at the races Cultivating a Running Community

Cultivating a Running Community

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About two kilometers into a 10K race course there’s a hungry alpaca eyeing the apple in my hand, likely wondering if I’ll give it over. I do with a smile because alpacas (even hungry ones) always look happy, much like many of the runners I’ve met here today. This is the Dump Run and it’s exactly the kind of community race everyone needs to round out what has been yet another year in which nothing went as expected, least of all racing. Feeding these alpacas is one of the features of this 10K race that also includes dropping off Cheezies to a garbage dump keeper, and picking up trash along the race course which covers a stretch of the Trans-Canada Highway, about 30 minutes north of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. Needless to say, this is not your average 10K race. Race director Nick Brash is also an ultra trail runner and organizer of the Ultra Trail Stokely Creek (September 22-24, 2002). Along with the Dump Run, Brash’s company Bear In Mind Running offers several other races each with a unique twist which has contributed to the popularity among the local running and cycling community. “These events are about more than racing,” explains Brash, “It’s about opening up to the idea of racing for runners at every level and ability, creating an inclusive community.”

Photo: Dan Grisdale

When you talk with Brash, you quickly realize exactly how much he genuinely enjoys running. He also has a passion and love for the trails in the Algoma Highlands, in particular the 160 km trails spanning Stokely Creek. Basically, he wants just about anyone who can, to have as much fun as he does and judging from the runners I speak to on and off the race course, there’s no question they do. “There’s so much to see, so many incredible trails that people just don’t know about right in their backyard,” he says. While the race draws seasoned runners including multiple Boston marathoners, it’s the low-pressure, community driven atmosphere that also attracts new runners who are looking to complete their first race. An open start time between 9am and 5pm allowed runners to start safely at any point, while using their own devices to log their finishing times.

Photo Credit: Dan Grisdale

Nicole Pyykonen understands how intimidating that first race can be. As a local run crew leader Pyykonen says its events like the Dump Run that give new runners a goal to aim for while still easing into their first race day experience. After several years of trying to stick with a regular running routine on her own, it wasn’t until she got her dog, a Labrador Golden Retriever mix, that she finally held to her training schedule. “Having a dog meant I had no excuse even if I didn’t want to, I knew I had no choice but to get us both out the door,” she explains. With her running companion, she was able to build a consistent training schedule that took her to training for a 15K at the 2019 Ultra Trail Stokely Creek Race. “When COVID hit I knew I needed something more to keep me motivated,” she explains. “Running is about making it fun, and when I learned more about Nick’s other events including the Dump Run, I knew this was my way to keep going and stay connected with other runners.”

Photo Credit: Dan Grisdale

At the 3.5K point, an aid station serves up a selection of unconventional snacks, beverages including beer and the conversation flows easily among runners, some of whom have already claimed their race medal and are headed back to the finish line. The beauty of an out-and-back race course means this is an aid station for runners heading back at the 6.5K point. After dropping off Cheezies to the Haviland Garbage Dump Manager (its his favourite snack food) and claiming your race medal, it’s onto the finish line and a post-race bonfire and barbeque the includes traditional bratwurst along with vegetarian options.

Photo Credit: Dan Grisdale

Crossing the finish line brings more than a sense of accomplishment, there’s a sense of warmth that comes from being a part of a race that’s run on the love and enjoyment of this sport. In the subzero temperature, the warmth of the running community is palpable. It is an inviting and invigorating feeling, a glowing reminder of what we have all been missing these past eighteen months—a real human connection. Standing around the bonfire, a playlist pumping from the speakers as Brash announces runners starting and finishing their race, I’m now basking in the warmth of the sunshine peaking through the clouds. It’s clear that Brash is onto something here. We all know that running can be about much more than the sport itself. What is also clear is that events including the Dump Run are uniting a community, whether or not you take part in the sport, running really does connect us all in rather unique and unexpected ways.

Anna Lee Boschetto is a regular iRun contributor, runner and fitness enthusiast.