Trail running is the fastest growing segment of running and Canadians are flocking to off-road races across the country. More and more events are popping up thanks to this increased popularity. The Salomon 5 Peaks Trail Running Series has been one of the leaders in the growth of trail running. They offer a national trail running series with events in B.C., Alberta, Ontario and Quebec. Many other regional trail races and series are being organized and have also shown incredible growth.
Trail races come in all shapes and sizes and are run on smooth surfaces like old railroad rail trails, to the absurdly muddy, to epic mountain races featuring hundreds of metres of elevation gain and loss. Distances can be relatively short, like a standard 5K (or even shorter), or very long ultramarathon distances and multi-day stage races. Many of the longer events also offer relay divisions or shorter distances to accompany these events, which open up the door for more runners to get off the roads, enjoy nature and even get their shoes a little dirty in the process.
There are now so many unique trail races across Canada, but we’ve whittled down the list to these 10 must-do events.
article continues after advertisement
Think big-city marathon comes to trail running and you have the Run for the Toad. The Toad is the largest trail race in Canada, but comes off with exceptional precision and attention to small detail thanks to race directors George and Peggy Sarson. The Sarsons put their hearts and souls into this race with the goal of exceeding participants’ expectations and doing their best to ensure that everyone has a great racing experience. Considering the remarkable rate of happily returning runners each year, it seems they’ve attained their goal.
The Run for the Toad course consists of a 12.5K loop over rolling terrain, featuring well-stocked aid stations to keep runners fuelled and well hydrated. The race is but one part of the Toad experience; some of the other things that make this a must-do event include the spectacular pre-race meal, a unique race souvenir gift and an intimate feel that is surprising considering the size of the race. You may even get the chance to rub shoulders with some of Canada’s top distances runners, including middle and long distance stars Reid Coolsaet, and ultramarathon specialists Taylor Murphy, Ryne Melcher, Gary Robbins and Ellie Greenwood. The race is capped and sells out quickly each year. If you want to get in, be sure to register early.
Prince Edward Island is a beautiful place to visit in the summer. And what better way to vacation than by hitting a trail race? The Brookvale Trail Ultra takes place in Provincial Park and Forestry land over a 25K loop. Half of the course is singletrack trail, with the rest being run over Nordic ski trails and heritage roads. Brookvale is located in the hilliest part of P.E.I., so you get some good climbs. Most participants agreed it was the most difficult race they had run. The small-town feel and laid back approach to the race is what runners seem to embrace the most. Also, with the Department of Forestry involved in the race, each participant takes home an oak tree seedling to plant, while race winners receive a handmade cutting board. As race participant Spencer Greenwood said, “The Brookvale Ultra doesn’t have the prestige of a big time race but it’s definitely a challenging course and is the ‘friendliest little ultra’ that I’ve run.”
The Canmore Nordic Centre is the home training facility of some of the best cross country skiers in Canada. In the endurance-junkie town of Canmore, Alta., it only seems fitting that this race serves as the Canadian Mountain Running Championships. No qualifying standards are required to take part in this race, so you can mix it up with Canada’s best mountain runners and see how your climbing skills stack up. The Championship 12K route consists of three loops of 4K each and 200 metres of elevation change per loop. The Canmore Challenge is not just about competition though, as runners are treated to some of the most breathtaking scenery in the Rockies as the course winds between majestic peaks.
During the summer months, hundreds of runners and hikers test their trail and mountain legs in North Vancouver by taking part in regular trips up the Grouse Grind. Sometimes called Mother Nature’s Stairmaster, the Grouse Grind, is a 2.9K trail that steps up the face of Grouse Mountain. While it’s not a long trail, it is a steep and rugged one, rising 853 metres. The season is capped off in September with a race to see who can claim bragging rights for the best time and the titles of King and Queen of the mountain. The fastest official time ever recorded at the Grouse Grind Mountain Run was run by Sebastian Salas in a time of 25:24, however, New Zealand mountain running legend Jonathan Wyatt was rumoured to have unofficially run a time of 24:22 during a training session in 2004 prior to his obliterating the course record at the prestigious Mt. Washington Uphill Run in New Hampshire.
Canadian Death Race (125K or relay) Grande Cache, Alta.
No list of great Canadian trail races would be complete without The North Face Canadian Death Race. For the past decade, the Canadian Death Race has captured the imagination of runners from around the globe and clearly demonstrates what an epic trail competition should be: a test of endurance, mental toughness and human spirit. This race is certainly not for the faint of heart. Located at a starting elevation of 1,280 metres, coping with altitude and extreme weather can be a huge factor in successfully completing this race. With more than 5,000 metres of elevation change over the course of the entire 125K route, and long distances between checkpoints and aid stations, those who take on the Death Race need to be well-prepared physically, mentally and logistically for race day. The Death Race has opened the door to increased opportunity to take on similar races in the province with the Alberta Ultra Series. While many view races like fan favourite Sinister Seven as having raised the bar with the quality of event they offer, there are still those who aspire to add the much sought after Canadian Death Race shirt to their collection.
