Last summer Micha ran the Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, Alberta. It's taken a bit of time for him to write his impressions and for me to edit them, but here they are. Make yourself a cup of coffee and get comfortable, because he goes into quite a bit of detail. We found woefully little information on the death race during his preparations, so we hope this post will answer some questions, but if you have any questions about the race and about Micha's experience, leave a comment and we'll get back to you. What's up next? Well, he just finished the Rennsteiglauf super-marathon in Thuringen this weekend and is training for the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in Chamonix, taking place at the end of August 2009.
"Always on the long weekend in August"
Canadian Death Race, Alberta, Canada
Hmm… Running... I've been able to do that for quite a while. At the very least, it's made my parent's apartment unsafe since I was two years old.
But ultra runners have seemed special ever since I first read about them. Some of the more well-known names are featured again and again in articles and I've always asked myself how they manage to do it. How can you run further than a marathon, which for a regular person is already an incredible achievement? How can you train for something like that?
I already found the training I did in 2003 in anticipation of an Ironman race to be very hard work, but at least I had the opportunity to cross-train between the three disciplines. Running 100 kilometers or more, however, which takes about as long as an Ironman, is nothing but running.
In 2007 I tried to run a 100 kilometer race for the first time in Biel, Switzerland. After finishing the race with all the requisite emotions of such an accomplishment, my girlfriend mentioned the race in an online chat with a friend in Edmonton, Canada. Both agreed that I am a little crazy and then the friend said: "Don't tell him about the Canadian Death Race here in Alberta". My girlfriend is especially successful at keeping secrets, so a few days later I registered for the race. On my first visit to the somewhat ominous website, I read about the limited number of participants and didn't want to take the risk of being left out. I would have hated to have gotten a flight, a bear bell and all the necessary equipment but to have missed out on an actual starting number.
Since the North Face Canadian Death Race was looking for volunteers during the race, my girlfriend registered as a volunteer, as well. It’s not like she would have anything better to do during the 24 hours the race would last. Later on we realized that there would have been alternatives. Most solo runners showed up with an entire fan club and race crew, which every runner was happy to have for mental and culinary support during the race. As a volunteer, however, you were also expected to have some fun, as we learned during the kick-off presentation the evening before the race.
I started to train for the race at the beginning of 2008. Whenever time permitted, I did a twenty-kilometer run on the weekends, alongside my regular short runs during the week (two ten-kilometer runs per week). I started my proper training in February.
So - what was the plan?
For starters, regular marathon training in anticipation of the Dresden marathon in April. A little bit more training for the super-marathon at "Rennsteig, Thuringen, in May, followed by the 50th anniversary edition of the Bieler Lauftage in Switzerland. The motto accompanying my training was "The highlight is in August with the Canadian Death Race", meaning that I shouldn't over-exert myself beforehand. After completing all these races, I still didn't feel like I was ready to try this new category of running. The opposite was true, and both my "coach" in Switzerland, Ingo, and I thought I'd make easy pickings for the bears in Alberta after I hit the wall during the Bieler Lauftage.
The name "Death Race" really says it all. After my friend Pierrick sent me the altitude profile (which I had been studiously ignoring until then), I almost fell off my chair. "What have you gotten yourself into?" I asked myself. Meter after meter of altitude, bears, cougars, crossing rivers in the Rockies and then running with the dead... Well, I guess other people have managed to survive it, so let's rock.
I optimized my training plan by spiking my 30-kilometer weekend runs with some shots of altitude, which isn't that easy in our neighborhood. I ignored the hot summer temperatures in keeping with my philosophy that you never know what the weather will be like during the race, so just run. Nevertheless, the devil on my shoulder sometimes won the day and I occasionally ignored the issue of altitude.
