Tuesday 16 July 2013

Knee Knacker Race Report: The most difficult run I have ever done.

The Knee Knacker is THE toughest run. 

Perhaps it was for the fact that I went out a shade too quickly; that the course is a monster of roots and rocks, uphill kickers and quad obliterating downhill blasts; that my legs stopped working for me after Hollyburn; or that I preferred to ride my bike when training for this ultra marathon. 

But, that does not change the fact that it is one tough mutha of a race.

Just what is the Knee Knacker? The Knee Knacker website gives a great description, so allow me to share it with you: 
The Knee Knack­er­ing course essen­tially fol­lows the Baden Powell trail which tra­verses Vancouver’s North Shore Moun­tains from Horse­shoe Bay to Deep Cove. Both ends of the trail are close to or at Sea Level and the high point on the course is 4,000 feet at the peak of Black Moun­tain. The race as a whole has some 16,000 feet of ver­ti­cal climb and descent. The Baden Powell trail is a scenic and very tech­ni­cal trail through a Pacific North­west rain forest. Most of the trail is within the forest, although there are some absolutely spec­tac­u­lar vistas at a number of points along the trail. The course is 30 miles long and the field is lim­ited to about 200 starters.The course nat­u­rally divides itself into four sec­tions, each being about 7.5 miles (12 kilo­me­ters) long. There are four manda­tory check points along the way with full aid sta­tion facil­i­ties. In addi­tion, a number of water stops are avail­able.
Before I give the complete rundown on just how the Knee Knacker went down, let me share with you just how much training I have done in preparation for the Knee Knacker.

Training until up July 12th (from the beginning of June):
  • Running in July: 12k of trail. That is it. 1h 11 mins.
  • Cycling in July: 375k. 342k on road, 33k on MTB. 12h 20 mins.
  • Running in June: 140k. 35k on road, 105k on trail. 11h 20 mins.
  • Cycling in June:  1500k. All on road. 59h 20 mins. 
According to the scoreboard, cycling has kicked the pants out of running. To say that I was prepared for the Knee Knacker would be a huge understatement. Colossal. The numbers show that I have a mild lack of running preparation for this event. I should have spent some more time studying my homework and lessons for the test, rather than just going out there and winging it, which is essentially what happened on July 13th.

Eagle Bluffs. 

Should have, could have.


Onward and upward. No matter really, I let my ego tell me I was fine for this one. The oatmeal calls it the Blerch. Ego:
"Hey man, you run a sub 40 10k, sub 1:25 half, and a 3:11 marathon. This will be a piece of cake for you!You have cycled enough to make this thing nearly easy. It is only 50k." 
I won the lottery for this race, many did not, and to honor it I felt that I had to attempt it. The hours and miles I put in for the first 5 months of the year in training for the BMO RUN VAN and Chuckanut 50 would hopefully would have some carry over effect on getting me to the finish line and I prayed that I had the fitness to get over this:

The Elevation Profile: Pretty scary stuff
Shit. Was I wrong. This race was a case of my cocky ego getting in the way of reason, preparation, and run fitness--this was not the race that should happen for.

Package Pickup:

Me and little brother Aaron drove over to North Van to the package pickup and racer's briefing the night before. A very friendly group of people, lead by the lovely Kelsy Trigg (Race Director) had me set up with my race package and instructions in no time. *Of note, the Icebreaker merino shirt from this years 25th anniversary race is one of the best I have ever received from a race. Unbelievable that they have such a good partnership with a great company. Race briefing was straightforward, and went like this: 
  • this race is special for many reasons that you will understand later
  • finish the race,
  • be nice to the volunteers, 
  • don't make a mess, 
  • and be safe. Call George. Don't call George.
Kelsy communicated her and her groups passion for the KK calmly and eloquently in our 45 minute briefing, and we were off. At the briefing, I managed to meet running celebrity blogger Solana (who I am a huge fan of) and her husband Jay, Jeff Pelletier--both Salomon Shop Team members out of West Van, and reconnect with the Kamloops hardman/gentleman Peter Findley. All told, the package pickup pretty darn good.


The wake up call was early. Earlier than ever, in fact:: 3:30AM. I think that only time I had gotten up that early was to go to Cancun or Cuba for a relaxing time.  For an event that I would flog and beat myself into a pulp, this would be a first.

Map of the route
Sean and I left by 4AM, and were in Deep Cove by 4:40. We made it on the first shuttle bus to the start, which gave us the pick of porta-potties--very necessary for avoiding lineups. Some pleasantries were exchanged with many of the other racers: I met Little Mountain Goat in Heels and wished her luck, Solana, Jay and Jeff from the night before, I spoke to Mike Murphy and wished him luck, and waited for the start.

Sugoi brothers. Nervous anticipation for impending doom.

