The North Face Endurance Challenge is a series of trail running events that take place in six North American destinations. In the United States they are Wisconsin, Utah, California, Washington and the state of New York. In 2014 the popular series expanded into Canada in the Blue Mountains of Ontario, which unbelievably the starting line is less than an hours drive from where I live.
These same Blue Mountains have always held a very special place in my heart and this goes way back to an extremely painful period in my life that spanned 40-45 years ago. After my dad died suddenly in 1973 when I was 15, he left behind a very hurting and heartbroken son. I took his death extremely hard, lost my own zest for life and simply crawled into a shell. Being a bit of a recluse I became a target of bullying in high school which made matters much more worse. Not only did my self worth plummet, but also my grades. I WAS a failure. It even took me five attempts to get my driver’s licence. Couldn’t I do anything without failing?
After I finally got my licence I started to take the 40 mile drive to the town of Collingwood (just east of the Blue Mountains) several times a year. I would take the back roads as I had no confidence in myself on the highway. Collingwood was the town where my dad was born and raised, but also the town where my dad’s brother, my Uncle Don lived.
My Uncle Don owned and operated a bustling American Motors/Jeep dealership that he built up from scratch. He was an extremely skilled mechanic, and as a hobby he restored antique cars with such loving detail. Even though he owned the business, he worked in the back as a mechanic just like his employees. I looked up to this man so much!
What amazed me so much with this man is that when I would show up unannounced, no matter how busy or elbow deep in grease he may have been, he would drop EVERYTHING! He wouldn’t bother even pick up his tools and take the time to put them away. After an extremely brief consultation with his employees of what needed to be done and a quick wash, we would hop into a 4 wheel drive Jeep Cherokee or Wagoneer…..and always head to the Blue Mountains.
How I loved those drives. Uncle Don was one of those strong silent types, and we hardly ever talked on those drives. But I drew so much strength with being in his presence. The mountains are so breathtaking beautiful, and being with my Uncle Don I always felt so important. I had worth. I was somebody. I was not a failure. For those two hours all my hurts and burdens would float out the window and be swallowed up by the pure, wholesome mountain air. My Uncle Don passed away around 10 years ago in 2006. I really regret not telling this to him while he was living and to thank him, because I don’t think he fully realized what those drives did for me. Those drives into the Blue Mountains probably prevented me from taking my own life when I was at my lowest.
I had only been running a year, and only had a half marathon finishers medal to my credit when The North Face announced they would be expanding their Endurance Series into the Blue Mountains of Canada as the only Canadian destination, and I got goosebumps. Those Blue Mountains were so special to me. The race had a 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon, 50k and 50 mile distances. I wanted to do this race in honour of my Uncle Don, possibly the marathon distance. This was more than a race. It carried with it a huge personal significance. But I was afraid. Afraid that I would not finish what I started. I did not want to fail.
It is a tough course. In 2015 a colleague from work (who was a half marathon runner) ran this North Face Canada race as part of a four person relay team on an extremely hot and muggy day. Her distance was around 10k. She threw up several times on the course and told me later at work, “It was the worst thing ever. Never, ever again”. This weighed heavy on my mind as I thought about it. It was making me fearful and freaking me out.
In the spring of this year I ran my 1st 50k ultra at Pick Your Poison. I had trained for a 25k, with my longest run being 15k and ended up running the 50k with my niece Caron. This race changed me far, far more than other race finishes I’ve had. I believed in myself. I had self worth and self confidence. Running can do that. Running has done that for me. It has changed the way I look on life. My niece Caron signed up for The North Face 50k a day or two after Pick Your Poison. But it took me two weeks to get up the nerve to register myself, and not the marathon distance, but like herself the 50k.
The course guide gave a run down of what to expect in regards to overall difficulty, technical difficulty, elevation change and scenery. Did I really know what I was getting into?
