Canadian Death Races brings out the best in 72-year old Dag Aabye

Mike Carter, Chetwynd Echo


GRANDE CACHE – The Canadian Death Race, held each year in Grande Cache, Alberta, gathers together some of the most intense people you will ever meet. For these runners a marathon is simply not enough.

Among the mostly middle-aged competitors is a smattering of 50-plus year olds, and one man whose thin frame and long, Gandalf-like grey hair distinguishes him from the crowd. His name is Dag Aabye, and he is 72-years-old.

When we spoke on the phone before the race Aabye said, “people my age need super heroes too.”

The 125 kilometre, five-leg, 24-hour race isn’t for the faint of heart. But despite the name, no one has ever died on the course, not even close. Death would be too easy.

The race begins in Central Park, in the heart of this small mining town, with a 19 kilometre “downtown jaunt” for leg one. Leg Two covers Flood Mountain (elevation 5,990 feet) and Grande Mountain (6,529 feet).

Sections of Leg Three are covered in knee-deep or worse water for 25 metres. One creek actually runs right down the middle of the trail, making for a very slippery course. The program notes that runners will observe the “stunning view of the Smoky River valley”.

Leg Four is the Mount Hamel assault (6,986 feet), with a bailout station halfway up.

The race finishes with a crossing of the Smoky River by boat. For most, this leg is done in the darkness under a heavy canopy of trees. Daylight training on this trail is highly recommended.

The event welcomes soloists and relay teams. Aabye was a soloist on his eleventh attempt. He has finished the race seven times; the 2013 version was not one of them.

The weather is a huge factor and over the 24-hours racers saw sun, rain, hail, and lighting.

“I was lucky,” said Aabye. “I had extra clothes with me, but the hail came down so hard it didn’t matter.”

The Vernon, BC resident who was born in Oslo, Norway during World War II, was sitting now in Noelle’s Café – a sort of pseudo Death Race central gathering spot – surrounded by other runners who had a day earlier, finished the most grueling mountain run anyone can imagine.

Some of them had bumps on their heads from the hail he spoke of.

“So many people weren’t prepared for it. Especially the relay teams, they don’t dress that much because it was warm. When we left it was sunny and hot, twenty minuets later it’s winter.”

Dag symbolizes everything this race is about; endurance, perseverance and defying the odds.

While I speak with him I realize that, despite for the obvious reasons, he is a truly unique individual. For him, the Death Race is therapeutic, and each year is another stop on his life long journey, upon which he is constantly learning new lessons that he incorporates into a philosophy reminiscent of Buddha himself.

“I don’t go to the doctor, I come to the death race,” he says. “The trail never lies to me. The doctor does. He gives me pills I don’t need. I am still learning and that’s what makes the difference between me and the other guys in my age group, because they know it all.”

He spoke at length about his love affair with the town of Grande Cache. The town was built on coal mining, living and dying with the rhythms of industry. It has died many deaths, but always comes back strong.

The race has been a key part of the town’s most recent rise.

Dale Tuck, otherwise known as “Dr. Death”, admits the race he had a part in organizing has grown far beyond anyone’s expectations. It’s first year in 2000 saw 193 competitors. They now have had to bring in a cap of registered racers at 1,500.

Other than mining, the main source of employment is the medium-security Grande Cache federal institution. Tuck and others realized that the landscape surrounding the town held an opportunity for economic diversification through a race like no other.

“All those running expressions – going to hell and back, doing the death watch – that elevated the excitement,” Tuck told the Globe and Mail earlier this month. “We tied it in with Greek mythology and Charon ferrying the dead across the river Styx. Racers have to carry a special coin [given to them] to get a boat ride across the river. It was edgy and fun.”

The race’s role in the town’s rebirth is not lost on Aabye. In his journal, he has dutifully noted every aspect of every trip to the town he has come to love, before and after the death race began.

“This is my Facebook,” he says holding the journal up. “I get to know about myself and not study other people. It’s the most fantastic thing.”

What strikes him the most is the change in the town that the race has made, he describes it as a transformation, a saving grace, and he meditates on the message he repeats in his musings on life and the Death Race. A message of simplicity.

“In my philosophy I say to people, if you have a hill to climb every day, you are taken care of. If you have more to do then you have time, you are never bored, you never have to watch TV.

“I live in a bus, a lot more space, simple. The only thing I collect are books I haven’t read. People are inclined to get caught in this trap and they realize there must be more to life.”

The Death Race is a bit like that, he explained. It’s about finding out what you can do, who you are, because if you are always afraid to fail you might never succeed.

“We are all discovering who we are, we can create a good life or we can destroy it.”

And with those final parting wise words, Dag Aabye picked up his things, and after a quick stop at the liquor store next door, went on to meet his friends for dinner.