How I Survived The Death Race
How I Survived the Death Race
By Chris Mair
For the past few years I have been reading about an extreme trail running race called the Canadian Death Race. I am always looking for a new challenge and the Death Race piqued my interest. It is a 125km adventure race with a 24 hour time limit set in the beautiful Canadian Rockies. The race can be run solo or as a 5 person relay and includes over 17,000 feet of elevation change, three mountain climbs and a river crossing. It is located in the sleepy mountain town of Grande Cache, Alberta and 2010 was the 10th anniversary of the race. I was interested in running as part of a relay but due to the distant location I didn’t know how I would ever find a team. This problem solved itself when a high school friend, Bob, contacted me and asked me if I was interested in being part of a team to run the Death Race. This was on December 30th, 2010. By January 3rd, 2011 I had committed to running the Canadian Death Race 2011!
I read the race website many times trying to figure out what I was getting myself into. It was scary and exciting at the same time. I actually lived in the town of Grande Cache from the age of 12 to 14 so I knew roughly what the mountain climbs and terrain looked like. My body had been in good condition (after recovering from my early December Vegas Marathon) and my work schedule would allow me to train properly for a race of this magnitude. Everything seemed to align perfectly. On January 10th our team, Five Knuckle Death Punch, was officially signed up for the race! We had to choose running order for the relay so Bob picked for us. We could change the order later but Bob put me down for Leg 2. This order never changed and Leg 2 ended up being my destiny.
Let me tell you a bit about Leg 2. Leg 2 is second longest leg of the race at 27km but is considered to be the most technical. More solo runners and teams are eliminated on leg 2 than any other leg of the race. The leg consists of climbing two full mountains, two creek crossings and a treacherous middle section called Slugfest. The net elevation gain is only 500 feet but the overall elevation change is well over 6000 feet! It sounds crazy but this description really was lacking when you came face to face with the actual terrain (more on that later).
My training started gradual, as I had planned. I decided to continue with my regular running schedule but push myself during the training runs on the hills and technical sections. I pushed up every uphill, looped continually and forced myself to push more on downhills. I added on to my training by running on my lunch breaks at work and added additional runs on the weekends. I decided to keep my regular race schedule but, where possible, choose the more challenging distances. This meant that I dedicated myself to all the Enduro runs for 5 Peaks and longer distances where they were offered in other races. Over the next few months I kept to my schedule. I had many strong training runs and I set personal bests in my first few races of the year. My first 5 Peaks run was my first sign of any problems. I know the Golden Ears Enduro course very well but for some reason I decided to push too hard out of the gate. By the time I got to Incline I had worn myself down. I started the climb very aggressively up Incline but I tweaked my back less than half way up. I had to shift gears and walk the rest of the way up. On the way down my back was no better. Once I reached the road it calmed down but I was already running much slower than I expected. I finished strong but I knew I couldn’t keep over pushing myself in races without facing some serious injuries.
I slightly slowed my training down to let my back recover. I actually felt much better right away and I was glad my overzealousness in Golden Ears didn’t have lasting repercussions. I started to build up longer runs in May and everything was, once again, going great. In late May disaster struck. I cross train my running with pilates, yoga and hockey. In a hockey game another player landed on my left leg and rotated it outward in a nasty way. My knee, ankle and the ball of my foot were all injured. I was helped off the ice but I remember instantly thinking that I couldn’t afford this injury. My ankle and foot calmed down shortly after the game but my knee was pretty badly ripped up. I was forced to stop running completely as I tried to let my knee heal. It was feeling a little better the next week when I left for a conference in Los Angeles. When I started walking the floor of the conference I realized how damaged my knee really was. My leg ached. I was in pain; walking even short distances and small stairs made me wince. I know it probably wasn’t a smart idea but I kept the pain to myself. I let people know my knee wasn’t better but I never let on how much pain I was actually in. At this point I was looking at 2 months until the Death Race and I didn’t want anyone trying to convince me that I should stop, try to heal up and maybe try the race another year.
