To describe Hélène Dumais as an ultra-runner, adventure racer or endurance athlete doesn’t quite cover it. An extreme mix of all three, she was the first (and only) woman to finish the brutal Survival Run Nicaragua (an extreme 50-mile race peppered with unique challenges) in 2016, which she followed two days later with its 100km Ultra Trail sister event to complete the Devil’s Double. In 2017, she came second lady in the 430km Montane Spine Race, and in the same year ran 738km as part of Infinitus888.
Here, the unstoppable Canadian reveals why the Montane Spine Race was her toughest event yet, and shares her accounts of disorientating fatigue and near-death running experiences.
Tell me about your childhood, Hélène. Did you have an outdoorsy upbringing?
I grew up in a small, ordinary town in Quebec, Canada. Through all my schooling, I was into performance arts like singing and dancing. Sport was so not my thing. I was often skipping physical education classes! My teachers from back then would be surprised to know where I am today.
I developed a strong interest for health and a passion for the mountains, which got me into hiking. I did the GR20 in Corsica (a 200km trail) and the GR10 in the French Pyrenees (870km trail). The word ‘sport’ only appeared in my vocabulary later, aged 23. My boyfriend at the time invited me to go run on Mount Royal in Montreal. I took my first stride in urban shoes! From there, I started running consistently for health and fitness. Exploring off the beaten paths excites me.
How did your journey into endurance sports racing begin?
At 27, I found online something that looked like a 10-kilometre adventure in trails and I signed up for it. To my biggest surprise, I won the race! This result inspired me to continue. My newly-discovered passion brought me to another runner, Rachel Paquette, who told me: “You are pretty good at these 10kms. You should do a 21km.” I couldn’t believe people ran such distances!
The following summer I took on the challenge. I had so much fun I wanted to do another one, but the race I was looking at was already full. The race director said I could register for the 50km instead. I was stunned. Could I jump from having run one 21km to a 50km!? He added: “This is the most difficult course ever designed in Quebec. Oh, and it is actually 58 kilometres. But Hélène, this is going to be the best experience of your entire life!” People that know me know that I love a challenge, so of course I accepted. He was right, I had a blast!
How did you go from there to the Obstacle Course Racing podium?
I increased the distance of the races I ran, collecting podiums along the way. At 34, I went ballistic into Obstacle Course Racing and did 26 races, collecting 18 podiums. My signature of doing back-to-back events started there with the Spartan World Championship followed by the Spartan Ultra Beast the next day. That challenge arose from a conversation with (obstacle brand) Platinum Rig’s owner who joked about doing the races back-to-back. I took him seriously! I also did a Spartan Race trifecta (three races) in less than 48 hours in France, sprinting from one finish to another race start. I was the only one already muddy and stinky on that start line!
I joined the 100km and 100-mile crowds at 35. The rest is history.
You were the first woman to complete the 50-mile Survival Run Nicaragua in 2016, which included unique challenges such as protecting an egg for the entire race!
The Survival Run Nicaragua is a 50-mile course on a volcanic island. It’s a race whose course is only discovered from instructions given to you as you progress through it. Added to the extreme difficulties of the terrain we have tasks and challenges to complete along the way that are all inspired by local life, culture and history.
It is a hard but beautiful and humbling experience. Climbing trees, swimming to an island to retrieve an object, carrying heavy loads of firewood, sand, rock, and bamboo are just some examples. Just like the course, these tasks are not revealed to the participants beforehand. It is a race against time with a limit of 24 hours and you must be self-supported. There are four medals to retrieve along the way as you complete tasks and gain more ground. Individually, they bare the words FAIL, I, DID, and NOT. The NOT medal is only given to you if you pass the finish line.
Less than 10% of people who start the race finish. My first attempt was in 2015 where, even though I was in the leading female pack, I missed a cut-off time. I fell in love with the unique concept of the race along with its difficulty. I returned in 2016, determined to push beyond my limits, and I became the first and only woman to complete the event in the race’s four-year history. It was a magical moment for the Survival Run community. This event is much more than a race. Many people go back each year, not only racers but volunteers, as this has become a tribe where everyone shares this journey together and helps to develop and preserve the island.
