65Km Trail Trial in the Charlevoix (My First ULTRA)

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Good day friends! Sometimes, you just have to take a chance on a race because it looks cool. Such was the case when I decided to head to the Charlevoix region of Quebec from the newly-minted Ultra-Trail Harricana 65km trail running race. I’ve been thinking about trying to tackle a really long running race for a little while now, and this one looked like it might fit the bill. Beautiful region, challenging course, small starting field, and a UTMB points qualifier. It was also going to be my only real running race of the year, after tackling a number of different fun races all summer. Seemed like the best way to close out my summer race season, and get ready for the lead-up for the wedding! So, Deanna, and I made a long weekend of it, and made the journey together. Read on for the full story, and don’t forget to check out all the cool pictures Deanna caught of racers during the event. Oh yeah, and I also covered it for the magazine as well.

Before I actually get to the race report, I feel I should explain a bit of the background of this event, because frankly, I’m a bit amazed at the whole organization of it. The race director (and one of the founders) is a fellow by the name of Sebastien Cote. He only started running 3 years ago. He has never put on an event before. He works in the IT side of things for CBC in the region working on their website I think. However, he had the idea to put on a great trail race. This year marked only the 2nd year of the event, and 1st year for the 65km option. However, he has secured major supporters including The North Face coming on as a title sponsor for the 65k event. This is HUGE, as it should allow the event to grow and get great exposure. To keep things manageable, the event featured a cap on racer numbers for both the 28k and 65k. Of course, this also serves to raise the prestige, as there was a lottery for people to enter as well. Seems pretty clever to me. But of course, the race and event can only be successful if everything works. So let’s break that down as we go.

Probably the worst part of the event for me had nothing to do with the race, but the drive. Deanna and I didn’t get out of the Ottawa area till after 11am, and with Friday traffic, and various construction projects, it took us over 8 hours of total travel time before we pulled into the race registration. Sadly, that can be a deal breaker if you want to go to a weekend race. However, it’s not too much of a damper if you’ve got a few days to spare. Also, it can make for a great road trip and mini-getaway. Unfortunately, we only have the weekend and extra day, so we were pooped. Luckily, on the drive home, we at least had time to stop at Montmorency Falls, as you’ll see below. The 65km race had a mandatory kit pickup and race briefing Friday at 8pm, so at least we weren’t too rushed. While that was going on, there were also guest speakers on site in rooms on topics such as nature photography and outdoor adventure, so if you weren’t racing, you had something to do. Nice touch. Unfortunately for Deanna, it was all in French, so there was a bit of language barrier.

My Pictures of Event and Montmorency Falls

We were given all the info we needed to know at the briefing. It had all been in the pre-race materials, but knowing not everyone reads those, it was spoon-fed to us that night. Personally, I would have preferred to go back to my BnB, get ready and sleep, but at least we were all in the same boat. Worst part of the briefing was realizing I’d have to get up at 3:30am, in order to be back onsite to be checked in and on a shuttle bus by 5am (we were staying 20 minutes away). YUCK! But enough of that. How was the race??

As some of you know, the Charlevoix region is not what you’d call ‘flat’. In fact, it is the opposite of flat. When all was said and done, my GPS tracked me as having run about 63km of distance, but also of having ascended over 2,700m! To be clear, that’s climbing only, not climbing and descending! I have never run that far in my life. Not in training, not in racing. I have of course done adventure races that covered much more total ground, and done other long MTB races and multi-day races, but for a single-day trail running effort, this was the pinnacle to date for me. While I have been trail running a lot this summer, my volume was limited mainly to my Tuesday and Sunday group workouts. In fact, my longest training solo training run was exactly 1 week prior to the race where I headed out and put in a 43km effort. Regardless, I was mentally ready.

