Category Archives: Race Review Videos

The Good and Bad at Gatineau Loppet

Howdy folks! While the sun may be shining, and thoughts are definitely fully turned to summer training and adventures, now is as good a time as any to put fingers to keyboard to muse a little about another weekend of Winter racing I partook in during the depths of our winter in February. I’m talking about the venerable Gatineau Loppet, part of the World Loppet Series of cross-country ski events that takes place right in my backyard. Pit your skills against crusty Norwegians who have been at it since you were knee-high to a grasshopper. Or something like that. The race does have an International flavour and attracts a broad swath of avid cross-country skiers. Much the same as a big event like the Ottawa Marathon does for the running community. I always love the vibe at this event, and like to participate every year. As I have done in the past, I opted to race 2 days back to back this year, starting with the linear 51km Classic Ski event on Saturday, and ending with the fast and furious 27km Skate Ski event on Sunday. So which was good and which was bad? Read on to find out!

Before the Ski

Astute ActiveSteve followers will note that precisely one week prior to this event, I willed myself to ski 160km in questionable ski conditions, and slept overnight on a peasantly hay bale with only the clear skies overhead to shelter me. In other words, my body was likely somewhat cooked to begin with, right? I think I only got out for 1 ski during the entire week between the events, and definitely spent more time worrying about waxing and ski conditions for the weekend. I tell you, this stuff can really do a number on your head. It’s an art to get the skis just right, and makes a heck of a difference.

Leading into the weekend, the conditions on both days looked as if they’d be rather trying. Specifically, at the time we were to start the events, it would be relatively cool, with temperatures below zero. However, on both days, ma nature really wanted crank the heat fast, with temperatures rising FAST in the morning. I’m talking +8 degrees Celsius kind of heat. And intense sun. What does that lead to? How about nice ski tracks magically turning into mushy slush faster than you can say ‘klister’! The general online concensus was ‘ski fast’ in order to get the best conditions early in the day, and wrap the event up before things really went to shit. I picked up some new wax the day before the Classic event in hopes that it would do the trick.

I lovingly prepared my skis, with numerous coats of hot wax ironed, scraped and brushed out. These are my ‘race’ skis, so they were completely different from the skis I used in the CSM the week before. My theory was that I should be able to fly, since I had light, fast skis, and no giant, weighty pack on my back to contend with. Deanna and I were both doing the same events, so we both got a decent nights sleep before heading off to the buses for the start in the morning. Caught up with a bunch of other friends that were skiing before finding my way to my start wave, watching the elites take off at an astounding clip while I was doing laps on the warm-up track near the start.

Classic Route Imge

Now it was time for me to go. For whatever reason, I’d been placed in the second to last wave. I knew that I was capable of skiing much faster than most of my fellow wave skiers, but didn’t really care that much. I made sure I was at the front of this wave, which would mean very little start line issues, and only had to navigate my way through thicker crowds as we closed the 2 minute gap on the wave before (it didn’t take long!). I felt decent at the start, but my skis just didn’t seem to have the kick that I wanted. I was having a devil of a time getting into the groove, and felt my skis slipping just the slightest bit with every stride. This did not bode well for my overall time.

Lucky for me, I was also filming this event, so I could take a bit of extra time to try and get footage while I was skiing, and use that as an ‘excuse’ for poorer performance than I would have liked. To be clear, it isn’t like I was the slowest skier ever, and my overall finish time was certainly respectable, at 4h11 minutes (I had been aiming for sub 4 hours), and about mid-pack. However, I KNOW I’m capable of better, and that was definitely playing head games with me while I was slogging through. It became exceptionally trying when the sun really started slushing up the tracks. Lucky for me, that didn’t happen until the final 1/4 of the event, where things were mostly downhill. It was very bizarre in certain areas. I’d be flying down a hill in the shade, in full tuck, but if I crossed into a sunny patch, the skis basically got stuck right there, and I had to PUSH downhill. I could only laugh about it, as everyone was in the boat as I was. Wax was no longer a factor.

At the Start Area

I crossed the line feeling as good as I could hope, and tried not to think too much about the fact that I had to race once again the next day, in a discipline that I felt was my worse of the two. In potentially even more trying conditions. Ugh… what could I do? Rather than dwell on it, I milled about in the lovely sunshine (for spectating anyway) awaiting the lovely Deanna to finish her race, so that we could then both enjoy the post-race meal. She also wasn’t too happy with her time, and had been slower than hoped. We both agreed it was the weather and snow, not us! Food consumed, it was time to head home and prep skis for the next morning.

Arriving at Finish Classic

Our goal was to get to bed early, resting as much as possible. However, between more eating, and methodical hot waxing, it still felt hurried. As a last ditch effort, I contacted a certain ski guru friend of mine to lend their mad skills to our efforts. You see, I wanted to put ‘rills’ into our skis. These are essentially like the sipes you see on tires that help channel water away from the tire. I didn’t have the tool, but I knew people who did. And they were kind enough to let me intrude on THEIR race prep to help out. Even more than that, they took it upon themselves to actually help out by putting on some finishing layers for VERY high-end race wax onto our skis. I swear this stuff came out of a giant custom-built wooden chest that contained only a tiny nubbin of this rare earth material bestowed only to Ski Gods from Nordic spirits. Either way, I was very thankful for the help and the special wax job. I went home and went to sleep dreaming of how special my skis would be the next morning.

Skate Route Imge

And you know what? They WERE!! Even on a short warm up, they felt extra ‘slippery’ which is very good indeed for skate skiing. I just hoped I’d be able to control them. Again, the temperature swings would ultimately determine how people finished the day, but knowing I had the right rills and a high-fluoro topcoat certainly gave me every advantage I could hope for. In an effort to somehow prove my worth to my guardian ski angel, I vowed to ski my heart out on this event. Once again, for reasons not completely clear, I was relegated to a wave much further back than I felt I deserved. But again, I stuck myself at the very front, and when the start signal went off, well, you can see by the picture that I veritably launched myself into this race. My body completely ignored the 2 weekends of punishment I’d put it through, and responded to my every command to muster strength.

In no time flat I was flying UP the first hill, and at the same time weaving my way through the entire wave that had started 2 minutes ahead of me (or so it seemed). Having really no clue where I was sitting in overall standings, I just focused on my race, and skiing smoothly, channeling all the pointers I’ve gotten over the years. Most importantly though,  I was having FUN. A blast really. The pain was there, but numbed by the sheer joy of skiing in such a great place in such great conditions. On the longest climb of the race, I settled in at a reasonable pace, as there was virtually no way to pass many people on the uphill, due to the narrow track. This let me save up a little extra energy for the next push. Back on wide tracks, I had the thrill of seeing the leaders (and yes, my guardian ski angel was at the pointy end of the stick in this event, finishing 2nd overall!

