260K, 7days, 6 stages – Self-Supported Ultra Marathon
I’m sitting at the Montreal airport waiting for my flight to Gaspé and I see 3 women with running backpacks, they all appear to be European because of their different English accents. When they sat down, they greet a guy, another runner who they already know.
My first sign of nervousness, I’m thinking, “ok, these guys are not newbies and have raced together in other parts of the World.”
The plane is very small and they are all sitting towards the front, I go to the bathroom and ask the obvious question (if they are runners participating in the event) just to introduce myself and make a conversation.
I found out that one of them is Irish, one is Scottish, the man is English and the other woman is Irish but living in Hong Kong.
Arrived at the airport, the race director Jose Nocolas, who they all know from past events, greets us and drives us to the hotel.
At the hotel, I meet another runner, Marc Duplain, a man from Quebec city who starts telling me about his past stage races. We mostly talk about the Marathon des Sables which he has done 3 times. He gives me a lot of tips on how to manage the race, food, my feet etc…he tells me that his backpack shouldn’t weight more than 7.5K and that’s when I start to get really nervous because I know mine will weight about 28-29lbs.
He's telling me how excited he is knowing that our elite runners will be Christophe LeSaux from France and Salvador Calvo Redondo from Spain. Of course, I have never heard of these guys as this is my first ever ultra, but I'm as excited as he is. I'm excited because I wanted my first ultra to be big, having these guys here means that my first ultra will be something special.
Actually in the end we had some pretty serious runners. There was also Karim Mosta who has completed 166 stages in his lifetime including the MDS on 27 occasions (Karim ended-up injured and didn't participate in the event, he did an awesome job as a race volunteer), Grant Maughan from Australia who I heard finished 2nd at Badwater, Tifanny Saibil who has a top 10 finish at the MDS (also injured so walked part of the course) and Canadian runners like Alissa St-Laurent, an amazing athlete who is the future of Canadian ultra running and Katherine Labonte, another great Canadian ultra runner who has completed the Alberta triple crown in one year and finished 2nd AG at the Canadian Death Race.
Knowing that we were only about 20-21 runners and that all those runners were here...you can tell how nervous I'm getting.
I know it's things I cannot control and shouldn't do, but I'm so nervous about the backpack weight that I start asking people a lot of questions about their gear over a beer. They were happy to share their knowledge.
Karim Mosta even offered to come to my room after the evening banquet and go through my bag to see if there was a way to lighten the load.
When we get to my room, he asks me to remove ALL items from my bag and put them on the bed. Most of my mandatory gear is heavier than it should be, the sleeping bag for example, mine is big and weighs over 1.6KG including the bulky sleeping pad while everyone's slpeeping bag is very small and range between 300 to 600g.
It was too late then to change any of those items.
He looks at my food and asks why I have the same thing in a seperate bag for every single day. He told me to empty my bag of food for day 5 and then go to the store across the street and buy little packs of chinese noodles which weight next to nothing and are 400cal each. "Day 5 is NOT a running day" he reminds me.
"You don't need all these fancy gels and other foods for racing....you want to eat the noodles that day." The next morning I went to the Dollar Store and bought the noodles, but like I said before, rearranging a few things didn't change much to my weight, I should have done my homework before and bought a $400 sleeping bag instead of a $100 one for example, same for the air mattress.
Final weight in...My bag weights 12KG, second heaviest. Many other participants are under 9KG....Again, nothing I could do at that point.
Day one: 37KM, 1900m Ascent, 1800m Descent
I woke-up at 5AM for a 6AM start, as usual I'm very slow to get organised. I get ready just in time and start at the back of the pack. After climbing some insane hills I get to checkpoint 2 in 6th position.I felt great coming in but I think I started too fast as I took a long break at that checkpoint and got pased by 4 people by cp3.
I managed to finish in 10th spot. That 37K was really hard, it was pretty much vertical, took my about 10.5hrs to complete and it was already the toughest race I had even done. The elite wanted to finish that stage in 4hrs, it took Christophe Le Saux 6:40 to complete the stage.
I heard some elite runners say that this was the hardest stage 1 that they had ever done and that we might be in for a long week. We lost 3 runners that day, including one due to sunburn.
Day two: 43KM, 2100m Ascent, 1750m Descent
Again I'm late. Couldn't start on time, probably 10 minutes after the others but that didn't really bother me because I knew we'd be in for a long day. This stage was even longer with more vertical gains than stage one. It took me about 15 hrs to complete that stage.