The bus ride, as all 5am pre-race bus rides are, was dark and uneventful. I ate and drank, and chatted with other racers as we rolled through the rain and darkness. Happily, the rain let up before the start, and although cold and overcast, I’d have to say conditions were pretty much perfect. We lined up and got underway right at 7am. We were a group of about 120 racers at the start. Glancing around, I could tell that we were a pretty fit lot. Turns out that only people serious about running sign up for a 65km trail race. We were a sea of spandex, compression garments, ultralight race packs, and other various high-end outdoor gadgetry. Yup, I’ll admit it, I felt as though I were with my kin-folk!

My plan from the start was to hit a reasonable pace and not blow up early. The first sections were wide easy tracks, and going hard would be very easy. On the flats, I was trying to keep a pace of 5-5.5 minutes per km, knowing that on the hills, things would slow down a lot. My expectation was to cross the line with an average pace over the whole day of 7 to 8 minutes per km, including all stops. Put another way, I wanted to come in between 8 and 9 hours total time.

Things started out very smooth and easy for me. I felt awake and strong, and just fell into a comfortable running pace with a group of people around me. After a few km, there began to be natural breaks in the groups, with the ‘leaders’ having gone off, and the mid-packers splitting up as well. I was in a little grouping that seemed to have similar skill levels, but early in a race, you are never sure if that pace will break people ahead of you, or if others will surge from behind. To me, you truly are racing yourself out there. Also, you have to remind yourself the race is ahead of you, not behind you. In other words, always try to push forward to the person ahead of you, even if you can’t see them. Don’t wait for someone to catch you from behind, THEN push. You’ll already have lost your edge.

I know, that all sounds philosophical, but when you are running for 8 hours, much of it on your own in the woods, you do retreat to your mind, clear everything out except the task at hand, and work on it. Deanna often asks, “What did you think about out there”. And I struggle with the question. At times, I’m thinking about 100 things, but more often than not, I tend to just blank everything out, and focus only on the 2 feet to 10 feet ahead of me, picking out where my next footfall will land, what rock looks solid, which root to push off of, which void in the dirt will give me the best grip. In other words, I focus and think about running! Every footstep is new, so it never gets boring. It’s like a complex game with lots of obstacles. If you lose focus or get distracted, well, bad things can happen, as the people taken off the course in spinal boards by ATV will attest to.

As we made our way through the course, we traversed a lot of great terrain. There were, unfortunately, some sections of gravel roads that we had to use to link together the pure trails, and that’s where I lost all my time. In the woods, I felt in my element, king of the rocks and roots. I was almost never passed in the woods, and was probably strongest on technical climbs. However, as soon as I popped out onto a gravel road, within minutes, I’d get passed by other racers! It drove me nuts. At one point, I’d run probably 15-18km of trail on my own in the woods, sure I had a solid lead on others, but sure enough, hit the gravel, and they pulled up alongside seemingly out of nowhere. Grrrrr.

To break up the sections, there were also a total of 5 aid stations spread out on course. The longest stretch was from Aid 1 to Aid 2, which was kms 8 and kms 28. That station was the best thing ever, as we had just finished what was the toughest part of the course. They had something for everyone, and pretty much all of it what I’d call ‘real food’. Bananas, oranges, pita bread, honey, peanut butter, gnocchi, chocolate milk, water, hard boiled eggs, pretzels, yogurt, oatmeal. Yup, ALL that stuff! The aid stations in a race like this make all the difference. That, and the volunteers manning then, which in this case, were also top notch!

When the going got tough, You just had to figure out how long till the next aid station, or remind yourself that when you got to the top of a particularly grueling climb, you had the descent to look forward to. It also helped that we had some great views along the course, given where we were. Canada truly is an amazing country, and seeing all its various towns and natural gems is always invigorating. I often lament the fact that I don’t get to spend enough time in the places I race in, but at least when I’m racing, I do experience them up close and personal, and can connect with the land.