Skating on Parkway

For my part, when I finally crossed the finish line, arms held high, I still didn’t know how I fared. My time was a very happy 1h38mins, better than my target time. It wasn’t until later at the ski expo that I learned that I actually got 3rd in my age group! I was 38th overall, in what I would consider a VERY competitive field. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t just a little proud of my result. I *think* it may be my best ever ski result! The real takeaway was to never give up or assume you are starting a race in a certain condition. Trust your training and trust your abilities. The body is a remarkable machine capable of great feats. By all rights, on paper, I might have just thrown in the towel and opted to just cruise on the day, but I opted to push myself and see what might happen, even after a hard 3 days of racing in the past week.

Crossing the Line

Of course, it DID help that I had fast skis, no doubt about that! Deanna also had a great race on Sunday, and it both left us feeling a lot more upbeat than the Saturday slog. Considering we were heading to a potluck supper that night with fellow athletes, it was nice to finish on a high. After all, we’d be surrounded by literally the best racers of the weekend, including the fellow who won both the 50k classic AND 50k skate events!! It’s always so inspiring to hang out with these casual, yet top-performing athletes. I don’t claim to be anywhere at their level, but I can still relate to what it takes to get there, and the enormous pressure people put on themselves internally, even if they don’t seem to.

All in all, this was a great weekend racing doing the things we love. I was happy to once again lug a camera with me both days in order to pull together a review video of the events. If you haven’t done so yet, why not check the video out now, and see how things looked from ‘the inside’. Till next time, stay active, get out there, and have FUN!

Looking for Gold out on the Ski Trails

Never again… until next year. If any of you have ever done the Canadian Ski Marathon, you know that this is the unofficial slogan of the event. With 160km of challenging cross-country skiing over 2 days, this is one tough event. This is made even tougher for those of us brave (foolish?) enough to tackle the event as a Gold Coureur des Bois, which means we have to do the entire event wearing a heavy pack containing all we need for the weekend, since we would be sleeping overnight outdoors on a hay bale! For me, this was actually my 4th Gold Camp, and 6th year in a row that I’ve done the CSM. My run started in 2012, when I decided I wanted to try the ‘bronze’ category just one time. Well, surprise surprise, it is now 2017, and I’ve taken part in (and fully completed) every event since then! Read on for a bit more colour around this years’ event.

CSM 2017 - Gold Bar

Last year, the CSM was my only race / event of the entire winter. I had been suffering from pretty bad plantar fasciitis through the fall, and decided to minimize the stresses to my foot over winter by only having one big event. As such, I managed to put in some very solid dedicated training, and showed up fully prepped for this classic-only ski event. This year, I’ve decided to put more events on my calendar, and cover a range of sports, meaning I was training not only for Classic Skiing, but also skate skiing, snowshoe running, and other general strength training. This meant I had pretty high general fitness, but hadn’t overloaded on Classic training. Turns out, that worked just as well. Moral of that story? I’d say unless you are at the very pointy end of the competitive field, adding variety into your training program will give you a better overall fitness, and keep things interested. I plan to employ that going forward into this year. Even though all my races are focused on trail running, I’m planning to do a bit more cycling for variety.

Ok, back to the event. As you can appreciate, you never really know what you’ll get in February in this region. Will it be raining? Will it be snowing? Will it be windy? Super cold? That’s really the challenge of this event. The weather. The reality of the situation is that most times, the weather will change several times over the course of the event. This year was no different. Mornings started out quite cold, meaning we had to layer up appropriately. However, as the day wore on, temperatures rose enough to make it ‘comfortable’. These temperature changes can lead to some waxing challenges as well. I’ve gotten decent at waxing, which meant I had ‘ok’ wax the whole weekend, which I think is better than having ‘great’ wax part of the day, then crappy wax later. The other thing that adds a layer of complexity is when it snows. You can have really old snow base, but piling on a few centimeters of fresh powder can make a big difference.

Skiers Getting Ready

As with past years, the event started at Gold Dorm for me on Friday nights. As usual, pretty much a mad scramble to get my butt home from work, pack up the car, and get to the venue. Things were made a little more complicated by the fact that it was snowing quite heavily most of the way there. Things were ok for me, but Deanna had to drive all the way home after dropping me off. I probably got there around 8pm or so, giving me just enough time to sort through my gear, catch up with a few friends, and try to grab some sleep. The good news is that we’d all be able to walk to the start line. The bad news was that the start time was before 6am, which meant a 4am wake-up call!

After stuffing my face with breakfast, I bundled up and headed out. The snow accumulation was pretty decent, and the big flakes were still falling from the sky. I stomped over to the start area with my pack and skis, lining up with the rest of my CdB Gold friends, awaiting the starting signal. We got underway right on time, and as usual, everyone was jockeying for good positions from the start, knowing that inevitably, there would be a choke point on the trail. I made the mistake of starting a little too far back, which meant I was a victim of this choke point, and had to fight my way through a sizeable number of skiers before I finally found my stride and had some trail to myself. I’d say that for most of the first leg, I was in this kind of position. My wax was working well enough, but the tracks were pretty snow-filled. I suppose that was one fringe benefit of being further back. I didn’t have to break trail!

Day1 Track Image

Skiing the first leg is always somewhat unique, in that we are all skiing in the darkness and are all at peak readiness level. I’d like to say that the event gets easier, but that is not the case. What I can say is that it definitely becomes a better understood challenge. I’m starting to really know the trails, where the tough parts are, and what level of effort to put in at any point in time to ensure successful completion. I generally end up with a 1-2 hour cushion of time prior to the cutoff on each day. This is calculated on my part. I don’t really have any need to ‘race’ this event. All you do is get too tired, and end up sitting around Gold Camp with very little to do other than choke on campfire smoke and fight off the chill J.

This year didn’t seem to present us with any ‘really’ difficult challenges, but rather a series of smaller challenges that when put together apparently lead to a pretty high number of DNFs. I’ve been trying to figure out exactly what that is, but couldn’t put my finger on it. I think it boils down to the notion that people who have done this event enough times, and/or are just very stubborn about endurance events, will always find a way to get through. After all, it is usually the mental aspects, not physical, that cause DNFs. The event really lets you learn about yourself. I can guarantee that every year I hit 1 or 2 patches where I swear I’m never going to do it again, and fail to understand why I’m there. But by the very same token, there are a number of places where you just pull your head up, look around at the beauty and the sheer awesomeness of undertaking something like this, and you smile to yourself. You hold on to those thoughts, and let the other ones go. That’s the key.

