Saturday, 11 August 2018

Canadian Death Race Report - 2018

The best thing you could do is MASTER the chaos in you.
You are not thrown into the fire.
~Mama Indigo

The Canadian Death Race was the first ultra marathon I had ever heard of. I thought that it was simply CRAZY and I couldn’t believe that any human could run 125K, especially in the mountains with 17,000’ in elevation gain.  When it first came across my radar, CDR was only 4 years old and I was running trail races that maxed out at 10K.  Fast forward 15 years, a few thousand miles and many races later, and I decided that this was the year that I would visit Grande Cache to check this iconic Canadian race out for myself.
Short Version:  This race was TOUGH, but I wouldn’t have expected anything less.  I ran very clean and finished feeling strong in 22:19:07; 23/91 females; 111/325 overall; 95 DNF’s.
Long Version: Those that read my race reports know that what follows here will be my attempt to process and record the whole event as well as a detailed account of the legs of the race for anyone wanting such info as they plan their own race in coming years.

I have been having a very good year.  It took me most of last year to recover mentally and physically from Zion 100, but I came back this year feeling like my old running self and have remained injury free all season.  I hired a coach and trained with purpose and a plan, but also with intuition and grace, listening to my body as I often flirted with that delicate line between overreaching and overtraining.  In an attempt to train for a mountain ultra in the flattest place in Canada, I added more power moves to my strength routine, more mileage and hill repeats to my runs, and went to Canmore and Banff for a self designed running camp to get my legs and lungs as ready as I could in my peak week. I arrived in Grande Cache feeling completely ready and very positive, stronger than ever.  I knew that I had trained as well as I could, and I was excited to experience the infamous “Death Race.”  The day before the race I sat on my bed with acupuncture needles in my legs doing my breathing exercises.  My Qi was flowing strongly and as I visualized my perfect race, I further contemplated my WHY.

I strongly believe in consciously defining and redefining my WHY.  One must arrive at any start line with a crystalline sense of purpose and reason for being there.  Coming into CDR I knew I could do the distance.  I knew I could suffer and keep going.  I knew I could slug it out up and down mountains.  I knew that this time was about something more, but I couldn’t define it.  Then I got a text from a friend that said, “By the time you cross the finish, you will have learned more about yourself than most dare to imagine!”  A seemingly innocuous message until I thought about it more.

…than most dare to imagine…

Yes, that was it. I wanted to discover parts of myself that I hadn’t dared to uncover, or even contemplated.  I wanted to run this race with discipline and strategy, while staying completely in tune with my body and in control of my mind.  I had chosen to do CDR without a crew because I really wanted to see what I could do out there when I had only me to rely on.  This time it was about execution - orchestrating the day well and staying in control right through to the finish line.

Race Morning - 8:00am Start

Forest fires in the area had blanketed the mountains in a dense haze in the days before the race, however I woke up to clear cloudless skies and perfect running temperatures. Yay!  As I rolled out of bed my first conscious thought was, ‘you haven’t looked at the cut offs.’  I am a solid mid pack runner. I’ll never win, but I’ve never had to worry about cut offs before.  I had done my race plan and split chart, but hadn’t included the cutoffs for each leg.   I felt strongly impressed to write them down, and as I scribbled them on the back of my chart I hoped that I wouldn’t need to worry about them. (note blatant foreshadowing here with a hint of divine intervention)

At the start line I met my friend Todd and we hung around as the marshalling area started to fill up.  I was pleasantly surprised to bump into an old military friend from Comox (Chris M) whom I haven’t seen in years!  It’s crazy how people’s paths can cross in the most unexpected places.  He was racing the relay, doing Legs 1,2 and 5.  I wished him well and then off we went!

Leg 1 - Downtown Jaunt
Distance: 19K  Gain: +430m / -538m  NO POLES
Leg Time: 2:15  Elapsed Time: 2:15
TOD: 10:15am  Cut off: 1:00pm
Time in TA 1/2: 5 min

The race started with a loop around town that took all of 9 min and then a gentle stretch of road running before we filed into the trees to start dancing around large mud puddles on quad trails.  I was solidly committed to following the Rule of Thirds, and kept it super easy all throughout this stretch.  Grande Cache had had a week of rain prior to the race, and I knew my feet would get wet during this section…and they did.  Once out of the forest, we ran gradually uphill on gravel road and before I knew it we were at the Leg 1/2 transition area (TA). My coach Sarah had warned me to change my socks after this leg.  I quickly filled up all 2.5L of my water carrying capacity in preparation for a long Leg 2, ate some watermelon and oranges, and pulled off my shoes.  My feet were already white, wrinkly and starting to macerate from the water.  I doused them in baby powder, put a blister pad on one toe, pulled on fresh socks, and my damp but essentially clean shoes.  This turned out to be the EXACT right thing to do.  I’ve learned taking a few minutes for foot care pays off HUGE in the long run.  No pun intended!

