The Canadian Death Race … July 30, 2011. A personal story of challenge and triumph. 125k – of Extreme Mountain Trails. 3 – Summits. 17,000 ft – Elevation change. 1 – Wild River. 24 hour deadline.
Let me just preface this by saying “Maybe I should have read the brochure before I signed up”. I am not a great runner, I’m not fast, I just like to run and especially, in the woods. From the day I signed up for this I never saw it as a race. I just wanted to finish in the time allotted. For me it was about pushing my boundaries and seeing what my body & mind were capable of doing. As I write this one week after the race, bits and pieces of the race are already leaving my memory. It seems as though snap-shots in time are all that remain.
I also fully realize how blessed I am to have experienced all that is The Canadian Death Race – the people, ordinary people, doing extraordinary things in extreme conditions. The training time, commitment, taking yourself to a level of fitness you never imagined possible, the volunteers so incredible, they kept us safe, and cheered us as loud as anyone. The support crews so selfless, putting up with months of training, then keeping us moving through transitions, taking care of our every need on the day. This race/journey is about strength, courage and determination. If you can find the courage to sign up for this race, the strength to carry you over the mountains, and the determination to make it to — The Finish it is truly, a journey worth taking
The race is completed in 5 separate and very distinct legs or sections. Leg 1 is 19 km and began at 8:00 am. This is the shortest and easiest leg of the race. It starts in town and runs 6k on pavement then hits the trails and mud, nothing to technical. I played it safe and stayed mid pack to pace myself. Ii didn’t use my poles, since I knew I’d use them the rest of the day. Deep down I really just wanted to move, to run and get this thing going. I caught a glimpse of the trail on the approach and noticed a bottle neck starting. “Relax & breathe” I thought. A lot of people were slipping off logs, splashing through mud and slapped in the face by branches (we paid for this, right ?). It was rather humourous that nobody wanted to get their feet wet or muddy. We tried our best to skirt around when we could, but it was so slippery once the feet go in you forgot about trying to stay dry and move on. Eventually, I got through and then continued my steady pace and came into the first transition with ease at around 10:15 am. My Crew — was right where we discussed I was in and out in less than 10 minutes.
Leg 2 – 27km. This leg has a pretty steep climb near the beginning with approximately 2,200 ft of gain in just a couple of miles. I climbed Mt. Flood steadily and easily passing a lot of people who would stop to wheeze bent-over, trying to catch their breathe. I politely scooted by, thankful for my run in Bighorn, Wyoming at 8,000 ft. I made it to the top and then it was a long descent on trails so steep you could barely stand still without sliding or falling. Then another steep climb, up approximately 1,7000 ft. where I caught Mark (my training buddy). It was nice to finally have some company. We made it together to the top of Grande Mountain and he texted (yes, texted) the crews that we were on our way in. I took a look around as the views were just breathtaking. Then, without looking behind me I said “Catch me if you can” and off I went on the 4 mile relentless descent back into town through The Power Lines. A crazy decent all the way from 6,500 to 4,000 that goes straight down. For me, technically, this was the hardest leg of the race. It was early enough in the day that you are running, but into the day enough that your mind is constantly trying to reel you back in. There is still such a long way to go. We were back into town and into transition at around 3:30 pm. Again everything went smoothly. Thanks to my crew. I took in more fluid, more food (turkey burger and potato), some gels and tortellini to go and I was off.
Leg 3 – 22 km. I ran quietly out of town and down the dirt road. I had been quite relaxed in transition and I was really feeling good. I felt strong in mind and body. I was happy I was holding back a bit and running steady. I knew this was a long steady descent. I didn’t want my legs to get away from me or the dreaded “trip & fall”. Ever present in my mind twas the next transition, which was also the critical 7 pm cut-off … (my biggest fear). So I pushed my body and my mind. I just kept telling myself “run, keep moving” and “stay in the moment”. This went on for quite awhile. A couple of mile markers might have helped, but part of me didn’t want to know. Luckily, along the way you could hear others who have been there before. They know the way and how much longer and what to look out for if you listen close enough you get all the info you need.
Mark passed me along a stretch of flats. He was going strong, just playing tag with him and seeing the familiar a sense of calm washed over me. We had trained so hard and so long for this. So many months and now here we were — finally, doing it! I made it over the bridge and onto the road (which seemed endless) and finally into the transition at around 6:30 pm. I actually got a bit choked up here, even shed a tear as I heard the crowd and someone say “You made it, Go Death Racer!” I knew what they meant I had beat the cut-off time, but as soon as I saw Belle, she was so happy for me, so proud. I swallowed hard and composed myself. There was still too far to go. I had to stay strong.
