My road to redemption

I would not consider myself a runner, and yet, here I am at the start line of the Chena River to Ridge 25-mile race. For the second time. How on Earth did this happen? There must be something magical about living in the North. It has a way of tricking mere mortals into thinking they can compete with the gods. At least, that is how I have felt ever since moving to the Yukon in September, 2017.

It all started one afternoon at Winterlong. My husband and I, having just moved from Victoria, British Columbia, decided to check out the local beer scene. As we enjoyed a cold pint on a crisp autumn day, in walked a group of Yukoners whose laughter livened up the quiet space.

“They look like runners,” Blair said longingly. He had become part of a great running community in Victoria and was sad to leave those friends behind when we decided to make the move North.

“Let’s go say hello,” I said. We had made a deal that we would push each other to step outside our comfort zones and experience new things in the Yukon. This seemed like the perfect opportunity.

We picked up our beers and walked over to introduce ourselves. We were greeted warmly by the group, which we quickly learned was made up of members of the Moonlight Runners Society—a crew that gets together to brave the darkness and run epic Whitehorse trails whenever there is a full moon. They had just finished a trail run in the area and encouraged us to join them for a run sometime. Excited to discover a new running community, we were giddy as we went back to our table, finished our beers and headed home. Little did we know then that this chance encounter would set in motion a series of amazing adventures that would inspire lifelong friendships.

When we were invited to race the Chena River to Ridge in Fairbanks, Alaska, I’m not sure what possessed me to sign up. In the past, an 11-hour drive for a weekend run would have been out of the question. And yet, one cold morning in March 2018, five of us packed into our Subaru Forester and off we went. We left Whitehorse as mere acquaintances and arrived in Fairbanks as friends.

The 25-mile distance would be, by far, the longest run I had ever done. And if that wasn’t enough of a challenge, Fairbanks had experienced heavy snowfall that year. Course conditions were expected to be difficult. Regardless, I was excited to push myself and race with my new friends.

To say the race was hard is an understatement. The race pushed my body and mind well beyond my limits. It broke me. Before Chena, I had never heard of post-holing—where each step means you’re breaking through knee-deep snow—let alone done it for hours on end.

I spent the last 10 km of the course crying in the dark. Not just tearing up, but going into full-blown hysterics, wondering what I had done in a previous life to deserve this terrible experience. Somehow though, when I eventually heard familiar voices cheering me on in the distance, I gathered every ounce of strength I had left and ran towards the finish line.

My body was destroyed, I was exhausted and slightly delirious, but I had accomplished my goal. I finished my very first ultramarathon (surprise—the distance was actually over 26.1 miles) and just beat the omnipresent 11-hour time cut-off.

I also vowed to myself that I would never do something like that again.

The thing is, when you are surrounded by badass humans who think running ultras is no big deal, it’s hard not to be inspired. Even as a back-of-the-pack runner, fighting hard to place second last, these incredible people encouraged me to dream bigger than I ever thought possible.

Earlier this year, when our friend Germaine suggested returning to Chena, I knew I couldn’t resist the chance to prove that I could do better. And that’s how I found myself at the start line in Fairbanks on a sunny March morning.

The weather was perfect as I set out to conquer the course. The snow was packed down from the snowmobiles and the views from the top of the climb, which had been hidden behind clouds the previous year, were breathtaking and worth the effort. There was no post-holing and no tears this time, but the same friendly voices cheered me in.

I finished strong with the sun beaming down. I had a smile on my face as I finished nearly three hours faster than last time. Blair won the run, with the fourth fastest time ever, and our friend crushed her best prediction by over twenty minutes, coming in well under eight hours.

While my race wasn’t perfect (I managed to soak both feet in overflow and got lost and ran an extra couple kilometres), I got what I came for. Redemption.

There is something truly larger than life about the Yukon. This northern way of life has encouraged the best in us and inspired us to achieve the impossible. What makes the experience even better is the deep belly laughs that come from friendships made along the way.

Carleen, Blair and Germaine at the start line at Twin Bears Camp, Chena River Recreation Area in Fairbanks, Alaska

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