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Edmonton, Alberta, Canada has the distinction of being the northernmost major city in North America. If you have heard of Edmonton before, you likely know it for two reasons: Wayne Gretzky or West Edmonton Mall, the largest shopping mall on the North American continent.
Trail runners should know Edmonton for two other things: North America’s longest network of gnarly, urban singletrack, and the River Valley Revenge, an epic ultra that is run entirely within the city’s limits.
A city of roughly one million people, Edmonton is nestled along the glacial-fed North Saskatchewan River, a half-day’s drive from the Canadian Rocky Mountains. Coming off a decade long oil boom, the city has invested the surplus in upping its cred as a hip, progressive city. The downtown is a blend of character warehouses and glass monoliths, but it’s the lush, expansive river valley parkland that is Edmonton’s true calling card.
A Hidden Gem
The North Saskatchewan River runs right through the middle of Edmonton. It measures nearly a half-mile across in some sections, with steep banks carved by glaciers melting away over 12,000 years ago. Nowadays, it’s the many local trail fairies that are carving out the banks with endless, intertwined spaghetti strings of sweet singletrack. This area, called the river valley parkland, is 22 times larger than Central Park.
Hikers and mountain bikers have been building this network of trails for
decades. Recently, trail work has exploded with the help of local trail running and mountain bike clubs. These days, there are an abundance of trails for every runner, from near-vertical climbs and descents to leisurely creek-side doubletrack.
The singletrack trails are never flat and always twisty, with loads of roots, ridges, side-hills and steep scrambly bits all surrounded by towering pine, fir and birch trees. Not to mention the stunning vistas and the feeling that you’re in the middle of nowhere—even though you’re smack dab in the center of a city with a population over one million. Better still: you do not have to pay a cent to use any of these trails.
The Rise of River Valley Revenge
The River Valley Revenge (RVR)—a 25K and 50K race— was the brainchild of Fast Trax Run and Ski Shop, created as a way to take in the best and most difficult of these trails all in one day, with a little support and a healthy dose of competition. The first summer edition was run in 2008 in the typically mild, long days of Edmonton summer. Local ultra-legend Jason Kinsella (winner of the 2016 Tahoe 200) ran the RVR in 2016, and notes that it “was the second slowest 100K I’ve ever done. The only reason [the first 100K of Tahoe] was slower was because I knew I still had another 230K to go.”
By 2016, however, the race’s growing popularity was starting to stretch beyond the organizers’ means. At the last minute, a local trail running club called the Edmonton Trail Runners stepped in to take over the race. Led by husband/wife duo, Sheryl and Todd Savard, the Edmonton Trail Runners are a passionate, thriving, community-oriented, no membership-fee group of runners, volunteers, trail builders and event organizers.
“All the race really needed was to be fueled with volunteers and support”, concedes Todd. “With a 1,200-member strong club, that’s what we do best. We always say it’s not (just) about the run. We are about building community and connection together. The run is simply the forum for that.”
As part of their mission to inject new energy into the RVR, the Savards introduced a new winter edition to the race. Winter in Canada’s northernmost major city is no sunny-and-72-degree affair. “Training runs were often … well below -20 degrees Celsius (-4 F),” explains Sheryl.
“You get what you train for is one of our core philosophies, and preparing for the winter edition meant being forced to embrace what makes this time of year so unique up here.”
On a pea-soup-foggy morning in January, 2017, complete with frost-tipped trees, the first winter edition of the River Valley Revenge took place. Nearly 200 racers challenged the various distances starting in the dark at 8 a.m. and (in some cases) finishing in the dark at 5 p.m. Unseasonably warm temperatures followed by a sudden freeze two days before the race, made for icy conditions. Racers battled frozen drinks, frozen beards and frozen toes.
The course for the winter version of the RVR is a 27.4K loop—50K participants do the loop twice, while the 8K runners take on the toughest section of the loop, including the infamous Two Truck Trail. Even the burliest running spikes were no match for Two Truck’s treacherously steep and icy banks: a handful of runners found themselves standing on the frozen river after taking a slippery tumble.
“We ensure every racer has the same quality of experience, with full aid stations and cheering, regardless of their pace,” says Savard. “That is also why the prize for first [finisher] is equivalent value to the prize for last [finisher]. Pride in finishing counts for all.”
Indeed, merely finishing the winter RVR is no easy task: there was visible blood at the finish line, and one racer was removed from the course to be treated for hypothermia.
With the help of the Savards and the Edmonton Trail Runners, the River Valley Revenge is more popular than ever. It hasn’t lost its grass roots vibe, though. Finisher medals are hand-carved, and the after-party is fueled by volunteer-made chili, baked goods and custom-labeled craft beer courtesy of Red Deer, Alberta’s Troubled Monk Brewery. Todd Savard hand-crafts the trophies out of vintage car parts found on the Two Truck Trail (Savard also built the Two Truck Trail, along an impossibly steep escarpment formerly used as a dumping area in the 1940s).
If you’re looking for a destination race, or if you’re just considering a trip to run some awesome trails surrounded by all the comforts of a beautiful city, Edmonton and the River Valley Revenge won’t disappoint. The US dollar goes far, and Canada’s Prime Minister welcomes foreigners.
River Valley Revenge, summer edition:
Dates: June 9-10, 2017
Distances: 25K, 50K, 50 Mile, 100K and a bonus 150K to commemorate Canada’s 150th anniversary.
Registration fee: Entry fees range from $80 to $200 CAD depending on distance
River Valley Revenge, winter edition:
Dates: January 20, 2018
Distances: 25K and 50K
Registration fee: $50-100 CAD depending on distance
While you’re here:
Visitor information: exploreedmonton.com
Dinner: RGE RD is a sure bet for untamed, regional cuisine.
Post-run beers: The Needle Vinyl Tavern has a great selection of craft beers, live music and (of course) vinyl.
Lodging: Edmonton Westin puts you right in the heart of Edmonton’s cultural and character-filled Whyte Ave (and a short jaunt to the trails).
Festivals: Edmonton prides itself as Canada’s Festival City so there is always something going on. The Folk Fest, Heritage Days and the Fringe Festival are just a few highlights. exploreedmonton.com/festivals-and-events