Wings For Life World Run

35 locations, six continents, over 35,000 runners, one start. This was the basis of the Wings For Life World Run.

The concept seemed simple, but the technology and specifics took four years to perfect. Races around the world would start at exactly the same time and run to a “moving finish line.” Thirty minutes after the start, a catcher car would begin driving along the race route at a set speed, and when the car passed you, you were done. The last person running in the world would be declared the world champion.

This race was so unique that I couldn’t pass it up. There were a few drawbacks though: the simultaneous start meant that our race started at 4:00 a.m. Because it would be run down a highway, many major branches of our freeway would close at 3:30 a.m., so if you weren’t there by then, you would have a much more difficult time arriving at the start line. It’s also pretty chilly in the middle of the night in early May in Saskatchewan.

At the package pick-up I had to ask the question I’d been wondering since I registered. With locations like Auckland, Barcelona, Kiev, Bucharest, Lima and Verona, how on Earth did Saskatoon get in on this? The woman I asked laughed and said that each country had been asked to find a long, straight, flat highway for their race. This allowed the catcher cars to stay on their designated pace, and would make the playing field as fair as possible between the locations. In Canada, when you say straight and flat, you think of Saskatchewan.

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The swag bag was fantastic with a tech t-shirt and a buff. I have a buff addiction, so I was pretty excited to get one from this race! There was also a Running Room booth set up at the pick-up location, and I won a running hat after spinning their “very rigged prize wheel of awesomeness.”

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I had a place to stay in the city, so went for supper with my cousin then headed back to prepare for the next morning. I laid out my clothes, got my bag ready, set my alarm for 2:00 a.m. (gulp), and was in bed by 10:00 for the first time in 15 years.

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I actually managed to sleep really well and didn’t feel too groggy when I woke up at 2. I arrived at Prairieland Park at 3:20, in the nick of time and made my final preparations before everyone headed outside to the starting corrals. Our race was the smallest in the world, with just 170 runners, compared to the thousands some other countries had. The corrals had been marked by large pillars, lit in different colours. We’d all gotten glow sticks in our race package, and your glow stick colour corresponded with your starting corral. Everyone was to have one glow stick necklace on the front and one on the back, and it looked neat at the start line.

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Getting ready to start!

Getting ready to start!

The fact that it would be dark for the first 45 minutes or so of our run made me a bit nervous. I do run in the dark quite a bit in the winter, but hadn’t for a few months. I took my headlamp and did use it, but very few others did. Someone gave us our final instructions, including how to run past the camera at the start line properly (televised race, cool!). The mayor of Saskatoon congratulated everyone on taking part in the inaugural event, and then there was a global countdown to the start. We were off.

The street lights down Circle Drive lit the way very well, and I didn’t really need my headlamp. I came up alongside a friend’s Mom and chatted with her for a kilometre or so as we curved around out of the city. The street lights ended and we ran into pitch dark. I was suddenly very grateful for my headlamp! We ran over a train over pass (I told my twin boys later that a train had been going by and I got to run over a train. Pretty sure they thought that was cooler than the actual race!) and continued along the highway. The TV camera motorcycle tucked in in front of me for quite a while at this point, but I don’t think I was ever actually on TV. The ESPN coverage didn’t show Canada very much, sadly.

The fact that the highway was actually closed for this race had caused some controversy. I cannot begin to imagine how much the permits for this must have cost – to close the freeway in the city and one side of the highway, and have police out directing two-way traffic on the normally northbound lanes.

It got light before too long, and I came up beside a guy in a yellow jacket. We talked a bit and ran together for quite a while, then I realized he was gone. I looked back and saw him about 500 metres behind me. It had been really nice to have someone to run with, so I was kind of sad he was gone. I could also see the white catcher car in the distance when I looked back. There had been something relaxing about not knowing how far I would run. The Wings For Life website had a distance calculator and when I plugged in my pace options it estimated I’d run 15-18 km. I was hoping to be close to 18, as that was the long run prescribed by my training plan for that weekend. I was able to run at a relaxed pace almost the entire race. Usually when I hit 17 or 18 km in a half marathon I start to push my pace a bit and end up finishing in agony but knowing I ran the best I possibly could. This time I couldn’t really push my pace too much, because I didn’t know how fast that car was coming, or how much longer I’d have to run. I liked that, but I know others didn’t!

I passed a guy who was walking and said “the car’s coming!” He glanced back and took off. I kept going at my half marathon race pace, looking back every once in a while. The car was always far back, but then suddenly it was right behind me! I started running as fast as I could after 18 km, and managed to stay ahead of it for another 100 metres. In the end, the car passed me at 18.15 km, 1:41:52. I waited for some runners behind me to catch up, and we walked along the road towards the 20 km aid station. We’d been told the shuttle buses to take us back to the start line would stop every 5 km, but one stopped for us after about a half mile. It was actually nice to walk for a while, and likely prevented a lot of stiffness. Everyone was excitedly chatting on the shuttle bus, and many were tracking the live results on their phones. One woman was tracking her boyfriend, who was in the lead for Canada.

Catcher car, another for back-up in case of technical failure in the first, plus an ambulance passing runners.

Catcher car, another for back-up in case of technical failure in the first, plus an ambulance passing runners.

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Fun! Done!

Fun! Done!

When we arrived back at Prairieland we were given our medals and sat down to watch the live TV feed from around the world. Everyone cheered when they finally showed Canada briefly, and laughed when the British commentators said “this is Canada… we don’t know how lucky we are in Europe!” Listen buddy, May 4 is ugly in Saskatchewan. Give us a couple weeks for the grass to turn green again and get some leaves on the trees! It really is beautiful here!

I finished 47/170 in our Canadian results, and 10,565/35,397 worldwide. Top third! I am also proud to be 13/102 women in Canada, and second in my age group, and thrilled to be 1,787 out of 14,533 women around the world!

Recovering afterwards!

Recovering afterwards!

It was really cool watching the TV feed. To see every single runner finish their race grinning ear to ear and laughing as they tried to out run the catcher car for just another couple feet was fantastic. There are often smiles at the finish line of a race, but not every single runner! And 100% of entry fees were donated to spinal cord injury research, so that’s definitely something to smile about too.

Thank you to Red Bull for sending employees to work this race, and all the other companies who donated money to make it possible. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and it was pretty neat to be a part of it.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. […] This race was run simultaneously in many global locations. Everyone started at exactly the same time (4:00 a.m. in the pitch dark for us in Canada!) and 30 minutes later a “Catcher Car” began driving at a prescribed speed. Linked with computers and all sorts of technology that took four years to organize, the cars accelerated gradually and stopped runners’ timing chips as they were passed. The last person running out of more than 35,000 runners in the world was crowned the winner. I made it 18.2 km and placed 10,565 in the world. This was televised, which made it feel pretty “big time.” I’m sad that this event will move to a more picturesque location in Canada (Niagra Falls… Saskatchewan can’t compete with that!) for 2015. (Complete 2014 summary here.) […]

    Reply

  2. Posted by Logan on June 11, 2015 at 3:13 pm

    It was hard for me to read this post – it was a tough decision not to enter this race, and in the end I should have as I was up at 4 tracking runners on my phone, then ended up driving to see it in person. I saw both the top female and top male finish, one captured right near my folks’ place and one near my own! I was very disappointed that this year’s run was in Ontario instead of Saskatchewan!

    Reply

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