Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Death Race 2008 - Race report

Canadian Death Race 2008 - Leg 5 - 22 km of trail, with 2500 feet of elevation change, includes crossing a river. All done in the dark of night.

On race day, I headed into town with my brother, who was marshaling on Leg 2 of the race. He met with his team and I headed to the start line to find the team I was subbing in for. I said hello to all of them and watched their Leg 1 runner set off with the gun. I also saw Eric and Terry as they headed off onto their epic solo journeys.

After the start I went for coffee with Michelle. My one regret of the weekend was that I didn't get to run with her. The day after the race I was a bit too tuckered and I'm not crazy enough to go for a supplementary run on race day. So instead we had coffee and went shopping (for running gear, of course!) It felt like chatting with an old friend, as we talked about our families, our bodies (you know... weight, injuries, etc.) our lives and of course, running. Well, in fact, mostly about running!

I have been debating about doing a marathon this year. I really want to. Between weddings and travel, I haven't gotten my long runs in. I could probably do it. The reality is that the chances of injury or re-injury are high and my endurance is not what it should be for a marathon. But I really, really want to.

One thing I have learned about myself is that I have a powerful ego. It needs to be tamed. Wanting to is not enough. At least... not for me. Not any more. I want to do this strong, or not at all.

Talking with Michelle re-assured me that maybe it is OK not to do a marathon in one's second year of running... maybe it is OK to just keep running halfs (or would that be "halves"?)... maybe it is OK to take my time to build a base... maybe it is enough to run for the love of it without being obsessed by an all-encompassing goal.

Many things she said resonated with me deeply. I wished we could have talked all day. But she was on crew duty and I desperately wanted to sleep before my leg of the race started. She drove me back to the camp site and we promised to meet again later.

Aaron came back from marshaling in the late afternoon. This is a helluva guy, let me tell you. He is not a runner and he doesn't "get" running, but he still got out there and volunteered. He had to hike 6 km (almost 4 miles) up a mountain to get to his post. And then it rained most of the day. Cold, mountain rain.

He arrived back at camp in need of a hot shower and some food, both of which were quickly arranged. We ate and he told me about his experiences of seeing people wipe out on a steep drop, with mud flying everywhere, of a solo runner who decided to drop out at that point and surrendered his timing stick to Aaron, of runners who were kind and expressed thanks to the volunteers, of other runners who were cranky and downright rude. I think he had the full meal deal of volunteering in his first time at a race.

As we were eating, Aaron asked me, "So, tell me... Do you honestly think you can do this?" I answered yes, saying that I had run several half marathons already, that I had started training for a marathon and I had done some longer distance runs, that I was strong, uninjured and in decent shape. I would be fine.

At least, that's what I desperately wanted to believe. It's what I had to believe.

Aaron took me at my word, which helped keep me calm, in a bizarre sort of way. He then pulled out his Garmin, which is different from a running Garmin. It's for trekking and plotting courses. Aaron is an experienced outdoors man and he not only knows how to read topographical maps, use a compass and program his GPS device, he can cross-reference the data from all three of those tools to know exactly where he is at any point in time. And failing that, he has a wicked sense of direction and highly developed orienteering skills. His GPS is a high end model that gives all kinds of information. He plugged in some information and promptly announced that there would be no moon that night, so it would be very dark. He wasn't wrong.

After eating, I went back to resting, trying to mentally prepare. I was anxious. I usually take about 2 weeks to prepare for a half marathon, starting with a taper, getting lots of sleep, eating clean and doing lots of mental preparation. I thought that agreeing to run Leg 5, with no preparation was a bit insane, but I had accepted the challenge and wanted to run for this team.

There are times when the previously mentioned ego can actually come in handy.

Besides, I couldn't help thinking about Eric and Terry and the other 200 plus soloists out there on the course, doing the whole thing. I only had to do one leg of it. Who was I to be fretful?

Suddenly, it was time to leave. I found myself in gear I'd never run in before... A head lamp, a second head lamp that would go around my waist (and later be moved up to my chest where it sat at a better angle), and the yellow safety goggles I'd bought on my shopping trip with Michelle.

At a few minutes to 10:00 p.m. we arrived the hand off point for Leg 5 where we ran into my team captain. We also saw Michelle, who was waiting for Eric. I saw Terry pass through the soloist check point and we hollered and waved at him. He was munching on a snack, but found time to smile and wave back.

At about 10:45 the team captain received a phone call from another team member who was watching from a few kilometres away. Our Leg 4 runner was on her way in.

I met her at about 11:00 p.m. where she passed on the timing stick and the coin. Off I went.

The trees were marked with little reflective white dots, as well as orange ribbons. The ribbons were harder to see in the dark. And by then, it was dark.

I am quite ashamed to admit that despite living in one of the most beautiful parts of the world, with a beautiful outdoors, I have failed to really take advantage of that. I have come to appreciate the outdoors through running, but the reality is that I have very little experience in the mountains. I can count on one hand the number of times I have been hiking in my life.

This was my first mountain camping trip and, as Aaron pointed out during our drive, the furthest north I've ever been.

I had never run in a relay race before, except for mandatory sports days in elementary school.

I had never run on a trail before, unless you count the odd park path in the city that is not paved.

And I most certainly had never run in the pitch black with a head lamp before.

I ran. I walked. And I crawled. I slid down muddy hills and fell - numerous times - over tree roots, rocks and trees that had fallen across the path. There was at least one hill that was steep enough and muddy enough that I went up it on all fours.

I tried to run as much as I could, but when I did, I found things to trip on. The "marathon shuffle" doesn't work so well on the trails, at least, not for me. I ended up settling into more of a fast, waddling walk that I told myself was probably a lot like race walking.

I was slow and hence, alone on the trail much of the time, except when I was passed by other, faster runners who actually knew what the hell they were doing. I later found out that Leslie, an experienced trail runner from Banff whom I'd met the day before, had also subbed in as a Leg 5. She told me that there is definitely a technique to trail running and it takes a while to get the hang of it. No kidding.

But the hardest part was definitely what was inside my head. I knew we were in bear country... cougar country... probably even wolf country.

Thoughts of Terry and Eric occupied my mind. They, and the other soloists, would have been out there for hours already, when they got to this mine field of tree roots. How do they do it, I wondered, as I slammed into a hanging bush, suddenly thankful for my safety goggles.

I found myself hooting and hollering along the trail, as much to alert any wildlife as to make myself feel stronger. I remembered someone telling me once that people who study martial arts are instructed to yell as part of their training. Tribal warriors shout and chant. Those who serve in the military learn to use their voices in their training, too. I wanted to feel strong, so bellowed out loudly to whoever was there to hear me.

At the one aid station along that Leg, a volunteer was trying to direct me where to go and said, "Run towards my safety vest!"

I yelled back, "Yaay! A safety vest! Safety vests are sex-ay!" All the volunteers laughed at that one. Their laughter perked me up considerably.

I lost all sense of time and distance. My Garmin cut out periodically and eventually stopped working. Aaron told me later it was due to heavy tree covering. Most of the time I had no idea how far I'd run or how much further there was to go. I was completely disoriented, adding to my anxiety. At the same time, I was grateful for gorgeous weather and clear skies. It was pretty much a roller coaster of emotions.

At about halfway, there's a major river crossing. Runners are given a coin at the beginning of the race. In the relay, the coin, along with the timing chip, are passed from runner to runner. At the "ferry crossing" (a speed boat), you must surrender your coin to the ferryman in order to buy your passage to the other side. I gave him my coin, knowing intellectually that the boat was about 10 km into my 22 km leg. But it didn't feel that long, but I couldn't really tell.

I got to the other side and kept going, not really believing that I'd already done about half of the leg. At another check point, there was a volunteer under a canopy, tucked into a sleeping bag, next to a small fire. He told me that there was 8 km left.

I thought, "5 miles? That can't be right. He must be lying to us to motivate us. I bet there's really 14 km left."

I was told later that he was not lying. My own perception of distance travelled had failed me in terrain I didn't know, with no changing light of day to guide me as to how long I'd been out there.
When I finally got on the road back into down I felt deliriously happy. Finally, a road! I ran with all I had left. And it felt great!

I crossed the finish line to find my brother waiting for me, with long pants and a warm jacket ready for me, bless his heart.

We found Michelle and Leslie and waited for Eric to come in. Not long after, Terry came by, having already finished the race, showered and changed. He wanted to see Eric finish, too.

