In 2016, if you had asked me if I would ever run an ultra-marathon, I likely would have laughed at the notion and dismissed the thought of ever having a desire to put my body through the torture that endurance athletes such as ultra-runners endure. Racing 50+ kilometers up the side of a mountain never seemed all that appealing to me and I couldn’t quite comprehend the idea of people doing this for ‘fun’. It is interesting how our seemingly definitive perspectives can be adjusted in such a short period of time. My tune on this subject slowly began to shift as the months of my time in Canmore passed by and as I became more ingrained in the trail running community and the infectiously positive and happy individuals it attracted. After instantaneously falling in love with this type of running, it has been the culture and people that surround it that has made running and racing in the mountains steal my heart.
There is an incredibly contagious, yet inconspicuous lure by the trail running community in Canmore. Situated as the gateway to the Canadian Rocky Mountains, the town is a trail runner’s dream with an endless variety of trails right on its inhabitant’s doorstep. This has, more or less, made running on the road a long-forgotten art here. There appears to be many variables that have helped contribute to an established and strong trail running community here and it has been easy to stereotype the people engaged. They all seem to be extraordinarily supportive, positive, sport big smiles and are, at least from my observation, authentically happy. The two established running groups, Canmore trail culture and the ‘Dirtbag’ runners, are filled with every level of runner, are open and welcoming to all newcomers, and provide a friendly competitive atmosphere for those with a taste for competition.
There is a line, however, drawn somewhere in the sand that divides a fraction of these runners into athletes who not only have that taste for competition but who also voluntarily make conscious decisions to expose their bodies to copious amount of pain and who seek out the inner depth of the darkness that only 100+ mile races could bring. These individuals, or ultra-marathoners, aren’t better people or happier than the others, what appears to set them apart, is a draw to tiptoe on the edge of every limit that both their body and mind can possibly endure and explore how much further they can go. I think many of us would also refer to this urge as insanity. I may have been of that same opinion some time ago, but a slow process has emerged in me that has begun to make this desire, at least to some degree, more understandable.
Somehow Canmore has become a breeding ground for creating and fostering this, at first glance, odd lure. Aside from the obvious beauty and amazing individuals involved, something inside gradually seems to emerge that makes tacking more and more kilometers on to each run more interesting. 10 km trail runs gradually turn into 35+ kilometer adventures that take you up and over multiple peaks and mountain valleys lasting from sunrise to sunset. There is something so extraordinary about these days that always leaves you excessively satisfied but craving more. The big days, mountain tops, and physical challenge that these experiences bring becomes an addiction and very quickly a ‘run’ is no longer really just a run—it’s an adventure. For some, this mindset gradually trickles over to competition, and the 10 km trail races you were initially introduced to gradually increase in distance as you mentally re-justify the length over and over until you are doing 100-mile races that you swore you could never dreamed of doing. And in a place like Canmore, it becomes that much easier to rationalize simply because everyone else seems to be doing it. This, of course, is crazy.
My introduction to the sport went quickly, similar to the many other sports that have entered my life previously have. Searching to throw my heart into something, the trails and adventures they bring were calling. Upon my arrival to Canmore and engagement with the trail running community, the most frequently asked question I received wasn’t where I was from or what had brought me here or what I did for a living but was, what races are you training for. At a time when I was starving for a goal, something to focus on and something exciting to work towards this frequently asked question was like music to my ears. And what began with a few races on the horizon quickly turned into a way of life, into a feeling of warmth and comfort that the friendly faces on the trails brought, and a sense of calm and peacefulness that, for me, only running through the woods, up and over mountains bring.
In the first race I competed in this year (and my first trail race ever), right away I knew something was different about this setting than the road race setting I had been introduced to the previous summer (not that there is anything at all the matter with road running, as I still love to beat the streets). Everything here was relaxed, there was no intensity, or extreme-focused faces and scrunched up brows; amongst these trails racers, shoulders hung low and were relaxed, laughter was in the air, and smiles lit up their faces. I remember observing these behaviours and wondering if I had missed something. Was this a fun run? “Was there going to actually be a race today?” I thought, as I toed the line that warm spring morning. When the horn sounded, I took off like an animal and of course there were many others that did the same, and although I always had a pleasant demeanor on my face I was focused on the race. I learned on those first 25 kilometers that although trail running is about the competition it is also very truly about the experience, the beautiful trails, the encouraging and supporting words from fellow runners, and big smiley faces beaming with each competitor you cross.
I recently completed my first ever ultra-marathon (I will preface this with the fact that by Canmore standards it would be classified as a miniature, baby or small ultra with a distance of just 50 km and approximately 825 meters in elevation gain). I won’t however internally downplay this accomplishment, as it’s easy to do here in Canmore amongst the most elite of athletes. In just under five hours, I crossed the finish line with my arms lifted as high as they possibly could in the air with an extra-large grin reaching from ear to ear. I had just finished my first ever ultra, somehow made the podium, and most importantly enjoyed every step, every breath, every ache, pain, and emotion the experience brought with it. There is a lure of the trails, the culture, and the people engaged that makes it next to impossible to ignore.