If beavers could run fast…they would participate in the Ultimate XC Challenge! This one- through three-day multi-sport event was held June 25-27, 2010 at the scenic Mt. Tremblant resort, a year ‘round mecca of outdoor activities nestled in the heart of the Laurentian Mountains 90 minutes north of Montreal, Canada. In its second year, the event proved that year one was no fluke as organizers were able to make good on their promise of mud and adventure: An ultimate cross-county challenge.
Participants were able to register for solo events or a 3-day challenge, with Day 1 featuring a lake kayak of 28 or 60 km (17 or 38 miles), a Day 2 mountain trail run of 13, 21, 35 or 56 km (8, 13, 21 or 34 miles), and Day 3 featuring a 50 or 100 km (31 or 62 mile) mountain bike adventure. The “Full” challenge featured the longest course each day while the “Half” challenge featured the shorter distance each day.
A warning posted on the race website reads,
Only the experienced ultra runner, adventure racer and insane athlete should consider this full solo race. This is not for ordinary people. Please do not think that because you have a few Ironman races under your belt that this is going to be a piece of cake. This is far more painful than any other races that you may have done in the past. This is like 3 Ironman races in a row…
And so the warning went. I decided to race the 35 km trail run only. I figured, how tough could that be?
With an organized registration process and clearly marked start area (complete with a 15 km drop bag for special needs) we started out on a tame bike path and off-road trail, belying the difficulty of the rest of the course to come. Moving into the lead a few miles in, the course began to transit what are likely snowshoe trails, tame when covered with snow but with trees to hop over (and under), rock gardens to dance among, and roots galore, the pace slowed significantly. I got caught! At times there were more roots than earth, more rocks than roots, and more inclines than rocks. It was a course to remember. And that was through the first couple of kilometers!
Then came a surprise: The pink course ribbons led us directly into a slow-moving stream. Any hope of keeping one’s shoes dry quickly vanished, as quickly as our knees and than waistline under the murky water. For the next 2 km, the route transitioned in and out of the stream, along beaver paths of crushed reeds and grass, through tributary streams and over strewn logs, and finally over another km or two of shallow river where there was no choice but to dance on and among slippery mossy rocks. A steady stream of athletes filed past through the rock-strewn stream bed, my legs more used to the dry rocky trails of Southern California. The local runners here are amazing- dancing among the stream bed rocks like it was the most natural thing to do on this fine Saturday morning. I was humbled. I wear the maple leaf proudly, but I clearly do not run like a Canadian. (I’m also not very fond of hockey or poutine…)
Aid station number two approached as we mercifully exited the river section, with our optional dry bag, and for this weary runner, a dry pair of socks and shoes. The stations were well stocked with essentials and a friendly crew of volunteers. Some athletes already sported scars of crashes in the stream, a harbinger of the finish line area that looked hauntingly like a M.A.S.H. unit except with a lot of smiling faces. But that scene was still hours away, and the trail now ascended the famous Mt. Tremblant ski hill via a rough single track. I popped another SaltStick capsule to ward off cramps and put my head down to power uphill.
The mountain summit finally appeared after a climb of nearly 600m (2000’) over another gnarly trail. I can’t be sure of the “average” runner experience, but most of the time I was completely alone in the forest with only my thoughts for company, and a mind drifting to consider some of the area’s history, wildlife and future as a mega-resort. There is nothing like the wild outdoors to make one feel very, very small.
A final aid station at the ski chalet at the main summit was serving up sandwiches and soup in particular for the 56 km runners, while for the rest of us, it was an easy downhill to the finish. But oh, what’s this? One last curve ball in the form of the trail La Grande Brûlé – literally, the big burn- a very tough single track dropping about 2500’ to the beach and finish line on Lac Tremblant.
Was it worth the technical running t-shirt and dog tag? You bet ya! An arrangement with Spa La Source allowed runners to enjoy a hot shower post-race, and a full lunch BBQ was included with the race entry, along with the traditional orange, bananas and water. Local accommodations are inexpensive due to off-season pricing and the race site is a scenic drive from Montreal.
This is a race of strength and agility. Clearly the top performers are part gymnast, but the rest of us mortals were able to plod through the rocky stream bed, narrow beaver trails and single track. This is part adventure race with a rugged marked course. The race director, Dan Des Rosiers, reportedly had to turn down many last-minute entries, electing instead to maintain the smaller, more intimate experience and personality of the event. (So sign up early for 2011!) He is wholeheartedly unapologetic as to the difficulty and technical demands of the course. There is no better way to spend a Saturday enjoying this remote country charm, but don’t forget to plan some extra time to hobble through town after the race.
Best suited for: Hard core trail runners, adventure seekers, any runner looking for a new challenge, runners looking for a PW (personal worst time for the distance). A great destination race.
Least suited for: Road racers, PB (personal-best) seekers, complainers, and anybody who doesn’t like running in wet shoes or has an above-average aversion to beavers.
Here is an awesome video of one 2010 participant’s experience.
Jonathan Toker is an elite-level runner-triathlete who hails from Canada and lives in Southern California. He is also the Slowtwitch.com Science Editor. He received a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from The Scripps Research Institute in 2001. Jonathan invented the SaltStick brand.