Frozen Beard at Checkpoint

While the first day was relatively cold, I kept moving, stuck to short breaks in the aid stations, and pushed on until things warmed up in the afternoon. I’d say the only real annoying part of the trail this year was based on mother nature. Given that the CSM is only really a groomed trail for a few days, there are major challenges to preparing the track. This year, we had a few sessions of heavy freezing rain earlier in the season. When the CSM people tried to prepare the track, the groomer was unable to fully chop up the ice to give a smooth track. Instead, it pulled up a lot of coarse ice. In some sections, it literally looked like I was skiing on an endless trail of ice cubes embedded in the snow. Bye bye grip wax! Within 5k of any aid station, much of the wax would be scraped off. To add to the challenge posed, some of the hills were VERY treacherous, especially if you were unlucky enough to ski down them AFTER a large number of the ‘Tourers’ had gone through (these folks pick and choose sections to ski).

In the end, I made it to gold camp safe and sound with at least a couple hours of light left. This gave me ample time to change into warm clothes (yay for new ‘puffy pants’), start trying to dry gear, get food into me, and set up my little mouse bed of hay. Once again, I linked up with my AR buddies from NY, several of whom had beat me to the camp. As usual, stories were swapped, jokes were cracked, and food and booze was passed around. And once again, like last year, we were actually provided with beer at gold camp! Bonus!

Around Gold Camp

Unfortunately, there was a bit of an ominous cloud hanging over the entire camp. News had been spreading of a fellow that collapsed and passed away on the trail. I had missed this, as he was a bit further behind me. However, one of my camp mates was actually the first on the scene, and essentially stayed with this fellow for over an hour (with 5 other), provide CPR the entire time until the paramedics finally made it to them. When he arrived to our camp, we could clearly tell there was some trauma there. I can’t even imagine going through it. He’d even left most of his dry clothes there, as he’d covered the person in an attempt to keep them warm. It was a very sobering couple hours as we all coped with this news and the ramifications. The next morning, there was a minute of silence to commemorate the skier before we took off, but the event continued, as it should, in my opinion.

Overnight, we were fortunate enough NOT to be snowed on. There is nothing worse than needing to dig your way out of your sleeping bag in the morning! Temperatures were low, but not super cold either. As with other years, getting up on day 2 proved to be one of the biggest challenges. The mere act of stripping down, re-dressing, and needing to prepare food and pack everything back into our backpacks is a drain. On the plus side, you really don’t have much of an option, and the day can only get better, right? I can’t even imagine how challenging it must be for people like Ray Zahab to pull off a self-supported Arctic Expedition in the dead of winter!

Day2 Track Image

Back on the trails at 5:30am the next morning, sliding away into the darkness as they prepared to ‘burn down the camp’. I once again let myself start at about ¾ of the way back in the pack. Definitely wasn’t in a rush (yet). I wanted to see how the skis felt and what kind of energy I had. Happily, I seem to have most aspects of this event dialed in now, down to the amount of food I bring for both the trail and camp, so I didn’t feel too drained. I suppose one other point worth mentioning is that I was once again filming the event, which always adds a little extra complexity for me. Filming in winter is a challenge in the best of conditions, but trying to keep gear dry, warm, and functional while taking part in something like this is a whole other challenge. Batteries need to be considered, clothing choices like gloves to operate gear. Mounts, where to stash the camera, etc. Bottom line is that while I can pull it off, there’s a lot more to those 2 minutes of footage you might see than you might imagine!

For the most part, I simply went with the snow, and enjoyed my day skiing a long way with several hundred other like-minded folks. Early in the day, the trails were pretty good, with just low temperatures to contend with. As the day wore on and the legs got heavier, the snow once again decided to attack us. The snow got progressively heavier as the day wore on, which made things VERY beautiful to see, but did get tiring as your face was constantly bombarded by little cold bits of precipitation. Oh yeah, and the wind also decided to pick up! By the time I found myself on the last leg of the day (which is always a great relief), I was ready to be done. This year, the changed the route slightly again, allowing us to basically ski right to the finish line behind the Lachute School. Unfortunately, this meant quite a bit of skiing on essentially city roads. We were lucky to have snow falling, as I suspect without that, the skis would have been completely destroyed (as opposed to only mostly destroyed, which is what you get at CSM!).

Snow Starts Falling

The finish line, which was meant to be a festive atmosphere, looked more like the frozen planet of Hoth, and I felt like Luke Skywalker just trying to find my way back to base. The snow was blowing hard, and there were no cheering crowds. Just a few hearty individuals, and the announcers huddled in an enclosed tent calling out names of finishers and playing tunes. As soon as I crossed the line, I took off the skis and headed inside to find heat, and a warm(ish) shower. Too bad my feet had gotten destroyed out there. They were quite raw from being wet and rubbing in my boots. When the water hit my body, I was jolted into full awakeness once again, as they pain went through my body. But the pain just served to remind me that I had done it once again, and collected my gold bar. Another year in the books.

As per usual, I had little time to celebrate or reflect, as the next weekend, I was slated to do 2 back to back ski races again. I hung around the school for a bit while I waited for Deanna to make her way to me again. Not an easy feat, as the snowstorm was wreaking havoc in the area. The entire highway had been shut down, so she had to take less-maintained side roads to reach me. Getting home was quite an ordeal, and I managed to stay awake long enough to first hit McDonalds, then get home and crash. After all, I had to work the next morning early!

I’d say that about wraps things up for this year’s story. I’m surprised my post ran this long, given that for the most part, it just feels like Groundhog’s Day to me. Thanks for reading, and stay tuned for my next race stories, which will chronicle my next week’s races. If you have a few minutes, why not check out my resulting video, posted below. At least you’ll get some of the visuals from the weekend! Till next time, stay active!

Two Nights and a Day Tackling 125k

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.

UTHC 125k Race

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.

Annie Taping Feet

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.

Copyright Karine Maltais 2

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.

UTHC View from Top

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’!

UTHC At 56k Mark

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.

UTHC Racer Taking a Break

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.

UTHC Along the River

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.

Finish Area at Night

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!

Sebastien and Steve

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!

Race Video

Sights of Charlevoix Video

Triple Shot of Technical Trails

Greetings once again friends. Well, fresh on the heels of my last race, I had a brief 2-week reprieve before my next big adventure. And this one? A race I’ve been waiting to try out for a few years now known as XC de la Vallée. Located north of Quebec City in a little area known as St Raymond, I’d heard the stories of how this is one of the toughest trail races in Eastern Canada. Of course I had to check it out. There are numerous race options, but you just know I had to choose the toughest option, a 3-day staged version of the event, featuring a 10k night stage on Friday, a 38k stage on Saturday, and wrapping things up with a 21k stage on Sunday. Yes, the distances sound a bit ‘short’ for the type of running I’ve been doing this year, and YES, that did in fact come into play in my performance. More details as you read on….

XC De La Vallee 2016

As you read in my last post, one of my challenges in my last 3-day race was day 2. Well, as luck would have it, there was a repeat of that theme in this event, and its again completely my fault and some poor race planning on my part. You see, given the shorter distances, and the fact that I didn’t have to carry a heavy pack with me, I took this race as being a little easier on me. My original plan had been to treat this whole race as a training weekend, and go easy, just making sure that I was in good shape at the end of it in order to be prepared for the big kahuna, my 125k race 3 weeks later. However, for whatever reason, I chucked that plan out the window shortly after arriving onsite.

