Saturday, July 30, 2016

Life After Death

My life changed today. I went down on one knee and proposed to my beautiful girlfriend Mindy.

“Mindy, I love our adventures together. Have another one with me.  Marry me.”

That she said yes is more a testament to Mindy than to me.  You see, I was covered in sweat, grime and food, and I stank. I was emotionally raw. Even getting down on one knee was an effort that required the help of my great friend Paul Zwama.  Mindy could see through these things as I knelt before her because she and I are made for each other.  Case in point: earlier today, Mindy won the inaugural Near Death Marathon – a 42km slugfest up and down mountains around Grande Cache, Alberta. It is undoubtedly the world’s toughest marathon. As I balanced myself on one knee, hamstring seizing, I had just won the 2016 Canadian Death Race 125km. Mindy looked past the grime and sweat…

If I may say so, myself, Mindy didn’t have the option to say no.  I mean, not only did I win the ultra-marathon, I also beat all of the 5-person relay teams covering the same distance. After I passed one of two relay team racers in front of me in the late stages of the fifth and final  leg, a member of his team – Jayden – who had been extremely encouraging to me when he passed me in the fourth leg, set me on a task to catch the final runner in front of me. “He’s two minutes ahead of you but he’s suffering. You can catch him!” It gave me the motivation I needed to chase, and I took the lead for the last time about 800m from the finish line. Jayden – my new friend – demonstrated impressive camaraderie as he and Paul supported my failing body on the walk to the car.

The Canadian Death Race is structured in five legs; let me walk you through my experience.

Race Morning:

Not surprisingly, I didn’t sleep too well last night.  Being lucky enough to have an extensive crew supporting Mindy and me to race – my parents, Paul, and his girlfriend Stella – we had logistics to plan and bags to pack for transition zones last night. I was awake and up through the night, and then far too soon it was time to get up and head to the start line.  I stuffed myself with food and drink, and then Mindy and I checked in at the start. We were as ready as we would ever be.

Leg 1: The Downtown Jaunt

Although Mindy didn’t know it, this morning was the last time she would run with me as my girlfriend. I enjoyed this secret shared only among my brothers (including those from other mothers). In the early road section, we ran together and chatted about the race to come. 

Some things are too big to get your head around. For me, running 125km, summiting three mountains, is in that category. I had started the race, but it didn’t really feel like….anything, yet.  I was out for a run with Mindy and 300 others along the roads around Grande Cache, with majestic mountain peaks in every direction. After 5km on the roads, the course turned to the trails. I held my pace while Mindy tempered her effort for the trails to come. Ready or not, the race was on.

A couple of relay runners took an early lead, and I joined ranks with two other soloists to tackle these early kilometres. As in any race, gamesmanship was present. When Ian asked Aaron and I what our time goals were, Aaron responded “to complete”. I laughed and rejoined with “under 24 hours”. Aaron, an accomplished trail racer with a sub-15 minute 5km to his name and a 2:27 marathon, finished second.  For my part, though I didn’t really know how fast I would be, my goal was much faster than 24 hours.

At the end of 19km, largely downhill, I made the first aid station.  I was the first soloist in with a slight margin. Garry found me as soon as I emerged from the woods and we planned the transition before I reached him and my mum. How lucky am I to have this kind of support? My mum asked how I felt. I pointed out that I still had 106km to go, so I had better feel good! Then I was off, chasing two fresh relay runners and in the lead among the soloists.

Leg 2: Flood and Grande Slugfest

If the first leg is meant to lull runners into a false sense of security, leg 2 reminds participants why this event has the moniker “the course from hell”. From the start, the route is climbing up Flood Mountain, a 6000+ foot peak; it climbs and climbs and climbs. I passed the relay runners to take the overall lead and tried to settle into a rhythm. I adhered to the mantra of ultra runners: walk the uphills. At least, I walked when it was too steep to comfortably run. Near the peak, the Near Death Marathoners turn left and the 125km-ers turn right. Not for the last time, I felt like I ran into a wall. Steep climbs and technical trail. Reaching the summit afforded majestic views of the surrounding landscape, and I paused for a selfie.

Clearly I didn’t pause long enough to make sure the photo actually showcased the view, so I will borrow Mindy’s photo from atop the same mountain. This is what I was aiming for.

I was rejuvenated as I started the downhill from the peak. Walking up steep climbs is challenging, but running down well-trod dirt trails made me feel that I could tackle anything.

All too soon, those trails were done.  I entered Slugfest, a treacherous, technical trail up and (mostly) down slippery muck. I climbed the “Stairway to Hell” – a wall of mud and roots with a stream running down the middle. I knew that Mindy was behind me somewhere and I wished her well.

Eventually the downhills were replaced by uphills, as the descent down Flood Mountain was followed by a climb up Grande Mountain. Though this mountain is over 6500 feet tall, the climb starts partway up, and the route – at times – follows a dirt road. As I reached the summit, I mistakenly thought the hardest part of Grande Mountain was done.

Flood Mountain crushes your soul with Slugfest, and then Grande Mountain crushes your legs with the power line trail. The downhills were too steep to run; at times too steep to walk. The trek down is a series of cautiously placed foot-steps and climbing down on all fours. In the ongoing theme of Death Race punishment, the early power line downhills were followed by equally steep uphills. Finally, after more steep descents, I was re-entering Grande Cache’s urban downtown (population: 4,500) to conclude the 27km second leg.

My crew – doubled in size from the first transition with the addition of Paul and Stella – sprang to action.  They were more ready than the announcer, who expressed confusion while trying to announce the first runner - me.  “Clearly we haven’t been getting updates”, he said. I stood while being was fed, replenished, and massaged. Within moments, I was off again, though not before asking them to give a message to Mindy when she finishes: “I love her, I’m sorry I couldn’t be here to see her finish, and if she doesn’t win, tell her to start packing her stuff.” I understand that my mum dutifully passed the message along.

