A titanic battle between two of Canada?s top mountain runners resulted in the closest finish in the history of the Emperor?s Challenge Mountain Race, south of Tumbler Ridge on August 8th. Kris Swanson and Steve Osaduik exchanged the lead numerous times in an epic struggle on the 20 km course over Babcock Mountain, gaining and losing over 2000 feet. In the end Swanson?s exceptional downhill running skills made a slight difference, and he crossed the finish line just nineteen seconds ahead of Osaduik in one hour fifteen minutes and seven seconds.
Swanson, who grew up in Tumbler Ridge, has now won the Emperor?s Challenge an incredible ten times out of eleven, one of the outstanding achievements in Canadian mountain-running history. This victory was arguably the finest performance in his running career, one that left him completely exhausted, but which will prepare him well for the World Mountain Running Championships in Italy in September.
Osaduik, the only man to have broken Swanson?s string of victories with a great win in 2007, and recently Canada?s half marathon champion, has been posting personal best 10 km times this year. He was gracious in defeat, praising Swanson?s win, the course, the event and the organizers, and vowing to be back. The Emperor?s Challenge and Tumbler Ridge are truly privileged to have two runners of such international ability returning year after year.
In the women?s race Krista Mitchell of Grande Prairie triumphed in 1:44.48, followed by Wendy Giesbrecht of Cecil Lake and Jenny Keith of Dawson Creek. Daniel Helm was the first Tumbler Ridge runner to cross the finish line. He demonstrated that hard training pays off, with an excellent fifth-place finish. Laura Sharman and Carina Helm ran together the whole way and were the first female Tumbler Ridge racers to finish.
For the first time, age-group categories were recognized, and in addition to these Tumbler Ridge athletes, some other local participants got amongst the medals: Charles Helm grabbed gold in the Men?s 50-64 age group, Sharon Caisley got silver in the Women?s Super Masters (65 plus), and there was a shared bronze finish in this category by Moire Jones and Joan Sidwell. Special mention goes to twelve year old Christopher Mackay as the youngest TR racer to do the full 20 km event.
Kids were catered to with tough two and four kilometre races. There were some exceptional performances in these distances too, and Tumbler Ridge runners Kelly Fry and Freya Falcon did especially well.
The thirty-six athletes completing the gruelling course in under two hours were awarded gold finisher?s medals. A further 195 athletes finished in under three hours, good enough to earn them each a silver finisher?s medal. All finishers in under five hours received bronze medals. Seventy-one year old Ron Hewitson of Red Deer received a special trophy for being the oldest competitor.
Two athletes were presented with framed prints of Roman Mountain for having completed ten Emperor?s Challenges: Linda Helm and Esther Walkley. Fourteen athletes received their coveted in-perpetuity bibs and numbers for having completed five Emperor?s Challenges: Barb Polehoykie, Daniel Helm, Jacqueline Walmsley, Jan Schmidt, Jenny Keith, Juanita Strasky, Kelly Fry, Mary Jo Thibodeau, Oliver Hui, Paul Thibodeau, Rhonda Zeunert, Robert Zeunert, Ross Markowski, Shannon Fry and Wayne Mould. They join the hallowed group of twenty-eight that had previously achieved this status. Crystal Fry, Kelly Fry and Kelsey Legault received in-perpetuity blue bibs for having completed a total of five kids or kids-and-adult races.
The race is billed as the toughest and most beautiful run of its kind in the world, and the sunny weather allowed this to be appreciated to the full, with the refreshing wind keeping the bugs at bay. This year the ?Challenge? shifted from Roman Mountain to Babcock Mountain, as the race?s increasing popularity had created bottleneck situations on the old route. The entirely new course got a definite ?thumbs-up? from the participants. It is a bit gentler, although still delightfully challenging, and has more varied terrain and more technical sections. Competitors are treated to the sublime majesty of the northern Rockies scenery.
Participants? times were generally about ten minutes faster on the new route. Amongst many superb achievements, those who toil for close to five hours under the sun and come in with just minutes to spare are some of the greatest heroes of the Emperor?s Challenge.
Numbers were up by a further ten percent, with a record entry field of 406, plus fifty in the kids? races. Mayor Larry White, who was also Race Co-director, spoke at the awards ceremony of the importance of this event for Tumbler Ridge and the region.
The Emperor?s Challenge is now entrenched as an exceptional mountain-running event. Although most entries still come from the Peace Region, it attracts aficionados from across Canada and the world. Dawson Creek, with an incredible 104 entries, was the source of most participants (26%) followed by Fort St John (20%), Tumbler Ridge (10%), Chetwynd (10%), and Grande Prairie (7%).The traditional male ? female split persists: over the last few years it has become evident that there are more female participants, and in 2009 the ratio was 63:37. Many people, it seems, come once to say they have done the Challenge: 59% of entries in 2009 were novices.
Support from industry active in the immediate area of the race, notably Peace River Coal, Teck Corporation and Ridge Rotors, was much appreciated, and there is an impressive list of sponsors (fully acknowledged elsewhere in this edition) whose assistance helped make for such a successful day. The organizing committee, part of the Wolverine Nordic and Mountain Society, includes Doug Foerster, Charles Helm, Linda Helm, Bert Schalekamp, Birgit Sharman, Crys White, Larry White and Doreen Younge, with support from Sharon Caisley (fundraising), Ruth Walkley (timekeeping) and Sandy Treit (website). It is small in comparison to those of other events of this magnitude, but its members made up for this with dedication and passion.
Helicopter support from Ridge Rotors; massages at the finish; five water stations manned by volunteers; great free food served by the Lions Club; the presence of the Rangers and Search and Rescue on the mountain, and BC Ambulance at the finish line; summit and finish-line photographers; friendly volunteers and helpers everywhere ? these are just some of the things that make the Emperor?s Challenge extra-special for those who come from near and far to pit themselves against the challenge of the mountain.
It takes a special community to put on a race like this and offer such wonderful small-town hospitality: over seventy volunteers and many service organizations helped out this year, a truly remarkable performance, and one which enables the reputation of the Emperor?s Challenge to spread far and wide. Physical fitness, healthy lifestyles, glorious scenery, achievement of personal goals, camaraderie and support, economic diversification through sports tourism ? there are many things that make the Emperor?s Challenge both precious and unique. May it continue to enthrall, inspire and satisfy in the years ahead.