Four days in to a six-day running event, I wake at 4 a.m., tie running shoes onto aching feet, ease my body out of my tent and shiver at the chilly northern Alberta morning air. Rain is misting softly, dampening my clothes almost immediately, and I shudder at the thought of another day of wet feet. I am running seemingly endless loops around a track in Grande Prairie as part of Matt “Shep” Shepard’s attempt at breaking the Canadian record for distance in a six-day event – 840K, set by David Bennett 129 years prior.
I take the first few steps around the track, and my muscles, stomach and mind all rebel at the prospect of another day of running. I try to muster up the enthusiasm to repeat a mantra or jog through some warm-up drills, but my foggy brain is too tired and unenthused. One slow foot in front of the other, I plod through the first laps. Just as the ache begins to wear off and I begin to move more fluidly, a sunrise peaks over the skyline and the misty skies begin to clear up. I jog a few steps and stop, and then a lap, and then a few laps. Although just hours before I doubted whether I would walk again, I start to run, albeit slowly. I turn up the volume on my headphones, feel the sun finally start to warm my skin and focus on the beat of my feet on the track.
Having found the Grande Prairie track less than two weeks before the event, Matt had been in a hurry to get everything sorted, including finding two competitors willing to run for six days. In order for the event to be sanctioned and the record, if broken by Matt, to count, he needed to follow various rules and regulations to perfection.
I have been a runner for many years, off and on, accumulating miles in events of every distance – but my intensely consistent training started about three years ago. Having made some life changes and fresh off finishing a bachelor’s degree I’d begun some 19 years previously, I needed a new goal, and training for an ultramarathon seemed to fit in with my life plan. I completed Lost Soul 50K in Lethbridge, Alta., and fell in love, immediately plotting my next ultra, and the one to follow that.
While familiar with Matt through many a Zoom meeting and coaching group chat with Personal Peak, my arrival in Grande Prairie is my first time meeting him in person, along with his best friend/crew extraordinaire/yoga instructor/cook/training partner Xaeta Daughtry, and our third competitor, Derek Yip – a client of Personal Peak and veteran of such races as the infamous UTMB. I am keen to see what Matt is like in real life – is the constant enthusiasm and willingness to learn from every situation a reality, or a façade?
True to form, Matt is a gem of a human being from the get-go, taking an injury and an end to his record attempt with barely a flinch. He turns the experience into a challenge to gain as much knowledge as possible to better equip him next time around, and that attitude wears off onto Derek and me. Also a stellar athlete and joy to be around, Derek provides me with things to ponder (as valuable as gold on a six-day track event) after many conversations as we jointly walked a few laps. Xeata flawlessly anticipates Matt’s moves and decisions and alters her plans as required, while taking incredible care of me and Derek.
Before the six-day event, the furthest I had run was 100K, a feat that involved both tears and vomit all three times. To run further, and then to go to bed and wake up and run again, and repeat, in some ways seemed unimaginable. Throw in torrential downpours and record rainfall, trench foot, GI distress, insomnia and the sheer monotony of the track, and yet somehow, against all odds, this was, quite often, fun.
On Day 6, Derek I were awake before sunrise again to finish off final laps. Matt, injured, joins us for the last hour, walking slowly around the track but smiling the entire time. I am yearning for a proper sleep, for all the food I can eat and for a hot shower, but as I fall into that familiar rhythm for the last hour of running – mind quiet, my focus entirely on moving forward – I feel present and content. As we finish and begin saying goodbye, making plans to meet up again and discussing what kind of delicious grub we will consume first, I’m already planning my next six-day race.
It was quite possibly the most challenging six days of my life – and I cannot wait to do it again.