Tag Archives: trail running

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

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

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

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

My Pictures of Event and Montmorency Falls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Video Review of the Event

Does my Ass Look Fat to You?

Says it All

There is an expression that I’ve found particularly useful at certain times in my life: “Discretion is the better part of valour”. It is a literary expression which means that it is better to be careful and think before you act than it is to be brave and take risks. It is most commonly referenced to Shakespeare, in Henry IV, Part One (1596). Where have I found this applicable? Well, it’s very good to remind yourself of this phrase when you are a competitive athlete and have some sort of injury. Another good expression would be “Live to fight another day”. In the context of this post, I’m using it in relation to an ankle injury I sustained 3 weeks before my final big ‘summer’ race of the season, a 25km trail running race. While I may not have completely heeded my own advice, I did moderate my participation in the Fat Ass Trail Run, and this post will tell you all about it! I covered this event for Get Out There Magazine and created a video review, and also snapped a number of pictures from the event. Now read on to learn more about the event and my injury.

Pictures from Event

For me, it all started the day before Halloween. The much-anticipated and very fun All Hallow’s Eve 6.66km trail run put on by Dave and Lise as part of our Tuesday night trail running group training. In full costume, wearing a mask, and using bright headlamps, we were all queued up at the start line waiting for the work go. We were probably 60 runners or so, and when the start got underway, I made the brilliant decision to run through a ditch to avoid the group bunch-up on the start of the trail. CRUNCH, POP! Hmm, odd noise for my foot. Better go easy on that for the next few steps. Hmm, next steps are not feeling too good. Abort! Abort! I pulled the plug on running and instead went into the woods to scare people as they ran by, hoping ankle would feel better.

Fast forward to the next day. X-Rays completed, taping done, and laser therapy undergone, I learn that I have fractured a small bone in my foot, and seriously strained my deltoid ligament. To this day, it hasn’t healed, although it is feeling better. The problem was I had a race coming up, and wanted to do well in it.I was hopeful that I could salvage the race, and that it wasn’t so bad, but I would obviously need to take care of the injury. So, on went the Air Cast for 2.5 weeks. Each night, there was icing. I also went back for follow up laser therapy (this encourages blood flow and reduces swelling), and took it generally easy. Huge thanks to Dr. Annie Jean at Clinique Podiatrique de l’Outaouais. As a trail runner herself, she knew exactly how to help me out.

2 days prior to the big race, I went for a tentative jog. I got about 25m into it, and decided it wasn’t a good idea. Hiking was not a problem, but the impact of running was just too painful. I made the tough call to cancel the notion of racing in any way. I wrote the race director to let her know I’d drop to the 7.5km race option, and would hike it rather than run it. Hence, Discretion is the better part of Valour, as I realized I would be risking far more damage than the payoff for pushing. With that decision out of the way, I packed up my gear for filming the event, and got ready for a fun weekend with Deanna’s parents in Trenton, which is near the race site.

Race Summary / Stats

Race Statistics for Me

Now, for race day. The Fat Ass Trail run is a great grass-roots race put on by a local running and triathlon store in Trenton, which has grown from 25 participants 8 years ago, to over 600 that we had in this year’s event! They really try to make it accessible for all, and have a whole slew of races, and lot of prizes for interesting categories, like “slowest ass”, “most lost ass”, etc. Etc. It made for a great atmosphere pre and post-race. Of course the homemade Chili went a long way to help that as well! But more on that in a bit.

Deanna and I had both signed up for this race, with me originally in the 25k race, and her in the 17.5k race. After I changed events on account of my injury, Deanna also decided to change hers to be the 10k event rather than the full 17.5k. That way, we’d both finish around the same time, and be able to spend more time with family (who were out to cheer for us!). We had the same start times, but different start locations, so we made our way to our respective starts to part until we met at the finish.

