Brian McArthur rounded three European countries in just under 29 hours — while on foot and crossing mountainous terrain.
The Red Deerian was the top Canadian finisher in what’s widely considered one of the world’s most gruelling foot races, the 171-kilometre Ultra-Trail-du-Mont-Blanc race.
More than 2,500 global competitors set out from Chamonix, France, Aug. 30 to cross over into Italy and then Switzerland, via Europe’s highest peak.
McArthur ran through 17 quaint villages, lined with cheering crowds, and climbed alpine cow paths that wound near glaciers.
“It was unbelievably beautiful,” he recalled. “We gained a lot of elevation (about 10,040 metres), and I was surprised to see sheep and cows far up the mountain. There were farms right up near the top …”
While about a third of participants don’t finish the demanding race, and most runners who do take 32 to 46 hours, McArthur managed to run it in 28 hours and 55 minutes — faster than any of the 39 Canadians competing (only 23 Canadians finished).
His time was eight hours longer than men’s winner Pau Capell of Spain, but McArthur was thrilled to have shaved two hours off since competing in 2017. He placed 82nd in 2019.
This time, McArthur didn’t push himself too hard on the race’s seemingly easy downhill stretches. By pacing himself, he didn’t wear out his legs.
“I was really pleased with how the race unfolded … We had beautiful weather and I felt good throughout,” said the 47-year-old, who raced with fellow Red Deer runner Kevin Hartman (who completed the race in about 40 hours).
McArthur appreciated the stunning scenery — historic villages and picturesque paddocks and farms that dotted Mont Blanc’s shoulders.
During the initial nighttime stretch of the race, McArthur saw a climbing row of lights that seemed to magically merge with the stars overhead. The flickering row came from the head lamps of the runners jogging ahead of him up the mountainside.
“You couldn’t see where the ground ended and the sky started … It was beautiful — but also intimidating,” said McArthur, who was fooled more than once into thinking the climb was just about over — only to turn a corner and face another uphill grind.
As the sun rose the next morning, the runners raced through villages filled with local supporters. Their cheers were exuberant, even “deafening” at times, he recalled.
Plates of cheese, soup, protein, and fruit stations were set up along the way, but “you don’t feel like eating,” said McArthur, who nonetheless had to force something down every 45 minutes to keep up his strength.
Eventually he asked his wife, Dawn Detarando, to bring him some chips and Popsicles.
While McArthur got no sleep, he briefly stopped to change a shirt or socks at stations Detarando helped set up along the way.
He attributes his ultra-trail-run success to his Red Deer Runners group, which regularly trains on the Woodlea hill, (just west of the Michener Hill and 40th Avenue), as well as trips to Canmore.
Although McArthur has been running since 2013, it’s become a daily activity since he got a mixed-breed husky/shepherd dog in January.
“He’s really athletic and a good runner,” who needs to work off his energy, he said.
McArthur next plans to tackle Bill’s Trail Run around the Lacombe lakes Oct. 5. It’s named for the late, great local trail runner Bill Nielsen.