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Winning the Squamish 50K: a rocky six years

Winner of the 2019 Squamish 50K opens up about overcoming adversity and what the race means to her

Some people race to win. For Tara Holland, 45, winner of the 2019 Squamish 50K, her perfect race was never about winning. It was about trusting the process, setting big but realistic goals, and believing she could accomplish them. The last six years have been more technical and challenging than the Squamish 50 race itself. But that hasn’t stopped Holland.

RELATED: Squamish 50 results: day one

Holland finishing in 6:15:41

In 2013, Holland, an environmental science professor, accidentally ended up in the middle of the Squamish 50 race. It was two days after moving to Squamish, and it was like a housewarming party with snacks in the trails. When she got home, she decided to register for the 50K event the following year. After running road marathons since 1999, the idea of a rugged ultra sounded like fun.

In 2014, Holland was diagnosed with breast cancer just as she began to ramp up her mileage for her first ultra. She had her first surgery less than two months before the race, and took the next six weeks off from running in order to recover. Despite the an unexpected fork in the singletrack, Holland toed the line undertrained and grateful for every step. Cancer did not stop her from achieving that goal. She finished her first 50K in 7:12, placing 11th.

In 2015, Holland’s training went well until she crashed her bike five weeks before the Squamish 50K. She missed a full 10 days of running during her buildup to the race. With a broken wrist and stitches in her knee, she crossed the finish line in 6:55 in 11th place–improving by 17 minutes.

RELATED: Squamish 50 results day two: records, tears, and ultra-moms

Holland running with a wrist splint. Photo: Brian McCurdy

Holland’s mission to run the race each year and improve her time was halted in 2016. Holland was on a training run, summitting Mt. Harvey, when she received a phone call from her mom saying her dad had been diagnosed with a terminal illness. Holland spent the rest of the summer by his side in the hospital in Quebec. Her dad passed away a day before the 2016 Squamish 50K race.

RELATED: How Jenny Quilty won the Squamish 50/50 overall

It wasn’t until 2018 that Holland toed the line for another Squamish 50K race. (In 2017 she spent most of the summer nursing a hamstring injury). The 2018 race fell on the anniversary of the day her father had passed away. Holland felt fit enough to run a 6:15–a time she knew she was capable of. But all day, her body felt like it was shutting down due to the forest fire smoke. She ran 6:36 in 8th place. “I felt awful the whole day. Wasn’t a fun race at all.”

Holland happily flying through Quest aid station on Sunday

2019 was Holland’s year. The Squamish local had finally been running consistently for a year and a half without any major adversities. With an intense work schedule, Holland kept weekday mileage low and focused on specific workouts on the Squamish 50K course. She was excited to race. “Leading up to the race this year, I was the calmest I’ve ever been. Being so busy with work helped put everything into perspective. I really can’t believe it.”

Holland has never felt so good in a race as she did on Sunday. She led the woman’s race from 18K onward, hitting her splits like a unicorn with a math major. Even with an extra kilometre this year, Holland ran her goal time of 6:15. “All day everything was so awesome. I wasn’t worried what was going on behind me.”

Holland with her mom and partner Brendan Hunt at the finish

It’s not about the win for Holland. “It’s my favourite race. I have such a history with this race over the last six years. It’s become really important to me. Really my goal was to have the race I knew I could have on this course. A win was completely unrelated to what position I finished in. It’s just a massive, crazy bonus. But that was never my goal.”

Holland taking recovery very seriously after the race

Holland finished the race before friends and training partners Hailey Van Dyk and Jenny Quilty joined her on the podium. She is currently satisfying her delayed onset hunger soreness (DOHS) with pizza and beer.

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