A Manitoba soldier became the fastest Mountain Man alive this week after he shattered the course record with his first place finish.
Scores of troops from the Edmonton Garrison gathered at Edmonton’s Forest Heights Park Thursday morning to cheer on the 330-some members of 1 Canadian Mechanized Brigade Group taking part in the Mountain Man Challenge.
The annual race has soldiers complete a 50 km course in Edmonton’s river valley as fast as possible while carrying up to 100 pounds of equipment.
Lt. Eric Henderson of the 2nd Battalion, Princess Patricia’s Canadian Light Infantry smoked the competition this year, taking first place with a record-setting time of 4:35:40.
“Two V-P! Two V-P!” chanted his peers (using a nickname for 2 PPCLI) as he rounded the final curve.
Henderson, who was literally steaming with sweat at the finish, said he was glad it was warmer during this year’s race.
“I lost my gloves on the run last year, and my hands were freezing!”
The Mountain Man is a challenge of physical fitness, will and determination that demonstrates the mental and physical fortitude needed to be a soldier, said Lt. Col. Bryan Davidson of 1 Service Battalion (which organizes the event). Most participants spend six months training for the event.
Henderson, who is based out of Shilo, Man., said that he has a long history of running, having done track and 10 km cross-country runs in university. He likes the Mountain Man because it’s a lot more relevant to soldiering than a simple run.
“It’s really (about) how hard you can push, and how hard you can push your body and find those limits, and training yourself to push those limits farther.”
Capt. Richard Hayes of 1 Service Battalion was right on Henderson’s tail for most of the race, coming just 10 minutes behind him to claim second place.
“I’ve been running cross-country since Grade 4,” he said, and he regularly does marathons.
The race started with a 32-km loop during which troops carried a 33-pound sack on their back. This happened at about 5 a.m., so competitors had to rely on glow-sticks and headlamps to see their path.
Hayes said he sprinted out of the gate and was all alone until he passed Henderson headed the opposite direction.
Henderson passed Hayes during the portage portion of the event, where troops had to lug a 70-pound canoe in addition to their pack some 3.2 kilometres.
You burn through calories so fast during this part of the race that you can’t eat quickly enough to replace them, Hayes said. You start feeling the sag in your hips and your shoulders, and even walking becomes a challenge.
After that comes a 10-km paddle on the North Saskatchewan River. It gives you a chance to rest your legs, but it gives your leg muscles a chance to seize up from lactic acid, said Davidson.
“That last leg requires a huge amount of determination.”
Henderson said he tried kneeling in the canoe for about two minutes before leg cramps made that impossible. He spent the rest of his row doing kicks to loosen his legs.
The last five-kilometre run is the toughest part of the race, Henderson said. You’re having leg spasms from an hour spent in a boat, your balance is off, and you still have to throw on your 33-pound pack and run the hilliest part of the course.
“You have to force yourself to run.”
Henderson said adrenaline plus his goal of beating the 4:38:55 record set by his coach, Sgt. Brian Weigelt, last year, drove him to the finish.
For winning the Mountain Man, Henderson received a medal, bragging rights and some time off.
He said he plans to do the run again next year, and hopes to complete it in less than 4:30:00.
Hayes said he was now preparing to run the 125-km Canadian Death Race, and looked forward to a rematch with Henderson next year.
“We should definitely run together next year. I think we would both do better!”