The journey to the Canadian Death Race seems to have been a long and convoluted one. The story really begins early in the year. I was feeling good, excited for what lay ahead and looking for a challenge, so why not the Gnarly Bandit Race Series? A series that takes place over 4 – 100 mile events and 1 – 100k event from April to October in the Upper Midwest United States. I declared, got my UMTR membership and started registering for the races.
The first event in this series is the Zumbro 100 in April, south of Minneapolis. In 2018, a blizzard happened so surely 2019 would have great weather…right? I couldn’t have been more wrong and as race day approached the weather looked more and more ominous, until the morning I was to leave, when I received an email from the Race Director informing participants that the race had to be cancelled. The first race in the Series, cancelled. I was disappointedly relieved, and then found out that the Gnarly Bandit Series would go on, with the remaining races, the second of which was Kettle Moraine 100 in Wisconsin.
Fast forward to the beginning of June, and I was standing on the start line of this race. The time between Zumbro and Kettle hadn’t been good for me for a number of reasons, but there I was, ready(?) to go. Long story short, it didn’t go well. I dealt with blisters, a lack of emotional engagement with the race, too many rookie mistakes, and ended up dropping at mile 77, with the realization that I’d never make the final cut off and surely didn’t want to continue another 23 miles with that reality. In addition to then being out of contention of completing the Series, I also was now without a Western States qualifier.
Upon my return home the adrenaline was still flowing. I was already registered for Black Hills and thought, why not? I had crew, it would be great…until Wednesday in the wee hours of the morning arrived and I woke up in a cold sweat…perhaps the adrenaline literally leaving my body and I thought, what the heck am I doing? Right then I there I made the decision that I was going to step back and not go to Black Hills in a few weeks.
A few days later however, I received a message from my friend Brad Whitson. Essentially he said; hey Joel, Canadian Death Race is a Western States Qualifier….there is still space for more runners to register…..I’ll come with you and crew.” It was almost like I couldn’t say no. So after some research of what was possible re: transportation and accommodation, I took Brad up on his offer and registered.
And so, on August 1st, at 7:00 AM, I picked up Brad and we were on our way. I knew enough about CDR from many local people who have run it, as well as my own research over the years, that it would be a good challenge. I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was nervous. The few weeks between Kettle and CDR weren’t full of awesome runs. Though I was logistically prepared, I doubted my physical preparation. But then I started to compare it to some other things I’ve done over the years, and remembered that since this is mostly mental, I needed to get that on track, get some confidence in my experience and ability and just go for it. But I wasn’t just going for a finish, I needed that Western States Qualifier which meant the I needed to go under 23-hours, an hour faster than the official course cut-off.
My kids, who have grown up around ultra/trail people are pretty blunt when it comes to these events. After my first attempt at Bighorn in 2016 when I DNF’d, my kids would look at the elevation profile and remind me of where I “failed”. The day before CDR, they were at it again, my youngest sending me a text; “Good luck Dad, you better finish”. Right there, in addition to a few others things, was the motivation that I needed.
So Saturday morning arrived, we were close to the start (everything in Grande Cache is close to the start), so it was a relaxing morning. We arrived at the start line, I ran around a bit, stretched a bit, and right before 8:00, gave Brad my extra gear, stepped up to the back of the group, and when it was time to start, got going.
Leg One – The Downtown Jaunt
I tend to start long ultras pretty relaxed, I mean…what’s the rush…?? The first section takes you through town on the roads before heading on to the trail. I wanted to run this section relaxed, but also knew that I needed to push the pace a bit since this was one of the easiest legs. Once we got onto the trails, it was so wet, but I wanted to stay dry, so I dealt with the bottlenecks, was patient and pushed when I could. I’m also quite terrible at descending, but usually make it up on the climbs. So some of the steep descent meant a lot of people passing me. I’m fine with this as I like to be conservative on the downhills early on, no need to blast your quads, risk a rolled ankle or something worse early on.
I wanted to do this leg in 2:30, but managed to complete it in 2:13, feeling pretty good. Brad met me at the Transition Area, and after a quick vest change and the acquisition of my poles and I was on my way again.
Leg Two – Flood and Grande Mountain Slugfest
I knew going in that this would probably be the toughest section, but also the most enjoyable. Two mountain summits, lots of climbing and great views. But wow, was it tough. So technical, the downs were really steep, the power lines during the rain became unbelievably slippery and it was relentless.
My plan; just keep moving and pushing when I could. I knew I had to keep pace on this section and though my quads and knees were feeling it, and my shoes were wet and muddy I felt that the race and my finish could be won or lost on this leg. I had a bit of a rough patch here, but remembered my son’s text, and just kept going.
I also probably got a bit behind on hydration on this section and had to ration, but in the end it was ok, thankfully.
I arrived at the next transition having taken 5:30 for the leg, 30 minutes slower than I had wanted, but also recognizing that I could and would make up time later. I had planned to do a shoe change here, but my feet were feeling pretty good. The combination of good socks, the Altra Lone Peak 4.0 and the Altra 4-point gaiter meant that though my feet were wet, there hadn’t been a significant accumulation of mud that often leads to blisters. Additionally, with the wide toe box, my forefoot can sit flat inside the shoe, which I believe leads to less pruning or “trench foot”. I did take some time to eat some real food, including my new favourite, curry couscous, but essentially it was a quick one again, and I was on my way.
