Race for life: When a hobby turns into a passion

Phil Driscoll, a UC specialist with Allstream, ran his first half-marathon in 2014 and has been racing ever since. But he decided to kick it up a notch and train for the 80 km Bromont Ultra trail-running ultramarathon in Quebec. Here’s his story:

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pandemic hobby

My preparation for the Bromont Ultra started in 2019. Almost a year after completing my first ultra-trail at the Pandora 24 race, I decided it was time to kick it up on the distance accomplishments.

Since 2016, I’d been part of a running club that had all types of runners, from beginners through intermediate and a few experienced veteran runners who’d already completed their 100 milers (160 km). With so many types of runners sharing experiences throughout the years, it really gave me the inspiration and motivation to go beyond the maximum I’d ever achieved, which was an asphalt marathon.

My first attempt at an ultra-trail distance was at the Ultra-Trail Australia 50KM. This didn’t go so well, as I ended up with a concussion and had to abandon my race after 35 km. Despite having had a really great experience, I put aside my goal of surpassing my official distance for a while.

In the summer of 2018, without any real training plan, I was asked to fill in a spot on a team for the Pandora24 race. This race is a 10 km loop that you run as many times as you can in 24 hours. I ended up doing six laps in 15 hours. Not fast, by it gave me back the confidence I needed to get going in the right direction again.

Setting a new goal: Bromont Ultra

After finishing my yoga teacher training in April 2019, I had finally decided it was time to set my next target: Bromont Ultra 2020. But with everything happening in my region and around the world, the race was cancelled two weeks before the planned date. Registered participants were offered refunds or transfers to next year without any extra fees. This almost came as a blessing since I had been running with a stress fracture on my left big toe during the last three months of my training.

This gave me a well-deserved break from training, but I wasn’t happy with a one-year delay. The race organizers were able to encourage all participants to do their distances virtually, so I decided the night before to go for it and run in my area without any volunteer aid stations or proper water and food stations.

pandemic hobby

It did not go well for me, and I had to stop at 35 km due to heat exhaustion.

A few weeks after this epic failure on my part, I decided that—despite these obstacles that had been put in my way—I would dig down and continue to set my sights on 2021.

A small side note that became a large part of this success story: Bromont Ultra has a fundraising policy: “Run more, give more,” which takes 56% of our registration fees and donates it to one of 14 associated non-profit organizations.

Since my 2021 registration fees had been transferred from the previous years’ cancelled race, I decided I would go all in and do a “GoFundMe” style fundraiser for Relief Aid Syria, which is one of those 14 NPOs. Little did I know at the time that this would provide me with a running program and expert coach that was on the Canadian Olympic team to accompany me from training to race day.

The last five months leading up to race day were a bit of a reality check for me. I realized my training was not exactly where it should have been. The training program constantly challenged me to go further than I’d ever have done on my own. Some weekends were entirely dedicated to training with a five- to six-hour run on Saturdays, a four-hour run on Sundays, four to five days a week of running and at least two to three cross trainings during weekdays.

I soon realized I would only have one day out of 14 of real rest. This is when I started realizing I wasn’t 15 years old anymore. Nevertheless, I told myself I would not fail again.

I also wanted to set an example for my son that no matter what the challenge, no matter how hard, if you set your mind to it, if you have the right amount of self-discipline, you can achieve your goals, no matter how impossible they may seem.

Race day: Oct. 9, 2021

pandemic hobby

With a massive smile on my face, I showed up to the starting line, filled with confidence and not at all nervous. That was a big surprise: I wasn’t nervous.

I knew it wouldn’t be easy. I knew there would be times that I’d want to quit. I knew I had to pace myself. When the start happened, I made it a point to start among the last runners to avoid being pushed by the herd mentality of going too fast.

I knew that I also had 3,510 meters of positive incline (aka going uphill) and that it was spread out over about 11 climbs.

pandemic hobby

During the first three climbs, I was cautiously optimistic as I slowly but surely passed other racers. No cramps, no tired spells, no alarms bells going off. When I was running downhill, I noticed that many racers were running very slowly and applying the breaks with the legs. This is not an efficient way to use your energy, as the bottom of your quadriceps will spend a ton of energy stopping you from going too fast.

