Run On: The Race that Almost Happened

Today was supposed to be my debut as a Race Director. We had it all planned out, the course mapped, the permits applied for, the website built and we were contacting sponsors to get the party started. The race is called Run On, and was to be held in Edmonton’s stunning river valley trail system when autumn leaves are at their best. I was nervous, but excited, knowing that it was all for a good cause and would be the start of a beautiful tradition in the Edmonton run community. Run On was to be in support of Amy’s House, a home away from home for out of town cancer patients to stay while they received treatments at one of the big hospitals in the city. Amy’s House has been open for a year already, named after my dear friend Amy Alain, who passed away from lung cancer at age 38, you can read her story here: Run Forever: In Memory of Amy Alain. The house has been full of grateful families this whole time, but we needed a long term fundraising plan to make it sustainable; and Run On was going to be an important piece of that fundraising puzzle.

Little did I know, in those early days while we were dreaming big about the possibilities for the run, that 2020 would turn out to be the absolute worst time to be a Race Director. We were all set to launch the race and have registration go live for March 20, 2020; the same week that we watched as one by one, events and gatherings were banned and full on Covid-19 lockdown sent us all spinning, scratching our heads at the insanity of a world shut down over something we didn’t yet understand the magnitude of. We decided to put registration on hold until April 1st, thinking that surely after Spring Break we could get back to normal life and back to event planning, but instead, over the next few weeks and months we saw every race, every event…well…everything, change. Race Directors all over Canada and the world were scrambling to save their carefully curated empires, coming up with virtual events or attempting to navigate regulations to still hold small in-person events. And while I loved participating in a virtual event (Quarantine Backyard Ultra: Just One More Lap) I knew I didn’t want to host one. So we remained optimistic with Alberta’s Phase 2 re-opening that allowed gatherings of up to 100 people with the possibility of things opening up more by the new school year.

I spent hours pouring over regulations from Alberta Health Services and talking to the City about event permits, hoping for a definitive answer to my question of whether or not we could proceed. The answers were vague. We could, but should we? Does it make sense to proceed with in-person events like we so desperately wanted to when the barriers seemed insurmountable? Was it irresponsible to bring people together during a pandemic even though we knew the risks of outdoor transmission among a physically distant crowd was slim? I knew I could make the event follow all the health guidelines relatively easily and could, in good conscious proceed with the race according to new guidelines, but the real problem was with our numbers and getting the permit approved. The city was firm on the cap on numbers for outdoor events. 100 people. And that had to include racers, volunteers and any one else that showed up that was affiliated with the event. As I thought through the implications of that, attempting to proceed sounded laughable. My family, and Amy’s husband and kids was already 8 people! Add on course marshals, and finish line and aid station volunteers, and timers and someone to hand out medals and our numbers of volunteers needed was getting astronomical. And that was before we had any racers accounted for! We quickly realized that proceeding with all three events (marathon, relay and 5km fun run) was impossible with those number restrictions. So we dropped the marathon and relay events, refunded the money to the racers already signed up, and decided to proceed with the fun run.

If I’m being honest, I never felt good about that either. While I loved the idea of supporting new runners to achieve their goals of completing a 5k, and wanted to put on an event that could bring together supporters of Amy’s House, what I really wanted was to host a challenging event for the run community that highlighted the gorgeous trails of our river valley. I wanted a big event that brought out all the mud and struggle and sweat that I love so much about trail events. I wanted the 5km family friendly fun run to be the teasing side dish to the main event; the trail marathon. So having to drop the marathon took the wind out of my sails. Not to mention the fact that the lower price point of the 5km event meant that even if we sold out at an underwhelming 80 participants, we wouldn’t be making much money for Amy’s House…and at the end of the day, making money was kinda the whole point of putting all this work in.

On top of all this, even at the end of August, Alberta Health Services was yet to get back to me about whether or not our ‘Covid plan’ for safely putting on the event was even approved, and we couldn’t get final event approval from the City until AHS gave us approval. And we were warned that AHS wasn’t getting to permit requests very quickly, some events were only getting their permits looked at a few days prior to the event meaning planners were left scrambling with only a few days to finalize details for their event. That all felt pretty overwhelming to me as a brand new Race Director.

Covid-19 and all the protocol has changed nearly every aspect of our lives. Most of us spend our work days differently now, we shifted to find new ways to educate our children, shopping habits are altered, our social lives have been rocked, our relationships challenged and our mental health put through the ringer. And all these changes have forced us all to re-evaluate…what is working, what doesn’t work and what is worth fighting to maintain in a world that is changing so rapidly? It’s kinda time to question everything isn’t it?

And so we found ourselves questioning Run On.

Nothing about moving forward as planned felt right. But it didn’t feel right to walk away either.

