My dear wife often says that before many of my significant race events a little “hiccup” comes along that makes the race just a little bit more challenging. It may be a recurring injury that has come back to haunt me, an abscess tooth, a bout with the flu, or even something as simple as becoming all congested with a chest cold. But this last hiccup took that took place just days before I was to board the train for my biggest race was a doozy.
I was driving to work. Nothing unusual here, a very typical morning and no different from any of the other 1,000 plus times I have driven this route during my 6 years of being at my place of employment. It happened so fast. Wrong place, wrong time. A full sized pickup truck missed seeing a red light and with no chance to react I had plowed into the side of it. The momentum of the truck pinballed my car out of control in a different direction. With extensive damage to my car’s front end, it was all I could do to try and get it off to the side of the road.
The next few days I was sore, but had no serious injuries, which I am very fortunate. But emotionally, I was a wreck. I couldn’t sleep. Every time I put my head on my pillow my mind went on auto-play replaying the helpless feeling of not being able to stop, followed immediately by the gut wrenching sound of metal on metal. Each time I got in another car again to drive again after the accident my anxiety level skyrocketed. How on earth was I going to run a 150k stage race through rugged Gatineau Park in Quebec? In desperation I asked my wife what I should do. Should I not go and stay home? My wife knows how extremely important my running is to my mental health, simply said, “You are going to have to run this Carl”. And deep down I knew she was right.
It has only been this past year that I have looked into the possibility of running stage racing. But the more I researched, the more I realized that stage races was WAY out of my league. Most races are 6 days, around 250 kilometers and self supported meaning you carry your own gear. Such races require incredibly massive amounts of time training. With myself working 2 jobs, one being full time, I did not know how I was going to come up with those much needed training hours.
However, way back this past January, an ultrarunning friend named Kristi Raz messaged me asking what I thought of the Bad Beaver Ultra held in Gatineau Park, Quebec, Canada. It was shorter in time and distance (3 days and 150 kilometers) and semi supported (breakfast and supper was provided). It was a very unique offering. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized this would be a great introduction to stage races. I was either going to love it, or hate it. With my registration sent in, I was soon going to find out.
On Tuesday July 31st I took the train to Ottawa where I was picked up by Kristi’s husband Michael, to begin the most epic running adventure I have ever experienced. Stayed the 1st night at Michael and Kristi’s wonderful restful home set on 42 acres, it was one last chance to go over my gear. The following day Kristi and I arrived at the 330 square kilometer Gatineau Park to meet all the other competitors at our camp called Camp Bushtukah.
My eyes were as big as saucers. This was the real deal. A stage race camp. Awning tents with the words Camp Bushtukah and a row of sleeping tents set up with a military straightness. A large start/finish banner for Bad Beaver Ultra. And the runners. They looked young and athletic. Then I spotted Canadian extreme adventure athlete Ray Zahab who is race director there in person. Pinching myself I wondered if this was real.
From warm welcomes from the other runners, race organizers and a handshake and welcome from Ray Zahab himself I never once felt like I did not belong here. The vast difference between ultras and stage races, is that in stage races I quickly discovered you really get to know the other runners. From our 1st arrival, to when we started the 1st stage we had 14 hours. We socialized, we ate together, we laughed and my fellow runners become my tent mates at night. I met so many amazing runners, some who are highly experienced stage racers, participating in some very big name races across the world. Others like myself were running a stage race for the very first time. This is an international event, and there was runners from Germany, Wales, several states in the US and all across Canada participating.
I picked up my bib and noticed it was #17. Studying this number brought me way back in time to when I was 17. It was a good year for me. I got my driver’s licence (took me 4 times). I got my 1st car, a 1968 Buick Wildcat purchased off of my best friend Rick. Rick was good for me. With that car I started dating Rick’s younger sister. All when I was 17. Ironically I was 17 when I went running for my very last time until I picked it up again 38 years later when I was 55. Back when I was 17, we had to run 2 miles around a track for my high school Canada Fitness Testing. I thought this curriculum was evil, and I thought my gym instructor was cruel for making me run that far. And when it was all over I said, “Never again”.
