Bromont Ultra 55K – Race Report Part II (i.e. the actual race report)

Holy hiatus, Batman!

Two months and a half after the race and two months after my first post describing last year’s race and this year’s training, here is at long last my first race report. Note to self: recounting an event is unsurprisingly a harder task if you wait a couple of months.

Without further ado, here is my recap of my 2015 running of the Bromont ultra 55K.

Rise and shine

I am by no measure a morning person, or a morning runner for that matter. However, a 7:30 AM start time in Bromont meant getting up at 5 AM, probably the earliest I have (intentionally) gotten up all year. After eating breakfast and taking a shower to warm myself up, I was left fidgeting to pass the time before we left for Bromont. I had already chosen the gear I would be wearing and the supplies that I would be carrying in my running pack. I just had to remind myself that my training and my preparation were all behind me and that all that was left to do was get to the starting line and actually run this thing. Nothing I could do now would increase my readiness.

My parents (AKA my crew for the day) and I got to the base camp half an hour or so before the start. The temperature was just right — cold enough for fast running but not enough to warrant dragging an extra layer of clothing for the first kilometers. The pre-race meeting consisted of Audrey from the organising committee giving us instructions concerning course marking and the likes. We also heard a few words from Sébastien Roulier who had just won the 100 miler and run our course twice in doing so. He gave us his impressions of the course, taking care to warn us about the “fun” parts, and then we lined up for the start.

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Go Habs Go!

Start to Aid station 2 ( First 18 km)

The race starts off with one flat kilometer followed by a short climb of 200 m over 2 km. Last year, I had started off a bit too fast only to be overtaken periodically for the rest of the race as my legs broke down. Now I found myself in a similar situation of being closer to the front of the pack than I would have thought. However, my pace felt natural, I knew what was ahead of me and I had a solid plan, so I told myself to ignore the others. Not knowing their skill level and experience, my position relative to them meant nothing. All I could do was run my own race and listen to my body.

While enjoying the fast, flat, trail on fresh legs, a strange thought occurred to me. I suddenly wished that we were already halfway through the race, steadily slowing down from our increasingly heavy legs. A weird thing to think a kilometer into a race, but, for the previous weeks, all my planning and visualising had focused on the late stages of the race. This “fun” running at the start somehow felt like a distraction from the “real” race that would start in a few hours. I wished that I could face the actual challenge now, when my mind still wielded full command of my body. As the start of the initial climb came into view, I reminded myself that the beginning of the race was not without purpose. I still had to run the first half well in order to reach the halfway point in good time and in good shape. After all, my plan depended on it and that was the only way I could have a chance of improving my finishing time by an hour, which was my goal.

Being a more responsible runner than last year, I had no trouble forcing myself into a walk as soon as the incline started ramping up. The first climb wasn’t much; just enough to get the quads warmed up. Having other runners 10 seconds or so ahead of me, I was somewhat on auto-pilot mode. I was just vaguely keeping track of where they went and was not paying too much attention to course markers. I got my first wake up call when I looked up to see two guys stopped 20 m ahead of me and looking around as if they weren’t sure where the course continued or if they were on the course at all. I immediately started looking for the pink flags marking the course and saw that I had to veer off the road onto a single track a few meters ahead. The others had already realised they were off-course and were looking back in my direction when I pointed out the turn to them. They praised my sense of observation, but I had to admit that I would have missed the turn as well if it hadn’t been for them standing around looking confused ahead of me. From that point on I made sure to not miss any pink flags.

After a short descent, we started an ascent of 300 m up Mount Brome over 3.5 km. The grade of the climb wasn’t too harsh for still fresh(ish) legs, however the length of it did make sure that my legs felt it by the end. The sun hadn’t peeked through the clouds yet and the top of the mountain was very exposed to the wind so we were rather chilly when we reached the top. The temperature and the fact that the course now took us down the somewhat steep Brome ski slope convinced me to bomb the downhill despite the fact that taking it easy for a while after the climb was probably a better idea. Aid station 1 (11th km, just a table with a water cooler) waited for us at the bottom of the hill but I just ran past it. I was still good on water and I wouldn’t have wanted to take on extra weight at that point anyway.

