Lock Sisters do the Quebec City Staircase Challenge (Défi des Escaliers)

On Saturday, as Lil Sis and I were exploring Quebec City for the first time for either of us, there was steady drizzle-to-rain all day. All 12 hours we were out and about. We concluded we would not have minded the rain on Saturday if we weren’t being wholly assured by the weather forecasts that the next day would only be more of the same. That by the luck of the draw we had followed the crazy northeasterly weather system that caused all that fuss in Toronto in Friday (TTC Union Station flooding and all) to Quebec City. We were both really upset throughout our carb-loading dinner at a nice Italian restaurant and to top it off, I had to err on the side of caution and could only order a boring and light tomato sauce capellini. I wondered if I should not have squeezed out a prayer when we were on the Notre-Dame Basilica-Cathedral for milder weather just for a few hours in the morning.

Despite weather-related anxiety, I had pretty good sleep for once. Nothing was really riding on the race except it would be a challenge to finish. Lil Sis and I were pretty somnolent after a pasta dinner and desserts and tucked in bed by 10:30. We fell asleep, just like the night before, with the TV on. I woke up to check the time at 5:30 and fell asleep again to have a dream that I woke up at 6:30 and realized I set the alarm wrong and I felt thankful I woke up. Then my alarm went off and I woke up for real. What a prosaic dream!

I checked the weather but there were still raindrops falling out of the cloud in the icon and I found the hour-by-hour forecast. What does 2.1 mm of rain feel like anyhow? Lil Sis was really concerned about the 50 mm/day forecast; apparently that is a lot.

My fuel was “oats congee” which is a ghetto-fabulous concoction I mix up every more with 1/3 cup quick-cook oats with a satchel of cup-of-noodle soup. We rolled out of the hotel with time to spare which was completely eaten up by driving entirely the wrong way because I spelled the park’s name wrong. It made for a stressful drive but parking was a cinch and free on a side residential street.

The night before, I realized we had a logistical challenge the website had not foretold. Since Lil Sis and I were registered in different races, although hers was just a subset of my race course, we were technically to start at different times. While the website suggested both races started at 8:00, the 19 K “Super Defi” started at 8:00 while the 13 K “Defi” started at 8:20 and we needed to start together and stay together until our race courses diverged at the 9-km mark. I did not want to start 20 minutes later. We learned that walkers started before the runners and it defied traditional race logic (where gun time wins the race) but we claimed to be walkers and started together. When people were overtaking us from behind and running, we also passed the runners and started at a really slow and manageable pace.

We completed the stair-less first two kilometers in about 12 minutes which was alright but there were stairs in the next two kilometers and we finished 4 kilometers in 28 minutes. Within a few sets of staircases going up and down, we knew our strategy: walk those stairs. Both of us were terrified of the idea of slipping on the rain-slick stairs and bowling down the stairs taking out everyone in our way. Ascending stairs were also at a walking pace which is approximately how quickly my Stairmaster workouts at 85 steps/minute approximates. My main focus on ascending stairs, besides not tripping, was to have the most even of breath. It was like doing a half-marathon with 30 walk breaks!

The first segment of the course took us through some residential neighbourhoods answering our question from the previous day, “But where do the people live?” On Saturday, we walked all around the tourist-y and very European Old Quebec area. On Sunday, we had the unique privilege of running with many local runners like part of a local community run club, taking over the quiet streets. Were it not for the race we would not have run through an adorable alley behind row housing on Rue Saint-Paul with third-floor balconies and walkways above us to reach their parking spots across the alley. Just from running behind the houses we could tell each one had vibrant character. The alley opened immediately onto the wide and modern European commercial Rue de Sault au Matelot.

Lil Sis and I didn’t talk a great deal but shared the experience anyhow. We returned to Notre-Dame-des-Victoires square where the energy drink and water were being handed out. Lil Sis breezed by and expertly grabbed a water and continued running alone into the open space. We didn’t know exactly what the volunteers said but they cried after her because the rest of us were turning to head up more stairs! At 45 minutes, I took my first energy gel (Vanilla Bean Gu) and gave Lil Sis a “sip” without warning her about the (yummy) flavour. She hated the texture, calling it gummy and that my likening it to pudding was an insult to pudding. More gel for me!

