Haida Gwaii is a long way to go to run your first half-marathon, but then, it's a long way to go for anything. And of course that was kind of the point: signing up for a run on these islands at the edge of the world was just an excuse to travel back to a far-flung part of B.C. I can't get enough of.
The Totem to Totem marathon—with half-marathon and 10K options—is held annually in Haida Gwaii ("Islands of the People"), not only Canada's most westerly outpost, but also its most mythic and magical. The region's main lures remain its natural splendour of vast, surf-battered beaches, forest-draped islets, and North Pacific sea life coupled with a deeply embedded indigenous culture.
Inaugurated in 2007, the race's 2008 incarnation marked its first officially-measured route distance, which has now been certified as a Boston Marathon qualifying race. Listed by IRan Magazine as one of the 16 most unique (out of 2,500) races in Canada, the Totem to Totem route is both beautiful and fast.
Vince Hemingson, who measured the course for the Boston certification, experienced marathon running "in a whole different way." Skeena/Bulkley NDP MP Nathan Cullen was so inspired during the 10-kilometre route in 2013 that he won the division.
After spending a week of perfect weather camping, B&Bing, beachcombing and generally relaxing in a place that feels at once both familiar and exotic (everyone waves to you and you can go hours without seeing another car on the main highway), we join a gaggle of racers in the Ocean View restaurant in Queen Charlotte (formerly Queen Charlotte City, having finally admitted it has no such aspirations) for the ritual pre-race pasta dinner. The enthusiastic race organizer, David Seymour, arrives at our table while we're finishing up to ask if we'll stick around for some announcements. Thinking it'll only be a few minutes, we agree, so he sits two lonely dyed-in-the-wool marathoners with us — a tall, lanky Dutch and a guy from NYC running only his second marathon. Next come a group of ladies from Toronto, and at another table a mix of young and old from Prince George. It's representative of the crazy cross-section this increasingly popular race attracts, a group stirred with the generous number of locals who will participate in one of the run or walk distances. Pasta dishes fly around us, but half an hour later no announcement seems imminent so, bellies full and wanting to relax before the morning's 8 a.m. gun, we retreat to the apartment we'd rented in QC.
Morning comes too soon and by 7:30 a.m. most of the participants are milling around the start at the newly developed Haida Heritage Centre of Kaay Llnagaay at Second Beach in Skidegate, in front of six totems representing southern villages of the Haida people. After the countdown for the marathoners and half-marathoners at 8 a.m. (the 10K'ers go later), it's a few quick metres up the driveway and onto the flat out-and-back route along Highway 16. As we make the turn, ravens, perched expectantly on nearby trees (correctly viewing any large human gathering as a likely source of food), take to the wing to follow the pack as it heads north along the shoreline. Eagles nest overhead while small, forested islands hover off to our right beyond the wide tidal zone. Just under two kilometres north, the course turns off the highway and descends into the main village of Skidegate, a Haida settlement for several thousands years.
We run along Front Street past the Community Hall and the Haida Immersion Program longhouse where the first modern totem pole—carved by iconic Haida artist Bill Reid and raised in 1978—stands. The course skirts a cemetery then loops back up to the highway past the carving shed and the original canoe house built for protection of the lootaas, the Haida war canoe. Soon enough the run passes famous Balance Rock, one of Haida Gwaii's spiritual wonders. A large boulder left behind from the glacial retreat of the last ice age, not even the powerful North Pacific storms that have raged here for millennia have been able to dislodge it from its magical perch, leading some to see Balance Rock as a centre of spirituality.
After the first water/gel station at five kilometres, the running seems effortless as we continue along the shoreline with views of ocean, endless beach and towering trees over Chinukundl and Miller Creeks. This mix lasts all the way to the 10.55-km turnaround mark for half-marathoners just past Dead Tree Point (marathoners continue from here to their turnaround point at Saint Mary's Spring, a site named by Annie Richardson of Tlell in 1920, and whose waters, once you've drank them, reputedly have the power to keep you returning forever). The return — along the same route to the totem poles at Kaay Llnagaay for a total of 21.1 kilometres — is a bit of a different experience for me, having never run anything over 10K before. Things start to ache here and there and an internal struggle ensues to keep up the metronomic pace, helped in no small part by the sights and smells of the surroundings and singing out loud to my iPod. Eventually my legs carry me to the finish, a small personal triumph and, as it turns out, a great excuse to see Haida Gwaii.
Looking for your own excuse? The 2014 Edge of the World Music Festival on Haida Gwaii is happening August 8th, 9th, and 10th featuring headliners like Dave Bidini, Said the Whale, Delhi 2 Dublin, Dirty Radio and Don Adler and a host of other acts.
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