As I crested yet another little rise, feeling the many kilometers in my entire body, I could utter only a single word to myself in my internal monologue: “run”. So goes the simple existence of an ultra-runner deep into a long race. In this case, it was the 106km Midnight Moose Ultra, taking place in Gatineau Parc, so near my house, yet so far away mentally. The mantra I trained myself to repeat ad nauseum is simple: “Run where you can, walk where you have to”. This truly is the key to getting through an ultra. You need to simplify, and try not to get into your own head. This race was slated to be my final race of the 2017 season, so I had entered it with a couple goals. Firstly, I wanted to complete the race in under 13 hours, and the 2nd goal was to reach the podium. I’ve been happy with my season (yes, including the DNF at Sinister 7), but the true podium had eluded me all season. Read on to hear more about this backyard ultra, being put on for the first time. Continue reading Chasing the Moose through the Darkness
Now that you’ve read all about the lead-up to the big race, it’s time to get into the actual race reporting, isn’t it? First off, let’s clear up the title of this post. As many of you are aware, a month before this trip, I also found myself out west for another race, the aptly-named Sinister 7, which of course you can read all about. Unfortunately, at that race, I ended up with a DNF, but one that I had to wear as a badge of honour in my journey as an ultra runner. The conditions and my own mental shortcomings were to blame. As a result, I was looking for a little redemption, and the Squamish 50/50 was just the ticket. If you are not aware, the Squamish 50/50 sees racers tackle a tough 50 mile course in the mountains around Squamish on a Saturday, then the next morning, you have to toe the line once again to race in the 50 km course, whcih is essentially the 50 TOUGHEST km of the 50 miler. For you efforts, if you succeed, you get a truckers hat. Nothing more, nothing less (unless you count getting a hug from the legendary Gary Robbins, which incidentally, I did).
On the day before the 50 miler, it was all about getting ready mentally and dealing with some last minute logistics. This included race registration, packing drop bags, sorting race clothes and food, amongst a myriad of other little things. Since I’d be producing videos on both days, I also wanted to get some footage in the area, and interview the race director. I also convinced Deanna that it would be a good idea to do a little course scoping to give us a sense of the terrain. To those ends, we checked out a couple of the climbs, the terrain, and the course markings. For Deanna, it really started to hit home what she’d be taking on the next day. So far, I liked what I saw, with excellent course markings and mountain bike trails. I’d be getting very familiar with this terrain over the next two days.
Day 1 – The 50 Miler – 80.3km, 3,400m Climbing
Race morning came all too early, with the alarm clocks shrieking at 4am for us to get up. We were staying at Quest University, in a dorm room in single beds. Ironically, this was also the site of one of the aid stations, but we had to make our way to the start line for briefings and to gradually make our way back here, which was well over the halfway point of the 50 miler. The 50 Miler is broken into 8 distinct legs, with the first 1.5 being pretty innocuous, and much of the climbing packed into the latter part of the course. As such, pacing at the beginning is key, and not getting lulled into a false sense of ‘this is easy’ given the flat terrain. Overall, racers have 17 hours to complete this course, so that tells you how the back end feels.
To those ends, after an animated race briefing by Gary Robbins at the start line (and a Coffee with Bailey’s for Deanna!), we got underway at about 5:45am. We had headlamps on (mandatory), but the sun was already making itself known, so the lights were mostly unnecessary. The first 10km was frankly boring, with roads and gravel roads, all pretty much flat and wide. This is on purpose, as we wind through the town of Squamish, warming up for the challenge ahead. With the sun rising, you also got to see the sun illuminate the mountains around us.
In no time, we were in to Aid Station 1, where there were already decent crowds despite the early hour. I ditched my headlamp here with a volunteer, but other than that, just kept running. I was looking forward to Leg 2 featuring the first big climb, Debeck Hill. It didn’t disappoint. We plunged into well-maintained mountain bike trails with lots of flow and gradually made our way up and up, before a great screaming descent into Aid Station 2 at Alice Lake. Here, I took the time to top off fluids and grab a few baby potatoes and chips. Everything was working well, and I felt good. My foot was bothering me a bit, but nothing I couldn’t manage.
Leg 3 was a solid roller of a stage, which featured more climbs, and absolutely trails through forests that were just starting to have the sunlight filter through branches, making it easy to lose yourself in thoughts of the beauty and special journey we were on. I had opportunity to chat with different people, some local, some from away, some first-timers, some veterans. All of us sharing in the community that we call ultra running, and chasing our own goals. Unless you are truly at the head of the race, it is rarely about ‘winning’, but the journey, and I was happy to be lost in the journey today.
The 3rd Aid station is one we actually visited twice. Between visits, we were taken on a trail called ‘Innards’ which is apparently one of Gary’s favourite trails. Here we were treated to a fair number of wooden features built for mountain bikers. It doesn’t take long before you realize that most of these trails were purpose-built for riders. The local MTB association, SORCA, has put a TON of work into making and maintain these trails, and we got to benefit from this. Years back, I actually raced on some of these trails on my own bike, when I took part in the BC Bike Race, but that all seemed a lifetime away as I picked my feet along these routes that look completely different when you are running them.
Ahhh Leg 5. One of the real gems of the course, and the location of the biggest climb of the entire race, a lovely little trail noted as ‘Galactic’ on the sign, but much better known by the full name of Galactic Scheisse. From a relatively low altitude of 300m, on this climb we reached our highest point of 1350m. It was slow going, and most of it was actually under the cover of trees, so we didn’t have a ton of views to marvel over. Even worse, in my opinion, is that at the top, you don’t even end up anywhere with a view, so it sort of felt like we had climbed in vain. My whole purpose for climbing is the views normally. My consolation prize would have to be the crazy descent!
After cresting this large climb, it was time to head down some great MTB trails and into the next aid station, which was supposed to just be a water/coke/gel kind of aid station, but much to my surprise, they’d managed to get some ‘real’ food out there for us, so I enjoyed a few more baby potatoes and some chips. This aid station was really just meant to be a little pick-me-up before the main even, the next aid station, which was a biggie. Quest University, only 5km downhill from us, over the halfway point, and location of our 2nd drop bags, and also where a lot of friends and family would gather for racers. Of course, for me, it was a ‘lonely’ stop, since of course my important ‘crew’ was racing as well! However, on the upside, when I arrived, I was treated to some tasty freezies being handed out by local kids. Delicious, and a great treat on this warm dry day.