Race week was extremely hot and humid, with temps hitting 32C. But the heatwave broke and Saturday’s forecast was a high of 21C. It couldn’t get any better. But yeah there was something better. My niece Caron would be running. She was unsure if she would run that day after injuring her knee at another 50k called Sulphur Springs six weeks earlier, but only decided 2 days prior to give it a go.
Caron and I located each other, got a quick picture taken, and before we knew it we were waiting with the rest of the 50k runners for the starting horn to sound. Looking around at the other runners positioning themselves behind the starting gate there was a mixture of awe and intimidation. They were so athletic looking and young, in the prime of their lives. The vast majority of them were at least 20-30 years younger than myself. Oh to be young again.
There was the countdown and the sounding of the horn. Quickly I had to re-gather my thoughts, and bring them back to the present. The race was on, 50k ahead with no idea what lay before me over the next several hours. After a small traverse at the base of the mountain, the trail turned uphill on what is known as the “Grind Trail”. At the top of this long grind, the marathon distance runners (who would start 2 hours later at 9:00am) would continue on from there. For the 50k runners it was 800 feet straight back down an extremely steep grassy ski slope. The grass was still damp from dew. I definitely could not run this downhill and it took a lot of effort and concentration to keep my feet from slipping out from underneath me because of the steepness and the wet grass. Then it was straight back up that “grind” hill again. Looking on the bright side much of this elevation change was being eaten up early in the day before it got too hot! 🙂
By the time Caron and I got to the top of the Grind Trail the 2nd time around some of the lead marathon distance runners (who started 2 hours later) were going by us. On the singleterack there is no room to pass, and a runner behind will often call out, “coming by on your left”, and without losing stride I would move over enough to let them by. After we finished the Grind Trail the 2nd time around, the next 30k’s would be uncharted territory.
Those last 30k’s consisted of some cross country ski trails, beautiful single track on The Bruce Trail (some parts I actually recognised having hiked this section about 15 years ago), short sections of road to make connections and the odd grassy meadow and ski run. We had to keep an eye out for hikers on the Bruce Trail, and call out ahead before we were running by. I felt bad for them as it would not have been as pleasant a day as it could have been, due to having to move off to the side probably dozens of times to let runners go by. I cringed for one lady hiker who probably unknowingly was standing in a huge patch of poison ivy as I ran by. I was praying for next bit that she would not get that dreaded rash, and her long pants would have protected her.
It was such a beautiful day, and the views were breathtaking over Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. It dawned on me how deep into the Blue Mountains we actually ran when there was views with the Beaver Valley in the distance on the other side. And that beauty kept me going when the legs were tired and the mind became fatigued. When I was becoming wearied I really had to concentrate on my footing on the technical terrain, particularly in one section what is known as the “Loree Forest” which had a lot of loose stones and scree. Aid stations every 7 to 8 k’s were something I really looked forward to. After being sick at both my last 50k and my last marathon I stayed completely away from gels and ate more solid food; particularly peanut butter and jam sandwiches offered at these stations, as well as lots of fluids. Also brought with me some sodium electrolyte capsules with me (which I was glad I did) as I was sweating buckets. Every 4 or 5 seconds there was a drip of perspiration coming off the visor of my cap. And that was just from my head. It was a tough course and the amount I sweated was an indication of that.
Interesting enough, my favourite part of the course was at a particular aid station in what seemed like miles and miles from anywhere. There was this parking lot full of cars on top of this hill. Families were out picnicking while taking in the million dollar view over Georgian Bay and Lake Huron. Children were high fiving us as we ran past. The trail dipped down into a forest which soon came out into a meadow. This was where the aid station was. The whole area was alive and buzzing with people cheering. There was a yellow caution ribbon separating the 50k and 50 miler runners aid station. I was so much in awe with the runners on the other side. The pack of the 50 mile distance runners had started out at 5:00 am using headlamps. Would I possibly one day be on the other side of that ribbon? It was such an surreal feeling as I wondered if one day I would one day be in fact on the other side. Caron caught sight of a runner named Wally across the ribbon on the 50 mile side, a runner with a ripped and chiselled body whom she met at Sulphur Springs. He was running the 100 miler there, and they had ran together for a portion of that race. They leaned over the ribbon to hug and then chatted while I rehydrated and rested. It was not very long before we were back running. The cheering and words of encouragement from the large group of supporters as we set off gave me a much needed second wind.
