Thursday, June 30, 2016

Assault on Les Laurentides 2016

Last week was pretty fantastic, even though I only ran 4 times in the 2 weeks following the Conquer the Canuck 50k.

Saturday, June 18th we rode to Mille Roches campground on the St. Lawrence river - I had booked us a site near the Southwest corner of the outermost section (Snetsinger Island) a couple of months ago hoping for a pretty sunset. For reference, this is the campground:

(Photo from St. Lawrence Parks

After I managed to crank out a 7km run while pushing the pace to get back in time to watch the sun set with Tanker the Wonder Sherpa, we were not disappointed:

And then we made s'mores!

The next morning we rode the Long Sault Parkway, which is an 11km causeway that spans 11 different islands. Beautiful sunshine and blue water.

(Photo from St. Lawrence Parks)

Tank ready to rock out of the campground


After riding it both ways, it was off to Quebec for a night of camping at Parc National de Mont Tremblant in Secteur La Diable. We rode through the village a week before the IM was to be held, covering some of the bike and run courses along winding forested roads.

Lake and the ski hill

The pedestrian village in the distance
Sunset over Lac Monroe by the Discovery Centre

We encountered the first of the blackflies as we stayed in La Grenouille campground, appropriately named for the hundreds of various species of frog singing and croaking in the swampy area of Lac Monroe directly across from our campsite.

Which had some visitors in the morning.

Unfortunately we couldn't have a fire because the forest fire risk was extreme and so burning in the park was forbidden. The following morning we packed up and rode out to a couple of trailheads I'd read about.

Think we brought enough crap with us?

Chutes Croches (hook falls) was nice, but the trail out to and then the stunning view of Chutes du Diable were simply incredible.

Rail trail to walk on but surrounded by mountain forest.

We were even treated to a rainbow in the mist

Looks much smaller than its true 15m/50ft height, and nothing can compare to being buffeted by the spray of such a thunderous example of nature's power.

Off through the Laurentian Mountains, we battled strong, gusty crosswinds (65kph/40mph) that kept trying to blow me into oncoming traffic and seriously impeded my ability to enjoy the curvy secondary highways we traveled. It took us until 9.15pm and riding through the sunset in Les Laurentides before we reached Secteur Mont du Lac des Cygnes at Parc National des Grands-Jardins. We got our tent set up, had a park warden come by and not only sell us but deliver us some firewood (while warning us to be careful because the fire risk was extreme) and just barely managed to pitch the tarp before a raging thunderstorm came banging through the Pied-des-Monts (foot of the mountains) campground.

Drying out the next day

We awoke the next morning to more high wind gusts, but this stunning view on the way to the washhouse:

We rode up to the Mont du Lac des Cygnes (mountain of swan lake) Discovery Centre after confirming that via ferrata is only cancelled due to severe thunderstorms, then proceeded to climb a damn mountain.

Our guide called this "a nice flat spot" to stop for a snack.

The route was far more challenging than I'd expected, especially since the aircraft cable lifeline to which you are clipped is not to be used as a hold - there was much less hardware to grab than I'd anticipated, and given that I'm slightly terrified of heights and not a very good climber, I was cruising on adrenaline all afternoon (the route takes 5hrs starting with a tough, technical 30min hike; a stop at the teaching wall to ensure you climb safely; the parcours itself took us 3.25hrs, then another 30min hike back down to the via ferrata office). The 60+kph wind gusts trying to blow us off the mountain didn't help - nor did the 2 rain showers that resulted in wet metal hardware for hand and footholds.

Rain cloud incoming.

