Nico had made a secret family recipe "carbo-cake" for us to eat before the race. It was dense but yummy. Alex and Nico's wife Solenne would be coming to the race to cheer us on. Their plan was see us off, then hike up the mountain and greet us at the finish.
The race was 23 km long. The first 13 km would be rolling terrain in the woods, like a typical cross-country race. That would be followed by a steep climb in the woods, then a run along the peaks to a final climb of almost 1 km up the top of the ski hill. The race would end at the top of the mountain and we would come back down using the chair lift. We were told that the race would take about an hour longer than a standard half-marathon, which meant about 2:40 for me.
The temperature was hovering around the freezing mark at the bottom of the hill, so we had to be ready for snow near the top. I ended up buying tights for the race to wear under my shorts, even though I hate tights and think they make me look like a dork. I was wearing a thin toque over a running cap and some thin running mittens, as well as a thick running shirt over a thin thermal top. It turned out my choice of clothing was appropriate for the temperature, as I realized during our brief warm up before the race.
My plan was to try to relax during the first 13 km of the race as I knew all the tough sections came in the last 10 km. We lined up for the start together and headed off with the other 200+ runners in the race. Nico and I had no plan to stay together, as there was really no point in such a long race. We knew I was faster on certain types of terrain (easy surface, long uphill slopes) and Nico on others (anything technical, anything downhill). I tried to keep a comfortable pace where I was relaxed and it seemed to be working.
Running with Nico at the 4 km mark
We crossed the 10 km marker in under 45 minutes and I wondered of I was conserving enough, but I felt fine. We came to the 13 km mark in under an hour and then the uphill sections really began. Still, I figured there were only 10 km to go, and even if I went at a brisk walking pace of 6 km/h, I would be done in 2:40.
Nico pulled away from me and I never saw him again. You could not really run on these first steep sections, as the only available trail was over large rocks placed like steps... big steps, like taking regular steps two by two. I was not doing great on these steps, but not terribly either. After a long uphill section, the trail flattened out for a short stretch and I motivated myself to break into a run again. Unfortunately, I didn't lift my foot high enough over one rock, which caused to to trip and fall flat on my face. I got up and wiped off some mud. My ankle was sore as I had caught my foot on the rock, but I could tell I had not re-sprained it. I continued the climbing section and made it to the open rocky sections where we would begin to run along the peaks.
I now understood why many people were using poles. You cold not really run on this terrain. You had to climb up and down rocks, over and over again. There was no path. I guess it's hard to explain, but people who have been hiking on mountains can understand this. Still, the kilometers were slowly winding down. I was very tentative over the rocks and many other competitors passed me in this long section. They seemed to know no fear, leaping and bounding over racks, landing with one foot on roots or mud or other rocks. All the people I had passed in the first 13 km must have passed me in this section, and more. I was dirty and a bit discouraged. I had thought that the biggest obstacle in the race would be my fitness, but I hadn't expected my lack of technical skill to be such a hindrance. I slipped and fell on my butt at one point, but the only sore spot was my triceps, which had taken the shock as I used my arm to brace the fall. I finally got through the hellish rocky sections and was now surrounded by snow and ice in the brief wooded sections. I could see the peak where the race would end in the distance and it seemed impossibly far away.
Nico on the peaks
After another section in the shrubs, I popped out into the open and saw the final climb ahead of me. To be honest, it completely discouraged me. The run up the ski hill was so steep I wondered how I would complete it at any speed. No one was running here, and it was hard enough just to walk it. I could see almost clear to the finish line and the runners at the top were tiny because of the distance. I crept up the hill, trying no to slip on the frozen ground. What I wouldn't have given for some steps! As I rounded the final corner, I heard Alex and Solenne cheering me on. This helped a lot! I finally finished the steep part and Alex told me to sprint to catch a runner who had just passed me. I gasped that I couldn't do it, but at least I managed to jog the last few steps to the finish line.
The crazy steep last section
The finish line
I had completed the race in 2:32.22, 11 minutes behind Nico. I was 75th out of 210 runners, while Nico was 40th. I guess I should be happy, as this was my first cross-country event, but I'm mostly disappointed that I was not able to run in many sections even though I would have had the energy to do so, because of the technical nature of the course. After 13 km, I was surely much higher than 75th. Only a couple of minutes after the race, I was not even really that tired, because I had been running so little in the latter half of the race. I can't really say I regret how I trained, as there was no way to practice for these technical sections in Montreal, or after my ankle sprain.
The four of us after the finish
The following day, we went hiking on the mountain with the girls. By the end of the three-hour hike, I had seen about enough of Mount Orford. At least I got a chance to enjoy some of the views that I was too concentrated to see during the race. I have to thank Alex for her support of my running habit, as well as Solenne for her cheer leading. Of course, I am extremely thankful to Nico for encouraging me to try this race and for training with me all summer. Back next year? We'll see.