Canadian Death Race
The Canadian Death Race, a 125K (~78 miles) through the Canadian Rockies covering three major mountains with over 17,000 feet of ascent, entered my consciousness as a possibility not long after crossing the finish line of TransRockies Run last year.
TransRockies was a six day stage race covering 120 miles through the Colorado Rockies. My buddy Jay and I did it in 2011 (which as of this writing was last year). We had such an amazing time — it was epic! — that I had fallen in love with the Rockies and, in general, running up and down “real” mountain trails. Perspective and sense of purpose is found on top of the world. I have never felt so alive than I did as I romped among and often above the clouds.
This yearning for an equal or bigger race lead me to a brother event of TransRockies called TransAlpine Run. TransAlpine is an 8 day stage race through the Alps with more mileage and elevation than TransRockies. Problem was… I couldn’t find a friend to talk into teaming up with me.
Meanwhile another friend of mine, Carolin, had mentioned, “Thor, look at the Canadian Death Race.” I did, but just in passing. I wanted TransAlpine. So I brushed it off.
Months went by, me still without a teammate, I started poking around on trail runner and ultra websites. I kept seeing “Canadian Death Race” pop up time and again. So finally I checked it out, like really looked at the details. It seemed a cool race, but it also seemed a bit too ultra-like for me. I was more looking for a stage race like TransRockies.
As more time went by, something in me changed. I found myself periodically looking at the Death Race website, this time reading up on nuances of the race. “125K through the Canadian Rockies.” “17,000 feet of elevation gain.” “The Death Race Coin must be carried and surrendered for safe passage across a ragging river.” “A prayer flag must be retrieved on top of Mount Hamel for proof that you achieved the turnaround at the end of the ridge trail.” Little at a time, I was being drawn in. The challenge seemed so steep that I feared failure more than I yearned to take on the challenge. Fear of failure grew to the point where it finally hit my consciousness. I couldn’t stop thinking about the race. It morphed into a race I had to do.
As I was thinking out loud about the race and whether I should do it, my buddy Ross told me, “Strike when the iron is hot. If you’re fit and motivated, you have your answer.”
Ross was right. I was fit, and I was motivated. What held me back was that I feared failure. Failure kept me from committing. Ross’s words helped me see that the iron was hot. If I didn’t strike many years ago when the iron was hot, I never would have done Ironman. If I didn’t strike last year when the iron was hot, I never would have signed up for TransRockies. When, I questioned myself, did I let fear steer me away from races?
And so here I was, eying the Canadian Death Race, with fear of failure reigning supreme. I had my answer. Fear of failure, I knew, would motivate me to to train properly. Fear of failure told me the journey to and through the event would be epic. Fear of failure had me sign up for the race. Fear of failure would drive me in training the rest of the way. There was more to it, but at the time I did not see it. I merely looked at it as my last hurrah before I would face the greatest ultra marathon of all, fatherhood, something that scared me even more.
But first I had the Canadian Death Race, the toughest event I would, to date, ever do!
As I stepped outside my motel room door race morning in Grande Cache, Alberta Canada, a tiny mining town at the northern reaches of the Canadian Rockies, I couldn’t help but notice that the cool mountain air was warmer than previous mornings. I took a deep breath, as if to get a better sense for what I could expect from the weather, and made a mental note that I should dress a little lighter than planned, at least at the start.
Wide-eyed and excited for the day, evening, night, and perhaps if I’m lucky morning, both early and late, I went back inside my room and repositioned the long sleeve tight-fitting shirt, one I was going to use at the start, to my gear bag for easy access should I need it on a later leg of the race. I didn’t know it at the time, but this would prove to be a good choice both in the morning and many, many hours later, in the early morning of next.
My gear bag was now ready to go. It contained seven separate over-sized Ziplock plastic bags: One for each of five legs, including all of my nutrition for that leg plus mandatory items and several niceties; another labeled “First Aid” filled with tape, Vitamin-I, extra SaltStick salt tablets, Bandaids and Body Glide; and the last, “Extra Food”, containing extra PowerBars, Gels, and a PB&J sandwich carefully crafted with extra jelly, all in case I was out on the course longer than expected. Also in the bag were extra pairs of shoes, socks, shorts, and shirts.
Due to the grueling nature of a race such as the Canadian Death Race, gear can play a pivotal role in your success in the race. With a 24-hour cutoff for completion, the Death Race is a rugged 125K, or 78 miles, of mountainous terrain covering three major mountain passes and 17,000 feet of ascent, all broken into five legs. Course aid, more minimal than most ultra marathons, is available by way of a runner’s support crew at the transition points from one leg to the next. On top of that, there is an extra aid station just behind halfway on the two long legs, Leg 2 and Leg 4, and an extra station on the last leg.
With a forecast calling for sunny and high puffy clouds with temperatures starting mid-50′s and climbing all the way to 90F, I was already wondering if I would have enough water during the race. I could carry ample nutrition, so I wasn’t worried about having enough, but with water, my pack only had a capacity of 2 Liters… and I feared it wouldn’t be enough, especially for the anticipated heat of the day.
Not long after getting dressed and eating breakfast, there was a rap on the door. It was Henry. “You need a ride to the start?” he asked.
I knew Henry from Trifury, my old traithlon club. We did a few runs together over the months leading up to the race. When my wife Heather said she would not make the trip due to her being too far along in pregnancy, Henry most graciously offered up the duo of his son and father, Little Henry and Big Henry, respectively, to be my support crew. This would work out well, I knew, because I figured Henry and I would be very near each other over the course of the five legs.
To the start Little Henry drove; Henry and I, both relaxed, chatted idly. I couldn’t help but note that it felt like the calm before a 24-hour storm otherwise known as the Canadian Death Race.
There’s something about big races like this. Nerves seem to stay at bay. Perhaps it’s because you know what you’re up against. Or maybe it’s because the pace is usually mild, so you know the hurt doesn’t come on until many hours into the race, and when it comes it does so gradually, as if lulling you into a slow, steady slog. This is very much unlike racing a marathon, where you’re in the hurt box by mile 8 wondering already if you’re in over your head.
The only thing over my head ten minutes before race start was clear blue sky and a great big sun playing peekaboo behind occasional tall clouds.
It was a glorious day. It didn’t escape me that I was living a dream.
Leg 1 – Downtown Jaunt, 19K (~12 miles)
The first Leg of the Canadian Death Race started in the small mountain town of Grande Cache situated at 4110 feet above sea level and finished 19 kilometers (~12 miles) later at the Flood Mountain Aid Station (3600′) at the base of the first “real” mountain of the day, which we would tackle in the next leg.
With a net elevation loss of 500 feet, Leg 1, called “The Downtown Jaunt”, featured a quick jaunt through town that had us start at the official Start/Finish Line, go out and back through town, and return to and go under the Start/Finish Arch. This proved ceremonial in that spectators were able to see the field of soloists and relay runners before we heading out onto the course proper.
After a total of 6K on pavement, the course turned right onto a trail system featuring rugged gravel and hard-packed dirt roads and anxious single and double track trails. Constantly rolling up a hundred feet and down 150, this section contained several creek crossings, unavoidable puddles left over from a heavy rainy season, and deep, shoe-sucking mud. It was said that the course this year would be more wet than normal years. This, unfortunately, proved true, and it made the going far slower than it should have been.
Features of Leg 1 included views, from both high up and at eye level, of Grande Cache Lake and Peavine Lake, including a ridge trail that offered a spectacular view of Peavine Lake and the mountains of Willmore Park as backdrop.
Just before the first full aid station marking the end of the leg and the beginning of the next (Leg 2), we got to experience what would be the first deep mud bog of what would be far too many on the day.
Although there was a net loss of 500 feet, the course of Leg 1 was slow going, which would prove to be good for forcing an easy pace but not so good for making aggressive race cutoff times.
But before we got there, we had to start.
After being dropped off by Big and Little Henry and posing for pictures, Henry and I made our way to the starting line. We timed-in at the timing station, something we would have to do often over the next 24 hours, and got to last minute chores. I was all set, but Henry had to take care of business, so I waved goodbye and wished him luck.
Not long after parting from Henry, I bumped into Issy. Issy is a good friend who lives in Rhode Island. We have many mutual friends and are members of the same running club, Tuesday Night Turtles. Although we never got to train together for this race, as we had hoped, we stayed in touch over the months since signing up. On top of that, we saw each other at select races, Mount Washington being one. We agreed that we’d run together for as long as possible if it made sense regarding pacing. Issy is a good kid. I enjoy her company. So I had no problems teaming with her. In fact, I welcomed it. I wasn’t on the starting line to rip off a fast time; I was on the starting line to finish and hopefully have a lot of fun in a challenging way. The dream had me crossing the finish line; there was no clock or timing boundary in that vision — other than crossing the line in under the 24-hour limit.
The good thing about Grande Cache being such a small town and with the race scaled down to a manageable size was that things happened very quickly. Before long, so too had the race started.
