Matt’s Fat Dog 120 race report
We did our best with the tarps, but there is only so much to be done when it rains like this. Thin streams of water spurted from holes that, under blue sky’s, didn’t look like holes. Water is resolute, it always finds a way.
We huddled under the driest parts of the shelter. My dad making rounds with a previously burnt stick, leftover from someone elses story’s. He lifted the tarp in now well-practiced locations to dispel the pooled water. The surrounding ground was raw from repeated dousings. Kyle was busy digging irrigation ditches around his tent to divert the floods. His tent site level and true, but also on the lowest ground in our campsite.
I was at peace with the situation. I had endured my days and nights of anxiety and broken sleep. I was ready to race long and hard, be it through sundrenched forests or stormy plateaus. I was however growing tired of being cold and wet. I was trained. I was tapered. I was as rested as I could hope for. I had eaten 3 days of carb-depleted meals, followed by 2 days of carb-rich meals. I was ready. I continually asked what time it was, in hopes of hearing an number that would justify the process of laying down for the night. 6:30pm… Damn.
The sky eventually lifted, even showing patches of blue. We lit a fire, and our campsite collectively relaxed into the evening.
I slept well. I woke confident and excited. Deliberately doing what little was left to do before driving to the start line. With few exceptions, I was surrounded by the people I love the most. Unlike previous journeys into long distance running, we had all done this before. We were ready.
We fueled up in Princeton. I searched the location of the obligatory local Tim Horton’s. It somehow didn’t exist. I had planned on shitty donuts torching me through the first hours of my race. I settled for a gas station turnover and a power bar. No difference.
By the time we reached the start line, I had become somewhat numb to the scale of the endeavor. I felt as if a low-level opiate was coursing through me. I was happy. I was enjoying the moment, documenting it all in my mind. After so much wondering, I was finally going to find out how this thing would play out. In more than one way, this felt like the easy part.
BANG! goes the bear-banger in the sky. Crews, friends and family line the trail out of the start, watching some of the fittest, toughest people around… walk. The wonderfully anti-climactic start that is the Fat Dog 120. I should use the word hike instead. We hike straight uphill out of the start. I suppose, in a fitting tribute to an incredibly difficult collection of linked trails, through BC’s rugged back country.
We begin with what is to be 1 of 4 major climbs on the course. A 5000ft banger, taking about 2hrs to ascend for the lead pack. I settled in with two of my favourite people in the world. Dave and Josh. How perfect that the starting line had sifted us out in a 3 person train. I vowed to stay relaxed through this first climb. Sharing early km’s with such good friends really helped me accomplish that.
I was genuinely happy to let the lead go off the start. I’m no veteran, but I’ve certainly wasted my share of energy getting immersed in a race, when time would be better spent breathing, relaxing, enjoying. We were hiking well and covering ground as fast as we should be, considering the length of this particular event. I was most curious to find out where this effort would put me in relation to the course record split at the first aid station.
I find that breaking down a course of this size is much easier when distracting myself with split times. Forcing myself to crunch a few numbers, predict times etc. These sorts of things might seem annoying, but to me they are better than the alternative, which is thinking about how ridiculous running 120 miles really is.
I had with me a carefully drawn sheet with Sammy’s course record splits (26h59’), as well as a computer generated prediction of 25hr finish splits. Curiously, Sammy’s CR splits were identical to the 25hr splits until about halfway through his race last year.
My friends had faded behind, or I had faded ahead. Either way, I was climbing alone and enjoying the forest. Before long I caught a glimpse of Chris Downie, and soon after, Avery Collins, the two leaders off the start. This gave me confidence as my natural climbing pace had chipped into whatever lead they had built. The trail levelled out and it felt great to open up my stride and move swiftly through some gentle downhill. The 3 of us grouped up as we headed into the first aid station at Cathedral. We were bang on the CR split of 1h49’ coming in. I was surprised, as I expected to be a little quicker than CR pace through the first climb. I took note that Sammy’s record was no joke.
The 3 of us left the aid station together and continued up the rest of the climb, through some gorgeous alpine sections. The views were spectacular, spirits were high. As Avery faded back I told Chris that I was listening to Def Leppard. He made sure it wasn’t that garbage off Hysteria. It was in fact, Pyromania.
