A Hard Earned DNF

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I should never have even been at the start line of this race. I was undertrained, injured, and just generally knew that tackling such a beast might not be in my best interests. However, pride got the better of me. Welcome to my story about how it came to be that I stopped at the 80km mark of a 125km ultra trail running race. Yes, the much anticipated story of my race at Ultra-Trail Harricana that took place in September, mere days before Deanna and I were heading off to Nepal for nearly a month! I should note from the get-go however that mentally, I was ready for this race, it wasn’t that I *didn’t* want to finish, I just simply *couldn’t*. It’s a feeling I really didn’t enjoy.

Alrighty, let’s back up a couple years though. UTHC is a special race. The event lakes place near La Malbaie in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. It takes a fair bit of time to get there (7-9 hours), and is in a beautiful, rugged region, with plenty of mountains to keep you entertained as you suffer. Two years ago, when I was first starting out running in ultra trail running races, I took part in the inaugural 65km UTHC (see my report) . It was tough, but I loved it, and definitely wanted to return to race it again. Last year didn’t work out in my schedule, but when I heard they were rolling out a 125km option for 2015, I decided that I would make the trip once again!

Seeing as I was turning 40 this year, I had planned a series of awesome races to tackle this year, basically culminating in this race, the toughest 1-day event I’d be tackling. I had high hopes for this event, as I figured I would be in peak form by the time it rolled around. Unfortunately, things were pretty much the opposite of peak. A wiser man would have either dropped down to a shorter distance, or opted to even watch from the sidelines. Sadly, I am not that wiser man. As I was also covering the race for Get Out There Magazine , I felt an obligation to toe the line no matter what. Cue the mild encouragement of both my wife and podiatrist that *maybe* I shouldn’t race the 125k. It fell on deaf ears. So what was going on?

Turns out when you plan a whole series of tough high-profile races all throughout the season, you need to train a lot, and there is little time for recovery. Early season went very well. I had good success, and felt good. However, by June, things were starting to hurt. In particular, my left foot. A couple weeks before a half Ironman, I had things checked out. Plantar Fasciitis was the diagnosis. The cure? Rest and recovery. However, since that was unlikely, we opted for an early attempt at a cortisone shot. It didn’t work. I raced the half Ironman anyway. Then, a couple weeks later, I left for Colorado to race in a 6-day staged trail running race. After that? Back home and to a full Ironman 3 weeks later. Two weeks later, I was at the start of UTHC. Oh, and between those? A 1-week trip to Vegas to do some trekking in addition to walking a trade show floor for days on end. Do you see a problem there? Yeah, no rest. No recovery. Just racing. I avoided trail running, and running in general, between these races, as my foot just couldn’t take it. So, I’d been racing in all these events, not recovering between them AND not properly training for a 125k race. If you picked up a recipe book on bad ideas for preparing and running in an ultra, this would be one of the top choices!

Ultra Trail Harricana 2015

Now many of you probably know me quite well. Well enough to know that I’m stubborn. I don’t quit. My mantra is that the only way I would stop racing is if an ambulance takes me away, or a qualified medical person tells me that I can’t. Not “shouldn’t”, but “can’t” go on (without doing perma. Well, I guess we can add one other to that list, and that’s missing a time cutoff. But that’s not abandoning. So technically, I didn’t abandon this race. But I should have. Before the race, the day before, and all along, I deluded myself by saying that I’d just push through it. I can always get through races. Heck, the Ironman, to many people, is such a hard event, you need peak physical form. Not me. I just went to that one saying “it’s just an Ironman”, “I’ll push through”. And I did. No biggie. But I underestimated the toll a 125km trail running race, with LOTS of elevation gain / loss has on the body. I have learned my lesson. You can NOT just push through. I won’t make that mistake again.

Okay, I know, I’ve now forced you to read all this way and I haven’t told you anything about the actual race. So let’s get through that part. I needed the catharsis of writing out my lesson first. The Charlevoix region is stunning. There are gorgeous mountains that you drive up and over just to get to the start line. It is a taste of things to come. It is also rugged. Our ‘trail’ in many cases was just basic flagging tape on branches / shrubs to guide us to the next discernible trail. I LOVED it! Also, the people who run this event are passionate, and keep giving more and more to this event. Each year, there is something new, and it is bigger and better. This year, they introuduced simultaneous translation to the race briefing to help the non french-speakers out. Great touch. A first that I’ve seen. And next year? Oh, well, they’ve just announced they are now part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour ! Yup, they join the ranks of the very best of the best trail races in the world. After less than 5 years! That is a testament to Sebastien and Genvieve’s work.

