We crested the 2 kilometer hill with a renewed sense of urgency. After countless steps through deep mudflats, billowing thicket, and rolling landscape it was time to hunt for the next aid station, somewhere on the other side of a hill with a Napoleon complex. The transformation from a slow, slug-like crawl into a howling wolf was immediate. The heavy breathing exposed a mouth full of fangs, grunting downhill over every possible obstacle in a blind rage until the end was finally in sight – unlike so many travelers before us this day, our race would continue… and so would the punishment.
But that was only mile 33 – and we’re getting ahead of ourselves..
The Ultra-trail Harricana is an ultra-distance trail race in the Charlevoix region of Eastern Quebec. With distances going all the way up to 125KM, it has something for everyone – just choose your crazy. This is an area rich with biodiversity, rugged wilderness and cheese. While it’s not uncommon in North America to experience a friendly and diverse crowd at an ultra-race, it was amazing to feel like we landed right in the middle of new Europe – a distinct lack of English, surplus of spandex & just the right amount of “je ne sais pas”.
Now I did take French in elementary school but no where in these classes do I remember the words for “help me, I’m drowning in a pool of mud”. Perhaps this just wasn’t in the 4th grade syllabus. I did use the phase “food goes in here ” often when in reality, just pointing at my mouth and jumping up and down seemed to have the same effect.
The race director certainly was thoughtful and accommodating – he took great pains to help us – the pre-race briefing even had real-time translation services for the lesser mortals ( i.e. the “English speakers” ) which gave us some comfort that all would be all OK. They even provided a very elegant and clear description of the course in English to help us navigate the terrain – I mean, what more do you want! Directions in English?!?! Bring it on.
After a typical North Face yellow school bus ride to the start at 5AM, we were dropped off in the middle of nowhere – no one seemed to know where the race started from but eventually we found the start area and all was revealed. This was just an epic place to start – the sun started rising across the mountainous landscape breaking the darkness with hues of purple and orange – it was going to be a beautiful ( if not, hot ) day. Drop bags were provided and shuttled back to the finish so we could stay warm until the very last minute. A few last minute words of advice in French ( with some help from a local translator / runner ) and we were off.
Let’s start this thing.
Stage 1: “Start to 8th km – SEPAQ leg ( or as I like to call it “The Houdini” ) – Difficulty level: Easy, Trail conditions: clear, wide, fast-paced, leads to refreshment station #1 (Blue Jay).”
Wait. Where did everyone go? Can someone please explain to me why everyone just left this place at 7am in a dead sprint? Am I already in last place – come on, just give me a chance to eat all of the good food. What gives?! Well at least the description is accurate enough. Flat, fast and not that technical – yeah, super easy. We like.
Stage 2: “8th km to 22th km – Coulée Chouinard et coyote leg – Difficulty level: Very hard, Trail conditions: Partly clear, muddy, single track, hill. Be patient, this is the most demanding leg of the UTHC 65 km event. It leads to aid station Coyote Honda.”
This is where I think the translation services took a turn for the worst. In this first leg, we encountered bridges with broken slots ( someone definitely fell through more than one ), feet of mud trenches, hidden trails, elevation, rocks, boulders, scrambling, and of course – no water at all. This was definitely the most technically demanding leg – ok, I guess they got that part correct. ( We later found out that a beaver dam had burst – so maybe some things you really just can’t plan for – thanks nature! )
This was the point where we started to have some concerns. If the race was going to be this technical for the duration we had serious concerns about being able to finish the race. It didn’t help that the 125K leaders went by us like they were prancing over a ski-slope – these guys had serious technical skill to navigate nature; just all smooth and amazing.
Eventually, we did hit the station and were rewarded with amazing nourishment – at this point we needed all the help we could get because we seriously were under time pressure now and needed to take advantage of the easier sections to have a chance at finishing the race and making all of the cut-offs.
Stage 3: 22th km to 32st km – Controlled harvesting zone (zec) – Lac au sable leg, Difficulty level: Easy, Trail conditions: After the aid station you will make 3 kilometers in a wild trail and finish it on a truck trail with heavy trafic, be careful when you will cross this road.