Along with 375 soloists and 750 teams, each with up to 5 runners, one for each leg, Issy and I began the journey that was the Canadian Death Race. Even before our first steps we knew the odds of finishing as a soloist were less than 50%, and that was on a good year, not on a sloppy wet year like this. Would we be among the finishers? I didn’t know, but I was excited for the challenge and ready for whatever experience lay ahead.
Out and back through town we ran, we then made our way again through the start/finish area, where we waved excitedly at the sight of Big and Little Henry, my support crew, and Chris, Issy’s boyfriend and support crew. Chris was easy to spot with his red hat. The Henry’s weren’t easy, but Little Henry always found a way for me to see him.
From there the commotion died quickly. We were filtering out of town on pavement to the trail head. Because Issy and I started in the middle of the pack, and because we were chatting away, we got stuck behind runners who were far slower than us, which meant that we were forced to walk more than we would have otherwise. I didn’t get anxious or try to run around or over anybody. I knew this slower pace would force us to go easy. The only way to run for up to 24 hours is to take it easier than you expect. There’s no other way. I got the message. And I took it to heart. It was a long day in the office — make that a long FULL day, afternoon, evening, night, and next early and late morning!
Forced to go so slow left me far more energy for chatting with Issy and meeting other runners. By and large, most people on the trails were relay runners. Soloists were taking it even slower. During this early portion of the race, the trails were clogged and now getting sloppy. We were able to run around most puddles, for there was almost always an alternative path around. It was obvious the course was notorious for being wet, so much that there were alternate paths around troublesome areas. Unfortunately, this keep-your-feet-dry party did not last long. Not even 10 minutes on the trail and, there it was, a large puddle covering the entire trail including all side trails. Issy and I, with no choice, splashed away. Our feet got wet. Little did we know our feet would next be dry a full day later.
During the fun-loving splash-fest that dragged on a little too long, we bumped into Henry. Although it was still so early in the race, bumping into Henry gave Issy and I a shot of adrenaline. The three of us carried on for several more miles up and down the rolling, wet, boggy terrain, each of us already covered in mud.
Before the race, I had set my watch to beep every 20 minutes for duration of the event. The audible alarm was my cue to eat. Rule of thumbs says that you should consume 60 grams of carbohydrate per hour of endurance activity of races longer than 6 hours. Training has showed me this to be about right. I don’t get anal on the numbers since I like to play “catch up”, where I feel free to consume various real foods at aid stations, including catching up on missed calories should I be deficient. I’m also good at listening to my body, such as when it tells me that I’ve accumulated too much in the stomach.
To keep me going, my nutrition strategy was as follows: Every 20 minutes I take either a half a bar, be it PowerBar or Cliff Bar, or a full gel. Since PowerBar contains 40-46 grams of carbohydrate and gels contain roughly 25 grams, that gives me 65 grams, or roughly 325 calories, per hour, give or take. Sometimes when I’m not feeling like a bar or if I sense I have too many calories in my stomach, I will do two or three gels in a row — one per 20 minutes — since gels seem to be easier to digest for more quick energy. Only when I know I have too much in the belly, like really, really know, I will skip a feeding or have less than a half a bar. The rule I live by is, “The only way to power your way for 24 hours is to fuel yourself like an engine.” Feeling lousy is not an excuse to not get in calories. So for each hour I consume one of: a full PowerBar and gel, half PowerBar and two gels, or three gels.
The course to this point was mostly rolling double track trail filled with water and many wet spots. If it were dry, the trails would have been entirely runnable and not at all technical, however the wet month preceding the race changed the make-up of the terrain to be sloppy and even dangerous. It was common to come to a large puddle covering both double tracks of trail, and you had no option but to tiptoe around or find an alternate path, which there more often was, because you couldn’t tell just how deep or rutted it was in the puddle. Often ankles were twisted or feet got stuck when someone would attempt to scamper through.
During this revealing stretch, I started getting an idea of just how slow the course would be this year. Leg 1 was supposed to be among the driest of the day. And this was forcing us to walk far more than I expected. It was so slow that we couldn’t help but get stuck behind a long train of runners that were… walking… around all puddles and taking any alternate paths around the mess.
Suddenly the train was stopped in its tracks. There before us was a knee-deep puddle covering all sides of the trail and carrying on for 50 yards. It was here where someone in front of me hopped up on a soft but steady bog to the right in attempts to carve a new path. I followed suit, oblivious to the fact that to our immediate right was a fence cordoning off restricted land. A few paces up, the land was softer. We were navigating the top of deeply grooved quad tracks that were sunk due to water. Just then my left foot slipped down into the quad track. I was going down. Instinct took over. I reached out with my right hand to the wire fence to catch my fall. As soon as I grabbed, barbed wire sliced the palm of my hand clear open. Shit! That hurt. Blood was immediately visible from two small gashes in my hand. I licked them clean and moved on with more caution.
The course next became far less technical as it navigated both Grand Cache and Peavine Lakes. Issy and I, along with Henry, were still together. It was during this stretch when I started talking with a guy wearing a lime green shirt. Lime Green Shirt Guy was making his 3rd attempt as a soloist in as many years. The first year he fell victim to the aggressive race cutoff at the end of Leg 3, where he was pulled from the course. The second year he finished in 24:24, but because it was not under the 24 hour race cutoff, his time and finish didn’t count. That same year his wife participated in the event as part of a relay team. Her team finished, and she was awarded a shiny Canadian Death Race Coin, which she proudly displays on their fireplace mantel in their home in Edmonton. He told me how she would joke with him about her earning one of the prized Coins while he did not. So this year he was set on getting a Coin for himself. His goal was to get in under 24 hours. Lime Green was a great dude to know because, little did I realize at the time, he would come back to help me in each of the next two legs. Lime Green would be a race savoir. Also handy was that he knew the course well and what it meant for race cutoffs.
Although the going was slow on Leg 1, Issy and I ran most of it and came out feeling very comfortable. I was already so present and into the experience of the race that this leg seemed to fly by. I was exactly where I wanted to be. In the last kilometers, we gained a bit of time on Henry before finally reaching a very crowded transition area marking the end of Leg 1.
Because it was so crowded with relay runners and still too early to string us out along the course, timing-in at the timing station took a good five minutes. I added another five minutes waiting on line to refill my hydration pack. But once out of the tent covering timing station and aid station, Little Henry found me right away and ushered me over to where he had set up shop with mine and Henry’s gear bags. Henry, having brought his own water to refill his pack, was already there. As we shifted things around, shed clothing from the first leg, and restocked with bars and gels and reapplied sunscreen, Chris, Issy’s support crew, found us. Which was good. This way the three of us could regroup and start Leg 2 together.
Canadian Death Race, Leg 1, was slow, but everything was on track, the dream intact.
Leg 2 – Flood & Grande Mountain Slugfest, 27K (~17 miles)
The second leg of the Canadian Death Race marked the beginning of the real work, with two major mountains to climb including a total elevation gain of over 6000 feet, all within 17 miles. This is would be akin to running up Mount Washington and then some. Keep in mind that Washington is a paved road; Flood and Grande Mountain, here in the northern Canadian Rockies, are not paved. Swirl in slop and bog and you have a hell of a slow-going challenge.
After ascending 2200 feet to the top of Flood Mountain, the trail from the summit of Flood to the summit of Grande is characterized as the roughest piece of trail in the Death Race, replete with a full 3K (roughly 2 miles) of steep up and down, rocky and mud-filled drop-offs, each of which bottom out in shoe-sucking micro bogs. Two creek crossings and more slop and you finally get to the top of Grande Mountain, another 2000 feet higher. This section is called Slugfest, and, as I would soon to find out, for good reason.
Coming off Grande Mountain was the most dangerous part of the entire course. The trail followed a power line as it dropped, suddenly and with all the steepness terrain could muster, from the summit all the way back down to the edges of the town of Grande Cache. This section was as dusty as the other side was wet and boggy. It was dangerous and very anxious, with steep, steep drop-offs; one slip or misstep and you would fall, easy, 200 or more feet straight down, because once you slipped you would not be able to stop. It was that steep.
The goal here, as was stressed by race officials before the race and even one staffed along the course, was to not get hurt. Too many people have had their races ended here, by injury. The footing really is that unstable. Serious injury is even worse, as it might be two, three, or four hours before help could get to these remote reaches.
Leaving the first transition (from Leg 1 to start Leg 2), me, Issy, and Henry were all together. We were still in good spirits but knew the real work was about to begin. And it did quickly, as the climb started not even 1K in. This was where Issy and I started pulling away from Henry. I didn’t know it at the time, but the next chance I would get to see Henry would be many, many hours later as I would come into the transition point from Leg 4 to 5.
As Issy and I lumbered on, the terrain now a steady up, we were so far back in the middle of the pack that we were passing other runners with easy. Had we not been soloists with dreams of completing the full race, we could have run far more, so we power hiked efficiently and ran only when it made sense.