I got to a traverse section with no hardware at all for 3m/10ft or so, and was getting tired and ragged so suggested maybe I shouldn't continue. Our guide talked me into trying it, though (even offered to rope herself to me, which I declined) - partly, I'm sure, because it was her first time guiding to the summit of the parcours and she wanted to do the whole thing instead of just the traverse. She usually guides at a different park and had not done the La Montée section yet, which includes the summit trek:

"Poutre" are beams - pieces of 4"x4" wood you walk across in gaps in the rock (one is visible behind us in the snack stop photo). "Pont népalais" is a "Nepalese bridge" - just a piece of aircraft cable to walk across with 2 more for you to hold onto, and another piece to which you clip your harness.


I did eventually make the summit of the parcours, and enjoyed the view from the roof.

Tanker and I at the top of the lifeline.

Pretty glad I didn't chicken out after all.

Next morning it was another ride through the mountains - and a 40min rain shower - to the north shore of the Saguenay River and Parc National du Fjord-du-Saguenay.

Pining for the fjords.

We hiked out to the whale watching platform, but the belugas and harbour seals usually don't turn up until July and August so we didn't see any. Strangely enough, we didn't feel that disappointed.

Near Halte des Belugas right at the golden hour.
You honestly can't imagine how huge this really is.

Sun setting over Rivière Ste-Marguerite

The next morning we finally escaped the swarms of vicious, bug-repellent-resistant blackflies by taking a ferry across the mouth of the Saguenay where it meets the St. Lawrence and riding through a couple more rainstorms along 138, descending out of the mountains along the seaway to Quebec City, then on through Montréal and to Parc National d'Oka.

The beach at twilight.

We had to keep a very tidy campsite because the raccoons were incessant.
They also tried to steal my bike while we slept!

While fairly abandoned at twilight Thursday evening, I discovered while out running trails and the boardwalk early Friday afternoon that the beach was completely packed for St-Jean-Baptiste Day - beautiful sunshine and a hot afternoon for fête nationale, with seemingly everyone making the half-hour drive from Montréal to the park.

Hopefully with no land disputes.

We, on the other hand, went the other way. We rode into Montréal on Friday afternoon, booked into our tiny hotel room right downtown, then spent the rest of the day and well into the night walking and taking in the incredible sights, sounds and flavours (Schwartz's and Firegrill FTW!) of one of our favourite cities.

No trip to Montréal would be complete without this.
The meat is so good even the local pigeons turn carnivorous!
Unique parking at our hotel, but our bikes remained undisturbed!

Outside la Basilique Notre Dame on our way to a magnificent steak dinner

Saturday morning after demolishing some delicious galettes at a creperie in the west end (they even had almond milk so I could have a latté!), we rode the 623km home so we would have Sunday as a day to unpack and get ready to return to work.

7 nights and 2,700km/1,680mi later, it was nice to be in our own bed again. On Monday is was back into the swing of things with less than 4 weeks until the Dirty Girls 12-hour - yikes! At least I managed not to put on too much weight while we were touring - our only restaurant meals were in Montréal, as we'd hit grocery stores and I'd cook breakfast & dinner at campsites, then we'd snack on trail mix at fuel stops as our "lunch". Also managed to keep it down to a single glass of prosecco with our steak dinner to celebrate a successful tour - only drank water other than that, though I did bring home a can of Glutenberg double-Belgian for after the next race..

I do miss the mountains and the incredible sights we saw, but running a trail just minutes from our house on Monday evening confirmed that there really is no place like home.

Also: not a blackfly for miles.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Conquer the Canuck 50k Ultra Trail Race - Saturday, June 11th, 2016

The good thing about a hometown race? I could get up at stupid o'clock in the morning, have my bit of rice porridge for breakfast 3hrs before the starting gun, then go the hell back to bed for an hour and still make it down to Shade's Mills Conservation Area with a coffee in hand by just past 8am. Pretty sweet, I tell ya.

Pre-race gyrations and general dorkery

The thunderstorms that had been predicted to sweep in overnight apparently missed our exit of the 401 and went to soak the GTA instead. It was 18c/64f at 7am and dry as a bone - far from the soft, muddy conditions I'd expected. This means the only justification I can possibly give for wearing my old 1st-generation NB Leadville 1210s (with dead midsoles from 760km of running on them on raceday) instead of my newer Leadville v2s (my current long run shoe) is that the old ones have been with me since my first 50k, have run the two others I've done as well, plus three Horror Hill 6-hours and some other stupid things. When it comes to ultrarunning, they know how to do it.

