August 5-7, 2022
As is the case for many Ultras, the story of Fat Dog starts long before the actual race. Going back many years at the start of my ultra and trail running pursuits I followed and read the blogs of trail runners. Through these blogs, I came to learn about a Canadian ultra known as Fat Dog 120. At the time, it was a pipe dream, something that perhaps some day I’d be able to attempt, but at that time was certainly out of the range of my training, experience and capabilities.
Fast forward 10+ years, a couple big ultras completed and a global pandemic. I had hoped to do the race in 2021. The opportunity to do a race I had been intrigued by for some time, that was in Canada, and was a Western States and Hardrock qualifier was something that needed to done. At the time of registration for the 2021 event, I was dealing with a few injuries and the race sold out quickly, far sooner than I was willing to commit. As well, with COVID, I still had the feeling that the race may not be able to go forward. In the end, it was a good idea to wait.
However, the pull continued and as I put together plans for 2022, I knew that Fat Dog would be my A race. At 2:00 AM on January 4th, I got up, went online, registered and put in motion the beginning stages of many months of training and focus.
From the race’s website; “The 120 mile event is considered one of the top 9 toughest ultras in the world by Outside Online. Difficult point to point trail race with elevation gain (8672.7 metres) just less than Everest (8848 metres). Crosses three stunning provincial parks and one recreational area in British Columbia, BC: Cathedral Provincial Park, Cascades recreational area, E.C. Manning Provincial Park and Skagit Valley Provincial Park. Scenic, technical and non-technical trails, one river crossing, and sumptuous aid stations. Well rewarded for climbs with top of the ridge vistas. Bring a camera. Demanding final leg to finish. All racers must be prepared for a challenging route. Starts near Keremeos, finishes at beautiful Lightning Lake.” This year, I believe the re-route proved to be even tougher as the total distance I had on my watch was 132.3 miles and the winner didn’t even crack the top 10 fastest times. It was tough.
Pre-Race & Start
Getting to the race and having the right supports is one of the big issues to navigate, especially with the race being across the country. In the end, Brad Whitson came as crew and we flew direct to Vancouver on the Wednesday before the start where we met Brad’s cousin Kory, who lent us their vehicle and a few other crewing items. This selfless act was so appreciated and I don’t think the race could have gone as it did without this support. We then drove to Princeton, which would be base camp prior to the race. Though there are many stories of flying issues in the media, we had no such issues, flying was a delight. We spent a few days eating too much Mexican, resting, and then, the night before the race, checking in, getting the bib and attending the race meeting.
Friday morning’s start time of 10AM is a great time to start. We drove from Princeton to the start at the Lakeview Trail head. After some nervous standing around, the first climb looming in my head, we began.
**Note: Distances listed are what I had on my Suunto. I know that Fat Dog was longer than the Racer Guide indicated, but I also know that GPS watches are not always all that accurate either.
Cathedral – 8.6 mi, 2:37 (18:15 min/mi)
The first leg is one, if not the largest, climb of the day with a total gain of 4708’. Starting at 3000’ the climb continues until you get to 7500’. At this point I was near the back and happy with the pace. For me, it’s always good to start off slow, and when in a conga line of runners going up single track, it’s easy to keep that conservative pace. Overall this was a good leg for me, I felt fine, the body was responding well to the effort and it was great to be on course.
Ashnola – 9.5 mi/18.1 mi, 2:34 (16.11 min/mi)
Cathedral to Ashnola was also a good leg but I noticed that I was really having to push to stay on pace with the chart I had made. In retrospect, the paces I had outlined were certainly a little ambitions, so this became a bit of a problem and expectations would need to be adjusted. That said, I was feeling good, but, I suspect, was going a little fast.
At the Ashnola Aid Station, I was able to meet my crew, but in an effort to stave off hunger and dehydration I ate and drank way too much. This decision led to the first of a few tough legs.
Trapper – 4.6 mi/22.7 mi, 1:49 (23:46 min/mi)
Once again I was faced with another leg that had significant climbing. Over 2000’ of gain in only 4.6 miles. It was during this climb that for the first time I began to question why I do these things. Even if I got my qualifier, why would I even want to do Western States or Hardrock, it’s silly. These are the thoughts that can quickly derail a race. Luckily, I had to go through a few more Aid Stations before I would see Brad again and these feeling would pass. However getting to Calcite also proved to be a challenge. The stomach wasn’t feeling good, eating and drinking was a chore.
