Taking the ‘Ultimate’ Challenge at UXC

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Welcome back race fans. It’s high time I update you all on my most grueling race accomplishment of the summer, and pretty much my racing career so far. Yup, I’m talking about Ultimate XC, a 3-day stage race that I did a couple weeks back at Mont Tremblant. Yup, Mont, as in mountain. That would play a rather significant role in how it all played out (successfully for this race!). Just to set the scene ever-so slightly, the race was ‘invitation only’, with credentials required. I almost didn’t get accepted. However, when the dust settled I managed to snag 12th overall in a very competitive field of tough athletes. Needless to say, it made me very happy. I have a few pictures to share with you (including some great race photos from lephotoshop.com, and obviously, quite a bit more to say about this doozy of a race. Read on friends!

I’ve already taken you folks through some of the preview of what this course was going to have in store for me. But as a refresher, here is what the course was all about: 3 days of grueling racing! Day 1 was a paddling stage, 67km of it in fact, starting and ending on two big lakes, with a very long river section full of whitewater, shallow sand bars, and some portages for good measure. Day 2 was the running day. And by running, I mean shuffling up the mountain several times, with over 10,000ft of total elevation gain. Ouch! There were other surprises, as you’ll read about. Day 3. Well, that was the biking stage. Nearly 100km of mixed-trail mountain biking, which on my GPS log claims I did over 15,000ft of total elevation gain!

Yeah, intense. Could my body keep up with the rigours? Well, I was about to find out. I really had only two goals in this race; Goal 1: Finish without seriously injuring myself and Goal 2: Just finish. Period. I had no podium dreams, just a desire to push my body to its absolute limits then try to push a little harder. I think I got there on day 3. With that, let’s look at the stages one by one.

Pre-Race

Of course, every race starts well before you cross the start line. In this case, I had to get me and all my gear to Mt. Tremblant in one piece, and check into the 2-bdrm condo that 5 of us were sharing. Then, deal with all the registration stuff, including a weigh-in (we would be pulled off the race if we lost >6% body mass. Finally, a costume contest. $500 purse. I’ll save you the suspense, I didn’t win that :-(. I managed to get all that done, and even relax a bit before the 1.5 hour briefing that evening. We got lots of warnings about the course and how hard it would be. Admittedly, it did put me in a slightly nervous mindset, but I knew I could do it! Off to bed early for the start.

Day 1: The Paddle

Ahhh, 5am wake-up to get prepped for the 1hr. shuttle to the paddle start. Not much time to think about it before boarding buses. We were all chatty and I made some new friends on the way even. Just what it’s all about. Sharing the passions with like-minded racers! We got to the little park where we’d start from and all got busy preparing and then putting into the water. With very little fanfare, the race got underway. We had a police escort boat to lead the way on the first big lake, and it was amazing how quickly the pack started thinning out. I felt good with my pace and found myself with a little group of friends, bantering back and forth as we contemplated the coming 8 or so hours we guessed we’d be out there.

Obviously, anyone can paddle a lake, the only real fun came from the river section between lakes. Water levels were really low, so we guessed we’d be in for a lot of boat dragging, and I figured I’d be making a lot of plastic donations to the rocks from scraping my hull on them. My guess was a good one, as the lovely gouges on my yellow boat will attest to. However, she is now clearly a race-worthy boat, and took it well. There were some pretty fun sections in the river, and it was amazing how much different it was this time from the paddle preview. I’m happy to report that apart from the few mandatory portages, I ran all the whitewater, with no bails and very little excitement. I’d made the wise choice to wear my skirt for a lot of it, which helped.

Weather-wise, we were given a great day. It started out quite cool, and warmed up as the day went on. I wore a black long-sleeve shirt and tights, so it did get quite warm on the final section, but no complaints. I did a good job monitoring my food and drink intake too I think, without ever feeling as though I was too low on energy. My pace stayed quite consistent, which was encouraging, given that I’d never paddled that long in my life. There were no intermediate splits, but once I found my pace, I didn’t get passed by too many other racers, and managed to see a small group in my sights most of the way. In fact I even made a few spots up later in the day.

My food of choice on the paddle turned out to be peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, which is quite funny considering I would never make them for myself any other time! But they definitely helped me fuel the engine. When the final paddle stroke was taken on the day, I found myself in 19th place overall (ok, the field was only 27, but these are the best of the best!) with a time of 8hrs 38mins 19s. Best part to me? That wasn’t much more than an hour behind the leader. I was relieved, as I thought this would be my worst discipline.

