Fat Dog 120 mile DNF: A story of both defeat and new inspiration

[By Karl Woll] Fat Dog 120 officially broke me, physically and mentally. For the first time in 55 races over the 5 years I’ve been running, I towed the start line of a race and was unable to drag my sorry ass over the finish line. I had met my match, and I posted my first DNF. As disappointing and upsetting as it was to walk off the course defeated and missing my goal race for the year, there were a lot of amazing things about the three-day experience too.

Jeff Pelletier (L) and author Karl Woll (R)

Jeff Pelletier (L) and author Karl Woll (R)

Some positive takeaways and random thoughts:

1) Being in a thunderstorm, for 4 hours, soaking wet and freezing cold, at altitude, in the mountains, marching up an exposed ridge, into the very clouds that are producing the lightning striking all around you, is some scary-ass sh*t that will make you question some decisions in your life.

2) After being in the storm on day one for 3 hours, cold and wet, descending the ridge with lightning crashing all around – I came across a bag of half-eaten chips which had fallen from someone’s pack. Going for karma points, I scooped up the litter as I ran by. As I had thrown my softshell on over my hydration pack, I had no readily available pockets to stuff the chips. It took me all of 30 seconds to realize I was just going to eat the damn things. Problem is, I was so cold, and my arm was shaking so much, all I could do was throw handfuls of the stupid chips in the general direction of my gaping mouth with about a 50% success rate.

Photo: Karl Woll

Photo: Karl Woll

3) Supportive friends make all the difference! Solana Klassen, Jay Klassen and Lisa Oswald Coates – You guys are amazing for being out there to support me attempting this crazy

Photo: Solana Klassen

Photo: Solana Klassen

event. All your help with pre-race logistics, crewing at aid stations, stuffing pizza down my gullet, making me laugh, laughing at my expense, Jay running with me through that gawd-awful night time ascent to Heather, and all the way back down to Cayuse Flats at an agonizing 2km/hr, and all the support and help after my body was broken down and I could hardly walk or think… Thank you! I would not have made it as far as I did without your help and it would have been a lot less fun.

4) Hotel Hypothermia – The Heather aid station was ridonkulous. My bonk started on the ascent to Heather with Jay around midnight. Jeff Pelletier, after taking his 9 mile detour, caught up to us and threw me a caffeine pill, which helped with my tiredness, but the bonk was coming in a big way. If the rain and cold wasn’t bad enough, as we entered the exposed section of the ridge towards Heather aid, gale force winds added a nice final ‘eff-you’ to the evening. I was so tired, I knew I needed a power nap, but didn’t see how it would be possible on this ridge in those conditions, or how they would even have an aid station set up without being blown away.

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Photo: Karl Woll

I later found out they nearly called the race off because the volunteers nearly couldn’t set up. Somehow, they managed, and Jay and I pulled in to see about a dozen people hunkered down trying to stay warm wrapped in space blankets. Some were in good spirits, laughing at the situation. Others, like me, were so cold and miserable and nearly hypothermic that nothing about the situation seemed humorous. Amazingly there was a sleeping pad against the wall of the tarp-shelter and I laid down. Wearing a technical shirt, merino wool long-sleeve, softshell, hardshell, space blanket, toque, gloves, leggings and shorts, I was still shivering cold. I shut my eyes just hoping to drift off for a few minutes enough for my brain to start functioning again. I drifted in and out of a few quick bouts of sleep, awaking anytime someone new arrived at the aid station giddy with the excitement of finding shelter.

Upon gearing up and checking out of the aid station at 3am I asked how long I had been there. The volunteer looked at my check-in time, did the math, and told me we had been there 50 minutes!! I would have guessed 20. Back out into the wind and rain it was, for a long, slow, painful descent to my drop out point which would take about another 10 hours to cover a measly 30km. To the volunteers at Heather – you guys are life-savers!!

Photo: Solana Klassen

Photo: Solana Klassen

5) The hallucinations started in the morning of day two. Completely shattered, barely able to walk the pace of a 90-year old man for hour after hour after hour, we finally made it to within 2 km of the Cayuse aid station – where I knew my day would mercifully be over. I told Jay to run ahead to track down Solana and Lisa. In what Jay ran in probably 12 minutes, would take me another full hour of painful slogging on busted legs and spirit. So desperate to end this experience, I started seeing man-made structures in the forest. Little cabins, that would turn out to be trees. Or through the trees, I’d see a road in the distance with a car – must be the aid station! Nope, just trees. The most cruel was cresting a section of the double-track trail near Cayuse I saw two heads and some cars at the top of the trail. I was sure one of them was even Solana waiting for me! I even looked carefully to make sure it wasn’t another hallucination… crest the hill… surely this day is over!! Damnit.. Just trees again….

Photo: Facebook

Photo: Facebook

6) Finally approaching the final few hundred meters to Cayuse another broken runner came up behind me and we chatted for a while. She was done, too, she said. She just had to figure out how to tell her crew at Cascades. After getting to Cayuse, she decided she could muster the next 7km to Cascades where her crew was and she would drop there. I said goodbye, and off she plodded.

7) I learned that I can show up to the start line of a 50 km or even 50 mile race well under-trained, and fight through the pain to get across the finish line. This is not the case with 100+ mile races like Fat Dog. There is no faking it, you have to put in the training (or at least I do).

8) It was my first DNF, but also my longest day in both time (27.5 hours) and distance (118km) – that ain’t so bad.

Being at the finish line with so many amazing people – runners, crew, friends, family, organizers and volunteers, it was pretty hard to stay feeling deflated.  The next morning at the start line as we were watching the final runners come in: the very last one taking a total 47 hours and 57 minutes…. Simply amazing and inspiring! I’ll never forget that.

Photo: Karl Woll

Photo: Karl Woll

Will I go back? Descending from Heather, I asked myself this question and swore I wouldn’t. No way no how. I swore I wouldn’t even attempt another 100 miler of any sort. I told myself don’t have the time to train and that I just don’t have it in me to do that distance. However, the next day after being rescued by my crew and having some sleep and food, I couldn’t help but watch the runners come across the finish line to receive their buckles and feel like I have some unfinished business up there in Manning Park. Thank you Peter Watson and all the race organizers and volunteers. Fat Dog 120 is something pretty special. Fat Dog,

The Fat Dog Trail Race takes place in the mountains of Manning Park Provincial Park, a 3 hour drive east of Vancouver, British Columbia. If you don’t want to commit to the full 120-mile ultramarathon, it also offers distances of 70 miles, 50 miles, and 40 miles, as well as a relay. Be warned, it’s a bit hilly. This from the Fat Dog Trail Race website: “How difficult is the 120 mile? Just short of Everest for elevation gain. Fat Dog 120 mile is 8672.7 m, Everest 8848 m.” 2016 race dates are August 12-14. Karl won’t be there – but he says “Maybe next year.”