The end of that stage was really tough as we had to hike up Mont Albert and down after cp3. I finished that last painfull leg with Katherine and James our sweeper who had cought up to us. It was really long but the chatter made things way easier. We lost another 3 runners that day. Here was my first real mental speedbump.
I got to camp at 11PM and had to wake-up at 4:30 for the next leg. Guess what...I didn't get to sleep at all, not a single minute.I asked other experienced runners if they had already experienced that same issue and how to cope with it. Some of them told me that it happens that they don't get any sleep but have to fight through it and try to get some sleep after the next stage.
Day three: 53KM, 1600m Ascent, 1900m Descent
Surprisingly, after having NO SLEEP the night before I had a great start. At checkpoint 2 only one of the non elite runners was in front of me. But here is where it got tricky. We started to encounter a lot of roots and rollling rocks on that course and my minimalist shoes couldn't take it.
I easily got passed by 5-6 people on top of that mountain, mainly because I couldn't run or even speed walk on those rocks. My feet were really starting to hurt and I was starting to get blisters. On the last downhill before camp, I slipped and fell backward entering a knee deep river. None of my gear was in my waterproof bag. Everything was soaked, sleeping bag included, and I'm sure my bag weighed 40 pounds.
I started to freak out a bit wondering if I was going to be able to finish the race with wet gear. I was also very concerned about the next day's race distance as it is was far longer than anything I had done before.
Thankfully it was only about 5 pm and the camp was on a windy, sunny beach so I had a good opportunity to dry most of my gear and remind myself repeatedly that quitting was not an option for me, I was here to finish the race. After that adventure I got about 4hrs sleep before stage 4.
Day four: 78KM, 1900m Ascent, 1500m Descent
Stage 4 was the long day, I was really nervous about that one. Again I couldn't get ready on time so my start was late by 20 minutes. There was quite a bit of climbing at the start but less than the first 3 stages. The course also had less roots and rocks than the previous days.
I thought that would be great for my feet so I stated to run a bit fast, at the 40K mark I had caught-up to the people that I wanted to pass but then there was a little mountain to climb and I really hit a wall. That was my longest distance ever and I didn't manage it very well.
Things just got worst. I started to get some mean pressure points under my feet and they started to swell. By the 60K mark I could barely walk my feet hurt so much, but I still managed to hike the rest with a fellow competitor (Stacey) and finished sometime around 10PM.
They gave us the option to sleep at cp6 if we wanted to and then finish at starting at 6AM the next morning but I opted to finished that stage in one day which gave me a day off on day 5 to rest my feet.
Day five: Rest day
When one of the race organizers saw my feet in the morning, they were swollen and discoloured with a few big blisters. He suggested I should be taken to a clinic. The doctor prescribed anti-inflamatory medication and made suggestions as to how to tape my feet for the remainder of the race.
Later at camp, Christophe LeSaux taught me an old MDS trick on how to drain my blisters. The medic did not approve of this method (sorry Alexa, I'm sure you were right, lol) and was concerned I would get an infection but at that point I was desperate for anything that I thought might help me get through the next day.
Day six: 42KM, 1200m Ascent, 1100m Descent
Stage 5: Loved that course. My feet still hurt and I could feel all the blisters but it was raining so much that it made the ground very soft.
There wasn't much for rocks and roots so that made it way easier for me to compete with the help of my friend Katherine who pushed me hard along the way and even shared some of her food with me as she was concerned I wasn't eating.
Even if I wasn't as fast as I wanted to be, I was still very happy with this run.
Day seven: 12KM, 400m Ascent, 400m Descent
Day seven. The day and night before it rained so hard that everyone was wet, cold and miserable. I don't think anyone was excited to start this final stage which was just a little 12K loop around Bonaventure Island. I really wanted to run this one but I couldn't endure the pain under my left foot.
The blisters were so painful that I had to run it on one leg. I was really happy that I had my hiking poles. I'm really glad this was the last stage as I don't think I could have done another one. At the end of the stage we got our beautiful, BIG medal and made our way back to shore.
In the evening there was an award presentation. I got a little statue of a bird commonly found in the Gaspé region for winning the Male 35-39 category. I also won the "Rookie" award. lol
The goodbyes were a little tough after having spent a week with all these people. I made great friendships with some of them but who knows, I may see them again at another event.