Monday, August 3, 2009

Canadian Death Race...125 km's of gnarliness!

It's a long one...

Ever since first hearing about the Canadian Death Race in 2004, I've wanted to run it. I mean seriously, who doesn't want to run a race with the word "death" in it's title?? However, being way up right smack dab in the middle of nowhere, it's a long trip to get there (and home). To find out where Grand Cache, AB is, get out your map of Nowhere, and look right in the middle. You'll find it.

Anyway, back in late-February / early-March, I decided this would be my year to make the 1,100 mile trip north to the beautiful Canadian Rockies. However, I decided about one day after the race filled. Bummer. So I was put on the wait list, with not much hope of getting in. Fast forward to July 2. I got an e-mail saying that if I still wanted in, there were a few openings for some wait list people. Although this was less than a week after my suffer fest at Western States, I replied with a "Heck yeah I want in!". So I e-mailed my info and got my name on the starting list (but too late for the official race program).

Although I didn't specifically train for the Death Race and it's 17,000' of climbing and descending, I knew my Western States training, Where's Waldo training, and pacing Jamie at Badwater would all help get me ready for the Death Race (doesn't the name just sound cool?).

On Wednesday, July 29th, I started my long journey north. The drive up was relatively easy, as I split it into 3 days. The first night I stayed with my parents in Spokane and enjoyed a nice soak in their hot tub. On day 2, I drove to Banff to stay with my friends Leslie and Keith, who were in the middle of hosting an epic 5-day running adventure in the incredible mountains near their home. I decided to meet the group that day for their last 9 km. I had hoped to get in a good 9 km of uphill with about 3,000' vertical by myself, then join the group for their run down. However, I got to the trailhead too late and only got about 2 km from the car before I ran into them (since my whole adventure was in Canada, distances will generally be referred to in kilometers; you're all runners, so that shouldn't be an issue). After meeting some extremely cool new Canadian friends, catching up with two awesome American friends, and soaking in Leslie and Keith's hot tub with a nice Honey Lager, I had a great night of sleep. Day 3 (July 31st) started off with a very heartfelt Happy Birthday singing to me from Iris, Meghan, and Keith. They're so cool - thanks guys, that really meant a lot! The drive that day was going to be, as Leslie told me, the most beautiful drive in the world. She was right. Driving through Jasper National Park is incredible. The mountains were outrageous and the glaciers and ice fields were just simply miraculous. I couldn't believe how huge the glaciers were. I was glad to take my time driving through Jasper and enjoying it all.

I finally got to Grand Cache on Friday afternoon, met up with fellow Marathon Maniac and 2008 Death Racer Terry Sentinella and his wife Delores (out of the 230 solo entrants, Terry was the only one I knew - definitely something I wasn't accustomed to), checked into our hotel, then picked up my race packet. Picking up my packet was hilarious. Two girls checked me in, one about my age, the other late-50s. They noticed I was by myself, asked if anyone had come with me, then immediately became very concerned for me. They asked if I had run the Death Race before, if I knew what I was doing, if I had any experience in this kind of race, etc. They even offered me the chance to be on some teams that were still looking for someone last-minute. I just smiled and said I would be okay. The look on their faces, though, was simply classic. I could tell they were seriously scared for me.

After a fairly sleepless night, I easily woke up at 6 for the late 8 a.m. start. They start later so more people have to run at night. I ate my normal pb&j, drank a bottle of nuun, put on my trusty Montrail Streaks, and walked the kilometer down to the start. There wasn't a hint of coldness in the air, so I elected to go light and just carry two bottles and gels for the first two sections. (Since it is mostly a five-person relay race, the Death Race is broken up into five sections; 19 km, 27 km, 19 km, 38 km, and 24 km.)

The first section was pretty quick, easy, and painless. I ran the first kilometer or so with Dean, asking him how his dad was doing. We watched as many of the relay runners and solos sped off down the road. Although we were both first time Death Racers, we knew better. After 5 km on the road, we hit the dirt and precisely at 6 km, we hit the mud. Everyone was trying their hardest to delicately prance around it. Everyone but me. I went straight through the first mud pit and immediately found myself down on my side covered in mud. I didn't care about the mud, but did care about injuring myself, so I was a bit more careful after that. I ran a good portion of leg one with Sam from The North Face relay team Go Nads! (not Thompson; this Sam lives in Canada and works for TNF). It was his first ever trail race - cool! Toward the end of this leg I had to pee, so did my thing on the run, much to the amazement of a couple of Canadian runners. I cruised to the end of 19 km in 1:33, 12th overall, 2nd solo (9 min. behind legendary Jack Cook, winner of the CDR in 06 (c.r.), 07, and 08). I filled my bottles, cleaned up a little, and was off down the trail.

