The Canadian Death Race
The Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, Alberta has a long storied history stretching over 20 amazing years. I was curious to find out what it was all about based on accounts from friends who had completed the race. Also I had been a five time veteran of Death Race director Brian Gallant's Sinister 7 race in the Crowsnest Pass. I knew that besides being heinously difficult it would be well organized so it was time to check it out!
With 125 km (77 miles) and a cumulative elevation gain of 5,181 metres (17,000 feet) in a 24 hour time limit, I knew this was nothing to take for granted. Sure it's not 100 miles, but given the location of the race - Grand Cache Alberta, you would be hard pressed to find more rugged mountainous terrain in any race.
Divided into 5 legs, the race ascends and descends 3 major mountains, Flood Mountain, Grande Mountain and Mount Hamel. All three of these peaks are above 1,800 metres (6,000 feet) above sea level with the highest point on top of Mount Hamel being 2,129 metres (6,986 feet) ASL. Bring your best lungs and red blood cells to this one because the air is thinner up there.
The legs although traversing remote mountain wilderness have a nice way of coming back to civilization so you can lick your wounds, get support, fresh clothes or shoes, calories and fluids before heading back into that wilderness. The start and finish are also in the same location which makes crewing a little easier.
Feel a little unsure about this adventure? There is also a trail marathon event that lets you experience some of the course and get your feet wet before coming back for the full adventure.
The town of Grande Cache is friendly and the people very welcoming of this insane weekend and I think take tremendous delight in seeing us come to play and suffer in their back yard!
Then there are the other racers. It's the people who count and some of the most wonderful tough, resilient, giving people I've ever met make up the "usual suspects" list at this event. They can be seen at other ultra races with sometimes ominous names like Sinister 7, Black Spur, River's Edge, Lost Soul, etc. They are like family thanks to mutually overcoming adversity, but also just because they are wonderful people!
I set out on 3 with my heart buoyed a little by the brief interlude of sun. I wasn't sure how long it would last but I was happy.
This leg is fairly benign as it doesn't have much vertical change and follows the Smoky River. I mean it has some elevation for sure but with it's net loss it feels like a break after the horrors of leg 2.
This year (2019) there had been some sections that were a little washed out from a super wet summer and as a result we ran the side of the road for a section along the highway. I didn't mind at all and took the breather before the Hamel assault to try and recharge.
Upon reaching the end of 3, I met up with Angie Z who was waiting for Hiro and helping crew me as well and she was a welcome sight. She is so experienced at crewing that she knew precisely what to say and do and how to keep my tired brain on the proper script.
Hiro had arrived shortly and we regrouped to prepare for the assault on Mount Hamel. This meant packing up lots of calories, my wind and rain proof jacket and headlamp and other assorted safety gear. Being close to supper time meant eating a lot of calories to prepare.
At the bottom of leg 4 it was a nice balmy temperature for Grande Cache of something like 15 C as Hiro and I departed for the Hamel assault. What we found was a switchback filled with mud and lush vegetation. This part went on seemingly forever as we kept climbing.
After a relentless forest climb we opened out to a clearing and a road. This gravel road continued to climb. The views were getting more amazing around every bend.At one point I was flowing along so I looked back at one point and Hiro was not there. Given his experience I was sure he was fine though and continued upwards. It was so great seeing him later on getting his washer at the summit!
Eventually above the trees the final switchback appeared and as I went ever higher, the wind gradually picked up and the temperature gradually fell. I reached my wind-proof jacket out from the pack and put it on.
On one of the last switchbacks right at the summit I looked out to the west at the surrounding mountains just as the sun was about to set. I think that was the most epic view of the race. It definitely made my day to see clear skies and a beautiful orange sunset from the summit.
On the summit, it had to have been sub-zero wind-chill and the wind was so powerful that it buffeted me several times off the trail. Some of the small pin flags marking the course were shredded down to a pin with a ragged edge of plastic where a flag once was.