When I got back from the conference I was thrown directly into the next 5 Peaks race, SFU. SFU is one of the more technical races and I had already signed up for the Enduro. I was unable to change to the Sport distance on race day so I just set out and ran the Enduro. I openly admit that was a mistake and looking back it was a very stupid move on my part. I started the race worried about my still painful knee. It actually felt pretty good at the start of the race. It hurt more with lateral movement so I thought if I kept my knees aligned as much as possible I might be okay. This proved to be true on the downhill. The problems showed up when I started to make the trek uphill from the base of the course. My left knee kept feeling like it was hyper extending. I got through the race but I felt like I had set myself back. Two weeks later I was down in Seattle running the Seattle Rock ‘n’ Roll half marathon and, while my knee felt slightly better, I felt like I should be taking a break to heal. The conflict for me came from the fact that my knee was preventing me from getting longer and more technical runs in. The races were becoming my training and my injury recovery was taking a sideline. I actually felt pretty good in Seattle. I intentionally ran slow and tried to keep everything as clean as possible for my knee. Needless to say, I didn’t break any land speed records but I was happy with my result and I didn’t feel like I had set myself further back.
After Seattle I tried to just settle my training down. I ran with my Saturday group and I only pushed to test the strength of my knee. I continued to play hockey and that let me know that my knee was still not 100%. On tighter turns my knee felt weak. Actually on little stair steps my knee would feel weak. It felt okay at this point thumping the trails around Hayward Lake but the smallest stair step could make me wince. I thought about all the training I missed and realized I had no ability to make up the lost time. My best bet was to turtle – protect my knee and stick to a limited, but trail based, running schedule. The last month of my training was full of nervous energy and some decent runs. I wasn’t as prepared as I hoped I would be but, all things considered, I finished my training feeling pretty good. One of my last runs was a pavement run “around the block” for a distance of around 12 kilometres. Near the end of that run the tendons on my right foot became inflamed. I had hoped ice and rest would calm that down. My new goal was to finish my Death Race leg and not come out severely injured.
I headed out on Thursday before the Death Race at 5 in the morning. I had to catch a flight from Abbottsford to Calgary, a flight from Calgary to Edmonton and then drive 6 hours with most of my team to Grande Cache. My flights went well and I met up with my team just after 10am at the Edmonton International Airport. I had never met my teammates, other than Bob, but we had a long drive to get acquainted. Bob had run a lot over the past few years and in addition to his running he volunteers for the fire department, so, needless to say, he was in pretty good shape. Brad, our driver, had just started running a few years ago but was clocking a ton of miles and was in the best shape of his adult life. It sounded like Tom was a bit slower to start his training this year but came around and was getting in some great runs. Our last team member wasn’t with us and was quickly referred to as “Mystery Dave”. Brad knew Dave through work but he hadn’t seen him since we signed up for the race back in January. Apparently Dave thought the race was a few weeks earlier until Brad told him he had the dates wrong. Information on Dave was sketchy at best… he may have been a marathon runner when he was younger or that might have been a misunderstanding?!? We had no idea when or even if he was going to arrive in Grande Cache and what shape he would be in. We just hoped one of us didn’t have to cover his leg of the race! The rest of us became quick friends on the journey to Grande Cache.
Grande Cache was exactly how I remembered it. Sure, a few stores have changed and some new houses have been built but for the most part it was the way I left it. We were able to get rooms at the Best Western, the best place in town as far as we could tell. Arriving on Thursday allowed us to explore the town and relax. Friday was race registration and my gear check day. When we got our bags with all our race goodies my anxiety shot up. Everything was all suddenly real… too real. We registered at noon, a few minutes after they opened. Dave was supposed to be showing up all day and just when we had given up he appeared. He showed up a few minutes before the 8pm registration cut-off. He didn’t look like a runner but said he had no problem with the 11 miles he ran the day before (The day before?!? I thought my training was messed up!). We attended the mandatory race meeting with Dr. Death at 8:3o. After that we were all getting anxious so we headed straight back to the hotel. I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to sleep Friday night but somehow I did.Saturday morning… race day. We got up before 6 in the morning. I am not sure but Tom might have slept in his running gear. Either way he was white as a ghost as we drove downtown to the starting line. It was a crisp, sunny morning and tons of volunteers, teammates and townsfolk were out to see the Leg 1 runners off. On the stage we got a good morning from Dr. Death, a word from the Mayor and a signer sang the national anthem before the race began. Everyone starts together… all the solo and leg 1 racers in one huge group. They start walking in a parade across Central Park and up Hoppe Avenue. An ATV with Death Race and Canadian Flags hanging from the back led the way and an aboriginal drum group followed. Tom walked by in the pack of runners and gave a big thumbs up. A few minutes later the Canadian Military shot off a Howitzer and the race was under way! As Tom ran out into leg 1 all I could think was “I’m next!”