I then started the second ascent of Mount Brome. This time we would be going up 250 m or so over barely more than a single kilometer. Hiking turned into scrambling at several different spots and a few ropes were tied around trees and sent down the trail to help us pull ourselves up. (Full disclosure: some of the ropes were not strictly necessary. They were probably more useful to runners evoking them to describe how steep the climb was than they were to runners actually climbing.)

The fact remains that the climb was indeed brutal. My heart rate was much too high for comfort even before I reached the summit. I knew that I definitely had to take it very easy on the way down because continuing at this intensity would mean going too far into my deeper reserves for this point in the race. I knew that my quads wouldn’t be liking the next climb and I was crossing my fingers that they weren’t so tired as to slow me down on flat ground as well.

The 5 km or so between the summit and the second aid station were mainly downhill singletrack. It didn’t take too long for running to become easy again. The trails were quite nice and that section ended up being very enjoyable. I was in high spirits and had found back (most of) my legs by the time I rolled into AS 2 where my parents were waiting. Being in decent shape, I didn’t want to lose too much time there so I just topped off my water bottles and picked up a Clif bar to replace the one I had eaten before hitting the road.

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Aid station 2 approach
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I was actually feeling much better than what this picture would seem to indicate.

AS 2 to AS 3 (18th to 25th km)

This section was easy and rather uneventful. There were a lot of wide gravel roads and it was mostly flat by trail standards. Some sections of road were more open and we had nice views. I can’t say that I took much time to enjoy the fall colours from the summit of Mount Brome, but now that the going was easier I was able to pay better attention to my wider surroundings.

When I had reached aid station 2, I caught up with Thomas, a young runner from the region. By young, I mean the guy is 16… I was aware of a 16 year old being registered for the race and I had seen Thomas when he climbed past me on Mont Brome, but I guess I chose to believe that it wasn’t him and that I wasn’t being outclimbed by a teenager. However, seeing him again at the aid station, I had realised that this guy was indeed a teenager on-pace for a very decent finish. I had left the AS before him but only a few hundred meters into this section he flew back ahead of me, leaving me wondering whether I was dealing with a  young phenom on top of his game or with a rocket burning up its fuel way too fast.

I went through this short section in about 45 minutes, running with several new people along the way. One of these runners being Lester, with whom I would share most of the late-race. He, a couple of other runners and I got to aid station 3 at the same time. We took turns filling our bottles from the water cooler which was the only attraction there. Before heading out, I stretched out my quads a bit which felt good and seemed to wake them up a bit.

AS 3 to AS 4 (25th to 35th km) – High in sugar, low in sweetness

As I walked away from aid station 3, I pulled out my cell phone to inform my parents of my progress and give them an idea of when they could expect me at the next aid station. Lester caught up to me as I was stumbling through the high grass, trying to walk and text at the same time. “Are you texting?” he asked in a slightly judgmental tone. I think I answered something along the lines of “Gotta pass the time somehow.” Turns out the sugar bush we were heading into had plenty of ideas about how we should be spending our time.

We knew this section would take us up a mountain and we were told that it wouldn’t be easy, yet none of us seemed ready for the hard climbing we had to do. I found myself repeating “This hill didn’t seem so big on the elevation profile.” to the people around me several times. Looking at the elevation profile now, it’s clearly a non-negligible mountain. I guess we had played it down due to it being shorter than Brome.

I started climbing with Lester but couldn’t keep up with him for very long. He wasn’t running very fast on flats and low inclines, but he had a very decent climbing speed and wasn’t wasting any time switching to running after cresting hills. On the other hand, I was going slightly too fast when I was running which meant I had to keep walking for a while even when the climbing stopped just to recuperate. The steadier approach of the veteran proved more effective (surprise) and I watched the man in fluorescent green socks climb away much like he had done during the first climb.