There was also serious stuff that 1st evening when race director Ray Zahab briefed us on the course and what to expect over the next 3 days. In training I have never come close to running 150k over the course of a week, and I knew for a fact that what lay ahead of me in these next 3 days would be the toughest running I would ever face.
Stage 1. Nine Hundred Metres Elevation Gain. 51.18 Kilometers. Official Finishing Time…8:09
The 1st day of racing started with a 5:00am wake up for a 6:30am race start. In that time we all packed up all our gear, and fueled up with breakfast. My pack with gear and 2 litres of water weighed in at 15 pounds. There were 19 mandatory items required for the event. They were pack, water containers, sleeping bag, sleeping pad, trail shoes, 2 pairs technical socks, running shorts, thermal underwear for night, thermal top for night, rain shell, hat, sunglasses, emergency blanket, whistle, headlamp and spare batteries, sunscreen, 1st aid kit for the feet, electrolytes/salts for three days of racing and In-race nutrition sufficient for three days of racing. I also carried little luxury items included in that 15 pounds which were not mandatory such as my phone (I used for taking pictures, and texting my wife at the end of each stage), a portable charger, bug spray and toothpaste and deodorant.
Breakfast consisted of instant oatmeal, bananas, blueberries and dried cranberries and chocolate chips which could be added to the porridge. There was also bagels and peanut butter and jam. And thanks to a portable generator we had hot water for our porridge and the luxury of hot, fresh coffee. It was going to be a great day.
That 1st morning all the runners were so anxious to get going that we were ready at 6:00. The only problem is that the volunteers manning the 1st water station 10 kilometers away might not be set up for a 6:00 am start. This is pretty crucial. At 6:15 am we got the go ahead to start Stage 1. With being sore from the car crash and the train trip to Ottawa I was only able to manage a 6 kilometer run the day before I left on the train (my only time I trained running with a pack). And it was my only run in the 9 days prior to the Bad Beaver Ultra. It felt so wonderful to get moving again.
With close to 3,000 feet of altitude gain, Stage One did have some substantial hills, but also I heard from those who knew the trails that the majority of those trails were quite runnable. Running with a pack is a completely new dynamic. I had no set goals other than getting back to Camp Bushtukah in a reasonable time so I could rest up and attend to any hot spots and blisters.
It was an extremely hot and humid day, and with only 6 kilometers experience of running with a pack under my belt I knew I was going to make rookie mistakes. I “thought” I was drinking enough, fueling enough and taking enough salt/electrolytes, but obviously I was not. Running with 15 pounds on your back expends quite a bit more energy, and by the 40k mark there was nothing left in the tank. I felt dizzy and nauseous, and had such a hard time keeping up with Kristi, my running partner. Every stride seemed so forced and mechanical.
With 330 square kilometers within Gatineau Parks boundary, there were some sections of the course where I felt like I was in a vast wilderness. Other parts where there was road access and a parking lot nearby meant lots of people sharing the trails. One such area was the unique rock formations of Lusk Caves where lots of people (including young families) were out enjoying this marvelous area. With all the people around, Kristi and I slowed ourselves to a fast walk. While climbing up a grade I came up to a little 3 or 4 year old girl standing frozen over a drop about one and a half feet. Her family was trailing several paces behind. I stopped in front of her, held out my hand and asked “Would you like my help”? This little girl with a dark skin complexion and the most big, beautiful trusting eyes tightly grabbed my grimy, sweaty hand, and I gently helped her down that drop off.
