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2017 Golden Shoe Awards: Trail Runner of the Year – Ailsa MacDonald

Her performance at Sinister 7 inspired racers, volunteers and spectators, leading MacDonald to receive a standing ovation at the awards ceremony the next day

Ailsa MacDonald
Ailsa MacDonald
Photo: Raven Eye Photography.

By Madeleine Cummings

It’s a gruelling race on a good day. July 7, 2017, wasn’t a good day for the Sinister 7, a 100-mile ultramarathon in Crowsnest Pass, Alta. As well as the more than 6,000 m of climbing, “Sinners” dealt with temperatures that crept into the 30s. Brian Gallant, the race director, called it “the kind of heat that crawls into your soul and takes away your will to go on.” Search and rescue and medical crews responded to more dehydration incidents than ever before, and the race, which has a 30-hour time limit, had the lowest-ever solo completion rate. More than 80 per cent of soloists did not finish.

Ailsa MacDonald, who is 37 and lives in St. Albert, Alta., was born in Stirling, a city in central Scotland. She moved to Canada with her family when she was a baby and she grew up in Bridgewater, N.S. She was the youngest of four girls and discovered her love of sports and exercise at an early age.

Finishing the Sinister 7 was Ailsa MacDonald’s only goal. She had excelled in a range of endurance events before – from 50K ultras to Ironman triathlons – and she had a well-prepared crew in her husband and friends, who had scoped out the course the previous day. She knew what to eat (peanut butter-banana wraps are a staple) and she knew drinking enough water and slathering on sunscreen and anti-chafing cream at aid stations would be crucial. She had four extra pairs of shoes at her disposal, in case her feet got wet or she preferred a thicker sole for rockier terrain.

Because this was her first 100-miler, she still felt she was in unknown territory, and she knew how quickly ultras can turn ugly. If she could finish, simply “conquer the distance,” she told herself, she would be happy.

When she started running that morning, the temperature was relatively cool and she had predicted that the first of the race’s seven legs would feel fairly easy. She ran well under five-minute pace for the first seven kilometres and felt so good that she ran past the first aid station, preferring to maintain her momentum.

During the second leg of the race, she passed Alex Petrosky, a celebrated ultrarunner and the race’s defending champion. She figured he would catch up to her later. He didn’t.

Things would get tough for MacDonald, but after nearly 19 hours, she crossed the finish line just before 2 a.m., beating every other soloist (male and female) and almost all of the relay teams. The performance inspired racers, volunteers and spectators, leading MacDonald to receive a standing ovation at the awards ceremony the next day.

No one was more surprised than MacDonald.

“I shocked a lot of people, including myself,” she said.

Madeleine Cummings is a journalist and columnist. She was born in Toronto, but now proudly calls Edmonton home.

Editor’s note: above is an excerpt from our upcoming feature on MacDonald, which will appear in our 2018 Trail Special, out in mid-March. The Golden Shoe Awards are CR‘s annual year-end recap and the 2017 edition originally appeared in the January-February 2018 print edition.