Tag Archives: UTHC

Two Nights and a Day Tackling 125k

Oh boy! Where do I start this one? With this post, I will finally be caught up with my race reports for the 2016 season. I had tentative plans to perhaps run another race, but I’ve put the plans on hold in order to make sure that I do no further damage to feet, and start my journey to 2017 and all the fun it will have to offer (no, I don’t even know yet what I’ll be doing, but I bet it will be awesome!). So without further ado, I bring you my story of my 2nd (and successful!) attempt at running the 125 km Ultra-Trail Harricana. One of my favourite trail races around, and definitely a challenging one as well. Perfect setting and lots of distance options means that if you are at all into trail running, you may want to put this one on your ‘to-run’ list! Read on for the story.

UTHC 125k Race

As you probably know by now, the 125k UTHC was my ‘target’ race for the entire season. This year, for the first time, I decided to focus on one pursuit only, trail running. Most other years, I tack on triathlons, cycling tours, adventure races, and whatever else looks interesting. However, after last year’s disappointing DNF in the 125k UTHC, I vowed I’d come back stronger, and more prepared. To those ends, I carefully devised both a training and racing schedule that should have had me amply prepared. I did an early season adventure race, but that was a necessary distraction before the true training kicked off. From there, I did a couple 50 miles (80k), improving my time, and then moved onto 2 separate 3-day races, meant to put me into further states of tiredness over different distances. Seemed like a good plan, but unfortunately, after the last 3-day race, my old friend (nemesis?) plantar fasciities reared its ugly head, threatening to derail my plans.

And THAT leads me to the night of the race. Picture it. I’m in downtown Malbaie at the Subway having a sub before grabbing a few hours sleep for a midnight shuttle bus to the start line (race begins at 2am!). I’d made a request of a friend of mine who was racing the next day (and also happens to be a podiatrist), asking for her help in maybe taping my feet to prep me for the big day. Well, as I was getting my order, who should stroll in, but Annie! She came straight to Subway on her arrival to town in order to help me out. So we sat outside, customers peering curiously at the weird guy with black toenails and his feet on the table as a lady laughed and talked to him while applying weird spray-on glue and bandages to his feet. I’m sure they had no way to comprehend what was happening.

Annie Taping Feet

This of course leads to a truism of this sport. It is REALLY hard to truly explain and get people to understand exactly what racing an event like this is all about, what you do to get there, and what it ultimately does to you. I’ve given up trying to make people truly understand the nuances, and just nod my head and agree when you get the inevitable ‘I can’t even run to the corner store, I can’t even imagine running 125k. You’re crazy.’ And I’m the crazy one? You can’t even run a few hundred meters and are proud to share that factoid? Oh well, I can only live my life, and everyone has their own ideas how they want to go through life. We all ultimately end up in the same place, so what does it matter, right? I’m having fun (mostly!).

So with bandaged feet, Deanna and I headed back to our hotel so that I could grab some shut-eye. I went to sleep somewhere around 8pm, and got back out of bed just before midnight. Ugh. It was going to be a long night / day / night of running. At this point, I had written up a pace card assuming I’d be done in about 19.5 hours. So in THEORY, I was planning a 9:30pm finish. To be clear, this was actually in my mind a conservative estimate of my finish time. I’m also convinced that without the foot problems, it was realistic. However, as is often the case, things don’t always work out the way you want.

The shuttle bus and race briefing were quite uneventful in my mind. I met up with a few people I knew and chatted idly as the start time approached. One friend was Sebastian Warner, another runner who was back for revenge. While I had bailed at the 80k mark last year, he made it to the final aid station, so with 7k to do last year before being pulled from the course. Yeah. Shitty. But he took it all in stride. As  a result of our shared disappointment from the year before, we had similar plans for this year. Start slow, stay slow, and FINISH! With that in mind, we shuffled to the start together, choosing to talk about beer rather than the race. In fact, the starting gun went off, and we were at the very back, barely registering that the race had started. There was just no point at all in running off at the start.

