “Do you want by?” they asked. “Absolutely not!” I answered. I was happy to trek along behind them as we descended into the forest. I had to turn on my headlamp.
When I got to Skyline II, I was a bit of a wreck. I ended up sitting at that mini aid station in the middle of nowhere to change my socks and put on a mid-layer. Then I ate some more chips and a mini candy bard and set out because I had gotten cold. Again, I should have eaten more. I was a little disappointed to learn that the climb was not over once I left the last aid station. I still had more climbing to do across ridges and small peaks.
I was so tired. Looking back I know it was because I hadn’t eaten enough. I was on top of my hydration, but not fuel. I gagged down a couple gels, but had forgotten about the candy bars I had been hauling around all day. There were other people out now and I hiked with a woman for a ways and was thankful for her company. I really did not like being out there alone at night. When I go back to do Fat Dog again I am getting a pacer or someone to go with me. I could see lights from other runners in the distance and hear them at times. Another 120 miler and his pacer passed me.
And then I saw a glowing tent up ahead. I tried to figure out what it was. Had someone hiked up for their runner? When I got there I was met by a guy who had hiked up to spend the night as a surprise to all the runners. He told me that it was downhill from here. Maybe about 4 miles or so to the finish. I was told I needed to sit down and eat something because the descent would be harder than I thought. I sat in a chair (he hiked up a chair too!) and pulled out my snickers bar. It was seriously the best thing that had ever happened to me in a race. I felt like I could continue so I did.
The first part of the descent was harder than I thought. My husband, daughter and I had hiked up this section on Thursday before the race and it hadn’t seemed so bad. But my legs were fresher then, so…What else can I say about the descent? I was happy to have it done with and see the turn to go to Lightning Lake and the finish. I was happy and tired and ready to be done. I forced my legs to run and I finished in 14 and a half hours. My husband and daughter were waiting for me, although since it was 11:30 at night, my daughter was sleeping in her chair, wrapped in a blanket. I wanted to be sleeping too.
Looking back, I see where I went wrong with not eating enough, but I also see where I went right and toughed out un-ideal conditions and my own fears. I love Fat Dog and I hope I get to go back next year for the 70 or maybe even some day for all 120. The course is gorgeous and tough, but that’s what makes it worth doing.