Have you had any scary moments during a Survival Run?
In the Survival Run Nicaragua you’ve got to be comfortable with jungle wildlife. I encountered many spiders and scorpions, a tarantula and a boa! My scariest encounter, however, was with a drunk villager who threatened me with his machete in the middle of nowhere in the night as I ran carrying a bamboo. My Spanish and running skills were indispensable to get me safely out of there!
The closest I’ve ever come to death was in Survival Run Canada. Reaching a rocky mountain pass, as I started my way down on a steep slope of snow, another participant fell right behind me and I got caught in his fall. We slid down at full speed. I couldn’t slow down and was heading onto a pile of rocks. The fall was long enough to give me time to think my options through: 1. Keep trying to slow down and probably hurt myself very bad, or 2. Continue the deathly fast speed and die instantly. Before the inevitable crash I managed to roll over, face-down, which then allowed me to slow down my descent. I was in shock but had to keep moving because it was cold. With my relentless optimism, I told my partner-in-crime: ‘The only good thing from this fall is we gained some terrain pretty quickly!’
How do you function on so little sleep during multi-day races?
Through experience I have found that 4 hours of sleep per 24-hour period is the average minimum I can operate on. Often I function with less, because there’s not always a safe place to crash or because I’m racing someone else and can’t have her pass me while I sleep. These are the most challenging times. As sleep deprivation nests itself in your mind and body, you start being irritable, emotional and uncomfortable in your own skin. It becomes scary when you have problems thinking. I’ll start speaking French (my mother tongue) to people around who only understand English. The feeling is like when you’re drunk and fighting for your eyes to stay focused on one thing. When you start to hallucinate and to fall asleep as you are running, it’s time to find a spot to rest ASAP!
I’ve found that to know and respect my own sleep/wake homeostasis and circadian biological clock helps to better plan when and how long I should sleep. Sleep cycles are more or less 90 minutes, so depending when and where I am in the race, I try to get a 3-hour nap (2 sleep cycles). If I’m in a leg of the race where I can’t really stop, I’ll do a 10-minute power nap. This will temporarily reboot my system until I reach a safer place to crash.
Have you had many hairy moments due to sleep deprivation?
On the second night of the Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc (UTMB) I battled with sleep demons for over an hour on narrow, single-track trails beside ravines. On top of these two sleepless nights during the race, I showed up on the start line already in deficit having run the 36-hour Survival Run Canada a few days before. I was really scared. Yet I’m sure my stories, which weren’t making sense, probably entertained my running partner through the night.
In the race Infinitus 888k, the biggest challenge is that you have to run for 10 days non-stop. A small error at the beginning can become fatal at the end. Being a night person, I function pretty well in the evenings but the dark, early morning hours can quickly sneak up on me. As the sleepless nights add-up I wonder how I’m going to be able to go through the next night. And the next one. And the one after that. I recall the last days where even having people to run with me, music in my ears, caffeine in my system and while singing out loud, I could feel my body craving to shut down with no warning. Like a cellphone with 2% battery that suddenly dies.
Do you have any mental strategies for when it gets tough?
On the Montane Spine Race, which is a one-way 430km self-supported event in the cold of winter in Great Britain, you don’t always know where and when your next opportunity to get rest will be. In the last night where the cold was sucking the juice of my headlamp battery quickly, I wondered if I could make it to the next checkpoint.
Here are some mental strategies I came up with along the way:
- When racing, just like in the rest of my life, I use tools that are free and accessible to everyone: being positive and smiling. It works!
- You also must be clear on the fact that you freely chose to partake in this event. No one forced you to!
- Then you must be clear on your ‘Why’. Your ‘Why’ is that empowering possibility you invented for yourself to take part in this event.
- Believe in yourself and visualise overcoming all the obstacles you’ll have to face.
- Be courageous. Embrace your fears and doubts and keep moving forward.