Leg two is the most technical section of the course and has two very big climbs and descents. It started off in perfect Sean-style, a nice, runnable uphill on a dirt road. My love for running up hills like that showed, because within 10 min. of leaving the aid station, I was in 4th overall (still 2nd solo). Eventually I turned off the road and onto a goat trail up Flood Mountain. While very steep, it was still early in the race, so easy to climb. However, it was still pretty early into this stage and with the emergency aid station (e-a.s.) being about 9 km away (at 36 km), I was a bit alarmed at how fast I was drinking my nuun and water (note: there were only 4 main aid stations, one at each of the relay exchange points, and 3 emergency aid stations in the long legs 2, 4, and 5). I slowed my drinking down a bit, but figured I would rather be dehyrated with empty bottles than dehydrated with full bottles. The trail from the summit of Flood Mountain to the summit of Grande Mountain is the roughest piece of trail in the Death Race. The descent down Flood was insane! Think extremely steep (I fell on my butt a few times and slid 10-20 feet), lots and lots of rooty, boggy, hobbity trails (think Hobbit section at McDonald Forest, but a lot longer and a lot harder) - just all around hard. About 8 km before the e-a.s., I crossed a creek and filled up my bottles. Aaahhh, that's refreshing, but I sucked those down fast and again ran out of water. I crossed another creek, filled up again, then 5 minutes later was at the e-a.s. Funny note here: At the e-a.s., while I filled one bottle with plain water, I asked a volunteer to put my baggy of Carbopro into my other bottle. So that's what she did - she literally put the baggy into the bottle, still ziplocked, and filled it with water. I rephrased my request, she felt silly, and the other volunteers got a laugh out of it. I love ultras! Then it was up, up, up Grande Mountain, mostly on dirt road, but only about half runnable. Getting up wasn't too hard, but again, the down was super stinkin' steep and very rocky. Like going down Flood, I thought I was moving sooooo slow, but also like Flood, I didn't get passed on the descent - so it wasn't just me being a wimp. It really is steeeeeep! In fact, I even passed a relay runner, Martin from Go Nads!, on this descent. Mercifully the down eventually became runnable and I finally cruised into the end of leg 2 back in Grand Cache at 46 km at 5:03, 5th overall and 2nd solo (13 min. behind Jack). Normally when running solo in a race where there are also teams, I don't care what place I'm in overall, but since I ran pretty much just with teams in this race, I thought it was fun to see how I compared to them. This was easily the hottest part of the day, probably in the mid-90s. So I made sure I got soaked in water, drank lots, grabbed my Nathan #020 pack from Delores, and took off down the trail.

At only 19 km, leg 3 was once again an easy one. The biggest thing to happen in this section was a bit surprising. Around 50 km, 5:30 into the race, I noticed someone very fast-looking ahead of me was walking very slow. Hm, not good. It was Jack Cook and I could tell he wasn't in the fun zone. I slowed to ask if he needed anything - a gel, electrolytes, anything. He just said he was going through a bit of a bad patch. I don't know if he realized I was a solo runner or not, but that didn't matter to me. Since I was now leading the solo race and I didn't know how long his bad patch was going to last, I picked up the pace for the next 10-15 minutes. I happily cruised into the end of leg 3 at 65 km in 6:55, 6th overall and 1st solo. By this time, the weather had cooled a bit, clouds had rolled in, lightening and thunder had started, and the humidity was knowticeably rising. And it was time to climb back up in the mountains!