Obviously, the goal is not to linger too long at these aid stations, so after replenishing some food in my pack, and re-filling my hydration, it was off to the races! Although we’d now been going downhill for a while now, that was all about to change on Leg 7, as soon after Quest, we turned skyward, and entered another long sustained climb. This one threw me for a loop, as at one point earlyish in the climb, we criss-crossed some wooden structures where runners were speeding downhill, so I thought we were near the top already. I was very wrong. This was a long way from the top, and there was a lot of climbing to do. Luckily, we were lucky to again be on some great singletrack trail as we made our way up. Plenty of ‘gentle’ switchbacks that were built for cyclists, and therefore not too steep. I was definitely looking froward to the top though.
We finally reached a flat trail that went straight for a bit. In the distance, I could see flagging tape, signs, and arrows, along with a volunteer. Instinct told me the downhill roller coaster was imminent, and I was right. I’d say this was one of my top two favourite descents of the day. Fast and furious, and going up and over a bunch of neat built-up features. This descent finished faster than I thought it would, popping me out on a forest service road, and straight into the second final aid station. I still felt good, and was cheered on as I quickly filled a bottle, grabbed a little bit of food, including some tasty watermelon. I wasted no time in getting onto Leg 8, which featured more fun downhill and winding forest trails. At this point, things were all a bit of a blur, as it was just one great MTB trail after another in succession, with more fun bridges and features.
Although I was getting a bit tired, I was still very much on track for my planned finish of 12 hours, and was buoyed by the fact that the final aid station lay just ahead of me. I had heard rumours of this aid station being fashioned after a Tiki bar, with the pre-requisite alcohol being on offer. Crossing the gorgeous Mamquam gorge, and making my way along a forest road, I finally saw the Tiki mirage not far ahead, with volunteers in grass skirts and leis directing me in. As I entered, I called out ‘I hear I can summon the Kraken here’, to which I was guided to one of the far tables, at which point the kind folks pulled out a full bottle of Kraken dark rum. I had a nice big warm shot of the liquid fuel, chased it with a swig of Coke, grabbed more potatoes, and trotted out, knowing I was on the final 11km leg of the race!
However, Leg 9 is no walk in the park. After a full day of climbing and descending, we still faced two climbs on the final leg. While they weren’t super long or anything, it is their placement that makes them a challenge. Luckily, being rum-powered, I found an extra gear on the machine, and I dare say I flew along that leg, passing quite a few people, even though I knew I had another day of racing ahead of me, I wanted to push this leg and finish strong, for me more than anything. I sang and skipped along as I picked my way through yet more great trails. As opposed to Sinister 7, this time I had made a point to have the entire course profile printed and handy so that I knew EXACTLY when I’d be climbing, and where I could let loose and fly. As a result, I knew when I’d be up and over the ‘Mountain of Phlegm’, which was the final climb of the day. Of course, there was also a great volunteer at the top to confirm this with me!
I knew the rest of the run in was downhill to the town area, then onto paved path and road to the finish for a few kilometers. The only thing that the profile didn’t tell me about were the stairs on the final descent! Luckily, I was happy to bounce down them 2 at a time, flying past rock climbers plying their trade on the granite to my right. Soon enough, I popped out at a parking lot, greeted by the ‘2.5km to go’ sign. I was fading a bit, but knew it was a straight push to the finish in the warm glow of the sun. I checked timing and knew I should make it, but I suddenly realized it would be tight, and I’d have to push hard. So I dug in, and did exactly that, covering the last chunk faster than I’d covered anything else in a while. Cheering crowds and Gary Robbins welcomed me over the line at just under the 12 hour mark. Grabbed some footage and my medal, and called it a day!
However, it wasn’t the end of my day, as now the waiting would begin. In a bit of role reversal, now I was the one at the finish nervously awaiting news of how Deanna might be doing and see her cross the line. Ideally, I would have been eating a nice meal and resting and preparing for my 50k race the next day, but instead, I settled for a hasty shower, a hot dog, and sitting in the grass, camera in hand, waiting patiently. Unfortunately, there was no on-course timing or tracking, so there was NO news. The only thing I could confirm after a few hours’ wait was that she was NOT one of the people that had quit the course. This was music to my ears, as I just knew that if she was still going after 15 hours, she WOULD be finishing. So I waited. And then, at around 15 hours and 44 minutes, I saw some bobbing headlamps in the distance making their way to the finish line. It was Deanna! She came in strong, with a big smile (in large part no doubt relieved to be done). Happy to get a big from Gary, she had done it!
Although I felt a bit bad about rushing her a bit, I was a bit anxious to get back to our room so I could do some prep for my looming 50k the next day. We hung around long enough for her to chat a bit with some new friends she’d made on the trail, as well as chatting with the race director. She also grabbed a hot dog, and we headed for the car. On the way back, we made a slight detour to McDonalds so I could grab an uber-healthy McChicken and fries as a bit of sustenance.
Day 1 Video Re-Cap
Day 2 – 52.1km , 2,425m Climbing
So, what can I actually say about the 2nd day that wasn’t already covered in the first day? As it turns out, not a whole lot, since every kilometer that I’d be racing on this day was a repeat of the first day, apart from the first few hundred meters at the start of the day. For this race, we were starting at Alice Lake, which had served as the second aid station the previous day. Start time was set for 6am, so headlamps would not be needed. However, it would have been useful prior to the start, as i found myself stumbling in the dark around the park trying to find a washroom. Eventually, I got that sorted out, and made my way to the start area about 10 minutes before the fun was going to get underway.
No doubt you are wondering: how was I feeling? How did I convince myself to get to that start line? Well, as far as the first question goes, I felt tired. I was a bit stiff and sore. But as to the second question? I got myself there because this is what I signed up for. Why wouldn’t I go there? Luckily, in my years of experience in racing a wide range of events, I have found myself in this position before, convincing my body that it does actually want to race AGAIN. The thing to note here is that your body can cope with these stresses. It is more often the mind that can’t cope, which is what causes folks to decide they wno’t get out of bed and tackle day 2. These are the same little niggling thoughts that hold people back from getting out and training in the rain, or when they don’t feel like it. You just have to get over YOU, and get there. I guess that’s what they call motivation. Find your motivation and get out there!
