Tag Archives: trail running

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

Summer Camp for Adults

Welcome back to another VERY exciting chapter in the adventures of ActiveSteve! This post finds us high in the alpine meadows of the Colorado Rockies trying desperately to get enough oxygen to finish the last few stages of a 6-day staged trail running race. Yes indeed folks, welcome to the TransRockies Run. I had my choice of 3 days or 6 days of trail running nirvana in the mountains. So of course, you know exactly which one I chose, right? Yup, you guessed it, the 6 day version! In a nutshell, this was every bit as amazing as you might have imagined, IN SPITE of getting a nasty viral bug halfway through that is still lingering as I type this (the day before Ironman Muskoka!). Read on for all the tasty tales!

The story all starts ealy in 2015, on a visit to my friendly neighbourhood podiatrist (and skiing / trail running friend extraordinaire). Since I was turning 40 this year, I had decided to tackle some big fun races, and not turn down any exciting opportunities that presented themselves to me. Well. on this visit, Annie asked innocently “Have you ever heard of TransRockies?”, to which I answered “Yes”. Next question, “Do you think you might be interested in doing it this year?”. With barely a pause to contemplate this, I again said “Yes.” And there it was, I committed to 6 days to trail running in the mountains without so much as looking up the actual event! A few weeks later I’d already booked my plane tickets for the journey, just to show that I was fully committed!

Slideshow of Entire Week

Setting Up for Start

Fast forward to August, and I was Denver-bound on an airplane. I had barely run in the past 3 weeks on account of issues with my plantar fascia, but was no less excited. For the next week, Annie and I would be part of a roving tent city community, moving from start line to start line, and running anywhere from 26km to 40km each day in the high mountains. The whole thing was very much like a summer camp. At the airport we made our first tentative steps towards getting to know a few of the 400+ racers that would be toeing the line each day. From the airport, we’d be shuttled to our accoms in Buena Vista. We had 2 days more or less on our own before the race got fully underway. In that time we had a few training runs for fun, and visited the town a bit to get a sense of our surroundings.

There are SO MANY different stories and sub-plots that I could share with you all. Almost everyone there had their own story, and there were different life journeys unfolding daily before our eyes. For one, it turns out I *almost* got to race head to head with Lance Armstrong! Yup, he was supposed to be the team-mate for one Jenn Shelton. And yes, this is the one and same person known by many as the girl in the book “Born to Run” that was the party girl, and that got separated from the group and lost for a while… for the record, she is just as crazy as you might imagine, and there are several smaller stories about her that week that I won’t write out, but were quite hilarious. In other news, I managed to finish before her and her partner on 2 of the 6 days 🙂

Then there is the fact that one of the hottest current ultra-runners was there as well. Rob Krar. And his beard. Mind you his beard wasn’t the only one at the start line. It was funny as a number of the other bearded runners laughed and shared that they were often mistaken for Rob as a result of the big beards. Unfortuantely, no one seemed to confuse me with such a running legend, in spite of the fact that I was sporting a full growth ;-). In addition to Rob, there were a number of ‘elite’ racers as part of this event. Although they may have been a bit more ‘cliquey’ than the rest of us, they were all, by and large, just part of the group. I doubt the same would have been the case if Mr. Armstrong had been part of our camp! But I digress… onto the racing.

Day 0 was all about registration and race briefings. We learned more about how the race would unfold, and got introduced to the crew that we’d be seeing and taking care of us all week. One was a dude by the handle ‘Houda’. He truly is the pulse of the event. Every night during evening ceremonies, he’d bust out his one mad comedy act, reading various texts he’d gotten during the day, handing out ‘mountain heros of the day’ awards, and generally shaming and making fun of others, while simultaneously taking the blame for anything that went wrong over the course of the day.

I’ve been to a lot of events over the years, and I feel his take was the most refreshing and welcoming. No matter how big or small the problems, he’d openly tell us about them (even if we hadn’t noticed), say he was sorry, and they’d try to do better. Kinda like you wish they’d tell you what is going on when flights are delayed, or why your bags didn’t make it, etc. etc. Taking ownership and informing racers. Brilliant! I’d come back just for the fact that this race made itself accountable for all the good and bad. But really, it was all good! Behind the scenes everyone was busting their butts to see to that!