It was at a point where I felt there was nothing left in my 60 year old body. The human touch of that little girl of her tiny hand firmly gripping my big sweaty hand became a turning point for me. Yes, I did have something left to give. Those last 6 kilometers to complete physically were still tough, but mentally I was renewed. When a person is strong mentally the impossible becomes possible, and Kristi and I crossed the Stage 1 finish line running strongly in just over 8 hours. The next few hours was spent resting, connecting with my fellow runners and the ever so important stretching, refueling and rehydrating. After supper Ray Zahab gave another race briefing of the gruelling 72k long stage the following day. I knew before I started this would be the toughest day of running I would ever face. Yet I felt a peace, and that night I had the best sleep yet since the car crash.
Stage 2. Twenty Three Hundred and Eighty Metres of Elevation Gain. 72 Kilometers. Official Finishing Time 15:05
It was dark, I was in a deep sleep when I woke up to someone saying “Wake up everyone. It is time to go running”. Was this an extremely vivid dream? Where was I? And why was I in a tent with 7 other people? As I brought my mind into focus, I remembered. It was our 4 am wakeup call before our long stage. Race director Ray Zahab had spent much of the night flagging the trail and was back at Camp Bushtukah to make sure everyone was up and at it. It was exciting to hear that all the participants successfully completed the 1st stage. This was the 1st time this has happened in the 3 years Bad Beaver Ultra has been running.
Within a matter of moments Camp Bushtukah became a sea of headlamps. There was not a lot of conversation as much needed to be done in this 90 minutes. Repacking, refueling, taping and redressing blisters and hot spots, the race directors were all pitching in to help where needed. My back had become raw from the pack in one area and Christopher, one of my tent mates kindly gave me a strip of his K-Tape for me to use. Sereena, one of the race directors who is a very accomplished ultrarunner and stage racer assisted me applying it.
Before we knew it, 5:30 and the beginning of Stage 2 had come. We were using our headlamps to illuminate the trail before us. As in the previous day, I was running with Kristi Raz, a strong ultrarunner from the Ottawa area. She is very familiar with the majority of the trails in Gatineau Park. It also gave me much comfort that she is also a fierce orienteering competitor.
The one thing that stood out with this stage was the heat, the humidity (humidity reached the high 30’s/low 40’s)and the hills. Each was relentless. Our bodies need so much fuel to keep running optimally, and so much fluid to keep from overheating. I was eating when I was not hungry to replace the carbs lost. I was drinking when I was not thirsty (when a person is thirsty that person is already dehydrated). I was hourly taking salt/electrolyte tablets to avoid becoming hyponatremic (dilution of electrolyte sodium in blood, leading to swelling of cells).
Due to the intense heat and humidity there were a couple unmanned water stations added by race organizers. The distances between each station now varied from 6 kilometers to just over 10 kilometers apart. Volunteers manning those water stations were so enthusiastic. I so loved and appreciated their cheering when I would arrive. How they hustled to fill my water containers. Some stations had the luxury of ice. There was “dirty ice” and “clean ice”. The dirty ice simply is using unfiltered tap water and we would stuff cubes in our hat, down our shorts and down our shirts (the ladies had an advantage here). The clean ice we would add to our drinking water canisters to cool our water and ultimately to help cool our bodies.
Kristi and I ran this stage together, yet sometimes we ran our own. There was a constant up and down for much of those 72 kilometers. The longest actual climb was said to be 2.5 kilometers in length. Kristi is much faster than me on the downhills. Sometimes I would be over a half a kilometer ahead and then out of nowhere on the downhills Kristi was beside me and then ahead of me.
The major technical climb and descent during this stage was trail #62, known by the locals as the notorious Wolf Trail. Hitting it at 44 kilometers into this 72 kilometer stage was at a point where runners were becoming exhausted. It was a test not only physically, but also mentally to keep focused. It took awhile to get through it, but also knew I was not alone. Each runner would have had to fight to complete the Wolf Trail portion of Stage 2. It is the little things that really make a difference, and one of my Stage 2 highlights was meeting Nathalie (one of my Twitter followers) for the very 1st time. She was really looking forward to meeting me. When she saw me coming in while volunteering at a water station near the end of the stage, she gave me the biggest hug. When I was about to start out on the course again, she gave me another massive hug.