I caught up to Thomas and some other guys and climbed the rest of the mountain with them. When I reached the top I stopped to take in the view. This was done more out of the necessity to stop than for the sights, however I was amazed by the endless orange and red hills we could see from there. It had to be the prettiest sight of the day and would have made a great picture if I had thought about snapping it. I’ll blame the omission on Thomas who just walked past me without pausing for the view and said “I’m starting to feel it now…” in a slightly exhausted tone. I was reassured to know that he wasn’t superhuman after all, but that meant I had no excuse to not keep up with him so I picked myself up and followed him.

We were halfway into this section (5 km in) and now had to come down this hill over the next 2 km. Despite the trail being almost pure decline, we both found ourselves slowing to a walk a couple times along the way down. We passed each other back and forth several times because of this. I eventually recuperated from the climb and eased myself into a quicker, steadier, rhythm. I was slowly moving away from Thomas by the time we exited the woods and left the sugar bush behind.  After a few hundred meters of road, the course had us cut back through the woods next to a flowering canola field. From there we popped back out onto country roads for the last few kilometers before arriving at aid station 4: Bob’s place.

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Canola, a.k.a. politically correct rapeseed.

Last year, Bob’s place was where I had realised the race was getting very real. This aid station had been located at the halfway point and I was already low on energy when I reached it. I had unwisely zipped through the first aid stations as if they were on fire, but reality had caught up to me by the time I reached Bob’s and I spent a relatively long time there.

This year I came into the aid station feeling very good, despite the fact that I had run 35 km to get there (versus 27 or 28 km last year). I filled my bottles and ate a fig bar and some watermelon, which were very welcome since I was already growing tired of Clif bars. I even downed a small glass of Coke, despite never having tried carbonated beverages while training. Arguably a very stupid move, but it looked good in that instant. My stomach never gave me trouble for it, so I was lucky on that account.

Thomas came in a short while after me and wasted no time refueling. He checked out just as I was starting to feel like I had been there for a while. Again, he unwittingly forced me back into motion.

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Coming into Bob’s place
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A look of focus and deep thought, most likely the result of trying to see that kind of food others had found at the aid station.

AS 4 to AS 5 (35th to 44th km) – Running like Willie Nelson: High on country roads

I caught up to Thomas and we ran the first few hundred meters out of Bob’s place together. I told him he could probably do good time on the next 9 km of country roads, but that I didn’t recommend pushing it too hard given what was waiting for us after that. I didn’t want to sound condescending giving unsolicited advice, but that advice was kind of also just me repeating my own plan to myself.

As I saw it, the key (or at least, a key) to finishing much faster this year was getting through this section in decent time. Last year I walked way too much of it and didn’t take advantage of the rare flat ground. Now, I had succeeded in getting to this point in decent shape, which was part one of my plan. Part two was using this to keep moving through the rest of the race at a better pace than last year. The road section in particular was where I thought fresher legs would provide the best time improvement.

Because my legs were feeling so good, I wasn’t worrying too much about managing to improve my time here. I felt like running at a natural feeling pace would be enough to do decent time on this section and I knew that pushing any harder wouldn’t be worth it considering I needed my legs for some climbing afterwards. So I skipped through a short section of muddy trail (literally skipping between landing spots where I wouldn’t sink to the ankle) away from Thomas back onto the road for 9 km of easy running.

At first I didn’t realise exactly how easy I was running. It took about two and a half kilometers before I started feeling like I had to be making pretty decent progress. I took out my phone to check Strava and saw that I had ran the last two kilometers in 5:30 and 5:32 respectively. I couldn’t believe I was running at that kind of pace, yet alone feeling that good about it. The high would go on for a few more kilometers, during which I logged my second fastest kilometer of the race in 4:59 over a downhill portion of road. Over that kilometer, I caught up to Lester who I had thought I would never see again ever since he had dropped me fifteen kilometers or so earlier. I excitedly told him about how fast I was running and how good I felt as I passed him. He congratulated me and suggested that I must be a real veteran now. I wasn’t too sure about that last part but I took it and kept running.

