If you’d told Collin Zwickel back in his 20s that long-distance running was in his future, he would probably have laughed you out of the room. He was, after all, a lifelong skier and rugby player who grew up in a family with similar interests. By his own admission, he hated running. It was boring and painfully tedious in a way that his other athletic pursuits were not.
Historically, Zwickel had never run more than 50 kilometres during a calendar year. Last weekend, he embarked on a 122-kilometre ultramarathon from Vancouver to Whistler to raise money for the Happy Kids Foundation, a non-profit he started himself. Over the past 30 days, he and his backers have raised more than $56,000.
‘Choose to suffer’
There are many ways to fundraise. Why did Zwickel choose such an extreme method as a man whose physical vocabulary had never included endurance?
His friend Jon Hunwick, creative director at Magnafire Media, once said: “Choosing to suffer is a choice. Not all people in this world have that choice.” Those words have stuck with Zwickel.
“I love that quote because it’s so simple, and if you have the ability, why not put yourself out there?” he said. “I’m not a long-distance ultra athlete. I’m just a regular guy that had a crazy idea and followed through with it and got it done with the support of my team.
“The idea behind this project was [going into something] that I didn’t think was physically possible for myself. I guess what’s drawn me to running this year is the challenge.”
At 8 p.m. on Friday, Sept. 15, Zwickel departed his downtown Vancouver apartment with a lively crew to see him off. He ran the first 17 kilometres or so with a friend before heading up the Sea to Sky highway. It took him until 3:30 a.m. the following morning to reach Squamish, at which point he still felt good.
“I never did a training run through the night, so it was new to me as well,” Zwickel explained. “It was like I was running in a vortex. All I could see was 20 feet in front of me with a light on the ground, and it was a bit of a blur, like a dream, because I couldn’t see anything else around me. On the other hand, it was so stunning. I mean, just the quietness of the nighttime, the stars illuminating above.”
Zwickel grinded his way through the brisk wee hours of the day, with legs and lungs fatiguing as he began the final stretch to Whistler. He focused simply on reaching each of the 12 checkpoints established by his support unit, where he could refuel with fresh water and a quick snack. The Vancouverite really hit a wall at Function Junction, and with “less than zero left in the tank,” it took everything in his soul to push on to Day Lot 3 in Whistler Village.
Friends, family and strangers alike cheered Zwickel on through the home stretch, and a group of loved ones awaited him at the end.
“I probably couldn’t even run another kilometre if I had to,” he admitted. “That was it. I gave it my all and it was quite special.”
Running and life
Money raised during Zwickel’s campaign is going towards two charities: Backpack Buddies, which aims to feed underprivileged kids and their families, as well as Zajac Ranch, a summer camp equipped to accommodate youngsters with disabilities and medical conditions.
“It’s a challenging time,” Zwickel recognized. “Inflation is high and the cost of living has gone up. I’m [doing this] for underprivileged kids that don’t have the opportunity to experience little things that are so impactful in lives and shape future adults: just lying under the stars and dreaming, or rock climbing, or kayaking, or swimming in the lake. Those memories stay with you for life, so to be able to provide for kids to have that experience is super special.”
Born in New York and raised in Vancouver, Zwickel has always found time to volunteer. He’s served with Big Brothers in the past, and felt called to launch the Happy Kids Foundation despite a busy career as an investment advisor. To prepare for his ultramarathon, he rose at 5 a.m. to run 10 kilometres a day, five days a week for three months straight.
At that point, Zwickel still harboured considerable doubts that a 120-km ultra was within his grasp, but decided to commit anyway. He thanks his family, his girlfriend Rain Korab, and those at Magnafire Media, Backpack Buddies and Zajac Ranch for making his journey possible. Above all, he hopes said journey can inspire a child or two to try something new.
Zwickel is still trying to decide if he likes running, but either way, he finds it an apt metaphor for life.
“There are a lot of similarities between running and life,” he said. “Some runs, I feel absolutely amazing and on top of the world, and other runs, every step feels painful and I question why I’m doing this. But that’s life. There’s good times and there’s bad times, and I’ve definitely learned a lot from running.”