Normal Life. Ultra Run.
Let's do this honestly. I was a great little runner in my teens and twenties. I could knock off a 35-minute 10k and run the next morning without pain, tightness or any other hindrance. That gradually changed as I got deeper into a career that eventually lead to depression, anxiety and the lowest feelings that an individual can experience. Two and a half years ago, I quit that job of 17 years.
One Sunday afternoon, I decided to run again. I literally couldn't run 500 metres without walking. I was so embarrassed by the state of my fitness, my body and my mind. I vowed to run five times a week for the next month, and I did. It still hurt, but it got easier. Then I ran all winter. Spring came, and I kept at it. My current running partner was an acquaintance at the time and he asked if I wanted to go for a trail run. Sure, I said. Let's do it. We stomped around a local trail for 21 kilometres, the longest run I had done in decades. It was brutal. But, we kept meeting on Sundays for long trail runs and gradually built up to 50's and 12 hour days in the Adirondacks over the course of the next year. Fast forward.
At 5:00 am on Saturday, June 25th, I stood among approximately 100 of the most geared up, skin-busting-calf-muscled people I have ever seen. I was calm, mostly because it was 5:00 am and I hadn't quite shaken the cobwebs off. I had trained as much as a working father and husband could, while still being the father and husband I wanted to be. I thought I was ready. But then, how do you know if you're ready when you honestly haven't got a clue as to what lies ahead? I had studied course maps, read blogs and stuffed my running vest with way more kit that I needed. Ready, right?
The Ultra Trail Du Mont Albert 100 kilometre ultra marathon takes place in the Chic Choc Mountains of Quebec. You MUST go there. We drove along the coast of the Atlantic Ocean for hours, watching for seals and zipping past postcard perfect maritime houses and villages. Then we cut south at St. Anne Du Monts and followed a trout stream (one of my secondary passions) to the Parc National de La Gaspesie outdoor centre and our campsite.
My running partner, Andy, had quietly agreed that we would stick to our pace at the start. There was no way that we were going to keep up with the elites over 10 kilometres, never mind 100. So we tucked into the trotting pace that we had practiced so many times on our home trails at Frontenac Provincial Park. The group rounded the base of Mont Albert and entered into an alpine heaven. There were waterfalls, boulders, rock outcrops and a snowfield to cross. We could see the leaders kick stepping their way diagonally across the snow and ice from our position at the base of the climb. When we made it there at around 6:30 I felt like I was making my own go pro video. The snowfield crossing lacked the drama that the pre-race debrief had set up, but it was still a highlight of the race.
After topping out the ice and running a spectacular plateau, we dropped into 15 kilometre of treed trail. At the 4-hour mark we realized that we had 1 hour to make the 25-kilometre cut off and that our pace was lacking. That made for a scramble up and over one more mountain. Andy got on his horse and lead the way, calling back once in a while to check on me. "YUP, I'm right here." We started passing other runners and made for the downhill. Then, right then, I realized what I was getting into. Fear of the next 80 kilometres started to nag at me. I refused to fail at 25 kilometres so I chanted my daughters' names as I let go of all caution and ran shit that most people wouldn't want to walk. I essentially fell down the mountain and tumbled onto a dirt road at the checkpoint. My wife was there, standing by the roadside, looking at me in what I later learned was total shock. She had never seen me in such a state. I asked her the time, "10:23" was all she said and I was shattered. I'd missed it. I had been red lining for over an hour and missed it. Gutted doesn't even begin. My eyes watered for the first time that day as I rounded the corner to the CP. "You've got 6 hours, not 5" rang through my heart thumped ears right then. Wait, what? I'm in? I'm in? I made it? I made it! I have to do that for 75 more kilometres? I sat down on the gravel and tossed my legs out straight to prevent cramping. Andy got me off the deck, stuffed a Coke into my hands and said let's keep moving, so I did.