I got in the middle of the start corral, with my camera mounted on a stick to get some fun footage of people running. Lots of laughs from people wondering what I was doing, but personally, I think this was the best mount I’ve used so far for filming a running event! When the race got underway, I started my ‘hike’. However, I moved to a gradual shuffle, then eventually a mini jog before too long. Call it the endorphins, call it the rush of competition, but I just couldn’t sit back and watch the world go by. I definitely felt the injury, but it didn’t’ seem too bad. I’d not only fully taped my ankle, but also used a brace on it, so it was pretty well secured in my shoe.

After about the first kilometer, we hit the first major uphill, which was basically heading straight up a ski hill on an access road. This of course is where I’m generally strongest in trail running, so it was incredibly hard not to pass people. Eventually, I gave up the ghost, jumped to the side of the trail and flew up the hill on the most dangerous part of the trail! Luckily, that worked out fine, and I felt strong, so as you may imagine, I spent the rest of the race pushing at near redline levels as far as heart rate goes, passing a lot of people along the way. I should mention that due to a bad cold I was also recovering from, I think my heart rate was artificially boosted, so I didn’t pay too much attention to that. Instead, I listened to my body, and dialed it back, either limping or walking when I felt pain, and pushing when things felt good.

The terrain was not super technical, but a good challenge. There were some great climbs, and a mix of access roads, ATV trails, and even some near-bushwhacking to get up the backside of the Batawa Ski Hill. It’s the kind of course I think I would have really enjoyed doing the full 25km course on, and I definitely hope that next year I’ll be able to take on the full race to see how I stack up against the competition. Deanna also reported back that her loop was also excellent and she had a good time. In a nutshell, my 7.5k race, and her 10k race form 2 distinct loops which were used for all events, i.e. The 7.5k race (single loop), the 10k race (single loop), the 17.5k race (1 loop of each), and the 25k race (2 of the 7.5k loops, one loop of the 10k race).

When all was said and done, I actually ended up placing 26th out of 200 or so runners in my race, which was a bit of a surprise, but a happy one. I’m sure I could have placed easily in the top 10 on a better day, but I didn’t dwell on that. After crossing the finish line, I dove into the warm chili, fresh bread, hot chocolate, and cookies that were on offer. To make things move quickly, all prizes were often pre-awarded and laid out on a table with names taped to them. Unfortunately, neither Deanna nor I had won anything. Too bad.

My only real complaint on this race was that the finish line was actually a 2-way finish. The 7.5k and 25k races finished in one direction, while the 10k and 17.5k distances crossed in the other direction. Very odd, and slightly dangerous (and led to some confusion). I don’t know why they could have just added a little loop around the ski lodge to avoid that, but it’s a minor nitpick, as I didn’t actually witness any accidents arising from this.

So, that’s that. A great race that I’d definitely recommend as a good season-closer for trail runners in a fun atmosphere. Granted mid-November will always be a weather gamble, but as trail runners, we can all embrace that, right? For me, it’s time to turn my attention to the flying snow, and concentrate on getting ready for ski and snowshoe racing season! Hope to see some of you out there, and if I do, please shout out a hello to me, ok? Till then, stay warm, but make sure you get out there!

Video Review

Opening Bell of Winter Race Season

Almost time for Start

Howdy folks! Sorry for the delay in getting this blog post out. Although the race I’m about to write about occurred 2 weeks ago, I’m only now able to get anything written down. Sadly, the motherboard on my main PC died suddenly, and I’ve not been able to get the system set back up yet, so getting the pictures done and writing the post took a backseat. Of course, it’s a little sad to write about this race anyway, as unfortunately, due to a finicky mother nature, we were unable to get the snow we desired to make the race a success. The race in question? The first Mad Trapper snowshoe race of the season. How does one have a snowshoe race with no snow? Well, it basically turns into a trail race, doesn’t it? And that’s exactly how it went down. Have a look at the few pictures that were snapped at the race, then read on to find out how my hard-fought 5th place finish played out.

