Race in the Rockies: The Creative Restaurants Banff-Calgary Road Race
Whether it's the beauty of the terrain, the challenge of the hills, the mystique of the miles or a chance to run with friends, the Banff-Calgary remains an intriguing and unique race offering an unforgettable experience for all participants.
Posted Tuesday, 28 January, 2003
When snow-bound Calgarian runners dream of spring they are warmed by thoughts of the first weekend in May and the Creative Retaurants Banff-Calgary Road Race. It's a gem of a race that few runners outside of Alberta have heard of, a local secret that has instilled a fierce loyalty in its participants and volunteers, who keep coming back for more after 18 years.
It may not have the autumn color of the Reach the Beach Relay, nor the punishing mileage of the Hood to Coast Relay, but the Banff-Calgary Road Race is distinguished by its diversity of terrain, its spirited competition, its traditions and its atmosphere of fun and celebration.
On May 3, 2003, participants will race 141 km (87.6 miles) from the Rocky Mountain splendor of the Banff town site along the Bow River Valley and out through the foothills and high prairie to the urban running trails of Calgary. It's a challenging course that is divided into 11 stages of varying lengths, the longest being a half marathon.
Race veterans all have their opinions on which stage is the most difficult. It's common to hear them swap "war stories", comparing the horrors and delights of past races and favorite stages. Stage one is the half marathon, mostly flat but often subject to the whims of the Rocky Mountain weather. Stage six (12.5 km) features a mammoth 3.6 km hill and the highest elevation on the Trans-Canada highway east of the famous Roger's Pass in the Rockies. But it isn't all hills, the last leg of the race (12.0 km) is run on Calgary's Bow River pathway system and is flat as a pancake, allowing anchor-leg sprinters to show their stuff.
Frontier Finish, Deluxe Reception
The race ends at Fort Calgary, a reproduction of the original North West Mounted Police post and a reminder of Calgary's rough-and-tumble frontier past. Despite the picturesque finish, there's nothing rustic about the reception that awaits runners after the chute. The Banff-Calgary has one of the finest post-event parties of any race, a fully catered affair held in a large tent and a celebration that is a fitting cap to a memorable day of racing.
The Banff-Calgary is a team event, attracting between 1500 and 1700 runners to 120 teams in one of six categories: Men's, Women's, Mixed (a minimum of three members of each sex), Corporate (a minimum of eight members must be employees of the corporation), Open and Fun. Fun teams are permitted to divide up the legs as they see fit, and must have between 14 and 21 runners competing.
The team format allows the Banff-Calgary to be well positioned to offer a competitive challenge while maintaining a sense of fun. In essence the relay is a series of individual races, allowing runners to be as competitive as they'd like, even as part of a Fun team. "Fun" can be deceiving: Last year's third place finish went to a "Fun" team who completed the race with an average pace of 7:13.
The team format is a major drawing card. "This is usually the only team event I participate in each year and it's got a totally different feel to it, as opposed to doing an individual race," said Marie Belanger, a Banff-Calgary veteran. "I end up pushing myself to make sure I meet my commitment. I also like being part of the team, everyone is so supportive and it's a great feeling to hear people who know you cheering you on as you get to the end of your leg."
"It is totally decadent to be able to participate in a race with the Rockies, one of the world's wonders, as my background."
-- Runner Marie Belanger
'Longest Run of the Year'
Although runners are pampered both on the course and at the post-race party, don't come looking for major prize money. Profits from the race are used to fund Theatre Calgary's community outreach programs, providing tickets to community groups for young people in programs assisting therapy, education and socialization. Theatre Calgary's Director of Advancement Terry Whitehead likes to quip that the Banff-Calgary Road Race is Theatre Calgary's "longest run of the year."
From its inception as a charity fund-raiser the race has always been about the challenge of competition. Whitehead sees the challenge as coming not just from the diversity of terrain but also the diversity of weather. "One year we had a foot of snow in Banff, and ran from snow and cold to sleet, to rain to sun, all in the space of 10 miles."
Despite the variability of the elements, the race remains a hit with runners of all stripes, from elites to beginners. Whitehead points to the dedicated corps of volunteers and members of the race committee as a testament to the fact that the race is very much a passionate pursuit for all participants. "People have been on the committee since the race inception," Whitehead said, "and the loyalty of the committee is also a reflection of the loyalty of the runners".
So what is it that brings people back? According to Belanger, it is "totally decadent to be able to participate in a race with the Rockies, one of the world's wonders, as my background."
Myles Sheridan ran the punishing stage six for his team last year but sees the race as a good starting (or re-starting) point for runners. "I have a soft spot for this race. After being invited to run this race in 2000, it's what got me running again after a 25-year hiatus. I've since run a marathon and competed in eight separate events this year so far. It is a great excuse to get someone running and get fit. It is a great way to get started in a supportive team environment."
Teams are expected to provide logistical support for their runners throughout the race, but the race directors provide for water tables at strategic locations throughout the longest stages. The race is extremely well run, with over 300 volunteers not including the race committee, and over 150 on the course itself providing services ranging from timing and radio operations, medical staff and food services.
Alberta has a strong tradition of popular relay races, including the K-100 and the late lamented Jasper-Banff Relay. Like these races, the Banff-Calgary fills quickly, but unlike these races there is no lottery system to determine entrants. The Banff-Calgary is strictly a first-come first-served race.
By the end January the race may already have been filled, but this doesn't mean that all hope of running the race is lost. The race director maintains a waiting list of teams, and also serves as a matchmaker for individual runners looking for teams and of teams looking for runners.