Blink once, Ceci is riding her mountain bike on the highest suspension bridge in the world on her way to her first Enduro World Series finish. Blink twice, Camille is running on a ridge at 2,450m in the snow on her way to finishing her first 60k UltraMarathon in 4th place. Blink one last time, I’m surrounded by friends & strangers at the finish line of the Squamish 50k, I arrived first & am now popping the cork off my first ever bottle of champagne.
We’re the homeless athletics club.
It’s 9pm the night before the Golden Ultra, our little homeless crew is huddled under the cooking shelter of the Municipal Campground running through some last minute gear adjustment. It’s a bone-chilling 5°c, the rain is pouring down, and the only thing keeping us awake is the thought of retiring to our respective soaking wet tents somewhere out there in the dark. That or the impressively loud and incessant commotion of trains arriving & exiting the station conveniently located directly across the narrow river from the campsite, which spent the entire night unloading huge rocks directly into Camille’s tent all night. Or at least she would have us believe the next morning!
The Golden Ultra consists of 3 stages: the Vertical Kilometer, the 60k UltraMarathon with ∼3,000m of cumulative vertical ascent and the 23k with ∼700m of cumulative vertical ascent. And from the very moment I registered to the 60k I regretted not having registered to the whole 3 stages & from the moment I switched my inscription to the 3 stages I immediately regretted not having stuck with only the 60k!
The Vertical Kilometer took us through a few windy roads before ascending straight up a steep ski run complete with shrubs & loose rocks. You know how they say never to try anything new on race day, well that day I was running in a brand new pair of shoes & Camille’s brand-new poles, and yet (even though the shoes did end up destroying my feet) by the time we hit the snow I could not have been more thankful for the extra grip and pole support! Needless to say, being in shorts & a t-shirt up there in the snow & the wind, I ran straight from the finish line into the gondola, scoring a sweet purple fleece blanket from the lifty on the way for the long shivering way down to the base of the mountain.
By the time we were off & running the next day, already purple-lipped & in soppy clothes, there were no secret left about the harsh summit conditions that awaited us. In the first few kilometres none of the lead runners wanted to take the lead & be the first one to plow the snow covered trail up there so I got a supreme chance to practice a move I like to call “Running with the Kenyans” wherein you take the lead for a short moment to make sure to be in some glorious pictures with the police car lights ahead & all the runners behind! (Note: I have yet to confirm that any such picture exists!) I subsequently fell back to a comfortable 13th place, which could only mean one of two things. Either people were running a stupid race or this was going to be one hell of a competitive race! Well turns out it was a little bit of both. By the time I arrived to the top of the mountain, I had moved past a few wonky legged runners into 5th place! Ceci & Amélie our duo-extraordinaire crew were waiting for us in a foot of snow, Ceci in soaked minimalist shoes and smiling. She swapped my bottles & told me I was doing great as I ran off down the mountain. In total, these girls ended up waiting more than 3 hours up there on the inhospitable summit to crew for Kiel, Camille & I. Which in my opinion gave Ceci a pretty fair example of what it’s like to wait for the bus in the winter in Canada!
According to my race strategy, if I was in the top five at the top of the mountain, then the race should be mine! But it did not quite go that way. Seeing as the downhill was essentially a reverse version of the Vertical Kilometer, I found it difficult to really open the legs and make up time with the runners ahead. The last 13k of flat felt interminable & really beat me up mentally. Next thing I knew my mind gave in & I started thinking about the 23k race the next day. My legs gave up on me & I hobbled into the finish line destroyed. I learned an essential lesson that day about stage races: Never think about the next day!
Ceci told me I should do the last race, so I got up the next day & did it. And you now what, it’s not a myth that your legs warm up as you run! I managed to almost attain my under 2 hours goal & brought the whole 3 stages home in 9 hours 11 minutes. (Respectively: 0:50 – 6:19 – 2:01)
The Golden Ultra was Camille’s target race for the season, and the journey from the Tree Planting season to her crossing the finish line was full of incredible moments & adventures, and it was truly inspiring to witness her progression over time. The race was surprisingly competitive and I can’t stress enough how much of an inspiring accomplishment her 4th place finish was. I’m going to go out on a limb & say that while there was a lot of talk about sleeping in lodges & soaking in hot tubs, were probably the only runners to have roughed it out camping in tents in the cold & the rain that day, paying 1$ for 6 minutes of hot water like dogs at the campground showers! Homeless Athletics for the win!
