COVID era trail racing

Race Report: Quebec’s Ultra Trail Harricana During COVID-19

As someone who grew up and then studied in the Vancouver area, I haven’t spent much time on the East Coast of Canada. Well, I’ve been lucky to travel to Newfoundland in 2015 to run the East Coast Trail with Katie, and I got to briefly visit Fredericton, New Brunswick in 2018 for a work conference. But there’s so much more!

In 2020, I wanted to do a Western States Qualifier trail race somewhere cool, and Quebec’s Ultra Trail Harricana (125k) was a huge draw. I had never been to Quebec, neither had Julien substantially. The course was point to point, and full of lakes, forests, and fun technical terrain. I signed up back in winter, thinking it would be fun to explore Quebec and eat poutine.

But then, COVID-19 canceled most travel and races in 2020. I assumed the race would be off, like everything else. But the race organizers stayed focused, adapting their event to the evolving provincial safety regulations to make it happen. By late-August, the race announced that it was permitted to proceed– the shorter distances were canceled, but the longer events were happening!

I hadn’t trained specifically for this race, but I felt fit and accidentally ready from a summer of adventures. It also looked like the race did an incredible job with morphing their event into a safe, COVID-era race: physically-distanced start line, re-imagined aid stations, and new mandatory gear requirements like hand sanitizer and masks for aid stations. Three weeks before the race, we booked flights… we were going!

Terribly-planned pre-race travels

A small hurdle occurred in the trip planning: the race starts Saturday at 2am Eastern, and because my trip planning was so last-minute, I wasn’t able to get Thursday off work. This meant I’d have to fly across Canada Friday, and head straight to the race start line. Most people would maybe look at that plan and decide the race wasn’t feasible, or maybe decide to change to a later race in the schedule. (There was a 60k, and an 80k, both starting much later on Saturday morning.) But the running through the night appealed to me, as did the 125k, as it was a Western States qualifier. It seemed totally doable. This was happening!

What I didn’t factor in, was that the pre-race travel was 17 hours door to door. I literally woke up, jumped in my car in Squamish, and was traveling non-stop by car to the airport, plane to Montreal, car again to Charlevoix, and then shuttle bus, directly to the race start. Not exactly ideal! To make this ill-thought-out plan worse, my Thursday night sleep wasn’t great because our cat Bartholomew got violently ill that night, and I woke up intermittently as Julien got up to clean up his vomit throughout the night!

Needless to say, I arrived in Charlevoix at midnight feeling very sleepy already.

It will be pretty crazy if you can pull this off, Julien told me.

He made me a strong coffee with our 15 minutes of downtime before the race shuttle bus, and I figured that once I got running, I’d be fine.

Technical trail heaven

The race starts off in a national park called Parc national des Grands-Jardins, which is a more remote area within Charlevoix. One thing that fascinates me about Quebec, is that they have their very own national park system. The parks seem pristine, with beautiful trails, rivers, and lakes, and lots of cool cabins sprinkled throughout.

Getting off the shuttle bus in the night sky, I could see the big dipper shining brightly and a blanket of stars above me. This was my reward for all the driving, and for staying up late. In front of me, all I could see was darkness, and a row of small boreal trees bordering a dirt road. It was a neat experience setting foot in a new province and a brand new national park for the first time at nighttime, unable to see what things really looked like around me. I laughed that this was just a super-long shakeout run, straight off the airplane…

COVID era trail racing

COVID era trail racing. Julien sends me off onto the shuttle bus to the start!

I met Karen’s friend Steve from Ontario as we stepped off the bus, and was delighted to gain a friendly start line buddy. However, the race didn’t want a crowd, and within two minutes of commiserating, I was called out of the outhouse lineup and to the start line. The first wave of a few of us was starting!

Selfishly, I loved the COVID edition of this race. I was running alone down the initial dirt road kilometers, with just the night sky above me and the snacks on my back. It truly felt wild. I paid special attention to the illuminated trail markers, trying to make up for my lack of preparation for the race.

