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Race Recap: Trail Race Lessons Learned at The North Face Endurance Challenge #ECSON

The North Face Endurance Challenge

So I did it. I swallowed my fear of getting completely lost in the wilderness and completed my first trail race ever on Sunday at The North Face Endurance Challenge up at the gorgeous Blue Mountain Resort in Blue Mountain, Ontario. This was a half marathon distance trail race – go big or go home is my motto. Though truthfully I could have gone even bigger as there were three longer race distances to choose from: 80k, 50k and full marathon as well as two shorter distances: 5k and 10k. I’m not the kind of crazy to do an ultra trail race… yet. That said, after completing the half marathon I can definitely see the attraction of those longer distances.

If you’ve never been, Blue Mountain Resort is absolutely stunning! I have only been there once before to go skiing with my husband and best friend about 15 yrs ago, but have never been there in the summer. Truthfully, it’s never crossed my mind to visit a ski resort in the summer, until this year when I’ve found somehow myself at two different ones. I would love to take my family there sometime for a week of fun and outdoor adventure. 

© Blue Mountain Resort

© Blue Mountain Resort

Have you picked up on the three keywords that I keep using in this race report?

Trail, Mountain, Ski hill.

In other words, this race was challenging! My original plan was to make the two hour drive up to Blue Mountain on race morning, leaving my house at 4:30 am in order to meet Angela of Eat Spin Run Repeat who had graciously picked up my race kit for me on Saturday – Thanks Angela! My hubby caught wind of my plans and thought that was ludicrous, so I contacted Angela early Saturday morning to see if I could crash in her room Saturday night, thankfully she and her roommate Alannah said yes! Angela & Alannah to the rescue!

The 2 hour drive up was smooth, scenic and traffic free. I arrived at exactly 9 pm and found Alannah and Angela already in their PJ’s. I changed into mine, and we chit-chatted and relaxed for almost an hour, while I snacked on a Buider’s Bar and drank a bottle of water. Initiated by Angela, it was time to turn out the lights at 10 pm so that we could get a good solid 8 hours of sleep before the race. I am a major procrastinator, and I usually procrastinate going to bed the night before a race due to anxiety, and therefore usually don’t end up getting enough sleep, so I was very thankful that Angela and Alannah wanted to go to bed early. I was even more thankful at 6 am when I woke up feeling very well rested and ready to attack the trails and hills.

At 6 am our alarm went off. We slowly got ready for the race with the usual pre-race nervousness and uncertainty about what to wear. It was raining out when we woke up, but by the time we left the hotel the rain had stopped. I brought my breakfast from home (PC Organics cereal) and grabbed some milk and an apple from the continental breakfast that the hotel offered, then inhaled it in the car as Angela drove us to the race.

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The race atmosphere was really different. We arrived an hour before race start and we were pretty much the first racers there, and the race expo people were just setting up their booths for the day. Thankfully we were able to relax inside Blue Mountain Resort to stay warm and dry while we waited until race time. I drank an ActivFuel+ while waiting, and was able to use the indoor washrooms.  The bonus part about getting there early was that there was no line up!

15 min before race start we went out to check our bags.  We decided to hop up on the podium and take a pre-race picture.

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Me with Angela.  You can see the ski hill in the background. 
(Pic courtesy of @eatspinrunrpt)

I don’t normally bring a bag, but I figured I’d be pretty muddy at the end and dying to get my shoes off and put my flip flops on.  After we checked our bags we lined up at the start.  All of the other runners were super nice, supportive and talkative.  It was there that I met two other Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront marathon Digital Champions: Andrew Chak and Christy Davidson from Runnin’ On Empties.  

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Angela and I with Andrew.
(Photo credit: @AndrewChak)

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Ready to race!
(Photobombed by Angela)

The race started by running diagonally across the base of the ski hill with a slight upwards slant.  This was ok and I thought, hey! This isn’t so bad, perhaps I misread the elevation maps?  And then I learned my first lesson:

Lesson #1 Never get too cocky in a trail race.
The race abruptly turned more uphill and from there on out, the hills pretty much never ended.  And even when they did end, they were FAR too steep to run down without doing a face plant.

