I was attracted to the epic nature of the race, and to the brutal statistics. Most years, approximately only 33 percent of racers finish, and most in the 20-24 hour period, just scraping across the finish line before the time cut-off. The race has 17,000 ft (5181m) of elevation gain, 3 mountains to climb, a river crossing, and wild rocky trails that often require you to scramble and slide up or down them. Set in the town of Grande Cache, the town itself sits at 1200m above sea level, meaning that most runners have to battle the effects of altitude as well as the effects of 125km on the body!
At the race briefing on the Friday night, the race organizer, known as "Dr Death" drilled in the importance of pacing oneself, maintaining nutrition and hydration, and not underestimating the climbs ahead. Made up in a costume that was part Grim-Reaper and part KISS, he outlined the race and some of the folklore surrounding the race: Summiting the 2100m Mt. Hammel and having to run along its spine to collect a prayer flag, carrying a silver coin (given to all racers in their race pack)to hand over as payment to Charon, the ferryman of the dead (as in the Greek myth), who would take us across the river (he was also dressed appropriately as a guard to the underworld). If the coin was lost during the race, the runner would not be taken across the river and would be disqualified. Racers glanced around nervously, aware that of every 3 racers, only 1 would cross the finish line. Would I be one of them?
Standing behind race legend Hal Koerner (who would end up winning the race with the record-breaking time of 12hr 45min) I felt like I was in for something epic. After a heartfelt singing of "Oh Canada," the race clock started without much fanfare and soon people were moving, at first a slow walk, then shuffle, then finally the running started
Leg 1 - 19km
The shortest and easiest leg, it took us from downtown Grande Cache, along the highway and into the forest along rolling soft trails, past Grande Cache lake and to the first aid station. I just settled into a steady pace and enjoyed the views.
Leg 2 - 27km
This leg was either taking us steeply up or down, with not much respite. The climbs were often up technical rocky single tracks that went first up the side of Grande Mt., then Flood Mt. Between the two mountains was a section of trail endearingly called the "Slugfest" - mud, roots and more mud. With every mud crossing I encountered bad luck and managed somehow to plunge at least one foot deep into the black slush. The descents were down dusty, unstable trails that many people ended up sliding down using their backside. I was lucky not to twist any ankles, to trip or fall, and descended pretty easily. That said, the last descent to aid station 2 was down a trail running parallel to powerlines and was one long knee jarring experience that broke many spirits. 57 runners ended up not continuing.
Climbing up Grande Mt. below:
Hal Koerner descending from Grande Mt. below (Mt. Hammel is in the background, waiting):
After a quick stop at the aid station (involving a small leg massage and cheese sandwich), I was looking forward to the third leg as I had been told by many runners that it would be a "recovery" after the previous section of technical climbing. It ended up being the most difficult leg for me - rocky downhills along a fire safety road that made its way through a mine. Here, the black coal dust absorbed and reflected the heat, breaking many runners who had not come prepared with enough water. I met 2 runners, one of whom had almost finish the Badwater Ultra (he was stopped by pulmonary oedema). Together we squeezed out the flat sections and ignored the heat. The final flat section of trail was on a rail track. Imagine trying to maintain your pace while hopping over railroad sleepers and huge bluemetal rocks. The 3rd aid station was definitely a blessing. Here I took in a quick bowl of chicken soup and prepared myself for what is considered the hardest leg of the race -ascending and descending Mt. Hammel. For many people , the 3rd aid station was where they would be cut-off, as racers were required to check-in by 7.15pm to be allowed to continue. 85 runners would end up dropping out here.
The relief of arriving at checkpoint 3 below:
2 long steady climbs started almost as soon as I left the aid station. Up, and up, and up...The trail was a series of switch backs up the side of Mt. Hammel, coming around a corner to provide runners with a heart-wrenching glance straight up the face of the last climb they would have to endure. At the summit runners had to run along the spine to collect a prayer flag, run back to hand it in, and to then start their descent. At this point, the sun was starting to set, casting an orange-pink glow across the mossy and stone littered top. Pure elation. No other words to describe the feeling of having accomplished the climb and being on the downhill! From the summit I had about 20km of descent, dark setting in and the eerie feeling of being watched by all manner of wildlife. Aid station 4 was a haven of glowing light, cheering and chicken noodle soup. My amazing support (Jan) was also waiting with ice on hand and an icy cold beer.
Halfway up the mountain:
Looking down the spine of Mt. Hammel:
Collecting my prayer flag and feeling pure bliss:
In the end, 115 males and 34 females finished (149/418 solo racers), with only 49 racers finishing under 20 hours.
At the awards breakfast with my new friend Chris. We crossed the finish line together:
To my amazing one-man support crew, Jan, who not only met me at each aid station with a well set-up transition space (as only a triathlete can), but also mountain biked up Grand Mt. to meet me at the top, and ran up Mt. Hammel to meet me. He had no sleep over the 24 hour period we were out, and had just the right balance of support and tough-love.
To my running buddies in Sydney, Australia for their interest and continual support (James, Andy and Tony).
To my running buddies around the world (John O Regan and especially Anna Hughes who helped me so much along the way with her training and nutritional advice. See her awesome website: http://www.ultra-running-insights.com/)
To my parents for encouraging me even though my hours on isolated, bear-infested trails worry them.