Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Sinister 7 -- 26:39:44

I finished! It took me 26 hours 39 minutes and 44 seconds to cover the 99.4 miles of this very difficult race course. I also got a bonus of about 0.6 miles when I went off course along with two other runners in the middle of the night. What made this race so especially difficult was the steepness of the trails combined with so much mud and water. I have to rank this as the toughest race I've ever been in, more so than Tahoe Rim Trail 100. Only 69 of the 208 starters finished the race; that's only 33%! I finished 17th male (out of 164 male starters) and 19th place overall.

The weather was much better than expected, and the predicted thunderstorm came in the evening and I only experienced a few minutes of intense downpour. On the other hand, I experienced more heat than expected, with a high of 86F in the afternoon.

The race organization and the course markings and the volunteers were superb. The Canadian Rockies are just gorgeous and the locals are just so polite and friendly and upbeat. "You betcha!"

I think I'm going to lose five toenails, but otherwise I'm happy and uninjured, and I'm grateful to have been able to participate in this event.

My friends Rebekah and Alan told me about this race, and it seemed like a good worthy challenge, running in a gorgeous area in a well-organized race. My family wasn't able to go with me, and I thought it would be fun to travel with friends.

Only two days before I was due to fly out, I realized what a low finish rate this race had, of like 36% for 2018. Was the race culture different in Canada, with maybe a more casual approach to finishing? Or was the race just incredibly difficult? The answer is, both! Plenty of very experienced people are forced to drop each year and there are some who were just not prepared.

This race is not a Western States qualifier, but Miwok 100K already served that purpose for me. I still very much wanted to finish, and I told myself to not be too concerned about being fast and to earn that belt buckle!

The race starts and finishes in Crowsnest Pass and it's in the mountains and has some stunningly beautiful views, but almost no hotels or house rentals. I was able to find an affordable apartment on Airbnb in Pincher Creek which is 35 minutes away.

Sinister 7 has a large relay race that goes on the same course at the same time. The relay is broken up into 7 legs. With 220 relay teams and 208 "soloists", that's a lot of people! So, the expo for picking up our bibs and dropping off our drop-bags was fairly large and busy on the Friday afternoon.

I thought it was cool that each drop-bag was tagged with the right Transition Area, too, just to make sure nothing was misplaced.

They served us a dinner of pasta and salad and sweets as well, which was included in the race admission. The race director gave us some more details about the race, like describing what the course markers look like and talking about large wild animals. He said that every year a bear or cougar is sighted, and that only one encounter with a bear was "negative". What does that mean?!?

Getting some good sleep is really important before a race of this length, since we'll be running and hiking all night long. On Thursday night, I took one melatonin and one Gaba supplement (thanks, Rebekah!) and I slept really well. On Friday night, the night before the race, I took one melatonin and one Benadryl. I didn't sleep quite as well, but I think I still got 6+ hours of sleep before my 4:30am alarm woke me up.

The three of us had a quick breakfast. For me, I had an 'everything' bagel with peanut butter and honey, two slices of raisin bread with butter, and a cup of black coffee. On the drive to the race, I checked the weather and there was still a thunderstorm predicted for Crowsnest Pass, from noon to 7pm.

We met the race shuttle at the Crowsnest Sports Complex and there was plenty of parking, and indoor bathrooms. This is where we would finish the race many hours later. At 6:15am, I think there were only 20 of us in the bus, and we drove a little ways (15 minutes?) to the start line. Apparently all of the other soloists and relay runners had crews to drop them off at the start and pick them up at the finish.

We milled about on the cute main street. Excitement was in the air!

Rebekah wanted to use a bathroom one last time, but the porta-potties were no match for the crowds. I could have gone one more time, too, but with this being such a long race, I wasn't concerned with having to stop during the race.

As the start time drew near, the race director warned us to stay off the railroad tracks. Hmm.
Photo courtesy of the race.
And we were off! Woo hoo!

I took it really easy and enjoyed the scenery. We started off on a road before getting over to a trail that runs along a railroad track. At one point, the trail basically merges with the tracks and we were forced to at least run on crushed rocks underneath the tracks. A few runners ran on the tracks. Maybe 30 minutes later, I heard a train come down those tracks, so it was definitely a live track!

