Fundy Circuit Ultra presented by Outdoor Elements
That's how far I have to drive to find the most enchanting forest you've ever seen. Tucked in along the Bay of Fundy in coastal New Brunswick you'll find the Fundy National Park. With the small town of Alma shouldering the park, and the worlds highest tides in easy walking distance, it has a lot to offer for weekend travelers. As Canadians also offer trail races within their National Parks, it also offers a world class 50K that circumnavigates the entire park against some of the best runners in the region.
I ran the Fundy Circuit 50k (actually closer to 29 miles) in 2018 for the first time. I struggled hard until the finish, barely making it to the halfway before the proverbial wheels fell off and the engine went up in flames. The unrelenting roots covering everything in sight wears you down to no end.
It is, without question, the most technical course I’ve ever run. With roots, mud, rocks, and rivers all combining to grind you into a pulp within the first 10 kilometers. However, it also winds its way through some of the most mystically beautiful forest your eyes have likely ever seen. Trails sliding through the moss covered forest floor, sunlight slicing through to spotlight the greenery, grabbing your eye just enough to risk a face plant on spiderweb of roots beneath you. While I suffered last year for much of the race, the feel of the race, location and the beauty of the area really pulled me in. In fact, I signed up minutes after the entry opened for this years race. My last minute decision to skip the Capes 100 in Nova Scotia was made in part by knowing this was coming a month after it. It wasn’t so much a consolation prize, its the kind of race that I’m sure one day will be THE prize for many runners. Only in its third (I think?) year, its still new to many people. For 4.5 miles of driving to the north, its head and shoulders above anything that same amount of driving to the south can provide. In fact, I don't know of a race in all of New England that can match the beauty of this course. There are more beautiful places, but none with a competitive race on its soil. Having an actual race in a place like this is truly special. Much like if we could do the same here in Acadia National Park. So that fact that this event even exists in a national park is something quite unique.
The race itself is centered within walking distance from the town of Alma and a number of amazing campsites. I think we paid $20 a night (USD) for a camp spot right next to a bathroom and shower at the Headquarters Campground. While we couldn't have a fire, we had a view of the ocean below and I didn't have to worry about getting to the race on time. (In fact, I was about 80 minutes early as I failed to notice the race start time was moved to 7am from 6am it was last year....) Being able to basically park your car for the weekend is really handy and any race that starts and finishes in the same place, and has a brewery waiting for you is A+ in my books. (Holy Whale Brewery sponsored the race and has some great beers if you're in town!) While small in size, the 100+ runners in the 50K field brings in some great talent from all of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and of course Maine. The area had a really great vibe, incredibly friendly people everywhere and energetic aid stations. The start and finish is also at a huge soccer field adjacent to a massive playground with zip lines and slides coming out of the forest. My kids were so excited to come back to this race just for the playground, making the 5+ hours my wife and kids waiting for me less of an issue with them fully occupied the whole time. Crewing the race is no more than 10 minutes of driving to any of the three available aid stations, all easy to find, and easy to get in and out of. This may just be the most family friendly, crew accessible, and logistically simple race experience you can find. You just show up at the race start and you're set. Throw in that everything is in Canadian currency and it feels its all on sale. Its not of course, but if feels like I'm saving money and that's what matters. Its the kind of race that leaves you wanting to tell anyone and everyone about it, so that you all can join in on the magic of it all. There are a lot of races I don't feel that way about, and as infrequent I race these days, very few I'd return to. I hope I get to return to Fundy every year for as long as I can, I'm already looking forward to the time on the trail, and even more the time in the area with my family. It's a special place.
I'm sure the 2020 race will fill up quickly, so pay attention to sign up or you'll miss it.
Read on if you're interested in reading what it feels like to run yourself into the ground.
Running on potential
My only goal for the race this year was to outrun my fitness level. After injuring my right ankle in late June, I’ve taken a few zero weeks, and a whole lot of sub 10 mile weeks this summer as I sorted out the nerve damage in my right foot. Skipping out on Capes let me focus in on running for recovery and not for finishing an arbitrary 100. I put in a long day in Acadia over Labor Day weekend to log 44 miles and 10K in climbing, but followed that up with two weeks of 10-15 mile weeks. I felt strong when I was running, but as always, failed to really log the miles needed to run to my full potential.
