Trek and Run were supported during this event by;
All photographs, unless otherwise stated, by Ken Schuh and Kent Keeler of Ultra Race Photos
First, to give you a firm idea of the event, here’s a short video Dave and Virgil shot as they took part.
Three of our team took on the 50 mile race at this event, and one of us ran the 50km. Here’s what we thought of the day.
Tim (Tim ran the 50 miler) – For an out of town race, they did make the race kit pickup easy with multiple options, one being pickup at the North Face store in downtown Toronto. Virgil picked up all of our kits without any problems, so that was easy. I liked that the organizers were active on social media. I don’t use Twitter much but was surprised to get tagged in a Tweet a few weeks before the race wishing me luck. And the race course guide PDF online was very comprehensive, right down to letting me know what to expect at the aid stations as far as food and drink. I only wish I’d known that they’d have Tim Hortons coffee at the start line, so I wouldn’t have had to have that awful Red Bull thinking there would be no coffee to be had at 4:30 in the morning. Based on the plentiful information in the course guide, and lots of vegan options at the aid stations, I made the decision to not wear a hydration pack or even to carry any gels or food with me. This turned out to be a great decision. And just before the race, bag check couldn’t have been easier. Pre race gets a 10 out of 10 from me.
I had an extremely eventful first 50 miler. Not having trained on the course, I was very concerned about all the climbing (they don’t make hills like that in High Park, central Toronto, where I do my training), and I was aware that the race started with a major climb. Of course, with the adrenaline (and that damn Red Bull) coursing through my blood, I went out too fast. It was probably 5k into the race before my heart rate got down to where I wanted it. But once that climb was done, I didn’t feel too bad at all.
It was great to get to the first aid station and see all those items I had expected from the pre race information…right down to lots of gels to grab for between aid stations. Turns out I got to try a new gel and might have found my new favourite. Huma chia seed gels might be the best I’ve had so far. They also stocked Tailwind, which was nice since it seems almost impossible to find in Canada, if it’s even here yet. I would get my one water bottle filled with either Tailwind or water, eat some food and thank the great volunteers. It was nice to not have a vest to bother with. They even offered to check my headlamp (mandatory at the 5am start) at the first aid station, which was nice.
Then I settled into a groove, knowing that my goal for a first ever 50 miler would be to finish, under the 14 hour cutoff. And wow, those views of Georgian Bay from the top! It was a real mix of terrain. Super technical trails, some roads, and some grassy fields, the beautiful Bruce Trail and ski hills. After bombing down the ski hill at km 39 or so way too fast, I hit the halfway point at 6 hours and 9 minutes. Pretty much according to plan. I had a significant buffer for the second half even if I slowed down. And man did I slow down.
The second half starts with the same climb we did at the start, and this time it was taking me forever. I had bonked. I had hit the wall. The mother of all walls. I plugged away hoping that once at the top, I’d recover and start making up for lost time. That didn’t happen. I was so out of gas, it was a new experience. Even on flats I was walking. With the splits getting slower and slower, some math in my head made me realize that they might pull me from the course at the next aid station for being behind the cutoff. All that time in the bank at 40k, all given back before I reached the aid station at 52k. Now that’s a serious bonk. When I walked into the Cruiser aid station at 52k, I asked about the cutoff. They got on the two way radio and I was informed that I was still ten minutes ahead of the cutoff time. I asked what happens if I’m behind it by the next aid station (I had 100% convinced myself that the 80k wasn’t possible and I would have to settle for 50k plus), they told me that I’d get a ride back to the start line village. So I decide to continue on, a volunteer gives me an enthusiastic high 5 for making that call. I figure I’m only getting another few miles in but I’m gonna make them shove me into a vehicle before I’m done with this race. Suddenly I’m feeling a lot better, running again. And then I meet Tim Grant, the sweeper. HeÂ runs with me so that he can show me a left turn that I’d likely miss because they had put tape up thinking there was no one on the course still. Tim gets me to realize that if I keep moving the way I’m moving, I will get to the last hard cutoff with time to spare, and likely even catch the runner ahead of me. Well damn if he isn’t right. Tim and I ran together all the way to that aid station, we talked about how hot it was at Sulphur Springs this year, his experience running Lavaredo in Italy, about Jim Walmsley and Kilian, and the next thing I know, I arrive at the aid station with 20 minutes to spare, and a runner in sight up ahead of me. Suddenly I KNOW I’m going to finish. I can’t believe how fast that last 4 hours of the race seemed to fly by. I tell Tim I would NOT have gotten in this position to finish without his help. I now know why runners use a pacer. I got to pass someone, Adam, who I walked and ran with a bit and got to know. Then he passed me back when I took a porta-potty pit stop. So I had to pass him again. I missed a turn shortly after that and almost got lost and blew my finish, but with a little backtracking found my way back on course. At this point I was moving well and on cloud nine knowing I would make the cutoff at the finish easily.
