August 3, 2010

A Date with Death. 125kms of Mountain Magic

Eight short weeks ago I was kindly offered a spot in the Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache by the Alberta North Face rep (TNF sponsor the event). I ummed and ahhed, took the plunge and then began haring madly up any hill in sight in my quest to become a mountain ultra runner in less than 2 months. This would be my longest race to date and with 17, 000ft of elevation change it wasn't going to be a walk in the park, but more a hike up a mountain (or two).

Come race day I was pretty confident that I would finish the race when I listened to many people (who promised that the race was not as deathly as the organisers tend to imply) but still knew that only about 1/3 of starters completed to full race in 2009 and had warning from some who said it was one seriously challenging enterprise. Needless to say after the 6hr or so drive from Banff with my friend Mike I arrived in Grande Cache feeling much nervous anticipation. We arrived middle of the day, day prior to the race, but the afternoon seemed to zip by with package pick up, prepping drop bags, pre race meeting etc. But my most important task that afternoon was to meet up with the Adventure Science guys who were doing a study on gait analysis at the race and had got me on board. They filmed me doing some short runs to camera and I answered some surveys for them, they also explained the questions that they would need to ask me at each of the 5 aid stations on the race course. It was a great way to feel part of a team and importantly the Adventure Science folks would act as my crew at the aid stations. This was a big relief as Death Race has only one drop bag on the course (at 87.5km) so having access to gear at 4 other points would be invaluable rather than having to rely on aid stations.

Death Race is a little unusual for an ultra in that it starts at 8am in order to allow as many racers as possible the 'oppotunity' to run in the dark! This is just one indication that Death Race is a little quirky. The other main quirk is that at 110km you take a jet boat across the Smoky River, but only if you have not lost a silver coin that you are given at the start. No coin, no boat ride and you are DQ' 110kms into an 125km race! Many competitors run Death race as a 5 person relay so I would hate to be a relay runner that loses your teams coin!

The 8am start and the fact that Grande Cache is a small, isolated town meant that setting the alarm for 6am was plenty time to crawl out of the tent, wolf down some breakfast and head over to the start line. Lots of locals were already lining the streets and starting their cheers 'Go Death Racer' that we would hear throughout the day.

As the gun went off (a mountie firing a rifle into the air - this is small, mining town Alberta afterall!), we raced over the line and jostled to get a good position on the opening 1.5km road section before we squeezed into the trail. With 418 solo starters and probably about the same number of relay teams it was a busy start to an ultra. I immediately fell alongside Denise McHale who introduced herself and we chatted on and off for the first leg. I knew that Denise would be my main competition and that being an adventure racer she had far more experience at long duration racing. Everyone had warned that with a net downhill over 19kms that on leg one it is easy to go out too fast so I checked that I was taking it easy. Pacing, pacing, pacing would be key to finishing this thing. On the first small inclines I saw Mike ahead of me slow to a power hike, I took note and followed suit - no need to try run the hills now - save the legs for later.

The first aid station was a zoo, I ran in, filled my hydration bladder with water from the aid station and then moved along to the Adventure Science tent which stood out nicely. There I popped gatorade powder into my bladder, took some extra bottles and answered their survey questions whilst draining a coke and grabbing a bag of chips. I was pumped and moving fast until one of the crew, Keith, said 'you've only been in 2mins'. Ok, I could slow a little and make sure I refuelled properly. For legs 2 and 4 I had planned to use my poles, Ally thrust them into my hand pre-set at the correct height, wow - this crew were pros!

I headed out and was excited to be getting really into the race with the 1st 'easy' leg done. As I didn't know the course I wasn't sure where the real climb up Mt Flood would start but I soon adjusted to running with my poles in my hands even if I wasn't really using them on the flatter sections. I can honestly say that even so soon after the race there are whole sections I cannot recall at all and the climb up Flood and Grande are two of them. I have brief recollections, chatting to Clint who I know from Banff, advising an ultra runner on how to try recover from already being sick, passing a runner who was struggling, but other that that I have vast chunks of amnesia about this section of the race! I can only put this down to the fact that I was so focused on the task in hand that I really was not taking note of the surroundings like I normally would. I do recall heading down Grande, a famed steep and teacherous descent. I met up with Simon (Denato) and Steve (Russell) at this point and it was great to chat and follow in Steve's confident steps down the dusty and sometime rocky, steep, steep trail. Leg 2 circles back to the start/ finish line in downtown Grande Cache so I enjoyed coming in and being cheered along by spectators. Again, it was a quick transistion as I Denise was literally seconds behind me and I headed out to leg 3 for 19kms of running with total 1000ft of elevation loss.

