Visually-impaired relay team completes Canadian Death Race

Five visually-impaired triathletes from Ottawa took on an extreme challenge when they entered one of the most difficult ultras on the Canadian trailrunning calendar. They covered every inch of the course, with no injuries

August 8th, 2018 by | Posted in Trail Running | Tags: , , ,

All photos by Sheryl Savard

This year’s Canadian Death Race, a 125K trail ultra near the Alberta–B.C. border that starts at 1,280m of altitude, crosses three summits, features more than 5,000m of elevation gain and a river crossing, saw its first-ever visually-impaired relay team enter and complete the race last weekend.

Diane Bergeron, Peter Field, Richard Marsolais, Bronwyn Funiciello and Shelley-Ann Morris, all triathletes in their 50s, all from Ottawa, all visually-impaired and and each running with a guide, did not receive an official time, but all members completed their assigned legs of between 19K and 38K. (Each leg has a cutoff time, and if missed, the next runner will be sent on regardless. This puts the team in a “forced start” position that allows them to complete the full distance.)

Photo: Canadian Death Race

“We are so very proud of that,” says Bergeron, the team leader, who conceived the idea 18 months ago and put the team together, with the help of her guide and friend, fellow triathlete Cheryl Vordenhout of Edmonton. “What a fantastic experience. We knew there was a chance we might not finish, but we all completed every inch of our assigned legs.”

Six teams out of the 78 that started (including the visually-impaired team, named Now You See Us, Now We Don’t”) ended with “forced start” status. Four other teams DNF’d.

RELATED: Blind Canadian runner finishes 500K Vol State ultra strong, unguided

“When Bronwyn came in after leg one, all she could say was, ‘oh my god,'” says Bergeron. “In this race, trip hazards are everywhere. Loose rocks, tree roots, mud… The ascents and descents are just a matter of fitness, but the footing was extremely challenging.”

The team raced with the help of guides Cheryl Vordenhout, Todd Savard, Rebecca Volk, Adam Guerrini, and George Hijacek.

Bergeron had the chance to run a couple of legs of the course during a training camp for the event, and warned her teammates the course was difficult and they would likely fall. She told them to just get up and keep moving forward, even if they were hiking more than running. Amazingly, there were no race-ending injuries, despite a few rolled ankles. “There’s an award for ‘first blood drawn,’ but none of the visually-impaired athletes qualified,” Bergeron joked.

Forced-starting Leg 3

When Field was not able to finish the 27K leg two within the allotted four and a half hours, Morris and her guide were forced to start leg three without their timing chip. Knowing they, too, could not possibly finish the 19K leg three in the allotted hour and three quarters, the team relaxed a little. They got back on track when Marsolais completed leg four ahead of schedule, and Bergeron started the anchor leg on time. The team managed to cross the finish line 24 hours, 55 minutes and 57 seconds after they started, even though their time doesn’t count due to the two forced-start legs. 

No special treatment

“We didn’t do anything differently than we usually would, for the visually impaired runners,” said race director Brian Gallant. “We respected that they want to be treated the same as everyone else, and that they want to compete shoulder to shoulder with the other runners.”

Bergeron says the race organizers never expressed the slightest hesitation about having them race. And the local Edmonton ultrarunning community generously found them sponsors and a van.

Morris describes the race as “life changing,” and said, “The support we received was key. Had it not been for our guides, the Edmonton trail running community and our teammates, it never would have happened.” Morris’s next challenge will be Montreal’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Half-Marathon in September. 

The solo race was won by Jayden Dalke in 13:22:31. Alex Petrosky finished second, in 13:37:30, and Andy Reed just 13 seconds behind Petrosky, in 13:37:43. All three are from Alberta. In the women’s race, Christi Richards of Missoula, Montana was first, in 15:52:19. Wendy Stalnaker of Colorado Springs was second, in 17:10:18, and Dawn Glover of Jasper, Alta. was third, in 17:17:16.

The race is a qualifier for both the Western States Endurance Run and the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB).