Have you ever fantasized about running 125 kilometers through rugged forests and valleys, across raging rivers, and over soaring mountain tops, all while wolfing down junk food? Me neither, but if you’re interested in hearing about what it’s like to do that (i.e., running the Canadian Death Race), well, I guess I can tell you.
The 125-km CDR course is a gruelling one even under ideal weather conditions. Three mountain peaks (i.e., Flood, Grande, and Hamel) stand in the way of the finish – as do dozens of miles of steep, rugged trails upon which the majority of steps you take have serious ankle-rolling potential. The 17,000 feet of elevation change across the course also creates high risk for dehydration, cramping, and a host of possible lower body biomechanical issues that can easily end a racer’s bid to complete the full course.
In 2013, heat, cold, wind, driving rain, and punishing hail all presented as barriers to finishing. Despite these challenges, however, I completed the CDR course in around 22 hours and 50 minutes, placing 121st overall in a field in which approximately 67% of the racers that toed the start line never crossed the finish. (If you’re interested in reading my blog entries from CDR 2013, you can find them here and here, and results and race recap here.)
My primary goal this year was to beat my previous time from 2013. In addition to that, I had a series of secondary goals tied to longer-term racing objectives. These included a quicker post-race recovery, identifying better sources of fuel for my race diet, testing the handling of new equipment at longer distances, and speedier transition times.
The Ultra/Death Race/OCR crew, from left to right: Pete Coleman (soloed CDR in 22:24, with no support crew!); Ekaterina Solovieva (aka “Solo”, who relayed legs 1, 3, and 5 of CDR with Oleg Vinokurov); Matt “IronBeast” Dolitsky (soloed CDR in 23:48); myself; and Oleg Vinokurov (relayed legs 2 and 4 of CDR with Solo).
Night before the race
Canadian Death Race Topographic Profile (not to scale)
Canadian Death Race Course Map
The CDR course is divided into five segments or “legs”, each with its own unique topographical profile (see above) and host of challenges.
Leg 1 – The Downtown Jaunt
Leg 1 is basically a half-marathon trail run through a rolling valley. The 19-km course first winds through the streets of Grande Cache before heading out into the trees and bog. Eventually, the trail emerges alongside the highway outside of town. After crossing the highway, the course extends a number of miles on a combination of gravel road and open trail along side both Grande Cache and Peavine lakes, eventually ending at the train terminal. I jackrabbited a bit on leg 1, completing it in 1:44:45 (9:44am), which may have contributed to difficulties on leg 2.
Leg 2 – Flood and Grande Mountain Slugfest
After a 5-minute pitstop at the 1/2 transition in order to fuel up, grab my poles, switch shoes (from ASICS Lightnings to Scouts), and load my pack with food, gels, and water, I took off for leg 2. Leg 2 is a 27-km segment that begins with a long grind up to the peak of Flood Mountain. This is followed by a trip down through the saddle between the two peaks, which consists of treacherous, steep terrain marked by sudden drop-offs and thick bog (i.e., “Slugfest”). Upon exiting the saddle, you arrive at a gravel road, which begins the second uphill grind to the top of Grande Mountain. After summiting Grande, the course flows back down a steep (and I mean steep) 6km, knee-pounding, quad-burning, trail called Powerline. This is followed by a 2-km run back into town.
About a third of the way through leg 2, I ran into some unanticipated trouble. While summiting Flood, my left IT band started to seize and was yanking on my knee with every step – a problem that I later discovered was probably triggered by dehydration. For the next six to seven hours, I had to repeatedly massage it to get it to settle down, but there were points where I was almost convinced my race was over. Nevertheless, I patiently and persistently hydrated, massaged it, and waited to see how it responded. With respect to leg 2 stats, I summited Flood at 11:19am (3:19:13), Grande at 1:21pm (5:21:35), and made it back in town at 2:33pm (6:33:36).
Arriving at the 2/3 transition, I quickly ate a banana, a half a serving of Smoky Mountain Spaghetti (thank you Boston Pizza!), drank three tablespoons of pure maple syrup (yes, I drink maple syrup when I race), and loaded my pack with 3 litres of water, trail mix, and gels. I switched shirts and went back to my ASICS Lightnings for leg 3 because most of the leg is moderate downhill and doesn’t require a lot of traction. I took off for leg 3 feeling pretty rejuvenated. I attribute most this to the spaghetti.
Leg 3 – Old Mine Road
Leg 3 is another half marathon that heads west through the valley down the Old Mine Road, which is really more of a wide gravel trail than a road. This segment is challenging in the sense that the footing on the road never really provides a smooth surface to run on. It’s a relentless, rocky 21-km agility ladder where every step has the potential to do something funky to your ankles. The conditions this year were hot and dry, and the valley bottom in the middle of the afternoon is when and where the heat becomes seriously amplified. There are several stream crossings in leg 3, but most of the streams were dry this year (one of my few regrets this year was not bringing water purification tabs so I could drink out of streams). In the mid-day heat, with limited water, and no aid stations at all on leg 3, you really have to pace yourself and manage your exertion in order to avoid problems. On the other hand, you also have to move fast to avoid the 7pm cutoff at the 3/4 transition that eliminates so many racers.
Arriving at the foot of Old Mine Road, I crossed the bridge and headed into “The Trench”, a new section added to leg 3 this year. As opposed to running along the highway back to the transition as in previous races, CDR had us run up and into the forest on the adjacent side of the highway and through a series of trenches and ridges. After completing that section, I timed in at the end of leg 3 (i.e., the Duck Pond) at 5:40pm (09:40:21), roughly 45 minutes ahead of my 2013 time.
