It was only 36 hours before the OUTRace Spring Warm-Up when I received a personal e-mail from event organizer, director and friend Pierre Marcoux. Pierre mentioned “he had been out on the course the previous day and there was not much snow left on the trail portions of the course. There are small sections of ice, but about 92.334% is clear of frost. There is also some mud, so trail shoes are the best option”. Pierre closed off his e-mail with the words “I’m hoping that you can slow down to my pace and we can chat (oh, and run) for a bit”.
I could not have been more ecstatic to receive this invitation from Pierre. Although I enjoy running solo, it has been over four months since I have run with anybody. It has been a long winter and I have missed that camaraderie. The last time I have run with anyone else was at the Santa Shuffle on December 1, 2018. I have also been trying to shake the recent stunning loss of a friend of 20 years who passed away suddenly in his sleep. My friend “Jimmer” was not a runner, but he “ran” through me and was a part of my accomplishments. Always supporting me, always encouraging me, always believing I could do whatever I put my mind to.
There is no competitiveness at the Spring Warm-Up. It is simply a fun run in the hills. There is no timing, no points given and no prizes or acknowledgement for winners. It is a 13 kilometer loop. You choose to do as many loops as you want to run in 6 hours. It is just an awesome get together after a long Canadian winter. Put in some friendly miles or kilometers together and enjoy hanging out after for some great local pizza. And 100% of all registration fees went to OUTRace.
The OUTRace Facebook page also described Spring Warm-Up as a secret weapon. Cleverly disguised as a Fun Run, but in reality, it is a chance to spec out the competition and perform full diagnostics on your winter legs. I arrived at my destination of the quaint, sleepy village of Dunedin, Ontario nestled at the bottom of the Niagara Escarpment. Parked my car and another vehicle pulls in beside me. As I get out of my car, a couple of female runners exit the car beside me and the driver immediately comes over smiling from ear to ear about to give me a hug. My mind was scrambling putting a name to this very familiar face. It was Crystal from Waterloo with her friend Kristin. Crystal and I connected through our blogs and met at the starting line of the Creemore Vertical Challenge in August 2015. I haven’t seen her since. This incredibly fast runner paced me the entire 25 kilometer distance of what was my 1st ever trail race. She was a game changer. The Creemore Vertical Challenge was an extremely challenging course directed Pierre Marcoux, the very ultrarunner I was going run with.
I went inside the Dunedin Community Hall to sign in, came out, and there was soon to be 80 year old Hans Maier. I have run short distances with Hans a few times, and he came over and gave me a great big hug like I was a long lost friend. This really made my day. The running community is so amazing.
We all met for a group photo. And run director Pierre shared a bit about the course. Course markings were only at road intersections, and be careful through the ice and mud sections. There was no countdown and no starting horn. And when it was time to go, the runners just started off running. I stayed behind while Pierre touched base with his volunteers who were covering the aid station. In just a few minutes we were off.
It was beautiful bright sunny day. It was 3C with a chilling, strong “blow your hat off your head” almost gale force headwind that made the initial three kilometer country road climb up the Niagara Escarpment a serious workout. Then we ran on a non-winter serviced backroad, then a short section on a remarkably quiet paved County road where we then entered Noisy River Provincial Park. This park is not well known, and is one of Ontario’s best kept secrets. It is off the beaten track and is one of the very few provincial parks I have never been to within 100 kilometers of my home. I have wanted to visit this undeveloped, natural park for a long, long time.
And not only was I visiting this park, I was running it with a legend. Pierre Marcoux and I are exactly the same age. Unlike me, who has only been running for 6 years, Pierre mentions “he started running 44 years ago back in 1975 after knee surgery. The surgeon was likely ahead of the game by recommending exercise to keep the muscles surrounding the knee strong. This would keep the knee (now without any cartilage) aligned”. Pierre was living out of the country at the time, and “trail running” had not even been invented. And Pierre incorporated trails and swamps into his regular runs. Pierre and his wife Lee Anne ran their first trail run (Ganaraska 25K) in 2003. Even though he trained hard by incorporating many runs up and down the Niagara Escarpment, Pierre found the race extremely hard. He mentioned this to a fellow beside him who said he was halfway. That runner was in the 50k. Pierre mentions “then and there that he belonged with this obviously unstable group”.
In 2007 Pierre became involved with OUTRace (back then it was OUSer). Incredibly this was the same time he started the amazing Creemore Vertical Challenge. This race had such a “family” feel to it, with the start/finish line held right on Pierre and Lee Anne’s personal property. This was a tough, challenging course, and as it became more well known brought in big names such as Calum Neff, a Canadian living in Texas and Nepalese Olympic athlete Kanchha Maya Koju. Calum Neff holds numerous course records including the 50k Creemore Vertical Challenge which he ran on August 8, 2015. And Kanchha Maya Koju broke the Nepalese women’s marathon record in 2016. She also broke the course record in the women’s 25k at Creemore Vertical Challenge.
After 10 wonderful years of hosting the Creemore Vertical Challenge Pierre felt it was time to close it down. He explains why in this incredibly well written article titled Creemore Vertical Challenge is No More. Ultrarunning Magazine lists that 586 ultrarunners completed the 50k Creemore Vertical Challenge during it’s amazing run. It is such an honour to be included in that number, having completed the 50k in it’s final year in 2016.