I chatted with Rebekah while Alan ran a short ways in front of us. We jogged through a residential area and then eventually got on to a dirt road. I tried to be at ease and walk the uphills, to conserve my legs for the second half of the race. I had a long long ways to go.
Running with Rebekah on Leg 1 and trying to keep our feet dry. Photo courtesy of the race.
At some point I was feeling good and I turned up my effort just a notch and pulled ahead of Rebekah. I wouldn't see her for the remainder of the race.

Alan and I traded places back and forth, going up the steep hills, sliding in the mud, and rock hopping on the descents. At one point I looked up and saw Alan far ahead in mid-leap, like an acrobat. "Careful, Alan!" I thought to myself.
Alan and I, a few hours into the race, on Leg 2. Photo courtesy of the race.
The race has two types of aid stations -- "check points" and "transition areas". The check points are smaller and offer fewer services and fewer food and drink choices. The transition areas are much larger and are where our drop bags are, and where crews can meet their runners, and where the relay team members hand-off. All the aid stations were staffed by friendly helpful Canadians, from the 1-person mini-station at mile 95.7 to the giant TA5/TA6 campground station.

One thing about the course started to really hit home -- most of the ascent and descent was being done by directly running up and down mountains on straight steep trails or rutted dirt roads. There were not a lot of switchbacks. With the frequent long mud patches, this meant that that we were spending a lot of energy to deal with slipping and sliding. The descents were rough on my toes, too, as my feet were repeatedly jarred with hard braking. I started to feel a hot spot on my left foot's toes, and around mile 12 I decided to address this problem early before it got serious, and I sat down on the side of the trail and applied some Nut Butter anti-chafing cream. A relay runner stopped and asked me if I needed help, in that friendly lovely upbeat Canadian accent. She offered to take a look at my foot, so I thought she might have been a nurse. So sweet! I thanked her but declined her offer. I got going again and my toes immediately felt better, so it was worth the stop.

There were frequent gorgeous views in the late morning.

Photo by Rebekah

Photo by Rebekah

Photo by Rebekah

Photo by Rebekah
Photo courtesy of the race.
Somewhere around mile 17, I'm guessing, on a steep muddy downhill road, I thought I was going to step on firm dirt, but instead my left foot plunged past the ankle and slipped forward and I landed on my butt and right side. At least it was a soft landing!

TA2! It was 11:30am. I rolled in and there were dozens of cheering spectators. I stopped briefly to resupply. A helpful volunteer asked if I had a drop bag (no) and I was quickly out of there, to climb back up the mountain.

I was ahead of my optimistic 25 hour pace goal by about an hour, but I knew I would slow down at night. Even with careful pacing and staying hydrated and well-fed, just navigating the rocks and puddles at night is slower for me. Maybe I need a better headlamp or light source?

In the early afternoon, I started to wonder, where is the thunderstorm? I sometimes felt an increase in humidity or something, which I thought was a sign of an impending storm, and there were some dark clouds nearby, but still no rain. Hmmm. Instead, Leg 3 was fairly bright and exposed and I was getting warm. I miscalculated my water needs for one section and went 20 or 30 minutes without water.
On Leg 3, with a huge wad of licorice stuffed in my cheek. Photo courtesy of the race.
Around mile 30, I came across a man, maybe in his mid-50s, bent over and throwing up on the side of the trail, with another runner by his side. He was a relay runner and said his name was Darcy and that he was dehydrated and over-heated and wanted help. I said I would tell the next aid station. I soon forgot his bib number (765? 752?) but I remembered his name and I tried to remember the mile mark. I got moving again and a couple minutes later, I glanced back to check on him and he was walking, so I didn't think it was an emergency. Maybe 1.5 miles later I arrived at the next checkpoint (CP3b?) and told the aid station volunteers what was going on.

My watch recorded a temperature of 86F. I was getting dehydrated. My urine was a pretty dark yellow. Damn. I was feeling weaker, too. I was getting an abdomen cramp that I interpreted as being from the candy, since the smaller checkpoint aid stations didn't typically have energy gels. I knew I needed to keep eating, at least every 30 minutes, plus drink plenty of sports drink, in order to get about 300 calories an hour. I started taking an S-Cap salt pill every hour, to help me drink more water and to hopefully keep cramps at bay.