I headed back to the hotel and got geared up. The first leg is 19km so we figured he would take around 2.5 hours. I got dressed quickly and triple checked everything. I had a few new things on race day… new shorts (thanks to Lysa and the kids), new Sole socks (just like my other pairs but fresh and new) and a brand new hydration system. I usually run with a long Camelbak but I needed to be able to carry more water and food. I bought a black MEC Fountain 9 3L pack and although I am not supposed to change anything on race day it turned out to be an excellent pack. Actually, I hardly noticed the weight difference between it and my Camelbak. I covered my head in sunscreen and I put ice gel on my sore right foot and all over my legs. I had experimented with Tom’s running poles the day before but I thought that was too much modification on race day. Then we headed out to the exchange point.
We got to the exchange at 10am – 2 hours into the race. Leg 1 finishes in a train yard in the middle of nowhere. I was nervous but it felt good starting my leg in the morning. I love relay/team races but I hate being one of the late day starts! While waiting at the exchange I took a few pictures, joked around with my team and waited for Tom to come running into the exchange point. The exchange points were crazy. There was nobody calling out racers that were nearing the station so the result was a few hundred groups waiting for their teammate to appear out of the woods. I called my wife and she told me how proud everyone was of me and that really calmed my nerves. Time seemed to drag and fly by all at once. It felt like I waited forever but I was suddenly grabbing the timing rod and coin from Tom. I zipped them away securely in my pack and headed out into leg 2!
Leg 2 – Electric Boogaloo. I started running and immediately entered a trail next to the train tracks. The trail was muddy and seconds later both of my shoes were full of water. I ran around a corner to the left and crossed the highway. On the other side of the road we began to climb up Flood Mountain. The climb was up an old access road that was in fair condition. This section was steady uphill with very little variations. The biggest problem I had in this section was the heat of the sun, which had really started burning. I found myself running on the right side of the road trying to get any shade I could.
I was wearing my Garmin and I paid close attention to my distance and time. I passed the 1km mark at just under 8 minutes. As I continued up the hill the road gradually got steeper and my pace slowed to around 10 minutes per km. I was steadily passing other racers. I kept a plus/minus going and at 3km I had passed nearly 20 people. At 4 I had passed an addition 10. I thought perhaps I was pushing too hard but I felt good and my pace felt comfortable.
After 6km of steady uphill the road had a short plateau. The road took a little s-curve through a shady section and I hoped this was a long break from the continual climb. It was a nice little section but was shorter than half a km. The road then continued up. I noticed at this point a major mistake in my planning for the race. I mixed my e Load with not enough water. I actually mixed it with the exact amount the package suggests but I am used to running with about double the suggested amount of water. It felt like I was sucking straight salt into my mouth and it was starting to make me feel sick. I had salt crystals forming on my lips and I realized I should have added more water and carried a small amount of pure water in my pack. I had no option but to keep running but I knew this was going to be a big problem.
I pushed up the next section and came to a blockade in the road. Race volunteers at the blockade were shocked that I was still smiling! They bet I wouldn’t be the next time I saw them. The course pushes you off the road and directly up to the top of Flood. This isn’t really much of a trail. It is very steep and you are climbing up through thick bush. I noticed many people sitting on the side of the trail trying to recover. This is like an extreme, never ending stair master. My claves were screaming at me in no time! I kept steady and didn’t stop through the next few painful kms. After a while the trail cleared the tree line and you could see the top of Flood. This made the remaining climb much easier even if the sun was trying to light me on fire. I stopped to help a runner snap a self portrait and it gave me a justified reason to take a little break.
At the top of Flood you have to swipe your timing rod. After two clear beeps I packed the rod away and started back down. The view was amazing but I was feeling great so I decided to not hesitate and head right back down the road. There were many runners stopped here resting and eating some food. My plus minus soared to over 100 passed at this point! I ran down the hill feeling exhilarated and it felt like I was running like my friends Colin and Soraiya! I burned down the road and in no time I was back at the blockade. I was still smiling and it felt great to prove the volunteers wrong!
At the blockade you turn sharply and head into the section known as Slugfest. I had read about this section on various blogs but it was really unlike anything I have ever run before. The first section is an extreme series of drops. The drops, called bum slides, are nearly vertical and go down forever. You really can’t run these and you literally lean back on your bum and slide down the hill, trying to find something to hold onto. People were having difficulty with the slides and were trying to use their poles to slow their descent. I was happy I wasn’t encumbered by poles. I found I could shimmy back and forth using roots and small trees as handholds. One runner, from Edmonton, said I must be part mountain goat as I was able to get down much faster than most. It didn’t feel like I was moving very fast. People were constantly stumbling and sliding out of control and rocks and other debris were rolling down past me. It was really quite frightening at times and I couldn’t stop thinking that nobody would choose to run a section like this if they weren’t in this race.
