The Canadian Death Race. What does the name of this event conjure up in your minds? Well, as you may guess, it isn’t a stroll through a lovely forest trail, I can assure you of that much! To my knowledge, no one has *actually* died while taking part in this event, but I can’t say that with 100% certainty. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, welcome to another race report. This time, we whisk you off to Grande Cache, AB for the 19th annual Canadian Death Race (now under new management…). This is a 125km, 5 leg race (total of 7 aid stations) that featured some monster climbs, great scenery, and some tight cutoffs. I basically tackled this bad boy over an extended long weekend, flying solo to the race. Read on for the whole sordid tale.
The idea of running the Death Race didn’t materialize until I failed at Sinister 7 last year. Sinister 7 was meant to be my first 100 miler, and was put on by Sinister Sports, and in particular, by Brian Gallant, a very dedicated race organizer out west. While I’d heard great stories of Sinister 7, I’d been hearing that the other big Western Race I was interested in, the Death Race, was in a bit of limbo, and people weren’t feeling it was worth the price of admission. Well, fast forward a bit, and the rights to Death Race were bought by Sinister Sports, which meant Brian would take over organizing this event. With that knowledge, I decided early in 2018 that I’d make the Death Race one of my marquee events of the year. In fact, it was ideally timed to occur 1 month before tackling the CCC in Chamonix, France, and as such, was a great opportunity for me to really cut my teeth in the mountains of Canada before hitting the European Alps!
Click the below picture to view all my pictures from the event!
Okay, now that you know how I came to sign up for the race, what can I say about this event? Well, as with all Ultras, there are many unknowns going into a race like this. I’d been having some success in local events, and in spite of the foot problems I’d been suffering earlier in the season, I seemed to be ‘finding my stride’ as they say, and was feeling pretty good. The QMT 100 race in particular had given me some confidence in my abilities this season. With that in my mind, I set up a pace card with two scenarios, ‘optimistic’ and ‘conservative’, meant to bracket the timings I hoped to achieve between aid stations. Both had be set up to succeed, and make it back before the 24 hour time limit imposed on this race.
The course itself was split into 5 distinct legs, ranging from 19km to 38km in length. The longer legs included intermediate ‘e-stations’ with some light food and drinks before the major transitions / aid stations. In this event, racers can either race solo, or as part of a relay team. Those looking for a challenge obviously tackle the race solo, more often than not with a support crew at aid stations. Those of us that are truly tough nut jobs opt to not only race solo, but with no support or pace runners of any sort. Hence the title of my post. My plan was to kick Death’s butt with no external help of any sort. Just me, my abilities, and my resolve. Being a 125km course, and not 160km, I was pretty confident going in, but as they say, anything can happen.
To add to the solo unsupported element of this endeavour, I had also forgone creature comforts leading up to the race. To save some money, I had opted to camp in the municipal campground leading up to the race. Thursday was my travel day, and it started with a 5:30am flight to Toronto, then on to Edmonton, and finally to Grand Prairie, where I picked up my rental car and bought provisions before the 2 hour drive to Grande Cache. I finally got to my campground around 8pm. Friday was all about race registration and a bit of recce in the area to get a feel for the terrain, then off to bed early in hopes of a good night’s sleep before Saturday morning’s starting gun. I didn’t know many people at this race, only running into a few casual racing acquaintances throughout the day. Luckily, it was a good chance to build these friendships further, and meet new interesting racers too.
Race day was upon us. I packed up all my race kit, hopped in my Jetta, and headed to the start / finish. I was early enough that I managed to snag a parking spot basically right at the finish line, which would hopefully mean an easy stumble to the car for the drive back to camp. The weather was setting up nicely for us at the start. Temperatures were pretty mild, not too hot or cold, and also partly cloudy. This was a welcome change from Sinister 7 last year, where temperatures soared into the high 30s early in the race! Between solos and relay teams, there were several hundred racers milling about the start. From the starting gun, I kept a reasonable pace, allowing LOTS of other racers to surge ahead and vye for invisible accolades that come from racing hard at the start of a long race. There’s something to be said for experience. I was acutely aware that many of those that were running off ahead would ultimately suffer and fall back later on (or they were relay team members which were only running one leg!).
Leg 1 is just a tiny taste of the race ahead, starting in Grande Cache, with a bit of a ceremonial running through town before hitting some ATV trails around the town and up and around some beautiful lakes / beaches with nice views as the sun slowly made it’s way up. The total distance on Leg 1 was 19km, and although it had some rolling terrain, it was a net downhill leg, with one major descent before making our way to the first aid station at Flood Mountain Station. My plan for long sections like this was to essentially have 2 full chest bottles, and start out with a soft hand flask as well, so having almost 1.5L of liquids with me. Along with these liquids, I’d aim to eat at least one thing every hour, on top of which I’d stuff extra food into me at each aid station. This formula served me well in my last few outings, and helped me manage my nutritional needs without getting into much distress.