Too bad their owner can't really say the same. Honestly, even if it had been muddy, I should have worn the newer shoes. Who the heck cares if trail runners get muddy?

Stalwart friends, even if I am a knob.

I chatted with a few people and picked up my race kit, used the facilities to "get down to race weight" and did the necessary pre-race things: slathering almost my entire body in SportShield, bug repellent and sunblock, then swinging my appendages around a bit in an effort to wake them up. I also ran into a fellow I'd been chatting with in the Run Trails Ontario facebook group the previous day: he'd signed up for the 25k very last-minute and had been looking for some info about the course, which I tried to provide from memories of mountain biking, cross-country skiing and running at Shade's Mills in the past. He thanked me for the details and asked where he could put his drop bag stuff - I told him to just leave it with Tanker the Wonder Sherpa near the start/finish line, because my honey is awesome and likes to help everyone out.

I stuffed my gel flask full of EFS Liquid Shot and a little container of S!caps in my pockets, grabbed my hand bottle, took my hat off while the national anthem played, then lined up to get the back, because I have no illusions of grandeur.

Or even competence.
There were technically 3 races starting at once: the 25k, the 50k, and the 50k first stage of the "Ultimate Canuck" which included another full marathon (42.195km) on the same course the following day. Sunday would include stage 2 for the Ultimate Canuck, a stand-alone marathon, and also an 8.33k single loop race. Out of about 70 people who registered for the Saturday races, more than half were running the 25k, with 16 registered in each the stand-alone 50k and the Ultimate Canuck.

The plan was just to go out nice and easy, as this was to be a fully supported training run more than a race. The horn sounded just after 9am, and we all set off under the increasingly hot and relentless sun. Somehow the planets aligned a few seconds later, and Tanker got the best looking photo of me running ever. When I'm old and gray and can barely walk (let alone run), I'm going to look back on this one and say that at least for a single moment I actually looked like I knew what the hell I was doing.

As good as it gets.
Then it was down to business as I lumbered off to see exactly how the course had been configured to get an 8.33km loop out of the assorted trails.

See ya!

I started to sweat almost immediately and knew I'd be in for a long day. That did not, however, stop me from falling somewhat into step with Jason, the fellow from the Run Trails Ontario group. We got to chatting, and were in mid-conversation when we arrived at some gentle uphills that I was thinking I should probably walk. Of course, since I'm an idiot, I just kept on running. I mean, if I can talk fairly comfortably while running, it should be fine...right?

Yeah, there's no way that keeping up with someone doing the 25k will possibly come bite me in the arse later..

Nonetheless, I was too dumb (and maybe a bit self-conscious) to drop to a walk with other people running around me, so I actually ended up spending the first 3 loops running with Jason.

Coming in from the 1st lap around 58mins

I'd had a swig off my EFS Liquid Shot flask and an S!cap around 50mins in, so didn't need anything as we passed the start/finish.

Off for loop 2

As we ran, Jason asked some questions about various aspects of ultrarunning as he was fairly new to the sport but would be racing the North Face Endurance Challenge marathon distance at Blue Mountain and Run for the Toad 50k later in the season. I tried to give him the best advice I could, qualifying it with free admissions that I am really nothing but a stubborn fool who refuses to quit when I really should. He seemed quite happy to pick my tiny, addled brain, though, and listen to my idiotic stories about racing with various injuries, paddling through small craft warnings, riding motorcycles on mountains in thunderstorms, and my other ridiculously ill advised adventures.