Climbing Mt. Hamel was quite an experience. Looking at past splits of top finishers, I knew I was in for 2+ hours of climbing (6 miles, about 3,500') and about 3 1/2 hours before I hit the e-a.s. in this leg. So I carried 3 liters of water in my pack and a 20 oz. bottle. I got into a good hiking groove with Shea from Foy Factor and he definitely preferred me to set the pace. I was okay with that because it gave me company for the long climb. There was one short downhill, but I didn't care for that because then we had to re-climb that lost vertical. But it was pretty much up, up, up for 2.5 hours! As I kept going up, the temps dropped, and there was a nice breeze at the summit. Upon summiting, I ate a real small bit of solid food and immediately my stomach revolted - no pukey, but a horrible cramp. So I had to run the very steep and rocky downhill through the Boulder Garden hunched over for the next 25 minutes - not a good way to put time on the competition. Shea took off as I slowly plodded down. After lots of water and an s-cap, the cramp finally went away and I was able to happily cruise down. About this time I ran into someone coming up the hill. I knew I was going the right way and was about to mention this to the runner, but then I recognized it as Bryon! After 10 hard hours on the trail, it was so nice to see a great friend. We chatted briefly, but he was headed up Hamel and I had a race to run going down, but it was nice knowing my buddy had made the 8ish hour drive north just to cheer me on. Thanks, Bryon! I got to the e-a.s., dropped my pack, filled a bottle, and ran the 5 km Ambler Loop like I was on fire - it felt so good to run light again! I passed 4 of the relay people who had passed me while I was Mr. Hunchback, so that helped fuel my fire. When I got out of the Ambler Loop and back to my pack at the e-a.s., the volunteers told me that no other solo runners had entered the loop yet...nice! I knew that meant I had at least a 30 min. lead with 33 km to go, and I felt good, so someone was going to have to run pretty darn fast in order to catch me. I grabbed my pack and lights and cruised the next 11 km to the end of leg 4 - a nice downhill for 7 km then parellel to the highway. I finished up leg 4 at 103 km in 12:05, 9th overall and 1st solo. I quickly dropped my heavy light (kept my small one), most of my food, and my extra bottle with Delores to go as light as possible the last 24 km. I entered the Raft Ride Home section confidently.

The weird thing about this story so far is that is lacks puking! Well, that almost changed about 4 km into the last section. I was cruising along on some more hobbity trails and decided to down my first Powergel of the day. Immediately my stomach wanted to puke it up. However, with well over 2 hours to go, I really didn't want to open the flood gates. So I slowed to a walk to settle it down, took 4 big gulps of water, and continued walking for a minute or so. Whew, I dodged a bullet. I continued cruising along the hobbit trail to the e-a.s., meaning 15 km to go, including a river crossing. Still slightly naseous, I grabbed a little bag of chips at the e-a.s. and went down to my private jet boat ride across the Smoky River. In order to cross the river, I presented the ferryman (Dr. Death) with my very special gold coin. Unlike Western States, we actually timed out for the boat ride. The too-quick ride was the only time all race I sat down, and it felt kinda good. I thanked the skipper and first mate, got out of the boat, timed back in, then up, up, up a pretty darn steep road. This was a good time to try to eat some of the chips; mmm, Cheetohs! From there in, I was getting pretty tired and could tell I was hammered. This was really the only section all day where I was losing momentum. I did pass one relay guy, so that helped slightly, but getting passed by 3 other teams didn't help (although they were all so nice to me with lots of "Go Death Racer" and "Good on Ya" rah-rahs). Running on a fairly heavily wooded and rooty trail, I contemplated getting my light out. When a relay guy passed me with his light on, that made my decision easy. It was 10:20 p.m. Northern races in the summer are sweet! With about 5 km to go, I got out of the woods and onto a dirt road. I turned off my light and began hammering up the hill. About 1 km later, my body threw some dry heaves my way. They were kinda violent, but I was pretty dehydrated by then, so didn't have anything to puke. By then, I didn't really care if I puked, but with nothing in my stomach, I again held off the puke monster. One more relay guy flew by me in the final 15 minutes, then I just kicked my butt in, not wanting to get passed again. I finally crossed the finish line in 15:04:04, good for 1st solo and 11th overall. I was ecstatic and I was wasted. Lucky for me Bryon and Delores were there for me. It was crazy to me how many people were at the finish area; at least 100, and they were all cheering for me. Some of them were relay runners, some were crew, but a lot were just ordinary residents of Grand Cache.

That night of sleep was very light and painful. I twitched almost all night and woke up feeling like a semi had run me over. After a nice fat breakfast with Terry (11th solo in 17:39), Delores, and Bryon, complete with lots of greasy bacon and lots of cheese on my homefries, it was time to hit the road south. Since it was Sunday, and I couldn't stick around for the award ceremony on Monday, I stopped by the race office to let them know that Terry would be picking up my winnings. I also chatted with Dean for a little bit about his race (2nd solo, 16:12). He said he didn't have a good race and his body was just tired from all of his racing lately. While talking to one of the TNF marketing guys, he asked me if I knew what I had won. I said I had heard I won $1000, which was super sweet. He said "the cash or..." (oo, I like "or's") ...an all expense paid trip to any of the other The North Face Endurance Challenge Races around the world!! I was shocked and speechless. Apparently the Death Race is part of the Endurance Challenge that also includes races in San Francisco; near the Great Wall, China; Mont Blanc, France; and near Santiago, Chile. Whoah - that's a heck of a list to choose from!