Leg 2. What can I say, other than there are many debates as to whether this, or Leg 4 is the hardest of this race. Either way, starting from Flood Mountain aid station, it was now GAME ON! In this leg, we would not only summit 1, but 2 mountains in the area. First up, Flood Mountain, and secondly, Grande Mountain, at 1,854m and almost 2,000m respectively. While that doesn’t make them quite tall enough to cause me to struggle at altitude, it still made them pretty decent slogs with very rewarding vistas at the top. Since it was still relatively early in the race, I didn’t find them to be overly difficult in terms of climbing, but they did both feature some pretty extreme descents. There are several singletrack downhills, two of which were called ‘bumslide’. While I did my best to bomb down these on two feet, I learned later that there were more than one racer that definitely did the butt slide thing down them. The only thing I can say for sure is that I was SUPER happy it wasn’t raining, as judging by the dirt / sand on these trails, things would have devolved very quickly in wet conditions.
Although I didn’t know it at the time, this entire race would be excellent preparation for CCC in 4 weeks time. Not only was this race at altitudes similar to what I’d face in Europe, the climbs and descents would also be similar. In other words, this race was actually very good homework for me! Towards the end of Leg 2 (which was a total of 27km), was a very intense downhill run, which was straight down a powerline cut. The most maddening part of the descent was that as you were going down, you could clearly see the equally steep uphill that awaited you when you got to the bottom. This could definitely play mind games on runners. Luckily, after that next climb, the trail once again turned back downhill, and would once again take us back into Grande Cache to transition onto the Leg 3. It was nice to coast back into town, knowing I had some fresh gear and food awaiting in my drop bag. With 46k down, I had planned on swapping shoes here for something a little more cushioned, as I had done in QMT.
With clean dry socks and shoes, it was on to Leg 3, a bit of a ‘transition’ leg, and a leg that in retrospect I would say ironically threw me off my game a little bit. The first part of this entailed jogging through the municipal dump, which I mention only because this was the place where we’d most likely have bear encounters. Oh! I didn’t mention we were in Grizzly country? Well we were? While Black and Brown Bears don’t bother me much, the idea of running into a Grizzly had me just a little bit concerned, especially since a couple weeks on these very trails, hikers had close grizzly encounters. Trying hard not to think about that, I focused on my pace, and my eating and drinking. While I still felt quite good, The opening 50 or so kilometers, coupled with the mountain passes, was definitely making themselves known in my leg muscles. I was starting to chant my usual mantra by this point, which is ‘run where you can, walk where you HAVE to’.
This was another 19km leg, and is best described as rolling, utilizing a number of different trail types, with a lot of ATV type trails. A good chunk of this leg follows along a river, and makes for a nice scenic run. Taken on its own, I’d probably quite enjoy this section as a training route. However, the final two sections of the leg were a combination that really tested me mentally for some reason. First up was a never-ending access road of crushed coal. We were in fact running on coal mining property here, and these were the roads they use to haul coal being mined. It was flat, boring, and seemed to go on forever. I’m terrible at long flat roads at the best of times, but in the middle of an ultra, it’s even worse. Then, when this ended, I thought we had a straight road section to the Hamell Aid Station. How wrong was I? Apparently, last year they had added in a ‘new’ single track trail that twins the busy road to keep runners out of potential trouble on the road. The course profile (and descriptions) did NOT reflect the fact that this was a VERY narrow, new trail that headed straight uphill for a fair bit, and then followed some tricky contours for a long time before finally emerging near the aid station. I”m uncertain of the exact length of that trail, but it was a head trip for sure, and nearly broke a lot of racers.
Exiting this trail, I had a mix of elation and trepidation. The last little bit of Leg 3 had sapped precious energy from my legs (and brain), but I now knew that I was about to enter the toughest section of the race, known as the ‘Hamell Assault’. Stumbling into the aid station, I was lucky enough to actually see someone I knew from my AR days, who was actually kind enough to make me a peanut butter and nutella sandwich while I got some gear and food ready from my drop bag (night was going to fall on this leg). With just that little bit of help, I regrouped, and trudged my way out onto Leg 4. And what a leg!! It had a total distance of 38km (but with an intermediate ‘e-station’). The start of this leg is at just around 1,000m, but we immediately (and over only about 8k) climb up to over 2,100m! The climb is long and sustained. Nothing too technical, but it just seemed to go on and on. Racers commiserated as we slowly gained altitude. In addition, we were getting the first glimpses that the weather may not stay perfect, as clouds seemed to be gathering a bit.
What I will say for climbs that take you up to elevations over 2,000m is that they are, more often than not, SPECTACULAR, and Mount Hamell was no exception. After passing what is known as the ‘Hamell escape’, which is basically the last bail-out point before the summit, we emerged into the tree-less last part of the climb, when you realize you are truly about the tree line and on bare rocky mountain top. On this section, you can see people all above you snaking their way to the summit. And once we gained the top, we had a ‘mission’, which was to retrieve a flag from a bucket further along the ridge and return it to volunteers hanging out at the top. My mood literally was lifted sky-high up here. I felt totally energized being up in the high mountains in my element. I had a bounce in my step again, and felt elated (perhaps it was the lower oxygen levels??).
