Chasing the Moose through the Darkness

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As I crested yet another little rise, feeling the many kilometers in my entire body, I could utter only a single word to myself in my internal monologue: “run”. So goes the simple existence of an ultra-runner deep into a long race. In this case, it was the 106km Midnight Moose Ultra, taking place in Gatineau Parc, so near my house, yet so far away mentally. The mantra I trained myself to repeat ad nauseum is simple: “Run where you can, walk where you have to”. This truly is the key to getting through an ultra. You need to simplify, and try not to get into your own head. This race was slated to be my final race of the 2017 season, so I had entered it with a couple goals. Firstly, I wanted to complete the race in under 13 hours, and the 2nd goal was to reach the podium. I’ve been happy with my season (yes, including the DNF at Sinister 7), but the true podium had eluded me all season. Read on to hear more about this backyard ultra, being put on for the first time.

Midnight Moose 2017

One of the fun parts of taking part in ultra-distance trail running races is experiencing new places, new trails, and new faces, so signing up for a race like the Midnight Moose is a bit different from my main motivation. In this case, I wanted to support a great local trail series just getting off the ground put on by some of my friends. In addition, there is a certain appeal to being able to both start the race and finish near your home, and knowing exactly what is in store in terms of trails and terrain. There was not a single step of this race course that I haven’t covered MANY times both hiking, running, snowshoeing, and skiing. I literally knew every twist in these trails, so knew where I could afford to push, and where I might want to consider saving my energy. And you know what? None of that knowledge actually made the race any easier!

So, the race itself? Well, the Midnight Moose offered up either a 26km, a 53km, and a 106km option. Of course I chose the longest challenge. How else would I score the exclusive hoodie on offer? Plus, that would make me [I believe] the first person to actually compete in all 3 of the 3 Beavers Racing’s longest race offerings (yay me!). Regardless of which distance you chose, the race start was at 10pm. This meant that most people would wrap up the shorter distance events completely under the cover of darkness, whereas the 106km racers got the privilege of completing the 53km course twice, with the second loop predominantly completed in bright sun. I can assure you, even though both loops were exactly the same, their character is completely different depending on whether you are running it at night or by daylight. Both had their charms.

Sweater Collection

Due to the timing, sleeping and eating before the race was a tricky proposition. I’m not used to starting a race at 10pm. I opted to ‘sleep in’ until 9am (I worked from home that day), and also made my main meal at mid-day, having my standard ‘breakfast’ of oatmeal at 8:30pm. I was hoping that this way I might avoid any potential stomach problems that could manifest had I opted to eat a full meal at the normal ‘supper time’. Deanna and I made our way to the start area a Champlain Lookout for around 9pm. Instead of racing this time, Deanna opted to volunteer at this race, taking a shift at night manning racer registration, and then a morning shift at an aid station. That way, I’d see her out on the course during my second loop, when I’d have 22k and 10k to go for the finish.

Pre Race Picture

Obviously, it was already pitch black on our arrival, with the registration are lit up with a few floodlights, and the start line lit up with a whole bunch of candles from the Doozy Candle Company. It made for a pretty cool starting area, with racers milling around making their final preparations. We had our final race welcome and briefing from Ray Zahab, one of the directors, before taking off into the inky darkness. While in theory there might have been a moon, it was pretty overcast, so definitely dark out. I had seeded myself towards the front part of the assembled racers, hoping to stay in touch with the leaders. Of course, one of the challenges was that we were all starting at the same time, and I had no way of telling who was in what race from behind. My assumption was that the really speedy ones were racing the 26, or maybe the 53k races. I only spotted a couple dudes I thought were in my race near me.

We got underway pretty much right on time, and I felt relatively fresh at the start. I knew that one of my strengths should be my ability to race through the night and not feel tired. I’m pretty good at sleep deprivation, so this was right up my alley. I wanted to make good time during the cover of darkness, and the relative coolness it brought. You see, we were in the midst of a surprising mini-heat wave, with daytime temperatures into their 30s with the humidex. The more ground I’d cover at night, the better. My overall plan had been to try for a 13 hour 106k result. In theory, this was possible, but would definitely require having a good day on the trails!

From the start, I locked step with my friend Guy Doiron, who I’d spent a lot of time running with at the Black Fly 12 hour race earlier this year. I knew that he’d be very likely to beat me in the long run, but I should be able to stay with him for a bit. Turns out I would only stay with him a few kilometers, before the gap opened up and he stayed with a few others in front. Now the paranoia would set in I was already falling off pace. I joined in with a 53k racer, and we pushed each other along, chatting as we ran. Lucky for him, too, since I actually helped steer him onto the course a couple times when he ran by course markings. Luckily, I had pretty much memorized the course, so knew where to turn, but if you were unsure of the trails and the course, there were a few spots where it was possible to go past the markings, especially in the darkness. Headlamps are good, but not perfect for picking out all the details.