Then came the sick joke played on all of us of going out along a ridge to pick up a washer and bring it back to the marshals! Nice one! I put my head down and pushed into the gusting high winds as dirt caked my face sticking to the sweat. I smiled at the absurdity of the whole affair.
After passing the prayer flags and stopping momentarily to remember those who were lost and contemplate the meaning of them, it was off down the other side of the mountain.
I noticed immediately that my energy came up higher than it had been. This as partly because of the fact I like to run the downhills but also because the trail was rocky but dry and it was considerably less windy and cold.
After a really long descent and back into the trees, I came upon the next cruel joke... The Ambler Loop! I had filled my stomach with salty hot broth and some other calories from the amazing aid station so there was that small grace, but then we were directed out towards this swampy loop that was psychologically trying I found. Not sure why, but it got to me.
After Ambler came the Beaver Dam road. This was not steep but went on for a super long time. I think that may have been because of the level of fatigue I had at that point. This road would take us close to the end of 4 and the 100km mark. I made a conscious effort to just keep one foot after the other going.
After reaching the end of 4 and the 100 km mark, I pulled into the checkpoint. If you run any of the Sinister Sports events you will find that Solo runners are treated like rock stars and the cheers that went up when I arrived were truly heartwarming.
To my surprise Steve Bridson (my Ontario Ultra buddy) was there and happily provided me the support I needed. Steve was crewing our friend Grant Monette and it was great seeing him there.
After fuelling and getting sortedI got an ominous reminder about the remote wilderness aspect of the race from a course marshal. We were being warned that it was a good idea to go out on the last leg #5 with other runners. There had been cougars reported stalking runners out there so it was best to travel in numbers. No argument here, I made some friends quickly and got ready to head out for the final 25 km.
The money leg that takes us home was going to start with a cautious run with bear whistles out and eyes peeled. It was about 8 km into the leg that we heard distant yells "hey cougar!!!" which was a warning from runners ahead on the trail that they had a sighting. They continued to make a lot of noise to scare them off and we continued with occasional loud blows of our whistles.
This single track leg was actually quite pretty in the night and featured a narrow rock gap to squeeze through prior to arriving at the river.
I can't remember but I think it was about 10km into the leg that I felt what seemed like a bee sting in my left knee during one of the descents. I couldn't figure out what it was, but the pain got worse and spread down the outside muscle of my shin.
We had finally reached the river and the boatman of the dead! With a blacked out face and outstretched hand the figure stood silently to allow only those who had kept their precious coin without losing it along the course of the race thus far. I jokingly gave the outstretched hand 5 and the figure just shook it's supernatural head. Just kidding... Here is your coin.
After passing the boatman at the river's edge, my leg was so painful that the boatmen had to help me get the leg over the side of the boat and get in. After a freezing super fast, short trip we were on the other side!
What followed was more forest and more hills and more fun! My leg was very grumpy with me but I ignored it, embraced the suffering and went on.
As the very first light came into the forest I was almost at the road. A road that takes us, uphill of course, to the neighbourhood where we climb up to the main street and the community centre to finish. I was hurting but so over it that I sped up and ended up running quickly into the chute and finish arch... It was done.
Quite an Experience
As is usually the case when you try a race for the first time there is a mixture of excitement and a little apprehension when you show up at the start. In my case I know I'm going to be out there for a long time as in all day through the night. Upon seeing the weather patterns in Grande Cache and having had a disastrous bout of trench foot at Sinister 7 race a month earlier, the apprehension seemed to be winning out.
I looked over at my friend Hiro and he looked as unflappable as ever. Looking at Hiro is to look at a man who has had so many rodeos that none of the bulls scare him anymore. It's like a quiet confidence he has that I was trying to emulate.
Before I had too much time to ruminate on these thoughts, it was go time. Just like that we were off and running and being cheered on by the amazing Grande Cache supporters lining the first road section. I felt like it was a good thing to provide some sort of spectacle to the local folks who happily gave us a venue to come out and play.
