The North Face Endurance Challenge, Ontario – 2017

Trek and Run were supported during this event by;

Salba Chia

Brooks Running

Tailwind Nutrition

&

Helly Hansen

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All the blurry photos of us (and the landscapes) were taken by us, all the really good photos of us in action were taken by Ken Schuh of  Ultra Race Photos 

Four of the Trek and Run team took part, Trevor ran the 50k course and Brian, Virgil and Dave took on the 50 mile. Here’s what they thought of the day out. First of all, Dave’s film from last year’s 50 mile event. The course hasn’t changed significantly so this film is still relevant, all that was different this year was heaps of mud due to heavy rains the week before the race. The views were just as nice though, the aid stations just as well stocks and volunteers every bit as enthusiastic as in 2016.

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Dave - We made sure we got off work early in the Friday so we could avoid the traffic and get to the 6:30pm pre-race meeting, where Dean Karnazes, Rob Krar and others were offering their thoughts on the next days’ racing and on trail running in general. We got to ask a few questions which was pretty cool, I’ve not been to any other race that allows the competitors to do this, especially in such an intimate, friendly atmosphere.

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We camped at Cragleith Park, a 10 minute drive down the road from the Blue Mountain village. We booked up the campsite a few months in advance and was able to secure a lakeshore pitch; not exactly on the shore of Georgian Bay as there’s a dirt access road between the site and the water but near enough. The view was perfect, there was space for 3 tents and 6 people and it only cost $100 for 2 nights; a bargain!

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We started at 5am so arrived at the event village at 4:15 to pick up our race bibs, take advantage of the free coffee, bagels, peanut butter and bananas on offer near the start line and also to enjoy the atmosphere…

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The film shows you the course; just add mud, and lots of it, and you have an idea of this years experience. I’ve done the 50 mile race twice now and I find the most difficult parts are at first, when you’re running in the dark and there are obstacles everywhere (rocks, roots, sloping ground, slippery bridges, drop offs at the end of bridges and so much uphill) and then at the halfway point, when you’ve put in a hard marathon, come down the ski hill, burned your quads out and then have to re-climb the mountain via the steep forest trail. This year this middle part of the race was extra hard; when we’d gone up the trail in the dark it was all slippery mud and puddles, but since then a few hundred trail runners had made their way up it and now it was a mess. Of course, it wasn’t long until I wiped out…

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The fall jarred; I was already in a dark place before I fell and afterwards it was a real struggle to get to the finish line. Of course, I’m not complaining in the least, trail courses should be technical, tough and offer a finish line that’s hard to achieve!

The views throughout the race were outstanding…

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Many times during the second lap I was climbing a hill, knowing there’d be a view to be enjoyed at the top, and I’d be so tired I’d think, ‘Hey, this is really stupid of me, running so fast through all this beauty, perhaps I should just slow it right down at the top of this hill, find a shady tree, have a lay down, enjoy the view…’ Ha, the tricks the mind plays!

At the final aid station a volunteer was smiling as she shouted ‘Only 8km to go guys, you can do it!’ and the runners doing the 50k and marathon perked up. I steeled myself for a final burst, I’d already done a lap of the course and knew that this final 8km was a real test for any runners of any ability. 3 major climbs, all on dirt roads or tracks which were fully exposed to the now brutal sun, it was going to hurt! And it did… But less than an hour later the finish line came up on me, I was so relieved to see it!

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Then it was all over and I was in the medical tent with a huge bag of ice on my head, trying to cool off, waiting for my team mates, happy that I’d taken on such a course and managed to finish!

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Brian - I would describe the Ontario edition of the race series put on by The North Face as a top tier trail running event. I have heard about the Endurance Challenge series in previous years, but it always seemed a bit out of the way when I was planning my racing season. When presented with the opportunity to add it to my schedule this year, I thought it would be the perfect fit to explore somewhere new and be able to go beyond some of the local runs I have already completed (many of them more than once).

The race bib pick-up was low-key but felt personal with only a few other runners asking questions about race logistics. I was lucky enough to have arrived in time to attend the panel discussion with some of The North Face runners, which was something I have never experienced at other ultras I have participated in. It was really cool to have Dean Karnazes, Rob Krar, and the other elite runners in attendance, and great to be able to ask them questions and get some tips about the course. Over the last few months, I have been preparing to run the Eastern States 100 (in August). Being completely honest, I am not feeling like I have been training enough for it and am quite nervous about the terrain. By entering the 50 mile race at Blue Mountain, I would at least get to preview what areas I need to focus on most and figure out where I need to make some changes. That was the principle goal for me at this race.

Due to an abundance of rain this year the trails at Blue Mountain had a good amount of mud to slog through. Some sections of the course improved on the second loop around as the sun had dried them up while others only got sloppier with more runners passing through them. There were a few sections of gravel roads and even one long climb on a paved highway that allowed some of that mud to shake off. It was certainly a day where choosing the right shoes made a big difference.

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Aside from a couple small areas where the trails passed by each other the course was not terribly busy. This was a perfect run to do some deep thinking and contemplation, and perhaps make a couple friends along the way. The aid stations were very well stocked with all the typical goodies to keep you moving, and the volunteers were always helpful and getting you anything you needed. One of the highlights of the event was being able to meet Dean, “the Ultramarathon man” at the finish line. I suppose my timing was just lucky, because he wasn’t standing there the entire time. We were able to have a good chat for a few minutes before he had to go and sign some of his new books at another tent. I also enjoyed the ice baths they had set up at the finish to treat my swollen feet before heading back to the campsite just down from the Village, where we stayed for the weekend. All in all, as a later addition to my season, I’m so glad I decided to check out TNFEC at Blue Mountain. It is a beautiful and challenging course, we had great weather, met wonderful people and I learned a lot.

