So here is my report on the Ultra Trail Harricana which I ran on Saturday September 10, 2016. It’s going to be real and gritty: the good, the bad, and the shitty. It was a pretty surreal experience and took me a few days to try and make sense of it all.
When the alarm went off Saturday morning, I was surprised that I had been asleep. I had expected to be tossing and turning all night long. I had laid my clothes and gear out the night before so all I had to go was toss everything on. Our host, Pierre, was kind enough to offer me a ride to the shuttle bus so my friend could go right back to sleep after a few good luck hugs. There were two school buses waiting at the Tourism Centre and as I boarded the first one, I felt bleary eyes on me. “Hi everybody!” I tried to sound as cheery as I could at 5:30 in the morning before an 80 km race. There were a few replies as I walked to the very back and sat down. I munched on a frozen bagel as the bus left the lot. The sky was just starting to lighten and I stared at the trees rushing past the windows. Some people were talking amongst themselves but most were quiet.
The starting line was at Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie National Park. When the bus arrived, I stepped down and followed the line of people making their way to the only building I could see. I had brought a bag with some clothes and fresh shoes to change into at the end and wandered around as I was trying to find where to drop it. I also wanted to use the washroom but the line up was huge. I started chatting with another runner who was doing the 65 km race and when I saw the truck to leave our bags for the finish line and the water jugs hanging off the back I realized two things: first, I had not had anything to drink yet. And then something even more troubling: I couldn’t remember if I had pooped. Oh crap. I mean, that’s shitty.
I half expected to have to make an emergency run to the portapotties. I have a tiny bladder to begin with but now all I could think about was every twinge in my lower torso.
As the crowd moved to the starting line, a hush fell over us. Misty mountains loomed tall in the early dawn. And with a single airhorn blast, we set off.
Very quickly I found myself at the back of the back. And then farther back than that. I know the tendency to start too quick and I pay for it later so I just let myself enjoy the solitude as we followed a paved road down a hill and veered off to the right onto a wide dirt trail. Every so often I would glimpse runners ahead of me when the trail straightened but they never seemed to get much closer. At least the trails were well marked so I wasn’t relying on them for directions. With no music and no one around me, it was just the sound of the wilderness.
I stuck to my strategy of walking the ups and running everything else and after four kilometres, I passed a couple. Then another kilometre I passed more. A water station emerged out of nowhere and there were several people standing there chatting. I eyed an outhouse as I continued through. I was hoping there would be no need to find out for myself about what bears do in the woods…if you know what I mean.
The course was varied terrain with good sections of it being single track. That is my favourite kind of trail and I found myself smiling and actually laughing out loud when it all hit me: I was here. I was running in an 80 km race. I was in the forest and running over terrain that makes me feel at home. I felt peace and happiness and calm wash over me.
A recent downpour had left the trails muddy and morning dew made rocky sections slick. In fact some sections were more like boulder fields. Now I’m no mountain goat but I have done some hiking in mountains so I felt fairly stable as I slowly picked my way through.
I felt the same thing about mud and there was plenty of it. With such a long race, I was not keen to go blasting through deep mud because a) I’ll have wet feet prone to chafing and b) with my luck I’d lose a shoe or twist an ankle. But I also have no problem with getting dirty if need be. The mud pits turned out to be one of the best places to pass other runners as they picked their way around.
Now with such a long race, there is no way to recount every kilometre and in fact, most of the race is a blur but there were a few things that stood out. There was a kill in the trail near the beginning. It was a massive skeleton with thick clumps of fur and huge bones right in the middle of the trail. I had the feeling that it was fairly new because even though the bones were picked clean, they didn’t have that weathered look. I didn’t stop to take a picture but my first impression was that it must have belonged to a moose.
The distance markers actually counted down so instead of the signs having 1, 2, 3 they were 3, 2, 1. But that was for the 65 km course which meant that I had to add another 15 km on top of that. And then something else completely preoccupied me: there was a difference of 5 km between my watch and the signs. I figured it was my watch that was inaccurate but I told myself it was the course markers. It was a small mental game that helped to pass the time as I was never with anyone very long. I rather enjoyed the solitude and having the opportunity to explore a new place.