Copyright Karine Maltais 2

The first leg of the race is 19.5km of mainly gravel road before the first aid station. Last year, I paced hard at the beginning, treating it like a shorter event, and paying the ultimate price later. This year, it was easy conversation pace, with the heart rate clearly in a Zone1 place. I was confident this was the way to run, and Sebastian agreed, so we ran together. In fact, we picked up a ‘third amigo’ in the form of Vincent from Montreal, and slowly made our way together in the darkness, laughing, trading stories, and doing our best to ‘ignore’ the truth of what the next 110+km of racing would have in store. We all stayed together through the 1st aid station, but after that, the course makes a dramatic change. Namely, a pointy hill climb in the dark. At the aid station, I opted to just charge ahead onto the climb rather than stop for a few minutes. I had my super-bright light on, and just love climbing big hills like this one. I wisely chose to bust out my climbing poles early again, and used them to assist me.

Sebastian and Vincent were behind me, but I’d eventually see them both again. Vincent and I joined forces once again midway up the climb. By the time we hit the summit, the sky was already streaky with the new day, and I paused long enough to appreciate my place in the universe, before heading down the steep descent. Vincent and I were together until the aid station. I hit the porta-pottie, and by the time I returned, Sebastian was also back with us. Vincent and I left just slightly ahead, but after a few more kilometers, he joined us again, and shortly after that, I let them both head off ahead of me, with the plan to stay well within my comfort zone, and not allow myself to trick my brain into thinking I should run faster! I was now more or less on my own for the majority of the rest of the race (90+k). But that’s okay, people drift in and out of your sphere in a race like this based on individual abilities in different terrain.

I actually felt pretty decent as the day ticked by. Aid stations are relatively far apart in this race, so I had ended up carrying a lot of food with me as I ran, and my own little game was to plan out my next snack, and see how far I’d get before it was ‘chow time’ again. I kept the engine stoked, and carefully managed my food stores to make sure I’d get to the mid-point where I’d see Deanna, have access to my drop bag, and replenish my on-board snack selection. To be perfectly honest, I don’t remember a whole lot of note from the race up to that mid-point anyway. I was pretty fixated with that aid station, located at the 56k point, at Parc des Hautes Gorges. The reason was that I KNEW the next leg was very hard, so I was mentally readying myself.

UTHC View from Top

I do recall there was a lot of excellent running, on both trails and access roads. We had some spectacular views on our 2nd (of 3 major) summits, and ultimately, we popped out on a hydro-cut which took us to the road that led to the aid station. I was getting tired by that point already, and jogged in with Deanna by my side to cheer me on. I plopped myself in a chair, re-filled all my food and drinks, then took a proper 5-minute breather where I lay on my back with my feet elevated in a feeble attempt to ‘micro-recover’ my feet. I was already pretty far back in the race pack, but it was of no consequence. I was already in conservation mode. My time at this point was bang-on my estimate, but I warned Deanna that I didn’t think I’d be able to maintain this pace and finish on my original estimate. Unfortunately, due to the layout of this race (aka point-to-point in pretty rugged terrain), this was the only time in the entire race apart from the finish, that I’d actually see my cheerleader. That’s actually a mixed blessing, as it meant I didn’t have to put on a brave face or risk being early or late at a station, I just had to keep on truckin’!

UTHC At 56k Mark

I left the aid station in good spirits, steeling myself for what I affectionately dubbed the ‘hell section’. Last year, it was a painful 21.5k from this aid station to the next, with  a lot  of carnage between, including lots of dehydration, and people throwing in the towel at the next station. As a result, this year, the organizers threw in a ‘bonus’ hydration-only aid station 5k later, meaning we ‘only’ had to cover 16.5k this time with no resupply. Lucky for me, I knew exactly what was coming up, and opted to fully re-fill here. I also activated my secret weapon in this section. My ipod. Headphones are prohibited, but it didn’t say anything about music on a speaker. So, with the little speaker on my ipod, I had tunes for this whole run, and it was glorious! Even though things got much tougher later, I only used them here. An interesting thing happened in this section. I started passing people. Not a lot, but I imagine these were people who had made the unfortunate mistake of starting too fast, and not realizing what this stage had in store. It was mostly uphill, on pretty gnarly track.

