The North Face Canadian Death Race celebrated it's 10th anniversary this year but has remained relatively obscure to ultrarunners in the states due to the fact that it does take place across our border to the north. From there, the masses taper away and the alpine acreage of the Canadian Rockies accrues. The journey began in Edmonton thanks to a head start from Alaska Airlines. From there its a 3 hour drive to Hinton, Alberta where the entrance to Jasper and eventually Banff National Park begins to take shape. 2 hours north and you are smack dab in the middle of Grande Cache, AB. If elevation was king then this would be Leadville lite. I say that primarily because of the huge similarities in locale and lay of land, but with a lot more oxygen. Considering the Leadville 100 was the first ultra I wanted to compete in, I took an immediate liking to the surroundings.
The 125 km course begins and ends on a 4200 foot plateau, passes over three mountain summits and includes 17,000 feet of elevation change and a major river crossing at the spectacular Hell's Gate canyon at the confluence of the Smoky and Sulphur Rivers.
I knew the course was rough and that it took last years champion, Sean Meissner, over 14 hours to complete. What I didn't brace myself for was just how brutal some of the sections like the Slugfest and, well, the entire section of leg 2 would be!
Coming off of Western States I was a little worried about finally making it to the start line. I had wanted to run the CDR for some time but was always conflicted with other events like say, the White River 50 that coincided on the very same weekend each year. Even when I worked at the SRC, manager Eric Sach (who now has his own store ,)had taken time off to hear the throngs chant, "GO DEATH RACER." My ankle had improved to the measure of almost fully supporting my weight, even on the downhills and I knew that I had 80 miles of endurance left in my memory banks (WS100) even if the last few weeks had been filled with more driving miles than running miles. The excitement of running pain free had me primed more than I could have imagined once race day arrived and I knew that 12 hours was going to pass relatively easy, heck the last 80 miles were the worst of my life and that was accomplished in the same amount of time.
Carly and I arrived at the starting line much like we had at the pre-registration meetings, in total anonymity. OK maybe a stretch, but it was a far cry from the last race we were at and a little refreshing, did I say refreshing I meant grounding. Phil Villeneuve was there, whom I had met previously at TRR but everyone else I had come into contact with in just the last day. I knew he was ready to race, and Paul T. had just introduced me to Adam Hill, a tough competitor at the Bull Run Run 50 year after year. Simon Donato from Adventure Science and Alex Magdanz, Rick Reusser as well as 3 time winner and and course record holder Jack Cook rounded out the known competition. We barreled out of town like we were in the relay, 1:14 or so to complete the first leg. We passed relay runners and got the chance to see an enormous black bear gallop in front of us. I was feeling unbelievable good and sort of felt bad for everyone else for how fast I was taking it out. Phil and I had settled in together and I was content to run with just about anyone after seeing a man sized bear in the first 15k, however after he took a restructuring pit stop I was all alone, climbing the first of two 2,000 ft ascents on leg 2. The Slugfest was supreme and rivaled anything I have seen at Wasatch or the Bear but thankfully it was only 8k and I was through leg two in just over 4 hours. I can only say the descent back into town is for those to experience and not for me to describe as it lends credence to the name, Death Race.
Leg three is the "easiest," but it's still covered in rocks, rolls through grizzly country and cooks almost every runner. For a while, I led the race (including relay runners) until Dave McDowell put down the hammer and took the relay portion home for TNF as well. Thinking I could hang with him, I charged long enough to completely drain my lone water bottle, insanity. A mild bonk then turned into an excruciating hour up Mt Hamel after having laid low for a while in the 3-4 interchange. 3,500 feet seemed to take forever, or at least 2 hours. It felt good to get high on switchbacks but then again I was reeling from not having enough fluid so who knows what gets trumped at that point. Amazingly enough both Ellie Greenwood and Carly had started this leg while I tried to push on towards a finish in course record time.
Leg five was a labyrinth of aspen, as road parted into soft single track trail. I passed through the crack in the rock just before crossing the half day mark. I was a little disappointed knowing I should have run closer to 12 hours with the condition being as they were but that quickly faded upon seeing the grim reapers amazement at my arrival across the Smokey River.
12:45 upon re-entry, perhaps the performance of the day by some, but I tip my hat to Ellie Greenwood for dipping under the previous c.r. time of 13:48 and to big CV (17:38, 5th female, 16th out of 400 + starters) for a WS100 encore second to none. The last miles of the race are tragically all uphill, it's a hard way to end a race but at least they were in the light and perhaps that meant more literally to me than I could imagine.
Death racers leaning on Mt Hamel's triumphant shoulder
That's a record!
Nope, before the race.
You may be thinking, what's up with Hal's glasses but you should be wondering why everyone wears pink in Grande Cache?
Carly, taking a break in Jasper National Park's Athabasca Falls.