It was somewhere in northern Colorado, running alone on a rocky trail lit only by a full moon and his underpowered head lamp, that Dave Stevens’ mind began to wander.
He had already run around 140 kilometres, almost all of it alone in the forest up and down steep elevations and on uneven terrain. As he struggled to spot trail markers in the dark, Stevens realized he was having difficulty breathing, that his quadriceps were burning and he had no idea if another runner was on his heels.
For most of the 160-km Run Rabbit Run ultramarathon, the Nelson runner had been in the lead. Two years earlier, when Stevens first entered the race, the pack had started out with a slow jog. But this year, on Sept. 18, two French and American runners set a fast pace. The runners who trailed predicted the pair would burn out early.
Stevens wasn’t so sure. Even though he thought the pace was too fast, he sped up to catch the leaders – a choice that had been a mistake in 2019.
That year he had become lost three times during the race and sprinted to catch up. At an aid station 124 km into the race, Stevens looked at his watch and realized he’d run 137 km. He was exhausted and dropped out.
But the result gnawed at him. The 2020 race was scrapped by the COVID-19 pandemic, but when organizers announced its return this fall Stevens asked ahead of time for a map of the track. He uploaded it to his watch and when it came time to run he ignored his pace and time in favour of constant checks that he was going the right way.
“Sometimes it’s better to go by feel,” he says.
With his lean physique, Stevens has the look of an avid runner. As he prepared for the Colorado race, Stevens ran 25 hours per week around Nelson and gradually built up to 9,000 metres of climbing.
But the 39-year-old still feels somewhat out of place lining up with more experienced runners. He grew up in England, where he was never on a track team. His athletic background, he says with a wry smile, was skateboarding and partying.
When he turned 30, Stevens was working at a bar in New Zealand when he decided running would help him stay in shape. A DJ, Stevens would mix his own playlists and go on runs just to lose himself in music.
In 2011, Stevens decided to follow his then-girlfriend to Canada and ended up in Canmore, Alta., where he entered his first 14-km race. He finished eighth and was encouraged by the result. Four years later he ran his first marathon.
For many runners, a 42.19-km marathon is the height of human endurance. The marathon is a marquee event at the Olympics and world championships. Kenyan runner Eliud Kipchoge made international headlines when he ran the first sub-two hour marathon at an unofficial event in 2019. The world’s most celebrated races in New York, London and Boston are all marathons.
Take a step beyond 42.19 km and runners enter ultramarathon distances, which typically begin at 50 km. Whereas marathons are held on flat city streets with crowds of spectators, ultramarathoners are usually alone running over mountain passes, through rivers or across deserts.
It was here, beyond the limit, that Stevens found success. He moved to Nelson in 2016 and began entering 45-km, 54-km and eventually 85-km events, winning at each distance.
The longer distances suited Stevens, who decided he was too old to be chasing wins in shorter, faster races but could hang in ultramarathons that favour stamina and mental strength. The American Jim Walmsley, for example, couldn’t qualify for the U.S. Olympic marathon team in 2020 but has won 17 ultras since 2014.
Stevens training was a combination of long days trudging through the bush as part of his job in forestry, combined with a post-shift run up logging roads.
“One of my colleagues actually called me a psycho because I went and ran for three hours after a 10-hour field day.”
On a lark during a vacation in 2018, Stevens entered his first 100-mile, or 160-km, race. It was the Javelina Jundred ultramarathon in Arizona, and 75 km longer than he’d ever run in a race.
He finished second, and started to wonder what more he could accomplish.
Money and fame
There’s little glory in ultramarathons.
The races aren’t broadcasted, and runners aren’t celebrated like they would be at the Olympics. Finding out who won an ultra requires looking at results on a spreadsheet.
Athletics Canada doesn’t offer federal funding for ultramarathons, so runners pay out of pocket for travel and entry fees. Companies that do sponsor athletes usually do so with products, not money. Stevens isn’t sponsored and covers his own costs, which also include about $1,000 annually on shoes.
That’s OK by Stevens, who isn’t interested in making running his career.
“I’m not going to go out there and promote myself and do it like I’m looking for a job, because I have a job. I don’t want the stress of it. I enjoy running, so it’s like whatever, right? I can buy my own shoes.”
Ryne Melcher, the president of the Association of Canadian Ultramarathoners, says money and fame aren’t what people chase when they sign up for endurance races. Running in beautiful locations and testing limits are the real goals.
