Race Report: North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario 2014 / by Heather Grieve

One of my favourite internet time wasters is watching video after video of ultra running on YouTube (like this Badwater UltraMarathon documentary that's equal parts inspiring, mind-boggling and gross). The North Face publish some of the best videos out there. Since getting into trail running, watching clips from their international endurance where the gods of ultra-running tackle the Alps or the Andes is pure eye candy. So when I heard TNC was expanding their endurance series to Ontario, with race offerings at distances from 5km to 80km. I was sold! I quickly registered and then started reviewing the details. Distance: Half-marathon. Location: Blue Mountain, Collingwood. Difficulty level: Masochist! The North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario here I come.

Distance: 21km. Total elevation change: 1,704km. Ugh.
Distance: 21km. Total elevation change: 1,704km. Ugh.

Skip ahead to race day, I was rested and ready to go. The half-marathon started early on Sunday, July 13th. It had poured for most of the night, which kept the morning air a bit cool but we were warned that the trails would be a bit of a slippery mess. After a quick pep talk from ultra-running jedi Dean Karnazes, we were off! And for the next 2km all we did was climb. I knew this was a vertical challenge, so I settled into a slow and steady pace and tried to keep my breathing in check. By the time we broke out of the trees and reached most of the way up Scenic Caves Drive at 3km I was hurting. My lungs were burning, but not nearly as much as my calves. They felt like rocks in a kiln, I've never felt muscle pain like this before. I was having delusional thoughts about whether or not calf muscles could just fall off.

Just when it was at its worst, we hit a glorious 250m downhill road section that felt like running heroine. I could open it up again and get the blood pumping through my whole body. The weather was getting rainy and humid when we left the road and dove back into the woods on an insanely narrow and muddy single-track trail. Trail runners are 99% of the time a super friendly cooperative bunch and you could see it in full-effect during this section. We were still closely bunched up and every slick hill or boardwalk was announced 10 runners ahead with the message passed along to those behind us. People were wiping out but not because of lack of warning.

Leaving this wild and wooded section we popped out on to a dirt and gravel road that took us from 1/2 way up the mountain straight to the top. This section was another calf killer. I started to walk, so did all of the other runners I could see in front of me. At the crest (that felt like it was never going to arrive) was the first aid station. This was 6km into the race and it felt like I had already expended the energy of a half-marathon. After a quick eLoad, Honey Stinger gel and water combo, I climbed the first of two ladders and we were into a beautiful lush tall canopy forest. This was the most beautiful section of trail I've ever run on, unfortunately I was not feeling well at this point. 100m of running was followed by walking, I would run again and the cycle would repeat. Somewhere around 9km, my Honey Stinger gel came back up, it wasn't pretty and neither was I at this point. Shortly after that digestive mishap, I started to get a pace back together and things were looking up.

For the next 2km I was totally alone. I lost sight of anyone in front of me and there was no one behind me. My only reassurance that I was on the right track were the coloured race ribbons tied to the occasional tree. When I did see another runner, I quickly wished I was alone again. Somewhere around 11-12km, the half marathon course merged with the 10km course that started an hour later. I was stuck in a thick line of middle of the pack 10k runners, most of whom seemed to have no knowledge of trail running etiquette. There were dangerous passes, headphones and all sorts of attitude when you asked to pass on the left. It was frustrating but motivating. I tried hard to pass and get some distance between myself and anyone wearing a red 10km bib.

The next section of the race was a roller coaster that zig zagged up and down the ski hills and the thick forest between the slopes. To soften the blow of these gruelling hills I got talking with a fellow half-marathoner about his training for the Chicago Marathon this fall. I wish him luck, but if he was able to carry on a conversation at kilometer 17 of this race, I think he'll do just fine.

After the last of three, maybe four monster uphill climbs in what was now a super sunny day, I finally hit the final aid station that marked the final descent to the finish line. It was all out madness on this 1.5km section of mud, rock and roots. A runner ahead of me had a severe calf cramp and went down hard. I stopped to help him, but lost my footing and slid 20 feet down the hill and landed back on my feet on the trail. It proved impossible to climb back up with all that mud, so I kept going. I do wish he was able to finish.

When I did reach the final 400 meters from the forest edge to the finish line I had a tiny rush of adrenaline for a final kick. I was 50m behind a couple when a spectator yelled "you can beat them" and using everything I had left, I gunned it. I sprinted to the finish leaving them in my wake and crossed the finish line at 3 hours and 33 seconds. I was handed a medal and TNF water bottle and if I wasn't so dehydrated I would have cried, but no tears flowed.

Within a few minutes I was breathing normal and standing tall and much in need of a shower.

This course is a trail anomaly. It is exponentially harder than any other trail race that I know of in Ontario. It took me 4 hours and 24 minutes to run a marathon, this race was half that distance and still took 3 hours. It was hard and I had finished. All in all, I had three wipeouts, I ran through a stream, crossed the top of a waterfall, slipped on a boardwalk and collided with a tree, but I had triumphed over the North Face Endurance Challenge. I was a happy runner and I would do it all again in 2015.