According to the Mountain Lion Foundation, mountain lions “can run for many miles at 10mph, and can reach speeds up to 50mph.” If the average mountain lion had decided to run The North Face Endurance Challenge half marathon yesterday at a conservative pace of 10mph, he would have clocked a 1:18:36, beating the winning male by about 45 minutes. Lucky for all of the mere mortals that turned up, there were no 4-legged species on the course. Instead, we all channeled our inner mountain lions for a few hours and ran 13.1 miles of trails at a ski resort.

Blue Mountain Ski Resort

With my first duathlon out of the way in June, The North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario was the 2nd new-to-me physical challenge for the year. Packing for my first trail race on Saturday morning, I began to feel a bit uneasy about the whole thing. Training wasn’t anything crazy last week because I knew it would be smart to give the legs a rest, but my mind wasn’t feeling very sharp or enthusiastic about it any more.

race day outfit

I decided to ignore what my head was telling me and just pack, pretending like it was a road race. On Saturday afternoon, I packed up the car and headed to Blue Mountain, about 2.5 hours away.

Blue Mountain Ski Resort

Blue Mountain Ski Resort

The marathon, 50K, and 80K events had started earlier that morning, so arriving by 3pm for packet pick-up also meant I could watch some of those athletes cross the finish line. I can’t say I have the desire to run 50 or 80K on trails, but what I do have is an enormous amount of respect for the people who did. It was a hot day and many of them crossed the finish line still looking strong.

ECSON Race Expo

This was what I had to look forward to the next day:

ECSON half marathon route

I met up with one of my awesome readers (Hi Alannah!!!!) at our hotel, we went out for a quick dinner, then it was PJs and chatting for a bit with Janice, our 3rd roomie, who arrived a little later. The three of us were all pretty nervous about what the next day would bring, especially because there was lots of rain in the forecast. Talking about it helped though, and I slept like a rock.

race day outfit

We arrived back at Blue Mountain Village at 7am on Sunday morning, 1 hour before the race was due to start. Things were still looking super quiet (very unusual compared to road races!), so we relaxed for a bit, made several pee trips, took some photos, and left our bags at the bag drop. The rain had stopped but it was definitely going to be a slippery, muddy run.

The half marathon was just one of the events happening – there was also a 5K and 10K starting later. Myself and the others sporting yellow bibs shuffled our way over to the start line (which was also the finish), and took a few last selfies before running off onto the trails. My 3 goals were as follows:

  1. Stay on my feet (that’s ‘don’t get injured’ framed in a more positive way)
  2. Finish
  3. Have fun
Pre-race with Janice

Photo cred: Janice (@fitcheerldr)

The Beginning

The first 2 miles passed slooooooooowwwwwly. People were still quite clustered together and the start of the course was a mix of running across the open slope on grass and some fancy footwork over the rocky trails in between. I felt really good at this point, heart rate in control and very alert, but I wondered if the whole course was going to be this rocky. Eventually we hit an ENORMOUS steep gravel path known as “The Grind”. I took a cue from other runners and walked part of it. I hadn’t paid too much attention to the elevation profile or course map beforehand because I figured it would freak me out (ignorance is bliss sometimes!) and again, I wanted to conserve energy for whatever was to come.

The Middle

The middle miles felt really good for the most part, even though there was some difficult terrain. I had to slow down for some of the really muddy uphills and position my feet facing outwards (kinda like a penguin, only with longer strides) to get up them without falling flat on my stomach. Likewise, there were some steep open downhills that required a bit of a sideways galloping-like gait which felt really silly but it worked. I was definitely feeling the impact from my knees on those downhills, and fully expect that I’ll be reminded of it as today progresses!

The Final Miles

About 1 mile from the end, we were all forced to slow down. This was the ‘down-the-mountain’ bit, which was steep, rocky, and exceptionally slick. Thanks to one of the guys at an earlier aid station, I knew (unwillingly) that I was the 3rd female at that point. However, this was where the ladies who were much more experienced with technical trails definitely had an advantage. I felt like I needed to slow a lot for safety, and happily let a few pass through so I wouldn’t feel pressure to go faster.

After making it through that steep part, it was one more stretch across 2 open slopes to the finish line. I finished with a chip time of 2:30:58, as 2nd in my age category and the 6th woman overall. I had no idea what to expect time-wise from a course this challenging (for reference, the 1st place woman finished in 2:15:14 and the guy who won it ran a 2:06:00 – impressive!!), but I’m totally satisfied with accomplishing the 3 goals I originally set out with.

Janice and I at ECSON

What I ate:

What I wore:

black camelbak classic 2L

I learned a lot in my first trail half marathon, and I know a lot of you mentioned you’re thinking about trying one out too. So, here are 6 things to know if you plan to do The North Face Endurance Challenge:

1. The trail race atmosphere is very different from a road race. Keeping in mind that this was my first trail race and that I’m not sure if others are like this, it certainly felt more laid back and social. 10 minutes before we set off, people were still casually chatting, checking their bags, and taking photos on the podium. When the announcer said we were a few minutes away from 8am, everyone sort of strolled up to the big red arch (aka the start line). If you’ve ever done a big road race, you’re probably more accustomed to anxiously waiting in your corral for a good 10+ minutes before the gun goes off.

For the most part, people were super friendly on the trail too, helping those who were having trouble getting up the muddy hills (me at one point!) and offering gels to other runners in need.

2. Dean Karnazes is awesome. This probably isn’t news to any of us, but I needed to include it in this list. Knowing that the dude has completed 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, among many other crazy physical feats already had him ranked high in my cool books. Running is unique in that it’s one of the few sports where the most elite turn up to the same races that you do. Aside from his presence and this totally ripped physique, what was really impressive was his involvement in the entire weekend. One minute he was congratulating people coming over the finish line, the next he was helping to organize the kids’ race, and after that he was on stage awarding the winners for each event. In between, he was running around taking selfies with people and chatting. I was impressed.

Dean Karnazes at ECSON

3. Don’t be too proud to walk. Blue Mountain has the most pronounced elevation gain trail race in all of Ontario, and according to the course elevation chart, the highest point was 459m (or 1505 feet). This meant some long steep uphills and equally steep downhills, many of which even the fittest looking folks were walking.

4. For everyone’s benefit, please don’t wear headphones. I recall reading this on the rules page for the event, but still saw a few people out on the course with earbuds in. The problem is that some of the trails are really narrow, so if someone comes up behind you and politely says “on your left” or asks to pass, you can’t hear them. Similarly, if you happen to veer off course and people start yelling at you in attempt to save you some extra miles of backtracking, how will you know!?

5. Some people are a tad stubborn about letting others pass. I’m looking at you, boys! Letting a woman pass you doesn’t make you any less of a man. For the most part, other runners are focusing on their own running and probably won’t even notice!

6. Embrace the ice baths at the end. Yes, there are ice baths! They will look gross and dirty, as will the feet of those who use them, but once you’ve got both calves in, you’ll be extremely glad you did.

in the ice bath

With The North Face Endurance Challenge out of the way, it’s time to focus in on training up for The SeaWheeze Half Marathon on August 23rd. But before that, I plan to take a few days to let my legs recover and work on lots of foam rolling and stretching. Oh, and a little Ryan doesn’t hurt either.

ryan gosling - hey girl

So tell me…

  • What did YOU get up to this weekend?! I know it was a really busy one for races and other sporting events so tell me where you were!