I pride myself on being fit. I steadily run my 10.5K twice a week. I work out. I eat well. I usually nurture dreams of grandeur and think no reasonable challenge is a match for my stamina. I’m almost my own hero. And today, at the apogee of my illusions, I hit a brick wall on a trail. Or rather, the trail hit me with everything it had and left me to struggle my way back through the deep puddle of my arrogance like a crippled invalid.
My three-and-a-half most cherished readers might recall that I went last week-end on a recon’ of Lynn Headwaters Regional Park. Assessing it from the bottom end, much like one road-tests a sports car by sitting in the left seat at the dealer’s and running a loving, greedy hand on the leather interior, I had decided the area had strong potential for trail running. I stood by the park map for a long while and since I had done the run from Lynn across the mountain to Deep Cove in the past, I opted for the opposite direction. I would aim towards Grouse. Then a glimpse of genius made me elect to run downhill instead, from Grouse to Headwaters, since it was my first attempt. It saved my butt. The opposite decision, given the circumstances, might have cost me a very embarrassing lot more. I sh*t you not.
So I get up this morning, in top shape, around 8:00 am. The weather has turned out to be cloudier than expected and I take my time leaving home since the heat won’t be so much of an issue. I make myself a tall coffee and, having had a cereal bowl during the night – I had a craving – completely forget to have breakfast. Absentmindedly contemplating my bi-weekly run around Stanley Park on which I carry no food nor water, and because today’s trail is slightly (!) longer at 14 km, I decide to bring a banana, an energy gel and my camelback water pouch, which I will fill up at the chalet before getting under way. And I completely forget to drink any water.
When I arrive at the top of Grouse on the Red Skyride around 11:15 am, the place is already packed. An uninterrupted line of weekend braves irrupts from the Grind – why they choose to do it on a Saturday at noon, staring at someone’s bottom up close all the way up, is beyond me. I feel great thinking that I’m headed the opposite way, into the wilderness. I eat my banana to celebrate and fill up the camelback from the washrooms’ faucet, and because of the location of my water source, only drink a few sips of water from the tap itself, and then I head for the trailhead after tightening my shoe laces.
When I start my stopwatch at the bottom of the actual Grouse Mountain, it’s 11:37 am. I walk uphill for 5 minutes to warm up further and then break into an easy run. The last time I had done this stretch after climbing the Grind, years ago, there was snow on the path and running was difficult. But today I feel strong and the road is clean. I’ve brought the G3 camera in a belt pouch and intend to take snapshots of the run. I have a plan. A map. A small folding pocket knife. A cell phone that will have temporary reception. Money, ID, bus pass. A gel. Water. I’ve left an itinerary and ETA with Marie.
I usually don’t try to run up the steepest section of a trail run I’ve never done before. Back in the Beloeil days, I could run all the way to the Pain de Sucre, but I had done the trail so many times I knew exactly how and when to pace. Today, I’ll run the flat parts, the safe descending ones and reasonable uphills. I’ll walk the rest. The map has revealed a very rugged trail. First, I must work my way over and around the succession of small peaks lined up behind Grouse. There’s Dam Mountain, Little and main Goat, and Crown in front of which I will cut south. The trail is narrow and very uneven, definitely not a good running trail. Muddy patches soon appear, reminder that even at the end of August, the snow isn’t long gone. I was so eager to leave the crowd behind that I only remember a half hour into the run to send my departure text message. It’s noon.
My pompous plan and best estimate is that it should take me about 45 minutes to get to Crown Pass, another 15 to 30 minutes to negotiate the steep rock slide down the pass, and I’d be left with maybe an hour or an hour and a half of running down Hanes Valley and south along Lynn Creek. I’ve estimated Time On Trail to 2 to 4 hours. I’m secretly hoping for 2:30.
The first bad surprise happens as I reach the slope leading down to the pass; I had hoped for a gentle incline but a more careful study of the map confirms a spectacular drop. It turns out to be so steep that not only is it not runnable, but there are metal chains running down the muddy rocky path and I spend way more time negotiating my way to the pass then I wanted.
At Crown Pass, I get a glance of Howe Sound but the best view is towards the east down the valley I’m headed into. I keep snapping pictures of my progress. It’s 12:30. The knees are doing great, so is the overall shape. I realize I haven’t had any water yet and suck a few sips through the plastic tube. It tastes bad despite the careful wash I gave the camelback last night.
The rock slide too soon becomes a major obstacle to my run. Its boulders are unsteady and the path leads practically straight down, not a very smart way to draw such a vertical trail. I give up on running and try to keep a steady rhythm down while avoiding loose rocks and without sending them rolling down the slope, which I’ve always considered messy and dangerous. I’m having to take deep steps down and the thighs are working very hard. I pass a few people going up and exchange ritual mountain courtesies. I pity them, the hard part is still above them. A man tells me to watch out for the lower third of the slope where, he says, a recent landslide has brought a fresh cover of stones over un-melted snow, making the larger boulders unstable.
Towards the bottom, I pass a helipad and stop briefly to take an upward picture. I’m glad to be through the slide and the rocks. The ground has flattened out a little and becomes runnable again. I’m getting tired but figure the worse is over. I should now be able to run till the end. It’s 1:00 pm. My energy level feels low so I reach for the gel and swallow it down with some water while running carefully.
The trail now follows Hanes Creek from above and the sound of water is everywhere. Many smaller streams come down from the left slope and I have to slow to a halt in order to cross them. The map mentionned that they would not be passable after heavy rains; thank god it hasn’t rained much lately. I’m sweating heavily under the thick cover of trees despite only a very shy sun above the canopy. Time is slipping fast and this section is beginning to take longer than expected. I have to start reevaluating my timing. I should have found Norvan Falls already.
