Greetings once again friends. Well, fresh on the heels of my last race, I had a brief 2-week reprieve before my next big adventure. And this one? A race I’ve been waiting to try out for a few years now known as XC de la Vallée. Located north of Quebec City in a little area known as St Raymond, I’d heard the stories of how this is one of the toughest trail races in Eastern Canada. Of course I had to check it out. There are numerous race options, but you just know I had to choose the toughest option, a 3-day staged version of the event, featuring a 10k night stage on Friday, a 38k stage on Saturday, and wrapping things up with a 21k stage on Sunday. Yes, the distances sound a bit ‘short’ for the type of running I’ve been doing this year, and YES, that did in fact come into play in my performance. More details as you read on….
As you read in my last post, one of my challenges in my last 3-day race was day 2. Well, as luck would have it, there was a repeat of that theme in this event, and its again completely my fault and some poor race planning on my part. You see, given the shorter distances, and the fact that I didn’t have to carry a heavy pack with me, I took this race as being a little easier on me. My original plan had been to treat this whole race as a training weekend, and go easy, just making sure that I was in good shape at the end of it in order to be prepared for the big kahuna, my 125k race 3 weeks later. However, for whatever reason, I chucked that plan out the window shortly after arriving onsite.
The problem with XC de la Vallee (and it isn’t really a problem), is the atmosphere of the event. You see, people like me who chose to race all 3 days in the Trans Vallee event as its called, were, for the most part, camping onsite en masse. The result is a giant collective of some of the best trail runners in eastern Canada (and in particular Quebec). You can practically feel the energy in the atmosphere as you pull into the rustic camping area (don’t expect showers, proper bathrooms or electricity here…). All around you are nervously excited race horses swapping war stories from past conquests and getting ready to do battle in this event.
In addition to a lot of strangers around me, there was also a pretty good contingent of the top trail runners that I train with in Gatineau Park. Of course, all of this was too much for me to simply hang back and treat this as a ‘training weekend’. Curse my inability to just take it easy.
Stage 1: The 10k Night Course
As mentioned, stage one was a measly 10km to be run at night. 3 loops of a pretty technical little course in the woods. 10k. That’s nothing, right? So what did I do? Well, I went out guns blazing. To be clear, I was nowhere near the front pack, but I was most definitely pushing harder than I should. I was treating this stage as if it was a standalone race, like a Mad Trapper snowshoe race. Meaning, I let my heart rate ratchet up to around 164, and held it there the whole 10k. It wasn’t until somewhere around the middle of my 3rd and final lap that it occurred to me this might not be a good idea. I have ONLY been training for endurance running, not sprinting! Sure, I could pull it off, but at what price? Well, I’d find out the next day!
I slowed my pace down just a touch in the last lap to cross the finish line in just over an hour. Happy enough with my time, even though it was nothing spectacular compared to others. However, a LOT of people were ONLY there for the 10k night course, OR were racing 10k on Saturday instead of the 38k (which is known as the Trans Express). So of course I wasn’t going to place highly. After finishing, I enjoyed a very tasty Quinoa salad with cheese, bread, fruit,cookies and drinks. Not a bad spread to enjoy! From there, it was off to the tent to get a decent night’s sleep before the morning.
Stage 2: 38k of Technical Trails
The next morning came far too soon, and I shook myself awake, put on a fresh race shirt for this day while getting my food and drinks ready. Ahead of us was shuttle bus ride to the start area, then 38km of what was billed as the toughest trail race in Quebec. How tough could it be? After all, I really like technical terrain. I was feeling decent, and excited to test myself on this stage. I was all smiles, filming clips here and there and joking with my co-competitors. Before the shuttle was a great breakfast spread put on for racers once again. I was happily stuffed before jogging the 1km to the awaiting shuttles.
Racers assembled on a dirt road for a Le Mans style start. We were given a kilometer or so to try and sort ourselves before launching into the actual trails for the day. I will tell you right now that the first kilometer was pretty much the ONLY break we had in the entire day. There was gravel road again at the very end of the day for about a kilometer, and MAYBE another short stretch in the middle of the 38k stage, but that was it. Apart from those, it was single track. And I’m not talking a hard-packed trail like the #1 in the park or anything like that. Nope, Imagine somthing more like the #65 or #66 snowshoe trails in the summer. Not really meant for running, but you can do it if you really want to!
The theme of the day was relentless roots and rocks over 38k, mixed in with some pretty fun little climbs and descents to keep us on (or off?) our toes. Now as I mentioned, I should have cherished this terrain, but instead, I ended up cursing it. Remember that 10k ‘sprint’ the night before? It caused a curious thing to happen to my legs. They became cement after the first 8k or so of this leg. They felt super heavy and did not want to turn over at the pace I thought they should. It was like I was stuck in low gear all day. Then my plantar fasciitis started acting up as well, making the footfalls themselves hurt as well.
Mentally, I had not prepared myself to suffer the way I was out there this day. When you enter a 50 miler or more, you KNOW you will hurt and need to dig deep. But a 38k run? To me that should at worst have felt like a tough training day, not a complete slog. But that’s how I felt. By the 15k mark I was already in survival mode. I’d resorted to taking extra salt pills and advil to manage my discomfort. I tried to find beauty in the trail, and it worked for a bit, but I couldn’t help but groan internally each time I realized how much I still had to cover in the day.
