As a result of my late November ankle surgery, part of my plan for the 2019 race season was to play it safe. For me, that meant trying not to bite off more than I could chew, and look at racing a few events closer to home and perhaps not super long distance. In my searching I realized that MEC had a local trail race series that was very cheap, and had 3 events all within a couple hours of home. They are no frills for sure (no swag, meals, etc.), but at a starting price of $20, they fit the bill. And this is how I came to sign up for the Mont Tremblant 40k trail race, the Gatineau Park Ultra 50k race, and the Mont Ste Marie 15k race at the tail end of the season. This post will summarize all 3 events, since they didn’t really constitute ‘A Races’ for me.
Race 1 – Mont Tremblant
First up in the triple bill was Mont Tremblant, which was both the furthest race from home at about 2 hours, and the HARDEST race. As I will describe, I would actually classify this race as the hardest race of that distance I have ever taken part in. This is saying a lot! Although I could have just driven up and back in the same day, I opted to head up the day before and crash with some friends, giving me a chance to do some visiting and relaxing before tackling the beast. However, no amount of relaxing would prepare me for the tortuous race I was about to embark on at 8:30am on a Sunday! Thankfully, the weather was good for a July race, meaning it was overcast and a bit damp, rather than blazing hot. To queue up the race description, check out the course map and profile below.
The first thing you’ll note about this course and its profile is just how ‘smooth’ the climbs are. In the race you are either climbing hard, or descending fast. And they were NOT small climbs. The third climb had almost 600m of elevation gain in about 5km. The overall course consisted of the first long outer loop you see above, followed by the smaller inner loop, and finishing off in the village. The inner loop will be familiar to many, as it takes place in the well known resort areas and follows trails like the Grand Brule. Additionally, it leverages some of the world cup cross country mountain biking trails. Because of this, I would classify the inner loop as a classic trail running track, challenging, but totally doable. However, this part of the race only covered about 17k of my race. So what about the other 23k of it? Well, that was a whole different story!
While the big loop started on normal trails for the first couple ‘hills’ in the profile, we eventually veered off these into more rugged terrain. When I say rugged, I mean that in sections, there was no any real trail. We were following a cut line of some sort. I believe they may be winter back-country trails, or maybe just a really rugged hiking trail. I’m not really sure. All I know is that the going got both steep and rugged. Of course, that doesn’t mean I wasn’t enjoying the challenge. Quite the opposite in fact. I was pushing and struggling, and just happy for the opportunity. However, in light of a still-recovering ankle, some of this terrain had me just a wee bit anxious! Regardless, I pressed on until I finally found myself at the top of the first major climb. This topped us out at Pics Johannson and Pangman.
Luckily, once we did reach the peak, things gradually turned back into real trails that were clear and easy to follow. However, the ‘downside’ was that we were now on the steep descent back toward Tremblant village before getting on the shorter loop. Feeling good, I had decided to start turning up the heat. Meaning, I picked up my feet, and picked up the pace, hoping to make up some time on the technical downhill section. Things were going swimmingly for the first while, and I was flying past some folks that were a little more cautious. In retrospect, perhaps I should also have exercised more caution as well. In a moment of lapsed attention, my world came to a crashing halt. Literally. I was in the middle of passing a couple folks, when I stumbled on a rock and litter flew at top speed face first into a rock! Although I didn’t get knocked out on impact, I came the closest to it that I have in a long time. There was definitely a moment where things went black, but I never lost consciousness.
There was definitely a few moments of panic when I wondered if I’d split my head open. I probed my head gingerly and indeed retrieved a slightly bloody hand. My sunglasses had been pretty much destroyed on impact, and my running hat was in odd tatters. Ultimately, however, it appears it was that very hat that may have saved me. When I hit the rock, the beak of my hat impacted first, distributing the blow somewhat across my forehead, leaving only a glancing blow directly between noggin and granite (or whatever geological feature it may have been!). I was shaky getting on my feet, and a few kind runners offered to stick with me. Ever the fool however, I just told folks to go on their way, nothing to see here. I was running a series of self-diagnostics to try and figure out whether I had a concussion. I kept asking myself the date, my name, where I was, and was pretty certain I was answering with the right answers. Nonetheless, I wasn’t sure if that was a trick of my brain. As a result, I did ask someone to report ahead that I was coming in with a head injury and may want to see a race medic if possible.
