Tag Archives: trail running

A 21k Relentless Pursuit in the Woods

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.

Waiting for the Start

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!

Terrain Profile

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 😉

Race Course

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.

Pooped but Happy

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?

Post Race Chow Down

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!

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…

A Hard Earned DNF

I should never have even been at the start line of this race. I was undertrained, injured, and just generally knew that tackling such a beast might not be in my best interests. However, pride got the better of me. Welcome to my story about how it came to be that I stopped at the 80km mark of a 125km ultra trail running race. Yes, the much anticipated story of my race at Ultra-Trail Harricana that took place in September, mere days before Deanna and I were heading off to Nepal for nearly a month! I should note from the get-go however that mentally, I was ready for this race, it wasn’t that I *didn’t* want to finish, I just simply *couldn’t*. It’s a feeling I really didn’t enjoy.

Alrighty, let’s back up a couple years though. UTHC is a special race. The event lakes place near La Malbaie in the Charlevoix region of Quebec. It takes a fair bit of time to get there (7-9 hours), and is in a beautiful, rugged region, with plenty of mountains to keep you entertained as you suffer. Two years ago, when I was first starting out running in ultra trail running races, I took part in the inaugural 65km UTHC (see my report) . It was tough, but I loved it, and definitely wanted to return to race it again. Last year didn’t work out in my schedule, but when I heard they were rolling out a 125km option for 2015, I decided that I would make the trip once again!

Seeing as I was turning 40 this year, I had planned a series of awesome races to tackle this year, basically culminating in this race, the toughest 1-day event I’d be tackling. I had high hopes for this event, as I figured I would be in peak form by the time it rolled around. Unfortunately, things were pretty much the opposite of peak. A wiser man would have either dropped down to a shorter distance, or opted to even watch from the sidelines. Sadly, I am not that wiser man. As I was also covering the race for Get Out There Magazine , I felt an obligation to toe the line no matter what. Cue the mild encouragement of both my wife and podiatrist that *maybe* I shouldn’t race the 125k. It fell on deaf ears. So what was going on?

Turns out when you plan a whole series of tough high-profile races all throughout the season, you need to train a lot, and there is little time for recovery. Early season went very well. I had good success, and felt good. However, by June, things were starting to hurt. In particular, my left foot. A couple weeks before a half Ironman, I had things checked out. Plantar Fasciitis was the diagnosis. The cure? Rest and recovery. However, since that was unlikely, we opted for an early attempt at a cortisone shot. It didn’t work. I raced the half Ironman anyway. Then, a couple weeks later, I left for Colorado to race in a 6-day staged trail running race. After that? Back home and to a full Ironman 3 weeks later. Two weeks later, I was at the start of UTHC. Oh, and between those? A 1-week trip to Vegas to do some trekking in addition to walking a trade show floor for days on end. Do you see a problem there? Yeah, no rest. No recovery. Just racing. I avoided trail running, and running in general, between these races, as my foot just couldn’t take it. So, I’d been racing in all these events, not recovering between them AND not properly training for a 125k race. If you picked up a recipe book on bad ideas for preparing and running in an ultra, this would be one of the top choices!

Ultra Trail Harricana 2015

Now many of you probably know me quite well. Well enough to know that I’m stubborn. I don’t quit. My mantra is that the only way I would stop racing is if an ambulance takes me away, or a qualified medical person tells me that I can’t. Not “shouldn’t”, but “can’t” go on (without doing perma. Well, I guess we can add one other to that list, and that’s missing a time cutoff. But that’s not abandoning. So technically, I didn’t abandon this race. But I should have. Before the race, the day before, and all along, I deluded myself by saying that I’d just push through it. I can always get through races. Heck, the Ironman, to many people, is such a hard event, you need peak physical form. Not me. I just went to that one saying “it’s just an Ironman”, “I’ll push through”. And I did. No biggie. But I underestimated the toll a 125km trail running race, with LOTS of elevation gain / loss has on the body. I have learned my lesson. You can NOT just push through. I won’t make that mistake again.

Okay, I know, I’ve now forced you to read all this way and I haven’t told you anything about the actual race. So let’s get through that part. I needed the catharsis of writing out my lesson first. The Charlevoix region is stunning. There are gorgeous mountains that you drive up and over just to get to the start line. It is a taste of things to come. It is also rugged. Our ‘trail’ in many cases was just basic flagging tape on branches / shrubs to guide us to the next discernible trail. I LOVED it! Also, the people who run this event are passionate, and keep giving more and more to this event. Each year, there is something new, and it is bigger and better. This year, they introuduced simultaneous translation to the race briefing to help the non french-speakers out. Great touch. A first that I’ve seen. And next year? Oh, well, they’ve just announced they are now part of the Ultra-Trail World Tour ! Yup, they join the ranks of the very best of the best trail races in the world. After less than 5 years! That is a testament to Sebastien and Genvieve’s work.