Calcite – 12.4 mi/35.1 mi, 4:04 (19:39 min/mi)
This leg was long. It seemed like it was never ending, and though I had recovered somewhat, it was 3 miles longer than expected (at least according to my Suunto), and it felt every bit as much as that. Though I was feeling a bit better, I was very discouraged on this leg. It was that time of the race where you’ve been moving for many hours, had covered some decent distance, but still had so far to go. Once at the Aid Station, I ate a few things, sat down for a bit, watched some guy eat 4 burgers (I can’t even imagine what my stomach would do with that) and then was on my way.
Pasayten River – 4.7 mi/39.8 mi, 1:23 (17.39 min/mi)
This leg was a turn around leg for me a little bit. It was a bit shorter than advertised, included a really refreshing, but hard creek crossing and then it was another short leg to Bonnevier. I didn’t take much time in the Aid Station, no shoe change after the creek. I had some momentum and I wanted to keep it.
Bonnevier – 3.9 mi/43.7 mi, 1:37 (24.48 min/mi)
From Pasayten to Bonnevier it gets steep. It wasn’t long until we were climbing some incredibly steep gravel roads, at times in the 30-40 minute/mile range. Luckily, I wasn’t too surprised as I knew that over 1100’ of gain in just under 4 miles would require some big climbs. Even though these climbs were incredible, I knew I wasn’t far from seeing Brad so I pushed pretty well. Once at the Aid Station I did a shoe change, shirt change, added some more gear, including an insulated jacket and flossed and brushed my teeth. It was good to take some time to reset and refocus on the task at hand.
Heather – 11.1 mi/54.8 mi, 4:54 (26.33 min/mi)
I was feeling fairly encouraged when I left the Aid Station at Bonnevier, however that feeling was short lived and the climb to Heather Aid Station proved to be one of the most difficult of the race. I felt like I was constantly climbing. It was the middle of the night, so I had no idea how much more climbing I had to do. I was tired, my stomach was off, and to top it all off, I got a bleeding nose. There were many times during this leg where I just had to stop, lay down on the side of the trail and both try to compose my breathing or get my nose to stop bleeding as much. I was struggling with purpose and the desire to keep going. This leg was about a mile longer than expected as well so I was feeling discouraged, always looking around the corner for the aid station, and always having the feeling like it would never come.
Finally I arrived at the Heather Aid Station. It was cold and dawn was just around the corner, but I needed some time to collect myself. Again, I was lucky that this is one of those Aid Stations where it doesn’t make any sense to drop. So I ate some soup, laid down behind a tarp that was set up to block some of the wind, put on my insulated jacked, laid my head on a collapsible water jog and had a “nap”. I let myself have 30 minutes and then I would get going again. Once the 30 minutes were up, I had some coffee and was on my way. (**Note, the 30 minute break is included in the time for the next leg.)
Nicomen Lake – 8.5 mi/64.8 mi, 3:36 (25.25 min/mi)
I’ve done enough ultras at this point to, in the words of David Horton, know that “things never always get better”. I knew with the sunrise that I would be able to gain some energy. If you do any sort of study of circadian rhythm or brain function, you’ll know that morning sun exposure is great for increasing already naturally occurring levels of adrenaline, this is what I was counting on. With the coffee, sunrise and incredible scenery, I started to rally a bit. This leg was ok for me, but was beautiful to pass through. It included an incredibly steep descent to Nicomen Lake, the wild flowers were in full bloom, and I was surrounded by mountains. On more than one occasion I had to stop, look around and just be grateful that I was able to be in this amazing place.
Eventually I got to the aid station, didn’t take long and was on my way to Granger Creek.
Granger Creek – 6.7 mi/71.5 mi, 2:14 (19.58 min/mi)
This was a good leg with decent pace. I listened to a few Huberman Lab podcasts and when through the Aid Station quickly. I knew I was well behind my completely irrelevant pace chart and that Brad would be waiting for me, so I wanted to get to Hope Pass which would be mile 76 officially, but mile 83 on my watch.