For my dear niece Caron it was a tough, tough day for her, having injured her knee with only three kilometers to go at the 50k Sulphur Springs (Caron did finish with an amazing time). In the 6 weeks since Sulphur Springs she had hardly run, trying to give her knee the time to heal. In the week prior to the North Face race Caron had run 18k (her longest run in 6 weeks), and only two days before the big day she decided to go for it. On her blog post Mind Tricks For An Ultra Runner, Caron describes it as a crap shoot going into this race.
We talked a fair bit on this race and she mentioned she would have been so miserable if she were to sit this one out at home. Caron is a fighter, she is not one to call it quits. The downhill portions were extremely uncomfortable for her. As the saying goes “what goes up must come down” and the majority of the time that we were walking was in fact the steep downhill portions. Her knee were protesting way too loudly if she tried to run these downhills. Except for the steepest uphill’s, and those dreaded downhill sections, the rest of the time we were running. With 8 k’s to go Caron took a fall on a bit of technical terrain where she landed so hard I thought for sure her day was done. And with scrapes and bruises on three parts of her body including her good knee now becoming bruised, she got up, dusted herself off and carried on. Many times I offered my arm to Caron for support on the downhills, but she turned down my offer each time. How she kept going after that fall with TWO hurting knees was beyond me.
It was just under 8 hours (7:53) that we crossed the finish line. For me there was not any happy dance or euphoria or anything like that. I really would have loved that feeling, but there was nothing. It was a long day, and the run had taken it’s toll on me. My body was exhausted, my mind was weary from concentration on the technical terrain. We got our medals, and I pasted on a smile for my photo. Caron and I wandered around not sure what to do. The stats tent was too busy, and we were not sure if we wanted something to eat. After 15 minutes Caron mentioned she was on her way home, and once there she had plans to ice both her knees.
I stayed around for a bit longer, wanting to somehow to capture that feeling. There were a few ice baths set up just beyond the finish line. They are simply plastic tubs of ice cold water provided that runners can either sit in or drape your feet in. Because this was a trail race, the water by now was the colour of dirt, but to me after running this race it looked like a luxurious bubble bath in a marble bathtub in a 5 star hotel. I removed the shoes off of my tired feet and sat in, needing to pull my long legs up into a fetal position to fit.
The cold water felt so good and rejuvenating for this tired body. I felt my strength returning. I looked from my fetal position in the tub at my surroundings. There was the large group of runners gathered for the post race festivities. They had travelled from all over North America and some beyond for this, the majority who were so much younger than me. (from the race stats out of 151 finishers in the 50k, 11 (including myself) were 55 years old and older. I am 58 myself). I looked past the finish line and up the ski run into what is known as the Blue Mountains. These are the mountains that my Uncle Don would drive me through when I was going through the most difficult part of my life as a heartbroken teenage boy. And the tears started streaming down my face as I realized I just ran 50 kilometers through these mountains. I just did it!!
After getting out of my ice bath I watched the awards ceremony from off the side. The crowd was SO much into it. After the winners for each division stood on the podium the majority were crowd surfed off the stage. It was so amazing. What really stood out was the 1st place winner of the marathon division. He had his early school aged daughter on his shoulder, and when he got down off the podium and onto the stage he handed his stretched out daughter to the crowd. She trusted her dad (and the crowd) and did not panic at all. I was weeping as I watched this crowd of runners move her little stretched out stiff body so carefully and slowly eventually to the back. It would have been the experience of a lifetime for her. I am so proud to be a part of this ultra-running community.
