Taking the Ultimate Challenge for a 2nd Time

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Silver for me in Mens Open

Let’s just clear the air here once again people. There is no such thing as an EASY race. Nor can there be a ‘relaxing’ race, or a ‘fun’ race. You are either racing, or you are participating. Why don’t I know that by now? As you are probably aware, last year I participated in the ‘Full Challenger’ version of UltimateXC. 3 gruelling days of racing, starting with a 67km kayak leg, then a 57km trail run, capped by a 100km mountain bike leg, all of which took place on and around Mont Tremblant. It was probably the toughest race I’ve ever competed in. But a great venue and event, so I wanted to come back. However, I opted to race in the 1/2 Challenger version, so a ‘mere’ 21km paddle, 21km run, and 50km mountain bike. My logic was that it would give me more time to just relax and enjoy the resort village. Ha! I fooled myself. This was still a tough race, and thanks to good friends and competitors, a hard fought battle for the podium. Curious about the whole story? Glad you are, as I will fill you in on all the gory details after the break. Before that, why not have a look at some of my pictures from the race as well?

As with last year, a group of us were planning on doing the race, but this year, the registration for the 3-day challenger events were way down. Last year, there were 39 of us signed up for the full challenger. This year? A mere 8 souls were braving the course again. As to the 1/2 Challenger, there were only 7 of us that began the race, and a mere 6 that actually finished! If it weren’t for the people registering for just the paddle, run, or bike days, there would be enough, so I’m glad they did sign up in large numbers, and that Dan continues to put on the 3-day race in spite of lower numbers. Here’s hoping that next year, the numbers take another upswing, because this truly is an epic race that deserves to be recognized and raced by those hardcore athletes out there! In our room in Tremblant village, two of us were doing the 1/2 Challenger (Mike Abraham and I), and two were doing the full (Pete Dobos and Pierluc). The accommodations were simple but adequate, and we had a full kitchen so that we could do a bit of cooking as well if we chose to.

The weather over the three days was absolutely perfect, if not just a touch too hot in the mid-day hours. For the paddle, we had nearly dead calm waters, which meant a fast easy race for all those on super-slick carbon fiber surfskis. It was definitely hot, but that’s better than a miserable paddle in the wind an rain. The run day and bike days were both pretty sunny and hot days with light winds. It would have been pretty insufferable had it not been for the fact that much of this race takes us into the woods where it is reasonably cool. Speaking of the woods, we had been warned that the bugs were out in massive numbers, so both Saturday and Sunday, my ritual included covering head to toe in sunscreen, waiting 30 minutes, then applying a liberal coat of bug dope, waiting a bit more, then slapping on my spandex outfit of choice. However, I didn’t find the bugs bad at all at any time. So again, a total plus for the weekend and the racing.

The only mild annoyance of the weekend was the fact that the 2 full challengers in our room had to be up super early each day for their race (I’m talking 4am here). That was due to 6am starts for them. On the other hand, our starts were at noon on Friday, and 10am on both Saturday and Sunday, so we had more time to sleep in and enjoy the lodgings. But that’s hard to do when, for example, the entire room is being smoked out by Pete cooking sausages at 4:30am on Friday morning! Ha ha. But like I said, only a minor annoyance, and all part of the experience and the collective memories! Alright, enough idle chit chat, let’s get on to the actual racing and daily results, which I’ll tackle by day/discipline for your ease of reading 🙂

Day 1: 21km Paddle on Lac Tremblant

Friday morning was the paddle. For us, it was a straightforward grind along the length of Lac Tremblant. 10.5 km up, loop around a boat that acted as a checkpoint, and 10.5 km paddle back. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Well, save for one thing. I hadn’t brought a boat! This was on purpose however, as I was thinking of buying a new boat for racing, and had a line on a couple at this race that I could try. So at 9am, I was already at the water trying out boats and deciding what I’d race on, even though the race didn’t start till noon. I settled on a Cobra Eliminator, a serious looking boat, albeit plastic. Based on an old K1 kayak design, but basically bulletproof. 17 feet long, and great for adventure racing due to the design. That out of the way, it was time to line up.

The racers were basically split into two groups. In the front, the day racers, all of whom were out on uber-fancy carbon and kevlar surf skis measuring 20+ feet each. When the gun went off, these guys quickly glided out of our reach. Behind them was the rest of the racers, the majority of which were in the 1/2 challenger camp. Luckily, I found myself at the front of that group. Right off the bat, Mike and I found ourselves leading the 2nd group. We matched each other stroke for stroke for most of the first 10.5k. He started pulling away near the turnaround, and I had a hard time responding right away. I also ran out of drink before the turnaround. Not a good thing, as the heat and sun were doing a number on me and my long sleeved shirt. I was hot and sweaty, with no relief in sight. There was an aid station, but since Mike skipped it, I had no choice. A volunteer tossed a little vial of X4 at me at the turnaround. No idea what it was, but I shot it down. Tasted like super concentrated grape freezie.

