Oh boy! Where do I start this one? With this post, I will finally be caught up with my race reports for the 2016 season. I had tentative plans to perhaps run another race, but I’ve put the plans on hold in order to make sure that I do no further damage to feet, and start my journey to 2017 and all the fun it will have to offer (no, I don’t even know yet what I’ll be doing, but I bet it will be awesome!). So without further ado, I bring you my story of my 2nd (and successful!) attempt at running the 125 km Ultra-Trail Harricana. One of my favourite trail races around, and definitely a challenging one as well. Perfect setting and lots of distance options means that if you are at all into trail running, you may want to put this one on your ‘to-run’ list! Read on for the story.
As you probably know by now, the 125k UTHC was my ‘target’ race for the entire season. This year, for the first time, I decided to focus on one pursuit only, trail running. Most other years, I tack on triathlons, cycling tours, adventure races, and whatever else looks interesting. However, after last year’s disappointing DNF in the 125k UTHC, I vowed I’d come back stronger, and more prepared. To those ends, I carefully devised both a training and racing schedule that should have had me amply prepared. I did an early season adventure race, but that was a necessary distraction before the true training kicked off. From there, I did a couple 50 miles (80k), improving my time, and then moved onto 2 separate 3-day races, meant to put me into further states of tiredness over different distances. Seemed like a good plan, but unfortunately, after the last 3-day race, my old friend (nemesis?) plantar fasciities reared its ugly head, threatening to derail my plans.
And THAT leads me to the night of the race. Picture it. I’m in downtown Malbaie at the Subway having a sub before grabbing a few hours sleep for a midnight shuttle bus to the start line (race begins at 2am!). I’d made a request of a friend of mine who was racing the next day (and also happens to be a podiatrist), asking for her help in maybe taping my feet to prep me for the big day. Well, as I was getting my order, who should stroll in, but Annie! She came straight to Subway on her arrival to town in order to help me out. So we sat outside, customers peering curiously at the weird guy with black toenails and his feet on the table as a lady laughed and talked to him while applying weird spray-on glue and bandages to his feet. I’m sure they had no way to comprehend what was happening.
This of course leads to a truism of this sport. It is REALLY hard to truly explain and get people to understand exactly what racing an event like this is all about, what you do to get there, and what it ultimately does to you. I’ve given up trying to make people truly understand the nuances, and just nod my head and agree when you get the inevitable ‘I can’t even run to the corner store, I can’t even imagine running 125k. You’re crazy.’ And I’m the crazy one? You can’t even run a few hundred meters and are proud to share that factoid? Oh well, I can only live my life, and everyone has their own ideas how they want to go through life. We all ultimately end up in the same place, so what does it matter, right? I’m having fun (mostly!).
So with bandaged feet, Deanna and I headed back to our hotel so that I could grab some shut-eye. I went to sleep somewhere around 8pm, and got back out of bed just before midnight. Ugh. It was going to be a long night / day / night of running. At this point, I had written up a pace card assuming I’d be done in about 19.5 hours. So in THEORY, I was planning a 9:30pm finish. To be clear, this was actually in my mind a conservative estimate of my finish time. I’m also convinced that without the foot problems, it was realistic. However, as is often the case, things don’t always work out the way you want.
The shuttle bus and race briefing were quite uneventful in my mind. I met up with a few people I knew and chatted idly as the start time approached. One friend was Sebastian Warner, another runner who was back for revenge. While I had bailed at the 80k mark last year, he made it to the final aid station, so with 7k to do last year before being pulled from the course. Yeah. Shitty. But he took it all in stride. As a result of our shared disappointment from the year before, we had similar plans for this year. Start slow, stay slow, and FINISH! With that in mind, we shuffled to the start together, choosing to talk about beer rather than the race. In fact, the starting gun went off, and we were at the very back, barely registering that the race had started. There was just no point at all in running off at the start.