Crazy Rain in Buena Vista

Race briefing was cut short on account of winds that were picking up signalling the impending storm closing in on us. Rocky mountain weather? Unpredictable and quickly changing, which served as a good warning for possible problems in the days ahead on the high passes. Within 15 minutes of dispersing, we had an insane storm hit the little town. Main street as flooded and it looked like all hell was breaking loose. Luckily, I was indoor, with a beer, waiting on a tasty meal! By the time we’d eaten, the rain was gone, the water had drained, and we headed back to our sweet B&B for one final sleep in a bed before the race.


Day 1 was a good intro to the racing. We had about 34km of running to do, on a range of roads and trails. It was indicative of a lot of the days of racing ahead. About 20-25% singletrack, with the balance being a mix of ATV-type trails, forest service access roads, and gravel backroads. Regardless of the terrain, for the most part, views were great. Mountains around us (or rather foothills maybe?), valley’s below, and plenty of pristine rocky mountain air. We were starting over 8,000′, and would be playing at this altitude and higher all week.

This was a ‘rolling’ day with no giant climbs, but a good amount of elevation. I opted to take it easy and see how the body would adapt to the race. I capped off the day in about 20th place, and felt decent enough that I’d try pushing harder in the next days. Annie had stormed off and managed to grab 3rd place in the open women’s category right away. This was a trend she’d repeat pretty much every day (except for that one day that she nailed 2nd!). That lady was truly amazing every single day out there. You could tell she was in her element and having the time of her life. Rumour has it, she didn’t even miss her bike that week! But don’t tell her bike that!

Start of Stage 1

At the finish of that day was a great cold river that we could rest our legs in while eating the plentiful snacks at the finish. There were no big standouts that day for me in terms of the trail. Just a great day of running overall. From there we hopped shuttles to our first ‘tent city’ experience. Wall to wall tents (around 400 of them) for the racers, and a whole host of other camp-like amenities.

To name them: massage tent with 12 professional therapists (for a price…). There was also an open area with all manner of foam rollers and therapy products free to use. Giant mess tent to hold the hundreds of racers and volunteers, keeping us dry as we ate our delicious catered food each night. Mobile shower truck ensuring ample hot water showers every day at the end of each stage. Of course the obligatory rows of porta-johns to do our ‘business’.

Finally, the relaxation station, later re-named “Blisters and Brews”. This was our daily oasis. It featured lots of plastic Muskoka chairs, sofa, tons of drinks (protein drinks, gatorade, water, and unlimited Michelob Ultra!) and snacks (think skittles, m&ms, doritos, toast and toppings, nuts, pretzels, rice cakes, licorice, etc!). There was also a giant bank of outlets so that everyone could recharge devices daily. Honestly, after 9 years, it was clear they’d pretty much thought of everything we’d need to stay happy and having fun all week. There was always musis playing, stories being told, and SOMETHING going on somewhere around us!

Each day we also had the daily awards during the afternoon to recognize the winners of the day for that stage. Medals and recognition all around. Later in the evening, after we’d eaten our chow, we had more awards, this time for the GC in each category. The GC winners for each category were given jerseys to wear for the next day. Pretty much like a Tour de France kinda thing. No kings of the mountain though. Just the leaders :-). Also each night was a de-brief of the day, a full briefing of the next day, and a quick slide show of the day. I also liked that for every ‘event’ of the day, there was a theme song, starting with ‘Highway to Hell’ each morning before the start, then certain award music each afternoon and night. It became very Pavlovian. You heard the song, and knew what was about to happen. Routine is important in camp, right?

Okay, Day 2… this would be the first big test, as it was a true ‘Mountain’ stage. The profile was straight up and straight back down. I was hoping this was a day for me. It started with a bouncy bus ride to the start, helping loosen the knots in our stomachs from the nerves. Weather was great, and I knew this was a day to fly. Opening part of stage was 3km of gravel before hitting the climb that was narrow singletrack. I knew that to get a  good finish I’d have to hit that singletrack before crowds.

At the gun, I took off at a good pace, staying close to the front packs. I had trekking poles with me, intending to use them on the 11km of climbing ahead. They came in VERY handy in my opinion. When we turned to up, it really went up. There was no climbing, only speed walking / hiking. While I had passed Annie at the start, she came past me on that climb, finding her mountain legs. We stuck together for a bit before I told her to hit it and keep going. I loved this climb. Looking behind, we could gradually see the valley and mountains behind as we climbed up out of the tree line. This as the climb to Hope Pass. At 12,600′, it was the highest point in the race and afforded some of the best views too. I was truly on a high at the top. Mind you, the air was thin, so I didn’t stop too long to film or take pictures. That’s when the fun started.

The descent was sweet singletrack, and I FLEW like a man possessed. I passed a bucketload of people again on the way down, feeling really good. The lower we went, the more oxygen I had, making me even more energized. When we finally hit the bottom of the mountain, we were faced with about 4-5k of rolling trails again. A bit agonizing, and nervewracking for me. I kept worrying people I’d passed would catch up and pass. Sure enough, they caught up, but I decided I wanted to keep my standing so I dug deep and stayed ahead, using the little climbs and descents to keep a tiny gap. I finally crossed the finish to learn I hit 9th on that day! I was ecstatic (and secretly worried I’d burned up too much!).

View to Twin Lakes

This days’ finish took us to the town of Leadville, that I had a good recollection of from 2012 when I did the Leadville 100 mile MTB race. We strolled the streets and enjoyed the sunshine in the two mile high city. I was pooped, and my plantar issues were causing me to limp a bit, but it was a grand day. Tonight’s meal was in a banquet hall in town, interrupted midway through by fire alarms, forcing an evacuation. Too funny. Later that evening, I felt the unfortunate telltale tickle and pain in the back of my throat telling me I was getting sick. I hoped for the best and crashed as early as I could.

Turns out it is REALLY hard to sleep in a tent at high altitude when you are racing every day, and surrounded by hundreds of other campers separated only by thing wisps of nylon! I don’t think I slept more than an hour at a time any night, and usually only a few hours per night at best! Good thing I thrive on sleep deprivation, right?

Next morning came, and sure enough, I could feel the cold growing within me. Bad timing. This was the longest stage of the entire race, and one of the tougher ones with all the ups and downs. I don’t think I even want to revisit it too much. I suffered. I had some good moments, but also some pretty low ones. I even took a stumple tha day, bruising up my thing and putting a little hole in my hand. Nothing major, but indicative of my state. Luckily, the people racing with you at any point in time are always amazing. Everyone is there for the fun of it. We are all passionate about this sort of thing, so whenever I had the opportunity, I’d latch on to other racers, and chat with them to pass the time and help me forget the pain.

Best evidence of this on the last part of the stage, where we came out at Camp Hale, and faced a mentally gruelling 5km+ run in the sun on a gravel road to the finish. I was cooked, and needed help. So, I latched onto a guy, told him we’d run it together, and proceeded to pick our pace up to a painful speed. I kept my eyes fixed on the gravel at my feet, not daring to look out at the distance we had to cover. However, just having him at my side struggling with me made it better. We crossed the line together, hand in hand, arms raised high. Don’t remember my place on the day offhand, but think it was 17th or 19th.

The highlight of Day 3 though? The camp! We were spending this night and the next here, at a place called Nova Guides. You’ve no doubt seen the picture already. Tents in the valley surrounded by mountains and a little lake? Yup. Pretty much paradise. Didn’t hurt that there was a fellow giving out free Margaritas that day to any who wanted them. Against better judgement, I had a big one with LOTS of tequila, hoping to drown my cold. As this was the end of the road for 3-day racers, there was some celebrating going on, and time to bid adieu to some friends. Others actually stayed on as volunteers for the rest of the week, which was cool.

Oh, and one other thing that day. Impromptu BEER MILE!! I was smart enough not to partake, but it was a hilarious site watching people tackle this AFTER 40km of hard racing in the mountains. Perhaps insanity is what drove one gent to finish it off buck naked, save for the cowboy hat he was holding over his junk! Yup. Summer camp indeed!

Video Review of Days 1-3

Although I now felt like total shit, the taco night made up for it somewhat. I loaded up on delicious tacos and looked forward to Day 4, another of the hard mountain stages featuring a straight up straight down profile again. For this one, we weren’t reaching up quite as high, but holy crap! The incline on this one was INSANE. We were literally hunched over into the mountain making our way up. Very much character building. Once agan, I’d opted for my poles. I knew I’d be suffering, and needed everything I could get to help me. Another funny thing happened though. Once we got to the top, crested, and started descending, my magic flying legs were back on my body.

