Uphill battle: Jonathan Schwarz takes on Whistler Alpine Meadows ultramarathon

Spanning seven different ecological zones and 55 kilometres, surviving the Whistler Alpine Meadows ultramarathon can be just as rewarding of a feat as winning it. The race, which has an elevation profile of 3350 metres, takes runners around the northwestern parts of Whistler — starting at Riverside Resort and going as far north as Screaming Cat Lake.

This year, UBC pharmaceutical sciences PhD student Jonathan Schwarz crossed the finish line.

“It’s fun running [on trails] because you’re adventuring to places that you haven’t been before. It’s like an adventure, training and workout all at the same time,” said Schwarz.

Competitors begin on the softer valley floor and travel up the alpine, traversing boulders and glaciers as they go. With such a variety of terrains, the event is an expedition as much as it is a competition.

The Whistler Alpine Meadows race also carries an element of survival — weather plays a major role as it could affect whether or not the heli-drop aid stations will be functioning during the race.

The Whistler ultramarathon takes runners up into the glaciers, among other ecological zones.
The Whistler ultramarathon takes runners up into the glaciers, among other ecological zones. Courtesy Jonathan Schwarz

Moreover, the unpredictable weather conditions force runners to be thorough and self-sufficient in the preparation of their own food and liquid supply. Schwarz said prior to the race that he would be carrying liquid nutrition mixes, energy gels and bars in his vest, just in case some of the aid stations were not functioning on race day.

Of course, Schwarz also had to prepare to complete the 55 kilometre distance of the race — the longest distance he will have ever run. Though evidently strenuous, it is this sense of challenging one’s own capabilities and extremes that drew Schwarz to ultramarathons in the first place.

Schwarz first got a taste of the sport when he stumbled upon Salomon Trail Running’s YouTube channel, which features videos of trail runners around the world.

Mt. Marathon” — one of the videos available — showcases the Mount Marathon Race in Seward, Alaska, where athletes run through misty valleys and grizzly bear habitats and slip down rock-covered hills. At the end of the race, some of the competitors are bloodied and wounded, while others can barely walk on their own.

Schwarz has experienced some of these extreme challenges himself. After his first 30 kilometre race, his body took a while to recover.

“I couldn’t walk for the next four days. My quads were just destroyed. Walking up the stairs was so painful,” he said.

Although Schwarz is relatively new to the sport of ultramarathon running — having only started last winter — his experiences in other sports prepared him thoroughly. Prior to attending UBC, he was a competitive swimmer in high school and throughout his undergraduate studies at St. Francis Xavier University. While completing his undergrad, he also competed for the varsity rowing team and for Nova Scotia’s rowing team in the 2013 Canada Games.

Nowadays, Schwarz cycles competitively, mostly in cyclo-cross races. For the ultramarathon, cycling has also become a form of cross-training, supplementing the 18 – 20 kilometre runs he does two or three times a week.

Leading up to the race, Schwarz was eager to see how far he could push himself.

“One of my big goals is just to finish, so I’m not really pushing hard to try to make it to the top ten. But I’m also just competitive, so I’m not going to want to walk it at any point. I want to see if I can do it, and if I can do it, how fast I can do it,” he said before the race.

Schwarz celebrates his success in the Whistler Alpine Meadows race.
Schwarz celebrates his success in the Whistler Alpine Meadows race. Courtesy Jonathan Schwarz

This year’s competition, organized by the Coast Mountain Trail Series, was held on Saturday, September 23. Schwarz finished the uphill ultramarathon in 7:51:15.5 hours.