Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Athlete's Corner: Chris Jones wins Knee Knacker 2015

Race Report and Interview

Chris finished in 1st place, 4h51:34

When: Saturday July 11, 2015, 6am start
Where: Vancouver’s North Shore Mountains from Horseshoe Bay to Deep Cove
Distance/Elevation: 30 miles, 16,000 feet of vertical climb and descent
Time limit: 10 hours
No participants: 200 max (by lottery)
Full race results: (here)

About Chris

Years trail running: 2.5
Favourite race you’ve done: Tough to say. Every race offers something unique and memorable. It was amazing to win the Knee Knacker on home soil.

Race you’d some day want to do: Hardrock 100 or UTMB

Worst ever decision made in a race: Eating a PPJ sandwich at 25km during my first 50km. It came back up as quickly as it went down.

Three things you’d never race without: I’m constantly experimenting and trying new things out but what’s been working recently is a fresh pair of shoes, shorts with pockets to hold my goodies, and a trustworthy hat.

Go-to recovery treat: A nice Belgian beer.

Favourite trail/area to train on: I spend a lot of time on Baden Powell, Mountain Highway and surrounding mountain bike trails. Fisherman’s trail along the Seymour river is another favorite for recovery runs. Cypress is also an amazing playground with a ton of hidden gems.

Do you have a coach? Self-coached

Max weekly mileage: I typically train low milage high intensity; 70 - 90km / week for a 50km race with a focus on vertical, intensity and time on feet.

Something people may not know about you: Before running I was equally as obsessed with skiing and competed in halfpipe and slopestyle.

Chris in his Slopestyle days. Photo by Walrus Design (2009)

Chloé: You are a relatively newcomer to the ultra-trail running scene – though already with several wins and top placings in highly competitive events such as the Squamish50 and DiezVista50. What is your background and how did you get into trail running?

Chris: I was never a runner growing up. As a kid the closest thing to running I ever did was take a few laps during soccer practice when I irritated my coach. I played soccer until 18 but my real passion was always skiing in the winter and mountain biking in the summer. I skied at a locally competitive level in halfpipe and slopestyle from 2003 to 2006. A few too many concussions steered me away from the terrain park and into powder which is where I choose to spend my time on hill these days. In the summers I substituted skiing with downhill mountain biking on the North Shore. I credit my years biking with my comfort running fast down technical terrain. I still ski but find myself biking less and less these days as I focus more on running.

In early 2013 Connor Meakin and I started running the False Creek Seawall together before work to get in shape. Those morning runs snowballed into us running the Bagel Chase, the Sun Run, and then the BMO Marathon. In July of that year Connor convinced me to sign up for our first trail run, the Grey Rock 50km in Yakima, Washington, where we tied for 4th place. I haven’t looked back since.

A happy finish for Chris. Dianna Christopoulos looking on.

About the race

Chloé: Coming off your recent Sun Mountain 50K win (3h54:56), how were you feeling going into Knee Knacker? Any special preparation leading up to race day?

Chris: I felt confident coming out of Sun Mountain but knew I had a lot of work to do if I wanted to be competitive at Knee Knacker. Sun Mountain is a very fast, smooth and runnable course… so completely different from KK. I knew I had to switch my focus from moving fast to moving efficiently over varied terrain.

I like to think I’m a strong downhiller and technical runner but my weakness is definitely in climbing. During Sun Mountain I would fall behind on climbs but make it up on the descents. With 2400+ meters of climbing in Knee Knacker (and 1000m in the first quarter) I knew where I needed to focus my training.
The recovery from Sun Mountain took a bit longer than anticipated but I stayed patient and resumed focused workouts 2 weeks after the race. I made a point of running nearly every run over the next 7 weeks on the Knee Knacker course, with a few adventure runs thrown in to keep me sane. My workouts mainly consisted of longer intervals (8 - 10 minutes), long steady climbs, and fast downhill running over technical terrain. I also mixed in some longer hiking days to build strength and take a break from Baden Powell. A few key runs in the lead-up to Knee Knacker were a 5 hour loop above Lions Bay with 2100m+ of elevation gain over 22km (Mt Brunswick summit to HSCT and down the Binkert trail) and a great (but hot) weekend of back-to-back 3 hour out-and-backs over the first quarter and last quarter of the course.

