Canadian Death Race -- My Race Report

I'm headed home from Canada, on the first leg of my return trip, a flight from Edmonton to Seattle, then Seattle to home. Flying over the Canadian Rockies makes them look harmless, but sharp and beautiful. Unfortunately, I won't be flying over Grande Cache, Alberta, home of the North Face Canadian Death Race, 125 kilometers of muddy, slippery, steep climbs and descents. I would have liked to see those mountains from this perspective.

I'm not sure how anyone could run the entire Death Race. The winner ran it in under 13 hours, so a lot of it must be runnable, but not for me. I spent most of my 19 hours on the course climbing up steep ascents with my hands on my knees, or trying to navigate around mud pits, grasping to thin tree branches as my feet slid slowly and deliberately towards the deep mud. I think I won at least half of those battles, but the other half left my feet heavy and wet. Within the first two miles of the race, I was knee deep in mud, and my shoes and socks would remain wet through the race, facilitating the gradual peeling of my skin from the bottoms of both feet and between my toes. My pinky toes got it especially bad and over the first couple of hours it became extremely painful to take steps. I felt the blisters pop in my shoes and there was some relief until I felt the skin peel away and the pain returned to stay.

125 kilometers is 78 miles. A kilometer is Canadian for a hilly, muddy mile. The course had over 17,000 feet of elevation gain, and as I ran I did some complex (at the time) math to convert that to about 3.2 miles of vertical elevation gain. Then I imagined climbing a ladder for 3 miles straight up, then I quickly started thinking about butterflies and flowers. Stay positive.

This was a strange race for me. I expected the highs and lows, I have had them before, but I didn't expect to hit a low in the first hour. From the beginning of the race I felt off, my stomach was turning, I felt dizzy, my legs were heavy, and I just didn't feel like running. I considered dropping at around mile 30. I jogged into that aid station with a pro who was hobbling, telling his support crew he was done, and wasn't going to walk the final 80 km. I took some motivation from this, although it was a negative kind of motivation, I got a boost, thinking, I'm not hobbled and I can do this, I may have to walk the final 80 kilometers, but I can do that, plus I spent way too much money and foolishly broadcast to the world that I was going to do this race and I didn't want to let anyone down. I ran out of that aid station with new energy. My stomach had finally started to settle and I felt good.

Then I ran past a limping woman with short blonde hair and a lower thigh wrapped tightly with grey duct tape. I muttered a good job to her as I passed, glancing out the corner of my eye, and there was a spark of recognition. Her name is Diane Van Deren, a legend in the ultra community. I first learned about the death race through a Trail Runner article that featured Diane and her story (you can read about her amazing story here and here). She is an amazing woman, and I stopped and told her how inspiring her story had been to me. I asked her if she was okay and she told me she had torn her hamstring and was having trouble walking. She asked me how long this leg of the race was, and she said maybe she should drop. I told her it was a relatively flat leg and about 13 miles. She kind of shook her head as if she had said something rude, then started asking how I was feeling, how my race was going, and if I was doing okay. I really can't express the impact that this short exchange had on me. Here she was, limping in pain, with all the pressure of performing for the sponsors and finishing well, and she was asking about my race. I wished her well, and as I jogged away I heard her mutter "might as well walk off all those calories I just took in at the last aid station." I was surprised to learn that she finished the race, running and hiking the last 80 km on a torn hamstring. I hope the people from North Face realize the impact she had on me and many others out there. For me, it was a result far more impressive and courageous than a fast podium finish where everything went as planned.

This is already long, and I'm not going to go through each leg of the race, but I do want to share some highlights and lowlights of the race so I can have them for later.

There weren't too many parts of the race where I felt good. The exception was the last ten miles. I really ran those, the uphills, the downhills, the flats, I felt so good, the first time I felt really good all day. It was raining hard and as I turned onto the pavement for the final two miles, I turned off my headlamp. It was around 2 am and it was starting to rain hard and I felt stripped to the bone. I had gone through a lot of negative emotions and I let the rain cleanse me.

I listened to my iPod as soon as it got dark. I was engrossed in a podcast called WTF With Marc Maron, a dark comedian who was interviewing Todd Hanson, a head writer for The Onion. It sounded funny when I loaded it up, and I was ready to lighten my mood a little when I pressed play. It turned out to be these two comedians discussing their depression and Todd's suicide attempt. It was fascinating and I couldn't turn it off, ignoring Tim's words of wisdom to stay positive. I've dealt with depression in the past, not to the same extent as these two, but at 1 AM on a dark mountain trail with rain pouring down, it just felt right.

My headlamp is light and cheap, casting a small halo on the trail from my feet to about ten feet in front of me and I just focus on that area. I saw a dark shadow of an animal pass a little in front of that halo. I couldn't make out what it was, too small for a large bear and too big for a coyote or wolf or whatever they have up in the Canadian Rockies. My gut thought mountain lion because once it left the trail for the cover of trees, I could see it's eyes following me as I took step after slow step, not wanting to turn my back on the two glowing eyes, pinpointing me in the dark.

There were some very muddy climbs where I was slipping backward with every forward step, grabbing mud, tall grass, rocks, and tree branches with gloved hands as I tried to continue the forward progress. During one of these climbs towards the end of the race, there was a stream that I had to cross by holding onto branches and stepping on wet logs to cross. As I was crossing, my hand slipped off the branch I was using. I fell, and as I landed I heard a loud crack. I laid there on my side as the cold water washed over me and rotated my ankles and wrists. Nothing broken, the crack had been the lens of my sunglasses in my pocket. I smiled at this. Sometimes it's the little things, like not breaking bones.

