Eight athletes lined up in Hamilton early on Friday to race a low-key 50K. The race was organized by Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet, and it was slated as an official record attempt for both the men’s and women’s national 50K records. On the men’s side, Chris Balestrini and Phil Parrot-Migas set off to chase the men’s record of 2:51:27, while Krista DuChene and Rachel Hannah eyed the women’s Canadian best of 3:28:20. The race started at 7 a.m., and if all goes to plan, the elites should cross the finish line in the next couple of hours.
The women’s race
DuChene and Hannah both rank in the top 20 all-time among Canadian marathoners, and they’re tacking on an additional 8K to chase Catrin Jones‘s national 50K record, which she set in 2015 at the IAU 50K World Championships in Doha, Qatar. While DuChene and Hannah are seasoned marathoners, ultras are almost entirely new territory for both of them. DuChene has run one ultramarathon before — a 54K trail race last fall — and Hannah hasn’t raced farther than 42.2K. Even so, both women were confident in their abilities ahead of the race.
“For me, it’s going to be somewhere between a road marathon and the 54K on the trails,” DuChene said. “It’s on the road the whole time and I’m used to that, but I’ve got that advantage in my head that I’ve done 54K before and have gone much longer.” In her ultra debut, which was also in Hamilton, DuChene was on the trails for more than five hours.
There was also a significant amount of climbing involved in that race, and by the end, she had gained more than 1,200m of elevation. Friday’s race follows a 10K out-and-back loop with just two metres of gain each lap. Having run for five hours on trails will by no means make a 50K road race easy, but it certainly helped take a load off DuChene’s shoulders.
“It’s not daunting at all,” she said. “But I will respect it like any race. The intensity isn’t the same as the marathon since your pace is a bit slower, but you need to have the mental fortitude to finish that last 10K as strong as you can.”
Hannah, who is completely new to ultrarunning, didn’t have the experience to draw from ahead of the record attempt, but she was still sure of herself and of her abilities leading into the race. “I’ve been feeling good,” she said. “I’ve had really good, consistent running since September now. No setbacks, just a nice progression.” She continued, saying she had a “great build in the last little bit,” adding that she has enjoyed the training for ultras compared to marathon prep.
“It’s been kind of nice, because in marathon training, you do a lot at a higher intensity. With this, tempos have been slower but I’ve done longer runs overall, so there’s a different training focus.” While Hannah hasn’t raced more than 42K before, she noted that she completed a 45K training run recently.
“That was good for my confidence,” she said. “I know I can go another 20 minutes on top of that.” The big issue that both Hannah and DuChene noted was the heat. The forecast ahead of the run called for a high of 31 C, and while the race will be finished before the hottest part of the day, it was already 17 C and humid when DuChene, Hannah and the others started running. As DuChene said, though, Jones set her record in the heat of Doha, so she knows it’s possible to hit record pace in the blazing sun.
Toronto ultrarunning sisters April and Melanie Boultbee also started the race with DuChene and Hannah.
The men’s race
Balestrini, a 2:17 marathoner, was originally set to be the lone elite racing on the men’s side, so he reached out to Parrot-Migas and asked if he would pace him on race day. Parrot-Migas, who ran an unofficial 2:19 marathon debut last year in a time trial, texted Balestrini back and said no, he couldn’t help him out, because he had just entered the race himself.
“My attempts at finding pacers ended up finding myself some competition,” Balestrini said with a laugh. All the same, he admitted that it could be good to have someone else on the course to run with and push him. Neither Balestrini nor Parrot-Migas have run an official ultramarathon before, but both men have gone farther than 50K, which they actually did together.
“Phil and I ran 55K together last summer,” Balestrini said. “We were at a cottage and we were going to do a long run the next day. I asked him how far he thought it was around the lake we were on, so we plotted a course and just said, ‘Screw it, let’s try.'” They set out around the lake and eventually made it back to the cottage. They didn’t run at a high intensity, but it’s enough for both to know they can, in fact, run that far.
The two have their eyes on Cal Neff‘s 50K Canadian record of 2:51:27, a time he ran in Texas earlier this year. Both were confident that they could beat that time, and Parrot-Migas said they had discussed aiming to not just beat the record, but to shatter it. “The record is an average pace of 3:26 per kilometre,” he said. “Chris told me he wants to go 3:20 per K. That’s a 2:46:40 finish.” Ultimately, though, Parrot-Migas said he’ll settle for anything quicker than 3:26 pace. “I think I’m in good enough fitness to go Canadian-record pace.”
Whatever happens, both Balestrini and Parrot-Migas said they’re just excited to be in a legitimate race. They were joined on the course by Hamilton runners Mike Fickel and Jeff Jans, both of whom were set to run the full 50K as well. Follow the Canadian Running social feeds for updates on the race progress and final results.