When I arrived onsite, it felt a bit like a homecoming. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the people around me, it still felt like family. You don’t tackle a race like a 125k ultra on a whim. Everyone taking part in that event had paid their dues and has a story. You can just feel it, and see it in the eyes and expressions of people there. Oh, and if you did sign up on a whim? Well, you’ll join me and the many other who got the dreaded DNF that day (only 46 people finished out of 93 who started). I strode around the site with a bit of bravado. Having raced the 65k there, I felt I had earned my way to this race, and knew what I’d be up against. I was the guy describing parts of the course to others who had never raced here. How foolish of me to feel confident, knowing my own physical frailties would be on display for all to see all too soon.

Ironically, I was set up to stay in a cabin with not only a few other media folks, but also the eventual winner (by a long shot) of the 125k race. He was very unassuming, but I’d heard he was a credible contender. Super nice guy too though. Ultra runers truly are salt of the earth. There is no glory in winning, no great prizing. Just recognition by your peers, and whatever you personally gain emotionally from finishing the event. The afternoon before the race (we had to leave at midnight by bus to start the race at 2am), I prepped my gear. Cameras and batteries? Check. Hydration? Check. Nutrition? Check. You can eat on course at aid stations, but I like to bring the stuff I want, even if it means I have to carry it. Finally, trekking poles. I’m not completely stupid. I knew the foot would hurt, but hoped that by using trekking poles after the first while (and on all the steep climbs), I’d be able to muddle through.

Ironically, I slept through the alarm I’d set for 11:15pm, to give me time to eat and drink. Instead, I got up at 11:55pm to learn my ride was about to leave! Mad scramble to catch a ride to catch the bus to make the start line! Drama aside, by 1:30am we were in a little community church getting our final race briefings. The night air was cool, but not cold. We all trudged up to the start line, bathed in the glow of headlamps. We’d be running in the dark for probably the first 4 hours (or roughly the first marathon of three back to back…). The start itself was a bit anticlimatic. Knowing just how long the race would be, I was in no rush to be at the front or try to burst out of the gates. In spite of that, racers all agreed the start went out way too fast. The main reason was that we were on paved roads, and it was predominantly downhill. I went with the flow, but tried to keep tabs on my own pace to make sure I wasn’t blowing up. In retrospect, I don’t think it mattered much, as my fate was sealed long before the start.

After the first 8-10k we peeled off the tarmac and hit our first trails. More like dirt roads, but at least it was off the pavement. We followed this until the first aid station of the race. From this point, we were about to tackle the first major obstacle, and toughest (physically) climb of the day. An extemely steep climb in the dark to the highest point in the race, only to dive back down the steep trail on a sligtly differet route, back to the same aid station! The climb itself would likely have been more hair-raising for some if we hadn’t been immersed in darkness. At many points, we actually had to use fixed ropes to pull ourselves up the steep sections. I loved it, but it made for rather difficult filming for me. The other unfortunate side effect of the night was the fact that once we did get to the apex, we couldn’t see anything but inky blackness! I’m pretty sure the view would have been spectacular 🙂

Early Morning Light-001

Once off the mountain, it was back onto gravel roads and singletrack. By this point, there had already been some early abandoners of the race, opting to sit by the comfy warm fire at Aid Station #2. Guess the steep and treacherous climb had spooked them and made them worried about what the future might hold! After about another 20-30 minutes, the sky started to lighten up with streaks of orange, pink, and grey. It was a welcome sight, and also meant that any lingering chilliness should start to lift. At this point in the race I was still more or less running, and unaided by trekking poles. I had started trading steps with a few other people I knew, so the occasional company was nice. As with many races like this, you end up running your own race, meaning that sometimes you’ll be running with someone, by it’s just as likely that you’ll be on your own.

For the next couple hours, I more or less just slogged along, enjoying the day, and realizing with each passing kilometer that things were starting to hurt more and more. I also migrated to using the trekking poles full time, imagining that by taking 20% of my weight off my feet should help with my goal of continued forward progress. I was eating and drinking well, making sure that I took in plenty of electrolytes to ensure I didn’t start getting any bad leg cramps. I feel as though I had that part of my race dialled in this time. I never felt a lack of energy nor any major GI issues. My body *wanted* me to succeed, and did pretty much everything it could to co-operate, but it just wasn’t enough.

Enjoying the Wilderness

As the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, so, too, did us runners. We were climbing hill after hill, and following some pretty spectactular trails in beautiful surroundings. When I topped out at the second major climb, it was an ideal time. The sun had risen partly in the sky, and we were high up in the mountains. As such, a morning fog hung around the valleys far below, which I was fortunate enough to see. It was at that moment that I decided no matter what happened later in the day, I’d remember that spot, and that I *would* be back to take on this course once again. Good thing I made that promise, as things definitely got worse.