Just then a voice come from behind us. “Thor!” It was Carolin, a friend from my online triathlon group and, I’m now happy to report after spending hours with her and her husband in the days after the race at a brewpub, dear friends. We chatted briefly and then got back to motoring the ascent. Before long Issy and I were again passing throngs of both soloists and relay runners. This was not unexpected because we paced so slowly in the first leg. I was hoping this would happen, as it told me that my pacing was just right.
Heading up Flood Mountain, the first real one of the race, the day was warming up quickly to the point where it was hot. At a temperature near 28C (~88-90F) I was sweating non-stop but otherwise nailing my hydration and to this point my nutrition. Being on top of my hydration actually worried me because with it being so hit I was sucking down water and getting concerned about possibly running out of water. The concern would unfortunately prove valid an hour later.
Issy and I finally reached the summit of Flood (6085′). We took a short break before starting back down so that we could both grab more nutrition from our packs to bring to front-facing pockets. We knew what lay ahead, so it was time well spent.
Not long after, we came upon the beginning of a 10K section affectionately called Slugfest. Issy wanted to stop to retie her shoe, which had been bothering her. This was smart, for Slugfest was no joke. It reminded me that I should retie my shoes as well. Mine weren’t bothering me, but I was concerned with all of the steep downhill ahead — sections greater than 50% down and some so steep they dropped off at closer to 80%. I propped a foot up on the mountain to minimize the distance I had to bend over and then untied and retied my shoes, each in turn, in a lock lace pattern that would hold my foot in place to better prevent the toes from jamming into the toe box of the shoe on the steep descents. Toes slamming into the front of the shoe had dome me in a few months ago during a training run, and I knew that if it happened here it would spell the end of my race. Lock-lacing works. Look it up if you’re a mountain runner and have this sort of issue. Even if you have a pair of trusty trail kicks, if you have to run down a mountain for two or more hours and you haven’t done that in training recently, consider Lock-lacing.
Down Slugfest we went.
Gnarly and pocked with knee deep mud bogs on crazy-steep descents that were not runnable even for elite mountain runners, Slugfest was wet, sloppy, slow, and dangerous. This anxiety-laced section required full attention and hand over hand scrambling and occasionally helping other runners, because if one slipped, like dominoes, we’d all go down a long, messy way. After dropping 500 feet in far less that a tenth of a mile — no joke it was that steep and gnarly — it went back up a 100, back down another 200, up 100, down, up, and finally up and up and up. More than 7 times I stepped on what looked sturdy mud, when my foot would sink, as if slipping, up to the knee. They call it shoe-sucking bogs, and it was!
During this section I learned that I was a bit quicker than Issy on descents. I had gotten a hint of this earlier, so before starting this section I warned Issy that if I got ahead of her, not to worry, I’d find a convenient spot to wait so that we could regroup. By then I was committed to the team effort.
Slugfest was so hard and technical and slow that this point, where I would be able to connect again with Issy, would not come until we were through the entire section, which finally ended on top of a beautiful lookout (5400′) not long after Washy Creek (4750′) somewhere between Flood (6085′) and Grande Mountains (6520′). As you can see by the elevation markings, it was a lot of ascending and descending in short distance.
Before I even got to the overlook, my earlier fears of running out if water were realized. This worried me because I knew the aid station wasn’t for another several kilometers, and with the day so hot and the going so gnarly and slow, I would burn up. The only thing going for me was that I had thankfully hydrated so well to that point that I had enough in the tank, so to speak, to enable me to continue powering for the half hour it took to get to the end of Slugfest on this lookout.
Bruised and slightly bloody in spots from grabbing tress and brush to help steady down the drop offs of the last few kilometers of Slugfest, and covered in mud from the thigh down, I finally made it to the lookout. Slugfest was now done. Much to my delight, there were 8 to 10 others sitting down taking a break from the battering handed out by Slugfest. It was like a war zone, runners downed tending to ailments from both course and weather, the harsh reality of the brutal habitat of the Upper Canadian Rockies. As happy as I was to see so many people, I used it as an opportunity to seek water. One thing about this type of race, and really typical of any ultra marathon, is that the race is so grueling that runners on the trail help other runners, with everything, no questions asked. Something about how hard these races are, especially this course, going through same hardship and range of emotions, we know to offer help to others because our time might be next.
I got to work. “Anybody have extra water they can spare?” I asked to no one in particular.
A tall skinny guy in white sparked up, “Yeah, I do. I have more than half a pack left.”
I looked at his pack. It looked to be small, at most 2L — the same as mine. Flags went up. He was bone dry and had white salt marks caked on the side of his face, a sure sign of dehydration, while I was soaking wet as if I had just stepped out of a backyard pool.
“Take as much as you need,” tall skinny guy said, “I’m not drinking it anyway.”
I leapt into action. “Dude, thanks,” I said as I slipped off my pack and opened it. “I appreciate it.”
As he was dumping water from his lack into mine, I said, “I’m going to pay you back. Stop right there. I don’t want to take all of your water. I want you to drink — take a big gulp.”
“I’m just going to throw it up again.”
“I don’t care. You need to drink. Do you have salt? You need a salt tab?”
“I have eCaps, but I haven’t had one since Leg 1.”
“Dude, you gotta take one, and drink. I don’t care if you throw it up. You need it. You gotta force it. Your body will absorb some of it, even if you throw it up.”
Tall skinny guy took my advice and popped an eCap in his mouth. I watched as he struggled to wash it down with a sip of water. He was in bad shape, and it was too early to be in this bad shape.
Ten minutes later, Issy emerged through the brush to join the lookout party. Survivors of Slugfest, all of us. Issy adjusted her pack before we moved on. She had run out if water too, only a guy on the trail gave her a full bottle of Gatorade. She was golden. We were ready to roll. Back down hill.
“Ready?” I asked.
“Yup, let’s do it.”
As Issy and I continued on to the descent, this one thankfully far less boggy and at least mostly runnable, my friend who gave me the water followed behind us. “I’m going to try to stay with you guys,” he said. A minute later my friend was gone.
Being on a descent, I again put distance on Issy. I was getting tired by this point, which made me taking my pace a little easier. I figured I’d do my thing and periodically wait up for her so that I wouldn’t get too far ahead, and that’s what I did.
Several kilometers later the trail opened up to less technical trails. I used this as a chance to let Issy catch up; from there we stayed together.
By now the day was only getting hotter, and I blew through my water again. Thankfully the aid station was close enough to fake my way. Or so I thought. I found myself constantly reaching instinctively for the hose to my hydration pack even though I knew there was nothing in it. I was searching, I knew, for even a small drop of water. Once in a while I’d even get one. Which was good. But this was bad!
Just then I saw a familiar face. It was Lime Green Shirt Guy from Edmonton who was making his third attempt at the race. We had connected on Leg 1 for a few kilometers. “How long until the aid station?” I asked.
With a friendly smile, Lime offered, “At least 4 kilometers.”
Shit, this was not as close as I had thought.
Lime must’ve seen displeasure in my facial expression because he cut to the chase. He asked what was wrong. I said I needed water. That’s all it took. Lime stopped running immediately, bent low, and told me to take a sip from his pack. I squatted low, tipped my head and pinched the valve to the hose on his pack. I couldn’t believe how amazing his water tasted. So thirsty I was that I noticed the slight sweet taste of part Gatorade and part water — he told me later that it was roughly a 25% Gatorade mixture. He would offer again 20 minutes later. Runners helping runners, I was grateful! He, Lime Green Guy, was my savoir even though I was now starting on a major deficit.
Finally, Issy and I along with Lime Green made it to the aid station. I cameled up right away by shooting back not one, not two, not even three, but four small cups of Gatorade; so thirsty I was, I chased those with a cup of water. Next I took my pack off and refilled it. I was now caught up with a full belly and a smile back on my face.
Out of the aid station, the three of us stayed together the rest of the way to the top of Grande Mountain, which we reached in roughly 45 minutes. The views on en route to the summit were beautiful. Deep blue sky with puffy white clouds held command as the view into the valley surrounding us was magnificent. I felt so small up there, yet I felt so alive.
At the top of Grande, we timed-in at the timing station and took a second to feel the cooler wind blowing in our hair. The trail had been so hot that this felt refreshing. Which is exactly what we needed, because we were about to hit the most dangerous section of trail on the entire course, the descent of Grande Mountain along the power lines.
Dry and dusty, the trail dropped fast and furious. Sometimes the grade was over 75%, too steep to run, even with poles, which neither Issy nor I had. Other times the trail was only tipped down at 25%. I had hoped this section would be far more runnable, but now, stopped dead in my tracks and trying to navigate down a ledge drop off, I knew why this section had become affectionately known as “the power lines.”
The power lines went on for the next 10K worth of trail, taking us all the way back to the edges of the town of Grande Cache, where we would return to the start/finish area, thus completing the leg, before starting out on the next, Leg 3.
With that much down hill, I put a lot of time on Issy. There was a point when I lost sight of her. I decided that the terrain was so dangerous that I was best off continuing on, not waiting on this section, and regrouping back at the bottom.
