My first steps are in darkness. In the dying night, the sky is a welt healing from bruised indigo to blistered orange to blue daylight. Earthy, autumn decomposition scents the air—soil and organic matter undergoing mysterious, daily rituals of death and renewal. I pass through streetlight and shadow. This is training run number one on a journey of a thousand, thousand miles.
Early morning has always been the best time for me to run. Full disclosure: it’s not as if I’ve never run before, just never as an end in itself. But to solo the Death Race that’s exactly what I’ll have to do.
A few years ago I would have classified myself as a half-hour-a-day runner. Since having kids, that’s slowly decreased to two or three times a week. I try to keep at it but other things always come up. In that sense I expect I’m fairly typical of a lot of middling athletes.
Admittedly, as a sports editor and longtime junkie, my gear would fill several closets or most of a room, and includes skateboards, squash rackets, rugby cleats, road and mountain bikes, skipping ropes, weights, skis (alpine, telemark and nordic), and climbing shoes and harness. But don’t let that give you the wrong impression. I’m over 30, I’ve got two kids under age three and I sit at a desk most days. I haven’t hit a gym in several years. I’m 5’10” and approximately 200 pounds: what national trail racing organization 5 Peaks would classify as a “Clydesdale.” So I don’t exactly have what you’d call a runner’s physique.
Thus, at six a.m. on a brisk Monday morning in September, six days from the final race in the 5 Peaks Northern Alberta 2009 trail racing series at Cooking Lake on September 19, I’m desperately trying to make up for another lazy summer. And as I take stock of my situation, the weight of it all settles on my shoulders. Even as the sun begins to rise.
My current fitness status and relative inexperience is one of the reasons I got involved in the 5 Peaks. With distances varying from “sport” races (usually eight kilometres) to 16 km “enduros” to half marathons, the organization offers a good introduction to the sport.
“We have athletes that come from right off the couch to athletes training at a professional level,” says Kamren Farr, race director for 5 Peaks Northern Alberta. “I’d say on average most people are running two to three times a week before heading to an event, anywhere up to an hour per session.”
Knowing that some racers approach it casually is reassuring for a novice trail runner like me. But to reach the next level, Farr acknowledges, that commitment has to increase.
“The more serious athletes are going to be running anywhere from five to 10 hours per week,” he says. “If you’re running half marathons or ultra-distances that volume is going to go up a lot more. One thing about trail running is that we always train based on time rather than distance, [whereas] road runners tend to do it more by distance. A six-kilometre trail run can mean a lot of different things because of the elevation and technical aspects involved.”
Like me, a fair number of 5 Peaks participants use the series as a springboard to the Death Race—as many as a quarter of all racers, Farr estimates. “It’s a great catalyst to transition to longer distances.”
In my first 5 Peaks race back in August, I ran an eight-kilometre race, finishing with a time of 44:10—a pace of five minutes, 31 seconds per kilometre. By the Cooking Lake race, I’ve averaged two to three runs a week in the intervening month, none longer than 40 minutes. I’ve committed to running the 16 km enduro but doubling my distance remains a daunting prospect.
A field of 100 enduro racers mills about the starting line as Farr shouts out last minute instructions. He counts down from 10 and, without much fanfare, the crowd of bodies starts to move, first walking then jogging, some runners forming knots while others push ahead. I move with them while seeking my own pace.
Running is a pure sport, in the sense that it is not a hybrid of different skills or activities. It is simply moving at a faster rate than walking. But draw a finish line and the activity changes. Introducing goals or competition affects people differently. Alone, I know my pace; in a crowd, my feet feel confused.
It takes a while to settle in but halfway through I’ve found my comfort zone, alone on the trail. Still, 16 kilometres is a long way and when I come across other runners I’m curious to know their motivation. I don’t put much stock in fate, but the three consecutive lone runners I encounter mid-course are all Death Race relay team alumni. Of the three, I pass one and keep pace with the second for a kilometre. The third overtakes me with seeming ease.
If there’s a yardstick here, it’s my own. Nobody else is scrutinizing my performance. But I can’t help comparing myself to these runners and sensing a gap. “Nice pace,” I say to runner three.
“I’m not gonna lie,” he replies, “I’m feeling it.” I learn that he has run the relay twice; both times on Mt Hamel, the fourth leg—reputedly the toughest of all. I’m soon watching the Death Race logo on the back of his shirt fade into the distance.
Once again, I’m alone on the trail. This is the sole inescapable fact of my journey. There may be others along the way—family, friends, fellow racers, trainers—but in the end only I can run the race. I finish the 16 km in one hour, 27 minutes, 40 seconds, a pace of 5:23 per kilometre. But it’s a far cry from running Mt Hamel—much less soloing the entire race—and I’m sore and tired as it is, winded at the finish line from the final push.
What exactly did I get myself into?