Monday, August 3, 2015

2015 North Shore Knee Knackering 50K: A Lesson in Humility... and Humidity

Knee Knackering 50K race start
Perhaps you've heard of me, Big Johnny Burton. Not to brag, but I'm kind of a big deal. Beer two-mile American record holder. 2015 Oakland marathon master's champion. 2014 RRCA California trail 12K State Champion. One of only twelve people in the world who have ever finished in front of Timmy Olson at Hardrock. And perhaps most impressively, custodian of approximately four hundred Strava course records. [Drops the mic and walks off stage].

So if you've told me that it would take me almost 6 whole hours to run a race that wasn't even 50K long, I would have scoffed. If you'd suggested that it would take me over 31 minutes just to run a single mile, I would likely have slapped you. And if you'd had the audacity to hint that I would finish outside the top 20 overall, I would have rolled my eyes and told you to lay off the drugs.

"What the hell have I gotten myself into," I mutter to no one in particular as I sit down on a rock and let twenty or so others runners – including a half dozen women – stream past me. I’m only four miles into the 2015 Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run, a point-to-point 50K(ish) race that traverses Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains along the infamous Baden Powell trail. I say 50K(ish) because, according the website, the race is actually only 30 miles long. My GPS measured it as only 28.4. Canadians and their silly metric system.

Finally some fucking downhill!
photo by Clement Cheung
Side note: I’m not sure who the hell this Robert Baden-Powell fellow was, but he must have been quite the jackass if he pissed off so many people that they decided to punish him posthumously by naming this nasty death-trap of a trail after him.

I’ve just ascended straight up the side of a mountain, climbing over scree, talus fields, and giant boulders. At no time did I see anything that even remotely resembled an actual trail. Perhaps there was a trail there once… Before it got buried under several tons of rock by an avalanche (Note: one US ton equals about 907 kilos for all you metric fans). For comparison, this climb was by far, much harder than anything I encountered at Hardrock.

"Remind me to kill Riccardo," I grumble, adding his execution to my list of things to do later that afternoon – preferably after showering and getting drunk (though not necessarily in that order). I'm of course talking about my good friend this guy I used to know, Riccardo Tortini. "Come up to Vancouver in July... run our fun little local race... have a few beers afterwards," he says. "It will be a great tune-up for FatDog 120 in August,” he says.

Runner enjoying well-groomed section of ttrail
photo by Ron Nicholl
What he doesn't say, but definitely should have, is that this is hands-down the hardest 30 mile race in the known universe. It's got more stairs than the Dipsea, more rocks than Hardrock, and more roots than Hurt. Oh yeah, and a healthy sprinkling of yellow jackets. “Something for everyone,” as they say.

Just 12 hours earlier Riccardo and I had been sitting around drinking craft beer and talking smack, entertaining his girlfriend Tanya and her friends Claire and Jessica with stories of our ultra-running exploits. Now here I was, slumped over on a rock with my head between my legs, sweating like a junkie in the midst of a detox. "I'm fine. Move along, move along. Nothing to see here," I say with a wave of my hand, assuring the other runners that I'm not going to die.

"Fuck, I’m dying,” I mutter quietly. “It must be this damn humidity. It has to be the humidity," I repeat, reassuring myself that I'm probably not actually experiencing a combination of myocardial infarction and acute renal kidney failure. "It's just the humidity. You suck in humidity. It's your kryptonite. It's like peanut butter flavored Gu. That shit will kill anyone."

Riccardo carefully descending
photo by Clement Cheung
Inspired by my little pep talk I get back on my feet and start trudging along. "The rest of the course is all downhill! Well, it’s mostly downhill,” I lie, trying to offer myself whatever encouragement I can. In truth, while the worst climb is indeed behind me and the next few miles are mainly downhill, there's still about 5,000 feet worth of climbing to go over the next 26 miles. But what you don't know can't hurt you (OK, maybe it can hurt you; but at least can't intimidate you).

