I ran my 1st ever trail race last year at the Creemore Vertical Challenge. At 25k it was the shortest distance of that event. I ran it, loved the course, and the entire atmosphere and determined I would be back in 2016 for the 50k.
There were changes in the course for 2016, most notably was the addition of another escarpment climb (called “The Pitch”), which would bring the elevation gain/loss to around 2,000 metres for the 50k. With that additional elevation The Salomon Skyrunner Series Canada now has this event included as part of their series.
I felt strong coming off of my North Face 50k three weeks earlier, but things can change in a day. The weekend prior to Creemore I took a nasty spill during a training run on a downhill section after my foot caught a root and I became airborne and landed hard. Nothing broke, sprained, no head injuries, (which I am very fortunate for). Just some bruising and scrapes and a body that was sore and achy the next few days.
The morning of the race I seemed to feel better, but soon as I started digging into the hills, I started to feel once again sore and achy. It was going to be a long day.
I thought I was pacing pretty good but was disappointed with my time of 3:20 after the 1st 25k loop. (I ran the 25k last year in 2:50). The 2nd loop had the addition of that extra escarpment climb at the 30k mark, and in the end would make the 50k closer to a 52k. Pushing harder than I should have up this hill, my body felt really rough (I got sick rough) once I looped back down.
With 20k to go, it became a mental game. In order to finish this race off, I had to break down those 20k into 5k segments to each aid station. I had a built up a fairly comfortable cushion with the 8.5 hour cut-off after the 1st loop. So I spent more time at each aid station than most other runners, taking my time with the food and water and electrolytes. With the temperature climbing to 28C, I took time cooling down with the sponges at the aid stations. I walked more of the hills and took time out to take pictures. If I overtook another runner, I would encourage them on. If another runner overtook me, I would encourage them on. Doing all that I was hoping to still have time to finish (hopefully in one piece) before the cut-off. 🙂
There were SO many inspirational stories out there on that course that day. I ran a bit with Greg from Ajax. He completed his 1st 100 miler (161k) in June in Ohio. He attempted this same race a year ago but had a DNF (did not finish). I mentioned it must have been SOOO sweet to go back to go back and finish it the 2nd time around. He agreed completely.
There was James, who drove through the night with a friend all the way from Ottawa for this event. This was Jame’s 2nd 50k Ultra, having completed the 1st one earlier this year in Vermont. I asked what drew them to Creemore, and the words “Vertical Challenge” was what brought them. Sadly the tough course forced his friend to drop out of the race. Was a blow to James and he was fading a bit himself, but after running together a few kilometers, James pulled ahead and never looked back finishing a strong 12 minutes ahead of me.
Although I never ran with race director Pierre Marcoux it was one of my priorities to meet with him in person this day. Since my 25k in 2015 I have held him with such high respect. He has been running for 41 years, and is still running ultras, but what impresses me is how he gives back to the ultra community. Pierre spends 800 hours of volunteer time each year to make each years race at Creemore Vertical Challenge roll, which includes making 60 litres of maple syrup for prizes and landowners. It also includes involves registrations, preparing and blazing the course and so many other things that are done to make this event run so smoothly. His dear wife Lee Anne spends 200-300 hours a year making that wonderful pottery for the winners and amazing finishers medals, making food purchases and organizing the wonderful volunteers. Not only that, the property that Pierre and Lee Anne share is the actual location of the start/finish and all the race festivities. They have been doing this for 10 years. Any profits left over from the Creemore Vertical Challenge registrations are given to the Canadian Ultrarunning Team. Thank you Pierre and Lee Anne for all your dedication to the ultrarunning sport and for your inspiration. Pierre writes an excellent blog called Running Challenged. Please be sure to check it out! It is fun to read, and quite humorous! 🙂
I arrived at the Creemore Vertical Challenge an hour and forty five minutes early (and shortly after the 75k send off) hoping to catch Pierre Marcoux in a less hectic moment. To my utter amazement another vehicle pulls in beside me, the driver is another man I really hoped to meet that day….Hans Maier. I first met up with Hans at the Pick Your Poison as my niece Caron (and eventually myself) helped Hans up that final brutal hill. Hans is a 78 year old running machine still regularly running ultras at a pace of 9 or more a year. He remembered that day at Pick Your Poison, remembered Caron and asked how she was and if she was running at Creemore that day. I told him how much an inspiration he is, and Hans downplayed it by saying everyone is an inspiration who has the courage to get to that starting line. What amazes me is that at 78 he still continues to “run” his own mechanical contracting and pipefitting business. He handed me his business card with such pride, sharing how he still loves getting out each day meeting people. On the course I never got running much with Hans. Hans came up and stood beside me at the starting line, we ran pretty much the same pace staying within a kilometer of each other crossing paths a few times. Once I eased back I never saw Hans again, as he finished 28 minutes ahead of me. Hopefully Hans and I will “cross paths” MANY more times in our future events! To read more about Han’s achievements, which includes running well over 100 Ultras (24 of them being 24 hour races) and using his running to raise support for local churches in his community, please go to this LINK! 🙂
