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Calgarian marathoner Ian MacNairn will compete in 2013’s Canadian Death Race, a 24-hour, 125-kilometre run held in Grande Cache, Alta.CHRIS BOLIN/The Globe and Mail

As they run up Flood Mountain, up Grande Mountain, downward to the Smoky River then along the Sulphur Rim trail and on to the finish, many will wonder, "Why in the name of my exploding feet did I decide to do this?"

The Canadian Death Race: a 24-hour, all-terrain ultramarathon for those who believe 42.16 kilometres, the length of a standard marathon, simply isn't enough of a workout. Oh, no. Why do 42.16 when you can do 125 kilometres, and do them by running along dirt trails, up and down mountainsides, through creeks. In the dark, too.

No wonder competitors develop foot blisters the size of a computer mouse. And their legs and joints ache, along with their backs, shoulders, arms and whatever else they may have injured stumbling along at night, exhausted, still bent on reaching the finish line located at the town square in Grande Cache, Alta. All so they can win a medal or a glass-blown skull and tell people they did it; they looked the Death Race in the eye and laughed.

Can't these people get by like the rest of us, on Wii bowling? The answer, of course, is no. They can't because ultramarathoning is risky, gruelling, spiritual and habit-forming, according to those who do it and do it well. By that we mean they do more than survive a race, they strive to win it with personal bests and course records.

Every August long weekend for more than a decade, extreme runners have come to Grande Cache, 432 kilometres west of Edmonton, to partake in the majestic mountains and push their limits beyond limits. All for a $350 entry fee. As Brian Fleck, a first-time Death Racer, wrote on the event's official Facebook page: "OK, the first step is admitting you have a problem."

Dale Tuck has no such problem admitting the race he helped spawn has grown beyond anyone's imagination. In 2000, its first year, the Death Race drew 193 hardy competitors. Now, registration is held in January, usually closes within 24 hours and is capped at 1,500, with some people racing the course's five legs in teams, others doing it solo from start to finish.

"In the 1970s, the ultimate test of human endurance was the marathon. The people who did it, they were the weirdos," said the entrepreneurial Mr. Tuck. "In the 1980s, triathlons were that next state of the art. Then there was the eco-challenge and ultramarathons. It's the next evolution. You always want a race that pushes you, always pushes you."

Grande Cache was in a serious funk before the Death Race was unleashed. The town's coal mine, its sole purpose for being, was close to shutting down because of plummeting world prices. Diversification was needed. Mr. Tuck, who had once worked as a parole officer at the town's minimum-security prison, and some partners took stock of where they were living and saw opportunity rising before their eyes.

"Let's have an extreme running event through this beautiful terrain," Mr. Tuck, himself a runner, explained to anyone who would listen. "And let's call it a Death Race. The whole town can get behind it."

Only it didn't, not at first. Town council didn't think it would work and sure didn't like the Death name. Mr. Tuck went ahead anyway. The race was a hit from the beginning, so much so that it now has a sponsor (The North Face) while the town stages a weekend-long festival with killer concerts. Call it life by Death Race.

"All those running expressions – going to hell and back, doing the death watch – that elevated the excitement," said Mr. Tuck, whose race has maintained its perfect record of zero lives lost. "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."

It was that and more for Ian MacNairn. The University of Calgary health sciences student was coming off a broken leg after being struck by a car. Off that accident, he created a study looking at "the rehabilitation process of the human condition," from not being able to walk to the other extreme of running ultramarathons. That made Mr. MacNairn the test subject of his own study, which included his successful finish of the 2009 Death Race.

From there, Mr. MacNairn chose to broaden his work for his master's research on social and cultural anthropology, examining what people go through in ultramarathoning. He took in a number of ultramarathons in Alberta and interviewed the competitors – men and women from different age groups and occupations.

"There were several guys who left law careers to become professional ultrarunners. Other people were in sales, teaching and health care. There was an air traffic controller, pilots," said Mr. MacNairn, who works for a Calgary consulting firm. "There's something universal that's drawing all these people.… It's the question of searching for the boundaries of human ability. It's to redefine what our potential is. Traditional marathons are run on roads and within cityscapes. It can test you immensely, but ultras are mostly done in mountain settings and it allows people to have a long, self-reflective process."

Ah, yes. Time for reflection and that original question: "Why did I decide to do this?" Because ultramarathoning is all things to all comers, a pursuit wrought by a dare wrapped in nature, human and otherwise. You want to quit? You can at any point. You want to finish? What's holding you back? If the mountain climber scales the mountain because "it is there," then the mountain-prone ultrarunners are free to apply that same logic, and apply it they do. Unabashedly.

"There was just some purity about it," said Simon Donato, a runner who turned a documentary entitled Go Death Racer into a 10-episode TV show (Boundless) that detailed adventure racing around the world. "There was something beautiful about being in the forest. There are smells. Your senses are alive. The other thing is the continuity of it. I used to play goalie in soccer. Football, I was the wide receiver or free safety. But you're playing and then you're sitting. Here, it's an entirely different approach."

An entirely different challenge, too. One of mind-numbing, foot-shredding proportions. For those who dare look the Death Race in the eye and come away laughing.

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