The bottom of the bum slides brought a new kind of pain. The majority of Slugfest is mud. You climb for 5km or more uphill in ankle to knee deep mud. It was thick and gross and at this point my calf muscles had almost had enough. My right calf was the first to cramp up. I stepped into what seemed to be an innocent puddle but it turned out to be deeper than my knee. I quickly pulled back so I wouldn’t lose my shoe and my right calf seized up. I stopped and stretched it out but I knew it was bound to lock up again if I wasn’t careful. Shortly after this I ran past a few men who were wading around in the mud. I jokingly asked how the water was and they told me that they were searching for a lost shoe! They had removed their shoes and socks and were using their naked feet to feel around the mud pit to find the lost shoe. Apparently they had up to 10 runners helping out at one point and I don’t believe they found the shoe!
After bogging my way through Slugfest the path narrows and starts to climb rapidly up Grande Mountain. I stepped up quickly with my left leg on a steeper section and my left calf seized up! I stopped and worked the muscle so it would release. Luckily it relaxed but I knew I needed to increase my water intake to prevent further cramps. Unfortunately my water mix was almost gagging me at this point so it was getting hard to drink. I kept moving steadily up the path but it was steep and my calves were getting angrier at me with every step. The path seemed to get even steeper and my right quad started to give. I stopped and held my leg but it was shaking and felt really weak. I almost thought I had to stop when another runner, a soloist who I had met the day before at registration, informed me that the aid station was at the top of the hill. I looked up and I could see the signs pointing to the station! I found the strength to make the last bit of the climb and I entered the aid station. The station was fantastic! They had lots of water and offered to completely fill my pack. I filled my pack to a full 3L (it was down to about half a litre) and I drank 4 big cups of fresh water. I instantly felt better. I took a minute to make sure my leg was okay and I left the aid station.
The section after the aid station was a wide road that went up gradually. I knew this road as I had been to the top of Grande many times before as a kid. I was really enjoying this section when the heat turned back up and the bugs started. The bugs were so thick they almost blacked out the sun at times. I had mosquitoes and black flies biting me everywhere. I didn’t have a lot of run in me but I kept moving to stop the bug bites. The black flies were so tough that smacking them on my arm didn’t kill them! They would just unfold and fly away! I ran up this section waving my arms and smacking my head like Curly from the Three Stooges but I just wanted to get clear of the bugs. I reached the top of Grande and I was blown away by the sheer beauty of my surroundings. I stopped to register our timing rod and take a few photos. I took a series of shots for a panorama and had a volunteer snap a shot of me. I didn’t stop long before I headed back down the other side of the mountain.
The next section of the race is called Power Lines and is considered one of the most dangerous parts of the entire Death Race! This section heads directly down the narrow cut in the trees cleared for the power lines that lead up the steeper side of Grande Mountain. The path is fairly wide but very steep and the ground is made up of loose shale and rock. There is no good line to head down as each path seemed to get suddenly very steep, forcing me to move over to a safer descent. People seemed to be having no luck with their poles on the shale and with the muscle fatigue many people were stopping often, trying to figure out how to keep going. I talked to a few soloists on the way down that had decided they were done after leg 2 and they were just trying to find the strength to make it to the 2/3 exchange. I had always imagined the Power Lines would be straight down the mountain but unfortunately it heads straight down and then back up again before continuing down. The climb up at this point was horrible. My legs were in constant spasm and I wasn’t sure they could go much further. I met up with a woman named Andrea, from Vegreville, on this section of the run. She was a soloist and had a fantastic sense of humour. We ran together and joked back and forth. The conversation took my mind off my legs and helped me keep moving down the remainder of the mountain. We saw another soloist in so much leg pain that he was trying to walk down the steeper sections backwards. The descent was still too steep and he slipped and rolled about 5 feet into some nearby bushes. We went over and helped him up and he reassured us he was okay. It took me forever but I finally made it down the mountain to the highway heading back into Grande Cache.