After coming back into Cruiser for the last time (they seemed rather surprised to see me), I had more than 30 minutes to cover that last 1.4 km, all downhill. I also asked and heard Adam had not come through the aid station yet, so I was able to take my time down that hill, and then wait at the finish line to cheer on Adam as he finished with 5 or 10 minutes to spare! In the end I finished with 28 minutes to spare and learned a lot about myself and how the body can recover. I loved the course, so much natural beauty, and very challenging terrain. The spirit of the other runners was infectious, and the volunteers all deserve medals.
Since I blabbed on in length about my race, I’ll keep my post race comments brief. Because I finished close to the cutoff, I missed all the fun stuff at the finish line. I saw pictures of the awards being given out and crowd surfing going on. But at the 13 and 14 hour mark, the party is waning. The finish line was a bit of a blur, but I have a nice medal along with a plastic water bottle that says “finisher” on it. Funny how one little word can mean so much. I ate the free meal that the race provides and we headed back to our campsite to crack some well earned beers. Overall, this is my favourite race to date, and I plan on returning next year to try and run the 50 miler again, a little less slowly.
Virgil (Virgil ran the 50km) – If I had a healthy sense of self-preservation, I probably wouldn’t have signed up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k. Since I’ve only attempted my first trail ultra a scant seven months ago and only completed one in the books, I was cranking up the difficulty to a whole new level. David and Jason (both accomplished ultrarunners) and Tim (50m debut attempt) were doing the 50 miler, so I was the odd one doing “just” 50k. It was also a mere six days after doing a PR in my A-race Ironman Muskoka 70.3 triathlon, too. I barely recovered from that race, was my form good enough? What I did know was that I was going to be in the pain locker for a long time.
The four of us were camping out in Craigleith Provincial Park, just ten minutes drive from Blue Mountain Village. I got caught up in Highway 400 cottage country traffic and arrived well after sunset, to David’s chagrin – was he expecting to get a good night’s sleep? The crackle of the fire was welcoming and once I doled out the race kits (bare basics – bib, shirt, and bandana) and set up the tent, we were in a much more relaxed mood.
I laid out my gear in orderly fashion in the tent. A million things were running through my head as I tried to settle down to sleep. I re-read the course guide for the tenth time to try to glean some valuable tidbit that would make the race a walk in the park. It was a beautifully designed PDF that outlined the course map and aid stations, what to pack, and that dreaded 3624m elevation change profile. I was going to make it a game day decision whether I wanted to lug the Camelback on the race course. Jason advised taping my feet with paper tape to ward off chafes and blisters, so I dutifully did that, despite the “don’t do anything new on race day” mantra. The roar of the Georgian Bay surf eventually lulled me to sleep at midnight. You could pay $75 for a machine that can do this, or experience the real thing. A crying baby’s piercing screams broke the white noise of the surf around 215am, and carried on for at least a half hour, but I was too lazy to get the earplugs.
David got up around 3,20am, and I decided to get up as well, despite my 50km race starting two hours after their 50 mile race. I wasn’t going to get more quality sleep anyways, plus I could take pictures and video of the trio starting the race. I realized that I’ve never been to the Blue Mountain Village at 4am. We took a few selfies in the waning darkness, did our bag checks and inspected the food and drink offerings. I noted there was Vaseline, baby wipes, tape and sunscreen provided on the tables near the start kite, and I taped and sprayed myself.
I shot some video of Dean “50 marathons/50 States/50 Days” Karnazes addressing the 50 miler crowd. He had just completed the Silk Road Ultra Marathon, a 525k/11 day sports diplomacy adventure he completed just six days earlier. Before I knew it the 50 milers were off in two waves at 5am, headlamps piercing the path up the hill and out of sight. Then began the two hour agonizing wait for my race. I spent an inordinate amount of time on the toilet; then chatted with Tony, who paced me to my first ever even split 4:30 at GoodLife Fitness Toronto Marathon, and Luis, who I met at my first ultra attempt in December and more recently at the Conquer The Canuck Marathon Ultra Trail Weekend.