The course was lovely, if a bit of a challenge. Despite being mostly tree-lined and forested, there was precious little shade to be had and the day just kept getting hotter. In no time I was feeling drips from the back of my skirt raining down on the backs of my legs as I ran - always a special experience, that. I kept swigging away at the EFS Liquid Shot and drinking water from my hand bottle, supplementing with a cup of coconut water, an orange slice and a chunk of watermelon from the aid station that you pass twice at 500m and again around 7km into the loop, plus taking an S!cap periodically to keep up electrolytes. My third dose of both gel and salt came just after we came through the second loop in around 2 hours.

Lap 2 done.

The course markings were really clear, which was nice as there was 2-way traffic in a couple of spots and we used a combination of both the main (cycling/cross-country ski) and secondary (snowshoe/hiking only) trails in the park.

Well-marked intersections

Map from my Garmin fenix 2 - workout data here.

I encouraged Jason to keep eating and drinking through the third lap, as he said his energy was starting to wane a bit. I continued taking S!caps every 40mins and finished off my EFS Liquid Shot around 2h30m in, which meant I could ditch the empty flask when I passed the start/finish again. I also grabbed watermelon slices from the 0.5/7k aid station, because they're just awesome in hot weather and today certainly qualified. I was sweating buckets and knew we were slowing down a bit, especially as Jason was wearing a heart rate monitor and trying to keep his HR under a certain threshold. We ended up walking a few times so he could bring it down, and while he said I was under no obligation to stay with him I emphasized that with the day I still had ahead of me I was more than happy to walk a bit! Time simply wasn't an issue today - the longer I was out on my feet, the better training it would be for the Dirty Girls 12-hour in 5 weeks' time.

We kept on trucking through the woods and I sent him off ahead through the start/finish line for his final time while I stopped at the picnic table where Tanker was set up to sort out a few things. Jason finished in just over 3hrs1min.

Jason's finishing kick

The only reason to run more than 4 hours is to eat cookies on course.

Now getting into the real meat of the race and the hottest part of the day, I began incorporating more real food to test nutrition for Dirty Girls. I had two of the cookie chunks pictured above, plus some corn nuts and a bite-size piece of the crisp rice treats I'd made on Thursday evening. Carbo loading and race fuel in one! Will deffo do that again.

Quick photo with my compatriot before heading out for lap 4
Thanks for the company and good luck with your future endeavours!

With the crowd having thinned considerably now that most 25k racers were off the course, I spent most of the next 3 laps running alone and walking when I pleased. I know I slowed considerably and would pause to scarf back more watermelon at the aid stations, which were really well-stocked. I particularly liked that the dried fruit and trail mix was portioned out into small zipper baggies (1 dried apricot or 2tbsp of trail mix in each), since that meant you could grab some to stuff in a pocket without it getting all sweaty and sticky, there would be no cross-contamination with the pretzels and cookies on the same table (food allergies suck, people), and you knew that noone had just been scratching their sweaty butt and then stuck their reeking hand in the trail mix. Great planning and execution by the organizers and volunteers, who were really incredible all day long under the hot sun.

I took the last S!cap I had on me around 3h10m, and felt foolish for letting myself run out as I knew it would be close to an hour before I could get more from the start/finish area. I had a peanut butter Gu around 3h30m hoping that the small amount of sodium would help, but my hands were swelling again in the heat. I also needed to use the portajohn that the organizers had providently set up in the woods by the 2.5k aid station, but I wasn't having digestive trouble - just needed to "lose some more weight", and then I felt fine. I'm actually really pleased that I never felt any GI distress the entire day; considering I was fueling with a lot of real food and it was a very hot day, I'm feeling good about my nutrition strategy...except forgetting to reload with S!caps.

Raise your hand if you're a knob!

