The Canadian Death Race (CDR) was my second ultra marathon. At 125 kilometres it is nearly double the distance of the first ultra I ran back in September, 2014. At the time I thought that ultra was pretty tough with some significant elevation change. Here is a little perspective for you: my total time for the 63k Mad Moose Ultra was a little less than 7 and 1 half hours. So when I finished leg 2 of the 5 leg CDR having run only 46k with a time of 7 hours and 3 minutes I began to realize this was a different breed of race.
There were somewhere between 1000-1500 runners in the CDR. This made for a fun start with the music going and a charged atmosphere as runners tried desperately to find an appropriate pace. The first leg is rated the easiest at 19k with comparatively tame trails. I say comparatively because on its own a good chunk of the leg is fairly technical and a few poor souls took some hard falls early on.
Jeremy and I strolled into the leg 1 finish in a cool 2 hours 3 minutes. The crowd was thick in the transition and spectators cheered us on. Jeremy was good about hustling us through the pit stop. I tend to take too long at these places.
Leg 2 began to climb almost immediately. We ran some distance on a quad track before entering single track that proceeded nearly straight up the side of a mountain. We planned to share a single set of poles. This it turns out was foolish. Running the CDR would be exponentially more difficult without two good running poles.
Before reaching our first summit Jeremy began to take a turn for the worse. He soon had both poles and was struggling to keep up. He began suggesting I go on without him at about K25. I hoped he was just hitting an early wall and we could push through. We moved slowly down the mountain in a tight pack of runners. The downhill so steep that many runners had to slide down on their rears. In dips and valleys we found mud and muskeg which made for even slower going.
At k31 Jeremy looked pale and was insistent that I move on without him. He threatened to pull out of the race all together unless I took the poles and left him there. He planned to take an hour and try to recuperate. I figured a remote possibility of his completing was better than none so I did as I was told and moved on. I’ll be honest, I thought he was done at that point. This was a serious blow to my mental state. It helped that I quickly began overtaking many runners but thoughts of how Jeremy was likely out of the race made progress bitter sweet.
Up and up leg 2 continued, culminating with a spectacular view of the surrounding country side. Any thoughts of the worst of the leg being over were quickly dashed. The trail followed a power line nearly directly down the face of the mountain. It was so steep that I began longing for the uphill. The incline was taking a toll on my quads which were now nearly shredded. I pictured Jeremy coming down that trail without poles and tried not to complain.
Jeremy had drug himself into the aid station where the medics gave him a rundown. He was wrapped in a blanket to combat the chills he was experiencing and he learned that his resting pulse rate was in excess of 128 beats per minute! The medics considered pulling him from the race but decided to let him sit an hour and check his fitness to continue then. So as I was approaching the end of the power line from hell Jeremy had recuperated and set off to run me down.
I saw the most beautiful woman in the world wearing a fluorescent vest (Lisa) marshaling runners through an intersection just 800 meters from the end of leg 2 (which happens to be the start/finish line). I met Lilli and Kirsten at the line who were kind enough to crew for me. Meaning, they filled my water bottles and watched over my stuff. They were awesome having waited around for us to show up 2 hours longer than we anticipated arriving. And there was no “we.” Jeremy was still out there!
A blister had begun to form on my right heel. I took some time in transition to clean it and apply mole skin. For a month I debated buying new shoes but put it off until, in typical James fashion, I broke down and bought new trail shoes two days before the race! Do you really need to break shoes in nowadays? Turns out the shoes worked great, all things considered.
It was 3:00pm when I finished leg 2 well under the 5:30 cutoff but much longer than I’d planned to be. The girls wanted to know what to do with Jeremy’s gear. I refused to give up on him and asked they leave it where it was and have mom come down and crew for him (as the girls were scheduled to take over Lisa’s volunteer tasks at 3pm).
Leg 3 followed the river valley for 19k. Frankly, I think this was the easiest leg of the race (it was less technical than leg 1). The weather may have had something to do with its relative ease. I understand that generally this trail is fraught with bogs and mud. The dry weather left just enough room on the edges of the puddles to keep our feet dry. Realizing that this leg would have few hills I held back a little to give my legs a little time for recovery before the onslaught of leg 4.
I arrived at the end of leg 3 at about 6:20. The transitions between legs were great. There were plenty of people to cheer you on as you ran in. I love to get the crowd going so I always pick up the pace a little and shout something like: “I can’t feel my legs!” (That one always draws a cheer).