The high eventually wore off when I was 3 or 4 km out from aid station 5. I completed those last kilometers around Lake Bromont at a considerably slower pace. I noticed some movement inside my cousin’s house on the way by, but I wasn’t desperate enough for a break to stop by for a visit during the race.

I reached aid station 5 a few minutes before Lester and took my time to fill up my bottles. Despite being another water-only aid station, this one was more lively because it was accessible to crews and supporters. We talked a bit with my parents before Les wanted to get going. I told him to go ahead and I followed him out a minute later.

AS 5 to AS 6 (44th to 49th km) – Slow and steady

This section is very easy to underestimate and quite likely to demoralise a runner expecting it to be easy. It is only 5 km long and its elevation gain is dwarfed by that of the Mount Brome climb that immediately follows it, so it’s tempting to think of it as a routine trail section. However it comes late in the race and the very steep climb near the end of it is quite hard on tired legs, despite the fact that it is rather short. Someone expecting this to be a light warm up before the final climb probably wouldn’t be too cheery when they realised that the warm up was taking most of the strength left in their legs and that the last hills aren’t even in sight yet. I took about an hour to complete this section last year, probably making it my slowest 5 km ever, and reached its end in pretty bad shape.

I caught up with Lester within the first two kilometers and we ended up opting to walk the rest, despite having run all but the uphills up until then. I’m not sure why, but I never worried about being too slow on this section. Perhaps I very confident about my time so far, perhaps I was thinking too much of the climb to come and couldn’t convince myself to spend energy here or perhaps I was more tired than I was admitting and I was subconsciously looking for opportunities to slack. Whatever the case, at this point last year I was consciously looking for opportunities to slack, so I had to feel good about being in a much better state of mind and having some juice left in my legs.

We spent two or three kilometers talking about athletics, academics, races and running shoes. Despite walking, we actually caught up with and then passed a competitor. We were also momentarily overtaken by a runner actually running, but he had no climbing left in his legs and we slipped back ahead of him when the trail got steeper.

We attacked the climb with little enthusiasm but enough determination to push through it at a decent pace. Like the second ascent of Mount Brome, we were practically scrambling up the steepest parts. The climb felt longer than it actually was. On several occasions we laughed when we found out that the trail actually kept going up when it looked like it might have started to level off, because laughing is pretty much all you can do in that situation. I just kept dragging myself up, half despairing, half amused and half craving watermelon for some reason.

Eventually, the trail did level off. We enjoyed some flat ground and even a bit of downhill over the last half kilometer or so before AS 6. I ran the last 200 m so that I could at least pretend to deserve the short rest to come. In spite of all the walking, I still cleared that section in about 45 minutes, which was a quarter of an hour faster that the previous year. As if that wasn’t enough to make me happy as I came into the aid station, Lester exclaimed: “Lucky you! They have watermelon!”

My parents were happy to see I was still going strong-ish, pointing out that I really wasn’t looking good at this point last year. I had to agree that I felt decent considering the 49 km behind me and that the last 6 km shouldn’t be too much of a problem. It would be my second go at the daunting, painful, ludicrous and, to a tired runner, borderline Kafkaesque final climb. This year however, the course headed straight down to the finish after reaching the summit of Mount Brome, which greatly simplified the planning. I knew precisely what to expect going up the ski slopes and I knew that it was okay so expend all the climbing power I had left along the way. I just had to push up with all I had and then cruise down all the way home.

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That awkward moment when a helpful volunteer offers to fill your bottle while you’re eating and your tired brain tries to figure out a way to hold and open a flask using only one hand.
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Only a lifelong dream, or watermelon, can lead to that resolved of a look.

I finished my watermelon and packed up the supplies I needed, which were few given the distance left. I checked my time and I calculated that I was very much on-pace for a finishing time one hour faster than last year, with a bit of wiggle room to spare. Lester wasn’t ready to go yet, but I was all set and psyched so I started my climb anyway, figuring he would catch up in a minute or two.