For the most part, my run was uneventful. Yes, there were periods when I wanted to stop. There were periods of pain, questioning my sanity, but that’s when you dig deep, and use your mental endurance to push through. The body can almost ALWAYS do what you think it can’t , but that’s the trick, you have to remind yourself of that fact. I would actually verbally tell myself to pick the pace up and jog up that hill rather than walk. My only near accident was when I passed one fellow, and we were running uphill in a boulder field. My foot slipped on a wet rock, and got lodged between a few boulders. Luckily, I stopped right away rather than snap my leg. The other guy did too, but the funny thing was my foot would not come out. I was pulling on it with both hands and it wouldn’t budge. To his credit the guy stuck around until we finally got my foot loose and kept going, but that was embarrassing. I let him go back ahead and ran behind him with my wounded ego.

At the 2nd last aid station, I was lucky enough to see my Deanna cheering me on. While it was 15km left for my race, it was also close to the 4km to go mark, so she had backtracked on the race course to see me there. It was great to see her, and at that point, I was feeling really strong, even though I was about 50k into the race. Sadly, after we parted, the wheels came off as I embarked on the last big climb of the race. I was sure that people would pass me in droves as my pace slowed to a near-walk. I’m guessing I wasn’t the only one in that boat however, as I didn’t see anyone the whole way up or most of the way down (until I hit a cursed gravel road, at which point 2 guys passed me!). However, once back off that mountain, we had a mere 8k to go, and the closing 6k were flat and fast, with the rain now coming down to cool us off.

In the closing 400m of the race, I saw there was a racer bearing down on me. It was a fellow that I had passed earlier after leg cramps had made him fall and he had to walk it off. I had made sure he was alright, then urged to keep going. I was worried he might try to make a run at my position, so picked up my pace to an absurd sprint in the death throes of the race. After the final little climb to the finish chute, I realized he was not chasing me down, so I slowed back down and enjoyed the closing strides while filming the finish. After crossing, I waited for him, and he told me he’d had no intention of passing me in the last 400m of the race. I suspect it is a bit of an unwritten ‘ultra’ rule that if someone helps you out, you don’t pip them at the line!

Oh, and that time at the line? In spite of my feeling like crap in the last section, I realized I was actually quite ahead of track, and ended up finishing in 7hrs 42mins! Better than I’d hoped for by a fair bit. It put me in 31st overall, and 15th in my category. Definitely a finish I could be proud of. Interestingly, there were no medals, no shirts, pretty much no fanfare. They were already dismantling the finish expo when I got in. The 28k and 10k events have the bigger profile, so I couldn’t help but feel bad when the 9hour mark passed, and there was only the finishing arch left out there with the announcer.

After the race, I enjoyed great post-race meal which included duck, and also had a delightful propane heated shower in a tent set up for us specifically onsite. It felt amazing. My body, on the other hand, wasn’t feeling that great. My feet were in surprisingly good shape, but legs were quite stiff. We stuck around a bit longer, before heading back to the BnB to change and have some supper. To close the night off, we actually returned to the race venue, as Sebastien had promised the post race party would be hoppin’. I had my doubts, but when we showed up, the bar at the ski hill venue was filling up, the beer was flowing, and there was live music. I was impressed again. Only 2nd year holding the event, and he had even managed to pull off the elusive ‘post-race party’ that so many other events fail at. Perhaps it is a cultural thing, with Quebecer’s just that much better at enjoying life? Either way, it was a nice way to cap off the experience.

I think my closing thought here is that I really liked this event. Perhaps all ultras are like that, filled with passionate people and put on by people that truly want to put on a memorable event, but either way, I’d highly recommend Ultra-Trail Harricana, for so many reasons. It’s a long way to go, so I doubt it’ll become a yearly occurrence, but it has certainly made me curious to try another ultra for comparison. Perhaps something even longer… 100k perhaps?? Forgive me, clearly I have not suffered quite enough to make me think that I’m as crazy as others think I am….

Well, that about wraps it up. It’s time to go radio silent for a little while. I have to get married after all! Then head off for vacation. I’m sure I’ll fill you all in on some of those exciting things, but it might be a while, so I hope you enjoyed this little ‘tale from the trails’!

Video Review of the Event

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