After having so much fun during the 5peaks race on Saturday, I was even more excited about the half marathon on Sunday. The North Face Endurance Challenge Series was having their inaugural Canadian race at Blue Mountain Resort in Collingwood, Ontario. Initially, I had registered for the 50 k event, but at the suggestion of my coach, I switched to the half marathon. This turned out to be a terrific decision for two reasons. Firstly, the half marathon was on Sunday which enabled me to do the 5peaks race on Saturday. Secondly, after completing the half I can’t even begin to imagine how tough the 50 k race would have been.
I was fully aware of the location of the race – the Blue Mountain Resort – well before arriving. Even having looked at the elevation profile of the race, I didn’t feel too intimidated. Getting there and seeing what I was about to tackle, however, was another story all together. Compared to other ski hills I’d been to in my life, there is nothing particularly scary about Blue Mountain. Standing at the bottom and knowing that I was about to run up and down it for 21.1 km, however, left me feeling a little unprepared. There was a lot of nervous energy before the race as all of the half-marathoners as well as those running 5 and 10 k events were all milling about, warming up and staring wide eyed at the mountain.
The challenge ahead was exciting though – there is something to be said with diving in to something new and even with several road half marathons under my belt, ECSON certainly qualified. Unlike Saturday’s race, which was dry and warm, heavy rainfall overnight and an overcast morning made for much different conditions. Before the race started, ultramarathoner Dean Karnazes spoke to the racers and repeatedly warned about the treacherous conditions – especially in rocky areas and any wooded “aids” like steps and bridges. If that wasn’t enough, take a look at the elevation map with highly accurate descriptors added in by fellow runner and blogger Andrew Chak.
Before I had a chance to really think about the next few hours, the horn was off and so were all 200 plus runners. With a few hundred metres of gently sloping dirt road and grass, it was a good start but that was soon crushed as we made our first turn up the mountain onto trail. As promised, the conditions were tricky – mud that wasn’t slippery had a sticky tack like consistency and quickly clogged the treads on my trail shoes – I’m sure people who were tackling this course with road shoes on had an even more difficult time with traction. The very first wooden bridge we came to caused my foot to shoot out to my side but fortunately I was able to keep upright. Time and time again I saw this happen, even when people were being very careful.
The trails themselves on Blue Mountain were beautiful and the variety of terrain was excellent. There were plenty of switchbacks, a couple of small water crossings and even a few kilometres of gravel road – including a brutal uphill that runners had to walk as it was just too steep and long to run. Even some of the downhills were slow, as long lines of racers were carefully picking their way over muddy, wet steps and rocks. Every time I thought “Surely if there is a god, there are no more hills” I would round a corner only to see more hunched over runners, slowly plodding up another incline.
I am far from an experienced marathoner, with only two under my belt, but I can honestly say that this race was the toughest I have done to date – far harder than either of the full marathons I have completed. It was also a very different experience from the 5peaks trail race from the previous day. While there were technical spots, most of them were a result of weather rather than permanent obstacles. As well, in total there was over a mile of vertical elevation/descent from start to finish which makes it tough on your quads to say the least.
Crossing the finish line in mere seconds behind my goal of 3 hours (by 12 seconds!) was a small disappointment but not one that lasted. Knowing what I had pushed myself through gave me a HUGE feeling of accomplishment and within minutes I was already thinking “I hope I can come back and try this challenge again” – who knows, maybe next time I will try the 50 km race. Stranger things have happened!
The entire experience reminded me that running is a perfect blend of social and solitary. You feel a sense of togetherness with the others on the trail and yet you still know that whether you finish or not is something that only you, yourself, ultimately control. I hope to get more trail races in this season and if I’m lucky enough to return to Blue Mountain, I will be better prepared – and have run a LOT more hills.