A few days before my friend Andy and I departed for the Canadian Death Race, we received a disquieting email from a teammate.
“Not to get you worried or anything, but a mountain biker was eaten by a bear here the other day.”
Up to that point, we hadn’t really been worried. Although running 125-kilometers (78 miles) over three mountain summits with 17,000 feet elevation change in the Canadian Rockies is certainly no walk in the park, we were splitting the distance between five teammates. We expected to finish. Alive.
After all, no one has died during the seven years of the event, though kidney failure, frostbite, and numerous disqualifications for failure to meet timing cut-offs have occurred.
Of the 1,000 people that entered the Death Race in 2007, only about 210 were crazy enough to do it solo; the rest, like us, competed as part of a relatively sane relay team. I wasn’t worried about my leg—it was twelve miles with little elevation change—I had one of the easiest sections. Some of my teammates, and certainly all of the soloists, would be facing altitude, cold, heat, exhaustion, running at night, and possibly, wildlife.
This latter subject dominated our discussion on the long trip northward. From the highway, in addition to endless forest and sparkling glaciers, we saw big-horned sheep, bald eagles, and moose. On the news, we heard of kayakers being attacked by wolves; in the paper, we read about a man wrestling a mountain lion off his twelve-year-old son and then growling at it; from locals, we heard of Inuit teenage girls hunting seals by spearing them in the face. Canada started to seem less like our northern most state and more like the wild, wild, west.
As we approached Grand Cache, the small mining town in Northern Alberta that hosts the run, I read the terms and conditions of our race: there would be no aid stations on my leg (the first) and only two on Andy’s (the fourth and longest leg; 23.6 miles). This is unheard of in the U.S., where even remote trail runs usually have food, water, and basic medical help at least every six or seven miles. There was little, if any, chance for help along this route. The organizer’s attitude seemed to be one of if you’re not prepared, you’ll die, and we’re not here to save people from their own stupidity. I was starting to think that the Death Race could live up to its claim of being one of the “toughest extreme races in the world.”
When we finally reached Grand Cache, our team—Vigor Mortis—was complete. In addition to Andy and myself, there was Murray (leg #2), a doctor who lived in Calgary. He knew John (leg #5) and Elsie (leg #3), a husband and wife South African team who had relocated to practice rural medicine in Grand Cache. They had done the race since its inception, and John had done the entire thing solo one year. This, I learned, had less to do with a penchant for ultramarathoning, and more to do with living in a small town that’s main, or only, attraction is an endurance event.
According to locals, the Death Race has been a major boon for the town. The economy wasn’t doing well; there was little reason to visit and even less reason to run around the steep terrain. But since it started, the event had lured more and more participants to the challenge; expanded the activities to a weekend long DeathFest with carnival rides, bands, and food; and inspired non-athletically inclined locals to test their stuff.
The popularity of the run was evident by the number of people milling about the schoolyard the evening before the race, flexing calf muscles, and finishing last minute registration glitches. The death themed vaudevillian charm was also intensified. The race motto—Are You Tough Enough?—and the logo, a skull, were plastered over T-shirts, bumper stickers, and signs. On a large stage, a man dressed as the grim reaper gave a “motivational” pre-race speech.
Our team feasted on pasta, then went to bed early. When we woke, the skies were overcast and there was a faint drizzle as I lined up with others running leg #1 and soloists. I had butterflies in my stomach, as I always do before a race, even though I knew my twelve miles would be a slow, uneventful plod through the forest. At 8 a.m., the gun fired and we were off, the sound of shuffling feet drowned out by the sound of bear bells attached to runners’ water belts and backpacks.
Two hours later, I finished my leg, muddy and cold, and handed the timing chip off to Murray. After showering and eating, I spent the next four legs with my teammates in the mini-van, shuttling between drop-offs and pick-ups, cheering a racer coming over the end line only to cheer another one leaving.
As Andy handed off the chip to John for the last leg, we were in good shape. It was 8 p.m. and our goal of finishing before dark looked like it was going to happen. Not everyone’s team held up as well as ours, however. While we were celebrating our completion around 10:30 p.m., fourteen hours after we had started, other people were still waiting to start their leg, some of whom did not set off on the dark trails until after midnight (the race officially ended at 8 a.m. the following morning).
We watched the first soloist cross the finish line, fifteen hours after he had started, looking happy, relieved, and unmarked by bears. Half of the soloists that entered did not make it to this point, bailing out at various points along the way. Even though I have run three marathons, I wondered what prompted someone to want to run seventy-eight miles straight. How does one train for such an event?
“Oh, you know, I just did some long hikes and runs through the bush with a buddy,” responded John, our leg #5 who had run it solo years back. Though his use of the word “bush” was distinctly South African, his attitude was hallmark Canadian.
I had come to realize that many Canadians, or at least Albertans, had this nonchalant approach to the wilderness and extremes. People seemed tougher. Elsie, who stood about 5’2’‘, told us how she regularly ran with bear mace and used crampons to scale her roof in the winter so she could pick the ice off. Every time we heard stories like these, saw more wildlife (luckily, the grizzly spotting wasn’t until the trip home), or stopped to walk over a glacier, we Americans would look at each other, jaws dropped, and think, “Where in the hell are we?”
Andy finishing leg #4 with moral “support” from Murray. Photo courtesy of Kara Dubray.