I then turned the little Honda south and hit the road for the 20 hour drive home. Bryon and I stopped for milkshakes and cheese fries in Jasper, then it was drive, drive, drive to the border. I got to the border at 12:10 a.m. No biggie...unless you're trying to cross at a border in the middle of nowhere. Apparently some of the border crossings close at midnight and don't re-open until 8 a.m. The closing in general kinda sucks, but then the late opening time made it suck even more. So I slept in the Honda that night and finished the rest of the drive home the next day.

Big, huge thank yous to Delores, Terry, Bryon, Iris, Keith, Leslie, Meghan, TNF's Go Nads! team, all of the racers who cheered for me, all of the racers who ran with me, all of the Death Race workers and volunteers, the entire community of Grand Cache, The North Face for such a sweet prize, Montrail, nuun, and Nathan for my racing gear, and everyone else who encouraged me along the way. While the Death Race wasn't the perfect race, or even my best race, it was definitely my best ever long race (long = over 100 km) and things just seemed to click for me. Hopefully I still have a bit in the tank for Where's Waldo 100 km on August 22.

If you're on Facebook, you can check out some of Bryon's cool pictures.

20 comments:

Anonymous said...

Good job, Sean. The great part is that you didn't have to choose which prize you wanted. You got both of them, the money and the trip! Awesome. We missed you at the reunion, except for the two hours after the border reopened, but you made up for it with a great win. Your family is all very proud of you.

Tonya said...

Really great post, Sean!! Long-ish but worth reading. I felt like I was there! Thanks for sharing and for the inspiration!!

Colin Hayes said...

Great account of a crazy race! Congrats & good luck at Where's Waldo.

Anonymous said...

That was an absolutely incredible review of your fantastic run---Canadian Death Race! Loved your review, Sean; and you are an amazing runner. Way To Go!!!!! Congratulations!!! Sorry we missed you at the Family Reunion, but we were thinking about you (and glad it was you and not us doing that event). You are a great writer. Love, AJ

AnthonyP said...

Hey Sean. Great report, great race...amazing !

Bret said...

Gotta think of a new name for ya? No more puke master. Awesome job Sean!
Nice to see ya on the trail at Aspen and wave to me as you pass me at Waldo. Im a wuss...taking the early start. I want that hat!

~Kim~ said...

Thanks for the very detailed review of the race! Congrats!

Gary Robbins said...

Awesome, awesome, awesome work Sean!!

Anonymous said...

You have to do UTMB! Great run in Canada, eh.

Will Thomas said...

Sounds like an amazing course, but not as amazing as whatever TNF race you choose next year. Congrats

big E said...

Sean, great run! You're right, anything with "death race" in it HAS to be run! really enjoyed the race report! So which endurance run are you going to do next year? :)

Jamie Donaldson said...

Great run again Sean! Love the report--felt like I was there with you (in my own tulip skirt and tank top)!

olga said...

Holly cow, Sean!!! Did you pick the all-expense racing? You better say you did! That's once in a lifetime opportunity, man, I am so jealous! Awesome job, you've redeemed yourself more than enough, and no puking, hell, that's something new for you! May be the streak/spell is broken?

William Swint said...

Way to go Sean! It must be a great feeling to be the best death racer in the world. That sounds dangerous.

Brad Mitchell said...

Great job Sean - Good luck at Waldo!

Gretchen said...

YeeeeHaaaaw!! How awesome! Thanks for the beautiful report. I'm so glad you held off the puke monster and were the top Death Racer! (You're so right--anything with death in the title is ultra cool. I'll be referring to you as "Death Racer" from now on.)

So, I'm thinking Mt. Blanc. Am I right? Does "all expenses" include paying for your crew, and if so, can I be on your crew? ;)

Good luck at Waldo, and have fun!

Alaskan Assassin said...

Nice write up. I have always wanted to run that race.

Amber Dawn said...

Awesome race report! I can't believe I just stumbled onto this blog, and it turns out you were the winner- too cool!
I am considering doing the Death Race this year, I appreciate your account of the stages.
And I had to laugh at your description of where Grande Cache is- since I live in Grande Prairie, only 180kms North.... in the middle of nowhere!! LOL
Congrats!

brendaontheRun said...

Loved your race report; I ran the Death Race solo last year and it brought back lots of great memories!

Chaz2607 said...

Hey Sean,
A great story. I am a 7-time marathoner thinking of running the Death Race for my 50th birthday in 2012. Can't say I am not frightened by the prospect--and the prospect of insane training going on for months on end--but you have inspired me. Thanks so much for sharing the experience--Ill base my prospects on a 50-k cross country and see how it goes.
All the best--keep running.
Chas