After the paddle, it was a well, deserved post-race meal, spend socializing with other racers. We also spent a little quality time in the hot tub imagining what the next day would hold. It was going to be another early start (albeit not remote this time), so I had to get my gear sorted and ready, and tried to hit the hay shortly after 9pm (more like 10pm though).

Day 2: The Run

Ahhh, the run. My forte, as it were. I had great expectations for the run (which were met incidentally), but wanted to make sure I was careful not to abuse myself too much before the epic 100k mountain bike the next day. I was incredibly paranoid about this fact for much of the day, but still think I didn’t quite play it right. Oh well, next year, right? Luckily, the start line was in the village, so after the oatmeal breakfast, I just had to saunter down the hill. There were a lot of people there, as the trail run is also run as a solo race, and there were multiple distances. It would be fun to have more people out, but might make it hard to pace and/or do the technical sections. Happily, Dan put all the ‘challenger 3 day racers’ at the front of the pack, a bit of a point of honour we got each day.

I lined up with the best of ‘em, wished ‘em luck, and off we went. I resisted the urge to try and follow a few people I usually run with, as I truly didn’t want to go too hard right off the bat. Once again, I fell in with a few people to run with, and we stuck together for long sections together. Now, how to describe this course? Well, try running up, around, and down ski mountains on little winding forest paths covered in roots and rocks. We were actually sharing sections of the course we’d be biking the next day too. It was arduous stuff. However, don’t stop there. Also imagine a 5k long section of ‘riverbed’. Hopping from rock to rock (it was mandatory to stick to the river rather than run beside it). And then, throw in a section where you are wading through water that at times is up to your chest and quite cold! Yup, that was the day. And the climbing? Fuggedaboutit! It was best not to even think about it. Just when you thought you’d seen the ‘brutalist’ climb, there would be another, equally insane scramble.

Yup, pacing wasn’t really an option, as there was no real ‘pace’. I spent the day listening to my body, and trying to ‘get it right’. At about the 30k mark, I started feeling a few early onset leg cramps, so I dialed it back and started hydrating like mad. Going into day 3 with a deficit was NOT an option. I ran large swaths of the course, alone, but still managed to see some people from time to time. Unfortunately, it felt like they were always passing me. Luckily, these were usually 1-day racers, or racers running shorter distances, so I didn’t feel too bad.

My only string of bad luck? Well, how about almost knocking myself out, twice! Yup, logs across trail at head level. First time, I was following the feet of a guy in front of me, and he didn’t give a warning. With my hat low, I didn’t see anything. Whack! Knocked me right down and left me a little dazed. Ouch. Ok, heads up now right? Yup. Further on, I spot a log. Good, I’ll duck. So I did, and popped my head back up again only to nail another log that was perfectly lined up 4 feet from the first! Double Ouch! I still think I probably got a mild concussion out of it, but I was in a race, dammit!

I’ll spare you any more details of this leg, but suffice to say 56k of trail running with that much elevation gain was quite a shocker. However, once the dust cleared, and results were posted, I was very pleased to see I came in at 8hrs, 41mins and 27secs., for a 9th place overall for the day, less than an hour and a half from the winner. Sah-weet! My legs paid the price though. After the post-stage BBQ and socializing, we got the ingenious plan to do an ice bath in our condo. Cold water and buckets of ice cubes. 3 minutes in, 3 minutes out, 3 times. The idea is to manage the inflammation of the muscles and get some relief. The first dunk? Killer. It hurt a lot. Not just the cold, but the water hitting all the little cuts and scrapes from the day. Particularly painful were the feet!

No time to dwell on that though, we had to get sorted for the next morning. And the wake-up call for this stage? 4 freakin’ am! Not nice. Try as I might to sleep at about 9am, it still took a while to doze. However, the race was going well so far, and I was looking forward to tackling stage 3 and ultimately finishing! To this point, only 2 racers had to call it a race. One due to a broken wrist, the other due to not finishing the run. Tough break.

Day 3: The Bike

Oh sweet mother of God! What is this fresh pain in my legs. The damn alarm went off at 4am, and I was awake pretty easily, but trying to swing the legs out of bed and walk was a skill I couldn’t seem to muster for this day. It was worse than any pain from any marathon I’d ever run. Not good. How the hell was I gonna turn the cranks up and down mountains for 100km today? Hmm, perhaps I hadn’t been careful enough in the run! Somehow, I limped my way to the car to join the convoy to the start line of the bike. I was already resigned to a long day in the saddle and absolutely no plans of hammering it. Steady Stevey all the way I thought to myself. Just make it to the cut-off points with time to spare and I’d get ‘er done. I was pretty sure we had a 12hr cutoff for the day (like the first 2), so I kept that in my mind before the first pedal mash.