In September 2016 Pierre announced the Creemore Vertical Challenge was no more. A week later, Kim Van Delst announced that she was stepping down as coordinator of OUTRace. The very next day Pierre was informed that he was the new coordinator – there wasn’t even a vote! Just like that. Pierre did not protest, he did not raise a stink. He stepped up to the plate and the Ontario Ultra and Trail Racing Series never lost a beat. Pierre continues to be coordinator of OUTRace right up to this day, and is doing an amazing job. It really shows the outstanding character that Pierre Marcoux really is. Pierre Marcoux is a legend in the ultrarunning world.
Pierre and I continued our run through Noisy River Provincial Park. It was so incredibly beautiful, but also challenging particularly this time of year. We were following the white blaze markings of the Bruce Trail. There was a lot of leaf litter from last fall and in places the trail was difficult to follow. There was some steep climbs, mud in places and technical boulder patches. There was also some very treacherous icy patches where the only way to stay upright was to grab onto the trees.
And it was so beautiful I kept stopping to take pictures. Pierre kept saying the best is yet to come. And he was right. The trail for a while ran parallel to a spectacular labyrinth of caves and caverns. It was around that place where Pierre and I caught up to soon to be 80 year old legend Hans Maier. Hans was meticulously picking his way through a maze of moss covered boulders. I was in so much awe and respect watching Hans work his way through this technical section with the nimblest of footwork.
It was so much fun running with Pierre and Hans. We chatted, we joked around, we stopped for photos. Hans is such a dear, humble man. He brings out the best in me and I’m sure every other runner he connects with. Hans Maier is a legend. Since 2001 Hans has received the Norm Patenaude Award 20 times for completing 8 or more ultras a year in the OUTRace series. That is since he turned 60, the very age I am now. Hans holds several Canadian records, and with that new age bracket of over 80, I have no doubt there will be many new records broken.
The three of us kept running the last of our 1st loop when we caught up to another legend. Seventy two year old Ronald Gehl. Ron is known for running the big distances. I saw Ronald for the first time at Creemore Vertical Challenge. My 1st year I was running the 25k. Ron was running the 75k. The next year I ran the 50k. Once again Ron ran the 75k. And this was a really tough course.
Coming down the final downhill of the 1st loop Hans pulled ahead and was well into his 2nd loop by the time Pierre, Ron and myself finished loop one. As planned, Pierre was done for the day after loop one and Ron was in and out very quickly for his 2nd loop. I took my merry time. Drank some coconut water I had in a cooler in the car, took a washroom break and socialized with other runners at the hall. It had to be at least 20 minutes before I started out on loop two. Ronald Gehl was way out of sight.
Kept the same pace as I ran with Pierre on my 1st loop. The three kilometer climb up the escarpment, the “not winter maintained” road, the paved county road and then back in the Noisy River Provincial Park. It was just as beautiful as I remembered it the first loop. Made it through the icy patches in one piece. And I was just going through the technical boulder patch when I heard a noise that had me frozen in one place. My heart was pounding. My hair was standing on end. This was near the caves and caverns, ideal places for bears to hibernate. And bears are coming out of hibernation right this time of year. And they are very hungry.
I looked through the trees and boulders where the noise came from and noticed a familiar figure. It was Ronald Gehl. He was off the trail by about 100 feet and appeared to be lost pacing back and forth looking for the white blazes of the Bruce Trail. I called out, “Ron! Over here buddy”! Very quickly Ron was beside me looking very relieved. And I was relieved that Ron wasn’t a bear. Ron had been looking for that trail for over 15 minutes. He kept retracing his steps to the last white blaze, but just could not find the next one.
So for the remaining six kilometers of loop two I ran with ultrarunning legend Ronald Gehl. Ron has been running for 27 years. Ron has received the Norm Patenaude award 25 times for completing 8 or more ultras a year in the OUTRace series. Many of these races are much longer distances, such as completing the Haliburton 100 miler ten times. I have never run Haliburton any of the distances, but I have been told it is very technical. Ron confided to me that he is surprised none of the younger runners have tried to break his record. For Ron’s sake, I hope he keeps that record for a long, long time.
Ron and I finished our 2nd 13 kilometer loop and called it a day, for a 26 total kilometer Fun Run. Hans went on to do a third loop. But pizza was beckoning. I sat at the table closest to the pizza and joined two young female runners named Becky and Johanna. We introduced ourselves and started talking. Shortly after Ronald Gehl joined the three of us. It did not take long for the focus to be on Ron. I had the privilege of having legend Ronald Gehl to myself for the previous hour. So I sat back and listened to the ladies many questions, and hearing Ron’s answers from many years of wisdom and experience of running some really tough ultramarathons. I learned about Ron’s experience at Western States 100 miler which he has run twice. And Ronald Gehl’s toughest race ever, Hurt 100 miler in Hawaii. Who knows, these ladies could very well be the legends of tomorrow. And Ronald Gehl, like Pierre Marcoux, like Hans Maier have been fueling those fires of inspiration that could very well make it happen. Thank you Pierre. Thank you Hans. Thank you Ronald.
Pierre Marcoux is not only an ultrarunner, former race director and current OUTRace coordinator. He is an excellent writer. His blog is called Running Challenged. You will love his entertaining sense of humour.
To learn more about OUTRace, their website is www.outrace.ca. If you successfully complete eight of these races that are 50 kilometers or more within one season, you join an elite group of runners such as Han Maier and Ronald Gehl who receive the Norm Patenaude Award. Last year in 2018 Hans and Ronald were two of only six ultrarunners in all of Ontario to receive this award.