It turns out that a double track is translation for “getting smacked in the face by Branches, roots and weeds for 10 miles”. See, my French is getting better all of the time. Maybe they means organ harvesting zone – with the hot sun overhead now, we were left exposed and with only a few aid stations this really was the start of something quite awful..errr…amazing.
To make matters more interesting we were really trying to hit the cut-off at mile 32 – and it turns out that sprinting to an aid station when you don’t need to is really hard. We got to this aid station only to realize the real cut-off was at Split-BMR – oh crap. OK – let’s get out here – we have GOT TO MAKE THE CUTOFFS! It was at this point that I was reminded that we did train for this – adding a bit of time pressure to the equation is really needed. This comes out in the strava splits – moving time was an hour less than the time on feet.
Stage 4-5: 33rd km to 47th km – Orignac Trail leg, Difficulty level: Very hard, Trail conditions: Partly clear, muddy, single track. This leg may remind you of the first kilometers at the start of the race. Be careful, you’ll already be 40 km into it. This leg leads to aid station Split-BMR.
This is when shit got real. We knew that we had to make the Split-BMR to have a chance at finishing the race. You had to make it to this split by 3:30pm in the afternoon ( that’s 8.5 hours into the race ) to have a shot at finishing before sun-down. Holy cow – we were behind the clock and under the gun. In order to get there we had to crest another big hill before TEARING down the other side and into the aid station to make the cut off by 15 minutes – cutting it close.
My wife has done ultras before but this was her first taste at post-marathon adrenaline – holy shit, she likes it! After this station she was jumping up and down like she was on crack. We made it but now was NOT the time to blow up – we had to keep our heart rates in check if we wanted to make the next section up hill. One more cut-off to go.
Stage 6: 47th km to 55th km – Montagne noire leg, Difficulty level: Hard and easy, Trail conditions: Single track up the mountain (3 km) that opens onto a wide and pleasant lichen trail. The last part of this leg is a rideable road that spans 2 km. It leads to the last aid station of the UTHC 65 km event. This is a good news.
“Good news?” – ok, now they’re just being sarcastic. Three kilometers straight up is no joke, especially after sprinting to make a cut-off. The hill just kept on going and going and going. It wasn’t long before we were really questioning if we’d make the next station in time. Finally things got flatter and more runnable and we took off down a hill at close to sub-8:00 min per mile pace. This was insanity as we were about 35 miles in at this point – when we finally hit the last cut-off we knew two things (1) our legs were destroyed and (2) we were going to finish the race – finish line or bust.
Stage 7-8: 55th km to 64km – Lac à Tom leg, Difficulty level: Easy, Trail conditions: Wide trail but be careful, it is a descent. There is a 2-km trail followed by a 2-km rideable road. Be mindful of vehicles as you may be tired and much less focused. – Mont Grand-Fonds leg, Difficulty level: Easy, Trail conditions: You will be on a ski trail on Mont Grand-Fonds. There are mudflats. The trail is clear and on grass. This is the final stretch with a few hills here and there. Don’t worry about it, you’ll be running down the Mont Grand-Fonds ski center toward the finish line.
Now they’re basically just calling everyone a wuss. Yeah, some of you may be tired and less focused so just be careful. Thanks for the warning guys – I hadn’t really considered the possibility at this point I’d be out of my fucking mind. How about a warning earlier when we were waist deep in mud? It’s ok – I forgive you. Totally fine.
For some reason, we thought the end would be easy after that last station. Turns out that they really want you to earn these UTMB qualification points ( yes, we earned points! ). Running down a ski slope at full speed is murder on the quads ( we had prep training on Vermont slopes in the summer ) but it’s a little bit worse at mile 37. Throw in some mud flats for good measure and the finish line was a welcome treat – even these last few kilometers – every single step you had to earn. Finish aside, I do have to say that everyone was very well organized and the course impressive – I’d love to come back next year and try the 80K distance.