The fact is, 100% of the people that don’t start Day 2 don’t finish and get their hat! Of those that actually do start the second day, over 80% of them will succeed! Moreover, a lot of people actually feel better on the second day after they’ve gotten past the first leg or so. I think the reason is that on the 2nd day, you are much less likely to be pushing for a win or your best possible time. The focus is more on efficiency, running well, and enjoying the day. And with that can come surprises on performance. Take the pressure off, and magical things can happen out there.
True to those words, I launched into the first leg by sticking myself literally at the back of the entire field, and starting at a power walk, gradually moving to a run-shuffle, before finally moving back into more of a true run after the first couple kilometers. Just in time for the first climb of the day out of Alice Lake. At this point, my body was completely in sync with the task at hand, and I headed up that climb with as much power as the day before, passing people on my way, and singing aloud and encouraging all my other 50/50 colleagues (we were sort of clumped together early in the race due to the slower start for us).
The rest of the day for me went well, and I did feel progressively stronger as stages ticked by. I’m not saying Galactic was any easier on day 2, but I knew exactly what the terrain held for me, so mentally, I was prepared for each of the challenges. This played out best on the long climb after Quest as well, knowing exactly how long we’d be climbing. Another high point was the fact that I knew I’d see Deanna somewhere along the race course this day. Turned out that was Quest University, where she snapped pictures of me while I scaled the stairs to my drop bag to replenish food and fluids. Although I never spend much time chatting, and am pretty focused on the race, it is still a huge boost when I see her, even if she can’t tell from me ‘race mode’ face.
Once again on day 2, I summoned the Kraken at the final aid station, opting to swig directly from the bottle this time, at their insistence. Once again, I got that warm feeling my chest, and felt more weightless heading into the final stage. And yes, I truly flew through this section once again, passing a ton of people (many of whom were obviously only 1 day racers!). Looking at my timing, I again got paranoid about my timing, but couldn’t remember exactly how long it had taken me the day before. As a result, I kept pushing very hard to the finish. My goal had been 8 hours on day 2, and I’m happy to report I crossed at 7h 44 minutes! This finish secured me my 50/50 Finisher’s Hat, and more importantly, I had gotten my redemption for last month’s Sinister 7 DNF. I’m very happy with my combined time, which netted me 24th overall, and 5th in my category. Nothing to sneeze at after a tough year of training, racing, and nagging injuries.
Whew! Racing out of the way, it was time to wrap up our Western vacation. We had one final day, as we were flying out on a red eye the following day. This gave us time the next day to try out another local’s spot for a delicious brunch. If you are in Squamish, we highly recommend Fergie’s Cafe. From there, we had time to kill, so we hit the highway and made our way up to Whistler to do a bit of light (read: flat) hiking in the area, as well as hitting a couple breweries and a coffee shop for good measure. From there, it was just a drive to the airport, with another short stop in Squamish at Howe Sound Brewing where the post-race party was getting underway. I was very glad we stopped there though, as it gave me some great 1 on 1 time with Gary to talk adventure racing, ultra running, and the Barkley Marathons. Yes, wheels are churning in my head, but I’m not ready or worthy quite yet.
Alrighty, this mega blog post has got to come to a close, doesn’t it? Thanks for sticking with me on this journey, and stay tuned for my next race, which is the Midnight Moose Ultra. Ultimately, due to the S7 DNF, this will end up being my longest race of the season at 103km (most of which will be in darkness). Till then, make sure you check out my Day 2 video below, and get out there and FIND YOUR MOTIVATION!
Day 2 Re-Cap Video
In theory, we should have been super happy. After all, there was no blazing sun, and there were no swarms of the namesake Black Flies harassing us as we ran. However, what we got instead was just as draining mentally and physically. Lots of rain, and lots of mud, which only worsened as the hours ticked by. What exactly am I talking about? None other than my first ‘summer’ ultra trail running race, the Black Fly ultra taking place in my personal playground! There were options to race for 3, 6 or 12 hours. Can you guess what I opted for? Of course, 12 hours! My plan was to use this as a long training day to see how things were progressing for my journey to Sinister 7 (my first 100 miler coming up in July). Read on to learn more about this new and exciting race in our area!
Last year, you may recall that I took part in the inaugural Bad Beaver Ultra, a 3-day staged ultra race taking part in Gatineau Park. Well this year, they added a couple new events to their roster, and I decided to throw my hat in the ring and try them out. After all, who doesn’t want another cool hoodie to add to their collection, right? The idea behind the first new event, the Black Fly, was to pit racers against themselves on a looped course that you would run for 3, 6, or 12 hours straight. The winners would be whoever logged the most loops in the allotted time. In my mind, that meant that regardless how far I’d run, I would at least be able to say I did a proper 12 hour training day.
My going in position was not to take it too seriously or competitively. After all, this was pretty early in the season, and I was running on untested feet! Plantar fasciitis has been a recurring theme, with my right foot currently suffering the brunt of it. I’d been putting in trail time, but due to a lingering winter, I hadn’t been on trails very much yet, just a lot of road mileage to remind my legs how to run. The week before the event, I headed out to the venue and did about 4 practice loops of the course as best I could piece it together. Bumped into a few other folks doing the same thing that day, and we all agreed the trails were in great shape and it should be a fun day racing in a week.
Well, good ole mother nature decided to play tricks on us, deciding that later in the week should be characterized by biblical rains, and that the actual race day should also feature her favourite natural hydrator. In fact, I learned later that the race organizers were actually on the fence whether or not to cancel the event outright the evening before, due to the risk of damaging the mountain bike trails we’d be using! In the end, the decision was made to slightly modify the original course, and see how things progressed during the event.
As the original plans called for the start/finish/loop area to be in an open space, Deanna and I made a bit of a mad scramble the day before the race trying to secure a pop-up tent that I could use as my private ‘aid station’. Luckily, the fine folks at Euro-Sports had one available, and were kind enough to let us use it! On race morning, we learned that the aid area was relocated to the lower level of the Camp Fortune lodge, so it would be dry. However, I opted to still set up my own tent to keep things simple for my race. It would also mean I hopefully wouldn’t be too tempted to stay indoors and dry when the going got tough, which I was sure it would.
