Fast Trax, a Edmonton small running shop, gave away their entire backlog of inventory, fitting over 300 stranded runners with free shoes so that they could get out for a run and find peace

Photo: Stefan Randstrom

Photo: Stefan Randstrom

By Jay Smith

The wildfire that threatened to burn Fort McMurray at the beginning of May was extraordinary. Beginning as a small fire out of town, noticed on the Sunday, the blaze had grown by the end of the day, to about 500 acres. Monday, it had trebled in size, although it was still safely distant from the urban area. Tuesday, however, the wind shifted. The fire turned onto the city of Fort McMurray and in so doing, turned into an inferno, one that is still blazing, one that will only extinguish when rains fall, and not just rains, but torrential downpours come because it is so large.

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On May 2, officials issued a mandatory evacuation notice. Because of how rapidly the fire had shifted, the call to evacuate came suddenly–residents hardly had any time to pack at all. Fort McMurray, arguably the have-i-est city in Canada’s most have province, where chronic labour shortages have driven up wages to such a degree that the Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo (in which Fort McMurray is located) has some of the wealthiest neighbourhoods in Canada. It was all on fire and its residents were fleeing their homes, facing a future where they might never be able to return.

Fort McMurray may be emblematic of Alberta’s oil sands, its riches and ecological abandon, and after all of this, perhaps for being the unfortunate victim of climate change-induced forest fires. But it’s also a runner’s paradise. The town has a robust running and outdoor scene that takes advantage of the complex of trails running through the forests surrounding the urban area. And as in any smaller urban centre, the runners form a tightly knit community.

fast trax

Fast Trax employees at the store. Photo: Sheryl Riesen Savard

The antidote for too much extraordinary is a dose of the ordinary. As far as running shops go, Fast Trax seems to fit the bill. It’s a little hole-in-the-wall place in Edmonton, in a strip mall facing a four-lane road where, on the other side, there are more strip malls. (Strip malls, if you’ve never been to Alberta, are also the most ordinary neighbourhood retail.) Inside, as you’d find in just about any running shop, there’s a wall of brightly coloured road and trail shoes, hangers of running clothes, and racks of running hats and hydration packs.

Owner Jack Cook knows a thing or two about fire. “Two years ago I burnt my house down with a barbecue,” he recalls. For him, as an accomplished ultramarathoner, having won the 50 and 100 K national championships in the past and setting course records in the Death Race, the best way to deal with the loss and the sense of his own culpability was clear.

“I know when I burnt my house down, all I really wanted to do was to go for a run.” Lucky for him, he says, “I had the ability to do that, and it helped with the stress I was going through at the time.”

Cook, who is still rebuilding the house — he’s been living with his wife’s parents’ since the fire — immediately identified with those who had potentially lost everything in the Fort McMurray blaze. He quickly conferred with the others at Fast Trax. Like most shops, they had a stock of previous years’ running shoes, several hundred pairs.

Cook made the announcement on social media just as the mandatory evacuation notice came: “Running is a stress relief. If you are in Edmonton displaced by the fires in Fort McMurray and are in need of a pair of shoes to run, stop by the shop and we will get you set up in a free pair of older model shoes so that you can enjoy a run in the river valley and take your mind off things.”

The shop was immediately inundated.

She found herself in Edmonton with only a pair of clunky work boots.

Ariel and Oscar Chung were among those who showed up to take Cook up on the offer. For them, leaving Fort McMurray just ahead of the mandatory evacuation, the normally four-hour drive to friends in Morinville, a town about half-an-hour out of Edmonton, took nearly eight harrowing hours. Even though Ariel was “paranoid” and packed a bag a day in advance, she found herself in Edmonton with only a pair of clunky work boots. Workers at Suncor, the two were relieved to find that their colleagues were safe — even if their house was probably gone. “When we left, the fire was on the other side of the road,” said Oscar. “We haven’t heard for sure, but we don’t have much hope.”

