Cheating Death: Canadian Death Race 2014

The Build Up

I ran this race last year.  Once I got to the finish line I felt great about my accomplishment.  Many of locals I befriended in Grande Cache asked me if I’d be back the following year.  While I really enjoyed my time in Grande Cache, I felt that I did what I needed to do and sadly I wouldn’t be back.  The days passed and my buddy Donna was determined to go back and prove that she could complete the Canadian Death Race.  And as it happened to her, the race got under my skin.  I knew I could do better, so I set my sights on besting my time and dropping the completion time to 18 hours.

January came along and I registered for the race.  From the registration day on, if I wasn’t already, I was fully committed at that point.  It was just a matter of months and then the race would present its monumental challenge.  The question this time wasn’t “Could I finish?”  It was “Can I really achieve my time goal?”  My goal was aggressive, I was aiming to cut 4 hours 42 minutes of my finishing time.

Many months passed and my training was on target.  As a result, my resting HR dropped a little more (45 BPM), my recovery from long runs was quick, and each race I set a PB.  Things were great, except that I was waiting at the airport in Kitchener for my flight to Edmonton and I was feeling pretty ambivalent about the race; I was burned out from running.

My coach called me about an hour ahead of boarding and reassured me by saying “It’s good that you feel this way, it means that you ready”.  With a week to go before the race and my coach’s reassurance, I started to believe that I would be strong physically and mentally race day.  Then just like that, I was excited, I was pumped.

I spent a couple of days in Grande Cache preparing for the race.  It was a good mental exercise to prepare for the race.  But I was incomplete, I was without crew.  So like planned I made my way back to Edmonton to pick up my wife.  No longer lonely and bored, we putted around town and met the Canadian Death Race legend in the Vegas Liquor Store.  A really interesting man, he left me with a word of wisdom: “you never know what to expect at this race, you never know if you will finish.”

The mandatory meeting before the race provides you all sorts of good information about what to expect out on the course, and in a very entertaining fashion.  Dr. Death came out on the stage performing and was mid-way through reminding us of the “die arena”, when almost as if it was planned, some nasty clouds rolled in and it started to rain a little.  As would happen in the race, a couple of folks bailed.  Then the rain became a little harder, and more folks left.   Once the hail mixed in with the rain and my clothes were saturated, we bailed as well.  I started to worry.

The Race

All week all I had been dreaming about was this race.  I don’t know what exactly was going on in these dreams of mine, but I know that the themes focused around the race.  I guess I was anxious. I do dumb things when I am anxious.  The morning of the race, I woke up good and early and had a normal non-race day breakfast, 2 eggs and toast.  Bad move bud, my normal pre-race meal is nothing more than half a bagel.

The race started in the normal fashion, check-in, ceremony with prayer, walk up the road paced by a quad, RCMP with shot gun, run.  I was up front as per usual this year and I started the race off pretty quickly as to make sure that I wouldn’t be moderated by the crowds in the bogs.

That is, if there were bogs.  I was confused, it had been so cool in Southwestern Ontario, how was it that in Northern Alberta it had been so warm that the bogs were essentially dry?  What did that mean for the rest of the day?  OK, truthfully the second question never really crossed my mind, and to be perfectly honest neither did the first one.  I was running and I was pleasantly surprised that I could run straight through without any balancing act.  Had I been a thinking man, I probably would have realised something, perhaps, that the rest of the day would be a killer!

It should have occurred to me that it was hot out there.  It was an automatic reaction, I was power hiking up Flood Mountain rubbing up against the shrubs trying to get the remaining moisture from the night dew onto my skin.  I was hoping that the technique would cool me down a little. It sorta worked, the relief was so temporary that I don’t even think it is worth mentioning.  I moved closer and closer to the mountain top, one laborious step after another.

As if climbing up a mountain in the heat wasn’t hard enough, my mind’s attention turn to my laboured breath.  I didn’t understand, was this a result of altitude that I wasn’t acclimatized to?  I worried that this may do me in.  I tried focusing on my pack.  I loosened it, unclipped it.  Re-clipped it.  Thought about taking off my heart rate monitor, but didn’t.  The closer to the summit of Flood, the steeper the trail, the harder it was for me to breath.

