From a 240 lb overweight twenty-something who smoked two packs a day, ate poorly and was exhausted all the time, Calgarian Sheldon Smith has transformed himself into an elite ultra-runner tackling 50 and 100 mile races with a smile on his face.
“I had a downtown desk job and could barely make it up a set of stairs,” Smith said. “After work I stapled myself to the couch because I was too tired to do anything else.”
Smith realized he was on a serious downward spiral and began looking for a personal trainer. He settled on Erick Corzo.
“We did a deep dive into what I was eating, how much water I was drinking and how my metabolism was working. It took three tries to quit smoking but by the third time, I knew I had to make it stick. I still miss it every day. I loved smoking, the routine of it.”
Corzo came up with a diet plan for Smith, and once he started making healthier food choices, he slowly began to feel better. By the spring of 2015, his energy levels were improving and he wanted to get active outside. He decided to try running.
“I started near the Peace Bridge and ran for maybe 100 – 200 metres and was completely gassed. But I enjoyed it so much I kept going. I started building up my distance and eventually noticed a set of stairs off Memorial Drive.”
The stairs up the McHugh Bluff are a magnet for Calgary runners who train on them regularly. They consist of 11 flights and 167 steps and at first Smith was intimidated.
“I said to myself ‘Okay, I’ll try those.’ One flight later, I couldn’t breathe. But the next week I could do two sets.”
Smith doggedly kept on returning and climbing the stairs until he could make it to the top in one go. Then he began running them.
“At this point I thought ‘Okay, I’m feeling healthier, I’m going to try a 10 K,” Smith said.
Corzo provided a 10 K training plan with the goal of completing that distance in the 2016 Banff Marathon.
“When I signed up, I had to put down a goal time so I wrote down 60 – 65 minutes. At that time, I wasn’t running with a watch so had no idea what my time would be. I crossed the finish line in 49 minutes and felt like I could have kept going I enjoyed it so much!”
By this point Smith had lost 60 pounds, was committed to running and loving it. He joined the YYC Run Crew in October 2016 and also began training with November Project, an early morning fitness group. Encouraged by these runners, he decided to try a marathon.
“I had only run a 10 K at this point, and my brain did not connect with the fact that maybe I should run a couple of half-marathons first. I thought the Calgary Marathon would be doable but noticed there wasn’t much price difference between the marathon and the Ultra (50 K), so signed up for that.”
Coached by Tammara Francis of November Project and training all winter long with his best friend Rae LaBerge, Sheldon completed the 50 K run in 4:29, but it wasn’t pretty. He got blisters, had to walk part of the course and mentally broke down having no idea of the physical struggle involved in a long-distance race.
“That race taught me so much about myself, to keep pushing and not to give up,” Smith says.
This self-awareness helped immensely when Sheldon went into a deep depression after a 5-year relationship ended. He became suicidal and his anxiety spiked.
“I was not in a good place,” Smith explained. “But I had a really strong support group through my running friends and family, and they helped me get through it. I’m a pretty quiet person, so it was hard to reach out and tell people.”
Through this dark period, Smith continued to run and credits staying active with helping him overcome his depression.
“I’m an introverted person, and I think that’s why I like running so much. It’s something I can do on my own whenever I want. I enjoy the challenge of pushing my body to see what I’m physically and mentally capable of doing. I joke that when I used to drink, smoke and eat bad food, I was pushing my body, and now I’m pushing it in the opposite direction.”
Today Smith is in a good place mentally, has a new, solid relationship with girlfriend Roberta, and runs 100 K per week. He’s currently training for Sinister 7, a 160 K race in the Crowsnest Pass in July. He’s also planning to compete in Iron Legs in August, an 80 K trail run near Bragg Creek, AB.
“I’m looking forward to both those races,” Smith says. “Running has saved my life in more ways than one.”
Lead image by Graham McKerrell