And when it comes to ultra running the name that comes to my mind for me is Mr. Ultramarathon Man himself: Dean Karnazes. Author of 4 books, and a much in demand speaker, this man has pretty much done it all when it has to do with running. Some of it seems almost inhuman. On his bio Dean Karnazes has won so many awards, distinctions and accolades. In 2012 Men’s Health gave him the distinction of one of the “Top 100 Fittest Men of All Time”. As an ambassador for sport and running his name appeared in Time magazine’s “Top 100 Most Influential People In The World”. Newsday commented on his running with this accolade, “Karnazes has pushed his body and mind to limits that are beyond masochistic. They’re inhuman”. Meeting him I was so impressed with his humbleness and genuineness, wanting to hear my story on starting to run at 55 years old, doing it mostly for my heart health and my mental health. I came away feeling like a superhuman. *a big thanks to runner Jeff, who I just met moments before as we congratulated each other on our finish. I did not have a camera, but he graciously took my picture on his Go Pro and he sent it to me after I gave him my e-mail* 🙂
Back in the car I slowly drank a litre of coconut water that I had waiting for me in a cooler. I sat there drinking and thinking about the day. Did I actually run The North Face Endurance Challenge 50k? Did I actually meet Mr. Ultramarathon Man Dean Karnazes? Did he just sign my bib? Did I actually tell him my running story? It must such an amazing day. Started the car and started to head home, not knowing that the most bizarre thing was yet to come. Even though this race was fairly local for me, I had trouble finding it. Blue Mountain Village has changed so much since I last remember it 35 years ago. When I have gone into the Blue Mountains over the years it has always been on lesser known “back routes” to avoid the commercialized Blue Mountain Village. And I had trouble finding my way out. I was going the right direction to the south and to the east away from the mountains. I was looking for a road I might recognise. But soon at a roundabout I got turned around and started back towards the mountains. I then was looking for a driveway to turn around when up ahead I noticed a beautiful country cemetery. I pulled in to the gated entrance and I instantly recognised it. It was the cemetery where my Uncle Don and his wife for 57 years Aunt Jean (whom I was pallbearer for 3 years ago) were buried. If I tried looking for it, I would have had trouble finding it. But there I was. It was if there was some unfinished business that needed to be done this very day. Parked the car and with race medal in hand I quickly walked across the grass to where I quickly located the grave site. I regret not having said this to my Uncle Don in person, because I don’t think he fully realized what he did for me. But I thanked him for believing in me and making me feel like I was worth something when I had so a low self worth. I thanked him for letting me know I was not a failure, and I had so much potential ahead of me. I thanked him for his actions when I was a heartbroken troubled teenager. And I thanked him for very likely preventing me from taking my own life when I was at my lowest.
Have you had any regrets with not telling someone something, and now it is too late?
Some Great Blogpost Write-up’s From Other Runners Who Ran The North Face Endurance Challenge Series Ontario 2016
This Girl Caron. Written by my niece Caron, she writes from her heart about running her 50k at Endurance Challenge. Although she ran this with a knee that caused her a lot of discomfort, her main battle of this race that she writes about was mental
Ukonilma.com. Teemu Vidgren is a Finnish ultrarunner and Ironman triathlete who fit in the 50k at the North Face Endurance Challenge during a visit to Canada. He mentioned to me the highlight of his visit was this race. Extremely well written, his next event is The 260k Kilimanjaro Stage Run in Africa.
Phil Runs Hills. Philippe Brunet drove for 8 hours from Montreal the day before his 50 mile (80k) Endurance Challenge race. He slept overnight in his car and the following day he ran the race of his life, winning 1st place in the 50 mile, and finishing 26 minutes ahead of the next finisher. Such a great inspirational read.
Running The Trails. I’ve been following Jennifer’s blog since the middle of May, and was not 100% sure if this was her on the podium that won the marathon division (42.2k’s) of The North Face Endurance Challenge until I read this post. And she was 1st overall, even beating the boys which is pretty cool. Well done Jennifer!