The saying “underestimate it, and you’re in for a world of hurt” comes to mind, but it is still not fitting. I was aware of the world of hurt to come, but unaware of what to estimate. I had no comparison to measure the Quebec Mega Trail 50 miler (QMT) that I had registered for not more then a week before race date. I was aware of the hurt to come but unaware of the path that would lead me there.
Why register for a race one week before? Especially a 50 miler through the mountains of Quebec at Mont Sainte-Anne with +11 500 ft of elevation gain, a 5/5 technical difficulty and an 18 hour time limit. Because coming from an Ironman athlete that has run road for 13 years, having never been a good climber, and finds the forest beautiful yet terrifying…this race scared the hell out of me.
Can you feel the hurt already?
So, why did I register for such a difficult race just the week before? Well, as an Ironman athlete that has run road for 13 years, has never been a good climber, and finds the forest beautiful yet terrifying…this race scared the hell out of me. So why not!
I have always jumped into ventures that challenged my comfort zone – it’s who I am. This particular trail race had so many unknowns, and so many aspects that I knew would challenge both my physical and mental strength. The only familiarity was that it was a running race, and I am a runner.
Heading into this ‘world of hurt’, I had had no experience with the use of poles or a hydration vest, or how to confidently traverse a suspension bridge, climb down a rock face cliff, climb up a waterfall or slide down a mudslide cliff. All I knew going into race day was that I would be faced with many unknowns, with many challenges to overcome including the negative thoughts the mind can torment you with.
And to be honest, that is exactly what I wanted out of this race. I was seeking a journey that mimicked my current life – throwing myself into the wild, figuring out how to get myself to the finish while dealing with whatever comes at me. I wanted to test myself, even if it had me falling on my ass… I knew I would get up and shake it off. And I did. Several times.
And that is exactly what I found at QMT. And looking back, I loved the hurt.
The 3:45 a.m. bus ride to the start had me waking up at the ridiculous hour of 2:30 a.m. The race started at 5 a.m. and began with a 1 km road run to the foot of the Le Massif de Charlevoix Mountain – this was the last time I saw pavement for a very long time. With over 950 m of elevation gain within the first 15 km, we were above the clouds and out of the thunderstorm down below. It was sunny and it was beautiful. Spectacular really. Yet, within that beauty I fought my first daemon on the way up. My calves were on fire, my heart rate was constantly edging on anaerobic, and I was only 15 km into the race. The reality of the hurt that was to come had made itself known and I actually started to question my ability to complete this race.
“I was aware of the level of hurt was to come, but unaware of the path that would lead me there”
Once at the 15k checkpoint, we would have to endure 13.4 km before getting to the to the next aid station, which included another 407m elevation gain. This may not sound too bad, but this is where we were introduced to the muddy terrain. Little did I know at that point, that the level of mud in this section was tame compared to what was to come later in the race.
Food Station 2 @ 29 km
The only comment I have here is – MOSQUITOS – ‘get your fluid and get the hell out of there’ made for a quick fuel station stop.
I was onto trail section three which was another 14 km but this time it included a 669 m elevation gain before the next food stop. The mud was worse and navigation was tricky.
The positive point to this section, was the addition of music. Music can be a powerful motivator when you need help and an iPod nano filled with your favourite tunes certainly brightened my “demeanor”.
Furthermore, by the 34 km point I finally figured out how to properly use my poles to ascend, decend and run with. I felt like I was on the top of the world, an angel flying above the world below in a heaven of her own, not a worry, not a problem, not a demon in sight. I was in the happiest of places I could be, in my mind, and in my body. What exhilaration!
Kilometer 41 had one of the most spectacular views I have ever seen. That 40 km was worth every ounce of pain and sweat as it brought me to the top of that incredible mountain, above the clouds and into the sunshine. The view was spectacular and one I will never forget. The hurt until this point was all worth it.
At this point I’m only just past the half way point.
Food Station 3 @ 42km’ish
I had made a friend at this point, Dom, a companion to share the trails with and navigation with. Not that it provided much conversation as we couldn’t communicate very well having different mother tongues, but it is always nice to have someone with you when you are alone in the mountains.
And there it is! One of the (many) gifts that the QMT gave me that day, the power, necessity and desire for human companionships – to have someone to share the journey with, in all of its pain and glory – it was such a beautiful realization. As liberating it is to venture on your own without any ties, the journey is not as enjoyable unless you can share it with someone that wants to share it with you. Sometimes you find wisdom and gifts in the oddest of places…and I received an unexpected and remarkable gift at 42 km into the mountains in the middle of Quebec that day.
As for the terrain, all I can really say is, more climbing, more winding trails, and I will forever be grateful for the poles I had in hand. It was 14.5 km and +498m elevation to the next food station when Dom and I stopped at one of the look outs (at around the 44 km mark), we saw Mount Saint-Anne in the distance and a lake just below – it was these moments that made the hurt completely worth it. 10 km later we found ourselves standing at the foot of that exact lake, in absolute awe at what we had just traversed. What appeared to be an unattainable distance from were we first stood, was now at arms length and even more beautiful up close. However, the mosquitos were not so beautiful.