Strava Snapshot

Eventually we cruised through the first aid station together, and I had only counted maybe 5-7 people ahead of us. For now, I was happy with the good company as I ran, as it’s always a little more comforting to have someone with you as you run through the woods in the dark. We were making good time and I didn’t feel like I was completely redlining or anything. I hoped this would be a sustainable pace. Somewhere between AS1 and AS2 I had my first little ‘issue’ of the race, as I rolled my left ankle quite hard on one of the side trails on a root. Lucky (or unlucky) for me, I’m able to keep going even after bad rolls, since I have no real ligaments to speak of left in my feet / ankles! It always shocks people when they hear the loud pops come from my ankles as I roll them, and subsequently am able to go back up to near full speed in a matter of minutes, with no sustained issues. I’m sure some day this will curse me.

We eventually came down Burma (Trail #3) to emerge on Fortune Parkway and trotted over to AS2 for a quick fluid fill-up before carrying on down the road. On the next stretch, I was surprised to hear people gaining on us from behind. We hadn’t seen anyone remotely close in the last hour or so, and I was surprised how quick they were coming up on us. My best guess is that they were much better on road than me, since we were on pavement for a little while between P9 and P8 in the park. As they trotted by, and we exchanged pleasantries, I was trying to figure out what race they were in, but couldn’t see the bibs. At that point on the course, they could only be 53k or 106k racers. I secretly hoped it was the former, but didn’t have it in me to pursue. I hoped I’d catch back up on the technical trails.

After wrapping up the pavement section, it was onto the flat gravel of the Sugarbush Trail before turning skyward and taking the #1 up Penguin towards Skyline Trail. This section features likely the longest sustained climbing of the course on very smooth dirt track (as opposed to technical trail). Much of this was spent shuffle-running, hoping the pace was good. I knew that at the top, we’d be greeted by AS3, a fully-stocked aid station with food and drink that we’d see twice on each loop (and where Deanna would be later in the day). As we finally crested the climb, I was somewhat relieved to see that there were still two racers there, the two that had passed us earlier. However, I was slightly sad to note that one of them was indeed a 103k racer. However, he was nursing a problem toe, and I therefore managed to get out of the aid station and back onto the trails ahead of him, along with my 53k friend.

Aid Station 3 and 4

The next two sections of the race, in my opinion, are the two best sections, with the next one (Leg 4) being my absolute favourite. From AS3, we’d now be making our way onto a few of the best trails on the loop, including the Waterfall Trail around MacKenzie King Estate, and the fabulous King Mountain trail. From those two, we would link back to the same aid station via some true technical singletrack trails that were bound to slow some runners down that had poor headlights or are not as comfortable on technical tracks. This would be my chance to either stay ahead or even make up time, in my mind. I didn’t think too much about it, but merely focused on the task at hand. At one point, I realized I had lost my 53k buddy. It was on a section of the waterfall trail, as I had to make a very much un-anticipated bio break deeper in the woods, thanks to a rather ‘shitty’ situation that required a little discretion (and some leaves…). From there, I found myself all alone in the dark, running along and wondering if any of the sounds I heard in the woods would be bears chasing me down for an early morning snack.

In all honesty though, I wasn’t really worried about animals, and in fact, I found myself quite enjoying the solitude and focus of running technical trails purely by the light of a headlamp. I fell into a nice rhythm on the trails, which were ones I’ve run so much in the course of many years of training. Amazingly, no matter how many times I run these trails, I truly never get tired of running them. There is always something new to see or experience in my own backyard. Eventually, this group of trails once again spit me out at the fully-stocked aid station. I still felt very good, and didn’t spend too long there, just enough to grab a couple quick bites and fill up bottles. However, I did get a nice boost by seeing some of my friends who were coming through this spot on their way into the trails I had just wrapped up. Everyone was in good spirits and had smiles on their faces. For my part, I was about to start the final leg of the first loop, taking first the Skyline trail, then hopping on Ridge Road before finishing off by climbing up the #9 (Western Trail) before finally doubling back on the #1 to finish the loop.

Skyline and Ridge were both fun and uneventful. I continued my lonely plight of running alone in the darkness, humming as I went and mentally reminding myself to keep picking my feet up, running where I could, and walking where I had to. When I finally turned off the parkway to Western Trail, I steeled myself for what I knew was a bit of an uphill slog. The trail is really nice, but it seems to go on forever, as I’d experienced in recent training runs. However, for the first time in a while, I actually came across some people. Turns out I was catching up to the tail end of the 26k racers, who were hiking their way through their race. These folks encouraged me on my way, stepping aside to let me huff and puff my way up the hill. It’s always a nice mental boost to have people cheer you on. When I finally emerged at the far end, I had a nice big smile, knowing I was about to finish lap one. Even better than that, I was right on track, as I’d be wrapping this lap up in just under 6.5 hours. This of course meant I didn’t have any room to slack if I was to make my time goal, so off I went starting lap 2, still in complete darkness. It wouldn’t be light out for at least another hour and a half!