AS 6 to finish (49th to 55th km) 

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Off  and up we go.

The first slope we had to climb was somewhat steep, but not excessively so. It reminded me of my hiking in the Alps last summer. I had gotten used to facing this kind of grade on tired legs. I had learned to just keep my head down and take it one step at a time. Constantly looking back at where you came from or staring at the summit makes your progress seem slow. I had found that ignoring my surroundings and focusing on the climb meant that, the rare times I did look up, I noticed considerable and encouraging vertical progress.

We pushed up the first slope quite efficiently and, although it was tiring physically, the effort level was just as expected so it wasn’t very tiring mentally.

Next came a few hundred meters of flat ground before a very steep descent down a double black diamond ski slope. This part was very frustrating because of the difficulty of going down something that steep on tired legs and because it meant losing about two thirds of the altitude we had just gained immediately after we finished climbing it. I distanced myself from Les by choosing to run very soon after the climbing stopped. I carefully made my way down the almost vertical bits and sped up a bit on the more reasonably inclined portions. However, on tired and aching legs, there’s a limit to how fast you can go down safely and comfortably. There would have been no catching myself if I had tried to bomb down this hill and had lost my balance.

Immediately following the descent was the true final ascent. This is the kafkaesque section that I mentioned above. It gets progressively steeper as you go along, both literally and figuratively. The grade actually does get higher as you go up, but, if you stop for a rest, it feels like the slope you face when starting back up is worse than the one before you stopped. If you look back to see how far up you’ve come, you’ll only find the summit to be further away when you look back ahead. Perhaps Escher-esque would be a better description. One thing is for sure, you want to spend as little time as possible on this slope. You risk running out of ways to curse the course designer if you stay too long.

The beginning of the ascent was comparable to the first ascent out of the aid station. Nevertheless, I was already slowing down a third of the way up and I stopped for a breather. Even the slowest walking wouldn’t have allowed me to catch my breath at this point. I slowly started moving again and noticed that Lester was catching up to me. I kept pushing as hard as I could, but I was slowing down fast and I had to pause more and more frequently.

As you reach the final third of the slope, it sharply veers right into a much steeper black diamond section. Because the slope is bordered by woods, you can’t see this ahead of time. You only realise the change of gradient when you come face to face with it. Last year, being dreadfully tired and not expecting it, it had seemed as if I was staring at a wall when I saw it. This time, I was prepared and didn’t come nearly as close to a mental breakdown, but that didn’t mean I was in any way excited at the prospect of climbing a wall. I worked my way up slowly, probably not going more than 10 m between stops. Lester passed me using his magically constant speed that seemed to be almost totally independent of the hill grade he was climbing up. When we were finally done with the most torturous portion, all we had left was a shallow climb following the ski lift line up to its end station at the summit.

When we reached the station, a girl who was hanging out there cheered us on and told us that we had 3 km to go. Which she followed by “Well, 3 to 5 km, I don’t know.” I laughed and told her that she couldn’t just say something like that and add a few kilometers, not at this point in the race. By my own account, we had about 3 km to go, so I didn’t really worry. The end was very close.

Lester and I were both relieved that there was a bit of grass on the ski slope we would be using to get down Mount Brome for the last time. It made working our way down slightly easier on our knees. Still, there was no doubt that having younger knees was the real advantage here because I again started distancing myself from Les on the decent. After a few hundred meters of ski slope, the course turned onto bike trails for a short while before taking us down a paved road. From there, we eventually found ourselves back on trails that made up the first and last 2 to 3 km of the race.

This is where I started hitting a wall. Despite having been descending for a good 10 minutes, my legs suddenly didn’t really want to run anymore, even slowly. I started walking, debating what I should do if Lester caught up. I really didn’t care about positioning earlier in the race but, at this stage, when planning and resource management are no longer important, I can’t really help myself from being a bit competitive. He eventually overtook me and I had to let him go without a challenge.