Dom succumbed to a foot injury on the way down and was unable to keep up, which was a blessing in disguise as it allowed me to run the last 2 km of road to the food station number four. How I missed the predictable footing of asphalt. It was a pleasantly familiar felling!
That lovely asphalt didn’t last long. In order to reach feed station four, we had a river crossing under an overpass with no lights to guide our way, no rope to hold onto, it was just me, standing in the river with boulders and river rock under my feet and those ‘oh so precious’ poles. Despite the fear of getting my foot stuck between two boulders, the river did provide for an opportunity to wash the mud and sweat off my body. And it really did feel nice.
Food station four @ 56km …and the beginning of the end
On comes the thunderstorm. What would a 50-mile race with tons of elevation over very technical terrain be without a little thunderstorm?
Having descended below the clouds we were in for some rain as initially expected. Restocking my personal nutrition supplies and downing my rain jacket, I accidentally decided to wait for Dom before commencing the most technical part of the trail.
Sometimes you have to go out alone. And that moment was one of those times. I spent more time then I wanted waiting for Dom, but I had realized the comfort of companionship earlier that day. But at that moment I also realized that sometimes you do have to go about it alone.
Dom and I started off towards the final 24 km through the most technical part of the course and as expected I had to drop Dom within the first 500 m. My decision to wait for Dom cost me time that I needed to make-up, and I was alone again. I didn’t want to succumb to my fear of being alone, so I needed to focus.
Onto the second last section, 13 km and 458 m of elevation gain, which is described as the hardest section – this is where the race threw everything at you. I knew this section was going to eat away at my time. Having 13 years experience in road and triathlon racing, only two years of trail racing and absolutely no mountain racing experience, I was way out of my element. This section took me nearly 2.5 hours to complete.
Let me paint you a picture…
Mud, boulders, 40 degree descents and ascents, suspension bridge crossings over raging white caps, climbing up and down waterfalls, and not a single section that I could comfortably pick up the pace to anything that would resemble a run.
I was walking. I was crawling under or over fallen trees and fighting for traction with every footstep.
Losing traction in one section, I managed to slide down a muddy rock faced edge, scrapping my forearm, knee and abdomen on the way down. To top it off, I scored a stunning bruise that would last three weeks on my glute after landing directly onto a rock as I slide down the trail.
I sat there in agony, frustrated at myself for not holding strong on my footing. But mostly I was frustrated that I let that fall break my spirit for an instance. I was tired of fighting, but had so much more to battle in front of me. And I hurt.
That moment was an exact replica of what my life has become over the past few months. A journey of hardship and loneliness as I fought through slippery surfaces with painful rocks hidden underneath. Endlessly climbing and descending, feeling like I was getting nowhere, only to have the ground underneath me taken away, and then left to find the strength to stand up and find my finish line – a new beginning. How poetic.
It all hurt.
Despite this treacherous section, the scenery was absolutely stunning – beauty in the mist of hardship. Another gift the QMT gave me… a lesson that no matter how hard your path is, there is always beauty around you, just lift your head up and look for it.
I reached the 70 km checkpoint, so excited to only have 10 km left to track. The sun was setting and my headlamp would be my guide through the final 10 km.
But unfortunately my race ended there.
I was 13 mins past the cut-off time to carry onto the next section. The race organizers had allowed 3 hours to finish the final 10 km section, and I missed it by 13 mins. I ran 70 km only to miss the finish line by 13min.
I allowed my fear of being alone to eat away at my precious time. I relied on someone else to dictate my pace. I let someone hold me back because I was scared of traveling the path ahead alone. When all along, I was fully capable of standing on my own two feet and concurring the journey alone. What hurts most of all is that I have learned that lesson before. I know I am fully capable of enduring pain, loneliness, and hardship on my own. I do better that way. I should have dropped my crutch hours earlier and freed myself from the anchor holding me back.
You see, companionship should propel you forward, support you, and make you better. It’s never good when it holds you back and you aren’t your best self.
A lesson in racing and in life that I have learned before, but at that moment it was the lesson that I traveled to Quebec to find and to learn again.
This time for good. I registered for this race with the hopes of finding an answer. An answer to questions that I wasn’t aware I was asking myself.
Am I strong enough on my own? Do I want to be?
What is the purpose of this moment, and every moment in my life?
What am I beating myself down to my knees for?
Well, I know now. It’s so I can prove to myself that I can stand on my feet. I can be strong, confident and see the beauty all around me and I don’t need to be afraid to do it alone. But experiences are always better appreciated when shared.
In every painful process or experience comes the opportunity to grow in strength and wisdom.
I didn’t finish the race. But I found what I was looking for. Fire, will, appreciation, gratitude, and longing…longing for so much.