Running down hill for that long takes a massive toll on the quads. Although I felt mine, those around me seemed to be far worse. Many complained about the lack of down hill running. I smiled to myself knowing that I did all I could, and I think it was enough, with down hill running. My quads were taking a beating, and I could feel them wearing, but they were on top of the terrain and the beating being handed out.
After the halfway down point, the tiny town of Grande Cache became more visible way down in the valley. It was such a nice sight that I had trouble taking my eye off it. Because the going was still so treacherous, I tried to spy looks only when I could with more easier footing.
By now I was hauling pretty good, running and leaping when I could, especially as the mountain gave me something, that I really put distance on Issy. There was a point when, just after descending for 30 minutes or more, bombing straight down the mountain toward town, I stopped to get a look back at the path from which I had just come. A closer look at the trail revealed many of those I had passed. But Issy, she was not one of them. She, I knew, was farther back. That’s when I decided to forget about waiting up. I would forge ahead. Issy and I could regroup back at transition. And that is exactly what we did.
Finally to the bottom of the descent, the trail popped out onto the streets of Grande Cache. I know knew exactly where I was. It was 3 or 4 more kilometers, all of paved road, back to the start/finish area marking the end of the leg.
Completing this leg was special for me. I was looking forward to the shot of energy of coming back through town knowing that the next time I’d be here would be perhaps hours later while accomplishing the dream.
Into the park I ran, off road and onto a grassy field of the park entrance. In front of me was the start/finish arch. Throngs of spectators and relay runners cheered on either side of the chute. I pumped my fist and stopped to have someone grab a picture. Although she never got off a picture, I now realize that the whole moment is stored in my head as a nice memory.
As I came down the chute and crossed under official Death Race start/finish arch, I saw Little Henry right away. He was waving for my attention. I timed-in and then filled up my hydration pack before joining my crew of Big and Little Henry. Several minutes later, Chris came over to say that Issy had just finished. I didn’t know how much time I had gained on her on the power line section, but I knew it wasn’t much since I had waited every now and then until only the last several kilometers.
Either way, I was happy to be back together with her. We made a good team, and we were having fun. So I went with it.
Leg 3 – Old Mine Road, 21K (~13 miles)
The third leg of the Canadian Death Race was known to be the fastest and easiest and one of the most beautiful of the whole race. Although it had stunning scenery at times, I’d say that it was my least favorite for viewing the natural beauty of this harsh land in the north reaches of the Rockies.
With a net elevation loss of 1000 feet, this leg would descend to the lowest section of the entire course, when we would hit the very bottom of the Smoky River valley floor. This crafted a recipe for slippery, not to mention rocky, creek crossings. At the lowest point, there would be knee deep water for 25 meters, and more if it was considered a wet year, which this was.
Relatively short and flat stage compared with the two previous legs, with relative being the key word, this old mine road would have been hard even as standalone. But no matter, I was excited to be on this leg. In my mind I had broken the course down into Leg 1 being the social leg, to just get us going; Leg 2 a hard one but one I knew I’d get through in good standing as long as I power hiked the ups and ran easy the downs and flats; Leg 3 a bridge to gap the two tough Legs, those being 2 and 4; and Leg 4 the segment that defined the race. Leg 5, if you made it that far, was the victory lap.
But Leg 4, that was the Canadian Death Race. The Bike leg in triathlon is to Ironman what Leg 4 was for the Death Race. Get through Leg 4 with even a slimmer of energy remaining and you are rewarded with the Party Leg, that being Leg 5, the final leg. The lure of the finish on 5 will push aside negative thoughts. Get to Leg 5 and you are a Death Racer — Go Death Racer!
Now staring on Leg 3, I was closer to the meat of the race. Which showed that I was making progress. To still feel good at this point with so much of the course covered, that only bode well for a shot at the dream.
Issy and I regrouped and set off on the course. This was the first time in the race when it occurred to us that although we were moving along at a sturdy if not slow pace, we were ahead of cut off times by only a small margin. I couldn’t help but note that this was probably the first race in my entire running career where I had to keep an eye on the race clock.
Through town we weaved before heading onto trails. From there the course headed straight up, surprise-surprise. Thankfully this leg had more down — far more — than up, so it wasn’t long before we were back running again. The downs were gradual but more technical. Fairly dry, it was littered with an explosion of large and small boulders. We made our way slowly, but I was content because we were running most of this. Leg 3 was fun even though it featured the least amount of scenery. Fun because we chatted the entire time; we even hooked up with a few others along the way. Little did I know I’d see some of these same people many hours later, and they would look far different and have only a trace of the energy, or maybe life, they exhibited now.
After dancing between boulders for several kilometers, we finally made our way to a more technical system of trails reminiscent of those back in the northeast. Some were runnable, some were not; some were wet where you had to find a detour while others were dry and smooth. Creek crossings were plenty.
By then the day was really growing hot. It was getting on by 4 pm. I did a double-take at my watch when I saw the real time. It was almost 4 pm! We were at the lowest elevation on the course and we were feeling the heat. Sun rises late here so far north in Canada, and it goes down late, too, so this was really the brunt of the day. At one point I grew so hot that I had a flashback to this year’s Boston Marathon in which temps hit record highs with equal amount of high DNF’s and slow times. I felt overly hot although I was well hydrated and still sweating. But I was getting low on water and was sure I would run out before transition.
As Issy and I scrambled up a wet bank between a conglomerate of trees, I saw on the other side, down 20 feet below us, two guys cooling off in a mountain creek. They were splashing cold water on their faces and hands; one guy even dipped his hat in and placed it back on his head. This was a shot of adrenaline for Issy and I. We joined in for a much needed soaking. We would go on to do this several more times in the upcoming kilometers, as it was the absolute hottest part of the day, the mercury pushing 90F, throwing yet another test at our hydration. In hindsight, splashing cold mountain water on my face and hands and dipping in my wrists in was a pivotal part of my race that had I not been able to do that when I did the end result might have been different.
Not long after the last creek cool off, the trail cut across a meadow of tall grass and wild flowers. It reminded me of the field of poisonous flowers in the movie The Wizard of Oz. For a second I allowed myself to feel sleepy. I realized this was silly and only a matter of me being tired. Snap out, I coached myself. Snap out I did.
After the meadow of wild flowers, we went back into a small forest section and, just before we completed it, came across a section of woods that was unlike any I had seen before.
Amid thick forest to the right and a scant few pines to the left, the path up ahead looked like Mother Nature had laid before us a thick, gooey mess of chocolate mousse. Looking warm and moist, it also appeared smooth at the top and airy, as if a goop of thick molasses flowed over the forest floor as if a pan. The only indication this was a section we should avoid was the foot prints of previous runners. Some foot marking sank, or perhaps disappeared, seemingly very deep, through to the other side. Others started out and then reversed course. And even others, they disappeared! Issy and I joked about how many dead bodies were stuck deep in the muck. Probably a few hundred, we mused. I found a path around by hugging the far right of this Mother of all Bogs. I would learn later from my good friend and Death Race mentor Petra that this was a form of… Quicksand! Yes, quicksand. Have you ever seen quicksand mud? Me neither. Until now! This really was a Death Race.
Finally around the Bog of all Bogs, I ran out of water. Thankfully we were finally on a hard-packed dirt road. This, I knew, meant that transition was at most 10k away.
As I was now vocally fretting over my lack of water, we came upon two guys, one who I had met earlier, Lime Green Shirt Guy, who saved me on the last leg by letting me sip a few times from his pack, and another who we had seen before. It was fun hooking up with these guys. We all got along and seemed to work well together, though while we were together we did a little too much walking, but that was only because the talking was so good. My savior friend Lime Boy knew the course well and said we had 5k left once we crossed the bridge. I smiled when he said this, because right there, within sight, was the bridge and the highway on the other side. I asked again about the course and cutoffs, and my friend assured us that we were on track for meeting all cut offs, but there wasn’t all that much room to slip. Although I could have run this entire stretch and many before, since I was so hot and now completely out of water, I didn’t want to push too hard; but I needed to run at least easy so that I could get to water more quickly. Not long after crossing the highway, I got desperate and asked my pal if he could spare a sip of water. He enthusiastically obliged and from there until the end of the leg he generously donated several more sips. It wasn’t enough to hydrate me, but it was enough to hold me over. I would have to catch up once we got back to transition. Because of his kindness yet again, I was able to run the rest of the way in.
The last several kilometers of Leg 3 were along the side of Highway 40. Although I desired to run on the shoulder of the road for more efficient and faster running, the shoulder was deemed too dangerous and not permitted. So we had to run in the trenches, or really the ditch, where the side of the road fell off to just before the forest started. This is where water runoff from the road would pool in makeshift streams. It was relatively elevation free, though the terrain was more rugged and pitched for uneasy running. Attention was required.
At the end of this section was transition and the next aid station. Being out of water for so long, I was now starting to dream about when I could play “catch up” with my hydration; I desired a great big cold glass of water. As we neared transition, we saw a handful of people who had walked back up the road to cheer on runners. It was low key but fun. Still, my belly ached.