The last portion of Stage 2 Kristi mentioned she has never been on before. Ray Zahab mentioned in his briefing that this could be the most challenging portion of Stage 2 for some people. I was thinking more hills, but the contours on my race map did not indicate this. My gut feeling this had to be mud. And I was correct.
It was not continuous, but it was slow going in the places where there was mud. And with stagnant water all around the mosquitoes were swarming. My insect repellent I brought with me just did not seem to work. In one spot Kristi got stuck in the mud….literally. Her foot got under a log and she couldn’t pull it straight up and had to use her other foot to work it back. I offered to help, but she was afraid she would lose her shoe if I started to pull. Eventually, and multiple mosquito bites later she was able to work herself free.
It took 15:05 to complete this stage and arrive at Camp Fortune, which is used as a winter ski lodge. With a 5:30 am start, Kristi and I arrived shortly after 8:30 pm. It was wonderful to have available hot water and flush toilets. It was a long day and several runners ahead of us had already grabbed a bite to eat and were sleeping on the floor. Camp Fortune is not often used in the summer, but later on Saturday there was going to be a wedding reception held. I really hope they were able to get the grimy, sweaty smell of 33 ultrarunners who were sleeping on the floor out of the place.
Stage 3. Five Hundred and Fifty Metres Altitude Gain. 27.45 Kilometers. Official Finishing Time 5:34
Stage 3 was unique because there was 2 start times. Runners in the middle of the pack and further back were to start at 6:15 am, and runners who were faster on the 1st 2 stages would start at 8:00 am. That way runners from the front to the back would be finishing closer together. The hardest part for me coming into that 3rd stage was learning that several runners did not make it through that notorious 2nd stage and “dnf’d” (did not finish) Over the course of the race they became my friends. It was an extremely tough stage and I have so much respect for each runner that gave it their very best.
The 5:00 am wake up on day 3 was hard for me. Some runners did not get in until after midnight, and I can’t even imagine how hard it was to get in that late and still get up early the next morning. Stage 3 was a shorter distance and not the extreme elevation climbs. But it still had its challenges, one of them being that continual heat and humidity.
I train in the heat and humidity, so I “sort of” get used to it. Probably one of the the most experienced runners on the course was Mary who comes from Edmonton, and she has never experienced the intense humidity like we had at Bad Beaver Ultra. With the humidity, the perspiration does not get a chance to evaporate, and each runner during the entire time on the course is drenched in sweat. This causes chaffing and hot spots where there is any rubbing, but for Mary it became much worse.
The final day of Bad Beaver Ultra was a Saturday , which brought a lot of runners out on the trails particularly around Pink Lake. Out for their 5 or 10 kilometer Saturday morning runs they looked so fresh and happy. With all this humidity and myself being drenched in sweat wearing the same shorts and shirt for my 3rd day in a row, I had to really watch myself that I did not stare at these runners too much.
For the 3rd day I had the privilege of running much of the course with Kristi Raz. It has become a tradition for Kristi’s 2 boys Evan and Luke to run with her across the finish line and with 2 kilometers to go I went on ahead. With one kilometer to go race leader Sebastian Warner (who started around 2 hours after me) went by me, smiling as always. As much as I tried, I could not keep up with him. Sebastian ran so freely and effortlessly. When I heard the loud cheering of Sebastian finishing I knew I was almost there. One last corner, a bridge and that long anticipated finish line. Crossing that finish line with bib #17 in 17th place with a combined time of 28:48 was sheer euphoria. I just could not wipe the smile off my face. SO many hugs and congratulations from fellow runners, race volunteers and race organizers.