So for this race, I wanted to go in with a new outlook. To dismiss that shortcoming. I wanted to run to my potential, not my own perceived fitness level. To run out front, from the start, and never let up. When it starts to feel like the pace is too fast, keep pushing faster. When I get any sort of downhill, stretch the pace as fast as possible. Then just a little faster than that. When I feel like walking, lean forward and run harder. When the hill looks too big to run and I think I should be walking it, run it anyway.
Make every single person that passes you really earn it.
Make them passing you be a “Damn dude, good on you” and not a demoralizing gut punch during a pity party pace.
So with that I lined up at the very front of the line as the clock kicked off. Off I went with the front couple runners, crossing the field and across the street we dipped into the forest and hit the first single track of the day. We were less than a quarter mile into the race and I was out of breath.
I ran in the top 5 through the first river crossing and then the second crossing. Darting up and down the trail, navigating the high grass and eroded trail we took turns leading the way. Chatting with the guys while navigating the roots, the ups, downs and sloped trails I wondered internally, already, just how long I could do this. This was my kind of terrain, I can handle the technical terrain as well as anyone, but this pace at mile 2 of a 50K was dangerous.
I was focused on eliminating doubts early and threw that thought out the rear window. I was almost begging for the blow up. Daring it my body to try and revolt against me.
Dropping my water bottle three miles in, I looked up and saw the top 4 guys disappear up the river. Crossing one river after another, bounding across large slippery boulders, I caught them all by the next river crossing. Never quite catching them, but keeping them in sight, I’d repeat this for the rest of the Upper Salmon trail climb. I’d hit the steep climb out of the upper fork and lose them for the rest of the day.
Coming out of the climb I came upon my new friend Tom from Presque Isle, Maine, running the 100K and currently leading out front. Now on his 2nd loop after having started at midnight, Tom was at about 35 miles and looking strong. As we talked for a brief second walking along, I was passed by a hard charging male runner, Colin McQuade. I said goodbye to Tom and that would be the last few steps of the day I didn’t push hard on.
Leaving the first aid station at 12K and in 6th place, I flew down the dirt road with a reckless abandon that garnered several enthusiastic honks from passing crew vehicles. Knowing Colin was only seconds ahead of me I thought I'd catch him. I was flying down this road at a pace that in other races I would tell myself I had no business running. I pushed even harder around the turns until I was suddenly back on the trail. I walked much of this section last year going the other direction, utterly defeated only half way through the race and barely able to shuffle. This year I hit the turnoff in full stride and went straight into it on a mission to run every step through the maze of roots and wet bog crossings. I was feeling like I flew through the techy lakes section, yet I was passed by two runners. A couple times I had someone come up on me from behind and we’d hit a downhill or flat stretch of roots and I’d lose them. An extended climb in the roots would come and, despite still running it all, I’d be passed. These Canadians run these hills hard, and it was something I took note for the rest of the day.
I hit the second aid station Bennett Lake (mile 13) 10 minutes ahead of pace, and my wife, and powered on without seeing Jen and the kids. Being old pro’s at this I knew she’d just skip ahead with the kids to Point Wolfe aid station. I hit the hilly double track and could feel my legs gaining weight. They felt heavy and sluggish after even the briefest of stops at the aid station. I started to wonder if I’d pushed too hard on that last section. If I’d just sabotaged my second half. I took in some nutrition, slammed some water and kept running. Barreling through the heavy canopy of trees, a dusting of yellow foliage on the trail, light peeping through in the late morning, it was a stunning trail. Tunnel vision in the best possible sense, head forward and staring down this beautiful section of forest.
A couple miles in I hadn’t seen anyone. Running up a long incline, I finally look back down the trail.
I’d been running steadily, up every hill, strong down every hill. Someone caught me? He was coming fast too, around every corner, even faster. He was the Man in Black from The Princess Bride. Coming and coming, not knowing who he was and how could this be. I was tired and confused how this was happening. In a sudden low moment, it was making me question everything about my current ability.
How was someone catching me?!
I snap to as he comes up beside me and I conjure up enough of my remaining pride to let out a, “Hey man, strong pace. Great job man...”