Chris and I continued along through alpine meadows, chatting about this and that. I realized that my beautiful sheet with all of my split times was no longer in my pack. It must have flown out. It was important to me so I decided to stop and backtrack briefly. Avery was just behind us, I yelled to ask if he had seen it. He hadn’t. Move on with your life Matt.
I began the first of many long descents, this one into Ashnola River Rd aid station. The trails were fantastic and allowed for some quick single-track downhilling. Everything on this course is big. This descent took well over an hour. I passed Chris as he was tying his shoe and rolled into the aid station first, with him only a minute or so behind.
Many familiar faces in the aid station, though I was focused and my memory of it is somewhat foggy. I was still feeling good, and happy to see my crew of family and friends. Everyone was on point, my mom even offering to wipe the mud off my legs with a wet rag, bless her heart. I told her we were going to need to be tougher than that today. I grabbed another CR split sheet and stuffed it in my pack.
Chris and I headed out and down the dirt road side by side. Eventually I let Chris go, as I wanted to check my shoe for debris. I had felt a lump in the heel of my left shoe for some time. I crouched down to clear it out, but found it was the start of a blister. A little early for that I thought, nothing I can do now. Crank down the laces and keep moving.
From here things got tough. I was sweating heavily as the trail moved into a dense and muggy section. I was overheating and felt my heart rate climbing to alarming rates. I scaled back my effort and kept pushing forward. I felt a few chills come on, and was generally feeling ill through this climb up to Trapper Lake aid. There was so much beauty in this old burnt out forest, with wildflowers lining the ground. The contrast was stunning. I felt terrible, reminding myself to stay positive and let the rough patch move through me.
I heard the blast of an air horn up ahead. This must be Trapper lake aid. Sure enough these veterans had a man positioned down the trail sending signal blasts to the aid station, who were now ready for action. My kinda people. To my surprise, Chris was still there. We both filled our water and lamented the previous climb. He was feeling sick as well. Again we departed the aid station together. Again I let Chris go. I wanted to run alone at this point, and I also wanted to check split times versus the course record. Not only had I not lost any time on the Chris through my rough patch, we were now under CR pace at Trapper Lake. This boosted my confidence, and helped me regain composure as I rounded the lake and started up the climb to Flat Top Mountain.
Chris was obviously feeling better too, as he gapped me after we split up. We were both moving well through this section. The trail opened wide to a final climb through a fantastic alpine meadow. Flowers everywhere. I saw Chris pass a small tree and noted the time. 5 minutes back when I reached that tree. Reasonable, I thought.
I reach these moments in long distance running that I have found nowhere else in life. An all-consuming energy and happiness. I’m sure there’s a scientific explanation, but I’m not interested. 360 degree alpine vistas, and back on the Def Leppard. Air-drumming to Photograph as I finished off the ascent. I was on fire. I was free.
I dug into the descent with vigor, confident I would soon catch a glimpse of Chris, with the pace I was pulling. 15 minutes, no glimpse. 30 minutes.. 45, nothing. My high-on-everything phase was fading, though still operational. I felt twinges of cramping in my calves. Not now, not this early, I thought. I was coming back down to earth, though still covering ground well. Still more descending before finally reaching Calcite Aid Station. I made some noise coming in to rouse the volunteers. I was informed Chris was about 10 minutes ahead of me. How did I lose time despite flying downhill for well over an hour? Chris was here to win, this was now very clear. I was rattled. Cramps were now grabbing at my legs with regularity. My pace wasn’t disastrous, but the pep was gone. I wanted to hit the river and get to Bonnevier aid to see the crew again.
This section took what seemed like forever. I was working hard. The terrain matched my current disposition, uninspired and flat. Long sections of gravel road led to sharp descents, as the course worked it’s way down to the Pasayten River. My quads were beat up. The downhill running was taking a toll. I was questioning everything. Had I used too much on the descents? Was I just not trained for a course like this? Was I not recovered from my West Coast Trail FKT? How would I complete this thing, let alone compete, if my quads are shot at 60k? This is what they call a low-point. I hit the river crossing, and to make things worse I was now well back of the CR split. I felt like garbage. I was baffled how I was able to lose so much time.
A short dirt driveway leads out of the river and up to the Crowsnest Highway. A longer-than-I-wanted-it-to-be section of highway-shoulder running led me into Bonnevier aid station. I was gassed, stressed out, in trouble physically and mentally.