I remember coming out at one of the last aid stations of the day. I knew I still had a giant climb to go, so I filled up my bladder and had a quick bite. I didn’t waste too much time there, but I remember for a brief moment wondering how quickly they could drive me from this station back to the finish if I bailed. There is NEVER room to think that way in a race, so instead, I thanked the volunteers and limped off into the woods for the next big climb. The last thing I saw was a medic helping someone who was cramping badly and needed stretching help. Moral here? Someone is ALWAYS suffering even worse than you (well, except for the person who is in the worst shape I suppose, but don’t worry, that won’t ever be you, right?)
With the dark cloud following me (although I should note it was actually a gorgeous day, if not a bit too hot), I steamed along. I ran along with a couple other people for a bit, chatting pleasantly enough. I tried to find that extra gear and eventually made a few passes and picked up my pace on the downhills, but the damage was already done. I remember eventually coming out to trails that I recognized from the night before, signifying the final steep descent before the gravel 1k. What a relief.
I stumbled my way to the finish chute in what I consider an abysmal time of 7 hours!! Yeah, it was that bad. Deanna had been expecting me for at least 2-2.5 hours. As I approached the finish, she jogged beside and asked if I wanted her to stay with me. I asked her to just meet me after the finish at the beach. I needed a ‘me’ moment after crossing the line. Un-characteristically, I crossed with my head hung low and no arms raised in the air. It was a depressing finish. I dropped my pack and headed for the nearby cool river to sit in the water and pout and think about why I do these things, and if it was worth it, and what I should do next.
I would have been forgiven for ending my weekend there in that river. Taking off my bib and calling it quits. After all, I was in real pain, and had taken too much out of myself to reach the finish that day. But as I sat there in the water, I knew what I had to do. For me. And that was brush myself off and finish the 3rd day on my terms. Mentally I needed a ‘win’ before heading to the UTHC 125k race. How would I feel knowing that I had abandoned my last race, and not been able to find the mental fortitude to finish in the face of adversity.
I shared my plan with an understandably concerned Deanna. She thought I should maybe re-consider, as did other people who had seen me on course. But I hold council first and foremost to myself. I know what I can do, and I knew I could overcome. To give myself the best shot, I had a huge meal for supper, did some massaging with my Compex unit, and went to bed early. Unicorns and rainbows and all that, right?
Stage 3: 21km of more Technical Trails
Okay. Rise and shine. Let’s do this [again]! It took about 15 minutes of wandering around before I could convince my feet that they could walk without limping. I got dressed once again, did my morning rituals, and headed to breakfast, and then directly to the shuttle buses (walking back to the campsite first would have hurt too much). On the shuttle bus I hatched a brilliant plot. Don’t race. Just participate and enjoy. Listen to your body, and adjust plan accordingly. Deal? Deal.
And that is how I found myself at the VERY BACK of the start of the 21k race. I let the starting gun go off, and let everyone shuffle off. I know how frustrating it can be to be stuck at the very back of a technical trail race, but told myself it was the best idea. Don’t worry about it, and let things go. In that way, I was able to really hold back on my pace. I ran with a TON of really happy people They didn’t care about the pace either. They were there for the trail. For the experience. For the joy of it all. Refreshing, right?
I stayed with my happy-go-lucky racers for a long time. Into the technical trails, up the waterfall route along rocks and boulders, into the trees, and eventually high up into the hills that emerged at beautiful views. These are the people that are content to stop, pull out their phones, and snap a picture. You gotta wonder, who is really having a better time at these things? The competitive front runners, or these Instagram Athletes? I guess it really depends what you’re after. There really is no right or wrong way to race.
So I found myself at the 10k mark and feeling pretty decent. In fact, I decided it was time to open up the throttle a bit and make tracks. I knew for a fact there’d be quite a few racers ahead that probably went out too hard as well, and aren’t used to these types of races. After all, the 21k was the most popular event, and with good reason. The trail was easier than stage 2, and much more scenic overall. Definitely my favourite of the 3 days!
But I digress. Throttle open. Running with a renewed energy and purpose. I soon found myself passing people left right and centre. It’s not that I was purposely trying to get faster, it’s just that I was feeling ok, and wanted to finish strong mentally. This was precisely the reason why I decided the night before that I had to run my own race on Stage 3. I raced much ‘wiser’ this time. By starting slow and staying slow, I had gas in the tank when it mattered. This was a good approach to test out before the 125k race, as I’d want to utilize the same approach!
I ran lightly and with a spring in my step for the remaining 10k. Even on the uphills I was able to power up and pass people while encouraging them. It felt amazing. Ultimately, we finished yet again on the final rolling terrain from the first day, finishing with a steep descent back to the gravel road for the final kilometer. I picked up my cadence and had a much different finish line experience than the day before. A smile on my face, and arms in the air. I’d done it! I’d overcome my own little demons from a bad day in Stage 2. This was no podium victory, but a mental victory for me, and that was just fine.
In the standings, my day 3 result was only 94th, but turns out there was a field of over 200 in this stage that were racing, so I’d passed over a hundred people by the end, given where I seeded myself at the start! Not too shabby. In terms of the overall 3 day racers, my results broke down a little like this:
As you see, my highest standing was on Stage 1, where I was 35th. This dropped way down to 66th on the ‘long’ day where I should have done quite well. Then, on the 3rd day, in spite of my very back start, I managed to finish in pretty much the same spot. All told, I wrapped up in 44th overall, and 15th in my category. A bit worse than middle of the pack. Definitely not the worst finish in history, but definitely reflective of a poorly executed race strategy.
So, that wraps up another exciting race re-cap. As with all my races this year, I lugged a camera with me and filmed the whole thing, so if you haven’t done so yet, feast your eyes on my video review for Get Out There Magazine.