If I could describe this weekend in one word, it might be whoa. Or whirlwind. Or weird. Maybe wonderful? It would definitely start with a W though, that’s for sure.
I’ve now run 4 of The North Face Endurance Challenge Series races, but this was my first November Project Summit. I was late to sign up because this summer is so busy, but as I heard the ever-increasing list of amazing people attending, the FOMO hit me too hard and I found myself a team, a group house to join, and a flight to Toronto.
Some members of my house and I flew out together on Thursday. Shout out to Porter Airlines for the cheap flights and free wine, which came in handy since this plane was absolutely tiny and we hit some seriously gnarly turbulence. I’m not used to flying such short distances, so it was amazing to suddenly land an hour and a half later. After indulging in some amazing tacos (necessary), we headed for the mountains, eager to settle into the house and get some sleep before the weekend really picked up.
Friday: NP Pop-up workout
Friday morning came much too soon. On race day there is never any shortage of energy and excitement to get me up, but I wasn’t quite ready for whatever was in store for us that morning. We quickly dressed and walked/jogged over to the resort, a wonderfully short jaunt as sunlight crept into the sky.
I was pretty foggy as some of the co-leaders began to greet us, but soon understood why we had been asked to arrive to the workout 15 minutes early. Silly me, I thought it was going to be for some fun, pre-bounce surprise. Like maybe a yummy Timbit snack. But no. Instead, I looked up to the mountain ahead and saw a long line of neon shirts crawling straight up to a faraway point where the group was collecting in a large clearing.
I have to admit, when I saw everyone trudging up an actual ski mountain after a full day of traveling and legs that were still sore from Wednesday’s stadium workout and a mind that was nervous about the intensity of the race day ahead….I was not exactly pumped. But join the pack I did. Co-leaders cheered us on as we climbed and after what seemed like an hour (but was probably 10 minutes), I hit the top. It only took one glance at the view behind me to change my attitude. Seeing the sun rise and reflect on the bay below as that growing sea of neon approached was pretty magical. I’m a sucker for views. It’s the only reason I got into skiing, and it’s my favorite part about flying – something I otherwise despise. Give me a good view, and it will turn my mood around every time (which is great because otherwise Saturday would have been a lot less enjoyable, but we’ll get to that…).
After a few sprints to kill time until everyone made the climb, the leaders brought us all together for an electric bounce that got everyone fired up, and explained the workout: one partner runs diamond shaped loops up the hillside while the other completes sets of squats, donkey kicks, jump lunges, and that plank jump thing I can never remember the name of. My only goal quickly became not to twist an ankle on the damp grass or get smashed in the face by the flying donkey kicks, but I couldn’t stop smiling and it just felt good to run around, meet new people, and loosen up my legs. There was no way to neatly rangle this enormous group, and we were all blown away by how many of us had gathered on this mountainside at 6:30am in another country (for some), a hodge podge of tribe members all thrown together.
After the workout, we packed up to head to the beach. All day we had been enjoying views of a beautiful, enormous body of water, but had no idea what it actually was. A lake? A Great Lake? The Pacific Ocean? The Charles River? Where were we again? A quick Google search revealed that it was the Georgian Bay, part of Lake Huron. Damn, that’s a big bay.
It was pretty windy on the beach and I probably wouldn’t have gone in the water if not for my eager friends who ran right in, and the fact that I need to experience the Great Lakes (and their bays) for myself. I couldn’t believe how good it felt to swim in the waves, which felt like a mini massage on my already sore legs. The water was way warmer than the air, and I could finally appreciate the beauty of lake swimming. Having grown up in New England, I’ve always been an ocean girl. But there’s definitely something to be said for warm water and the lack of salt in your eyes. A few other NP tribes were there as well, so it was a great chance to meet new people and relax after a long 24 hours.
Our entire car soon agreed that it was time for ice cream and a shower. The group BBQ later that night (complete with a nearby Bachelor party and some of our own taking on a slip-n-slide) rounded out the day and left me ready for some trails.
Saturday: Relay Race Recap
I think this was the most sleep I’ve gotten before a TNFECS race, largely because it didn’t start until 10am and we were only a few minutes away from the meeting point. It was so nice to wake up at what felt like a leisurely hour, eat a quick breakfast, and head back to the mountain. I showed up a bit early to help tag shirts with this year’s NP Summit stencil, which was a giant 4.0. This turned out to be more fun than expected, with so many people thanking us for helping out and getting to see everyone’s excitement and team spirit. After tagging wrapped up, we all got together for a massive group bounce and moments later, the first leg runners were off.
