UTMA 2016 – Skymarathon du Mont Jacques-Cartier (44 km)

Aragorn: “We cross the lake at nightfall. Hide the boats and continue on foot. We approach Mordor from the north.”

Gimli: “Oh, yes?! It’s just a simple matter of finding our way through Emyn Muil? An impassable labyrinth of razor sharp rocks! And after that, it gets even better! Festering, stinking marshlands, far as the eye can see!”

Aragorn: “That is our road. I suggest you take some rest and recover your strength, Master Dwarf.”

 

Helmuth von Moltke said “[…] no plan of operations extends with any certainty beyond the first contact with the main hostile force.”, often paraphrased as “No plan survives contact with the enemy.” I don’t know what he’d say about a plan formulated without even knowing who the enemy is in the first place, but I’m fairly certain he wouldn’t have much hope for it.

This race was a dive into the unknown on a few levels, the most consequential of which was the unknown terrain. The trails ended up being more technical than anything I had ever laid a foot on. Combined with uncharacteristically hot weather, this led to a day that very quickly deviated from my expectations.

At the starting line

Sunday morning 7 am, I’m standing alone at the homey start/finish area set up in a small clearing of the woods just off the main road going through the Parc national de la Gaspésie. My parents and girlfriend dropped me off on the way to the parking lot to make sure I was on time for the pre-race meeting scheduled for 7:15. A bit early to my taste considering the start is at 8.

I’m not wearing the hoodie I brought to keep warm (Ha!) before the race because it’s already 20 °C or so and I’m wearing long sleeves. I had packed short and long-sleeved tees as well as short and long tights because I hadn’t really trusted the forecasted max of 30 °C would actually be reached. The average max this time of the year in the region is in the low 20’s. Considering we had to go up to exposed summits over 1200m , I was expecting to face 10-20 °C temperatures over the race. I had ditched the idea of wearing the long tights because 30 °C was still on the forecast on the eve of the race, but I somehow still didn’t believe that such an abnormal high would be reached. Seeing how warm it was now within an hour of the start and with the sun barely up, I was starting to believe…

The meeting was held later than expected so my crew had plenty of time to walk back from the parking lot before it started. I spent most of the hour of wait yawning, partly because of the early hour and partly because of nerves. I recognised one or two faces from previous races in the crowd of runners, which isn’t a lot, but it was a nice feeling considering I was 700 km from home at an event I wouldn’t have seen myself running just two years ago. It kind of made me feel like I belonged, like this was the right place for me at that time. That’s the feeling you want to have following you throughout the race. It doesn’t matter how hard the road gets if you know for a fact that you’re meant to be on that road.

As we started lining up behind the arch, I spotted a few of the guys at the front actually warming up. Who warms up at an ultra? That was a reminder that there would be people ahead of me that I really shouldn’t consider following.

When the countdown approached its end, I had a weird, familiar and somewhat anticlimactic thought. An eager and resigned “Let’s see what happens.”

Start to Lac aux Américains (First 8 km)

I started off probably around the 20th position (Ha!) at what was obviously a destructive pace. I wasn’t worrying too much, thinking I would naturally slow down as the crowd spread out and the reality of the trail hit me. I think most people take the first 1-2 km too fast and settle down once they find a spot they’re comfortable in.

They trails in this section were mildly technical singletrack. Part of the technicality came from mud created by the previous night’s rain. The incline wasn’t too bad, but it certainly wasn’t negligible.

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Elevation profile as measured by myself. A short section didn’t get logged in the second half.

I ended up staying with a group of fast runners for too long. I don’t enjoy following someone very closely and seeing obstacles at the last second, nor do I enjoy slowing down just to have someone breathing down my neck and constantly wondering if they want me to let them pass. After 3-4 km, I started insisting people pass me so that I could slow down to a more sustainable space and have breathing room. I started walking more inclines to recuperate while feeling stupid because it took me so long to slow down. I don’t mind getting passed during the first few “adjustment kilometers” but I always feel like I’ve failed somewhere when I get passed later. A few changes of positions later in the race when you’re feeling good and another is in a rough patch, or vice-versa, is normal but, the way I see it, there shouldn’t be much passing late in the race if everyone is running intelligently. I let several runners go by knowing that I had to while being rather certain that they were meant to be ahead of me anyway and that I should have just started off behind them. However, my mistake gave the negative voices in my head some ammo. “You’re actually faster than them, but you screwed up and tired yourself out so now they’re ahead.”

