This story was originally published in the November issue of Endurance Magazine
My trip to the Canadian Death Race ultra-marathon seemed to have it all- temperature extremes, a mixed future of luck, good friends, big wild life, even bigger country and most importantly 125km of suffering.
Getting out of Christchurch proved to be by far the hardest part of the whole trip. With what I could consider a small amount of snow on the runway, all Monday flights were canned and with all the people re-booking and available flights running out I had all but given up hope of making it to Canada, however, I managed to talk with the right person at the right time and got a flight on Tuesday. A day late and super tired I made it to Canmore, Alberta. Here I was a guest of Phil Villeneuve, the Salomon brand ambassador for Canada. I parked up on Phil’s couch watching dvds for a day trying to recover from the hellish flight. I did venture out a few times, once for some good Mexican food and another for a great trail run on some local trails. We had an awesome drive up to Grande Cache the next day via Banff, Lake Louise and Jasper. Huge terrain and wild life (black bears, big horn sheep and Elk) were the highlights.
Once in Grande Cache we met up with US mountain runner, and fellow Salomon Running Team member, Rickey Gates who was going to be making his ultra running debut at the CDR. Hot dogs and beer for dinner, then off to bed- I was trashed still from all the travel. The next day was filled with all the usual pre race stuff- check in, race number pick up, sorting (and re-sorting) gear and a little reccon of the course’s aid stations.
Race day! Rickey’s mum, Trish, whipped up some eggs, while Phil brewed the coffee- these 2 pretty much kept up this service for Rickey and I for the next 16+hrs- catering to our needs at the 5 aid stations and even post race! We lined up, were marched out and the Canadian Death Race was started with the firing of a howitzer canon courtesy of the Canadian Army. With the firing of that hugh piece of artillery, my race mojo seemed to have been shot into the cool Alberta summer air. The race started with 5km running through Grande Cache (the town is totally taken over by the CDR, so it’s appropriate) and this was easily the most road running I had had done in months. For some reason this put me into a funk of sorts. It was quickly forgotten as we passed a sign reading “only 120km to go”, which is where we hit the muddy quad bike track. This was great fun, lots of little ups and downs and a ton of mud. I could spy Rickey not too far ahead and found myself running with past winner Jack Cook and another past “Death Racer”, also named Ricky. Ricky had run 15hr30 last year and we chatted a little. More road and then some single track before rolling into the first aid station. It was super noisy as Phil waved me into our tent. I swapped out my water bottle and grabbed more Clif shots and I was gone, but so were Jack and Ricky. I did manage to get away before Rickey who was changing shoes, but he quickly passed me on the climb up to the races first summit- Flood. On that first 19km the feelings were very so so and 125km is pretty long, add in the over 4500m of climbing and it feels even longer, so I was not too worried at this stage and was happy to let Rickey go and look after myself. I was still able to stomach food and water at this stage, so despite not feeling great I was still happy the way things were going. I passed Jack and this boosted my spirits, as did getting a glimpse of Ricky near the top of Flood. From here we descended the famed “Slug Feast” a super steep, single track descent. If you ever see video of the CDR and see people bum sliding down- this is Slug Feast. It was great fun! I had decided to use poles on this 2nd leg and they ended up getting in the way on this section, but apart from that it was good to be off the access road and in the trees. We quickly climbed again, this time summiting Grande and then descending via a power line access road. This was again a steep descent and I could feel some hot spots and pain in my feet. By the time I made it back in to Grande Cache and the end of leg 2 I was really starting to feel like things might not being going my way- I was now a good 30mins behind Rickey, this after only 46km. I changed shoes and socks here, which revealed a couple of nasty blisters- not to worry, Phil and Trish were on hand with some tape, as well as more vital supplies. I was cheered up a little knowing that the 19km leg 3 was the easiest of the CDR and I was ready to turn this around. Besides, I was in 3rd place and still had a lot to race for. Not long after leaving town I came across a Black Bear on the trail, which was both exciting and pretty blood scary….. This is also where Rickey “found the course fascinating for reasons entirely different than what is advertised – running through the city dump, through a coal processing plant facility” and I have to agree, it was oddly a highlight, but not something one normally would associate with a trail run. Like the profile of leg 3, my overall feeling and performance was down hill during this section. I showered under a road side water fall, but still arrived at the base of 6986ft Mt Hamel spent. I had been throwing up water and sweet food was no longer sitting well, so I left the aid station with new socks, shoes and a bag of salty crackers.
I was quickly passed by Steve Russel and fell into 4th place. I had been on the go for about 7hrs and had felt like crap for almost that whole time, so losing a place didn’t seem to bother me. The climb up to Hamels summit was pretty nice, at least the views were, I was shuffling deeper and deeper into a hole. Add some wind and rain on the summit and I was feeling very sorry for myself, but I had kept up with the food and water this whole time, often forcing things down. Somewhere, deep down, in my sub consciousness I guess, I still had a little fight. I had finished strong in the Tarawera Ultra and TNF 100km races earlier in the year and you always read stories of comebacks right?
It felt very sudden, but I knew what it was straight away cause it was the first time I had the sensation in over 9hrs of racing- I was ready to race! As I started on the long down hill from Mt Hamel something clicked and I was ready to go. I knew Rickey was way way out in front, that wasn’t going to happen. I had no idea where the other Ricky was, my guess, to0 far. But Steve, yes, Steve and 3rd place, how far had he gotten away from me on that painfully slow ascent of Hamel? I didn’t give that much thought, I just wanted to run. The last check point at 102km Phil and Trish were peaking. Rickey had come a 1hr15min earlier, with a 30min lead and a good 20min up on the course record. Phil forced me out of the aid station quick smart- I was only 10mins down on Steve. I did the math- all I had to do was run 30sec a km faster and I would pass Steve just before we got back into Grande Cache and nab 3rd place! Easy, as I was feeling amazingly good at this late stage. This was also where the nicest bit of single track of the whole race was. I reached the last aid station, grabbing a bag of Cheetos to munch on and jumped on the jet boat for the ride across Smoky River. I had been latching onto relay racers all afternoon and by this stage was starting to pass them, each time asking if they had seen a guy in red shorts? “About 5mins ahead” was my closest update as I closed in and I caught Steve in about half that. I went past Steve as hard as I could, too scared to look back in case he was chasing, I hammered it for a few minutes, only then looking back, nothing but trail. As the trail gave way to the streets of Grande Cache on the return to the start/finish line, people sat on deck chairs in front of their house, some with bbq’s and beers, cheering in racers with “GO DEATH RACER”. On the final road into the finish I was greeted with high fives and then by Rickey. Having finished 90mins earlier, he was still in his race kit, drinking a beer and chatting. I stopped and congratulated him on his impressive race and breaking the course record. Then just a short run in to the finish where Phil and Trish were waiting, more high fives, hugs, someone gave me a blanket, someone else handed me a beer and I hobbled over to the showers.
I finished in 13hr48, in 3rd place and I was pretty happy. Who knows how much slower I was on track to running before I pulled myself out of the funk I had been in for the first 9hrs.
Huge thanks to Salomon Running and Greg Vollet for making the CDR happen for me, and to Phil, Rickey and Trish for making my time in Canada so much fun.