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Finish The Race Attitude

Blog 2/25

The Ageless Athlete

February 21st 2024

By Martin Parnell and Malc Kent


The Ageless Athlete



1 Off and Running

2 Triathlons and Ultras

3 Quests for Kids

4 Ultras and Beyond

5 Malc Kent: The Early Years

6 Malc Kent: The Evolution of the Running Specialist

7 62 Beats 47

8 Hockey Injury

9 Racing 5’s and 10’s

10 Half Time

11 Marathon of Afghanistan

12 All or Nothing

13 The 60’s: Boston or Bust

14 The Stroke

15 COVID-19



About the Authors

Chapter 2
Triathlons and Ultras

“The secret of genius is to carry the spirit of the child into old age, which means never losing your enthusiasm.”
- Aldous Huxley, English Writer

Now all I had to do was return to Cochrane and find us a home. Eventually I found the perfect place, next to the Bow River, with a red-rock path near the backyard, perfect for running. In the meantime, my next task was coming up in August: the 2005 ITU triathlon in Fredericia, Denmark, a beautiful old fortress town on the Jutland peninsula. The qualifier for this race, the Great White North Triathlon, is a half-Ironman, but Fredericia was something else: a 3-km swim, 120-km bike and 30-km run. Almost an Ironman.

That spring, Cochrane had had the worst floods in a decade, and the poor weather forced me to train indoors: spinning and plenty of treadmill work. I participated in several races in June and July, the highlight of which was an Olympic-distance triathlon in Edmonton. This was part of the World Masters Games, which is held every four years. There are over 16,000 participants and the age range is 30-plus. I completed the course in 2:48:41, my best time at this distance. In July, after I’d moved into the new house, I was delighted to receive my Team Canada gear from Triathlon Canada: a very smart jacket, shorts and tops. I didn’t meet the other team members until I was in Denmark.

I didn’t sleep much the night before the race; 5 a.m. came around pretty quickly. At breakfast the air was thick with a mixture of emotion, stress, anticipation and excitement. I tried to gulp down some food, and then we headed to the start line. The starter’s pistol went off and we hit the water. It was freezing. Everyone thrashed around like a school of frenzied piranhas. It turned out we swimmers weren’t the only ones laying claim to the sea near Fredericia that morning.

There were jellyfish that were as big as dinner plates and stung like hell. The swim seemed to last for an eternity. When I finally dragged myself up onto the shore, I was last out of the water, but I refused to wallow in self-pity. It was time to concentrate on transitioning. The bike section went well, three 40-km loops through the countryside and back into town.

I clicked along, overtaking several other riders, and then I hit the run. I felt great and covered the distance in three hours. That evening, at supper, everyone was talking about their race. As always in races of this kind, some athletes achieved personal bests while others failed to finish. For me, Fredericia was an amazing experience. I felt proud that I had represented my adopted country and given my best.

In August, Sue came to Canada, and we equipped our new home with everything IKEA. Then we settled in. Sue knew what she was getting into when she agreed to become my fiancée, so she wasn’t surprised when we didn’t hang around Cochrane for very long before it was time for me to compete in another race. Ironman Canada is a tough race to get into. You or a friend have to be in Penticton the day after the race to sign up for the following year.

Subaru IRONMAN Canada (as it is officially named) entails a 3.8-km swim, a 180-km bike and a full marathon (42.2-km) run. I had been training with the triathlon guys from the club and had been given lots of valuable tips. I was also told to start off at the back of the pack, so I wouldn’t get beaten up in the early stages, and to look up and spot the turn buoys every 12 strokes or so. For the bike, my friends recommended that I reduce the pressure in my tires before leaving my bike in the transition area. They also suggested I slap on sunblock before heading out, and that I eat and drink a lot during the bike event; this is the time to load up prior to the run.

Finally, for the run, tips included: keep taking in water, nutrition and electrolytes during the run; don’t panic when the legs feel like rubber after coming off the bike; and use a run/walk system to steady the pace. My advice to all triathletes: if you’re bald like me, wear a hat!

At the pre-race dinner the main speaker was Sister Madonna Buder, otherwise known as the Iron Nun. Like me, Sister Madonna began competing in races later in life, having begun training at the age of 48 to feed her mind, body and spirit. In 1985, at age 55, she completed her first Ironman event and to date has completed over 325 triathlons, holding age-group records in a variety of races.

Sister Madonna’s example would come to my mind in 2009 when I began running to raise money for Right To Play; she trains and races, but she also raises money for a variety of charities. That night in Penticton, Sister Madonna entranced the audience with her determination and grace. She would be the first female to compete in Ironman Canada’s 75–80 age group. She told us she wanted to be the first woman to compete in the 80–85 age group in 2010 (which she did).

Race day arrived, and at 7 a.m. exactly, the gun went off and the mass entry into the water was absolute bedlam. As usual, I was in no hurry to join the melee! By the time I decided to enter the lake there were probably 100 triathletes left on the shore.