TA3 at mile 41.2! I had finally finished this difficult leg 3 loop. I'm at the same physical aid station as TA2, and coincidentally I was with the same relay runner I had departed with so many hours ago.

I heard my name being called. Pete Briggs! Sweet! He's a member of my running club and I knew he had contemplated running this race, too, and that he was vacationing in Montana I think, but it was a total surprise to see a familiar face here. I asked him if Alan had already come through and he said "no". I probably had passed Alan without realizing it at TA2. Thank you so much, Pete! That was a real uplifting moment!
Arriving at TA3, mile 41.2. Photo by Pete.

At TA3. Photo by Pete.

Alan at TA3. Photo by Pete.

Rebekah at TA3. Photo by Pete.
On to Leg 4. A light misty rain started falling as I was leaving the aid station. Is the thunderstorm near? I think I started hearing thunder and got some rain in the next couple of hours. There were more big climbs, with another 3200' of gain and 2900' of loss over the next 14.6 miles. A young relay runner matched paces with me and he seemed to want some company. He was a University student, studying drama, and we chatted about life in Canada and politics and health care. We came across a barbed wire fence with three orange pool noodles covering the strands of barbed wire. Yes, we were supposed to squeeze through it. I went first and held the wires apart for him. We laughed. It reminded me of all the ladders I had to climb to get over fences in my race across England. T?here were two more barbed wire fence crossings like that.
Leg 4. Photo courtesy of the race.
We finally arrived at the next transition area, TA4, and we thanked each other for the company. I think his name was Nathan.

TA4 -- this is my one drop-bag stop.

The volunteers were super helpful. There was a whole tent section for "solo runners", although I plopped down in a chair next to the cooking station. I probably had a small bowl of soup, but I can't remember for sure now.

I got my two headlamps, nighttime clothes (wind breaker, pants, thermal shirt, gloves), and applied bug spray. I also planned on switching GPS watches. Coincidentally, the low battery warning came on for my main Garmin watch just then.

It was time to get moving again. On to Leg 5. 

The start of this leg is a gentle uphill on paved roads and dirt trails. In theory, this should have been easy running, yet my energy level seemed to be steadily dropping. I was walking more and getting passed by more relay runners and probably a soloist or two, too.
Leg 5. Photo courtesy of the race.
I was going over in my mind the logistics and equipment, and it occurred to me that I had really jammed my pack tightly, and that there was a chance that I had accidentally turned on one of my headlamps. I mulled whether or not to stop and check and finally I did, and wow, good call, Ron. My main headlamp was on, shining brightly in the late afternoon. Whew. My backup headlamp isn't as bright. I repacked and moved on.

The hills were green and pretty and eventually I was back into a forest and I started using my headlamp for the first time.

There was plenty of climbing and descents and a lot of muddy rutted puddle-filled dirt roads. I tried to keep my feet dry by walking around the puddles when possible.

At one point, while delicately walking on the rim of a giant lengthy puddle (or small pond?) the muddy slick clay just gave way and my left foot plunged up to my knee and my chest slammed into a jagged broken branch. "#$@!" That hurt. I pulled up my shirt to check for blood and I didn't see any. Damn, that could have been bad. I regrouped and carried on.

Sometimes I couldn't see a way around one of these road ponds, so I just plowed through.

A while later I arrived at a big T-intersection where my muddy pond filled road merged into a wider road. There were no course markings. "#$%&**@!" The course was so well marked that there was no way that this intersection would not be marked. I was off course. I looked back and there was a runner not far behind. I waited a bit. The runner ahead had chosen one of the directions and he came back. We all agreed that we had gone off course. We worked our way back and it turns out that there was a smaller road intersection that we had all completely missed. All of the course markings had been on our left side and there had been no "wrong way" sign. In daylight, there would have been no way to miss it, but when focused on these huge puddles at night, I had not even realized that there had been an intersection. I estimate this added 0.6 miles. Maybe if I had had a brighter light source with a wider beam, I would have caught it.

I finally got to the second and final checkpoint for this leg, CP5b. They had some thumping music going on and flashing lights. Thank you, volunteers! While there, the first place solo runner came through on his leg 6. Wow. He was moving well, and had a super-bright chest light and head light, and was using hiking poles, too. I was only at mile 68.2 and he was at 88.0. I got moving again and he soon got ahead of me and was out of sight.

