Mountain climbing, music festivals, food, and a marathon in Canada’s first National Park.
By Anna Lee Boschetto
I’m awestruck. Even as the mountains gradually come into view in the open, clear blue skies during my hour and a half drive from Calgary, it wasn’t until I walked up Banff Avenue, that I was taken by the town’s picture postcard views. Situated within Banff National Park, the town of Banff is enveloped by the Canadian Rockies including notable Sulfur Mountain, Cascade Mountain and Mount Rundle. And although it’s short in elevation, Tunnel Mountain is popular among locals and tourists (myself included) for quick runs and hikes, taking you to the summit in about 30 minutes. From Banff’s iconic bridges to the Bows River Valley to the Upper Hot Springs to the views from the gondola up Sulfur Mountain, you can’t possibly take a bad photograph. In fact, it’s the endless span of blue skies, punctuated with crisp white cumulus clouds that attract more than three million visitors each year.
The night before the Banff Marathon, I’m reviewing the park’s Response Plan. With the possibility of wildlife sightings including grizzly bears, there’s a part of me that regrets not picking up bear spray earlier in the day. At the same time, with a race route that weaves through Banff National Park, it’s the opportunity to see caribou, elk, big horn sheep or mountain goats along the racecourse that is a major draw for runners. Speaking briefly with the marathon race director Paul Regensburg earlier in the day, it’s clear that he’s also excited for runners to experience the full route.
Part of the fun of building a vacation around a race is about experiencing the destination like a local, and that means enjoying the food. At 9:30 p.m. on a Friday in June, the sun is still shining brightly, offering plenty of time for capturing Instagram-worthy photos, not to mention sampling from the incredible eatery menus. With more than 130 places to dine and drink, many of which are owned by chefs who offer up menus of seasonally available, locally sourced foods, Banff’s food scene is as expansive as its mountain views.
While you might expect menu offerings to include Alberta beef (and many do) unexpected bistros such as Nourish, offer vegetarian menus with a healthy number of vegan options and at Toque Canadian Pub, servers will breakout board games for young families allowing parents to enjoy the restaurant’s quirky Canadian inspired menu and perhaps enjoy one of the signature creations from the restaurant’s Cesar Bar.
On race day, the mountain views keep me motivated as the use of headphones aren’t permitted for safety reasons; you’ll want to hear the approaching wildlife. Although elevation changes, contrary to what some runners might believe, hills aren’t part of the course. Instead marathoners, half marathoners and 10K runners continue to experience the naturally captivating beauty of Banff, winding along the legacy trail, up the iconic Bow River Valley Parkway towards Lake Louise, then loops back into the centre of town.
Unlike my experience during other races where I’m hyper-aware of my pace, I’m basking in the quiet serenity of the Vermillion Lakes. At the 14 kilometre mark of the half marathon, I find myself increasingly aware of the natural rhythm of each stride. Maybe it’s the realization that it’s unlikely I’ll be chased down by caribou or bears during this race, but in my ease of movement it seems as though I’m finding myself at one with nature.
Although runners don’t have their personal playlist pumping on the racecourse, Banff’s Performance in the Park, an annual two-day music festival held during race weekend, is an opportunity for runners (and non-runners) looking to chill out and unwind prerace. Incorporating performances from a range of musical genres this year, Performance in the Park featured rap, folk and rock from artists such as k-os, The Rural Alberta Advantage and Hannah Georgas. With on- site barbecues, and mid-afternoon to early evening performance times, it’s also a family and runner-friendly way to spend time in the park’s Cascade Gardens.
At a time when big city races are a go-to for runners, for many of us a run in the park might be just what we need. Whether you’re trekking your family or running solo, the sense of community, one that extends well beyond race day in Banff, will keep you enthralled and engaged. And the town’s distinctive picturesque beauty will have you wishing that every race day could feel this natural.
Anna Lee Boschetto is iRun’s managing editor. She writes frequently about travel, beauty and health at iRun.