When I was about 30km in, the left side of my mid-back started to hurt (in the same spot that was aggravated at Seaton Soaker a month beforehand), but it fortunately went away after awhile. My hamstrings were getting grouchy from walking up the not-terribly-big-but-numerous hills, but the thing that really worried me was that my left glutes were starting to cause problems. I'd had a twinge from them earlier in the week and tried to work on it with foam rolling, but apparently it was still an issue and I could feel it starting to work down into my illiotibial band and down into my left knee. Not wanting to go through the agony of last October's Vulture Bait 50k again, I started to massage the origin of the problem (a spot deep in the left side of my bum) while I walked the uphills. Fortunately, it was enough to hold things together and I was able to run without pain.

I am, however, still an idiot - I actually managed to stub my left big toe tripping on a root while I was walking. That kind of stupidity takes talent, but at least I stayed upright. As a matter of fact, I didn't even have a near-fall all day, nor did I roll either of my ankles. While the trails were mostly non-technical, you should never underestimate my ability to trip over my own damn feet or damage myself.

Managed to make it through lap 4.

I made it back to the picnic table with Tanker the Wonder Sherpa and my cooler bag full of goodies around 4h10m and finally got myself another S!cap while reloading my little pill bottle with 4 more for the last 2 laps. I had a couple of lemon coconut date rolls, some salty cashews, and a couple more bites of crisp rice treat before setting out for my fifth loop - what I dubbed the "tourist lap", as I grabbed the camera from Tank to get some photos of the course.

Finally on my way again

Along the beach

Little bit of shade

The 500m / 7k aid station with 2 portajohns.
I really hated this pavement in my worn out, dead shoes.

Past the aid station, heading for the woods

Into the embrace of the bike/xc-ski trails

Turn right, then across the bridge for the main loop

I was definitely just moseying this lap - I took so long making my way from one aid station to another (particularly between the 2.5k aid station and the pavilion at 7k) that I'd run out of water, but made sure I had some when I knocked back an Endurance Tap gel at 4h20m. Then, as I tried to take a caplet around 4h45m, I managed to drop my pill bottle on the trail and spilled 3 of my precious S!caps on the ground. I managed to pick them up, but my tight, complaining hamstrings sure didn't make it easy.

Two-way traffic on this sunny climb

Friendly faces at the 2.5k aid station

The air was hot, the sun was hotter, and things were getting harder. I continued to need to self-massage my left glutes while walking climbs to ensure it didn't lock up on me, and my feet and ankles were starting to hurt from the pounding on hard-packed, dry dirt on worn out shoes. Even the lovely scent of the phlox and other wildflowers along the trail was getting overpowering in the heat, though a strong wind from the West would occasionally provide some relief.

I took my time, running and walking as I wished, mostly only sharing the trail with the chipmunks and robins, plus an occasional startled garter snake.

Pictured here making a hasty exit

Side slope is tough on the ankles

A bit more shade in the pine trees

Dirt and grass

Another climb

Blazing sun

To my dismay, the camera's rechargeable battery gave up the ghost just past the 5 kilometer marker, so I wasn't able to document the full course. I did coax a couple of additional photos out of it, but I spent at least 3km carrying a piece of dead weight. I wasn't too pleased about that.

Though you'd never know it as I crossed the footbridge on the way back

I was just able to eke out a pic of part of the biggest climb on the whole course - a multi-stage affair through the hardwoods in the middle of the park, with shifting stones underfoot. This is one of about 4 sections of uphill, each of which turns a corner to face you with another chunk of hill to get up. 

At least it's shady..

When you're done with all that, you loop around and come pounding down a grassy hill that spits you out right by where you entered the forest to begin with before you trot across the field to the pavilion with the aid station at 7k. I don't have any photos of the trail up past the nature centre or the rooty bits on the point on the other side of the beach, but I did manage to make it through my 5th loop by about 5h20m. I had even passed a couple of people along the way!