The problem with XC de la Vallee (and it isn’t really a problem), is the atmosphere of the event. You see, people like me who chose to race all 3 days in the Trans Vallee event as its called, were, for the most part, camping onsite en masse. The result is a giant collective of some of the best trail runners in eastern Canada (and in particular Quebec). You can practically feel the energy in the atmosphere as you pull into the rustic camping area (don’t expect showers, proper bathrooms or electricity here…). All around you are nervously excited race horses swapping war stories from past conquests and getting ready to do battle in this event.

In addition to a lot of strangers around me, there was also a pretty good contingent of the top trail runners that I train with in Gatineau Park. Of course, all of this was too much for me to simply hang back and treat this as a ‘training weekend’. Curse my inability to just take it easy.

Night Pic2

Stage 1: The 10k Night Course

As mentioned, stage one was a measly 10km to be run at night. 3 loops of a pretty technical little course in the woods. 10k. That’s nothing, right? So what did I do? Well, I went out guns blazing. To be clear, I was nowhere near the front pack, but I was most definitely pushing harder than I should. I was treating this stage as if it was a standalone race, like a Mad Trapper snowshoe race. Meaning, I let my heart rate ratchet up to around 164, and held it there the whole 10k. It wasn’t until somewhere around the middle of my 3rd and final lap that it occurred to me this might not be a good idea. I have ONLY been training for endurance running, not sprinting! Sure, I could pull it off, but at what price? Well, I’d find out the next day!

I slowed my pace down just a touch in the last lap to cross the finish line in just over an hour. Happy enough with my time, even though it was nothing spectacular compared to others. However, a LOT of people were ONLY there for the 10k night course, OR were racing 10k on Saturday instead of the 38k (which is known as the Trans Express). So of course I wasn’t going to place highly. After finishing, I enjoyed a very tasty Quinoa salad with cheese, bread, fruit,cookies and drinks. Not a bad spread to enjoy! From there, it was off to the tent to get a decent night’s sleep before the morning.

XC - Stage2 Tough Terrain

Stage 2: 38k of Technical Trails

The next morning came far too soon, and I shook myself awake, put on a fresh race shirt for this day while getting my food and drinks ready. Ahead of us was shuttle bus ride to the start area, then 38km of what was billed as the toughest trail race in Quebec. How tough could it be? After all, I really like technical terrain. I was feeling decent, and excited to test myself on this stage. I was all smiles, filming clips here and there and joking with my co-competitors. Before the shuttle was a great breakfast spread put on for racers once again. I was happily stuffed before jogging the 1km to the awaiting shuttles.

Racers assembled on a dirt road for a Le Mans style start. We were given a kilometer or so to try and sort ourselves before launching into the actual trails for the day. I will tell you right now that the first kilometer was pretty much the ONLY break we had in the entire day. There was gravel road again at the very end of the day for about a kilometer, and MAYBE another short stretch in the middle of the 38k stage, but that was it. Apart from those, it was single track. And I’m not talking a hard-packed trail like the #1 in the park or anything like that. Nope, Imagine somthing more like the #65 or #66 snowshoe trails in the summer. Not really meant for running, but you can do it if you really want to!

The theme of the day was relentless roots and rocks over 38k, mixed in with some pretty fun little climbs and descents to keep us on (or off?) our toes. Now as I mentioned, I should have cherished this terrain, but instead, I ended up cursing it. Remember that 10k ‘sprint’ the night before? It caused a curious thing to happen to my legs. They became cement after the first 8k or so of this leg. They felt super heavy and did not want to turn over at the pace I thought they should. It was like I was stuck in low gear all day. Then my plantar fasciitis started acting up as well, making the footfalls themselves hurt as well.

Mentally, I had not prepared myself to suffer the way I was out there this day. When you enter a 50 miler or more, you KNOW you will hurt and need to dig deep. But a 38k run? To me that should at worst have felt like a tough training day, not a complete slog. But that’s how I felt. By the 15k mark I was already in survival mode. I’d resorted to taking extra salt pills and advil to manage my discomfort. I tried to find beauty in the trail, and it worked for a bit, but I couldn’t help but groan internally each time I realized how much I still had to cover in the day.

I remember coming out at one of the last aid stations of the day. I knew I still had a giant climb to go, so I filled up my bladder and had a quick bite. I didn’t waste too much time there, but I remember for a brief moment wondering how quickly they could drive me from this station back to the finish if I bailed. There is NEVER room to think that way in a race, so instead, I thanked the volunteers and limped off into the woods for the next big climb. The last thing I saw was a medic helping someone who was cramping badly and needed stretching help. Moral here? Someone is ALWAYS suffering even worse than you (well, except for the person who is in the worst shape I suppose, but don’t worry, that won’t ever be you, right?)

With the dark cloud following me (although I should note it was actually a gorgeous day, if not a bit too hot), I steamed along. I ran along with a couple other people for a bit, chatting pleasantly enough. I tried to find that extra gear and eventually made a few passes and picked up my pace on the downhills, but the damage was already done. I remember eventually coming out to trails that I recognized from the night before, signifying the final steep descent before the gravel 1k. What a relief.

Cooling Off After 38k

I stumbled my way to the finish chute in what I consider an abysmal time of 7 hours!! Yeah, it was that bad. Deanna had been expecting me for at least 2-2.5 hours. As I approached the finish, she jogged beside and asked if I wanted her to stay with me. I asked her to just meet me after the finish at the beach. I needed a ‘me’ moment after crossing the line. Un-characteristically, I crossed with my head hung low and no arms raised in the air. It was a depressing finish. I dropped my pack and headed for the nearby cool river to sit in the water and pout and think about why I do these things, and if it was worth it, and what I should do next.

I would have been forgiven for ending my weekend there in that river. Taking off my bib and calling it quits. After all, I was in real pain, and had taken too much out of myself to reach the finish that day.  But as I sat there in the water, I knew what I had to do. For me. And that was brush myself off and finish the 3rd day on my terms. Mentally I needed a ‘win’ before heading to the UTHC 125k race. How would I feel knowing that I had abandoned my last race, and not been able to find the mental fortitude to finish in the face of adversity.

I shared my plan with an understandably concerned Deanna. She thought I should maybe re-consider, as did other people who had seen me on course. But I hold council first and foremost to myself. I know what I can do, and I knew I could overcome. To give myself the best shot, I had a huge meal for supper, did some massaging with my Compex unit, and went to bed early. Unicorns and rainbows and all that, right?

