Going the Distance
Endurance runners turn to ultra-marathons to face their ultimate challenges
Illustration by Lynn Scurfield
Early one morning in May 2014, 65 runners gathered at the grassy start line at the Cooking Lake-Blackfoot Provincial Recreation Area, 20 minutes east of Sherwood Park. They were there to compete in the Blackfoot Ultra footrace.
As the sun peeked over the horizon, race director Gary Poliquin counted down: “Five, four, three, two, one. OK, off you go.” The group trotted down the path, water and energy drinks sloshing in their hydration packs. Why carry the packs? Because this race was 100 kilometres long — the length of two marathons, and then some.
Ultras — races that go beyond the standard 42-kilometre marathon — test the limits of human endurance. Most races are between 50 and 160 kilometres, though some are even longer. There are also races that stretch over several days, with competitors running the equivalent of a marathon or more each day. The majority of ultras are trail runs that criss-cross hilly or mountainous terrain; the course can go from double track to twisting single track, from grassy meadow to rocky paths and creek crossings.
Within a minute, the racers at Blackfoot had disappeared for the first of four laps around a 25-kilometre loop of relentless rolling hills along lakes and bogs. The fastest runner would finish in under nine hours. Others would squeak in under the 14-hour cut-off time. About half would drop out.
Among the runners that morning was Vincent Bouchard, a 35-year-old University of Alberta math professor. For Bouchard — who finished the race in fourth place with a time of nine hours and 47 minutes — Blackfoot was a warm-up for his next ultra. Seven weeks later, he was in southern Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass for the Sinister 7 Ultra, a punishing 100-mile race with 5,687 metres of overall elevation gain. He was hoping for a top-five finish, but fared much better than he expected. Not only did Bouchard win with a time of 19 hours and 10 minutes, he set a course record. “In any race, you can’t predict what’s going to happen. There are so many variables — the weather, how you feel, other competitors. But everything fell into place and it went super well.”
One day, to prepare for the steep ascents, Bouchard ran up the Snow Valley ski hill 60 times. When it comes to the actual race, though, walking is part of the strategy. “There’s no benefit in running steep uphills during a race,” he says. “You are expending more energy and not gaining any more time. The main challenge is more mental than physical, being able to stabilize your mood and not let negative thoughts drag you down.”
Bouchard is one of a growing number of people lured to the challenges of ultra-running. Ultra competitions have been around since the 1970s, but it’s only recently that interest in the sport has skyrocketed. In 2014, UltraRunning Magazine counted about 1,300 ultra races in the United States and Canada, up from just 293 in 2004.
Poliquin has seen that growth in popularity first-hand. The first Blackfoot Ultra, held 14 years ago, had 119 entrants in three distances. The race is now capped at 350 and fills up earlier each year. This year, there were 135 people on the waiting list for the 100-kilometre race.
“The popularity of ultras is people looking to really challenge themselves,” Poliquin says. “It used to be that the marathon was the pinnacle. Now it’s the ultra. It’s a very supportive and positive vibe where, for most ultra runners, you are really competing against yourself.”
Edmonton’s Alissa St. Laurent moved from marathons to ultras three years ago. One of her most recent challenges took her halfway around the world to Doha, Qatar. Last November, she stood with 350 of the world’s top male and female ultra-distance runners at the start line for the 100-kilometre World Championship.
Now, as far as climate goes, Qatar is a far cry from northern Alberta. While the average daytime high for November hovers around the freezing mark in Edmonton, it’s closer to 30°C in Doha.
At home, St. Laurent had been sweating it out in saunas and hot yoga classes to prepare for the heat, but she caught a bit of a break. “Luckily, it was unseasonably cool in Qatar that month,” she says, with the temperature on the evening of the race at a manageable 20°C.
The course was a different story — 20 laps around a flat but winding five-kilometre loop over hard, unforgiving tile and brick. St. Laurent is much more at home racing on softer dirt trails in the mountains. “Psychologically, I told myself to be prepared to be miserable and bored. I’m not a strong road runner.”
St. Laurent had hoped to finish the race in eight and a half hours but, at the 65-kilometre mark, stomach issues forced her to quit.
Despite that, it has been a fast rise for the 30-year-old accountant whose passion for ultras has her running sometimes twice a day and covering 80 to 100 kilometres over a weekend during race season.
In September 2014, St. Laurent was the first female and second overall in the 100-kilometre Lost Soul Ultramarathon in Lethbridge, a demanding course along the Oldman River coulees. Her time of 11 hours and 55 seconds broke her own course record from the previous year. Earlier in the year, she was in California for the prestigious Western States 100-Mile Endurance Run which, at 41 years running, is the oldest ultra in the world. With only quick breaks to refuel or change running shoes, she had a finishing time of 22 hours and 17 minutes, placing 13th in a field of 55 females.
The obsession with running impossibly long distances has an irresistible — some might say irrational — tug. Hiroshige Watanabe, a 45-year-old runner originally from Japan who has called Edmonton home since 1999, is a legend in Alberta for the sheer number of ultras he runs, usually 10 or 11 per year. He has completed a total of 71 ultras since his first in 1999.
The majority of his races are in Alberta but, for the last three years, he has returned to Japan to compete in the Ultra-Trail Mount Fuji (UTMF), which winds for 167.5 kilometres — the equivalent of four marathons — around the iconic mountain. Having competed three times and finished twice, he considers it the toughest ultra he has done, partly because of the steep climbs and the 10,000 metres of total elevation gain.
“There aren’t any switchbacks, so it’s straight up and down in some places, like a wall right in front of your face,” he explains.
Competitors have 46 hours to complete the course. In 2014, the winner finished in just over 19 hours; in 2013, Watanabe finished in 41. “I was out there for two nights on the trail,” he says. “I did take one half-hour nap, though.”
Lack of sleep can lead to hallucinations. On his second morning of the 2013 UTMF, Watanabe saw a volunteer up ahead. He jogged over to him, said a few words and waited for the person to give him words of encouragement. He was met with silence. The volunteer was a tree. “Fortunately, nobody was around to see me talking to a tree.”
Ninety miles into the 100-mile race at Lost Soul in 2002, Poliquin turned around to see six-foot bunnies hopping behind him. “They seemed friendly, so I wasn’t too alarmed.”
Ultra-running is a relatively new sport and very few studies have been done on its long-term health effects. Side effects appear to be mostly temporary. One of the most common, though, is lost toenails.
In September 2014, after the second day of the Grand to Grand Ultra (G2G) — a seven-day, 273-kilometre self-supported footrace from the north rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona to Utah’s Grand Staircase — Edmonton’s Erin Logue eased off her trail running shoes and peeled off her socks. Blisters had lifted four toenails off their beds. The nails were goners, attached only by a bit of skin. Medics taped them in place to prevent infection. But still ahead were five more days of running across scrubby mesas, schlepping up three-storey-high sand dunes, and climbing through slot canyons in temperatures that reached 40°C at times, all while carrying a 25-pound backpack filled with dehydrated food, a sleeping bag and extra clothes. Logue, a 43-year-old emergency room nurse, was determined to finish the race, with or without her toenails.
“I’m a middle-of-the-pack runner. I’m not going to win. I’m there to finish,” she says. “My goal for G2G was not to quit.”
Logue did finish the race, although she eventually lost all but one of her toenails. They have mostly regrown but likely won’t last. “I’m going to Ireland in June for a 210-kilometre run over six days along the coast.” Her eyes brighten. “It’ll be hilly terrain.”