Burning Matches

Ultrarunner’s long road to Canadian endurance record at World 24 Hour Championships

Dave Proctor
Photo: Logan Johnson

The lights are out. The smell of electrical fire fills the air as we circle a 2K loop in Turin, Italy at the IAU World 24 Hour Championships. It is 1 a.m., 15 hours complete and I’ve run 169K.

A choice is present: to play it safe and keep pace or make my move. The power outage and darkness sets the stage, at least in my mind, to zoom past competitors like a ghost. The bartering chip would be pain. Question is, with nine hours remaining, am I really willing to suffer for that length of time?

I ask myself: “Are my goals equal to or greater than the agony that will follow? In my case, it is an easy choice. Refusing the headlamp my wife, Sharon, offers me, I drop the hammer and slice through the crowd of suffering.

In ultramarathoning, we all start a race with a figuratively full book of matches. It’s less about the grind, and more about the strategy of when to sit back or when to light a match. Truth is, I’m burning one every 30 minutes and wearing thin.

After two long hours of darkness, the power and lights come back on. I enter the glowing stadium and see I am in 12th place.

Pain is a twisted dilemma. It’s common in endurance sport and seems to worsen when acknowledged and vanish when forgotten. Suffering is a very real thing that deserves due reverence, but there is an art to tucking it away, feeding it with enough acknowledgement, yet keeping absolute focus on the goal at hand.

My race goal that day is a lofty one — to break Peter Holabar’s Canadian 24 hour record of 242.917K that has stood since 1990. I need to fuel well, run a patient, yet equally aggressive race and most importantly extinguish all mental hurdles that would allow the suffering to take over.

So there I am, running through the night with the record in my sights and half a book of matches. We loop and loop early into Sunday morning. I keep my eyes tilted to the east knowing the sun would soon greet us, knowing it would mean there are only three more hours to run.

The light of a new day boosts my energy — every racer seems to speed up his pace by 10 per cent.

Peering up at the giant video screen, my progression reads that I have only 18K left before hitting my goal of 243K. Being in a state of complete exhaustion, I have a hard time swallowing the idea of running another three hours after surviving 21 gruelling hours. So I slice that pizza into two halves: the one to break the record and the other to get through the race.

Lap by lap, I inch closer, burning matches along the way and trying my best not to acknowledge my crippling pain.

The final lap before breaking the record I get emotional, a race within the race comes to light — the idea that I am racing against history and every crazy Canuck who’s ever run a 24-hour race. I cross the chip mat and into the record book, pausing briefly to kiss Sharon before carrying on with the next lap. My coach Armand LeBlanc has a look of excitement I haven’t seen before. He hands me a small scrap of paper and says, “You are in 6th, here are the numbers of the three runners 1,000 metres ahead of you. Catch them and you are on the podium, GO!”

Off I go like a bat out of hell, winding in and out of runners, desperately looking for the numbers in my sweaty palm, the adrenaline driving me forward as I recklessly burn my remaining matches.

Each lap becomes harder as the suffering boils over, but now I have a surprising new goal, a goal I never could have imagined and it consumes me. With 15 minutes remaining and my vision blurred, I see a number matching one that’s in my palm. He is suffering badly and as I zip past him, another runner passes me at a speed I cannot contest.

At 23:53 I pass the Canada crew tent one final time. Sharon hands me my pylon marker and a Canadian flag. Motoring back out onto the course I dig into my pocket and find my matchbook. There is one last match, one last surge to try to gobble up every last inch that lays before me.

At 10 a.m. Sunday morning the final gun fires. My useless body crumbles to the ground. Draped in the flag, I break into tears.

I am in 6th place, proud holder of a new 24-hour Canadian ultramarathon record of 257.093K.

There are no matches left.

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