Since I was running last, I knew I had quite a bit of time to wait until my leg. I had heard from many NPers that this was by far the hardest Endurance Challenge race, and that it took everyone – even the winners – more than an hour to run the 6.5 miles last year. This tidbit (Timbit?) of news was pretty terrifying to hear. If it takes the leaders more than an hour, what does that mean for me?! How long is this thing going to take me?? 2 hours? That seems crazy long. Is this trail straight up the mountain or something??
Turns out: Yes, yes it is. And then straight down.
One good thing about running last is that I had a lot of time to inquire about the trail and try to map it out in my mind. This might make some people more nervous, but I find it helpful to know what to expect when I head out on my own so that I can temper my expectations. The general word coming back was that the course had changed, and people were finishing a lot faster due to a less technical final downhill. I also gathered that miles 1.5-3 were a hellish uphill climb, and that the rollers were nonstop. Everyone warned me about the final uphill, and an apparently terrifying downhill near the finish.
Cool. Perfect. Sounds like a blast.
I tried to take all this into account, and then stop talking about the race and just mingle to distract myself. I had the general layout in my mind, and knew that no matter how tough it was, I was equipped to get it done and there was no sense worrying. Simple as that! I also reminded myself that my friend was running the Vermont 100 Miler at that very moment (check out his amazing recap!). Yes, you read correctly. 100 miles. My first thought was, is Vermont even 100 miles long? Turns out it’s 159 miles long, meaning that he ran nearly 2/3 of the length of Vermont. Not that his trail race route was a straight line down the middle of the state, but just to put that number in perspective. That distance is too staggering for me to conceptualize, but it did help me put my 6.5 in it’s place.
Thanks to great friends and a slightly dramatic scavenger hunt distraction*, it was soon my turn to finally try this course for myself. When I saw my teammate Jenna come tearing around the corner, I found myself hopping in place with excitement and tried to steal some of her energy as I snagged our bib and took off. I was so jazzed that I didn’t even attempt to put on the belt bib right away and just let myself put some space between me and the startling line. I started chatting with the dude in front of me who, as it turns out, was from Boston. He said he wasn’t a regular at NP, but I was still shocked to meet someone with whom I’d never (to my knowledge) directly interacted in countless Boston workouts, but was suddenly running behind on a mountain in Ontario.
The first mile was flat and beautiful as we crossed through grassy meadows and shady forests, and I felt the pre-race nerves start to settle. My legs felt a little extra heavy – probably due to that Friday morning mountain climb combined with little sleep – but I soon felt that shaking off as well. And then the uphills started.
More experienced runners had told me that on this course, everyone walks. Literally everyone. This surprised me and part of me didn’t believe it until I saw the trail for myself. One friend advised me to start walking way sooner than I thought necessary, because if I waited until I was too tired, I would have a tough time making it through. This made sense, and I drew a parallel in my mind with water: If I wait until I’m super thirsty, I’m going to get dehydrated and feel terrible. I also knew that grinding through the uphills was what slowed me down at the end of the Bear Mountain race, so I took this advice to heart and started walking early on.
On reflection, I wish I had waited a bit longer because the hills really were almost constant. The initial climb was a section of trail called The Grind, and this name was a perfect descriptor. At one point around mile 2.5*, I started to wish I was doing pretty much anything else. I had done so much trudging that I wasn’t sure this could even be considered a race. But then I remembered that this is what I love about trail running: It’s less about pace and more about the experience. You never know exactly what the trail will look/feel like, and at worst you can tell yourself that you’re on a fast hike. Fast hiking is fun! No one cares how long it takes you, so just enjoy!
As I neared the top of The Grind, the trail became more consistently wooded. I was collecting my energy and hoping that things would level out when a sound and sight caught my eye. I’d already seen several mountain bikers zooming by in the opposite direction on parallel trails (somewhat scary to be honest), but this was no biker. A few feet to my right were 3-5 people gliding along on their…Segways? I was feeling a bit dazed by the heat and effort at that point, so I briefly considered the possibility of this being a hallucination/mirage. A double take and closer look confirmed that the helmeted, upright figures were in fact Segway riders.
Segways? On top of the mountain? Seriously? Are there trails here that can accommodate this activity? I’d always assumed that Segway riders were ‘indoor people,’ and that the idea of buzzing down on a mountainous trail on one would be unappealing. Who knew? This video made me cry I was laughing so hard, but hey, to each their own!