I enjoyed leg 3, it was easy to check off the kms and feel that you were making real progress, there was a rubbley descent that reminded me of the North Shore trails in Vancouver and then we hit grassy sections and what looked like prime bear territory! When I saw some bear poop and what I was convinced were bear prints I started hooting and hollering as a cruised along pretty happy (I later found out that a friend had been charged by a bear on this section during a training run!). I crept up gradually on Ricky, a young US guy with only 4 marathon finishes under his belt who was out attempting his first ultra. It was super to chat with him for about 15mins as we plodded along, he was so eager and as a 2:26 marathoner with such an obvious love of running I really hoped he would do well.

The aid station at end of leg 3 marked the 65km point. I rolled in at 6:49. One of the questions Adventure Science asked us at each station was 'Are you exceeding or meeting your expections?' At this point I was far exceeding my expectations but a little leary that I may have gone out too fast. I was feeling the heat a little (it was 3pm and super sunny), I was only half way and I had the infamous Hamel mountain looming. To top it off I looked up and saw that my friend Phil (Villeneuve) had dropped. Seeing Phil at this point was proably the toughest part of my race day, if he had dropped what was in store for me? But I knew that I was going to finish this race even if I had to crawl to the end, I'd not signed up to go away without my finishers silver coin and I didn't care what I had to do to finish.

I zipped out and up onto leg 4, poles once again in hand. I was blown away by the fact that I was now 2nd overall in the race, with only the demi-god of ultra running Hal Koerner about 30mins ahead of me. The first section up Hamel was lush and leafy and jungle like but very steep so I was talking to myself to keep going and chuckling at the thought of Hal Koerner being the only soloist ahead of me, certainly not soemthing I had envisioned pre-race day! Emerging from the forest at the base of Hamel I continued to power hike and was blown away my the amazing mountain scenery - rocky, rubble trails, views for miles and the sight of stick-men like vollies silouhetted on the ridge that we were making our way up to. There was no way I was running this, but I hiked as fast as I could knowing that Denise was probably still close behind. On the ridge there was a short out and back section before we began the rocky descent down. Denise was no longer in sight and I was now running totally solo, save for the occassional relay runner. My hydration bladder was drained so I stopped and refilled it with water from bottles in my pack and willed myself to run the flat sections even though even the slightest incline was now proving a challenge. I clearly recall the 80km marker and mentally noted that I was feeling pretty ok about the thought of another 45kms to go, now that the main climbs were over. Soon I popped up to the drop bag station manned by vollies at the start/ end of Ambler loop. I set out to do the 5km loop and once back grabbed my headlamp from my bag and dumped my empty bottles. At the pace I was going I doubted I would need the headlamp but it was race rules and who knows what could happen over the now 32.5 remaining kilometres. As I headed out of Ambler I saw Denise come in, ok - that meant she was 30mins behind me but I knew I should keep pushing in case she had a strong finish. I barrelled down the dirt road, great downhill grade to pick up the pace and soaked up the cheering and shouts of 'Go Death Racer!' from locals passing by on their quad bikes. At 100km I popped out of the trails and into the roadside ditch for 2kms to the 4th and final aid station.

By this point I was totally pumped. Jason of Adventure Science had been my main crew for the day and exceeded himself at this point. He told me to come get my coke (which I'd forgoten about by this point) and he had tipped out the contents of all my drop bags for me to see. Seems a minor thing but my this stage I coudl hardly recall what I had in the bags so to have it all laying there on the ground for me to pick and choose was awesome! I had contemplated changing shoes and socks here as my feet had begun to fell it a bit of the last leg, but now I think I was so pumped all pain had gone. I left the aid station, spirits high and said to Jason, 'I'm on 11:21, I've got 3hrs and 23km to get this course record'.

Immediately out of the aid station was a steep hike and I spotted a guy coming down, he was confused by the routing but I said I'd seen no other flagging anywhere so we carried on up. The trail soon levelled to beautiful single track traversing the hillside in a forest. It rolled up and down and I'd got energy back in my legs so was even running the hills. My only concern was there was zero flagging. The course had been immaculately marked all day and I was cursing the fact that we were now so close to the end and I was doubting the route. Luckily I had packed the course map so pulled it out and was reassured that I was going to right way. 10kms soon passed and I dropped to river level, handed my coin over to the ferry man (I hadn't lost it - phew!) and soon I got a personal jet boat ride across the river. The river had steep canyon walls and with the light diming at about 8.20pm it was simply stunning. I hoped out the boat, thanked the vollies and hiked up the trail. Was Denise catching me? Could I snag this CR? Could I get sub 14hrs? I had so many things to keep me pushing and with the finish line almost in sight and the evening light fading on the beautiful flat to rolling Sulphur Rim trail, I truly was loving this race even in the closing kms.