The race started with a shocking "Go!"--without warning, we were off and running. The beginning of this race is beautiful: the trail network of lush rainforest leading up to the base of black mountain is a mess of roots and rocks, stairs and trees, not unlike the Chuckanut trails, to the power of 5.

But then there is Black Mountain: climbing begins gently until the mountain pitches up, thrust us upon the steeps off the backside of Cypress. Boulder fields, gnarly switchbacks, using our hands and upper bodies to pull ourselves up the mountain, all were a part of this climb. Near Eagle Bluffs, the North Shore Search and Rescue showed up with a helicopter to shoot the race! This race even had it's own helicopter!?!?

At this point, I was speechless. All I could do was laugh. The scramble up was one thing. At the top of Black Mountain, aid volunteers in full on bug netting served up water for the racers. This race had their own ninja lookalikes! Sean and I flew up to the top, which would end up killing us in the coming sections.

Baker fixing a shoe.

The descent of towards the Cypress Bowl was on a ski run, one that deked and dived downhill over some pretty good sized rocks. I managed to stay upright but witnessed Munny, course designer for MYM50, crash and roll. He got right up and kept on. I had gaped brother Sean (my partner in crime--one of the Sugoi twins as other racers were calling us) but waited for him at the day lodge area. He rolled in a couple of minutes behind. We refilled our bottles, ate a bit, and off we went to Holyburn Lodge. It was there that the aid volunteers were giving out 2oz of Czech Pilsner. I had to have one, ever though it did mess with my stomach for the next few kms. Who turns down free beer?

Perhaps it was the beer, or the downhill running, but not even halfway in, my legs were shot. Done. I had nothing in them, but carried on to the halfway mark at the Cleveland Dam. By this point, Sean and I had seen Diana and Jay, as they wished us on their way. Coming into 25k, I nearly ran over a volunteer, as she did the Texas two-step/ deer caught in headlights. I held my line, bracing her gently by the shoulders so I did not run her over (my apologies to the lovely volunteer--I was going a little light in the head). Sean and I ate from our drop bags which were handed to us from the vollies. The service was Pan-Pacific-esque.

This is where the race excels: the volunteers. I cannot believe how quick they were to serve the racers as we came into the aid stations. Filling bottles, checking in with us to see that we had enough food, calling everyone by name! Never before have I experienced such love from strangers!!

Watermelon! Photo Credit: Jay Klassen 
Up Nancy Greene Way, Sean and I punched a better clip as surprisingly the ups did not hurt nearly as much as going downhill. I struggled all day with the descents. The next aid station was Skyline Drive. Here, Sean came in a couple of minutes after me with a wasp's sting on his ankle. A wasp flew into his shoe, he turned his right ankle over and the bloody thing left it's stinger through his sock! Some ice from the vollies on his ankle, and a couple of jokes and we were off again. I did say to Sean and this point that we only had 12 miles to go! 

Suffering late in the game. Photo Credit Jay Klassen. 
Over the next twelve miles we went backwards. Many, many runners passed us. I was reduced to walking, at this point in the day I was hitting my all time low. Although during this run I did not crash (I did fall on my hands once), mentally I was cooked. The profile shows a net downhill course, yet the end is relentless. I have not been in a race in many years that I just wanted to be over-- I usually have fun at these things. Trying to stay positive was the key, and I did my best, but it was challenging.

The most beautiful vollies around!!Amazing people!

Still smiling at Lower Seymour. Photo Jay Klassen
At the last aid station, 4k to run sounded easy. But the deception of the course profile comes into play, what looks like a downhill run is not--the dips begin to kill. This was where my name was called out through the forest like a shot. Solana had tracked me down! Hearing her pulled me out of a funk and gave me some wings, as we blazed down the trail to the finish. With Sean dropping back, I slowed my pace. Solana blew past me like a woman on a mission, as she bounded over the twisted gnarl of roots and rocks so smoothly to the road. Sean and I held up, walked the section. We hit the road, and booked it into the park, only 200m to go. Sean and I came across the line arms up high, probably looking in better spirits than how I felt.

Homestretch. Photo: Jay Klassen
Results for the day.
Sugoi Brothers! Photo: Jay Klassen
Awesome finish Solana! Photo:Jay Klassen
The debrief: Staying positive in light of the hurt.

This ultra, above all, has forced me to evaluate my running, why I do it, and what do I want to accomplish by doing it. I said on the video that one should not make any decisions while running a race like this, and I stand by that. But after a few days, I am not convinced that I would like to run this one again. This run took me to a very dark place mentally, one where I had to work very hard at staying focused and positive. It is, two days later, a very trying experience. My legs and feet are swollen, I have ballooned up to 194 lbs from 182, and I am having trouble moving my legs in a normal working manner due to the swelling in my feet, ankles, calves and quads.. These are some of the things that we as runners who have completed this race all share after the party is over. I think everyone is enjoying a Knee Knacker hangover. I am not having the time of my life recovering from this one. On the flip side, I finished. I made it through the toughest run. That in itself is a victory, one that will make me stronger in the future. 

