Ingrid Bergman once said “Happiness is good health and a bad memory.” This sums up the 2012 Canadian Death Race. It’s three days after the race as I write this. The bad memories and muscle aches from extreme suffering are starting to fade. This year was the 13th edition of the mountain ultramarathon in Grande Cache, Alberta. I got the idea in my head to train for this in December 2011. Watched this movie February 2012. Signed up for the race the second registration opened the following day. And spent the next 6 months trying to figure out exactly what I was getting myself into.
Tapering in the two weeks prior to the race was enjoyable (don’t tell any runners I said that…). It was a bit odd to have so much time on my hands – On the one hand, all my dishes were done, all my laundry was folded, and I snuck in a few of those wonderful patio summer nights when the light lingers and the temperature is perfect with a cozy sweater and flip flops. On the other hand, I felt my body shut down – my immune system got lazy, and I had that awful scratch in my throat that usually shows up in the middle of winter. I panicked – OD’d on tea, vitamins, green vegetables, and some crazy gargling concoction my Australian friend whipped up (always trust an Aussie). I was also a bit of a stress case worrying if I had everything packed, so I was pretty relieved to get on the road Thursday night with my crew – two amazing girlfriends along for the adventure (Lisa and Laura). A friend had snagged us a deal at the Fairmont Jasper Park Lodge so we planned to break up our drive by spending one night there. We arrived in time for a quick celebratory glass of champagne in the lodge and then crashed in our extra cozy beds. I knew this was the time to get in a good night’s sleep and fortunately we all got a good solid 9 hours in.
Friday morning we woke up and I put down a few thoughts before hitting the road. I was feeling a little stressed about the race still and had a mild freak-out when I couldn’t find a plug in to iron my shorts (why I was wearing shorts that needed to be ironed, just…don’t ask). The girls decided that was a good time for “a walk” and I got over my fear of wrinkled shorts. Three hours later we arrived in Grande Cache and settled in at the municipal campground. Lisa is an expert camper and our campsite was set up in no time – complete with gingham table cloth on the picnic table! That night I got started on my pre-race dinner (veggies, ravioli, quinoa, and lucky pasta sauce from Mercato). We had a hilarious slash disastrous time attempting to prep firewood. As with most things in life, I’m not above bribery, so I conned Phil V into coming over and chopping it for us in exchange for some vino. Crisis averted.
Next step was to stop in and pick up race packages and attend the pre-race meeting. I scanned the crowd from behind my sunglasses and while it did appear some people were enjoying the show, I was not one of them. Once it became clear there was no real purpose to the meeting other than build anticipation and market the race, we skedaddled pretty quickly. Phil then summed up what I really needed to know: Don’t lose your coin, don’t lose your timing stick, don’t lose your race number. Ok, done. Back at the campsite there was nothing left to do but wait for bedtime. I put my feet up on a bench, sat around the campfire, drank a beer, and we all chatted about … nothing in particular. Exactly what I needed – a chill campfire night. Easy.
I slept pretty well, considering, and opened my eyes for good at 5:57am, then crawled out of my tent at 6 sharp when I heard Laura’s alarm beeping in the next tent. It was going to be a big big day. The best part of breakfast was a surprise video message left by some peeps that could not be at the Death Race but really, really wanted to be. Awesome way to start the day.
We got to the race site, checked in, and I proceeded to have one final freak out when I didn’t have safety pins for my race number. Laura immediately procured a box of them and Lisa secured my number to my shorts for me. I figured putting it on my shorts made the most sense as I knew I’d be changing tops a few times during the race. One last hug from the girls, a few photos, and off we went.
I was so so happy it was nice and warm out. I know rainy and cool can be the best running weather but for some reason the clear blue sky was a big relief to me. I knew the girls would be able to sit outside as they waited for me (and waited…and waited…and waited), plus I wouldn’t have to deal with the mental aspect of running in pouring rain. I don’t even remember the gun going off but the first little loop through town was a good way to warm up and get the nerves out. Off we went. I listened to a lot of nervous conversation around me and kept reminding myself not to listen. I didn’t care what anyone else was doing. My job was simple: just run. All the rest of it would fall into place. Just run.