The Death Race is set on a beautiful course, summiting three peaks, and the view from each is breathtaking (assuming you have breath left after making the climbs). The wilderness of Canada, the mountains, glass blue lakes and blankets of trees, are amazing especially contrasted with the industrial stripping of the land on other parts of the course. If the organizers were trying to make a point by routing us through a landfill and over coal mines, I get it.

Canadians are nice people, they make good bacon, and brew strong beer. One of the best parts of the day for me was coming into the 3rd aid station and hearing Go San Diego. It was a father and son and their trainer who were doing the relay. We had shared a few words in line at the pre-race dinner. I didn't even know their names, but they came rushing up to me at the aid station asking if I was doing okay, spraying me with insect repellant (the mosquitoes had been brutal all day and all I had was some hippy natural spray shit that the mosquitoes found delicious). It was nice because at the time I was really envious of all the crews milling about, pulling out chairs, fresh socks and shoes, and a smorgasbord of food out for their runners. I had trouble even finding the Gatorade coolers and filling my pack with fluid. So, yes, I was feeling sorry for myself, but Deanne, Brock, and Dick helped lift my spirits.

I have a strategy when doing races. I separate each race into seven sections and try to focus on an idea for each section. It helps keep me in the moment, and breaks the race into manageable chunks. This what I focus on:

Breathe
Relax
Excitement
Appreciation
Transcend
Happiness
Elation

It's a little sappy, but it works for me, especially the appreciation section. It's the middle of the race, and is usually a low point for me. I was very emotional during this section of the Death Race, and I promised myself that if I finished I would express my appreciation to people that helped me train, inspired me, and add so much meaning to my life. I thought of my family, my strong wife, my mom, dad, brothers, sisters, and extended family. My thoughts drifted to my running friends and the countless hours and miles and trails I have shared with them. Our sport is bonding and I feel a deep connection with the people that I share this pain, suffering, and accomplishment with. Meeting week after week before the sun rises, or early Saturday mornings to run along the coast, or driving out to the mountains, pushing me, sharing stories, and offering encouragement. I appreciate my coach, Tim, and the training he customized for me week after week. He truly cares about all of the athletes he coaches, and he made the journey as significant as the race itself. A lot of people emailed and called before I left and after I finished, and I don't know what I did to deserve such caring friends, but I am so grateful they are in my life. I also appreciate all the comments on facebook and this blog from people who take the time to read this stuff (especially this long, boring one). I've never met a lot of you, but I thought of you and your stories often on Saturday and Sunday. I also want to thank Jess for coming out and doing the race with me. He better add another post to his blog about his experience or risk becomig the @OneTweetPete of blogging. He kept me laughing the entire trip and I'm proud of how well he did on the course. I can't wait to pace for him at Leadville or Hardrock or something equally epic (sorry Nata). I didn't mean for this to turn into an Oscar acceptance speech. If I ever run a hundred, I may just turn into Sally Field.

The main thing I took away from the race is that it's not always a fun, spiritually fulfilling experience. You don't always have your best performance when you want your best performance. Sometimes the day just plain sucks and you have to say screw it and keep going.

I finished 24th overall and 9th in my age group in 19:12 (the results say 19:05, but I'm going with my watch). 600 people signed up for the solo race, 360 started, and 131 people finished.

Sorry this was so long and thank you for reading.




Geared up

Only two options



I love coming home

Here is some information to consider if you are thinking of doing the North Face Canadian Death Race Solo. It may or may not help you out.

Pros:

  • Beautiful course
  • Great town support and volunteers
  • Very challenging course
  • A lot of elevation gain without the high elevation (course tops out at 7,000 feet)
  • Good beer and bacon
  • Canadians


Cons:

  • Grande Cache, Alberta is kind of far away from everything, so you have to budget a couple of extra days to get there
  • The aid stations are far apart and cater mostly to the relay runners finishing their legs, so you will have to pack a lot of nutrition and carry a big pack
  • As a solo runner, it can be discouraging as the fresh relay runners zoom by you
  • The volunteers are great, but they're not ultra runners. Expect to fill your own bladder, find your own drop bag, manage your own nutrition, and take care of your own feet especially if you are doing this un-crewed


Here is a pace chart that Jess came up with that will help you come in before the cut-offs, and will help you shoot for a 18, 20, or 22 hour finish. This can be adjusted up or down depending on your personal goals.


Total Time Leg 1 Leg 2 Leg 3 Leg 4 Leg 5
18 Hours Duration 2:00 hrs 4:15 hrs 2:15 hrs 6:15 hrs 3:15 hrs
Time at Completion 10:00 AM 2:15 PM 4:30 PM 10:45 PM 2:00 AM
20 Hours Duration 2:00 hrs 4:45 hrs 2:30 hrs 7:00 hrs 3:45 hrs
Time at Completion 10:00 AM 2:45 PM 5:15 PM 12:15 AM 4:00 AM
22 Hours Duration 2:15 hrs 5:15 hrs 3:00 hrs 7:15 hrs 4:15 hrs
Time at Completion 10:15 AM 3:30 PM 6:30 PM 1:45 AM 6:00 AM


Great Trail Runner article on the Canadian Death Race
Elevation profile and course information
2011 Results

Ratings and Recommendations