Leg 4 – 36km. Mt. Hamel “Here I come!”. The first task was to climb, from the course’s lowest point at 3,300 ft up to the course’s highest point of 7,000 ft. I climbed rapidly at first, it was quite warm and humid in this dense forest and the climb was really steep. It did not physically hurt me and the footing was good. I just hammered up as fast as I could and was rewarded with rain after the steepest part of the climb. It was actually kind of nice, just a sprinkle to cool me off before the switchbacks to the top. I stopped and put on my rain jacket (Thanks to Louis, my other training buddy & gear guru) as I could feel water dripping off my elbows. I made it to the top of Mt. Hamel
really thought this would be my euphoric moment, but I was too cold, too wet. When I started my decent to the Amber Loop it was actually raining/hailing and getting dark, with fog rolling in waves, making it almost impossible to see.
I came a cross a small group, Bruce was in the lead and I tucked in behind with two following me. We stayed together for most of the descent. It was nice to have company as it got dark. Somehow just the quiet breathing and occasional cursing of others is comforting at this stage of the journey. The trail was getting really slippery, the mud puddles were getting wider and deeper.
There was no running around them anymore, you had to go through or bushwhack around. There was no running momentum, just “perpetual forward motion” this seemed to go on forever. Finally, we arrived at The Ambler loop. Then suddenly I heard that familiar voice “Hey Lourdes — caught ya”. It was Mark and I was so happy to see him again. We agreed to stay together the rest of the race and we did. Bruce stayed with us until the transition (as he was on a relay — and fresher legs took over) and off we went like three wet miserable rats in the dark.
The entire trail was mud, several inches of the slickest mud on the planet. At times we were laying in mud soaking wet from head to toe in the middle of nowhere. Luckily though, in good company, laughing felt good. I was so thankful for Mark and Bruce’s company. They eased my fears and kept my mind sharp and on the task at hand.
We just kept moving forward. We made it back to the Ambler Loop Aid Station fairly quickly. I had a drop bag, but I was so cold and wet to bother rummaging through it. I thought it was best to just keep moving. I was hoping for a warm cup of water or tea, but no luck. Imagine a table of water and gatorade that has been sitting in the rain all day. I think it was around 37degrees. There was an ambulance here with a bunch of people in it – carnage everywhere. People just dejected and standing around shivering. It was kind of zombie like — “slow-motiom” even.
Finally, we were off. It felt so good to keep moving. I actually even warmed up again. I guess it helps that Mark is 6′-6″ tall, and Bruce’s legs were relatively fresh. I practically had to run just to keep up with their walking stride. It started to rain even harder and that actually got us to quicken the pace for the rest of the descent down Mt. Hamel.
We were into the transition around 2:30 am where Lee was waiting (yes, waiting at 2:30 am in the rain) with dry clothes, drinks, food and a huge smile … My Hero. Only one leg to go, plenty of time (or so I thought) and we were off.
Leg 5 – 22km. So off we went on our last leg. Right away we get hit with a very steep climb. At this point it had been raining for about 9 hrs, causing a river of mud to wash down over the trail. I made it half way up, then slid right back down — several times — Uuugh !!! It was so frustrating I had to grab roots to scramble back up on my hands and knees and trees. I felt like we were now
definitely on an adventure. This was not “just a run” any longer. Most of this was single track lined by thick brush, very narrow single track with logs, stumps, branches and rocks everywhere. If you did not pay attention you were either going to trip over a log, slip on a root, or get slapped with a branch. I was kinda glad it was dark and I couldn’t see it cause I knew there was a river of mud beneath us.
Finally we made it to Hell’s Gate, which is the location of the river crossing. The boat ride was quick unfortunately. 15km to go and 3 hrs to the deadline. I was scared we were cutting it close but luckily the rest of the leg was less muddy. I felt so good to just be able to move steadily. In fact, we could actually run. Soon enough it was morning and, yes, it was still raining. But at least we could see clearly this part of the trail. We ran along the top of the river gorge. It was hard to run without looking down at the green river hammering away beneath you, so beautiful and tranquil. My favorite part of the day to run has always been dawn. The steadier our pace became the more comfortable we were in the knowledge that we would make it.
Then finally we saw the 5km sign. Let me just take a moment to say — “there were only three distance markers on this course”. 120km to go … 60km to go … 5km to go. I was so happy there was only 5km to go. It was on road, finally out of the woods, we get to the road and of course, it was a steep hill. We still had plenty of time and I was actually, moving very well and felt pretty fresh. The rain was just a little drizzle now but I was starting to wonder just how far 5km could feel. Then, all of a sudden we turned a corner and saw a little home. Just like that we were in town. Mark and I were together — we had done it! When I saw Lee and the kids I could hold back no more and had to run to them. Then, just like that — the race the was over at around 7:20 am. For those of you counting — that is 23 hrs & 15 min. We beat the final cut-off by 45 minutes! I had finished The Canadian Death Race. The best part of this journey by far was seeing my crew Lee, Joseph, Belle & Lollie at the finish and seeing their smiles and crying in their arms. I was home and it was Heaven.
I personally learned a lot from this journey and I will always hold that knowledge close to my heart. I can only hope to be so lucky to carry it with me in further races and adventures for I know deep down in my heart that my true journey has just begun.
Lourdes Gutierrez-Kellam is an ultrarunner based in Calgary, Alberta