It was curiosity that brought Rickey Gates to both Canada and the South Pole.
It was his jaw-dropping endurance that allowed the Woody Creek man to win foot races in both places in conditions beyond brutal.
Taking a break from scrubbing dishes at a research station, Gates won a marathon around the outpost amid temperatures of 20 below zero. Then last Saturday, the Aspen High graduate shattered the course record in the 80-mile Canadian Death Race by nearly 33 minutes. Not a bad effort for Gates’ first ultra marathon.
First the story of the South Pole.
“It had been in my brain for awhile to check out Antarctica,” he said.
Doing so can either cost a fortune, or one can make a little money by scouring plates for scientists. To see a land he described as “flatter than Kansas” and “colder than the dickens,” he chose the latter.
The key to the frozen sojourn? “Lots and lots of layers and don’t stop running.”
Gates, 30, was a standout runner at Aspen High, but often finished second to Jon Severy, who went on to All-American status running at the University of Colorado-Boulder.
Now a member of the Salomon shoe company’s international running team, and a veteran of mountain races in Italy, Switzerland and on Pikes Peak, Gates said the 24-hour Canadian Death Race piqued his interest.
Having done three marathons, “I decided to run three at once,” he said.
The race is held in central Alberta, several hours north of Banff in the Canadian Rockies. The terrain includes 4-wheel-drive trails, bogs, streams and simply scrambling up and down three peaks with thousands of feet of verticality.
“Going into the race I was just really curious,” he said. “I had nothing to base it off of. Usually I’m done eight hours before this race finishes, so I was curious about how my body would react.”
Gates said six hours in, he relied on mantras to continue — “Keep going, keep going,” for instance — as his brain deteriorated to what he described as an infantile or animalistic level. He had an advantage, however, having talked with the previous Death Race record holder, Hal Koerner, of Ashland, Ore.
“He gave me some really good tips,” Gates said. “He told me his record was not out of reach.”
Not thinking too much about Koerner’s then-record time of 12 hours, 47 minutes, Gates nevertheless glanced at his watch halfway through the race and realized he was 15 minutes ahead of Koerner’s mark. He decided to push the pace.
The race course, while wild, was well-marked. The trick is to know when you haven’t seen a ribbon marker for a quarter of a mile and then back-track, said Gates, who avoided having to retrace his steps.
He was so far ahead he said he grew lonely, especially during a 15-mile stretch where he saw no one. His mother, who accompanied him for the two-week road trip, was a big help in knowing what he needed when he arrived at aid stations, as was a Salomon teammate.
Still, “pretty much everything starts hurting,” Gates said. “But you keep chugging along. It’s hard to describe.”
Fueled by energy “gels and goos” and salt tablets — “The body needs something to hold on to” — he forded a Hunter Creek-esque stream to an even-larger river.
Here, he brought out the invaluable coin. Taped to the inside of his shorts, the coin must be handed to a boatsman who ferries runners to the final 10-mile stretch. Lose the coin, you lose the ride across in a speed boat, and the race.
“You’re kind of screwed” without the copper, Gates said. Race organizers have prevented runners from crossing without it.
But he crossed over and finished — in 12 hours, 15 minutes. Asked if he then collapsed or was fueled by endorphins, Gates said he had a beer.
“Then I had another beer.”
Then he stayed up until 3 a.m., congratulating and talking to still-finishing runners. “My body’s still pretty tired.”
The buzz of winning helped. He’ll try to regain the sense of victory later this month at the Pikes Peak Ascent. He finished third last year. The next day, he will join the Salomon team for the six-day, 120-mile TransRockies Run from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek.
As for thriving in the Death Race, Gates said he expects his record to be broken — “when I’m not sure.”
“Knowing I can do it without any prior ultra experience, I think it’ll challenge others.”