When I think that a week earlier I was questioning if I should show up for Bad Beaver Ultra, I still have a hard time wrapping my mind around that distance of 150 kilometers. That I actually managed to pull this Impossible into a Possible. To organize a race of this magnitude takes an enormous amount of effort and I want to thank every race volunteer, every race organizer for making it happen. It was the best race I have ever participated in. One of the amazing aspects with Stage Racing are the friendships that are forged. Leaving Bad Beaver Ultra was a different feeling from any other ultra I’ve run (as awesome as those feelings are). With the friendships made, I really felt I was going home after summer camp with a whole bunch of new friends. When I arrived home from my train trip 36 hours after crossing the finish line there was a half dozen friend requests on social media from fellow runners. This has grown exponentially and now includes race organizers and volunteers. I believe these friendships will last. There are so many new runner friends I would love to write about. Here a quick bio on 6 of them.
I connected with Kristi 3 years ago through our blogs and over the past few years we have met on the start line of several ultras. By far, Bad Beaver Ultra was the longest and furthest I have ever run with her. She is calm under adversity, and is known to fight through the most gruelling conditions to the finish. It gave my wife much comfort to know Kristi was with me. Kristi has completed many ultras including The North Face Endurance Challenge 50 miler and the I2P 100 kilometer.
Kristi is a teacher by profession, and I loved her share her passion for her work with me. Her students are very fortunate to have her as their teacher. Besides ultrarunning Kristi has a passion for orienteering and has competed in the open division of the Canadian Orienteering Championships 3 times. I so appreciate Kristi’s invite for Bad Beaver Ultra and the warm hospitality provided by Kristi, her husband Michael and 2 sons Evan and Luke. Kristi’s adventures can be followed on Twitter @AverageRunnerK
There could not be a more fitting name for my new friend than Daisy. She has such a sunny disposition, she was always smiling, and I loved hearing her delightful French Canadian accent. Having her on the course brought joy to everyone sharing the course. And despite feeling sick and nauseous her final day and a half she just kept smiling.
Daisy just started trail running in 2016 with a 10k. Last year she completed a 70k 3 day stage race and earlier this year the challenging Gaspesia 100k stage race. Bad Beaver Ultra was her toughest ultra to date and she is looking forward to running other wild and crazy races. Daisy mentioned these races help her keep motivated with her daily training. Running in nature makes her fulfilled and extremely happy. It helps her live every minute of her life to the maximum, living the present and appreciating every little thing.
At 67 years old Roger Cook is an ultrarunner who flew in from Edmonton to run the Bad Beaver Ultra. He exudes so much youth, exuberance and enthusiasm. He was such a joy to be around. If I could have a quarter of Roger’s youthfulness at 67, I’ll be extremely happy. Coming from Alberta, the humidity at Bad Beaver Ultra was a real eye opener. In all his years he has never experienced anything like it.
Rogers biggest race was the 6 stage, 250 kilometer race in Iceland called “Fire and Ice”. Their website bills it as “Iceland’s Toughest Foot Race”, and “Probably the Toughest Multi-terrain Race in the World”. After that incredible gruelling stage 2 at Bad Beaver Ultra, I asked Roger “How did Bad Beaver compare…Iceland, or Bad Beaver”? Roger said without hesitation that the Bad Beaver 2nd stage was way, way tougher than any stage in Iceland, mentioning that the humidity and the constant up and down of Gatineau hills had pretty much destroyed his quads.
Mary was another runner who flew in from Edmonton Alberta. I loved her gentle disposition, and even before I learned of some of the races she has participated I had that gut feeling that she was an extremely experienced ultrarunner. She loves to encourage others and brings out the best in the other participants.
Mary is a running coach with her own company called Go The Distance Training. Her personal training services can be from making personal lifestyle changes to running ultras 50 kilometers to 100 miles and beyond including multi-day stage races. Mary has many massive races under her belt including Racing the Planet Iceland and Jordan (both 6 stage, 250 kilometers), Lost Souls 100 miler (the only Canadian qualifier for Western States) and Iron Horse 100 miler. These are just a few, and I know there are many more. It was such an honour to share those Bad Beaver Ultra trails with Mary.
