Friday, August 5, 2011

Canadian Death Race

Canadian Death Race
Grande Cache, Alberta, Canada

Cold at starting line!

The starting line

My wonderful crew, Sarah. She said it was a wild and crazy day and prefers the trail races in Kansas with less than 100 people to this crazy event!

Who really wants to report and share the story on a DNF (did not finish)? It’s not exactly as fun and interesting to read as a successful and exciting finish. I tell the story here of my experience with the Canadian Death Race probably mostly as a journal for myself of the experience…to see what I can learn from it. And, for record keeping, as I inevitably look back and perhaps one day try a rematch.

I hadn’t ever even heard of this race until this February when I was looking for races to run while on our two week vacation up north to Montana. Once I found it I entered into the lottery as the solo entrant slots were already filled. This was mid-February. The website said the results of the lottery would be announced ‘soon’. A month went by and then two and then three and I was really getting anxious and desperate to know whether I had got in or not so we could make the rest of our vacation plans and reservations, etc. Finally on May 21st I received the email that I was accepted. I was both relieved and scared.

From what I could gather online, the Canadian Death Race was a 125K trail race with three mountain summits with a 24 hour cutoff. I learned that there was only 17,000 feet of elevation gain/loss over the course and that the highest mountain was just under 7,000 feet. How hard could it be!?! While I know that I have never had any running success in the mountains always seeming to suffering from altitude sickness, etc., I figured with it “only” being 77 miles and with 24 hours cut off and with it only being 7K feet high at the highest elevation that surely I’d be fine.

Grande Cache, Alberta is stunningly beautiful. The town reminds me a lot of Leadville, Colorado with mountains all around. Since there were no hotels left within hours of Grande Cache for the Death Race weekend we camped (probably what we would’ve done anyway though) for free in Tent City with hundreds of others. Tent City is a large open field within walking distance from the race headquarters and the start/finish. Friday night’s pasta meal was really good and we talked to lots of first time attempters, the majority of them were from Alberta. But a lot of them had attended the training camp. At the pre-race meeting they said that the finish rate each year averages to about 33%. Crap, I thought, that reminds me of Leadville.

Race morning was cold, like every morning during our time in Canada, even though it starts getting light well before 5 am. It was probably in the upper 30s. I had my oatmeal and coffee and was way more confident than I guess I should have been and wrote down projected aid station finish times for Sarah who was crewing for me through the whole race.

Leg 1: Start through the first 19K (11.8 miles)

The first mile at the most is just getting out of town, just like Leadville, into the “bush”. I found it funny that people kept calling it the bush instead of the trail but they were right it was the “bush”. I found a previously successful finisher who seemed to be friendly and talkative and tried to hang with him. Once we got into the bush I lost him in the crowds and actually never saw him again. The terrain in the first leg is advertised as the second easiest terrain which is true, but it was still not easy to get a running rhythm. It was all mud, all wet, and not really a trail at all but just bushwhacked bog/swamp/brush terrain around the face of a mountain. There were some ups and downs but no big deal in this section. I tried to be conservative and smart and finished right on my target pace with 11 minute miles. It was fun and there were no problems at all. I came through the check-in zone and met Sarah and quickly got re-geared up for Leg 2 with a dry shirt, and my supplies for two mountain summits (rain jacket, gloves, etc).

Leg 2: 27K (16.7 miles) Two Mountain Summits

Leg 2 is the second longest and second hardest (debatable depending on fresh legs), but for sure the most technical section. It is 27K (16.7 miles) and this section alone has over 5,000 feet of elevation change. The course takes you up Flood Mountain first on double track trails which are fairly mild. I felt fine going up, walking/power-hiking the inclines and running anywhere I found relatively flat sections. When you can tell you are getting closer to the top, the course suddenly veers off the more reasonable trail and re-enters bushwhack territory and just literally, without any exaggeration, goes straight up to the top. This last section was about a mile of climbing straight up, holding onto trees and bushes to make it to the top. Finally when I got there and checked in; I then started my descent. One mountain down two to go. I was feeling great.

The descent starts down the same kind of double track trail as we were originally coming up on, but then after a few minutes takes a sudden turn down. This section is called the “Slugfest” and had lots of signs about not whining. You know the three climbs in the Bluff Loop at Rockin’ K that are really kind of hard but are pretty short? Well, this went down those for, I’d guess, about a mile and a half. A lot of it was called the “Bum Slide” section where the only safe option was literally to slide down on your butt through the dirt or worse yet mud. There really was no other option. At the bottom you go through the worse prolonged swamp section I had ever seen. Every step was a battle to keep your shoes on and make forward progress. I passed one poor guy who lost his shoe and I don’t know if he ever found it? Finally I came through the end of it and then the trail made me head back up. Straight up. No switchbacks, no real trail, just bushwhacked straight up the mountain several kilometers. This was ruthless and intimidating because it was hard, yes, and so slow. You just wonder if you’ll ever make it in time at this pace. Finally you reach a more real dirt mountain road and you continue the steep incline up Grande Mountain. Not too far from the top is the first emergency aid station. I refilled with water and grabbed some supplies. The hardest thing was just to keep moving fast enough for the mosquitoes not to bother you. If ever your pace slowed too much, you could hear the swarm of mosquitoes narrowing in on you. Thankfully the sun went behind the clouds at this point and it cooled off. But the closer I got to the summit, the colder it got and the more the wind blew, so on went the wind breaker and gloves and hat.

