This past weekend Lori and I ran The Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, AB. CDR was our big race of 2019, and something that I was very anxious about completing. It’s a 125 km (77.7 mi) 5181 m (17000′) Ultra in the Canadian Rockies. It’s known to be one of the more difficult ultras in Alberta (or even Canada?). When I registered way back in December, I wanted something difficult, something that I could fail at. As the race got closer, I was questioning my winter sanity, failing sounded painful, and success equally so.
We arrived in Grande Cache on Friday afternoon (after an all too exciting drive down.. I’ll spare you the story, but the details are on my FB page). We parked the trailer in Tent City, and picked up our race packages, things were feeling really real. I was getting a bit less nervous as things got closer. It was like the old kids song “Goin’ on a Bear hunt…”, Can’t go around it, We’ve got to go through it!
Friday night was a very fitful sleep for both Lori and I, the night seemed to go on forever, and sleep seemed elusive. Morning did finally come, and we got to the business of drinking coffee, getting dressed, eating something. Leo had come to crew Lori, Ron and myself, and we had our gear for the day organized in my Durango. We hoped we were ready for whatever was thrown at us.
Leg 1 – The Downtown Jaunt (aka CTFD, aka Calm the F&%k Down) – 19 km (+430m / -538m)
Leg 1 started in town, with a large crowd of runners. There were over 400 soloists, 200+ marathoners, and 100+ teams running.. We seeded ourselves in the pack, not worrying too much about where we settled. In retrospect, we should have tried to seed ourselves further up in the crowd to get ahead of the mayhem.
We started with around 6 km’s of road, through town, and out onto the highway. It at least allowed people to spread out a bit, and let us run a few faster km’s to get things going. Once we got onto the trail, things were in very poor condition and there were a lot of people trying to get through the trail. There was mud and knee deep puddles everywhere. People were doing their best to navigate around the puddles, which slowed things down considerably. There were also a lot of people who were impatient, pushing or forcing their way through the pack. Ron was pushed at one point, almost lost his glasses and fell. Being a big guy left him at a disadvantage because he sunk right into all the mud and was a bigger target for anyone who was in a rush.
We tried to remain calm, reminding ourselves that it was going to be a long-ass day and a few extra minutes waiting here would be no big deal.
We finally made it through the muddy trail and onto a gravel road, and though it was boring, it was a welcome break from the mayhem. My stomach was gurgley and it was a relief when we saw a line of 3 portapotties, perfect one for each of us, efficiency!
We arrived at the first TA and tried to make quick work of our transition. Change socks, grab some fuel (chocolate bars), and go…
Leg 2 – Flood & Grande Mountain Slugfest – 27 km (+1946m / -1841m)
Leg 2 is rated as the 2nd most difficult leg, with almost 2000 m’s of climbing and 27 km’s long. We knew that it would be a while until we saw Leo again, and that this one would be a slog. The leg starts by a climb up Flood Mountain. I’m feeling really good here, my feet feel amazing with dry socks, and it’s a nice steady climb up the mountain. As we’re weaving around people on this leg, passing them on the climb, we loose Ron. I keep looking back for him, but don’t see him. His couple of falls during Leg 1 had flared up a shin injury, Lori and I knew that we had to keep moving forward and running our race.
About 2/3rds of the way up the mountain the Marathon runners split off, and we continue up to the summit. The trail becomes a narrow single track trail here, and climbs steeply to the summit. The views on Flood were beautiful and it was the first time we felt truly rewarded for our efforts.
As we came down off Flood, we met back up with the Marathoners, and continued on towards Slugfest. This section is famous for shoe sucking mud, and we were all warned to make sure our shoes were tied on well beforehand. Recent rains in Grande Cache had stepped up Slugfest’s mudgame a notch or two, and this section would prove hilarious.
The mud was flowing down the hillside, as a waterfall, there was no avoiding getting your feet wet and muddy, it was just a matter of pushing through to the other side. After going down a couple of hills aptly named “bum slide” we made our way out and to the Grande Mt. AS.
