McHale top Canadian in Death Race

Whitehorse's Denise McHale decided not to defend Yukon River Trail Marathon title on Sunday, but not because she wanted to take it easy. It was quite the opposite.

Whitehorse’s Denise McHale decided not to defend Yukon River Trail Marathon title on Sunday, but not because she wanted to take it easy. It was quite the opposite.

Instead McHale competed in the 10th annual Canadian Death Race in Grande Cache, Alberta, a 125-kilometre running race through the Rocky Mountains.

“It was a really nice course, it was a well-organized race and I would recommend it to anybody who wants to run 125 kilometres,” said McHale. “I was happy with my time. I think it’s the third-fastest time ever run by a woman. But it was hard to know what to expect with time, so I was looking at previous years and was hoping for under 16 hours.”

Her first time in the Death Race, McHale finished third overall with a time of 14 hours and 56 minutes. The top Canadian finisher, McHale came in behind an ultra-marathon champion for the US and the second-place finisher, a woman from Scotland, both of whom surpassed the previous course record.

“We ran together for the first 50 kilometres, but then I just let her go because I knew her and knew that the odds were that she was going to beat me,” said McHale of the top female finisher. “You have to do your own thing out there and I think if I would have tried to keep up with her I would have blown up.”

Starting in downtown Grande Cache at an altitude of 1,280 metres, competitors had to traverse three mountain summits, climbing a combined altitude of 5,180 metres, including a climb up Mt. Hamel at an elevation of 2,129 metres. It was during her accent up Mt. Hamel that McHale really started to feel the effects of the race.

“It was around mid-day and it was 22 degrees most of the day, but with no cloud cover, so I felt really hot most of the day,” she said. “You start to feel sorry for yourself at some point, where you really have a long way to go still and you’re starting to not feel so great.

“I think I was in fourth or fifth place overall and I just thought, ‘There are 250 people behind you that would be really happy to be where you are, so just suck it up and keep going.’”

Towards the end of the journey participants must present a coin to the “Grim Reaper” to get a boat ride across the Hell’s Gate canyon where the Smoky and Sulphur Rivers converge. If a runner loses the coin given to them at the start of the race, that’s the end of the race for them.

“If you lose your coin, you’re out of luck. You don’t get a ride and you’re disqualified from the race,” said McHale. “That would be horrible – at a hundred and something kilometres into it!”

No stranger to long-distance events, McHale is the current Canadian 100-kilometre women’s champion. Having defended her title last year, McHale will be on Team Canada for the IAU 100-Km World Championships this November in Gibraltar, Spain.

“You can’t really compare (the Death Race) to the 100-kilometre road run because it’s totally different,” said McHale.

In May at the XPD Australia Adventure Race in North Queensland, McHale helped her Team Merrell/Akali, which she also represented in the Death Race, to a third-place finish. Included on the four-person team was her husband Greg.

“It was a pretty tough miserable race,” said McHale. “It’s a tough country with all the stinging, poisonous plants and all the spiders, snakes and crocodiles – you name it, they have it.

“It was definitely a challenge, but we survived.”

Contact Tom Patrick at

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