I gotta start out by saying that I feel a little bit bad for Mike Caldwell, the race director for the excellent Mad Trapper races. Every year, he seems to run into the exact same problem for the opening race, no, or not enough, snow. In the past, we’ve joked and called it the ‘climate change challenge’ race. This year, Mike tried to be clever and use early December. Other years, we’d get a huge dump of snow early in the month, only to have it melt by the time his race took place. To capitalize on that, this year he booked earlier. Still no luck! This is a 4-race series, and there will also be a winter Rogaine, so it requires at least one race to happen before Christmas.

The other downside of poor snow leading up to the race is poor pre-registration numbers. Mike always has to put out a desperate plea in the days leading up to the race seeking more racers. People tend to be a little gun-shy for a snowshoe race when there is no snow on the immediate horizon. Of course, from my selfish perspective, I look forward to having less competition on race day. Being the first race of the season, the results would still count for the overall standings, so there were big points on offer 🙂 Unfortunately for me, all hopes were dashed upon arrival and seeing Dave McMahon jogging a little warm-up with Lise. If he was out there, it would likely also mean a few other speedsters had come out from the trail running group for the fun of it. Dang!

Instead of just being out there for my own health, Deanna joined me for the event, and we even piled Jonah into the car so that he could come out to the Ark and run amok in the wild for a few hours. I’m pretty sure that he had the most fun of the three of us. Not only was he off-leash for most of it, he also had a few other furry friends to play with. Dogs, Alpacas, horses, other racer, etc! He basically spent the next 3 or so hours running and playing. It was great to see him having such a good time. Too bad I can’t take him out to more of my races like that. But I digress, time to get back to the race at hand. At the appointed time, the 25 or so races lined up at the start to get ready for our race. As usual, I plunked myself right at the front, so that I could hold on to the leaders for as long as possible.

The gun went off (or at least Mike yelled ‘go!’) and we were off. Right off the bat, I was sitting in 2nd just behind Dave, and focused on following his heels as best I could. For the most part, I was able to do so without too much trouble. It occurred to me that he was likely just warming up in the opening few kilometers in order to open things up on the back 5-6km. I could hear about 4 other people behind me staying right with us. My position was pretty much optimal for my hopes, and I really wanted to stay close. Conditions were actually much more snowy than the lack of snowfall back home would indicate. For the most part, we were running through a couple inches of show. However, that was quickly getting packed down by us. The tricky part was that we couldn’t really tell where all the rocks were, or where the little swampy bits might be that were waiting to suck our feet in. I had chosen to wear just plain trail runners. Dave had put on shoes with some sort of cleat on the sole. Watching his gait and stride, I tried to match it, and found he was slipping as much as I was, so I wouldn’t be able to blame my race on footwear!

After about 3 kilometers, I could tell that some of the other guys behind me were itching to pass, but had held off in doing so seeing that Dave was right in front of me. However, it seemed all of a sudden the light turned green for all these guys. They passed me, and then a gap opened up between me and the front pack which now consisted of 4 guys. I pressed on, and did my best to keep some distance between me and the next fellow. For the most part, I thought I was successful. About 1km further, I glanced behind my shoulder, and to my horror, 6th place dud was right there, catching up. A minute or so later, and he was on my heels. And so began my challenging 6km of the race that was left, and lead ultimately to my hard-fought 5th place.

From now and for the rest of the race, I had a shadow. A huffing, puffing, ankle-biting shadow. I was pretty sure I knew his game. Stay on me like glue until the final push, then pass to take my spot. Well, as most of you will know by now, that is sufficient motivation for me to keep pushing hard. Normally, I’m able to get my gaps on uphills, but everytime we hit an incline and I would try to pick up the pace, he was right there! The flats, same thing. However, on the downhills, I was able to get a bit of distance on him. Apparently my technical descending ability (or insanity) was just a touch better than him. My new goal was to keep pushing him hard on the downhills.