After the AS, the trail starts to climb up Grande mountain, the mud subsides, and it’s just a matter of hiking up the mountain, this felt natural and in our wheelhouse. As we come over the rise of Grande, I snapped a couple quick pictures, more beautiful views, but the clouds are starting to gather, and we don’t have time to linger.
The trail does a loop around a weather station or building of some kind, just as it starts to rain… oh wait, that’s not rain, rain doesn’t hurt like this! We stop for a brief moment to put on hats to protect a bit from the elements, Lori has her jacket out already, but I don’t, no time, so I endure the thousand knife stabs of the hail on my arms as we try to make our way off the mountain as quickly as possible.
The decent down the Powerline trail is steep, rocky and relentless with a river running through it from the rain and hail. As we descend, the hail relents and turns to a rain shower, I’m wet but not cold. The trail also morphs from rocky to a mudfest… I’m sensing a theme for this day. We and other runners are trying to find a way down this mountain that doesn’t involve sliding on our butts, so we pick the grassy side trails, instead of the center mud slick slide. It’s steep and slow going… so much for making up time on the downhills!
The second half of the descent gets worse still and we feel like we’re in a human bowling game, people are tail-gaiting and slip sliding into each other, we just pray that no one takes us out as we make our own lines down the mountain.
Second TA (the Start/Finish area) – portapotties!, get some food, and refill bladders, changing shoes and socks seems pointless here.
Leg 3 – Old Mine Road 19 km (+689m / -952m)
Leg 3 promises to be easier… it’s also the leg that will tell us if we can continue onto Hamel, so feels like it will be the do or die part of the race. If we make the next cutoff, our odds of finishing go up. We don’t know whether to hope to make the cutoff or not…
We leave town, and get onto more muddy trail (yay?)… when we get to the highway crossing and the entrance to the Grande Cache dump, we are warned by a race marshal that a black bear, grizzly and 2 cubs have just entered the dump… who knew that black bears and griz’s hang out! Also we get to run through the dump now… all the best Grande Cache sights!
This leg is a net downhill, which is nice, but it also has a lot of road, dirt road, and running in it. There is less mud, but we have creek crossings, so our feet are still wet. Lori’s feet are starting to really hurt during this leg. My legs and feet are still in pretty good shape, niggles here and there, but nothing consistent, so I ignore the sensations.
Third TA – Lori’s feet are in bad shape. She has multiple blisters and they are starting to look like trench foot from all the wet. We have 45 minutes grace before the cutoff to start leg 4, we sit for 30 minutes to get our stuff organized and let her feet dry. Leo tapes them the best he can. We gather food, headlamps, jackets and cold weather gear. It’s going to be a while before we have support again, and night is coming.
Leg 4 – Hamel Assault 38 km (+2465m / -2476m)
We start up Leg 4 slowly, I go in front, trying to find the dry route up for Lori’s feet. If her feet get worse, the race will be over, so it’s imperative that we are careful. There is a lot of water on the first half of the climb, but you can avoid most of it. I have a couple steps where a trickle goes into my shoes, but I think Lori’s feet stayed dry. We pass Hamel escape, this is the last bailout point, there is a brief reprieve in the uphill before we start up the quad trail towards the Hamel AS.
When we get to the Hamel AS, I grab some chips and tell Lori she’d better eat. I know that neither of us has been eating enough and Lori is not good at eating deep into races like this. I see her take a couple of chips, what I don’t see is her eat one, and throw the rest in the bushes! Bad Girl Lori!!!
As we come out of the trees, we see Hamel, we’ve come up a long way, but the summit still looks a long ways off. The wind starts to pick up here, but there is no way around this monstrosity but to push forward. The approach looks a lot like Moose Mountain, with long switch backs. Each turn onto a new switch back seems like a victory, we keep plugging away pushing upwards into the wind. Sunset is looming, I’d hoped we’d be up Hamel a bit earlier, but there’s nothing to do but move forward as fast as we can.
