Hi, how are you?
I had a stretch goal of 21 hours 29 minutes. I wanted to beat the time of a woman who told me I couldn’t finish the Death Race, even if it was only by one minute. I didn’t finish in time to achieve my stretch goal – how is 22 hours 42 minutes 21 seconds? – But it was my first Trail Ultra XLong and my second Ultra ever, eh?
Since I have quite a bit of race experience, I have learned to work out the kinks that can come along with being unprepared for a running event. I have a routine at night to make sure all the equipment and supplies a racer needs are laid out and organized: food organized in bags by exchange, poles, gloves, long sleeve, jacket, my Polar, my sets of shoes, my socks, my buff, most important of all was my race plan. I also have a solid morning routine, which includes a good prayer to John, eating the right food and getting to the start line to chip in before 7:40 am. Check, check, check.
The forecast called for thundershowers, but they weren’t supposed to start until the afternoon. Waking up to the pitter-patter of rain made me nervous about what was to come. After all, over the past two weeks of being in Grande Cache, we had all sorts of weather that a kid from south western Ontario is not used to seeing in July. These treats for the senses included daily thunderstorms, hail on two occasions, lots of rain, waking up to 5 C, and on some days, it would warm up to 27 C. The only thing that was missing was a full on assault with snow. I was nervous now – what were we going to see out there?
Leg 1: Here we go
I met up with my training and race partner Donna outside the Big Horn Inn, a not so wonderful motel. We made our way to start line, registered and waited anxiously. The race kicked off with a quick out and back parade down one of the main roads in the town. It was almost as if the locals were seeing us off as we set out to war. The hopes and dreams of this town rested firmly upon our shoulders. As we paraded through the town I saw some of my new friends cheering us on so I ran over for some morale-boosting high fives! Leg 1 was a little crowded but fun. The muddy bogs were the highlight as you could hear the crowd of runners empathizing with a group “Ohhhhh!” as some poor runner likely took a mud bath. And this was no beauty treatment either! I remember thinking “I hope they got that on camera!”
At the exchange for leg 1 and 2, my dad and step-mother were frantically trying to get a handle on how to crew for a runner; double-checking to make sure they were filling my hydration pack properly, then my water bottles. “Did you eat? Have your salt?” they pestered me, just like I instructed them to ask. I looked up to the top of Grande Mountain. “Dad, pack my long-sleeve and my gloves. Looks like it’s gonna be cold up there.”
Leg 2: Near death
The climb to the top of Flood was steady and seemingly gentle. I started to belt out “GO DEATH RACER!” I waited for a response…and got nothing. I scolded the others by belting out “Really guys? Nothing?” I tried again. “GO DEATH RACER!” This time I could hear the echo up and down the mountain of people belting “GO DEATH RACER!” “HA HA!”.
After cresting Flood Mountain, the way down to Slugfest was a nice surprise, made up of some somewhat short, very vertical descents. This was probably my second favourite part of the course. It was a gorgeous, forest covered single-track that brought you across streams, through bogs and down aggressive “bum slides”. It was also surprising to see so many Death Racers with poles and no clue how to use them. Please, I implore you, that if you are going to take on this race as a solo or relay participant and you are taking poles along for the ride, use YouTube or something, but learn how to use them! They can be very helpful, but they are worthless if you don’t know how to use them. Moving on.
As I was getting to the end of Slugfest, I could hear the frequency of the thunder increase. “Not good”, I thought. But, there was no time to dwell on our collective misfortune. If a storm was coming, then a storm was coming. We had to keep pressing on. I got to the aid station and filled up on pretzels and gummies and took off. No sooner had I set out, the rain began to fall. Not so great considering what rain can do to the trails. But not the worst kind of weather either. At least it wasn’t hail. Right…?
Cue Mother Nature. She abruptly decided she was going too easy on us and changed tactics to “tough love”. Rain, wind, thunder and lightning and now… hail. Ok, this is great: Trekking up a mountain road and hail is smacking us all over. I pulled under a tree to get out of the trajectory of the hail, but I soon became impatient ‘cause the hail wasn’t letting up. “Can’t let a little hail get in the way.” And we were off. Then the hail got bigger, the rain and wind colder. My objective shifted – get under tree cover! I had a long sleeve thermal from MEC and a pair of mitts, so I took a moment to swap my shirts and put the mitts on. I paused and looked out from my hiding place. The hail still wasn’t letting up. “Gotta press on.”