Leg 1: exactly what everyone said it would be. Simple, fairly easy, straightforward. I purposely went slow (I really meant SLOW) and stuck to my plan of running flats and downhills, and powerhiking uphill. The one thing that did shock me were the massive massive puddles on the trail. I hadn’t done any recon work in Grande Cache so was only relying on tips from others. I was expecting mud, sure, but was quite shocked at how dirty my feet and legs were and how many times I completely soaked my feet stepping through sinkholes. One thing I will say through the whole race is I felt like everything took forever. I ran up to the chaos of the first aid station and filled up my water pack, feeling like I had been gone for hours and hours. In reality I was pretty slow, 2hrs15minutes, but I was on track. The girls surprised me with matching tank tops (they were adorable) and loaded my pack up with more food. In no time I was off again.
Leg 2: ok. You guys. This was absolute INSANITY. For real. I had been warned and warned and warned about Leg 2 and I was expecting it to be hard but….it completely kicked my ass. First of all, it took so damn long I thought I may have skipped the transition zone and started on Leg 3 without me knowing. But no, Leg 2 was long, steep, and torturous. Actually that’s not all true. At the top of Flood Mountain I had to wait my turn to beep in and I remember looking at the scenery, and recalling an email my friend Alan sent me about enjoying the moment. I did enjoy that moment, ok? It lasted about 3 seconds before I was intensely focused on beeping my timing stick in properly. If I got DQ’d for not using a timing stick properly I would never live it down. So my focus at each timing station was similar to that of a heart surgeon – everyone shut up, I need silence, 2 beeps, and go. Relief. Then came the bum slide. I peered over the edge of the
hill massive cliff and began a sequence of words that continued through the whole race, as a matter of fact. While my mind was busy reciting words that rhyme with Duck, Tuck, etc, my legs kept moving. I gracefully sidestepped sideways down the hill lost my footing immediately and slid down on my ass grabbing at tree roots on the way to stop myself. My poles (which thankfully I had the sense to unhook from my hands before I started) came sliding down after me and came to a rest at the bottom of the hill. OK, well, at least I made it down. I stood up quickly, brushed off, grabbed my poles, and carried on through Slugfest. All I kept thinking to myself was “just keep moving, just keep moving” (thanks, Dory) and I think I did that pretty well. Racers were pulling off the trail to deal with cramps, catch a breath, grab a snack out of their packs, but I just kept moving until I reached the top of Slugfest. At the top I realized that I was not in as bad of shape as I thought, as I noticed the carnage of racers scattered on the hillside puking, wheezing, and desperately rummaging through packs for food. I had two handheld bottles in my pack (one water, one water+nuun) but since I also had poles, I dumped the contents of the handhelds into my bladder, had a gel, and continued on. The duck-truck-muck rhyming session continued down Powerline, a steep never-ending descent that had me panicked I would never see the bottom. I took a break on the way down to duck into the bushes to go to the bathroom, which I took as a good sign as it meant I was drinking enough water. The one thing that worried me on the way down that damn hill was a cramp in my hamstring. I have never even noticed my hamstrings EVER while running and of course, as my mind tends to wander when I run, I immediately assumed the worst and began imagining how this half-cramp was going to put me in an ambulance and end my racing career before it even started. A tad dramatic, I can now admit.
The transition from Leg 2 to Leg 3 was such a relief to me. The girls had a prime piece of real estate set up for my gear and had everything ready. Despite my shoes being covered (COVERED) in mud, I opted to just change my socks and keep the muddy shoes for one more leg. This meant I could leave fresh shoes and socks for Leg 4. I grabbed my favourite sandwich (hummus, cucumber, pickles) and Lisa combined two bags of chips into one bag so I would have less to carry. I was scarfing down food like I was 1/3 of the way through 125km run (wait…). Anyway. I also asked the girls to find Phil (wood cutter extraordinaire) and see if he had salt pills. I had one in my pack but wanted the security of another one in case that hamstring cramp acted up again.