When we got to the final series of hills, I kept pushing with all I could. Part of me was actually hoping he’d just pass me, so that I could either accept defeat, or at least have someone of my own to chase for a while. There is nothing more annoying than being pipped in the dying meters of a race when you’ve been out on your own most of the way. The showdown was being nicely set up for the very final steep climb, which is subsequently followed by a very steep downhill, leading to a final flat final sprint. On the uphill, I red-lined it and did my best to grab a lead of any sort. It wasn’t working. Okay, time to flail my arms madly and go downhill like a bat outta hell. My shadow had mustered some more courage for the final downhill and didn’t give up and inch. We were both on the verge of a massive wipeout if we had a single mis-step. We finally reached the flat and it became clear this would be an absolute sprint for the finish. Digging deep, I propelled my legs as fast as possible. My competitor was unfortunately taller than me, so I could tell he was gaining. Luckily, I crossed the finish a half second before him. It was obvious that if the line had been 10m further, he would have passed me. I more or less collapsed in a heap. Congratulations all around with my fellow racer, and it was time to refuel. I appreciated the hard race, and thanked him for making it fun!

As usual, the post-race atmosphere made the whole outing worth it. Delicious lasagna, chips, cookies, clementines and Mike’s famous brownies. There weren’t as many prizes as other races, but really, who comes out to the Ark for prizing?! It really is all about the outdoors, the great exercise, and the great friendships out there. Deanna, Jonah, and I stayed for quite a bit after everyone else left, chatting with Mike and Monique. Mike picked up a 1981 Honda Goldwing, and plans are already underway for some touring next summer, including the possibility of a long road trip to the east coast where we might take part in an iron-distance tri! Stay tuned for more on that adventure in 2012! That pretty much brings us to the end of this race report, and the final race of 2011. 2012 is already shaping up to be an interesting one, and during the holidays, I hope to plan out my race calendar. Wishing you all the very best over the holidays, and pray for snow friends!

Vital Stats from Race

Taking the Ultimate Challenge for a 2nd Time

Silver for me in Mens Open

Let’s just clear the air here once again people. There is no such thing as an EASY race. Nor can there be a ‘relaxing’ race, or a ‘fun’ race. You are either racing, or you are participating. Why don’t I know that by now? As you are probably aware, last year I participated in the ‘Full Challenger’ version of UltimateXC. 3 gruelling days of racing, starting with a 67km kayak leg, then a 57km trail run, capped by a 100km mountain bike leg, all of which took place on and around Mont Tremblant. It was probably the toughest race I’ve ever competed in. But a great venue and event, so I wanted to come back. However, I opted to race in the 1/2 Challenger version, so a ‘mere’ 21km paddle, 21km run, and 50km mountain bike. My logic was that it would give me more time to just relax and enjoy the resort village. Ha! I fooled myself. This was still a tough race, and thanks to good friends and competitors, a hard fought battle for the podium. Curious about the whole story? Glad you are, as I will fill you in on all the gory details after the break. Before that, why not have a look at some of my pictures from the race as well?

As with last year, a group of us were planning on doing the race, but this year, the registration for the 3-day challenger events were way down. Last year, there were 39 of us signed up for the full challenger. This year? A mere 8 souls were braving the course again. As to the 1/2 Challenger, there were only 7 of us that began the race, and a mere 6 that actually finished! If it weren’t for the people registering for just the paddle, run, or bike days, there would be enough, so I’m glad they did sign up in large numbers, and that Dan continues to put on the 3-day race in spite of lower numbers. Here’s hoping that next year, the numbers take another upswing, because this truly is an epic race that deserves to be recognized and raced by those hardcore athletes out there! In our room in Tremblant village, two of us were doing the 1/2 Challenger (Mike Abraham and I), and two were doing the full (Pete Dobos and Pierluc). The accommodations were simple but adequate, and we had a full kitchen so that we could do a bit of cooking as well if we chose to.

The weather over the three days was absolutely perfect, if not just a touch too hot in the mid-day hours. For the paddle, we had nearly dead calm waters, which meant a fast easy race for all those on super-slick carbon fiber surfskis. It was definitely hot, but that’s better than a miserable paddle in the wind an rain. The run day and bike days were both pretty sunny and hot days with light winds. It would have been pretty insufferable had it not been for the fact that much of this race takes us into the woods where it is reasonably cool. Speaking of the woods, we had been warned that the bugs were out in massive numbers, so both Saturday and Sunday, my ritual included covering head to toe in sunscreen, waiting 30 minutes, then applying a liberal coat of bug dope, waiting a bit more, then slapping on my spandex outfit of choice. However, I didn’t find the bugs bad at all at any time. So again, a total plus for the weekend and the racing.

The only mild annoyance of the weekend was the fact that the 2 full challengers in our room had to be up super early each day for their race (I’m talking 4am here). That was due to 6am starts for them. On the other hand, our starts were at noon on Friday, and 10am on both Saturday and Sunday, so we had more time to sleep in and enjoy the lodgings. But that’s hard to do when, for example, the entire room is being smoked out by Pete cooking sausages at 4:30am on Friday morning! Ha ha. But like I said, only a minor annoyance, and all part of the experience and the collective memories! Alright, enough idle chit chat, let’s get on to the actual racing and daily results, which I’ll tackle by day/discipline for your ease of reading 🙂

Day 1: 21km Paddle on Lac Tremblant

Friday morning was the paddle. For us, it was a straightforward grind along the length of Lac Tremblant. 10.5 km up, loop around a boat that acted as a checkpoint, and 10.5 km paddle back. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy. Well, save for one thing. I hadn’t brought a boat! This was on purpose however, as I was thinking of buying a new boat for racing, and had a line on a couple at this race that I could try. So at 9am, I was already at the water trying out boats and deciding what I’d race on, even though the race didn’t start till noon. I settled on a Cobra Eliminator, a serious looking boat, albeit plastic. Based on an old K1 kayak design, but basically bulletproof. 17 feet long, and great for adventure racing due to the design. That out of the way, it was time to line up.

The racers were basically split into two groups. In the front, the day racers, all of whom were out on uber-fancy carbon and kevlar surf skis measuring 20+ feet each. When the gun went off, these guys quickly glided out of our reach. Behind them was the rest of the racers, the majority of which were in the 1/2 challenger camp. Luckily, I found myself at the front of that group. Right off the bat, Mike and I found ourselves leading the 2nd group. We matched each other stroke for stroke for most of the first 10.5k. He started pulling away near the turnaround, and I had a hard time responding right away. I also ran out of drink before the turnaround. Not a good thing, as the heat and sun were doing a number on me and my long sleeved shirt. I was hot and sweaty, with no relief in sight. There was an aid station, but since Mike skipped it, I had no choice. A volunteer tossed a little vial of X4 at me at the turnaround. No idea what it was, but I shot it down. Tasted like super concentrated grape freezie.

Bzzzz! Whatever it was, it kicked in, and I was able to bring back some razor-like focus to my paddling and bridged back the gap to Mike, and together we both passed the next closest fellow ahead of us on an outrigger surf ski. We then battled hard the rest of the way back to the finish line. I was getting really thirsty, and the only thing I could do was occasionally scoop a handful of water from the side of the boat and slurp it. Mike kept up the pace, but we were both slowing a bit. Once again, near the end, he pulled ahead a little bit, and I just couldn’t respond. At the finish, he pipped me by a mere 39 seconds. That put Mike in 1st for the 1/2 Challengers, and me in 2nd. I was happy with that for day 1. The rest of the challengers finished shortly after us, with 3rd place coming in 3 minutes later. The pack was pretty tight going into day 2.

