In less than 3 years, the North Face Ultra-Trail Harricana Charlevoix (UTHC) has become a must on the Quebec running scene. Organized by a team of passionate runners, the UTHC is the culmination of a dream for Sébastien Côté, a runner-organizer who fell in love with nature, trails and running.
In a coffee shop on Mont-Royal Avenue, in Montréal, Sébastien Côté is sitting with a cup of coffee before him. You can’t miss him: a red-headed man with a white cap, wearing running wear from head to toe. Maybe he’s already gone out on a morning run before breakfast, who knows? “No, but I always run to work.” The 39-year-old Montrealer works for CBC’s French-language TV network Radio-Canada. “I spend all day in front of a computer with a mouse and a keyboard making sure that all computer systems are up and running.” A full-time job in the shadow of his real life: trail runner, crowd warmer of the Montréal Trail Running Club and General Manager of the UTHC.
Running entered Sébastien’s life rather late, about 5 years ago. He first discovered the outdoors through hiking: “I spent most of my childhood in the Lac-Saint-Jean region. Our parents would take us all over the province to discover nature, far away from the urban centers. It’s my uncle, mostly, who introduced me to hiking. That’s where my thirst for adventure comes from.”
He then went on to travel and rediscover the forests of the province of Quebec and Eastern United States. “My brothers and I literally reproduced what we had done with our uncle: we would go hiking in all parks across the province: Mauricie on the Laurentian trail, at the Saguenay fjord, etc. We would go hiking in the Adirondacks every other week!” His thirst for adventure could still not be quenched though. Up to a point where he tried climbing Mount Aconcagua (6,962 m) with a friend. “I was looking for something that would not require much experience mountain climbing. I opted for Mount Aconcagua: a rather difficult climb to the top.” Although he had started preparing for the journey a year in advance, the mountain would not be defeated: “I could not reach the summit. I suffered from a pulmonary edema at 4,600 m. I had water on the lungs. The doctor prevented me from continuing. A few Italian climbers also died that day. Oh well, we still gained a lot of experience.”
Back in Quebec, he went through somewhat of a dry spell. What do you do when you know all the trails in the province inside out? That’s when he started to look into running, but there was no heat. Not yet, at least. “I started ‘road’ running, but it was tough mentally. It didn’t feel quite like me. I was bored, even with music pounding my eardrums. Then, a friend who had just run the Ottawa half-marathon event told me: “Pick the event and I’ll do it with you!” I registered for the Tour du Lac Brome in the 6 8 km event. I almost finished dead last, but with a large grin on my face. It was a revelation for me!”
After the ‘virus of hiking,’ Sébastien’s body and mind became ‘infected’ with trail running. “I now had a new goal in mind: run the trails I had already conquered hiking.” Other challenges and competitions were to come in the near future. Furthermore, Sébastien always travelled with the whole family, which is central to his path. “I discovered the XC La Vallée event, a 20 km race held in the Quebec region, and managed to convince the entire family to tag along. Especially my uncle, who had introduced me to running. It was an awesome family experience: camping, eating broad bean soup with all my family…” He then set up a blog about trail running. “In one article, I officially claimed the title of Quebec’s trail running ambassador,” he says chuckling.
Although his urge for promoting running was strong, that is not what instigated the creation of the UTHC. Yet again, family was to be the driving force behind the event. However, that time, it arose from bad news: is brother-in-law, Sébastien Boivin, who was suffering from multiple sclerosis, was diagnosed with herpes encephalitis, an infection that affects the brain. He spent 3 days in a coma and 1 year in a specialized rehabilitation center. “It was quite a challenge to overcome, but thanks to the entire family, we came out on top and made sure that Sébastien was back to his daily activities. We didn’t know what to do. We thought of organizing a trail running event: it was a great way to raise money for multiple sclerosis and to give my brother-in-law responsibilities by involving him in the organization of the event, as Honorary President. It was something important we had to do for his pride and dignity.”
Setting up a brand new running event required an entire year preparing and organizing the whole thing: drafting the business plan, convincing partners and local players, surveying the land and clearing parts of Charlevoix that had not been explored as of yet, raising funds namely by organizing cabaret nights (the Boulay sisters came and performed for us), etc. “People from the community supported us. Québec Trail contributed to the cause and The North Face also joined in the fun. Although it was a first, we certainly did not feel like impostors with everyone telling us how our project was solid.” In February 2012, a few months before the first edition, was our first official test before the actual event with the Pirate Race at the Oka National Park. “There were some 50 runners. We made a lot of mistakes, such as literally losing runners because the markers were not set appropriately. However, all in all, it was great teamwork, with family and friends.”
On September 8, 2012, 250 runners dashed out of the gates for the 5, 10 and 28 km events of the UTHC, back then the XC Harricana. A little over $5,000 was raised for the fight against multiple sclerosis. A remarkable achievement which repeated the following year for the second edition: approximately 700 runners, a brand new name, a new event (65 km) and a certification as qualifying race for the prestigious European trail running event Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB). All participants running the 65 km event of the UTHC earned 1 point, with a minimum of 7 required for the UTMB. “We’re not the first ones in Quebec with this certification, but we accomplished a lot thanks to that opportunity alone. Social networks and well-established communication channels were a major asset for Harricana back then. We would not solely organize an event: we were in a position to reach out to runners wherever they were, through meetings, shows and tours, which was a great way to let everyone know we existed.”
Be that as it may, this was not as easy as it sounds. Sébastien admits that the year between the first and the second edition was a tough one. First due to a nasty injury at the Achilles tendon which prevented him from running for 7 months and second because he and his girlfriend went their separate ways. This was especially difficult as his girlfriend was responsible for the brand image of the event and a major part of the organization. “The Harricana event was ‘heart-broken.’ I ended up managing the UTHC all by myself. I was at a loss. How could I deliver the 2013 edition under such conditions? No one really knew about it, but we eventually pulled it off somehow. My girlfriend and I are back together since then, but it was a heck of a year!”
Additionally, another player joined the organizing team. Martin Vallières is from Charlevoix and now acts as a bridge between the UTHC and local stakeholders: “He became the fourth Harricana member and is now responsible for the logistics surrounding the event. He took over a considerable share of the workload, even though he too has a full-time job as Coordinator with Vélo Charlevoix. He namely allowed us to develop stronger ties with this organization.”
Sébastien Côté is ripe with ideas for new projects. First off, delivering the next edition of the UTHC scheduled for September 13, 2014, with the new 80 km trail running event! “We’re expecting 1,000 athletes, give or take, which means 3,200 visitors on site. We’ll have to make sure that we offer a magical experience to each and every one of our guests, not only runners. We thus prepared for the event accordingly: a DJ dance party on Saturday night, a campground, yoga workshops, conferences, etc.” Why stop there? A new distance is already in the works for 2015 (40 km) and we’ve heard that there might even be a 100-120 km event on the table as well. “Right from the beginning, we had a long-term vision with a clear objective in mind: promote trail running across the province of Quebec and elevate the UTHC to a world-class running event.”
All that can be said now is “break a leg” Sébastien!