Sometimes races don’t go exactly as you had hoped, but they still end up being pretty damn great experiences. That seemed to be the case with the Trans Gaspesia 7 Day Stage race.
I didn’t have a lot of time to train specifically for this race, as it was a fairly last minute opportunity to write an upcoming magazine article. I went into the race a little short on hill training and pack runs, but felt that I would be okay with the goal of completing. I may have also underestimated the mountains as well as the affect they would have on me while running with a heavy pack.
Trans Gaspesia is a 7 day 260 km event that is self supported. Elevation gain during the race would be roughly 40,000 feet of climbing (some measured more), and almost that much descending over very technical terrain. Runners are required to carry all of their gear and food they will need for the entire week in their backpacks. The only things provided by the race is water, and a tent to sleep in.
Since I will be writing a magazine article about the race in the coming months, I will limit this blog post to more about my personal experience within the race.
I had some travel glitches in the days leading up to the race that included extra time in Quebec, but arrived at the start the night before the race to meet race organizers, other runners, have my gear check and the final meal before the race.
Following dinner, we were shuttled to camp, where we would sleep, then begin our run the next morning.
Race morning arrived with plenty of scrambling. I had not had a chance in training to run with my full pack weight of all the gear and food that I would be taking. This was partially from wanting to increase gradually, but also that I was tinkering with many items right up to the last minute. I have to say that putting on my pack on race day was a bit of a shock. I didn’t think that I could possibly have lightened it much more, but there is always a way. I had heard that some runners had gotten their pack weight to significantly under 15 pounds and not sure how this would be possible. Food added the most weight to my pack. Too little food and you’d be running on fumes later in the week. I did not have a final weight of my pack, but guess that my pack weight was about average from what I observed.
After our pre-race briefing and getting our Spot trackers set up, the race began with a gentle downhill on forest road. It felt good to finally be moving. The downhill grade was a bit of a false sense of comfort though as we soon turned off the road and began to climb.
The climbs were where you really notice the weight of your pack. Some sections were runnable, but for the most part I was forced to hike all of the steeper climbs. One particular early climb featured some of the steepest grades that I had been on. I was forced to take a few steps at a time and then stop to recover. Parts of this trail were very grassy with nothing to pull yourself up with. Hiking poles would have been a very good idea for this section, and many people were wise to have them. It didn’t help that it was a hot day and the sun felt like it was frying me. It soon became obvious that the course featured some serious mountains, and combined with the extremely technical footing, was going to make for a significantly longer day than planned.
I arrived at the summit checkpoint of the first major climb 17 km’s into the race and was already shattered. My body was screaming and my right achilles tendon had started to stiffen up already from all the uphills with the heavy pack. I sat down for a few moments to ponder what I had gotten myself into.
After collecting my thoughts, I refilled my waterbottles, and then began running gingerly downhill.
Going into the day, I was thinking that the 40 km stage, even with significant climbing, might take 5-6 hours to complete. I was utterly shocked to find that it took me twice that long to finish the first day as I came into camp in over 10 hours. My Suunto Ambit2 had read that I had climbed over 8,500 feet on the day, with much of that in the first 25 km’s. My achilles was not in a good place, but I hoped that after some rest, food and possibly a soak in the lake that things would be better. Stage #1was possibly the hardest day run or race I have ever done (that was a common thought around camp), and I still had to get up and do it again tomorrow.
The first day had taken it’s toll on everyone, and there were already some casualties with some stopping. The thought had crossed my mind to drop out at this point as well, but I was hoping that my achilles would improve and I could keep eating my pack weight (food supply) down with the goal of running in less pain as the week progressed. The grim reality was though that my achilles could not handle the climbs with the load I was carrying.
I got to the 30km checkpoint and had a decision to make. The final 16 km’s of the day included a major climb over a big peak with boulders and loose rock to negotiate on the way up and down. I spoke with the RD’s at the checkpoint and asked more about this segment. I was told that if I ran into trouble and injured myself further during this part, that I would not be able to be easily evacuated off the course. Basically, if I went on, I had to complete it. With the weather beginning to turn colder and rain falling, I knew that I was putting myself in serious risk of further injury and/or hypothermia due to the fact that I was having to go so slowly. Not only was I concerned about my own safety at this point, but also the safety of others who might have to come to my aid if something went wrong.
It was with that in mind that I decided to stop for the day. It was a tough decision to make, but I feel it was the right one. My love of running isn’t solely on completing races at all cost, but enjoying the beauty of the trails each day. The race directors also gave competitors the option of continuing on with running parts of stages for the rest of the race, which would result in the most km’s completed being ranked in order following the runners who had completed the entire race. I felt that this was fair, and a good option for me, so got a ride back to camp to try and rehab my sore achilles as much as I could.
Even though I had packed it in early the day before I was hoping that I could at least do some of Stage 3. I had spent some time icing my achilles in a cold stream and it was feeling a little better today. Fortunately this stage started off a little more gradually with only gentle climbs, and moderately rolling terrain.
