Epic runs. Ultra-distances. Overcoming obstacles. When simply running a race isn’t enough to satisfy the spirit, some batter their bodies to the breaking point in outlier competitions of endurance and grit.
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Events of such scale have not been seen in years. Groups are gathering by the hundreds and thousands; crowds of weekend warriors, glory seekers, past high school athletes, and fitness enthusiasts, all out to compete against each other — and push their limits.
Driven by adrenaline, camaraderie and personal goals, the infectious feeling spills over to the spectators, who will inch as close as they can to the edge of the action.
Many will go to great lengths and overcome the obstacles to be called a ‘Spartan.’
Some of the best Spartans on the continent competed outside of Kelowna last year during the North American Championship at Big White Ski Resort in August. There was about $80,000 in available prize money.
Along with seasoned veterans, weekend warriors also tackled the ‘mud run.’
“The racers that are there for fun are competing on the same course as the racers who are going for the prize money,” says Gary Belanger Jr., director of global consumer insights and analytics for Spartan Race.
There are a variety of events at Spartan races, from a 5K race with about 20 different obstacles up to a 50K race that has between 55 to 70 obstacles. (The penalty for not completing obstacles is typically 30 burpees.)
“You’ll see barbed wire crawls, you’ll see heavy bucket carries, different sized walls going up to 10 feet tall,” he says.
Big White’s rugged terrain was perfect for the championship. It was the first time the North American Championship took place outside of the U.S. Spartan Race also has a World Championship and a few different European championships.
All racers are timed and ranked.
“It’s being a Spartan,” says Belanger. “I think it’s a great brand. Everyone likes to call themselves ‘Spartan.’”
The competitive aspect draws former high school athletes who are looking for a throwback — and are drawn to a distinctive title.
“They’ve met people. They feel successful. Maybe they didn’t think they could do some of these things. They’re overcoming obstacles they didn’t think possible, and they want to go back and do it again and improve on it.”
Spartan Races are a growing phenomenon. When Belanger first started with Spartan in 2012, they had about 20 events. “They all fit on a T-shirt,” he says.
Now there are over 200 races across the globe in 20 countries. It has expanded to the point where the World Championship last year was in Abu Dhabi, across the globe from where it started.
“We’re expanding further and further away from our epi-centre,” he says.
Belanger explains they want to avoid making “one and done” racers.
“They may come in as bucket list item, but then they realize that they want to push themselves and see where they can compete next time,” he adds. “We still want racers out there having fun and having a good time, we are trying to push them to overcome some obstacles and keep going.”
Belanger is also a Spartan himself. He’s personally run a number of races, and the ski resort courses are particularly gruelling with all the uphill climbing. “Some of the ski resorts still scare me,” he says.
“I’m great at suffering for a long time. I am not quick like these guys. It’s amazing to watch them run full speed up these mountains.”
Some prefer to take their car up a steep mountain.
The annual Knox Mountain Hill Climb pits cars and drivers on timed runs up the iconic Kelowna mountain. The paved road course has 10 major turns and climbs 800 vertical feet over 3.5 kilometres. About 60 drivers competed in last May’s event.
Garrett Mealing, one of the race organizers, enters his own car — a 570-horsepower 1995 Eagle Talon with an Andrew Brilliant aero kit.
“It’s a handful,” he says. Mealing first entered the race in 2015, and has floored it up Knox every year to 2019, when the event was postponed due to the pandemic.
He loves racing. “You’re in the moment. It doesn’t matter what’s going on in the world for that few minutes if you’re on the track, the hill climb, or even a drag race, you don’t have time to think about anything else. You’re just driving the car and that’s all that matters. Once you get to the top and everything’s good, it’s hard to explain that feeling. Puts a big grin on your face and nothing else matters,” says Mealing.
It’s also a fantastic spectator event, he says. “At the start line, spectators are standing six feet off the side of the road; you’re right there.”
Hillclimb is one of the few motorsports not heavily regulated, meaning a considerable diversity of cars. Spectators can also mingle with drivers and walk among the vehicles.
“You’re not coming to watch one car go up the hill. You’re coming to watch 60 cars go up the hill,” he says. “Hillclimb is one of the last remaining motorsports where there’s no rules. In the GT classes, the sky’s the limit, as long as your car’s safe. 1,000 horsepower, whatever you can make it do, the biggest tires you can fit on the thing. If you want to build an absolute brainchild of power and speed, that’s where you do it.”
A welder by trade, Mealing says he got into cars at a young age, as his dad had an interest. He grew up on a farm, which led to opportunities to drive.
Mealing has owned the Talon since 2004, turning it into a fast streetcar before tearing it down to a bare shell and a wiring harness. That’s how it sat for years until 2015, when he decided to rebuild it into a race car.
“I’ve always been into cars. It was a natural progression,” he says. “Racing is expensive so I had to make my own money to make it happen. Almost everything I do on this car I do myself.”
People were happy to be back together, says Mealing.
“There was definitely a lot more buzz around the event than there usually is.”
The Kelowna General Hospital Foundation JoeAnna’s House and the Westbank Museum benefited as the charities.
Some ride on two wheels instead of four.
The 10th Okanagan Granfondo drew about 3,000 participants to the South Okanagan in July.