I finally slowly arrived at TA5. This is a huge campground with lots of tents and services. It was time to do a "reset". I was telling myself that I really needed to get on top of my hydration and energy levels. I thought maybe warm food would help. I asked what they have. "Meatballs and potatoes." "Both, please!" I replied! I normally don't eat beef, but I was getting desperate to feel better and warm "real" food sounded good. Yum. Those meatballs were so good.

I also was getting chafing with my shorts, so I wanted to take care of that before it got worse. I asked around and a medic had a tube of some kind of anti-chafing cream. I walked behind the tent to get some privacy, but a car's headlamps were shining my silhouette on the tent. I didn't expose myself, but we all had a chuckle, like I was giving a burlesque show.

Onward, to the most difficult leg, Leg 6. This leg has the highest elevation on the course, at 7500', and 4600' of elevation gain and 4600' of decent.

All that sitting around chilled me and I had to stop and bundle up. Slow moving relay runners with their hiking poles passed me. People asked how I was doing, and I sometimes replied "Slow, but I'm hanging in there." I still had about a marathon remaining, and I was tired, sore, and low on energy.
Leg 6. Photo courtesy of the race.
I think it was CP6a, at mile 77.7, that was staffed by two people, seemingly in the middle of nowhere and in the middle of the night. I was very grateful for them being there. I was maybe a little too chatty because I forgot to fill up one of my water bottles. I realized the mistake a bit later, but I wasn't going to go back. It worked out OK, and my one water bottle lasted until the next aid station. I had stopped getting sweets from aid stations, but potato chips tasted pretty good, and my supply of energy gels from TA5 were lasting.

I was trudging uphill and I got to a long section that, as usual, shot straight up the mountain. The muddy dirt was slick with small plants scattered about. I could take about 10 steps at a time before I had to catch my breath. Other runners with their trekking poles passed me regularly. I would typically slide back a little bit on every step. At one point, I had to get on all fours to keep myself from slipping, by using my hands to grasp the plants so that I could keep my feet in place. It was ridiculous. I was hating it. "Why on earth did I sign up for this race?" "I don't want to run the Santa Rosa Marathon in August." "I wish I were in my comfortable home." "Wouldn't it be great if the race were cancelled and I was forced to drop?" These were some of the many negative thoughts I had.

Finally, finally, finally, the trail leveled out a bit. The descent was steep and hard on my feet as usual, but it felt good knowing that the worst was probably over and the pink glow on the horizon meant the dawn of a new day and that I could see better. I thought back to my first hundred miler, Headlands 100, and I was grateful that I had not become desperately sleepy. The combination of good nights' sleep and some caffeine was keeping me in a decent mental state, and I hadn't had any hallucinations.

I finally rolled around to the same physical checkpoint that I was at so long before, CP5b/CP6c, at mile 88, with the music still pumping. I asked if I was in last place. "No!" they laughed. "There are lots of people behind you. You're doing great!" Well, I didn't feel great, but I felt better now. I was finally well-hydrated and my urine was relatively clear.

I was passing familiar territory on this shared section between legs 5 and 6 and I rolled into TA6 (physically the same as TA5). Wow, I was getting actually sort of close to finishing. Someone asked if I was finishing leg 5 or 6. Definitely 6! I guess there may still have been poor souls out there on leg 5.

I got resupplied quickly and was on my way. Yay!!! The last leg!!! Only 6.8 miles to the finish!!!

Boom. Another steep incline. Someone was running downhill towards me. I asked her if she was in the race. "No, I was just escorting one of the boys." There was a relay team composed of middle schoolers, if you can believe it. I had passed one of them early on, and another had passed me later. So, as a team, they were still ahead of me, and they finished ahead of me, too. Impressive!

I slowly hiked up the steep rutty dirt road. I noticed that some of the mud had dried up a bit. Nice. I looked back and I saw one of the soloists that I had switched places with a couple times already. This was his second attempt at the solo race, he had told me. He had tried it last year and it was his first trail race ever! Not surprisingly, he had to drop last year. But this year, although he said he wasn't able to run, he was a steady hiker and he hadn't gone off course on leg 5, but I probably passed him at this last aid station. I yelled out, "Great job! We're almost there!". And then I privately told myself to grit down and push hard to the finish.

