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
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.