- Know that mental strength is way more powerful than physical strength. Unless circumstances are life-threatening or an injury would cause permanent lasting harm, you should never quit. Pain is temporary whereas quitting last forever.
- If you are cold, keep moving forward. If you are tired, keep moving forward. If you are crying, keep moving forward. If you catch yourself flirting with the idea of quitting, remember that you are in the middle of nowhere so you would still need to walk 5 miles to reach an area where race staff can get to you AND wait for them to pick you up. If you have the energy to do all that, just keep moving forward on the course. Tell yourself that the only way out is going forward.
- In those dark moments, ask yourself ‘Can I cover 10 more metres?’ If yes, keep moving forward, and repeat the process until you reach the finish line.
Do you find 24hr+ races are as much about mental strength as physical endurance?
When you ask your body to keep going for long periods of time, it definitely requires mental strength but you have to put the work in to gain that physical endurance first. I have found that when it comes to long races they’re 90% mental and 10% hard work. Your body stops after your mind says it can. When your body is screaming at you, your mind has the power to silence it. Your mind becomes your most powerful attribute.
You’ve pushed your body pretty hard. Do you feel like you’ve found its endurance limits yet?
No. Because I take care of my body, I have yet to reach its physical limits. And every time I push beyond limits, new horizons arise so the possibilities are still infinite.
You’ve completed the Devil’s Double, racing the Survival Run Nicaragua and then 2 days later, running a 100km ultra! How?
It is all about believing in something bigger than yourself. Bigger than what has been done before. Bigger than what people say or think, including yourself. The Survival Run Nicaragua is an enormous challenge, let alone the Devil’s Double. How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. I saw the Survival Run as my entry pass for the 100k Ultra trail.
Can you tell us about the highs of completing the Devil’s Double?
The biggest high of all was in the Survival Run where I was the only woman left running the course and the cut-off time was nipping at my heels. Seàn, operations director of the race, looked me in the eyes. He was as nervous as I was. I will forever remember his words: “You are the last person I am sending on the volcano Maderas. Hélène, you can be the first woman to finish the Survival Run. But you must move fast. Now go! See you in the morning on Santo Domingo beach.” Without a blink, I left him and disappeared into the darkness. When I reached the beach and saw the finish line, I could feel everything I went through in one burst that got me here.
After that, how were you feeling, mentally and physically with 100km of running on the horizon?
After the Survival Run, my body was aching and my mind needed sleep. There was no way I could tackle 100 kilometres on this gruelling course in the condition I was in. I had to eat but I wasn’t hungry. I had to sleep but I couldn’t fall asleep. My system was still on the fight or flight response. I wondered how I would be able to take off my clothes, let alone take a shower without falling. I was drained physically and mentally. For one dark moment, I tried to convince myself that finishing the Survival Run was enough. But some dark angel kept reminding me that I signed up for the Devil’s Double and there was no bailing out.
This became a ‘mind over matter’ situation. I unwillingly pushed through the discomfort and stayed focused on my plan: clean my gear, plan and pack for the 100km, eat, hydrate and sleep. Despite every fibre of my being begging me to stop, I told myself the start is still hours away and I would be ready by then. In the dark morning of the 100km Ultra I made my way to the start line, wobbling and crying in pain and fatigue. No one around, including me, could have predicted I would finish the 100km Ultra with a 2nd place, minutes behind the first female. When you hit a low remember that the smallest light will always prevail over darkness. Find that light within you. When you understand that you can feed on the lows to create the highs, the possibilities are infinite.
When you’re training, do you prioritise a particular fitness discipline?
My training regimen has evolved over the years. I first had to put the mileage in to get my body accustomed to such mechanical and physiological stress. My physiology has adapted so I don’t need as much as before. Besides physical training, sleep, nutrition and stress management play important roles as well. Right now I would say 40% is dedicated to running, 40% to strength training, and 20% to specific skills (climbing or axe throwing, for example).
What does a typical week’s training look like at the moment?
