Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Down and Dirty Death Race Update

Haha! I just needed to say something dumb so I can get over myself and crank out a blog post. You see, I have become quite taken with my own loquaciousness - and have found myself bogged down in incessant wordsmithing. Thus the backlog of half-crafted "masterpieces".

So, on to the matter at hand! The Death Race. Now just FIVE WEEKS away! Here is a quick snapshot of my training, my health and my mindset as we come into the home stretch.

After my Easter Ultra-hike Debacle, as I am now willing to admit (retrospectively), my confidence was severely shaken. As I wrote at the time, "I am training for one of the hardest races in the world. And I can't #&% walk to Barrie??". Fortunately I didn't stay "down" too long and was back in the gym within a few days - still nursing awful blisters.

The real bounceback, though was last weekend on my second trip to Pittsfield, Vermont. It is fast becoming my favourite little town in the world - which is hilarious, as I am essentially tortured every time I go there. I chronicled my first DR training adenture in March, and this experience was comparably gruelling.

I arrived Friday just before midnight, after a 10 hour drive. As I pulled up to the farm, there were about 2 dozen people up cooking and laughing and visiting - all bathed in the bright red glow of a huge LED clock that was just reaching the 30 hour mark. I would learn in the morning that this was the elapsed time in the 200 mile ultramarathon, and these were the runners support crews and race organizers. I resisted the temptation to go investigate, and parked across the road, climbing into the back of my truck to get some sleep before my 5:30am start.

I woke at 4:45am, 15 minutes before my alarm was set to ring. As I scarfed down some breakfast and freshened up for the day I noted my first setback - no shorts. The plan was to wear my Nike running tights under some board shorts, as cotton underwear is a guarantee of brutal chafing. No time for modesty, so I decided to be "THAT" guy - running in tights with no shorts and no underwear. HAHAHA!


I also discovered that I had not brought my leather gloves, or fresh water. At this point, I used my voice recorder to note that "It's like they've announced a trophy for least prepared, and I am going after it with a vengeance." (One thing I DID bring this time was awesome socks, which made a HUGE difference!)

As I crossed the road, a freeballing vision in royal blue tights and white cotton gloves, I was easily able to ID the Death Racers in the crowd. We were the only ones wielding axes. There were plenty of people about, as the 30mile Ultra was set to start at 6am.

Right at 5:30am, the nine DR trainees were ready to go. We were greeted by Andy Weinberg (the awesomely loud and enthusiastic race organizer), Matt Soroka (who had guided my snowshoe adventure in March) and Jack Cary (a Death Race veteran who, throughout the day, quickly became one of my favourite people). With typical nonchalance, they told us to start ... "Jog down to the river and fill up a 5 gallon pail with water. Then carry it to the top of the mountain. When you get there, gather 10 pieces of burnable firewood and chop them to 3 foot lengths, then fill your buckets with rocks and come back down. Go."

And so started my second Death Race training. I set out with Thomas Lee (a friendly beast of a guy, about my age, who had been a wrestler and a bodybuilder), Michelle Roy (an intense but fun uber-runner who is also Thomas' ex-girlfriend), John and Ricky (both strong, fit fellas, probably in their twenties). The river was about a half mile hike along a hilly trail through woods. An interesting touch is the severed heads of farm animals staked onto various trees along this stretch. I am learning that this will be a very familiar route come Death Race weekend. We got to the river and loaded up our pails - 40 pounds if you are curious. Then we set out to hike the 5 miles up the hill, with a half mile vertical gain (about 4x the height of Blue Mountain). We shared the 10 mile loop with the McNaughton runners, of whom the 100/200/500 milers were already running, with the 30 milers starting just behind us. It wasn't long until the fresh and unencumbered runners passed us, shaking their heads as they strode by. "You guys are absolutely nuts" was the consensus commentary.

Somewhere around the 2 hour mark we emerged from the forest to the clearing at the top of the mountain. I had only ever been there when it was covered in snow and it was just as beautiful in the Spring. I didn't take much time to admire my surroundings, though, as I still had lots of energy and wanted to capitalize on that. By now, it was just Thomas and Ricky and me and we worked together, gathering and chopping our wood. Just as we finished, Michelle and John arrived. We all cheered one another on and then the three of us struck out back down the mountain with our buckets now full of rocks from the peak. Somehow I had been certain that the water would be heavier but this was certainly not the case - we all figured the rocks were at least half as much again. So 60 pounds? At least there were more ways to carry a pail full of rocks, and mine spent most of the descent balanced on my shoulders.

About halfway down we were passed by a very unassuming looking runner who I would later learn was Tony Covarrubias - about 300 miles into his 500 mile race. He smiled and waved and did not slow down.

