Chasing Immortality - Page 2
Run almost entirely on trails, The Canadian Death Race summits three mountains above Grande Cache (elev. 4199 feet). It climbs over 11,000 feet and peaks atop 6986-foot Mount Hamel two-thirds of the way into the race. And that tells only part of the story—the course's footing varies from a few smooth dirt roads to primarily primitive singletrack across bogs, over downed trees and through overgrown flora. This course keeps runners off balance and challenges their fitness, spirit and souls.
Says Diane Van Deren of Sedalia, Colorado, who won the 2008 race with a time of 17:16:22, "The Death Race will make you hurt in places you have never hurt before." She says the downhills battered her quads and she was impaled by countless tree branches and briars (memo to Death Racers: wear eye protection, especially in the dark). Van Deren also fell numerous times in the early bog section of the course and suffered an unusual malady. "I ended up with an allergic reaction to a bug bite," she says. "Hives developed up and down my arms and legs."
And Van Deren is no powder puff. She won the 2007 Trail Runner Trophy Series and has completed some of the world's most difficult ultramarathons, including the Hardrock 100 four times.
Two days before the 2008 Death Race, Sakura Hozumi, co-Race Director, talks about a runner here from Japan, Hiroko Suzuki. "I told her, `There's no hand-holding here and this is not tourism.' I told her the only Japanese I'd speak is if I called her mom because she died."
Meet Your Maker
The night before the race, a blonde-haired man in his mid-40s, with the energy of a teenager, looks up from the street around the Death Race starting area. There's orange neon spray-paint on his chin and cheek—overspray from the graffiti he's littering on the pavement: smack like "Your mama runs faster!" and "You run 125K. Therefore you smell bad."
This is Dale Tuck and the Canadian Death Race is his bastard child.
A few hours later, Tuck is incognito, standing on a sprawling outdoor stage, addressing almost 2000 people in the pre-race briefing. He's dressed in a flowing black robe and baggy black pants. He wears a horned mask that is a gruesome cross-pollination of Darth Vader, Felix the Cat and Satan himself. A burgundy wig waves in the cold wind and clouds the color of vampire blood roll in. Runners fold their arms, shivering nervously in their down parkas, glancing at their watches to calculate the hours until the starter's pistol.
Death begins with birth and the Canadian Death Race was born to bring Grande Cache, a town of only 3700, back from the grave.
Grande Cache was founded in the mid-1960s as a coal-mining settlement. Like many towns that put all their eggs in the mining cart, it's fallen victim to boom-and-bust cycles, despite the local prison and forestry employing many others.
When Tuck, an endurance sports junkie, moved to Grande Cache in 1993, he felt immediately that he'd found a beautiful slice of hell, begging to be run, hiked, climbed, snowshoed and mountain biked. "Just look around," he says, swinging his arm like Vanna White presenting a string of vowels, "It's a place that says, `Race me!'"
The Grande Cache bust came by 2000, when the mine had closed and the prison had been "downsized" from medium- to minimum-security. The mine closing equated to 500 lost jobs. As an additional thunderclap in this perfect storm, endangerment of the Northern Spotted Owl became a huge topic, putting the future of the local mill and logging in jeopardy.
"It was all a major catastrophe," says Tuck, who still works at the prison. "We had close to 800 jobs walk out the door." He hesitates and looks at the Death Race banner waving overhead. "But it was an opportunity, too."
Up to that point, Tuck says Grande Cache was "happy and set in its ways." So his idea of hosting a 125K race over three mountains summits was met with ridicule. "It was inconceivable—there was amazing resistance to organizing something that nobody would come to," he says. "Oh, and here was the kicker—we announced that we'd call it `The Death Race.'"
But Tuck, as charismatic as he is eccentric, persisted and built a consensus. The race took off. "Two hundred people became 500 became 700, and we soon had a cap of 1000 because the infrastructure can't handle any more," he says. On race weekend, hotels are filled to capacity, and people sleep shoulder-to-shoulder at campsites. RVs line the pull-offs leading into town. Judged by sheer participation, the Death Race is the continent's biggest pure trail race.
Faces of Death
After a shivering night that dropped near freezing, Saturday at 8 a.m. the music of bagpipes announced the start of the 2008 Death Race. Sprightly, smiling runners practically skipped down the sloped streets leaving town. Grand Cache occupies a plateau, propped up in the center of a geological cereal bowl, with mountain peaks forming the rim all around. From the starting line, runners can trace the jagged distant rim of the bowl—before they're done, they will have encircled over three quarters of it.
The first few hundred meters were the easiest strides all day, and the raucous cheering from spectators mixed with the melodic jingle of bear bells strapped to runners' packs. Yet the party was short lived. Beginning on the town's outskirts, runners tackled the first of the race's five beastly legs. The Death Race is a pick-your-poison event, and each course segment offers its own toxic mix.