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Living It Up At The Canadian Death Race

Far north of the 49th parallel in a land where the woodland caribou still roams, runners can challenge the terrain […]

By on August 7, 2009 | Comments

Canadian Death RaceFar north of the 49th parallel in a land where the woodland caribou still roams, runners can challenge the terrain and themselves at The North Face’s Canadian Death Race. Despite many a suggestive slogan, runners are unlikely to die at this event run nearly as far north as Alaska. However, this IS a very difficult race. The relentlessly challenging terrain and remoteness of the event give local runners a big advantage at this event. In fact, in the previous nine runnings of the race, no American had ever won the men’s race. That all changed this year with a gutsy run by Oregonian Sean Meissner!

Update: For more race photos, go to iRunFar’s Facebook page. Like what you see there? Then become a fan of iRunFar on Facebook!

The Setting
Mountains, horrible footing, and highly variable weather (it could be 80F or it could be snowing, as it has in the past) all contribute to a very long day for those opting to run the entire 125 kilometer (77.5 mile) race solo. Given the severity of the course, many runners opt for to run the race as part of a five stage relay team with from one to four teammates. We won’t give you a blow-by-blow of the course, as there’s a detailed course description on the race website; however, here’s the brief breakdown:

  • Leg 1 – 19k of flat running around 4,000′ in elevation
  • Leg 2 – 27k with a pair of climbs of about 2’000 a pop with the second topping out at 6,500′
  • Leg 3 – 19k at the course’s low point – 3-4,000’… but it ain’t flat
  • Leg 4 – 37k best summarized as “ouch.” There’s a 3,500′ climb to the top of Mt. Hamel, then a very technical 2,000′ decent, and, after a 10k traverse, 1,500′ straight down a dirt road.
  • Leg 5 – 23k of rolls with a net climb of almost 1,000′.
Mount Hamel Canadian Death RaceEarly evening from the slopes of Mount Hamel

There are a few unique aspect to racing the Death Race. For instance, on the more mundane side, runners must where a timing key that they insert (twice) into an electronic reader at major aid stations. (The race had great communications, including transmitting intermediate splits from the remote top of Mount Hamel.) Also at the top of Hamel, runners must come into the aid station, descend a ridge to pick up a flag, and then return it to the aid station before clocking in officially. Runners also carry a coin that they must have at the river crossing 110k into the race. Upon reaching the river, the runner must give the coin to “Charon, ferryman of the dead” in order to board the jetboat for a ride across the Smoky River.

For those looking to take on the Canadian Death Race in the future, Sean Meissner suggests putting both your coin in the same key pocket. Yes, they’ll keep clicking against each other during the run, but that will provide you with assurance that you haven’t lost either of these critical items.

The Runners
Going into the race, we saw this as a two man race and we were right. Jack Cook and Sean Meissner were the class of the field. While Cook might need an introduction to Americans, he needed no introduction to Death Race fans. He’d won the previous three CDRs and set the solo course record twice in the process. Sean Meissner is no slouch either and has tremendous experience and solid sub-100 mile efforts. (Sean’s also a sub-2:40 road marathoner.)

Sean Meissner Canadian Death RaceSean Meissner cruising the trails and holding a lead at 80k

Given his recent success at CDR, it was no surprise that Jack Cook took the lead early and accelerated away from Sean. Sean did battle back and passed Jack around 50k. Unfortunately from a competitive aspect, a bulging disc in his back ended Jack’s race not long thereafter.

When we saw Sean around 80k (50 miles), we looked great. He wasn’t his usual pukey self at all. He was in good spirits and thought that if he could make it to the river (110k) in first, he’d win the race. Meissner did not know that Cook had already dropped and that he had a commanding lead. Sean kept running strong, only slipping off his effort in the fifth stage. As noted, Sean was the first American victor with a time of 15:04:04. Interested in Sean’s race or the CDR in general? Read Sean’s detailed race report.

For winning, Sean had the choice of $1,000 OR an all expense paid trip to any of The North Face’s Global Challenge races in 2010. We expect to see Meissner toeing the line in Chamonix for the Ultra-Trail du Mont Blanc next August. We also expect many more top North Americans running the Canadian Death Race next year once runners learn of The North Face’s huge prize. For any studs and studettes looking to race in Chamonix, Bejing, or Santiago, Chile in 2011, read up on current Endurance Challenge prizes.

Listen it iRunFar’s interview of Sean Meissner the day following his win at the Canadian Death Race.

The women’s winner, Sophie Limoges from Quebec (16:37:59), was fifth overall and only 25 minutes behind second place.

The North Face personalities Dean Karnazes and Diane van Deren also ran the solo race. Dean (16:12:56) ran a tough race to finish second an hour back of Sean and giving Americans the top two slots. Diane (18:31:07) also represented The North Face well as she finished third among the ladies. She was 14th overall. Preliminary results of the solo and relay races are available.

Dean Karnazes Canadian Death RaceDean Karnazes using his quads to crush some Canadian rocks
Diane van Deren Canadian Death RaceDiane van Deren cruising off Mount Hamel into the twilight

The Town
Before closing out, we’ve got to note that the town of Grande Cache turns into Death Race central over this Canadian long weekend holiday. We saw small and large CDR flags all around town and most of town seemed to be part of the race. We learned of multiple families which had volunteers spread over the entire course. There were also lots of folks at the transition aid stations and random trucks of cheering spectators parked along roads where the course ran along the pavement. It was truly an impressive effort by this tiny town.

Canadian Death Race Grande CacheA Grande Cache welcome
Bryon Powell

Bryon Powell is the Founding Editor of iRunFar. He’s been writing about trail running, ultrarunning, and running gear for more than 15 years. Aside from iRunFar, he’s authored the books Relentless Forward Progress: A Guide to Running Ultramarathons and Where the Road Ends: A Guide to Trail Running, been a contributing editor at Trail Runner magazine, written for publications including Outside, Sierra, and Running Times, and coached ultrarunners of all abilities. Based in Silverton, Colorado, Bryon is an avid trail runner and ultrarunner who competes in events from the Hardrock 100 Mile just out his front door to races long and short around the world, that is, when he’s not fly fishing or tending to his garden.