XC - Stage3 Start

Stage 3: 21km of more Technical Trails

Okay. Rise and shine. Let’s do this [again]! It took about 15 minutes of wandering around before I could convince my feet that they could walk without limping. I got dressed once again, did my morning rituals, and headed to breakfast, and then directly to the shuttle buses (walking back to the campsite first would have hurt too much). On the shuttle bus I hatched a brilliant plot. Don’t race. Just participate and enjoy. Listen to your body, and adjust plan accordingly. Deal? Deal.

And that is how I found myself at the VERY BACK of the start of the 21k race. I let the starting gun go off, and let everyone shuffle off. I know how frustrating it can be to be stuck at the very back of a technical trail race, but told myself it was the best idea. Don’t worry about it, and let things go. In that way, I was able to really hold back on my pace. I ran with a TON of really happy people They didn’t care about the pace either. They were there for the trail. For the experience. For the joy of it all. Refreshing, right?

I stayed with my happy-go-lucky racers for a long time. Into the technical trails, up the waterfall route along rocks and boulders, into the trees, and eventually high up into the hills that emerged at beautiful views. These are the people that are content to stop, pull out their phones, and snap a picture. You gotta wonder, who is really having a better time at these things? The competitive front runners, or these Instagram Athletes? I guess it really depends what you’re after. There really is no right or wrong way to race.

So I found myself at the 10k mark and feeling pretty decent. In fact, I decided it was time to open up the throttle a bit and make tracks. I knew for a fact there’d be quite a few racers ahead that probably went out too hard as well, and aren’t used to these types of races. After all, the 21k was the most popular event, and with good reason. The trail was easier than stage 2, and much more scenic overall. Definitely my favourite of the 3 days!

But I digress. Throttle open. Running with a renewed energy and purpose. I soon found myself passing people left right and centre. It’s not that I was purposely trying to get faster, it’s just that  I was feeling ok, and wanted to finish strong mentally. This was precisely the reason why I decided the night before that I had to run my own race on Stage 3. I raced much ‘wiser’ this time. By starting slow and staying slow, I had gas in the tank when it mattered. This was a good approach to test out before the 125k race, as I’d want to utilize the same approach!

Cheesy Grin
I ran lightly and with a spring in my step for the remaining 10k. Even on the uphills I was able to power up and pass people while encouraging them. It felt amazing. Ultimately, we finished yet again on the final rolling terrain from the first day, finishing with a steep descent back to the gravel road for the final kilometer. I picked up my cadence and had a much different finish line experience than the day before.  A smile on my face, and arms in the air. I’d done it! I’d overcome my own little demons from a bad day in Stage 2. This was no podium victory, but a mental victory for me, and that was just fine.

In the standings, my day 3 result was only 94th, but turns out there was a field of over 200 in this stage that were racing, so I’d passed over a hundred people by the end, given where I seeded myself at the start! Not too shabby. In terms of the overall 3 day racers, my results broke down a little like this:

XC - Final Ranking

As you see, my highest standing was on Stage 1, where I was 35th. This dropped way down to 66th on the ‘long’  day where I should have done quite well. Then, on the 3rd day, in spite of my very back start, I managed to finish in pretty much the same spot. All told, I wrapped up in 44th overall, and 15th in my category. A bit worse than middle of the pack. Definitely not the worst finish in history, but definitely reflective of a poorly executed race strategy.

So, that wraps up another exciting race re-cap. As with all my races this year, I lugged a camera with me and filmed the whole thing, so if you haven’t done so yet, feast your eyes on my video review for Get Out There Magazine.

 

Inside the Literal and Figurative Pain Cave

Whew! Now that my major races are all behind me, I guess it’s time to rewind the clock and write about my last few races! This post is all about the Bad Beaver Ultra (BBU), a 3-day, 150km epic event that I took part in in my own backyard. Right off the bad, I should probably admit that I think I took this one a little too much for granted. Given that it was in my own backyard trails in Gatineau Parc, was low-key, and was spread over 3 days, I somehow convinced myself that it would be a piece of cake. Big mistake! Read on to find out why!

Bad Beaver Ultra

As you are all aware, my focus this season has been on trail running, building up to the 125k Ultra-Trail Harricana in September. Before the BBU, I’d already put a couple 50-mile (80k) races under my belt. The first took me just under 10 hours, and the second took me under 9 hours. That’s solid progression, and I was feeling good about my training. The BBU came 2.5 weeks after my last 50 miler, so I mainly did short runs and recovery. During that time, I came to an interesting realization. This race was going to be TOUGH. Day 1 was 55km or so. Day 2 was slated to be 70km, and the 3rd day was 25km. Not only were distances not trivial, but we had to carry most of our gear for the entire 3 days with us on course! In that way, this was a semi-autonomous stage race.

What did that mean? Well, for starters, we had to carry all our in-race food for the 3 days with us on the entire course. We also needed all our clothes, first aid, camping stuff (mainly sleeping bag), lights, etc. Each day we were fed breakfast and supper, but nothing else. Aid stations were very spartan and were predominantly for re-supplying hydration (limited to water). If you wanted something over the 3 days, you had to carry it. There was no ‘drop bag’ waiting at the end of the day with spare stuff. It was with you, or you didn’t have it. So, that meant we were starting the race with maximum weight, and gradually eating our way through the weight. While I didn’t weigh my pack at the start of day 1, I’d say that it was on the order of 15 lbs or more. Considering my race weight of about 123lbs, that’s 12% of my body weight to drag with me as I ran long distances on tricky trails. Yeah, exactly, NOT easy!

However, the challenges are what make me sign up for these events, right? Besides, there was no way I would turn down the opportunity to be one of the first 20 people selected to ‘test’ this course for future participants. I can not lay claim to be one of the first-ever finishers of what I’m sure will become a sought-after race to tackle in the region. Why is it so special? Well, for starters, the organizers are all seasoned runners and racers, and are also putting this on predominantly to showcase the jewel that is Gatineau Parc, as well as raise funds and profile for a number of causes, including Impossible2Possible (after all, this is one of Ray Zahab’s initiatives!).

So, as far as showcasing the area, one of the great parts of this race was that pretty much everything going on was related to local businesses. It all started on the first night with a night’s stay at the beautiful Wakefield Mill Inn, which would also serve as our starting point on Thursday morning. From there, the rest of the weekend also featured things like food catered by a gourmet restaurant (Les Fougeres), a local coffee shop (Les Saisons), capped off with a Spa afternoon / evening at Le Nordik, and finishers mementos included hand-made candles from Doozy Candles. Have I enticed you yet? Well, no matter, as it’s really about the race, right? So let’s get to that!

Day 1 – 54km

Shooting Video

Day 1 was set to be a 55km ‘warm-up’ for the weekend, with the main event the following day. However, as we got up, had our breakfast and got organized, you could already tell it was going to be a pretty warm day. From Wakefield, we’d be heading off into the trails around Lac Phillippe, a camping area, and ultimately make our way through the Lusk Caves for a quick reprieve before finishing off our day. I set myself up near the front of the pack, but not the very front. I naively had in mind that maybe this would be ‘my race’ owing the fact that I had local knowledge. Silly me. that helps to a small extent, but that’s about it. Right from the get-go, I could tell there were a few real work horses in the mix here, including a jovial pair of Italian dudes that spoke limited English. They trotted off the start line in a relaxed pace, but you could tell they’d have no problem dropping any who really dared challenge them.