“Thanks, you’re crushing it too! You’ve got a good lead on the next guy. Oh, I’m running the relay.”
Ahh. A relay runner! He's only running this one leg. EUREKA!
Ego regained. I power on up the mountain.
The boost would not last long. In a flash that momentum disappears and the cramping begins to come in major waves. My hip flexors started cramping at mile 14, my tell tale sign of under-training and generally expected every race. Its something I can work through. My calves started to cramp at 16 and that can put me down in the dirt like a sniper took me out in full stride. I drank 20oz of water and prayed the upcoming river crossing would be enough to keep it at bay.
At mile sixteen or so it finishes the first half of the double track returned to single track, descending steeply into the river below. One tight switch back after another, I pushed harder with each cut and stride off the rocks. This was me, my power move that few can recreate. Few people hit the downhills hard for fear of blowing up.
I hit the riverbed feeling invincible after taking it all at full speed.
I crossed the river feeling invincible.
I hit the other side feeling like a newborn deer being gnawed on by a pack of wolves. As steep as a trail can be built without ropes, it exited the river on a mission to climb 1000 ft as quickly as possible. It is West Webber of Mogollon Monster infamy, right after a freezing cold river. Climbing out of the river I waited to hear the cheers from the volunteers for any runner coming behind me. I pushed up the hills, wanting so bad to just stop and breath for a minute, just rest for a second. I didn’t, and pushed on up the switchbacks. One after another, they never ended. I started to think about Tom and the 100K runners doing this at mile 50. What a gut punch this will be for them. A few more switchbacks and I’m still not at the top when I hear the cheering down below.
Someone is near.
I stop power hiking and start running up the switchbacks. They’re getting closer.
The trail reconnects with double track for several more miles. More rolling hills through a tight forested tunnel, and more miles of steady consistent running. I’m fading fast, every section harder than the last, every muscle screaming out they can’t go on at this pace any longer. Every missed training opportunity over the last few weeks is popping in my head, every muscle strain explained. Every agonizing step reconciled. I block it out, and start counting steps to get my mind on another topic. I start thinking about the forest around us, how incredibly beautiful the weather is today, and how much fun these downhills still are. I think about my daughter Maggie's beautiful curly hair bouncing as she runs towards me at the aid station. My son Dean's gap tooth smile with all his front teeth missing, jumping into my tired arms as I run in. My beautiful wife Jen waiting for me with a smile as the kids tackle me in excitement.
The miles click away and I’m nearing the Point Wolfe aid station. I know its close, maybe 1-3 kilometers away, but I can’t remember exactly and the conversion to metric is hurting my brain at this point. At the top of what ends up being the last climb I roll over the crest of the hill and start striding downhill, hoping momentum creates some ability again. Suddenly from behind I hear the crunching sound of rocks and dirt and a quickly approaching runner. My mind snapped immediately to, “Relay, Relay, Relay. Let it be a relay runner.”
It was not.
It was a guy just hammering down this long rocky downhill. He was having a blast of a time, yelling out some passing encouragement of, “Just letting the brakes off for a bit and having some fun!” Having long thought of downhill running as “taking the e-brake off” and letting it fly, I followed suit. His enthusiasm jolted me out of my robotic stride and I took my e-brake off.
After a few strides my speed returned and I was humming down the hill. Strewn with boulders and loose gravel, it was anything but a road. Leaping over obstacles, clearing ditches, dodging loose boulders. It was a downhill worth hammering. Coming upon some hikers/crews for the race I heard the guy say to my passing legs, “That’s too fast.”
I picked up the pace and hit the aid station in full stride. Mile 22. Point Wolfe Aid station.
Not 30 seconds later a male runner comes in and immediately quits. Cramps he says with utter disappointment. I stare in bewilderment, wondering if that was really the reason he was quitting. Waiting for the punchline that doesn’t come, another runner flies into the aid station. Heidi McLellan, the first female in the race. She is not quitting and is in and out in 30 seconds. Following her out she’s already gone down the trail.
Coming up on the famous Point Wolfe covered bridge, I see my wife and kids waiting for me along the trail. They jump up in excitement and I get a couple quick hugs and cross the bridge. Seeing my family in a race is always a big boost and bound off with a renewed energy for the final stretch.
The last segment of the race goes through the covered bridge and across the Fundy Coastal Trail section to finish the race.
