T-minus 21 days…but who’s counting?

Hey everyone,

So in about 3 weeks, I’ll be headed to the Death Race and things are really starting to ramp up now. I met up with Natalie Geddes of Breakfast Television at Bird’s Hill Park last week to talk about my training and why I’m doing the race on both personal and professional levels. The BT segment aired on Wednesday morning. Thanks to BT’s Drew Kozub and Natalie for making this happen.

I also learned recently that there is another athlete in Winnipeg that is doing the Death Race. His name is Jesse Cox and he’s a certified Spartan SGX Coach and personal trainer working out of Starke Crossfit here in Winnipeg. I met up with him last week to compare notes on the race and discuss strategies. The funny thing is, there was really nothing to talk about since neither of us have no specific information about the race. But it was great to share training as well as equipment strategies. I’m guessing he and I will be teaming up from time to time during this race. I also got in contact with Dan Grodinsky, a Montreal-based lawyer and 3-time Death Race finisher, to talk about training and how to prep for the race. Huge thanks to Dan for taking the time out of his busy schedule to chat with me about that.

In terms of my training, there’s still plenty for me to do and learn. In addition to my usual training (which is always different, if that makes any sense), over the next two weekends I’ll be training for the sleep deprivation aspect of the race. This will involve replacing the sandman with a sandbag, and by that I mean replacing a night’s sleep with carrying a sandbag up and down a hill throughout the night, and then continuing with regular physical training and mental acuity tasks throughout the next day. The purpose of this is to familiarize myself with, and habituate to, the mental and physical states that arise through sleep deprivation, and to build skills to deal with those…in turn, giving me the confidence that I can actually perform under those conditions. Although I feel comfortable with sleep deprivation already, the Death Race race is more than twice the length of time of races I’ve done in the past, and so requires some deliberate training to regain that confidence.

Training for the past two weeks has also involved lots of orienteering training. This whole orienteering thing was completely new to me. I started this process by joining the Manitoba Orienteering Association (MOA) and going to my first orienteering event on the evening of May 21st. At this point, I learned that orienteering events are actual races (I don’t know what I was expecting instead). For those who don’t know (and two weeks ago I was one of you), orienteering is kind of like…I dunno…foot race meets scavenger hunt meets geocaching (except you’re not allowed to use a GPS). At the beginning of the race, you get a map and a magnetic race chip that is used to electronically record your progress throughout the course. A thumb compass (see photo of mine below) is often used to determine your bearing as you navigate and a short ruler, which is often attached to the compass, is used to estimate distance. Once the distance is estimated, you should be able to determine how long it will take you to get in the vicinity of the destination by counting your steps at various paces (e.g., walking, running, or scrambling through rough terrain; obviously you need to practice in advance to know this) and/or by monitoring your travel time based on whatever pace you’re travelling at. Clear as mud? Yeah, I know feeling. This stuff takes serious practice and lots of learning. Here’s MOA’s (much better) explanation of it.


So the objective of an orienteering race is to find each checkpoint (called a “control”), in the specific order noted on the map, and get to the finish as quickly as possible. You record your progress through the course by inserting your magnetic chip into the reader at the start of the race, at each control throughout the race, and then one last time at the finish.

There are both city courses and wilderness courses. The city courses are supposed to be easier so I was told to start with one of those, which I did on May 21st at Living Prairie Park. As you can tell on the map below, there are plenty of recognizable manmade reference points (e.g., buildings, fences, roads) on city maps, which make it much easier for newbies like me to find their way compared to wilderness maps. On all orienteering maps, everything is colour coded to indicate the type of terrain as well as what passable, in-bounds, and/or restricted areas. The precise location of the control is indicated in a legend using coded symbols (note the legend box in the bottom-right of the Glen Valley map below). If you’re curious to learn about these symbols and what they mean, you can find more info here.


So I completed my first orienteering race, the 5-km Living Prairie course, in just over 52 minutes (results are here). I also ran a second 5-km urban course in St. Malo on May 24th in just over 48 minutes (results are here). I not only beat my previous time, I did it with a 50 lb. pack on in 36C heat.

My next two races were wilderness courses that took place in Spruce Woods on May 31st and June 1st. As you can see from the two wilderness maps below, recognizing landscape features in the wilderness takes a different kind of eye. Instead of looking for manmade features like you would on a city map, you have to pay close attention to the topography and vegetation in the surrounding landscape. Monitoring your bearings and distance travelled, using contour lines to identify hills and depressions, and monitoring changes in the density and type of vegetation are all critical to navigating a wilderness course. This is especially important considering some of the controls are so hidden by the event organizers that you basically have to be standing right on top of it to see it. Being in general ballpark of the control doesn’t cut it.

IMG_7496“The pack”. This bag will be my best friend for the next month.

The MOA people said I had a knack for orienteering, but I still got lost a several times on all the courses, and had to backtrack to earlier checkpoints to regain my bearings. The good news is, with a 50 lb. pack on, I still completed every course under the time limit and didn’t miss any controls. The other good news is I didn’t sustain any major injuries carrying the extra weight – just lots of scrapes, bruises, and bug bites (no tick bites thankfully, though there were plenty trying to hitch a ride). Results for the two wilderness races are here and here.

So, as for the rest of my training, swimming has been the central feature of my endurance training. Twice per week I’m doing approximately 120 laps at the pool, which is about 2.4 kilometres. The ice baths are getting much, much better. My body is settling into the cold with less resistance now and rewarming much faster afterward. Many of you are going to shake your head at this, but over the past month I’ve also been splitting wood for people around the city. I even put an ad on Kijiji. I mean, might as well help out some people and make a bit of pocket change while doing what I’d be doing for training anyway.

So as a result of my heavy-pack orienteering races, hill training, running, and wood splitting adventures, I’m in the joys of blister management (both hands and feet), which is also part of the Death Race preparation. Knowing how to prevent and treat blisters is an asset here, so this will be something I’ll continue to work at. Books on the nightstand include Fixing Your Feet by Vonhof and one of the best books I ever purchased: the SAS Survival Guide by John Lofty Wiseman.

The Death Race gear list is still a mystery. A 2014 SDR gear list posted on Facebook by the race organizers over a year ago included a hatchet, rope, compass, needle, thread, knap-sack, coonskin cap, map, skillet, and charcoal…but who really knows if this is legit. These guys are pros at torturing racers with every kind of unexpected twist and turn imaginable (the most information I’ve got about the race has been on the Death Race press info page). Typically, the gear list will come out a day or two before the race, so I’ll have to pick that stuff up post-air-travel after I land in Boston. How I’m going to get all my gear on a plane is a whole other challenge I’ll have to deal with.

So there’s a brief update. There’s much more to tell but I need to get back to working on my dissertation. Priorities!

Take care friends,



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