As I started the third leg, I heard the announcer call out that Aaron, the second place soloist, had just arrived.  Three minutes.

While I was out running the third leg, Mindy won the Near Death Marathon. Congratulations!

Leg 3: Old Mine Road

Of all the stages of this race from hell, this one was the least eventful.  Largely downhill and rather ugly at times, the route finished with several kilometres in the ditch along the highway. It never occurred to me how quickly I would be craving that flat ditch.

Leg 4: Hamel Assault

Leading in to the race, I had the mistaken impression that the name “Hamel Assault” described the assault the runners would conduct on Mount Hamel, a 7,000 foot mountain. By partway through, I realised I was wrong; it is the assault conducted by Mount Hamel on the runners.

Mindy had convinced me to buy a bear bell to ward off grizzlies in this race.  As I didn’t want to run 125km with a bell ringing in my ear, she and I had compromised that I would wear the bell for the last two legs, when the route became more remote. I set off with my bell ringing, and within one kilometre of the start line saw a grizzly bear ambling into the woods away from me.  It was less than 100 feet away; thankfully going the other direction.  Does that mean my bell worked, in that the grizzly left me alone, or that it failed, as the bear seemed nonplussed? I was a little uncomfortable about the whole idea, especially when the path veered right and then right again, toward the forest where the bear had retreated.  I took care to make as much noise with that bell as I could!

Mount Hamel is a climb. I thought I had faced mountains earlier in the race, but this was something new altogether.  I walked through dense woods, hunched over with my hands on knees, for over an hour. I was walking quickly, but that only brought me high enough to begin to see the mountain peak above. I climbed higher and higher, eventually making the shoulder of the mountain and finding a slight reprieve. I even ran for a brief period before I was forced to walk some more. Eventually I was above the tree line, following switch-backs on rough-strewn rock paths with the wind howling around me. Hours after I had begun, I crested the final climb and I was at the summit.

Don’t mind the strange “mustache” you see on me here. After stubbing my toes and nearly tripping along the rocky trail, I finally fell at the top of the mountain – right into a pile of pillowy soft dust. My luck continued to hold!

Down, down, down the other side of the mountain! What felt like an eternity to climb was over all too soon on the way down, and I was back to fighting gravity over rolling hills. I was passed by one relay runner, and then another – Jayden – caught me at an aid station. Logically, I couldn’t blame myself.  They were fresh runners, whereas I had 65km under my legs before even starting Mount Hamel. Nonetheless, I don’t like being passed.

Having lost the overall lead, I was terrified that I would lose the solo lead as well. A volunteer told me I had a 10-minute lead over second place, and I set out with renewed determination to race hard and keep the lead. Looking back at the elevation map, I should have been much faster than I was through that section of aggressive downhills. At the time, I was doing as much as I could – approaching 100km into the race.

I made it to the fourth and final transition station telling myself that the mountains were behind me, and the final leg would be easy.

Leg 5: Hell’s Gate and River Crossing

Mindy told me I had a 15 minute lead over second place, but I didn’t think to ask as of when. Is he gaining on me? Was it 15 minutes earlier on and now it’s down to 10? I was not going to lose the lead if I could help it, even when we immediately turned up another steep incline. As I told myself over and over – this makes a much better story if I win!

I counted minutes until my next gel. I repeated a ridiculous list of things to take camping – part of a game Mindy and I had played in the car. I walked when I had to and ran when I could, looking back every so often and wondering if Aaron could hear my bell, knowing he was gaining on me. Often enough I stopped for a walking break, promising myself a minute, or a hundred metres, but then started running again right away when I thought about being passed in the final leg. I just need to hold him off a bit longer…

I finally came to the river and handed over the coin I had been guarding for 110km of running – my fare to cross. On the other side of the river, more steep climbs, and I was sure I could hear the boat going back to pick up Aaron no sooner than I was out of sight. Every so often I listened, and driven by a mix of ego and fear, moved myself as quickly as I could.  I counted steps to 1,000. I committed to running the rest of this kilometre before my next walking break. I reminded myself again and again that I had put myself through over 110km of running, walking, and climbing to get here, and I wasn’t about to give up now.

My focus on the runner I believed was about to appear behind me was broken when I saw someone ahead of me. One of the relay runners! He was running when I ran and walking when I walked, but I was gaining on him with each step. Could it be that I was moving faster than this fresh athlete? I stopped counting steps and instead committed to catching him. Once I caught him, I kept running lest he pass me back. I dug down and ignored the pain. Someone up ahead on the path cheered for me and gave me a high five as I ran by.  Then Jayden was there encouraging me, setting a new target of the final relay runner ahead of me, and the overall victory.

Nothing existed except for the slow moving runner ahead. I was reeling him in up the final real climb of the race.  Looking at my Garmin, I knew I had about 6km to go; to pass this runner and hold the lead to the finish, but I was gaining on him quickly. I passed him with a little less than 5km to go, and he took a moment to cheer me on and encourage me before I was gone. We emerged from the trees and turned onto a sidewalk, and I recognized the school at the top of the hill ahead. I was in disbelief. My Garmin was wrong. I was less than 1km from the finish line.

The odds are that I ran that final kilometre pretty slowly.  Looking back at the video, I don’t see the lightning fast, effortless runner that I knew myself to be in those closing moments. It didn’t matter. I was finishing the Canadian Death Race 125km. I am told was the first soloist ever to beat all of the relay runners. I was about to propose to Mindy.

It was a good day.

Oh, and Aaron finished a little over 30 minutes behind me.

1 comment:

  1. OMG!! That's amazing! I have enjoyed your story WAY more than you enjoyed the race that's for sure!