A few other notes:
- Shoes – I’ve never run this sort of distance in anything but Hokas but that experience left me with blisters the size of baseballs so I decided to go with an ultra-wide shoe to provide room to expand over time. Solomon shoes are very popular with the Europeans so I fit right in – Sense Salomon Men’s Sense Mantra 3 + Injinji 2.0 were my battle gear of choice and after 40 miles of rocks, mud, water, trails and roads – not a single blister. Not a one. A lesson here. WIdth wins. Are you listening hoka one one? My legs were certainly more worse for wear due to the lack of a maximal cushion but I will say that I’d prefer tired legs to blisters any day. Sure, I lost a few toenails but that’s SOP. The competitors were certainly in the “expensive” bucket – lots of $180 Solomon racing shoes, lots of Altras and Innov8 mud claws – really dialed in for this time of terrain.
- Gear – When in Europe, you wear the spandex. What can I say? The upside is that I really didn’t have any gait adjustments due to chafing, etc. which is something that definitely does happen when you get the gear wrong. The UD vest held up but I think it’s time to retire it. This race in particular required self-sufficiency ( only 4 stations ) so while it’s good for short course racing with a lot of stations in this case a larger pack makes more sense. Several of the zips and seems have started to break down on the UD – it’s bad enough to think about trying the Salomon vest – at $160 it’s a big investment but I’m told they really have it dialed in.
- Self-Sufficiency – It is worth highlighting that this is a true mountain race. The stations are there for safety and NOT really to give you much. With only 4-5 stations over a 40 mile mountain course you really just need to be able to handle most things on your own. I really like this style of race; it’s very European and it’s very cool to think that these skills might allow you to self-execute your own adventures outside of a racing circuit. Still, I think because of this we were much more conservative on pace, nutrition and gear than we might otherwise be if we were going for time.
- Nutrition – One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned on how to run for over 10 hours is how frequently I need to be taking in nutrition. I was focused on getting 300 calories an hour as a baseline and supplementing when I noticed my energy was low. While the idea of taking 30 gels is disgusting somehow this really does just work. I stuck to the PowerBar PowerGel – Vanilla , SUCCEED S Caps, and less the VFUELs + coca cola at the stations. This mix really did the job and I didn’t suffer too many lows due to lack of energy compared to the last 10 hour race. This strategy seems to work for me and I will continue to do this ( note, also set watch on repeat every 20 minutes to take the brain out of the picture – a fantastic technique I tried to use at JFK50 last year but didn’t really stick to – I did promise to try better this time around and think I got it done ).
- Stations – I have to say that compared to a U.S. Race I was sort of disappointed. Although they did make a point to ask beforehand what people wanted (which was super cool) I thought the selection was so-so. That said, potatoes with salt. Check. Chicken noodle soup. Check. Coca cola? Hmmm. Well Pepsi. Check. Nuun. Check. Gnocchi and ham and cheese? Yup – welcome to Europe.
- Animals – After all of the warnings, I was sort of sad we didn’t see any bears. We saw plenty of animal poop ( we think ) and I did see a gaggle of peasants but otherwise they kept their distance. At faster pace, there were plenty of odd rustling and noises coming from the brush that freaked the shit out of us. I’m pretty sure they were flying squirrels but don’t have real confirmation of this other than my hallucinations.
- Schwag – The race has some nice shwag but I think the money went more into the post-race food, beer and charity fundraisers – I’m ok with that but I sure did want to get a TSHIRT. In the end I settled for a BUFF which I will use all year round. Great for summer (ice) and the winter.
- Carnage – We were not happy being at the back of the pack but in hindsight it was fine. Between seeing blood on a tree stump, a woman with a broken leg and the countless people that didn’t finish ( 50% of the 125K and 20% of the 65K ) we were feeling good.
- Mantras – Finally, a race that outlaws iPods. It’s not that I don’t enjoy running with music but on a trail it’s just dangerous. It also gave us plenty of time to sing Taylor Swift to keep pace and ward off the bears. Don’t be a hater. The mind plays tricks on you after moving for 4-5 hours.
