How YK turned a beer drinker into a half-marathoner

Greek Hero Pheidippides collapsed dead after running the vast distance from the Battle of Marathon to deliver the message to the people of Athens that the Greeks had been victorious.

I can’t say I blame him. Running is exhausting. Maybe if he’d eased into it with a “Learn to Run” program, things would have turned out differently.

Until a few years ago, running was something I watched other people do on lazy summer evenings as I gulped cold beer from the comfort of my deck, wondering why people would subject themselves to such torture. “Running” to me consisted of a light jog around the block to check the mail. Still, there was a part of me that had always aspired to be a long distance runner. It just seemed too daunting to do without support and company.

Since moving here in 2007, Yellowknife has been the place to try new things. I love that you don’t have to be an expert at something; as long as you are willing to try, Yellowknifers are a pretty accepting bunch. I figured if I was going to try something new – like running a half-marathon – Yellowknife was the place to do it.

In 2009, I signed up for Learn to Run a Half-Marathon at the old Bodyworks gym, a 16-week program with a group that ran three times a week – two evenings and a long run on Saturday mornings. Starting out wasn’t so bad: run seven minutes, walk one minute. Then run eight minutes. Then nine. Within four weeks, we were running 45 minutes straight, with a few evenings of hill and speed training thrown in for good measure. Saturday morning runs crept up to 11… then 13… then 16 kilometres. It was great to have people to chat to during the runs, and on those days when the thought of running even 10 steps made me nauseous, there was always someone who would match my pace so I didn’t feel left behind. The group and the coaches were so supportive.

Despite all the encouragement, running in Yellowknife has its challenges. Having your eyes and nostrils assaulted by a swarm of blackflies is a true exercise in patience – and breathing. Blowing forcefully out one’s nose with a pursed mouth to try to keep insects from lodging there is a rare talent that I can proudly say I have down to a science. And when the sun is up by 3:30 a.m., there is no beating the heat, no matter how early you start. But the good far outweighs the bad.

In more ways, Yellowknife is a runner’s paradise. Long uninterrupted trails and roads, no head-clogging smog or traffic jams. Best of all, you’re surrounded by beautiful scenery and a tranquil vastness that’s hard to match. Running in a new city can be fun, but I found myself yearning for the familiar trails and friendly faces of my running group if I was away for more than a week or so.

Parts of the city quickly became preferred running routes. Old Town was like a social event in which I stopped at least five times to catch up with friends also out walking. Frame Lake Trail and airport loop have gorgeous lakeside scenery and a great balance of flat road and hills. My absolute favourite is around Old Town and N’dilo at 6 a.m. on a summer morning. It’s a symphony of wake-up sounds – baby birds chirping from their overhead nest, Great Slave Lake gently lapping, electricity humming through the power lines, a hammer hitting wood as an early riser putters in his yard, dogs barking excitedly on an early-morning walk.

Do I have regrets about missing some fun boozy Friday evenings out due to an early a.m.Saturday run? Sure. But nothing beats the high of running across the finish line of your first half-marathon in less than two hours – a goal I set at the very start of training, and met. I am now a runner and I have Yellowknife, a runner’s paradise – at least in summer – to thank for that.

As for winter, I’d like to say I’m hardcore enough to run in -40, but it may take some more time before I warm up to the idea.

Alayna Ward is a transplanted Nova Scotian with a love of travel, cooking, the outdoors, and now – running. She has run two half-marathons, one in Yellowknife in 2009, and one in Sydney, Australia, in 2010. She plans to run the Yellowknife Half-Marathon on August 18.

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