“It´s not The North Face Endurance Walk in the Park – it´s called The North Face Endurance Challenge for a reason!”. Race director looked at us firmly and continued: “If you feel there´s something wrong with the race and want to vent it, come talk to me – don´t take it on the volunteers. Do we have a deal?”
Ultramarathon Man was the first book I read about running. For me the author, Dean Karnazes, was the embodiment of an extreme endurance athlete – and for a good reason.
The guy had done it all – running 350 miles in 80 hours and 44 minutes without sleeping, completing 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, running a 320k relay from Calistoga to Santa Cruz alone not once but eleven times and a number of other accomplishments hard to even imagine.
After finishing the book, I never imagined to be able to actually do ultrarunning myself, let alone ever meeting the Ultramarathon Man in person. And yet, there I was – sitting in a pre-race panel discussion in Canada, getting last minute tips from the man himself for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k trail ultra starting 7AM the next morning!
Before the panel had kicked off, another ultrarunning legend, Dianne van Deeren, had approached me due to my foreign accent. When she found out I was from Finland, she immediately started questioning me of the 100 mile ultra in Finnish Lapland (Rovaniemi 150).
Apparently, she was supposed to participate it earlier, but due to lost luggage on the way there (including her sledge and the mandatory race gear) she had to turn back home and skip the race. I was glad to share my experiences from last February (race report here) and welcome her for another go next year!
Before the race, my biggest concern was getting a proper breakfast early enough in the morning. As the race started already at 7AM, I needed to be finished with eating by 5AM at the latest. Obviously, there was no place serving food that early in the whole village.
Eventually, I gave up negotiating “very early breakfast” with my hotel and headed to the local village market to get it sorted. When the alarm went off at 4:30AM next morning, the “self-served early breakfast” laid out on the floor next to my race gear didn´t really appear inviting.
I sat down on the floor beside my bed and started munching through the bagels and white bread washing it down with Gatorade and cold Starbucks coffee. Luckily, most of my attention was pulled away from eating due to the news of a coup taking place in Turkey. I clicked through the tweets wondering if my flight to Africa through Istanbul would actually take place three weeks ahead.
The North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario takes place in Blue Mountain skiing resort 100ish miles North of Toronto. There are several distances available from “Karno Kids” children´s race to a 50 miler that had already been sent off at 5AM the same morning.
Altogether, this year´s event had pulled roughly 1800 participants and the race village had been alive since 4AM.
At 6:50 all the 50k runners were lined up at the start. Weather was nice and cool compared to the 30c+ heatwaves in Toronto earlier the same week. After last motivational words from Dean Karnazes we were set off with a countdown – 50k ahead!
My running felt surprisingly difficult from the beginning. Uphill start, Mont Blanc Marathon 3 weeks back (race report here) probably still in my legs, time zone difference, a week of conferencing in Toronto behind, and skipped tune-up run on the previous day probably all contributed to the feeling of “stiffness”. I had to work hard to keep the pace up.
The first real climb started soon and to my surprise the guys around me didn´t slow down to speed hiking and instead jogged up the hill. This should have been the first warning signaling “you´re running in a too fast group dude!” but somehow I managed to miss it and tried to keep up.
When we finally reached the top, I somehow got back to my senses and eased the pace regaining control of my dangerously high heart rate. We still had a long day ahead!
Suddenly, I had a vivid flashback from the same morning. At the start line, the race director had asked “How many of you are doing your 1st ultra today?“. A lot of hands were raised. I somehow got the feeling some of those hands were pushing hard ahead of me and I´d see their backs again sooner or later.
Most of the climbing happened during the first half and after 25k mark the trail was mostly rolling ups and downs on the ridge before dropping straight down back to the village at the very end.
Majority of the trail was either single track or skiing path with a couple of short sections on road to get the loop connected.
The aid stations throughout the route were the best ones I´ve come across this far! They were set up roughly 9k apart and stocked with so much food and drinks that the race director actually warned us about gaining weight along the way!
The volunteers were extremely helpful. When entering an aid station I was bombarded with questions from all sides asking “what do you need?“, “how can I help you?“, “water, coke, electrolytes?“, “any food you need?“. At the exit there was a volunteer with an informative summary of the upcoming route and the exact distance to the next aid station. What more could a tired runner ask for!
During the second half I started catching up the people who had escaped me on the climbs earlier. I kept fueling (gel every 30mins, bar every 2 hours), made sure to stay hydrated as it was starting to get hot, and kept my pace constant regardless of the accumulating fatigue.
This time, I found myself excelling on the more technical sections and that doesn´t happen too often as typically I get dropped as soon as the terrain gets tough. Guess most of the trails around here are less technical and I had more experience on running on rocks and roots than the others around me. On the downhills I was overly cautious with my knees and got constantly passed from left and right.
After 4,5 hours of running I seemed to be progressing relatively well compared to the runners around me and my running started feeling good considering the time I had already spent on my feet.
There were no signs of muscles giving up even on longer downhills (probably due to me being very cautious on descents from the beginning) and the calories consumed as gels and bars seemed to soak in keeping the energy levels up.
For the last 10k I teamed up with a lad from US (who had just finished a 100 miler 4 weeks back) and the rest of the way went like a breeze chatting and admiring the scenery.
We were both surprised to hear the “1k to the finish!” shouts at the last aid station. “Really, already?” – I quickly downed a cup of coke and electrolytes before starting the final descent down a skiing slope towards the finish line.
The Canadians sure know how to throw a party! The finish line was packed with people, music was playing and the announcer was on fire! A marathon relay was on and the teams were cheering on runners constantly entering and exiting the transition area.
I crossed the finish line at with 5:42 on the race clock, 9th in my age group. After a good moment of hard breathing (I may have sprinted to finish just for the sake of spectators) I sat down in a shade and started enjoying the fun cheering for other finishers while stuffing myself with calories from the finish line buffet.
Later in the afternoon, the awards ceremony was nothing I´ve seen before! All the category winners were crowdsurfed off the stage including the announcer and Mr. Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes himself!
The party continued late through the night but the 50k had taken the best of me and I headed to bed early soothed by ibuprofen and a pint of lager I felt I had definitely earned with the day´s work.
Now it´s time to recover and start getting ready for the main event of the season – 260k loop around Kilimanjaro!