Leg 2 - Flood and Grande Mountain Slugfest
Distance: 27K  Gain: +1946m / -1841m  POLES
Leg Time: 5:28  Elapsed Time: 7:43
TOD: 3:43pm. Cut off: 6:00pm
Time in TA 2/3: 9 min

If there was one thing that I had been lectured on, it was “do not trash your legs coming down off Leg 2 if you want to have anything to run with off Hamel.” The climbs up Flood and Grande Mountain weren’t that bad, but the downhills were insane!  They were completely unrunnable, at least for me.  There were people going down all around me, and many runners with very muddy buttocks.
Top of Grande Mountain

Now let’s talk about the mud.  They don’t call it Slugfest for nothing.  Not only was there mud literally flowing down the mountain, but there were huge pits of mud everywhere.  It would have been quite fun as we tromped through the muck spraying mud everywhere, if we weren’t less than 1/3 done a very long race.  There was no avoiding it and before long I was splattered and coated in a thick layer of brown.  I had grossly underestimated the time needed for this leg, and even though I moved as steadily as I could it still took me 5 1/2 hours.

Knowing that Leg 2 had the reputation of being the hardest leg, and expecting a mud bath, I had chosen the words Grace & Gratitude as my theme words for the first third.  I remembered this as I leaned heavily on my poles coming down power line swallowing curses, and then took a moment to wash up in a nice clear stream as we neared town and TA 2/3.  This leg was knee hammering and soul sucking, but it was done and I was grateful.
Pics don't do this justice - it was steep!
Transition Area 2/3 is back at the start/finish line, and I quickly changed shoes and socks that were already full of baby powder.  This is my new secret weapon as my feet did extremely well right to the end!  After another water fill up and race fuel resupply, I headed out on Leg 3!
Coming into TA 2/3 after my creek "bath" totally focused
Leg 3: Old Mine Road
Distance: 19K  Gain: +689m / -952m  NO POLES
Leg Time: 3:20  Elapsed Time: 11:03
TOD: 7:03pm. Cut off: 7:45pm
Time in TA 3/4: 12 min

I had just finished one marathon and had two more to go.  My feet felt amazing in fresh socks and shoes and my legs felt really good as well.  As we started a short climb up out of town past the dump, I heard a few runners around me talking about making the Leg 3/4 cut off.  Until this point I was running my first third easy pace, moving steadily and I thought as efficiently as possible given the conditions, oblivious to the cut offs.  Hmm.  Maybe I’d better check.  I pulled out my split chart, looked at my scribbles on the back, and realized with a jolt that although I was well ahead of cut offs on the previous 2 legs, the one coming up was much tighter.  Although I was still ok, I knew I was going to have to keep moving well, and with my middle third theme words of Focus & Flow going through my mind, I took full advantage of the gentle downhill grade on most of this leg and ran steadily.  While the terrain wasn’t challenging in Leg 3, it was the hottest part of the day and felt very humid and heavy in the dense trees along the Old Mine Road.  I had been consistently eating every 45 min and taking 2 salt pills every hour, along with a ginger gravol tablet every 3 hours.  Other than 200 calories of very dilute Tailwind, I had been drinking only water and I was thrilled that my stomach was staying completely settled with no nausea or GI distress.  But I WAS getting hungry.  I knew I was getting low on calories and couldn’t wait for the yam sushi that I hoped would be waiting for me at the next aid station.

So, remember how I said I was doing this race without a crew?  Well that was the plan, and I left drop bags prepared to be self supported the whole day.  However, my brother Scott had just flown into Calgary from Abu Dhabi, where he works, and he really wanted to come cheer me on.  He convinced his friend Rob to drive out to Grande Cache with him, and I knew they were planning on meeting me at TA 3/4 to provide some moral support and share in my adventure!  Scott sustained a complete spinal cord injury at T3 when he was 13 years old, and to say it was something special to have him at this race is a gross understatement. 

