It came from the black depths of the earth. Coal, source of life and death for the town of Grande Cache. Brought into being by this single commodity in the late 1960s, Grande Cache was in a downward spiral by 1999.
"The town was in the poorest of shape," recalls Dale Tuck. "The mine had closed, most of the houses were in foreclosure."
Ringed by 21 imposing mountain peaks, the little blue-collar town in northwestern Alberta was remote, isolated and depressed. Grande Cache is 146 kilometres from the nearest town (Hinton) and over 400 km from the closest major urban centre, Edmonton.
Tuck had a vision against this backdrop. The idea, to host an extreme long-distance trail race (commonly called an ultramarathon), had the potential to help resurrect the town's flailing spirits, boost the economy and generate new opportunities for the region.
"Interestingly enough, it was not supported by council at the time," Tuck recalls. "It was just too radical for them."
Perhaps, in a community fighting for its life, some people weren't amused by his choice of names. Perhaps it just seemed too crazy: a 125-kilometre, 24-hour race over three mountain peaks.
Tuck remembers getting strange reactions in the mid-1990s when he went out for runs. "People used to stop me because they thought I was late for something and offer me a lift," he says. "The notion of running for the sake of just running seemed rather foreign."
Still, Tuck persevered. He launched the race in 2000, attracting an impressive 193 participants in that first year. The Canadian Death Race was born. Ten years later, the race draws over 1000 racers annually from across Canada and the US, and as far away as Germany, Australia and Singapore.
The impact at home may be even more significant. Kandis Woodward, a seven-year volunteer and Death Racer, remembers witnessing the first ever race in 2000: "During a time of economic disparity … I saw the essence of energy appear during one August long weekend in my town. A time when we really needed something with potential for life and energy," she writes on the Race HQ Facebook page. Watching the race inspired her. "I decided to volunteer over the next three years for this race meant clearly for the insane."
Soon Woodward was considering racing herself. "I had so much fun being a part of the race as a volunteer, I thought to myself, 'Could it be possible?' Despite surgical interventions twice for my knee and not returning to the sport for six years, I chose to take on training for the Death Race. And I did it." She came first in the first leg of the 2004 race.
This year will be Woodward's seventh as a racer. Tuck adds that Woodward, her husband and two "awesome" kids still volunteer year-round. "Chances are that the goodies in your race kits were put there by little Woodward hands," he enthuses. "And they all race on race day."
The Woodward family is just one example of a ripple effect that has passed through the town, causing a shift in thinking and lifestyles, according to Tuck. "After the race started, running, fitness, et cetera became a hallmark of the town and I often see people out training. How cool. It certainly started the fitness revolution in GC."
Though council was originally tentative, it eventually got on board. Four years ago they launched Deathfest, a festival coinciding with the race. Essentially, it's a big party with live music, activities and family entertainment. Deathfest's Killer Concert Series has brought in big names including Corb Lund, Default and the Trews. This year features Great Big Sea.
Generally, natural resources remain a big part of the local economy, but the town no longer lives and dies on one commodity alone. Adventure tourism is an expanding part of the local portfolio.
Ten years since Tuck introduced his radical idea, the Canadian Death Race is part of the bedrock of the community. Racers, remembering their favourite moments on the Race HQ facebook page, often dwell on the significance of that name. "It's named the Death Race … but so far nothing has ever made me feel so alive," writes Steve Blake.
Lynne Chisholm, part of the local group Runners With Attitude, tells how she went in for a routine fitness assessment to ensure she was in good health to train for the race. Doctors found an undiagnosed blood clot just below her heart. "The Death Race saved my life!" She claims.
Another poster, Rose, reflecting on the darkest moments of her race experience, the physical anguish, mental defeat and near withdrawal from the race, tells how she draws strength from the experience. "I've hung onto this up to now. When I don't want to train and I feel it's bigger than I can handle, I think back to this."
In a small town, death touches everybody. In Grande Cache, it has a way of transforming those that pass through its spectral embrace. After all, sometimes the greatest lessons of life are learned in the shadow of death. V
Join outdoors editor Jeremy Derksen at vueweekly.com/tothedeath2010 as he prepares to solo run the 2010 North Face Canadian Death Race in its 10th anniversary year.