Leg 3. I’m not a big ipod person (especially on trails where I live in fear of being eaten by a bear), but I knew ahead of time that leg 3 would be the most straightforward on the race – and the only place I might be able to handle music. In the interest of breaking things up I grabbed my ipod and only used one earphone the whole way. My playlist was called Sensory Overload and included my favourite running song and every dubstep-remix-extra-bass song in existence. Just FYI this is the greatest song when you need to get moving. My legs were still recovering from the previous leg, but Leg 3 was going alright until I ran out of water, completely. I found out afterwards that most people did run out on this leg, plus it didn’t help that I was running it at the hottest point of the day. There were quite a few creeks along the way and I decided if I got really really desperate I would drink creek water (although all the oil & gas production signs I saw earlier up above me made me question how drinkable it really was). I did see people filling waterbottles but with my uber sensitive stomach, I opted to dunk my hat in each time instead. I have a lot of hair and getting my head wet kept me cool.
One thing I noticed during the race was how often people would glance at each other’s race number. On leg 3 at each creek there would be one or two people eating or taking a rest on the side of the creek. It seemed like most
people guys were OK with a relay runner passing them, but having a solo girl (me) whiz by really prompted them to stand up from their perch and get moving. Suckers.
I reached the leg 3 to 4 transition at 6:10pm…ahead of the 7pm cut off but I know I caused a few people some very nervous moments wondering if I had made it in time. There was no cell service at that transition and by the time my crew fed and watered me and moved on to the next place I think a few people watching from afar were freaked out. But ignorance is bliss, and thankfully Lisa and Laura were super cheery, enthusiastic, and keen about my progress. I did feel a tad spaced out at this point, asking if I had taken an advil ten seconds after I’d swallowed it. Lisa reassured me that yes I had just taken it. Apparently I dumped all the contents of my bag too (still don’t remember that) in order to re-pack and fit in my night gear. Who knows where my mind was. I told Laura I felt like Pig Pen (my go-to Peanuts character when I trail run) so I changed my shirt, sports bra, socks and shoes and felt super new and fresh (clothing wise). All my nighttime gear went into my pack: heavier shell, two headlamps, toque, gloves, mag light, and extra batteries. I had my poles again so stuffed the two handhelds into my pack. I still hadn’t wrapped my brain around the fact that I would be running at night. Did I mention I had not trained at night at all, EVER. The few times I almost organized a night run they all fell through and so I figured I’d tackle night running the way I’ve tackled many things in life: bite off more than you can chew and then learn to chew it.
The start of my trek up Hamel was the moment I noticed a shift in other runners. There weren’t as many, and the gaps between us were becoming longer. I watched the silhouette of a female runner about 50 metres ahead of me and was in the middle of wondering if I would pass her at some point over our 3 hour climb, trying to judge how fit of a climber she was. As I watched her silhouette I noticed her stop in the middle of the trail. Then almost immediately, fall directly to the side, stiff as a board. Of course I assumed the worst so sprinted up to meet her in full panic mode. Fortunately it was just a bad case of leg cramps and she couldn’t put weight on her legs. My girls had retrieved salt pills at the prior transition and I handed two over to this poor woman in agonizing pain. I helped her to her feet and helped her stretch them out. She seemed ok after a few minutes and sent me on my way. Hopefully she’s ok. I took note of her race number to follow up after the race and promptly forgot it ten seconds later. I’d like to blame that on the race but truthfully I forget names and numbers at the best of times so really this was a completely lost cause.
As I write this, that Ingrid Bergamn quote comes to mind again. I know I was in SO MUCH PAIN at this point, I know the bottoms of my feet were bruised, and I know my calves and quads were burning. My head was in full-on hating life mode. But the thing that sticks out form this point on leg 4 was how delicious my sandwich was. It was quite possibly the greatest thing I’d ever eaten. I had both of my poles in one hand so I could chow down with the other, rendering my poles pretty useless as I powerhiked up the steep grade. I have eaten hummus/cucumber/pickle sandwiches so many times on runs but that particular sandwich was heaven on earth. I don’t remember the pain, but I do remember the sandwich.
