A year later, trying to make things right. The 2016 Bromont Ultra hadn’t gone too well and ended with my first DNF. Although I could have found another 50 miler to try and get that finish earlier, the plan I settled with was to go for a do-over in Bromont.
Last year’s failure wasn’t due to a lack of fitness and I felt I was better off this year on that front so I upped my objective from 12 hours-ish to sub-12. On one hand, setting a goal higher than the one you failed to reach feels kind of silly. On the other hand, not assuming things would pan out this year was not the way to go.
Despite having concluded that my knee problem last year had likely simply been an unlucky occurence, a decent amount of doubt and fear remained. The fact that I had again this year run 65 km at the UTHC a month before Bromont certainly didn’t curtail emerging superstitions. Even though I took the downtime in between easier this time to be safe, the weeks before this race were spent imagining different scenarios of knee injury management. I put way too much thought into what I would do if pain appeared at different points in the race and how hard it would be to deal with it mentally depending on how late it occured. For a while, my best case scenario was getting injured around the 60th kilometre and only becoming unbearable past the 70th where I wouldn’t have trouble convincing myself to walk it in for the finish.
In the last days pre-race, that all started going away. Once I allowed myself to imagine how awesome it would be if everything happened to work out fine, I had a hard time going back to any other scenario. Some doubt and caution remained, however, and there was a clear pressure to finish. I knew that going 0 for 2 on 50 milers would be very hard to bounce back from and would negatively affect how I approach longer ultras for a while to come.
Failure was not an option.
Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more
At the start line, it felt as if no time had passed since last year. As if I was giving it another shot the next day. I was already looking forward to getting past the area where I had gotten hurt to have part of that weight removed from my mind. By now, the first 10 km of this course felt so familiar that they were almost just a technicality. I would be there in no time.
Running by headlamp wasn’t a concern anymore and I even like it sometimes, especially in a race where it makes everything feel more adventurey. The warmup climb at the beginning went by smoothly and I had one or two guys with me to start the first real climb up Mont Brome. The incline sits at a sweet spot where the climb requires some effort but still feels fast and enjoyable. A few runners were a short ways ahead, but we could hardly see them if they didn’t turn their headlamps back towards us.
I had no one within a short distance from me on either side by the time I got close to the top and things were quiet. The temperature was perfect, the sky was clear and I had Orion right in front of me. In that moment everything was peaceful, I was happy and I felt like being there on that day was right, regardless of what ending I was heading to. I tried to hang on to that feeling as long as I could
I came back down the mountain a bit more carefully than last year since this steep descent was one of my potential culprits for my knee pain. Everything still felt great by the time I reached the bottom and started the second, much steeper ascent of Mont Brome.
It took four years, but I finally figured out this climb and didn’t let it surprise me. I didn’t have to guess how much of it was left or entertain false hopes of the summit coming into view after this turn or the next. I was still glad to reach the top, but I probably got there with more mental composure than in the past.
The way back down was again the zigzagging bike trails added to the course last year that I had rather enjoyed. I did eventually get tired of the indirectness of it all, but the first aid station soon became within earshot.
I completed the first 15 km in just under two hours. Maybe a minute or two faster than last year, but no more. My knees were fine, but that was also the case at AS 1 twelve months ago. After a quick resupply and a few bites to eat, I was off into the trial grounds.
The beginning went fine and I made it past the point where symptoms first started appearing last year. However I started feeling something in a knee while still on the easy flat section. I immediately went into panic mode and it didn’t take long for me to bust out the emergency supply of ibuprofen I had brought in case things went above DEFCON 3. Ibuprofen and endurance sports aren’t a great combination for the kidneys, but this was a one-time contigency plan. I took one and crossed my fingers.
Whatever it is I had felt didn’t take too long to disappear forever, to the extent that I don’t even remember which knee was affected. I was therefore in a decent state when I started the climb up Mont des Pins, although perhaps somewhat worried still.
Day was breaking and I didnt really need my headlamp anymore. The ascent went well, but some of the steeper parts were starting to take a slight toll. Fortunately it didn’t last long and I got to see the great view the summit has to offer before sunrise.
Going back down was way easier with two good knees and I was already out of the woods 15 minutes later. I hit a bit of a low on the roads leading to the second major aid station and had a bit of trouble keeping up the pace. A few runners passed me, but I was feeling decent overall and wasn’t worried given the opportunity for a short break up ahead.