Each time we popped out to arrive at an aid station, it always felt like it was the perfect place to have a break, as I was just about to run out of drinks and will to keep pushing hard. I remember arriving at the Parc des Hautes Gorges, a spot roughly halfway into the race. Here, we had access to our drop bags (so change of clothes if you wanted, extra personal food, etc.). By now the sun was beating on us warmly, so I opted to ditch some clothes, re-pack some food, and head back out with a full 2L of liquids. Good thing too, as the next section would be VERY long (and my last one). I started this leg in rough shape, and wasn’t sure how things might finish for me. I was optimistic, but slow. Even at that aid station, it was clear I was at the tail end of this race. Not last by any stretch, but falling back. My pace had also steadily been declining. Not unusual for a long race, but it felt too soon to me.

Tricky Trails

This stage started with a beautiful ridge run, then dropped down to follow a dirt road for another 5-8k. From there, we were plunged into what can only be described as overgrown dense forest trails. Again, really nice, but tough to traverse with a bum foot. I struggled as best I could, but with each passing km marker (yup they were counting down each km for us!), I was getting slower and slower, and the pain was getting greater and greater in my foot. People passing me could tell I was in rough shape, but kept encouraging me to move on. Eventually, I remember shuffling past a swamp, and doing some math on the fly, realizing that at my decreasing pace, there was no way I’d finish the race within the time limits, and was not even looking good to finish this stage before the cutoff. It was a bit depressing to realize I was going to DNF, since I’d already been out of my comfort zone for quite a while, but wouldn’t get that finisher’s rush that makes it all worth it.

After a bit of soul searching, and some food, I trudged on, now barely walking. Because I had slowed down so much, I even ran out of water and had to treat some on the move by taking water from a stream. Otherwise I could have also gotten some nice dehydration. I was now being passed by the real heros of this race, those people that are just on the edge of being cutoff, but dig deep to make it. They were trying to get me to tag on the back of them and follow, but I just couldn’t. I tried, but the pain was exquisite in my foot, and all the over-compensation by my right leg was also wreaking havoc on my ability to even use my right leg. I watched these folks fade into the distance, knowing I was under 5k from the aid station, and that they were running the razors edge to make it in time. Eventually, I stumbled into a clearing of intersecting trails to see the aid station. I hobbled the final few steps, knowing I was done.

Journey Ends at km 80

The volunteers there were gently trying to explain I had missed the cutoff. No doubt they expected a protest or some surprise, but I had none to offer. I was done, and I knew it. I had already decided there was no way I’d try to keep going, even if I had made it. In 3 days I was leaving for 3 weeks of trekking in Nepal, and knew Deanna would not be impressed if I started that trip unable to walk! I was happy to learn that my other friends who were close to the cutoff had made it. They wouldn’t all make it in the end, but they were continuing the journey. For me, it was about 80k into the race, and it was game over. I sat down, drank a whole lot of water, and waited to learn my fate. Eventually, that fate was a local who had been volunteering and had a truck. He drove another racer and I back to the finish line, a drive of well over an hour on the back roads.

I arrived to the finish in time to see the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in the 125k race. The times were much slower than had been originally anticipated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they adjust the cutoff times for next year to allow more time. It is most definitely a tough course, and one that obviously took its’ toll on many a racer. I stuck around the finish for quite a little while, greeting racers, swapping stories, and just marvelling at the perseverance put in by racers. I would have liked to stay until midnight for the final racers to come in (22 hours after the start), but I was just too exhausted and in pain. Once I found a drive, I took it. I was brought back to my cottage where I collapsed into a deep sleep until the next morning.

And what a next morning it was. My legs were lead! My feet extremely swollen, and pain all over. I now regretted that I was on the second floor of this little cottage, with very steep stairs to navigate. In the end, I recruited someone to carry my gear down the stairs so that I could do down on my butt. I wasn’t looking forward to the very long drive home alone. Luckily, it gave me time to reflect on the entire experience, and take something away from it.

Overall, I think you can all see I loved this race. In fact, I WILL be back. Mark my words. However, I have gained some wisdom, and know that I will only tackle this one if I am properly trained and ready. I will also not plan a whole slew of difficult endurance races all around it. I think I’ll need to commit to focussing on runing to make this worth it. However, I owe it to myself to go the distance on this one, and cross that finish line. For no one else but me. I could care less about my time, but I need to complete the journey! Until that time, I will leave you with the video I put together for the first 79km of UTHC this year, in case you haven’t seen it. Enjoy, and if you’re looking for an amazing trail race, check this one out!!

Before and After Portraits

As part of racing in the 125k event, there was a professional photographer, Alexis Berg ( © Alexis Berg), who was working on a project meant to showcase runners before the race, and immediately after completion, capturing the differences and emotions. Here are my before and after pics (I got my after pic taken as soon as I got back to the finish area, even though I was a DNF). Amazing photos! See more them by clicking this sentence.

Before UTHCAfter UTHC

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