At one point I came across Vincent, and was actually afraid he was dead, as he was just sprawled motionless across the trail! I approached cautiously, calling his name. He stirred, seemed slightly confused before recognizing me and telling me he had just decided to take a little nap. He was low on water and had no food. I shared some of my mixed nuts with him, encouraged him as best I could, but ultimately, I had to leave him to keep chasing my ghost. I knew there were others behind, so there would be people to keep an eye on him. Unfortunately, I didn’t see him again in the race, and turns out he had to abandon where I abandoned last year. I know exactly how he felt…

As for my race, I arrived safe  and sound at the next aid station, at approximately the 80k mark. With about a marathon left to go (or 1/3rd the race), I was starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel, but at the same time realizing I’d be seeing that light for quite some time! The next leg was another long one, at 18.5k, but thankfully a little easier thanks to a relatively long, downhill stretch of gravel road. Truthfully, I always find these roads tougher than trails, but at least you make decent time. After resting a few minutes at this aid station, I got my courage back, and headed off again. Doing the math, I realized that this stage would take me well over 3 hours. Having a look at the current time, it meant I should just squeak in before dark, so I made that my goal.

UTHC Racer Taking a Break

While on this leg, I tagged along close with a few other runners, now happy for some extra company, even if I wasn’t running directly with them, but at least keeping them in sight kept me motivated to plod on. By the time we cruised into the next aid station, it was just getting dark, so it was time to bust out the headlamps for the rest of the race. I was the last to arrive at this aid station in my little group, but also the first to want to head out. Mentally, I had to keep moving. I was also weary about the fact that there was rain in the forecast. I didn’t want to get wet, catch a chill, and run into some new-found misery before the end.

4 of us started this next section together in the dark, talking about how company would be good. However, with my super bright light on the technical climbing that we were facing, I soon found myself creating a bit of a gap on my new friends. I struggled with whether to stay with them or charge on, and opted to press forward. I was currently feeling good, and wanted to capitalize. I had a really good run on that leg, and pulled into the next aid station feeling reasonable. HOWEVER, we were now about to face the last tough climb of the race, and it was very dark now, and the weather was changing. I loaded up on food and drink, anxious to head out again. I managed to pull out of the aid station just as a group of 5-6 racers were coming in (we could spot their headlights in the distance). Rather than wait, I once again trotted off.

UTHC Along the River

I kept my gap, in spite of an ever-slowing pace. I was now getting too tired to even do the math to guesstimate where I’d finish. My only concern had been making the cut-offs, but I was assured I had at least an hour in the bank, so I felt pretty certain that even if I walked the rest of the way, I’d be an official finisher. So while that felt good to know, it was also depressing, as it meant I STILL had over 3 hours to go out there  (in fact, it was nearly 3.5 hours!). At this point, my favourite trails were the nice double-track trails where you have a singe tire track to follow. With a black strip in the middle, and grass on the sides, I could just drop my head, and  follow the black line. It was mind-numbing, but then again, my mind WAS numb!

On this second to last leg I felt the first few drops of rain. Nothing to get excited about or put a jacket on as a result, but an omen. I picked my way along, letting the occasional glowing orb guide me. Orb? Oh year, they strung up water bottles with little lights in them every 400m or so. It was a nice touch. Except when they appeared to be his floating high up in the sky, cuz that meant a big climb was imminent! This section ended up on another gravel road, and when I finally made it in, I was happy to hear a little pick-me-up music and to see a chair calling my name. I’ve gotta say, the volunteers manning the aid stations were absolutely amazing! They were still high energy in spit of undoubtedly having been there for a long time. It was really nice as a racer to be well taken care of at least emotionally out there!