When I arrived onsite, it felt a bit like a homecoming. Even though I didn’t know a lot of the people around me, it still felt like family. You don’t tackle a race like a 125k ultra on a whim. Everyone taking part in that event had paid their dues and has a story. You can just feel it, and see it in the eyes and expressions of people there. Oh, and if you did sign up on a whim? Well, you’ll join me and the many other who got the dreaded DNF that day (only 46 people finished out of 93 who started). I strode around the site with a bit of bravado. Having raced the 65k there, I felt I had earned my way to this race, and knew what I’d be up against. I was the guy describing parts of the course to others who had never raced here. How foolish of me to feel confident, knowing my own physical frailties would be on display for all to see all too soon.

Ironically, I was set up to stay in a cabin with not only a few other media folks, but also the eventual winner (by a long shot) of the 125k race. He was very unassuming, but I’d heard he was a credible contender. Super nice guy too though. Ultra runers truly are salt of the earth. There is no glory in winning, no great prizing. Just recognition by your peers, and whatever you personally gain emotionally from finishing the event. The afternoon before the race (we had to leave at midnight by bus to start the race at 2am), I prepped my gear. Cameras and batteries? Check. Hydration? Check. Nutrition? Check. You can eat on course at aid stations, but I like to bring the stuff I want, even if it means I have to carry it. Finally, trekking poles. I’m not completely stupid. I knew the foot would hurt, but hoped that by using trekking poles after the first while (and on all the steep climbs), I’d be able to muddle through.

Ironically, I slept through the alarm I’d set for 11:15pm, to give me time to eat and drink. Instead, I got up at 11:55pm to learn my ride was about to leave! Mad scramble to catch a ride to catch the bus to make the start line! Drama aside, by 1:30am we were in a little community church getting our final race briefings. The night air was cool, but not cold. We all trudged up to the start line, bathed in the glow of headlamps. We’d be running in the dark for probably the first 4 hours (or roughly the first marathon of three back to back…). The start itself was a bit anticlimatic. Knowing just how long the race would be, I was in no rush to be at the front or try to burst out of the gates. In spite of that, racers all agreed the start went out way too fast. The main reason was that we were on paved roads, and it was predominantly downhill. I went with the flow, but tried to keep tabs on my own pace to make sure I wasn’t blowing up. In retrospect, I don’t think it mattered much, as my fate was sealed long before the start.

After the first 8-10k we peeled off the tarmac and hit our first trails. More like dirt roads, but at least it was off the pavement. We followed this until the first aid station of the race. From this point, we were about to tackle the first major obstacle, and toughest (physically) climb of the day. An extemely steep climb in the dark to the highest point in the race, only to dive back down the steep trail on a sligtly differet route, back to the same aid station! The climb itself would likely have been more hair-raising for some if we hadn’t been immersed in darkness. At many points, we actually had to use fixed ropes to pull ourselves up the steep sections. I loved it, but it made for rather difficult filming for me. The other unfortunate side effect of the night was the fact that once we did get to the apex, we couldn’t see anything but inky blackness! I’m pretty sure the view would have been spectacular 🙂

Early Morning Light-001

Once off the mountain, it was back onto gravel roads and singletrack. By this point, there had already been some early abandoners of the race, opting to sit by the comfy warm fire at Aid Station #2. Guess the steep and treacherous climb had spooked them and made them worried about what the future might hold! After about another 20-30 minutes, the sky started to lighten up with streaks of orange, pink, and grey. It was a welcome sight, and also meant that any lingering chilliness should start to lift. At this point in the race I was still more or less running, and unaided by trekking poles. I had started trading steps with a few other people I knew, so the occasional company was nice. As with many races like this, you end up running your own race, meaning that sometimes you’ll be running with someone, by it’s just as likely that you’ll be on your own.

For the next couple hours, I more or less just slogged along, enjoying the day, and realizing with each passing kilometer that things were starting to hurt more and more. I also migrated to using the trekking poles full time, imagining that by taking 20% of my weight off my feet should help with my goal of continued forward progress. I was eating and drinking well, making sure that I took in plenty of electrolytes to ensure I didn’t start getting any bad leg cramps. I feel as though I had that part of my race dialled in this time. I never felt a lack of energy nor any major GI issues. My body *wanted* me to succeed, and did pretty much everything it could to co-operate, but it just wasn’t enough.

Enjoying the Wilderness

As the sun rose higher and higher in the sky, so, too, did us runners. We were climbing hill after hill, and following some pretty spectactular trails in beautiful surroundings. When I topped out at the second major climb, it was an ideal time. The sun had risen partly in the sky, and we were high up in the mountains. As such, a morning fog hung around the valleys far below, which I was fortunate enough to see. It was at that moment that I decided no matter what happened later in the day, I’d remember that spot, and that I *would* be back to take on this course once again. Good thing I made that promise, as things definitely got worse.