I must have looked a little out of sorts at the end of this leg as the nurse was grilling me hard or maybe it was the comment about my legs. This was the furthest I’d ever run! I’d just covered 65k and run for a little over 10 hours and I understood quite profoundly that I was only about half way. After a short rest long enough to refill my bottles and shove some food in me I would be off. I took a moment to pull out my phone and switch off airplane mode (airplane mode to conserve battery life). Rats, no cell service. There was no way to know for sure if Jeremy was out or if he managed to carry on.
So, unknown to me Jeremy was only 40 minutes behind me. He had come into the leg 2/3 transition about an hour after I’d left it. Unlike me he did not have the luxury of holding back on leg 3 and he had just descended leg 2’s quad crushing descent without poles. He made up over 20 minutes in leg 3. A look back at his splits put him in the top 30 soloist runners for that leg – he was moving! As Jeremy approached the transition spectators rallied to let him know he was moments from the cutoff and to make it he’d have to sprint it in. I wish I had been there to watch as he dug in to race the clock. He timed in right at 7pm and then promptly threw up.
10 minutes later Jeremy was still at the aid station in recovery when another soloist came in to find she’d missed the cutoff. Runners can be the nicest folks. She was happy to lend Jeremy her poles for the remainder of the race. He would need them.
Starting out on leg 4 I was with a nice older lady who was completing the leg as a relay team. I managed to stay with her for about a kilometer and a half before she pulled away. I knew she had fresh legs and certainly was deceptively athletic but watching her pull away at the beginning of the steep climb up Mt. Hamel was quite the reality check.
I’ve heard other racers talk about this leg as the “assault” up Mt. Hamel. I’m not so sure who exactly is being assaulted… I have a feeling it’s the runner and not the mountain. It is an ascent of over 2000 feet on ever steeper switch backs. There is a bail out part way up the mountain (a couple stoic volunteers in a Jeep). I dug my poles in when I reached them and rested for a moment or two.
Leg 4 is 38 kilometers. I fell in with a group of runners part way up the mountain and it turned out that several had attempted to solo the run in the past. For some this was their 2nd or 3rd attempt. One able looking veteran in pink socks indicated that it was best to reach the end of the leg by 2am at the latest – 7 hours away! Another reality check!
Just short of the summit I realized I had not eaten anything in a couple hours. My stomach really didn’t want me putting anything in it. I was suffering from stomach cramps and even the thought of food threatened to have me expel all I had managed to ingest. I forced myself off the trail and sat down. Without exception every passing runner asked if I was alright (such nice people). I forced down an Eatmore bar refusing to stand until it was all gone.
The summit of Mt. Hamel provided some spectacular views. I arrived there just as the sun was setting. The bald mountain top looked down on Grand Cache and the stunning rolling Smoky River valley.
The wind was intense at the summit. I would only be up there for a short time (they make you run the length of the table top mountain and back – more than a kilometer). I resisted getting out my jacket, toque and gloves until I realized that I must be bleeding energy fast to keep myself warm.
So it was that a few kilometers later on the far side of Mt. Hamel I was sitting on a rock in what the race organizers called “Boulder Garden.” I was stowing my cold weather gear and the sun was setting fast. I had made a fatal mistake. Jeremy and I (more optimistic than prudent) had stowed our headlamps in our drop bags which were at Ambler Loop about 7-10 kilometres away.
Naturally, the first runner to come across me on that rock asked how I was doing and I mentioned my predicament. She didn’t hesitate to lend me her spare torch. Otherwise I may have had to follow a runner with a light and that had nothing but disaster written all over it. A few hours later I would learn that a runner tripped in the dark on Ambler Loop to cut her knees, elbows, bloody her nose and break a finger. (Thanks for the assistance Erin – if you are reading this).
It was a further blow to arrive at Ambler Loop to my drop bag which was clipped to Jeremy’s. Was he still out there? Was he without poles on that unforgiving ground? His headlamp was in the bag at my feet.
I believe it was about midnight when I arrived at Ambler Loop. The support staff here were fantastic. There was a fire burning and a chair seemed to be waiting just for me. After a quick rest and a forced feeding I set out on the loop. Here was a segment of trail I could wrap my head around. It was 5 kilometers. To this point with just a watch I was out of touch with my pace. I thought I must be taking as much as an hour to cover 5k and was beginning to worry about cutoff times. When I finished the loop I was rather pleased to see I’d made the distance in almost exactly 40 minutes. Another 10.5 kilometers would bring me to the end of leg 4 and the home stretch.
A steady downhill on a dirt road, fantastic. I can make up time here. I ran with a nice guy for a while until stomach cramps forced me off the road. If you think burpees are hard try squatting next to a tree after running 100k. Yeah, there is just nothing pleasant about that picture.