The race continued on, and we entered the slick forest.  The trail was narrow, rocky, muddy and slippery from the rain that night.  That’s when I learned my second lesson:

Lesson #2 It’s OK to pass people on the narrow trails.
I was polite and didn’t push past people, though lots of people were passing me.  I didn’t realise that it’s ok to pass people. I don’t know why I thought that it wasn’t.  

I must’ve lost quite a bit of time being stuck behind some old guy because by the time we got out of the forest for one of our nicest descents, my legs were ready to roll.  It was a good descent, and the only descent that we were able to run down without killing ourselves.

Lesson #3 Don’t be afraid to walk
After the downhill, we began a very challenging trek upwards again.  I walked and pretty much everyone around me walked too.  There was a girl running up and we all cheered her on, but I caught up to her a little later in the race, and by that time she looked to be really struggling.  I’m really glad that I walked up whenever I could.

At the top of that hill was the first aid station, and the first of two ladders that we had to climb to get over a fence into a different section of property:

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I love how the arrow is pointing straight up in the air.

The group of people I had been racing with stopped at the Aid station, but I kept going.  I took two shotbloks and drank some water from my fuel belt and was able to boot it through the forest.  This part of the race had groomed trails for snowmobiles, so it was nice and wide with rolling ups and downs.  I would have called this part hilly, but based on what we had just endured, and what we encountered later, this was a cake walk.  

Lesson # 4 Follow the ribbon colour that matches your bib

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 Nice easy trails.

This is about where my turn by turn details of the race get foggy. I remember turning out to a gravel road at the very top of the mountain and that the rain had started. It was cold and drizzly.  That didn’t last long because about 800m later we turned back onto the trails.  Once into the trails I met up with the 10k racers.  This is where I learned my next lesson about trail racing:

Lesson #5 Don’t wear headphones while trail racing
Folks this is a big no-no.  There were many 10k racers listening to music, and when I shouted “On your left” or “Excuse me” or “Get the F outta my way” (kidding, I didn’t really say that, but wanted to) they didn’t hear me.  Then I got kinda mean and passed them however I could.  Sometimes this meant going off into the bush to get around them. 

I was angry, and my race mode came on.  Up until this point I was happily just making my way along the trails trying to conserve energy.  Now that I was halfway through the race, I knew that I could make it the rest of the way, and I had time to make up.  I really really really wanted to break 3 hours.  

We then came to the second aid station at 11k, and the first part of the race where people could cheer us on. I refilled my water bottles and carried on running. The volunteers were super motivating and helpful, offering advice on how to navigate the trails.

The rocks and wood are loose, and the mud is slippery, use the trees to help you as much as possible.

Lesson #6 Heed the advice of the volunteers
I didn’t, so of course I managed to wipe out and fell on my face. 

At this point we were back at the ski hill, travelling up and down the ski hills, and around the chairlifts. Sadly, the lifts weren’t operational.

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I think the other racers found the hills as hard as I did.

There was some tough, uphill rocky terrain, and went back into the forest. By this time there was a group of runners I was run/walking with and making jokes about how “easy” the race was. For many of us this was our first trail race and we were dying! We came to a waterfall and the runners stopped to splash water on their faces, but I continued on into the forest ahead of them. I was doing pretty good following the ribbons, but then went quite a stretch following the trail without seeing any more. I figured at this point I might be lost. This is when I learned another lesson:

Lesson # 7 Listen for the other runners
I could hear the voices of the other runners behind me, but further down the hill. Because they hadn’t caught up to me, I suspected that I was going the wrong direction even though I could see the yellow ribbons. I back tracked until I could see the runners, then followed some paths to catch up to them. We then continued to race together pretty much until the end, as I didn’t want to get lost again.

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Somehow I managed to finally make it to the last aid station. I grabbed some electrolyte drink being provided and went back into the forest to begin a 2km descent back to the finish line.

Here’s a pic from the highest peak of the race, looking down to the finish line.

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The downhill was crazy. It was a hiking trail that was more meant for hiking UP instead of down because of the steepness of the stairs. By the time I got to the wooden stairs they were covered in mud from all the other racers shoes. For some weird reason there were families trying to hike UP the stairs while we were racing down, and getting around them was really awkward, especially because my legs were tired and heavy. The stairs winded and twisted funny and I had to use the tree branches to steady myself and avoid doing another face plant. At one point I slipped backwards onto my bum, but I got up and carried on, after all I was nearly done my three hour run through the ski hills and forest!

