Chasing Immortality - Page 4
Death from Above
Segment Four looms like a dentist's appointment. This is the "Hamel Assault," and "It's here that things go wrong," reads one course summary.
Tracy Garneau, a 39-year-old runner from Vernon, British Columbia, and three-time runner-up at the Death Race, admits a love-hate relationship with Mount Hamel. "Hamel's like a boyfriend," she says. "I've climbed it 22 times, and every time I pray, because he can bring you to your knees."
Hamel rises from the restful shores of a duck pond, and Death Racers leaving this aid station shifted gears almost immediately to a modest power hike, pointing their heads down and preparing to pump up 3000 vertical feet.
At the top, the views varied according to the weather. Some runners basked in sunlight, and stared straight down into Hell's Canyon, a dark corridor through which the Smoky River roars. Others reached the summit as one of many cloud banks roiled through, and visibility was limited to less than 10 feet. Regardless, many lingered only a few seconds before pointing their bludgeoned toenails downhill, beginning what is cursed as an "eternal" (13 miles) downhill.
Nail In the Coffin
The Hamel Segment batters runners, and many arrive at the next station, Beaver Dam, intent on dropping out. But they're missing out if they do. "Leg Five is stacked," says Turk.
Called "Hell's Gate and River Crossing," this segment sends runners through an enchanted forest speckled with red paintbrush, prickly wild rose and calypso orchid. The footing is off-camber and concealed by overgrowth for several miles, making this a deceptively difficult task, given that nearly all runners cover it in the dark, staring into the tunnel of light cast by their headlamps.
Eventually, the already-skinny trail reaches an even narrower stretch, smack through a long cleave in a massive boulder. Here is Split Rock. Some (ahem) "larger" runners need to inhale deeply and turn sideways in order to slip through. Most everybody still scraped their shoulders against both sides of the runway.
After Split Rock, the course dives downward to Hell's Gate, what is fast becoming a renowned landmark. The trail vanishes into the deafening confluence of the Smoky and Sulphur rivers. Icy blue and jade-green waters swirl. The air temperature plummets.
A boat dock and a robed Grim Reaper—a nod to the Greek myth of Charon, who ushers souls of the dead across the River Styx into the Underworld—awaited here, and runners dug into their packs to fetch a coin given to them before the race. This is their ticket across, gaining them admission to a raft. Woe to the runner who drops the coin on the course, for their race is over.
Tonight, nobody dropped their token. Still, says Nicki Haugan, 30, a past solo Death Race winner from Fort Saint John, British Columbia, "You'll see runners heading back on the trail, sometimes in tears, looking for their coin."
Across the river, the course climbs over 1000 feet to the Sulphur Rim Trail, a cliffhanger that skirts the edge of a canyon on its way back to town and the finish. It's a final dagger stab and catches many by surprise. Says Garneau, "When I climb up there, I'm thinking, `Aw, shit, what was I thinking?'"
The final miles of most trail ultras involve an emotional journey, and the 2008 Death Race was no exception, as so many runners pushed their limits throughout the day and night, breaking down, physically and mentally. Wendy Taks, who ran this leg as a relay team member, recalls passing several struggling solo runners on the Sulphur Rim Trail: "I saw one girl vomiting and another guy was stumbling back and forth ... I was scared he would fall off the cliff."