With still no idea where I was on the standings, all I could do was press on. Even though I may not have seen anyone catching me from behind, I do my best to convince myself that people are right on my tail, willing myself to keep the pressure on. For the next leg, I truly felt like I was on auto-pilot. I was treading familiar ground and didn’t have to think about anything. As I was getting to the bottom of Wolf Trail (and to AS1) I passed a lone headlamp in the night. It was Guy Doiron racing back up the hill at the start of Leg 2! He was probably less than 5 minutes ahead of me! After ~63k of racing! I was therefore quite surprised when I reached AS1, where Ray and Mat greeted me telling me that I was 5th, but if I ran hard, I’d catch Guy to recoup 4th place. This was a bit disappointing, as I had really hoped to be on the podium in this race, and to catch Guy, I’d have to push pretty damn hard.

I made the choice to go for it though, and put on the chase for Guy, bound to capture that podium spot. For the next leg, I pressed hard, reminding myself every time I slowed a bit to pick up the pace, as that way I’d have a shot a catching my quarry. The effort was wearing on me, and by the time I reached AS2, I was disappointed that I hadn’t caught sight of him yet. However, I was assured at the aid station that he wasn’t too far ahead. However, I also learned something shocking. I was, in fact, in 2nd place!! Ray and Mat had actually told a white lie to me! With that new knowledge, I pressed on, hoping that I might catch Guy to capture the lead. This, as it turns out, was a foolish idea. The sun was now up and rising, with temperatures and humidity also climbing. Things were about to get tough. I’d covered about 75km, with about 31k left to go. I was also on the dreaded pavement section, which was my undoing yet again on this loop…

As I was trotting along between P9 and P8, the familiar sounds of footfalls were behind me. It was another 100k racer. In fact, it was the guy I’d left at AS3 on the first loop! As he went by, he asked how far ahead Guy was, and I commented that last I knew he wasn’t TOO far ahead. So the chase was now on by two of us, although in all honesty, I could see I was quickly falling off pace and wouldn’t be a real contender. Nonetheless, I plodded on and pushed along in the warming sunlight. By the time I found myself literally trudging up the steep climb back up to AS3, I felt like I was completely tapped out. Much as I wanted to power hike, I was reduced to a more leisurely hiking pace, and seriously concerned about my prospect of holding on to 3rd for the final 20k or so.

Aid Station 3 in Daylight

Lucky for me, Deanna was awaiting up at AS3, with a smile and warm encouragement, even though I was having none of it! I just plopped down in a chair and sat there for a good few minutes, trying to eat a couple quick things and re-filling my bottles. I was informed that I was at least an hour ahead of the next racer, but that didn’t help, since it meant I’d be even LESS motivated to keep pushing. Regardless, I’m well versed in pressing on, so once I felt up to it, I got up and started making my way back down the hill and onto the next leg (which as I remarked earlier, was my favourite leg). Although I was lacking in real ‘pep’, I did still manage to pick up the pace a bit and try to enjoy the scenery on the way. There was still some dragging, but I knew I was going to get it done.

After another hour or so, I finally looped back to return to the same aid station, and to see Deanna again. I was in MUCH better spirits, and apparently it was visible. I had only about 10k to go, and was holding onto my place. As is often the case, my guess was that those behind me were also hurting, so even though I’d slowed, so had any pursuers, to the point that they also couldn’t catch back up to me. I took a little more video, gave Deanna a little peck, and headed out for the final few challenging trails. Skyline was relatively uneventful, and I managed to jog most of it, giving me some measure of comfort.

Ridge and Penguin Intersection

Sadly, once I made my way to the final singletrack trail (#9), I knew it was going to be a big slog. The trail was of course uphill all the way, and was going to lead to the finish line, but I was tapped out. I resigned myself to a dismal walking / hiking pace, which seemed so strange, given the pace that I can usually push up this trail in training. It’s amazing what 100km in the legs do to a person (and no sleep in >27 hours!). In spite of the misery I was feeling on the trail, I eventually popped back out onto the #1 and knew that I was about 500m from the finish, AND managed to retain my podium spot. Crossing the line at just around the 15h mark, I was happy enough that I managed to accomplish one of my two goals. While I hadn’t gotten my time goal, I stayed on the steps of the podium! Yay me. Guy and the 2nd place fellow were both still there, waiting for me to cross and congratulate me.

Finish Line Picture

Once the smiles and pictures were wrapped up, it was time to contemplate food, and potentially a nap. None of the 3 of us opted to stay around to see more finishers, which in retrospect was good, since the next person was 2 hours back! I went home, made a frozen pizza, and slowly made my way through it while binge-watching TV shows. Deanna had actually left for the evening to visit family in Picton, so I was on my own to do nothing. And I did it well!

Finishing Prize

All in all, the race was a great one in my opinion. I love racing locally, seeing familiar faces, and trodding on well-known trails. I realize that where you finish really isn’t that important to many people, myself generally included, but I’ve put a lot into training over the summer, focusing on ultras, so it was nice to finish on a relatively high note! If you’re interested in checking out a great local series of events around Gatineau Park, make sure you check out the 3 Beavers Racing website and look at the options! I’m sure something will suit your fancy. And in the meantime, if you’re looking for a little inspiration, you can check out my video from the Midnight Moose below! Now it’s time for a little recovery for a month while I prepare for my transition to winter racing!!

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