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Runner shares beauty of Northern Alberta on 200-kilometre run

Jessica Leska used her love of trail running to connect with her community and showcase the natural beauty of Fort McMurray, Alberta

When Jessica Leska‘s plans to run the Iditarod Trail Invitational in Alaska fell through, rather than get discouraged and go home to sit on the couch, she planned a winter running adventure of her own. The 36-year-old from Fort McMurray, Alta., decided to take the opportunity to show the rest of the country that her home was more than just an oil town by running 200K through the boreal forest. She completed the run over four days entirely self-supported, dragging her belongings on a sled behind her. A photographer and a cameraman followed her on her journey to document her run and capture the beauty of Northern Canada.

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Leska didn’t start running until 2015, and didn’t get into trail running until after the wildfires that ravaged the area in 2016. While the fires were burning, she was evacuated down south to Edmonton, where she had very little to do to occupy her time. A friend invited her out on a trail run, and despite her hesitancy, she went. That first run was a turning point for Leska, and she went from completing her first 10K right before the fire to doing her first half-marathon only one month after.

Her first stage race was a 150K run in Costa Rica in January 2017. Since then, she’s done stage races in several countries around the world, including Ireland and a 350K run in New Zealand.

“I kind of got really deep into the stage racing,” she laughs. “I enjoy the challenge.”

She liked doing February races because having a goal kept her training through the winter, which, in northern Alberta, can be very long and cold. She was running out of new races to do that month, when she started to consider the 350-mile Iditarod in Alaska. Of course, unlike many of the other stage races she’d completed, this one was going to be a completely different experience because of the cold. Leska figured she already had the perfect training grounds to prepare for a winter race, so she decided to go for it. Unfortunately, the pandemic derailed her plans.

“That’s when I decided I would come up with my own race and do it locally,” Leska explains. “I could still reach my goals of challenging myself, keeping myself busy and active during these challenging times, and I would get to show how beautiful our region really is.”

Originally, Leska planned on running 480K from Fort McMurray to Fort Smith in the Northwest Territories, via the winter ice roads that are built each year to transport goods and supplies to the northern parts of the country. Because of COVID, unfortunately, part of the road did not get built, so she had to move to Plan B, which was to shorten the run and end in Fort Chip, a route of only 150K. One week prior to the run, however, the community asked Leska not to use the road because they’d been having such mild weather and the lifespan of the road was significantly shortened. Northern communities were trying to get a year’s worth of supplies up in a very short time, which meant there would be a lot of traffic on the road and it wouldn’t be safe.

That left Leska with Plan C: create her own route through the Skidoo trails that run through the boreal forest near her community, which worked out to be about 200K long. She completed the route self-supported, which meant she had no aid stations or helpers along the way, and had to carry everything she needed for eating and sleeping on a sled that she dragged behind her. If that wasn’t already hard enough, the mild conditions presented the additional challenge of soft snow.

“When you run through the snow you want it to be firm,” she explained. “If you have mild temperatures, it’s almost like running and pulling a sled through sand.”

Aside from the occasional chat with the small camera crew, Leska was completely alone for the entire journey. To keep her mind occupied and stave off boredom, she carried a small speaker to listen to podcasts, and occasionally music, while she ran. On day two, she began struggling with cramps, because she hadn’t accounted for the warmer temperatures and how much she’d be sweating.

“Training in the extreme cold, you moderate your activity so you don’t sweat so much,” says Leska. “Because it was so mild and I was having to push so much harder to get the sled through, I was sweating a lot more and not accommodating for that.”

Her cramps got so bad at one point that she thought she might have to quit, but after some salty food, they went away, and she managed to finish the day. The most rewarding part of the run, she says, was being able to connect with her community. Because her route was in an area with cell service, she was able to keep people updated through occasional story updates on her Instagram page, @sherunsnorth.

“I was almost able to have people along with me, telling them how I’m doing and every time I pulled out my phone to take a picture I would see positive messages, and that was very special to me.”

Trail running has given Leska the opportunity to connect with her community in a way that she couldn’t have otherwise, and has helped her view her hometown beyond its stigma as just an oil town. Now, she has helped create a thriving trail-running community, and it’s her goal to expose the beauty of the area and introduce others to trail running. The film from Leska’s winter run will hopefully be given a spot in the Banff Film Festival next year, giving us all an opportunity to be a part of her journey.

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