I moved to Toronto from Vancouver in 2017. Yes, I know, most people go in the other direction, shh. Anyway, as a dedicated trail and ultrarunner, I dove into the Greater Toronto Green Belt trail running scene eagerly in 2018.
Halfway into the summer my partner and I rolled into the Dundas Conservation Area near Hamilton, Ontario — I was a participant in the 12 hour race at the “Tally in the Valley” — a trail event that had multiple options, including the “Gong Show”, where runners had to run at the sound of a gong every hour, run the 7km loop within an hour, and continue doing so until only one stood…up to 24 hours later.
Zany and rad. It was a huge hit (it had sold out).
I saw a staked out transition zone with tons of tents and like, seemingly hundreds of people. I knew I was in for a good time.
I was even more stoked after the first loop: rail trail, single track, a couple of good but short grinding hills, a perfectly marked loop, an aid station that felt like a party stocked with awesome food, fresh water on course, a timing clock clearly visible every lap, and zero bottlenecks on a completely runnable course.
I spoke to Jeff Rowthorn (Race Director) and Heather Borsellino (Race Coordinator) after I had stopped running — I couldn’t wait to tell them that the entire experience was akin to several of the best trail racing experiences I’d had out west.
Not only was there nothing to critique, everyone was having a blast and both Jeff and Heather were right in the thick of it for the entirety of the races. They seemed to be competing for the award of, “Who Can Help the Runners the Most?” — with an army of volunteers also right in the thick of things.
(I was also at their Stride Inside just this January 5th, and their attention to detail is a real thing. Every time I pulled over for water, they and their volunteers carefully quizzed me for anything I might need. This is exceptionally reassuring when committing to ultra endeavours.)
I assumed this intrepid duo had been putting on races for years. As it turns out, they are brand new to race-putting-on…er…hosting trail events. As someone who has been racing and volunteering for years in the trail scene, this is actually amazing. I have participated in events that are over a decade old, and they do not even come close to the level of attentiveness and care that Jeff and Heather brought to the game.
We decided we wanted to hear more, a lot more about what it takes to host such a great event, and what is more, nine more trail running events for 2019 alone…the FOMO is real.
They are also avid volunteers and participants in Ontario’s trail running scene, and they lead regular free trail runs under the moniker “Crews and Brews” (see their Facebook page for more detail).
Not surprisingly, they are also avid trail and ultra runners themselves, and travel all over the continent as participants in ultra-trail events. This experience reflects directly in the fine details of their trail events.
And, as the co-purveyors of a host of amazing races, we at Trail Running Canada not only felt strongly that they deserved a boost, and, like we said, we wanted the inside scoop about some of the hard work that goes into race directing and contributing so much to the trail community (not to mention charitable contributions and group runs).
So, put your feet up, keep enjoying the winter down time, and read up on some of the finer things about putting on some darn tough but darn fun trail events.
Then, head over to Happy Trails Racing and register for an event!
Oh, one more little detail: these questions were posed to Jeff and Heather collectively. Where we have indicated “Race Director”, we intended to pose the question to both of them, and they were aware of this.
Tell us a bit about yourselves and your organization.
Happy Trails Racing is an organization that is run by nature and adventure enthusiasts who aim to provide opportunities in which to engage the running community, explore new terrain, and support those in need. First and foremost, we are runners and we try to put on events that we would want to participate in.
What was the reason you became a race director? What motivates you as race directors?
We both had experienced a tremendous amount of personal and social support from the trail running community as runners ourselves. We are passionate about the environment and find that being on a trail amongst the trees can be so therapeutic. We wanted to offer trail runners and non-trail runners a chance to experience to trail racing in an inclusive and welcoming environment. After completing hundreds of races between the two of us, we wanted the opportunity to give back to the community and to see racing from a new perspective.
What are your priorities for designing and hosting a race?
The priorities would be based on the participant having a positive and unique experience while racing on the trail as well as pre and post race off the trail. We consider safety on difficult terrain, runner flow on any single track sections, a varied race theme from event to event, access to scenic views, introductions to unknown trails, and a memorable experience that makes the racer feel connected to nature and other participants in the trail community.
How involved is directing a race? What are some things involved that participants might not consider?
When planning a race, there are so many factors to consider from permits from Conservation Areas, insurance, waivers, access to power, parking space,course closures or access for the public, food permits, aid station frequency and stock, race kit gear, sponsorships, volunteer needs and so much more! Many times we encounter limited capacity to due to lack of amenities. The participant experience is our most important focus, so we have to be cognizant of possible inclement weather, shortage of food or water, or accessibility.
Why do you offer both distance and time-based races (i.e. options like a 50k at one race and a 3 or 6 hour for a different event)? Are there advantages for different types of runners?