In keeping with my ‘long training day’ mantra, I had a few other tricks up my sleeve. Mostly, this consisted of my testing out a whole lot of new things on race day! I had new shoes to try, new socks, and even new nutrition / hydration. The way I saw it, since we were doing loops anyway, if something wasn’t working, I could swap it out. All told, I went through three pairs of socks and three pairs of shoes, changing out every roughly four hours. I can honestly say that putting on dry socks twice, even if it lasted less than 10 minutes, was a real mental boost during the slog! Oh yeah, and as is often the case these days, I was carrying cameras and getting trail footage for a review (which you can find at the bottom of the post).
For the 12 hour event, our race got underway at 6am, after a briefing indoors, where we were instructed to always run through the middle of all puddles and mud areas, which would limit trail damage. It was clear we’d spend the day very wet and muddy. There were 34 of us brave souls at the start, with a pretty low-key start line. I decided to hang out near the front and see how things went. It was clear quite early that one dude out to put a little distance between him and the crowd as soon as possible, but apart from that, I found myself running a nice solid race pace with a group of about 4-5 other accomplished ultra runners. Initially, I had a feeling that I’d drop back within a loop, but much to my surprise, I spent the majority of my first 4 hours running with this lead pack (minus turbo dude in front).
We had a good group spirit, and traded stories and jokes as we got progressively wetter and dirtier, and the trail god increasingly more treacherous. To call it a trail in spots would be a misnomer. It was more like a river carving its way along the remnants of trails. It felt quite rain forest-esque in some spots as well. Luckily, it wasn’t super cold, so I was making do with tights, a merino wool long sleeve top, and a gore-tex shell. Ironically, I’d grabbed that gore-tex shell as an afterthought on the way out, but it ended up being my outer layer for the entire day! I was having so much fun running with these guys that when nature was calling, I was paranoid about losing them, so I had to time my stops. At one point, I was sitting in a porta-potty, keeping the door open a crack to see when the lads would be running by (this was between laps). Amazingly, I didn’t lose to much time and got to hang out a bit longer with them.
Regardless, when hour 4 came along, I decided to take my first real pit stop, and change socks and shoes. Yes, I’d lose time, but that wasn’t as critical to me as it was that I check my feet for any damage, and try another pair of shoes. In an ironic twist, my ‘pit crew’ ended up being none other than Ray Zahab himself, who feigned being grossed out by peeling my socks off for me. But knowing what he has gone through in the past, I have no doubt it was more acting than real disgust! I changed my Salomon Wings Pro 2 shoes for a pair of Inov-8 Mudclaws, which I thought may work better in the now deep mud. The plan was to run in this combination for the next 4 hours.
Well, about 3.5 hours later, a couple things happened. First, I was informed that I’d only be doing one more ‘long’ loop up Brians trail (that whole section was getting cut). Secondly, I’d had enough of the Inov-8s. They were killing my feet. With minimal cushioning and large lugs, every time I’d push off or land on a rock, the lugs would drive into my feet, causing discomfort. I opted to take my 2nd pit stop a bit early. This time, I wanted a full boost. SO, I put on a new dry shirt, new gloves, new socks, and BRAND NEW shoes! Yup, trying out a pair of Skecher GoTrail waterproof shoes for the first time. Lots of cushioning. At this stop, Deanna noted that I didn’t seem very happy. I think she was right. The mud and rain, and sore feet were getting to me!
I lingered an extra minute or so before finally trotting out, with warm, dry feet, and a little trepidation at the final 4+ hours of running I had ahead of me. By now, I had definitely lost the pace of the front runners, and was more or less running my own race. In the past 4 hours, we seen the numbers swell first from the 6 hour runners joining us, and then the 3 hour runners joining. However, after the 9 hour mark, it was back to just the 12 hour runners, and things quieted down a lot. I was on my own. However, something magical happened on that lap I think. I felt lighter on my feet again. It was the shoes! These things drained the water fast, felt light, and were like pillows on my feet compared to the previous pair. When I finally jogged in after the next loop, Deanna could see I was much happier again. Of course, maybe it was also the slice of pizza that I had inhaled!
Either way, when you know you only have a bit more than 3 hours to go, you are starting to see the end of the misery (fun?). By this point in the day, I could tell that my pace had dropped. Without really being aware of it, I had now been lapped by the leaders, who seem to have an inhuman ability to keep pushing at the same pace they’d started at. For me, there was definitely starting to be ‘groundhog day’ feel to the loops, and I realized I now knew exactly where the rocks were hiding in the puddles, which roots to avoid, and which rocks were the best to jump on and off from. Things had definitely moved into the ‘cruise control’ portion of the day. Now it was all in the mental game. Willing myself to just keep going around another time, despite realizing that there was nothing amazing waiting around the bend! Luckily, people were still hanging around at the lap area, occasionally even emerging from the warmth and dryness of the building to cheer us on.
Energy-wise, I’d say that I’d done a good job with nutrition. I was testing out Tailwind as a substitute to solid food, and it worked pretty well. My only concern was that by moving to a liquid-only option, I think I drank too much, too fast in the early hours, as I did end up with some bloating and discomfort for a few laps. I suspect that on a hotter day, this wouldn’t be as much of an issue, since I’d need the liquids more. At any rate, later in the day, I went back to my tried and tested combo of Nuun for hydration and Fruit2 for nutrition.
As the clock marched forward, I started doing the mental math on pacing to figure out exactly how many more loops I’d have in me. You see, as long as you START a loop before the 12 hour cut-off, you can finish it, and it counts. So in that way, the 12 hour race is actually over 12 hours :-). I have a feeling that my internal clock was actually pre-programmed however. On my final lap, it appeared as though my pace was EXACTLY tuned for complete the loop AT the 12 hour mark. I’m pretty sure that if I’d *really* wanted it, I could have crossed the line a couple minutes before the cut off and completed one more loop. However, I also realized it would not affect the standings in the least bit for me. The next person ahead would be at least 1 loop ahead, and I couldn’t catch them, and anyone behind me would be unable to do another loop anyway, and therefore not ‘pass’ me. So I opted to just cruise in comfortably at the 12 hour mark.