I was desperate for some pickle juice. This magic elixir had vanquished my cramping at Zion 100, I was counting on it again. I kept asking my crew where Chris was. He was battering me mentally. They said he was 20 minutes ahead. I asked how he looked. They told me to stop worrying about it. Great advice! I refilled everything and got out of there. Upset with myself for being so wound up, so early in the race. It was time to relax and regroup.
Just as I disappeared out of view from the aid station, I rounded a corner and saw Chris part-way up a hill, struggling with his hydration pack. I couldn’t believe my eyes. He couldn’t either I don’t think, as he quickly darted up the rest of the hill and out of sight.
I was buoyed by his presence, though it didn’t do much to fix my failing quads. I was walking down a dirt road, the most runnable section of the course yet. I couldn’t understand how my quads were in such despair, so early (66km), despite running a conservative race to this point.
The muscles were involuntarily locked, 100% non-functional. I contemplated dropping right there. There was just too much ground to cover if I couldn’t break the cramps. I recounted my experience at Gorge Waterfalls 100k. Faster pace, longer duration, no such cramping. It didn’t add up… until I peed… dark.
I had never seen my pee this colour. No blood thankfully, just a runner who was clearly very, very behind on his hydration needs. This is what I needed. A logical explanation for my problems. I can fix things when I know what’s wrong. There was so much hype about the heat going into this race, I relaxed too much once I realized it wasn’t going to be overly hot. I had been drinking, just not with enough focus over the first 7+ hours of the race. It all made sense when I thought back to my dripping arms and fingertips heading up the climb to Trapper Lake.
Re-focus. Drink as much as you can. I was staring up the 3rd of 4 major climbs on the course. A drawn out, 4000ft, 20km beast that would take upwards of 3hrs to complete. Water, gel, water, salt, water, repeat. I put my head down and kept pushing. Gradually my spirits were lifting. It was evening, temperatures were cool, with a wonderful breeze as I climbed out of the trees. I could feel the life returning to my body and mind. I started picking up the pace. I knew Chris would have a tough time matching what I was doing in here. The trail finally levels out, into more lovely alpine meadows. This time the fog was rolling through. It was dusk, it was mesmerizing. I looked right, and out of the far-away tree line stood a massive, solitary rock. On this rock stood a massive, solitary elk. It was beautiful. It was an inspiring sight for sore eyes, literally. There was salt in my eyes.
I was nearing Heather aid station. I had spent the night here, filming last year’s documentary for the race. I knew the volunteers, but hadn’t seen them in a year. I was excited to see their faces, and those of Alex and Kyle. They offered me quesadillas, whiskey, and beer. For a moment I thought about grabbing my tent and having a re-do of last year… no! Push onward. I was informed that Chris was less than 10 minutes ahead. I was now 25 minutes under CR time after a very solid climb. I was back in the race.
Alex, my wonderful girlfriend, joined me. We ran the beautiful ridgelines towards our next destination, Nicomen Lake. It was quickly dark. The mood on these ridges was eerie, though I felt completely safe and comfortable. Alex and I chatted about staying calm and working through the course. I was re-focused and elated to have her company through such a unique set of circumstances. I was full of gratitude, both for her presence in that moment, and in my life.
We were moving well. Headlamps perfectly illuminating our piece of trail, and just beyond, to what we would travel next, and nothing more. I adore night running. I’ve found nothing comparable in distilling all of life into the present moment. Senses are heightened, yet there is a beautiful calm. We traversed the next 15kms just like this. Experiencing the night, and the race. Covering ground swiftly.
After some technical descending, we arrived at the remote Nicomen Lake aid station. I called out “Motha Fuca Matt Berry!” upon our arrival, a voice hollered back. A reference to our experiences on the Juan de Fuca trail earlier that summer with Mr. Berry, who was volunteering at the aid station. He and his friend were huddled around their crackling fire. We were offered both whiskey and bacon. Both of these things seemed like a bad idea if I was going to keep moving. We opted for water and more gels, moving on with thanks. At 99kms, Nicomen Lake is the unofficial halfway point of the race. I was glad to be on the back half of the course, where most of the runnable terrain is to be had.