I felt a deep sense of awe and profound respect when I saw Eric approach the finish line. I spent most of my leg of the race completely and utterly terrified, unexpectedly disoriented and so clumsy on the trails I staggered around like I was drunk. And there was Eric, crossing the finish line looking strong, talking in full sentences and more than ready to accept a celebratory kiss from Michelle. What a guy.

After that Aaron and I headed back to camp. I had a nice, hot shower and crawled into my sleeping bag. The next day we got up in time to volunteer for the kids' 5 km race, where we were both marshaling.

We ran into one of the members of the team I ran for. She seemed really happy with my time, and that made me feel great.

All in all, it was an experience rich with emotions. Mostly terror. But there were some others mixed in there, too, for good measure.

Would I do it again?

Hell, yeah!

In fact, Michelle mentioned something in passing about forming a team for next year...


Downhillnut said...

The line between crazy and brave is thin, Sarah. Looks like you followed it well throughout the race!

I've never run in the mountains at night, but I bet some regular trail runs in daylight will help to instinctively lift you out of the "marathon shuffle". If you need company on the trails, I'm around :) and I know of an excellent series of 8ks to keep your trail training motivated...

I totally get waiting to do your marathon until you can "do it right". I waited 6 years.

ipm said...

way to go!!!!

man, I am blown away... you are the bomb!!!

olga said...

Sarah, what an awesome experiences! Way to go with all of it, brave it out and stick with it, and even better - think more! Of course it's ok to run half's for longer, it's ok to run them as long as you want! There is no requirement, you do it for YOU, remember? And glad you met Eric and Michelle.

She Who Makes Waves said...

WOW! What an amazing adventure! Your story has my hair standing on end! I'm sure you will remember this experience the rest of your life! Congratulations! What a courageous lady you are!

Sarah said...

You are strong! Kudos to you for accepting the challenge without hesitation. Sounds like an awesome, life-affirming run. Will there be more trail runs in your future? : )

Turtle Guy said...

I had to read it twice... you were... excuse me, camping???

I honestly thought that 'death' would come first, but good for you!

And as for the race, brava!!

Backofpack said...

What an awesome report- so well told, so many things expressed! We got home about 2 hours ago after 14 hours on the road, but I had to come read your reports. (By the way, after 14 hours on the road, I don't know if I'll ever go back...) (Ask me in a couple days...) It was so great hanging out with you and sharing a little piece of your adventure. I loved meeting Aaron too - we meant to tell him to give us a call next time he heads down to Kent! I'll get something up soon, in the meantime, bask in the glory of your first relay-trail-night run - you are a rockin' tough trail runner for sure!

robtherunner said...

What an awesome two-part report. It's great that you were able to run leg 5 and get to experience the thrill of running at night in the mountains. I hope the relay idea goes through for next year. I would love to experience the race, but most of all meet you :)

Sunshine Girl said...

Welcome to the dark side, Sarah!

Congrats on doing something completely out of your comfort zone, that takes courage!

Eventually, you learn to dance over the rocks and roots and climb and descend so freely you don't even have to think about it! That is when it trail running becomes really fun!

It's hard to be a part of events like this and not feel inspired, isn't it? You should try out a five peaks race, they are the perfect intro to trail running. And hey - they are in the day light!


Journey to a Centum said...

OK, I think I've finally recovered from my Canadian vacation. Now I just want to go back!

You definitely get the "Brave Runner" award for taking on leg 5. Not only was it a technical run but it was also on a very dark moonless night. Good work Death Racer!

I had the impression that leg 5 only involved 1000 feet of climbing. Wrong! It seemed like that's all we did was climb back to Grande Cache.

The single track trail was difficult because it was so narrow and the brush hung over so you couldn't get a good eye on the footing for your next step.

I hope you repaired all your divots when you took all your falls along the course!

I was too tired to fall down. It would have taken too much energy to pick myself up again.

It was fun to take the jet boat across the river and to slip through that opening in the large rock on leg 5.

Great work my friend!

Runner Leana said...

Your first trail the dark...with no training... You did fantastic! Running through the woods at night give me the heebie jeebies too. You did a great job - congratulations!

Anonymous said...

Thanks you for this great report, Sarah! I have been longing to do Grande Cache ever since I first heard about it. I am proud of you for pushing your boundaries like that. You are amazing! I suggest you take up Sunshine Girl's advice and do some 5Peaks. And run the trails with the legendary Karen Cooksley!