Everything was going well and in the end the training turned out to be sufficient. In retrospect, I realized that my training was missing one specific component: looooooooooooooooooong training units of 6, 8, 10 or even more hours of hiking in the mountains, preferably for two consecutive days, and long mountain-bike sessions or similar as alternative cross-training to prepare the body for prolonged endurance. I will try it this year for the next race…
The next thing we knew, we were at the airport bright and early on a Wednesday morning. The first leg of the trip was a flight from Munich to Toronto via Brussels(on Jet Airways. You need to fly with this awesome company) In Toronto we enjoyed a five-hour break with my girlfriend's family and were spoiled with a great lunch. The entire trip to Canada was also an opportunity to visit my "in-laws" and to get to know one of the countries my girlfriend calls home. Everyone was very friendly and welcoming but no one held back on telling me that I'm totally insane.
The next leg was a flight to Edmonton, Alberta, via Calgary. Almost 30 hours would pass before we could lay our exhausted extremities in a bed. Two days later I’d repeat the experience, except this time on foot.
The next morning we had a nice breakfast with my girlfriend's friends, followed by some errands. A few hours later we drove our rented minivan into Grande Cache, Alberta, the home of Canada's toughest race, in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. We rented a room from a lady named June – the nicest soul in the middle of nowhere. The closest village was 150 kilometers away.
The start of this epic athletic event was at 8 in the morning on August 2. I barely slept the night before, tossing and turning from 3 am. A few days earlier I developed a distressing cough and after waking up I didn't really feel like doing this 125 kilometer, 17,000 feet of elevation race or dealing with all the crazies around me. Peculiar thoughts and doubts about health and motivation often go through my head before a race, but the previous evening’s motivational kick-off event had discussed all the things you could do wrong as well as what to do right in order to finish this special adventure race.
The previous day racers had been given the opportunity to write a message on a prayer flag, which would be hanging at the highest point of the race. The motto on my flag said it all: "Just move!"
I took a couple more photos before the start and then the starter's gun went off...
I finished the first leg, about 19 kilometers long, in about two hours and five minutes, which was a little faster than I planned but felt good. "They're all crazy," I was heard to say, excluding myself from the masses. The leg was mostly flat, but the course ran through a crazy trail, covered in bushes, tree roots, ascents and descents, all of which were mere inklings of what was to come.
My one-(wo)man crew was waiting for me at the end of the first leg with her teeny cardboard box of food, clothes, lamps and bear spray. I could barely find her between all the crates of food and gear that the other crews had brought. I felt good and everything was going well. The sandwiches my girlfriend had made really hit the spot.
In retrospect, I'd say that the second leg was the hardest of the five. The rain started at this point and the summit of Mount Flood was very cold. I didn't get much of a break before the steep ascent started. I'd have to describe the descent, however, as the first big disaster. Mud, bushes, slippery slopes, dirt and roots... and to top it all off, I ran out of water. Luckily, the next food station was close enough, just before the ascent to Grande Mountain. This next ascent took much of the power out of my legs, long before I was even halfway through the race, but I still managed to reach the second summit, and was pleased to see the sun reappear. There was a great view from the top onto Grande Cache and a few of us stopped for a quick break.
What followed was another long descent, which made the first descent look like a walk in the park. Luckily my knees survived this ordeal, which was incredibly steep. I made the second leg cutoff with sufficient time to spare. I realized during the second leg that I had miscalculated the third leg cutoff time, and rushed through this stop so I could finish the third leg in time, inhaling a sandwich and moving on.
The third leg was rain- and cold-free and the thought of a long, flat run along the river was a great motivator. Yes, I really had to rush, but it was a very nice run along impressive terrain. The course was moderate enough that it allowed me the opportunity to chat a little with Sheila, a crazy woman (nothing personal, Sheila ;)) from Edmonton, who had done no training until three months before the race, when she started running 25k every other day. Her goal going in was to finish the first three legs of the race and she succeeded. I thank her husband John for his encouraging words along the way and for loading me up with military grade candy for the rest of the way. Good luck in 2009, Sheila!