I dropped off the camera to Tanker and explained it was dead - he felt awful about not having charged it up before the race, so I tried not to be too grumpy about it. It helped that I had made myself a wrap with some deli turkey and mustard in a tortilla - a couple of bites of that were pure heaven after so many hours of mostly sweet foods. I had another chunk of crisp rice treat, too, and dropped off my empty gel packets while grabbing a couple of fresh ones. I didn't want a single unnecessary ounce on me as I set out for my final lap at around 5h25m, passing another local racer just as we dived into the forest for the last time.

I was actually running pretty well in the 6th loop - I took another S!cap at 5h30m, then followed it up with a sea salt chocolate Gu Roctane at 5h45m. Unfortunately it was about this time I realised I'd made a damn stupid mistake.

I blew it..

Somehow I had taken a wrong turning after the 2k mark and ended up on a part of the course I wasn't supposed to see until later, and in the other direction. I finally put it together, of course, after I'd run down a great big hill. As a matter of fact, it was "hey, I don't remember running down this before.." and seeing someone coming the other way while thinking "I don't remember there being 2-way traffic in a piney section.." that led me to realise I'd screwed up.


So, I turned around and walked back up this:

Knowing I'd have to do so again..

I'm not going to lie - knowing that I was now headed in the correct direction, there was a moment's temptation to just keep on going that way. I'd end up at the finish line eventually, and not have to retrace so many of my steps. However, I silenced that skeezy little voice in my head immediately; what the hell kind of person would cut the course in an ultra?

I made my way back to the last intersection of trails, spent a couple of minutes in my exhausted and heat-stupefied condition trying to figure out which way I actually needed to go, and then set off as fast as my worn out legs would carry me. I figure I did about an extra 400-500 metres and cost myself at least 5-8mins with my little unplanned detour.

Pretty sure this had something to do with it..

I knew I had got myself back on track when I hit the 2.5k aid station a few minutes later, and got my water refilled. I took one last S!cap at 6h7m despite the fact I'd stopped sweating nearly so much - my skirt had almost dried as I wasn't able to move very fast anymore. My legs had that awful fused-into-one-solid-lump feeling to them, and I was so ready to be done...but I was actually still feeling stronger than I expected, and running a fair bit. I even ran some very gentle uphill portions, and managed to pass back the two ladies who I'd run by at the end of loop 4 but who had overtaken me while I was off examining the course from the wrong damn direction.

Across the footbridge, up the switchback-y climb through the hardwoods, and then one last fill of my water bottle at the water tap by the pavilion that was the 7k aid station. Past the nature centre, across to the point, then back toward the finish to finally cross the line one last time.

Got there eventually!

Official time for 50k: 6:38:41.6

They even gave me a bottle of wine!

I was the saltiest thing in the world after I finished. Apart from the salt stains on my top, I had manifested crystals the size of table salt under my knees, on my upper arms, and under my chin. Fortunately, though the S!caps did their job of keeping my hands and feet from swelling too much during a very hot race. I'm quite pleased with how they're working out for me, when I remember to bring enough along with me anyway.

Salt stains aplenty

Look closely - it looks like I dipped my chin in the sugar bowl.

I had one of the wonderful massage therapy students work on my glutes, hamstrings and calves for me after the race (though I did let a fellow who was registered for the Ultimate Canuck go ahead of me - he had to run the next day, but I didn't!), but the best part was actually wandering out into the lake for a bit of nature's ice bath.

Shake it - don't break it.

The time being almost an hour longer than my 50k PR doesn't bother me in the least - this was all about getting some time in on my feet, and at about 12mins longer than any other event I've done I definitely accomplished that, while having some fun along the way. Other than going out harder than I probably should have in the first half, letting myself run out of S!caps, and my stupid little wrong turn, I don't really have any complaints with how the day played out - I ran stronger than I expected at the end, had no nutritional or digestive issues, and recovery has been going fairly well.

I can't say enough good things about Conquer the Canuck as a race. The organizers, volunteers, course and amenities are second to none, all combining to make for a truly exceptional race experience. I know I'll definitely be back in the future, and I hope to see the turnout for this home town event grow!