Leg 3 – Old Mine Road
At this point I was about 22 minutes behind my pacing chart. I told Brad as I left the Transition that I wouldn’t be making up time on this leg. To be honest, I can’t really remember much from this leg. I was moving well, there were some tough sections, I remember crossing a road and hearing a volunteer talk about bear sightings (Grizzly, 2 cubs and a black bear). Otherwise, not really too memorable.
However, the big thing is that now, even though I was a bit behind my WS qualifier pace, I also knew that I’d get to the 4th Leg, and in regard to cut offs, would certainly have a good chance at finishing.
Again, the leg took longer than I had hoped, but only about 8 minutes, so I was happy. I arrived at Transition and took some time to change my vest to my “summit/night” vest with warmer clothes and my headlamp. I also changed my shirts and socks/shoes. With my shoe change, I basically wanted to let my feet be dry for a bit, so that’s what I did, then eventually put on new socks and the Altra Timps, once again opting for use of the 4-point gaiter. I ate, I was drier, my feet were happy, I was about to summit an iconic ultra running peak…life was good.
Leg 4 – Hamel Assault
And so the climb began and it was a challenge. Mud, steep, single track, all up! Eventually I arrived at the road, the up continued, but it was much easier to walk. Then another aid station, at which point over the radio I head of a cougar sighting, but more importantly I could see the summit. I hadn’t been eating or drinking much on the climb, my RPE (rate of perceived exertion) was high, the elevation was getting to me, but I kept climbing. Eventually I arrived at the rocky scree of the switchbacks, above the tree line nearing the top of the mountain. At this point, the wind had started to pick up and the sun was setting in the west. I stopped and added a merino long-sleeve and gloves, and prepared my headlamp. I continued to push up the climb until finally we hit the top where we were told to go to the east along the spine of the summit to retrieve a washer to show we had completed the out and back. The wind howled, my poles flying sideways, at times being pushed to the side. I found a small sheltered area and added my rain jacked. It was so cold and windy, but I had made it. After the out and back, the descent began. My hands were tingly and numb. I was tired and hungry but didn’t want to eat. This was probably the lowest point in the race. Ya it was downhill, but I wasn’t feeling too good and it was still technical. I forced some food and tried to get back on track with eating and drinking and eventually as I got to a lower elevation, things got better. By the time I got to Ambler Loop, I was feeling quite good again. I bombed down the hill of the loop, and back around, getting to the final 9k section, almost all of which is gradual downhill gravel/packed road. I let loose and ran most of it, knowing that if I wanted to make up time, this was the place.
My plan for this section was to do it in 8:00, I got to transition in 7:43. Everything felt great, I wanted to do a quick transition, cause I didn’t need much and wanted to push the last leg, knowing that I should be able to come in under the 23-hour mark, but desiring to do better than that. However…
Leg 5 – The River Crossing
I got a new bottle, grabbed some gels and another headlamp and was ready to rock. As I was leaving Brad said there was a cougar sighting, so leaving the Transition, we needed to pair up. I was totally fine with that, and figured the more the merrier. However, as we got going, I realized that I was feeling awesome, and the guy I was with maybe wasn’t feeling as good. I asked him how long he wanted to take for this leg and it was within what I needed it to be, but I was still nervous. I had lots of time, but I really wanted that qualifier time, and didn’t want a cougar sighting to put that in jeopardy. At the same time, the beginning of this leg was tough with a big climb and all rooty single track. Eventually we caught up to a group of 3 and stuck with them most of the time for safety. They were slow on the steeps and at times I was just standing on the trail waiting. It was at this point that I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to to sub-23. However, one of the runners had great knowledge of the route, and provided valuable info for what to expect. Eventually we made it to the river crossing, I still have my coin, and if that wasn’t one of the coolest experiences I’ve had during an ultra, I don’t know what is. We got across the river, which also meant that the cougar was now on the other side of the river, so I took off. My legs were feeling great, no blisters to speak of and I knew that now was the time to go. After the river, there is a grind of a climb, so I hit it hard and just kept pushing and pushing. Worried I wouldn’t have enough time, but knowing that I had to give everything I had. Throughout the race, I would ask people how far to the next transition, and I found that no one really knew anything. However, I flip flopped with another runner near the end of the race who was also trying to get a qualifier time, and she said, once we get to the road, it’s 2.6k. I did the math, things were looking up, this was doable, but I was still nervous, so continued to push. Eventually I got to the road…another and final big climb into Grand Cache and then things started to look familiar. I knew I’d make it with enough time. I pushed to the finish, though by now, I’m sure my “push” looked little more than a fast shuffle and with 22:32 on the clock, I crossed the finish line, a Death Racer.
It goes without saying that this is a beautiful and challenging race. In the end, I was prepared. The time spent organizing the logistics paid off. The decisions I made and the lack of rookie mistakes gave me the opportunity to finish. Having Brad as support and crew was incredibly valuable and essential to finishing in the time that I did. Also, having him document and post on social media was cool (all pictures on this post are his unless otherwise noted. Some were taken by Kim Gradwell, I think, I can’t remember…ultra brain).
I’m grateful for Brad and all the things listed above. I’m grateful that I have the opportunity and ability to do these things and see these places. I’m grateful for my family, who, in their honesty and love make sure that I finish and allow me to do these things, often at great cost to them. I got what I went for, a Western States Qualifier, and along the way, got to experience a quintessential Canadian Ultra and it was awesome!