by Julie Marineau, Team FitU
This may have something to do with the fact that I’m a relative trail running newbie. While I’ve been running off and on for years and completed six half marathons, I ventured off the relatively flat, urban asphalt only late last summer. My first trail race was actually last year’s edition of the Orford Xtrail, where I completed the 11.5km distance in 2 hours and 9 minutes. It was incredibly tough and I can still remember wondering out loud why I had paid to put myself through this as I struggled up the gravel path that leads to the summit of the ski hill. Strangely, I don’t have strong memories of the suffering that brought about this thought.
A year later, my self-doubt stemmed from the fact that trail running is nothing like road running (except of course that they both involve running). The training required to reach the level of fitness to complete a 23km trail run up a mountain is more demanding than training for the same distance on the road. I’ve had a transformative summer but doubted whether I had truly put in enough effort to deserve to be standing at this starting line. Realising there was no backing out; I tried to psych myself up for what lay ahead.
To the tune of Metallica’s Enter Sandman and with my friend Nancy’s smiles and encouragement, I set off on this trail running adventure reminding myself to soak it all in. I had a blog to write. My first couple of kilometres were spent trying not to slip or trip on the leaf covered, uneven trail before I even got to the hard part. Have I mentioned that I’m klutzy? My mind has a tendency to wander, which has led to several embarrassing trip ups both on trails and on the road. More on this later…
None of my lovely and more experienced trail running training mates had signed up for this distance, which caused me to question my sanity; but more importantly, to realise that I was running my race. I did not have to wonder how far ahead of me they were on the trail or worry about affecting their run should they kindly stop to wait for me to catch up. So I tried to forget about the other runners and run for myself and by myself… As I looked at my watch to note that I passed my first runner at kilometre four. The second came about three kilometres later. Thankfully, I didn’t count when and how many runners passed me.
The first half of the Sentier des crêtes is a relatively easy-going, cross-country trail and my confidence was boosted by the fact that I had managed to cut about 5 minutes off my 10km time from my previous race in Charlevoix. Maybe I could finish this race under four hours!
And then began the technical portion of the course – right at the halfway mark. As I sipped my DripDrop-spiked green tea and swallowed a small portion of my gel and started the climb, I noticed that I hadn’t spent much time worrying about whether I could actually do this or not. I was simply doing it. I had somehow left my nerves and self-doubt at the start line. And there lies the freedom and release that I’ve found in trail running: when I’m in the middle of a forest or on top of a mountain, I don’t doubt myself. I can acknowledge the difficultly of my task, the slower pace that I’ve adopted and any fatigue that I’m feeling, but I actually trust my training and my body to get me to where I need to go. There were no thoughts of stopping or giving up. There was a gluten-free chocolate chip cookie with my name on it at that finish line. I could almost taste it!
My pace slowed as the trail got steeper, the temperature got cooler and the trees gradually became sparser making way for rockier trail. I found myself with two fellow runners as I reached the first peak, with muddy hands and feet, out of breath from the exertion. We had been told there were tam tams at the peak. I could hear them but couldn’t see them yet. One of the runners pointed up to where the players actually were. “We’re going up there?” I said, surprised. She answered in the affirmative and mentioned that once we passed the “Pic de l’Ours”, it would be smoother sailing. Resigned to another difficult and technical climb, I moved on. The terrain at this point was almost entirely rock, and after running through leafy and muddy trail, I had no confidence in my footing in wet shoes. (My klutziness isn’t just due to my easily distracted brain… I have no balance. In fact, I did slip and fall somewhere along the ridge, in front of the race photographer. He was kind enough not to post those shots with the official race pictures and even managed to snap of a couple of pictures where I don’t look too miserable.) I cautiously (i.e. fearfully) slowed my pace and my two fellow runners raced ahead of me. I managed to catch up to one of them right before we reached the summit of the second peak. At this point, I could not only hear the tam tams, I could feel them. The view at the second summit was breathtaking. As beautiful as any view atop any Adirondack mountain I’d ever hiked. What beauty the world holds for us if we simply look for it. Fall colours, lakes, streams and mountains. Amazing! I stopped to take it in. I took my running mate’s picture. I breathed in the fresh, cool air and nd then continued on my way.