The first real aid station I came to had water, electrolytes, and all kinds of foods. For the most part, I stuck to water and boiled salted potatoes as that was what I had trained with. Although I did drink a small cup of chicken soup. I hadn’t wanted it until I saw it and I figured it was my body telling me I needed something. I had a few baggies of my homemade drink that I had brought in my pack and I was barely able to get one into the squishy bottle. But as I looked around I noticed that I wasn’t the only one with unmarked baggies of white powder.
At the next aid station, one of the volunteers actually took my baggie from me and filled up the bottle. I guess I was looking pretty rough. Who designs these things with such tiny openings anyway? I left munching on a piece of pita with peanut butter and honey to chase my banana.
I left the aid station and was running along when suddenly, there was that call from nature. Fortunately it wasn’t the delinquent poop and I happened to be in one of the few places that had adequately thick cover in the form of a low mound of dirt to one side of the trail. I silently cursed the men that I had passed on the side of the trail. Did they even appreciate how easy they had it? No trying to hold onto branches to keep yourself upright on tired legs squatting behind shrubbery.
The hills were not too bad to deal with as the trail never seemed to go straight up for too long. Sometimes the downhills were a bit scary because of uneven footing. One trail I was climbing had actually been transformed into a small creek by the rains.
The first half seemed to fly by, even as my feet started to hurt, my hips were complaining, and there was a growing tightness forming around my left knee. There were a few times after walking up a hill that I found it difficult to start running again and those first few steps were often the most painful but once I pushed myself through it, I found that I was able to get back into my rhythm.
I was rolling along after that aid station when I felt a dull ache starting in my left side. I tried to analyze it: had I eaten too much food? Was I running too fast and now dealing with the start of a dreaded side stitch? Too much fluid? Oh no was this the poop? Nope. I was keeping my phone in the left pocket of my vest and the full bottle was pushing the phone into my side. A few quick sips and that crisis was averted.
Now I had looked at the map but I had not studied it well. I knew that there were two loops near the end but I had found it difficult to sort out how they worked since it just looked like a couple of squiggles on the map punctuated by the remainder of the aid stations. Soon it became quite aggravatingly clear.
I was running and suddenly noticed that there were people who were waiting for other runners. It made sense since the 65 km course was coming to an end. I rounded a corner and found myself facing the finish line. I felt confused until I saw the sign with an arrow that pointed to the left. How cruel is that?! Hey everybody here’s the finish line but go run another 15 km! If you had picked the 65 km you’d be done by now! There was an aid station right next to the line and the gentleman took my pack off me and filled my reservoir as I shoved some gnocchi and potatoes down my throat.
With my pack back on, I set off as was thinking about how much nicer it is to run in the cooler temps and how I have only had to fill my drink bottles a couple of times and I was feeling better than I had felt running in the heat and it was a nice day and I only have 15 km more and I should be back in before dark and it doesn’t look like it’s going to rain like they forecast and…
Suddenly I found myself staring up a ski hill. And not a little ski hill. Or a gentle ski hill. Shit. I slowed to a walk and if there is a pace slower than a walk, I was soon doing that. I saw signs for the 28 km race and realized that they started at the base of this hill and went straight up right out of the chute. All the other climbs had been, well not easy, but at least it wasn’t one long straight up. I’m not sure how long I was on that hill but when I got to the top I saw on the map of the hills that this one was 1920 m. That’s almost 2 km. UP!
I had met a couple of women who were coming down the hill. One was a pacer and the other one had finished the 28 km race and had walked up with some of her friends. Now both of those women impressed me. They had walked up this hill (one of them for the second time!) for no reason other than to tackle this beast with their friends. They told me I was amazing but they were incredible. I had a race to finish and therefore it wasn’t an option. They chose to do it. Wow.
After I caught my breath, I followed the trail to the right and was soon stopped by the view at an overlook.
There are no more pictures of the trail at this point because my phone decided to go from 30% to 6% battery. It’s probably a good thing because the clock was ticking and it was getting darker. I pushed on as long as I could before putting on my headlamp. I’ve never really liked running with it because I find that it affects depth perception and there were some rocky sections that I would have normally run over but had to slow down for.
