Geneviève Asselin-Demers and Caitlin Schindel further energized an electric atmosphere in one of Mexico’s most popular tourist destinations on Saturday, when the Canadian runners—neither of whom was listed in the elite field—dominated the two main events at Puerto Vallarta by UTMB.
Montreal’s Asselin-Demers toughed out withering heat and humidity to finish the 100K in 12:07:50 to top the women’s podium in the 100K race and place seventh overall.
The enormity of the challenge of running the course—a 95K route with a 100K UTMB classification—became clear as the exhausted Quebecer collapsed upon breaking the tape, as race volunteers scrambled to soak her with scoops of cold water.
The 100K course begins in the town of Mascota, continuing through the Sierra Madre Occidental mountain range and 3,300 metres of elevation gain before continuing in technical descents through jungle to Puerto Vallarta’s beaches.
But the greatest challenge for many runners was managing heat and hydration. Temperatures held steady at 32 C for most of the day, with the humidity making it feel close to 40 C.
Asselin-Demers was back on her feet less than a minute after collapsing past the finish line and spoke about the challenge for Canadians competing in scorching temperatures.
“When I came here it was like -4 C in Canada. It’s really hard—it’s really hard,” she said, adding that she adopted a simple strategy to try to adapt to the heat: “Ice, ice, ice, ice! Everywhere! Everywhere ice!”
She said what motivated her during the really tough times was knowing she was running this race in memory of a close friend, Marc-André Paillé, who died the previous week.
Asselin-Demers added she also drew strength from the overwhelming support her friends have offered leading up to the event. “The race was so hard. Every bit of energy my friends gave me before the race, I used it.”
Although she wasn’t part of the race’s official elite field, Asselin-Demers was confident she could do well in the 100K—and she was clear about her objective.
“I want to go to UTMB and it’s my chance to do a podium so I’m here for the podium.” Her win automatically qualifies her to compete at UTMB’s premier event in Chamonix, France next year.
She was less confident about how she would react to wildlife encounters on the trail in Mexico. The Puerto Vallarta by UTMB race guide advises runners to keep an eye out for creatures including rattlesnakes and scorpions.
“The only thing I’m not so sure about are the snakes that bite. We just have bears in Quebec. It’s not the same size but it’s not the same thing to look at it, so I’m a little bit nervous for this.”
Canadian Running asked her following her win if she had spotted any snakes while on the trail.
“Yes! I saw snakes, I saw tarantulas, but the thing I was most worried about was a cow,” she said. “There were a lot of cows and I couldn’t pass them. I tried making sounds but they didn’t move.”
Joining Asselin-Demers on the podium were Americans Lisa Jane Roberts (12:54:23) and Maya von Wodtke (13:18:32).
Teeing up Canada’s twin successes Saturday was Saskatoon’s Schindel, who blazed across the finish line more than 30 minutes ahead of the second female finisher.
The registered nurse and mother of three said she has surprised herself with her recent successes on the trail, including Saturday’s 50K.
“I just kind of started running trail races last year,” she told Canadian Running after her victory in Puerto Vallarta. “I did one in Saskatchewan called the Beaver Flat 50K and I ended up winning it, so I was kind of surprised by that. And I told my husband, ‘I’m done with road races. I’m into the trails.'”
Schindel, who finished third in the Squamish 50’s 50K in August, says her strength is tackling hills, which might not seem a likely talent for someone who lives in the Prairies.
“I’m not sure why—especially because I’m from Saskatchewan—but somehow I’m good at uphills. It’s very challenging to train for this kind of terrain in Saskatoon. We have trails by the river but they’re nothing like this. They’re not technical like this.”
The Puerto Vallarta course—a 49-km route with a 50K UTMB classification—features 2,250 metres of elevation gain.
“The beginning was a lot of just up, up, up, and that gave me an advantage,” said Schindel. “I knew there was going to be a lot more downhill, so I thought, ‘I’m just going to try my best to keep this lead, because I know they’re going to start catching up to me.’
“Downhills aren’t as much to my strength, the technical downhills, because they kind of scare me to be honest. I’m not used to going down such steep, curvy things with slippery rocks and all that. It’s just something I can’t train on—there’s no way to really mimic that.”
Like Asselin-Demers, Schindel knew adjusting to the heat in Puerto Villarta would be a challenge.
“It’s like winter in Saskatoon right now. It’s been snowy, the exact opposite of this weather, so I didn’t know if I would be acclimatized to the heat. A couple of times I ran on the treadmill in a sweater. I don’t know if that helped, but it was worth a try.”
She said she didn’t spend much time researching the course, and that the surprises that resulted added to her enjoyment of the race.
“I just loved it. There was a different surprise around every corner, like ‘Oh, there’s a cow,’ or ‘There’s a suspension bridge,’ or ‘There’s a river.’ It was a lot of fun.”
Describing herself as “an underdog” at Puerto Vallarta by UTMB, Schindel said she hadn’t put much thought into her celebration plans. “I didn’t think I would win. I think I’m going to go swimming in the ocean, hang out with my mother-in-law—have a dance party, maybe.”
Joining her on the 50K women’s podium were American Klaire Rhodes (6:13:39) and Mexico’s Nayeli de la Torre (6:39:31).
The men’s 50K ended in a dramatic sprint between Mexico’s Juan Belman Ortiz and American David Norris. At around the 4:50:00 mark, the race announcer bellowed that the American was expected to turn the final corner and break the tape for the victory in about two minutes.
However, that two-minute warning was repeated several times over 15 minutes, when suddenly Belman Ortiz and Norris appeared, in a final heated dash to the finish. Belman Ortiz broke the tape in 5:06:38—three seconds before Norris—causing the crowd to erupt in celebration. Joining them on the podium was American Mario Mendoza (5:30:59).
Oswaldo Damian Muñoz Diaz (51:33) and Ruben Dario Aranda (53:39) claimed top spots in the men’s 10K for Mexico. The Netherlands’ Erwin Zeekant finished third (1:08:14), ahead of Canada’s Ian Shewfelt (1:17:27).
Mexico’s Alex Roudayna de la Huerta Susilla topped the women’s podium and placed third overall. American Sarah Foran finished second (1:10:29) and Perla Polino of Mexico placed third (1:11:08). Canada’s Sabrina Tillberg finished fifth in the women’s race (1:17:59).
Puerto Vallarta by UTMB continues Sunday with 33K and 20K races.