A year ago, I was writing about how good it felt to have gone through the winter injury-free and to be running a race as early as late june. Those might have been rather basic achievements, but they personally felt like progress and gave my season a positive start. Although the season didn’t end as intended, the feeling of progression lasted all the way through.
For a while after my October DNF, I let that momentum start to fade away. As 2017 approached, something clicked and I made it a priority to get the ball rolling again. When January rolled around I hit the ground running and maintened very modest mileage the whole month. I slowly turned things up in February and by March I was already following a 50K training plan in preparation for my first ultra of the season in early May.
Signing up for the Peak Ultra wasn’t just about beating my record for the earliest I’ve run a race. It was about building confidence, setting the tone for the season and just getting in some good miles with, hopefully, positive feelings. This race seemed like the perfect place to achieve these goals. It’s a smaller local race where you are very likely to end up alone and where most pressure and motivation will come from the inside. That’s the kind of setting I wanted to be in to figure out where I was at physically and mentally.
Although the woods and mountains around Pittsfield, VT definitely seemed perfect for trail running, the weather on the eve of the race made everything look rather gloomy. Intense rain and winds had turned the uphill road to our Airbnb into a wet clay slip-and-slide and the road to the race’s base camp had trees and power lines lying across it.
There were only a few people at the race headquarters inside Stonewell barn at the Riverside farm when we got there but runners started trickling in soon after. A few of us asked Pete and Peter, the organisers, for a course map so Pete found a marker and took a stab at cartography. “Not to scale” doesn’t even begin to describe his masterpiece and the descriptions he gave as he drew almost made him sound like Laz describing the Barkley marathons course. It felt to me like everyone there was in tune with the local trail race spirit and enjoyed that little show as much, if not more, as we would have a more formal and accurate course description.
Going back through town, we ran into Sylvain G. and Sylvain R. (very few names to keep track of so far…) from Sherbrooke at the general store. I knew both from a Strava group we’re all part of, but I had never actually met either of them.
Our rental house was without power for pretty much the whole evening so there wasn’t much to do apart from mentally preparing for the long and muddy run.
The air was chilly and humid (everything was humid, really) when morning came around, but it was rather decent running temperature. Everyone huddling inside the barn was ushered out as the 8 am start time approached and we got a few last minute directives just before we were sent off.
I placed myself about a third of the way down the pack at the start but found myself quite close to the front before even stepping out of the Riverside farm’s property. After crossing the main road through town, we had a very short but steep climb into a short section of trail. Here I passed a few more people and by the time we popped out of the trails onto another road I was leading the race, about 1 km in.
Despite knowing it was a small, low-calibre race, it felt very strange and kind of wrong to be in that position. To make things worse, the first kilometre and a half of this road was not marked, even though we had just been told we would never go more than a couple of minutes without seeing markings. So there I was, desperately looking for markings while praying I wasn’t leading the entirety of the pack off-course within the first 10 minutes. I would look back from time to time to make sure the others hadn’t found a turn I missed and veered off without alerting me. What I usually saw when I turned around was Sylvain G. 10 to 20 m back asking me if I was sure we were on track by doing the “I don’t know” sign with his arms. All I could do was reply with the same.
After leading for a kilometre or two, Curtis joined me at the front. He too is a Quebecer (although originally from out West) and we chatted as we kept looking for markings. Eventually a lady I remembered from the previous evening drove past us to set up for pictures and she confirmed we were on course when we reached her. Markings reappeared shortly after, just before we headed into the Green Moutain trails for good.
Sylvain joined us around this point. We all chatted some more, notably about the fact that three Quebecers were now co-leading a race on foreign trails. Another runner sped up to catch up with us but as the climb started getting noticeably harder, around the fifth kilometre, he told us he didn’t think it would wise of him to try to stick with us and dropped back. Curtis sped up a bit quite confidently on the climb and I think both Sylvain and I thought we would not be seeing him again, at least not shortly. He was soon out of sight and I eventually eased up a bit, letting Sylvain go ahead.
Although I had been avoiding puddles since the beginning, the trails were quite muddy and it didn’t take very long for the occasional missteps to add up to soaking wet shoes and socks. I was wary about the long term effects, but the immediate consequence was to simplify my run greatly as I didn’t really have to care about where I stepped anymore. As long as the mud or puddle didn’t look more than six inches or so deep, I just ran straight through.
As Sylvain started distancing himself, I was settling into a more long term solo running mindset. I figured I might not be seeing him for a while and there didn’t seem to be much push coming from behind as I had already lost the one runner who had attempted to stay with us. Just before Sylvain was out of sight, I was surprised to catch a glimpse of Curtis not too far ahead of him. It seemed like there might be a race to be had between them after all, but they quickly disappeared and I wasn’t able to spectate it more than that.
The climb lasted until the tenth kilometre, with the last two kilometres starting to give a decent challenge with a grade of about 12%. The downhill that followed was a bit steep and muddy by parts, but it was rather fast and pleasant and it offered the first nice views of the day.
A short climb and some more downhill led me into the first aid station at 17 km, roughly a third of the way into the race. I had been pretty much spot on with the 2 hour prediction I had given my parents for my arrival. They told me Sylvain was in the lead, which surprised me. I asked about Curtis and, although they didn’t know the name, I was told some other guy was trailing Sylvain by a decent margin.
I felt pretty good so I didn’t stick around much. I got rid of my wind jacket at that point as the day was warming up and I figured I was most likely going to keep moving at a decent pace as the race progressed. Four minutes after arriving I was on my way again.
