Al­berta Bound: Run­ning the Kananaskis 100-Mile Re­lay Race

A fam­ily-run re­lay in Al­berta scales the heights and takes run­ners on an unforgettable jour­ney

Canadian Running - - FEATURES - By Colin Smith

For nearly 30 years, this fam­ily-run re­lay in Al­berta scales the heights and takes run­ners on an unforgettable jour­ney. Writer Colin Smith, a Cal­gar­ian liv­ing in Toronto, as­sem­bled a team and raised funds for a men’s men­tal health char­ity. Smith shares the his­tory and in­sights about the K- 100, which is one of Canada’s great run­ning hid­den gems, tucked away in the Rock­ies each sum­mer.

If you’re look­ing for as brief a de­scrip­tion as pos­si­ble of the Kananaskis 100-Mile Re­lay Race, take a close look at the shield on the Al­berta f lag. It rep­re­sents the nat­u­ral re­sources and un­par­al­leled beauty of the prov­ince’s var­ied land­scape. At the bot­tom of the shield in the fore­ground are golden fields of cul­ti­vated wheat and green prairie grasses, like those that sur­round the pic­turesque ranch­ing town of Longview, home to the early-morn­ing stag­gered start an hour south­west of Cal­gary.

Above that al­lur­ing first act is the tran­scen­dent main act of the K-100: Al­berta’s rolling foothills and majestic snow-capped Rocky Moun­tains, where you’ll find the fin­ish line and af­ter-party nes­tled at the foot of the Nakiska ski re­sort, site of the 1988 Win­ter Olympics down­hill ski­ing events.

Be­tween those two points is 156.5 kilo­me­tres and a nearly 1,500me­tre el­e­va­tion gain, much of it along Al­berta’s famed High­way 40, which slices through Kananaskis Coun­try and in­cludes the high­est paved road­way in Canada, the High­wood Pass. Di­vide those scenic kilo­me­tres into 10 legs of vary­ing dis­tances and dif­fi­culty rat­ings and you’ve got one of the best re­lay races in all of Canada.

Legs one to five take run­ners on a steady climb to the im­pos­ing mid­point of the High­wood Pass, the high­est point of the race at 2,206 me­tres. Legs six to 10 in­clude a pun­ish­ing down­hill 10k leg and two tech­ni­cal trail legs at the end of the race.

This year’s edi­tion, run on June 2 4, marked the 30th an­niver­sary of the K-100, as it’s more com­monly known. At its peak in the early and mid-2000s it was capped out at 180 teams. More re­cently, the

race av­er­ages be­tween 90–120 teams of 10 ev­ery year. There were 72 teams at the start line this year.

The race al­ways at­tracts a de­cent crowd of both run­ners and wildlife (con­ser­va­tion of­fi­cers pa­trol the course closely to frighten off cu­ri­ous bears and stub­born moun­tain goats, among other wild on­look­ers). Yet it seems that few run­ners out­side of Wild Rose Coun­try have ever heard of it. Maybe they’re try­ing to keep it a se­cret. “We have had teams from far­ther away but I’ve never re­ally mar­keted it far and wide,” says Ch­eryl Low­ery, race di­rec­tor and owner of Be There Races, which or­ga­nizes the K-100 along with the Banff Eki­den Re­lay and a num­ber of other smaller races in and around Cal­gary. “It’s just my hus­band and I op­er­at­ing this lit­tle race busi­ness and our fo­cus is on peo­ple hav­ing a mem­o­rable and fun ex­pe­ri­ence,” Low­ery says. “But I would like to get the word out a lit­tle more.”

I can’t re­call how word of the re­lay made it my way. But since leav­ing Cal­gary for Toronto over a decade ago, I’ve al­ways wanted to re­turn to Al­berta and run the moun­tains I so of­ten drove through with my fam­ily while head­ing west for a week at the cabin. I took one look at the course map and was able to re­call nearly ev­ery dip, curve, climb and unforgettable panorama along that road. These things leave an im­pres­sion. I knew I was Al­berta bound. And I was bring­ing some friends. “First and fore­most I was very ex­cited to travel to Cal­gary and see the Rock­ies,” says An­drew Ab­ley, a trans­planted English­man I’d met a cou­ple years ago through Park­dale Road­run­ners, a Toronto run­ning crew I’ve run with since 2012. He was also the first run­ner I could get to com­mit to the task.

“The race it­self was an easy thing to say yes to – a long-dis­tance race in an epic part of the world, and a real test look­ing at that el­e­va­tion,” Ab­ley tells me a month af­ter the race. “The re­lay as­pect also has a huge draw be­cause run­ning is a solo sport, a bat­tle with your­self, with pain, tired­ness, mo­ti­va­tion and de­sire. Not to men­tion per­sonal goals. But a re­lay is very dif­fer­ent, you’re re­liant on oth­ers to per­form, you don’t want to let them down. That’s not a com­mon ex­pe­ri­ence with run­ning, but a chance to train as a team and travel as a team, and race as a team, was an ex­pe­ri­ence I wasn’t go­ing to miss.”

From there it was a real chal­lenge se­lect­ing a good mix of guys to pull to­gether for the ex­pe­ri­ence. Ab­ley and I agreed we needed the vibe to be easy­go­ing, sup­port­ive and com­mit­ted but not en­tirely com­pet­i­tive. Per­son­ally, I wanted to bring along a few guys who had ei­ther only f lown over Al­berta en route to Van­cou­ver or who had never been west of Mis­sis­sauga, Ont. I was hop­ing to see those moun­tains again through their eyes.

A long list was short­ened down due to al­ready-set race plans, in­juries, work or other com­mit­ments un­til I had seven guys from Toronto and two Cal­gar­i­ans lined up. This in­cluded my own brother, a fire­fighter in Cal­gary, and an­other set of broth­ers, Steven and David Artemiw.

With the team in place, I still had plenty of work to do. This wouldn’t just be the first re­lay I’d ever run, it was go­ing to be the first one I’d ever cap­tained, which meant I could inf lu­ence the team name choice. Through­out the early stages of plan­ning, a cer­tain song kept play­ing in my head and I just thought it made sense to call our­selves Al­berta Bound – a nod to the 1972 Gor­don Light­foot song about a guy who’s down on his luck in Toronto and wants to head back home to Al­berta to rekin­dle an old f lame.

Be­tween fi­nal­iz­ing the team in March and all of us ar­riv­ing in Longview on race day, there were count­less emails, texts, group chats, as well as meet­ings over cof­fee or beer. We all fol­lowed a train­ing plan that Ab­ley had de­signed and the run­ners in Toronto got to­gether for a group train­ing run each Satur­day morn­ing at Bond, a run­ning store in down­town Toronto co-owned by Steven.

Bud­gets were set. My credit card was stretched. Legs were cho­sen and as­signed. A logo was de­signed. Sin­glets and shorts were or­dered (gen­er­ously do­nated by our lo­cal Lu­l­ule­mon store) and the sup­port ve­hi­cle was re­served – a mas­sive gmc Yukon. Fi­nally, ac­com­mo­da­tions were booked at the Delta Lodge, stum­bling dis­tance from the fin­ish line and af­ter-party.

Pulling it all to­gether was a heck of a lot of work, on top of mak­ing sure I was get­ting my own train­ing in. It was stress­ful and frus­trat­ing at times as well. It was like a part-time job and in the back of my mind I was wor­ried some­thing would go wrong or one of the guys on the team wouldn’t en­joy the race.

In the end ev­ery­thing went as smoothly as it could have. Bet­ter than that ac­tu­ally. We all ran well, the weather was ab­so­lutely per­fect and most of the guys told me af­ter­wards it was one of the best races they’ve ever done. I think it’s safe to say that my first K-100 went a bit smoother than Brian Kathol’s first one. “Our first year was 1988 and we have had a team in ev­ery year since,” says Kathol, an ac­coun­tant in Cal­gary, who or­ga­nizes a fam­ily K-100 team ev­ery year. “The first race was very scram­bly from our team point of view. It was the first time as a race cap­tain for me – I had no real idea how fast or slow peo­ple would run in the moun­tains at al­ti­tude, that sort of thing. “We had peo­ple get­ting to their legs an hour early, or just barely show­ing up on time,”

Kathol re­calls. Still, Kathol says he was hooked. “A few of the run­ners had never run that far be­fore so it was tough. But the post-race party was great and spend­ing the day to­gether was awe­some.” Kathol can’t re­mem­ber how the team fin­ished up that first year. “That’s the only year that I don’t have much data on,” he says.