Before long after descending a section of road we were into the forest for the first taste of muddy trail. While leg 1 is a relatively benign one without too many serious changes in elevation, it made up with it by throwing puddle after puddle at us. They were deep and wide, leaving us with the option of just running right through or trying to skirt them and falling in potentially. I chose a combination of these and arrived relatively unscathed at the transfer point a little faster than I probably should have at 1:56, emerging from the trees to follow the rail track into the transfer.
Heading out on 2 it occurred to me that now the race was going to bare it's teeth and show us some nasty climbs. This was a warm up climb at first with a steady road climb that seemed to never end. Before long it changed to trail and steepness.
The trail became quite steep on the climb to the top of Mt. Flood switching back many times through the treed sections, emerging to an open area and a checkpoint. The volunteers were yelling "welcome to Flood" as we arrived and I could see what they were so enthusiastic about, the view! It was the first high vantage point of many and definitely afforded a great view of the valley and everything below.
Lest I become too Euphoric, the race dropped us roughly 1,300 feet into Washy Creek and immediately the next insane climbing began. This was the part that took us to the summit of Grande Mountain.
I should mention that this leg has some of the most technical and heinous terrain in the race. Names like Slugfest and Stairway to Hell leave little to the imagination. Stairway to Hell was basically a river of vertical mud to climb. It's a sick sadistic leg that made me smile thinking how ridiculous it really was!
Getting back to the subject of Grande Mountain, it followed some really muddy sections but opened up near the top with an amazing view looking across at other mountains near the summit. It was a gravel road that provided a brief respite form the mud and technical trail. Following that climb, the summit of Grande to me was even more spectacular than Flood had been.
After enjoying the views and the fact that rain had held off, it followed inevitably that it would rain on the descent. Of course it was no ordinary descent either. Powerline exceeded the tales of terror I'd heard for sure. People were falling ahead of me onto their butts and then sliding as if on some giant slip and slide. It was literally so slippery in the muddy trail and slick grass that anything less than shoes with giant cleats and you would be sliding potentially a long way on your butt.
I was so happy about my shoes having helped negotiate Powerline without falling that I counted my blessings and ran the grassy embankment beside the road back to the neighbourhood leading to the end of 2 which was the starting area.
This checkpoint being the race central was fully stocked with what I needed and I was happy to see Sherri Donohue there who helped me get the broth in and food. I sat there just long enough to take in the food and some dry clothes just as the weather started to clear up a little.
In the end I looked at the clock and had finished 125 km (77.7 miles) and climbed 5,181 metres (17,000 feet) of vertical crossing 3 mountains and dealing with the most heinous muddy conditions possible. It was technical, the weather varied considerably and it was every bit as trying as a similar 100 mile race.
A short time later Hiro came in and we stood there smiling and swapping war stories holding our craft beers with our times stamped on them and our immense belt buckles! What an incredible feeling of accomplishment and relief. As much as it's about enjoying the journey there is nothing like the feeling at the finish.
It was great to see Angie, Monique, Brandy, Sherri and all the others at the finish and also great to hang out and watch the kids race.
All in all I have to give kudos to race director Brian Gallant and his entire team of volunteers who make it so incredible. It was a super well executed event and I'll be back next year for the Sinister Triple! (Sinister 7, Death Race and Black Spur!)
I have to say thank you to Angie and Hiro for hosting me in Edmonton, driving me to Grande Cache with them and all the fun stuff we did in Edmonton. Thanks Angie and Sherri for helping me at the transfers. Thanks for being such great friends.
Thanks to Jim Chernichen for the lift back to Edmonton.
Thanks to Sherri and Dennis for meeting us in Edmonton for such a great dinner.
Thanks to Sarah and Brian Gallant & team for these amazing races.
Great to hang out with Debbie and Brian Wallace and what a great dinner we concocted!
Thanks to Steve Bridson for being there for me at leg 4/5 checkpoint.
Grant Monette pulled off a heroic OTL finish refusing to quit and I have so much respect for you buddy!