Yo guys check out the kitchen! It’s the August 9th, Crankworks opening weekend, we just moved into the Whistler Athletes’ Center (WAC), and this is probably one of our most homeless moment yet! Camille, Ceci & I are running around the place like a bunch of kids on Christmas morning. Ah shit look there’s free laundry! Ooooweee the beds are so comfy! The bathroom is like 2 meters from the room & there’s unlimited hot water! Check out these pots & pans, they even provide salt & oil and dude you don’t even need to do the dishes!
The Whistler Enduro World Series might as well be a stage race for how much running around there is to be done before the race. There’s a kit to pick up with ultra specific directions for all the stickers & chips & numbers Ceci needs to outfit herself & her bike with; there’s a evening meeting to go to; there are two days of trail trials to study the technical features & the optimal lines, both ending late into evening; and last but not least, we’re moving around on public buses in true homeless fashion. Ceci came back from day one of reconnaissance a little spooked & tired having given one test ride to stage 5 (Top of the World trail) a 12km non-stop downhill. It was her first time ever riding in Whistler & her first time on a World Series course. We even had to ask the cleaning lady at the WAC because neither of us had ever brought a bike onto a gondola before! On day two, the day before the race, Ceci took the public bus and set out to ride the other 4 stages of the race in the rain & by the time she came back, she was scraped, dirty, wet & tired, telling horror tales of vertical slabs, hyper technical root sections, tight corners, drops & multiple double-diamond features. Camille & I cooked her some oatmeal pancakes while she showered & warmed up.
By this point you might be wondering, as I was, just why Ceci chose to do this race of races against the very best Enduro Athletes in the world on one of the most technical course in the entire World Series. Well, Ceci has a singular drive when it comes to learning new things. Whereas I tend to slowly build up my expertise, Ceci always dives into the deep end head first, where it is clear just how much she has to learn to make up the gap. During the trials she found herself studying features & lines with her heroes & in competition she found herself riding down (accidentally at times) features that were miles ahead of what she had ridden in training. It became clear that trying to win Enduro races in Mexico did not hold the same learning opportunity as did finishing 39th in a world class event. On top of such heavy odds a few things did not quite play in her favour. Competing against athletes that knew the trails if not by memory at least very well; having to yield the trail to faster riders & trying to get back into rhythm afterwards; having to hold back so as to not cancel our summer plans because of injuries; having to get used to a very different style of trails then in Mexico… Yet as the competition moved forward something happened. Suddenly there were fewer & fewer competitors passing her, and what’s more you could tell she was beginning to take it all in, the scope of what she was doing, and gradually she loosened up & began enjoying herself out there.
So there you have it, after a full day of riding up & down BlackComb, Creekside & Whistler Mountain, Ceci came into the finish line ecstatic & smiling, a champion of courage & girl who stops at nothing to accomplish her dreams. Just you watch out Enduro World Series!
Two gatorade bottles & a pair of shorts. What it took to win the Squamish 50 was maybe a little more than I had. The planting season was very compressed this year, the late snow melt forcing us to cram 55 days of work in just 68 days. And about a week later I found myself spending the night in the Vancouver Airport to catch Ceci’s 5am arrival. I was an exhausted, grumpy, moody disaster. Every morning Ceci would wake me up & I would growl. I would beg for more sleep but she wouldn’t have it. The biggest race of her life was just a week away & there was so much training to be done. So every morning we would meet up with Camille & head into town where we would chill a bit, make an adventure plan for the day, get some snacks and head to the trails where I would down a can of Yerba Mate containing 150mg of caffeine to help me be a better person & behave. For two weeks straight we did this. Ceci would drag me out of bed & with Camille’s help they would steer me in the direction of the trails, force feed me 150mg of caffeine, push me down a hill & off we went for another 4hrs+ of training. My legs were about the only part of me that were functional during those weeks of training.