During my 3/4 transition, I again fuelled up with bananas, spaghetti, and maple syrup, and repacked my bag. Equipment-wise, I switched back to my ASICS Scouts and hiking poles for the assault on Mount Hamel. Because this next leg would take me well into the night and up to 7000 feet, I also packed my headlamp, a base layer, and rain shell. I also spent an extra few minutes slapping on bug repellent and stretching, which turned out to be a very good investment.
Leg 4 – Hamel Assault
Leg 4 is the longest leg at roughly 33 kilometers. It involves a more-or-less constant switchback up to the summit of Mount Hamel. While ascending from the shaded side of the valley bottom, through the tree line, and into the exposed alpine, the terrain shifts from damp soil to packed dirt to sharp scree. The uphill push is constant and so it’s imperative to get in your zone mentally and not thinking about how far you have to go to the top. There’s one point in particular, as you cross over from the northern to the western slope, where looking up is just a horrible idea. At that point, you get a clear view of the top, which, due to the appearance of scree, appears deceivingly far away. I remember feeling so disheartened by that view in 2013 and so this time I focused intensely on the climb, one foot after the other, while reassuring myself that I would be at the summit sooner than I thought.
When I arrived at the summit, the sun was still well above the horizon. This was an obvious contrast to 2013 when I arrived shortly after sunset. The experience at the top this year was incredible. The air was warm, there was virtually no wind, and skies were clear – rare conditions for Hamel. You could see for hundreds of miles in all directions. I took a few moments to mindfully absorb what I was seeing as I made my way along the ridge to the timing station, where I chipped in at 8:34pm (12:34:34).
Top of Mount Hamel at sunset
Doubling back over the ridge, the course then veers to the southern slope of Hamel where you make your way down…way down…towards Ambler Loop, where the first aid station is set up. I arrived at the Ambler aid station at 10:22pm (14:22:34) just as the last of the daylight was fading away. After topping up with fluids and grabbing some food, I made my way down the long gravel road that runs along to the top of Ambler Mountain. I stopped to put my base layer and headlamp on. After completing the long loop through the forest, I arrived back at the Ambler aid station and made the long run down, facing a bright and nearly-full moon, to the foot of Hell’s Gate Road where the 4/5 transition was located. After timing in at 12:39am (16:39:26), I made my way to where my support crew was set up.
As I arrived at the trailer, Ben and Josh jumped into action, getting all my gear out. I sat down and began fuelling up with the usual stuff as well as a hot chicken noodle soup (thank you Ben!). Towards the bottom of leg 4, I also started to develop a hotspot towards the back of my left foot, so I thought I would check on that. I had no idea just how bad it actually was until I took my shoes and socks off, revealing a giant blood blister on the inside of my left heel. I removed my blister kit and made quick work of it by draining it and patching it using a combination of moleskin, polysporin with lidocaine, waterproof bandage, and hockey tape. After switching back to my Lightnings (to avoid the hotspot) and putting on some dry socks, my feet felt good as new. I elected to keep my poles for Leg 5.
Leg 5 – Hell’s Gate and Raft Crossing
Leg 5 is the final segment of the CDR. This 25-km segment begins with a steep ascent up the eastern ridge of Hamel, and then winds south through the valley towards Sulphur Gates and the Smoky River crossing. This run takes you along a tricky, narrow trail through thick forest in near pitch-black conditions. At times, the vegetation is so thick you have to crouch down to see where you’re actually stepping. Eventually, after wedging through the Crack of Doom (see below), you arrive at the Smoky River, where you hand over your Death Race token to “Charon” (some dude dressed up in a grim reaper costume) in order to get to the other side of the “River Styx”. When I arrived at the crossing, there were actually two Charons. I guess they’re twins and they work in shifts. You don’t get that info in the Greek mythological version.
Crack of Doom
After jumping on the boat and crossing the river, I chipped in at 2:38am (18:38:32) and got to work on the monstrous hill that immediately greets you afterward. They warn you that if you cool down too much on the boat ride over, it comes back to bite you on that hill. Fearful that the IT band issue might rear its head again, I used the boat ride as an opportunity to stretch my legs instead.
After climbing out of the Smoky River canyon, I meandered through a seemingly never ending forest. The trail winds and winds and winds…and winds, and you can’t help but think you’re going in circles. Leg 5 has caught me off guard both years I’ve done the CDR: the first time it was the hills that got me, the second time it was the infinite trail through the forest. I even remember yelling out loud at one point to “Get me the hell out of this forest!”. Also, at that time of night, the trail is peppered with giant toads. PETA is not going to like me for this, but I accidentally stepped on one the size of an orange and almost rolled my ankle. I think he got the worst of it.
After passing Dead Dog Lookout, the trail begins to head back towards Grande Cache. I felt pretty good at this point and was actually able to run a good chunk of the uphill sections back into town. This was a massive shift from 2013 when I limped back into town even on downhill sections, and could barely put one foot in front of the other. As I emerged from the forest, I made my way to the outskirts of town, where the natural world of trees, rivers, and peaks and valleys quickly dissolved behind me, giving way to a manmade world of houses, streetlights, and storm drains. I could hear the announcer in the distance. I was close.
Moving even more quickly now toward the finish line, I distinctly recall passing a house party where a big group of people were drinking in the front yard. “Way to go death racer!” they yelled, “Grande Cache loves you!”. A few minutes later, as I passed over the finish line and underneath the big Canadian Death Race banner, I realized just how mutual that feeling was. Thank you so much for another great experience Grande Cache. This death racer loves you.
Final solo completion time: 20:44:19 (4:44am; personal best by 2 hours and 6 minutes)
Final placement: 55th out of 326 total (63% DNF in solo category)
Another coin for the collection
Till next time….