For my part, I was somewhere around 7th or 8th after the opening 15-20km. I felt good, but was definitely feeling the weight of the pack coupled with the heat. As is usually the case, I found myself plodding along more or less on my own, with the leaders out ahead out of sight, and the other chasers behind me and out of sight as well. So, you could imagine my great surprise later on in the day at about the 30-35k mark when I emerged from the woods to be told I was currently in 4th!

I came to realize that the reason was not very cool. Turns out there were a few confusing trail markers which lead the lead pack of 4 to veer off course. While I was eventually re-passed by one of them, the other 3 (including the 2 Italians and my friend Sebastien) sadly went WAAAY off course. They just Forrest Gumped all the way to the other side of the escarpment, basically covering a bunch of the terrain we’d see tomorrow. I felt bad for them, but these things unfortunately to happen. I could only run my own race.

Emerging from Lusk Caves

The highlight of Day 1 was undoubtedly the Lusk Caves part of the race. After a long slog in the heat, and with about 10k to go on the day, we got a reprieve by heading to the far end of the cave network and actually running THROUGH them before continuing on. The water was mercifully cool, and helped get the body temps down in a hurry. The only downside would only manifest when the day was over, and several of us realized we’d gotten some pretty heavy chafing as a result of wet shorts and lots of leg turnover!

Once the running was done, we were over-nighting at Brown Cabin in the park, a nice shelter with a full kitchen, and bunk beds with ma tresses for all. Future iterations won’t be as lucky, as there are limited numbers of beds, and the next edition hopes to grown to 60 racers, and require people to carry tents as well! Again, perks of being first, right? We enjoyed the hot sun as we re-fuelled on chips, watermelon, other fruits, and the good company of like-minded racers. Later in the night, we had an amazing feast of food, and even had live entertainment in the form of guitar playing, and even a fire dancer! Most people were too pooped to take it all in, but it was awesome!

What was NOT awesome was trying to sleep in the uncomfortable heat. I don’t think most racers slept very well that night. For my part, I tried sleeping with legs in the air to aid my feet in recovering the day 2, which promised to be TOUGH.

Day 2 – 73km

Day 2 Start

The next day we all got up bright and early to pack up and get ready for the longest day of running. In fact, it was still dark when the various alarms started going off. It felt odd applying sunscreen in the dark, but I knew it would be needed.  For those that needed it, there was coffee on offer, and breakfast consisted primarily of oatmeal with all the toppings you might want. I had my fill, and packed up my overnight gear back into my bag while filling up my hydration bladder and sorting the food I’d want on the day. I’d hoped to make relatively quick work of the 73km of the day, wrapping up in 9 hours or less. Once again, VERY naive!

We took to the start line, and got underway at about 6:30am (I think). The air was already thick and warm with humidity at this hour, which didn’t bode well. Not only was this day going to be long in distance, but we were also going to be climbing up and descending the steeper parts of Gatineau Parc 3 or 4 times this day, so LOTS of climbing was ahead of us.

From the start, I probably went too hard again, finding myself in the front of the race for a little bit, and mainly sitting in 4th for the first 10k or so. I felt strong and fresh, but eventually realized that it was a bad idea, so I dialled it back a little bit and ran with others to chat for a bit. There was really no point pushing too hard. After about 25k or so, I was already beat. I wasn’t the only one though. I joined forces with another battle-weary running and we slowly plodded along the roads and trails to get to the Lusk Falls trail, one of those ‘gems’ of Gatineau Parc, but not a lot of fun to try and run up with a pack on your back, and a gnawing hunger and thirst!

Regardless, I went up with reckless abandon, leaving my friend Sebastien to trail me a little behind. I’d hoped to make up a bit of time. I also knew that the next aid station would be the one where Deanna was stationed, so the thought of seeing her spurred me on.

The energy rush was short-lived after I crested the climb and started the run back along the big Trail Number 1 towards Wolf Trail. By now, it was VERY hot, and I was feeling it. I focused my mind on just getting through it and making it to the base of Wolf Trail. At that point, I knew I could go for a quick dip in Meech Lake to cool down. That became my sole focus for the next many kilometers, to the point that when I finally arrived at the aid station, I completely ignored Deanna. Instead, I unclipped my pack, threw it on the ground, and ran down to the water and dove right in. It was a life saver, and SOOOO refreshing!

However, I knew I still had miles to go, so I did my best to get through the stop and head back up the trail. Deanna told me I was actually looking better than several other that had made it through, being more ‘with it’ and self sufficient. Of course, perhaps I was only putting on airs for m’lady, but I took the encouragement and trotted off back UPHILL once again. However, I knew there would be another few trails, then we’d circle back down to a boat launch, where I could once again hit the water, which I did!

Refreshed from Lake

After the 2nd dip, I truly hit the doldrums. The next section was road. In the sun. Tired. Baking. Not having a great time. But what do you do? What CAN you do? Nothing. Except keep going. There is a certain satisfaction in knowing that you have absolutely no choice but to just keep pushing yourself. Abandoning never really crosses my mind, because I know everyone hurts in these situations, and I tell myself none of them would quit!

Eventually I made it back to the relative peace of the trails, and even saw familiar faces once again. I caught up to one racer, and also had chats with the race organizers, who were now out on the course cheering us on. Of course, it was needed, since we were heading back uphill once again, for our final climb and decent of the day, including heading all the way up to Champlain Lookout before the nice wooded decent to Camp Fortune. By now, I thought I must be the last person still alive out there, since I’d gone WAY slower than I’d hoped, and I just foolishly thought people behind me must have dropped out of the race.

Again, no time to think about that, and instead just focused on the run (ok, the speed walk). Up at the top at the lookout, I was surprised to learn the racer I’d been with at the bottom of the climb hadn’t shown up. Turns out, they’d also taken a wrong turn, instead running back to the finish for the day, having cut about 8k off the day. For my part, I was quite relieved, as I knew the rest of the day was pretty much downhill, and on one of my favourite trails, so I could just go on cruise control to the finish.

Upon completing, I think I was actually the 5th complete  finisher for the day, and not long after I got in, it started raining. HARD. We really felt bad for the other racers still out there. Turns out I was completely wrong about the people behind me. They were still hard at it, running and suffering in their own ways. A few were short-coursed,  and at least 2 didn’t finish the day, but there were still plenty  of amazing people still to come in after me, some in the pouring rain, and a few even well after the sun went down! Hats off to them.