Even though I couldn’t breathe much, it turns out you don’t NEED to breathe to fly recklessly down a mountain on a treacherous technical trail. You just need BALLS! And I had big brass ones that day. Once again, I FLEW past a ton of people, including some of the ‘pros’ this time around. Each step felt lighter than the last. As I passed other fast runners, I was actually getting compliments, and people saying they wished they could descend like me. I’ll admit it, it was flattering. And amazingly, not once in the week did I roll my ankle!

At the bottom of this big mountain, we then turned onto a creek that ran for about 2km. Once again, I was strong here, leaping from rock to rock very fast and passing more people. By the time we exited the creek, I was so hopped up on adrenalin that the cold was far back in my mind. We hit [another] gravel road to take us to the finish. About 4k of mostly downhill running. I pushed hard again here, hoping to stave off competitors. Only 1 person passed me here. At the finish, I felt awesome, for one brief moment, before the sickness hit me hard again. However, at the line, I was told I was 8th on the day! I secretly celebrated as my legs turned to cement beneath me and my lungs filled with my illness. I had a feeling it would be my last ‘good’ day.

Racers Stretched Out

Day 5. Only 2 days left. Both of them were longish stages (nearing 40km) and featured the most elevation gain / loss of any stage, with over 5,000′ each day. When I awoke on the 5th day, I can not even describe to you how terrible I felt. I put on as brave a face as I could , forcing myself to eat and drink properly before the start. I hated thinking I might bring anyone down, but I was miserable in the mess tent. I kept hacking up my lungs, and needing to blow my nose over and over again.

Lack of oxygen would NOT be my friend today, as I could barely get a lungful of air when sitting still. Regardless, there IS no quitting, so I toed the line once again, feeling a bit down, and decided to just let it ride. I started out at slowish pace, and tried picking it up over the day. Unfortuantely, this day in my mind is the absolute killer. We climbed up over 10,500′, and basically stayed there for a long stretch, running along ridges. At that altitude, I was literally wheezing trying to breathe and run. I was seeing a lot of new people that I hadn’t encountered, since I had dropped back quite a bit.

Ironically, some faces were familiar, as others were feeling the effects of 4 hard days racing. At about the halfway point, I hit rock bottom. I wanted to curse and quit and yell about how unfair this was. Then I remembered I loved this. I wanted this. And no matter how miserable I was, I was going to get it done. There is no winning or losing. Only doing the best you can with what you have. The heat of the day and the altitude were definitely conspiring against me, but they wouldn’t win. I walked a LOT more than I’d care to admit, but eventually, like most days, we crested the final mountain and starting heading downhill.

Once again, I mustered my energy for a good run. Unfortunately, this downhill was on the slopes of Vail, a ski resort. And it was on an access road. So 8km of gravel exposed road in the sun. Ugh. Did my best to NOT hate this road, but failed. I also ran out of water. At first, I lucked out by getting a swig of water from a little girl mountain biking with her family. Honestly, she looked like she was super excited to be giving up her water to a racer. It was a neat moment. However, later, I made the choice to fill my water at a creek.

With my cold (and apparently acute bronchitis), I was super dry in the mouth from breathing only through my mouth. I knew Giardia was a risk, but one I had to take. With only 1 day racing left, the effects likely wouldn’t hit till AFTER the race. Plus, I already felt like crap, what’s a little Giardia on top of that, right? FINALLY crossed the finish and took a long time to regroup from that day. Later on, I learned that on the day, I’d dropped off to 30th 🙁

Ski Nirvana

The good news was that with only 1 day to go, I KNEW I’d finish. It would have to be extremely dire for it to end any other way. It took me a VERY long time to walk to our camp (it was supposedly a 10 minute walk, I think it took me 30 minutes!). I had no energy at all. Again, I forced myself to shower, eat drink, and empty as much mucus as I could throughout the afternoon / evening, but I was losing the battle.

People could see just how crappy I was at the supper that night. One fellow racer was kind enough to fish out some Nyquil and Dayquil for me, which I accepted. Popped the pill and tried getting sleep. Probably the best of the week, with what I think might have been a 3 hour stretch of sleep at one point. Then, we were there. The final day! I fought many demons to crawl out of my sleeping bag at 5am once again. Stuffed all my stuff into the duffle bag one final time, and stumbled to the mess tent.