Before long the markers directed me onto a technical trail, and it felt just like home in Squamish. The trail was super narrow, with ankle grabbers, rock slabs, and sprawling roots around mud pits, and I couldn’t help but think of the trail down from Goat Ridge I’d done with Karen two weeks before. It felt like we were up high in an alpine environment, with an intense, cold wind greeting us every time we popped above the treeline. Here I got to meet a bunch of really friendly Quebec runners. There was Charles from Montreal, and a few other really nice guys. Everyone was super talkative and chill, knowing that we had a long night and day ahead. Although most people hate night running, with my super-bright 500-lumen Fenix light, I was indulging in every step of it.

As my new Quebec friends promised, I saw the sunrise from the top of Mont des Morios, which is one of Charlevoix’s 5 summits challenge. For the first time, I got to see what Charlevoix really looked like: a sea of boreal forest as far as my eye could see, with inviting little lakes. Beautiful!

Charlevoix, as seen from the top of Mont des Morios as the sun rises.

Charlevoix, as seen from the top of Mont des Morios as the sun rises.

I descended down Mont des Morios, and at this point, volunteers started telling me “premier femme”! I took it all with a grain of salt, I was only about 1/4 into the race with a long way to go!

Coffee and naptime

At 7am on the dot, a wave of intense sleepiness hit me. It felt like I had popped a few T3’s plus Gravol, like I was hazy and metally sluggish, and about to fall asleep while moving. Uh oh, I thought. I was only about a marathon into the race, with many hours to go.

Okay, I thought. There’s an aid station ahead in about half an hour, and they have coffee! It felt kind of funny, like I was running to a Starbucks in the middle of nowhere. I checked the screenshot on my phone that had the aid station menu to confirm, as I wouldn’t want to be disappointed…

COVID-era aid stations were interesting. At this year’s event, you had to wear a mask at each aid station, and unless you get your own water from streams, it’s pretty hard to avoid using aid stations entirely. (I had my own food for 10 hours, but I still needed water.) I got really good at whipping out my mask mid-stride and spreading it over my face just before the aid station, after I made sure volunteers could see me smiling for quite a while beforehand. (I’m not good at smiling just with my eyes!)

Two hot instant coffees later, it tasted delicious but I still felt hazy. My mind and body was turned off, and I carried along, slowly and sluggishly. This is fine, I thought. The upside is that you’re saving energy with this chillaxed sleepy run pace, I told myself. The weird thing, is that I still thrived on technical descents in this super-sleepy state. However, the most gradual uphills were no longer runnable to me. My body was in a strange state, set to simmer.

Can you tell I was sleepy? Eyes closing at every opportunity. 😉 I’m still smiling though, so happy to be out here in such beautiful country! Photo by Carl Vignola.

I was nearly at the halfway point, and I knew Julien would be there. I can take a nap there, I thought. I’d never napped in a race before, but I’d seen my friend Kerry nap for a few minutes during his 200 milers, so I knew it must be very helpful.

I plodded along to Julien around 60k, which was situated inside another national park, called Parc national des Hautes-Gorges-de-la-Rivière-Malbaie. Naptime! Julien knew just the spot: he led me to a quiet area in the shade, away from the rest of the aid station. He draped my wool shirt over my face, and then supervised me, as I indulged in a glorious 15-minute nap. I woke up naturally again after 15 minutes, and I felt like a new human. The sluggish, drugged feeling had vanished, and I felt mentally awake again.

Alicia napping at Ultra Trail Harricana

I indulged in more neurotic aid station organization and then walked off while eating a cheese bun. Despite the nap, I was still leading the women’s race.

The next section was another delight, as it led me along a runnable, wide gravel path along La Rivière Malbaie. Across the river, I could see an incredible granite mountain rising up from the valley that reminded me of the Chief in Squamish. Along I went, and the trail became more technical, transforming into a beautiful, rocky singletrack trail along the river. At this point, I had zero worries about how far I’d gone, or how much ground I still had to cover. I was really just enjoying the moment.

The dreaded nausea

Right around this time, I started to feel nauseous. I listened, slowing my pace to a hike, and taking in small amounts of different (salty) food. This will pass in 10 minutes if I just slow down, I thought. However, the nausea remained. I tried taking Clif shot blocks for their electrolytes, but that didn’t help. I also tried Carbopro, thinking that maybe water-based calories would be a decent idea. That was repulsive. So, I hiked on, disappointed that I couldn’t try to run the notorious technical, rolling trail in front of me. I tried eating some salt and vinegar chips, but my body also refused them.