I loved having Erika around at Bad Beaver Ultra. Pleasant and engaging, she exuded positivity. This had a ripple effect to not only myself but everyone she connected with. In asking “What was behind her drive, energy and enthusiasm” I learned she is a single mom and lives a very busy lifestyle. Her vocation for the past 15 years has been volunteer coordinator, the most recent 3 years with the Children’s Aid Society. Self care is extremely important with quality sleep, regular exercise, proper nutrition, embracing me-time, enjoying nature, being limitless. This serves as a positive role model for her 12 old daughter.
Fitness was not always a part of Erika growing up, but 6 years ago one day she woke up and felt like running. A 5k became a 10k. A 10k became a half-marathon. It has now become a quest to find her limit as she pushes her distances further and further. Nothing has got the best of her yet. Erika has competed in several of the OUTrace series races I have occasionally been at. Really looking forward to reconnecting with her at one of these again soon.
There are various reasons why runners sign up to participate in this demanding course called Bad Beaver Ultra. For Jim Raffone, his reasons go far, far deeper. That 1st evening as all of the participants were getting to know one another, James took a couple of minutes to share what was deep on his heart.
Jim’s young son is afflicted with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy. He is so passionate to find a cure and to find a way from keeping this disease from progressing. Every day he can keep his son from ending up in a wheelchair is a blessing. Jim is founder of the charity JAR Of Hope (JAR stands for his sons name….James Anthony Raffone). Jim’s motto is “We are taking on fighting Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy because losing our son is not an option”.
The reason Jim participates in these incredible gruelling events is to raise funds and awareness to find a cure for this debilitating disease. So his son and every other boy and girl with the disease can live a normal life. Jim ran Bad Beaver Ultra as a training event for the 6 day 273 kilometer Grand 2 Grand Ultra that goes from rim to rim in the Grand Canyon. Jim will be running it Sept. 23-29, 2018. A major fundraiser for Jar of Hope to find a cure for Duchene Muscular Dystrophy is the New York City Marathon. A team of 20 are running this event this year.
Going into Bad Beaver Ultra, I knew I was either going to love or hate stage racing when it was all done. This race was far, far better than what I ever imagined. Flawlessly organized, I can’t even imagine how much time it took to put this together.
The one person I was really looking forward to meeting was race director and Canadian Extreme Adventure Athlete Ray Zahab. Right from our first handshake Ray had me on a first name basis. I was so touched by his genuineness. Bad Beaver Ultra would have been so busy for him, but he took the time to personally engage with each of us runners. Back in 2006, Ray was a pack a day smoker, and running has transformed his life. Ray has received numerous accolades, included some more recent ones in 2015 when Canadian Geographic recognized Ray as one of Canada’s Top Explorers. In December 2015 Ray was presented with the Meritorious Service Cross of Canada by the Governor General of Canada.
Ray is a sought out international public speaker and has authored two books Running My Life and Running to Extremes. He is currently writing his third book. Ray introduces his “About” page on his website with these words, “From ultra marathons to crossing the Sahara and beyond, this journey has taught me that we can truly exceed any limits we think we might have!” For a full description of Ray Zahab’s journey from a pack a day smoker to one of Canada’s top extreme adventure athlete’s please check out his website www.rayzahab.com/about/.
A large number of photos in this post were taken by the always smiling Ryan Richardson and Hailey Playfair of Life Outside Studio. The quality of these photos are 2nd to none. Ryan Richardson was the videographer for Ray Zahab when Ray ran with Stefano Gregoretti approximately 1,850 kilometers across the Namib Desert in Namibia (Trans Namibia Expedition) this past February 2018. Here is one of the videos that Ryan put together. Enjoy.