Phil (Amy’s husband and founder of Amy’s House) and I, spent many hours sitting on my front porch trying to figure out what we wanted to do, and honestly, the whole thing was causing me a lot of stress. We thought about what we wanted to accomplish: we wanted to raise money for Amy’s House, we wanted to honour Amy and we wanted a run on the trails.

And then something clicked.

We could do all those things without all the permits, uncertainty and the stress. So we came up with a plan that still allowed us to achieve everything we wanted and let us shelve our dreams of Run On 2020 and hope for better luck next year.

So what was this new plan? That I would run the entire course, invite friends to join me, and have people buy a guess, betting how long it would take me to finish the course.

So on September 27th, the day before what should have been Amy Alain’s 40th birthday, I put myself out there on social media way more then I am ever comfortable doing, and encouraged people to guess how long it would take me to run 40km. $10/guess and the winner got a sweet prize. We watched the money roll in to keep the doors of Amy’s House open.

The day turned out to be absolutely perfect. Our stunning September weather held warm and sunny, the vibrant leaves were on full display and the trails were perfectly dry. Exactly what we had envisioned for race day. I was joined by a dozen run friends for the first 10km loop. We were sent off by Phil and the kids, thanking everyone for coming and supporting our little endeavor. Back to the starting place for Loop 2 where many of the morning runners left and a smaller group of us set off on my favourite part of the course; on the technical bushwhacking fun of Two Truck Trail and Patricia and Wolf Willow Ravines. Loop 3 was down to just my friend Tess which was fitting as she was a good friend of Amy’s for many years, long before I even knew Amy. It felt like a great way to celebrate the impact she had on both our lives.

By the time I got back from Loop 3, a party had assembled at the Alfred Savage Centre, a fire was going and the table was full of snacks and cupcakes. Everyone cheered as we came in, and after a few quick hellos and stuffing my face with a few more snacks for the road, we headed out (joined by Keith this time too!) for the final 10km loop up and down the single track along the Whitemud Ravine. The trails that Amy particularly loved. The ones she ran to get to her cancer treatments at the Cross Cancer Institute. The ones where chickadees would land on her outstretched hand and where Phil, Adey and Christian go for walks when they need to feel close to her.

With just a few kms left I flipped on a Facebook Live video to talk while I ran. I talked about how life is precious, how Amy and her attitude towards life taught us all about living and loving big, I talked about how we wish she had made it to her 40th birthday and that this should be her birthday run and not a fundraiser for a house in her name. And I talked about how Amy’s House is paying it forward, bringing something pure, something beautiful into a world that doesn’t always make sense.

I was also starting to get tired. I realized the pressure of so many people watching me run, betting on how long it would take, waiting for me to finish, was no small feat. While it was a great way to spend the day, it was also a huge weight on my shoulders. Shoulders that have felt a whole lot of burden and uncertainty these last few months.

Truthfully? I’m tired.

Six months now of our world turned upside down. Of work, home life and relationships disrupted and top that off with an injury that rocked my summer (story here: Northover Ridge to Emergency Room) and it all has left me exhausted.

Thankfully, the secret to surviving, the secret to finishing those last few kilometers and persevering when it feels impossible, is always the same: Move forward, immerse yourself in nature, and surround yourself with people (Movement. Nature. People. Even in a Pandemic.).

The race course is supposed to end with coming down the Grandview stairs. The stairs we have applied to have a memorial bench for Amy installed, and the stairs she loved to do repeats on. However, in true 2020 fashion, they are under construction. Of course. So we came down the hill beside the stairs and ran towards the campfire, to the cheers of 40+ people waiting for our arrival. I had said I wasn’t gonna cry, but I choked up at the sight. All the months of planning, of stressing over Run On and trying to be a race director in a pandemic was over. And while it wasn’t what I had planned; I was supposed to be the one watching runners come in…not the one running the course… it was still a wonderful day.

The best part? We raised nearly $6000. More then the race would have raised had we proceeded as planned.

With a finishing time of 5:57:50 and a fantastic day on some of the best trails this city has to offer, shared with my amazing run community and a backdrop of supporters of Amy’s House, I think we did a pretty good job of making the most of this craziness.

I want this vision for Run On to move forward. I picture the perfect venue, gorgeous weather, completed stairs with Amy’s name on them. I believe we will have a sold out event, with families enjoying the trails on the fun run, new runners reaching their 5km goals and racers pushing for new personal bests on the relay and marathon event. I see myself holding a clipboard (don’t even know what it will have on it…but I’m gonna hold one!) and a megaphone at the finish line, announcing runners as they come in. I see hugs and high fives and a community brought together for a good cause.

We all thought 2020 sounded like a good year to make that all happen. Oh well.

2021 is sounding better and better already

3 thoughts on “Run On: The Race that Almost Happened

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