Anyway. Important to note how delicious food was at the start of leg 4. That’s important later. I hiked and hiked and hiked and could see a plateau up ahead. I thought…is this the summit?? I sped up my pace thinking I had just conqured Hamel and made it my b-tch (sorry, but I had just been listening to Latifah for 2 hours). I reached my ‘summit’ and turned the corner to see endless switchbacks of people climbing, the REAL summit at least 6,000 feet away. Mother trucker. I think I paused for a moment and entertained the thought that is was really, really ridiculous and I didn’t actually have to climb all the way up. This could have been a pretty deflating moment, and all I could think was I didn’t want to waste my precious energy on crying, worrying, or hating life. There was only one way to the top and I only had one job: one foot in front of the other. That’s all I had to do. And so I did it, up and up and up and up.
The great thing about my summit of Hamel is I was going up at sunset. It was really, really beautiful and when the switchbacks forced us to walk into the light, all I could see in front of me was the shadow of another runner and blinding sunset ahead of us. I kept telling myself “enjoy the moment, enjoy the moment.” Then I realised whoever said ‘enjoy the moment’ has never had ‘a moment’ going up Mount Hamel with burning legs and sore feet after 11 hours of running. For some reason that really really cracked me up and I thought about passing it on to a stand-up-comedian-trail-runner should I ever meet one. Then the thought of a stand-up-comedian-trail-runner really cracked me up, and now I realize it’s actually not that funny at all, but…whatever works? I remember my legs were hurting and I was hating life but at the same time… slightly in awe of making it that far. I made the cut off, I was on my way up Hamel, and….um…maybe 12 hours left of running dammit! This was really happening.
The volunteers up at the top of Hamel were so sweet. I felt like the encouragement they gave me was akin to the encouragement you would give a baby who just walked for the first time. Sheer joy: You did it!! You made it!! I I was instructed to run out to the end of the summit, grab a flag, and come back. I was allowed to take my pack off and leave my poles which was a nice treat too. It was really really windy up there, the kind of wind that makes you grateful you are built “solid” instead of waif-like so you can be fairly certain you are not going to blow off the mountain. That would have been a big buzz kill. After surrendering my flag and timing in again, I was on my way down Hamel. And down, and down, and down. I figured it was almost 9:00 judging by the light, and tried to get in as much running as I could before daylight ran out. I had a minor freakout when a runner went by worried about missing the 10:15 cut off. I followed him in sheer panic before realizing we had passed the 10:15 cut off already, and stop listening to other people because clearly everyone is loopy. There was a point right before dusk turned to darkness where I emerged from the canopy of trees and ran across (what seemed like) an open field with Serengeti-like trees spaced out. With the light from the moon and the subtle shadows I really felt like I was running through this t-shirt. Then an ankle deep puddle appeared out of nowhere and materialized around my feet… and then I realized it was probably time to get my headlamp out.
The Ambler Loop station felt like a movie set. Lights, music, trucks, and craft services set up in the middle of nowhere. I saw the mass of piles of drop bags and thought about the contents of mine – a dry top, an extra toque and gloves, and two Eat More bars. I was totally fine temperature wise and my appetite was gone, so the Eat More did not appeal to me. I thought about getting them out anyway and putting them in my pack for later, but the thought of locating my bag in the massive pile of bags was too much for me to handle. My brain was fried and all I could focus on was one foot in front of another. A volunteer helped me beep in my timing stick and instructed me how to do the loop. Run out, beep in at an unmanned timing station, and run the rest of the loop. Everyone around me was taking off their packs and leaving their poles so they could run the loop with a lighter load, so I started doing the same thing. Not even ten seconds after putting my poles down someone else picked them up (thinking they were their poles, there aren’t pole-thefty people in the death race). I got the poles back and then the volunteer reminding me not to forget my timing stick (which was in my pack that I was planning on leaving behind). Having narrowly avoided two crisis’ in the span of ten seconds, I decided this was too much for Chels to handle and I would keep on running with my pack and poles and keep things simple. The quicker I did that loop the quicker I could start the long trek down Hamel on a logging road (no clue what kind of road it was actually. A big dirt road maybe). I have to say the absolute best piece of advice I got for the death race was from my friend Dom. While we all had to wear headlamps at this point, Dom insisted I get a Maglite handheld flashlight as well. It made SUCH a big difference going down that road. At one point I had a trail of six people running behind me because my light was so good. That damn road seemed to never end and my quads were on fire from running downhill. This is when the term GRIND came into play. I was majorly griding. But I wasn’t going to stop and walk at this point – walking hurt as much as running, so might as well run. At some point on the way down I convinced myself I could complete leg 5 without eating. I was done with food. The thought of eating ANYTHING other than some chicken noodle soup at the transition was so revolting, I justified my plans to complete the entire 5th leg with no sustenance. It makes no sense, I know. But neither does the Death Race!