In retrospect, looking at my Strava data, I now see the fucking problem. Or at least part of the fucking problem. Mile 3 has nearly 1000 feet of elevation gain, followed by mile 4 with almost 1,500 more feet of elevation gain. Add to that my apparent humidity intolerance (the initial climb begins on the windward side of the mountain directly next to the ocean) and you have a recipe for a spectacular implosion.

"Just keep moving and get over the peak. Hopefully things will be less humid on the leeward side of the mountain,” I proffer optimistically. Finally, after cresting the peak and heading down the descent I start feeling better and begin passing a few runners. When I hit the first spectator-friendly aid station and see Riccardo’s crew – Tanya, Claire and Jessica – It's obvious that I am still pretty far back in the pack. Although they smile and try to sound positive, they have that "why the hell is he way behind so many women and old dudes" expression on their faces.

My brand new shoes got "knackered"
The last half of the race is just a blur of roots and rocks, broken up by the occasional fallen tree. I'm not sure if Canadians are just lazy and abhor trail work, or if they actually enjoy running across crazy shit like this (I'm guessing the latter). But I don’t care. I’m having a blast and ever so slowly reeling in other runners. “If only this race were another 70 miles long,” I chuckle, “I might be able to claw my way back up to a respectable finish." But alas, I’m running out of miles (I mean, kilometers).

Finally, I emerge from the forest into a residential neighborhood and sprint down toward the finish line. I see my good buddy the jerk who talked me into running this race, Riccardo, standing there nonchalantly, having finished 24 minutes ago. (Did I mention that the dude is seriously fast? He ended up placing 6th overall!)

All-in-all this race was quite a humbling experience. I came into the race thinking that if I had a good day I might be able to finish in around 5 hours and crack the top 10, or maybe even the podium. But instead, I got “knackered” as they say. I ended up finishing 21st overall in 5:57:46, barely good enough for 3rd in my age group.

Done at last. Thank God almighty, done at last!
photo by Mike Jones
Several hours (and several beers) later, all was forgotten. I showered, changed into warm clean clothes, and stuffed my face with a strange-but-delicious, fried honey doughnut thingy, which is apparently a delicacy among the local inhabitants. I recommend it highly! The doughnut that is. Oh yeah, and the race; I highly recommend the race too!

You might need a little luck getting in though as the race is so popular among the folks in Vancouver that there's a lottery. Take a look at this amazing video and you will see why!  And here's a bunch of great photo albums if you want to see the suffering in more detail.

And be sure to stick around for the post-race BBQ and beer garden. I probably shouldn't admit this publicly, as the race organizers might not invite me back ever again, but I think the race actually lost money on me as I ate several hundred dollars worth of sausages (Canadians apparently call them "smokies") and brownies at the BBQ. Oh yeah, and you very well could run into ultra-running celebrities like Ellie Greenwood or my buddy Sammy Hassan Lotfi-Pour, who I hadn't seen since we both nearly died of dehydration during the Tahoe 200 Mile last September. Ah, good times.

Ok, here are the official race results, and here's my Strava data.


Unknown said...

Excellent race report!!

For the record, Lord Baden-Powell was the founder of the Boy Scouts and the Baden-Powell trail was built by Boy Scouts and Girl Guides to commemorate the province of British Columbia's centennial in 1971 and named in his honour. Incidentally, there's a Mount Baden-Powell in the San Gabriel Mountains on the Angeles Crest 100 course. According to the course description, "the trail up Mt. Baden-Powell climbs 2,800 feet in 3.6 miles over 41 switchbacks to a saddle 100 feet below the peak," so Lord Baden-Powell undoubtedly has plenty of runners regularly cursing his name on both sides of the border.

Greg Burnham said...

You should come back next year for Buckin' Hell. You'll love it.

Beverli Barnes said...

Your race report had me in stitches! Your sense of humor rocks just like the ones you scrambled over on the North Shore.

I've hiked and run sections of the course and will be doing more of it the next 2 months, training for my first ultra in Oregon this October.

Thanks for sharing.

Jeremy said...

I wish they had races like that around here...

Gowtham S said...

Same Robert Bowden-Powell as the guy that started the Boy Scouts movement I take it?

Gowtham S said...

Same Robert Bowden-Powell as the guy that started the Boy Scouts movement, I take it?