Matt “Shep” Shepard of Valleyview, Alta., likes to live up to the #alwayssmiling hashtag he often uses, so when his most recently planned race, a 24-hour event, was cancelled, he cheerfully came up with a new plan: run an FKT (fastest known time) over 205 kilometres along the Columbia Plateau Trail, an old railway route from the 1900s in Washington state. He successfully did this on Feb. 15, with his 1:16:48:01 (1 day, 16 hours, 48 minutes, one second) supported FKT.
You may know Shepard as the “coffee shop guy” or #shepspresso from last year’s original Quarantine Backyard Ultra. Forced indoors due to a late winter storm in his chosen hometown of Valleyview in northwestern Alberta, 100K east of Grande Prairie, and unwilling to let a mere snowstorm get in his way, Shepard ended up running more than 160 kilometres on a 27-metre loop inside Tall Timber, a local coffee shop.
In the last couple of years, Shepard has twice competed in the Big Dog Backyard Ultra World Championships. He’s also known for completing three six-day races, including the 2019 Across the Years, where he placed second overall and broke the course record for the “around the clock” challenge, with 701 kilometres – and for winning the first edition of the Outrun Backyard Ultra in 2019.
Shepard stumbled upon the Columbia Plateau Trail while hunting for a route to get to a local waterfall, Palouse Falls, in the tri-city area of Washington. The CPT route had not yet been submitted to the FKT webpage, and after some digging, it became apparent that despite several attempts, no one had completed the distance on foot.
Shepard says: “Leading up to the event, I reached out to several local runners to see if anyone wanted to pace for part of the run. At the time, there wasn’t a crazy polar vortex in the forecast.” Brandon Lott of Burbank, Wash., agreed to join for the duration of the FKT. Lott ended up bowing out around 35K, rejoining at 55K, and retiring at 190K to save his legs for his own next race, the Iditarod Invitational.
Shepard isn’t joking when he calls the weather during his FKT a polar vortex. A winter blizzard swept Washington on February 13, adding some significant challenges to the endeavour. He says the snow was both the “best and worst part,” adding that, while 50K of the century-old railway route had been worked on and improved, the remaining 150K consist of loose ballast rock.
“Running on this surface is mentally fatiguing, requiring extreme concentration to avoid tripping on the occasional toe-breaking boulder,” Shepard says. “The six to eight inches of snow provided a more stable footing, but also required more effort to plow through shin-deep snow.”
Shepard was confident in his ability to conquer 200K and felt no pressure, since he wasn’t competing against anyone except the elements. He made the most of the experience and the challenges as he encountered them – immense tumbleweed barricades, massive boulders covering the trail, and an icy headwind on the second day, with no face protection other than his glove.
Where will we see #shepspresso next? While he’s certainly always on the hunt for the next adventure, Shepard’s ultimate goal is the Barkley Marathons, where, he says, “I don’t just want to participate, I want to finish with flying colours.” Shep feels the last few years have been a persistent effort to prepare his body for the opportunity, with his flatland and backyard racing building a strong endurance base, and a shifted focus to FKTs this year to finesse his skills in arenas like route-planning, nutrition, pacing, and budgeting sleep.
Shepard sums up his FKT and current running career goals with a couple of enthusiastic sentences. “While I was out on the CPT, I remember being overcome with gratitude for all the things that brought me to this place in life. This success reinforces the idea that I’m on the right path, and I can’t wait to see where this journey takes us.” With an attitude like that, Shepard will no doubt continue to be an athlete to watch on the Canadian elite ultrarunning scene.
Keeley Milne lives and runs in Medicine Hat, Alta., on the traditional lands of the Siksika, Kainai, Piikani, Stoney-Nakoda, Tsuut’ina, as well as the Cree, Sioux, and the Saulteaux bands of the Ojibwa peoples. She is also a yoga instructor and a coach with Personal Peak.