I pulled into the end of leg 4 pretty pleased with myself that it was only 2am. Another forced eating and I took 20 minutes here – I felt I deserved it. I checked my phone and found I had cell service. I texted Lisa to find out how Jeremy was doing. She hadn’t heard from him so that could mean only one thing – he was on the trail! He was still in this thing!
I toyed with the idea of waiting for Jeremy at the aid station but I had no idea if he’d make all the cutoff times. How long could I wait? If I sat too long would I be able to get going again? I had to push on and hope for the best.
Leg 5 was single track and some quad trails through fairly dense forest. There were reflective tacks pinned into trees along the route to help you find the way. It was a bit spooky at times running without another soul in sight through the shadowed canopy of the forest. To hear the patterned footfall of a runner far ahead or behind was actually a comfort.
It was a quick, though creepy, 7k of twisting trails to the next aid station. Again I forced down some food. It was a fruit source bar that tasted like dirty feet. After just a few minutes I left the aid station to make my way to the river just a few hundred meters away.
I rounded a corner to descend on the river bank and standing on the shore was Death. The river roiled black behind him and cast a mist upon the bank. He stood, motionless, in flowing black robes his face a skull. His right hand held a clear chalice filled with silver coins. The price of passage already paid by runners that had come before. At the start of the race every runner was given a coin to pay the ferryman. I’d stashed my coin in a gel pocket of my pack. With relief I paid the toll and climbed aboard the river boat leaving Death to collect the fairs of those that would come behind.
This was it. 15 kilometers and the race was over. I understood, however, that there were two rather aggressive hills between me and the finish line and I wasn’t sure how much I had left. It was 4:12 when I left the boat and I went straight at it. There was no way to know how fast I was traveling or how slow! After what felt like forever I saw a kilometer marker. It read 3k! “What! Are you serious,” I thought! I must be moving at 20 minutes per kilometer. I began to wonder about my ability to make the finish line by 8am. I pushed on as the sun broke the horizon and I caught glimpses of Grand Cache at what seemed an unreasonable distance away.
I eventually caught the group that had taken the boat before me. They were confident we were making good time but I couldn’t believe it. I broke away from them but one, Jeff, kept pace. He assured me we were fine but I was convinced we still had 10k to go and we’re moving too slowly. Then there was suddenly a spectator who congratulated us with the information that we had only 3 kilometres left.
Jeff and I sped walked along the now gravel road together and discussed how tired we were, how stupid this was and how we should stick to easier events like Tough Mudders or Spartan Races. Then we hit pavement and I knew we were less than a kilometre from the finish line.
I left Jeff then and like a horse that has caught the scent of home I broke out. It was a gradual climb I was making but I was doing it at a run and oh how smooth the pavement slid beneath my feet. I was breathing like a steam train but I didn’t care as I passed runner after runner on the final stretch. I thanked my pink socked friend as I passed him by and then was heading down hill and I was fighting tears of joy! Deep breaths. Deep breaths. I rounded the final corner and felt the grass beneath my trail shoes and bolted for the line like I had only been out for a 5k. My water bottles broke free from my pack on my chest and scattered across the field as I came through the line to time in at 6:24:37 am. I’d done it! I’d pushed myself through 125 kilometers. Someone had collected my water bottles and was giving them to me. I then laid down on the grass to take the weight off my feet.
I was only there a few moments when Lisa turned up with the kids. They’d missed me crossing the line by just minutes. I suppose I should have walked the end.
Lisa convinced me to take a shower. If Jeremy was still out there he was probably an hour behind me. The showers were close but it still took me nearly an hour to get the job done. Washing my legs was the most difficult… Try standing on one leg in a shower after running 125k. Yeah, I sat on my butt.
I was in the stands watching the runners come in at 7:20. Where was Jeremy? Every minute that passed seemed to spell disaster. Then there he was coming down the street with about 20 minutes left on the clock. I was shouting and moving (ever so slowly) to intercept him at the finish line. I couldn’t believe it! He had rallied from what seemed like the end. It was a reawakening, a resurrection. He had come back from the dead and he looked it.
Jeremy demonstrated incredible tenacity. He raced the clock to nearly every cutoff. That performance will be one I’ll never forget.
It has taken me a couple days to get my feet back under me. I was unable to eat anything solid for about 24 hours. My stomach took a far worse beating than my legs. The leg pain I can handle. In fact, at about kilometre 70 I truly could not feel my legs anymore. Now that I can eat again my mind is drawn to whether I couldn’t get that time down under 20 hours. If you’ve read this far you have something of the endurance gene in you too – maybe I’ll see you out there next year! I just need to work out how to train my stomach.