By Niobe Thompson
Running the Death Race was an experiment - to see if we can still run like our ancestors. Once we could outrun all the animals in our environment, but now we live in a world of the mind. To survive and prosper, we think. With the exception of some of the people we met in Ethiopia, we no longer need to run to survive.
125 kilometres of trail running, 17,000 feet of elevation change, three mountains, and 24 hours - the Death Race in a nutshell. About 600 soloists enter and one third of them finish.
The Death Race is divided into five legs, with four aid stations along the route where runners can fill up with food and water, change shoes, and pick up headlights and night-time clothing. Each leg brings new challenges, and so my support team - my very kind parents Jamie and Sharon Thompson - had a detailed checklist for each aid station, a prop most solo racers rely on given the stakes if an important piece of gear or nutrition doesn't turn up at the right time and in the right place.
The race starts well in the cool light air of a mountain summer day, and the first 19 kilometres feel like a pleasant jog, with plenty of time to get to know the runners on the trail. With no real climbing or descending to pound out, nor any real heat, Leg I feels like a warm-up for the real event. At one point I roll my foot on a root, but the pain doesn't linger. At the aid station, my parents run me to our gear pile, and I stay on my feet to refuel and switch gear, now taking on two litres of water, poles and gloves, and warmer clothes for the two peaks above treeline on the next leg. In and out in under five minutes.
Leg II begins and ends in the valley and crosses two mountain peaks -Flood and Grande - with a lot of single-track forest trail between them. At first, all I have to worry about is trying to swallow energy bars while breathing heavily on the climb (not as easy as it sounds - try it!), but at the top of the first peak, Flood Mountain, the midday heat is beginning to settle in and I realise my 2L of water is going faster than I expected. The "Slugfest" is the aptly named single-track path that plunges through creek valleys between Flood and Grande peaks, and it's some of the most technical trail running in the race. Midway through this section, my water bladder is dry, and I'm sucking from moss and trickles wherever I can, giardia be damned.
At the end of Leg II comes The Powerline, a solid twenty minute descent on a steep trail littered with ball-bearing rocks and loose soil - this is one of the most punishing segments of the entire race, the ultimate thigh-burner. Completely spent, I barely make it in to the next station.
This is when I realise how quickly food can bring a body back. From almost delirious exhaustion, mostly due to heat and dehydration after the baking alpine peaks on Leg II, to a new person in under 30 minutes. All it takes is a half-pound of mashed potato, bacon, and butter with extra salt, lovingly prepared and dispensed in a squeeze tube by my parents.
Leg III is for gathering thoughts and bearing down on the challenge to come, a relatively easy trail run in a shaded forest with a gentle decline. The only excitement comes from Fish and Wildlife Officers chasing bears away from the trail with blasts from their shotguns, apparently not unusual for the Death Race.
At Station III, I once again sit down for a "meal": mashed potatoes, flat coke, water, and this time, a new pair of shoes. The feet look relatively good after 70 kilometres, with no missing toenails, but somehow a new pair of dry shoes feels like donning the slippers of Mercury. (As in nice)
Now it's time for Hamel Mountain, a 38km leg punctuated by the highest peak on the route as night falls. Already the sun has disappeared and a light rain is falling as I begin the climb, and it's a relief when my training partner Randy Weins falls in next to me for the challenge: a 6500 foot climb from the Smoky River to the mountain peak. As we climb in a warm evening rain, the foot I turned in Leg I begins to throb, but not enough to slow me down. A worry, but one of many as the mind runs its inventory of the body in an endless loop: pain signals are coming from feet, knees, thighs, back, shoulders, fingers, and even the head, as the dehydration headache of hours ago still lingers. Like any endurance runner, I have a nuanced understanding of discomfort, and I can filter the signals that carry no real threat. What is becoming harder, though, are the mental tasks that keep me moving and focused.
As we near the peak, a whiteout pulls down and the racers ahead and behind are blurred figures in the mist. Everyone seems absorbed in their own particular race - the casual exchanges and throwaway friendliness of the first half of the day are gone. My fellow runners are quiet, well aware that as night falls, this leg is still only one-third run.
I and my partner descend from Hamel, smashing downwards at a quick run, the pain in my turned ankle begins to change. No longer a dull throb, now it's as if tiny shards of glass are moving under the skin. I struggle to keep with my partner, and I put off reaching into my bag for my headlamp as darkness closes in. Without light, I stumble along, trying to follow the orb of the runner's headlamp in front of me. Soaked through, I can't afford to slow, but the pain in my foot is now crowding out everything else: I don't know how hungry I am, or whether I need water, or if I'm getting cold. My race is beginning to fall apart.
On the other hand, my race isn't over either. To see how it turned out, you'll have to see the film.
Next : After the Race