Jean-Philippe Thibodeau thought about giving up. He had been running almost non-stop for over 7 hours. Ahead of him are still 65 kilometers to go. The Ultra-Trail runner was far from suspecting at that moment that he would finish… on the first step of the podium, together with two other experienced competitors.

Things changed when Jacob high-fived him.

Jacob is Thibodeau’s nephew, his brother’s son. The runner’s family and friends came to cheer him on the 60th of the 125 km of the Ultra-Trail Harricana of Canada (UTHC), the largest trail race in the country. This 12th edition took place the weekend of September 8 to 10.

The victorious trio – also made up of trail legends Cédric Chavet and Antoine Guillon (we’ll come back to that) – crossed the finish line at 4:30 a.m., after 15 hours 30 minutes of trail running. The athlete from Baie-Saint-Paul estimates that he only stopped for 17 minutes during this period. What about your weekend?

“When I arrived at kilometer 60, my whole family was there, with my friends,” explains Thibodeau in a telephone interview with La Presse, a few days after his victory.

It was hot and humid in the Charlevoix hinterland that day. His feelings were not very good.

“It’s funny how the human body is made,” he said. The first 40-45 pounds I felt like trash. It wasn’t going so well. »

In an event like this, “when you open the door to tell yourself that you could give up, it stays wide open,” emphasizes the runner.

“You say to yourself: ‘Okay, look, I’ll be finished by 9 p.m., I’ll get a good night’s sleep, I’ll have a nice weekend,’” he adds with a laugh.

But over the last 10 kilometers before the encouragement from those around him, Jean-Philippe Thibodeau felt “lighter”. Jacob’s high five sealed his fate. He filled his hydration vest, “grabbed some grub,” and set off again.

The rest of the story is like a Hollywood film script with an enchanting ending.

At mile 70, the runner enters the hardest section of the course. “There was a ravito there [refreshment point], and everyone was cheering me on. I said to myself: “wow, they are motivated!” »

What Thibodeau didn’t know at the time was that he was good first. The two Frenchmen, Chavet and Guillon, had just taken a wrong turn. “They extended by 700 meters,” he explains.

They caught up to him pretty quickly, though.

“No, OK, there’s no way I’m going to sleep through the night alone. I hold on to the guys, I don’t let them go. I survive as long as possible. As soon as they passed me, I held on. »

Chavet and Guillon, aged 48 and 53 respectively, are part of the world’s elite in the discipline. They begin to test the limits of the Quebecois a little. But Thibodeau is holding on. They start to take an interest in the 31-year-old suitor, they ask him questions. Perhaps to know what his intentions are for the final sprint.

He explains to them that he only wants to “survive the night” so as “not to run alone.” “They said, ‘No problem, we’ll bring you in!’” »

The dynamics of the race change a little. They begin to give him advice. “It was really a good school that night,” remembers the runner, who also raced in Thailand and Austria this year, among others.

Jean-Philippe Thibodeau had only participated in the UTHC 125 km once before: he had obtained a fifth position in 2019. Although he mainly had a feeling of “revenge” towards the trail (“I had want to conquer the event, and not be beaten by it”), the competitor in him begins to think about the last kilometers.

The Harricana now allows athletes to be followed by an accompanying runner in different sections of the course. It is there to morally support the participant, and ensure their safety in areas where the cellular network does not reach.

Jean-Philippe’s companion is his partner, Anne-Marie. She joins him at kilometer 108. They decide to “test” the two legends by leaving the refreshment point more quickly, “to see if they are really in good shape”.

The answer came quickly. “The guys hung on really easily. » In turn, they “pushed”, without abandoning the Quebecer.

“I said to Anne-Marie: “Listen, the guys were nice to me, I finished third and that’s okay.” »

Then, 5 kilometers from the finish, Cédric Chavet and Antoine Guillon made him an unexpected offer.

The theme of the 2023 edition of Harricana was harmony. And it is under this principle that the end of the race was decided.

Chavet and Guillon explain to Thibodeau that the UTHC is for them a training event for the Diagonale des fous, one of the most important races in the world, a 165 km long course on the island of Reunion.

They tell him, “We’re not interested in getting hurt, sprinting, so what do you think if we finish this together? The title of the event is harmony, so it’s going to be a good finish for three Franco-Quebecers! »

Thibodeau is jubilant. “In my head, I finished third! »

“Me, guys, I’m on board! », he answers them. “Anyway, they were stronger than me. […] I would not have won that day. »

The image is strong. They arrive, after 15:30 hours of racing, 6 of which were run together, hand in hand, headlights on, and cross the finish line all three at the same time. It was the first time in the history of the event that this had happened.

“I was really tired,” Thibodeau says of his emotion at the end of the race. […] But the two guys, it looks like they hadn’t run. They were fresh, they were happy. The whole race they were saying, “Wow, the courses here are sick!” »

Jean-Philippe Thibodeau, a full-time Capital Transport Network (RTC) driver and part-time extreme runner, was champion. At home, in Charlevoix.

“It was truly a perfect day. »

What does an Ultra-Trail runner eat during a race lasting more than 15 hours?

“You have to be careful about what you eat in the refreshments,” says Jean-Philippe Thibodeau. Because there’s a lot of stuff out there, and it’s not all recommended stuff. »

At Harricana, he ate rice balls and potatoes, foods “full of carbohydrates.” “You pick up two or three, you take your bottles again, and you leave. »

There are signs 200 meters before the aid station, giving runners time to get their bottles out to give to volunteers. “They fill them while you eat whatever you want. »

With a positive altitude difference of 4220 m, the 125 km of Harricana is the flagship event of the Ultra-Trail in Canada. Competitors follow a course through mountains, lakes, rivers and forests of the Charlevoix tourist region

During the 2023 edition, 330 participants took to the start of the longest of the 13 distances on the circuit. They had a maximum of 29 hours to reach the finish line. Among the women, Geneviève Asselin-Demers won the race in 17 hours 20 minutes. In total, 3,500 athletes registered for the event.

UTHC 2023 was held in honor of its co-founder Sébastien Boivin, who passed away in August 2022. He suffered from multiple sclerosis. Since its founding, the event has aimed to raise funds to advance research into the disease and raise awareness of the cause. It also promotes the outdoors and healthy lifestyle habits.