As the minutes ticked away and the sun started to drop in the sky, I started to get anxious.  The aid station should be coming up soon. As my watch hit 19K, I thought I was almost there.  And then we crossed the road and headed up, and up, and up.  They had apparently added another km of very technical terrain that slowed me down considerably and quite frankly pissed me off.  My stomach was growling, I was close to bonking, and I knew I would have to make a very quick transition if I was to stay ahead of cut offs.  If there was a low point in the race, this was it for me.  It is very normal for me to get cranky between 10 and 11 hours of time on feet. I know that, expect it, and take it for what it is.  Nothing lasts forever.  Coming down into the TA, we had to use ropes to lower ourselves down - was that really necessary?!  Well, it was the Death Race after all.  I had chosen not to bring poles on this leg and was so thankful that I didn’t need to worry about hanging onto them during this section.  Full use of my hands was essential and poles really weren’t necessary for this leg.

I ran into TA 3/4 to see Scott and crew there cheering me on.  Wow did they ever give me a boost!  Scott met me with a huge smile, yam sushi and a nice bottle of cold Coke!  Just what I needed.  The first thing out of his mouth was, “Kim! Are your legs ever HUGE!  When did they get so big?!”  That was NOT just what I needed, but I laughed and told him that’s what happens when you train for crazy races like this.  At least they're functional.
Sushi...cue Cookie Monster voice
He said Todd had left just 10 minutes before me, but had rested for quite a while.  That meant he was making good time and I was glad he was on pace. I would have love to sit and chat, but knew that would come later.  I started barking instructions, filling my bottles with Green Tea Tailwind, and stocking my pack for Leg 4, the longest leg of the race.  I had a list taped to the inside of my drop box, and as Scott read it off, I shoved 2 headlamps, a rain jacket, bear spray, 8 snacks, portable charger, watch charging cord, emergency blanket and arm sleeves into my pack.  I reapplied Body Glide and changed shirts, all the while shoving sushi and cheese sticks into my mouth.  My feet were good - no need for attention.

Loading up my pack
All that gear combined with 2.5 litres of water resulted in a very heavy pack, but I didn’t want to be caught up on Mt. Hamel without it if the weather shifted, as it was known to do.  I grabbed my poles and one more piece of sushi and headed out at 7:15pm, only 30 min ahead of the cut off.  Yikes.

Leg 4: Hamel Assault
Distance: 38K  Gain: +2465m / -2476m. POLES
Leg Time: 7:22  Elapsed Time: 18:25
TOD: 2:25am. Cut off: 4:45pm
Time in TA 3/4: 7 min

I was just over halfway done the race at this point, 65K done and 60K to go.  Immediately after leaving the TA, we started the 10K climb to the top of Mt. Hamel.  Other than 2 very short flattish sections, it was a steady death march up that mountain in the dying light.  The cut off at Hamel Escape was 10:15pm and no one around me seemed to know exactly how far up the mountain that was.  We assumed it was at the top, and so I was doing math the whole way up.  I knew I had to average 4K/hour to make it and I climbed as if my life depended on it.  There was NO WAY I was going to get pulled off that course by anyone.  

I do not consider myself a good climber, even when I lived in the mountains.  Downhill running has always been my strength.  I was quite surprised to find that I was passing a lot of people as we climbed that mountain.  I was fuelled by caffeinated Tailwind (nectar of the gods), a light rain (I love rain) and my brother’s admonition that, “if I come all they way out there, you’d better finish.” I approached  Hamel Escape at the 8K mark, after 1h37min of climbing and had gained 21 places!  Yay!  Still rather close for my liking, but I knew I had made the last tight cut off.  As we headed the last 2K up Mt. Hamel the rain stopped and just as we reached the alpine line the most beautiful double rainbow appeared.  I love the alpine and breathed in the fresh air, took in the view and snapped a picture of that beautiful rainbow.  I was feeling great and it was so magical that I almost expected a unicorn to appear!  I said a silent prayer to God thanking Him for the rainbow and running with me that day.