Hope Pass – 11.5 mi/83 mi, 4:27 (23.14 min/mi)
Though the leg to Granger Creek was a good once, the climb to Hope Pass was another challenge. The leg was once again longer than expected by about 2 miles and it was a grind up hill. We were now in the heat of the day and there were many exposed sections. Luckily we were blessed with cooler than normal temperatures this year, so I won’t complain. That said, this leg was a grind. When I finally arrived at the out and back to get to the aid station, I found out it was longer to get there than I had hoped. I was frustrated and discouraged getting in to Hope Pass, but Brad and Sarah (Kim’s Pacer/Crew – Kim is an ex-pat Manitoban who now lives in Alberta who was also in the race but had to drop at Granger Creek due to a bad ankle sprain) were there and they took care of me. I lay down for a bit, did a shoe change and ate some absolutely delicious hash browns. Though I was annoyed, in my mind I was celebrating what I had accomplished and my feet and legs were feeling good. I gave myself a little bit of time to rest and then was on my way again.
Nicomen Lake – 8.5 mi/91.5 mi, 3:36 (25.25 min/mi)
The leg to Nicomen Lake was also longer than expected, and though I was trying to push the pace again during this leg there were some steeper sections and mentally I was just preparing for the climb in the next leg back to Heather Aid Station. Nothing too noteworthy in this section other than to mention that this is the leg where I started to see things in the forest that weren’t really there. Not hallucinating per se, but just branches shaped like things and your brain starts to play tricks on you. This would continue throughout the rest of the race, and to be honest is at least a little entertaining.
Heather – 10 mi/101.5 mi, 4:25 (26.22 min/mi)
This leg was both good and a challenge. At this point I knew that once I got to Heather I would be 3/4 done the race. Ninety-three miles according to the Race Guide, just over 100 miles according to my Suunto. After the big climb out of Nicomen, which happened prior to sunset and was absolutely beautiful, I got to run through the alpine meadows with the wildflowers again. But as the sun set, my body started to rebel, telling me it was time to sleep. Again, it felt like the Aid Station would never come, I was feeling tired and my legs were’t moving well. My upper back, from all the gear I had been carrying was giving me grief. Every once and I while I would do some t-spine mobility on the side of the trail, laying down on my vest, using it as a modified foam roller. It kind of worked.
I wanted to push, but also knew that the next 4 legs to the finish would be the time for that. At one point I had hoped to get a longer break at Heather, but I also knew that I would have to be cognizant of the time challenges I would face in the final legs and wanted to make sure I had some cushion to finish under the 48-hour cut off.
It was a quick turn around at Heather once I finally arrive. It was now go time! “Only” 30 miles remaining.
Blackwall – 6.9 mi/108.4 mi, 2:10 (19.03 min/mi)
This was by far my strongest leg. My legs and feet were feeling quit good and I pushed the pace. I ran as hard as I could and was really happy with the effort. I also knew that I would meet Brad at this aid station which was also always boost.
I had considered taking a longer break at Blackwall as I was well under cut off times, but again, nervous, not wanting to lose any cushion I had attained. But it was here that I knew I would’t drop. No matter what, I was close enough to the finish that I would do everything possible to get that buckle and my qualifiers. I had gone too far, struggled up too many climbs to ever want to do them again. I didn’t want to return to this race for redemption, now was the time to get it done.
Windy Joe’s – 6.9 mi/115.3 mi, 2:01 (17.39 min/mi)
Quick transition at Windy Joe’s and then we had to don a reflective vest as much of this leg would be on asphalt. It was on the road with a slight downhill. I wanted to take advantage, and I believe I did. We ran through Manning Park Resort and it was good to see the familiar area. I was getting closer, I just had to keep moving.
Strawberry Flats – 5.4 mi/120.7 mi, 1:55 (21:08 min/mi)
The trail to Strawberry Flats was a weird leg, the sun was coming up, and though it felt like it took too long to the to the Aid Station, it wasn’t all that much longer than advertised. Yet I felt like I was losing my cushion. I met Brad at this Aid Stations, he was encouraging and helped me through quickly. It was time for the final leg. I didn’t really know what to expect and I hoped that I had enough time to finish.