At the bottom of this climb, and before starting the next monster, I did have a chance to see a medic, who did clear me to continue. They also radioed ahead to let other aid stations know to keep an eye on me. All in all, it was handled efficiently and professionally, with minimal downtime to my race. I obviously had to give up any ideas of going flat out, as I was advised to avoid getting my blood pressure / heart too high. Umm.. excuse me? How can I NOT given what I’m doing? At any rate, I dialed it back, and just ran safe. After all, the next section was another monster climb! My slight headache faded a bit, and I made sure to eat and drink plenty, as well as keep an eye on the heart rate for any weird fluctuations. Beyond that, I felt generally ok, so toughed it out for the next 17km to ultimately reach the finish line. Luckily, the views along the way on the last sections were pretty good, with great vistas to Lac Tremblant and the village below. By the time I reached the finish, I was done and dusted! The weather had gotten a lot warmer, so I headed straight for an outdoor splash pad to cool down before piling into the car and making my way directly home. The race area was already pretty quiet, as most of the other racers I knew had either raced shorter distances or finished a while ago and left already. All in all, it was a memorable course, and very tough, but I WOULD go back, especially knowing now what I didn’t about the course!
Gatineau Park Ultra
The second MEC race of the season for me was in my backyard, over very familiar terrain. The race was only 2 weeks after Tremblant, but there was a world of difference. To illustrate the point, here are a couple simple stats on my performance to ponder. MEC Tremblant: 37.4 km / 5h 51m / ~2,000m climbing. MEC Gatineau: 52.1 km / 5h 29m / 1,100m climbing. Yes, you are seeing that correctly, the race was 15 km longer, but I finished it over 20 minutes faster! This is a good illustration about why you can not compare to trail races, or even predict an average pace for a trail race. It is NOTHING like road running. In the case of the GP Ultra, the trails were probably about 80% easy terrain, with a few technical singletracks thrown in for good measure. However, nothing in this course was overly complex or technical. The below map shows the route and the elevation profile.
The overall course consisted of two long outer loops of about 20km, completing with the final inner shorter loop of about 12km. There were also no long pronounced climbs like we experienced in Tremblant. I would say that on a really good day, I should have been able to complete this one in about 5 hours flat. In fact, on my first loop, that seemed a possibility. I felt strong, the terrain was good, and I was in my happy place. The one wild card in this case was that when the race started at about 7:50am, the sun wasn’t too high, and temperatures not too bad. However, being August, as the hours wore on, temperature and humidity climbed. By about the mid point of loop 2 (30k), my pace was clearly starting to drop a bit, and the climbs seemed just a little harder than I wanted them to. Long story short, but the time I reached the finish line, I was definitely feeling the effort and was ready for a cool drink and a bit of shade! The nice part of this race is that it does traverse all the terrain I know well and use in training. It’s a good opportunity to test the legs for upcoming events. As such, I’m looking forward to returning for another go at this one!
Mont Ste Marie
The third and final MEC race in my ‘triple crown’ was toward the tail end of the season, and quite a bit shorter. While the first two events offered longer and shorter distance options, the Mont Ste Marie race only had an 8k and 15k option. Obviously I chose the 15k, but this would be a little out of my normal ‘sufferfest’ style of race. In fact, when the dust settled, the overall distance according to my watch was closer to 13k. Again though, don’t confuse distance for level of challenge. All it meant was that I’d push even harder for a shorter distance. My hope was to have a really solid climb up the mountain to keep me in contention, and then bomb the downhill to hopefully finish strong. Here’s what that course looked like in route and profile:
Notice anything about the above profile? The first 5km was a nice loop around a lake on rolling mountain bike trails. Terrain was rugged, but very runnable. In theory, this should be a really good opening warm-up before tackling the beast of this course, the climb up the mountain using a nice hairpin trail all the way up. However, in practice, the issue was that from the starting gun, all the hot shots took off like banshees! I like to ease into a race, which is much easier when you are racing 40-100km. The runway is long. Not so here. If you don’t stay in contact at the start, you are a dead duck. So, I tried my best, and ran the opener hard before climbing.
When it came time to take on ‘the beast’ I was definitely warmed up! Lucky for me, I’m a decent climber, so I settled in to a solid rhythm and passed as many people as I possibly could on the way up. I made up roughly a dozen spots on the climb. I had no idea if it was enough to put me in contention, but I suspected the answer was no. There were far too many hot shots out there! The wheels came off after cresting the summit and starting on the often treacherous long downhill to the finish. This was a downhill bike tail, and had lost of tricks up its sleeves. 3 weeks ago I had completed a tough mountain race in the Rockies, and think I wasn’t completely recovered. I ended up slowing down a lot after coming too close to rolling my ankle a couple time, as it became clear I was no longer in podium contention.
Regardless, I did cross the finish line feeling good and not too exhausted. I’m sure I could have repeated the whole course another 1 or 2 times if needed. In other words, I probably didn’t race this event the ‘right’ way ;-). For me, it meant a slightly disappointing result of 38th out of 254 racers. To give a sense of the quality of racers. My time was 1h20m, and the winner did it in 1h5m! The top 6 dudes were all in their 20s though, so clearly the ‘shorter’ distance favours the youngins. I knew there was a reason I’d moved into ultra-running with all my ‘wise’ friends! Ok. That’s long enough for this triple race post. See you out there, and have fun!