A small but energetic group was gathered at the finish cheering in the 12 hour finishers at this point, including all 3 of the race directors. They were chanting for me to dive head first into the mud across the line, but frankly, I was having none of that. I just wanted to be done now, get out of the rain, and rest a while. After all, I was slated to be at a potluck / party in the next hour!! You can just imagine how much fun I was going to be there 😉
When all the dust, or rather mud, settled, the stats on the day were cause for some happiness. I had covered roughly 85km of distance, including over 3,500m of elevation gain. I clinched 5th place overall, and by looking closely at all the results, had a pretty damn good day out there. While I really had nothing to prove, I nonetheless showed myself that my early season fitness was there, and that as long as I stay healthy, I should be in good shape to complete all my challenges planned out for 2017! As to the new gear, again, I’m happy to report positive findings on all fronts, especially my decision to impulse order DryMax socks from the US. After going through this 12 hour torture test, my feet looked pretty immaculate, all things considered. Given that they were submerged in water with churning sand all day, this was a remarkable feat. Mind you, it took HOURS to rinse out all the gear the next day, but I suffered not a single blister! Amazing!
Well that pretty much wraps up my race report from the Black Fly. I’d say this is a perfect early season event for any ultra runner, as you can go as hard or easy as you want, test new things out, be surrounded by fun people, and get in a hell of a training day with lots of elevation. If you’re into that sort of thing, I’d definitely put this one on the calendar for next year. And in case you need any more convincing, check out my video below! Until next time, get out there, and have some fun. Next up for me is another 50 miler, back to the Cayuga Trails 50 in Ithaca, New York. Stay tuned for that race report!
I can honestly say that I didn’t think I’d be writing this blog post today, yet here I find myself once again writing up a race report. What’s that you say? A race? I thought you were spending some time recovering or transitioning to winter sports and healing your foot? Well, you are right, but I had an itch. The plan was for the 125k UTHC to be my last running race of the season, but after a 2-week vacation, and not feeling completely exhausted yet, I opted to show up on race day and sign up for this race on a whim. Yes, I literally didn’t decide to race until about 2 hours before the starting line! I had been toying with running the 10k, which started at 10am, but when I realized the 21k race started at 8am, I figured that would give me more free time later, as I’d finish sooner. Odd logic, isn’t it? Read on for a quick re-cap.
You may be wondering what race I’m talking about, but the title gave it away. I was competing in the Mad Trapper ‘Relentless’ trail race. This is what Mike calls his ‘hardest’ or ‘worst’ race of the year. Who wouldn’t want to race it, right? If featured a 3k, 5k, 10.5k, 21k, and even a 50k event option. The race entry fees are quite reasonable (between $50 and $60, depending), and all feature the same post-race feast and free beer at the finish (well, near-beer in this case, but I’ll get to that). Seeing as just over 3 years ago I got married there, and the fact that we hadn’t been out too often this year, I decided it would be fun to wander out there for the fun!
The day before, the forecasts were looking rather dire. I had spent all day working on a house project (as usual, a reno project I estimated at 3 hours took me 7 hours once I sorted all the ‘surprise’ challenges), and was pretty pooped by 7pm when I finished. The rain forecast kept shifting, and by the time I was heading to bed, it now looked like *maybe* it would only rain a little bit. I decided to make a game day decision when I woke up as to whether I’d race the 21k, the 10.5k, or skip it all together.
My alarm started yelling at 6am, and I decided right away, what the heck! Let’s do this! It’ll be fun, and you’ll see and hang out with people you haven’t seen much. Lucky for me, Deanna wan’t surprised nor grudging about the decision, and came with me to hang out. We were running just a touch late, and pulled up to the Ark during the final race briefing (<10 mins to go!). Mike asked if I was running the 21k, I said “sure!”, and went in to grab a race number before toeing the line. I didn’t even officially register before the race, just grabbed the number, and started with everyone else. Talk about low prep and low pressure, right? That was the whole idea.
My race strategy was non-existent. There were under 30 people in the race, and I didn’t recognize a ton of faces, so I had no idea what the field would be like. In addition, my foot is obviously not healed yet, so anything could happen. The real plan was just to push myself into a high pace and hold on, treating it more like a hard long training run than a race. In my head, I decided a time of about 2:15 would make me happy. Coming out of the gate, I was near the front runners, sitting in what I’d call the chase pack, just off the lead pack. Not having warmed up at all might have been an issue, particularly since the race starts on a hard couple of uphill climbs, and then just rolls up and down ‘relentlessly’ over the 10.5k loop which we ran twice. There are NO flat run-outs to get your breath or mentally re-group. So it was 100% the whole way!
For the first kilometer or so, we kept the lead 4 in our sights, and I was hopeful that maybe we’d keep that distance, and potentially make up distance near the end. However, after that opening km, the leaders slowly started gapping us, and I found myself slowing a bit due to runners ahead of me. Perhaps unwisely, I jumped off the ‘beaten path’ and more into the side of the trail to pass a few runners. A risky move given that under any fallen leaves could be an ankle-mangling root or rock. For the most part, Mike had used a leaf blower on the actual track, so we had pretty decent visibility of our footpath. I got lucky, and made my passes safely.
After the passes, I tried to form my own gap to the chase group to put myself in the all-too-familiar no man’s zone I seem to find myself in. More or less running alone, constantly fearing someone passing from behind and peering hopefully in front of me. A couple other runners had joined me in the passing, so I had a revised pack of runners with me. Eventually, I was passed by 2 others myself, so was guessing I was around 6th. I held my pace and chose to run through the only aid station on course, instead relying on my litre of Nuun and my 2 Fruit2 bars to sustain me for the entire race.
With 2k to go in lap 1, I caught sight of a couple other runners bearing down on me, throwing me in to panic mode, and pushing even harder. My average heartrate for lap 1 was probably on the order of 177bpm. Yeah, it was a redline fest! I held my pursuers at bay, and flew down the last hill to finish lap 1 with my position intact. Only after the race did I learn that those 2 in particular actually bailed at the 10.5k mark, so I had more of a cushion than anticipated. My first lap was done in about 1:04 or 1:05. So far, I was on track. However, I was worried about maintaining that pace given my elevated heart rate. That’s a pretty tough pace to maintain for over 2 hours! Especially given that I’ve ONLY been running races that are 80k and up this year 😉
My mantra on lap 2 was simple, watch your feet, lift your feet, run fast. I’d repeat those in my head ad nauseum as the trees passed me by. And what beautiful trees they were. Fall colours were in full effect, but there was no time to lolly-gag and take it in… Why so focussed on feet? Well, this time of year is super-treacherous in technical trails. Wet, slippery and hidden roots and rocks abound. On lap 1 I managed to roll each ankle once, and early in lap 2 I rolled my left ankle a second time, and worse than the first time. I recovered quickly on all 3 rolls, but really didn’t want to have to hobble out a finish and spend the next month regretting racing!