Strange distraction aside, the next few miles went by a bit faster and I met lots of friendly people along the way. One upside to so much hill trudging: Getting to exchange a few words with fellow passengers on the struggle bus. One guy was running his second leg and gave me a bunch of advice. “Watch out for the hill at Mile 4.5,” he said. “It’s a beast, but then it’s all downhill from there.” I tucked this info in my back pocket, and continued on. My main strategy was to try to anticipate flat sections as best I could, and really let myself fly in between hills. It was pretty clear that this route would never truly flatten out, so I tried to let gravity do it’s work on the downhills and nearly sprinted on flat sections. Every time I felt annoyance creep in at the endless uphills, I was presented with an incredible view of the bay and valley below and I couldn’t help but smile. I’m on a mountain in Canada running through the meadows and woods. I’m running where people ski in the winter. That gondola carries people up this mountain, but I just ran up it! Boom!
I soon came upon a long line of runners trekking up a wide dirt road. I glanced at my watch and saw that it was Mile 4.5. That dude was right, I thought. Glad he warned me. I found myself feeling strong, so I ran up most the hill and felt super pumped as I approached the top. That wasn’t so bad! He said it was the worst and I beasted it!
My glory was short-lived, as I soon turned the corner and saw an even bigger hill ahead. I threw my eyes down to my watch. 4.8? But…why? Was he just off? Or did he mean that was just the start of a series of hills? I knew it was useless to fuss over this confusion and decided to just pretend that there were going endless hills until I physically crossed that finish line.
After the last big climb, a few teenage volunteers were waiting at the aid station and gave me a much-needed boost of energy, telling me it was all downhill (heard that before…) and that I was doing awesome. They even ran with me for a bit and I managed to say “You girls rock” before cruising away. This part of the race was so much fun, partly because I knew the grinding was done but also because I remembered to fully enjoy the views, and acknowledge that I was running through rolling grassy fields and wildflower-filled meadows on a mountain. It was all very Sound of Music, and I was obviously Maria Von Trapp. I was tempted to stop and twirl when I saw the photographer, but I finally had some speed going and eekd out a smile instead.
I soon came to what was clearly the insane downhill everyone had mentioned. I let myself fly as best I could down the 600 ft decline and ran in a small S shape down the hill to create my own traverse, a hiking strategy my mom taught me (thank you, Mom!). I found this to be super helpful and allowed me to make up a lot of time.
Once we hit level ground, it was a sprint to the finish! It felt so good to finally push myself on a flat surface and I couldn’t stop grinning as I cruised passed so many familiar faces and heard their cheers. My teammates ran me in, and the event photographer immediately asked for a group photo. I still hadn’t caught my breath but we snapped a few pics and then I finally remembered to turn off my watch. I was equally shocked and pumped about my time, which was about 10 minutes faster than I had anticipated. It’s so hard to predict a trail race, but I’ve never finished one faster than expected, so I was pretty excited.
After some running around to congratulate lots of runners and an amazing awards ceremony (so much crowd surfing), we headed back to the house for a quick shower and dinner. My teammate made us an amazing recovery meal, which was key because the night was far from over.
This year, the RunWestin team was putting on a big event for us all to celebrate the race. They had asked us to create teams and compete in Olympics-themed events. When we arrived, the team spirit was level 10. The costumes were out of control, and it was great to see people partner up with a different group than their racing teammates. The Westin folks did an AMAZING job of coordinating such a large and unruly bunch, and everyone had a blast. It was great to finally get all of the NPers together, which is always a challenge at these races and even more so when most people don’t have data plans in Canada and communication was tough. This event allowed us all to share one space and get to know more people across tribes, which was a pretty awesome way to wrap up the weekend.
Not that the journey home didn’t have great moments, but I was generally exhausted and ready to be in my bed in Boston from the moment I woke up on Sunday. We packed up early and headed back to Toronto, where we dropped off our rental car and opted for the world’s shortest ferry ride over to Billy Bishop Airport, which looks more like a bus stop than an airport. Before too long, we were back in my favorite city.
It was an all around incredible weekend, and once again validated my love for running on trails. As excited as I am for my upcoming half, I’m also looking forward to being free from any sort of training plan (even though I’ve been pretty relaxed about it) and to sign up for more trail races! Everyone is already talking about TNFECS race in San Francisco in December, so maybe I’ll be heading there for Round 2 this year. Check back in soon.
*Not-so-pro tip: If you’re ever looking for a nerve wracking way to totally distract yourself before a race, try losing your cell phone in another country! Luckily my tech-aware and kind friends were able to help me track it down, but man was that a way to get my adrenaline going and my mind off the race!
**If you ran this race and you’re like, “The crazy hills were at Mile___! What is she talking about?”…forgive me. My ability to recall what exactly happened during a race is sub-par. I could probably check Strava, but I’m just not about that life.