Around this time I locked in behind Mike, a seasoned Albertan ultra runner who could move with the momentum of a freight train, slow but unstoppable.  Hearing that he had done this race several times, I asked him if we were on target to finish in time.  He said no problem, that it would likely be 22 hours, maybe 22:30.  I vowed not to let him out of my sight.
My trail buddy Mike - the only person I really talked to the whole race. Thanks for the beta Mike!

We topped out on Hamel as the sun was setting.  In the deepening dusky light, we did a short out and back to retrieve a flag, and then headed down off the mountain.  It was windy and cool, but really the weather was perfect.  I couldn’t have asked for better weather up there.  As the light faded, I switched on my headlamp and began the long descent off the mountain, just ahead of Mike.  The grade was very runnable, but the darkness and uneven rocks stopped me from really stretching out.  I didn’t want to risk spraining an ankle way up there.  I reached the Ambler Loop aid station just after midnight.  This aid station was very minimal, but I didn’t need much.  I had left a drop bag with warm clothes there in case the weather was really bad, so I grabbed my hat and gloves just in case it got cold and kept pushing on.

Entering the final third, the Ambler Loop was pretty uninspiring and brought to you by the letter D - Dig Down.  It was frustrating because I wanted to run, but the quad track was again covered in very large puddles or completely flooded out.  I did not want to run through the water with at least 30K still to go and took the time to go around them all, often hanging onto a tree with one hand an placing my pole deep into the swampy puddle with the other hand while slipping and skirting my way around praying I wouldn’t end up face first in the swamp.  At this point I would normally feel the need for music, but I was content with my own thoughts and the sounds of the forest.  After passing several spots where I could smell the distinctive scent of animals, I also kept an ear out for bears, hooting and hollering every so often.
Pictures taken on the Ambler Loop while flagging the day before. Imagine this in the dark. 

After checking in at the Ambler Loop aid station again, I started the last 11K down the road to TA 4/5.  This section was perfectly graded for running and I flew down that road feeing amazing.  Near the bottom I caught up with Mike.  We must have crossed paths in the Ambler Loop.  I ran strongly into the TA with a huge smile on my face to find Scott waiting there for me at 2:30 am.

I may have rather loudly (too loudly, possibly abnoxiously) announced that I was feeling GREAT, quickly gulped down some hot noodles, grabbed 5 snacks, refilled my bottles, and jumped up as soon as I saw Mike headed out. See ya at the finish Scott!

Leg 5: The River Crossing
Distance: 22K  Gain: +838m / -567m  POLES
Leg Time:  3:54 Elapsed Time: 22:19
TOD: 6:19am. Cut off: 8:00am

I was 103K into the Canadian Death Race and I felt like a million bucks.  I was still feeling some time pressure as I knew there was lots of climbing still left on this leg, and I wanted to get to the river crossing with enough time to walk it out if I had to.  The 7K to the boat was pretty tame, but it seemed impossible to really get running.  There was dense foliage and slippery roots that you couldn’t see in the dark, and just when I started to get some momentum I would come upon someone trekking and would have to decide if I wanted to pass or not.  I finally firmly decided I wasn’t going to get sucked into trekking when I didn’t need to and continued to pass people along this stretch.  

When I reached Hell’s Gate and the boat that would take me across the Smokey River, I triumphantly surrendered my CDR coin for passage (no coin, no boat ride, no finish).  I timed out for the crossing and a mere 3 minutes later timed back in on the other side, just after 4:00am.  This time would be subtracted from my race time at the end.  Once across the river, my adrenaline started to ebb. 
In the boat
15K to go.  Climbing.  So much climbing.  20 hours into the race and I was done with climbing.  Dig down. I wanted to move fast, to get this thing done.  Wherever possible I continued to run, even though it wasn’t fast.  It felt much better to run than trek, on both my body and my mind.  I was so grateful my feet and legs felt fine - no excuses not to run other than fatigue.  Dig down. As the pre-dawn light started to turn the sky orange and pink, the birds started chirping.  I popped out of the forest, continued to climb up a gravel road and suddenly I was in town only a few blocks from the finish line.  Yahoo!
A whole lotta "2s" in this picture.  Isn't that the number of prosperity in Chinese?
I crossed the line at 6:19am and as I gave my brother the biggest/smelliest/dirtiest hug, I immediately choked up.  He is and always will be my greatest hero. I admire him beyond measure - for all that he has endured, overcome, and accomplished since his spinal cord injury. He has never made excuses for himself and has pushed through daily chronic pain and innumerable barriers to become highly educated, move up the corporate ladder and travel the world.  I had just completed the Canadian Death Race and he had waited up all night to cheer me on.  I felt simultaneously proud, relieved, humbled, unworthy, grateful and loved.  I have no doubt that if my brother was able-bodied, he’d be running these races with me.  Someday in another place, in another dimension, we will run together.  But for now, we hugged, he took pictures and I just sat still for a while with him by the fire, feeling the magnitude of the day.