That’s where my downhill running gave me the most joy as I was bombing down the course at around 3 minutes, 50 seconds per kilometer. To put it into perspective, my average running pace throughout the entire race was at 9 minutes, 12 seconds per kilometer.

As I was running, I made sure to take a photo of my watch every 20 km and would send it to my pacer who would come join me at the 65th km. This would help him understand where I was on the trail and gauge accordingly his arrival time at the rendezvous point.

Read more:

Allstream staff share their pandemic hobbies: Part 1
Allstream staff share their pandemic hobbies: Part 2
Allstream staff share their pandemic hobbies: Part 3

At the 35 km mark, Chez Bob was the first significant water and food station. As I pulled up, I’d been running about 4 km on asphalt, which is not easy. Tired and a little hot, I saw that my son was waiting for me. I can’t express how much energy seeing him gave me. It fuelled me to keep on going. A big part of why I run is to set an example for him.

After leaving Chez Bob, about 1 km into it, I knocked three of my right toes into what seemed to be a gigantic rock, but it was nothing more than a small stone stuck in the mud. The pain I felt was probably a nine out of 10 when I hit it. I was worried for a moment this would stop my race right there because of the shock of the pain in my foot. But about two minutes later, I was running uphill again as I put the pain into a little box inside my head so that I could address it later.

Around the 47th km, we had another pit stop where volunteers provided us with food, water and electrolyte refills. The only thing I thought looked appetizing was the breakfast burrito. When I left this pit stop, the climb was significant, and I remember passing a few runners that were completely devastated by it. I knew it was my sixth out of 11 climbs and I only had five left.

I also knew that after leaving this pit stop I’d be a long stretch alone, not seeing many—if any—spectators encouraging us. And my next pit stop (at the 65th km) would be the furthest I’d ever run before.

This was my time to shine. Every step I took, I took it with a smile on my face. I knew I was alone at this point, so I took the liberty of listening to music and even singing. At this point, I knew I was either delirious or super happy about the way things were going because I sincerely think anyone who hears me sing would rather go poke their ear drums out that listen to me.

pandemic hobby

At the 60 km mark, I sent a photo to my pacer to advise him I was getting close. To my surprise, he texted back that he might be late to the check point. This didn’t really bother me as I knew at that point I could have done the last 15 km without him. I also knew he’d have no issues sprinting to catch up to me if I left before his arrival.

Lac Gale 65 km check point: This was like a slice of heaven to me. With thick slices of smoked bacon, poutine cheese, hot grilled cheese sandwiches and chicken broth, I was long overdue for some greasy refills. There was even a large campfire with chairs to sit on as runners took in the calories.

As I savoured my last slice of bacon (this was the first time I’d had bacon in eight years, so it was extra good) my pacer arrived. To my surprise, we were wearing the same training t-shirt that we had been given when we went to run the Ultra-Trail Australia together back in 2017. This was but another great moment that fuelled me to keep going.

The next 10 km were fun. In all the years I’ve known my pacer, I’d never heard him talk so much—but this is exactly what I needed to keep my mind off the pains and discomforts that were starting to creep up. The guy even started singing songs that we sang as kids. Now I was certain I was getting delirious. With only ourselves to entertain each other as we ran in the dark, and only our headlamps to see the way, we kept on going.

75th km: My pacer told me at this point, “Phil, if you’ve got any energy left, now is the time to give it your all. There are no more excuses. We are stepping into a grass field for the rest of the race. This means no more rocks or roots to watch out for.” He repeated “No more excuses.” At this point, I started speeding up to a pace of 6 minutes per kilometer. I ended up passing four more runners that were ahead of me in this stretch. A steady incline to the finish line didn’t intimidate me at all and I sprinted the last 500 meters under five minutes per kilometer.

The race started at 8:30 a.m. and I was arriving at the finish line at 9:10 p.m. There weren’t many spectators there, but my family came to cheer me on. My official time was:

pandemic hobby

Not even having received my free micro-brasserie beer yet, I was already setting my plan with my pacer for next year’s race in Charlevoix, Que., for the 125KM Ultra-Trail Harricana on Sept. 9, 2022.

Images courtesy of Phil Driscoll

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