Try as I might, even eating wasn’t working well this morning. Managed to choke down some oatmeal and drink a few glasses of juice, but that was it. I opted to have trekking poles with me today, and even carried my iPod and kept one earbud in all day blasting heavy tunes to keep me going. In the start chute, you could feel the excitement, the exhaustion, and the camraderie. Lots of cellphone videos being shot. Highway to Hell blasted us off one final time and then we were out there one final time, alone with our thoughts. My thoughts were simple. Left, right, left, right, drink. Eat. I was a single-cell being for a while. Looking around, I realized I was with the DFL crowd. Nothing wrong with that at all, but realized that was how slow I was. I was literally walking. At the start. Of a 38km stage!

This could be a long day. First while was on a paved road. We then passed over a highway, and eventually started climbing up a mountain. Given my location in the mix, it was slow going.  What I eventually realized was that it was actually TOO slow, even in my current state. With my poles and my music, I slowly started trying to pass other hikers on the trail. Mind you, it was still walking / hiking, but I was able to go a bit quicker than others.

Over the next 6k of climbing, I leapfrogged a good number of people. I also passed the time by picking flowers along the path. It was my reminder not to care about where I was in the RACE, but to care about where I was specifically. In my happy place. In the mountains. With flowers adorning my pack, I smiled. Smiling as I jogged through the aspen forest  filtering the sunlight. Smiling as I broke through the forest and followed paths through alpine meadows. Before I knew it, I was cresting the first big climb of the day. It was time to go GAME ON once again. This was another nice technical descent, and I once again through caution into the wind. The body again responded in kind, allowing me to make up precious ground and pass a ton of people again (but obviously not nearly enough to raise me to the top). Ironically, I passed a team of ‘elites’ on that descent, reminding me that anyone can have a crap day.

At the bottom, I knew that all that remained was one final mountain climb and final descent. I held on to my place for the rest of the race, picking up the pace whenever I could. It took everything I could muster, but I did it! I crossed the finish line with my head held high and a giant smile on my face (and flowers on my pack!). It was technically my worst finish of the week (in 32nd), but it felt like one of the greatest victories I’ve ever had. Yes, I still physically felt miserable, but mentally, I was on top of that mountain of the mind.

Climbing Out of Vail

And you know what’s better than finishing? Finishing when there are people there to cheer for you and celebrate with you. Every single day, Annie was there waiting and cheering me (and lots of others) into the finish. She was joined by others that I had gotten to know, and it was awesome having them cheer me through the last steps. Afterwards, as I crumpled into a chair, we raised one more Michelob Ultra to a job well done, and a week like no other!

There is so much more that I could say, but I have already taken up far too much of everyone’s time. Yes, there was a closing banquet. It was ok. But all that really mattered to me were those days in the mountains. Racing against demons and running with friends. If I had the time and money to do this every year, you can bet your ass I’d be there. If some rich philanthropist said they’d pay for me to live the life of suffering and racing, I’d do it. You are only truly alive when you can feel your own frailities, and push your boundaries. So from that perspective, this was another amazing experience at pushing myself outside my comfort zone. And with that, I must say goodnight. After all, it is 10pm, and I have to get up at 4am to head to the start line of Ironman Muskoka! Writing this up has been cathartic, and has me feeling ready to face my demons again tomorrow, and come out victorious! Stay tuned for that story.

Video Review of Days 4-6

Poking the Bear in Upstate New York

Greetings race fans on a sunny early summer day (well, getting close anyway). I’m here to bring you another little race report from a recent trail running race I took part in a couple weeks back in Bear Mountain, NY. Last year, I raced in the 50k version of this event, rolling my ankle 3 times in the process. This year, I opted to race in the 21.1k version of the race, and am happy to say I did to with NO ankle rolling! Read on to find out more about my race, and check out my re-cap video of the event.

Bear Mountain is about a 7 hour drive from where I live, so it makes for a great roadtrip opportunity. You know what that means, right? Brewery stops! Yup, Deanna and I planned out our weekend to make sure we got to stop at a few watering holes on our way down and our way back. In addition, with my race only being on Sunday, we decided to drive halfway on Friday night (to Syracuse), then finish the trip on Saturday. This mean we got to enjoy a great meal at the world-famous Dinosaur BBQ on our way. It’s pretty much a must-stop anytime I’m heading into New York.

