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“Go Death Racer”, Simon’s CDR recap

“Go Death Racer” is the cheer that causes anyone intimate with the Canadian Death Race to pause and smile. It’s the defacto chant of everyone affiliated with the race, from volunteers on course, to residents of Grande Cache AB yelling it from their patios while they enjoy the festivities as they unfold annually each August long weekend since 2000.

Becoming a Death Racer:
I’ve known about the Death Race for years, and it’s always been on my “to do list”. I suppose that it took me so long to get around to because A) I’ve always told myself that I’m not a runner, and 125 km is one hell of a long way to go for a non-runner, and B) the only soloist I’ve personally known was peeing blood by 90 km into the race. Put those together and it’s not the most appealing challenge, even for a seasoned adventure racer used to managing healthy doses of masochistic abuse.

My decision to finally register for this race was made in December, and I decided that I would try to turn the race into another Adventure Science study by running barefoot and looking at core strength amongst the AS athletes that I could convince to race solo with me. Fast forward a few months and I was registered, had recruited a team of athletes and some research partners with Amy Barnett (running biomechanics and core conditioning expert) and Tim Puetz (PhD with speciality in pain perception and psychology). Together, we had developed a 16 week core training program and given it to half the athletes to follow in preparation for the race, while the other half continued to train as they normally did. The pain perception side was to be assessed through surveys administered 5 times during the race to track mood, pain, perceived exertion, etc., with the ultimate goal to correlate these variables with the prevalence of pain and injury as the race progressed.

Being the study coordinator I made sure to put myself on the core program, as I was very concerned that I lacked the necessary core strength to survive this distance without injury. After several weeks on the program, I noticed that my running started to feel different. I would describe it to friends as running from the hips. I was running taller, and my lower back pain that typically followed longer runs disappeared. I was also running faster. Yes, I was running longer distances, but I attribute the biggest gains in speed and endurance to being able to run with a “pelvic brace” engaged as Amy would put it.

To make things even more interesting in the early stages, I thought that I might like to try to run the race barefoot. This meant winter laps on the indoor track interspersed with treadmill running. The net result was continually sore calves. When I was able to move outside and run the trails barefoot, I found that the calf pain disappeared, but was replaced with frequent bruising and ultimately a broken toe in May, which sidelined me for 4 weeks.

When the break healed enough to start running again, on went the shoes and on they stayed. I couldn’t afford to spend any more time experimenting with barefoot if I wanted to ensure I was prepared for the race, I needed to follow my 18 week running program as closely as possible. Mondays and Fridays were rest days, Tuesday’s and Thursdays were 15 km worth of running with intervals or tempo, Wednesday was a recovery 8-10 km, and Sat and Sunday were the bigger mileage days. Ultimately, my biggest weekends were 4 + 5 hours. Nothing longer than 50 km in training. Aside from the my first ultra, the 80 km Copper Canyon race on March 07, I’d never competed in a running race longer than 25 km, and unlike many of my training partners and competitors, I had no prep races planned prior to the race.

In preparing for success with the Death Race, I knew that I needed to address two weaknesses of mine in particular, A) Cramping, and B) Downhill running. I made it my goal to train for these, which meant eating and drinking a variety of foods and mixes during training until I found winners (gels, blocks, and Endurox 4:1 carb/protein mix). The downhill running was a bit tricker, but ultimately was achieved by slugging out big mountain climbs and then running downhill as fast as possible, continually telling myself to push it harder and faster. I could also run faster because my core was stronger, which helped me prevent over-striding, and made it easier to keep my hips stable and aligned with my shoulders. Not only did this payoff by improving my ability to downhill fast, but it also conditioned my quads to the abuse that downhills impart on them, which was a huge advantage in the Death Race.

The Plan:
My plan was simple. Push hard but don’t go anaerobic. Race at 60-70% and I should be fine. 17 hrs was the target time and I figured that if a miracle happened, I might be able to crack into the 15 hour range. The field was very competitive this year with many solid athletes toeing the line, including ultra running legend Hal Koerner (, local speedster Phil Villeneuve, ( young Ricky Ruesser of Iowa (2:25 marathon), Ellie Greenwood of Banff (destroying all races she enters, Adam Hill, Mathieu Page, Alex Magdanz and Denise McHale of Whitehorse ( elite ultra runner and adventure racer), not to mention the other AS athletes racing. Going into this race I knew that I couldn’t compete with any of these folks on paper and my only shot at a top 10 finish was to stay strong by eating and taking care of myself, and running as fast as I could manage without red-lining.