“It was a perfect day,” says Jodi Merckx, the event’s organizer. “It was a great atmosphere.”
The major cycling event attracts all levels of skill for a weekend of road cycling in the middle of Okanagan wine country.
There are four different distances, all starting and finishing in Penticton.
“Our course is known for how spectacular it is. We go past all the vineyards in the South Okanagan,” says Merckx. “It’s the challenge and being around people who enjoy that kind of stuff, a healthy lifestyle, it’s motivating. Life’s too short to sit around and do nothing.”
There are eight stations along the way where people can stop and get food and drinks.
This event has a family feel, and a lot of people come with loved ones and enjoy wine tasting in the region together.
“They bring family and friends,” she says.
Merckx raced when she was younger. While she isn’t able to participate herself due to her commitments as an organizer, she rides the course before the event each year.
“I go down and ride it every spring before the race, I do the whole course. Every time I ride it I think wow this is just amazing.”
She says she’s proud that more than 1,000 out of the 3,000 are women, as cycling has traditionally been a male-dominated sport.
She says residents in the Penticton area know how to support such events and what they mean to the community. There were 350 volunteers this year and they’re each rewarded for their work with small honorariums — with about $10,000 in total given away.
“We’re thankful to the community, without them it wouldn’t happen,” says Merckx.
Registration is open for the July 2023 race, and it’s already drawing a crowd.
Some have a higher cause.
In the case of Melissa (Gosse) Sinclair, running is personal. She ran from Kelowna to Vernon and back again, a 100-kilometre distance, starting at 5 a.m. on Nov. 28, 2020. She did it to raise awareness around mental health.
“I was in a pretty bad car accident earlier that year, where a motorcycle came head on into our truck. They crossed into our lane,” she says. “I dealt with that scene and it had taken a toll on me mentally. I’d gone through counselling for PTSD. I realized how many people will post, ‘hey I’m at the gym working out,’ or ‘look what I can do physically,’ but when it comes to mental fitness it still has a huge stigma around it.”
Her goal was to help people feel safer opening up about mental health and counselling. With matching donations from TD Benefits, Sinclair raised $10,000 for the Canadian Mental Health Association.
From Kelowna, Sinclair has been running ultra-distances for nearly 10 years all across the world, including Canada, the U.S., South America, and Madagascar. (An ultra or ultramarathon is technically anything over the traditional marathon distance of 42km.)
She says running long distances helps her to learn about herself.
The longest race she’s ever run in one go was the Tahoe 200-mile (330km). It took just over 90 hours.
“You’re destroyed,” she says. “Completely destroyed.”
She’s completed other ultras that take place in stages. For example, in Madagascar she ran a marathon every day for seven days in a row — one of those days was a double marathon.
“It’s been one of the coolest ways to see a country. You’re running along and being able to see and feel and smell things that a lot of times you can only get to by foot,” she says.
“You’re out there and don’t have a lot of distractions. You’re pretty worn down physically. The amount you can learn through that and your self-talk is phenomenal. I haven’t really found another way to tap into that type of learning.”
There are multiple times in other races where you hit ‘the wall.’ That’s when self-talk can turn negative.
Sinclair says her inner voice can be very convincing and she’s learned that she’s capable of pushing herself beyond her mental boundaries.
Sinclair is considering her next run, including a bucket list adventure that would bring her to Antarctica for a stage race.
“You should be able to impress yourself. We don’t give ourselves enough opportunities to impress ourselves, to really go for something. Maybe you’ll fail. Maybe you’ll fall flat on your face. And that’s OK. You’ll probably get a great lesson from it. Or you get to this point of ‘holy shit, I did that,’” she says.
“It created a snowball effect of wondering what else have I stopped myself from doing that I thought I couldn’t, I convinced myself out of it?”
Some exercise in moderation — and libation.
For those who like both running and imbibing, the Half Corked Marathon is the perfect pairing of sport and indulgence. After being delayed over COVID-19, the 2021 Half Corked Marathon hit the ground running in April.
“It was great,” says Jennifer Busmann, executive director of Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country.
“We’ve already seen some lovely feedback from participants who just truly appreciate being back to in-person events again. The last two years have been immensely challenging as we’ve had to repeatedly find creative ways to pivot as we’ve navigated the restrictions of the pandemic.”
The popular event was in full swing again last September for the 2022 Half Corked Weekend event, including the pre-race Primavera dinner, party at the finish line, and dinner at the farm.
The event returns to its traditional spring time slot in 2023, celebrating its 15th anniversary weekend May 26-28.
“We love to tell our participants that if you cross the finish line first, you’ve missed the point of the race,” says Busmann. “The Half Corked Marathon is incredibly unique as it’s the only way that guests can truly soak in the picture — perfect vineyards of Oliver Osoyoos Wine Country — areas that aren’t open to the public at any other time.
“The energy is vibrant, our participants’ competitive nature is focused on who has put together the best costume so it’s a very happy and relaxed experience that allows the opportunity to truly immerse in wine country life.”
The event has grown over the past decade from 200 participants to more than 1,000 participants, as well as hundreds of volunteers. Runners often dress in costume. There’s a maximum of 3.5 hours to finish the race to prevent too much dawdling.