At the summit of the mountain, the hail had subsided but the wind was as strong as ever. I timed in and booted it to the decent. What a relief to be in the cover of the trees! Next up was surprise number 2: The thick, slick mud made it a constant challenge to stay on your feet. It didn’t matter if you had poles or not. There was no effective way to get any footing or balance. The best way down was to resign yourself to the fact that the lower your centre of gravity, the better off you were. In this case, having your butt on the ground and sliding through the mud was the least painful way down. I kept trying to do it on foot. Even pretended I was skiing or something. Every time I tried to do it on foot, I’d just fall and get covered in mud. First, it was just mud covering my legs. Then once I was about half way down, I was fully covered. My hands, poles, legs, butt… everything but my face.
Leg 3: Hello Joe, whaddya know?
Once I was at the bottom of Grande, I noticed my right foot was hurting. I took it for a small bruise and carried on. I passed through the exchange and was on to Leg 3. I kept moving along with a new found limp.
As I was catching up to a fellow runner, he turned around and asked “Where‘s Donna?”
“I think she’s 10 minutes behind me, she told me to move ahead without her” I replied. It took a moment, but I realized I was talking with Joe whom Donna had met on the charter from Edmonton. Joe attempted the race last year and missed the cut off time at the end of leg 3. A heartbreaking result. According to my plan, we were in good shape to make it to the cut off, so we continued running and chatting. Fate has a curious way of working – The same woman that told me I would not be able to finish the race ran with Joe last year! Joe was such a great spirit; every time we’d come up on a creek, he would wait for me while I cooled down my foot and leg, obviously trusting that we’d make it to the cut off on time. At this point, my projection was that we would get there by 6:30, 15 minutes later than my original plan. As we were running down the old mining road to the bridge over the Smokey River, we knew we had plenty of time to finish the 3 or 4 km there was left to get to the cut off (the 3/4 exchange). Fist bumps and big smiles! We crossed the bridge over the Smokey River, and were coming up to the highway. There were so many people there cheering us on and among them were a couple of cute girls! One of them said to her friend, “Take a picture of me with them!” A little embarrassed (imagine how I smelled) and flattered, Joe and I set up and this cute stranger posed in between us; a picture was snapped. “Excited!”
We got to the exchange, and I was limping around. Kevin, a resident of Grande Cache saw me come in and after a quick chat, offered me his foam roller to loosen up my leg. I waited around for 7:00 pm but still no Donna. I decided I had to press on.
Leg 4: Serenity now
Joe joined me and we started up Mount Hammel. “I’m walking” I stated. “Me too” Joe confirmed as we began the longest leg of the race. Hiking up Hammel I noticed that my foot, although very sore, wasn’t aggravated by the climb. This was good and it allowed me to keep up a quick walking pace. After a couple of km’s I noticed Joe was falling behind, I wanted to help encourage him up the mountain, but he told me to keep on without him. I did exactly that.
A race volunteer greeted me, “Welcome to the cutoff!”
I was elated, “Sweet! What time is it?”
“9:15 pm.” she replied.
I was very happy since I had made it to the cutoff with an hour to spare. As I continued up Hammel, I felt small. From the cutoff to the top of the mountain, we passed the tree line and it was one switchback after another. It was quiet. It was peaceful. It was painful. So close to the top, yet so far away. If only we could have gone straight up! Once I was on my way down, I started running with a guy named Ron. He had blackened his toes and had restrained his pace as a result. So we kept each other company as the sky turned black and we realized we would need to use our headlamps.
Ron and I walked down Hammel rather carefully. Neither one of us really wanted to aggravate our feet; my bum right foot and his toe nails. As you can imagine, we were being passed by fellow Death Racers. Until one of them, a cute lady Death Racer pulled alongside down a technical pass. Once we made it through and the lady Death Racer sped along, Ron had suddenly found some motivation.
A little further down the mountain, I caught up to Ron again and we kept each other company. I remember thinking at this point that my feet were dry for such a long stretch. I wondered if it was going to be possible to keep them that way. Then, of course it happened; we came across a pond, nay a lake, in the route and it looked deep and threatening. We stopped to look for some way around it. “There’s gotta be a way!” I said desperately. After a couple of minutes, it was decided: There was no dry way across. My longest stretch of having dry feet came to an end. I was sad and knee deep in water.
There are so many obstacles that XL trail ultra runners run up against. Obviously distance is one, and certainly there are a number of mountain range runs where elevation is an added challenge. Imagine this, you are in the middle of a 37 km stretch and you have to go. What do you do? I suppose the first thought is do I have to go number 1 or number 2. Number 1 is pretty easy to take care of. But being a “civilized” person, number 2 poses a little bit of a challenge, especially when you are in the middle of a 37 km stretch of trail on a 7000 foot tall mountain. As Ron and I we heading down this stretch of trail, a fellow Death Racer asks “You guys got any tickets?” I sure did. I wasn’t getting stuck anywhere with a dirty bum! I offered up some of my TP to my fellow Death Racer and “pressed” on.
