I am still digesting my experience from the Canadian Death Race and coming to terms with not finishing. I don’t regret my decision to pull out from the race but I’d be lying if I wasn't a little disappointed. You can read all about the adventure below...
Race day started a little early for me as I awoke around 4:30am and tossed about in bed the next hour or so. Thanks to our neighbours in the motel, Mel & I woke to a fire alarm that went off not once, but three times in the span of 10 minutes. I guess they were trying to make toast and kept triggering it.
I decided to get up at 5:50am and get ready for the day.
Mel & I left the motel room at 7:15am to walk down to the race start and met up with Mark and Lauren when we arrived there. The day was shaping up to be a beautiful one although it did call for some rain and a sharp drop in temperature later on in the evening. But at that moment I was concentrating on soaking in the atmosphere – I really love the energy race morning.
I was lucky enough to run into my friend Christine from St. Albert. We met on the trails in the Fast Trax Ultra and she has been very kind since in sharing her experiences in ultra trail running and fielding my questions about training and racing. Her husband, Geo, was there as her support crew so it was great to finally meet him as well. At the same time, another friend from the Edmonton area, Keri was there so it was good to meet up with everyone before the race and wish each other well.
Leg 1 – 19km – Midas`s March
Race start was at 8:00am sharp and we were sent off to the firing of a military howitzer. Mark, his friend Lourdes, and I were lined up together when it went off. Mark & I had plan to stick together as much as possible but, knowing a race of this magnitude I told him to not wait up for me as I am going really slow for the majority of the day to conserve energy. My goal was take it super easy until leg 4 and go from there.
The first 5-6km of the race wound through Town and out onto the highway before dipping into the woods. Leg 1 overall was really muddy, wet, and boggy. Several times we had to slow and/or stop as line-ups formed to pick a way around the trail when water blocked a portion of it. After a while I gave up trying to avoid the water and started running through it when it “looked” somewhat safe. You really had to be careful as sometimes the bodies of water could contain potholes within them and/or the mud under the water could suck the shoe right off your foot.
Before long we were at the highway crossing and the traffic was backed up as far as you could see. I was a little worried about Mel being caught in the traffic as it was all heading out to the first transition. Mark and I were together at this point and had to wait a minute or so as volunteers tried to get some of the traffic flowing.
Shortly after that we were in transition 1 and quickly found our support crew. I opted to change out socks, sneakers, back packs (from 2L to 3L), and reapply band-aids to my heels. Mark and I posed for a few pics before saying good-bye to Mel & Lauren to start Leg 2.
Leg 2 – 27km – Blue’s Give’r up Flood & Grand Mountain
This by far was my favourite leg of the day. Many tout this as being the most difficult and technical leg of the race and it certainly lived up to the stories I have heard about it. I opted not to attend any of the training camps, prior to the race, as I did not want to have any pre-conceived notations or mental markers in my head of the course. I am glad I did because it was like a surprise waiting for me around each corner.
The goat path leading up to the top of Flood Mountain was the steepest thing I have ever hiked in my entire life. My heart-rate was in my “sprinting zone” but yet I was moving about as fast as a sloth up the mountain. Take in account the air is a little thinner up there and you are certainly earning your way to the top.
The “Bum slide” portion before the “slug fest” was absolutely awesome! Too steep and dangerous to run I opted to slide down on my heels while using my hands as the breaks! I choose to wear gloves on this portion of the course which saved my hands!
“Slug fest” did not disappoint in terms of difficulty. We passed one older gentleman who bravely decided to run through one of the many bogs and had one of his shoes sucked right off his foot! Unfortunately, he was far from transition and possibly help and I felt really bad as it would be nasty to have to hike out of that with only one shoe. Not sure what happened to him after but he did have help with him in searching the water for his missing shoe.
Summiting Grande Cache Mountain was another enjoyable part of my day. I was conquering this race so far, in good spirits, and able to run with some old and new friends.
Coming down the Power line on the other side of Grande Cache Mountain was a little difficult. Extremely steep and relentless pounding on my quads and knees. Even with the poles my knees were starting to ache really badly. Around this point in the race I was starting to develop some nasty hot spots on my feet and bit of an upset stomach.
I caught up to Mark just as we landed back in town and we ran together to the transition which happened to be where the race started.
This transition was a bit of a gong show as I tried to race to the porta-potties. The stomach was feeling a little upset and I figured it was because I needed to go for #2. Unfortunately, I could not relax the muscles enough to go so that was a bust.