I should also mention at this point that the weather was once again perfect. Slightly overcast, cool moving to warmer, and no hint of rain. All three days had basically been perfect for racing. I have a feeling we’ll never see that kind of weather for all 3 days in any other editions of this race. Chances are too slim! So, at least there was that as a small consolation to my battered body.

We were scheduled for a 6am start, and we got started pretty much right on time. Again, there were 1-day racers, and I bid them adieu right at the start. It would take me a good 2 hours to sort of find my form. I was truly a ‘back-of-the-pack’er for this challenging day. As the kilometers clicked by, I couldn’t help but do some math for cutoffs and such. I knew the really tough sections were later, so with an average of only 12k and hour for the first 10k, I was already quite worried. I decided to try and push a bit more, and get comfortable. I passed a couple of the challengers a little later on, and they were definitely in a bit of ‘distress’. I was not the only one suffering today, that much was clear.

Again, I will say this for the bike course. It did not disappoint. There was a wide range of terrain to deal with, from a few paved sections, to rail bed, to grassy fields, forest trails, super single track, and long grinding climbs up the mountains. However, there was one true ‘hell section’ that was essentially hike-a-bike. You literally had to keep getting off your bike to carry it over logs, rocks, etc. I don’t know what the hell it was, but I would NOT call it a trail. I cursed a fair bit here, and confirmed later with others that we really didn’t see the point of it. It just plain hurt. I suppose coming out of it, you might find the rest easier, but it still sucked! And of course, this is where all the deerflies tried to attack me too 🙁

So, fast forward back to Tremblant, where at least we were treated to some amazing trails. But with the amazing trails came brutal climbs, like the 5-9km ascent up an exposed gravel ski path to the summit. The sun was starting to bake us just a bit, and it was tough. However, I’d found my legs again, and decided to take advantage of my size to make what I hoped were gains. And it worked. I passed several people on the climbs, never to see them again. I think it also helped that I stayed incredibly well hydrated that day, stopping to pee quite frequently. Too many people underestimate the importance of drinking on a long day like that. I just felt fresher and fresher.

Good thing too, as the course seemed to stretch on forever, with Dan ‘cleverly’ adding little loops every time you thought you might be heading to the finish. The last hour was just plain torture it seemed. I was very glad to have the energy to keep pushing, but I now saw the clock pushing 11 and a half hours, and was really paranoid. I even found energy to curse the director repeatedly in this section, but finally, I was heading on a wild descent back to the village. I’ll spare you the story of how I almost ran over a family quite oblivious to the ‘race lane’ they were in as they wandered in town, but it was scary. Finally, FINALLY, I arrived at the finish. Yes, THE FINISH!!!

Three days of racing, pushing myself till I wanted to quit, but finding the strength and will to push on finally culminated as I passed under the ‘FINISH’ banner and was greeted by the race director. My first words: “I hate you, I REALLY hate you!”, as I had a huge grin and shook his hand over and over. I’ll say this. Dan delivered on exactly what he promised we’d get. I’ll also say this, never has a medal felt so well-deserved as it was put around my neck. And my time? Well, I finished day three in 11hrs, 55mins. 01second, and in 14th place overall. The bitter pill? There actually WAS no cutoff the final day! Oh well, at least I pushed myself 🙂

With this final leg done, I was wiped. I’d completed the race with an overall cumulative time of 29hrs. 14mins. and 57seconds., and a placing of 10th overall male, 14th overall. Day 3 also cost a number of racers their ability to fully complete the race. In addition to the 2 that dropped out on day 2, a whopping 7 more racers dropped out during day 3. So yes, I AM incredibly proud of my 12th out of 18 racers placement. I accomplished BOTH of the goals I’d set for myself that you may remember!

With the race over, it was time to very quietly try celebrating with a few beers, an insane amount of eating, and some well-deserved rest finally. A lot of my other friends did incredibly well, so we were all pretty happy with our races (almost all of them, sadly a couple friends ended in the DNF pile). At the finish I swore I’d never *need* to do that race again, but after writing this, and looking back on the experience, I don’t think I’ll rule out towing the line once again next year. We’ll see how the knee feels!

Well, I think I’ve monopolized faaar too much of everyone’s time on this post, but I think you’ll all agree that a race like that is worth a good story, right? Next on the menu? Relaxing. I basically decided to take (most) July off from racing, and not even training too heavily. I’m focusing on resting, enjoying music festivals, and the company of great people. There’s a lot more to life than training and racing as I’ve re-discovered, and I want to make sure I keep that in my mind too! With that I’ll bid you all a great day, and will fill you in from time to time on other stuff going on 🙂

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