For a 50k distance event, there is always the risk of a DNF. For a time-based event, the runner can’t DNF. Also, time based events are almost always designed as small loops so the runner can repeatedly access their drop bag and the event is more crew and spectator friendly. They have less risk associated with them from a runners perspective. A distance based event sets a specific goal for the runner to work towards and is usually set out on a longer segment of trail, which may offer better scenery and more varied terrain.
What was your first event like? What lessons did you learn there?
Our first event was the Sticks n’ Stones Trail Race in 2017, and we were overwhelmed by the support of the community and participants. Because we had a fair bit to distribute and handle before the race, we needed to have the race kits filled with their chosen gear and bib with waivers signed before the event day. After that race, we started prepping before and it made the morning far more smooth and organized for the racers along with the volunteers and staff. Also, we learned that we both needed to be at the race site (unless there was an emergency that pulled us in a different direction) — which meant that we needed other people to check the course markings and transport the aid station supplies and set-up.
What’s been your biggest race (in terms of total participants)?
The Sticks n’ Stones Trail Race and The Beav Trail Race both had comparable numbers. We will continue to keep the races smaller (under 350) in order to maintain a positive runner experience especially for single track flow and overall site accessibility and organization.
Of your series, which is your favourite event so far and why?
We love all of the events for different reasons. Jeff really enjoyed the festival feel of Tally in the Valley Trail Race but is very excited for a couple of our new races this year, especially the Falling Water Trail Marathon. Heather enjoys the Sticks n’ Stones Trail Race because of the smaller looped course. She feel connected to the runners because of how frequently she gets to see them, check up on them, and feel as though she is part of their race. She’s looking forward to the Sunburn Solstice Trail Race based on the unique race concept and is interested to see how the participants are able to manage the event.
Other than your own races, tell us about a perfect race experience from the unique perspective of being both a participant in someone else’s race as well as a race director of your own series.
We both recently completed the ‘Brazos Bend 100 miler’ in Texas. The conditions were absolutely horrible but we still had an incredible time. We felt that the course was designed really well, the aid stations were fantastic, and the race director, Rob Goyen of Trail Running Over Texas, carefully considered every single detail. There were flash floods on the course only hours before the start, yet it continued on and ran smoothly. Rob even took the time to schedule a conference call with us the following week and offered us some incredible advice that we have already implemented into our own events.
Have you made any changes to your races based on runner feedback?
Yes, we consider their feedback quite a bit actually. We have added shorter distance events at the request of runners, adjusted a race start time, and even changed the running direction of one of our routes. We love to hear feedback from our participants and value their opinions.
Trail, ultra running and running in general seems to be very heteronormative and white. Is there any way to make events more inclusive and to reach out more to marginalized folks?
We strive to be inclusive, in fact, it is one of our most valued principles. In the last year we have reached out to different marginalized groups to build relationships and foster messages of support. We provide opportunities for various individuals to participate in our events without economic or social barriers. In 2018, we created a Pride logo design and sold shirts with 100% of the profit going to ‘Youth Line’, who’s vision is that youth of all sexual and gender identities are celebrated and supported. Through our new ‘Running Start Initiative’, we were able to work with The Covenant House in Toronto to support their fitness and running program as one of many programs for homeless youth. With the help of our generous trail running community, we delivered over 500 pieces of donated trail running gear. We will also be hosting some of the youth from this group at a few of our events this year.
What’s the toughest problem you’ve had to face during an event?
Unexpected weather is a major fear for all Race Directors. We had some pretty nasty weather at one of our Fall races this year. The wind ruined a couple of our tents and it was really cold- especially for our volunteers. However, the trail running community is tough and nobody let the frigid temperatures ruin their day.
What is new for 2019 for Happy Trails?
2019 is a really big year for us. We are introducing 4 new races including a night race, a 100 miler, a summer solstice event that challenges runners to run for as long as the sun is up (on the longest day of the year), and a very rugged and challenging trail marathon on the Bruce Trail.
Will you ever hold an event in the city of Toronto? ;)
We would love to. Jeff has this dream race in his head that involves a little bit of downtown navigating, some hidden trails, and even a mid race ferry ride. We need to better familiarize ourselves with the various trail options in the area first.
What is/are your bucket list Canadian trail race(s) or event(s) and why?
Between the 2 of us, we’ve raced many trail races in Canada. This summer we will be doing the Capes 100, which looks incredible. Jeff would like to do the Sinister 7 in Alberta and the Ultra Trail Hurricana in Quebec. Heather is looking forward to mountain training out in North Carolina with Tanawha Adventures. We would also like to do all of Gary Robbins’ races in BC. These races are all very challenging but incredibly scenic.
Thank you both so much for the detailed responses! Please remember that the best way to thank you hard-working race directors is to register for their events. Another way is to share their events on social media!