The Race:
Getting to the race was a relief. Months of preparation and planning had come together. We had a team of athletes and volunteers ready to race and collect scientific data. Things were looking good, and although timing was tight pre-race to get all the athletes analysed for video gait analysis by Amy, we managed to get them all through by 9 p.m. on Friday night. My day had been hectic as usual (the reward for organizing these things) and I envied the other AS athletes as they lounged around camp or town, loading calories into their bodies and actively resting in preparation.

As usual, I was the last to go to bed, and finally hit the pillow in our tent around 1130. I was excited, nervous, and a bit anxious about getting the study off properly. I knew that I had to put those thoughts out of my head though and leave it to the volunteers who knew what they were doing. Come 8 am Saturday morning, I’d be a racer with only one focus….race my plan.

Leg 1: Downtown Jaunt – 19 km
715 a.m. fuelled and one bowl of protein laced oatmeal down, I was on my way to the start which was a giant carnival with hundreds of anxious runners doing the usual pre-race banter and joking around. After a moving tribute to a Grande Cache solider who lost his leg in Afghanistan, the race started with a bang (literally) and the gloves were off immediately. The first leg is a net downhill out of town covering ~19 km. Typically, the solo winners and faster athletes cover this distance in ~1:30. The leaders rocked it in 1:18 (Phil and Hal) and I followed in 1:22 (with Scott Ford). 8 minutes ahead of my “plan” time. This concerned me. I felt good, but knew that with over 100 km and over 10, 000 feet of climbing ahead of me, I was walking a dangerous line. I fuelled up on boost and water, loaded my pack, grabbed my poles and headed out to tackle my first real challenge of the race.

Leg 2: Slugfest-Flood Mtn-Grande Mtn-Grande Cache – 27 km:
This leg was hard. The route was a mix of fire road and steep and gnarly single track, culminating with the summit of Grande Mtn. and a wild descent straight down the mountain and into town. I started this leg running the uphills, but making sure I was within my comfort zone. The trails were dry and fast and I kept telling myself to push hard up because the downs would be a rest. I was wrong. The downs were highly technical and in an attempt to keep time, I pushed them as hard as a could. I caught the first solo casualty of the insanely fast start mid-way up Grande Mtn. Jack Cook (previous course record holder and reigning champion) was walking. He ran beside me in silence for a few metres before dialling it back, leaving me running with Vernon runner Steve Russell who was running a similar pace and unknowingly helping me along mentally. I was in good spirits near the summit of Grande as I was 4 hours into the race and was just starting to feel the early twinges of quad cramps, which was a good reminder to intensify the salt tabs. I saw Ellie at the top of Grande Mtn. as Steve and I were beginning the downhill. It didn’t take her long to reel us in and midway down the mountain the three of us were running together. We entered town to “Go Death Racer!”. I was feeling the effort, but very pumped, and knew that I could recover on the next leg, which was relatively flat.

Leg 3: Old Mine Road – 19 km + 2 km:
Touted as the second easiest leg in the race, this route contoured the mountainside as it took us to and from the Grande Cache coal companies production facility on Hwy 40 north of town. The route would have been a fun run for the relay runners, but the air temperature had started to rise at this point and the sun was beating down on me. This was the hardest leg of the race for me as the real mental battles to push hard began. I was feeling desperate. I badly wanted to finish this leg but was terrified of my reward…the huge climb up Mt. Hamel. The high point of this leg was seeing the bridge that signifies 2 km to the checkpoint. On this leg I ran meters from a curious black bear on the railway tracks. Too tired to care, I just put my head down and didn’t look back, assuming that the bear was as disinterested in me as I was in it. This leg also produced more race casualties, as I passed Ontario strongman Adam Hill who was dealing with cramps, and a female Fast Traxx runner in near hysterics because she was mid-bonk and dealing with a little nosebleed. After talking her through it (she didn’t think she could finish), we ran the final km to the checkpoint together.

Leg 4: Hamel Assault – 35 km:
My thoughts of quitting disappeared as the cheers from the AS team and race spectators intensified as I neared the checkpoint. I was hurting, but I now knew that so was everyone else. I was surprised to see Phil Villeneuve dressed and standing with the AS team at our tent. “What happened??” I asked, “I’ll tell you later” he replied. That bummed me out as I was really hoping he would do well. We had trained together for this race and I knew that he was in great shape and capable of a record breaking performance. After taking on food (peach cups were all I could swallow), a Red-Bull, and some water, I left the station with my trekking poles, ready to give the mountain my best shot. This mountain humbled me. Until this stage, I had been holding my own against relay racers. Now, they were passing me like I was walking. Oh, wait, I was. I was still working hard, but my power-hiking pace was somewhat less powerful than usual thanks to 67 km of racing in the legs already. Time seemed to drag on but I finally reached the summit. I had steadily been clawing away at the soloists in front of me and was now sitting in 5th spot. Unbelievable. I crossed paths with Denise as we had to do an out and back at the top of Hamel. This pumped me up a bit as I had not been asking for updates on where the other racers were, but it was good motivation to have before beginning a monster downhill to the Ambler Loop aid station (a 5 km loop 15 km from the end of the leg). I was feeling good, although gravel in my shoes were starting to give me blisters under both big toes, and the downhilling was hammering my toes against the fronts of my shoes. Blue toes for sure I was thinking, not wanting to confirm this by taking the shoes off. After Ambler loop, it was a 10 km mostly downhill run to the checkpoint. I was starting to get some serious leg pain along the outside of my left quad, but I kept telling myself to run, no matter what, I had to run. Downhills were free. Flats were free. I could walk on the uphills. My final surprise of this leg came at less than a km from the checkpoint, when I caught Ricky who was walking. I asked him what was up (Gee, I don’t know…I’ve just run 100 km and I don’t feel great…weird!!) and he told me that he was concerned that his body was low on salt and didn’t want to endanger himself. I popped him a few e-caps and encouraged him to run the final few hundred meters in with me. He politely declined.