Lesson: While it’s fully possible to ignore the voices and control how you react to them, it’s much less mentally taxing to not have to listen to them in the first place. Be smart and don’t give those morons anything to talk about.

I ran the rest of this section alone, which was probably for the best. I don’t think I would have appreciated company after that start, not even good company. I had almost fully recovered from the rough start by the time I reached the aid station. My mood got better as the people passing me got rarer and then it essentially got instantaneously reset as soon as I reached the aid station at Lac aux Américains.

I had heard cheering for the runners ahead of me from afar so I had known I was close, but I was surprised to see that the aid station was set up in the parking lot we had scouted out the day before and not at the lake itself. That meant my crew didn’t have any walking to do to reach the AS so they got there ahead of me with time to spare.

The surprise from the location, the smiling of my crew and the realisation that I had completed 8 km on positive incline in an hour made me forget about my start and feel good about the race again. I had done good time and didn’t feel like I had paid that high of a price for it in the end. I grabbed a quick bite from the table, topped off a water bottle and took off before I got tempted to waste more time there.

Lac aux Américains to the turnaround point (8th to 22nd km)

From the first AS there were 14 km to go before the only other AS, located at the halfway point of the race where we were to turn around and retrace our steps back to the start/finish. A single water stop punctuated this long segment that took us up and over Mont Xalibu and up the namesake of the race, Mont Jacques-Cartier.

The 5 km climb up Xalibu started off with an easy kilometer on a wide and well groomed gravel trail. This was not indicative of what was to come. Over the following 4 km we saw the technicality of the trail go from nil to high.

As the climb started getting steeper and rockier, I joined up with Fred, a Belgian living in Québec City, his friends and Mia. It didn’t take very long for us to notice that the trail had gotten considerably more technical. This wasn’t much of an issue going up, but the terrain was clearly not the kind you could mindlessly run down. Already, we were wondering how much trouble we would here on the way back. Little did we know that these were very nice trails compared to most of what as to come.

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Fred powering up Xalibu.

The climb was somewhat hard, but we I felt like we were making good time. Having Fred nearby was a huge help. He was pretty much radiating positive energy at this point in the race (and, from what I saw, managed to stay in high spirits much later on, although he wasn’t quite as vocal about it).

Even with the human dynamo, we eventually started slowing down. Getting close to the tree line, we started seeing considerably more of our surroundings. This was a good morale boost and reminder of why we were doing this in the first place.

The most welcome sight was by far the summit of Mont Xalibu. By the time we passed the tree line, we were about a kilometer away from the end of the climb. However, this is the point where the trail got a notch steeper and notably more technical. The terrain went from dirt densely strewn with rather large rocks to a blanket of smallish stones. The stones were just large and sharp enough to not yield much and force us to be careful about every step. Any smaller and they would just have been large gravel—still slightly uncomfortable but requiring much less attention.

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Mont Xalibu’s stony summit.

I pushed up the final meters not too happy about the terrain and growing increasingly worried about the eventual descent on the way back. At least the summit did give us very good views of the rest of the Chic Choc range.

From Xalibu, the course took us downhill for a few kilometers before going back up again to the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier, the highest point in the Chic Chocs. I was very much looking forward to the downhill so that I could finally do some legitimate running. Partly because I didn’t feel good about most of the running I had done early in the race, partly because I was worried that I wouldn’t be able to run a lot of the trail behind me on the way back. Seeing runnable trails ahead would have been a huge boost in morale and would have given me hope that the timetable I had in mind was still realistic.

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Typical segment of trail at the top of Mont Xalibu.

I took a few hundred meters of walking to recuperate from the climb before trying to run. Although the trail got nicer, I had trouble to run continuously for more than 10 or 20 meters. Irregular clumps of large stones too big to stride or leap over were located just far enough apart to tempt me to run in between them while also forcing me to slow to a walk to safely make my way over them. I got annoyed by the stop and go rather quickly and got into the bad habit of walking whenever I saw other obstacles close ahead, just hoping that the trail became less technical after the next bend.

Although I did start seeing some plank bridges every now and then which I could obviously run, the terrain itself did not change considerably. The realisation I was hoping I wouldn’t have to come to was upon me. The trail wasn’t going to get more runnable. I was going to have to suck it up and run whatever was thrown at me the best I could, even if that meant going along in a slow and oft interrupted trot. Whatever I couldn’t find the willpower to run on the way out I would almost certainly also be walking on the way back.

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A brief reminder to stay calm.

I tried running more with mild success. Some technical spots forced me to walk without giving me much of a choice in the first place. Before long we were climbing again anyway so running was back off the table.

A very welcome distraction was a pair of snowy slopes just before the climb up to the summit of Mont Jacques-Cartier. While some ignored the snow, most seemed happy to see some this late in June. After the guys in front of me were done with their snowball fight, I rubbed some snow onto my face and arms before placing a handful inside the back of my shirt. It was about 11 am at this point, the sun was high in the sky and the temperature must have been well into the twenties despite the altitude.

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The arms race before the hostilities

A hundred meters past the first white slope we came across a second which we actually had to run through. This was a bit of a challenge given the transverse incline but the novelty of it made it fun.

Sébastien Roulier passed me at the beginning of the climb up Jacques-Cartier. I had seen him from afar earlier, but I figured it couldn’t actually have been him because he had finished running the 100 km race just a few hours before our start. Sure enough though, it was really him attempting the back-to-back  (which he pulled off). I introduced myself, mentioned that we had crossed paths on Mont Bellevue recently and we exchanged a few words. I enjoyed knowing that I had been ahead of him for a while (not that it meant much…) but he eventually managed to pull away despite all the miles on his legs.

The climb very soon entered the barren stony region near the summit, similar to what we had seen on Xalibu. However, the stones here were much larger. I would estimate the average stone had a maximal dimension of about a foot and a half. The mountain top was essentially an ocean of these stones with only a couple of square feet here and there where they were packed loosely enough for a bit of grass to grow. There was no trail to speak of, just a series of cairns (and orange flags set up for the race) to designate a path through the ocean.

This was by far the most technical part of the course. Although technicality doesn’t usually matter that much on the way up, here every step had to be carefully planned out. Some rocks were loose, some were great candidates to step on but didn’t have many suitable stones beyond them and would just set you on a convoluted path to the next cairn. Finding a safe and straightish path in the right direction meant constantly moving your eyes between your feet and the next marker or two ahead.

I didn’t mind it that much at first. It was an interesting challenge. There was enough of it to eventually become annoying though and I definitely wasn’t looking forward to making my way back down this wannabe Emyn Muil.

When I reached the top, I was somewhat disappointed by the view. Turns out the summit is a huge almost perfectly flat table. You only have a decent view if you’re on the edge. If you look across the summit you only see a small strip of mountains between the sky and the “horizon” of the stony sea.

The summit was where a lot of us learned that the race was actually 44 km long and not the 42 km advertised. The volunteers stationed there told all the runners passing by that there was “only” 1.3 km to go before the turnaround AS, whereas our watches and phone were already indicating about 21 km gone by. This placed the halfway point at 22 km and meant that those expecting to see food and drink within a few hundred meters maximum were sadly mistaken. At least a nice volunteer offered to take my picture in front of Mont Albert in the distance.

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(Almost) Halfway there

The last 1.3 km to the AS followed an actual trail, which was cause for hope at first. However, it was also littered with large stones, just slightly fewer than the rest of the summit. A cause for further disappointment was the fact that I actually had to climb down to the AS, meaning I would have to climb back up to the summit later before “getting” to go down the other side.

To say that the aid station was a sight for sore eyes would be an understatement. There were only 3 or 4 runners there when I came in, yet I had never seen so many runners so well settled in at an AS before. I wouldn’t have been surprised if a couple of them announced that they were dropping out and spending the night there. With the example they set and my physical/mental condition, I knew before I even sat down that I would be spending a while there. Instead of depleting their supply of tiny Coke glasses, I sniffed out and filched the bottle they were using the fill them so that I could refill my glass. I then plopped down in from of the buffet with my makeshift bottle service.