I was hoping to complete my leg in 5 hours. I had nothing to base this on other than a number I picked out of thin air. I looked at my watch and I was already over 5 hours and I still had to run back into town. I got a txt message from my teammate Bob asking if I was okay. I told him where I was and that it shouldn’t be too long before I was back in town. I was running on a trail parallel to the highway and I was having trouble breathing as I was running by the landfill. The smell was terrible but at least I could see the town up the hill. People were driving by and honking their horns and cheering the runners on. This was great and really helped push us into town. After the landfill was the graveyard which was another good motivator to keep running! My running speed felt slower than my normal walking speed but I kept going as steady a pace as I could manage. I turned the corner and headed towards the finish line. The corner was about a block from my hotel and I was tempted to just head back to my room! I ran past the Provincial Building and the Elementary school and I could see stage at the finish line. The great thing about finishing leg 2 is that you get to cross the finish line and it feels quite glorious. Like every race I am in I was able to muster up a little extra speed and a slightly better form in front of the cheering crowd. I approached the finish and could see my team yelling and cheering me in! I saw Dave, our leg 3 runner, and I took off my pack so I could get out the timing rod and our coin. Two quick beeps later and Dave was off running. I finished my leg in 5 hours, 40 minutes and 21 seconds, a personal best!
I walked through the finish line and my team surrounded me. I also saw a good friend of my Mom who gave me a big hug and told me I was awesome… even though I could barely walk and I was dripping sweat. I found a nice section of grass and sat down. My leg muscles were dancing in spasm, completely out of my control. I had a fruit cup and some chips from the recovery table before we started to leave for the hotel. I had trouble getting up but once I was up I was able to walk. I was good until I tried to get into the truck and my right calf muscle went into severe spasm. I had never been in so much pain! It felt like my calf restricted to a tight ball up near my knee. I fell back out of the truck and tried to get my muscle to release. I stood in tears as my teammate Brad kept me from falling over. I had to grab my right toe and pull as hard as I could. Finally my muscle released but it didn’t feel much better. I got into the truck and headed back to the hotel.
At the hotel I jumped into the shower and switched it from luke warm to ice cold and back. After a few minutes I went from cold to hot. My legs were caked in mud so thick I could barely scrape it off. Looking down I could tell that I was going to lose my left big toe nail… the blister under my nail was nearly black! I must have been in the shower over 20 minutes before I felt clean enough to shut it off. I got dressed and then laid down to rest. I couldn’t sleep but it felt great to just relax on the bed.
I got up about an hour later and headed out to the leg 3/4 exchange. Dave finished his leg in an amazing 2 hours and 14 minutes. We found out his Camelbak leaked from the start and he had no water for his entire run! Bob started leg 4, which was the longest of the entire race. He pushed hard into the night and finished in 6 hours and 9 minutes. During Bob’s run the rain set in. It started light but built up. When Brad headed out into the final leg it was pouring down. Brad started strong but it was so dark and rainy that he got mixed up on the trail and had to backtrack a few times. He stuck together with another racer and they found their way to the river crossing. He paid Charon (the ferryman of the dead) our coin and was taken to the other side of the river. We showed up at 2:30am hoping to see Brad soon. He took a while longer and finished at 4:14am at a time of 3 hours and 33 minutes. Just like that we had survived the 2011 Canadian Death Race! We were thrilled to be done, exhausted beyond belief and ready to hit the hotel.
Our official time was 20 hours, 14 minutes and 46 seconds. About 35% of the total time was my leg of the race. It was an amazing experience that had incredible highs and heartbreaking lows. I met so many amazing people, each with a unique story. It was hard to witness so many racers in tears, broken and packing it in. It was amazing to see people push through pain and fatigue and keep moving on. I have run a lot of races over the years and this easily was the hardest race and one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Did I train enough? Probably not. One of my biggest advantages was my support team. Say what you will about social media… Twitter, Facebook and Blogs, but I had an army of friends and family supporting me and I couldn’t have done it without them. It felt great to read all the words of encouragement and to know that so many were cheering me on! I had people wishing me well right up to the starting line and a ton of support the second I was done!
When I finished the race I said I was done with the Death Race. I pushed myself further than I ever had and I was more than happy with the results. The next day my team was already talking about next year! I didn’t know what to think. Did I want to do this all again? I made up my mind about one thing… I have checked Leg 2 off my bucket list. I may run the Canadian Death Race again but if I do I will be choosing a different Leg!
My recovery after the race was great. I had signed up for the Warrior Dash in Whistler on the Saturday after the Death Race and I didn’t back down. Two weeks later I ran the Whistler 5 peaks and my calves were angry at me but I did pretty good. I feel stronger now for finishing the Death Race… I feel like I could do anything I set my sights on!