A little more than a year ago, I ran 50 miles along an unrelenting mountain path in Squamish, British Columbia. Although from the east coast, I fell in love with the Coast Mountains and the inspiration they invoked. I also fell for the exhaustion, destruction, and consequential rebuilding of my body resulting from the run. That day, unspoiled views revealing glaciered peaks and blue skies hooked me in. A few months later, I found myself registering for my second Squamish 50. I couldn’t say no.
The Squamish 50. The location, the people, and the course all join to make this a true destination event. The race is thoughtful and punishingly technical. The texture of rocks, roots, and slick mountain bike descents make the course one of Canada’s hardest trail runs.
Porteau Cove Provincial Park and Howe Sound, August 2014
After a night on the shores of Porteau Cove Provincial Park, race morning arrives. My daughter, Kikue, is between Christine and me in our tent. The same tent, on the very same spot, that we slept in the year before. The same tent we’re building memories in. Recently, as we return from outings, Kikue calls it “home.”
I lie in my sleeping bag, warm from the tent air. The bottom section is vented to allow my legs and feet volume to breathe. I’m nervous. Anxious, actually. But not so much as the inaugural year. It’s four o’clock in the morning and the race begins at five thirty. I tell myself to get up at four fifteen. My alarm is set for that time anyway. The waves of Howe Sound lap at the shore to my right. To my left, Kikue is soundly sleeping. Her eyes closed in a worriless slumber that I can only wish for lately. She only has the concerns of a child. In a couple of days, she’ll be turing five. She talks of My Little Pony and tells elaborate stories for our enjoyment. Sometimes, I can’t help but think she’s more unguarded than other children. She has no brothers or sisters and spends most of her time with us. She doesn’t have a TV to watch and influence her. When she starts kindergarten this year her influences may change, but for now, I find comfort in her innocent view of our world and know that in the simplest of childhood pleasures our purpose can be found. Purpose beyond self-created responsibilities of meaningless process. Repetition that finds no progress, only more repetition without the enjoyment to encourage continuing.
My head lamp goes on my head and I unzip the tent letting in the cooler coastal air. I slip out. It’s black outside. I flip on the beam of light and walk over to a small camp bench. Placing a bag of race items on it, I take out a water bottle. I pour some powder, add water and have breakfast. Christine comes out to join me. Still sleepy, she asks if I need anything. Sensing her exhaustion, and noting the hour, I tell her no and put on my race clothes. Kikue stirs and at last wakes up. She’s quiet but fully understands what’s happening. Though she’s young, she’s risen to these early hour race mornings often. We find our way to the car. It’s about 20 km to the race start on the Squamish oceanfront. Customarily, I tell Christine that I’m nervous and she reassures me. I finish off a caffeinated gel and question my abilities silently to myself, passing street lights and mountains that I can’t see in the darkness.
The starting line is bustling as runners finish last minute race preparations. I watch people fill water bottles, chat with friends and family, and boast a bit. The commotion is startling since leaving the silence of our camp. But I embrace it. The sun has yet to rise, but the energy of other runners suggests mid afternoon. As I secure my vest around my body, I poke my mind for memories of last year’s race, trying to recall specific sections, climbs, and even trees. I have a surprising ability to remember small attributes of the trails I run, even if it’s only once and a year before. I think the event makes such a strong impression on me that my mind naturally maps the course.
The pre-race announcements are concluding as I place my drop bag in the proper truck to take it to the Alice Lake Aid Station. I fumble with my headlamp, find an empty slot about a third of the way back from the frontrunners in the starting corral and we’re off. Just like that.
Almost immediately, I feel my thoughts begin to wander. Although I’m over 3,000 miles away from home, my mind reverts to the concerns that I hoped I left behind. The stress of my job and the limbo that is our current living situation bubble up until I begin talking to other runners to distract myself. I start to feel more relaxed and assured. I chat with a friend made during last year’s race. It really would be a shame to waste my time here worrying about things that I have absolutely no power to change.