Now, while loading up on BBQ meats and beers may not seem like the ‘ideal’ pre-race fueling strategy, I’m not too fussed. After all, if you’re not living life to the fullest and having fun, what’s the point? So I will continue this approach most times (except on the off occasion I want to be truly competitive).

While in Syracuse, we stayed at a nice little house we found on AirBnB, and for the actual race night, we booked a room in a cheap motel nearby. Running the half marathon on Sunday meant that we had extra time on Saturday to actually have a bit of a tour around the area, and this year, we crossed over the Hudson and headed over to Peekskill to take in the sights. It was an absolutely stunning day, and the views of the mountains were spectacular. It really is a gorgeous area of New York. Based on the trails I’ve now run down there, I’d dare say it would also make a great camping / trekking destination, and there was also a fair number of cyclists, but with the traffic on the roads, it seemed like it would be like Gatineau Park, but with bigger hills, and more cars to contend with (oh, and some of the roads were in rough shape).

Anywho, I should probably talk about the race now, right? Luckily, Sunday was also looking like it would be another nice day weather-wise, so upon waking up, I threw on a t-shirt and shorts for the race. It was a little chilly first thing, but I knew I’d be heating up very quickly. At the start / finish area, there were heaps of people warming up and preparing for the trails. I shot some footage, and looked around for people I might know. There weren’t too many. I was slated to start in Wave 3, so a few minutes after 9am. I found my group, and made sure I was at the front of that wave, as I was pretty sure I would be faster than a lot of people in the first 2 waves. Rather than carry a pack with food / water, I just strapped my GoPro to my head, and decided to count on the aid stations. After all, there were 4 of them on the course, and I planned to only be out there for about 2 hours.

I watched the first 2 waves start out before getting my chance. As soon as we got underway, I sprinted off and stayed at the front of our wave. Only 1 other guy got ahead at the start, but by the first big hill, I was ahead of him too.  And so began my process of picking racers off. Unfortunately, with 2 waves ahead (each 1 minute ahead), it wasn’t long until I was trying to thread the needle on tricky uphill trails. Not the safest thing to do, but I had no real choice. There is something to say about the constant pick-me-up I got from passing people all along the course. I can happily confirm that not a single person passed me during the entire race! That was a nice feeling, and leads me to conclude that I had a great race out there!

I was very focused on ensuring that I didn’t roll my ankles anywhere, so I ran very focused, only pausing on occasion to film sections of the run with my camera while picking my way through all the rocks and roots strewn all over the trails. It didn’t take long to remember what the big challenges were for this race! For an idea of my overall race, have a look at the Strava route summary from my watch.

Course Route Map

I felt strong pretty much the entire way, and enjoyed the entire course. I have been working hard over the early season to modify my running style to be more of a forefoot striker, in hopes of decreasing my chance of ankle rolling. With my new gait, I’m lighter on my feet and try to minimize ground contact. This was my first big test of the season, and my plan is to ease my way up to longer events, culminating in a 125km race in September. So again, I would say success overall. The end result are tighter calves and quads, but that will strengthen over time as well.

So just where did I finish? well, my official finish time was 1:58:24, so pretty much bang on with my prediction of 2 hours. In terms of my age category, that place me firmly in 5th place. It was also 20th male, and 23rd runner overall (in a field of over 750). The only thing I was left wondering was how much better I might have done if I had been seeded in the first wave, avoiding a few hold-ups in traffic. I can only speculate that it might have given me an extra minute or two. Regardless, I really didn’t expect to win here, considering the race attracts some real speed demons. Case in point, the first 2 to cross the line did so in under 1h41mins! That’s a full 17 minutes ahead of me!

To celebrate the race, Deanna and I loaded up the car and got the 7 hour return drive underway. We stopped for lunch in a small town not too far away, conveniently timed to hit one final brewery. Then, we stopped at a beer distributor for grab some local NY beers before making the long trip back. Luckily, our border stop was one of the fastest ever, so we were home by 9pm, which was perfect, given that I was working early the next morning! Yet another perfect weekend spent doing WHAT I love WITH the person I love! Stay tuned for another race report coming up from my first adventure race of the season. Till then, get out there and have fun!

For the record, here are the breweries we visited this time:

And to finish off, here is the official race video I put together from the event: