Tackling the Grouse Grind once is enough for most people. The Grind is a 2.9km trail ascending 810 vertical meters along the steep forest of North Vancouver’s Grouse Mountain. The Grind is a challenging workout not a scenic hike. The trail is a combination of rocky stairs with some constructed wooden stairs in places to help make a safer trail and better experience for trail users during peak periods. Locals refer to the trail as Mother Nature’s Stairmaster and annually, over 150,000 people hike the trail, with most catching the gondola back down to the car park at the start.
Since living in Vancouver on and off from 2017, I found joy more in being isolated in the technical and stunning back-country. I wouldn't really venture to the Grind often, but I would soon learn there is a thriving community behind this trail. Some people climb the grind daily, some even multiple times. They are all considered mad by everyone else in this city! Only two months ago, I had never climbed it more than once in a day either.
In 2015, I visited Vancouver for the first time on my way through to a short racing season in Europe. Having seen the fastest times on Strava, my goal was to get into the Top 10 on the "Grind Leaderboard" on the site and go under 30 minutes. I managed a 29:35 effort, still my fastest ever time.
Fast forward four years, I am certainly not in the shape I was in 2015, with a current grind personal best hovering around 35 minutes after taking most of the winter to refresh and focus more on strength training and skiing. I realised I had a lot of work to do in a short space of time.
My overall goal for summer 2019 was to ramp up my overall endurance and be ready for three months of car camping in Europe. The idea is to be able to enjoy long days in the mountains and further my adventure photography, covering more areas of the alps where I have yet to visit. The fitter I am, the more I can see in a day, and the faster I can recover, so I can do multiple back-to-back days.
I was strongly considering focusing my training solely on getting back to sub-30 Grind fitness, but that wouldn’t really prepare me for the longer days in the alps. I had heard previously about this crazy Multi-Grind challenge where people climb it over and over again in one day, on the longest day of the year. The record was 17 times in one day. I felt it was an absurd amount, out of reach for me, and something I probably didn't want to endure. For some reason, it lingered in the back of my mind.
I have only ever raced short distance vertical races and some medium distance marathon length trail races, but I had never done an ultra endurance event before. It was a scratch I wanted to itch one day, just to see how I could perform under the demands of an ultra endurance event. I was concerned it would over-fatigue me, which could certainly derail my summer, so I had to carefully plan and manage my approach. My past results in the 5-hour range indicated I was possibly better suited to longer endurance events, so I decided I would use the Multi Grind as a way to get endurance fit, step into the unknown.
My main goal was to go for 11 and get the elevation gain of sea level to Everest in one-day, a concept in the running and cycling world known as “Everesting.” It seemed like an achievable goal given my background in mountain-based athletics, but I didn’t want to over-promise and under-deliver, thinking I could go near the record and then suffer a spectacular failure on the day. My biggest concern was whether my body—not my fitness—could endure the 18-19 hours of constant climbing.
So, I started preparing as best as I could and see what would happen on the day, giving myself permission to pull the plug at any time. For ultra events its not possible to train for the exact time, vertical or distance you will endure on race day, because you will go so deep into fatigue you may sabotage your chances. The goal in training is to progressively build your volume, so that you are ready to take a step up to a new level on race day. It means the race contains a lot of unknowns and risk, which is half the fun of participating in them because succeeding means accessing greater self-confidence in your ability and taking your fitness and self-belief to a new level.
Progressively stepping up volume is tricky business because you have to intelligently manage injury risk and fatigue. I felt the best course of action was to increase the number of grinds I could do in a day, while also ramping up my overall fitness (VO2 max) in the same time.
The best-case scenario would have seen me train for the Multi Grind with a 3-6 month build-up. However, I only had 10 weeks when I made the decision to go for it. In the end, my result was remarkable and something I could barely believe was possible for myself.
So, here is the training I did to achieve 18 grinds in one way in just ten weeks, breaking the previous record of 17, and falling one short of the new record of 19 set by Wilfrid Le Blanc on the same day. My level of training is not recommended for beginner or moderate level athletes, because I came into the ten-week block on the back of a strong "base level of fitness" from a decade of mountain running background. However, I want to share my journey and show how you can use a carefully structured training approach to achieve something you never thought you could do. If you want help to build a long-term base of fitness or develop a training approach for a goal you have in mind, please consider my coaching service.
The goal of this week was to get some time on my feet without risking injury or overexerting myself. Did my first Grind double, one close to max effort and a second one at 70% effort.
I consider 100% effort to be my current fitness level, determined by my time for a maximum effort Grind. At the start of this training block, my fitness was a 35-minute max effort on the Grind. So a 70% effort for me would be a 45-minute Grind.
Goal of the week was to increase time on my feet and begin to increase the volume of vertical ascent without too much fatigue. Progressed to four grinds in one day.
Goal of this week was to focus on recovery initially and then do back-to-back hard days. One session of 5 grinds in one day, followed by a long run the next day on tired legs to shock the body into developing greater strength endurance and stamina.
Following a hard vertical volume week, I switched focus to increasing fitness with VO2max conditioning. I performed two high intensity interval (HIIT) sessions with some low intensity hiking for recovery and climbing endurance.
The goal of this week was to increase the low intensity volume with two more conditioning drills. One focusing on short brief efforts, the other a slowly progressing one-hour effort to develop holding a harder effort. The past two weeks were effectively a mini-taper ready for a new fitness test and ramping up to even higher volume training.
The goal of this week was to re-establish a new fitness baseline with a max effort grind, and then follow with two more grinds on the same day to develop fatigue resistance. Then one conditioning drill and a long run with significant climbing volume to develop climbing endurance and leg strength. I didn’t do the 8 hours on the grind because descending also builds leg strength and highlights any biomechanical issues needing to be addressed. It was also mentally stimulating to do something different and more adventurous.
The goal of this week was focused on ramping up volume with two big days. The first day was 7 grinds in one day. I pre-fatigued the legs with a near max effort on the first grind, followed by two recovery ones and then four at the pace I would do on race day. I focused on learning how to pace the effort and what would work nutritionally on race day. Then I performed a HIIT session and a day with 3 grinds with varying fast and slow paces.
The goal of this week was to go for another fitness test max effort Grind and then finish the heavy volume with an 8 grind effort. I practiced nutrition strategies, assessed how my muscles were reacting to the increased volume (and where I needed to do muscle treatment), and different levels of effort on the long grind day to establish how I would approach the multi grind.
I decided the best strategy was a two-week taper of volume heading into the multigrind. My concern with tapering volume early, was I still needed to ensure my overall conditioning didn't become sluggish and my legs remained strong at climbing. I decided to race Seek the Peak, a 13km race with 1300m which also climbs the grind in the second half, as a conditioning effort only five days prior to the multi-grind to build fitness and strength endurance. Normally, racing so close to a big event is a big no-no but because this event would only take me 90 minutes, compared with a 19-hour event, I didn't feel it would deplete me at all. I personally knew my legs had enough time to recover optimally in 5-days.
With only five days between Seek the Peak and the Multi Grind the focus was on recovery and ensuring I kept blood flowing through the legs. Inexperienced people will tend to want to do nothing at all and recover completely, but I find I recover faster and better with active recovery.
I finished the Multi Grind in second place with 18 Grind’s to break past the old Grind record of 17. In the process I climbed 48kms with 14,640m vertical gain in 19 hours.
My legs never gave up on me and were strong and consistent all day allowing me to pace well with no drop offs in fatigue. There were no low points in energy, so I concluded the training plan was highly effective at developing my endurance despite never training more than 8 grinds in a day prior to the multi grind.
My times for each grind in the multi grind: 42', 47', 47', 47', 48', 46', 46', 46', 45', 47', 46', 47', 46', 46', 55', 51', 53', 70'.
I slowed purposively for the last four grinds because there was no chance to make the 10pm cut-off for a 19th grind. I felt at the time there was no point wasting energy to go faster and still end up with 18. In hindsight, I now wished I had continued the same pace through to the end just to demonstrate that I could have done it.
My advice to future multi-grinders is to phase a build-up as I did with volume and conditioning in a strategic structured way and pace each grind at 70% of your max effort Grind. This meant for me, with my fastest grind time lowered to 32-minutes, I was able to sustain 46-47 minute grind pace all day for 19 hours.
Different training approaches will work also. I know other top athletes who had consistent days climbing the grind once or twice, without doing any really big volume training days. I do feel my approach, gave me the best chance to do well in a short training cycle of 10 weeks. The longer sessions also give you the feedback and experience as a form of race simulation you will need when the going gets tough on race day.
Day before eating:
I didn’t eat more than usual and I made sure to eat frequent smaller meals rather than large meals which would overwork the digestive system. My focus is on whole foods and nothing artifically processed. I ate quick cut oats with soy milk, a lot of steamed greens (with some olive oil and salt), quinoa, white rice and chicken meat (from legs without skin) baked in a BBQ sauce. I also had two protein drinks made from homemade nut milk mixed with a protein powder blend (whey, brown rice, pea, hemp, chlorella, spirulina).
Eating during the Multi-Grind
I brought with me a variety of food so I could choose what I wanted to eat after each grind rather than be forced to take something I planned for myself but then didn’t want. This was a wise decision because my appetite constantly swayed throughout the day. I didn't have any stomach issues all day or drops in energy.
My strategy was to eat proper food in the first half of the day. So I ate the chicken sandwiches and banana bread and some fruit in the first 8 hours. Then I began to eat fruit and started having gels after Grind #11.
I mostly consumed water throughout the day, about 300-500ml after each grind, but not always. I focused on drinking to thirst, not to a schedule. Science suggests this is the safest way to hydrate during an ultra event to prevent hypernatremia (over hydration). Occasionally, I consumed powerade instead of water when I felt the need arise in myself.
What went down well:
White bread chicken leg meat sandwich with lettuce and mustard (ate mostly in the first half of the day)
Banana Bread (Homemade)
Canned fruit in Syrup - mixed together Jackfruit and Apricot (Sipped on the syrup and ate the fruit after several Grinds when I had a bit of extra time)
Deglet Noor Dates
Peanut Butter Sandwiches
Rekarb Gels (did not use until the afternoon after Grind #11)
Can of Tuna (only ate one but it felt good to eat protein rather than sweet food)
Banana-Strawberry Smoothie (Homemade)
What I didn’t feel appetite for:
Coconut Water (felt too sweet ended up wanting water mostly)
Rice Cakes (again too sweet)
Bars of any sort
Every person is different and what works for me might not work for you. A lot of what I choose to bring I tested in training on the longer days. Having a variety of food to choose from helps, because I am a big proponent of listening to what the body is telling you it wants.
I am a caffeine free athlete, but many endurance athletes find coca-cola works well for them in ultra events.
I found using poles to be a distinct advantage. Having competed in Europe several times, I have watched and practiced the technique's used by the elite climbers in Europe.
What I used: Black Diamond Distance FLZ Z-Poles
The lighter shoes, the less weight you need to lift up every time you pick up your feet
What I used an older version of the S-Lab Sense: Salomon S-Lab Sense 6 Unisex Trail Running Shoe
Throughout the training schedule I supplemented with a number of vitamin supplements to help provide my body with the best ability to produce red blood cells and recover from the intensive training loads.
Part of my coaching services is helping you to learn how to use nutrition and supplementation to achieve your performance goals. Learn more here.
Muscles and the Body
One of the problems I faced during the ten-week training block, were issues in my hip, hamstrings, quads and calves at various times. While I never had an injury forcing me to stop, I constantly face battles with muscle related tightness given the amount of steep terrain training I do. Blockages in the full range of motion of a muscle fibre reduce the ability of the muscle to expand and contract, reducing power output, creating earlier onset of fatigue, aches and pains and an increased injury risk if left untreated.
