If the miles behind me could be put into words before you, you would feel my efforts, my struggles, my desires. Most of all you would see my joy. Watch me from afar run the trails and hills and miles upon miles and you will see ...

Thursday, August 7, 2008

The Canadian Death Race

First and foremost without the amazing crewing efforts of Carrie, Hannah, and Elias, there would have been no race. Grande Cache, Alberta, is no tourist destination and the weather was not what you would consider a tropical paradise. The fact that they were at each and every aid station before I got there and were all set up made my race happen. The kids were happy every time and even helped their mom out with water and handing off bottles. I was worried on the first two stations when I was there a bit earlier than we had discussed but it was for not as they sought me out amongst the other athletes and spectators.

After all day in the car on the Wednesday before the race my back was some kind of tight. I did a 40 minute run on Thursday morning where it was almost seizing up and my breathing was like I was eighty years old. Overall I felt like crap. Friday I did a 30 minute run and it felt a bit better but I still wasn't overly optomistic about how I'd feel the next day. Luckily I had my good friend Advil to watch over me if times got tough. We picked up the race package that day and saw a bit of the midway with its Sumo wrestling ring, rock climbing wall, mini race cars, and the vendor's booths.

It was nice to be within walking distance from the start line and not get up too early - 6am for an 8am start. I knew it would be a long day for the crew and that was a bit of an incentive to finish as fast as I could. I registered and nothing was left but the anthem and the start.

People didn't take off in a flash, even the relay racers. I thought for sure that there would be a mad rush of folks trying to get ahead. I kept an eye on eventual winner and fellow World 100km teammate Jack Cook but didn't exactly want to be in front of him. As he had done this race two times before I figured he knew what pace to head out on. Of course, he could have been making me chase him hoping I'd think he was in way better shape than me (a probability anyways) and maybe I'd hold back.

The first leg was fairly flat with a few short, steep sections that I walked, and also some long descents that I took conservatively. I saw Jack up ahead of me for most of this stage but was definitely running my own race. Another runner named Mike Scherman who ended up in fourth place ran with me for a bit. He had done a few Ironman races and when I told him the guy in front of us was Jack Cook, he quickly took off and was running with him most of leg one. We cruised past a lake where I thought the aid would be and was worried because only an hour had passed and thought Carrie might not have been there yet. As we had about six more kms to go on a gravel road to the end of the stage, everything worked out fine.

Leg two starts out with maybe a kilometer of rolling terrain and then heads right into a quad track straight up where the walking began. This went on for some time where I was walking then running a bit then walking some more until around a corner was a marshall directing people right. He says, "Here you go, right up these stairs." I can tell you that this trail of "stairs" would never have passed building code as such becuase it was necessary in some spots to grab trees to pull yourself up the grade. Even the relay members with trekking poles were having a hard go of it. We finally got out of it and could run again across a ridge and through the timing station then back around and down the way we had come.

We had looped around and now we saw the same marshall again who this time lead us to the right again but down a section as steep as the one we'd just climbed. If there had been more rain that day or in the previous few days, I would have slid to the bottom, out of control. As it was there was a trekker in front of me and I think he heard I was kind of losing it so he went to move to the side but wiped out on his ass. All I could do was say sorry a couple times and go past - there was no stopping.

This started what was a section they called The Slugfest. Not exactly sure why but only that it was a long rolling batch of terrain that was mostly narrow single track with bushes from my ankles to my neck that soaked me in about ten minutes of going through it. There were more sections of quad-straining downhills and even at one of these spots they had marshalls to warn us of the impending dropoffs. It was here that I caught up to Mike Scherman and joked to him how he let Jack get away. He said that the way Jack was going up the hills he had to let him go. I know that Jack can put in a good push to shake people and it worked that time. Mike was from Montreal with no real hills to train on and could have been why I passed him pretty easily through this part. Finally at the top of Grande Mountain (6500') there was another timing point but also brutal wind and rain and sleet. Yet after five minutes of descent it warmed up and the rain stopped.

I remember at the pre-race meeting the race director was saying at this point all we had to do was follow the powerlines and we would have no trouble getting down. It was easy enough but at the top I could look across this valley to the other side and see the powerline trail clearly - it was wicked steep going down then the mirror image of grade going back up. I could see off in the distance a runner going up and he was oh so teeny tiny. Oh, well, here we go. This was the scariest part of the race: I never thought about staying safe for my next race or even trying to be conservative now, it was just hold on for dear life, hope I didn't twist an ankle and fall and roll (and roll and roll and roll), or trip on anything. There was about ten feet of flat running at the bottom and it started up again. At the top of this was basically more downhill all the way to the bottom, up a stretch along the highway, and through about three blocks of town to the starting point again where the leg ended.

My super-crew greeted me and I changed out of my soaking shirts and put new ones on. For some reason I thought I was going up the next mountain on the next stage so put on two shirts which I regretted because it got quite warm during stage three.
This stage went through town for a couple more blocks before heading out along the river over winding trails that were for the most part runnable and a lot of downhill. I traded leads with a girl for a ways who turns out was splitting up the race with another girl with whom she was doing the Trans-Alps race in a few weeks. That one's on my list.

At near the six hour mark I saw Jack in front of me and was quite surprised. I caught up and asked how he was doing - he was fine - and I just carried on in my steady gear. We were within a hundred feet for the rest of leg three and with me just edging him out at the checkpoint at the start of leg four. Starting this one I knew it would be easier terrain than stage two but longer hill-wise and time-wise. Through a bit of woods then down to the highway there was no sign of which way to go. This race had the best markings of any long race I've done but at this point I didn't have a clue. All I know is I went to the right and hoped I'd see someone behind me soon. It turned out I was going in the right direction as a relay member went by me like I was standing still and said we head into the trail soon.

As soon as we did, it was quad-trail straight up. Jack caught me halfway up the narrow trail and followed me until we got to the gravel roads. After a bit of downhill running, we hit the uphills again and he literally power-walked away from me. Whether it was fatigue, knowing what was coming, or altitude, I had my one steady gear and I was sticking to it.

I would see him once in a while on a switchback nearing the top of Mt. Hamel (7000'). This section was amazing because we were above the treeline with mounds and mounds of shale all around us like it was dumped by a thousand trucks along the trail. The view was incredible, too, and you could see the pockets of rain showers heading our way. At the top of this we turned right to go about 300m to a hut where we then turned around, went back the way we came for a kilometer or so, retrieved a prayer flag to prove we'd gone the distance, and went back to the hut. They took my flag, I registered my timing stick, then started down. I think I could have gone down faster on this section but I was concerned about saving the legs and not cramping them.
Ten minutes down this road I was wondering if that hut was the place I was supposed to pick up my backpack with my headlight and jacket and water in. It was too late to turn around so I kept going wondering how I'd go another two and a half hours on the amount of fluid I had to drink. I began thinking I'd have to grab water from a stream. Then I thought how would I be able to start leg 5 without a headlight as I remember them saying if you start it after a certain time you couldn't go without one? I was conserving water when I came around a bend and saw the Ambler-Loop aid station with our drop bags. Man, was I relieved!!! I left my backpack there to be picked up after the loop but refilled my bottles and promptly drank half of one. This loop was a couple k's down a gravel road then back through trails, mostly uphill.


After strapping on the backpack at the station again it was a quick 10km descent down a logging road. How monotonous was that? There was so much down I was begging for an up. At the bottom we turned and ran along the highway in yet more quad-trails. Along here it was cool because cars would drive by and lean on the horn in support and they would shout out "Go Death Racer!!" I was quite surprised when I saw up ahead Jack's red shirt again. Why couldn't he just be ten minutes in front and I'd never know and wouldn't have to worry about sprinting to the finish?!?! He left the aid station before me and that was the last I saw him (thankfully).

There was an incredibly cruel hill to climb for at least ten or twelve minutes once we left the aid station. After that was lots of single track with the bushes at knee level but so close to the trail it was hard to see the ground. I wouldn't have wanted to do that section in the dark. It would have been some slow going. With a bit of downhill I reached the river crossing. Here the racers have to give the "ferryman" (dressed up like Death) a coin we'd been carrying since the start and this gave us passage across the river in a boat. If you had no coin, you couldn't cross. I was looking forward to a bit of a break but no sooner than thirty seconds after I sat down were we on the other side.

I thought the beginning of this stage was a cruel climb - we went up and up and up from this point with a bit of rolling hills but then more climbs. There was the final trail section that was covered in tree roots for what seemed like kilometers until I finally got to the last gravel road. What do I find here? More @#$%! hills. This road was twisting and at every turn all I could see was more up. The gravel road led to a paved town road which, as a final insult, was all uphill to the finish.

I got to the end, handed off my pack and bottles to Carrie and ran in to the finish with the kids in my arms. Since they're getting so big, I wanted to carry them over the line seeing as next year for sure they'll be too big to do so. They were lighter than air to me I was so happy to be done. I was reunited with Jack and we had a good chat about the race. He was definitely deserved of the win.

This event was a lot harder than I expected but after seven years of thinking about how I could do it, I was very pleased with having finished. Especially after the shin splints and racing a 100 mile, 50km, and now this run in only six weeks. Next year the races will be more spread out for sure.

No Stormy 50 mile this weekend to recover and put the focus on Greece!!!

See the link for the pictures below:

1 comment:

pano said...

Great race review! And good luck in Greece. I am from a small village just south of Sparta and know the entire area between Athens and Sparta very well. If you have any questions feel free to let me know!

Pano Skrivanos