I look up and the trail has suddenly become beautiful. Green moss and lichen beautiful. British Columbia beautiful. My chatting and worry caused a slight time loss until the landscapes reorients me back to the moment. I find myself bouncing over the soft ground, pivoting on comforting roots and balancing on jutting rocks. I went out stronger and quicker than last year, but my pace was sustainable.
The first bit of climbing arrives and I slow to a hike. Pulling myself up, I think about how privileged I am to be running this race. To be in this part of the world. I’ve written about privilege and trail running elsewhere, highlighting the social structures that allow me to do it. I recognize all that has to be in place, both my own doings and things that I have no influence on, allowing me to run this race. And to travel abroad, of all things, to do it. I feel a tinge of guilt.
The most difficult section of the course begins around mile 21. Here is where the longest and highest climb looms. My own Strava measurements show that the ascension to Galactic Scheisse tops out at 3,267 feet. The lowest point, just before the climb, is 665 feet. In the next 6 miles there is over 2,600 feet of vertical gain, with grades of up to 45%. It was on this section last year, trudging at a snail’s pace and feeling lightheaded, where I sincerely questioned my ability to finish.
I take the climb quicker and more deliberate than last year. No dizziness or thoughts of failure threaten to sabotage me this time.
A few weeks before the race, my wife and I experienced the pain and guilt of a miscarriage. Indescribable agony and remorse consumed our days. We almost didn’t make the trip. The timing of the death aligned with serious reconsiderations of our life and responsibilities. We accepted this as a sign of sorts. Later that week, Christine took the bold step of quitting her job. I’m proud of her for that and I wish she did it earlier.
As I ascend to Galactic Scheisse my mind turns to the child I lost. I do fuzzy calculations and determine what her age, in utero, would be today. My eyes swell. I shift to think about the child who is waiting for me a few miles away at the Quest University Aid Station. I see her readying my water, using two small hands, and setting out fresh socks. On the descent, I’m physically moved by her kindness. I don’t feel the rocks below me or note that I passed other runners. I set a firm agenda to arrive at Quest strong. I want my daughter to see her father committed to the race and a notable achievement. I want to inspire her to attempt impossible feats and resolve not to live a life of indifference and idleness. That’s the reason, after all, we pressed on with the trip.
At the finish line with my daughter. Squamish, BC. August 2014. Photo courtesy of Brian McCurdy.
“What are you running from?” is scrawled on the sidewalk of a popular road running route in Philadelphia. It always seemed trite to me; like it was written by a snide non-runner and directed at the pretty “workout” runners that often pass it. As my own running matures, however, I’m confident that I run “from” things as well as “to” things. From doubt. From weakness. From indolence. To comprehension. To completion. To capacity.
At mile 43, I miss my wife and daughter at the final aid station. Christine later tells me she got lost on the mountain roads and was forced to turn around. There, I sit for the first time of the day to apply tape to a nagging blister. I eat a slice of watermelon. I’m motivated to finish the final 7 miles like no other race. I move up the next few climbs before the final descent returning to town. A few folks who are bouldering give me a thumbs up the closer I get. There’s a race photographer taking pictures and I show him a big smile. The final mile and a half fells euphoric. The sight of my daughter near the finish as she runs to join me for the final metres tops off the day. We hold hands and pass under the arch, where co-race director, Gary Robbins, waits to give us both high fives and hugs. A weighty finisher’s medal is hung over my head as I meet Christine. Famished, I think of nothing but eating the left over Indian food from our dinner the night before.
An hour or so later, after cheering other runners to completion, I’m back in the car returning to camp. My stomach is full of samosas. In the late afternoon light, driving along Highway 99, I can see the full spectacle of the Coast Mountains that were invisible in the morning’s darkness. They were there the whole time. My legs have tightened since finishing and I stumble through a shower and hobble back to the tent. That’s where I find Christine and Kikue preparing for sleep. Our tent, to me, looks perfect. Just like, “home.”