In weeks 7 and 8, when I did up to 8 Grinds in a day, specific areas in my leg musculature gave in to the demands of the day and fatigued from about 7th grind. While I could continue on, my ability to maintain a fast pace was significantly hampered. In the 2-3 weeks prior to the Multi Grind I did a lot of self-treatment to eliminate the problems in my leg muscles. I credit this to my ability to endure 18 with no problems, just as much as the fitness and strength endurance training I did. No matter how fit you are, if your hamstring or calf fatigues too early or cramps then that is your performance point of failure, either forcing you to stop or slow down your effort. Other issues may arise as other muscles compensate. Worst case is a strain or muscle tear.
To perform the best, all your muscles should be free of tightness and pain. I believe self-treatment to be the best option, unless you have plenty of money to spend on physiotherapists and massage therapists. Even then, you may need longer periods of self-treatment to correct chronic issues than just one-hour blocks of time.
Part of my coaching services is helping you to how to self manage your body, to correct poor biomechanics and muscle imbalances, and to treat tight muscles so you do not face early onset muscle fatigue and lack of power in your critical leg musculature. Learn more here. I will also be releasing articles and a product to purchase on how to create an injury free and biomechanically efficient body, hopefully available by the end of the year.
Final Thoughts: Nothing Ever Goes Exactly to Plan
Ultra races and training preparation require a lot of mental fortitude and ability to react to the unplanned events which sometime derail our best plans. I had a number of issues in the multi grind which were not to plan, but I kept a positive mindset and reacted to the situations as best as I could. I still hit my goals despite these issues.
1. Following the Seek the Peak race 4 days before the multi-grind I woke up with some gastro problem and diarrhea. I decided to fast and not eat for an entire day, with the goal to let everything calm down. I knew an upset stomach would derail an 18 hour endurance effort very quickly. Many ultra marathon drops are caused due to stomach issues and the subsequent inability to get enough fuel into the body to sustain the effort. During the fast, I did consume slippery elm and other stomach herbs to help heal and calm the stomach; and also a probiotic. In the end, I did not eat any food for 36 hours. I then gave myself two days to refeed before the multigrind and refill my glycogen stores. I did not feel this hampered my preparation in anyway, in fact, it may have made me feel a little more energetic. It was a good decision because I had no stomach issues following the fast or during the multigrind.
2. Before the Multi Grind I couldn't fit my timing card on my neck strap, so I decided to trim the top so I could fit the clip through the hole in the timer card. As It turns out, the RFID chip in the card was right on the edge where I trimmed the card. As the multigrind began at 4am, I went to scan my card but nothing happened. Meanwhile, everyone was heading off up the trail. I talked briefly to the event staff and they told me to just go up and they'd figure something out and maybe just do manual timing all day. On the first grind, I realised I slowed a bit too much due to worrying about the timing card and not focused on how much time I would need at the top. Once at the top of the first Grind I talked to the staff and they said they would just do the manual counting for now and i'd need to get a new card later in the day. By the time I reached my support person and then got to the tram, I had missed it by about 10 seconds. Unfortunately the tram staff could not reopen the doors for me, and the lead group of 8 runners were gone without me putting me ten minutes behind them for most of the day. It was upsetting and I knew i'd be alone all day from then on and miss a lot of the atmosphere and camaraderie of the event. I then missed a second tram later after having to get a new timing card at Guest Services at 8am and then taking too long to get going again, which in hindsight was certainly avoidable. This put me two trams behind the leaders and without a possibility of acheiving more than 18 grinds in the alotted time without risking an epic blow up by pushing two sub-40 minute Grinds. So, I just focused on what I could achieve and didn't let it ruin my day. I must admit the first few hours were the most challenging of my day because I really struggled to get my head back in the game. I made a concerted effort to smile and talk to all the people I ran into during the day who gave me support and cheered me on. This definitely lifted my spirits and made me stop focusing on the unchangable past.
I was still proud of what I physically achieved. I certainly never thought I could do 18 Grouse Grind's in one day, but I really surprised myself with how I was able to achieve it in a short-space of time. It showed my approach to training, which I have constantly refined over 12 years, is working very well for me.