This past weekend I participated in the North Face Endurance Challenge Ontario marathon relay – ECSON for short. I ran on a two person marathon relay team, BBGunz, with a friend from November Project. It was my first time participating in a North Face Endurance Challenge event, and was my first trail race in YEARS, but I absolutely loved it!
Why Did I Run the Endurance Challenge Ontario Race?
I decided to sign up for Endurance Challenge Ontario because of November Project. There are now 29 cities in the NP network. Once a year, everyone gets together to meet and make new friends from all across the globe. Since NP is all about fitness, what better way to bring everyone together than by participating in The North Face’s tough trail race through the mountains of Canada?!
The North Face Endurance Challenge Series offers different distances to choose from- 5k, 10k, half marathon, marathon, marathon relay, 50k, and 50 mile- and takes place over two days. Since we’re all about community and supporting each other, most people from November Project chose to form a marathon relay team. Teams had anywhere from one to four members, each running roughly a 10k leg. I chose to team up with my friend and fellow NP-Chicagoan, Becky, to form the dominating two-person team: BBGunz. On my training plan for the Chicago Marathon, I had to do 12 miles anyway… so I thought instead of running 12 miles on the flat lakefront, why not run 12 miles through the mountains on technical trails? It’s the same thing right?!?
…. Right? Uh oh.
Blue Mountain Resort, where ECSON was held, is located 90 miles north of Toronto. A friend and I flew into Billy Bishop airport, rented a car, and drove 2 1/2 hours north to the resort. There were roughly 30 other people from NP-Chicago coming out for the race so we rented two houses in the area for Thursday-Sunday. Both houses were equipped with a hot tub, plenty of bed and bathrooms for everyone, wifi, large kitchen space, and huge living room/porch area to hang out and chill. Shout out to Emily T. for organizing!
Pre-Race Friday Events
After arriving on Thursday and getting settled in the house, I awoke Friday morning to attend the typical November Project workout. During the night, about 10 others in the house had also arrived. Together we sleepily made our way to the main area of Blue Mountain for the workout. Along the way, we could see other neon-clad bodies emerging from other rented houses, and a slow but steadily growing stream of members from other cities filtered in towards the main area. The leaders of all the different cities were there to greet us and point us up… up… up… to the top of the mountain.
Yeah. We had to walk up the mountain just to GET to the workout. Typical November Project. (OK for some of you, you’d call that a “ski slope” but according to my Chicago Midwesterner standards, that’s a fucking mountain).
After the workout, it was a day to chill, explore, bask in the hot tub, and make new friends. I went on a run to explore the area. In hindsight maaaaaybe not the best idea to run over 6.5 miles through the hills the day BEFORE a mountainous trail race but, whoops, sue me. I also ran to the village to pick up my packet. Super easy process, just a booth outside the North Face store. If you’re looking for an expo, you’ll be disappointed, but for ease of pickup it’s great.
Later that evening, some members from DC, New York and Philly hosted a BBQ at the house they were sharing just down the street from us. It was raining, but that didn’t stop us! #Weatherproof.
Race Day Morning
The marathon relay didn’t start until 10am on Saturday, and since we were within walking distance of the start line no one was in a rush to be up early. I ate my typical pre-race peanut butter banana toast and black tea, and I made sure to prepare some snacks/lunch for the wait time between my segments and for after the race. Since we were going to be out there basically all day, I wanted to be prepared for after the race so I wouldn’t have to subject anyone to my hangriness. (Although, much to my pleasure, Blue Mountain had a TON of vegan options!)
The other runners slowly emerged from their rooms, drawn up to the kitchen by the smell of coffee and caffeine, and we all began nervously speculating about the race. We arrived at the start around 8:30 to meet up with the Chicagoans in the other house, tag our shirts, take lots of pictures, and do a warm-up bounce to pump us up before the race. Dean Karnasas gave us a pep talk before the race, and then went crowd surfing.