Luckily, to this point (about 16k into the race) the weather had co-operated, but now I started feeling a few drops of rain. At first, just the scattered drops that started and stopped. However, after another 10 minutes or so, the sky decided it really wanted to open up on us wary racers. The showers picked up in intensity and did short work of soaking me through my thin layers of spandex. Luckily, the temperature was pretty warm, so I didn’t get chilled. However, I had opted to race without a hat or buff, so this rain managed to bring a nice river of salt from my brow into my eyes, giving me trail blindness and no way to dry my eyes. I ran through blurry, teary eyes, waiting for the salt to flush out. It was a bit comical.
I kept up the pace, and in spite of seeing a figure behind me at a few curvy points (hard to pin-point, but I was guessing 400m or so behind me), I soon reached the penultimate climb of the loop, and knew that from the summit it would be a pretty straight bomb to the finish. The rain hadn’t yet made a mess of the course, so the footing stayed pretty good up till the finish. I trotted across the finish line, happy with my performance. Glanced at my watch, and wouldn’t you know it, 2:15 pretty much on the dot! My subconscious must have pushed me to that time. I was clearly slower on lap 2, but overall, a pretty solid effort. And yes, looks like it netted me 6th overall.
After the race, I felt remarkably good. My energy levels stayed high, and although my feet were pretty sore, the rest of my felt fine. I’m guessing it has something to do with being conditioned to keep pushing for longer periods of time. I changed out of my now-sopping run clothes and into comfy recovery mode. I chatted with other racers, and enjoyed some great food. This time, burgers that were cooked by Mike over charcoal at the finish line while watching people finish (thankfully he had a tent over the bbq pit). Along with burgers was a maple-squash soup, chips, bananas, cookies, and of course the world-famous post-race brownies. To wash it down, I was a touch disappointed to have my choice of only Canadian or Coors Light. Apparently these were wedding leftovers from an event the night before. Oh well, beggers can’t be choosers, right?
After another little while, Mike finally came in to do the ‘awards’ or rather ‘recognition’ of the people that won. His races are seldom about the actual winning, with no medals or winner prizing. Instead, all the prizes are determined by games and/or whatever whim Mike has at the moment. Wearing a shirt he likes? You might get a prize, just like the woman in the hoody reading “I’m sorry for what I said when I was hungry” did.
By the time it was all said and done, it was still before noon, so I had 2/3rds of the day ahead of me, giving me ample time to work on other things before hosting friends for supper that night. Considering I hadn’t planned on racing a few days ago, it all worked out quite well. I suppose if I hadn’t raced, I probably only would have gotten productive around the same time, so this way, I managed to get some excellent exercise, and have fun out there hanging with friends! That’s definitely the way to live life, right?
As always, thanks for the venue and the fun race Mike, see you again this winter at the Mad Trapper Snowshoe races! I’m pretty sure that NOW I’ll take some time off from racing, although the allure of a cyclocross race and maybe some orienteering is out there…. Stay tuned here to see if anything else pops up on my radar!
Oh boy! Where do I start this one? With this post, I will finally be caught up with my race reports for the 2016 season. I had tentative plans to perhaps run another race, but I’ve put the plans on hold in order to make sure that I do no further damage to feet, and start my journey to 2017 and all the fun it will have to offer (no, I don’t even know yet what I’ll be doing, but I bet it will be awesome!). So without further ado, I bring you my story of my 2nd (and successful!) attempt at running the 125 km Ultra-Trail Harricana. One of my favourite trail races around, and definitely a challenging one as well. Perfect setting and lots of distance options means that if you are at all into trail running, you may want to put this one on your ‘to-run’ list! Read on for the story.
As you probably know by now, the 125k UTHC was my ‘target’ race for the entire season. This year, for the first time, I decided to focus on one pursuit only, trail running. Most other years, I tack on triathlons, cycling tours, adventure races, and whatever else looks interesting. However, after last year’s disappointing DNF in the 125k UTHC, I vowed I’d come back stronger, and more prepared. To those ends, I carefully devised both a training and racing schedule that should have had me amply prepared. I did an early season adventure race, but that was a necessary distraction before the true training kicked off. From there, I did a couple 50 miles (80k), improving my time, and then moved onto 2 separate 3-day races, meant to put me into further states of tiredness over different distances. Seemed like a good plan, but unfortunately, after the last 3-day race, my old friend (nemesis?) plantar fasciities reared its ugly head, threatening to derail my plans.
And THAT leads me to the night of the race. Picture it. I’m in downtown Malbaie at the Subway having a sub before grabbing a few hours sleep for a midnight shuttle bus to the start line (race begins at 2am!). I’d made a request of a friend of mine who was racing the next day (and also happens to be a podiatrist), asking for her help in maybe taping my feet to prep me for the big day. Well, as I was getting my order, who should stroll in, but Annie! She came straight to Subway on her arrival to town in order to help me out. So we sat outside, customers peering curiously at the weird guy with black toenails and his feet on the table as a lady laughed and talked to him while applying weird spray-on glue and bandages to his feet. I’m sure they had no way to comprehend what was happening.
This of course leads to a truism of this sport. It is REALLY hard to truly explain and get people to understand exactly what racing an event like this is all about, what you do to get there, and what it ultimately does to you. I’ve given up trying to make people truly understand the nuances, and just nod my head and agree when you get the inevitable ‘I can’t even run to the corner store, I can’t even imagine running 125k. You’re crazy.’ And I’m the crazy one? You can’t even run a few hundred meters and are proud to share that factoid? Oh well, I can only live my life, and everyone has their own ideas how they want to go through life. We all ultimately end up in the same place, so what does it matter, right? I’m having fun (mostly!).
So with bandaged feet, Deanna and I headed back to our hotel so that I could grab some shut-eye. I went to sleep somewhere around 8pm, and got back out of bed just before midnight. Ugh. It was going to be a long night / day / night of running. At this point, I had written up a pace card assuming I’d be done in about 19.5 hours. So in THEORY, I was planning a 9:30pm finish. To be clear, this was actually in my mind a conservative estimate of my finish time. I’m also convinced that without the foot problems, it was realistic. However, as is often the case, things don’t always work out the way you want.
