by Myron A. Tetreault
The single-track trail ascended in a series of switchbacks as far as you could see. The heat from the sun amplified the soul crushing fatigue I felt from having run 68 kilometres in the mountains. The thought of running another 57 kilometres today seemed unfathomable. My movement was reduced to a slow walk and each step was a struggle. There was simply no way I could finish this race. I was done.
At that moment, a fellow solo racer came around the corner and his cheery hello woke me from my stupor. “Hey there, my name’s Kevin. Where are you from?” he said. It took me a few seconds to respond, as the fatigue seemed to limit my ability to form words. “I’m from Calgary. My name’s Myron” I eventually said. I tried to shake off the lack of momentum as I told him that I was going through a rough patch. “Yeah, me too” he said and we slipped into a silent rhythm of forward progress. Short bursts of speech eventually turned into conversation, which distracted me from the revolt of my body to the unreasonable physical demands that I was placing on it.
As we rounded the corner, I caught a glimpse of the valley below and was surprised by how far we had climbed already. I tried not to focus on the distance that remained before we reached the summit of Mount Hamel. A brief flat portion created the opportunity to try running again. Although the first few steps sent pounding impulses of pain to my brain, the change of motion helped to kick start a renewed sense of purpose and we settled into a steady jog until we hit a sharp incline in the trail and resumed our power hike to the top.
I frequently sipped on the plastic tube that extended to the bladder in my running pack that contained a mixture of water and energy crystals. I popped two electrolyte tablets in my mouth and forced myself to eat a homemade granola bar and some Shot Bloks. As the sustenance kicked in, I found myself moving more and more quickly. When I looked back, Kevin was out of sight. I silently thanked him for the camaraderie and support, then pushed on to the summit.
By the time I reached the top of Mount Hamel, the dark cloud of fatigue had lifted and I was awe-struck by the 360 degree view of northern Alberta from this 2,129 metre pedestal. I continued on past the aid station to complete the short out and back. As I swiped my timing chip, I heard another solo racer mention to his friend, “Only two minutes slower than last year. I guess I’m still on track to break 17 hours”. I was shocked. In the midst of my dark patch, I thought I had blown all opportunity to hit my goal of a sub-17 hour performance. Yet here I was, almost 10 hours into the race, past the most difficult ascents and having regained my mojo. I decided to buckle down and see what I could do.
As I headed back toward the aid station, I passed my friend Greg. I was surprised and happy to see him for the first time since the start of the race. I was also thrilled to know that he was putting together a race performance far above his expectations. We had shared many training runs in the lead up to this event and collaborated on our planning and logistics for the race. It was surprising how much effort was required to organize our gear, food and race plans to be ready for the various conditions and challenges that we might encounter. Greg caught up to me a few minutes later and our man-hug and short exchange of words buoyed my spirits and put a spring in my step. Greg headed off as I re-filled my water supplies at the aid station and I was left on my own to tackle the next section.
A gradual, winding descent on a gravel quad track provided the perfect opportunity to settle into a nice, steady running pace and get lost in my thoughts. I performed a quick review of my operating systems: Feet? No serious blisters, shoes fairly dry, toenails intact; Nutrition? Electrolytes appear to be in balance, hydration good, better eat a gel; Running form? Relax your shoulders, keep the cadence up and lengthen your stride. I then repeated my mantra: “Strong, steady, smooth” as I listened to the rhythm of my breathing. I tried to stay in the moment and appreciate the amazing views as I headed down towards the next aid station.
The party-like atmosphere at the Ambler Loop aid station snapped me out of my reverie. I chugged a few cups of Gatorade, munched on some pretzels and dropped my pack before heading off in hot pursuit of the runners in front of me. It felt so good to be running this short loop without the weight of a pack, and my quickening pace allowed me to reel in several runners. The next 5 kilometres seemed to go by in a flash and, back at the aid station, I quickly swiped my timing card, threw back on the pack and headed down the hill towards Hell’s Gates Road.
When I reached the transition area, I could see the look of relief on the faces of my dad and son, who were serving as my support crew. Having witnessed my rough patch as I stumbled through the prior transition area, they were happily surprised to see I had regained my strength and made it through the difficult Leg 4 of the race. I assured them I was feeling much better and I was going to finish this race come hell or high water. “Only 22 kms to go” I said, as if somehow that was a reasonable distance to run and I had not lost all perspective on the absurdity of what we were doing. Without sitting down, I quickly went through my pre-planned routine for the transition: wash my head and torso with a wet cloth, switch shirts, drink a cup of warm noodle soup, put on my head lamp, grab a new pack filled with my nutrition for Leg 5 and then keep moving. In less than 5 minutes, I was through the busy transition area and back to the solitude of the trail.
It was now 10:30 pm and I marvelled at the red glow of the setting sun. The narrow trail ascended through the forest under a heavy canopy of trees and the visibility gradually decreased as darkness arrived. I switched on my head lamp and struggled to maintain my footing along the overgrown path. After several stumbles, I slowed my pace to avoid a nasty fall. I was all alone in the pitch-black forest and I was sure there were evil creatures waiting to attack me around every corner. This was downright spooky. I pushed those thoughts out of my head and started counting my steps towards the river crossing.
As I approached the boat launch, the Grim Reaper held out his hand: “Coin, please”. This appropriately costumed volunteer didn’t break character as I fumbled in the back pocket of my running shorts to find the silver coin I had carefully taped and pinned in place for this moment. Without the coin, my safe passage would be denied and my race would be over. Fortunately, it was still there and I hopped into the motor boat to enjoy a short break as we crossed to the other shore. The reprieve was short-lived, as the trail inclined sharply upwards for another long, difficult climb that would bring the total elevation gain for the day to over 17,000 feet.
By this point, my Garmin watch had died and I had no idea of my pace or the distance remaining. The heaviness in my legs was a constant presence and the ability to keep running was purely mental. As I exited the forest, I could see the lights of town which seemed like a mirage in the distance. I used every ounce of remaining strength to bridge the gap to these lights and soon arrived at the final check point. I asked the volunteer what time it was and realized that, if I ran hard, I might be able to get across the line in under 17 hours. It seemed ridiculous to be sprinting down the sidewalks of Grande Cache at this point, but the sound of the announcer telling the waiting crowd of my impending arrival fuelled a final burst of speed. Waves of emotion washed over me as I rounded the corner and galloped towards the finish line. Gratitude, humility and pride filled my heart. I raised my arms and looked up to see 16:59 on the clock, before collapsing into the waiting arms of my family members. I would forever be part of a small community of solo finishers who understood the thrill, agony and beautiful folly of having conquered this seemingly impossible challenge. I was a Death Racer.