It is one of the most beautiful trails in the world.
All of it. Every inch. Every step.
Crossing the bridge at Point Wolfe there is a steep climb straight up. It was stunning. Ferns lined the winding pathway above your waist, a thick mixture of spruce and deciduous trees built the forest canopy. Sloping along the jagged coastline, lookouts into the sparkling Bay of Fundy every few miles was tantalizing. I stopped for none of it, but took note of all of it, wishing someone was there with me to share in it. Every turn of the trail was a new month on a calendar shoot for National Geographic or somebody's desktop screensaver. There is nothing else in the world when you're in a forest like that.
It is a section that brings in tourists to hike it over the course of days, making their visual of you running it seem like a page out of a comic book. They can’t believe it and they cheer you on like you’re a superhero. For the fragile ego’d few like me, its enough to boost your step just a bit more, just when you need it. After two more miles and a hard descent, I catch the female runner Heidi.
She seemed less than excited to see someone catch up with her, and I was less than excited to blow past her and have her on my tail for the rest of the day. So I tucked in behind her and proceeded to nearly spit blood trying to keep up with her the rest of the way. As if she was trying to drop me on every climb, she powered up and on through one big drop and climb. At each descent I thought of passing her, always having that upper hand, but I was already at max output just moving forward. With a 10K to go, it was all I could do to just keep up with her. So I did, in silence, for the next four miles matching her step for step.
Crossing the final field and on the last climb, she disappears into the last ascent. I concede and watch her go on up the cliff. She earned it and I wanted none of that. Well played Heidi. Well played.
Near the top of the last climb you can suddenly hear the loudspeaker at the headquarters. The finish is near and someone just came across. The crowd cheered, the announcer says something I couldn't understand. I can hear it and it sounds incredible.
The finish descends off the final forested peak, through a dark technical trail in a tight tunnel of trees. Hikers making their way up on a nice leisurely Saturday hike yield the trail with cheers and adulation, pushing my pace faster and faster. I love the sound of the finish, the feeling of a nearing finish line. An empty tank suddenly feels full. Like being a broke teenager back in high school buying gas with the loose change found between the seats to get you home. Seemingly now invincible with this renewed range, I could make it another 15 minutes before running out of gas. I hit the road in a full stride, cross the road and run up the hill hard, hoping to make one last run at catching Heidi. I make it another 100 meters at the top of the hill and sputter out.
Now only less than a mile from the finish, I can see it through the trees, and hear it clearly. I lean forward and run. Cars are going by and honking. People rolling their windows down and cheering. You can't walk here. You have to run.
One step after another, one step slightly faster than the last. I followed each trail marker to the next, fixated on each as the bread crumb to me sitting down. I hit the final grass field and succumb to power hiking the section nobody can see. Cresting the knoll and back in view of spectators, I roll forward and see the chute ahead of me.
I hear my wife yell out to our kids, “Daddy’s coming!”
I spring forward, preparing for my tradition of sprinting to the finish of any race, any distance, any circumstances.
Nothing left, empty the tank.
Those are the rules.
Those are my rules.
My son Dean (7) comes flying out from behind the playground smiling. Maggie (5) right beside them. We start to run together and Dean challenges me to a sprint. We run side by side for a while, my calves locking up in full revolt. Curling with a ferocity to the back of my knees I almost fall down. I know the only way to cure it is to run faster. Pushing past Dean and into full stride I hit the finish line flying.
Dean crashes into my arms at the finish, mumbling an exhausted “I thought you’d be tired at the finish and I’d be able to keep up with you.” Nice try buddy. Nice try.
I finished in 7th place overall out of 103 finishes. As a race with 29 miles, 4600 ft of elevation gain, and the most technical trail I’ve run, it was the hardest earned 5 hours and 40 minutes I’ve ever run. So many races I’ve run in better shape but without the belief in my ability. This race I put all the chips on the table that I can hang with the fast runners, that my abilities can compete with theirs, if I only give myself the chance.
The rest of the weekend was spent exploring the region, getting out and seeing what the rest of our beautiful coastline has to offer. We have visited a lot of beautiful places throughout our two plus years living in Maine, but Fundy seems to really stick with us.
Until next go round Fundy!