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Trail running after 50: impossible is just an opinion

Quebec's Gilles Poulin runs for himself and for the benefit of others

The year Gilles Poulin quit smoking, he ran his first marathon and smiled the entire race. A few years later, in his mid-40s, he started trail running. In less than 10 years, the  53-year old has run over a dozen marathons and 10 trail-ultra races up to the 100-mile distance. The husband and father of two will be attempting his seventh 100-miler this year at the race he directs himself–the Bromont Ultra.

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Poulin at mile 40 of Massanuten 100 mile. Photo: Eric Côté

The five-year plan

As a mountaineer in his 20s, Poulin had the experience of spending his time in the trails and mountains. After finishing his first marathon, Poulin read the book Running through the Wall by Neal Jamison and immediately made a plan to complete his first 100-mile race by 2010–a five year plan. A year later, he was diagnosed with three herniated discs and told he may never walk pain-free again. After committing to daily yoga for over a year, Poulin began running again. By 2009, he ran his first 50-mile race at the Vermont 50, truly believing that “impossible is not a fact, it’s an opinion.” 

Back to adventures

At 46, Poulin completed his first 100-mile (160K) race in Vermont. Runners were required to weigh in at the start, mile 48, and mile 70. If a runner has lost more than five per cent of their body weight, they are taken off the course. At mile 48, Poulin had lost too much weight and was not told he couldn’t continue. He ultra-convinced the race director he would start ingesting more liquids and calories. By mile 70 he had regained the weight and felt “ecstatic to continue. I finished with a smile in just over 35 hours and could not believe my body had just gone through that.”   

Poulin traversing the Himalayas in 1989

Long train running

Poulin credits the Doobie Brothers for getting him through the Bryce Canyon 100 miler in 2013. After the first six hours, Poulin started singing Long Train Running “and the next thing I knew, I had run another 13 hours straight and night time was falling. I embraced every single moment of it. It was an amazing contrast between full awareness, yet full disconnection of what I was doing.” 
Later on at Bryce, Poulin resorted to walking, since his toes were completely damaged from the sand. Still, he crossed the finish line after 31 hours and eight minutes behind a man in his early 60s. “This guy was running his 90th ultra, and I bowed down and the ego was gone forever.” 
At the Bryce 100-mile race

RELATED: Trail running after 40: Eric Côté


It’s more than just running for Poulin. His main motivator is fundraising for a cause, hoping that by pushing himself he would encourage people in their philanthropy. When he ran his first 50 mile-race, he created a website called Ultragiving to raise money for a humanitarian project in Tanzania, and raised $65,000. Since then, he has raised over $300,000. In 2013 he created the Bromont Ultra, which focuses on trail running and philanthropy. Ultragiving is now a foundation with an endowment fund and has raised over 1.2 million dollars. 

Long train training

Poulin advocates for not overtraining. He runs three to four times a week, with a base around 30K per week, and including one long run, one interval or hill workout, and one longer-distance run at marathon pace. Before a 100-mile race, he aims for at least 100K weeks for two to three consecutive weeks.  

Poulin also practices his mental training before a race. “I usually print the race map and have it in front of my desk three or four months before the race. I prepare mentally for when it is going to get tough, as it inevitably does.” 

Poulin and Pierre Lavoie at the 2017 Bromont Ultra. Photo: Julien Hebert

Up next

Poulin wants to start doing long treks with his wife and children. Perhaps re-crossing the Himalays would be an experience after 30 years. For now, he is hooked on the 100-mile ultrarunning distance. It “is where the meditation happens and the real magic appears for me. That’s what keeps me coming back every time.”