I checked in at the top and then started the descent. Two summits down only one to go. I was still feeling surprisingly well. Everyone who had done it before was really dreading the next downhill section called the Power Lines. I love downhill running so I was excited to let gravity do its thing and get to the end of Leg 2. While I still preferred it to climbing, this was absolutely relentless. Way, way steeper and more treacherous than the Power Line section at Leadville but I guess kind of the same idea. I think it was about 5K+ of descent, so steep at times you have to revert to the bum slide. This faced the sunny side of the mountain so everything was dry and loose. I ran hard yet still tried to be smart. I just kept going and going and going, thinking that it would never end. Finally, I saw Grande Cache getting closer and closer and I knew I was almost there. From the bottom of the Power Line section, you have probably a mile and a half, uphill, of course, into Grande Cache to the start/finish area which doubles as the end of Leg 2. Now after what I had just experienced, I was getting overwhelmed a bit, but still felt fine. I told Sarah that my running legs were fine but I was just getting psyched out by all the technical terrain. I was also starting to feel nauseous even after several ginger chews and continued good hydration. I needed a really good Leg 3 both for the mental confidence and for to make the strict cutoff of 7:00 pm to start Leg 4. I left Leg 2, cumulative mileage of 28.5, and time of 7 hours and 52 minutes (3:52 pm).

Leg 3: 19K (11.8 miles)

Leg 3 is definitely the easiest terrain and tied for the second shortest leg at 11.8 miles. After climbing a bunch of rock scrambles and literally running along-side the city dump (good grief, Death Race!), it finally started this wonderfully comfortable descent of around 1,000 feet running along this beautiful river. I flew through this whole section, getting all of my confidence back and excitement that I was going to finish. You finally come to the end of the descent and cross the highway and then have a mile and half climb up to the aid station. The cutoff there is 7pm and I left at 6:50 pm. I hate racing against cutoffs like that but I was definitely still in the middle of the pack.

Leg 4: The Beginning of the End

I had run 40.3 miles and was really feeling great (relatively speaking) and confident about everything but this next section which was a 3,500 foot climb up Mt. Hamel over 6 miles. I had until 10:00 pm (later I found out I mis-remembered and it was actually 10:15) to reach the almost top. Of course when I left the aid station it started to rain and the next section (about 6K or so) is called the Hamel Assault. It is just ruthless. It is a double-track “trail” of mud and rocks that is just so steep, with no relenting. This is where I began to lose it. I don’t really know why or how it happened. My pace slowed considerably, which is normal, but I realized I was starting to get passed by everyone and there was nothing I could do about it. My stomach was upset and my head was spinning. I tried to keep drinking and taking electrolytes. I had to sit down a couple times to get my heart rate down. After what seemed like forever, I finally came out of the trees and onto a coal-mining road up the rest of the mountain. By this time it was raining steadily and it was much colder and because of my pace, I was considerably colder. I had my rain jacket, gloves and hat on. I continued to climb and as I did the nausea continued to worsen.

Eventually I vomited on the side of the road with a half-dozen other runners watching, this brought me to my knees as I continued to dry-heave. I got back up very weak and very unstable and continued trying to walk up road as it curved around the mountain towards the summit. I stopped to dry-heave several more times. I have experienced this downward spiral before at Leadville and honestly don’t know exactly what to do about it in the future and how to prepare, train, and respond to it in the future. As the course sweepers (on 4-wheelers) caught up with me barely moving, they said I only had 2k to the check-in and it was 9:30pm and I was determined to keep going. I knew I still had running legs when the terrain would straighten out. The further up I went, the sicker and weaker and wetter and colder I got. I was shaking and wobbling quite a bit. Someone had given me a thermal blanket (one of those reflective space blankets) just in case as they passed me while I was puking. This eventually came in really handy. I got it out and wrapped up my legs in it as I continued going up. I realized that one of the items that I need to add to my running arsenal is a pair of rain-proof leggings.

I wasn’t the last one out there but the course sweeps were checking in on me regularly and I just wasn’t making enough progress. I had lost all of my hydration and energy and everything really and the more I shook the more I worried about hypothermia. I kept thinking that even if I did make the cutoff which was now very doubtful, I doubted I was in any condition to continue on and make any further cutoffs especially as darkness was going to set in around 11pm and the cold rain continued.

Eventually I gave up, I guess you could say, but it didn’t really feel like it as I was hardly moving at all and was in really bad shape. Humiliated, but relieved, they took me in the 4-wheeler to a coal mining truck (only coal mining vehicles are allowed on these roads, so they partner with The Death Race) with four other drop-outers and we started downhill. In just this short section I had to have the driver stop twice to throw up again. We stopped at the coal mine office headquarters, which served as a sort of evacuation exchange zone. The driver went up for more ‘bodies’ and another driver took us the long trip down the coal mining road to the highway at the bottom where a death race official shuttled us into town and to my tent where I met up with Sarah who was sleeping. It rained all night long as I slept until just after the 8am cutoff.

The Aftermath

Anyone who has DNF’d at a big race like this knows the feeling and the second guessing and the mental anguish that goes on for a couple days. I tried to keep it to a minimum so as to continue on with a very fun vacation and I believe I did so for the most part. I still have a lot of learning, research, listening, experimenting, and training to do to ever be ready for anything like this (comparing it to Leadville, of course, where I am still eager to have a finish some year). I am open to any and all suggestions and recommendations and feedback.

Turns out the finishers rate was 36% this year but from studying the results it seems that where I dropped it was approximately better than 50%. Results are posted here: All in all I did about 45-ish miles in 13.5 hours. I figured I would never have the opportunity to attempt the Canadian Death Race again as it is 2,300 miles from Wichita and very expensive both to get there and to enter in the race. But after a few days I even started to think, well, maybe I could find a way… :)

For those still interested in running this race…check out: