UTHC 2016 – 65 km

I guess getting up at 4 am for a race is a good way to slowly get ready for longer ultras with nighttime starts, but that doesn’t make it fun. The 65 km and 80 km races at the Ultra Trail Harricana du Canada have point-to-point courses that require catching a shuttle in La Malbaie at 5:45 am to get to the start. That seemed quite early since the gun was only to go off at 7 am, but you gotta do what you gotta do.

The half hour school bus ride to the Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie felt strange. Not being part of any running club and always training alone, a bus designed for kids jam packed with trail runners meant an abnormally high concentration of people like me. Having an aisle seat, I couldn’t really take in all the sights as we got closer to the park. All I had were my thoughts and the radio which was set on some pop channel. The latter did become surprisingly relevant when Heathens by Twenty One Pilots came on.

All my friends are heathens, take it slow
Wait for them to ask you who you know
Please don’t make any sudden moves
You don’t know the half of the abuse

A song about crazy people, abuse and taking things slow playing for a yellow school bus full of runners about to take on an ultra. Strikingly fitting. It almost felt like a very strangely worded pep talk.

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We obviously got to the start well ahead of time. The prerace briefing only lasted a couple of minutes and was only given after we were all corralled behind the starting line, just before 7 am. I placed myself near the middle the pack where I met Chris from South Africa. We chatted for a while (since we couldn’t hear any of the instructions from where we were) and eventually noticed the race was about to start when runners near the line started howling (the race has a wolfish theme to it).

And so it began

The first 6 km were very easy, consisting of slight downhill on wide roads (the first 2 km of which were even paved). The best vista of the day came as soon we crossed the start line and turned onto the road. Sight-wise, the course wasn’t great, being mostly within the woods and having almost no exposed summits. The trail themselves were nice, but I never really remember to take pictures of just the trail itself if there’s no eye-catching scenery around. I apologize for the lack of pictures to alleviate the block of text.

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A good way to start the day.

I worked my way up to what was probably close to the top third of the pack by the time we reached the first aid station at 6.6 km. I started less conservatively that I had planned, but I still averaged over 5 min/km on downhill so it wasn’t anything crazy.

We had fallen onto narrower trails just before the aid station but things were still moving somewhat fluidly. However, I made the mistake of stopping for 2-3 minutes at the aid station. I needed to stop because I had only one filled bottle (the other being a bit leaky, I didn’t fill it 2.5 hours ahead of time when leaving our rented apartment) and I had only pre-mixed an hour’s worth of Perpetuem to not have it sit around for too long.  The next AS being 15 km away, I had planned on fully stocking up for the first time at this point.

This turned out to be a mistake because most runners did not stop here. I was passed by several dozen people while I was stopped (most of which had little reason to be in a great hurry as I’m sure I ended up getting ahead of the majority of them later). When I jumped back onto the singletrack, I was caught in this slow moving train that I would only escape after the next AS. There should either have been half as many runners on the course or twice as much road to thin out the herd before funneling it into the singletrack. This was the only aspect of the race that I find was rather poorly planned. Things would probably have been better if I had ran past the first AS and not gotten caught in the bulk of the pack, but it was too late to change that now.

A condemned bridge created a literal roadblock as runners had to gingerly cross a river using the rocks protruding from it. After a few minutes of standing around waiting my turn to cross, I was on my way again, although still stuck behind several slow runners.

I really don’t like being stuck following people closely on singletrack. Constantly adjusting your speed and desperately looking through the pair of legs ahead to try and find your own path are a huge pain. Having to stare directly ahead of your feet at all times and planning your footfalls at the very last second adds so much stress and prevents you from enjoying your wider surroundings. Plus, some runners just have the weirdest judgment when it comes to what to step on and what to avoid. Seeing where those people’s feet land gives you no indication whatsoever about where you should step. You may try to replicate their path, but once they’ve moved away and you have clear sight of the ground you just end up saying “Wait, what? That was the worst line they could possibly have chosen through this segment.” and then you have to rethink your own path at the last moment.

At least I found myself behind this guy called Fred for most of this section. Although I didn’t agree with all of his choice of footfalls, I seemed to somehow understand his reasoning. I could almost tell ahead of time if doing the same thing as him was right or wrong for me. Passing runners and letting runners pass was complicated on these trails, but I made sure get stay behind Fred whenever he moved ahead or I got passed. The going was still somewhat annoying, but that did take my mind off the fact that we were climbing. Despite being the largest climb of the race, fresh legs and distractions made it go by quickly.