The first leg of the race is 19.5km of mainly gravel road before the first aid station. Last year, I paced hard at the beginning, treating it like a shorter event, and paying the ultimate price later. This year, it was easy conversation pace, with the heart rate clearly in a Zone1 place. I was confident this was the way to run, and Sebastian agreed, so we ran together. In fact, we picked up a ‘third amigo’ in the form of Vincent from Montreal, and slowly made our way together in the darkness, laughing, trading stories, and doing our best to ‘ignore’ the truth of what the next 110+km of racing would have in store. We all stayed together through the 1st aid station, but after that, the course makes a dramatic change. Namely, a pointy hill climb in the dark. At the aid station, I opted to just charge ahead onto the climb rather than stop for a few minutes. I had my super-bright light on, and just love climbing big hills like this one. I wisely chose to bust out my climbing poles early again, and used them to assist me.
Sebastian and Vincent were behind me, but I’d eventually see them both again. Vincent and I joined forces once again midway up the climb. By the time we hit the summit, the sky was already streaky with the new day, and I paused long enough to appreciate my place in the universe, before heading down the steep descent. Vincent and I were together until the aid station. I hit the porta-pottie, and by the time I returned, Sebastian was also back with us. Vincent and I left just slightly ahead, but after a few more kilometers, he joined us again, and shortly after that, I let them both head off ahead of me, with the plan to stay well within my comfort zone, and not allow myself to trick my brain into thinking I should run faster! I was now more or less on my own for the majority of the rest of the race (90+k). But that’s okay, people drift in and out of your sphere in a race like this based on individual abilities in different terrain.
I actually felt pretty decent as the day ticked by. Aid stations are relatively far apart in this race, so I had ended up carrying a lot of food with me as I ran, and my own little game was to plan out my next snack, and see how far I’d get before it was ‘chow time’ again. I kept the engine stoked, and carefully managed my food stores to make sure I’d get to the mid-point where I’d see Deanna, have access to my drop bag, and replenish my on-board snack selection. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember a whole lot of note from the race up to that mid-point anyway. I was pretty fixated with that aid station, located at the 56k point, at Parc des Hautes Gorges. The reason was that I KNEW the next leg was very hard, so I was mentally readying myself.
I do recall there was a lot of excellent running, on both trails and access roads. We had some spectacular views on our 2nd (of 3 major) summits, and ultimately, we popped out on a hydro-cut which took us to the road that led to the aid station. I was getting tired by that point already, and jogged in with Deanna by my side to cheer me on. I plopped myself in a chair, re-filled all my food and drinks, then took a proper 5-minute breather where I lay on my back with my feet elevated in a feeble attempt to ‘micro-recover’ my feet. I was already pretty far back in the race pack, but it was of no consequence. I was already in conservation mode. My time at this point was bang-on my estimate, but I warned Deanna that I didn’t think I’d be able to maintain this pace and finish on my original estimate. Unfortunately, due to the layout of this race (aka point-to-point in pretty rugged terrain), this was the only time in the entire race apart from the finish, that I’d actually see my cheerleader. That’s actually a mixed blessing, as it meant I didn’t have to put on a brave face or risk being early or late at a station, I just had to keep on truckin’!
I left the aid station in good spirits, steeling myself for what I affectionately dubbed the ‘hell section’. Last year, it was a painful 21.5k from this aid station to the next, with a lot of carnage between, including lots of dehydration, and people throwing in the towel at the next station. As a result, this year, the organizers threw in a ‘bonus’ hydration-only aid station 5k later, meaning we ‘only’ had to cover 16.5k this time with no resupply. Lucky for me, I knew exactly what was coming up, and opted to fully re-fill here. I also activated my secret weapon in this section. My ipod. Headphones are prohibited, but it didn’t say anything about music on a speaker. So, with the little speaker on my ipod, I had tunes for this whole run, and it was glorious! Even though things got much tougher later, I only used them here. An interesting thing happened in this section. I started passing people. Not a lot, but I imagine these were people who had made the unfortunate mistake of starting too fast, and not realizing what this stage had in store. It was mostly uphill, on pretty gnarly track.
