Saturday, 24 August 2013

Fat Dog 100

Fat Dog 100

The Fat Dog 100 is a trail race, or rather a collection of trail races that take place in the Cascades mountains in British Columbia in Canada, about 3 hours’ drive inland from Vancouver. It is a fairly low key event organized by Heather Macdonald and Peter Watson from Mountain Madness and is an absolute diamond in terms of a spectacular, tough and genuinely beautiful trail race. There are several versions. 120, 70, 50, 30 and 20 miles. Clearly the organisers are trying to allow for all ability levels and I signed up for the 70 mile (114 km) version. 

I wouldn’t normally sign up for a “soft” version of a race but I had just finished Badwater a month earlier and the Spartathlon is just around the corner. What I needed was a good training run and 114 kms through the mountains of BC in Canada was just the ticket. 

If Badwater in Death Valley was the home of the Balrog, then Manning Park must surely be home to the Elves. From the very start my idea was to run well within my ability, not to push too hard and just get some quality training done in a spectacular setting. The 120 mile version would have left me trashed and that was not what I wanted at the moment. This year I reach 50 years old and I have set myself the target of doing both Badwater and the Spartathlon in the same calendar year. Great way to celebrate 50 years old eh?

The race started at the top of a mountain after having been bussed up to the start line from the Manning Park resort where we were staying. There were only 15 of us signed up for the 110 km distance and it felt more like a casual get together with a few friends rather than an actual race that I had travelled to the other side of the world to find. 

Very quickly I found myself running with 2 young lads in their 20s called Ian and Juan. They looked pretty fit but they were running at a decent pace that suited me so we sort of formed a group and ran together sharing stories and tales of adventures passed. Although the pace was probably above what I wanted to do I felt a lot safer in a group because this was bear territory and these locals at least knew what to do should we see a bear.  Me? I didn’t have a clue!

Ian explained to me that there are 2 kinds, the Grisleys and the Brown bears. Now, the Brown bears are pretty soft and apparently if you make some loud noise at them they just sort of wander off and get out of the way. … yeah … right……as if! … and the Grisleys? …”Well…..” said Ian. “That’s another story, they don’t get frightened easily and it’s best to stay out of their way.” “So what if they attack?” said I. “Try to stay calm and play dead” was the answer! Ian explained carefully to me that the bear would probably test the body to make sure that it was indeed dead and that you have to be a really good actor, especially if the bear bites your head. What!!? “The bear bites your head!!”; “Yeah, just play dead, if you bottle it you’re dead” was his reply. “You need to be pretty chilled about it.” After this conversation I decided that the best thing was just not to meet a bear. Any bear! We ran down the most well maintained trail ever along the broad ridge of the mountain at about 2000M, which after about 20 kms turned into a knife edge and then descended steeply into a dense forest of dark green Douglas firs. I stopped to sort out my shoe laces and Juan zoomed ahead. Ian needed the bathroom so that worked out fine and we kept running together.

At this point, a young girl, also a twenty something zoomed past and left us in the dust. Now, for Ian this was clearly too much and it was obvious that his manly pride was at stake here and not getting chicked was far, far more important than listening to some old geezer and a few stories of Badwater with which Ian moved up a gear and then left me in the dust. I sped up for about 100M but then remembered that this was a quality training run and that trashing myself was not what I needed right now. Not that I would have been able to keep up anyway. Ian went on to win.

But that of course left me on my own with all those bears. I would have to rely on the runners before me scaring them away. Now there weren’t exactly too many of us out there in the mountains and we were all spread out over a very large distance. The truth is I was completely alone and the only people I would see were at the check points which were separated by approximately 15 kms. But being on your own in the back country is simply an awesome experience, the rawness of it all, the connection with nature, the pure adventure. This is what trail running is all about and I just loved the solitude. The body moving freely and elegantly through the forest, just like our early ancestors did when they hunted down their prey, except of course that I didn’t have a bow and arrow and they didn’t have Hokas.  So much more exciting than some of the tame, oversubscribed commercial trail races, completely lacking in soul I have done in the past where the only imminent danger is being stabbed with another runners’ pole.

The trail now wove down the steep switchbacks along the mountainside and eventually turned into one of the most ancient forests I have ever been through, full of giant, knarly old trees steeped in long lost memories. The forest floor was covered by a layer of ferns and bright green vegetation. From the size of the trees I would estimate that they were at least 400 – 500 years old, Redwoods and Douglas firs mostly but the most outstanding feature of the forest floor was the complete chaos of fallen trees and the imminent decay that subsequently unfolded after the death of the tree. The trail followed the Skagit river and was very humid, the trees retaining all the moisture from the river and even though it wasn’t very hot I was soaked in sweat. 

And through this chaos wove the trail, sometimes it would close in and only the pink trail markers were the only indication that a trail even existed but mostly the trail was well maintained and cleared. Now, supposedly the trail is maintained by the park officials but I was convinced that this was really the work of the Ents, for not only do they look after the trees but they also make for the passage of men. This surely must be Middle Earth and this must be Fangorn Forest. Surely the Elves must be here too and it wouldn’t be too long before I saw one, and I was convinced they would come to my rescue should I actually get to meet a bear …… or worse, the killer mosquitoes!

Now, for pretty much all this time I had actually been running and I hadn’t quite appreciated that the mosquitoes were out looking for easy meat. As you are running, the body movements actually make it difficult for them to land and so you don’t actually get bitten much. But when you meet a steep uphill that is another story. Shortly after leaving the check point at the 81 km point there is a steep uphill for 13 kms where you gain 1500M. This is powerwalking territory and this is where the mosquitoes attack! For the most part I managed to keep them at bay by waving my arms around my body but then I had to take a leak.