As I am writing this I’m 1 month away from the Survival Run Nicaragua and the Devil’s Double challenge. I don’t have a set ‘Mondays are this and Thursdays are that’. Weather, work, and health permitting, I spread my training throughout the week. So there will be 5 to 7 running sessions, including a long run, some speed work, hill work and loaded work (weighted vest, backpack or sandbag). Depending on where I am in my training program, I run between 5 to 15 hours per week. Add to this 2-4 strength training sessions. And some extra time is devoted to specific skills, mobility and race logistics (nutrition, gear).
Where are your favourite places to run?
Mountains! Enough said.
What goes through your mind when you’re running an ultra?
I get inspired by the landscapes I’m running through and think about and explore historical or imaginary scenes that could have happen here or inspired others. In the Montane Spine Race, where we go through Northern England and Scotland, I had a song from The Last of the Mohicans movie playing in loop in my head while imagining some scenes from Lord of the Rings. It’s evident how much the natural features inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to write his epic novels. Being in such a primal and instinctive state, I think a lot of all the people in my life. I reflect on how amazing and strong they are, how grateful I am to know them, from my family to my clients. I get emotional very easily as fatigue consumes me.
As adventure races can throw pretty much anything at you, do you practise specific skills?
I don’t do adventure racing per se. But events like the Survival Run definitely have their load of varied challenges thrown at me. Depending on the location – Nicaragua, Australia, or Canadian Rockies – I can be exposed to biking, canoeing, axe throwing, climbing, swimming, rappelling, fishing, spear throwing, woodcarving, fire starting, and sewing! We must be ready for anything and everything.
Which has been your hardest event so far?
The Montane Spine Race is called ‘Britain’s most brutal race’. I think that it is the most brutal race in my repertoire so far. Shorter than Infinitus 888k, with only 430km, my survival instincts were put to the test by the overall rough conditions, from weather to scarce resources.
Winter in Northern England and Scotland can be unpredictable from snow, rain, wind, fog and cold temperature. It is night more often than day with 16 hours of darkness! It is a non-stop event, self-supported and self-navigated through a lot of vicious bogs. You don’t get to rest much until you get to the finish. As fatigue and sleep deprivation begin to sink in, you can easily lose your bearings, get lost, fall, get hurt… and find yourself frozen in a ditch.
It took me 6.5 days to complete it and I placed 2nd woman (1st North-American woman to even finish the race). We got rain for the first 24-hours, which made it a challenge to cross the mountains covered in snow and exposed to wind. It’s a place where innocent rock-hopping over creeks becomes freezing river crossings. Hypothermia and frostbite lurk, waiting for the smallest opportunity to set in. I fell into a freezing river bog up to my waist. The only way to stay ‘alive’ was to keep moving and eat in order to generate as much heat as I could from within. The last night was scary as I started to hallucinate and fell asleep while walking, in addition to my GPS tracker not working. Things could have turned sour pretty quickly.
That sounds very challenging…
At the same time my GPS tracker went down, the guy I was running with started to fall asleep, not making any sense in his speech and wanted to stop on the side, which was completely not an option in the dark, cold night. He was twice my size so carrying him if something happened was out of the question! I focused on keeping him awake by talking to him while keeping us on the right track. My body was so tired I couldn’t keep myself warm. It became really scary when I also started to hallucinate and fell asleep while walking. I fought so hard to keep untangling dreams from reality.
As we finally reached the next checkpoint, hours later, the light of the building woke me up. Reality came back: I was not training with my friend at home. I was in a race with a British runner in the middle of the night in England! I couldn’t stand on my feet by myself; every inch of my body was aching. A nice old man helped me walk to the bathroom. He gave me a plate of food and I cried so much it was wonderful. I lay down for 30 minutes as I had to be back out there because the woman behind me was getting close. After not moving for a while, getting up is the worst feeling in the world. You are like a crying kid whose mom just abandoned him.
How do you fuel your multi-day events – do you go for real food, sports nutrition or a mix?