Over the last 3 years of running I’ve struggled with a lot of injuries and have been sidelined from a number races. This year I was planning to link Diez Vista, Knee Knacker, and SQ50 for an epic local season, but was unable to start Diez Vista with a lingering left ankle issue. That said, I was really worried when 3 weeks before Knee Knacker I developed a sharp stabbing pain on the inside of my right ankle. I took 4 days off before I found the culprit muscle in my arch that was causing the problem. A few solid days of self massage loosened it up and my ankle was good to go.

Chloé: Was this a goal race? What were your key objectives and strategies for this run?

Chris: This was definitely a goal race but with a lot of unknowns. This was my first Knee Knacker and I’d heard a lot about people blowing up on their first go at the race. I went in focused on going under 5 hours and not really worrying about how I placed. I find that focusing on placing keeps me from running for myself. If I was running under 5 hours I figured I’d be in a good position and could push for placing later in the race.

I knew some of the splits I wanted to hit based on Gary Robbins’ success in 2013 and specifically the excellent post he wrote on the race. I have to thank Gary for his invaluable advice: “Come over the top just a few minutes faster than you physically should and you'll suffer the consequences all day long, come over the top a few minutes slower than you should and you'll be playing catch up all day long.”
My goal was to make it to Cypress in 1:20 and to feel fresh in order to stay in the mix. From there I knew I had to play my strengths by running within myself on the climbs and hammering the technical descents. From Cypress I wanted to make Cleveland Dam by 2:20. I didn’t have goal splits from the Dam to the finish because I didn’t want to feel discouraged if I missed something. I wasn’t running for the course record so I only focused on feeling fresh by LSCR and ready hammer it home for a sub 5 hour finish from there.

As for race day essentials, I planned to wear a fresh pair of Pearl Izumi N1s from Distance Runwear. For nutrition I planned on going with gels and coke later in the race. I don’t mind PowerGel Vanilla so the plan was to stick to that every 30mins and to take more frequently if needed towards the end. I wanted to feel light and quick so opted for 1 handheld water bottle instead of a vest.

I can’t thank my girlfriend Stephanie enough for being there and crewing. The plan was for her to be at Cypress, Cleveland Dam, and LSCR, ready to swap my water bottle and top up my gel stash.

On a hike with his girlfriend Stephanie Johannessen (2014)

Chloé: How did it go?

Chris: This year was set to be a battle royale with what looked to be one of the most competitive Knee Knackers in recent history. I was hoping to lay it all out there with some of the best runners on the West Coast. It was quite disappointing to hear that the defending champ, Mike Murphy, had to drop early and that Maxwell Ferguson and Jeremy Clegg didn’t start. I ended up toeing the line with Mike, Ed McCarthy, and Oliver Utting. Needless to say I felt intimidated by the combined experience and talent of those three.

The race started out easier than anticipated but I was comfortable to slot in behind Ed, Mike and Oliver and cruise up towards White Lake. I passed Mike and Oliver and moved into 2nd just before White Lake but watched as Ed took off the front of the pack. I stayed within myself on the way up to Eagle Bluffs, going over my motto for the day “play your strengths”. I glanced back occasionally but didn’t see anyone behind. When I crested Eagle Bluffs I was surprised to see Michael McMillan close behind me. I made a bit of a push up to Black Mountain and didn’t see Michael again.

Nick Elson and the Black Sabbath Mountain crew were a welcome relief. I grabbed a quick swig of water and pushed over the top of Black. Knowing now that Ed was only 4 minutes ahead and that I was feeling fresh I ran quickly down to Cypress Bowl and hit my goal split of 1:20. I ditched my shirt as I was feeling pretty warm despite the cool weather and mist. Steph handed me a fresh water bottle and a few gels and I was out.