Then I get to a much larger river crossing and even though I can’t see a waterfall, I assume I’ve reached the point where I must cross the creek and angle south. The map, however, showed a bridge. I see none. The creek is flowing quite strongly and I lose precious time looking for a crossing. There’s a large tree trunk thrown across the gashing water and I attempt to cross there. That’s when I notice that my legs are very shaky. The simple task of balancing myself to the other side proves incredibly difficult and I slip off the tree, slightly hurting both my shoulder muscles in the short fall to big rocks below. The wood is wet and slippery. I decide to find another way to cross. Fifteen minutes later, I’m still on the western flank of the creek hesitating. This is not like me. I finally choose the narrowest and least exposed gap to jump over, knowing that I will land into a few inches of water and get my shoes wet, but that’s the best I can do.
It’s around 1:45 pm. I’ve been going for 2 hours. I think I still have half way to go. I climb the steep opposite bank and begin running again, wet and suddenly quite tired and shaken. After 10 minutes, I have to slow down to a walk, feeling empty. This is not looking good. My energy level should be much higher and the last part of the trail should be easy to run.
A large metal suspended bridge appears in front of me. I understand the previous crossing probably was Lynn Creek. I am now finally in the vicinity of Norvan Falls. But I feel so le tired that I don’t even look for them, snapping a single shot of the bridge. It’s now past two o’clock. A sign on the other side points towards the south. It reads: “Parking lot. 7 km. Allow 2:30 hrs.” I suddenly feel completely exhausted. My head is spinning, my breath short even on flat terrain and I’m getting nauseous. A fierce reality is taking shape: I will not be able to run down. I’m likely going to bust my ETA. I’ll be happy to make it out the trail period.
I start walking slowly, amazed by the speed at which my remaining power has suddenly drained. The insignificant weight of the mostly empty camelback is incredibly cumbersome and I have to take the camera belt off to relieve stomach cramps. Then my legs start cramping too.
The next hour and forty-five will be, incredibly, a nightmare. I’ve completely given up on taking pictures. The only accurate way to describe my condition is a collapse. I’ve heard of marathon runners having this kind of completely debilitating episode and having to give up. Except I haven’t ran a marathon. My mind is working very slowly and the world around me goes by in a haze. I have absolutely no power of concentration and can’t focus on details. The thought crosses my confused brain that I must be completely dehydrated, but I have been sipping on my water at regular intervals. I must also be starved. I wonder about blood pressure. I’m not sure. I don’t really want to throw up because it would only empty my stomach even more and waste precious energy I must save to move forward. I am puzzled to be having such a hard time in such a friendly and green environment. Around me, no harsh sand dunes nor frozen Arctic ice. I’m surrounded by a lush and humid temperature rainforest.
I have to stop and sit regularly, unable to keep moving downhill on the path that is now large and easy. But sitting down doesn’t help and my breathing remains erratic, and what’s worse, my legs instantly want to cramp up badly. I’m not talking about the regular calf twitch I’ll eventually experience running on the Seawall. These are full-fledged cramps, starting high on the thighs and dashing all the way down to my ankles. The left side almost gets out of hands a couple of times and I only get it back under control my standing up and resuming my slow walk. I must be moving like an old man, unsteadily and hunched forward, hands on my hips as it seems to help with breathing. But I can’t really slow down because I must be on time for my arrival report. This is my fault and I won’t cause unnecessary worries if I can help it.
Many times, as people approach in the opposite direction, I prepare myself to ask them for energy food, but at the last second, pride prevails and I manage a few more steps towards the end of this trial. I can only remember feeling such extreme physical distress twice in my life. The first one was during my early days of high altitude mountain climbing when I was 14, in the Meije massif. The second was many years later, in the Costa Rican jungle. I had gone on a walk and misjudged the heat and humidity, and become highly dehydrated. I now recognize the symptoms. Extreme fatigue, dizziness, nausea, short breath. At least that’s what I’m thinking.
When I finally make it to the parking lot, I’m too weak to even rejoice. It’s taken four and a half hours. I run into a couple of guys I’d met at the top of the pass and beg them for a ride to civilization so that I can catch a cab. I have no intention of waiting for a bus and handling transfers and people. I can barely stand. They drop me off at a gas station in North Van and I ask the attendant to call me a cab, which he does immediately, pointing me to a chair. I must look comically horrible. There’s mud up to me knees and blood on one of my hands, from a sharp tree branch. I buy a Gatorade but barely manage to drink half of it. Thirst, surprisingly, has never kicked in.
The cab takes me back all the way home through light traffic. I open my door and can’t believe the shape I’m in, even though it’s already coming back very fast, probably from resting on the car ride. Je jure, once more, que l’on ne m’y prendra plus.
In retrospect, I made two serious mistakes. I didn’t have a healthy breakfast, and didn’t super-hydrate. My last liquid went back to the night before. Coffee doesn’t count. I had my last food back in the middle of the night. Later, a banana and a gel couldn’t compete. Why I didn’t think of all this, I just couldn’t say. I was probably lured into complacency by the easy rhythm of my regular runs.
A sign on the park map and board says “Be prepared!”
I was. But I wasn’t. And I met my Waterloo. Get it? ;-)
“Next to a battle lost, the greatest misery is a battle won.”Source unkown
“The loss of the battle of Waterloo was the salvation of France.”Thomas Jefferson