It was a pretty low-key 2nd night. Once again, we were staying indoors which was nice. Floor sleeping, but nobody really cared. There was no party, as everyone was pretty much zombified after the long hard day of running. The focus was on re-hydrating and eating. Oh, and drinking BEER! Yup, each racer had a beer this evening, and for the most part, we all helped ourselves. You know, dulling the pain and all that. It was also a time to treat blisters, chafing, etc. etc. I think I now know what a field hospital must resemble in certain areas 🙂

Owing to the rough night of sleep after day 1, I slept much better this time. Overall, I was feeling a little down about my performance of the day. I’d hoped to feel much stronger, and instead felt like I’d suffered through it too much. My confidence was a bit low. However, tomorrow was another day, right?

Day 3 – 21k

High 5 to France

Alrighty. Final day. Time to pull out all the stops, right? I awoke feeling not bad. Did a bit of foam rolling and stretching to see how all the bits felt, and got a pretty good vibe from my legs. I decided that this was a day to let it all hang out. I was on local trails, the most popular ones in the park, and also the ones I train on all the time. I knew all the turns, hills, climbs, rocks, and HAD to capitalize on it. It was now or never. As a result, I put myself at the head of the class, planning to stay right on the heels of the speedy Italians.

The start found us heading into the Camp Fortune mountain bike trails, with a good uphill grind and technical decent. It was in there that I realized that I could actually pass these guys and break away from the small lead group that had formed. So I did! There was one runner way out ahead that I wasn’t able to touch, but I at least forged my own path ahead of the chase pack.

By the time we exited the bike trails and came back out to the ridge road, I was on my own, and my legs were turning over very solidly under me. I felt strong, and fed off that energy. I kept telling myself they were right on my tail, without daring to look back. I kept this up the entire way, until at one aid station, I was told I had 7-9 minutes on them! That was huge for me! I realized and  accepted that there was a good chance I could hold my spot.

Re-energized, I put even more effort into my gait, to make sure I kept my standing. With a huge grin on my face, I veritably flew over the trails, watching my step just enough not to fall, but running fairly recklessly. I imagine this is what it must feel like for those that are used to leading or being very close to the front, giving it their all with a single purpose. What a difference from the day before.

At the FInish

I barreled down the final series of trails, turned onto the final stretch on the SugarBush trail, knowing the finish line was just across a bridge. I heard the cheering, and managed to do a jumping heel click as I crossed the finish in 2nd place overall for the day. What a feeling. Cory, the overall winner of the 3 days (and basically untouchable) was there to congratulate me and share a few words. As were the organizers and Deanna. It was a perfect sunny finish to an amazing 3 days of running with friends old and new in one of my favourite corners of this little blue marble.

However, hands-down, the very best part of the entire event has to be what was in store next. We’d started a little later in the morning (like 9am), but with only 21k to run, it was only mid-day when I wrapped up. From here, ALL racers had a free all-access pass to the Nordik Spa, where we’d have our closing ceremonies and party. It was, in a word, heavenly! Since Deanna had volunteered for the whole 3 days, she also got a pass. So, naturally, since we live only 4k away, we stayed there until basically closing time, taking full advantage of the beautiful facilities.

Party at Le Nordik

I can honestly say I have never finished a race where every single participant AND the organizers hand out in bathrobes, beers in hand, talking about the race while bouncing between saunas, steam rooms, hot and cold pools, and a private party area. It was surreal, and  great way to get to know everyone just a little more, and forge the bonds that only running through the crucible of a 3-day staged race can create!

So there you have my all-too-wordy re-cap of one of the funnest events I’ve done in a long time. Of course, I did have a camera in town with me the entire time, and managed to put together 3 different videos, one for each day. They’re embedded below in case you haven’t already watched them! Enjoy them, and come on back later when I should have another post written up summarizing my NEXT 3-day race, which took place 2 weeks later!

Day 2 Re-Cap

Day 3 Re-Cap

Firing on All Cylinders in the Blue Mountains

Greetings, race fans! I bring to you, once again, another harrowing tail of suffering in the deep woods! Or, more specifically, I’m here to tell you all about my latest 50 mile suffer-fest, the North Face Endurance Challenge in the Blue Mountains, near Collingwood, ON. This was my 2nd 80km trail race in the span of a month, and the start to my ‘peak season’ this year. Once again, I was covering the event for Get Out There, and once again, I was using this as an opportunity to assess how my training was paying off and my overall running fitness this year. As some of you know, this year is a bit of an ‘experiment’ for me. I have chosen to focus solely on trail running, to see if I might have what it takes to actually become competitive.

So far, it appears I might be able to claim ‘recreational’ competitiveness. While I can finish in the top tier of racers, I don’t seem to be able to bust into the realm of podium finishes and the mythical skill levels that I see played out at the front of the pack. I’m not sure what precisely I’m lacking. Dedication isn’t it, as I’ve been pretty keen this year. Perhaps I’m just not putting 110% into every aspect of the training. Perhaps it’s the continual foot issues I suffer. Perhaps I just don’t *want* it that badly?

Either way, this is by no means detracting from the fun I have when I lace up and run in the woods, and frankly, I think maybe that is the more noble pursuit for me. Personal satisfaction, health, and happiness. Leave the blistering pace and idol status to the real crazy people winning these things! After all, in this race, I managed to knock AN HOUR off my previous time, finish 17th overall, yet STILL fall OVER 2 HOURS off the pace of the winner (6h42 for winner vs. 8h55 for me)!!!! Yeah, you read that right. The ‘pointy end’ is VERY pointy at these events. But I digress, if you’re here, you hopefully want to know how I did.

GEarth Race Route

In a nutshell, I’ve already spilled the beans. I had an AMAZING race for me. I went in with similar expectations to my last 50 miler. In that race, you’ll recall my goal was 10 hours, and I just eked in with a 9h57 finish. During the first half, I was very fast, but the 2nd half I lost some steam and had to fight meet my goal time. I approached this event with the hope of being more ‘consistent’ over the whole day. After all, these are still child’s play when faced with my season closer, a 125km effort in one day. So consistency and ability to pace are going to be key! Terrain-wise and elevation-wise, the two races were quite similar, so they should be good comparators. I think I preferred the Ithaca race overall, but Blue Mountains was quite nice as well, and perhaps a little bit easier.

To get there was a 6 or so hour drive, so Deanna and I took the Friday off. Drive down Friday, race on Saturday, drive back Sunday. The typical weekend ultra-warrior approach. As usual, we looked up a few breweries (yup, I came back stocked with even MORE beers to try out). Like Ithaca, we also opted to camp nearby. We booked a site at Craigleith provincial park, and I’ve gotta say, while it was a bit quaint in its postage stamp size, it was also kind of maddening to be in such close quarters. The tent areas were just like a suburb, with too many cars lining the streets, and way too many people and tents. Regardless, we had a decent site and liked it overall. Even made friends after the race across from us and shared beers / campfire (nice young couple from Michigan).

After setting up the tent and settling in, we made our way back into town to meet up with a friend from the magazine at a brewpub (North Winds Brewhouse). Had an awesome meal there, as well as some decent beer sampling, before driving back to the campground. A brief stop at the grocery store ensured that I had some sustenance to fuel up with in the morning before the race. When I got up early the next morning, the weather was warm, but not unbearable, meaning it should be a good day to race. I did all my pre-race rituals and drove to the start line.

I had a pace card that I had pulled together with my ‘worst case’ times printed out, which was 10 hours to cover the 80k. The idea was to always be ahead of these times. The race was large enough that there were two separate start waves, and I had been seeded in the 2nd wave. No sense worrying about that, as everything is chip timed. In fact, I preferred starting further back. With 50 or more runners up ahead, I had lots of ‘targets’, and also saved myself the risk of going out too fast with the real hotshots at the front of that heat.

It was still quite dark out, so it was mandatory to wear headlamps from race start until an hour after sunrise. Personally, I enjoy running in the dark. It’s a different game, one which is played best with a strong light, which I had. It helps me navigate the terrain as efficiently in the dark as in the sun. The opening section of this course was probably the toughest of the day, as racers were forced to run from the bottom of the ski hill to the top of the escarpment. As such, by the time I arrived at the first aid station, my pace was only slightly ahead of the goal on my pace card. However, I took that as a good things, as I would only get faster now that we were traversing the rolling terrain on top of the escarpment for the next while.

As is pretty usual in these events, I spent a large part of my time running on my own. To this point, I had been making steady progress and weaving my way through a good number of runners ahead of me. I had no idea where it put me in the standings, but I felt good. Every now and again, I’d link up with a runner or small group of runners and stay with them for a bit. I’d usually pull away on technical climbs or descents. Unfortunately, there weren’t enough of those to really make me happy. While the course was decent, it wasn’t my favourite. We were on a fair number of gravel / access roads, and even some long exposed road sections, which got rather uncomfortable on the 2nd loop when in full sun!

On Track

The kilometers ticked by, and I was happy to see that I was gaining time at each aid station, and staying nicely ahead of my pace. I didn’t want to jinx things and get too confident, as I was still on the first loop, but it seemed that my nutrition and hydration plans were working quite well. I stopped a few times to pee, and my stomach felt totally fine. Good sign in a long race. The feet were also holding up well, with no pains that couldn’t manage (I sort of have constant low-level pain due to plantar fasciitis, but I can block it). In the final few kilometers of the first lap, I pulled away from a little group I’d been running with in order to bomb back down the ski hills to the turnaround point. I wanted to tackle the long climb with a bit of a gap just for my own mental wellbeing.

By this time, temperatures had definitely gone up, but the air wasn’t too humid, so running in the shade of the trees was still pretty decent. I tackled the long climb alone, and didn’t see another soul this time. In the last race, it was from kilometers 40-50 that I had hit my wall, but this time, it was just SteadySteve the whole time. While this was the toughest climb section, I was still in good shape and well ahead of pace. Arriving at the top of the escarpment, I started letting myself believe that I wouldn’t hit the wall, and could maintain my pace through to the 80k point.

Side note here. Deanna, bless her heart, had taken her bike, and had intended to see me at several aid stations while I ran. However, I’d now done a whole first loop (40k), and wouldn’t see her for another 20k or so at another aid station. I just *knew* there’d be a funny story about that, but it turns out I was just too damn fast, and she just kept missing me!

For the remainder of loop 2 my sole focus was ensuring that I was eating enough, drinking enough, and pushing myself just enough to maintain this strong pace. Crunching the numbers as I went, I could now see that a sub-9 hour time was within my reach. It’s sort of hard to describe where you are mentally towards the end of a long race. You start to feel what I’ll call ‘pre-relief’ that you are almost done, but then, you inevitably realize that each kilometer is getting tougher and tougher. Physically, yes, but also mentally. Running 80km without really stopping truly is a long way. 100km, 125km, 160km, they are all just numbers to a certain extent. It’s always the last stretch of any race where you really have to dig deep.

I was very happy how things were unfolding. Due to the double loop nature of the course, and the fact that certain sections had 2 way traffic, and also due to the fact that there were other races going on at the same time (42.2k and 50k races), there were more faces and legs on the course. I was never sure whether I was passing someone in my race or another race, but in all cases, I happily said hello and encouraged everyone along. I feed off the positivity of helping others along. The more I encouraged others, the better I felt.

View from Ski Hills

The final sections of the course involve a few sections of semi-steep ski hill ups and downs to find your way to the final aid station at the top of the hill. After that, it is a VERY steep downhill all the way to the bottom. Looking at my watch, I had 14 minutes to make the sub 9 hour time, and roughly 1.3km to cover. Should be no sweat, since it was mostly downhill. HOWEVER, after nearly 80km of constant running uphill and downhill, racers legs can be pretty shot, and going steeply downhill is NOT an easy task. To punctuate that, as I crested the hill to start the descent, I saw strewn ahead of me lots of racers picking their way very gingerly downhill. Several were actually walking backwards, and many other were criss-crossing widely across the slope.

Given my now single-minded focus on the sub-9 hour time, I threw caution to the wind, and willed my legs to hold out for a quad-defying sprint straight down. I veritably FLEW down that mountain, picking up steam as I went. Had I been a snowball, I would have been a snowMOON by the bottom! I knew that I was causing untold damage to my muscles and feet, and didn’t care. All that mattered was crossing under 9 hours. And I did it! I saw the finishing chute a little further along the base trail of the mountain, and the time on the clock and knew I was in a good spot. I finally crossed in 8:55, shattering my previous 50 miler time by an hour! The elation is hard to put into words, but let’s just say I was proud of me. Proud of my commitment to the training, and mental perseverance throughout the course. I’ve learned a lot over the years, and with age definitely comes some wisdom with racing. All I can say is that it is paying off.

Deanna was waiting at the finish, snapping pictures and waiting for a sweaty hug. We hung around a bit for my free food (fries with chicken fingers if you can believe it!), and for the awards ceremony, where was very rambunctious thanks to a huge crowd of racers representing the November Project. Lots of fun. However, I was itching to hit a few breweries to pick up beers to bring home, and also to visit with friends at a post-race get-together we were invited to. We had a lovely evening with fellow racers before returning to our tent for a nice night’s sleep. In my case, it was in my hammock, which was super awesome post-race, as it kept my feet elevated all night and cradled me in comfort.

Sunday morning, it was off for breakfast, then the 6 hour drive home to reflect on the event. As you can tell, I was very happy how it turned out. The great trail running experiment seems to be working out pretty well so far. Next up, in 3 weeks, was a 3-day, 150km semi-supported trail race in Gatineau Park called the Bad Beaver Ultra. Hopefully all my feet and legs hold up to the continued abuse. Till then, feast your eyes on my race video from TNF ECS Ontario…