For the full challengers, they’d had a loooong day on the water. In the end, Pete Dobos came off the water in 1st place overall, and was extremely happy with that result. The top 4 paddlers all used exactly the same boat. Plastic as well, but longer and more ‘racy’ than mine. However, it was also a $1000 more than what I’d be paying. Oh yeah, that’s right, I decided to buy the boat I raced with, I liked it so much! So now Deanna and I both have boats to go out paddling in 🙂

Day 2: 21km Trail Run on Mont Tremblant

Yay! Trail running day! In my mind, this was my only chance to get any time on Mike as well as my next closest competitors. Mike is a strong runner too, but I thought my experience running the 56k race last year, and the fact that I had just come off a 3:16 marathon after months of training, should give me an edge. With that, I seeded myself at the very front of the pack for the start, as did all the other challengers though! The race started at about 10:15am, and the course looked quite reasonable. The opening 8km was on relatively flat rolling trails, looping back into the village before launching us straight up the mountain in the technical trails. In other words, a chance to warm up on the ‘flats’ before facing the headwalls. At the starting gun, I wasted no time in launching myself into the very front grouping of racers, even if they were only day racers. However, Mike was right on my heels the whole way. We led a pretty blistering pace through that first 8k loop, and by the time we were back in the village, I had distanced myself from the other Challengers, and now was on my own in the front, with the day racers. I kept pushing hard, trying to gauge the effort I could put in without seriously damaging myself for day 3. That was difficult to do during the euphoria of the race.

Pushing hard, I hit the steep climbs with a lot of spring in my step. I ran almost 100% of the course, which if you saw some of the climbs you’d understand why when I say ‘run’ it isn’t very fast! As far as I know, it was paying off, and I was even passing some of the day racers. Unfortunately, I had absolutely no way of knowing where Mike was in all of this. No looking back, I said, and kept telling myself he was right there. During the run, I had a water pack which I drank from the whole way. At aid stations, I’d grab another glass of electrolyte drink, and I had a grand total of 2 gels as well. But I felt strong and fresh almost the whole way, which was what I’d hoped for. My only tough spot came at the very end. I was catching up to another fellow on the downhills, and after hitting the village, I tried sprinting past him, at which point my calves screamed in protest and started cramping! D’oh. I dropped the pace and hobbled to the finish line a few hundred meters further.

At the line, I crossed in 1st of the challengers with a time of 2:04:16, putting in nearly 6 minutes on Mike, and over 20 minutes on the next closest challenger. With that, I was now in 1st, with 5 minutes in the bank to Mike, and 27 minutes to J-R who was in 3rd. Even better in my mind was the fact that I came 7th overall in the 21k run, out of over 130 trail runners! Great result there. Mikes time was also good enough for 12th overall, and 2nd in his category, for which he got a silver medal! Nice. With the run done, Mike and I hung out for a while at the finish watching others, then grabbed the chairlift to the summit to do some sightseeing. Ironically, soon after arriving there, Pete was just coming through a checkpoint at the summit before heading downhill to the finish. He looked a bit rough, and apparently, the run had taken A LOT out of him. I think he was already worried about the next day. All the full challengers looked pretty beat up at the end. I remember that feeling from last year, and even worse, the horror of realizing that the next day, you had to mount your bike for 100km of the most difficult mountain biking you can picture. Ugh! I was suddenly VERY glad I only had 50km of riding to do! And so endeth day 2 for me!

Day 3: 50km Mountain Biking around Mont Tremblant

To say that day 3 is hard is definitely an understatement. After 2 days racing, getting up and starting the engine up again is tough. This year, it was much easier to do thankfully, and I was elated to find that I still had pretty strong legs to start this day off. Of course, so did my nemesis Mike. And to top it off, biking is by far his strong suit, as well as J-R’s, the fellow in 3rd currently. On a 50km bike, I could easily lose the 27 minutes to him. I headed to the start line with Mike with great trepidation. There was chit chat with both he and J-R, but there was no joking when I told them this was my weakest link, and that I would be lucky to stay close. They knew that though, and they were hungry to chew me up on the bike. That was abundantly evident when the race got underway. J-R and Nat (his girlfriend) took off like bullets right away. I had to pump my little legs double fast just to keep up. This was not inspiring confidence. Mike was also sucking my wheel right away. Ironically, our little group was actually leading the entire charge, with the single day racers behind us. I took a mental note that this was probably not the smartest way to start the long bike.

