To embark on a lifestyle change that positively impacts your health is no overnight endeavour. One runner’s journey to reclaim his health has taken him from a run around the block to running an ultra-marathon. Read Joel Kennedy’s account of his first ultra-marathon as he returned to his place of birth to participate in the Calgary Marathon.
Finishing my first ultra marathon, something I never knew I was capable of, took me back to October 2015, when I started my journey. I remember the night I went out with the intent to walk for 30 mins, a big goal for me. I found myself not being able to go any longer than 10 minutes, and at the time I was over 150 pounds heavier than I am today. At that moment, on my first walk, I felt defeated. But pushed through, turned around, and made it home.
This would be something I would face throughout my journey.
During my first marathon in Chicago, only three years later, I went in with an injury, but decided to do it anyway. Once again I found myself having to push to finish. But I finished. The seven-hour finish time I felt was nothing to brag about, and in a way I was ashamed of my finish time. Instead, I should have been proud of what I had accomplished, especially what I put myself through in order to finish my first marathon and how far I had come.
Fast forward three years, I completed two more marathons and was now going for my first Ultra Marathon (50K).
It was a tough, hot summer for training, as I am sure many endured. My body didn’t react well as I tried balancing an extensive outdoor remodel at home while putting in mileage. By the time July came around, my body crashed. It had enough. There were many times I felt like calling it quits, but I continued to adapt and continued to make a new plan. Going in, I knew I was under-trained, but felt my body was not beat up so I was confident I could finish within the 6.5 hour cut off time. I chose the Calgary Marathon as it was the city where I was born and haven’t been since I was a year-old. It was meaningful for me to return “home” and attempt such a feat.
I remember touching down in Calgary and my legs felt off. Was it the increase in elevation? Or the fact that it was my first time flying? I couldn’t tell you. But I knew something wasn’t right. Having four days before the event I was confident I would recover and explored the area with my family. Two days before the event I started to wonder if my legs would feel normal. I purchased some calf sleeves, hoping this would help, and got myself to the starting line.
I have to take a moment to say being at the starting line of a large live event again was a great feeling. Something I had not experienced since I was in Chicago, 23 months ago, at my second marathon.
Away we go and I’m on pace to finish within six hours. Around 24K, my legs start feeling weird again and I’m thinking: ‘I am not even halfway.’ I continued to push through just past 26K where the marathoners turned around and headed back to the finish line. I have to say this portion of the course was the most scenic and it was great to see some of the trails Calgary has to offer. My family met me at the 30K mark with some food and drinks to refuel. Something I hoped would give my legs the kick I needed to finish. Once I got going again I started asking the volunteers what the cut off time was. I knew it was going to be close as my legs didn’t want to cooperate. It took me back to my first marathon where I pushed myself beyond my limit and it wasn’t enjoyable. I knew I had not reached that point, and was far from it, so I started to take in the experience. I made sure I enjoyed the rest of the event. At times, some volunteers were confident that they kept the finish line open longer.
I was around 45 kilometres into the course when a race marshal approached me on their bike and handed me a piece of paper. They told me this is the directions to the finish line. I was now an informed pedestrian and the course was closed. I was to move to the sidewalk and obey all pedestrian laws. Everything I was holding onto to become an ultra-marathoner was crushed, at no fault of the marshal who was fulfilling their responsibility. I thanked them and started to battle myself mentally as to whether or not I wanted to finish.
I was informed that I wouldn’t have an official finish time and would have to send an email to arrange receiving a finisher’s medal. It was a hard decision, but I told myself I am going to finish this—for me. So off I went and continued to push. There were times where I didn’t know where I was going as I was following directions on a piece of paper in an unfamiliar city. Sure enough each time I felt lost, a volunteer was still there letting me know I was going the right direction.
My family met me again around the 49K mark and motivated me to push the final kilometre. As I am coming into Stampede Stadium, I hear cheering and I am shocked. The finish line was still up and the volunteers were still there. Everything else was taken down, but I was happy to see the finish line. As I crossed the line the race photographer took my photo. One of the volunteers said, ‘Let’s see if we can find you a medal,’ and we walked 500m to a pile of boxes. Sure enough, they found one and we went back to the finish line where the race photographer snapped a few extra shots. I can’t say enough about the feeling I had from the volunteers at the finish line.
They made me feel like I accomplished something special.
When I connected with my family, they were in tears. They said they saw me finish and I was surprised and asked how. My wife told me she received a notification and saw my finish via the live stream and saw I had an official finish time. I was shocked and couldn’t believe it. I am an ultra-marathoner! After posting to my Instagram, the Calgary Marathon account commented: “Congratulations and well done. The Volunteers were all saying how emotional it was for them when you came in!!”
I am mesmerized by the experience. It’s an emotional milestone that will never be forgotten.
Joel Kennedy is a member of the Oneida Nation of the Thames, is Bear Clan and has embarked on reclaiming his health and wellness since 2015. From running to volleyball, he has inspired others to take control of their health in a holistic manner (physical, mental, emotional and spiritual) and for Joel, it starts with running. He is the Founder of the Indigenous Running Club in London that runs out of the N’Amerind Friendship Centre.