Each time we popped out to arrive at an aid station, it always felt like it was the perfect place to have a break, as I was just about to run out of drinks and will to keep pushing hard. I remember arriving at the Parc des Hautes Gorges, a spot roughly halfway into the race. Here, we had access to our drop bags (so change of clothes if you wanted, extra personal food, etc.). By now the sun was beating on us warmly, so I opted to ditch some clothes, re-pack some food, and head back out with a full 2L of liquids. Good thing too, as the next section would be VERY long (and my last one). I started this leg in rough shape, and wasn’t sure how things might finish for me. I was optimistic, but slow. Even at that aid station, it was clear I was at the tail end of this race. Not last by any stretch, but falling back. My pace had also steadily been declining. Not unusual for a long race, but it felt too soon to me.

Tricky Trails

This stage started with a beautiful ridge run, then dropped down to follow a dirt road for another 5-8k. From there, we were plunged into what can only be described as overgrown dense forest trails. Again, really nice, but tough to traverse with a bum foot. I struggled as best I could, but with each passing km marker (yup they were counting down each km for us!), I was getting slower and slower, and the pain was getting greater and greater in my foot. People passing me could tell I was in rough shape, but kept encouraging me to move on. Eventually, I remember shuffling past a swamp, and doing some math on the fly, realizing that at my decreasing pace, there was no way I’d finish the race within the time limits, and was not even looking good to finish this stage before the cutoff. It was a bit depressing to realize I was going to DNF, since I’d already been out of my comfort zone for quite a while, but wouldn’t get that finisher’s rush that makes it all worth it.

After a bit of soul searching, and some food, I trudged on, now barely walking. Because I had slowed down so much, I even ran out of water and had to treat some on the move by taking water from a stream. Otherwise I could have also gotten some nice dehydration. I was now being passed by the real heros of this race, those people that are just on the edge of being cutoff, but dig deep to make it. They were trying to get me to tag on the back of them and follow, but I just couldn’t. I tried, but the pain was exquisite in my foot, and all the over-compensation by my right leg was also wreaking havoc on my ability to even use my right leg. I watched these folks fade into the distance, knowing I was under 5k from the aid station, and that they were running the razors edge to make it in time. Eventually, I stumbled into a clearing of intersecting trails to see the aid station. I hobbled the final few steps, knowing I was done.

Journey Ends at km 80

The volunteers there were gently trying to explain I had missed the cutoff. No doubt they expected a protest or some surprise, but I had none to offer. I was done, and I knew it. I had already decided there was no way I’d try to keep going, even if I had made it. In 3 days I was leaving for 3 weeks of trekking in Nepal, and knew Deanna would not be impressed if I started that trip unable to walk! I was happy to learn that my other friends who were close to the cutoff had made it. They wouldn’t all make it in the end, but they were continuing the journey. For me, it was about 80k into the race, and it was game over. I sat down, drank a whole lot of water, and waited to learn my fate. Eventually, that fate was a local who had been volunteering and had a truck. He drove another racer and I back to the finish line, a drive of well over an hour on the back roads.

I arrived to the finish in time to see the 2nd and 3rd place finishers in the 125k race. The times were much slower than had been originally anticipated. I wouldn’t be surprised if they adjust the cutoff times for next year to allow more time. It is most definitely a tough course, and one that obviously took its’ toll on many a racer. I stuck around the finish for quite a little while, greeting racers, swapping stories, and just marvelling at the perseverance put in by racers. I would have liked to stay until midnight for the final racers to come in (22 hours after the start), but I was just too exhausted and in pain. Once I found a drive, I took it. I was brought back to my cottage where I collapsed into a deep sleep until the next morning.

And what a next morning it was. My legs were lead! My feet extremely swollen, and pain all over. I now regretted that I was on the second floor of this little cottage, with very steep stairs to navigate. In the end, I recruited someone to carry my gear down the stairs so that I could do down on my butt. I wasn’t looking forward to the very long drive home alone. Luckily, it gave me time to reflect on the entire experience, and take something away from it.

Overall, I think you can all see I loved this race. In fact, I WILL be back. Mark my words. However, I have gained some wisdom, and know that I will only tackle this one if I am properly trained and ready. I will also not plan a whole slew of difficult endurance races all around it. I think I’ll need to commit to focussing on runing to make this worth it. However, I owe it to myself to go the distance on this one, and cross that finish line. For no one else but me. I could care less about my time, but I need to complete the journey! Until that time, I will leave you with the video I put together for the first 79km of UTHC this year, in case you haven’t seen it. Enjoy, and if you’re looking for an amazing trail race, check this one out!!

Before and After Portraits

As part of racing in the 125k event, there was a professional photographer, Alexis Berg ( © Alexis Berg), who was working on a project meant to showcase runners before the race, and immediately after completion, capturing the differences and emotions. Here are my before and after pics (I got my after pic taken as soon as I got back to the finish area, even though I was a DNF). Amazing photos! See more them by clicking this sentence.

Before UTHCAfter UTHC