Entering the Void
Albert a’s David P roctor holds Canadian records for running the most distance in 2 4, 48 and even 72 hours. This summer, he will attempt to run across Canada faster than anyone in history, inspired by the physical struggle his son faces each day.
Alberta’s David Proctor holds Canadian records for running the most distance in 24, 48 and even 72 hours. This summer, he will attempt to run across Canada faster than anyone in history, inspired by the challenges his son faces each day.
Dave Proctor was staring down the next 2 4 hours with a single goal: run as many laps of a 400 m high-school track as possible. It was December 2014 at the Desert Solstice Track Invitational in Arizona, and this was Proctor’s first such race. He’d run ultramarathons back home in Alberta, and when a friend told him about 2 4-hour racing, Proctor was intrigued.
So here he was. Lap after lap, hour after hour, Proctor wasn’t bored. “I couldn’t even listen to my music because I needed to stay focused on what I was craving, what I was thinking, how I was feeling, my pace,” he says. He finished in seventh place, with 200 kilometres, or exactly 500 laps of the track. The winner racked up 2 48.67 kilometres.
Proctor was hooked. “I love locking in and putting in that pace,” he says. “What’s beautiful about 2 4-hour races is they’re normally around a loop and you can eat and drink whenever you want, so it’s all about body management. I love the science of that stuff.” The following year, he competed at the 2 4-Hour World Championships in Turin, Italy, along with 300 other runners. He came sixth with 257.09 kilometres, setting a Canadian record.
Proctor, 37, is a husband and father of three, and lives in Okotoks, Alta. He works in Calgary, half an hour north, as a massage therapist at a sports physiotherapy clinic. A born and raised Albertan, Proctor grew up playing softball and sprinting, looking up to Donovan Bailey, Robert Esmie and Bruny Surin.
Proctor’s dad, who was also his softball coach, put a mattress against one wall in the basement, then would plunk himself down with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other and watch his son throw pitch after pitch at the wall. Today, Proctor attributes his intense work ethic to this practice.
He made the junior national track and field team as a decathlete and travelled to Holland when he was 18. In the first event, the 100-metre, he tore his hip f lexor. After that, Proctor didn’t run for about three years. He gained some weight and was just “not feeling great,” he says, so he laced up his shoes one morning before work and went for a run around his neighbourhood. It felt like an eternity – looking back, he thinks it was only two or three kilometres – but it also felt good to be out, spinning the wheels. He ran a local 10k , then a half-marathon.
In 2006, a friend mentioned he was running the 100k Lost Soul Ultra in Lethbridge. “Is that even humanly possible?” Proctor asked him. “Can the human body travel that far on its own?” He wanted to try. So he created his own training plan – “I’ve always had control issues,” he admits. “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it on my terms.” On race day, the first 50 kilometres felt great; the latter half did not. He “walked it in,” finishing in 18:33. That only made him more determined. “I’ve always been a bit of a perfectionist,” he laughs. Proctor ran Lost Soul again the following year and finished in 14:49.
After a few years of running ultras, Proctor came to realize 100-mile and 200-mile races were where he really excelled. He didn’t have the speed for 100 kilometres, but beyond that distance, his pace didn’t slow. “Ever since [my injury], I’ve had very limited power and speed, which is great, because when you’re running 100 miles, you do not need any power and speed at all,” he says. “It’s nice and slow.” So began his foray into 2 4-hour racing.
When Proctor got back from Italy, he had an idea for another record he could break: the Guinness World Record for the longest distance run on a treadmill in 24 hours. At the time, that was 257.88 kilometres.
He suggested to his friend, Blaine Penny, that they organize an event at the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon expo. Penny is a co-founder of MitoCanada, a not-for-profit that supports people with mitochondrial disease. Perhaps, Proctor suggested, they could raise money for the organization.
This was how the two men had met in the first place, a few years prior. Penny’s son Evan has mitochondrial disease and is a quadriplegic. Proctor’s middle child, Sam, has a rare disease called relapsing encephalopathy with cerebellar ataxia ( reca), though at the time he was undiagnosed. At one point, the family suspected he might have mitochondrial disease. So Proctor reached out to Penny, and they met for a run in Calgary’s Nose Hill Park and talked about their sons.
Penny had experience organizing events that tied athletic feats with fundraising. In 2013, he and nine friends set a Guinness World Record for running the fastest linked marathon in 2:55. They raised more than $100,000 for MitoCanada. “In Canada, there’s actually 86,000 registered charities and another 80,000 or 90,000 not-for-profits,” Penny says. “There are a lot of different causes out there, great causes, all trying to get
your attention and all trying to raise a few dollars… So I think you need to do something really creative and unique to try to stand out.”
He and Proctor decided to make multiple simultaneous Guinness World Record attempts on treadmills, putting together a men’s and women’s team of 12 each who’d tackle the longest distance run on a treadmill in 2 4 hours by a team. Calgary runner Arielle Fitzgerald would strive to beat the fastest 50k and 100k times by a woman on a treadmill. And Proctor would attempt the 2 4-hour distance solo. The group wore lime-green singlets that read: “Running for those who can’t.”
Fitzgerald crushed both records, as did the men’s and women’s teams. Proctor ran with a photo of his son on the front of his treadmill. “There came a point (past the 20-hour mark) where he was not just looking at me but looking through me,” recalls Penny, who ran on the men’s team. “You could tell he was just empty both physically and mentally… You can only imagine – you’re running like a hamster on this treadmill and he was pushing a fast pace.”
With an hour left to go, Proctor’s wife, Sharon, asked Penny to give him a pep talk: “I just said, ‘Dave, don’t forget why we’re doing this. We’re doing this for your little guy, Sam. We’re doing this for Evan. And we’re doing this for all the people out there who are suffering from this disease. What you’re doing is nothing. You’re suffering for 24 hours. These kids suffer day in and day out.’
“It was a really dark period for us as a family,” Penny remembers. “Evan was quite sick and in a lot of chronic pain… and crying pretty much every waking moment. I just reminded Dave of how tough that is and how much strength we drew from what he was doing.” Proctor didn’t respond, but started increasing the treadmill’s speed. “It was like a switch went off,” says Penny. “I said, ‘OK, Dave, settle down a little bit.’” He laughs.
Proctor finished amid cheers from the crowd. He’d run 260. 4 kilometres. He says it was one of the greatest moments of his life. “Not only were you doing something really fricking cool when it comes to an athletic feat,” Proctor says, “you were changing the lives of people who were really in need.”
He knows the hardships of raising a child with a rare disease. When Sam was born, he appeared to be a happy, healthy baby. But at 13 months old, he caught a f lu virus. He was lethargic and appeared to have a fever. Several hours later, he became very wobbly on his feet. Not long after, he couldn’t move his arms or legs or turn his head. Proctor and
“EVER SINCE [MY INJURY], I’VE HAD VERY LIMITED POWER AND SPEED, WHICH IS GREAT, BECAUSE WHEN YOU’RE RUNNING 100 MILES, YOU DO NOT NEED ANY POWER AND SPEED AT ALL,” HE SAYS. “IT’S NICE AND SLOW.”
“PROCTOR KNEW AL HOWIE HELD THE RECORD FOR THE FASTEST RUN ACROSS CANADA: 72 DAYS. AND HE THOUGHT HE COULD BEAT IT.
his wife took Sam to the hospital, where he stayed for two weeks. Doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong. After Sam’s fever broke, he slowly regained his ability to move, but it took about six months before he could walk again. And he had ataxia – a lack of balance and coordination – he didn’t have before. When Sam was two, he got sick again and had the same symptoms. Again, Proctor and Sharon took him to the hospital. When the fever broke, the ataxia lingered. Over the years, the Proctors saw several specialists, all who tried and failed to figure out what was going on. After feeling like they exhausted all possible resources in Canada, they went to the Mayo Clinic in Minnesota. But doctors there couldn’t diagnose him either. “When Sam walks, he’s wobbly,” says Proctor. “When he speaks, he doesn’t speak all that clearly. He uses a walker to get around at school. He has issues with fine motor skills, like feeding himself and sometimes going to the washroom.” Finally, in 2017, after six years of not knowing, Sam was diagnosed. A Canadian research program called Care for Rare did a dna sequencing study and, as Proctor puts it, “took all of Sam’s dna, threw it into a computer, and found a needle in a haystack.” RecA is a very rare disease. His is only the fifth diagnosis in the world.
The Proctors learned that Sam’s two bouts of the f lu were relapses, and as his body temperature rose, his cerebellum – the back part of the brain – shut down, causing him to lose balance and coordination. When the fever broke, the cerebellum started to work again. But because the brain had been shut down, there was residual damage. The ataxia Sam now lives with is a result of those two relapses. And he will have more relapses in his life, says Proctor, if he catches this specific f lu virus again.