Finally we reached the end, me and Lime Green Guy a little ahead of Issy and the other guy, and now were entering the chute to the timing station. The course here was marked with orange ribbon attached to tall wooden stakes in a way to guide runners toward the timing station. Halfway through the chute, now with a smile on my face and my eyes on the guys at the end of the chute sitting in chairs at the timing station, a wasp shot suddenly from the tall grass and zipped straight at me to the inside of my left calf. OUCH! The fcuker stung me. SHIT! It hurt like a son of a bitch. In fact, it hurt so bad and took me by such surprise that I had trouble slapping it away with my hand. Shit. The wasp was still stuck in my leg, still stinging me. Another whack and it was gone. Left in its wake was a sharp pain that cause me to limp. At least 50 spectators and volunteers saw me grab my calf. One asked, “Calf cramp?” No! “I just got stung by a bee! It hurts like hell.” I limp-ran the rest of the way through the chute to the timing station. After beeping in, I went immediately over to the water table to re-fill my pack and slug down in “catch up” fashion an extra three cups of water. Cold and icy like the ocean, the water burned as it went down my throat. I was parched. Water never tasted so good.
Now with a full hydration pack and water in my belly, I started looking for my crew. There, with a hand raised above the mass of people, mostly the crews of other athletes out on the course, was Little Henry.
To this point in the race, Big Henry and Little Henry had been awesome. I had looked forward to seeing them at each transition. Big Henry always found a way to make me smile. Always. He’s got a great sense of humor, and he likes go use it, and apparently he likes to use it on me. We became friends for life when as he was incessantly ribbing me about how I wasn’t strong enough for this type of race, I grabbed his shoulder, looked him square in the eye, and said in a serious manner, “Do you want me to drag your ass into the woods over there and kick the crap out of you?” Big Henry laughed. So did I.
As good as Big Henry was, Little Henry was even better. He took control right away. As soon as he would see me coming through the timing station, he would make sure I saw him so that I knew where to go. It may sound easy, but with 375 soloists, each with a support crew, and another 750 teams, these transition areas were crowded and littered with gear and blankets. It’s like finding a friend’s spot on a public beach when all you know is to look for a yellow towel.
Here at Transition 3/4, Little Henry got me seated, thrust my bag of gear and nutrition in front of me, and slowly but methodically started asking me questions, the same one’s I had listed out for him on a Crew Instructions sheet I prepared in advance. Henry patiently waited between each question so that I could process them.
Just then a guy tapped me on the shoulder. “Are you the one who got stung by a bee?”
I nodded. Yeah, that was me.
“You need to get ice on that. My wife got stung the other day, and she swelled up.” Before leaving my side he sympathetically asked, “You’re not going on, are you?”
“You’re not a soloist, are you? You can’t go on.”
“Yeah, I’m a soloist.” I have to go on.
“Get ice on that, and please be careful.”
Just then Little Henry pulled together a bag of ice. As I untied and pushed off my shoes, Henry took his awesome duties up another notch. “I have a turkey sub for you,” he said, “Do you want it?” You bet your ass I’ll take a turkey sub! “You want a Coke or Ginger Ale with that?” Before I could answer, Henry offered, “They’re cold.” You bet your ass I’ll take a Ginger Ale!
Trying to hold a baggie of ice to the area of the bee sting, which still stung like crazy, I slipped off my shoes, pulled on a fresh, clean pair of socks, and slipped back into the shoes. Although my feet were battered, they were still good, and I was able to run at my discretion, so I decided to just change out my socks. Henry thought my feet looked the part of rough, so he snapped a picture. Meanwhile, I took the most amazing sips from the miniature green can that held no more than 10 ounces of cold, fizzy soda. Ginger Ale never tasted so good. I decided to hold off on the sub. I didn’t want to waste precious time eating in Transition when I could do that more easily, and in a more time efficient manner, once I got back on course. After all, we were bumping up against time limits. Secure we were, but looming they were.
Finally, Issy and I were re-stocked and ready to go. Both Henry’s and Chris, Issy’s support crew, wished us luck. Off we went, me with a turkey and provolone sub in my hand and a big fat smile on my face for it. I cannot tell you how much I was looking forward to eating real food. PowerBars and Gels and PB&J grew old, by 5 hours. The sub did not disappoint.
Leg 4 – Hamel Assault, 36K (~23 miles)
Having made cut-off by short enough time, you would have thought I’d have been concerned over the next cut-off, halfway up the mountain. If not, you would have thought I’d be gearing up for the 10K (6.2 miles), 4500 foot steady ascent of Mount Hamel in front of me. No. I was wholely focused on one thing: enjoying like I have never before the turkey and provolone sub in my grip. Trying to run and breath and eat at the same time forced me to enjoy this sandwich thoroughly. Eat bite was fresh and wholesome. It was as if I hadn’t eaten a morsel in two days. I ate it with purpose, but I ate it slowly with great enjoyment. I wanted this feeling to last, it was that good. I told Issy more than once how amazing the sub was. I thought it a shame that I wasn’t able to thank Henry right then and there for this treasure. No matter, I ate the sub, every last bit, for I knew it was back to PowerBars and Gels after it.
As the trail tilted up, the terrain got more and more gnarly, with wet, slippery conditions, roots cluttering the way, and deep grooves that were injury-prone — one slip and you slam your leg on a root or rock. During this stretch, I told everybody who would listen, and even those who wouldn’t, about the awesome turkey sub I just inhaled. It was like being in heaven.
Although I was getting closer to heaven with this massive ascent of Hamel, I wasn’t in heaven and didn’t feel as if I were anywhere close. This was hard work.
On the way up, I had a mental cue to know that the 10K ascent of 4500 feet was broken almost exactly into two segments. You would know you’re halfway, people said, when the trail hits an opening before dipping back down briefly. It is here where the trail catches the shoulder of the mountain. From there it goes up again, this time on a rock-cluttered trail, which honestly was better than the wet root-strewn slop of the first half.
We didn’t know it at the time, as things were a bit confusing, but by passing the shoulder of the mountain and checking in at a timing station, we went through one of the final cut-off points that we would have to worry about. We had to get there by 10:15 PM, and we did that with hours to spare. This was all in hindsight, and we didn’t know this station was it — we thought it was at the top of the mountain — but either way, we were closer to the top of Hamel, and now we were already over halfway up. I knew in my heart that the hard part would be over once we hit the summit.
The entire way up, including before and after midway shoulder point, the pitch was too steep to run. We didn’t see a single person, even relay runners, run a step. It was too steep and too long. However, there was something we did see, and it wasn’t pretty. Only ten minutes in, just after I finished the sub — have I told you yet how awesome the turkey-provolone sub was? — we started seeing runners… coming back down the mountain. This was a bad sign. The course doesn’t come down this way; it goes down on the other side of the mountain. These runners were ending their race; they thought it easier to drop out by going back down to the base of the mountain rather than continuing on toward the top. At first this confused me, as to why runners would be coming back down, but once I fought through tiredness to apply reason, the grim looks on these people’s faces told the true story.
Issy and I stayed focused by chatting most of the way. There would be times when conversation would drop, but one of us would break it by either calling out a trail hazard or by telling a story. Since I’m good at both, I did each in equal parts. “Wanna know a random fact?” I said at one point on the climb. “The Canadian National Anthem is my favorite national anthem. I have liked it since I first heard it when I was a kid watching the Olympics. I don’t know why. I just like it.” Little did I know at that time that this would come back to me in a special way, but not until after the race.
To this point in the race, I was fueling well, hydrating well enough that I was able to play “catch up” at the aid stations when I did run out, getting in electrolytes (thank you, Salt Stick), and pacing so easy that I felt okay physically but remarkable mentally. I was still focused and very in the moment. I was able to pay attention to my body and its needs, and I was able to talk at ease. In fact, I may have talked a little too much; but hey, it must’ve been a nice distraction for those around me. Either way, I was plugged in and enjoying the experience.
Hamel, with a summit of just under 7000 feet, provided spectacular views in all directions to the valley’s below. Issy and I finally completed the 4000 foot climb. Upon reaching the forestry tower at the top, we were directed by race officials to continue out and back along the cliff bluffs at Hell’s Canyon. The end of the out and back was where we retrieved a prayer flag as proof that we indeed made the turnaround. Views were stunning. Cliffs dropping before our feet. And a cool, almost cold, breeze giving push. I never felt so alive as I looked far down into the valley trying to spot on the horizon where we had just come from. Making it this far, to me, meant that I made it through the toughest part of the course. From here on until the end, all I had to do was to just keep on keeping on, though little did I know that I would again have to worry about cutoff time, this one the 24 hour snap at the finish line.
After handing over our prayer flags, race officials permitted us to time-in. I had one of the volunteers take a picture of Issy and I. The views were too good to not grab a photo. After grabbing the keepsake we began the descent of Hamel.
Strewn with boulders and deep ruts, the descent, while not technical, was dangerous; any falls would be on unforgiving ground. Course description of this leg on the race website states: “Read the waiver section about being in remote areas and not being rescued in time to prevent serious injury or death.” Issy and I were about to find out that this line is highlighted for good reason.