Back to my transition zone and Mel I quickly switched some gear/nutrition out and refilled my hydration bladder for Leg 3. I tried to scoff down a turkey sub but my stomach wasn't having it. In retrospect I should have sat down for a few minutes to settle things down but I was worried about making the Leg 3 cut-off time.
Leg 3 – 21km – Mabel’s Truck like a Diesel Engine!
This leg is probably the second easiest leg of the race in terms of difficulty. But it ended up being the most difficult leg for me and where I almost pulled out of the race.
Mark & I started off together for the first few km’s. I was carrying my cell phone throughout the race so I could coordinate with Melinda at the next transition. So during the first bit of this leg my coach and great friend Katie called to check in how I was doing. Kinda funny running with a cell phone to your ear in a race but it was great to hear from her all the same.
After I hung up with her is where things went south really bad. I became really nauseous and light-headed. I slowed down but eventually had to stop and start hiking. I was falling behind Mark at that point – he asked if I was OK and replied yes knowing that I was lying but I really did not want him to stay behind on my account.
I tried to take in liquids and food but nothing helped so I stopped doing that. I battled both with the nauseous feeling and my inner demons to keep going for the 2hrs56mins it took me to complete this leg. Eventually, I made up my mind to pull out of the race as I was completely spent and sick as a dog due to lack of calories.
When I coasted into transition on fumes, I spent about 5 minutes trying to locate Mel and our transition area. Unfortunately cell phone coverage was nonexistent in this area and so I stumbled around until I found her.
It was when I found her that I got a little emotional and told her I was done for the day. I couldn’t summon enough energy to lift my arms let alone my legs. I figure I had about 300 calories or less on that entire leg.
My wife looked at me and said: “You are not done yet...relax, sit down...let your stomach settle, change your clothes, eat some food, and then we’ll see how you feel”.
In my head I had already made up my mind but would entertain her suggestion nonetheless.
As I went through the motions I noticed my stomach starting to settle, my mood shifted and energy levels started to return after I started taking in calories again. Before long, I was racing through transition to get ready for Leg 4. I thought I would give it a go knowing that I could bail out before I summit the mountain in case I ran into issues again.
Unfortunately, I was rushing too quickly through transition in order to get going again and started forgetting to take some essential items with me. Knowing this leg would be 7 or 8hrs of running mostly mountain hiking/running and that the weather called for 2-3 degree weather along with rain, I should have taken more caution to ensure I had everything I needed to survive through the night.
Leg 4 – 36km – Felix & Nan’s Rise to the Heavens!
This is the longest leg of the race...not only in distance but also in time. Not too mentioned it is hard on the head because after running 67km you start to slow down and this leg becomes a 7-8hr hike/shuffle.
During the long climb up to the peak of Hamel Mountain I battled with my stomach and inner demons to keep going. I forced myself to stop and sit a few times to settle down the stomach and eat some food. It wasn’t easy as I was starting to get pretty sick of eating and drinking the same stuff over and over throughout the day.
However I hung in there and things started to turn around once I summit Hamel and retrieved my prayer flag. I started to feel great as I passed by the area where I had a prayer flag hung in honor of Midas, Blue, Mabel, Nan Mercer, and Mel’s Dad Felix – at that point I committed myself to finishing this race.
The plan would be hike the rest of leg 4 and run as much as 5 as I could.
Up to the point of summiting the mountain, it had been raining for about 3hrs. I had already switched out to my second pair of gloves as the first had become too wet to continue to use. However, my hands – especially my fingers were really cold. I also donned my rain-coat and thermal hat to try and keep warm. I tried to wear my cycling armbands to keep my arms warm, under my rain coat, but they would not stay up as I had leaned out a bit over the past month so they were too big.
Coming down the other side of Hamel the trails turned to shit. It was raining heavily at times, the temperature dropped to 2-3 degrees, and darkness has set in. The coldness from my hands was starting to extend up my arms into my body.
I kept moving forward as best as I could...jogging when safe and hiking everything else at a pretty decent clip just to keep warm. Around 10:40pm I switched on my chest and headlamp as it was too dark to continue without them.
For the next 2hrs I was on my own for the most part, in the darkness, cold, and rain on the side of some mountain. The trail was becoming difficult to traverse with all the mud, divots, and bodies of water pooling.
Many times I would have to detour off the trail to go around some of the bodies of water that pooled in the trail. I wasn’t risking running through them and having sneaker sucked off my foot. Not too mentioned, I wanted to keep my feet dry as best as I could to stay warm.