I checked my Strava and saw that I could very well not make my goal if I walked the last 1 or 2 km, but that I could actually beat it by a few minutes if I gave a final push. I used that as motivation and started running again. I caught up to a runner and made sure I wasn’t making too much noise so I could pass him before he knew I was there. I then felt rather silly when I noticed that the reason I was gaining on him was that he was limping. Turns out he had lost a knee somewhere around the 40th km and he was determined to finish the last 15 km with one good leg. I wished him well and carried on.

The rest of the race wasn’t too eventful. One runner almost caught up to me with half a kilometer to go, but I had been taking it easy in order to be able to give it my all at the end. He didn’t try to keep me from losing him when I sped up a bit as the finishing line came within sight.

Another major difference between this year and the last, that I noticed immediately, was my reaction, or lack thereof, when I entered the final straight. Last year, despite having been praying for the race to be over for the last 5 to 10 km, I didn’t really realise it was close to ending until I was approaching the crowd and staring ahead at the finishing arch. I had started seeing them from afar and hearing all the noises several minutes prior to reaching that point, but I didn’t make the connection that the race was about to end until the last 200 m or so. I literally thought: “Wait… when I reach that line, I can actually… stop running.” It’s as if I had really wanted all the pain and exhaustion to end, yet hadn’t wanted the experience or the adventure to end. I was still glad to be done and that feeling of accomplishment was a great state of mind to transition into after such an eventful day. However, it made me realise that the feeling that you’re doing something great, something right, is quite powerful. It’s not the kind of feeling that you consciously realise you have in the instant, but, after the fact, you can appreciate how it was most likely the thing that pushed you through your endeavour.

I didn’t get that startled realisation at the end of this year’s race. I had been picturing the end of the race for a while and it happened as I had thought, with no surprises. Mentally, running the last 200 m was the same was running any other 200 m, except for the enhanced atmosphere provided by the crowd. Perhaps this being my second time removed the potential for surprises and better prepared me for the progression of emotions. Perhaps being better prepared for the physical aspect of the race allowed me to limit the amount of hardships and deal with them better, thus allowing me to enjoy the run while it happened, not just afterwards. Whatever the reason, my enjoyment of the day wasn’t any lesser this year. In fact, it was probably greater.

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The final straight

In the end, I crossed the finish line 7 hours, 49 minutes and 41 seconds after our chilly morning start. That time is 1 hour 5 minutes and 38 seconds faster that last year’s result. My goal having been to improve by one hour, exceeding it by over five minutes felt great. Sure, the course was slightly different and arguably a little faster, but that kind of improvement means that my preparation really paid off.

Lester finished only a minute and a half ahead of me and Thomas came in half an hour after me, finishing in the top 50 of the 100 or so finishers. An amazing showing for a teenager in a sport dominated by guys in their 30’s and 40’s.

In conclusion

All in all, it was a great day. The volunteers were smiling and quite helpful. The organisers did a great job again this year and I’m sure they’ll manage to keep the event growing in the years to come. I met some good people that I enjoyed sharing the trail with. And obviously, I have to thank my parents for following me over and around hills and woods for most of a chilly fall day.

My results were quite encouraging and I think they’ll be a good base for what is to come. I have been interested in ultras for several years now. Last year’s race’s purpose was to test the waters. I just wanted to see if I could do it and if I enjoyed doing it. As I had hoped, the answer to both of those questions was yes. This year’s race, and the training before it, confirmed that this was indeed something that I enjoy doing and that I get fulfillment from the time I put into it. Also, quite importantly, it proved that I had and still have much room for improvement. If going from “minimal” training to “adequate” training shaved over an hour off my time, I can easily imagine that I would be able shave off another hour by raising my training level to “good” or even “great”. Plus, I still have a few years before reaching what it usually the peak age for endurance sports. I should be getting better simply by virtue of getting older. In the future, I won’t just be trying to speed up on short ultras. I’ll surely be giving longer races a shot. However, knowing that I can probably still improve a lot at ultra distances is definitely encouraging.

 

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