I pressed on.  I made my way through Slugfest and realized that a theme was starting to take place.  I just didn’t remember this race being this hard.  Maybe it was because I was pushing that much harder than last year that every difficult section seemed that much more difficult. Or as I remember thinking while I was heading to the summit of Grand Mountain, “this road is a lot longer than I remember it being.”  I was relieved to start the Grand decent.  A seemingly never ending hour of trail that headed straight down the mountain side.  A quad thrasher.  This is part of the course that I was most familiar with and still – I didn’t remember how difficult it was.

On my way in to town where the leg 2/3 transition is, I caught up to a fellow K-dubber (a person that lives in Kitchener-Waterloo) that was running the relay.  We had been leap frogging since the beginning of the leg.  He was walking it in when I finally caught up to him near Mountain View high school.  I put my hand on his shoulder and encouraged him:

“Come on man, your almost there, you can do this.”  I don’t really remember how the rest of the short conversation, but he ran the rest of the leg.

“Byron, your crew is over there”, someone called out to me.  A little dazed I fumbled my way over to where my wife and Donna’s husband were setup.  This was the first time Lindsay had to repack my vest – a little stressed she got everything together just as I asked.  I was parched:

“Is there any water?” I questioned.

“Yeah there is” Donna’s husband replied.  He started to pour it on my neck and head, then finally he pour it into my mouth as if I was 20 taking down some tequila!  Funny how running up and down a mountain in the heat makes you feel just about the same way as taking down half a bottle of tequila.

I had practice drinking like this in my youth. Replace water with tequila!
I had practice drinking like this in my youth. Replace water with tequila!

Having finished the first two legs I was looking forward to the third because from what I remembered, there would some shade on the trail.  It took a little while, but sure enough there was some shade a couple of kilometres in.  Though it didn’t seem to matter.  The heat was beating down on us.  A little less than ¾ of an hour passed and I finished one of my two 20 oz bottles of fluid.  I knew that there should be a couple of creeks.  I hoped that they hadn’t dried up like the bogs on Leg 1.  Last year I used these creeks to numb the pain in my leg and foot.  Each time I came across a creek, my relief could not be described.  I decided that since it was so hot out that I would sit right in creek.  I found this even better than just slashing water on my neck, face, and head.  Cooling off your junk and butt just seems to relieve the heat stress that much more.

At the last stream of the leg, I realized that I had maybe 3 oz’s of GU Brew left and I had 7 km left to run.  I was really stressing out –I didn’t have enough fluid.  I filled an empty bottle with the water from the stream, not to drink, but to pour over my body in an effort to cool me down.  I got to the coal mine bridge that took me across the smokey river to a chip in – with 3 km to go and no more fluid, I was happy that I didn’t have to far to go.   But I was in trouble, I knew I was dehydrating quickly and I was only some 60 km into the race.

I got to the critical transistion 3/4 (the one that takes out most death racers), my amazing wife asked me how I was doing:

“I’m dehydrated, did you bring extra water?”

She did, and I drank nearly 20 oz right there. Grabbed a salt tab and watched her pack my bag.

“How many gels are there?” I asked.

“One bottle, 2 by 2 like you asked.”

“No! I need two bottles.  I need at least four gels, this leg is going to take me at least 5 hours!” I was freaked out, though too dizzy to be angry. Still, how could she mess this up?

“Did you bring the bottles?” I was referring to the 26 oz bottle of Hammer gel.

“No” she replied as she pulled out the instruction sheet to show me that I actually gave her the wrong instructions.

“Shit!” I blurted out stumbling backwards while I was reeling from the feeling of dehydration and disorientation.  With no other option, I put my pack on, thanked my wife (I think), grabbed my poles, took a deep breath, and I started leg 4.