After the third leg, which I made with ten minutes to spare, I relaxed a bit with a fifteen minute break. Having made the cutoff, I was looking forward to the opportunity to reach the highest point of the race in the next leg. Even if I didn't make the next cutoff, I'd still be able to say that I'd reached the highest elevation point. After my girlfriend did an excellent job feeding me and taking care of me, she went to her next volunteer shift and I started the long ascent. I was the last person to start leg four.
On the way up I saw Wade and Justine, a couple that we had met the day before and who shared a lot of details about the previous year's race. I eventually reached the summit at night, together with two girls from the Grande Cache area that I had met at the emergency drop-out point (where Justine and Wade decided to stop running) on the way to the summit. The drop-out point also had a cutoff time, which again I managed to beat by ten minutes. It was extremely cold and very dark, which thankfully made me too exhausted to worry about any bears that might sneak up behind me.
The feelings I had upon reaching the summit are indescribable, and will always be etched on my mind. The ladies and I kept motivating one another to keep going. We swore together, laughed together and made our way to the other side of the mountain together. Yes! We made the cutoff time of the fourth leg, which was unbelievable because I had some doubts about being able to make it on time. In keeping with the ongoing theme, I made this cutoff with... ten minutes to spare.
I was feeling hopeful again about being able to finish the race before the 24-hour cutoff. At about 4:15am, we started the fifth and last leg.
We had been told at the start of the fifth leg that we had 7 kilometers to the boat that crosses the Grande River, which we should be able to do in an hour and three quarters. That sounded reasonable enough... but the road got longer and longer. It became clear after a while that the distance to the boat was longer than 7 kilometers. When I finally reached the boat, I found out that the actual distance was 9 kilometers. This may sound negligible, but after 100 kilometers and about 5,000 meters of altitude, every meter hurts.
On the way to the boat the ladies and I had a falling out, at which point I decided to part ways with them. I channeled the anger I felt about the incident to energize myself a little and managed to get to the boat crossing with another ten minutes to spare. Crossing the Grande River was a scene that I had imagined a year earlier when I first registered for the race, but the reality was quite mystical, with the ferryman wearing a black robe and taking my payment for transportation to Hades, since without payment I would be bound to pace like a zombie in a no-man's land (the coin that all racers had to carry from the beginning of the race). Greek mythology never mentioned crossing the river into Hades in a speedboat, however.
On the way to the other shore a lady in the boat gave me the last motivational push, telling me that there were still twelve, or at most thirteen kilometers to go, and another hour and forty five minutes to run them. There would be two or three more tough inclines, but "you can make it", she said. I didn't need to wait long for the ascents she described.
While I was incredibly motivated and knew that I could do it, I have to concede that I didn't really have much energy at that point. Under normal circumstances, such a distance would be no problem in the remaining time, but at this point it was different. I just ran at whatever pace my body and the trail would allow. Thirteen kilometers should be possible; it must be possible. Next came the kilometer 116 sign, followed by the "hamburger in 5k” sign, and the extra-motivating sign – "your mom is running faster". It was amazing how just the thought of reaching the finish made me move.
I reached the last incline having run for nearly twenty four hours and got to see my girlfriend at the last curve, where she was just finishing up her second volunteer shift (Thanks for everything, baby). I just kept running, crossing the finish line at 23:49:51. I did it! Unbelievable! The relief, the nervous energy, the fear of being too fast and hitting the wall before the end, the bears, the long months of preparation and the friends who helped me along the way... all these thoughts went through my head at this moment. It was a phenomenal race!
I was the third-last runner to cross the finish line before the clock ran out. All those who finished before the 24-hour cutoff became "members of the Death Race club" at the following morning's award ceremony. The winner, John Cook, finished the race about ten hours before me - the highest of honors, but we're all Death Racers in the end.
Being part of the race, having fun on one of the prettiest courses out there and being so nicely received by the people of Grande Cache are probably experiences we won't encounter again. Thanks to all who made it possible for me and for all racers, for allowing us to experience this adventure.