The course took us through all the main attractions of Old Quebec and we were on the wooden boardwalk outside the Fairmont Chateau Frontenac for the second day. A photographer was planted on the boardwalk to capture the image of runners with the grand castle as a backdrop. From the boardwalk, I pointed to runners we saw running along the perimeter of the Citadelle overhead. “Are we actually going up there??” It was a rhetorical question because I had studied the route and knew that we would be taking the Escaliers de la Promenade des Gouverneurs–309 steps!!–and it was Lil Sis’ last set. They were also widely spaced apart and not that bad at all. After we summited the Citadelle, I laughed at how Haligonians were miserable about the 5K Bluenose run up the Halifax Citadel and we split up as we were at the 9K point. Lil Sis tried to follow me onto my 19K route but volunteers diverted her to go the other way.

When we split up at 9K, we both felt pretty good, like little effort had been required thus far but we had been out for over an hour. We had “moseyed along” the first part together, as Lil Sis said. As it turned out my route involved descending the Citadelle halfway and then climbing it again. That really sucked the fun out of it.

At 1:45, I took my second gel and hoped fervently for its magic to hit quickly. It was the new Gu Roctane Chocolate Raspberry flavour that really does taste like delicious pudding. I started up my music and set my sights on a 2:30 finish.

All was going okay until I hit 14 K and there was a Wall. Of. Stairs. I asked the benevole (volunteer) about a term on the banner: “Defi (challenge) de grimpeur”. What does it “grimpeur” mean? He explained it to me in French which was pretty useless and his succinct inaccurate translation was that it was the “best part”. So I took a photograph from the bottom, vaguely aware this could be the mega 398-step staircase, and started up. My photograph could only capture about one-quarter of the whole staircase as it went on forever. A man in cycling shorts had come out to cheer us on, repeating the same few phrases that I could not understand and I was grumbling at him not knowing my pain until I realized he was cheering so much he was going to lose his voice. That’s altruism. At the top of the steps, I noticed the timing mat and then it sank in that there was a mini challenge within the race and a prize awarded to the fastest to ascend the stairs.

Likewise, through the gently uphill trail that went on forever after the mega staircase, there was a sprint challenge. I actually place a bit better in the sprint challenge where I sped walked up the hill than I did walking an even pace up the Grimpeur stairs.

After we left the woods (finally), a volunteer told me there was 2.5 km left and I had just 12 minutes until 2:30 so I started calculating and bargaining with myself. It was rolling terrain such that the runner part of me did not speak up loud and clear until there was just one kilometer left.

I was so thankful at several points of the race that the weather was “so nice”. There was a fine mist throughout and I worried it would actually start raining at 49 minutes but it eased up again. It really did start raining at after 135 minutes but I was nearly done and in the last 500 m I ran into a puddle and got splashed by a car driving on Grand Allee Ouest. Wonderful.

This race seemed to have a larger proportion of volunteers, mainly to man intersections along the squiggly route and keep runners on the right course. I liked how the organizers explained how the identical registration fee regardless of the distance was due to the major of the costs covering goods and services we all shared: timekeeping, transportation, PA system, security, tents, promotion, etc. The volunteers were so kind to me, the bumbling tourist who can only spit out fragmented Franglais under pressure.

All registered racers were also treated to brunch which was packaged in one of the tents and handed out at the finish line. It was a good spread with a hot breakfast sandwich and a muffin and protein-enriched Greek yogurt and cheese and fruit. There was also coffee that we tossed back quickly to warm up as the rain was steady at that point.

The Staircase Challenge is only in its fourth year which means I must have heard about it during one of its earliest years and dreamed only as a runner could about completing it. You might call it a marathon bucket list item and I’ve crossed it off. Given Quebec City is not a national flight hub, I was not going while based out of Vancouver so I had to take advantage of my proximity and Porter Airlines seat sales. My training was enough to get me out for over two hours but not to be very good and I left something in the tank. I was pretty okay with my just over 2:30 result (grrr…) and what could we do but laugh when we saw how we did in our respective fields?

Overall: 420/480
Amongst females: 105/146
Amongst females of my age group: 37/40 < we laughed and laughed about this one
Climb time (398 steps): 6:01.6 (453/480)
Sprint section: 12:29.1 (410/480)
Chip time: 2:34:19.2 (avg 2:02:04.54)

Registered in 19K: 480 total, 146 women, 334 men
Registered in 14K: 995 total, 586 women, 409 men


  1. I love that challenge too, it boost your strength to the limit… It’s very fun and exciting to push yourself in that fun game. I can’t imagine myself running in a 398-step staircase up there…

  2. Allison Pattillo says:

    Would like to get a quote from you about this race to use in a magazine article. Any interest?

    Thank you!

Comments are closed.