It wasn’t long before other racers started passing me, including Mike. I watched, feeling a bit helpless, as the little group started putting distance ahead of me. I kept telling myself that this was for the good in the long run, as there were lots of tough climbs coming up, and I was hoping that they would burn themselves out or maybe not keep as hydrated as they should, and accordingly, suffer a bit more than me later in the day. I did my best to keep a very even pace, and whenever I caught glimpses of riders ahead, tried to keep the distance constant. In a little while, we started hitting the long climbs, and here I was able to make up some time, and catch some of the stragglers on the front of the group. When the going got tough uphill, I’d hop off, but jog up the inclines, which was met with a lot of surprise when racers learned I’d been racing all weekend. I made sure I kept putting electrolytes in me, ate food when I could, and drank lots. The plan was to keep running in top form.

Unfortunately, that fell apart for me around kilometer 36 or so I think. We had finished a really long uphill climb followed by some really gnarly and technical descending. We were now turning back up the hill for a long exposed climb on an access road. That’s when the cramps hit me. Leg cramps. The most painful and prolonged cramps I’ve felt in a long time. It reminded me of a 48hr race I did once where I was taken off course for severe dehydration. The cramps hit, and I just completely fell over sideways from the pain. It was like someone was passing an electric current into my muscles directly, causing them to fully contract and not let go. I was devastated. I screamed in agony, and passing cyclists felt my pain. I dug as deep as I possibly could to tell my brain to ignore the cramps and keep going. As the muscles seized and pulsated, I was able to force myself to walk/shuffle, dragging the legs as I went. Gradually, the cramps would fade and allow me to ride for another while, but always seemed to come back later down the trail for the rest of the ride. I did A LOT of walking on the final sections, and it DID NOT make me happy. I knew with each walking ‘break’ I took, my competitors were gaining on me.

When I finally rolled down the final steep pitches back into the village, I was mentally crushed. I put on as much speed as I could muster, but feared the worst. I knew the worst would be 3rd place on the podium, but even that depressed me, knowing I had held the top rung. I crossed the finish line, still elated by the accomplishment, but needing to know the outcome. J-R was there to greet me right away, and grinning, he said ‘I nailed you on that one, I finished long ago’. But just how long? Well, it turns out it was only 13 minutes earlier, which mean I still had roughly 15 minutes on him overall! Sweet! 2nd was assured. But what about Mike? He was nowhere to be found. Turns out he finished another 7 minutes ahead of J-R. Between them, they grabbed 1st and 2nd overall for the 50k bike of all the competitors! Very nice. If you do the math, it essentially meant Mike was on the top rung, and roughly 15 minutes back was me, and another 15 minutes back was J-R. We were all pretty stoked with the results. Mike a little less energetic, mainly due to the fact that the effort on the bike landed him in the medical tent as he was very dizzy and lightheaded. Turns out they both gave it their all on the bike, which makes me feel pretty decent about how I finished, considering it was my weakness!

Looking back on the whole weekend, it was once again cemented in my mind that UltimateXC is a tough race. But it’s also a great race. A competitor’s race. You can run head to head with the best, or race yourself. Either way, there is something for every level of racer there. Everyone comes out both grinning, as well as with a bit of angst over the difficulty of the race. But hey, if it was easy, everyone would be doing it. As you can tell, this was not a ‘lazy weekend’ by any stretch. As to enjoying Tremblant and sightseeing? Well, we went out for supper once. We hit the gondola to take in the views once, and took a quick dip in the hot tub. But, I enjoyed many kilometers of some of the best paddling, running, and riding in the region, and that in itself made for an epic ‘vacation’ 🙂 That ends my tale for this race. Stay tuned for my next report, where I hopefully can claim my place among the Spartans. Yup, the Spartan Race is coming up, and I’ll be reporting on it for Get Out There Magazine. Till then, stay cool!!