The shuttle bus and race briefing were quite uneventful in my mind. I met up with a few people I knew and chatted idly as the start time approached. One friend was Sebastian Warner, another runner who was back for revenge. While I had bailed at the 80k mark last year, he made it to the final aid station, so with 7k to do last year before being pulled from the course. Yeah. Shitty. But he took it all in stride. As a result of our shared disappointment from the year before, we had similar plans for this year. Start slow, stay slow, and FINISH! With that in mind, we shuffled to the start together, choosing to talk about beer rather than the race. In fact, the starting gun went off, and we were at the very back, barely registering that the race had started. There was just no point at all in running off at the start.
The first leg of the race is 19.5km of mainly gravel road before the first aid station. Last year, I paced hard at the beginning, treating it like a shorter event, and paying the ultimate price later. This year, it was easy conversation pace, with the heart rate clearly in a Zone1 place. I was confident this was the way to run, and Sebastian agreed, so we ran together. In fact, we picked up a ‘third amigo’ in the form of Vincent from Montreal, and slowly made our way together in the darkness, laughing, trading stories, and doing our best to ‘ignore’ the truth of what the next 110+km of racing would have in store. We all stayed together through the 1st aid station, but after that, the course makes a dramatic change. Namely, a pointy hill climb in the dark. At the aid station, I opted to just charge ahead onto the climb rather than stop for a few minutes. I had my super-bright light on, and just love climbing big hills like this one. I wisely chose to bust out my climbing poles early again, and used them to assist me.
Sebastian and Vincent were behind me, but I’d eventually see them both again. Vincent and I joined forces once again midway up the climb. By the time we hit the summit, the sky was already streaky with the new day, and I paused long enough to appreciate my place in the universe, before heading down the steep descent. Vincent and I were together until the aid station. I hit the porta-pottie, and by the time I returned, Sebastian was also back with us. Vincent and I left just slightly ahead, but after a few more kilometers, he joined us again, and shortly after that, I let them both head off ahead of me, with the plan to stay well within my comfort zone, and not allow myself to trick my brain into thinking I should run faster! I was now more or less on my own for the majority of the rest of the race (90+k). But that’s okay, people drift in and out of your sphere in a race like this based on individual abilities in different terrain.
I actually felt pretty decent as the day ticked by. Aid stations are relatively far apart in this race, so I had ended up carrying a lot of food with me as I ran, and my own little game was to plan out my next snack, and see how far I’d get before it was ‘chow time’ again. I kept the engine stoked, and carefully managed my food stores to make sure I’d get to the mid-point where I’d see Deanna, have access to my drop bag, and replenish my on-board snack selection. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember a whole lot of note from the race up to that mid-point anyway. I was pretty fixated with that aid station, located at the 56k point, at Parc des Hautes Gorges. The reason was that I KNEW the next leg was very hard, so I was mentally readying myself.
I do recall there was a lot of excellent running, on both trails and access roads. We had some spectacular views on our 2nd (of 3 major) summits, and ultimately, we popped out on a hydro-cut which took us to the road that led to the aid station. I was getting tired by that point already, and jogged in with Deanna by my side to cheer me on. I plopped myself in a chair, re-filled all my food and drinks, then took a proper 5-minute breather where I lay on my back with my feet elevated in a feeble attempt to ‘micro-recover’ my feet. I was already pretty far back in the race pack, but it was of no consequence. I was already in conservation mode. My time at this point was bang-on my estimate, but I warned Deanna that I didn’t think I’d be able to maintain this pace and finish on my original estimate. Unfortunately, due to the layout of this race (aka point-to-point in pretty rugged terrain), this was the only time in the entire race apart from the finish, that I’d actually see my cheerleader. That’s actually a mixed blessing, as it meant I didn’t have to put on a brave face or risk being early or late at a station, I just had to keep on truckin’!
I left the aid station in good spirits, steeling myself for what I affectionately dubbed the ‘hell section’. Last year, it was a painful 21.5k from this aid station to the next, with a lot of carnage between, including lots of dehydration, and people throwing in the towel at the next station. As a result, this year, the organizers threw in a ‘bonus’ hydration-only aid station 5k later, meaning we ‘only’ had to cover 16.5k this time with no resupply. Lucky for me, I knew exactly what was coming up, and opted to fully re-fill here. I also activated my secret weapon in this section. My ipod. Headphones are prohibited, but it didn’t say anything about music on a speaker. So, with the little speaker on my ipod, I had tunes for this whole run, and it was glorious! Even though things got much tougher later, I only used them here. An interesting thing happened in this section. I started passing people. Not a lot, but I imagine these were people who had made the unfortunate mistake of starting too fast, and not realizing what this stage had in store. It was mostly uphill, on pretty gnarly track.
At one point I came across Vincent, and was actually afraid he was dead, as he was just sprawled motionless across the trail! I approached cautiously, calling his name. He stirred, seemed slightly confused before recognizing me and telling me he had just decided to take a little nap. He was low on water and had no food. I shared some of my mixed nuts with him, encouraged him as best I could, but ultimately, I had to leave him to keep chasing my ghost. I knew there were others behind, so there would be people to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again in the race, and turns out he had to abandon where I abandoned last year. I know exactly how he felt…
As for my race, I arrived safe and sound at the next aid station, at approximately the 80k mark. With about a marathon left to go (or 1/3rd the race), I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time realizing I’d be seeing that light for quite some time! The next leg was another long one, at 18.5k, but thankfully a little easier thanks to a relatively long, downhill stretch of gravel road. Truthfully, I always find these roads tougher than trails, but at least you make decent time. After resting a few minutes at this aid station, I got my courage back, and headed off again. Doing the math, I realized that this stage would take me well over 3 hours. Having a look at the current time, it meant I should just squeak in before dark, so I made that my goal.
While on this leg, I tagged along close with a few other runners, now happy for some extra company, even if I wasn’t running directly with them, but at least keeping them in sight kept me motivated to plod on. By the time we cruised into the next aid station, it was just getting dark, so it was time to bust out the headlamps for the rest of the race. I was the last to arrive at this aid station in my little group, but also the first to want to head out. Mentally, I had to keep moving. I was also weary about the fact that there was rain in the forecast. I didn’t want to get wet, catch a chill, and run into some new-found misery before the end.