While Ceci was test riding the EWS course, Camille & I would head off to explore the gorgeous mountains around Whistler. On the day of her competition, I ran to meet up with her in the 4 corners of Whistler. And as we came back to our basecamp in Squamish, a new character entered the story in the shape of a friend’s boyfriend: Xavier, who was, it just so happens also running the Squamish 50k. And that was that! For the remainder of the week leading up to the race, mostly behind our backs, banter was exchanged, potential sabotage was planned & bets were placed on which one of us would beat the other. At dinner gatherings between all of our friends in common, there would be talk of nothing else. Xavier & I even joined in on the banter, exchange phony race strategy, dietary tips and the likes. And to be perfectly honest, I never thought there was a remote chance that I would even see Xavier during the race. Every race morning, I stare down 300 or so runners that look amazingly fit & geared up to the teeth, and somehow I mostly deal with 10 or so of them once the race begins. I had about 11 solid days of training behind me & I really needed to focus on whether or not I should gamble it all come race day. So I put him in the top 10 category & told everyone who asked: “Ah he’s going to do great!“
The night before the race I consulted my fellow Homeless Athletics athletes, & both told me that I should go for it. So I did! Moments before the start, I told Ceci & Camille: “Whatever happens make sure to remind me that I want to win when I feel like giving up“, I ran out the start line like a man on a mission & never looked back. It took about 10-15 km before I was running alone in the lead. At about halfway, reaching Quest university, I had no idea how far ahead I was, but I stuck to the race plan & spent no time at all there. Ceci switched my bottles & I kept running. And as per custom the cheer from the crowd was so intense that the adrenaline rush made my calves cramp up instantly as I climbed the steps into the aid-station!
Little did I know that Xavier was about 5 minutes behind at that point, receiving perfect splits & feedback on me from our friends who came to see their race horses duke it out! And so it went until kilometre 37 where, arriving at the final aid station, I hear someone call: “First 50k runner“. So I keep running, intent on cruising into the finish line with as low of an effort as possible. Then it came: “Second 50k runner!” My friends break out into cheer while my insides melt. When I reach the aid station I feel like a boxer in the corner of the ring. Everything is noise, everything hurts & I feel like giving up. The only thing that breaks through the haze is Ceci’s voice telling me: “Puedes Ganar! Andale Etienne, debes ganar!” She switched my bottles again and for the last 10 kilometre, Xavier & I share the lead, chatting & suffering together. One of the reason why the Squamish 50k hurts so much is that its 2,500m of elevation gain are split in three sections, and the constant changing from uphill legs to downhill legs & back is a true recipe for some intense leg hurt. A few kilometres from the finish line, just as we were about to hit the pavement, I turned to Xavier & told him: “Let’s finish strong!“, and I took off like a rocket. By the time the finish line noises reached my ears I had made up about 1 minute on Xavier but I was terrified of slowing down convinced that my legs would give out if I did!
By the time I popped the cork off the bottle of champagne, I was so deep in the hole of 3 months of non-stop exhaustion that, in all honestly, I wonder if I even understood the significance of what had just happened. All I really wanted was to give the little boy inside me a well needed break. So a few days later we made a swift decision to not live in a tent anymore!
Nelson! Sleep at last! My brother Zach & his girlfriend Ally are waiting for us in the rain at the Nelson Greyhound terminal. We’ve been on the bus for 13 hours when we step off into their world and we are feeling positively sub-human. And for three amazing weeks they offer us a room in their home thus beginning the process of bringing us back to life. Blink once and we’re playing basketball, tennis, swimming, exploring new trails. Blink twice and we’re eating huckleberries near the summit of Mount Loki or kayaking on a lake taking in the sublime fall colours. Blink three times and we’re running up & down the seven summits trail. Blink one last time we’re eating Pad-Thais, Curries, Calzones, Garlic Ice-Cream or some delicious home-cooked food.
Our realities changed so fast this summer that, looking back now, it truly feels like I’m 5 years old again, clicking the lever of a plastic view-finders, you know the ones, with the disc full of pictures that promised a world of breath-taking landscapes & wild adventures to be had. Hopping from reality to reality with the flick of a lever.
Being homeless for us, for now, means having many families & many homes & living many lives at once. So we would like to take the opportunity to thank every one who supports us along our journey, no matter how dirty our feet or how stinky our shorts or how grumpy we may be at times although mostly rarely.
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