Knees are Okay, but the Rest of Me got Knackered

By: Sam LaBrie 

My last entry was about training for the Knee Knacker 30 mile trail race in Vancouver.  I had a goal to run sub-6:30, and the short version is that I finished in 6:59:41. But I’m happy with my performance and everything about the race and the trip, so read on and I’ll explain.

This was the 25th anniversary of the Knee Knacker, and the North Vancouver locals who put on this event have got it all figured out. It’s the best organized, most friendly, incredibly beautiful event I’ve been part of. Most of the runners are locals who seem to know every foot placement for 30 miles. All of the people associated with the race (more volunteers than the ~230 runners) know these trails and are supportive of anyone who tries to run 30 miles of steep, rocky, rooty, twisty trail.  My guess is that about 3 miles of the course are smooth enough to open your stride and attack with some rhythm and speed. The other 27 miles demand constant vigilance if you want to keep your teeth.

I had expected to lose time on the uphill portions and pass people on the flats and downs. It didn’t go according to plan.  We started at sea level with a huge climb: 3600 feet in the first 6 miles. After the horn I was able to get into the top 25% of runners before the trail thinned to singletrack and tilted up. I was able to maintain my spot in the congaline, with just a couple people passing me and I passed a few as well. The trail was super steep and every step was up and over a root or rock as we switchbacked up to the top of the Cypress ski area. Looking at my split from this section, I was even with the people who finished in 6 hours.

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We got to the top and I expected to be able to run aggressively, like I normally do on downhill sections. The next 7 miles were mostly downhill and I pushed, but it was so technical, with loose gravel on switchbacks in the first section, then twisty and rocky for the next. The locals were passing me in bunches.  How could they run so fast?

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After the halfway point we had the first section of smooth running, a 1 mile paved uphill.  Most people were power walking, but I felt like running and passed a bunch who had sped by me on the technical section.  We then had about 1 mile of technical climbing from the base of Grouse Mountain ski area before 5 miles of technical trail with many short stretches of steep ups and downs.  I was passed by a bunch of people in this section as well.  I thought I was a good technical trail runner!  I felt fine, but couldn’t run like this crowd.

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There was about a mile of smooth, downhill trail along Lynn Creek that I hammered, repassing a few and started to see some casualties, people who were bonking or cramping. The next section, Seymour Grind was more climbing; about the same insane difficultly as the first part of the race, but even harder now that I had 24 miles on my legs. I was starting to feel some cramping in my calves and quads and took extra care not to bash against something solid and cause them to seize up.

I finally topped out and had only about 2.5 miles to go. I watched my time and still hoped to get under 7 hours.  The next mile or so was smooth and I really hammered here, passing a couple people I recognized from 20 miles previous.  But the last mile was super tricky, with big steps, roots, and steep ups and downs.  This section is a popular hiking area and everyone tried to get out of the way, but I still had to dodge some extra obstacles. I finally dropped out of the forest onto a road and had only a few hundred yards.  A quick glance at my watch and I knew it would be close.  It’s hard to sprint while fighting leg cramps, but I managed to get under 7 hours by a whopping 19 seconds. I’m happy with my time. I trained hard for the uphills and, from those splits, I might have finished in 6 hours if I could have done better on the technical sections.

The race entry includes a banquet with great food and microbrew, and an awards ceremony. We went and had fun talking to the locals, some of who I had met during the race. I quizzed a few about how they trained for the technical sections. It seemed like it was mostly just experience. One guy said he leans forward and attacks the downhill sections. He tries to keep his toes pointed slightly outwards to avoid ankle turns.  If I run this again, I’ll have to try some downhill speed work on the Hill of Life.  It’s the only downhill we have that comes close to the difficulty of the Knee Knacker. Too bad it’s only a half mile long.

We spent about 2 weeks in the Vancouver area (plus Victoria and Whistler) and loved every minute. It could be the Runner’s Paradise:  year round decent running weather, miles of interesting trail, beautiful scenery, a supportive running community.  We also enjoyed many of the historical and cultural sights, especially the extensive First Nations art and archeology at Stanley Park, UBC Archeology Museum, and the Bill Reid Gallery. The food was expensive, but delicious and different.

Shoot me an email if you want some travel tips (samlab@gmail.com).

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