4 of us started this next section together in the dark, talking about how company would be good. However, with my super bright light on the technical climbing that we were facing, I soon found myself creating a bit of a gap on my new friends. I struggled with whether to stay with them or charge on, and opted to press forward. I was currently feeling good, and wanted to capitalize. I had a really good run on that leg, and pulled into the next aid station feeling reasonable. HOWEVER, we were now about to face the last tough climb of the race, and it was very dark now, and the weather was changing. I loaded up on food and drink, anxious to head out again. I managed to pull out of the aid station just as a group of 5-6 racers were coming in (we could spot their headlights in the distance). Rather than wait, I once again trotted off.
I kept my gap, in spite of an ever-slowing pace. I was now getting too tired to even do the math to guesstimate where I’d finish. My only concern had been making the cut-offs, but I was assured I had at least an hour in the bank, so I felt pretty certain that even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d be an official finisher. So while that felt good to know, it was also depressing, as it meant I STILL had over 3 hours to go out there (in fact, it was nearly 3.5 hours!). At this point, my favourite trails were the nice double-track trails where you have a singe tire track to follow. With a black strip in the middle, and grass on the sides, I could just drop my head, and follow the black line. It was mind-numbing, but then again, my mind WAS numb!
On this second to last leg I felt the first few drops of rain. Nothing to get excited about or put a jacket on as a result, but an omen. I picked my way along, letting the occasional glowing orb guide me. Orb? Oh year, they strung up water bottles with little lights in them every 400m or so. It was a nice touch. Except when they appeared to be his floating high up in the sky, cuz that meant a big climb was imminent! This section ended up on another gravel road, and when I finally made it in, I was happy to hear a little pick-me-up music and to see a chair calling my name. I’ve gotta say, the volunteers manning the aid stations were absolutely amazing! They were still high energy in spit of undoubtedly having been there for a long time. It was really nice as a racer to be well taken care of at least emotionally out there!
This was it. The penultimate stage. As I sat at the final aid station, I reflected on what I’d done, and what was left. A mere 7k to the finish. But I was pretty beat. My feet were sore, and I was starting to feel like I was running on fumes. Food and drink didn’t seem to be perking me up anymore. But, there was no way I was stopping here. I waited for 2 others to arrive that I’d been running with on an off for the last several legs. They were tired too, but as a trio, we figured we could help each other. I slotted in behind the two of them and we took off. As we chatted, I learned that although these two had run pretty much the whole race together, they’d never met! Crazy. The lady in front was an amazing pacer and seemed to have a perfect amount of energy left to press on. I think she had her sights on finishing by midnight, but looking at the, I thought it was too ambitious. I stayed with them for a few kilometer (probably 4), before finally having to admit to myself that I couldn’t keep up with them. I let them slowly pull away, and I was left with my own internal struggle to keep moving. It was about now that the rain started picking up.
Shortly after, I could start making out noise from the finish area, which wasn’t so far away (due to snaking trails around the area). Every now and again I thought I could hear music wafting through the air. I knew the ‘dance party’ would be in effect, and that the beer was flowing. Would people still be there? Would Deanna? Could I pull off a smile at the finish? Or just collapse. I’d know soon enough, as I was just passing the 1km to go signs. By now, the rain started really coming down, soaking me to the core. Luckily, I had been pretty hot most of the day, so it was still ‘refreshing’. The closing kilometer was actually a trial in itself. The race ends on some extremely swampy ski trails back to the lodge, and with the heavy rains, it was now a major boggy mess. It took me 20 minutes to cover that final kilometer, and each step was fought for. I was getting angrier and angrier until…. I saw it! The lights of the finish!
They saw me at the same time. The announcers far-off voice was urging me to press on, to not give up, and go for the finish. With the bight lights at the finish, I could see just how stormy and rainy it now was. I moved back to a jog speed, pulled out the camera, and shot my final hundred meters to the finish. Waiting for me was the race director, Deanna, and my friend Sebastian, who’d finished over an hour earlier (thus defeating his demons too!). I was given a heros’ welcome, happily accepted my medal, then sought the safety of the nearby recovery tent where I could plunk my ass in a chair, get out of the rain, and get my legs up. What a feeling! The first aid volunteers were busy making sure I was ok, and about to hand me some Pepsi to hydrate when the race director steps over and hands me an ice cold beer instead! While the first couple mouthfuls were glorious, I must admit I just didn’t have the energy to drink a whole beer. That would have to wait until the next day! Of course, since it was after midnight it already WAS the next day!
Shortly after I finished, the skies really opened up. We’re talking biblical rains! I felt really bad for those still out there. I was near the back of the pack, but there were still 9 others that finished after me. I had finished 61 out of 102 starters. 70 of us finished, and 32 did not, so a 69% finishing rate on this course. I’ll take it! I asked Deanna to bring the car as close to the recovery area as possible. I crumpled myself into the passenger side, and as soon as I closed the door, my body started shutting down. I was shivering uncontrollably, and freezing cold in spite of the heat. We rushed back to the hotel, where all I could manage was to peel off my clothes and fall into bed for an incredibly odd and fitful night of ‘sleep’. We were back up at 8am to head out for whale watching, but I really hadn’t gotten any quality sleep since Thursday night in Trois Riviere. I fought my way through a day of playing tourist before finally getting a good night’s sleep Sunday night after 11pm!
I must say, the entire experience was mentally a huge challenge. I loved the event, but during the run, I definitely found myself wondering if I have the stomach to do another race like this. But, inevitably, as I’m typing this up, I already have my sights on trying my hand at a 100 miler (160km). But not just any 100 miler. Nope. I’m thinking of the Sinister 7 in Alberta! Before I hit ‘register’ on that bad boy though, it’s time for some R&R, and make sure my feet get back to perfect condition. Oh yeah, and it’s also time to start thinking about the winter season! Lots of skiing in my future!
To close off, I put together a couple videos of this race. The first is of course my official race review video. The second one? Well, decided I’d put a short video together about some of the amazing sights around the Charlevoix region, since I am so fond of it :-). Enjoy!
Sights of Charlevoix Video
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….
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.
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.
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.
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?
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!
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:
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.