As I made my way up Mount Hamel, I felt beat down.  My memory was playing tricks with me.  I had no memory of this climb being so hard.  I got to what seemed to be somewhat of a plateau and was feeling better; it was a nice reprieve from the soul sucking climb.  I turned a corner and then my jaw dropped.  The majesty of Mount Hamel revealed herself with the final 1300 ft or so, beauty and terror all at once.  It was a familiar feeling that day, I think mumbled to myself “how am I going to keep this up?”

I was so happy to make it to the summit of Mount Hamel in the daylight.
I was so happy to make it to the summit of Mount Hamel in the daylight.

It’s funny though, the clarity you have in remembering certain features of a trail.  Even though the Mount Hamel descent I made last year was in pitch black, I remember a particular hairpin turn in the trail.  Maybe it was because of the situation where this dude was looking for some TP.  Other things I didn’t remember at all like boulder alley.  While I made my way to Ambler loop there are points where there are big pools of water that seemed impassible in the darkness and which I carefully waded through… difference being this year I was in the daylight and I could see ‘dry’ pathways around the obstacles.  The reward of many, many months of training.

From the top of Hamel to Ambler loop my pace slowed down substantially.  I think I was recovering from the heat of the day.  At the aid station at Ambler loop I dropped my pack and ran light for a bit. I felt better because I was running at a good pace and I was passing relay runners.  As I caught up to one girl, she turned back to me and asked:

“Were we supposed to chip in back there?”


“Really” she said with complete disbelief.  She continued “It wasn’t obvious, what happens if I don’t chip in?”

“You get DQ’d.”

“Seriously?!” she exclaimed hoping that I was taking her for a ride.  I wasn’t.  They will disqualify you if you miss one check in.

“Yeah – sorry, looks like you have to go back.”  I advised her and kept on.

The day before the race when I was reviewing the race plan with my wife one last time.  I mentioned to her that I thought the way my coach had broken down Leg 5 was off.  I thought that the first 7 km up to the boat would be at a faster pace, and the second section of the leg would be a slower.   When I got to the leg, it was just getting dark and I was pooped, although I hadn’t pooped (ha ha).  I started up the first climb of leg 5 and I had finally come to terms that everything seemed so hard and that each effort was as if I was doing some full tilt training on my treadmill; mind you the views were ‘slightly’ more amazing than looking at a wall in the gym.  Two kilometres into the leg, I was praising the wisdom of my coach.

Relay runners were whipping by me.  I was stepping aside for each of them and then a soloist caught up and insisted I lead.  I guess he wanted some company for a little while.  We chatted and I imparted my wisdom of what lied ahead.  A final crushing climb followed by the Sulphur Rim trail then there is about a 3km stretch that is dirt road and just doesn’t seem to end.  I was preparing myself for the worst and I probably would have been better off not knowing what I was in for.  Truthfully, this wasn’t the hardest part of the race, but because it is the last 15 or so km, it feels a lot harder than it is.  Team that up with a little mental fatigue and you can just about spell disaster.

I did avoid complete disaster, which would have been a DNF.  Instead I finished the race in a power walk switching into a run when I felt I could keep up the shuffle, disappointingly I was mostly in a power walk mode though.  On the upside, I was still moving forward and the end was near.

The last 500 metres of the race I ran, not quickly, but it was a running gait.  I turned the final corner and as I made my way through the corral I could hear the announcer say:

“Here comes another soloist Byron Guptill.  His goal was to finish the race in 18 hours, besting his time from last year which was 22:42 minutes.  Well Byron, you did it!”

Yes I did, finishing the race in 17 hours 35 minutes and 29 seconds.  I ended up ranking 15th of 366 registered runners.  I was happy.  Looking back on the race I am starting to appreciate why at each stage of the race I felt like it was harder and more painful than last year’s experience.  Last year my average pace over the entire race was 10:54 minutes per kilometre and this year I cut that down to 8:27 minutes per kilometre. In training harder, many folks think that running gets easier, I certainly have been fooled by this. I should have thought it was going to be harder. My goals were different, my pace was different, my approach was different, so why would the effort be perceived to be the same?

Donna satisfied with her CDR finish. She placed first in her age class!
Donna satisfied with her CDR finish. She placed first in her age class!

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