At one point I came across Vincent, and was actually afraid he was dead, as he was just sprawled motionless across the trail! I approached cautiously, calling his name. He stirred, seemed slightly confused before recognizing me and telling me he had just decided to take a little nap. He was low on water and had no food. I shared some of my mixed nuts with him, encouraged him as best I could, but ultimately, I had to leave him to keep chasing my ghost. I knew there were others behind, so there would be people to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again in the race, and turns out he had to abandon where I abandoned last year. I know exactly how he felt…
As for my race, I arrived safe and sound at the next aid station, at approximately the 80k mark. With about a marathon left to go (or 1/3rd the race), I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time realizing I’d be seeing that light for quite some time! The next leg was another long one, at 18.5k, but thankfully a little easier thanks to a relatively long, downhill stretch of gravel road. Truthfully, I always find these roads tougher than trails, but at least you make decent time. After resting a few minutes at this aid station, I got my courage back, and headed off again. Doing the math, I realized that this stage would take me well over 3 hours. Having a look at the current time, it meant I should just squeak in before dark, so I made that my goal.
While on this leg, I tagged along close with a few other runners, now happy for some extra company, even if I wasn’t running directly with them, but at least keeping them in sight kept me motivated to plod on. By the time we cruised into the next aid station, it was just getting dark, so it was time to bust out the headlamps for the rest of the race. I was the last to arrive at this aid station in my little group, but also the first to want to head out. Mentally, I had to keep moving. I was also weary about the fact that there was rain in the forecast. I didn’t want to get wet, catch a chill, and run into some new-found misery before the end.
4 of us started this next section together in the dark, talking about how company would be good. However, with my super bright light on the technical climbing that we were facing, I soon found myself creating a bit of a gap on my new friends. I struggled with whether to stay with them or charge on, and opted to press forward. I was currently feeling good, and wanted to capitalize. I had a really good run on that leg, and pulled into the next aid station feeling reasonable. HOWEVER, we were now about to face the last tough climb of the race, and it was very dark now, and the weather was changing. I loaded up on food and drink, anxious to head out again. I managed to pull out of the aid station just as a group of 5-6 racers were coming in (we could spot their headlights in the distance). Rather than wait, I once again trotted off.
I kept my gap, in spite of an ever-slowing pace. I was now getting too tired to even do the math to guesstimate where I’d finish. My only concern had been making the cut-offs, but I was assured I had at least an hour in the bank, so I felt pretty certain that even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d be an official finisher. So while that felt good to know, it was also depressing, as it meant I STILL had over 3 hours to go out there (in fact, it was nearly 3.5 hours!). At this point, my favourite trails were the nice double-track trails where you have a singe tire track to follow. With a black strip in the middle, and grass on the sides, I could just drop my head, and follow the black line. It was mind-numbing, but then again, my mind WAS numb!
On this second to last leg I felt the first few drops of rain. Nothing to get excited about or put a jacket on as a result, but an omen. I picked my way along, letting the occasional glowing orb guide me. Orb? Oh year, they strung up water bottles with little lights in them every 400m or so. It was a nice touch. Except when they appeared to be his floating high up in the sky, cuz that meant a big climb was imminent! This section ended up on another gravel road, and when I finally made it in, I was happy to hear a little pick-me-up music and to see a chair calling my name. I’ve gotta say, the volunteers manning the aid stations were absolutely amazing! They were still high energy in spit of undoubtedly having been there for a long time. It was really nice as a racer to be well taken care of at least emotionally out there!
This was it. The penultimate stage. As I sat at the final aid station, I reflected on what I’d done, and what was left. A mere 7k to the finish. But I was pretty beat. My feet were sore, and I was starting to feel like I was running on fumes. Food and drink didn’t seem to be perking me up anymore. But, there was no way I was stopping here. I waited for 2 others to arrive that I’d been running with on an off for the last several legs. They were tired too, but as a trio, we figured we could help each other. I slotted in behind the two of them and we took off. As we chatted, I learned that although these two had run pretty much the whole race together, they’d never met! Crazy. The lady in front was an amazing pacer and seemed to have a perfect amount of energy left to press on. I think she had her sights on finishing by midnight, but looking at the, I thought it was too ambitious. I stayed with them for a few kilometer (probably 4), before finally having to admit to myself that I couldn’t keep up with them. I let them slowly pull away, and I was left with my own internal struggle to keep moving. It was about now that the rain started picking up.
Shortly after, I could start making out noise from the finish area, which wasn’t so far away (due to snaking trails around the area). Every now and again I thought I could hear music wafting through the air. I knew the ‘dance party’ would be in effect, and that the beer was flowing. Would people still be there? Would Deanna? Could I pull off a smile at the finish? Or just collapse. I’d know soon enough, as I was just passing the 1km to go signs. By now, the rain started really coming down, soaking me to the core. Luckily, I had been pretty hot most of the day, so it was still ‘refreshing’. The closing kilometer was actually a trial in itself. The race ends on some extremely swampy ski trails back to the lodge, and with the heavy rains, it was now a major boggy mess. It took me 20 minutes to cover that final kilometer, and each step was fought for. I was getting angrier and angrier until…. I saw it! The lights of the finish!
They saw me at the same time. The announcers far-off voice was urging me to press on, to not give up, and go for the finish. With the bight lights at the finish, I could see just how stormy and rainy it now was. I moved back to a jog speed, pulled out the camera, and shot my final hundred meters to the finish. Waiting for me was the race director, Deanna, and my friend Sebastian, who’d finished over an hour earlier (thus defeating his demons too!). I was given a heros’ welcome, happily accepted my medal, then sought the safety of the nearby recovery tent where I could plunk my ass in a chair, get out of the rain, and get my legs up. What a feeling! The first aid volunteers were busy making sure I was ok, and about to hand me some Pepsi to hydrate when the race director steps over and hands me an ice cold beer instead! While the first couple mouthfuls were glorious, I must admit I just didn’t have the energy to drink a whole beer. That would have to wait until the next day! Of course, since it was after midnight it already WAS the next day!
Shortly after I finished, the skies really opened up. We’re talking biblical rains! I felt really bad for those still out there. I was near the back of the pack, but there were still 9 others that finished after me. I had finished 61 out of 102 starters. 70 of us finished, and 32 did not, so a 69% finishing rate on this course. I’ll take it! I asked Deanna to bring the car as close to the recovery area as possible. I crumpled myself into the passenger side, and as soon as I closed the door, my body started shutting down. I was shivering uncontrollably, and freezing cold in spite of the heat. We rushed back to the hotel, where all I could manage was to peel off my clothes and fall into bed for an incredibly odd and fitful night of ‘sleep’. We were back up at 8am to head out for whale watching, but I really hadn’t gotten any quality sleep since Thursday night in Trois Riviere. I fought my way through a day of playing tourist before finally getting a good night’s sleep Sunday night after 11pm!
I must say, the entire experience was mentally a huge challenge. I loved the event, but during the run, I definitely found myself wondering if I have the stomach to do another race like this. But, inevitably, as I’m typing this up, I already have my sights on trying my hand at a 100 miler (160km). But not just any 100 miler. Nope. I’m thinking of the Sinister 7 in Alberta! Before I hit ‘register’ on that bad boy though, it’s time for some R&R, and make sure my feet get back to perfect condition. Oh yeah, and it’s also time to start thinking about the winter season! Lots of skiing in my future!
To close off, I put together a couple videos of this race. The first is of course my official race review video. The second one? Well, decided I’d put a short video together about some of the amazing sights around the Charlevoix region, since I am so fond of it :-). Enjoy!