Endurance Challenge Ontario Course Map
The course was a loop and you had to run it 4 times to finish. The elevation profile for the Endurance Challenge Ontario course basically looks like a table top, and the course is rated 3/5 for both elevation change and overall difficulty. Initially, Becky and I were going to divide the race in half, each running two consecutive legs. However, when we looked at the trail map, we quickly changed our minds!
The course was marked with colored ribbon along the route to direct runners through. There were two aid stations and a handful of checkpoints where a volunteer was standing to either director make sure we didn’t need any medical attention. All of the volunteers were wonderful, and the aid stations were always staying ahead of the game by pouring our water and electrolyte cups, or refilling the food bowls for the ultra marathoners. Awesome job and thank you, volunteers!–
I chose to run legs 1 and 3 of the race, knowing that I am more of an early day runner and that the mental side to waiting around negatively affects my performance. I hopped in the start corral after Dean surfed away, and soon we were off!
Mile 1 was an adrenaline fueled run- I don’t remember much besides laughing and encouraging other runners. However, as you can see below from my Strava map, mile 1 to 2.5 was a slow, hard, up-hill climb. There were a ton of switchbacks as we entered the woods and made our way up to the top of the mountain; we jumped over some fallen trees, picked our way over tree roots, and even had to hop through a little stream. The trail here was more technical because there were tree roots and rocks protruding at different angles. I kept my head down so I could concentrate on not rolling an ankle.
After mile 2.5 the trail leveled out for a portion and it was really enjoyable! Running on trail through the woods was so peaceful and beautiful, and I was able to pick up the pace now that I wasn’t constantly climbing. I can see why so many people love trail running.
Between miles 4 and 5 we encountered some sneaky hills where we would gain momentum running down only to have to turn around and go right back up. I learned that power-walking up some of the steeper hills was faster than trying to run, a lesson I fully embraced for this race!
The constant up and down really started to take a toll on my quads and I started to feel a little soreness already. Nothing beat the views from the top of some of those hills though- I was so glad that I was going to be running a second leg so I could enjoy it and take some pictures. The loop ended with runners heading straight down the side of the ski slope- I was SO afraid I was going to topple forward because of the insane amount of speed and momentum I built up. I shortened my stride, leaned back, and increased my cadence- so much so that I reached 250 steps per minute!
I ran the first loop in 1:04:27 and the second loop in 1:06:00. The only difference was my quads felt sore almost immediately into the second loop, but I made sure the pace myself and walk as needed. On that sneaky downhill I encountered a fellow NPer struggling and ready to quit, so I took her hand and together we walked up the hill. It may have been my favorite moment of the race.
After leg 3, I handed the bib off to Becky and then went and foam rolled in one of the tents and sat in an ice bath. About an hour later, I made my way over to the finish line. I wanted to be ready to run in with her and cross the finish line as a team.
Official time of 4:24:38, 50th place overall for the marathon relay and FIRST Chicago team to finish.
Time to celebrate with beers and November Project Olympics!
Endurance Challenge Ontario- Overall Thoughts
Participating in Endurance Challenge Ontario only fueled my desire to get into the trail running community and eventually participate in an ultra. The scenery was breath-taking, the atmosphere was laid back and supportive, and I was reminded of why I love to run. Having my November Project family there with me made it even better.
I would definitely recommend this race to any of you who are thinking of getting into trail running and racing. From a travel perspective, it is easy to get to at a relatively inexpensive price, and there are lots of houses to rent through Air BnB in addition to the hotels in the resort. From a vegan travel perspective, Blue Mountain had vegan dining options on site, plus having access to a kitchen in the Air BnB made everything run smoothly. From a running perspective, it is a challenging course well worth the breath-taking views. The event was well planned, course well-marked, and volunteers on point; there are also other, closer to Chicago, options in the Endurance Challenge Series that I may be checking out in the future!