A half hour later, just as Issy and I were in the beginning of the descent, darkness settled, and it did quickly, as if a switch had been flipped. No longer able to make out trail hazards, we stopped, took out our headlamps, and turned them on. It was 10:30 PM. And the sun had just set. Here on top of Hamel, located 8 hours driving distance northwest of Calgary and 4 hours north of Jasper, the day thankfully goes to sleep late. This gave us an extra 2 hours of day light. Unfortunately, we were still up high on Hamel, and we had a very long way to go. With only headlamps lighting the way, the going would get even more slow.
A minute later, it was completely dark. Issy was having a hard time moving faster than a normal walking pace. She wasn’t able to see well with her headlamp, as the light was screwing with her eyes, and although she never said as much, I think she was slipping into a dark place. The voice coming back at me, while there, was weaker, even hoarse, and not resembling the voice of even an hour earlier. She was, I guessed, bonking. This section was even slower because of it. No matter, I was content that we were close enough to making all of the cutoffs, and I didn’t want to leave her here on the mountain, so I stayed put and used the time to tell stories and make jokes about bear encounters.
At one point, we were moving along at a better clip. I’d take a few running steps here and there, with the hope of pulling Issy along a little more quickly. And she’d be right there. We were still chatting, me more than her, but still having a good time. Then suddenly the trail before me disappeared. I stopped cold in my tracks. The trail was gone. This meant one thing: while headlamps lit the way, it also created shadows, especially on the down sections, and you learned that when the course went dark, that was where the trail suddenly dropped. Stopped at the tip of the dark section before me, I shined my headlamp straight down to see the trail drop 25 feet. “Be careful,” I said to Issy as I had countless times before, “and follow my path down. The trail drops here. Try to grab trees on the side to steady yourself down.” Using both hands to grab trail-side trees, we eased down the dangerous drop going backwards. I waited for Issy before we both moved on again together.
Not long after, still making our way down the mountain over toward the Ambler Loop section, my headlamp started running low. I used the opportunity to stop, move a few PowerBars and Gels from the back of my pack to the easily-accessible pockets up front, and changed the batteries. As batteries wear, you get used to the dimming light, but you don’t realize just how bad it gets until you switch out for new ones. Poof, the 20 foot world in front of me was alight again! I should have done that an hour earlier.
As time dragged on, racers, both soloist and relay runners, drew to each other. By the time we were halfway to the Ambler Loop Aid Station, I had a train of 4 others, including Issy, behind me. To keep bears away, I made sure to keep chatting. I figured that as long as we made noise, the grizzly and black bears would hear us long before we them, and they would scamper away. Although I heard a few loud noises on this very dark section, none seemed too close to home. That would come later, on the next leg.
Dropping elevation, even as night was now in full effect, made me pull off a set of arm warmers I had put on. It was getting hot again. As I was trying to stuff the arm warmers in the tiny pockets of my Tri-top, which I had underneath a short sleeved tech shirt so that I could stash PowerBar and Gel wrappers and other things, my headlamp shone off trail to my left. The illumination of my light disappeared. Suddenly I lost balance. It was then when I realize that the terrain dropped steeply only a foot off the side of the trail. After processing this through my weary brain, I was able to steady my feet again, but not without stopping. “Sorry,” I said to the four others behind me. “Make sure you have good footing. It drops steeply off to the left side.” This happened several more times before we got to the next aid station.
And then it happened again. I ran out of water. This time, everybody near me was in a similar situation, though they still had some water remaining. I decided not to beg for water because of how well I had been to this point. I would beg, I decided, if I needed. But I didn’t need. Not at least yet.
A half hour later, still several kilometers from aid, we came upon a creek that cut across the trail. A girl behind me who was familiar with the course and area offered help for my dehydration. “If you still need water, this here,” she said pointing to the freshly flowing water, “is probably good. I would trust it.” With that vote of confidence, I figured that it couldn’t hurt to at least fill up my water bottles with the mountain water. I wouldn’t touch it unless I got really desperate. This was, in my mind, a safety measure.
The trail here got wet again. We hopped around puddles and at times had to find news path around. It’s not easy splashing through deep, rutted puddles in complete darkness, as you don’t know what’s in the water and where the hidden craters appear. We had to be careful carving new paths too because, in the darkness, it was often hard to see if one step too many off trail would be a drop down of a few hundred feet. Although this was again slow going, we finally got to a point where I saw light way ahead up in the distance. A few paces farther up trail, we heard voices. Finally, we made it to Ambler Loop Aid Station.
Ambler Loop Aid Station was special. I had been looking forward to this for the last several hours, because at Ambler we, as soloists, got to access a bag that we had dropped off pre-race. In my bag I put pretzels, more fuel, a can of Coke, and a Snickers bar and banana. What I craved most was the Coke and Snickers. And damn, they did not disappoint! Snickers? Best ever candy bar. And I’m not even a candy bar fan. Coke? Heaven infused with fizz! Make a commercial out of me. I was fueled and pumped.
From Ambler Loop, the course went 5K out and back on a slim loop. To make sure runners covered the complete course, we were required to time-in halfway through the loop. The loop would return to the same location, back at Ambler Loop and the aid station, which was good, because I had consumed so much water in catching up from going into dehydration that I had to re-fill my pack again with water, and it was only a 5K loop!
This section was also when I got confirmation on Issy’s state. I think she was bonking because this was perhaps the most runnable section of the entire course so far, and she wasn’t able to take more than a handful of running steps. I didn’t force it. So we mostly power hiked. It was slow going. We chatted the time away and hooked up with another guy to help.
Through Ambler Loop the second time, we were now making another descent, this one the final off the mountain. The descent was, thankfully, a gravel utility road that proved smooth enough, with few ruts, to be entirely runnable. It was here where we lost a lot of time, as Issy couldn’t run. It was also here when reality set in. We would have to run consistently at some point in order to make the 24 hour race cut-off. I knew we would complete Leg 4 in time — I wasn’t worried about that. Bit I was not so sure on the 24 hour cut off at the finish line. I worried aloud in hopes of getting Issy to run more. But she was too hurting too much to doing anything about it. No worries, we instead hiked off the mountain. It was fun, as we kept the chatter going the rest of the rest of the way down. Others would come by, and we’d chat with them too. By and large, most people we met were from Edmonton, the nearest city, about a five hour drive. But many were from all around the world.
This was also when I decided to check if I had cell service on my phone. As I powered up my phone, bing, bing, bing, bing… text message after text message came through. One from Heather, showing confidence in me. One from Little Henry. And several from my pal John, who was in Amsterdam, of all places, trying to get me a message before he jumped a plane. John told me to “Be the ox!” He got me to laugh with, “You smell like a goat!” I messaged back: “I. AM. OX!” I also told him that I was coming down from the last mountain but still had a long way to go. “Still feeling good. Feel good about a finish!” That was my way of saying that I was in control and having fun. This exchange with my Dawg, and the note from Heather and friends, really lifted me.
The gravel access road was long, for the night was now working on morning, but we finally got down, walking far more than running, and to the transition at the end of the leg.
Coming into transition was somewhat surreal. Here were the first real lights, coming from street lights and flood lamps, we’d seen since day light disappeared a long 6 hours earlier. We had been so far removed from civilization, and we were so deeply fatigued, that just seeing other people and light, even if artificial, raised our spirits. But something about it was strange. And I still cannot put a finger on it.
As we entered the finish chute to the Leg, Little Henry, my support crew, caught my attention. I was wondering if I would see Big Henry, too, though part of me figured that it would have been too long a day and night and early morning for him. But by now, I was developing a relationship with him, and I was now looking for his humor to give me another shot of adrenaline. Much to my chagrin, there would be no shot of energy. Quite the contrary. When I got there, I saw Henry — not Big Henry, not Little Henry, but Henry Henry — it was like a sledgehammer slamming into my chest. I know how hard Henry trained for this event, and I know how much he wanted it, and even though I was now living proof for how hard the Death Race was and how tough and aggressive the cut-offs were, I felt such sadness that I started choking up. It really is a Death Race.
After timing-in, I filled up my hydration pack, downed three Dixie Cups filled with Gatorade, and then made my way through the crowd. High above a full moon was staring down, wondering what the commotion was. Still thinking of Henry, my left eye watered. Just then both Henry’s ushered me to the crew area, where they had set out chairs and a blanket and my bag. Little Henry got right to work. “Did you re-fill your pack with water?” he asked. I nodded, yes. “Do you want to change socks or shoes?” As soon as I said that I wanted to change my socks, he got to helping me get off my right shoe — that was still caked with half-dried half-still wet mud — while I did my left. Meanwhile, Henry jumped in with his own help. Henry was good too because he knew exactly what it was that I might need to do or hear.
Just then Chris, Issy’s support crew and boyfriend, chimed up. “You guys are close to cut-off. I thought you’d be in by now. You might have to move faster if you want to finish.”