As we approach the summit, I hear our friend Alan, he’s on the summit, taking pictures. It is good to hear a familiar voice. One of the oh so cruel, bonus km’s in CDR is an out and back on Hamel, you follow the ridgeline to a bucket of flags, and bring one back to prove you made it. This section is probably the hardest, mentally and maybe physically of the day. The wind is howling, we heard that it was over 100 km’s per hour, it is literally threatening to blow us over. Lori and I both grip our beloved Boston hats and press towards the bucket of flags. When we reach the flags, I stuff one in my shorts pockets, Lori’s hands are so cold that she can’t do anything with hers, so I stuff it with mine in my shorts. We have to make our way back to where we came from and hand the flags over to the race marshal. Lori sees the wind pick me up a few times, I feel like I’m being tossed around, just trying to stay near the trail, but not roll an ankle on the rocky path. We finally make it back to the marshal, I give her one flag, but don’t have the dexterity to get the other, so I hold my pocket open for her to grab it.
We are finally going to get to start descending Hamel, it’s getting dark, but we are too cold to get our headlamps or gloves. We pass Alan, and he tries to snap some pictures, but his camera battery is too cold, at this point, I could care less about pictures, I just want off this mountain.
We stumble down the rocky path as quickly as we can towards the treeline. I manage to turn on my Kogalla waist light to help illuminate our path. We finally make it to the trees and a bit of shelter. We dig out our gloves, and headlamps to aid our descent. I can tell that Lori’s IT Bands are really bothering her as she painfully side steps down the mountain. The trail is rocky at this point, and difficult to get any good speed going downwards. We are almost 50 miles into our day, and are feeling the distance at this point.
The trail levels out again, and the mud and puddles start again. We can navigate around most of the puddles. Our mantra has become, thank God for poles, but after over 12 hrs of gripping them, my right had is starting to seriously hurt, it feels sprained. I’m trying to take a few breaks from holding the pole in my right hand, but it’s leading to slips and almost falls.
We finally start to hear noise and see lights from the Ambler loop AS. This is such a welcome sight as it feels like it’s been forever in the dark since we’ve crossed a milestone. We’ve both been avoiding looking at our garmins or watches in fear that they will confirm how slow we are moving. We grab a bit of food from the AS, including a cup of broth, and start on the 5 km Ambler loop. It starts on a wide road, that we’re power hiking, too tired to run. It isn’t far into this section that our friend Rod catches up with us. Rod has run CDR almost a dozen times, and is very experienced. He’s not a fast runner, but knows the course, and how to get in before the cutoffs. He reminds us as he comes up to us, “if I pass you, you’re in trouble”… shit. fine. i guess we’re running.
So we run, the adrenaline from the fire he sets under our ass makes the running less painful. Ambler turns on to a side trail, that once again, is full of huge puddles and mud. We work our way forward, trying to keep our feet dry, and get back to the AS. I grab another cup of soup at the AS, this time with noodles in it. I’ve never enjoyed soup more.
The course goes down a dirt road for about 6 kms here, it’s boring, but nice to have dry feet, and not have to negotiate or think about footing. Rod catches up to us again, shit… we have to run again. We may have had some choice names for Rod at this point. He is saving our bacon though, so we suck it up and run when we can.
The road ends and we’re told 2km’s of trail along a ditch, and then we’re at the TA. Finally.
Fourth TA. It’s the middle of the night, and we know now, we just have to make it through the final leg and we’re done. This feels good. Leo has a couple of A&W Chicken burgers that he’s kept warm somehow (I didn’t give AF how at this point). I grab a burger, and head for the porta-pottie (as one does…) We put on warm clothes and stuffed more food in our packs. We were going to finish this thing!!
Leg 5 – The River Crossing 22 km (+838m / -567m)
As we started Leg 5 we were warned by a volunteer that some racers had been followed (stalked?!) by a cougar just before the boat. They recommended that we run in groups. There were quite a few people heading out on 5 at the same time, and Lori and I were sticking together, so I wasn’t super worried.
