Meet Alissa St. Laurent, she works in an accounting office and beat every other racer—including the men—at the most treacherous trail race in Canada
By: Eric Koreen
Running the Canadian Death Race is an undertaking. The course is 125 kilometres long, but it is not simply a matter of navigating flat city streets or running around a track in excess of 300 times. Befitting the word “death,” completing the race involves dealing with more than 17,000 feet of elevation change, with all of the toll that comes with ascending and descending mountains attached. Depending on whether you are in town or in the mountains, or if it is night or day, it can feel like summer or winter. There have never been any incidents, but sometimes a runner will come across a bear. That would be distracting.
Beyond that, there are time cutoffs along the way. Failure to meet a minimum time standard at any of those points results in not even getting to finish. It is easy to, at once, admire and fear for the sanity of anybody who manages to cross the finish line.
Last summer, Alissa St. Laurent did not only finish the Death Race, but won it. In the 15-year history of the Grande Cache, Alta., event, she is the first woman to do that, needing fewer than 14 hours to dust the field. A week later, the 31-year-old was back training with her pals at the Fast Trax Run and Ski Shop in Edmonton. Having just completed one of the most grueling races in the world, she was not in peak form. The Death Race saps a lot from your legs, and it takes a while to get that bounce back.
Gary Poliquin, who had been running with St. Laurent for more than two years at the time, recalled that they were set to do a run nicknamed the “roller coaster.” You can probably figure out why.
“When we got there, there were a couple of mountain bikers that were there. They kind of looked around and said, ‘OK, we’ll go ahead,’ in their snotty way,” Poliquin remembers. “As soon as they said that I said, ‘Oh no, crap.’ The mountain bikers took off. I knew as soon as they made that comment, Alissa was going to go after them.
“We caught the first cyclist after about five minutes and he was in shock. We caught the second cyclist about five minutes after. He knew she was chasing him. He was going, and finally she just booked it past him. And it was kind of like, ‘la, la, la.’ It was one of those competitive things where it was like, ‘Oh no, he had to make the comment.’”
In a way, the anecdote is counter to who St. Laurent is. She has won her share of races, but is not in it for the victories. With the Death Race win, she became an advocate for the potential of women in endurance races (and in other athletic endeavours), a position she is excited to find herself in. However, she does not run for medals, titles or causes.
St. Laurent, almost comically, considers herself an “average” athlete. She had no high school or college background as a runner; her specialty was trail hiking, something she got used to growing up in around the mountains of southern Alberta. She took up long-distance running in 2011 — “I still remember my first double-digit run. I ran 14 kilometres,” she says with a laugh — but normal marathons did not scratch a relentless itch.
She quickly made the switch to trail ultramarathons. The trail part was a no-brainer: Given where she grew up, she calls mountains and valleys “home.” Poliquin says St. Laurent seems to “regenerate” after she returns from one of her frequent trips to the mountains for training sessions.
Getting used to the extra distance was a bigger hurdle.
“You just can’t fathom that (distance),” St. Laurent says. “I get the same questions: ‘Do you do that all in one day at lunch?’ I felt the exact same way. It was like, ‘I don’t even know how that is physically possible.’ But then you start hitting these milestones. I did a 50k and it didn’t kill me. I was back at it the next day.I
“Slowly you start setting bigger goals and changing what’s normal for you. It added up quickly. I realized that I kind of liked more and more, the bigger, longer distances. It didn’t seem like that much work to be out there for that many hours. It surprised me. It did.”
That it does not seem like much work to her is key to her rapid success. Sandwiching her job at an accountant’s office, St. Laurent wakes up at 6 a.m. each morning for shorter runs. There is always more to do after work, too, with longer runs and cross-training to improve her strength, particularly in her core muscles. St. Laurent calls herself kind of “nerdy” about her strength and mobility work.
“From that consistency,” says Jack Cook, the owner of Fast Trax, “the results always come.”
They certainly have. In addition to winning the Death Race, St. Laurent was the top woman in the 100-mile Sinister 7 in July, and set the women’s course record in the Cascade Crest 100 Mile race later in the year in Oregon. She professes to loving the 100-mile distance, and it is a struggle for her to keep her ambition in check.
“We were a little concerned this past fall. You need a break. The body needs to take a break,” Poliquin says. “It can’t function at high levels (that consistently). It was totally against her will. I think it was bronchitis. Mother Nature said, ‘OK, Alissa, I’m going to kick the snot out of you so you can’t run.’ It was the best thing for her.”
“I definitely have respect for that distance. It does take a lot out of you,” St. Laurent says. “I know I’m limited to how many of those I can fit into my year. I’m trying to gradually work up to it. I’m in it for the long haul. I don’t need to cram everything into one year.”
Since a disappointing performance at the IAU Trail World Championships in France in May, St. Laurent has been focusing on improving her downhill running, deemed to be the difference between her and the leaders in that race. Poliquin now estimates her downhills are as strong as her uphills, a worrisome proposition for her opponents.
She will return to France in August to run a 166-kilometre race at Mont Blanc, the highest point in the Alps. It is where she struggled last year.
“It terrifies me,” St. Laurent says. “I want to do and see things like that — things that scare me.”