Leg 5: Inspiration
Around 3:00 am in the morning, I pulled into the last exchange. Sore and beat up, I came around a corner and found my training partner Donna was there. I was sad to see her since it meant that she timed out at the critical exchange 3-4. Selfishly I was thankful that she was there.
“Hot soup!” Donna said as she handed it to me. “Well lukewarm now, anyhow.”
As I munched on the chicken soup, Donna helped my legs recover a bit with a short and welcomed massage. My dad and my step-mother prepared my pack for the final leg. I put on my North Face Ultra Guides hoping they would be soothing considering how much my foot ached, and then I was off in search of Hell’s Gate with my sacred Death Race coin!
The first 7 km of Leg 5 is some of my favorite trail anywhere. It starts off with a wicked steep climb, and then evens out to a fun roller coaster single track that is fairly technical. The trail itself is soft and there are a number of creek crossings. At this point I knew I could make it to the end even if I walked the whole leg, but I didn’t want to do that. I felt pretty good again and I really liked the trail so I kicked it into high gear (well, as high as possible after about 19 hours of running), and boogied. As I pushed through the Crack of Doom and down to the final aid station, I pushed as hard as possible to get to the river crossing.
To cross the Smokey River on leg 5, you need your Death Race coin. You have to give the coin to the Grim Reaper and then you get to hop on the jet boat. I busted down from the Crack of Doom to the river bank and said “Mr Grim Reaper, here is your money.” I boarded the jet boat, and we were off to the other side of the river. Once there, I “jumped” off the boat and began an eternal climb. Up, and up and up and up. “When is it going to end?” I kept thinking. Finally, it did. And I started running again. I was passing a number of folks that knew they could make it to the end safely by walking, but I was impatient; I just wanted to cross the finish line and be finished. I got to the Soul Tree (see picture) and with 5 km left, I decided it was time to walk. I did just that until I was back in town and the end was in sight. I picked up my pace and started a slow jog to finish the race.
“Go Death Racer!” I yelled with the sentiment waning between sarcasm and seriousness. As I ran across the finish line, my new friends and residents of Grande Cache were there to greet me as I crossed the line. Hugs, congratulations and smiles were there for me. I was done and completed my mission!
My dad, step-mom and Donna all were at the finish line to help me out. Almost as soon as I sat down my core body temperature started to plummet. Donna pulled out the thermal blanket, put my pants on for me, and took off my wet socks. After a couple of minutes of shivering they decided to move me along. I was taken to the car and driven up to my glorious motel room. I was given water, coffee to warm me up and ice for my foot and leg that had swollen to twice the size of my foot. Donna passed me her BlackBerry Z10 and insisted I call my wife.
She was out on a training run so the voicemail goes like this: “Hey baby…” deep breathing as i guess I was out of breath. “I finished…” I continued and still out of breath. “22 hours 40 minutes… Yay….”. Obviously delirious, my time was 22 hours, 42 minutes, 21 seconds. I continued “I am just sortof in bed… I’m injured…I got ice on my leg… I’m in (deep breath) .. getting warm, drinking water, rehydrating uh yay, so I’ll talk to you later, love you, bye bye”.
I lay there trying to fall asleep. One hour passed, and another. I finally gave up, BBM’d Donna and we met for lunch. The food was welcomed, but most of all, I took on a couple beer.
“Hey Donna, I think I’m ready to go sleep.” Yep, the beer helped.
The next day
On the Monday that follows the Canadian Death Race, there is an awards ceremony. Naturally I attended because it is at this ceremony that you get your coin. The coin that gives you the right to brag. First they call up the racers who have finished the race previously. Then, one by one they call up the the each of the first time solo finishers. Each finisher then walks down the line and shakes and congratulates each other for finishing. Following that you take your spot at the end of the line and you are now inducted into the club. I was summoned, performed the ritual and took my place. Moments later, Joe was summoned as well and was soon in front of me. Joyfully I gave him a big hug.
“I’m so happy to see you here Joe!” I said to Joe sincerely.
I didn’t achieve my goal of finishing ahead of the cursed woman. I did finish even though she said I wouldn’t. Maybe it is a testament to how stubborn I am, maybe it is a direct result of the training, or perhaps it was a bit of luck. Whatever it was, I know I am left with a feeling of longing. I am longing for the feeling of doing something extreme, something grand, something where I feel free and alive.
Other interesting stuff
I use a Polar RCX5. The GPS is a seperate unit from the watch and lasted for 107 km. It kept recording my heart rate and I actually forgot to stop it once I crossed the finish line.
Watch recording: link