Things did eventually get less crowded as we overtook most slow runners and the line started thinning out, although that process was slow and long on the narrow singletrack. The trail then became wide enough for two people side by side (just barely) and the line became a small pack. I was with decent runners and I feel like we made decent time on the series of short climbs and descents before the second AS at 22 km.

What I found at the aid station was a sizeable crowd of runners, most of which I’m sure had blown through the first AS (water only). However, they seemed captivated by the full buffet they found here and few of them seemed in a hurry to leave. My 2-3 minute stop at the first AS might have been 10 times longer than average, yet the 5-6 minutes I took here was certainly much shorter than the break most of the others took. I took the time to fill both of my bottles and grab a few bites to eat, but I’m sure that I managed to improve my positioning by 15 to 20 places just by slipping out of there before so many others.

From the beginning of it, the middle third of the race was much more enjoyable than the first. A few hundred meters out of the aid station, there were already no more than 2 or 3 runners within sight. If felt like a completely new race on a different trail.

For most of the next 7 km, the trail followed a narrow corridor through dense 6-7 feet tall bushes. There wasn’t much to look at except the trail ahead of me and the sky above. Then followed a small climb of about 160 m over 4 km in some proper woods. After that, it was 8 km of downhill on a forest service road to the next aid station.

I started feeling great and got carried away during the downhill, averaging about 5m20s/km for that whole section. I definitely felt I wasn’t being wise as I passed literally everyone within sight. As I came up behind the lead runner of our very stretched out pack, I tried slowing down since I was surely going to come down from my high rather soon. I still ended up passing him, but I never made it too far ahead of him. The road leveled off about 2 km away from the aid station and, with my high fading away, I had a hard time keeping up my crazy pace on flat ground. I eventually found a sustainable pace and cruised into AS 3 at kilometer 41.

I stayed at the aid station for about 9 minutes which in hindsight is rather long but it felt needed at the time and went by quickly. Time flies when you’re sitting down. I probably could and should have avoided chairs at that point in the race… I was still doing great on time, however. My silly time on the last section and decent time before that meant that I was well ahead of schedule. At this point, I could have run the entirety of the remaining 21-22 km at an average pace of 10 min/km and still have achieved my prime goal of a sub-9 finish.

Only a few hundred meters out of the AS, we started a demanding climb of about 170 m over only 1.8 km. I found myself ahead of two runners who, by the sound of their voices, seemed to be at least in their late 40’s and behind a younger runner one of the others called Nico. I would probably have been quite slow here if it wasn’t for Nico driving us pretty hard and me not wanting to have older guys outclimb me. Halfway up, I realised Nico and I had dropped the others. I still stuck with him for a while, but I eventually let him go a bit before the summit. All in all, the climb only lasted 25 minutes but it was quite the push.

There were about 2 km to go through at the summit of this hill before going down the other side. The descent was very steep and somewhat technical, making it rather slow for downhill. At the bottom was already AS 4 at kilometer 48.

I spent somewhere between 7 and 10 minutes here as well, falling prey to a chair again. The longer the race went on, the more I fell in love with the oranges they had at the aid stations. I don’t know if they were special oranges or if it was the sugar shortage affecting me, but I downed more orange quarters than I would ever care to in normal times.

Also going through AS4 were runners of the 28 km race which merged with the 65 km and 80 km courses shortly before this point. Those who were there at the same time as me were at the rear of the pack, having travelled the first 14 km of their course at an average pace of about 11m/km. There was therefore quite the mix of runners going up la Montagne Noire for the final climb of the race(s).

I again found myself behind Fred from earlier in the race to begin the arduous climb. It started off rather steep which was less than enjoyable at this point in the day. We passed many 28 km runners and eventually even caught up with a few of our 65/80 km colleagues. I was again lucky to find myself among motivated runners at a time when I would probably have slowed down considerably. I was tempted to keep walking as the climb got less intense, but the others had different plans. I was behind three younger runners, the leader of whom was very good at alternating between walking decent inclines and running reasonable ones. Despite clearly not having enough willpower to adopt that pattern by myself, it wasn’t too hard to do it by following someone else.