When we got back to the barn we were told to head back down to the river and dump out our rocks and bring back the empty buckets. Then, upon returning, we were told to head back down again and fill the bucket back up with rocks. So a big, 2 mile break-even.

Next up, cross the road and head up to the pond. A spring fed pond that hovers around 45F all summer long. We were told to wade into the water until our belly buttons were submerged, and were then handed a piece of cardboard and an unopened 100 piece puzzle. 

The assignment was to assemble the puzzle on the cardboard before leaving the water. Try to imagine that - calming your mind as the shock of the cold sets in, and then stilling your body as the severe shivering starts, all to put together a puzzle that would be difficult even in your pyjamas in front of a fire. All of those rainy cottage days at my Nana's Long Point cottage came in very handy as I was able to finish the puzzle in about 20 minutes and drag my frozen legs back onto dry land. The others took longer, especially poor Michelle. I only say "poor" because she is an incredible ultra-athlete (who kicked my ass in the run) with NO body fat to keep her warm. She was shaking uncontrollably making it almost impossible to do the puzzle. I don't know if she did finish the task, but I am certain she was in the frigid water for over an hour.

The next "warm-up" (literally) consisted of 100 squats, 100 pushups and 100 burpees, then back to the trail to just do a straightforward 10 mile loop. Not to say it was easy, but it sure felt much less punishing without the load. My time was less than impressive (at just under 3 hours) but I was still going strong. The one near disaster came at the top of a very steep descent about 2 miles from the end of the circuit. I decided to give my quads a big stretch before starting down so sat right back on my heels and held for about a minute. As soon as I stood back up I knew I was in trouble - my blood pressure plummeted and I started to pass out. You know that feeling of falling into a dark tunnel? Well, I fought that off for what seemed like forever as I strained to not pitch headfirst down the rocky path. When I was finally able to regain my equilibrium, I hiked carefully down.

Next task back at the barn was, of course, to head back down to the river and back to dump the rocks, then another round trip to pick up more rocks. But this time we had to stack our rocks in two piles and lay our axe handle across them. Only when we could crawl under this "bridge" could we continue. 

Back across to the pond for two new challenges. The first was to guess how many candies were in a jar. I was off by 19 which meant 38 burpees, but not before having to eat two tablespoons of chopped garlic. With that freshly churned in my belly, I had to get back into the pond with an exercise ball covered in nubs. And, again submerged more than halfway in the icy pond, count the individual bumps. Picture this ball ... 

... and figure out how you would keep track of that count! And for every one that you were off meant a full minute of holding a 3 foot length of rope taut above your head. Thomas had gone before me, having crushed me in the 10 mile run, and was given the maximum penalty of 60 minutes. I couldn't even imagine having to do that, so I took a long time in the pond - emerging with an answer of 591. The correct count was 582 ... YES!! Only 9 minutes! Ricky (or was it John???) was right behind me, and got stuck with the full 60 minutes as well. I was counting my blessings big time!

Throughout the day, Andy and Matt and Jack kept reminded us that this was not mandatory training and that they would certainly understand if any of us had to leave part way through. I was surprised at how many people took them up on that offer. Maybe they are wired differently than I am, but I know that not finishing this day would make it much much tougher for me to gut through the actual race weekend.

At this point, I am pretty sure there were only 4 of us left. Me, Thomas, Ricky/John? and an 18 year old girl whose name has escaped me. After picking 200 dandelions and then doing 200 situps, we were each handed a very dull trim saw and sent over to some freshly felled trees. Using these entirely unsuitable tools, we were each to cut three three foot sections and then split them for the evening's bonfire. With ever more rubbery arms, each cut took at least a full hour. Our young lady worked her way through one log before having to take off, leaving Thomas and Ricky/John? and me to finish the sisyphean sawing. Finally it was cut and split and stacked (and I will give an unreserved nod to the other two guys, who were much more effective lumberjacks than I!).

Thomas and Ricky/John? were leaving as well, so I asked Jack, "If I do one more task will that make me the last one standing?". Jack replied "We only have one more for you to do - and you will have finished the whole list."

I am sure you can guess that the last job was to carry the rocks back down to the water, made a bit more punishing by having to lug a full bucket of water back up. As I arrived at the finish line I dumped the bucket over my head and received a rewarding round of high fives.

By now it was about 7:30pm and we had been going for 14+ hours. I grabbed a pair of boxers from the truck and headed back to the pond for a bracing bath, then got dressed and headed to the General Store for a piece of pizza and a beer. I brought another beer back to the race headquarters in time to see Ryan Dexter finish the 200 mile race in a record time of 51 hours! That means that he ran for just over two full days non-stop, grabbing a sandwich at the turn each time and heading right back out. Incredible.

