July 25, 2011

Unreal - The Story Of My First Ultra Marathon

Read the full story here : Part I - Part II - Part III - Part IV - Part V

- Part VI -

As I started to run hard along the first length of trail, my mind was racing. The abyssal despair I had felt mere moments ago had left me, replaced with an absolute feeling of panic. Like a trapped animal with nowhere to go, I had decided I would not go down without a fight. "If I don't make the cut-off", I thought, "at least I will have given everything, and then some."

My stride was getting faster. It was unbelievable. I had been running for almost 7 hours now, and somehow my body was still able to generate the energy, balance and speed required to run down a single trail littered with rocks, roots, stubs and all sorts of other natural tripwires.

I was flying.

I soon became obsessed with the fear of tripping, knowing too well that if it happened, I was sure to get badly injured. Probably because of that state of constant panic, all my thoughts aligned and focused on the task of making sure every step I took was as safe and secure as humanly possible.

The first uphills came about. I didn't stop running. Each time I had to climb, it felt like my legs were burning in acid. The stretch and flex movements in my lower body were increasingly painful, but my brain was unable to accept any slowing down. I had to make it. No matter what.

My heart was pounding in my chest, my breathing was hard and my vision was only a narrow tunnel through which my overexcited eyes were manically scanning the ground in front of me. To this day, I still have the image of my feet shuffling swiftly under me and I remember thinking "This is insane. I cannot possibly run this fast for this long after such exertion. This is not happening." But still, like a precision machine, my body was holding up, pushing hard and running strong.

Each twist of the path, each turn in the trail increased my feeling of urgency. My pace had become a frantic scramble, my body reduced to its most simplistic expression. A beast. A wild animal with only primal survival instincts. It felt like if I didn't make it to the cut-off, my life would time-out and I would shut down in an instant, drop dead in the middle of the woods, conquered, defeated.

The clearing to the gravel road appeared so fast it took me by surprise. Trying not to stumble down the steep ditch, I shortened my stride for a second. As soon as my feet touched the road, I doubled down. The sun was scorching and the heat radiated from the dust road, but I didn't care. All I wanted in this world sat a couple hundred meters away from me. As I took the last turn to the finish gate, I heard loud cheers and screaming people. I looked up at the clock. I couldn't believe what I saw.


I let out the loudest scream, looking straight at the doctor who was waiting for me at the gate.


He held out his hand, meaning for me to stop. I complied. He asked a question, which I answered in a split second. What that question was, however, I'll never know. All I did know is that I had to show him I was still in one piece, still functioning, still willing to go. He winced.

"What do you want?"


He pointed me to the aid station. I took two fistfuls and shoved the ice in my jersey, then took some more and rubbed my face and skull.

"What do you want now?"


Yves took me under the tent, in almost the same spot as I had laid, hours before, convinced I could never make it. The doctor looked at me and said "All right. take a minute." I had made it. I had crossed the finish line 40 seconds ahead of the cut-off, and I had convinced the doctor I could still go and finish my fourth lap. I wanted to smile, but instead only offered a small nod. He walked away, stopped, turned around and looked at me again. "Hey," he said, "Take two."

40 seconds. The Universe didn't stop. I didn't time out.

I didn't end in an instant.

Exactly what happened in the following minutes is somewhat of a blur. I know I had things to eat, I probably drank, too, and used all the ice I could get my hands on. I have flashbacks of rubbing my legs. I remember the shaking in my hands. I remember the looks on people's faces when I got up one more time and walked to the starting line. Nods of approval. Disbelief. Amused scoffing by fellow ultra runners who had already finished.

Donald had told me, before the race, to remember my third turn, when I would head into the woods for the last time, crossing from the dirt road to the path. At that precise moment, he said, you will exceed 42.2km and become an ultra runner. Clinging to this thought, I walked the gravel road, taking the time to eat as much as my stomach would hold. I was missing my friends. I was wishing the would be here with me, in these final kilometers. I was wishing I were not alone.

"When I cross this ditch", I yelled to the race official standing at the beginning of the trail, "I will become an ultra runner." He offered a wide smile and thumbs up. I had almost reached him when I saw Donald exiting the clearing. I knew he had passed the finish line on his third lap a long time ago and quickly realized he was finishing his race. His face was white and he looked exhausted, but his composure was surprising. He raised a finger at me and yelled "Listen to me. Remember Juan Pablo. Remember what he did."

Juan Pablo is one of the students we trained at Étudiants Dans La Course, a program for challenged kids that teaches them they can be all they want by training them to run a marathon. It takes a year of dedicated training to get them there. It requires an immense commitment on their part. It is a titanic undertaking. So when Pablo hit The Wall at the 25th km marker, during the Montreal Marathon last year, and had to be taken to the paramedics, his world almost collapsed. I rushed to him, convinced my task would be to accompany him to the hospital. When I reached him, he was walking on the course. With fire in the eyes, he told me he was going to finish this, no matter what. He displayed such resolve and determination in adversity and floored everyone, 6 hours and some after having taken the start, when he proudly crossed the finish line. He taught me a lesson that day, one I will never forget.

"Run it for Pablo!" Donald yelled one last time as he headed off to his long-awaited finish. And run, I did. Overwhelmed with the memory of my young friend, taking one painful step after the other, never quitting, I decided I would do just the same.

And I did.

Conclude with Part VII


  1. Épique, touchant et rempli de suspense. Bravo François pour ta course et tes textes. J'ai hâte à la part VII et merci de partager ton expérience.


  2. Merci,

    La partager, pour moi, c'est m'assurer que cette histoire va vivre dans le temps.

  3. Wow François, tu as un talent de conteur confirmé, nous sommes suspendus à tes mots! Vite vite, livre-nous la conclusion!