Sport nutrition is a science in itself and the perfect recipe is unique to each individual. I partnered up with sport nutrition companies who share common values, like health, outdoor adventures and dreaming big. They are: Xact Nutrition, Exo, Strong Bars Nutrition, Stoked Oats and Brix. They are with me while I run between checkpoints where I can then get real food. So I balance both depending what I have access to.
On these non-stop events, the effort is constant so the fuelling must be too. While running, I aim to eat something every 30 minutes or so, and when I get to nap I take this opportunity to eat more. It is impressive when the survival mode kicks in how the body becomes a simple machine that will take almost anything for fuel. That doesn’t mean it is the right thing to do in the long-term if you want to improve recovery and performances. I work with Sébastien Boucher from Clinique Sportive HPH in Montreal to come up with the right nutrition and hydration plan for me.
How did the British winter conditions of the Montane Spine Race compare to your home in Canada?
The Montane Spine Race was the first and only winter race I’ve done. Wet and cold conditions definitely add to the challenge. Compared to other multi-day races I’ve done, the extra energy required for thermoregulation made this event the winner for calorie consumption: between 10,000 to 15,000 kcal per day!
Canadian winters are way colder than British winters, yet both are equally challenging for different reasons. When it is ‘Canada-cold’, the ground is frozen so no risk of getting sunk in wet, freezing bogs like in England. Also, unless you have an insulated water system, your water will turn into ice. Think twice about what food you bring, as anything with water content will also turn into ice cube food. Any experience with winter conditions, Canadian ones included, will help to prepare for the Montane Spine Race. Both British and Canadian climates will challenge your skills of layering clothes to keep you warm but not make you sweat too much.
Have you got any goals for 2018?
I am going back to Nicaragua for the Devil’s Double. I usually don’t do an event twice if I finished it, but this is an exception as Fuego y Agua events in Nicaragua are special to me. This year, they are celebrating 10 years of doing events in Nicaragua, where it all started. They are more than race event organizers; they are a community of amazing people. We are family. Also, going back there is a way to recharge myself. It really feels like “home”. I have to define what this event will mean for me this time. Knowing what it tastes to finish it, what will be my calling this time? To be determined. Nonetheless, I will leave everything I have in me on the course.
This year my goal is to complete Infinitus 888k! This will be my third attempt. Even though I’ve run 675km and 736km in the past few years, which is impressive, I haven’t crossed the finish line. I have developed a love/hate relationship with this race. It has been such a unique and transformational event for me that I decided to create a documentary film about it in 2017 called Facing Infinitus (www.facinginfinitus.com). The launch is scheduled for April 2018. Stay tuned!
Another goal is to complete the Petite Trotte à Léon (PTL). The PTL is the big sister of the Ultra-Trail Mont-Blanc (UTMB): 300km, 26,000m+, self-supported, unmarked course on the beautiful Mont-Blanc massif. With my teammate Benoit Létourneau, we are team Xact Nutrition, and could become the first team from Quebec, Canada to ever finish.
I am flirting with the project of doing the World’s Toughest Mudder. It all depends on my resources.
What are your favourite pieces of kit for racing and training?
Explore my sponsors and you’ll know what I fuel and thrive on! I am also a fan of Scratch Labs. I love my weighted vest provided by Platinum Rig (who has a lot more fun stuff to offer!) to train. My Ultimate Direction 15l pack for Survival Runs and everyday commute, and my Out There USA pack for bigger expeditions.
Like many runners, I’m in the constant endless search for the perfect running shoe, which I’m not sure exists or will ever exist. In the meantime, I’m in the minimalist camp all the way regarding shoes. Depending on the conditions, type of terrain, and climate, I presently rotate through: Five Fingers, Luna Sandals, Skora, New Balance Minimus and Altra Superior.
Who are you sponsored by right now?
What makes them so special is how amazing the people behind are, working countless hours on their craft with so much passion and talent. I am very grateful to have them on board!
You can follow Hélène during her Survival Run and Devil’s Double race on the 28 February by following her on social media: www.instagram.com/helene_adventurer, www.twitter.com/helene_dumais and www.facebook.com/helenedumaisadventurer and by visiting Hélène’s website at www.helenedumais.com