The K-100 was first held in 1987, the year High­way 40 was paved. Kathol was late to reg­is­ter that first year and missed out. But he and his fam­ily haven’t missed one since. In 29 years of run­ning the K-100, about 70 dif­fer­ent run­ners have taken part in Kathol’s team and 25 of those are fam­ily mem­bers and their spouses. That in­cludes his aunt Norma – the one who got him into run­ning 38 years ago. Kathol has since com­pleted about 60 marathons and ul­tras. Run­ning in Kananaskis coun­try was a weekly thing for him un­til re­cently. Kathol’s fam­ily his­tory with one of the world’s most In­sta­gram­able parks ac­tu­ally stretches back well be­fore the start of the K-100.

“My dad was re­gional di­rec­tor for the Depart­ment of High­ways dur­ing the build­ing of High­way 40,” Kathol says. “Dad loved the moun­tains and he and my mom hiked there of­ten for years so this high­way was his baby, re­ally.” “I think the best part of the re­lay is the course it­self,” says Steve Pu­rifi­cati, who ran a blaz­ing Leg eight for us (on his birth­day no less). “It gave us a real di­ver­sity of land­scapes from the foothills into the high­est paved road in the coun­try. “The at­trac­tion to me was the moun­tains, the scenery, and the el­e­va­tion,” he adds. “Get­ting out of a city and run­ning on true hills was some­thing that I re­ally wanted to ex­pe­ri­ence.” Not only did the course and the scenery ex­ceed his ex­pec­ta­tions, Pu­rifi­cati says Low­ery and her team got ev­ery­thing right, mak­ing sure the en­tire day was mem­o­rable. “From wak­ing up and ar­riv­ing to a great spread of bagels, cof­fee and home­made jam at the start to the amaz­ing weather and the great sup­port of our team and oth­ers of the course. It truly was per­fect,” he says.

At its core, the K-100 is en­tirely about com­mu­nity, from hav­ing the fin­ish line at Nakiska (a Cree word for meet­ing place) to Low­ery’s team of staff and vol­un­teers, made up of friends and neigh­bours from across south­ern Al­berta. The race it­self and the ex­pe­ri­ence of or­ga­niz­ing a team and run­ning it makes me think of a quote from Pe­ter Lougheed, the Premier of Al­berta back when I was born in Cal­gary: “I’m a com­mu­nity per­son, I think in terms of com­mu­nity be­fore in­di­vid­ual. That’s the essence of Al­ber­tans and to a large ex­tent that’s the essence of Cana­di­ans as well.” “All of our races have some unique qual­ity to them but K-100 is our baby and the most spe­cial,” Low­ery says. “It’s also the most lo­gis­ti­cally chal­leng­ing and, with­out doubt, our long­est day at the of­fice. “How­ever, it’s spe­cial be­cause the whole race feels like fam­ily,” she con­tin­ues. “We love get­ting to know new teams and we love see­ing the peo­ple on the road that we see ev­ery year. Even some of the sta­tion vol­un­teers have been with us for 20 years.”

If ev­ery­one help­ing to or­ga­nize the K-100 is like fam­ily, Ed­mon­to­nian John Lazaruk is cer­tainly like an adopted son. He’s run it 25 times and calls the week­end an an­nual high­light.

“It’s a boy’s week­end,” says Lazaruk, who at 52 has been run­ning for nearly four decades and started or­ga­niz­ing his own team in 1994, a year af­ter he first ran the K-100 af­ter an in­vite from a co-worker. “I wouldn’t miss it for any­thing,” he says.

The “boys” have the same rou­tine each year: A round of golf dur­ing the day on the Fri­day and a group din­ner in the evening. A few beers back at the camp­site af­ter the race on Satur­day. And then a group brunch Sun­day, fin­ish­ing off the week­end back at the camp­site cook­ing some steaks on an open fire. “It’s just a great week­end,” Lazaruk says. The boys from Al­berta Bound cer­tainly all felt that way. “It was so much fun, I wished it had gone on for longer, an­other leg, an­other 100 miles, an­other day,” Ab­ley says. “Tak­ing pho­tos, cheer­ing on our team, other teams, watch­ing peo­ple crush the legs, high-fives and hugs, a birth­day cake, sup­port­ing each other and rac­ing down to the next hand over.”

Af­ter we’d fin­ished the race, 12:2 4:07, 19th over­all, we sat to­gether as a team on the pa­tio at Nakiska and knocked back a few cold beers in the warm Al­berta sun. We dis­cussed the lit­eral and fig­u­ra­tive highs and lows of the day, our in­di­vid­ual legs and how we worked to­gether as a team. We didn’t dis­cuss a re­turn visit but I def­i­nitely thought to my­self, even if I have to or­ga­nize it again, I’d do this next year. Colin Smith does most of his writ­ing and run­ning where he lives in Toronto.

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