When I came out of the water I must say I was glad to see the “strippers,” who got me out of my wetsuit in a hurry. The bike event also went well. I found my groove early, and the 180-km haul from Penticton to Osoyoos, over Richter Pass, on to Keremeos and back to Penticton, was smooth. When I transitioned to the run, I had been working at the race for seven hours. Then came the marathon. For the first half, I was still feeling great. Then the wheels came off. Looking back now, I think the main reason the second half of the run was so difficult for me was the heat. In my endurance career I’ve learned that I’m better at –30°C than +30°.

At sub-zero temperatures, I can layer up and prepare myself for the cold. But when the heat rises, my head cooks. The day of the Ironman was a particularly warm one, and I think I started my run at too fast a pace. Also, I probably wasn’t hydrated enough after the bike event. When I hit the wall, my only objective was to finish the race in under 17 hours, the cut-off time. I ended up walking in with two other participants. I did run in the last 200 m and was cheered by the encouragement of so many people yelling and hooting on the sidelines. I crossed the line at 16:30:28.

The best part of an Ironman, I think, comes at the end, regardless of how you’ve done. The last stretch is lined with people – participants and family and friends – who are yelling and screaming, encouraging participants to get in under the 17:00:00 cut-off. I crossed the line and wrapped a silver blanket around myself to keep my body heat in. Then I went straight to the finish line aid station and started to eat and drink.

The cheers of the sideline crowd got louder and louder as the clock moved toward midnight and the 17-hour cut-off. I could see the countdown clock from where I was eating at the station, and the crowd went crazy when a female runner came in with only two seconds to spare. In the end, I was glad to have made it in before the cut-off, and even more pleased that Sue was there to help me back to the campground, where I slept like a log on my comfortable Therm-a-Rest.

I’m happy to say that my next big event wasn’t quite as gruelling as Ironman Canada. In 2006, at the Kelowna Marathon, I qualified for the Boston Marathon with a time of 3:32:29. During 2006 and 2007, I travelled from Stony Plain, Alberta, to Yellowknife, NWT, and then south to Las Vegas, in search of tris, marathons and half-Ironman events. At the Las Vegas half marathon, I accidently started the race in the corral with the elite runners. I don’t think I’ve ever responded so quickly to a starter’s pistol in my life! The highlight of those years, though, was my second Ironman Canada in August 2007, which I completed in 14:31:30, with a marathon time of 4:04:00 – much better than my 2005 attempt.

The year 2008, however, brought a change of direction. My friend and running club buddy Andrew started telling me about ultramarathons: running races whose distances are over 42.2 km. Usually ultras are 50 or 100 km and 50 or 100 miles (80 or 160 km) in length – and they take place all over the world, from the Antarctic to New Zealand, South Africa to northern Alberta. I thought again about the late Cliff Young and his triumph in the Westfield Sydney to Melbourne Ultramarathon.

I thought about the Cliff Young Australian Six-Day Race – an ultra named after Cliff, which was run until 2006. When I found myself thinking about how Cliff had persevered despite the odds and his age (61), and when I thought about how I loved a challenge, I knew I was interested. I had really been enjoying the Ironman races and longer triathlons, and I wanted to test myself. But first, I had to contend with a simpler race, the Boston Marathon. My time in the 2006 Kelowna race had allowed me to qualify for another go-round in Boston.

A group of us from Cochrane had qualified, so we all travelled south and east together. The day of the race dawned overcast and drizzling, and our bus to the start at Hopkinton was late; we arrived with only two minutes to spare. Not a good beginning! Just as the pistol sounded, though, the sun came out.

The run went well, and I came in at 4:12:42. I felt good, but because I had decided not to wear a hat or sunscreen – well, it did look as if it would be a rainy day at first – I developed a horrible sunburn that led to water collecting between skull and scalp on top of my head and down my forehead. Over the next few days, with an oddly blue, aloe-vera paste slathered all over my pate, I looked like a blue Herman Munster. A note to all runners out there: always bring a hat to a long race!

I felt pretty sorry for myself when I came home, but I couldn’t mope around. I only had four weeks to train for my first ultramarathon: the 100-km Blackfoot Ultra at Cooking Lake–Blackfoot Recreation Area east of Edmonton. I increased my training load in preparation for this race, and by the time I set out I had put in a few 100-km weeks. This entailed several short runs during the week and a 40-km run on the weekend. I also completed back-to-back 30-km runs in order to get used to running on tired legs.

Of course, I had to be prepared to run 100 km in one day, in this case four loops around the lovely Lost Lake. Something all ultras have in common is the way in which they appeal to their participants. Extreme names like Scorched Sole, Knee Knackering North Shore Trail Run and the Canadian Death Race abound in lists of ultras – especially, it seems, in lists of Canadian races!