If you haven’t experienced nausea before while running, you are one lucky human. To me, it’s the absolute worst feeling. It’s reminiscent of competing with your ex-boyfriend to drink as much Alberta Pure vodka as you can on New Year’s Eve, but then trying to run through a national park at the same time, rather than being able to curl up on the heated floors of your party host’s washroom, with breakfast awaiting you in the morning.

No heated washroom floor was here to save me, I had to run through the national park. Despite the nausea, I managed to run some sections here and there, especially the descents. I was moving slowly, but I was still moving in the right direction. Despite my condition and mostly hiking, I leapfrogged runners back and forth, maintaining forward progress and still leading the women’s race.

Not what you’d hope for your stride to look like if you were doing a fast running race, but getting the job somewhat done. Damn I need a haircut! Photo by Denis Rouleau.

I reached the Coyote aid station around 80km, which is supposedly the place where most runners drop out. Despite my slow pace for the last few hours, I still felt nauseous, now even more so. I hadn’t eaten more than maybe 100 calories in the past 2 hours, and I knew that wouldn’t be enough to complete another trail marathon.

I’ll chill at this aid station and make sure I get food in and recover, I thought. But that’s easier said than done when you’re feeling nauseous. I sat on the grass and scanned the aid station for something delectable, but nothing seemed attractive. I asked for some veggie soup broth, but it wasn’t very salty, and I struggled to get that down. I also ate 1 single cookie, which was okay. A runner next to me had also been nauseous, and I did my best to encourage him on, but he was going to drop here. The minute he dropped, he looked all happy with a beer in hand, relaxing in a camp chair while waiting for a ride back to the finish at Mont Grand Fonds…

I still felt like shit after 30 minutes at the Coyote aid station, but I knew that these things change, and if I kept going I had a good shot at working things out. I got up and shuffled out, and the volunteers cheered me forward.

Unfortunately, my stomach was still feeling like it was full of vodka, and anytime I tried to have a small amount of food or water, my stomach further rebelled. Okay, fine, I’ll hike, I thought. I was still leading the race, but at this point it was just about struggling to the finish. In my head, I calculated that I could maybe finish the race in 8 hours at 4km / hour hiking pace. That would take me into a second night, but I had everything I needed for that.

Ultra Trail Harricana course

The race featured lots of cool singletrack.

Hours went by as I hiked on, and nothing helped. My music choices were terrible, my water tasted terrible, and my food was disgusting. Several times I tried to throw up as a way of resetting my system, but it wouldn’t quite happen.

At this point, I had been nauseous for hours already, and it was miserable. Nothing was working, and I knew that the next 6 hours were going to be nauseous, in the dark, alone. At this point, I made the decision that I would drop at 100km, to spare myself such torture in such a pristine place.

I finally managed to throw up at the side of the trail, bringing back memories of being 17 at a house party. Only this time, I was alone in a foreign national park before dusk. Not on some kid’s heated bathroom floor…

Around 90k or 95k, I was finally passed by a female.

Packs of moose in the night

With 7km to go until my exit aid station, I got 1 bar of cell phone reception and called Julien, to see if he would hike towards me for company. He’s an empathetic husband, and he agreed, walking towards me on the muddiest trail, in his slippers. After some time, I spotted three large moose ahead of me on the dirt road where I was. One had massive antlers. I knew it was rutting season, and that they could charge. In my weak and sleep-deprived state, I texted Julien to let him know I was going to wait on the side of the road, until the next runner could cross the moose with me. I waited a full ten minutes as dusk set in around me, during which I was also hearing noises in the trees next to me. Must be a bear climbing a tree, I was convinced.

Finally, a runner came from behind and agreed to go with me towards the dreaded moose pack. We got there, and he laughed. The “3 moose” were actually just a tawny-coloured section of tree… definitely a hallucination! We chatted a little bit just so I could prove I wasn’t crazy, then I encouraged him to pick up his pace. I continued to hike toward Julien and my exit, with the assurance that there were no moose nearby.

I called it a day at the Epervier aid station, my first 100 kilometers of Quebec now over. As we drove through some 20km’s of dirt roads to exit near Mont Grand Fonds, I drifted in and out of sleep in the passenger seat. So deep, that apparently my head was flopping to the side and smacking against the side of the car, and I wouldn’t even flinch– just kept sleeping deeply.