“I think that’s just that mindset that people have,” says Melcher. “There’s this seemingly daunting, impossible task out there. It might not be this year, it might not be next year, but maybe my five-year goal is to work myself up and be able to do one of those.”
After the Javelina Jundred, Stevens set out to run at Run Rabbit Run in 2019. He got lost and settled for a DNF, but shortly after qualified for Canada’s team at the World Long Distance Mountain Running Championships, where he finished in the top half of the men’s field.
His next goal, he decided, was to return to Colorado and win.
“It’s a challenge. It scares you”
In September, as Stevens ran with the leaders, Jazmine Lowther was struggling to stay with the pack.
The promising Nelson runner, one of 10 locals coached by Stevens, was competing in her first 160-km race. It was the next step up in distance for her after losing an 80-km ultra in July by just 14 seconds.
But Lowther woke up feeling ill the morning of Run Rabbit Run. It wasn’t COVID-19, she’d passed two tests just to cross the border and attend the race, and she was still determined to run.
As soon as the race began, she wondered if she’d made a mistake. Conditions were hot, and Lowther soon ran out of water.
“By the time I got to the first aid station where my crew was, I was white as a ghost, not making any sense, tripping and stumbling and sentences weren’t being put together.”
Lowther persevered. She found a friendly face in the pack to run with and began to feel better as the sun fell behind the mountains and temperatures dropped.
As Stevens struggled alone at the front, Lowther found comfort in the hundreds of head lamps bobbing along around her in the darkness.
No one really knew where they were, or how much farther they had to go, or if they would even finish. The ultra was divided up by hares, or the more competitive athletes, and the casual tortoises. By the end, just 54 out of 91 hares would finish the race, while 119-of-297 tortoises would drop out.
“It’s a challenge. It scares you,” says Lowther. “You don’t know if you’re going to be able to even do it. There’s this element of unknown, and I think for a lot of runners and maybe myself included there’s something attractive about that.”
Lowther finished the race 24 hours after she started it. Despite her illness, and a hip injury that forced her to walk-jog the final 30 km, she was eighth overall among women in the hares and even beat former world champion obstacle course runner Amelia Boone.
No photo finish
For most of Run Rabbit Run, Stevens was looking over his shoulder.
American runner Anthony Costales was one of the two athletes who led the race early and forced Stevens to give chase. Costales had already won three races earlier in the year, but hadn’t yet competed at 160 km.
At Fish Creek Falls, a rocky and steep trail into a canyon about 30 kilometres into the race, runners are forced to double back after they reach the bottom.
Running uphill is Stevens’ strength. He does plenty of it training in Nelson, a city built on the side of mountains, and it was here on the run back up Fish Creek that he overtook Costales for the lead.
But Costales was relentless, and for the next 130 km Stevens ran as though he would be passed at any moment.
It also meant that, while Lowther benefited from the company of other runners, Stevens spent nearly the entire race on his own.
Usually this isn’t a problem. Stevens trains with music but during a race runs in silence so he won’t be distracted from the trail, the need to eat every 20 minutes, or the occasional urge to vomit.
“You would think, 100 miles in the dark, running by yourself, you’d get bored. But not when you’re really pushing yourself hard.”
With a little over 30 km left, Stevens began to alternate between walking and running. The pain in his quads had become severe, and he waited for Costales to cruise by.
It was still dark when Stevens approached the end of the race. Organizers hadn’t set up the finish line when he arrived, and Stevens ran past where it should have been only to be turned around when a friend yelled to say he had gone too far.
Stevens won the race in an astonishing 18 hours one minute 46.5 seconds. He sat on the ground and waited to greet Costales, who arrived in second place 38 minutes later. Exhausted physically and mentally, Stevens wouldn’t run again for the next three weeks.
As outrageous as running 160 km may sound, there are longer and more difficult races than Run Rabbit Run.
The Yukon Arctic Ultra, for example, bills itself as “the world’s coldest and toughest ultra.” It will offer a 482-km route when it kicks off in February and is also planning a nearly 700-km race from Whitehorse to Dawson City in 2023.
That’s also a short jog compared to Self-Transcendence 3100 Mile Race, which is run for 5,649 laps around one city block in New York.
Is that too far? Just because a runner can go that distance, should they? Melcher doesn’t know, but he’s intrigued by the question. “Different people have different engines.”
For Stevens, Run Rabbit Run was his limit. Anything more than that, he says, is unnecessary and stupid. “To suffer past that I just think is a bit weird.”
Running 160 km, on the other hand, is perfectly normal and sane.