“I can’t tell you how frustrating that is as a father, as a parent,” says Proctor, of the years-long search for a diagnosis. “If you have a rare disease in Canada, you fall into the void.” So once he stepped off that treadmill, his mind was racing. The event raised
$75,000 for MitoCanada, and he wanted to do something to help families like his.
Proctor knew Al Howie held the record for the fastest run across Canada: 72 days. And he thought he could beat it. He pitched it to Sharon as a family road trip, with her and the kids in an RV and him running on the side of the highway. It would be a fundraiser for the Rare Disease Foundation ( rdf), he told her. She didn’t need much convincing. And so Outrun Rare was born. On June 27, Proctor will leave from Vancouver with the goal of running 108 kilometres daily for 66 days. He’ll eat dinner with his family every day and sleep in the RV with them every night. His crew will follow in a second RV.
The rdf doesn’t receive any government funding, so it relies on donations and grants from other foundations to award research micro-grants – sums of up to $3,500 that doctors can apply for in order to assist patients with therapy, testing or treatment not covered by provincial or territorial healthcare. Since its inception in 2008, the foundation has funded more than 400 such projects for about $1.3 million, says executive director David Cox. “The bulk of rare diseases lack a champion and that’s what our research program is designed to find and fund,” he says.
A disease is considered rare if it affects fewer than one in 2,000 people, Cox says. By that definition, als and cystic fibrosis are rare diseases. But many of the people the rdf helps have what he calls ultrarare diseases, in some cases affecting one in 100,000 people.
Families dealing with these diseases face hardships unique to those facing more common ones, Cox says. The latter have
established support organizations and doctors who know what kind of treatment and care to offer. “I think the overarching issue is a sense of being alone and having nowhere to turn,” he says. “Patients and families feel a sense of isolation because no one really knows what to do.”
Proctor knows this feeling. As June 27 nears, he’s focused on training and planning, in addition to four long days per week at the clinic in Calgary. On his days off, he drops the kids off at school, goes for a 50-kilometre run, and picks them up at the end of the day.
As Al Howie did, Proctor has run to a couple of ultras, completed the races, then run home afterwards. “There really is no proper way to train for something like this besides being stupidly fit and feeling mentally prepared,” he says. He’s also got a few 100-kilometre runs planned on back-to-back days. In December, he travelled to Arizona for the Across the Years race – six days of a one-mile loop. “It just seems impossible, but yet it is so very possible,” he says. “Because when you’re out there, you’re very comfortable. The only time that you’re not is when you convince yourself that you’re uncomfortable.”
He beat the Canadian 48-hour distance record with 360 kilometres and the 72-hour record with 500.1. At the end of day four, he was feeling good. He slept for about seven hours instead of his usual three. When he woke up in the morning, he noticed a mound on his right knee – a compensation injury from an infection he’d developed in one of the toes on his left foot. So he decided to stop running. Despite this, he still finished fourth overall.
Proctor says he doesn’t get bored during these incredibly long distances. With his busy life, he welcomes a chance to clear his head. “There’s a scene in The Lego Movie where they go into the guy’s brain and there’s nothing there,” Proctor says. “And it’s because he’s really dumb.” This is what Proctor says his mind is like when he runs – not dumb, but blissfully empty.
Proctor believes strongly in avoiding negativity in life, be it gossip or feelings of jealousy or anger. He says it bleeds into running. Positive mind, positive output. “The human body will put out what the mind tells it to,” he says. “You say, ‘Oh, this hurts,’ then it hurts. If you never use those words, then there is no such thing as pain. There is no such thing as getting tired. It’s all perspective.”
Proctor is a guy who likes to push himself, and Outrun Rare is his biggest undertaking yet: “I’ve never been OK with where I’m at. I always want an extra 10 per cent.” As he lines up sponsors and has meetings with his team of 28 volunteers, he knows he’s subjecting himself to the most public pressure he’s ever experienced. “It’s either going to cripple me or it’s going to really propel me,” he says. “I don’t know which one is going to happen yet.” Penny is confident in his friend ’s abilities: “If anybody can break that record, it’s Dave Proctor. He is relentlessly unstoppable.”
Proctor thinks he can, too. Especially with his son as motivation. “It’s absolutely amazing what your body will do when there’s a bigger why instead of personal glory,” he says. “And in the end, Sam has got to know that his father will do anything for him and will always do anything for him.”
“THERE REALLY IS NO PROPER WAY TO TRAIN FOR SOMETHING LIKE THIS BESIDES BEING STUPIDLY FIT AND FEELING MENTALLY PREPARED. ”