Chris was right. We were moving too slowly. At this rate, making the 24-hour cut-off would be close. We had to move.
Chris stressed again, this time shaking his head while doing so, “You have to move faster. I don’t know if you’re going to make it. It’s going to be close.”
Chris, again, was right. We might not finish in time. Fear set in.
Leg 5 – The River Crossing, 24K (~14 miles)
The fifth and final leg of the Canadian Death Race starts with a gnarly, steep climb and continues through wet, deep bogs, featuring a roller coaster up and down of mostly unrunnable trails.
Before I could tackle the first climb, which was roughly 500 feet, I had my first issue of the leg. My left shoe was too tight. While rushing to get through transition as quickly as possible, I changed socks and tied too quickly my shoes. The left needed adjusting. Still worried about time but knowing I could run and move along more quickly than Issy, I told her to continue on. “I’ll catch up,” I said. She was good with it, and up she started climbing, the gnarl kicking in right away with rutted, grooved wet trail on uneasy footing.
Not long after, I caught up and slid into the lead. Many parts of this trail was hand over hand, foot up, heave yourself up, and go. And then do it again. I knew it was roughly 8K, or 5 miles, to the boat crossing at Smoky River. But at this pace, it would take a long time. We were so slow that I now got really worried about cut-off.
Four kilometers up the trail, there were finally more runnable sections, only I was mostly alone in my efforts. I asked Issy if she could run at least a few short sections, and she did. But it didn’t last long. The trail was too gnarly, and she was still in a dark place and had trouble seeing. At one point I noted just how far her voice sounded shot, so much more than it did hours earlier when I noticed the same thing. She wasn’t talking, so I decided that the best thing I could do was to not talk to her — so that she didn’t have to waste needless energy replying — but instead talk to her. I called out trail side hazards. “Careful here… big drop.” “Try to run.” “Watch your footing.” Meanwhile, another girl filtered behind Issy. I would gain some distance on them, but always making sure to stay in sight, and stop for them to catch up when I got too far ahead. I figured this was best to help the train move most efficiently, since I was up there posing as a rabbit, a pace I imagined she would want to hold. Because I knew she knew it would get lonely, especially in this darkness, not to mention the noise of bears breaking branches and moving around in the distance. On this stretch I heard so many movements in the darkness that it got scary. I decided to keep it too myself. To warn the others might mean a slower pace. I wanted to finish. Before cut-off. It’s what I came out here to do. And now I was getting selfish about it.
After what felt like 5 hours (it was only 2:30), we finally came closer to the boat crossing and the River Emergency Station. Although I could not see the boat, the river, or the aid station, I could hear the boat and hear the rushing water of the angry river. Just then a loud noise thumped on the forest floor to my immediate right. Shit! A bear. A second later I could see the shadow of the bear in the dark morning. Shit-shit. Thankfully, the trail darted left, away from where the bear was, and just around the bend was a tiny hut, with a light illuminating outside of it and the emergency aid station. The bear probably smelled sugary drinks and treats of the station. Either way, aid came at a good time, as I had just sipped my last drop of water.
As I refilled my pack with water, I noted that I had gained so much time on Issy and the other girl that I was done and out of there before they arrived. I lingered a second longer, and that’s when Issy and the other girl came through the thicket of forest where the bear was. “Issy,” I shouted as she came down a short decline to the aid station, “I’m going ahead. I’ll wait up for you at the boat.”
The boat crossing was something I had been looking forward to experiencing. The crossing of the bloated Smoky River was as much a part of the race as was Slugest, the power lines, and the ascent of Hamel Mountain. At race packet pickup, the day before the race starts, each soloist is given a Death Race Coin. The coin must be carried from start, through each leg, to this point by the river. It is here, on the edge of this ragging river, where we must hand over the coin to the Grim Reaper — a character cloaked in black with a scream mask, like a grim reaper — for passage across the river. No coin. No ride. Game over. Try again next year.
My coin was tucked deep in my pack. I was all set. I dug out the coin and placed it carefully into the outstretched palm of the Reaper. After paying passage, I was permitted to time-in at the timing station. Meanwhile, the boat was on the other side of the river motoring back my way. During the wait, Issy and the other girl found their way to where I was. I watched as they ceremoniously paid the Reaper. It was a little silly, but it was also way cool.
As the motor boat swung around in the river to position itself for boarding, I asked Issy how she was doing. Next, I used this non-running or hiking downtime as an opportunity to prepare her for the telling of my newly crafted plan on getting us, or at least me, to the finish line in under the 24-hour cut-off window. “I have two things I want to tell you once we’re on the boat,” I said as I was ushered forward by a volunteer. It was now my time to get on the boat.
The boat swayed and bobbed in the fast-moving river. I eyed the boat, as if to time the waves, and stepped down onto the bow before swinging the other leg on. Once on, I climbed down into the cabin with the assistance of the driver. The boat rocking side to side, I sat behind the driver while Issy and two others came on board. Wasting no time at all, the driver told us to hold on and then, with a quick look back to make sure we were secure, reversed the boat and then gunned it across the river.
The ride took all of 30 seconds, which was long enough to get a glimpse of Sulpher Mountain standing stately before us, and to tell Issy of my plan.
“I am really afraid of not making cut-off,” I said with pronounced seriousness. “If the terrain ahead is what we just came through (the 8K from Leg 5 start to the boat crossing), we will not make it. Two things I want you to know: when we get to the other side (of the boat crossing), I am going to run. I can finish this. I know I can get in under 24 hours. I feel good; I can run. I want you to do your best to run too. I want you to hold my shoulder. I will get ahead of you. But if I see your headlamp behind me, I will wait up. But I am running. I don’t care how fast we run. But I want you to run. Just hold my shoulder or make sure you can see my headlamp. I believe in you. I know you can run.”
Otherwise we might not make it.
As bad as I felt saying this, trying to force Issy to run, I wanted to finish, and I wanted to do it with her. After working so well as a team together for over 20 straight hours, and after having so much fun on such epic terrain with such spectacular views, I wanted to finish this with her. It was the right thing to do. But I also didn’t come all this way, spend all this money, to not finish when I knew I could. Selfishly, I wanted to run. After Issy hit a dark spot until this point, I wouldn’t allow myself. But now, selfishly, I granted myself permission.
In short time, the boat pulled close to shore on the other side. There was a person there to help us jump down onto rocks that were still in the water. There was no other way. Issy and I timed-in to the timing station and then set out, Issy first, me second. Much to my surprise, Issy was running, and we were going up a long hill, one I knew that would continue on for nearly a 1000 feet. She was running, and I was content sitting behind her. A few hundred feet up, the trail again turned unrunnable. As we power hiked, with me now taking the lead, as I have longer legs and can power hike a bit faster, I told her again that I was not going to slow down. “I will run when it becomes runnable. Do your best to hold my shoulder.”
As the trail eased back to more runnable, I started running. It wasn’t long before I gapped Issy. Curious, and wanting to see if Issy was running, giving it her all, I stopped. And there she was, not far back. I let her gain a few more paces before pulling away. “You’re doing awesome,” I offered. “At this rate, we will finish. Just stay focused.”
Stay focused Issy did. She held close enough to my headlamp that although I waited up often, she was running and she was getting stronger. During this time we came upon a girl who we had been working with hours earlier. She joined in. “Follow us,” I told her. “Try to hold my shoulder. We got it if we can keep this up.” Buoyed by the finish and not making cutoff, we started hauling with strength and speed. And a lot of conviction! We were doing this. We were really doing this.
In our favor was that not only was the trail becoming more runnable, darkness was starting to lift, and the terrain wasn’t as jerky up and down but rather more flat and not too technical.
We ran. And we ran fast. I couldn’t help but note that it was the fastest running we did since the race started.
A half hour later, not only were we still running, and our new friend still with us, but we were passing other runners, both soloists and relay runners, and we were moving even more quickly. Every now and then I still had to wait up, but they were both there, including Issy. I cannot tell you how happy this made me. I was proud that Issy pulled through, proud that she tried to run and tried again when it didn’t last, because I know the dark place she had been in, and I know it wasn’t easy. To play witness to Issy digging so deep and finding within something, anything, to power forward was special.
As we ran, we came upon other racers once every 10 minutes. We would share hellos, talk about how hard this was, and wonder aloud if we would make cutoff. During this time, the girl we were running with, Kyla, started taking glimpses off to the side down into the valley. “I think Grande Cache is over there,” Kyla said as she pointed off the side of the mountain to an apparent clearing. This finding excited all of us. At the time, Issy was about a minute back but still moving quickly. Kyla and I agreed it would be nice if we at least saw a sign telling us how much father we had to go so that we’d have an idea where we were. Our GPS watches had run out of charge long ago. We were in the dark.
After the race, Kyla would later contact me to thank me for setting such a solid pace and for calling out trail hazards and in general providing conversation, even if with myself, as distraction. It was a nice note; it made my day! Thank you, Kyla. We made a great team.