Bzzzz! Whatever it was, it kicked in, and I was able to bring back some razor-like focus to my paddling and bridged back the gap to Mike, and together we both passed the next closest fellow ahead of us on an outrigger surf ski. We then battled hard the rest of the way back to the finish line. I was getting really thirsty, and the only thing I could do was occasionally scoop a handful of water from the side of the boat and slurp it. Mike kept up the pace, but we were both slowing a bit. Once again, near the end, he pulled ahead a little bit, and I just couldn’t respond. At the finish, he pipped me by a mere 39 seconds. That put Mike in 1st for the 1/2 Challengers, and me in 2nd. I was happy with that for day 1. The rest of the challengers finished shortly after us, with 3rd place coming in 3 minutes later. The pack was pretty tight going into day 2.

For the full challengers, they’d had a loooong day on the water. In the end, Pete Dobos came off the water in 1st place overall, and was extremely happy with that result. The top 4 paddlers all used exactly the same boat. Plastic as well, but longer and more ‘racy’ than mine. However, it was also a $1000 more than what I’d be paying. Oh yeah, that’s right, I decided to buy the boat I raced with, I liked it so much! So now Deanna and I both have boats to go out paddling in 🙂

Day 2: 21km Trail Run on Mont Tremblant

Yay! Trail running day! In my mind, this was my only chance to get any time on Mike as well as my next closest competitors. Mike is a strong runner too, but I thought my experience running the 56k race last year, and the fact that I had just come off a 3:16 marathon after months of training, should give me an edge. With that, I seeded myself at the very front of the pack for the start, as did all the other challengers though! The race started at about 10:15am, and the course looked quite reasonable. The opening 8km was on relatively flat rolling trails, looping back into the village before launching us straight up the mountain in the technical trails. In other words, a chance to warm up on the ‘flats’ before facing the headwalls. At the starting gun, I wasted no time in launching myself into the very front grouping of racers, even if they were only day racers. However, Mike was right on my heels the whole way. We led a pretty blistering pace through that first 8k loop, and by the time we were back in the village, I had distanced myself from the other Challengers, and now was on my own in the front, with the day racers. I kept pushing hard, trying to gauge the effort I could put in without seriously damaging myself for day 3. That was difficult to do during the euphoria of the race.

Pushing hard, I hit the steep climbs with a lot of spring in my step. I ran almost 100% of the course, which if you saw some of the climbs you’d understand why when I say ‘run’ it isn’t very fast! As far as I know, it was paying off, and I was even passing some of the day racers. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no way of knowing where Mike was in all of this. No looking back, I said, and kept telling myself he was right there. During the run, I had a water pack which I drank from the whole way. At aid stations, I’d grab another glass of electrolyte drink, and I had a grand total of 2 gels as well. But I felt strong and fresh almost the whole way, which was what I’d hoped for. My only tough spot came at the very end. I was catching up to another fellow on the downhills, and after hitting the village, I tried sprinting past him, at which point my calves screamed in protest and started cramping! D’oh. I dropped the pace and hobbled to the finish line a few hundred meters further.

At the line, I crossed in 1st of the challengers with a time of 2:04:16, putting in nearly 6 minutes on Mike, and over 20 minutes on the next closest challenger. With that, I was now in 1st, with 5 minutes in the bank to Mike, and 27 minutes to J-R who was in 3rd. Even better in my mind was the fact that I came 7th overall in the 21k run, out of over 130 trail runners! Great result there. Mikes time was also good enough for 12th overall, and 2nd in his category, for which he got a silver medal! Nice. With the run done, Mike and I hung out for a while at the finish watching others, then grabbed the chairlift to the summit to do some sightseeing. Ironically, soon after arriving there, Pete was just coming through a checkpoint at the summit before heading downhill to the finish. He looked a bit rough, and apparently, the run had taken A LOT out of him. I think he was already worried about the next day. All the full challengers looked pretty beat up at the end. I remember that feeling from last year, and even worse, the horror of realizing that the next day, you had to mount your bike for 100km of the most difficult mountain biking you can picture. Ugh! I was suddenly VERY glad I only had 50km of riding to do! And so endeth day 2 for me!