Leg 5: Hell’s Gate and River Crossing – 23 km:
Coming into this checkpoint was a bit surreal. I had just moved into 4th overall and if I could keep it together, had a good shot of a top-5 finish! Again, my support crew was amazing and their enthusiasm buoyed my mood even further despite my obvious mental and physical fatigue and exhaustion. It was still daylight too, which was a huge bonus. Fuelled and focused, I grabbed my trekking poles for this final leg and yelled “see you at the finish, bring beer!” I headed out of the checkpoint and forced myself to run the hill that started this leg. As I ran through my mental checklist I realized that I had left without my headlamp or clear sunglasses…mandatory gear for the night leg! Damn! Panicked, I raced back to the checkpoint yelling to my crew what I needed. After burning a few minutes changing the lenses on my glasses from dark to clear (note to self…do this in advance next time!), I had my gear and was on my way again, this time walking the first hill. The trail was unmarked (no orange flagging tape or “motivational” signage common on the rest of the course) and flowed through an aspen forest on it’s way to the river crossing. Things were going great and I was pushing at a reasonable pace until I crested a rise and hit an unmarked 4-way crossing. Not knowing which way to go and not seeing any markings, I decided to downhill to the road, and run the road to the river crossing since I had lost faith in the trails. After downhilling for a few minutes I hit the road and was able to quickly flag down a vehicle…as I had no idea which way to go. It turned out that the vehicle I flagged down was a race volunteer at the river crossing. She told me that I would be disqualified if I ran the road to the crossing, and that in the event that a trail intersection was unmarked, I should continue in my direction of travel. Damn2. The last thing I wanted to do was run back up hill. There’s no way I could muster the energy I thought, but I also didn’t want to get disqualified, so I angrily began my ascent back to the unmarked trail intersection. As I neared this point, I ran into a female relay racer who had made the same wrong turn. I had just burned 10-15 minutes with this error and was eager to get back on course. The relay runner was a great pace bunny and I worked hard to run with her, but it was all worth it when we finally emerged at the river crossing…still legally in the race, and still somehow in 4th place! I gave my coin to Charon, and was allowed to cross the river on the jet boat. Even though it was short, it was a very sweet ride. A not-so-sweet climb followed this as we ascended out of the river valley on our way to gaining 1000′ to finish in Grande Cache. As the light began to fade, I flicked my headlamp on and could instantly see why there was no more flagging tape. Each tree along the remaining forest trail had a small reflective button on it, creating a really cool effect while running these trails. Time continued to pass, full of mental battles waged over running vs. walking. I finally popped onto the gravel road that would take me into Grande Cache…less than 5 km to go. Another relay runner caught me here and encouraged me to keep pace with her so I ran as hard as I could until we hit the base of the final climb, which I walked. Entering town was a pretty overwhelming experience. Locals were cheering from their front porches, beers in hand, and as I came into view of the finish line, the crowd was madly cheering on finishers which gave me the energy I needed to run the final 500 m as hard as I ran the first 500 m of the race. Crossing the line was one of the happier moments of 2010 so far. Relief and disbelief were blended with happiness as Jason of the AS crew was there to give me my final race survey, and congratulate me on my performance…15:04:22, 4th overall, 2nd male. Overall, the event was a complete success for Adventure Science. We were able to collect important data from all runners, and will be publishing our results within the next few months. The results should be very interesting and I’m looking forward to diving into them soon! In addition, I can’t wait to begin editing the footage collected for our pending documentary film on the race.

I’ve learned a few things from this race:

1. Taking care of yourself is key in a race like this and listen to early warning signs from your body
2. Create a race plan and race the plan…old news for Janice’s A-rush athletes
3. Specific training for the event is a must
4. Be prepared to play the mental game!

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