Here’s a pic of the stairs:

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Finally we came out of the forest and were running diagonally down across the ski hill back to the finish line. I booted it as fast as I could, and was finally DONE! I finished in 3 hours, 3 minutes and 45 seconds!

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First trail race half marathon complete!
I fell twice, and got lost once, but I managed to finish!
I did it!

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  • Angela @ Eat Spin Run Repeat
    July 15, 2014 at 7:59 pm

    HUGE congratulations again!!! I think both of us were equally as nervous about this one but I was so glad to have you with me. And I totally agree – those log stairs were BRUTAL! I nearly faceplanted several times and definitely lost a lot of time because I made myself slow down to avoid injuries. Now that I think about it you probably thought I was nuts for going to bed so early… I hope you weren’t lying there tossing and turning for hours! I’m kind of like a 70 year old trapped in a 25 year old’s body when it comes to bedtime. (#morningpersonproblems). Thanks so much for a great weekend! 🙂

  • Abby @ BackAtSquareZero
    July 15, 2014 at 8:11 pm

    Great tips for trail races.
    This looks like a super tough, but pretty course.

    • Janice
      July 15, 2014 at 10:12 pm

      Thanks Abby! The experienced trail racers were calling this course challenging and were complaining that it wasn’t well marked, though I didn’t have anything to compare it to. I do think I’m officially hooked on trail racing though, as it was soooooooo much fun!

  • Launna
    July 15, 2014 at 8:39 pm

    Janice, you are amazing… wow, that is great. Congratulations on a tough trail 🙂

    • Janice
      July 15, 2014 at 8:49 pm

      Thank you! I think I’m STILL on a runner’s high from that race 🙂

  • Jen @ Pretty Little Grub
    July 15, 2014 at 8:46 pm

    Congrats on your first trail race! I have always been interested in trying one. I hear they are SOO much tougher than road races and looks like that’s the case. Would you do another?

    • Janice
      July 15, 2014 at 8:48 pm

      Yes, definitely! It was amazing!! I may even try a full marathon distance trail run someday.

  • Sandra Laflamme
    July 15, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    Congratulations on completing the awesome NFEC race in Ontario. Sounds like it was a gorgeous but challenging course. I am set to do one out in Park City in October but am still trying to decide between half and marathon distance. This course sounded like it had the perfect amount of challenge and that you had a great time. Are you planning to do another trail race soon?

  • marg
    July 17, 2014 at 12:26 am

    We used to work at a nearby camp on the Mt. I just loved the view.

  • Jenn @comebackmomma
    July 17, 2014 at 1:40 pm

    Long time no comment. You look great. Love the new photo of you with your girls. Looks like a terrific run. So scenic. I’d love to do one like that.

  • Axel (@ Iron Rogue)
    July 17, 2014 at 9:25 pm

    Congratulations! That looks tough, but fun! I’m going to go ahead and take (partial) credit for the “Don’t be afraid to walk” advice from my comment on the pre-race post…

  • Jess@Flying Feet in Faith
    July 18, 2014 at 9:06 am

    Congrats!! I had to run through three creeks during the DuPont trail run here. You’re SO right about the headphone thing too. Why would you even want headphones in when you can enjoy nature and the trail running experience?! Congrats again on a great run.

  • Kim
    July 19, 2014 at 5:25 pm

    Great job!!! You did it and you didn’t get lost! That race looks BRUTAL!
    However, the scenery looks gorgeous. Nice that you had friends to hook up with.

  • Tina@GottaRunNow
    July 25, 2014 at 7:14 am

    Looks like a tough course! Congrats on the finish and thanks for the trail racing tips!

  • Robin
    July 25, 2014 at 8:15 am

    Congrats, nice work on the trails!

  • Steph
    July 25, 2014 at 3:59 pm

    I think I just found (yet another) bucket list race. This looks incredible! What an awesome race! Definitely more challenging than the trails around here!

  • Christine
    August 11, 2014 at 8:29 am

    Congratulations!! What a beautiful course!! I did the North Face Endurance Challenge in DC and LOVED it!

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