I began this stage by walking significant portions until my achilles started to loosen up. One of the highlights of the early part of this stage for me was seeing a moose on the trail. There was a group of us together early and we had a hard time getting past it. Fortunately it didn’t mind us sharing the trail and eventually moved into the woods. Having heard stories of moose attacks, I was relieved to get past it.
Once we got to the higher peaks of the day, the weather began to turn. There was a storm coming in with thunder and lightning around us. We were still going up while the worst of it hit and I have to say that Adam Campbell’s recent hit by lightning during the Hardrock 100 race was fresh in my mind.
Fortunately, the weather improved as I made my way across a never ending section of loose rocks and boulders, before the long, slow climb up Mont Jacques-Cartier.
Mont Jacques-Cartier featured a rocky summit and beautiful view of the Chic Choc Mountains. There was a building at the summit and a large number of hikers had taken the bus service, followed by a short hike up the opposite side of the mountain.
The remainder of the stage featured significant downhill sections where you could run a little quicker in places. It felt good to be running on the flats and downhills. The final few km’s even included some trail sections that reminded me of our thick forest trails at home. Then, just a couple of rivers to cross and the day was done. It felt good to complete this stage.
This was scheduled to be the long day of 70 km’s or more and I knew right from the beginning that it was not going to work out well for me. Immediately after the start we began a long climb straight up that put my achilles in a really bad place. Combined with the quicker running the previous day, this steep climb left me limping/shuffling with a straight leg than couldn’t toe-off . Even when I got to the downhills and flats, I soon discovered that I was not going to be able to run much, if any, of the day. I decided to stop at the first checkpoint and volunteered to help on the course for the remainder of the day, as well as the next day, as runners had two days to complete the distance for the stage.
I was driven out to a remote checkpoint 50 km into the stage where runners could bivy for the night if they wished to get some sleep. It was a beautiful spot at a higher elevation. We had a leanto, campfire, and cold and hot water for the runners as they came through. I really enjoyed being out at this point and seeing and helping everyone as they came through.
Only one runner slept at the checkpoint for a few hours, so once he left, we were shuttled back to camp early the following morning to rest up for the next day.
The extra rest seemed to help my achilles. After I did a short run to help loosen up my achilles (and keep my running streak alive), I was fortunate enough to get some treatment by way of a massage on my calf and achilles. Salvador was in second place in the race standings at that point, but very generously offered to work on my bum leg, and helped to loosen it up immensely. The rest and treatment seemed to do wonders as it was quite a bit looser after and I was confident that I’d be able to run a little more or most of the final two days.
This stage included some rolling terrain again, but nothing too steep at the beginning. I was able to start off very easy and hiked many of the early climbs. I was pleasantly surprised to find that my achilles loosened up and felt quite good for most of the day. I was able to run at about 90% effort over the final 30 km and felt quite good. I was happy to be able to move a little quicker as the weather was cold and wet so I was able to stay warm.
It felt so good to be able to run this section reasonably hard near the end. It was too bad that the weather wasn’t better as some of the views over the water would have been spectacular.
We were required to wear bear bells during Stage 5, but I was still fortunate enough to see two bears. The first one darted into the woods along the side of the trail as I got near it.
My second bear encounter made me laugh. I was pushing fairly hard and had maybe five km’s remaining when I passed through a park area. I looked ahead and saw what I thought was one of those tacky wooden cutouts of a cub standing on it’s hind legs. As I got closer, I realized that the statue was in fact a real cub eating berries along the side of the trail. I had a good chuckle over that and then finished up the remainder of the day at the Lighthouse at Land’s End, which was as far as you could go.
We huddled inside the lighthouse to keep warm before being shuttled to our camp for the night.
Even after over 6 hours of reasonably hard running the day before and what I had put on my legs up to that point all week, my achilles felt quite good for the final stage. Today was actually a little more of an enjoyable sightseeing tour of Bonaventure Island. We traveled by boat to the island, which included a short side trip to see the Ganets that nest on the edge of the island.
The run started off relaxed but eased into a steady pace with a large group of us finishing the short stage together.
I’ve had a little bit of time to reflect on Trans Gaspesia now and to analyze what went wrong for me. Simply put, the following were the four key factors for me…
• Not enough heavy pack running.
• Not enough long hill training (for me that means treadmill and tire pulling)
• Not enough specific strength training.
• Underestimating the length and steepness of the mountains in Quebec.
This was my first attempt at a summer stage race, and I knew that I would learn a lot. If felt like gear-wise I went into it in a pretty good place from the help and advice I received beforehand, however there are a number of things I would still do differently next time.
And, speaking of next time… In the early parts of the race I totally swore off ever doing a summer stage race again, and just focusing on 100 milers, however just like many races done in the past, runners tend to have short memories and get intrigued by the thought of what could be improved upon and putting it all together in the future while being better prepared.
I learned a lot about this form of racing that will help me both as a runner and a coach in the years to come. I learned a lot about myself as well and how I am able to manage my body. I saw some incredible scenery, wildlife and remote places…possibly some of the most beautiful terrain I have seen. And, I met some great new friends and inspiring individuals.
So, I didn’t quite get out of the race entirely what I went into it looking for, and certainly am a little disappointed in not completing the total distance, but in a way I got so much more.