Now, when you are taking a leak and you have a certain piece of extremely sensitive and valuable flesh exposed there isn’t anything in the whole world that you wouldn’t do to protect that piece of flesh. The thought of just one killer mosquito getting through your body defenses and biting that most sensitive of body parts means that all personal defenses are redirected in that area, leaving all others horribly exposed. You have one hand holding it still so that you don’t dribble all over your legs and the other is waving and swiping madly at the air trying to ward off the little savage flying biting animals. And believe me, the mosquitos take full advantage of this and within a mater of seconds you have several hundred of the little beasts chomping away on anything they can get their teeth into. I mean, they even entered my mouth and flew up my nose. I was wearing a thin shirt and this was simply not enough of a defense and they proceeded to bite me all over my back and shoulders. If it wasn’t so utterly unpleasant I would have marveled at the supreme coordination skill of these little insect assassins, waiting for the perfect moment and then launching a beautifully coordinated attack as though they were on a military raid deep into foreign territory when the enemy was preoccupied with other business. Just where were those bloody elves when you needed them?

The only remaining defense was to get out the Goretex jacket. I was already sweating profusely due to the virtually 100% humidity in the forest and putting the jacket on, zipping it up, hood included which just added to the extreme dampness of the whole situation but at least it kept the mosquitoes out. The climb carried on and at about 1500M the temperatures started to drop rapidly and it was evident that the mosquitoes couldn’t handle it. At this point I came across an aid station in the middle of nowhere that was playing the blues. Awesome!! At 1800M the mossis were no longer a problem and I took off the jacket and changed the shirt for a dry one that I had in the bag. At 2000M there was a gentle breeze blowing and it was the most wonderful sensation you could possibly imagine blowing in my face as the crest of the trail was reached, rising briefly above the tree line and giving rise to some spectacular views of the glaciers on the side of Frosty mountain, doused in the last timid light of day before nightfall. I passed a check point perched on the mountainside where a guy called Peter (The co-director) handed me some more Pringles and the energy surged again. Pringles work pretty well you know as fuel.

The trail followed the Skyline ridge with a few steep rather technical sections in between but as it was dark I couldn’t see the distance of the fall to the ground which may have been a good thing but I was actually a little disappointed as I could imagine that the view must have been absolutely spectacular. As it was, all I could see were shadows and I had to image it. That is when I thought that I should have run just a little faster so I could have seen it all in day light.

The final descent to Lightning Lake and the finish line was the most perfect trail you could possibly imagine The trail rapidly came into the tree line and the stars disappeared. It was all downhill and not too steep, covered with a fine carpet of pine needles which meant that it was supremely runnable to which I turned the headlamp on full and simply took off all the brakes and let myself fall with gravity along this most wonderful of trails. The lights that were following me disappeared and I was on my own running in the blackness of the forest.

When I saw the finish line I was actually a little disappointed. I was enjoying myself so much in this savage remote forest that I didn’t want it to end. I had connected to my soul and I had flowed through the trail as well as I could possibly have hoped for and felt at complete peace as I did, the solitude and remoteness of the trail was simply awesome. I can safely say that it was simply one of the most enjoyable runs I have experienced in a very long time. Just a shame I didn’t see a bear, that would have made it perfect!


I set out to run a lively run and not try to race at all. The objective was to use the event as a quality training run for the Spartathlon in a months’ time and I think I did just that. I did the 114 kms and the 4000M of climbing in just under 18 hours. Most of the trail was really quite runnable, on well-maintained trails interspersed with steep up hills linked with some quite technical sections. The organization was impeccable and did exactly what it said it would. The volunteers and race staff were really, really friendly and generated a magnificent family atmosphere. 

The event is an absolute gem, but be aware, this race is seriously remote and I would recommend it only for people that are comfortable with being on their own, for long extended periods of time in a remote setting in the middle of the mountains in bear country. If anything goes wrong you really are on your own and you have to know how to deal with it. Personally this is exactly what I was looking for, the exact opposite of my last race, the Badwater where you even have a crew following you all the time. I would have loved to have seen a bear but I didn’t. I saw deer, squirrels, ground squirrels, masses of different birds and thousands of mosquitoes but no bears. I believe they are there and maybe I will have to come back just to find one. That would be really cool!

Would I recommend this race to other Europeans?, …… it is a long way to travel. Absolutely!!!


  1. Great post. I did the 120 this year and sounds like you need to come back and give it a go. Think, more chances to see bears! I'd love to do Badwater and Spartathlon and look forward to reading your write-up about it! Good luck.

    1. The 120 looked even more awesome ....maybe some time in the future. Cheers!!

  2. Mark, it was great to meet you and your wife that day when Randy, Lori and I were doing race preparations and to be able to talk about ultra running.

    I do think that you should come back to do the 120 miles and bring some of your friends for what you already know as a spectacular event in a fabulous location. I also think that you will be more comfortable running in the wild next time and not worry about the bears.

    Good luck at Spartahlon!

    1. Hahaha... I wasn't worried bout the bears but that wouldn't have made a for a good story would it :) ... back for the 120?? Don't know. I'll probably be in the Himalayas next summer for a 333 km non stop race called The High but maybe some year after that... Great to meet you

  3. Nice to know you're alive and running, Mark! Now I would worry about grizzlies. At least I don't have to worry about bears out on the high seas and Orcas, Sperm and the like are pretty mild really, the real problem is dropping off a big wave in a RIB as 4 of my front teeth found out last year!