The Toronto 50k+ – 16th June, 2016

The Toronto 50k+ was supported by Lush Cosmetics, Salba Chia, Fresh Restaurants and Genuine Health

In the autumn of 2015 I saw a film of the Barkley Marathon, and loved it. The idea that there were still some people around who wanted to organise a very difficult race that didn’t try to pander to modern ways of experiencing a running event really inspired me. The Barkley race began in 1995 and since then only 14 runners have completed the course, which is a 32 km unmarked loop that runners have to complete 5 times with no aid stations except water at two points along the route and the runner’s parked car at the beginning of the loop. If that wasn’t tough enough, to enter the event potential runners must complete an essay on “Why I Should be Allowed to Run in the Barkley”, pay a $1.60 application fee, and complete other requirements subject to change. And even after they do all that they might not get in, as entrance numbers are capped at just 40 people each year…

I wanted to organise a similar race here in Toronto.

“I’m going to create a 100 mile race, a vegan event, using the trails around Toronto,” I said to my friend Trevor.

“Nice idea but nobody would do it, it’s too far.” I considered it. He had a point.

“100km then?”

“Try 50.”

I thought it over some more. 50km wasn’t going to offer the sort of mental or physical test I wanted to give people but I could see the wisdom in what Trevor said. If I made the distance 100 miles, few if any would turn up. So, ok, 50km it would be, to start with anyway.

Maybe this was my first mistake. I bet the Barkley Marathon organiser didn’t worry if anybody turned up, so if I was following their lead, why did I?

There’d be no medals on offer. No winners or losers either, just the pleasure and sense of achievement that comes from taking part in a tough event with decent people. There’d be no race t-shirts, not unless I could find organic, biodegradable ones (why offer t-shirts that can’t be recycled to people who no doubt already have far too many; almost all races do that, and it’s dumb), although there would be goodie bags as there are at regular events, filled with things from companies I personally thought were ethically sound and whom offered relevant, high quality product. And finally it’d be a vegan only event, and preferably home made real vegan food too. I knew that many runners rely on gels (many of the gels are admitedly vegan) but I also knew that most gels are full of ingredients that no healthy person should be touching (not if they want their teeth to last anyhow – just ask any runner who regularly consumes lots of gels about their dental problems…). Far better to make your own ‘clean’ running fuel, only, many people wouldn’t know how to do that. So why not show them, why not provide food during the run that I’d made before the event and demostrate in the most effective way that vegan running food could be tasty, healthy and powerful!

I got Lush Handmade Cosmetics, Salba Chia and Fresh Restaurants on board as sponsors, set a date in December 2015 for the first running of the event and decided to charge $10 entrance fee, with all money going towards an animals sanctuary I wanted to set up.

The turn-out was good – partly because we had a few shout-outs on social media by people such as Matt Frazer of No Meat Athlete, Sid Garza-Hillman and Josh LaJaunie (all thanks to Trevor getting in contact with them), and partly because a large group of friends showed up together – and the route kept to the cycle paths and trails of eastern Toronto which made for a pretty, if tough, day out.

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Here’s a short film I made whilst running

Was it a success in reality?

Well, only 6 people finished what turned out to be a 54km route so in that respect, it seemed to be difficult enough (km’s 35 to 40 were on hilly, muddy trail and this seemed to break quite a few runners). Were any of the non vegan runners interested in the vegan fuel side of things? A couple, but I doubt any long term converts were made. Free food is one thing and naturally welcomed by all but I surmised from the lack of questions that only 1 or 2 runners intended to make the power bars, rice parcels and brownies for themselves. This wasn’t so bad, it was the first running of the event, I was in it for the long haul, there was time.

Part of the goodie bag was a couple of coupons to get free juices at Fresh Restaurants here in Toronto. The juices would usually cost around $8 each and all Fresh asked in return was that runners would leave them a review online after tasting the juices. I checked the Fresh site a month after the event and it didn’t seem as if anybody had left a review, which was dissapointing. I don’t like to let sponsors down.

Now I know the runners never signed up for any crusade but, didn’t they get it? This event wasn’t about medals or anything crappy like that, it was about trying to do something good with their running. Improve their mental and physical stamina beyond their expectations, learn about healthy race day fuel from athletes such as Trevor and I who knew something about such things, see the many lovely, hidden trails of central Toronto, get introduced to ethical, great companies through the goodie bags, enjoy their products and in return try to support them in any way they can (at least by taking 2 minutes out of their day to post an online review)…

Everybody knows that they’ve got to be the change they want to see in the world, a thousand hipster tattoos remind us of Ghandi’s saying every day, and yes everybody’s busy and a general apathy encourages us to question doing today what we can put off until tomorrow, but, didn’t anybody want to take the momentum that running an ultra race creates inside them to align their thoughts with their actions?