I suppose that another lesson learnt from this run: to prepare, prepare, prepare. That sounds obvious, but cycling does not help running, and vice-versa. I remember getting back on my bike in March for back to back 100k rides in Kamloops, where I was slow and got dropped my brother Aaron and Ian Fillinger. Back then, I had a tonne of run fitness, and zero bike fitness. For this run, the roles are reversed. Now, I can bike for 6 hours. Running that long? Ouch.

Although the pictures show a brave face, the Knee Knacker can break a running down hard. I don't like the feeling in my body and in my mind that I am going through post run. Don't get me wrong--the race is excellent, excellent value, the vollies treat you fantastically, the race atmosphere and organisation is out of this world. But I need to feel better than I do, and not take 5 days to recover to get back to feeling normal.

I want to do is enjoy my runs--something that left me when my legs stopped working coming down Cypress. This race was a voluntary test of the human condition of a difficulty that I have not experienced in a long time. As well, Sean suggested to me that we cheated this race by attempting and finishing it. What he meant was not that we actually cheated in the race, that is not the case. He meant that we did not prepare adequately, thus becoming a minor liability for the day, the organizers, and ourselves. He is right.

We went into this race thinking our fitness was solid, but not knowing that we had sound training. We did not respect this run, we did not prepare ourselves to the best of our abilities, and thus, it is kicking us right back. It is hard to even remember the beauty of the course due to the dark places I was taken too. To not preview the course in a training run or runs? We were impostors at the dance. You can't fake this run out--it will exploit your weaknesses (quads, downhill running, run-ability, etc.). I had many on this day, and they all showed up to pay me a visit, mock me, and leave me battered and shattered.

I have the MYM50 in six weeks. Right now, I am not in the mood to complete that. Sean and I have our entries, we don't have a tonne of time, and we could look for a relay group to join us. Or to defer, or cancel, or start and see what happens. But maybe a couple of days are in order to let this one marinate for a while. I need to recoup.

Jeff Pelletier says that I will be back to the KK. He is probably right about that. I have a few months to think about it before the lottery opens.

The irony of the situation is that three days later, I have not taken my race shirt off and I am wearing it proudly. Perhaps Kelsy is right--this race gets in your blood.  Huge thanks go out to Kelsy and the event organizing committee, sponsors, and volunteers--you all made for such fantastic day with the pride, care, and love that you showed for the racers and each other. I don't think I have seen such a positive, uplifting race environment anywhere, and it all starts and ends with you. This event must draw the best people to help out for it. It is the example that all other races need to follow.

Jay Klassen--thank you! Your pics from the day are superb. I owe you a couple of beers, for sure!!

To my Sugoi brother Sean--this one was hard, you stuck through 4 rolled ankles and a wasp sting. We finished this thing together, as we should have. You are a stubborn dude.

Now, I have to head over to Deep Cove for some more Honey's Donuts.

Thanks for reading!!

Results are here!

2013: The 25th Anniversary

Gear report:

The Salomon Sense Mantra: worked out very well at this race. I felt secure and protected in them--no blisters, bruises, sore feet, and the grip was excellent. I am a fan of this shoe and will use it in upcoming trail races. I love the fit and they did not fail me at all on this run.

Zoot RX Compression sleeves: I think these things make a person look slow--that is how I see myself. I do not know what impact they had, only my legs are toast. Maybe I am feeling better. I may stick to using them for recovery, but not racing.

Sugoi Notch Short: This is my go-to short. I love it for the large rear pockets to store trash like used gel shots and cliff wrappers.

Body Glide: Necessary. Always. A+.

Camelbak Delaney Race Beltpack: This was more than adequate for the run. Not too heavy, with plenty storage for food, it was easy to access and refill. A good choice for this run due to the amount of aid stations along the way.

Nutrition: I ate a lot of food. A few gels, a Clif bar, couple of bottles of Skratch and Heed. The rest was aid station stuff. Potatoes dipped in salt? Yup. Watermelon. Bananas. Cookies. Honey's Donuts. There was a lot of food consumed for this one.


  1. Great and very honest report - I especially love the video clips!

    I'd still give it a few days before you make a decision on MYM50..

    1. Jeff--I will take some time to decide. Once the legs feel ready to run. I won't make it to the 5 Peaks on Saturday. I will be up in Whistler riding the IMC Course instead!


  2. Really enjoyed reading your report, Josh, and the videos are a awesome!

    from Solana's Mom

  3. Hi Solana's Mom! Thanks for checking the videos out. Your daughter was amazing. I am inspired by her and her blog, and how she manages to get people running. Her passion is contagious. I am sure you know what I mean! I hope you heal up soon! Cheers,