However, about 2-3km out from the Ambler Loop Emergency aid station the trail was under a massive amount of water. So much that it looked like small pond and I could not see where it ended in the darkness. At that point, there was also another runner behind me.
I tried to beat a trail through the bush to avoid the main body of water. Unfortunately, the water extended to the surrounding bush/forest and I ended sinking to my knees in bushes that were at least 8-10feet high. At the same time my poles got stuck and when I tried to pull them out I fell into the water. Everything up to my chest became submerged under water- good times.
I turned around to tell the guy behind me to turn back but he wasn’t there and I could not see his headlamp light anywhere!
Looking around I realized I went too far off course and lost my sense of direction. Lying submerged in the water I felt a sense of panic that I have never felt before in my entire life. For a brief moment I thought this could be it...nobody is going to find me in time and I am too wet and cold to last much longer in this weather.
I closed my eyes for a moment and told myself to think. I reminded myself that there are people behind me on the trail so I’ll just wait where I am at and see if I can see their light and just follow it back to the trail. Lucky for me, about 15 seconds later I saw some lights and was able to navigate back onto the trail. When returning back to the trail I was able to see how much I had gone off course and thought “Wow, I really missed the mark!”
After that I picked my way through the rest of the water bodies, hugging the edges so that I only got wet up to my ankles – no more trail blazing off the course!
I also started hauling ass the last few km’s to Ambler Loop Emergency aid station – I kept thinking I can’t wait to see Mel after this leg to get into some dry clothes, have some hot soup, and take a bit of a breather in a nice warm vehicle.
As I approached Ambler Loop a volunteer on a quad was coming down the trail in my direction. She stopped to ask me how I was doing. I stuttered a reply to her: “I’m a little cold”. She told me not much further and I thought they better have a warm hut for me to stop in for a breather.
A few minutes later when I arrived at the emergency aid station I become a little disheartened. There was no warm hut to rest in but a giant mud pit with a watering station, a camper that we were not allowed in, and our drop bags were in a big pile partly submerged under water and mud.
I decided right then and there not to even bother looking for my drop bag as it only had some water bottles and a baggy of M&M’s. I would refill my hydration pack as quickly as I could and keep moving as the cold from the rain and temperature drop was really starting to affect me at that point. I couldn’t feel my finger tips.
It was complete chaos at the Ambler Loop Emergency aid station. I can’t even begin to describe the scene in any coherent detail other than it was a mess. In filling up my hydration bladder I wasted water all over my hands. I was stationary for too long and had started shivering from the cold. When I heard someone say it was 15km to the transition I knew then I was not going to be able to finish in my current state.
However, I thought *maybe* if I started running again things would work itself out so trotted out onto the Ambler Loop but turned around after 300m. I was shivering too much and knew I wouldn`t last another 2hrs or so in this weather.
So I came back and asked one of the first-aid volunteers if there was somewhere I could sit and warm up. My teeth were chattering and I was shaking uncontrollably. She told me the back of the ambulance was full (they had at least 15 other people who had dropped out and/or had to be picked up off the trail because of the cold) but that I could sit in the cab. I had to take off all my outer clothing including the armbands which were basically wristbands at that point.
I climbed into the back of the truck and found another racer who was pulled off the course due to the weather. She offered me her space blanket to warm up because at that point I was shivering uncontrollably.
What is ironic about the whole situation was the fact that, in my transition bag for the start of this leg I had packed a thermal long-sleeve and a package of hot-shots - at the suggestion of my coach (thermal warmers for your hands). In my haste to get out of transition quickly I forgot to take both those items with me. And it was both those items I needed more than anything at that point to stay warm and make it to the last transition and ultimately complete the race.
Eventually I was brought down off the mountain by a nice volunteer to our motel where Mel was waiting. I didn`t know what to say to Mel about the whole thing and we just went to bed.
Overall, I don`t regret pulling out of the race for the reason I did but I am kicking myself for the mistake I made that led me to make the decision. I`ve made a lot of mistakes in training and racing that I was able to recover from but this one is by far the biggest I have ever made and I have to live with that because I am not sure when I'll be able to do this race again.
That all being said, I still had a great experience, met some great people, and had the opportunity to run through some beautiful backdrops.
Getting ready for a big race like the CDR is not possible without the support of some amazing people around you. Thanks to all my friends/family for their words of encouragement, my incredible coach/friend Katie for getting me prepared to tackle this beast, and my amazing & super supportive wife Mel for being there every step of the way.
Thanks for reading...