As soon as the trail leveled out and I could run, I started to really move. I didn't want to be passed by the hiker. I let my heart rate rise and I took more risks with jumping over rocks. "Careful!", I warned myself, "You still have a ways to go and you don't want to twist an ankle." I wondered if there was going to be another steep downhill to match the steep uphill we just had. Yes. I was moving much faster and my toes and feet were complaining. My little toe on my right foot suddenly had a sharp pain around the toenail. "I'm so sorry toes. Just hang in there.", I told myself.

I was red-lining. I took another energy gel. I still had 4 miles to go which was plenty long enough to bonk or get cramps.

I saw another soloist on an incline. I kept running while he was hiking and I slowly caught up. I was breathing hard. I congratulated him as I passed and I tried to push a little extra. There was one last checkpoint, CP7, at mile 95.7, and I decided that I didn't need to stop.

There was just one volunteer at this last checkpoint and I waved and said I had enough supplies. She dutifully entered my bib number into her phone and told me to cross the river, go uphill, and make a right. OK! The river had no way to cross without getting wet. It wasn't too bad -- a couple inches past my ankles. What's one last foot soaking after everything? No big deal!

3.7 miles to go. There was some sweet single track trail for once, with a gentle downhill. I was moving well but getting desperate. I passed two relay runners. 

At mile 97, I came to a connector "trail". Standing above it and looking down, it looked a lot like a cliff. It wasn't very long fortunately, maybe 30 feet. I aimed for a tree and lept down one section at a time and placed a hand on a tree trunk to stop myself. I repeated this a few more times to get to the bottom. No problem! In San Mateo County, where I live, a trail like this would be shut down and closed off!

Finally, I saw signs of civilization. The end was getting near. I knew we had to run on city streets for a bit to get to the Crowsnest Sports Complex. I glanced behind to see if anyone was getting close; I didn't want to be passed! Finally, finally, finally, hands in the air!
Finished! Photo courtesy of the race.
Then I saw Alan. Oh, no! He must have dropped. We hugged. Someone asked for my timing chip and I dug it out of my pack and handed it over. Rebekah came over; she had dropped, too. No!
Photo by Alan.
The race director, Brian Gallant, came over and handed me a belt buckle and a bottle of beer. "That was soooo difficult," I cheerfully blurted out. Brian seemed pleased. We chatted about the course a bit and he mentioned the crazy connector trail at mile 97; he said it had a 30% slope.

The swag! I bought the mug.

The bottle not only had the Sinister 7 label, but a custom printing that was done at the finish line, with my name, bib #, and finishing time! Nice! The beer wasn't bad, either!

I'll let Rebekah and Alan tell their own stories, if they want to share their experiences publicly. I just want to say that I'm very proud of them and they tried very hard. Lessons were learned.

What went well
  • I finished!
  • I never got particularly sleepy. It's so important to get some good sleep before the race.
  • My legs, core, and muscles generally stayed strong enough. I didn't have to slow down due to extreme soreness. Maybe the weight-training class I took this year helped.
  • Carrying two 20oz bottles worked great.

Things to improve
  • Hiking poles would have been super-useful.
  • I needed a bigger running pack.
  • I went the farthest off course that I've ever gone in a trail race -- around 0.6 miles in total. I could have used more light at night, and then maybe I wouldn't have missed that left turn on Leg 5. I noticed that the first-place soloist had a super-bright chest light and headlamp, along with hiking poles, too.
  • I needed more anti-chafing cream. I should have started with at least a half-stick of the small trial-size Nut Butter.
  • I don't know how to avoid blisters on these longest runs. Maybe I should try Injini toe socks.
  • I wish I had a GPS watch with a longer battery life than my Garmin Fenix 3 HR. I got the low-battery warning after just 13 hours.

Random data
  • My weight on the Thursday before the race: 171.2 lbs
  • GPS watch data for the first 55.8 miles.
  • GPS watch data for the second half of the race, except a big chunk of location data seems to be missing.
  • I took 3 ibuprofen, all in the second half of the race.
  • I took one S-Cap salt pills about every 2 hours in the cooler temperatures and every hour for the hottest part of the afternoon, which was 86F according to my watch.
  • Official results.