Finish – 11.5 mi/132.2 mi, 4:12 (21:49 min/mi)
The last leg starts on a beautiful section of trail. It was flat for the first bit, and some gradual uphill, flat, uphill, repeat. It’s a wide path, and though I was moving fairly well, I was tired, I was ready to be done. I figured that it would be this gradual uphill, and then a nice gradual downhill and then I’d be at the finish. I couldn’t have been more wrong. Eventually the wide gradual uphill turns in to single track, eventually arriving at a beautiful outlook. I took at moment here, taking a picture, thinking I was about to head down again. Once again, completely wrong. I kept climbing and climbing, so many false summits, a little bit of scree/technical descent and then climbing again. It felt like it was never ending and as I looked at my watch, the cushion I had was disappearing, the time constrained. I was worried I wouldn’t finish under the 48-hours. I had come so far, and to miss the cut off would be devastating. So I continued to move. The climbs and technical descents continued and eventually after significant descent I dropped down into the trees again, and the path turned in to switchbacks that were much more gradual and much more runnable. I took a look at the map on my phone. It looked like I was so far away, with time constantly creeping forward. I ran as hard as I could, letting the legs go and trying not to wipe out. Just on the edge of control and out of control. Back and forth the switchbacks continued and I descended, I was getting closer and closer, but felt like I had so far to go. Eventually, I arrived at the lake, but I had to run the entire width of this lake, get around to the other side and hope that I could finish in time. I pushed my body as hard as I could. I did not stop regardless of up or down. I was running, and shockingly feeling good. My legs were fine, my feet were an issue, but I didn’t care. As long as I didn’t do anything that would cause me to not finish, I was going to push the pain regardless. Finally I got close, I had 10 minutes to go, I crossed the bridge, but still had to run most of the lake. Suddenly, I wiped out, tripped on a rock with my right foot. But I was fine. Wiped myself off and kept on pushing. I got the the end of the lake, I could hear cheering, I could picture myself in the final few hundred metres. I ran, mouth open, trying to get as much oxygen in to keep the pace up and finally, with the clock reading 47:55, I crossed the finish line. Just over 2 minutes to spare having covered (according to my Suunto) 132.2 miles.
At the finish line I was then told they gave an extra hour for the cut off due to some of the course being longer than expected, so perhaps my finish could be seen as a little over dramatic. But though I had an extra hour (that I didn’t know about), I was glad to finish under 48 hours, reach that goal, get the buckle and give myself the opportunity to be in the lottery for 2 of my goal races; Western States 100 and Hardrock 100.
After finishing, I received my buckle, sat and, quite frankly, basked the glow of finishing. Friends were there cheering for me, extending congratulations, taking pictures. Brad got some of my stuff and a cloth as the sweat was very much in my eyes. Finishing by a lake I waded in and observed how I felt. Some sensitivity on the forefoot, a blackening big toe from bashing into many rocks, but overall in pretty good shape.
Once again, Brad took care of me, got me some food and then we were headed back to Manning Park Resort where I was able to shower at Kim’s cabin, for which I am eternally grateful. We then headed back to Vancouver for our flight that evening. I slept a bit on the drive, nodded off a bunch on the plane, and was back home in Winnipeg around midnight where we were picked up by Mom and Bill. Mom, in classic Carla fashion got out of the vehicle, looked me up and down to make sure I was both alive and ok. She’s so great!
A couple of notes on gear, hydration, nutrition. These are some things that worked for me, can’t say they’ll work for anyone else. There is much more that could be said in this section, but I’ll keep it short.
- Altra Lone Peak – Wore 3 pairs throughout the race with some foot cleaning, Body Glide application and new socks each time as well. I wear the double-layer Wright socks. As mentioned, feet were tender and calloused/blistered a bit on the forefoot. But otherwise, feet were great.
- Patagonia Shorts – These have lots of stretchy pockets, so I had many items readily available. Lip stuff (Chap Stick and Carmex), pace chart, cloth, bandana, gloves. All sorts of things at various times.
- Required Gear – We were required to carry specific gear throughout the race. I did this and it led to a bit heavier pack, but what probably made the pack heaviest would have been the water (carried about 1L at a time, with capacity for well over 2L) and poles. I used an old Ultimate Direction vest which was perfect for me. I love this vest and will do what I can to keep it going for as long as possible.
- Garmin InReach Mini – I also carried this just in case. I didn’t have it set to tracking, but if need be I would have been able to contact Brad who was also carrying a Garmin InReach. Cell service is sketchy out there, so likely one of the only ways to communicate would be via GPS communicators.
- Hydration – Mostly drank water. Did have some NUUN, but very little.
- Food – Ate a variety of things, including Spring Energy Gels, some bars, soup, coffee, candy, hash browns. Most consistent go-to was chips and watermelon.
Photo Credit: Brad Whitson/Myself