By Darren Lum
There are marathons and then there are ultramarathons. The obvious difference between them is the distance with ultras being anything over 42.2 kilometres but there is much more to it.
Running more than 20 hours through the rugged terrain of the Highlands entails a challenge of epic proportions.
For 26 years the Haliburton Forest Wild Life Reserve has hosted thousands of runners for the Haliburton Forest Trail Race which pushes competitors to their physical and mental limits.
The 100 mile race (four 25 mile loops – 160 kilometres) kicks off before the break of dawn on Sept. 7 and ends the next day. A lot can happen during that time whether it’s physical discomfort from blisters and wet feet; blazing sun and torrential downpours; the chill and dampness of night; or being greeted by a welcoming sunrise 24 hours after starting.
One of the race directors Tegan Legge said the race is more than a competition. It could be about reaching goals personal triumph redemption following failed attempts or coming to terms with the unforgiving but awe-inspiring wilderness.
“You can see it on their faces. They’re crying because they have blisters all over their feet and they’re bleeding but they’re crying because … coming back it’s just this wave of emotion because they’ve just seen this beautiful scenery. They just ran with somebody they’ve never met in their lives and they connected on this level they never thought they could. And then there are a whole gaggle of people – when [competitors] cross the finish line – they’re just ready to hug them and clap [for] them and cheer them in” she said.
One of Legge’s best race memories is from when first-time 100-mile competitor Bryan Hall completed the race.
“I’m going to cry now just talking about it … I have goose bumps every time I talk about this. Everybody was there and they clapped him in coming across [the finish line]. And Mom and Dad and the brother is crying. Helen [Malmberg race founder and former race director] was there to give him his medal. It’s this huge family. Here’s this [guy] that nobody had ever met before. They just embraced him into that [family]” she said.
Legge said she remembers how one perennial high-calibre competitor and a podium finisher cheered on other athletes at the finish after running close to 20 hours.
“He actually told them that they worked way harder than he ever did because they put in that much more time. He makes it look easy but he comes every year. That man’s smile will brighten up anybody’s day. He’s just joyous when he’s here” she said.
Not just for the hardcore this event also offers shorter distances of 12 kilometres 26 kilometres and 50 kilometres which were added a few years ago and allow for a greater diversity of participants and experiences.
On average the race annually draws close to 800 racers their family and supporters.
Last year was the first time Malmberg didn’t organize leaving it to Forest staff Legge and co-organizer Cameron Ferguson to take over. Two years ago she worked with them to aid in the transition.
Legge credits the success of last year’s race with the many long-standing volunteers who worked with Malmberg over the many years.
“In one sense there are a lot of logistics that Cameron and I have to think about but the volunteer side … it’s an amazing world. They call it the … Haliburton family reunion because they all know each other and everybody is encouraging. It’s a great event” she said.
The volunteers are a dedicated group. Duties include working the aid stations giving out food assorted refreshments and advice on completing and surviving the different distances. Some have even been known to accept sweaty hugs from competitors.
The new organizers are looking to put their own stamp on things potentially changing the course based on feedback from competitors.
New for this year is a move to reducing waste. Athletic endurance events typically provide racers disposable cups for water and electrolyte replacement drinks at aid stations. The plan for the Haliburton ultra is to have competitors bring their own bottles so volunteers will refill them at the aid stations instead of the cup Legge said.
Legge said there will also be a focus on greater community involvement whether it’s promotion of accommodation options or providing support with prize donations. The race also raises the profile of area trails to a provincial audience.
There is an atmosphere of inclusiveness now with the race Legge said.
“You get every age. We had a six-year-old in it last year. She ran with her dad and she was dragging her dad through that course and it was fantastic. She was frickin cute” she said referring to the 12-kilometre run. “We get that. And we get everybody from different walks of life whether you’re an extreme athlete or just getting into it. It’s accessible to everybody.”
See more information about this event at www.haliburtonforest100.org.