Leg 5 starts as a single track trail, it’s fairly narrow, and not a super established trail. We joked that it was run on approximately once a year for Death Race. We jogged what we could, but in the dark, with lots of roots and ups and downs, it was hard to get any speed. It was around 7 k to the boat, which seemed to take a while. Rod passed us during this section, and I didn’t expect to see him again. I wasn’t super stressed though, because in my mind, things were fairly easy going after the boat.
We got to a check point, which I saw and though, YES, we made it… well almost. They told us, it was just 1 k further to get to the boat. It didn’t take long, and we were standing in front of Charon. This is the most unique part of CDR. In Greek mythology, Charon is the ferryman of Hades who carries the souls of the dead across the river that divides the world of the living from the world of the dead.
We approached Charon, who stood in silence waiting for us to hand our coin over as payment for the ride across the river. If you do not have your coin, they will not let you pass, and you must DNF at this point. Luckily, Lori and I both pulled out our coins and were allowed passage across the river.
Once we were across the river, there was a nice big climb up and out of the river valley. We climbed 300m (1000′) over approx 2.5 kms. This felt like a lot of work, but I expected it, so was able to put my head down and get it done. Just after the climb, we passed Rod again, I hadn’t expected to see him again. Having him behind me put the pressure on. He was timing things to make it in under the cutoffs and I did not want him to pass us again. I knew that we came out in town at some point after the climb, but didn’t know how long we’d have to go on trail before we saw pavement. It felt like a long ways, and my legs and feet were really hurting at this point. There was also a lot of the same mud, and puddles to dodge. Dodging mud and puddles was certainly wearing on me at this point. I needed my poles to help keep my balance, but my right hand especially was really sore. It was approximately 6 kms on this trails. This is where I started to fall into a bad headspace. Everything hurt and I didn’t want to run. I could feel the cutoff (and Rod…) pressing down on me. I started to count my running steps, I’d run as many steps as I could while counting, take a walk break and repeat.
We finally came out on a gravel road, which seemed to go up and up forever. It was really only 2 km’s to the finish, but it seemed to last a lifetime. I was moving, hiking and running the flats/downhills as fast as I could, but it felt like I was going backwards. My feet and legs were so sore, but I kept telling myself that everyone was hurting, this was normal. I reminded myself that Lori had pushed through the IT Band pain earlier in the race, and I had to do the same. We finally asked a couple of ladies running close by how much farther it was, and she said were were only about 500m’s from town, and then it would be a quick couple of blocks to the finish! Wow. Ok I could do this. And I knew at that point also that we were going to make the cutoff and finish sub 24:00 hrs. It was way closer than I’d hoped or imagined, but it didn’t matter at that point, we were going to finish.
We got to town, and the rest of the race was a power hike, mostly up hill in town.
Once we were on the grass and saw the finish arch, we jogged it in to the finish! Both Lori and I were fighting back tears those last few steps, tears of exhaustion, tears of joy, tears of pride.
Brian gave us our beer bottles and buckles (which are pretty damn cool IMO).
Huge thanks to Tim for putting up with all my training, absences, giving out massages, etc, etc. I swear I have the most supportive husband ever. Love you babe!
Thanks to Leo for spending his weekend looking after drunk toddlers. I promise to return the favor in CO next summer.
Thank you Ron for the runs, looking forward to more!
Thanks Rod for kicking us in the ass when we needed it, I am certain we would not have done this sub 24 hr otherwise.
Lori. This one was pretty big… there were even talks of a hug. For the record, I was so proud of you for pushing through the foot and ITB issues, and was only trying to be as tough as you in the last leg. Let’s find some unicorns and puppies next year. 🤗🥰
The official numbers:
Finish: 23:35:34 AG: 12/28 OA: 218/435
In my bladder – Skratch (x 6L’s total)
Apple sauce pouches
Reese PB cups
Honey Stinger Waffle
A&W Chicken Burger
2 cups of soup, 1 with ichiban noodles