The 50k Wave 1 rolled out at 7am, and my Wave 2 followed in pursuit. I was keeping the pace of everyone around me, which was above my race pace, but I couldn’t help it. I was so giddy with excitement but nervous at the same time. There was a palpable tension in the air, I was embarking on my most epic physical feat to date! Almost immediately the course wound its way into the woods and began the relentless ascent skyward. I was glad that the biggest elevation gains and losses were at the beginning, when I was fresh. The forest paths were littered with tree roots, uneven ground, stones and loose branches, ready to snare the unsuspecting leg. I shot a lot of video while running as I was heading through some breathtaking landscapes of the Blue Mountain village from an beautiful sunlit vantage point.
I started to notice a few runners wearing outfits with the words “November Project”, and a helpful runner gave me a brief summary. A loose collective of runners, based in several cities in USA and Canada, chose Blue Mountain to be this year’s Summit, for their fourth annual event. I always knew ultra runners had a reputation for being down-to-earth, friendly people. and this was just a hint of what was to come.
The nine aid stations were well stocked, with delicious Huma chia gels, Clif energy bars, M&Ms, bananas, oranges, Tailwind, Mountain Dew, Coke, water, and a first for me – potatoes and salt trays. I filled my cap with ice and drank copiously, thankful that I had courageously left my Camelbak safety blanket back in the tent. It wasn’t unbearably hot, and with the longest distance between aid stations at a manageable 8.4km, I felt I made the right decision. The spectators and volunteers were enthusiastic and supportive, you could hear them well before they were in sight each time.
I had a slight ache in my knees around the 20k mark, no doubt due to the earlier course section that ran straight down a ski hill. I was carefully picking my way down this treacherous descent with feet burning from all the braking, as the morning dew made the brown grassy path a slippery affair to negotiate. Since I almost lost my footing several times, I tried running in the drier but puffy green grasses, which was a compromise as you didn’t know what you were stepping into. All around me were streams of runners running full gas down the impossible slope, seemingly oblivious to the rabbit holes, animal traps and land mines I was certain was there. Definitely need to do hill repeats for the next edition.
Other runners started passing me, which was slightly discouraging because I was starting to slow down when my legs realized they didn’t sign up for this torture. There were some speedy 50 milers, marathon runners, and marathon relay runners. I saw more November Project runners in the mix, particularly marathon relay runners. At around the 30-33k mark David caught up with me, which immediately shook me out of my lethargy and gave me a shot of adrenaline. I ramped up the pace to catch up with him and catch some selfie videos before he would inevitably leave me in the dust. I surprised myself by maintaining contact with him over an extended period of time on the relatively flat terrain before the uphill sections betrayed me and he disappeared.
A wave of endorphins swept over me once I hit 40k – I knew that the bulk of the run was in the books and all I had to do was not injure myself. That confidence turned into increased pace, and I started jockeying positions with some of the faster runners who were running shorter distances. I stocked up at the second last aid station at 42.5k, and blew by the last one at 48.5k. At the top, you could see the Village, but the course turned right and up yet another hill before making one last descent of the ski hill and a triumphant dash to the finish kite. I had my videocamera raised high over my head and ran right against the right barricade, shooting the throngs of cheering spectators. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a more welcoming finish line than that. As he has done for a handful of races already, David got video of my finish and a few words.
It was fun to hang around the finish line and take photos of the runners coming home, especially the November Project marathon relay runners. There were a lot of great costumes, including a Waldo and Wilma couple, Thing 1 and 2, and quartets of Ghostbusters, Hug Life (play on Thug Life), and lobster-headed runners. Don’t ask. The highlight of the post-race festivities was when they announced the podium winners and the crowd of enthusiastic November Project runners infected everyone with their boisterous energy. They chanted “crowdsurf, crowdsurf, crowdsurf” until the winners relented and were swiftly conveyer-belted into the crowd.
Dean Karnazes crowdsurfing – photo by Dave Wise
We picked up some swag from the sponsor booths, collected our bags, and picked up a well-deserved meal in the cafeteria. Then we went back to the finish line and dunked our weary feet into the ice baths and waited until Jason and Tim arrived. We shared our battle stories, and headed back to the campsite for some great conversations, drinks and rest. It was a fantastic end to an epic day of ultra running. I made some new friends – Steve, Brando, Mike, Kristen, Anna and a few others I still need to track down – thanks for your conversations and friendship that made the running a lot more enjoyable. The finisher’s medal is something I will cherish as my first ski trail ultra!
To discover more about the North Face Endurance Challenge, please visit https://www.thenorthface.com/en_ca/get-outdoors/endurance-challenge.
The Trek and Run team – photo by a kind passer by!