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How elephants changed one ultrarunner’s life

An encounter with elephants during an ultra race in Thailand led Rene Unser to turn her passion for trail running into a career

Rene Unser’s first race was a five-day stage race in Thailand in 2005. By the second day, she was already exhausted and had begun to think that this style of racing was not for her. Her husband encouraged her to continue, and on Stage 3, they had an incredible run-in with a couple of elephants while out on the course. She realized in that moment that had she given up the day before, she never would have had her “elephant moment,” and that memory continues to serve as a reminder that suffering is temporary, but giving up lasts forever.

Fast-forward to 2012, when Unser was on Stage 6 of the Transalpine Run in Italy. She “woke up at 4 a.m. with knees that felt like they had been hit with a baseball bat and were the size of softballs.” Thinking she wouldn’t be able to start the stage, she went down to breakfast in her guesthouse in her pyjamas. It took a five-minute pep talk from her husband Trent to convince her “to get my butt upstairs and at least start the stage. He reminded me of my ‘elephant moment’ and I promptly went back up to my room and frantically started counting gels, filling my hydration bladder.”

Photo / Rene Unser

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After a frenzied drive to the start line, a forgotten bib mishap and subsequent late start, the Kelowna, B.C., native was out on the course, knees wrapped in about 18 layers of KT Tape and 10 minutes behind the rest of the runners. Sweeps had already started clearing the course, so locals had to point her in the right direction. Despite the rough start, Unser managed to work her way up through the runners, passing the third-place female team (it was both a team and solo event) with only 5K left to go.

Unser is an athlete with a lot of drive and passion, but her athletic career started much the same as anyone else’s — she was an active kid who played lots of sports during her school years, and while she showed some talent in running, she preferred to remain a generalist rather than focus on one sport. She didn’t start to run more regularly until her mid-20s, and her first trail run was in 2003 when she went on her first date with the man who would later become her husband. She was immediately hooked, and with her job as a fitness instructor at the time, she wanted to figure out how to get others into trail running.

Unser and her son Carter on a trail run

Since then, Unser has turned her passion into a career. In 2003, she got her coaching certification and 10 years later founded P.A.C.E., a coaching business that offers trail running clinics and running camps and organizes a trail running series. Since 2011, Unser has competed in the Transalpine race eight times, and in 2020 she raced to a second-place finish in the master’s women’s category. In her most recent race, the Scorched Sole Ultra in B.C., she placed third overall.

Unser racing with her running partner, Sarah Macleod

Between her race directing, community work and coaching, Unser caught the attention of Salomon and Hammer Nutrition, and both companies now sponsor her and provide her with different opportunities, such as being the media liaison for the Transalpine race. With so much going on, she has less time to enter races herself, and she now limits herself to just a couple of more challenging stage races per year.

When asked about how she’s dealt with the challenges of COVID-19, she points to her company name, which stands for “positive attitude changes everything.”

“It’s cheesy, but I believe in it,” Unser says. “COVID created an opportunity for me to be there for my community in a new way. I wasn’t sure what would happen for my race series, camps or clinic format, but my community continued to stand behind me. I am so grateful, and I learned more about myself and the kind of coach I wanted to be.”

Unser has become a pillar in her local trail-running community, has inspired and encouraged countless others to get out and enjoy the trails, and has enjoyed a long and successful trail-running career herself — all because she met a few elephants on a trail in Thailand.

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