Ok, I reasoned, I’m over-reacting, lets do a second running of the event, same sponsors, different route, 3 months later so the weather and underfoot conditions would be different and therefore new challenges would have to be faced. I’d explain the concept more on social media, runners would begin to ‘get it’. There are lots of plant based runners on my Facebook food, they’ll be eager to take part if only I make the idea clearer, for sure. 

It was around minus 5 the day of the second event. I didn’t think that sort of weather would be a problem as I was running with Canadians, and they’re a tough bunch of people…

Just 5 runners turned in total out and many others cried off, citing the cold weather as a reason.

“It’s only minus bloody 5!” I said to my running friends, “it’s perfect running weather. We won’t even have to stop to drink much as we won’t be sweating. I’m from England, I can’t handle too much cold yet it’s fine for me, what’s going on here!”

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The weather was so perfect that the 50k wasn’t the test we all needed - the slight chill helped the distance fly past – so we started a Push Up Challenge as we ran. Every 5km we’d drop and do as many push ups as we could. In the end I did 666, which seemed a beastly number to stop on, and we decided that it was such fun we’d incorporate it into the next event as a purely option ‘event within an event’. 

But again, I felt that the sponsors had been let down, this time solely by me. They’d had faith in me and I hadn’t got the numbers out to repay that faith. Third time lucky?

Genuine Health stepped in to sponsor the Push Up Challenge with their excellent vegan nutrition product, press releases were sent out, shouts outs circulated on all social media, and around 45 people said they’d join us on the June running of the event. Our route was fixed to begin in High Park then lead down onto the shore of Lake Ontario, up the Humber River Trail before cutting through central Toronto on the Belt Line trail, down the Don Valley back onto the lake shore and passing the CN Tower on the way back to High Park. It’d be mainly cycle path (so road shoes would be fine) but the scenery would be almost entirely green – all the beauty of the trails without the added hardship of uneven terrain. I was really trying to make it easy for people to complete a first ultra distance.  

When the day came – it was a gorgeous 28 degrees, an amazing 33 degrees warmer than the previous run – just 5 runners turned up. 

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From a personal point of view, it was fun. I wanted to throw down a marker for myself in the fitness stakes that I couldn’t do during a normal marathon or ultra marathon and this event allowed me to do that. The run was nearly 60km in total and I knocked out 1,150 push ups during the 7 hours it took us to complete it. My fellow runners, all of whom are now firm friends of mine, were great company as ever and the scenery was a dream. Who could tell there were such an extent of beautiful trails within the city of Toronto?

Yet I couldn’t ignore the fact that the turn out was again a failure.

Since the event I’ve discussed with many friends and runners how to improve turn-out, from the core 5 to between 50 and 100 entrants each time. Perhaps the distance is too long or short, the terrain too difficult or easy, the vegan aspect too uncool, preachy or intimidating or not nearly hardcore enough, the whole idea of running just for fun and mental as well as physical improvement – with no timing chips or medals as prizes – too alien or just boring. And maybe the idea of entrance fees going to an animal sanctuary put people off. It’s well known that 97% of charitable giving is to charities that deal with either cancer or kids; you start asking for funds for animals and you’re stepping onto tricky ground…

Perhaps the prospective runners just didn’t even ‘get’ how good the goodie bag was? I guess you have to be relatively informed to know that Lush are the leaders in the ethical cosmetics industry, that there is no chia seed in the world as nutritionally good as Salba Chia, and that Genuine Health produce superb protein powder and greens supplements? Perhaps runners just wanted a muesli bar, a carton of juice and a bagel, or lots of talk of beer – things they knew and felt safe with – instead?

I could make changes to correct these issues yet, yet, when the thought of the fourth edition of the Toronto 50k crops up the Barkley Marathon ideal is still fixed in my mind. The run should be a real challenge (and if 50k+ isn’t a challenge then the runner should invent their own mountain within a mountain with, say, their variation of our push up challenge), winning is not the point of starting, finishing should not be taken for granted, and decent ethics should be at it’s core. Are these aims feasible in a modern day North American city? Do recreational runners really want something other than external competition, beer, medals, chip timings, t-shirts they don’t need, finish line photos for Facebook and junk food?

We’ll see.

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