It was a damn good thing that I had help because I could easily have squandered the huge lead I had on my goal. The two hard climbs and one slow-going decent over the last 10 km had already shrunk my lead considerably and walking too much here could actually have made a sub-9 finish impossible.

However, we made decent time on the end of the climb. The tiny jingle bell (at least, that’s what it sounded like) the guy in front of me had rattling around in the cup he had in his pack clearly marked the changes of pace and became an annoyingly clear source of focus. The four of us caught back up to Fred and another runner. We ran with more gusto as the trail started taking us down la Montagne Noire. It only took a short while of continuous, fast and easy running on the downhill to start feeling pretty good again. The last half kilometer or so before AS 5 (final one!) was on a road and I couldn’t help myself from bombing down it past everyone else.

I was not at all tempted to sit at this point. Being at kilometer 55 out of 62.5 and sensing the beginning of a high, I just wanted to get on my way and finish this thing. I still endulged in some of the super oranges and had a few glasses of Pepsi, but I was out of there in 4 or 5 minutes.

Fred followed me out and we talked a bit. He had run the race before and told me that the steep descent down the rest of the mountain wasn’t very technical and that the last 2-3 km after that were easy. That was all the encouragement I needed to get back up to full speed. Given the incline and the high, full speed turned out to be pretty fast (by almost-60km-into-an-ultra standards). I felt great and made pretty good time through the rest of the downhill.

The last 3 km were a succession of small ups and downs. My high turned into a low and the fun disappeared quickly. At this point the 10 km runners were also on this course and there was mud everywhere. If by some miracle you had kept your socks dry and shoes clean up to now, you would have had to wave all of that goodbye here. I’m sure Fred was right about this part being technically easy, but it didn’t feel like it while I was slowly moving along the soggy and crowded path.

I had a hard time running anything but the downhills throughout this section, but I eventually picked it up when I started coming across spectators saying the finishing line was just around the next bend. I ran until the end, wondering as always how many people would be fooled by the illusion of a strong finish.

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Finishing with 10 km and 28 km runners

Official time: 8 hours 31 minutes and 15 seconds. My goal of finishing under 9 hours was, in retrospect, obviously somewhat conservative, but I was still very happy to have beat it by almost half an hour. I bumped into Chris again who had finished about an hour earlier and, more importantly, told me there was a free beer I could claim. I grabbed that and, not having to worry about whether I’d be able to get up again, found a place to crash.

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Free beer and dirty shoes

Conclusion

I feel like the race was decent success overall. The result is satisfying, there were only a few brief negative moments and I learned yet more lessons.

I figure I took in about 200 cal/hour, which is short of my goal of 250-300 cal/hour but higher than what I’ve managed in the past. A bit more discipline and better timing will be necessary to bump that number up, which I’m sure will be beneficial.

I did a decent job of keeping my pace up in the late race, but that was in large part due to the other runners around me at the time. At least that allowed me to live the feeling of moving efficiently on tired legs. It also highlighted the importance of taking active steps (pun somewhat intended) towards bringing the positive feeling back into running. The next challenge will be to harness the willpower necessary to make those things happen when no one else is there to push (or pull) me. Hopefully experience will make it easier to do that later and later into races.

Although I don’t worry too much about positioning and precise timing (yet), I do want to shave off time where I can. I often see tips like “Never spend more than 5 minutes at any aid station.” and I usually agree, thinking “I’m usually pretty quick. I never stay longer than necessary.” However, there’s a difference between what is necessary and what feels necessary, especially late in the race. Time flies when you’re tired and you find a place to rest. Looking at the numbers, a lot of the stops that felt reasonable at the time were probably a few minutes too long. A mere 3 extra minutes at 5 aid stations quickly adds up to a quarter of an hour more to your finishing time. As tempting as rest may be, you have to be conscious that a couple of minutes of sitting won’t do much to help you recover from an ultra and (usually) won’t help you do better on the kilometers left ahead.

These lessons and positive feelings will hopefully stick with me until the late miles of my next race, where new learnings will undoubtably occur.

Thanks to my parents for having come along for this adventure, despite not really having been able to spectate. Thank you to the volunteers and organisers for the extremely well managed event. Apart from the course being very prone to bottlenecks at the start and offering few good vistas, I have no complaints about this race. I would definitively recommend it.

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