The Canadian Death Race’s logo is a skull with the tagline “It’s a killer,” not to mention the claim “There are no big prizes for winning; finishing is hard enough. And the bragging rights are priceless….” At the time, the Blackfoot Ultra was described thusly: “If you are an optimist, all the hills will be good for tightening your butt. If you are a pessimist, well too bad, because the race director is an optimist and enjoy your new tight butt.” I was prepared for the worst, I thought.

Having completed marathons and Ironman triathlons, I was interested in seeing how my first ultra experience would turn out. I had never run farther than 42.2 km at a time, so moving up to run 100 km in one event was a huge step. What struck me most about the start of the Blackfoot Ultra was the low-key nature of the event. It began with a small group of runners gathered at the start line in the dark with headlamps on.

The course rolled around a series of lakes and was composed of four 25-km loops. I found a good rhythm and took a sip out of my hydration pack every ten minutes. My friends Wayne and Ken had introduced me to CarboPro earlier in the year. This powder mixes in water and provides 300 calories an hour – I used CarboPro during the Blackfoot race and many races after that.

When I hit the first aid station, I discovered a key difference between marathons and ultras. At marathon stations you get water, Gatorade, gels and, if you’re lucky, a banana. At ultra stations you get real food. The Blackfoot stations served up potatoes, sandwiches, fruit and cookies.

As the hours wore on, I found myself in a semi-Zen state, which didn’t last because I bashed my right big toe into a wooden plank on a bridge. I told myself to focus, but on the next lap I did the same thing to the other big toe. Still, I kept a steady pace and seemed to have achieved a hydration/nutrition balance. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I know I’m lucky; I can eat and run and not have gastric problems. At the end of each lap, Sue provided me support and a cup of homemade soup.

When I finally came around to her after the final lap, my time was 13:38:23. Unlike at marathons and Ironman events there were no crowds lining the sides at the end and yelling encouragement, just a lady at a desk, writing down my finish time and telling me I could get a hot dog and popsicle over at the finish tent. It didn’t matter to me, however, that I didn’t come in to great whoops and cheers. The feeling of that race – the elation at running for such a long time, the mixed-up feeling of exhaustion and exhilaration at the end – stayed with me. I was hooked.

You know me by now! After the Blackfoot race, I was convinced about ultras. I signed up for the Canadian Death Race (August) and the Lost Soul Ultra (September). Both were gruelling, but for different reasons. The Canadian Death Race is a 125-km route across three mountain ranges near Grande Cache, Alberta. The Lost Soul takes the runner up and down, through the usually summer-parched coulees of Lethbridge, Alberta – three loops equal 100 miles. “The strenuous life tastes better,” as the Lost Soul race director quoted William James, the father of American psychology.

Maybe so. James certainly felt that strenuous living allowed people to contend with physical and psychological disabilities. Running shall set you free! The Canadian Death Race would be the next step in my ultramarathon career. This race has been going since 2000 and begins and ends on a 1280-m plateau, crosses the Smoky and Sulphur rivers at Hell’s Gate, passes over three mountain summits and includes 5182 m of elevation change.

The race comprises five legs. The first, Downtown Jaunt, is 19 km. This is a warm-up to the 27-km Flood Mountain and Grande Mountain section. There were parts of this route that were so steep and muddy that I was grabbing at trees and branches to keep my balance on the way down. Section three, the 21-km Old Mine Road part, was a bit of a break, but then came section four, the 36-km Hamel Assault, which was the toughest part of the course.

The route took us to the top of Mount Hamel, and for a few brief moments I stopped and slowly turned 360 degrees, just to take in the view. Then we headed down and into the valley. By this time, it was dark, and I was thrilled to see Sue at the start of the last section, the 24-km River Crossing. She fed me cheese and ham sandwiches and a mug of chicken noodle soup – heaven. Five minutes later I was off again.

I was dead tired and dragging myself along the trail. It was my first all-night run, and I kept seeing shadows and hearing noises just outside the field of vision of my headlamp. Soon I was on Hell’s Gate Road, heading toward the Smoky River. Here I had to dig out the coin I had been given at the race package pickup and give it to the Ferryman. No coin, no passage across the river.

During the final 10 km, the sun rose above the horizon. The warmth gave me a new lease on life, and I picked up the pace towards the finish line. The cut-off time was 24 hours, and I came in at 22:52:40. Sue was at the finish line waiting for me with a bottle of Guinness and a big hug. A new tradition thus began. Sue would support me throughout races, being at the aid stations, often having to find her way in the dark, carrying all the provisions I would need at various stages. These would include changes of clothing, food and fuel refills.

After my foray into ultras in 2008, my plans were pretty simple at the beginning of 2009. I scheduled myself in for a number of ultras: a 50-km race in February in Calgary called the Frozen Ass Fifty; a 44-km snowshoe race in March in Yellowknife called the Rock and Ice Ultra; a 146-km trail race called the Sinister Seven in the Crowsnest Pass, BC; and again the Lost Soul Ultra in September.

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The Ageless Athlete
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