- Markings – I really do give a lot of credit to the race director. Parts of this course were super gnarly and even I wasn’t able to get lost – although I did question my thought process on more than one occasion. Counting down to the finish in KM was also a nice touch and something that you don’t see as much in US races. I really like the count-down here. It worked for me. One funny thing is they only printed signs with arrows pointing to the right – so when they had to direct people to the left they flipped the sign upside down – this had an interesting impact on my thinking – oh someone must have flipped this around by accident – NO NO NO – it’s supposed to be this way. Next year, race director, just make left and right signs please 😀
- Training – How do you train for this? Peaking at 50 miles per week helped. It looks like back-to-back weekends, and hiking really helped. It was very specific training for a very specific race. A faster ultra probably required less hills but we really had the uphills dialed in and because it was on the eastern mountain ranges the terrain was also very similar to many of the routes we had done leading up to the race. Confidence helps in these situations.
- Pace – People race for all kinds of reasons; to see where their potential is, to “beat” the competition. For me, I’ve come to love running on the trails for the community and singularity of each experience. The same course on a different day looks totally different, and runs totally different. Weather is always a factor as well. For this race, the question I always ask is: could I have gone harder? could I have run faster? In part, this is because I felt relatively good at the end – but in reality pushing harder might have resulted in a blow up so it’s hard to say – and next time, it won’t be the same race. Different weather means a different experience. What I can definitely say is that I had a great time at my pace – plenty of hiking on the uphills and running on the flats and downhills with some speed where it counted. The numbers tell the real story – I spent over an hour in elapsed time “not moving” – that’s a combination of waiting for people, time in stations, cleaning mud off my eyeballs, etc. In a race with ambitious cut-offs this is where you can really make up a lot of time – not by running faster but my being quick at the stations – you just burn time over a whole day and it adds up.
- Post-Race – Veggie Chili, Beer, Hot Soup and Pay-For Massages. Really a nice setup to be honest. We missed the Quebec-folk band but could hear them and it sounded amazing. Everyone really earned those flannel shirts and long bears that day.
- Charity – This race is part of our fall “season of charity” – this year we’re running this race and the NYC marathon in honor of a local Cancer Charity in NYC. This helps motivate you when things get tough – all of the support of friends and family help when the times get dark. It’s unclear to me how we’ll recover from this and ramp up for a road marathon in a month – speed may be impacted but mentally it shouldn’t be a problem. I also very much like that this race was used to fundraise for MS – I sort of missed this in the run-up to the race but I think its a great example for most races to follow – if these adventures can be used as inspiration to support charitable causes then this should be the standard not just on the road but in the wilderness as well.
- Claire, Super Hero – One of the most enjoyable parts of this race was that I was able to run it with my wife Claire. She is not only faster than me, but she’s also never run this far or long before so I was super excited to take her on this adventure and to do it together. We had run a 50k together and it’s clear that having someone with you that knows how to give and how to push can bring out the best in you. She was nursing a bad wrist sprain and I was worried most of the race that I was going to have to carry her out of there – in retrospect, it was obvious she was also worried about me – the race was no joke even if you were at 100% ( as the carnage would attest ). Not only was the day enjoyable but we could relish our memories of the weekends getting out into the wilderness in the run-up to the race – we indeed had trained for this adventure together and knew we could kill it – we didn’t come all this way to not finish.
- Good company – every time I run one of these races, we make friends. That really is the best part. We were lucky to meet a nice woman in the back of the pack with us which made the time go fast in the hard section. She gave us a few tips on navigating the terrain and was happy to make fun of us “city folk” when we got squeamish in the mud.
I’m not sure why we signed up for this race but I’d be happy to do it again. Point-to-point races are just plain beautiful and this part of the world is an exploration into all that nature has to offer, with an unpredictable character and warmth around every corner. And although I did run into some pheseants at the top of the mountain, we were fortunate not to run into any bears or caribou along the way.
If you’re looking for an ultra race with all of the excitement and culture of a European adventure but close to your home here in the US, you really can’t do much better than the UTHC. Salute!