Canadian Rachel Sklar only started running four years ago. She was training in muay thai, a martial art, and she needed to run to keep herself conditioned. Before long, she realized that she enjoyed the act of running itself.
Within two years, she ran a marathon, and the year after that, she decided to try her hand at ultramarathon running. An ultramarathon is technically any marathon that’s longer than 42 km, but Sklar said the most common distances are between 100 and 160 km. Ultramarathons don’t take place on city streets. Instead, the athletes traverse hostile terrain, such as mountains and deserts.
This year, Sklar, 30, plans on running 12 ultramarathons in 12 different countries, starting in Spain in February and ending in South Africa in December, with a stop in Quebec along the way. She plans on donating a portion of her total funding to Team Unbreakable, a charity that helps youth learn to improve their mental health through physical exercise.
For Sklar, it’s not a cause that she chose lightly.
“I have personally overcome my own bouts of mental health and overcome those adversities via running. I have close family who suffers from extreme mental health and friends who battle this daily,” she said.
Sklar ran her first marathon after only four or five months of training. She said she felt fine until around the 38 km mark, which is about 90 per cent of the way through the race. That’s when her hips locked and she got shin splints. She was still able to finish, but it wasn’t easy.
“The next morning, I woke up and I was so sore. I literally couldn’t walk,” she said. “I had two options: just give up on the idea of running, or give it all I had. So I chose the latter, I kept running.”
Sklar moved her running from city roads to country trails, especially the 900-km Bruce Trail, which runs across southern Ontario. That’s where Sklar really fell in love with running, as she enjoys spending time in nature, instead of a “concrete jungle.” It shows in her devotion to training – in just a few years, she has run over half the Bruce Trail.
Sklar also does a lot of running in the Arizona desert, which she says is her favourite place to train in the entire world. She also spent five months driving to Wasaga Beach, Ont., every day to run laps on the sand, but it still couldn’t prepare her for the challenge of a real desert with real sand dunes that are easy to slip on.
“It’s insane, but it’s fun. It’s like a big playground,” Sklar said.
Sklar has devoted this past year to training for her series of 12 ultramarathons. She’s run three in the past, including her first 160-km run in Argentina. That ultramarathon took her 52 hours, with only four hours of sleep. Sklar credits her completion to a farmer’s crabapple she found after she had run out of food, as thinks she might not have had the energy to finish otherwise.
Even though Sklar was able to complete each race, she realized she had room to improve before her jet-setting journey this year.
“It took a lot out of my body and I don’t think I understood elevation, how to train running downhill. So there are little things I just wanted to perfect before starting over in the next race season,” she said.
Sklar is the only Jewish ultramarathon runner that she knows of, but she also acknowledges that she doesn’t go around chatting up her fellow runners on the trails. And ultramarathon running is still a relatively little-known sport, although Sklar said it’s starting to become more popular. Perhaps more Jewish people will come to see the appeal of ultramarathon running, where the only competition is the runner against the terrain.