Working out should be the least of my worries, but it’s part of my normal routine, so I should probably do it. Get things back to as normal as possible.

“I don’t even know if I can run today,” mused Ariel, whose blue eyes behind round glasses still seem stunned from the experience. “I ate, which is good. Once it settles I’m going to probably start working out again.” As she tried to decide whether to wear her new shoes out of the shop, a fire truck screamed down the street outside. Both stopped talking to watch it pass. “Working out should be the least of my worries,” she continued, “but it’s part of my normal routine, so I should probably do it. Get things back to as normal as possible.”

Runners Paula Gould and her husband, Jim Donaldson, fled the fires the next day with their cat, Chester.

“We were running away from a giant fireball in the sky,” remembers Gould. They had camped out near Fire Station #5 in the southern part of the city, waiting for friends to arrive and for the initial shock of the evacuation to settle down. “We knew the highways were terrible, and that the evacuation centres weren’t set up yet, and that there were a lot of stressed out drivers on the road.” Then conditions worsened. The three found themselves driving Highway 63 with limited gas, only a bag of walnuts and some oranges to eat, and no idea whether they would ever return home.

I’ll never forget that guy. We would have been stranded if it was not for him. Lines at gas stations were hours long and we did not have enough gas to make it through the lines.

“We did not have enough gas to make it to Edmonton. An angel truck driver was stopped 20K north of Mariana Lake and gave us free gas,” says Gould. “I’ll never forget that guy. We would have been stranded if it was not for him. Lines at gas stations were hours long and we did not have enough gas to make it through the lines.” Eventually, they made it to Edmonton, and managed to snag a vacation rental in the downtown. Once the fire — which eventually swelled to over 200,000 hectares and is, at time of writing, still heading towards the Saskatchewan border — was controlled within Fort McMurray city limits, they found out that their house was OK. But, like all of the nearly 90,000 evacuated, they don’t know when they’ll be able to return home.

“The first two days were brutal,” says Gould. “We had everything for the cat and nothing for us.”
They had had five minutes to pack up and missed essential items. For these two avid runners, this included their running gear.

He told us that Fast Trax had hundreds of pairs of shoes to give away.

While Gould runs several times a week, mostly for fun, Donaldson competes in triathlons and is a member of the Northern Lights Triathlon Club. Race season for runners and triathletes alike was picking up and many were worried about how to get their training in. Through the club, Gould and Donaldson met a man who had evacuated in his workout clothes… and flip flops. He heard about Fast Trax’s offer, went in and found a pair of shoes, and was so happy with his new sneakers that he posted a video online of his out dancing that night. “He told us that Fast Trax had hundreds of pairs of shoes to give away.”

But when she went to the till, there was no charge for the shoes. Gould started crying on the spot.

But when they got to the store, they were down to the last two pairs of shoes, two men’s pairs in size 11.5. In three days, Fast Trax had distributed over 300 pairs of shoes to evacuees. Gould, who at least had a pair of winter snow runners, told her husband just to buy a pair of shoes anyway. But when she went to the till, there was no charge for the shoes. Gould started crying on the spot.

“We left the store and in the car, Jim asked me why I was crying. This was a spontaneous ugly cry. I said, ‘they gave them to us for free!’

“We’re used to having the best of the best. We work hard and earn a lot of money. We’re used to supplying a lot of good and services. For us to have so much given to us, it’s really overwhelming.”


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3 Comments

  • Kellan Scheiris says:

    I was pretty excited to read this article until I read “climate change-induced forest fires”. Ridiculous.

    Boreal forests burn, regenerate and burn again. It’s a natural cycle. It was the perfect storm and we got caught in the middle.

    You guys must be owned by Macleans.

    • Paula Gould says:

      I agree Kellan. For all we know these fires were caused by sparks from an ATV.

      • Paula Gould says:

        Follow up – it was determined that the Fort McMurray fire was caused by humans. The author may have waited for the investigation to be complete before writing that it was caused by climate change. Otherwise this could have been a good, accurate story.

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