This was it. The penultimate stage. As I sat at the final aid station, I reflected on what I’d done, and what was left. A mere 7k to the finish. But I was pretty beat. My feet were sore, and I was starting to feel like I was running on fumes. Food and drink didn’t seem to be perking me up anymore. But, there was no way I was stopping here. I waited for 2 others to arrive that I’d been running with on an off for the last several legs. They were tired too, but as a trio, we figured we could help each other. I slotted in behind the two of them and we took off. As we chatted, I learned that although these two had run pretty much the whole race together, they’d never met! Crazy. The lady in front was an amazing pacer and seemed to have a perfect amount of energy left to press on. I think she had her sights on finishing by midnight, but looking at the, I thought it was too ambitious. I stayed with them for a few kilometer (probably 4), before finally having to admit to myself that I couldn’t keep up with them. I let them slowly pull away, and I was left with my own internal struggle to keep moving. It was about now that the rain started picking up.

Finish Area at Night

Shortly after, I could start making out noise from the finish area, which wasn’t so far away (due to snaking trails around the area). Every now and again I thought I could hear music wafting through the air. I knew the ‘dance party’ would be in effect, and that the beer was flowing. Would people still be there? Would Deanna? Could I pull off a smile at the finish? Or just collapse. I’d know soon enough, as I was just passing the 1km to go signs. By now, the rain started really coming down, soaking me to the core. Luckily, I had been pretty hot most of the day, so it was still ‘refreshing’. The closing kilometer was actually a trial in itself. The race ends on some extremely swampy ski trails back to the lodge, and with the heavy rains, it was now a major boggy mess. It took me 20 minutes to cover that final kilometer, and each step was fought for. I was getting angrier and angrier until…. I saw it! The lights of the finish!

They saw me at the same time. The announcers far-off voice was urging me to press on, to not give up, and go for the finish. With the bight lights at the finish, I could see just how stormy and rainy it now was. I moved back to a jog speed, pulled out the camera, and shot my final hundred meters to the finish. Waiting for me was the race director, Deanna, and my friend Sebastian, who’d finished over an hour earlier (thus defeating his demons too!). I was given a heros’ welcome, happily accepted my medal, then sought the safety of the nearby recovery tent where I could plunk my ass in a chair, get out of the rain, and get my legs up. What a feeling! The first aid volunteers were busy making sure I was ok, and about to hand me some Pepsi to hydrate when the race director steps over and hands me an ice cold beer instead! While the first couple mouthfuls were glorious, I must admit I just didn’t have the energy to drink a whole beer. That would have to wait until the next day! Of course, since it was after midnight it already WAS the next day!

Sebastien and Steve

Shortly after I finished, the skies really opened up. We’re talking biblical rains! I felt really bad for those still out there. I was near the back of the pack, but there were still 9 others that finished after me. I had finished 61 out of 102 starters. 70 of us finished, and 32 did not, so a 69% finishing rate on this course. I’ll take it! I asked Deanna to bring the car as close to the recovery area as possible. I crumpled myself into the passenger side, and as soon as I closed the door, my body started shutting down. I was shivering uncontrollably, and freezing cold in spite of the heat. We rushed back to the hotel, where all I could manage was to peel off my clothes and fall into bed for an incredibly odd and fitful night of ‘sleep’. We were back up at 8am to head out for whale watching, but I really hadn’t gotten any quality sleep since Thursday night in Trois Riviere. I fought my way through a day of playing tourist before finally getting a good night’s sleep Sunday night after 11pm!

I must say, the entire experience was mentally a huge challenge. I loved the event, but during the run, I definitely found myself wondering if I have the stomach to do another race like this. But, inevitably, as I’m typing this up, I already have my sights on trying my hand at a 100 miler (160km). But not just any 100 miler. Nope. I’m thinking of the Sinister 7 in Alberta! Before I hit ‘register’ on that bad boy though, it’s time for some R&R, and make sure my feet get back to perfect condition. Oh yeah, and it’s also time to start thinking about the winter season! Lots of skiing in my future!

To close off, I put together a couple videos of this race. The first is of course my official race review video. The second one? Well, decided I’d put a short video together about some of the amazing sights around the Charlevoix region, since I am so fond of it :-). Enjoy!

Race Video

Sights of Charlevoix Video

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

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