Conquering the Death Race is possible if you’re prepared – part 1

Wayne Little's monthly column of nutrition and motivation.

The Death Race is held each year on the August long weekend. It is a 125km ultramarathon in Grande Cache that can be run either as a team of up to five people doing a leg each, or you can run it solo.

The Race starts at 8 am and takes you up and over three mountains. Participants have 24 hrs to complete the race; Finishers receive a specially minted coin from the Death Race, It is arguably one of the hardest Ultramarathons in the world.

In 2001, my family wanted to enter a five member team to do this new race.  I wasn’t a runner then, but I was still fairly fit from running chainsaw for a living. I let them put me on whichever leg they chose. Little did I know.

They gave me Leg 2, the hardest part of the course, covering two of the three mountains and a portion called “Slugfest”.

Slugfest involves running up and down a few little valleys on a handcut trail, with lots of roots, rocks, steep loose dirt slopes, bogs, creeks, and all the other little things nature can throw at you to make you feel like and idiot for signing up.

Leg 2 destroyed me. I ran as fast as I could for as long as I could. I wore a cotton t-shirt, and cotton cargo shorts, and brought apples and a banana for nutrition.  I ran until my knees and quads couldn’t take any more. I got them taped up at the aid station, then ran again.

I would catch up to and pass the solo racers. I didnt get it – like, how can you run 125 kms in a day? It’s impossible I thought, how would you train? Just doing one of these mountains should take most of the day.

I finished Leg 2, with a decent time, our next relay runner headed out for leg 3. My wife Juanita ran Leg 5 in the dark,   We finished in 21 hours to get our cherished coins. They are still hanging on the wall.

After we finished the race, I limped and hobbled for weeks. I kept wondering how the course could be run solo. Impossible. I thought of the solo racers as gods, mythical creatures, possibly genetic mutations, or beings from another planet who looked like humans, but were physically far more superior than us.

Fast forward a decade or so, I became a runner, then a triathlete – basically an endurance athlete junkie. An athlete that did Ironman, marathons, endurance mountain bike events, and is always looking for that next race that was a little more difficult or challenging than the last one. And every year, a little voice in my head said, “go back and do the Death Race solo.”

Last year I decided to do it. I slowly transitioned from being a triathlete, to becoming an ultra runner. My bikes hung in the garage, gathering dust. The wetsuit and goggles got even less use than the bikes. I ran five days per week instead of two, and the runs got longer and longer.

This spring, I ran a 50km ultra. A month later I ran a 50 miler. At these events, I learned what nutrition, gear and extra training I would need, and how to slow down to make myself go the distance. I even drove up to Grande Cache and ran the Death Race course over a three-day duration to put the course in my head.

The day before the race, you get a coin, and timing stick in your race package. The coin is to give to Charon, so he can give you a ride over the river on Leg 5.  If you lose the coin, or do not have one, you do not get across the river, and you won’t finish the race.

The timing stick goes into timing check in spots so your family and friends can go online and see how your progressing, and so the race organizers know if you are cheating or not.

My friends Phil and Grace Hiom who run the Dirty Feet Race series in the Kamloops area drove all the way from Kamloops to Grande Cache to be my team. Their experience of ultra running and their advice kept me going. The huge amount of support that people give in the sport is amazing. If someone is down and out on the course, you stop and do what you can to pick them up to get them going.

At  8am  I was toeing the line with three friends from Kamloops and Kelowna. I was going try to be one of these immortal soloists I had seen over a decade ago. All I had to do was be back here in 24 hours.

Leg 1 is 19km long and is mostly downhill, a pretty easy run for the most part. I finished it in one hour 45 minutes with no drama.

I topped up my pockets with more food and filled the water bottles and started heading up Flood mountain. You basically hike at a fast pace for an hour until you get to the top of Flood, make a big loop on top and start running down to Slugfest.

I came upon a fallen Death Racer. He lost his salt tablets. You see, you sweat so much during the race, that you lose the electrolytes in your blood and your muscles cramp. I gave him some of my tablets. He asked for more, I gave him my whole bag. At the end of the leg, my support team would give me more. I wished him good luck.

I started running back on Slugfest, and within 50m of the fallen Death Racer, I cramp up. I have to wait until the muscle releases. Cramps plague me all the way to the aid station at the base of the next mountain. Luckily someone gives me a handful of salt tablets there. I fill my water bottles and take off hiking up Grande Mountain.

Everything is going good now, the salt tablets are working, but then I realize I left one of my three bottles on the table at the aid station, and I will need it.  I ration my water and make it through Leg 2.  I’m only about 15 minutes or so off of my predicted time.

Food and water are essential for an event like this. If you do not eat or drink, you will not finish. Every half hour, I ate bars, bananas, gels, and drank cytomax electolyte drink and mountain stream water.

Leg 3 is the easiest leg. It’s either downhill or flat with no steep climbs. I have run almost 50kms by this point, and although I should be able to blast through this leg, the cramps and lack of water have me struggling already.

I have to walk long portions to build my strength back up. I talk with other racers who are also walking and hear their stories, and they are inspiring. Some racers are here to tick something off of their bucket list. Some have tried many times to complete the Death Race solo, and have failed. Some are here in teams of family members just like I did in 2001. Some have scratches and blood coming out of their legs and arms from falling in Slugfest, but they soldier on.

At the Leg 3/4 transition, there are probably a thousand people – friends, family, support teams, and relay racers waiting. People cheering “Go Death Racer!”, and people just hanging out helping each other out. I was dust covered from running through the coal mine and all sweaty, I get new food and water, more salt tabs, and away I go.  I don’t spend much time in the transitions.

Leg 4 is a climb up and over Mt Hamel. One of the highest peaks in the area at 70,00ft.  You start at the river, and climb up for two hours to the top. Then you have a nice long run down. It is by far my favorite leg, even though its the longest at 38km.

I’m starting to recover from the problems I had in Leg 2/3, and now I can run again. At the opposite side of Hamel, there is Beaverdam road.  Its just a normal gravel road, and I make up huge amounts of time. I’ve been out here for 14 hours and I am actually running. Some of the relay team members can’t keep up to me.

Then finally I hit another low, and I have to walk again.  The highs and lows come and go. During the highs you feel awesome, like you can run forever, you look at the gps watch and are amazed.  But during the lows, this is when people decide they are quitting, that they will hop on that truck going by and try again next year. They decide they don’t want the coin that badly, the pain overtakes them, and they give in.

Continued Next Week

Wayne Little