I was running off and on a fair bit throughout the day with Gene. Gene has been running for some time, and the last 13 years he has taken on long distance running that is marathon distance (42.2k or longer). The Creemore Vertical Challenge was his race #99 of marathon distance or longer. This includes running the Boston Marathon 10 consecutive years, racing 10 full Ironman’s and Ultra’s that went up to 100 miles (161k’s). An ankle injury happened in a rocky Ultra called Mahlom Mayhem in New Jersey 6 years ago. He blew out a stabilizer tendon in his left foot and has forced Gene to spend more time cycling. But he still tries to keep going with his runs. As the Creemore race wore on while running over uneven ground that stabilizer tendon was becoming more and more inflamed as it was rubbing against the bone. I could tell in this race that he was in much discomfort, particularly on the technical downhills, and I would comment on it. Gene downplayed with his humorous reply, “it only hurts with every other step”. Gene finished not long behind me. I was so happy to see him come in. Given the circumstances in which he was running, race #99 was a huge milestone. For race #100 Gene has registered for Javelina Jundred 100k in the Fountain Hills of Arizona on October 29th. Gene, you are an inspiration. All the best for your race #100! For the result listings of all 99 marathon distance or longer races that Gene has completed (and even includes his most recent Creemore Vertical Challenge), please check out his race profile at Marathon Maniacs. 🙂
I had 44 kilometers completed, and only 6 kilometers to go. With the thoughts of only a challenging deep gulley to go, and a couple of smaller hills, the rest was pretty much downhill sailing. Mentally I was getting a second wind. Turning onto this large grain field (one of the few flat portions on the course) I saw a lone runner way off in the distance. From the distance it appeared that the runner was limping badly, but as I got closer and was coming up from behind I noticed the runner was forcing every bit of effort into every stride. If those legs were responding he would be burning up the course. But all the effort was transferred into what I would liken to a shuffling gait.
I came along side this man thinking he must be extremely discouraged, but was taken back by his extremely pleasant disposition. He introduced himself as Jess. He was such a nice man. As Jess continued to push himself hard forward we began to talk…..naturally about running. He was smiling and was so positive. Jess mentioned he had been running for well over 30 years completing prestigious races such as the Boston marathon ten times and the famous gruelling 100 mile Western States Endurance Race, but did not go into much more detail about his running. He seemed more interested in me an my running.
Jess mentioned in 1993 he had an aneurism, and while on the operating table he had a stroke which almost took his life and left him paralyzed on the right hand side of his body. Tears were flowing down my face as he shared this. In addition he was running with some fairly new replacement knees, and if I remember correct a replacement hip, and his other worn out hip was causing him a lot of pain. My aches and pains all of a sudden became SO insignificant. This Creemore course is SO tough, and I was so much in awe recalling the terrain that Jess had covered, and how strong he was still pushing. He was such an inspiration.
After running together for 10, maybe 15 minutes Jess mentioned he was holding me back. It took me another couple of minutes to deliberate everything in my mind. One part of me wanted to stay behind and make sure Jess was okay to the finish. The other side was saying “Jess probably wants to finish this on his own”. Finally I said, “Jess I’m going on ahead, will you be okay”? With a beaming smile he said, “Yes, I’ll be great”, and I ran on ahead for my own finish. At the deep gulley that was so steep ropes were needed to pull oneself up I kept thinking of Jess. It was tough for me, but with a paralyzed right side how could he do this? But I knew deep down he would.
Like any race it was wonderful to see the finish. Had some pizza, and a cool down in the Mad River, and then cheered other runners as they came in. But I kept looking for that tall gentle man with the shuffling gait and the beaming smile. I told race director Pierre about Jess, and how much an inspiration it was to meet him saying, “He has even run Boston several times”. Pierre replied, “Boston is nothing. Look him up. He has done it all and was one of the top endurance runners in all of Canada”. I was speechless. It was about 45 minutes later that Pierre came up to me and said “Jess is coming in, he is just a few minutes out”. Then he did something I will always remember. Taking a finisher medal off the rack and handing it to me he said, “I want you to be the person to give this to Jess”. I was SOOO honoured.
