Canadian record for 50K race broken at local park
Calum Neff’s sweet spot is 31 miles.
He’s run countless races over the years, including his most recent 26.2-mile race in Arizona for The Marathon Project.
But on Sunday’s chilly, cloudless, low-humidity morning, Neff found himself on a 50K course he created for his friends at Bear Creek Park.
“Oh heck, that was super special,” Neff said as his voice wavered with emotion. “I’ve done a lot of running, broken records and stuff, but that one just feels like the one I wanted — the one that’s special to me.”
Neff broke the Canadian record for the 50K distance, almost 30 years to the date it was set by runner Andy Jones. Neff crossed the finish line at 2:51:57, over a minute faster than than Jones’ record.
The now-Houstonian cut six minutes off his finish time from the 50K World Championships in September 2019 in Romania, which was the last time he tried to break Jones’ record.
“There’s really good mara
thoners out there, and I can hold my own against them for the most part, but I get a little overshadowed by the East Africans and other Canadians,” Neff said. “The 50K is where I always wanted to find myself, where I wanted to be. And I nailed it today. It means so much.”
A Houston running coach for Hardloop Endurance, Neff ran only seven races in all of 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, a low number for the running coach and elite runner.
In normal years, he coaches 40-50 athletes in individual or group training sessions. But his business, Hardloop Endurance, shut down all group runs back in the spring to help stop the virus’s spread.
Small group runs started again in July, but they were stalled when cases surged in the fall. Neff has tried to keep his athletes motivated and discouraged them from group runs with friends.
He wanted something different for the Chevron Houston Marathon, which typically brings more than 20,000 runners to the city’s streets every January. The virtual marathon lasted from Jan. 8-17, and race organizers did not encourage people to run in groups.
At Bear Creek Park, Neff put together a marathon and ultra-marathon course certified by USA Track and Field for himself and 17 of his fellow elite runners. Most hailed from Houston, but two women hoping to qualify for Team USA traveled in from Utah and Fort Worth.
Three hours after the starting pistol rang, Neff said cool temperatures, location and camaraderie created fast racing conditions.
“For it all to come together, it was like perfection. The people, the athletes, the volunteers, the weather,” he said. “It’s almost like it wasn’t so bad that we lost Houston this year because we made something almost better.”
Sarah Cummings, 32, finished the 50K distance in 3:19:15, more than 10 minutes faster than the 3:30 time she needed to beat to qualify for Team USA. Cummings ran with 33year-old Elizabeth Northern who also qualified with a time of 3:19:35.
Cummings said she felt a kind of peace that she doesn’t always feel in typical races.
“It had all the great qualities of a race, but none of the ones that sometimes get you overhyped or the lack of personalization,” Cummings said. “Cal set up the most perfect event; we’re so lucky.”
Cummings was invited by Northern to participate at the Bear Creek Park event. The three runners met two years ago while competing in Romania, she said.
Northern said the race was well-orchestrated and special to have during this time away from in-person competitions. Participating, she said, was a “true privilege.”
Houstonian Sarah Rabourn echoed that sentiment and called the race an awesome experience. The 29-year-old qualified for Team USA’s 50K team in 3:25:12.
Rabourn’s last two longdistance races were unsuccessful, she said. At last year’s Houston race, she had to drop out at mile 13 because she had the flu. At the Woodlands Marathon later in 2020, she didn’t finish because of a stress fracture — also at mile 13.
“Then all the races got canceled,” she said. “This was my first opportunity to try and finish a race, and it was just an awesome experience out here.”