Post Race Thoughts

The Canadian Death Race has garnered respect from it’s inception, and not just because of it’s badass name.  It’s hard.  There is an incredible amount of elevation gain that is spread throughout the entire course.  The rough terrain combined with some tight cut offs results in a race that must be taken seriously.  CDR is not an ultra one can hike and finish in the 24 hour cut off.  I finished top 1/3 overall and top 1/4 among the women, and I was cutting it pretty close with some of the cutoffs.  I do not think I could have run it much faster which left little room for error or something going wrong.

That said, I am super happy with my race execution.  I paced perfectly, managing an almost perfectly equal split between the first and last half, thanks in part to how they distributed the climbs.  I only spent 32 minutes at the transition areas and had a total of 41 minutes of non-moving time. Pretty good over 22 hours.  I was able to run right up until the end with no injuries or real pain to speak of. The first nausea that didn’t settle within minutes came at hour 20 - later in a race than I have ever made it and at which point I didn’t care.  No puking, no dry heaving, no GI distress, no hyponatremia, no dehydration, no blisters (ok maybe 2 very small ones I noticed 2 days later).  My mind stayed sharp, I barely listened to music, and I didn’t even really have any super low moments.  For those of you familiar with my Zion 100 experience: basically the polar opposite.  Thank goodness.

“By the time you cross the finish, you will have learned more about yourself than most dare to imagine!”

They say that an ultra can be called “Life in a Day.”  So many events and intense experiences compressed into a single day, it’s living in fast forward.  Every single race changes you and that’s honestly the best part.  For me, it’s really a race against and within my self…and I’m different every time.

So often we fear change, and don’t even dare imagine pushing to the limits that are the catalysts for change.  Or we go through life slowly changing, but refusing to acknowledge that we are different people than we were years ago.  We think we know ourselves, but we don’t.

How many of us truly want to know ourselves?  Dare to?

What did I learn about myself?  What did I dare to uncover?  I am not the same person I was last year or in the last race and I uncover a new me each time.  I am not afraid to acknowledge where I make mistakes and I find the whole process of fine tuning my body and my mind fascinating.  I dare say I like myself.  I am very comfortable spending long hours with my own thoughts now, no longer needing to tune them out with music or audiobooks. I discovered I have developed a resistance to mental fatigue that pleasantly surprised me.

Most significantly, I’ve transitioned from blocking out to accepting, tuning in rather than tuning out.  I used to pride myself on my ability to block out pain, block out emotion, block out fatigue, block out any unpleasantness and just keep going.  This applied to life as well as to running.  This only works for so long, and at some point all that repression has to come out somewhere.  In a race, my gut would explode, or my feet would blow up, or I’d get into such a dark hole mentally it would be hard to come out of it.  I am very good at pushing back pain, but late in a race or after, I would suffer with the best of them.

I have been practicing just accepting it all.  Not pushing pain back, but feeling it. Dealing with it.  Using it to fuel the fire inside me.  Letting it make me bigger rather than take from me.  It’s amazing how once accepted and released, pain doesn’t come back at least to the same degree.  I’ve had an amazing recovery this week - yes there was some pain and swelling, but these aren’t bad things.  They mean I did something awesome and my body is already adapting and will be stronger next time, which is extremely empowering.

Thank-you to race director Brian Gallant, Sinister Sports, the town of Grande Cache, all the amazing volunteers, my most inspiring coach Sarah, Salming Canada, all my friends who supported me from afar, my family who support me every day, and to my brother Scott. Finishing CDR and qualifying for Western States was pretty cool, but sharing the experience with you and seeing you at the finish line was something I’ll remember forever.

Scott and I at our post-race breakfast.  Just a tad puffy-eyed.

Addendum: My trial running buddy Todd finished 30 min ahead of me and also met me at the finish line.  He did so awesome, and even more so considering that he had done Sinister 7 just 4 weeks previously.  Way to go Todd!