Indeed it was a few moments later I saw Jess coming in, still making every amount of effort to push forward for each shuffling step. I grabbed my camera and started taking pictures and was so caught up in this moment of triumph of Jess crossing that finish line that I neglected to do my one little bit of responsibility of handing Jess his finisher’s medal. One of the wonderful volunteers did it for me. Witnessing Jess crossing that finish line was by far my greatest highlight of this absolutely incredible day. 🙂
A Few of the Podium Winners
Ultrarunning is a tough sport. For myself I know I will never become a podium winner, and I so much admiration and respect for those who discipline and train so hard to become the best. The following three runners finished 1st overall in different categories at the Creemore Vertical Challenge. And there is a bit of a story behind each of these three runners from that day that connected with me.
Bill Steinburg: 50k Men’s Winner
Bill and I follow each other on Twitter. I had never met him, but when he tweeted about his upcoming race at Creemore, I responded to him in a tweet to the effect “I’ll be there too, and would love to meet you”. When Bill responded with, “Sounds like we’ll be spending time together doing our 2 laps”, I was honoured but had to laugh. Bill is WAY out of my league. In June he was voted in out of thousands of entries to be a representative as one of six team members of the Americas (USA, Canada, Brazil, Argentina) in the Aasics Beat the Sun at Mount Blanc, France. I told Bill that “I would be really afraid I would hold him back”. Well, holding him back would have been an understatement. Bill tore up the 50k course in 4:50:05. He finished almost 17 minutes ahead of the 2nd place runner, and was a “mere” 3 hours and 3 minutes ahead of me. But I am really looking to a “rain check” trail run with Bill sometime later in the Barrie/Midhurst area! 🙂
Olivia Rissland: 75k Female Winner
I was sitting in the river for the renowned “Mad River Cool Down”, and was quietly listening as a group of 75k runners were sharing their “war stories” from the race. One runner mentioned how this young lady overtook him and she ended up finishing third overall. I couldn’t help but smile to myself a few minutes later when I briefly met this petite speedster with the beautiful smile as she posed for me with her wonderful prizes of race directors Pierre’s maple syrup, Pierre and Lee Anne’s tremendous Mad Pots pottery and coffee. A tremendous accomplishment Olivia! 🙂
Stephen Bridson: 75k Men’s Winner
I really am totally in awe with Stephen. At 54 years old, (only 4 years younger than me) he has become one of Canada’s top ultra-runners. He was (the 2014 Trail Runner Trophy Series Winner) and the (2015 Trail Runner Trophy Series Winner), which is the top male runner for all of Ontario. He was the the runner who won Creemore in 2016 finishing almost an hour ahead of the 2nd place finisher. The one picture that remains etched in my memory with Stephen from my day at Creemore is that when Jess Heroux finished, Stephen was right there at the finish line waiting for him. He was looking up to Jess with eyes filled with SO much admiration and respect. Jess turned to Stephen and said to the effect “I can’t do this anymore. This will be my last race”. And Stephen was there encouraging him. It was such a beautiful, tender moment between two of Canada’s ultrarunning legends. To read an interview on Stephen from Trail Runner Magazine please go to this LINK!
I’m not sure why it is, perhaps because the race is hosted right on the home property of Pierre and Lee Anne’s place and has that “family” feel to it, but Creemore is by far my favourite race venue (even though it is such a tough course). Just as I was about to get in my car and leave, a vehicle pulls up whose driver I had not seen on the course all day. His name was Dave Champion and we talked for the longest time. We now follow each other on Facebook, and on his race recap Dave shared his favourite definition of the word “Endurance”, meaning “pushing through the quitting points”.
I think of Jess, who has practically redefined that definition through his own life. SINCE his aneurism, stroke and partial paralysis in 1993, Jess has competed and completed numerous races (both road and trail). And at 70 years old, he still competes in a few events each year. As I talked with him at the finish line there were three that he really spoke proudly of. They were three “The North Face” 50 milers (80 kilometers) that he competed in the United States. He finished all 3 of them within the 14 hour cut off.
I LOVE meeting with people such as Jess. I felt so much strength and confidence just being in his presence. Have you ever met anyone like this, who has overcome incredible odds and is such an inspiration?
By far my favourite medals are those handmade ceramic ones from Creemore Vertical Challenge. I have a 25k medal (from 2015), and a 50k medal (from 2016). I know as I get older more and more I know there is a huge difference between needs and wants. And boy, do I WANT that 75k medal. What are my chances of obtaining this in 2017????
Thank you so much for taking the time to read. Wow, it has been like an ultramarathon. And each of you dear readers have shown incredible endurance….pushing through the quitting points! 🙂