For The Stress Fractures, a team of highly amateur runners assembled for a single day’s heroic shenanigans, trouble descended around 40 kilometres outside of Jasper, Alberta.
It was 1:30 pm. Clear skies, blazing sun. One hundred and sixty two competitors, strung out along the shoulder of Highway 93, were baking like macaroons. The thing about the Jasper-to-Banff relay is, you can never really prepare for heat, because the moment you do you’ll get snowed on. Such are the cruel variables of the Rockies in June.
The Stress Fractures had front-end loaded their squad, with strong runners in the first three of the 17 legs, and were actually in a respectable position—around 35th place — when the third guy came threshing into the exchange area and handed off the baton. Runner 4, not wanting to embarrass himself, shot out quickly. Too quickly. He was spraying pea gravel across the long shadows of the mountains of the Athabasca River Valley, his gait so ungainly people actually remarked on it as they cruised past in support vehicles.
Or so I heard later. Runner 4, you see, was me.
The last kilometer of my leg was straight uphill to a picturesque ridge. As I approached it our next runner swam into view. I waved the baton in his direction, he reached for it, and… all went granular.
Turned out, the two litres of cranberry juice I’d guzzled beforehand looked just a little too much like blood when I puked them back up into the bunchgrass. Someone called 911. Next thing I knew there were sirens, paramedics, a needle in my arm. (Two weeks later, back at home in Vancouver, there would arrive in the mailbox a bill for $150 for the ambulance: those Albertans are cost-recovery fiends.)
The Jasper-to-Banff relay is the ultimate team-building event. How it works (or rather, how it worked when I did it; the race is still going strong, but with a slightly different format) is this:
Each team of 17 runners had 24 hours to move a baton from the sleepy mountain town of Jasper, Alberta, to the bustling mountain town of Banff. That’s around 300 km. So each leg was around 15k. You ran right through the night. And as you handed off your baton to the next runner you hollered, “Chasquis!” – which means, “Take this message!” The chasquis were Inca messengers who were superfit and highly trained. If you needed to get a piece of news over the mountains by tomorrow, the chasquis were your ticket. So we all drew a kind of energy from shouting that word as we handed off. It was like tapping into the spirit of the ancient Incas.
There is power in togetherness. Anyone who has ever tried to meditate or do yoga alone vs. in a group knows there is a kind of silent current you can feed off when there are other people around you doing what you’re doing.
Add to the mix a common goal — and a deadline — and you deepen the sense of mission, cement the bonds between everyone involved.
Each May in Surrey, BC, teams of sheep-shearers gather on the local museum grounds for the annual “Sheep to Shawl” competition. (Motto: “Ready, Set, Weave.”) It’s exactly as it sounds. Each team starts in the morning with the raw materials — sheep and shears. By noon they’ve spun the raw sheep’s wool into yarn. Then the weavers start weaving, while the spinners keep spinning, and now they’re in the groove, and even the naked sheep are tapping their feet. Before dinnertime each team has produced something that can be worn off of the premises: a beautiful shawl.
I think there’s something magic about a single day as the time frame for a bunch of people to get together to do something significant — run a race, raise a barn, weave a shawl, plant a garden. But it doesn’t have to be a day. It could be three days. It could be a week. The point is to have a purpose, and some time frame to git ‘er done in. It’s kind of awesome to know there’s another companionable human right there beside you, so that when you get tired, you can hand off.
Chasquis! Take this message.