Day 3: 50km Mountain Biking around Mont Tremblant

To say that day 3 is hard is definitely an understatement. After 2 days racing, getting up and starting the engine up again is tough. This year, it was much easier to do thankfully, and I was elated to find that I still had pretty strong legs to start this day off. Of course, so did my nemesis Mike. And to top it off, biking is by far his strong suit, as well as J-R’s, the fellow in 3rd currently. On a 50km bike, I could easily lose the 27 minutes to him. I headed to the start line with Mike with great trepidation. There was chit chat with both he and J-R, but there was no joking when I told them this was my weakest link, and that I would be lucky to stay close. They knew that though, and they were hungry to chew me up on the bike. That was abundantly evident when the race got underway. J-R and Nat (his girlfriend) took off like bullets right away. I had to pump my little legs double fast just to keep up. This was not inspiring confidence. Mike was also sucking my wheel right away. Ironically, our little group was actually leading the entire charge, with the single day racers behind us. I took a mental note that this was probably not the smartest way to start the long bike.

It wasn’t long before other racers started passing me, including Mike. I watched, feeling a bit helpless, as the little group started putting distance ahead of me. I kept telling myself that this was for the good in the long run, as there were lots of tough climbs coming up, and I was hoping that they would burn themselves out or maybe not keep as hydrated as they should, and accordingly, suffer a bit more than me later in the day. I did my best to keep a very even pace, and whenever I caught glimpses of riders ahead, tried to keep the distance constant. In a little while, we started hitting the long climbs, and here I was able to make up some time, and catch some of the stragglers on the front of the group. When the going got tough uphill, I’d hop off, but jog up the inclines, which was met with a lot of surprise when racers learned I’d been racing all weekend. I made sure I kept putting electrolytes in me, ate food when I could, and drank lots. The plan was to keep running in top form.

Unfortunately, that fell apart for me around kilometer 36 or so I think. We had finished a really long uphill climb followed by some really gnarly and technical descending. We were now turning back up the hill for a long exposed climb on an access road. That’s when the cramps hit me. Leg cramps. The most painful and prolonged cramps I’ve felt in a long time. It reminded me of a 48hr race I did once where I was taken off course for severe dehydration. The cramps hit, and I just completely fell over sideways from the pain. It was like someone was passing an electric current into my muscles directly, causing them to fully contract and not let go. I was devastated. I screamed in agony, and passing cyclists felt my pain. I dug as deep as I possibly could to tell my brain to ignore the cramps and keep going. As the muscles seized and pulsated, I was able to force myself to walk/shuffle, dragging the legs as I went. Gradually, the cramps would fade and allow me to ride for another while, but always seemed to come back later down the trail for the rest of the ride. I did A LOT of walking on the final sections, and it DID NOT make me happy. I knew with each walking ‘break’ I took, my competitors were gaining on me.

When I finally rolled down the final steep pitches back into the village, I was mentally crushed. I put on as much speed as I could muster, but feared the worst. I knew the worst would be 3rd place on the podium, but even that depressed me, knowing I had held the top rung. I crossed the finish line, still elated by the accomplishment, but needing to know the outcome. J-R was there to greet me right away, and grinning, he said ‘I nailed you on that one, I finished long ago’. But just how long? Well, it turns out it was only 13 minutes earlier, which mean I still had roughly 15 minutes on him overall! Sweet! 2nd was assured. But what about Mike? He was nowhere to be found. Turns out he finished another 7 minutes ahead of J-R. Between them, they grabbed 1st and 2nd overall for the 50k bike of all the competitors! Very nice. If you do the math, it essentially meant Mike was on the top rung, and roughly 15 minutes back was me, and another 15 minutes back was J-R. We were all pretty stoked with the results. Mike a little less energetic, mainly due to the fact that the effort on the bike landed him in the medical tent as he was very dizzy and lightheaded. Turns out they both gave it their all on the bike, which makes me feel pretty decent about how I finished, considering it was my weakness!

Looking back on the whole weekend, it was once again cemented in my mind that UltimateXC is a tough race. But it’s also a great race. A competitor’s race. You can run head to head with the best, or race yourself. Either way, there is something for every level of racer there. Everyone comes out both grinning, as well as with a bit of angst over the difficulty of the race. But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. As you can tell, this was not a ‘lazy weekend’ by any stretch. As to enjoying Tremblant and sightseeing? Well, we went out for supper once. We hit the gondola to take in the views once, and took a quick dip in the hot tub. But, I enjoyed many kilometers of some of the best paddling, running, and riding in the region, and that in itself made for an epic ‘vacation’ 🙂 That ends my tale for this race. Stay tuned for my next report, where I hopefully can claim my place among the Spartans. Yup, the Spartan Race is coming up, and I’ll be reporting on it for Get Out There Magazine. Till then, stay cool!!

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