There was a final uphill on dirt road which I hiked and then out I was on the tarmac of Grande Cache. Even though I didn't know the road I knew it was a small town so the end must be in sight. I turned the corner, saw the finish line and sprinted (well, it felt like it even of it might have been more of a hobble!). Final time: 13:28:39! 2nd overall! New women's CR by 52mins! I'd even broken the previous mens CR! - of course so had Hal Koerner (in 12:45:38) but that meant I had run the 2nd fastest time ever on the Canadian Death Race course!!

Canadian Death Race is one beautifully scenic and challenging course. Not once did I get bored as the course was ever changing and challenging. The volunteers and community of Grande Cache are exceptional - never have a felt a race take over a town so much and be truly welcomed and appreciated by the community, from honking their horns when they saw you running the short stretches of highway, to the local church organising the breakfast before the awards, they fully embrace and welcome the race.

Check out the race website, details of Adventure Science and an interview with the Calgary Herald at:


  1. Hello ELLIE-O-NATOR :-)

    I am happy to be the first one to congratulate you to this AMAZING ACHIEVEMENT!

    Also another great and detailled RACE REPORT!

    I don't know how you do it!

    This is suppose to be THE TOUGHEST RACE in Canada and you just "fly" through the whole course, "smashing" everything in your way, including the old man's and woman's course records.

    Anyway, recover well !

    Dirk "Ike" Handke

  2. Great race Ellie. I ran leg 2 and am amazed at how quick you an Hal ran the entire course. I mean it tookme over 5 and a half hours just to run leg 2 while you guys ran the entire race in just over 2 times that. Ridiculous racing. I also read today that you're running the Edmonton Marathon, that would give you 4 solid wins in your home province, just unbelievable. Amazing year you're having.

  3. Do you know how to go slow? I love that you smashed the men's record, that puts your amazing race into perspective.

  4. hey Ellie,
    Congrats again on an amazing performance! Was fun trying to chase you down as long as I could! Wasn't able to make it to banquet as monday not a stat holiday for us here and had to get back to work, so didn't get to congratulate you properly.=( Look forward to seeing you in Gibralter in november. Happy Training!
    Cheers, Denise

  5. Excellent trip down memory lane, Ellie...only a helluva lot faster with you driving!

    In addition to being smokin' fast, you're just so darn nice. Plus, I can really tell that you definitely do not take your success for granted. You are a very humble girl, and that's pretty darn cool.

    Congratulations, Ellie!

  6. Ellie strikes again! We are all so proud for you. It will be great to be with you in Gibralter. If you need crew members, just ask! We all love reading your blog, feels like we are with you lolfymap

  7. Well done little sis! Abi says well done Auntie Ellie too! We're hoping we can make it to Gibraltar to cheer you on. We'll have to get some crewing tips from the Adventure Science guys to help you on then. SO proud of you again miss speedy.

  8. Once again, great run Ellie - Looking forward to hooking up with you on some long runs this fall in 'our' backyard! Enjoy the victory!

  9. Now when you train hard I don't believe luck has a significant influence in race performance. Nonetheless, I think our decision to have a little jump into "Horseshoe" Lake pre-race was a good one! The impressiveness continues Ellie...

  10. Impressive record. You are an inspiration to newbee runners like myself.

  11. simply amazing. you are the most inspiring runner around!

  12. Wow! Super job Ellie. Congratulations. I think I was about 8 hours behind you. Heh heh

  13. I'm finally getting to this now...ummm, I definitely made the right call in not attending the race...not for success upon the WCT but to prevent from being 'skirted' for the first time this year!!

    I will now use you as my training motivation Ellie. No longer envisioning Geoff Roes ahead of me, I'll have Roxy carry an 8x10 of you chasing me!!


  14. Hi Ellie! My friend Nicki Rehn from Calgary just did this race with you. She told me what a sweetheart you are and what an incredibly talented runner you are as well. After reading your race report (and picking my jaw up off the floor!) I can see why she was so impressed with you! What an incredible performance! Congratulations! Can't wait to hear about your next race!

    Ann Thakkar
    Calgary, AB

  15. Great job Ellie. I too was at the race, but far behind you! Can't wait to hear how you do at the world 100km championships.

    Terry Buehl
    St Albert, AB