Catching Up With Tracy Garneau

Catching up with Canadian ultrarunner and coach Tracy Garneau.

By on June 8, 2020 | Comments

“I was screaming my head off!” Tracy Garneau said, her heart pumping into the phone. “Those coyotes must’ve thought I was a crazy woman.” Garneau and her dog Koa were surrounded by coyotes and she skirted down a ravine and made a phone call to husband Dave MacDowell for a drive-by rescue. Garneau recalled the action from years earlier.

There’s some serious wildlife in her home of Jasper, Alberta and the 51-year-old Garneau is telling me all about it. “Oh yeah,” she answers, with just a hint of a Canadian accent. “Grizzly bears are out like crazy.” Her tone reveals that my question about carrying bear spray was a silly one. It’s a necessity there, though one she’s only previously had to use once on a charging elk. Dangers aside, Garneau’s in love with where she lives. “I just saw a baby lynx this morning, I’d never seen a baby lynx before,” she gushed moments earlier.

Garneau is the 2010 Ultrarunning Magazine (North American) Ultrarunner of the Year, and the 2010 Western States 100 winner. She still holds the HURT 100 Mile course record in Hawai’i, at a time over 90 minutes better than any other woman, ever. She still runs every day, and was running when I first called. She politely offered to slow to a walk and chat, but I called back later.

Since that time a decade earlier, Garneau’s moved from Vernon, British Columbia to Jasper, and for the Canadian geography novices, like me, Jasper is about three-and-a-half hours northwest of Banff. I’ve never been, but promise I’ve seen pictures. Right now she’s at a family cabin in remote Valemount, another 90 minutes west of Jasper. “There’s a treadmill in the living room,” she assures me when I ask about running every day in such a wintry place. “Even when I was racing, I ran on the treadmill a lot. I just couldn’t get the leg turnover outside in the winter. There’s so much snow [here], and the chance of injury [is higher when running outside in the winter].” I try to pin her down to Tiger King or Homecoming, but she doesn’t settle on anything in particular to watch during treadmill runs. “I love action movies. YouTube videos, lots of running videos. I blank out, I don’t mind the treadmill,” she says.

Tracy Garneau (fourth from right) after taking fourth at the 2011 Western States 100. All photos: iRunFar

Garneau moved to be with her now husband, Dave MacDowell. “It was perfect timing really. I was running and traveling, and training so much. I was starting to, you know, get tired,” Garneau revealed. “I wanted more adventures, and I wanted to be with him. I waited a long time to meet someone.” I know my readers are sticklers for details and I try to get it right. I ask when she was married. “2015, 16, 2014” she pauses, and then says with some finality. “We’ve been married six years.” I don’t make her to settle on the calendar year and instead we laugh.

She keeps going in telling of her current life. Garneau was exhausted from the worldwide travel of a sponsored athlete, but finds home to be a great destination of its own. “Jasper’s four hours from the airport. It’s unbelievable, it’s paradise. There are 1,200 kilometers of maintained trails. There’s so much to explore. It’s great to just step back and run just for me. Just running. It’s saved me from injury. Both places [Jasper and Valemount] are just so beautiful.” She doesn’t track her time, or miles or kilometers, but she didn’t when training either. She’s a real Canadian and snowshoes, ski tours, and mountain bikes too. “I’m a really good uphill skier, I love it,” she boasts. Her husband owns The North Face stores and gifted her a gravel bike for their anniversary. “He runs too, it’s awesome,” she cheers. I ask if they met through The North Face and she answers similarly. “The [Canadian] Death Race actually. I know,” she says when I start to point out the irony. The Death Race, marriage.

Professionally Garneau is a run coach and pre-COVID-19 had a huge group of 80 women in Jasper. She points out that the town’s population is just 5,000, to demonstrate how significant that number is. And she’s really proud of her athletes too. “My good friend won the Sinister 7 last year. She’s a mom, with three kids, works. She’s what I call a ‘quiet giant.’ There are just unbelievable athletes out there who are super successful.”

Garneau has a diverse group too. “Some girls want to learn to mountain bike, I do that. Fitness training, mileage plans, weight training, hill running. My girlfriend and I do Wild Women Adventures. It’s a camp for women that wouldn’t necessarily go on big adventures in Jasper or Banff. Two nights, three days.”

And she does still travel too. When racing, Garneau frequented Hawai’i and she and her husband still go back, most often to O’ahu’s North Shore where they’ve found a perfect bed and breakfast minutes from trails. Her dog, a 100-pound Pyrenees-lab mix, is named for a Hawaiian tree. The couple–she and her husband, not she and her dog–were signed up for Washington State’s Tiger Claw race before its cancellation too. “A couple of races, just to have fun,” she explains of the motivation.

Even without races, it certainly sounds like Tracy Garneau is having plenty of fun.

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Tracy taking fourth at the 2011 Western States 100.

Justin Mock

Justin Mock is the This Week In Running columnist for iRunFar. He’s been writing about running for 10 years. Based in Europe, Justin has run as fast as 2:29 for a road marathon and finished as high as fourth in the Pikes Peak Marathon.