From Cypress to Capilano Dam I pushed fairly hard and ran a 58:25 split putting me in at 2:19. Capilano Dam was a highlight for me. I felt a huge rush seeing my parents and friends for the first time. Adam Harris gave me an update on how Ed was looking and we discussed my strategy over the next section to LSCR.

Running up Nancy Greene I started to feel my legs a bit. The next climb before descending to Skyline wasn’t pretty but I stayed controlled, took it easy and hiked, conserving energy for the descent. I thought I lost a lot of ground to Ed over this section but at Skyline was told he was only 3 minutes ahead. I felt confident that I was racing smart. Skyline to LSCR was as I expected it to be. I ran relaxed and steady into LSCR.

From LSCR my goal was to hammer home to the finish line. That didn’t quite happen. I ran hard out of LSCR but quickly realized that there was a good chance of a blow-up if I powered up the last two climbs as hard as I planned to. Climbing up to Lillooet Road I started thinking about my race so far and the idea of running it in easy for second place sounded nice. I didn’t want to kill myself trying to close a gap on Ed that hadn’t really budged all day. I knew that getting to the top of the Seymour Grind in good shape would give me a solid chance at closing strong. I decided to keep running within myself and moved steadily to the toga party that was Hyannis aid station. I want to say a huge thank you to the volunteers that made this race possible. Hyannis and all the other aid stations made my day really enjoyable.

The slow steady incline to the base of Seymour Grind taunted me. It was steep enough to test my tired legs but not steep enough to warrant walking. I grunted it out and welcomed the idea of switching gears to a hike up the Grind. Hands on knees, I hiked the whole Grind, even opting to walk sections between switchbacks I would normally run. I again told myself to play my strengths and came to the top of the Grind feeling relatively fresh and ready to hammer home. The thought of catching Ed briefly crossed my mind but I didn’t entertain the thought.

I pushed the downhill hard, filled up quickly with ice water at Mt Seymour road and kept pushing. Just after crossing Indian River road I saw the neon yellow swoosh of Ed’s shirt 100 meters down the trail. “Damnit” I thought, “now I have to run hard”... There was a quick internal debate about how deep I was  willing to go into the pain cave but I thought about my friends and family who had been out all day cheering me on. The only thing I could do was push.

I locked in on Ed and ran within 50 meters of him, slowed a bit to match his pace and realized he must be hurting. I quickly tossed back a gel and made the decision to go for it. Just as I caught him I asked jokingly if he wanted to run it in together. I have nothing but respect for Ed. Knowing his blazing fast road times and how he crushed me at Diez Vista last year by 30 minutes, I was secretly hoping he would say yes to a tie. A battle over the next 3km from Quarry Rock to the finish line would be carnage. He politely declined saying he thought he went out too hard. I knew, unfortunately, he was done. I pushed past and never looked back.

As I jumped from root to root politely asking (yelling at) Quarry Rock hikers to get out of the way, the idea that I was about to win the Knee Knacker crept into my head. I didn’t entertain the thought for long as I knew I still had 2 highly technical kilometers to make it through unscathed. The final sea of roots quickly turned to steps and then pavement. I knew I had this one in the bag. Coming down the finish line chute to Panorama Park was something I’ll never forget.

Chris running 8h10:48 at SQ50 mi. Photo by Brian McCurdy (2014)

Where next to see Chris

Chloé: You are registered for the SQ50(mile) and also your first 100K in October … what are your hopes for those races?

Chris: Last year the SQ50 mile was an incredible race for me. It was my first 50 mile so I ran conservatively and finished with a lot left over, but knew there were things I could improve upon. I’ll be focusing on long steady climbs and hard intervals over the next few weeks in the hopes of bringing my time under 8 hours. 

Cuyamaca 100k should be interesting. The race is in San Diego and only 6 weeks after SQ50. It has 3300m elevation gain over 100km which makes it seem pretty runnable on paper. I imagine it will be similar to Sun Mountain only twice the distance. I have some ideas around what I’d like to do there but it really depends on my recovery from SQ50. The race also happens to be a Western States qualifier… so there’s that.

With Ed McCarthy (2dn place). Photo by Chloé

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