It was drizzling and my energy level was a bit low when I arrived Chez Bob (33 km), but, mentally, things were great. I was a quarter of an hour earlier than when I limped in last year. Having escaped the same fate, I somehow felt like I was out of harm’s way for good. I had food to pick me up and would shortly be on my way to renew with a part of the course I hadn’t gotten to run last year.
Out of the frying pan and onto the trails
Well, there were 9 km of country roads before getting back onto the trails, but those kind of felt like a palate cleanser. I ran the first kilometres with a few others, including Bruno who it turned out had also ran the 65 km at Harricana a month earlier. The road, the light and the company were all changes that helped mark the beginning of a new phase and reset my focus.
After 30+ km of mostly trails, with their climbs and constant variations, maintaining a steady, quickish pace for an extended period on flat ground gets somewhat hard. Although I started at a reasonable pace, I had slowed down a bit by the time I reached the water station near the marathon mark. I only took a couple of minutes for a refill before taking the street leading to the trailhead.
Of the 5 km to the next aid station, the first three are relatively flat and the last two feature some intense climbing. I had a few guys with me towards the end and we were making our way up quite efficiently, but I felt a down coming and I eventually let them go ahead. I gave the Brix maple “gel” freebie that we got a shot and gave a small push when I saw the aid station coming up. I caught up to one of the guys as we were coming into the P7 parking (47 km).
The first thing I noticed when coming into the aid station was that the course didn’t continue up the ski slopes like two years ago. I knew that probably meant more bike trails like my first time here three years prior. That hadn’t been too much fun back then, but that was my first ultra and things had changed.
I took a bit longer to fuel up here than at previous aid stations. I was low on energy coming in and there were 19 km with some decent climbing until the next major aid station. I set out with a few guys close behind.
This dude called Benjamin caught up to me a short ways into the climb and we eventually realised that we had also climbed the steep part of Mont Brome together earlier. We were again climbing buddies for a while, but he and the other guy that was nearby ended up disappearing ahead after a few kilometres.
I was taking things rather easy at this point. My energy level hadn’t fully bounced back so I was just trying to keep moving as best I could until I found some downhill. By the time I got to the lookout point on top of Mont Horizon I was walking a decent amount and the photo opportunity was more than enough to convince me to stop for a bit.
Luckily the trail started going back down right at that point for a good 5 km of mostly negative incline. There was also a surprise aid station someone had set up in front of their house along the way at the 56th km. It was small but very well stocked and most welcome. I had expected a 19 km stretch between aid stations so getting to stop for a chitchat and some experimental mix of sports drink flavours was nice.
I started feeling better and picking up the pace shortly after resuming the descent. I also tripped and fell, which gave me a decent cut on my left knee and wasn’t as beneficial to the general effort. I got up and caught up to a runner who was just ahead of me when I went down but he hadn’t heard a thing and was surprised to hear my news. We passed a few others before crossing Chemin de Gaspé and getting a bit of climbing done.
Even though the 55 km course had split from this course a while back and the last 5+ km were new to me, getting to the west side of Gaspé was, for me, the milestone indicating I was crossing into new territory. This new territory turned out to be extremely muddy for the first 3 km. Even with a brand new pair of Salomon Sense 6 SoftGrounds some parts were quite slippery. Up to a few weeks before the race I was still considering wearing my older pair, so I ended up being quite glad that I had decided to acquire new ones with a few millimetres of extra depth on the fresh lugs.
One guy commented that his girlfriend, whom he had convinced to run the 25 km as her first trail race, was going to kill him after having to slog through this. I had a few close calls, but I got through it staying upright and it wasn’t all that bad. However, I did feel another low coming up. I still ran by the water station at kilometer 63 because there was an aid station in a couple of kilometres.
I had a bit of a rough time on that short stetch. I was sluggish on the small climb and even walked a little on the downhill/flat leading into the Lac Gale AS at 65 km.
At this point I had just beaten both my record for longest distance covered and my record for most time on my feet by a small margin. On top of that, I was running on fumes and had a bloody knee so my mindset was geared more towards rest than getting out of here quickly. A helpful volunteer cleaned off the mud bandaid that covered my knee and I took the time to snack and resupply. That was the only time I was forced to sit down. I was headed for my second straight no-sitting-break race before my fall. I picked up my sunglasses on the way out, being optimistic that there would finally be a break in the cloud cover at some point in the afternoon.