Just then our prayers were answered. Kyla blurted out, “120!” On the side of the trail was a sign that read, “120K” We had 5K left to go. We both looked at our watches. “We got it! We did it. We’re going to make cutoff. We can walk the rest of the way in if we have to and still make it!” Kyla and I exchanged a steady high-five as we ran. It was a pretty sweet moment. The dream would be realized. I was now sure of it! Issy was behind us by a little ways, and I knew she would make it too. This was a very special moment for me, realizing the dream was all coming true. Even now, weeks after this moment, as I sit here typing this report, I feel the same emotions bubbling up. Pride. Proud. Persistence. Those words come to mind.
As the trail meandered through the forest, we came upon another runner who informed me of what was ahead on the trail and what we should look for. After learning just how little we had left, I stopped to wait for Issy a final time. When she came to my side, I held up a hand in high-five gesture. “We did it!” Issy slapped my hand. “We did it!” I explained the remaining parts of the course as we continued running.
The course from there opened up onto a hard-packed dirt utility road used for vehicular traffic. We ran until the road tilted up, exactly as my friend had informed me minutes earlier. We ran as far up the grade as we could and then efficiently transitioned to power hiking. Up and up this road went, steep and long, for maybe .75 miles, before it flattened out. On the way up, we came again upon Kyla and another soloist. At this point we had at most a kilometer to go. We could see town, this time not from high up on a mountain looking down at it as a play thing, but this time for real… we were on the edges of it. Town proper was just down the road. The four of us did high-fives again. We did it.
Town was only a left turn away, left again on main street, and then right into the finish. While the dirt road on which we walked was runnable, we all settled for a walk. We could have run. But we did not. Instead, we formed a communal procession, as if to share in exactly what we were about to accomplish, as if to prolong the experience, as if to just be with each other, for each of us had just survived an epic battle of mountain, demon, gnarly terrain, even bear.
What was striking to me was that we all knew that we were purposely slowing it down, perhaps to make this last a little longer. The more I think about it, the more I realize that this was our way of trying to understand just what we had accomplished. We used that time to put it in perspective, the goal set so many months earlier and eyed for each and every day since. And here we were, the dream about to be realized, the goal being accomplished as we walked and talked. Time no longer mattered. We were going to finish. We did it.
As we made our way to the main street, we jumped back on a paved road for the first time since it was previously light, a long 13 hours earlier. As soon as we went left on main, we could see spectators cheering us on, congratulating us, kids on the side of the road giving us thumbs up. It was then when I realize just how crazy this whole thing was. 125K? That’s 78 stupid miles! Over three major mountains? With 17,000 feet of climbing? Had I really been moving forward, both running and hiking, for over 23 hours? I had. I felt it in my mind and body. But it was a dream.
On the road with only a down hill remaining before the right hand turn into the park for the finish line, the four of us decided to separate once and for all so that we each could have our own finish line. We let Kyla go first. Then the other guy. And then Issy and I, us together.
Down the hill, right into the park, and there it was — the finish line! It was now full morning light, and people were crowded around the chute to the finish line arch. Issy and I smiled and cheered and pumped our fists. As we filtered into the chute, running comfortably, we first saw off to the left Chris, Issy’s boyfriend and support crew, and then we saw Henry and Little Henry off to the right. I pumped a fist in their direction and continued on to the finish.
We did it. We ran for over 23 hours. Much of it hiking, but we did it. The dream, and the goal, accomplished!
Once I went under the finish arch and across the line, a race official had me time-in at the last and final timing station. This would be the final beep-beep I would hear. The morning was just getting started. High above were puffy clouds floating in a crisp blue mountain sky. I noticed. Because I was looking up. Straight up. Still stuck in a world of complete awe over what this body had just done. I could tell then and there that this experience was transforming. It had to be. It was that big. The goal that hard. The challenge that steep. And I did it, and I did it feeling as good as you could. Perhaps the biggest gift was feeling so good that, like a photographic memory, I have it all preserved in my head as memories. The detail in this report is testament. Those precious experiences were not clouded by dark times of feeling ill with no energy, but rather they were full and alive and now they were stored in a place that propped me up, high. Really high. That’s when it occurred to me what my next big ultra marathon over towering mountains would be. It was clear, because it occupied my thoughts: fatherhood. This time, the thought was not angst or nervousness if I could measure up. No, not at all. I knew that if I could conquer the deepest wooded sections and remote mountains high in the northern Canadian Rockies, then Fatherhood would be a slam dunk. I completed the Canadian Death Race. I can do anything. Including that next ultra. Perseverance and strength will ensure that I am the best father I can be. I now know that. To that I say, Bring It!
One-hundred twenty five kilometers of mountainous terrain now completed within the 24-hour cutoff window of the race, I was finally able to stop. And sit.
My support crew of Henry and Little Henry came immediately to my side and after congratulation hugs and high-fives they whisked me over to the side of the finish line chute where they had camp set up with chairs, a blanket, and my gear bag. Chris was there, too.
As I sat in a lawn chair trying to take off my shoes and socks, it hit me that it was actually a pretty chilly morning. The sun was barely up and not yet warming the day. Dew covered the grass. And my sweat was starting to freeze on my damp skin. Spectators around me wore jackets and sweatshirts and stood with their arms folded tightly or their hands stuffed in pockets.
Just then Chris handed me a tall Molson Canadian. The beer was fitting and very welcome. I cracked it open by pulling on the tab and held it up for a toast with Issy. After congratulating her, I thanked Chris for his support over the last 24 hours, and then I thanked the Henry’s. They knew I meant it. And I did.
Although the beer tasted crisp and clean and far better than PowerBars or Gels or even bananas — anything that wouldn’t convert to sugar right away — it made me cold within 5 minutes. Since both Henry’s had been out for duration, Henry himself doing the honors after having run for 12 hours, I didn’t want to keep them any longer, and I could tell they could use some warmth, so I drained the remainder of my beer and wrapped up quickly. We all vowed to meet back at this same spot in 6 hours for another event, the Kids Death Race.
The Kids Death Race was a 5K race that had a little bit of everything. Not only was it fun to watch young children get so into the event, some performing in front of their mother’s or father’s who had just completed the big event, the full Death Race, but it was also a great gathering of Death Race participants. Since the race ended at 8 AM, most people stayed in the area for the day, and most of those came out to watch the Kids race.
Fifteen minutes before the official start, the race director got things started with introductions and an announcement of rules before handing it over to a talented local singer for a rendition of the Canadian National Anthem.
Our home and native land!
True patriot love in all thy sons command…”
That’s when it hit me. Emotions flowed. It wasn’t the lyrics. It wasn’t the message. It wasn’t even the music or the flowery delivery of the words. Feelings acute, no longer able to stay inside, my eyes teared as the singer switched from English to French.
“Car ton bras sait porter l’épée,
Il sait porter la croix!
Ton histoire est une épopée
Des plus brillants exploits…”
It was then that I let go of the focus I so fought to hold for the last 24 hours. It was then when I realized that the goal was achieved, that I not only did it but I also helped another person achieve theirs. It was then when I realized that it was not a season’s worth of work that reaped this sow but rather the body of work over many, many years. I had just achieved something my younger self would never have even considered as something achievable. I am in awe of what I just did, as if it were someone else, yet the prize is that I was so present, so in the moment, that it all happened not quickly, not slowly, but in real time. Even weeks later, I still do not have the proper words to describe this feeling. But there, listening to the most beautiful rendition of the Canadian National Anthem, with the singer switching back and forth from English to French, I cried tears of joy behind my sun glasses.
But that wasn’t only it. This I now saw clearly. Tears were there because it was obvious to me that what I achieved was far more than just me powering forward for hours over tall mountains. Tears were there, I knew, because this was a test for myself. I had done this very thing, played this exact game, when I was a kid. Faced with a daunting challenge, my younger self would come up with arbitrary tests usually having nothing to do with the real challenge. Reason in my head saw to it that if I could pass the arbitrary — and unrelated — test, I would be okay for the real challenge still to come.
Now here I was, as an adult, so many years later, reverting back to my senseless ways. But this time it was all too clear. The theme was there, right from the beginning. If I could get through the Death Race (the test), or so the argument went in my head, I could get through real ultra marathon ahead of me. Fatherhood. That’s what this was really about. My fears of being a father. Could I do it? Could I be the father I wanted to be?
Tears fell because I finally had my answer.
That’s what this was about, Charlie Brown.
“God keep our land glorious and free!
O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
Standing there on a grassy hill before the official Death Race stage and finish line arch in the northern reaches of the Canadian Rocky Mountains in the tiny town of Grande Cache, tears rolled down my cheeks as I listened to the Canadian National Anthem. I knew full well that I had just re-wrote my own personal history. When ever again I hear the Canadian National Anthem, I will no longer first think of it being my favorite anthem; instead, I will first think of the challenge imposed by self and race that was the Canadian Death Race. And then I will say, “What a lovely anthem.” Because I now know what it represents to me, not just a lovely anthem.
“O Canada, we stand on guard for thee.”
Thank you, Canada. For your mountain. For your people. For your guidance and clarity.