Alex and I continued our smooth pace. We were flowing through km’s, but I was still holding back a special something for a push later on. I had completed a mental reversal on my position in the race. Most aid stations were informing us that Chris was quite worked up and wanting updates on my position. I realized that I was now driving this bus. I’ve run scared in the lead. It is not an enviable position. Especially this late, in a race of this distance. My watch died somewhere before Cayuse Flats aid station. Generally fixated on numbers, I was surprised to find the lack of information refreshing. After so much running, it was liberating to give up control to the trails. I focused on relaxing, and keeping perspective on how much of the race was still to be run.
My quads were damaged goods since the earlier cramping episode. I found however, that I could nurse them along with proper hydration and fueling. Essentially they reached a certain point of damage, and clung to that ledge for many, many hours.
Hundreds of glow sticks illuminated the forest as I approached Cayuse Flats aid station. It was a surreal environment. The volunteers again going far out of their way to enhance the experience of the runners. Alex finished her pacing duties at Cayuse Flats. I was again informed that Chris was worried about me. I was feeling amazing at this point. I decided it was time for more music. Something about running solo through the darkness of the forest. Something about the numbing fatigue of running for 15 hours. Something about being the hunter. I listened to Deftones’ Around the Fur; this song in particular, really had me going. It was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and something I will never forget.
I was once again aflame, heading into Cascades aid station. It was great to see the crew here. We were truly doing something crazy now, as we greeted each other in a random parking lot in the thin hours of the morning. The energy was good, we all knew it was business time. I sat down for the first time in the race, doing a full shoe change, making sure everything was organized for my good friend Jed to come on to pace me through the finish. My mom pulled the shoes from my feet, the smell was absolutely horrendous. I was offended, everyone was. This crew didn’t even flinch however, as we pulled the socks off and quickly wiped my feet before new socks and shoes were put on. I still don’t know what that smell was. I maintain there was a rotting animal in a bog we ran through, as Alex’s shoes smelled the same. Her feet are simply not capable of producing such a stench. Mine? Maybe. The socks and shoes had to be quarantined in ziplock bags.
Jed and I took off down the highway section before hitting Sumallo Grove aid station. I updated him on how the race had played out, and of the condition I was in. I had some abdominal cramping going on, the downhill pavement didn’t help. I told him how strong Chris was, and how I couldn’t reel him in, despite hours of quality running. I told him he was like Ivan Drago from Rocky IV. I said I knew we could break him if we just stayed the course. Internally I was starting to wonder if that was truthful. We rolled straight through the aid station and got an update that Chris was 11 minutes up on us. We were at km 130, with approximately 65km left to go. I knew the next 17kms to Shawatum, and the 15kms following that were some of the most runnable of the entire course. It was time to make a move, to exhaust any resources I had been hoarding deep inside. Time to race.
We found a brisk rhythm. Working the runnable single-track with efficiency. I think we were both surprised at the pace I was able to maintain. Jed basically taught me how to run trails. We have shared many training miles together. We have always run well together. The Skagit river was to our right, we could feel and hear it’s presence, though all we saw was the dirt in front of us. Time rolled by, along with the kilometres. Occasionally I would verbalize my frustration in not having caught a glimpse of Chris. Was this man human? Surely around the next corner we would see a headlamp, but no. I hadn’t seen Chris in 75kms.
The trail turns hard right, down a small out-and-back section to Shawatum aid station. Just then, right before we reached the volunteers, Chris was walking towards us putting on his hydration pack. “No f%*@#&% way!” were the words I heard from him as we passed each other. Jed and I were silent. I was shocked.
We took care of things at the aid station, making sure not to make a mistake out of excitement. Despite being able to run well, I had very little balance while walking or standing still. I remember staggering around the aid station, watermelon dripping down my face. After leaving, we had a good chat about our strategy. I was sure to encourage patience, as we had put 11 minutes into Chris over the last 17kms. We just needed to keep doing the same.