The Xtrail Mont Orford Trail Race takes place in the Eastern Townships of Quebec over extremely challenging cross-country trails and singletrack. The first half of the race is run on Nordic ski trails before heading onto very rocky footing, deep mud and numerous creek crossings. The race ascends along a narrow exposed ridge features a total of 944 metres of elevation gain, including summiting Mount Orford. Boasting that it is modelled after the European Mountain Running Circuit, participants are warned to expect to take as much as double their normal half marathon time, and must be prepared to carry their own water and aid supplies as there are only two water stations on the course. Trekking poles are permitted in this alpine style race and participants were even treated to the added challenge of snow in recent years.
The Yukon River Trail Marathon has quickly built up a reputation as a destination race in Canada featuring an assortment of beautiful trails along the Yukon River in addition to some of the smaller lakes in the region. While you certainly won’t run your fastest marathon time on this course thanks to the elevation change and technical trail surface, you will be treated to the sheer beauty and joy of trail running in Whitehorse. Many other trail races offer multiple loop courses to make it easier to offer aid along the way, but race organizers here want you to experience all that the Yukon has to offer and have made this a one-loop route. Half marathon participants have a shorter loop and teams can take part in the relay division.
There’s something magical about the Haliburton Forest, on the western tip of Algonquin Provincial Park. Trail runners are treated to some of the most beautifully wild places in all of Ontario. A bagpiper leads runners to the starting line as if they’re going off to battle, which seems fitting considering the challenging course and distances. With the eerie song of wolves chanting in the distance, runners scamper off down the forest road before turning onto the rugged singletrack. The Haliburton course is breathtakingly beautiful, featuring 80 per cent singletrack trail, much of it quite technical, and the remaining 20 per cent relentlessly rolling forest dirt roads. The race atmosphere is welcoming at Haliburton in that it seems at times that it’s more about sharing the trail time with nature than it is about the competitive aspects of racing. Aside from the returning runners each year, loyal aid stations volunteers also make the annual pilgrimage to Haliburton. They thrive on making their unique aid stations warm and friendly with their own representation of comfort foods and of course the obligatory campfire. Rustic camping is also offered at the finish line to add to the tranquil trail race weekend experience.
May 30, 2010 www.gutbustertrailrun.com
The five-race Gutbuster Trail Running Series on Vancouver Island has shown tremendous growth since the first year in 2002 due to offering unique races that go to great lengths to challenge trail runners of all ability levels. A great example is the Colliery Dam Race in Nanaimo. Featuring the standard half-marathon distance, this race is anything but ordinary as runners revel at the spectacular vistas of mountains, lakes and the ocean. The course has sections of winding singletrack mountain bike trails including many killer climbs and smoking-fast downhills. Be prepared to get your feet wet on race day as runners have two creek crossings in addition to negotiating the infamous mud pit.
This is one of the flagship races of the 5 Peaks Trail Running Series. This is a great opportunity to enjoy racing on the home mountain of the Vancouver Olympic Games. The race starts and finishes at an elevation of 1,860 metres on Whistler Mountain and features a total elevation gain of 560 metres in the Enduro 10.6K route, including steep ascents and descents, and craggy wilderness trails over many rocky and technical sections. The views from Whistler are stunning, but be sure to keep an eye on the rugged footing to stay upright. If the tough course alone isn’t enough to get you excited about this race, the post-race festivities certainly should be. The awards ceremony takes place on Blackcomb Mountain, giving racers a chance to experience the spectacular Peak-to-Peak Gondola. The 11-minute ride across to Blackcomb Mountain provides a 360-degree view of Whistler and Blackcomb Mountains and the surrounding areas.
Squamish 50 – Squamish, B.C. (50K, 50 mile, 50/50)
The weekend event’s main draws are to 50K and 50-mile races. The 50K races Saturday. Participants will climb 3,500m before descending to the finish at Pavilion Park. Incredible climbs, technical trail and inspiring scenery are to be expected. On Sunday morning, 50K and 23K runners depart (Note: At different times and from different locations) for a condensed version of the longer race. Similar scenic views and first class trail running experiences are still supplied. The truly tough and try and conquer the notorious 50/50, where runners will race both the 50-mile and 50K on back-to-back days!
Sinister 7 Ultra – Crowsnest Pass, Alta. (100 mile)
One of Canada’s most rugged races, the race through some of Canada’s most beautiful mountains in southern Alberta’s Crowsnest Pass can be run as a single 100 mile ultra-tough ultramarathon or as a seven-leg relay. The 100-mile sees a total of 5,687 m over the route and none of the relay stages climb less than 390m. The legs are all different and are not out and backs, so runners won’t see the same terrain twice, though a few of the legs come back through the a base camp, though not always. You’re guaranteed to get some wet feet, promised by the organizers.