I found out later that neither Tony nor the other 500 miler finished their full distance, stopping after just shy of 400 miles. They both have my FULL respect - wow!!!

I slept in the back of the truck again Saturday night and drove home Sunday. Monday I felt terrific and was in the gym at 6am :)

Now, it is not ALL candy floss and balloon animals at this point. Here is the damage report so far on my 43 year old body...

- I was diagnosed in March with ostephytes (bony growth) on an old break in my elbow. I will be having surgery in the fall. In the meantime it is very painful, and restricts me from much "pushing" in the gym - so no bench press, triceps, etc.

- I have pretty awful plantar fasciitis in both feet. I was at my chiro today and he said it is definitely getting worse. I made the decision to not run again until the race (having just put in 10km last night). Lots of rowing for my cardio, and rest my feet.

- I probably also have a stress fracture in my left foot (the outside bone, connected to the baby toe). He has been monitoring it and was not happy with its condition today. "If I send you for an x-ray and it shows a fracture, are you still planning to race?" ... "Yes." ... "Okay, no sense ordering an x-ray until July then. Good luck with that."

- My Achilles tear is still there but is under control. Lots of stretching and icing. I still feel a pull now and then but nothing scary like before.

- Other than that I feel terrific. Surprisingly, my SI (hip) and AC (shoulder) injuries are not haunting me at this point, and my IT band (thigh/knee) is in check - knock on wood.

So, with 35 days left to go I am going to back off on the running completely, maintain my weights without adding anything new, and step up my mental preparation. I actually do feel very confident in that department. I know full well how awful it is going to be, and how much I will want to quit. And I am absolutely certain that I will be able to dig deep and keep going. This month, I am also going to do considerable research on nutrition and strategies to cope with sleep-deprivation.

A few things that I am finding exceptionally inspiring ... the many, many people who ask me about the race and offer me encouragement; that there is an awesome contingent going down to cheer me on, including Dad, brother James, support Mike Kitchen, Jack, Katy(?), and the McGill family of Bill and Katie and David and Duncan; the comraderie amongst the Death Race hopefuls (lots of Facebook encouragement going back and forth between Bruce Allentuck, Jack Cary, Paul Roarke, Patrick Walsh, Joe Crupi, Ray Morvan, Thomas Lee, Michelle Roy, Kat Dunnigan, Ben Harper, Carrie Adams, Jason Jaksetic, William Castle, Rebecca Hansen, and others)

So, there. No literary masterpiece but an update nonetheless. Tick tock (as Ray Morvan always says) ... The Death Race is coming up fast!!!

NOTE: Will Castle, with whom I did the March training, was also at the McNaughton - running the full 30 mile race and THEN joining in with our DR training - that is seriously bad-ass, Will!!! 
And, never one to be outdone, Ray Morvan arrived direct from finishing a Tough Mudder and strapped on a 30 pound pack to crunch out his 30 miles ... ending at 5am. 

One other note - I will be running the Spartan Race in Milton on June 19th as a last tune-up before heading to Vermont later that week. Does anyone want to join me?? It is a very fun 5km run and I would love to have a crew there! (PS ... see if you recognize the handsome fellow around the 1:11 mark in this great video!)


  1. Holy cow, this post seriously made me take a step back and just consider how incredibly strong resilient the human body is. I cannot believe people can run for 2 days straight, can run 400 miles without stopping, or even complete all the tasks you described in your death race training! INTENSE!!! Props to you for being the last man standing that day, and for pushing yourself despite all your bodily ailments (stress fractures, plantar fasciitis, etc etc). Incredible!

  2. JD ~ I just knew this race was for you!!! Don't forget to put me on your list in the Cheer Crowd Department. It's on my calendar, and I can't wait to see you come across that finish line! (and if there is anything I can do...) I love hearing these updates, and there is no doubt in my mind that you are going to finish! I know I am already proud and it is more than obvious the people who are supporting you. As crazy as the whole concept of this event is, it's truly inspiring to see you push through and make it happen. Kudos!!


  3. You should give yourself a lot more credit in the writing department! Also, GREAT JOB on the training and being the last man standing!!! I have had PF in the past and know it can be SO intensely painful.
    I'll be interested to hear about your findings in the nutrition department! I am very interested in nutrition, so if I find anything I'll pass it your way.
    Keep up the great work! You are SUCH an inspiration! :)

  4. Johnny I finished the puzzle in about 30 minutes but my woo hoo took 30 hours to thaw ; ) I will be in Pittsfield June 3rd and 4th to train...Andy is getting me a hale bale as I want to see if I ca get that puppy to the to join in on the fun : )

  5. Hey trailgrrl ... well played rock star!! I can't make it down to VT again before the race weekend, but will send you good energy towards lugging that hay bale up the hill. Very much looking forward to racing with you at the end of June :)