Past the point of no return
Planning out my race, I had probably considered that the last 15 km would feel like a technicality once I got there and that my motivation would pick up when I set out. Although I was doing well enough mentally and confided that I was finishing, I knew that what was left would still feel like hard work. I definitely didn’t have an “I’m almost done” mentality, which was probably a good thing.
The trails just past the AS were easy enough, but the final major climb of the day, up Mont Gale, was soon upon me. I pushed up to the summit rather well, given the circumstances. It was all over within half an hour. Not that fast considering the size of the hill, but it felt like an efficient use of what I had left.
The downhill on the other side was kind of steep, so not particularly pleasant or fast on tired legs. That trail eventually led me back onto a road that I didn’t recognise. I was having serious trouble convincing my legs to run at this point and I walked some of the nice flat ground. When I realised that the road was just about to hook towards the back of the equestrian center, I managed to coax myself into a jog.
It was cool to finally get to run down the hill with the “Bromont” sign and cross the little bridge towards the base camp. Not a lot of spectators hang out around the back area, but it would have felt weird to have too much cheering going on with work left to do anyway.
The final AS (74 km) is a small tent connected to the rear of the main tent on the site. Not long after I got there, Benjamin showed up with his pacer. To make sense of it, my brain tried to convince me that I had memory of me passing him. I thought about it and realised that, no, he had passed me 4 hours earlier. Turns out he got lost for 10 minutes and I went by him in the the time it took him to get back on course. He left with another friend coming in as a second pacer (cheaters!) and I followed right behind, finishing a glass of Pepsi. Even though I was again low on sugar, I didn’t bother with much solid food because it wouldn’t have much time to kick in with only 6 km left.
The trio beckoned me ahead to run with them. I accelerated a bit to catch up and maintained their quick pace for a while. It was nice to have two cheery people around with some energy left in them. Plus, this way we sort of had a pacer each and everything was kosher.
I stayed with them for the easy flat kilometre next to a small lake but had to let them go ahead when entering the trails. All that Pepsi was still sloshing uncomfortably in my stomach so I didn’t have any of its sugar available yet. I took it easy, even having to walk some parts, and watched them slowly build a lead. Because we were on contorted bike trails, they were never too far in a straight line. However I did eventually lose sight of them. At that point I was just focusing on keeping the walking breaks reasonably short and not losing too much time so close to the end.
Eventually the liquid calories started getting processed and I had an easier time keeping things moving along. I was also constantly looking at my watch and calculating how much distance was left. I knew I had shot at coming in under 11h30m and, with a short ways to go, my motivation picked up as well.
To my surprise, I saw Benjamin and his crew up ahead after rounding a corner. He must have hit a wall just as I got past mine, because I hadn’t sped up enough to catch up to them just by myself. One of his pacers soon noticed me and alerted the others. What followed, quite comically, was the pacers looking back towards me periodically as I got closer and saying something to the runner. I could guess pretty much exactly what they were telling him and it was blatant that they intended to push him to race me and keep me behind them. I yelled ahead asking them to stop turning around and stressing me out.
I caught up to them as we were coming back onto the back end of the road looping around the lake. I ran with them for a couple of minutes, but Benjamin didn’t share my enthusiasm for a final acceleration so I started going ahead with half a kilometre left. I was feeling better than I had been feeling for the past 20 km and, seeing the crowd and finish line ahead, didn’t feel like jogging in my first 50 miler.
11 hours 24 minutes 25 seconds. 50 miles. 2016 avenged.
Overall it was a great day of running. There were highs and there were lows, as is to be expected. Perhaps there is still room for improvement to minise the lows, but they weren’t overly problematic on this day. Everything came together reasonably well for a finish in a time I could be happy with.
Finally getting the confirmation that I had a 50 miler in me was nice. I didn’t have that much doubt and all that had been left for the past year was to actually do it. However, having something real to build on instead of something hypothetical is definitely a huge boost for the future. The road to 100+ km and eventually 100 miles was made less daunting by the knowledge that my foundation was getting rather solid.
Thanks again to my parents for crewing me and thanks to the people who make the Bromont Ultra a more impressive event every year.