I met a lost runner somehow coming from the opposite direction shortly after AS 1. I told him the aid station was close by behind me, but that didn’t reassure him as it proved he was way off-course. We parted ways, him seeming no less confused than when we met.
The first 5 km out of AS 1 consisted of a very mild and steady climb which was followed by a short and steep decent. The next climb was the hardest of the day: 2 km at 4% grade followed by 2 km at 17%. That climb was quite a slog, taking 50 minutes to complete. I passed several 50 miler runners on these slopes. They had left an hour earlier than us and taken the race slower, but they weren’t having any more fun climbing.
Reaching the top felt very good. I knew that about 75% of the climbing was done even though 40% of the course remained. The six kilometres down to the second aid station were rather smooth going. A few fallen trees blocked the trail and I got the beginnings of a calf cramp as I stretched a leg to get over one of them, but that passed quickly.
It’s during this decent that it dawned on me that I hadn’t seen another 30 miler runner in the last 25 km / 3.5 hours. With only about 15 km left and holding third position seemingly uncontested, I realised I was in a very good spot to earn my first ultra podium. Although that was a good feeling, I can’t say it did much to help me speed up.
I came into AS 2 (34 km) still feeling rather good. With only a dozen or so kilometres left, I felt like I was just a short effort away from closing this thing out and getting my third place finish. That feeling was very short-lived as a runner I hadn’t noticed until now appeared in the distance, closing in on the aid station. I lost no time finishing my resupply and getting going again.
The next section was a short 4.5 km loop that took us back to the aid station before we fell back onto roads for the final kilometres. My hamstrings started cramping up a short ways in, forcing me to slow down and even briefly stop. I had to let the runner trailing me, Paul, go ahead and I started thinking I might not be able to race the distance that was left. I rarely get cramps so I didn’t really understand why I was getting them on a cool day after 35 km, a distance I’m rather used to by now. Not understanding the cause, I couldn’t really know what I could do to get better.
I took it slow for a while and the second half of the loop was downhill so that helped. The cramp eventually faded away with time. By the time I was back at the aid station I could only feel a slight residual tightness. My parents told me the third place runner hadn’t managed to distance himself too much so I hit the road after him.
I was in decent running form by now and I kept a reasonable pace. It wasn’t long before I spotted third place up ahead. I caught up to him and we ran together for a while. We ended up missing a turn onto the trail that would have brought us back to the road from the start and kept straight on the road we were on. I wasn’t worried about the lack of markings because of the long unmarked stretch of road at the beginning, but Paul was more doubtful and eventually convinced me to turn back with him. Turns out we had gone 400 m off course and we spotted the turn on the way back. (The first two runners actually missed the turn as well and followed the wrong road back into town. It was pretty much the same distance either way.)
Back onto the first road for the last 5 km, Paul picked up the pace. He was pushing us faster than 5 min/km, even as fast as 4:40 min/km for a couple of kilometres. I’m not sure if he was trying to wear me out, but he succeeded in doing so. I slowed down just before the course cut through a bit of trails to get back to the farm. However, in these trails he missed a turn which allowed me to catch back up. This time it was me who found the turn, although he was already on his way back and asking where the turn was by the time I did…
The farm was much closer than I thought so I panicked when I saw it, realising I shouldn’t have slowed down when I did. I gave a push and caught up to my competitor with about 300 m left. I wasn’t too sure if I should pass him, ask him if he wanted to sprint for it or just stay with him and finish together. The idea of beating him by seconds after working through a detour together for several minutes near the end kind of felt wrong. Realising I was in a final sprint, he said “Go ahead, I’ll take the masters’ [category]” before I had a chance to say anything. I didn’t really question it and I kept up the push. I figured if I could show I had a rather good sprint left it might convince the both of us that the final result was kind of right.
I came in in 5h45m34s, 20 minutes behind Curtis who himself was 22 minutes behind Sylvain G. The all-Québec podium was achieved, with residents of Sherbrooke getting 1st and 3rd. Sylvain R. claimed the 7th position for Sherby City as well. It felt great getting third place in the end, after having spent the first three quarters of the race in the Top 3.
Most of us hung around for a while after the race which was fun. Runners, friends and family chatted, cheered finishers and gave encouragement to the 50 miler runners who still had to run a 10 mile loop starting from base camp twice after running our course. Again, the small race atmosphere was quite pleasant.
I had a great time in Pittsfield that day and would readily recommend the event. It’s a friendly race that attracts very nice people. For me, it perfectly served its role of an early season shakeout and morale booster. It was indeed a great opportunity to just focus on myself and see what happened.
As far as analysing different aspects of my race goes, I have to say everything just sort of worked out great by itself.
Nutrition-wise, I never had significant trouble ingesting enough calories or suffered any major energy lows. I brought along what had been my usual for the last few races and ate at roughly the same intervals as usual. I don’t think I necessarily did any better than usual, but perhaps the fact that I was out there for less than six hours just made it so that I crossed the finish line before any of the typical issues could arise.
Gear-wise, I was amazed that I didn’t get a single blister despite running at least 40 km in over 5 hours in soaking shoes. Even in dry conditions I can rarely run 30 km without getting at least some minor blistering. My Salomon S-Lab Sense 6 SG’s proved to be up to the task in terms of traction and blew me away in terms of comfort.
Overall, it was a great race where everything fell into place nicely. Getting my first Top 3 finish, even in a small race, was a great motivator and gave a lot of hope for the rest of the season.
Thanks to the organisers for the nice day and to my parents for venturing into rough trails to meet me along the way.