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Run for your Life

Reprinted from Monday Magazine, May 21, 2008

It's all fun and games until somebody dies
by John Threlfall

One mark of a good book is when it succeeds in engaging a reader who really has no interest in the subject matter—and, in that regard, David Leach’s Fatal Tide: When the Race of a Lifetime Goes Wrong crosses the finish line well ahead of many other non-fiction efforts of late. True-life tales of adventure races, triathalons and Survivor-style human-endurance tests generally don’t make my reading list (John Krakauer’s Into the Wild being a recent exception), but Fatal Tide surprised me by being an absolute page-turner that cracks along with the structure and pacing of a thriller novel.

Back in 2002, 22-year-old New Brunswick native and amateur athlete René Arseneault signed up to participate in the Fundy Multi-Sport Race, an extreme triathalon-style competition that would see him and 68 others push themselves to the limits of their endurance as they ran, cycled and kayaked against time, nature and one another. Unfortunately for Arseneault—and for organizers Jayme Frank and Sara Vlug—the cost of this particular race was too high: while paddling the final leg across the notorious Bay of Fundy, bad weather and rough seas conspired to pitch the inexperienced kayaker into the bay, where the 9 C water literally sucked the life from him. After spending an hour hanging onto fellow competitor Boon Kek’s kayak, the pair were eventually rescued by a passing lobster fisherman, but it was too late for Arseneault; repeated resuscitation attempts failed and he was declared dead at the hospital . . . but the investigation into what happened—and why—had only just begun.

Enter local journalist and now-UVic writing prof David Leach who, at the time, was managing editor at the Toronto-based explore magazine and originally covered the Arseneault tragedy in those pages. But, as with the investigation itself, there was more to this tale of misadventure than could fit into a magazine article, and Leach spins it out into a non-fiction novel that is as engaging as any of its fictional brethren.

Impeccably researched and written in a fast-paced and lean style, Fatal Tide is structured like a thriller: after setting the scene with Arseneault’s rescue, Leach then switches back and forth between the day’s events (with the inevitable ending rushing on like the titular tide), the characters (including the rescuers and the other racers), the lure of adventure racing (and how shows like Survivor may be partly to blame), the science (how exactly cold water kills) and the environment (what makes the Bay of Fundy so unique—and so deadly). Even better, the author manages to explain what may otherwise be dense material—the history of research into hypothermia, for example, or how tides really work—with such clarity that, when Arseneault’s final moment comes, it makes perfect (if tragically avoidable) sense.

A must-read for any sea kayakers interested in improving their chances of survival in Canada’s cold waters, Fatal Tide also spins out as a cautionary tale for beginner adventure-racers or anyone who favours the thrill of victory over more sober consideration. It also stands as an impressive authorial debut; I can almost guarantee Fatal Tide will be on a plethora of next year’s best-of lists.