ST. PAUL - It's a challenge that only some are willing to attempt - 100 miles or 100 kilometres... it's a long distance when you're travelling by foot, through varying terrain and into the dark of night. But that is what they sign up for.
While some participants of the Iron Horse Ultra (IHU) see it as a team effort, each taking on a leg (or sometimes multiple legs) of the course, others see it as a solo challenge.
St. Paul resident Jocelyn Cote says he has always enjoyed running, and was quite good at it when he was a teenager. After taking a number of years off, he decided to get back into the sport in 2019.
"Mostly over the summer I would go for either morning runs or evening runs. Nothing crazy just 5 km or something like that, and on weekends I would go a bit longer, 10 km or so," he says. His wife, Hannah, would encourage him to take on a leg of the Iron Horse Ultra, or the springtime event Iron Horse Mini. Both are long-distance running events that take place in the St. Paul-Elk Point area.
"To be honest, it didn't interest me that much. Running was for me, and me only. I didn't like running with anyone. I just did it on my own and for myself. I guess I just enjoyed the down time that running gave me," says Cote, who is also a father to four young children. But then he started joking with his wife that if he did take on the challenge, it would be all or nothing.
"I joked around with the ladies at the registration table telling them the reason I was doing it alone was because I was not a team player. But I think the real reason was it gave me a goal or a target to thrive for with my runs. It was something that I could focus on and accomplish and be able to say in the end that I did that."
And he did.
On Saturday morning, Cote left the start line at Reunion Station at 7 a.m. And 100 kilometres later, he crossed the finish line at about 2 a.m. on Sunday morning. Actually, Cote may have run a few extra kilometres after heading the wrong direction before being redirected onto the correct trail.
As for training, Cote started by doing his usual 5 km runs during the week and adding in some 10 km weekend runs. He upped the 5 km to 7 km, and eventually got up to running 10 km five to six days a week.
Then, there was a wrench thrown into the plan.
"I honestly had no idea how to train for a run like this. I knew I was in good shape, but honestly, I didn't know what to expect. So, I continued this pattern until mid-August when I ended up getting COVID."
Being sick with the respiratory virus was a challenge. He had to isolate and was not able to train for at least two weeks.
"By the time I was finished with that, it was five weeks until race day. I was kind of panicked because when I tried to run after, (it was like) starting over from square one. Everything hurt and I was exhausted after 5 km," recalls Cote.
"But I kept at it and it got better. (In) September I changed up my training a bit because I found running six days a week was very tiring on my muscles. My legs seemed sore all the time."
Cote started doing one shorter run during the week, then a longer 20 to 30-km run on the weekend. The furthest Cote had ever run prior to the weekend long distance run was 38 km.
"For the race itself, I was confident. I told Hannah, 'I'm not doing this race just to finish it, I'm doing this race to win.' I found out really quick that finishing it is a great accomplishment in its own," said Cote.
For the first leg of the race, Cote was able to keep his usual pace. But, he then realized 100-km is a fair distance and he would have to change his strategy, whether it was walking up and down hills, slowing down his pace, or stopping at the checkpoints to fuel up on food for longer periods of time.
"I ran alone for most of the race, just trying to focus and keep my mind on finishing. I never contemplated quitting - that was never an option, but throughout the race I kept thinking 'I hope this ends soon'."
By the last two legs of the run, everything was starting to hurt, and his feet and legs were cramping.
"The cramps would come and go, but as long as I kept my focus on my goal of finishing the race, that's what mattered to me."
Cote says part of his motivation for finishing were the people cheering him on, especially his wife and kids.
"Hannah was at every station making sure when I got there that I had a place to sit, food in my belly, a blanket if I was cold. She made sure that my bag was full of snacks and water for the next leg and she was efficient and fast. I also had my kids who were there cheering on their dad with signs that they made on the own."
His parents, in-laws, siblings and friends were also cheering him on throughout, offering much-needed motivation.
After a few hiccups - one where Cote went the wrong way, running along the 100-mile course instead of the 100-km course for a portion of the race - he accomplished his goal, completing the 100 km run in 19 hours total.
"As I sit here, every muscle aching, I don't know if I would run another 100 km alone. My goal was to accomplish it and that's what I did. I would definitely run as a team or share the workload, but in this moment, I've accomplished what I wanted."
Other notable finishes at the weekend run included Paul St. Amant finishing first overall in the 100-km solo run with a time of about 12 hours and 12 minutes.
On the 100-mile course, Daylan Wizniuk from Camrose broke his own 100-mile record that he set last year, finishing in just over 17 hours and 41 minutes.
A number of locals were included in teams that tackled the 100-mile and 100-km courses, and a handful also tackled the courses as soloists.
The Iron Horse Ultra takes place the first weekend of October. The course runs along much of the Iron Horse Trail, but also across private property between St. Paul and Lindbergh.
A total of 93 runners started the race on Saturday morning. About a quarter of the runners are local Lakeland residents.
Cold Lake Search and Rescue was on hand this year to help out, which was much appreciated since organizers were low on volunteers leading up to the run.
“The runners really appreciate that they get to see this area of Alberta in all its fall glory,” said one of the IHU organizers, Monique Poulin. She adds that “the running community is amazing” and stepped up ahead of the weekend.
“We were short on volunteers and did a call out a few days before to fill key positions. Runners and support crew who came into town stepped up to cover positions.” Some people even ran legs of the race, then worked a four-hour shift in the middle of the night to help out.