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Trevor – As my first ‘official’ ultra, this touched all the bases I thought I’d wanted to hit. A tough course with LOTS of climbing, weather induced course ‘issues’ (loads of mud!) famous running dudes on site ready to inspire…

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…hard running, good friends and some time spent in nature. This race states the most elevation gain of any Ultra Marathon in Ontario and it immediately let you know it wasn’t kidding. It started with a gentle 1-2 km along some flat grass sections. That sounds nice and easy for a warm up, right? Cover that same stretch in mud and a bit of side slope and it was slow going right from the start. Next up, a long climb, one of many that was to come during the race! (think about climbing the CN Tower…11 times, on muddy stairs…)

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Weather wise I think the day was about ideal, high 20s, sunny and a bit breezy. The trail was often covered with trees so the sun wasn’t that much of an issue. There was one long stretch along a country road that was out in the open for a while but once done with that you went back into the shade and cool of the forest. The aids stations were amazing. Great energy and plenty of food, drinks and encouragement on offer. Thank you, every volunteer I saw!

The terrain itself was quite tricky at times with lots of rocks and roots in sections to challenge you to keep your toes up. The mud was the major issue of the day and some of the runners with experience in this event seemed to think it slowed the 50k by about an hour. A good challenge made even better! I felt pretty good most of the race. My hip wasn’t acting up as it has been doing recently and my energy wasn’t fading too fast. I did start getting some significant hamstring cramping at around the 30km point so at the aid station I choked down a fair bit of salt water and a friend, David Waters, who happened to be at the same aid station gave me a couple of salt tabs. It helped a lot.

I saw Virgil a few times out on the course. He was battling the clock to try and finish his own race. I also ran into David Wise at around the 40km point in my race – which was about the 70km point in his – and I could tell he was hurting. He was covered in mud from a fall but also low on energy. We ran together for a bit but my pace was starting to fall off and I told him I’d see him at the finish. I picked up David Waters as a pacer for a bit and we tackled the last series of big climbs together. I managed to cross the finish line in 7 hours 58 minutes and was pretty happy with that effort. All in all, a great day of adventure, comraderie and getting a little exercise too. North Face really have a well oiled machine and put on a great event from the pre race meeting of the guests to the end of the weekend, well done!

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Virgil – The most epic, PR distance debut, mudfest of a hilly clustermuck of an adventure race! Right from the bat all illusions of an easy day was dashed when Dean Karnazes addressed the crowd and we were off at 5am dashing straight into…a slippery mudfest. As I princessed my way through the slick mess, taking 360 video and trying to stay upright, streams of runners went by me and soon I was at the back of the pack.

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Headlights were ditched soon as the sun rose, and all the hilly terrain from last year’s 50k came back to me vividly as I tried to conserve energy in the first half. Aid stations were plentiful and I filled my big bottle each time, while eating potatoes and Skratch energy chews.

Having just completed Ironman Muskoka 70.3 a week earlier, and suffering calf DOMS from a gym workout just four days earlier, meant that I would become friends with two Grim Reaper sweepers sooner than anticipated. One was on a mountain bike following me on trails that were too treacherous for a bike, if the no bikes sign was any indication. I even added about 500-600m to my race after missing a turn and was brought back by the sweeper. I was oblivious to it as I was already back on the correct trail markers when he caught up to me.

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I was absolutely crushed when I missed the Blue Loop hard cutoff time at 40.7k at 12:01pm by three minutes (just 3 minutes!) and had to wait another additional 11 minutes while they radioed officials to see if I was allowed to continue. After signing a waiver, I was allowed to proceed, which I did, wallowing in self-pity and disappointment. That mood didn’t last long as the magic of Blue Mountain spoke to me and I was determined to at least complete the distance and collect my medal. I took less 360 videos on the second loop but was hampered by blisters on the balls of my left foot, followed by the same on my right foot a few kilometers later. Both had blistered up into a large area of loose skin wrinkled like a prune from being in waterlogged shoes. After getting them massaged and taped up at one aid station (thanks to the nurse for going beyond the call of duty!), it was an exercise in pain management as I soldiered on.

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My Garmin was under reporting the distance (though I didn’t know it at the time), and I did some pace calculations with an app that had me finishing at 15.5h, well past the cutoff time of 14h. When I ran into my Trek and Run teammates, I told them this ETA too.

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But the aid stations were telling me a different story, that I was going to finish with a 15-20 minute margin – the same margin the sweepers told me in the first half! It wasn’t until I reached the last aid station and was told that I had 90 minutes to cover 8km that the cloud of self-doubt lifted and I knew I was going to finish.

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Though the terrain was still treacherously technical, I floated over the course and down the ski hill for the second time and bore left to the finish chute. I never saw a finish line so welcoming, and though the big crowds were long gone, having the announcer call my name and photographer drape the medal around my neck made me feel like a rock star. I made it with 11:01 to spare!

I definitely pushed my limits with this race, while my training regimen and race schedule dictated that I should have picked a shorter distance. But the Stubborn Donkey™ in me craved a new challenge and I dared myself to dream so big that failure was a distinct and ever-present possibility. Last year’s 50k race was the highlight race of 2016 and this one will likely be the same for 2017. Congratulations to The North Face management and organization, as well as the energetic volunteer crews and spectators that made this a race that exceeded expectations once again. 50 miler mission accomplished!!

To discover more about The North Face Endurance events please see: https://www.thenorthface.com/en_ca/get-outdoors/endurance-challenge/ontario-canada.html 

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