Being at the halfway point and being familiar with the whole course (still not sure if this is a pro or a con of out and back courses), I was finally in a position to conclusively figure out how I was doing. I would be 4 hours into the race by the time I got up and going again and I had a decent majority of the positive vertical behind me. However, taking into account the many unrunnable segments and increasingly tired legs, it seemed unlikely that I would be completing the second half considerably faster than the first. I figured a half hour improvement was the most I could realistically hope for. For reference, my goal finishing time—arbitrarily determined without knowing how technical the course would be—had originally been 6 hours (HA!) and later readjusted to 6h30m to be more realistic (HA!). Considering the kind of trails I had seen, I figured an hour slower than my goal wouldn’t be so bad in the end.

Turnaround point to Lac aux Américains (22nd to 36th km)

Luckily for me, Fred and one of his friends came into the AS shortly after me and were ready to leave when I was, about a quarter of an hour after I got there. I had only gotten ahead of them because they stayed with the third member of their group who had started cramping up badly. We crossed paths with him less than a kilometer into the climb back to the summit. He was happy to learn that he’d be able to drop out in a few hundred meters and his friends were happy to see that he had managed to stay on his feet and get himself there safely.

I started feeling the beginning of cramps in my quads for the first 20 minutes or so. I took that as a sign to start putting electrolyte drink tabs in both of my bottles (instead of keeping one bottle of straight water). The heat hadn’t been striking, but it was definitely there. I also noticed that my left knee, in which I had felt hints of something for 10 km or so, was causing me a bit of discomfort. Other than I was feeling okay and having company was a huge plus.

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Plunging back into the ocean on the way down.

We made our way back down the technical stony segment of Jacques-Cartier safely, although with a few close calls on my part. Hopping from stone stone without face-planting was a challenge when descending but, following Fred’s suggestion, we actually “ran” small portions of the flatter areas.

A slight drizzle of rain started as we crossed the snowy slopes, which had us worried that the stony segments on and near Xalibu might get slippery. It only lasted five minutes or so without leaving much water on the ground.

When we were done with the steep segments, Fred pointed out that we should run more if we wanted to make sure to finish under 8 hours. The guys ran ahead and I tried to keep up for a while but I slowed down to a walk rather quickly. That was the beginning of a rather deep low for me, which lasted quite a while. My legs weren’t feeling horrible (although they definitely weren’t feeling great either) but we had reached the section that was constantly switching between runnable and not. My head definitely wasn’t in it and I couldn’t get myself to run except for a few 10 meter stretches here and there when the trail was very smooth. The longer this went on, the slower I felt and the more I looked at my phone to check the elapsed time and distance. I realised that, according to the timetable I had given my crew before the race, I should be arriving at the next AS very soon. Realising that they would have plenty of time to get worried and/or bored while waiting for me was an extra downer. Already regretting my day (in that moment), it really didn’t help to think that I had dragged three other people along for an eight hour drive just for them to have an equally bad day waiting in parking lots to see me finish with a bad time.

That bout with pseudo-depression lasted for what felt like at least half an hour, though it could have been 10 minutes. A guy slightly older than me eventually caught up to me and I made it my goal to try to keep up. Having something else to concentrate on allowed me to run a bit more. We both stopped at the water station that I had ignored the first time around. He had built up a lead on the flat and downhill but I actually caught up when the trail started going up Xalibu. My climbing was still somewhat decent which was encouraging (even though these were pretty much the last few km of climb before the last 13 km or so of descent). We talked about races for a minute or two. He told me that the trails at the UTHC were less technical, which was welcome news as I am thinking of running it.

I took a decent tumble shortly before the summit of Xalibu. No damage except for decent scratches on my right forearm and left knee (I’m going to carry that scar for a few years at least.)

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Bye bye Xalibu.

Going down the rocky slopes of Mont Xalibu was as much of a pain as I had though. The discomfort in my left knee was still only slight but I was definitely feeling it while making my way down the sharp rocks. At this point, I don’t think I was fully out of my low yet but I had too much on my mind to let it drag me down. I knew that in 1 km, I’d have seen the last of the 100% rock sections. In 4 km, I’d be on the nice gravel road leading to the AS. Most importantly, in 5 km I’d see my crew at the AS.

I was very happy to get off the stones and onto more conventional forest trails, even though these were the trails that made say “This is going to be a pain on the way back.” earlier. They had been the most technical trails of the day at the time, but what I had seen in the meantime had taught me that I should be grateful for them. It still took me a kilometer or two of walking before I shook off my low but I eventually found it in me to run. My knee was forcing me to take breaks every 300-400 m, but by the time I reached the gravel road I had been looking forward to I was well into my running mood.

My mother had come about 200 m up road and was the first person I saw. Coming into the AS, I saw not only my crew but several runners, some of which I thought would have been far ahead by then. All of that cheered me up and made me look forward to the last 8 km. I still took the time to sit down for a little under 10 minutes and grab a bite. I then took of with Simon, who had passed me about 2 km before the AS. We left with about 7 hours elapsed.

Lac aux Américains to the finish (36th to 44th km)

Since it had taken me just under an hour to complete these 8 km on the way up, I figured we had a decent chance of completing the race in less that 8 hours (the 7h30 goal was well out of the window by now, but at this point being done would have felt great regardless of the time). We took off at a decent pace, but I started feeling hints of cramps in my quads again just like when I had left the previous AS. I had to slow down into a walk a couple of times to make them pass. Even with the cramps gone I still had to slow down from time to time because of my knee. Simon wouldn’t really stop running at first, but I was running faster than him so I would just catch up to him, walk for a while and repeat. Halfway to the finish he let me take the lead but we still stayed close-by. Being lower in altitude and in thick woods, the heat and humidity felt heavier than ever.

I was constantly looking at the time to gauge the pace we needed to finished under 8 hours. Two kilometers out I figured  5 min/km until the end would do the trick. We agreed that would be doable on downhill but as soon as we saw a small hill we gave up on that idea. My legs suddenly started feeling very heavy soon after so I knew not to expect miracles. We walked and talked for ten minutes or so, agreeing to coast down the final hills, to keep running afterwards to give the appearance of a final sprint and to finish together.

We did just that and crossed he finish line in 8 hours, 8 minutes and 53 seconds. It felt good to finish despite the time. Waiting for me was a great combination of my cheery crew, who didn’t really have an idea of what I had just went through, and other runners who weren’t as high on energy but with whom I had shared the trails. It’s always nice to see runners after the fact, whether to reminisce and/or complain or just to share a knowing smile. Our road had been hard, but it was our road and we had followed it to its end.

Conclusions

All in all, it was a good day. There were some hardships and a few things that went wrong, but I feel like I understand them well enough. The effect of the terrain was clear enough. Nutrition-wise, I didn’t eat nearly enough of what I brought along and whatever I ended up eating at aid stations couldn’t possibly have been sufficient to compensate. If that wasn’t the cause of my low, it at least had to have contributed to how bad it was.

I find that I climbed very well all day. Several times I even wished I was going up instead of down on the most technical parts. That part of my performance made sure that my confidence didn’t take too much of a hit. Furthermore, the two other races I’m thinking of doing this year will be on entirely different terrain so I know I shouldn’t have to live through something similar anytime soon. Nevertheless, I’ll try to familiarise myself with different types of trails in the future.

Lessons:

  • Technicality matters. I had encountered terrain more technical than what I train on in races before, but only slightly more technical and only for short segments. There’s only so much adjustment that can reasonably be done on race day. Constantly being in a state of learning and adjusting for hours on end is incredibly taxing not just physically but also mentally. Looking for race reports and pictures of the course is a must.
  • I need more calories per hour. That low/mental breakdown could have been due to low blood glucose. Being able to eat complex foods and not just gels is nice, but it’s useless if I don’t feel like eating said food anyway. Switching to a higher calorie sport drink could net me an extra 100 cal/h easy. Unlike food, I never get tired of fluids and have trouble ingesting enough.
  • Climbing is fun! I don’t necessarily think I’m great at vertical, but I’m at least kinda good at it. I also enjoy it for some strange reason. Even though I have other areas to improve that could objectively be more useful, I find myself wanting to put a bit more focus on climbing.
  • Always finish the race (unless it’s medically risky or you’re 100% sure you won’t make the cutoff). Not really a lesson for me, but I got reminded of it. It’s mainly for someone reading this before their first ultra/long race. If you drop out when it gets hard (and it will) you’ll be left wondering if it’s even possible to finish such a race or if you really have it in you. You’ll be back in square one. If you finish, even if it was ugly and slow, you’ll know that it’s possible and you can move on to wondering how to get faster. Most importantly, you’ll be very happy with your accomplishment. Whatever pain you might think this kind of endeavour entails, it’s probably actually worse, but it’s also a more than fair price to pay for the reward you get out of it.

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