My elation, while re-energizing, was a bit short-lived, as during my ridge run, the weather was most definitely changing on top of the mountain, with higher winds and rain coming in. Luckily, it was nothing like the 100kph winds I’d seen in videos up here, but it definitely added some chill. Luckily, I’d already put on my gore-text shell to stave off the wind, so I was ok. However, not long after starting my descent off Hamell, I also added my warm and waterproof gloves, as I didn’t want to risk frozen hands and potential hypothermia (as I’m prone to get…). This helped keep me warm, and the steep descent took us back down to about 1,500m, which made things warm up again a bit. From here, we were now on gravel access roads leading to the ‘e-station’, which seemed to wind on for a while. We were also now passing through an area which had been a bit wetter recently, leading to mud puddles. And this led me to my ‘swine moment’. As I was trying to skirt a mud puddle, I side slipped, and totally wiped out into the puddle, covering my lovely new jacket and race kit in mud from head to toe! However, I laughed it off, and kept on going, wrapping up the rest of the leg with no problems.
I linked up with another racer around this time, completing the ‘Ambler Loop’, what I’d describe as a superfluous extra 5k of running in the mountain. From here, we had a 10k downhill run all the way to the final transition of the race, the Beaver Dam Station. I barely remember this, as the focus was now on getting in and out, and gettin’ it done! This final leg was 22k in length, and included the fabled ‘ferry crossing’, where you must pay the ferryman to take you across the river Styx to transition you from the realm of the living to the realm of the dead. Yes, a little bit of drama in this race, which is actually pretty cool. For the entire race, we had to carry a custom coin with our number on it to pay for this ferry crossing. If, by some chance, you were unluckly enough to lose said coin? Well, you’d be disqualified on the spot! Yup, after 110km, you could be disqualified for not having a coin with you! Lucky for me, that wasn’t a problem. To get to this ferry was another nice singletrack trail through the woods. A lot of racers said they had found this section tough, but personally, I really enjoyed it. It reminded me of the Gatineau park trails. Also, knowing I was near the end helped!
I arrived at the ferry, paid the ferryman, and hopped in the boat which whisked us across the steep canyon area of the raging Smoky River. From here, we were told it was a 15km run to the finish, but luckily it was closer to 12km instead. However, it was NOT an easy finish. Right off the boat, we were smacked in the face with a roughly 300m steep climb back up the sides of the canyon. At this point, my legs were no longer having a good time. Running was rapidly disappearing as a word from my vocabulary, although it was too steep to even attempt! When I finally stopped climbing steeply, the terrain was quite nice, if not a bit of a rooty forest trail. However, I just didn’t have the energy to run. I was now deep within the zone of the ‘ultra shuffle’! I was doing my best, but the legs just weren’t cooperating. I think I was also running out of nutrients as well, so the body was protesting.
Regardless of the state of my body and mind, I knew that I was going to get it done with a decent time, and just had to put one foot in front of the other. I had pre-scoped the very end of the race the day before in the light, so I knew once I emerged from this trail, it was on to a gravel road heading uphill and into town. I mustered what energy I could to shuffle / jog the final kilometer. Unfortunately for me, it was the wee hours of the day, and there were no crowds to speak of. However, thanks to some ‘social engineering’ by Deanna, there ended up being a small group of ‘fans’ that had been apparently waiting for me to finish and were on hand to cheer me in. It was really nice, but I was almost too tired to really appreciate the effort fully!
Once I finally crossed the line, I didn’t spend much time savouring the moment. I collected my finisher’s beer and plaque, collected my drop bag, and limped off to my awaiting car to drive back to the campsite, where I had a nice warm shower before attempting to get a few hours sleep before returning to the finish area to watch others finish and also to attend the post race BBQ. Sleep didn’t come easy, and became even harder once the sun was roasting my tent. I tried sleeping outside in the shade, but was awoken shortly by a stranger informing that as I was dozing, a black bear was literally about 30 feet away checking me out!! Good thing I didn’t have snacks next to me! I spent the rest of the day sorting gear, and celebrating with friends old and new.
In the end, I had a very decent race, and was only a little disappointed that I had ran out of energy during the final part of the final leg, but what can I say? Running 125k in the mountains is hard work! While I didn’t create my own video of this event, my buddy Jeff from the magazine did pull together a pretty epic video of the event, which you can view below. He did a good job capturing all the various facets of this race course. Check it out if you’d like! That wraps up my lengthy report, trying to catch up, since my CCC race in Chamonix has already wrapped up, and I’m anxious to write about that!! Till then, have fun out there!