The descent from the second peak was treacherous and I began to understand why it was mandatory for runners to carry some sort of hydration system. I would not want to get stranded up here. The wind was blowing and I found myself on all fours or my rear often on the ridge. As I began to feel drizzle in the air, I flashed back to a particularly scary hike down Huayna Picchu in Peru the summer before in the rain. I made my descent wishing I was wearing the sturdy hiking boots I wore on that Peruvian hike. “I don’t want to do this ever again!” I thought as I worried about where to put my feet and searched for those pink trail markers. The freedom I had felt earlier was gone and I felt alone, a little scared and discouraged by the fact that I found myself climbing, with no end in sight, yet again. And it had begun to outright rain. At least the rain had held off long enough for me to pass the worst of the frightening and treacherous (to me) rocky ridges.
I spent the next few kilometres simply reminding myself to keep up my pace and move forward. I was trying to avoid having other people pass me. I didn’t want to be swept! That was the only demand that my training mates had made of me for this race: Don’t come in last! I knew there were at least some people behind me but could not deny that I was a member of the “slow pod” of these 255 or so trail runners. I began to count down the kilometres to the finish line and tried to remember that gluten-free cookie! The countdown took what felt like forever. I had naively thought that once I reached that second peak the worst of the climb was behind me. In retrospect, I know that it was, but was surprised at just how many tough hills whoever designed this 23km race had managed to cram into this course. They just kept coming and coming.
I arrived at the section of the course that joined the last few kilometres of the other distances of this Xtrail event, which was on the last portion of that dreaded path that had made me wonder why I had spent my hard earned money to drag my tired body up a hill. I could not believe it! My face must have betrayed my thoughts because one of the volunteers told me the hill looked worse that it actually were. It was a blatant lie, but I was grateful for the encouragement that minute or so before the truth set in. This was as difficult as it looked. I had heard that the last four kilometres of this race were all downhill. I was about a kilometre away and was anxiously awaiting the sight of a downward hill. Unfortunately, it turned out four was a rounded up number. The descent started with three and a half kilometres to the finish. My legs were exhausted. I had been diligently drinking throughout the race to avoid cramping, but had felt my muscles start to seize a few times over the course of those first twenty kilometres. The descent was not the gift I had been hoping it would be, as my quadriceps burned at each step down. As I was running down the portion of the trail I had skied down as a youngster, wishing I could ski down it now, I spotted a familiar runner about a hundred metres ahead of me. “Nancy!” I yelled out to her, grateful and surprised to see a familiar face. Nancy was running the 11.5km distance that had started a couple of hours after the 23km. I was struggling and it was such a relief to hear her answer “Me too!” after I announced that this was the most difficult race I had ever done. I was desperate to get to that finish line so I passed her and focused my thoughts on moving my tired and aching legs. The volunteers at this stage mentioned the distance that was left to go as I passed them and jokingly cautioned that the trail was “slippery when wet”. No kidding! I somehow managed to stay on my feet and make my way to the finish line. When it came into view, I tried to move a little faster to finish strong, but I did not have much energy left. I came in four hours and twenty nine minutes after I started and was greeted by my smiling friends and running mates, Chantal and Velcia, who had run out into the cold and rain to watch me come in. It was both the longest distance and time I had ever run and I tried to bask in the accomplishment. I was just so glad it was over. My smile, as I got my medal, was one of relief mixed in with a little pride at having pushed my limits and completed what I had come here to do. Oh, and of anticipation as I savoured every bite I took of that moist and chewy gluten-free chocolate chip cookie after I had changed and gotten the worst of the dirt off my legs and hands. Some people want a beer after a race. I will run great distances for a cookie!
It turns out the “slower than Julie” category included all of seven people. I try not to focus on that fact and instead try to remember the cheers from the hikers I passed along the trail, the support of my fellow racers, the beautiful scenery, the quiet of nature and the joyful relief I felt I saw my friends’ smiling faces at the finish line. Not to mention the journey that brought me there. Running is not all about the race or the time it takes to complete it. It’s about heading out on the trail regularly, rain or shine, communing with nature, forging bonds with your training mates and, thanks to their support and encouragement, realising that your limits are farther than you thought they were. These are the thoughts I hope to hold in my mind as I stand at that starting line next year.