Then there was the time. I had read that the cutoff time was 9:00 pm but other people had said that they didn’t enforce it or that it was longer. Either way, I had wanted to be done by 7:00 and it was much later than that. I passed some other runners in the dark but there was no idle chatting with them.
Then I came to the last aid station and they told me that it was 8:10 and I had just made the cutoff. Shit. I had 5 kms to go in pitch dark with less than an hour. And I knew that there was a lot of muddy sections close to the finish line. I didn’t stop and I didn’t slow down. I just ran.
I was running down a section of road when a man on a four-wheeler drove by then came back to me, asking what my number was. Then he started yelling at me in French and when I told him I didn’t understand, he told me I had missed a turn and to get on. I hopped on behind him and he drove me back to where the trail turned. See everywhere else, they had put something across trail or roads that weren’t part of the course. But because this was a road, the orange-painted branches had been moved. When I hopped off, he started yelling again and when I tried to talk he just said “Go go go. Run run run.”
Well I ran. I ran faster than I think I had run for most of the race. There were tricky sections of trail that I had trouble seeing which forced me to slow but anywhere I could run, even the gentle slopes, I ran.
Then there was the mud. Some of the mud patches I could see but some were hidden by the grasses and what I had thought was solid earth soon had me up past my ankles in mud. It was almost over. Wet feet be damned. As I tried to run through one long part, I sank almost to my knee and was just able to catch myself on my hands. And that was the low spot for me. So close to the end I could almost feel the seconds tick away. It would have been one thing to miss the cutoff by hours but here I was with less than 5 kms and it seemed as though I might miss it by seconds.
Not. Fucking. Likely. I gritted my teeth and actually growled to myself to get the fuck up and GO! I pulled my foot out of the mud, in a far corner of my mind surprised that my shoe was still attached, shoved myself upright, and ran.
There was a light coming from around a bend and I thought that it was another truck. It never occurred to me until I rounded that corner, that it was the finish line. That I had covered that last 5 kms so quickly. I could not understand the voice over the loud speaker. But as I got closer, I was able to recognize my friend’s voice screaming in the crowd. Then I heard it: I heard my name being yelled by my friend and by strangers and all around me I heard “Go. Go! GO!”
I felt as though my feet barely touched the ground as I ran through the chute, over the timing strips and past the arch. A woman hung a ribbon around my neck and on the bottom of it was a wooden “medal” with a howling wolf. The clock said that I had completed the course in just over 13 hours and 44 minutes.
I stood dumbfounded as I walked away from the finish line then added my voice to the chorus that rose for the next runner to cross the line. My friend got me a beer and I greedily gulped down that cold goodness before we went to the post-race food table.
I tried to eat something but all I was able to choke down was some tomato basil soup. I know that re-fuelling is important but I just could not force myself to eat. When we boarded the bus, I had noticed all the cars in the parking lot and wondered why we had not brought the car. Then I remembered that the morning shuttle had three stops and the first one was here at the finish line and would then take runners to the starting line. OK good to know for future. It would have been worth getting up an hour earlier to drop the car because we had to wait for almost an hour for the shuttle to take us back to the tourism centre and from there we walked about 20 minutes back to the B & B. I had tried to flag down a few cabs that drove by but to no avail. My friend suggested not flapping my arms around because they probably thought I was just saying hi. I actually didn’t mind the walk and thought of it as a cooling down and stretching period.
I kicked my shoes off outside and left them under the back of my car. I’m not quite sure why I didn’t leave them on the porch but for some reason leaving them there made sense. I pulled myself up to the room and we cracked into a bottle of rose champagne that I had brought, hoping we would drink it to celebrate. Well we certainly did. I nursed a glass as I washed off the layers of mud and grit and sweat as I tried to not leave a mud puddle in the shower.
My friend had bought a loaf of Harricana bread from a local bakery and we tore hunks off and ate it with chunks of cheese from the fromagerie we had stopped at as we downed the bottle of bubbly.
Well this has been my report of the Ultra Trail Hurricane. It’s my first race report so hope you enjoyed it. There will be another post about this great race in a few days.