Chris is a fighter. He must have charged out of that aid station, as it took us 6 more kilometers to catch and pass him. This time the sentiment was more melancholic as he wished me well and told me his quads were shot. We did our best to move swiftly past, looking as fresh as possible, as is customary in situations like this. In reality I was breaking down fast. We had about 5 more kilometres to the final crew stop, at the foot of the notorious Skyline climb. My quads were smashed, and long finished with any sort of revival. They were visibly swollen and basically non-functional. The pain in those muscles is something I will only revisit by doing a race like this again, memory cannot return me to that place. I remember reaching an old bridge. There was a 2-foot drop off the bridge to get back onto the trail. I couldn’t get off the bridge. My brain wouldn’t allow me to drop down. It was protecting my joints from buckling, as my muscles couldn’t support them. Finally I managed an awkward sit, and shuffled myself off the ledge. Jed stood in amusement. What a sport.
I was convinced that Chris was a zombie who would return from the dead. This fueled me to push, and push. Jed was telling me that he was broken, that I had nothing to worry about. This didn’t register in my brain. I wanted this win so badly. I had also witnessed, for an entire day and night, how strong a runner this man was. I would take no chances. Just before we reached Skyline aid station, a searing pain spread from the bottom of my right foot. A significant blister had popped. The pain was brutal, but after a while it just blended in with the rest of it.
The crew was jubilant as we arrived at Skyline aid station in first place. Kyle was on point (as always). My pack was re-loaded with gel and water. I drank a cold double-espresso here, it felt like a decaf. At this point I was numb to basically everything except the idea of laying down. I was careful not to dwell here too long. There was still so much work left to do. I wanted to get on with it so we could celebrate for real, and end the madness. We left the out-and-back section before seeing Chris come through. This gap helped my confidence, slightly.
From there we climbed, and climbed. The mosquitoes became an issue for the first time. The sharp grade of our ascent slowed our pace to a mosquito-friendly level. This was not fun. I produced some punch-drunk rant about loving all creatures, except mosquitoes. Jed was quick to point out their valuable function in nature.
The Skyline climb is really something to behold after 165kms of running. It honestly helps to be in such a delirious state. It ascends some 7000ft, and includes endless false summits and technical descents. Some say 4 false summits. I say about 10. Once you start climbing this monster, the only way to get out is to finish the race. That, or turn around and return to Skyline aid station to drop out. How’s that for incentive?
We pushed up the hill. Laughing at the enormity of it all. Finally we reached the remote Sky Junction aid station, where my good friends Matt and Kerri were volunteering. They set me up with a nice seat and some coke. I was looking for anything caffeinated as I was starting to nod off. They mentioned a large cat peeing on their tent as they “slept” on the ridge the previous night. Everyone was having fun!
I could still climb at a decent pace; descending however, was excruciating. My quads were bright red and ballooned. I dreaded the damage I had done, and how long it would take to recover. Shut up Matt. Save nothing, there is a zombie chasing you. Run, run!
The entire way I had visions of Chris, or some other strong finisher, flying past us as my quads wouldn’t allow me to respond. This replayed itself until we were finally down the other side of the mountain. I now recognized these trails from jogging around the lake two days prior. I knew we were close. We saw Alex on the trail, who had come out to wait for us. Just then a massive cheer erupted from behind us. I was sure it was another runner, coming to pass me with 400 meters to go. I acted on instinct and found a finishing kick buried deep down, somewhere in a box. The only key to unlock it, terror. I had Jed looking back and giving me updates on what he saw. “Dude, there is nobody there!” I charged on. Finally I stopped just before the finish line. The crew was all there. So supportive. I hugged everyone I could find before crossing the finish line. It was important to me that my gratitude for them was included in the new course record. They were as big a part of it as I was. It was a wonderful feeling to cross that line and get a hug from race director Peter, and finally, from my mom. I learned that the cheer was for a relay runner, and that Chris had dropped at Skyline aid station. In hindsight I’m glad I didn’t know; he pushed me straight through the end. Congrats to him on gutsy race, and an incredibly hard fought 100 miles.
Shortly after finishing, I decided to jump in the lake. This proved costly, as I was hypothermic within minutes of getting out. My body shut down. Luckily the medical staff were alert to my foolishness and acted swiftly. Thanks to Sarah for taking such good care of me.
A quick trip to the hospital in Hope, some bandages on my feet; a swing through the Mcdonalds drive-thru AND Dairy Queen, and we were back at the finish cheering on runners.
I really can’t overstate how wonderful this race experience was. The organization, volunteers, and scenery were all world-class. I now see why Sammy, and others, have returned year after year. This is a special race, filled with special people. An extremely difficult, special race.