Canadian Death Race - Report by Barb Isom
Canadian Death Race
by Barb Isom
Without a doubt the Canadian Death race is the hardest thing I have ever done. However, it should be noted that I have never been to or attempted any of the 100 mile races out west, i.e. Hardrock, Wasatch, Western States, or Bighorn. I feel sure these are probably harder especially given the extra miles. The race is broken into five legs which can be run as a relay or solo. I believe we started with around 417 solo racers on the roster and 150 finished this year. Conditions were evidently not the norm for the area. They had been having the same heat experienced throughout much of the U.S. this summer. The woman we stayed with said it never gets above 72 degrees F but we had temps in the low 80s. Conditions had also been very dry which probably made for a much easier race this year.
There is much hype surrounding this event. It was originally begun 10 years ago to help bring people and money into the town. It's very expensive but the idea is that the money goes to support the community which, I should add, is a super bunch of people. It seemed most of the town and surrounding areas turned out to cheer for the runners. There are several hotels in town, one town campground, and a tent city in the ball field. We were extremely lucky in that I had requested through the tourism office a driveway where we could park our mini RV and plug into electric. We found just such a place about two blocks from race start and all the events. The owner was a super, ex-runner named Alta who was kind enough to offer her driveway and whatever else she could do to make our stay comfortable.
Initially upon arrival in Grande Cache, Vicki and I talked with as many people as we could who had done or attempted the race. I was very nervous about the cutoff time of 24 hrs. We met people who were here for their second, third, or fourth attempt -- this did wonders for my confidence! But we did glean lots of information on the legs of the race and a little of what to expect.
There are no aid stations as we have come to know them. The race director said to me quite frankly when I inquired about what to expect,
'bring your own food." Everything is pre-packaged: cookies, nacho chips, candies, Rice Krispie treats, etc. There were a total of four full aid stations with water, Gatorade and the pre-packaged food. In addition there were three emergency aid stations, one of which you hit twice with a 5k loop between it. These had only water and Gatorade; although I did pick up a granola bar at one which, I believe, is about all they had in the way of food.
Packet pickup started past 12:30 pm instead of the scheduled 12:00 pm. Something about the t-shirts were in town but had not yet reached packet pickup. The pre-race was scheduled from 8:30 PM to 9:30 PM which is past my bedtime especially in Mountain Time. This also started late with much hype. Hype seemed to be the theme for the entire event. The race is really part of a four day community carnival with kiddy rides, bands, food, etc. Vicki and I decided to get as much information from previous runners and get to bed.
Saturday morning arrived and we got our timing devices checked. Along with the timing device you must carry a coin to be given to Charon (the ferryman of the dead) at the river crossing in exchange for safe passage across Hell's Gates. You wear an ID bracelet so if you’re found somewhere unconscious they can at least identify you as a racer. The story goes that the sweeps came across a guy asleep or unconscious or something near the trail the NEXT day. No one knew he was missing . . . hmmmm! Over and over we had heard to push the first two or three legs and then you can relax on the last two or three. As we started out I told Vicki to take the lead and I would do the best I could to not drag too far behind. There was nothing dramatic in the first leg of 11 miles. We reached the first aid station in 2:04, a very good time which surprised me. We could see that in wetter years there would be many shoe sucking bog sections but for us it was nice and dry. When we emerged on a wide gravel road, to our surprise Alta was waiting to cheer us on from her truck pulling a trailer of furniture on her way to take her daughter to Edmonton to begin her first year of college. An example of the support from the community. This was a very dusty and hot section. We did not have Charlie meet us here since it was only 11 miles but it’s important to note that the next place you can have a crew makes it 28 miles without much in the way of food.
Leg two is the second hardest and the second most beautiful. After leaving aid station one you climb, and climb, and climb. There were a couple of short downhills but not many. Eventually we made a sharp right, climbed 'the stairway to heaven' and topped out to an alpine meadow on Flood Mountain. There were beautiful views and a nice place to rest for a minute. We next went down to Washy Creek, up and down some more (mostly up) to an emergency aid station, then another long slightly wet climb to Grande Mountain. After this came the most worrisome part from the race description. It is described as a steep power line with loose rocks. It was butt sliding in more than one place. If you don't butt slide then you must run really fast so your feet don't slide. For us it was very dusty but if it had been a wet year, I believe the descent would have been much more difficult. First you go down then up then down, down, down into town to Aid Station Charlie waiting with PBJ's and chips -- what a relief. We were making good time arriving in 6 hours 54 minutes total race time.
The third leg was the hardest for me. It was extremely runable with no climbs or descents but very hot. For a while it follows a beautiful glacier river, The Smokey. The last part turned us onto what was supposed to be a concrete bridge but all I could see was mud. We were running on mud and the mud continued up the sides -- I concluded Canadians have very strange bridges. This section got even hotter as we came out onto a railroad which ran parallel to the road. By the time we saw Charlie at about 65K with 10:04 total race time I was hot and not feeling too great but knew I just needed coolness. That would happen soon as the day was waning and we would be climbing next.
The fourth leg is by far the most beautiful. We started climbing as soon as we left the aid station and boy did we climb! The forest is deep and beautiful. Finally we reached an emergency aid station and the first top. The view was incredible! Next down a short bit before we started climbing again. Soon we broke out into the open and way, way up and a very long way away I could see tiny little specs. PEOPLE??!! They did not appear to be moving but placed at various places along a winding trail going up, up, up. It turns out they were BARELY moving! This was a definite 'YIKES' for me . . . OK look around at the beauty—don't look up! Hard climb to the top but there really was a top. Here we dropped our packs for a jaunt out and back along the spine of Mt. Hamel to pick up our prayer flags. Then on with the packs again and down, down, down. Easy running provided you have any legs left. Finally at about 10:10 PM we turned on our flashlights. We continued mostly down on a jeep road until we came to a check point with a couple of guys telling us, "it's only 2K to the aid station." By this time some of the distances seemed like Horton distances. Time-wise we were doing great: 17:32! Big relief! We met our wonderful aid station person extraordinaire and woke him up. We were about an hour and a half earlier than we expected to be but Charlie rallied quickly, gave us our provisions, and we were finally on the last leg.
Thankfully this leg had no serious ups or downs and from what I could see of the forest it was beautiful even in the dark. About 5 AM we packed away our lights and pretty soon we saw the road that would take us to town -- YAY!! Dirt road to paved road, some turns and there was the finish!! I cannot tell you how happy I was to see that and in decent time! The crowd went wild when we finished -- they really are great. Total finish time 21:57 and some change. Charlie gets a big hug from both of us. By the way, having a crew is almost necessary. There is only one drop bag place and, as I said, no real aid station food.
I am very glad I did this race. Yes, there are some issues associated with the way the event is run but I still enjoyed the time out there. The trails are extremely 'runnable' provided you can actually run that amount of time and, of course, run UP.