As I pulled up to the aid station and the welcoming bright lights, I felt a small victory. There was no way I wouldn’t finish now, right? After timing in and giving my number I was asked “…and are you going to continue?” (I’m hoping they were asking everyone this…). I said “most certainly” and kept going. A lovely volunteer helped me fill my pack and some random dude collapsed my poles for me after I explained they were stuck (they were not stuck at all). Since the data from Ambler loop was messed up, the girls thought I was still stuck up on Hamel and were very surprised to see me – but very happy as well! Lisa said she spotted my jacket at the water station but didn’t know if it was me because my hat was on backwards, and she’s never seen me wear my hat backwards…ever. Very accurate statement as I have never worn a hat backwards… ever. But the brim was getting in the way of my headlamp and I thought what the hell, it’s time to go Gangsta Chels for the final leg. I had a caffeine pill and some chicken noodle soup. Laura and Lisa very explicitly asked me if I was eating and reminded me I had to keep eating on the next leg. I ignored that statement until it had been said for the fifth time and then thought…maybe they’re on to something. I had planned on changing into warmer running tights for the final leg but the thought of changing clothes was more daunting than the thought of finishing the final leg (plus it was pretty warm and I was moving) so I stuck with the same trusty pair of lululemon shorts I started with (and that I have owned for probably 6 years). I was really curious what time it was (I didn’t mention that I was running without a watch on purpose – and I wasn’t supposed to know what time it was). I am glad I didn’t find out the time after all – too many expectations either way. All I had to do was run. One foot in front of another. As I left the station Lisa said excitedly “this is really happening!!” and I felt the same way too. Wowza. One leg to go.
I had a burst of inspiration and energy to start the leg, and took advantage by shuffling semi-quickly through the darkness. After nearly faceplanting for the 50th time I thought to myself “Gangsta Chels, this would really suck if you tripped and broke your face in the last leg. Not only would you DNF but you’d also have a broken face.” So I traded running for powerwalking and safely proceeded through the mystical forest of darkness. By this point I was basically on my own, again extra thankful for my maglight as it was pitch-pitch black in the trees and the only directional indications were tiny reflectors on the trees. I could see 20 feet in front of me for reassurance I was going the right way. I passed a decent number of people meandering slowly through the forest and refrained from rolling my eyes at a relay runner asking me how far we were from the boat. How the hell do I know I’ve been running solo since 8am you crazy hooker?? I used my inside voice for that thought and instead just said “probably farther than we think, keep up the good work.” I got really excited when I hit this bizzare rock that you have to literally squeeze through – I completely forgot about it and remembered seeing it in Simon Donato’s film Go Death Racer back in February. I remembered seeing that clip in the film in February and wondering at the time if I could do the Death Race – to being here in pitch black darkness now going through this rock. I guess there aren’t many hefty people who do ultras but I did recall wondering what would happen if someone couldn’t fit through the slim gap in between the rocks. I made it to the boat and handed over my coin to the grim reaper, which actually made me giggle at how ridiculous and awesome it all was. I hopped on the boat and the driver immediately offered a seat at the back. To which I said, “I am not allowed to sit down until I reach the finish line, thanks but no thanks” and he joked that he would take a seat and I could drive the boat. Maybe he could be the opening act for my stand-up-comedian-trail-runner comedy night. Anyway – a quick trip across the water and I painfully whimpered slash jumped off the boat into the freezing cold river. I was actually really cold for the first time that whole day and knew I had to move to get the shivers to go away. When I saw the steep incline back up to the trail I immediately resumed the duck truck puck rhyming. Honestly. People who have done this race understand. At this point I wanted to turn around, swim across the river, and punch that damn grim reaper in the face. It was SO STEEP!!! But…just run. One foot infront of the other, just keep moving.
On the boat I had looked up at the sky and thought to myself: it is PITCH BLACK. No sign of dawn yet. I knew I had about 15k left to go, and this was the first time I entertained the thought that I might be able to finish before dawn. Great news. However, my stomach was revolting against me and I felt so so nauseous. Bad news. I rummaged in my pack and took a gravol. And maybe I had a gel, although at this point I really can’t remember what happened in that leg. I know I was grumpy, and I know I was anxious to try and get out of the damn forest before dawn. I felt like I was going in circles. I knew where town was because I could see dim city lights in the distance, but the path kept leading me away from them. I pushed and pushed and dared my stomach to get rid of everything in it – I would probably feel better – but couldn’t bring myself to force it. I hit some sort of road and saw a handful of headlamps bobbing slowly up the hill. I challenged myself to run it since I didn’t need to conserve anything anymore. So I pushed it hard and ran up that hill (you may be imagining me sprinting up a hill with Chariots of Fire playing in the background. This is very inaccurate. Truthfully I was shuffling my feet and probably resembled pac man (pac woman) more than anything). I was a living breathing example of “how to run with bad form,” but I guess the key was I was still running, as I seemed to be the only one.
Finally I hit the residential road, a sign you are very close to the finish line. I saw civilization. There were even people out on their patio cheering us on (it was 5am!!). The road (again) had a slight incline and I ran up it, in disbelief that the sky was dark and I was around the corner from the end. A teenager up way past his bedtime was standing at the top of that hill texting race numbers – he shouted at me Go Death Racer and I turned the corner, seeing the final finish line bright lights. I got teary-eyed and realized this must have been a successful race. It was still dark out. I turned the corner into the stadium and immediately saw Lisa and Laura jumping up and down screaming. Then I saw the clock at 21:08 and I screamed a little too. I crossed the finish line and beeped in my timing stick for the final time. Sheer happiness!!
Final thoughts. I am SO DAMN HAPPY. I am forgetting the pain and cold and shivering and cramping, and all I remember is the euphoric feeling of running into the stadium and seing the 21hour mark. That was so unbelievable. I remarked somewhere on the drive home that that had been my best weekend…ever. I get teary thinking about it because I worked really really hard for this and to have it pay off in such an amazing wonderful way is mindblowing. I spent four years playing NCAA golf and never trained that hard (is that bad to admit? Probably – NCAA please don’t retract my scholarship now). I ran road marathons and barely trained at all. But this race was a result of 7 months of me training my ass off and climbing mountains and narrowly escaping bear attacks (not really, I just like to make it sound dramatic) and running running running. And it paid off. There’s a life lesson in here somewhere but right now the most important thing on my mind is: which race should I do next?
If this race report were a movie, the following people would receive special thanks in the rolling credits.
Mum for supporting me in everything I do and every crazy idea I get. You are my hero, your support means everything, and I get my strength from you (and a good luck charm in my pack!)
Dom for teaching me how to trail run, how to avoid bear attacks, and for coining the phrase “Don’t be offended.” You are the illest.
Laura for joining me in Grande Cache and blowing up my luxury mattress and organizing video messages and photographing every moment and for the hilarious wonderful text conversation that will live on in infamy. You are lovely, stunning, and most of all an incredibly loyal friend.
Lisa for joining me in Grande Cache a week and a half before her wedding, and being awesome and amazing and supportive and thinking of every tiny detail (and for the camping Tupperware). You are a gem and a unicorn and Kyler is the luckiest guy on earth to get to marry you.
Nicki Rehn for taking me under her wing from the beginning and introducing me to so many awesome trails and trail friends. Your enthusiasm for life is spectacular and contagious.
Alan Lam for an ear, lots of jokes, and for always having an answer. WWAD (What Would Alan Do) has gotten me out of more than one predicament and I anticipate it will continue to come in handy.
The Calgary Trail Trash crew, quite a few who I have never met, but those I did run with all provided a great story, a piece of advice, or a friendly dog to run with. My search-and-rescue experience means I am now one of you for life
Until next race!! Xo Chels