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Small Alberta trail race survives COVID cancellations

This year's Futterwacken Trail Race, which is capped at 100 participants, is scheduled for Saturday, September 11 in Medicine Hat

While 2020 was disappointing for runners who crave splashy, in-person races over the virtual variety, there was one race on the Prairies that went ahead mostly as planned, thanks to its simplicity. A division of the Medicine Hat, Alta. running club dubbed the Mad Hatters was able to hold its fifth annual Futterwacken Trail Run on September 10, 2020, largely because it’s a race capped at 100 participants.

The brainchild of Shelley Acheson and Marvin Genno, the race is named for the dance performed by Lewis Carroll’s Mad Hatter (of Alice in Wonderland) in times of great joy and celebration. While it’s fun to say, it also sounds like a form of profanity that many runners have expressed after a gruelling race!

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Shelley Acheson and Marvin Genno, co-founders of the Futterwacken Race

The Futterwacken Trail Run takes place on the Alberta side of Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, an oasis on the prairie roughly 63 km (a 50-minute drive) from the closest city, which is Medicine Hat. The park boasts an elevation of 1,234 m (4,048 ft), which is the same as that of Banff National Park. It’s a great biking and hiking trail created and occasionally altered by the Parks Department and local 670 Collective Club, so the race can potentially look different from one year to the next. The current routes offer distances of about 5 km and 11.25 km.

The race has been consistently capped at 100 participants because the route is narrow, and having fewer runners ensures that it stays in pristine shape.




 

When COVID hit, Acheson and her volunteer group were reasonably concerned that the race would be a no-go, so planning was kept to a minimum. However, when the provincial government gave the green light to outdoor gatherings of 100 people, they quickly scrambled to make it a reality.

The weather was great on race-day, which allowed registrants to mostly stay outdoors and maintain social distancing, and some of the usual snacks served post-race were included in the swag bags. Staggered starts also allowed for social distancing requirements to be met.

The route offers both beauty and seclusion, through wooded areas as well as challenging hills and potentially ankle-twisting tree roots. Handmade stained glass beauties crafted by Acheson’s mom, Vickey Stevens, are handed out to the top three female and male finishers.

Photo: Donna Armstrong

Every race runs the risk of challenges eventually, and the Futterwacken Trail Run is no exception. One year, smoke from Montana forest fires threatened to choke the brave participants. Another year the group was at the mercy of wasps that had chosen the route to build their nests on, and some were stung numerous times, requiring the attention of first aiders. 

In spite of these mishaps, the race sells out well in advance, with participants coming from Drumheller, Strathmore, and points in Saskatchewan. It’s only 355 km from Calgary and 220 kms from Lethbridge, and some runners make a weekend of it, staying at Elkwater Lake Lodge, a full-service amenity.

Acheson was a pivotal member of the Bustin’ Loose Race to End Breast Cancer fundraiser, a popular and successful event that ran for 10 years in Medicine Hat. Pressure to make each year bigger and better, as well as an ambitious goal to raise at least $1 million, led to burnout. However, Acheson keeps getting ideas to make the Futterwacken bigger and better, but then gets reined back in to keep it simple and divide the work among a group of very capable and energetic volunteers.

The Futterwacken “medal,” crafted by Vickey Stevens. Photo: Shelley Acheson

The 2021 edition of the Mad Hatters Futterwacken Trail Run is slated for September 11, COVID precautions permitting. You can register here

Judi Coombes is a registered massage therapist living in Medicine Hat, Alta., and has been a runner for more than 20 years, with three marathons and numerous half-marathons and Spartan races (including the Spartan Trifecta in 2015) under her belt.