Alicia sleeping ultra trail harricana

At some point, I woke up reluctantly for a moment as Julien called out that there were actually 3 moose in front of us on the road! They were large and antlered, like the ones I had imagined earlier that evening. Seeing the moose, and having Julien see them too, helped my case. Maybe I wasn’t crazy after all for imaging such a possibility.

Quebec City recovery

Following the race, I spent a couple nights in La Malbaie (Charlevoix), mostly eating, sleeping, and petting baby alpacas. I recovered very quickly, I have to say thanks to the awesome Quebec food, and a cozy day of rain which discouraged doing anything stupid. (The race itself had super-soft trails and I wore Hokas, so I felt amazing even after 100km.)

Charlevoix breakfast

I’ve never met a bowl of latte I didn’t like…

We visited the Hautes Gorges national park again to do the main Acropole des Draveurs Trail, which is a fun trail that climbs up the large granite I’d seen during the race, across the valley. It’s a popular and super busy trail, but it was well worth it.

After that, we said goodbye (reluctantly!) to the beautiful lakes and forests of Charlevoix, and wandered off in our rental car, Sparky, toward Quebec City. There we found a real-life Disneyland, with castles, fort walls and cannons, and a beautiful European village in the historic old town. It was the perfect place to recover, full of amazing restaurants, poutine, and our hotel left a surprise bag of pastries outside our door every morning! The historic streets were completely empty, being outside of tourist season and with international travel still restricted.

Alicia in Quebec City Old Town

10/10 I will do this race again, Quebec was everything I hoped for and more.

Learnings

My future self will hopefully learn from all this…

  • I will travel at least a day before the race. Ideally even two or three! I’d definitely also nap during the day before the race, as the 2am start was quite challenging without any sleep beforehand. (This seems obvious in retrospect!)
  • I will be sure to drink way more water in the race, as I think this was the main culprit for my nausea. Starting at night in the cold, I wasn’t very thirsty and it meant I only drank less than a liter in my first 3 hours! In hindsight, that was a big mistake. It’s best practice to drink about a liter an hour, and dehydration is a common cause of nausea. Next time if I get nauseous, I will try sipping plain, icy cold water to re-hydrate.
  • It was really nice to spend some time thru-hiking before this race, because it meant that everything I carried as extra gear felt like it weighed absolutely nothing! I had all the mandatory gear required by the race plus 2 external battery packs (for my phone, lights, and GPS watch), two different lighting systems in case one failed, 3 pairs of socks doubling as gloves, a full foot repair kit, and 10 hours worth of food. Normally this would feel heavy and sluggish to me, but because I’d spent a week carrying a 15-pound pack, it felt like nothing. It was also great training for lots of time on feet with minimal impact.
  • A 15-minute nap can do wonders…

Gear

You never know what will go wrong during an ultra. These pieces of gear have really held up though in all my recent races and adventures:

  • Hoka Speedgoat EVO shoes: I wore these for the entire 100km I was out there, running through mud. They kept my feet and whole body super happy the whole time! I had a backup pair of shoes at halfway but didn’t need to use them, these shoes were so comfy.
  • Sockwell merino/synthetic blend light compression socks: these socks were awesome. My feet were super muddy and wet all day, but I never needed to change these socks. I’m not sure why I didn’t wear these on the GDT, I’ve had awesome results with them every time I’ve worn them for long, muddy adventures.
  • Arcteryx Norvan SL jacket: this thing is like magic, so light and tiny but packs so much warmth and protection from any kind of elements. I had this in my bag all day and wore it during the night when we got up higher.
  • Salomon Sense shorts: these shorts are so awesome, with huge stretchy pockets around the waist for easily stashing garbage etc. I wear mine a size too big for extra comfort. Love them!
  • Fenix lights: I have a handheld and a headlamp from Fenix, both are amazing and give 500-1,000 lumens. Game-changing for running at night!
  • Luxtude external battery packs (from Amazon): these things are super compact and offer such peace of mind to re-charge devices out there. I get about 50 hours of charge from my GPS watch with one of these and a full iPhone charge!

Happy trails!