Thirty minutes later, out of sight of everyone else, I told Andy to go ahead. "I'll make it to the next CP" was a verbal contract that I stuck to because he's my friend and I promised. So begin the lessons in life.
I simply could not snap back after the cut off debacle. My legs started to give me that deep down "I'm going to cramp soon" feeling and each time I picked it up to run I felt a bit sick. So I hiked. Then I walked, and then I waddled. The cramps started in my calves, and progressed to my groin, quads, hamstrings, back, hands (holding poles the entire time) and triceps. They were unrelenting for seven straight solo hours. My emotions started to get the better of me. I had failed my little girls. I had left them weekend after weekend to go running and there was no way I was bringing home a medal to hand to them. My vision of being on bended knee in the kitchen, passing them a medal and saying "Daddy did it" was fading into the shadows. Tears. My wife would be standing at the next CP, waiting and waiting after Andy delivered the message. I had to get to her. Tears. My running group at work would hear the story of failure. Tears. My Mum and Dad would learn how their son's bravado could not meet expectation. Tears. For someone who was dehydrated, I sure produced a lot of tears.
I had my phone with me so that I could listen to some tunes when the going got tough. So as fate had it, while listening to the Strumbellas (don't judge!) a text ping went off in my ear. I grabbed my phone and saw that I had reception, in the middle of nowhere! I phoned my Dad. The essence of the conversation was that I couldn't get my legs to work, tell the girls I love them and don't worry too much. Dad told me to keep putting one foot in front of the other and Mum knew that I would never think of stopping. They were both right.
After that conversation, nothing got better. Sorry, this wasn't Disneyland. I plugged on for a few more hours and then, from the top of a hill, I saw him! The leader on his way back. I stepped off and watched this man float down the hill that I had literally just cursed for its looming steepness. He was inspirational. His name is Adam Wilcox. Google him. A few other lead packers zipped past and then it went quiet. I hadn't seen a runner in about an hour and I was starting to question my navigation. That resulted in the darkest moments of this ordeal. Where the hell was everyone? I would eventually discover that the return leg looped back on the other side of the range, which wasn't crystal clear on the race maps. Lesson learned.
Much like a movie that never puts an end to it, the cramping and fatigue just kept going. I got low on water so conserved when I could. I ate my last bites of food with about three hours to go. I finally saw a sign that said 6.9 kilometres to Le Huard, my target. I can do that. I can do that to get to Corrina.
The final 3 kilometres were downhill. I can write fairly well but I cannot possibly put into words the pain that I felt on downhills by this point. My quads, which are usually my pride and joy, were absolutely busting at the seams. I would lean harder on my poles and my arms would cramp. I would turn sideways to step off a rock and my groin would cramp. All while my quads, my quads, my quads.
The final kick in the teeth was a 1.5 km gravel road to the checkpoint. I hobbled down like something out of the Walking Dead and made it to the CP. I knew my first race was over, but I also knew that I had achieved something huge. In the moment, or the seven hours as the case may be, you think that you're the only one. You're the failure, the least fit, the least prepared, the least aware. I found that to be far from the truth as I entered the triage centre that was CP 5. People were actually sleeping in cots or just sitting on chairs staring blankly into space. I followed their lead and plunked my butt into a chair. Phew! Wait, cramp!! Cramp! Frigging cramps. They went on for hours after I finished. Little reminders of what I just did to myself.
You do have to enter something like this to truly discover what you are made of. Training is generally controlled and measured, understood. Racing is different. Simple little things like misunderstanding the time cut off at a checkpoint can blow your legs out from under you and leave you struggling. I once read about a mixed martial arts fighter who listed his excuses after losing a fight. One friend berated him for making excuses but the other, the author of the book, said something that has stayed with me. If you don't have excuses, what will you work on for the next fight? I know what to work on for the next fight with the Ultra Trail du Mont Albert. I know that I can make it, if I clean up my list of excuses and struggle through the mountains again.