With less than a month until the Skeena River Relay, where 30 teams with five to 10 members lace up and run the 142 km stretch from Prince Rupert to Terrace, one of the men who started the competition admits he wasn’t a fan of running when he was younger.
“Running any kind of distance was uncomfortable and I never saw any reason to do it,” said Ray Leonard in his heavy northern English accent and with a smile at the memory.
The retired teacher, skiffle musician and ultramarathoner moved to Prince Rupert in 1987 and over the years he’s been spotted running long-distances along Highway 16. Leonard, with his passion and competitive soul, has inspired generations of runners in the city after he took over Rupert Runners.
His own introduction to the endurance sport was at 33-years-old when he was living in England. He had just moved to the countryside when he met some new friends who convinced him to run the Great North Run, a half marathon in the northeast of England.
“We started from scratch. I’d never run anything before. I remember starting with one mile and seeing if I could do that,” Leonard said. He was pumped the first time he ran 10 kilometres and he enjoyed chatting about training over a beer with his running buddies.
In his first race he placed in the 8,000s out of 30,000 runners and didn’t enjoy the experience at all. It was wall to wall people and he couldn’t find his rhythm. He put the shoes away and said he was done. But he was talked into continuing when his friends decided they would do the Newcastle City Marathon a mere 10 weeks later.
Leonard took that first marathon slow, steady and ran both halves (21km) faster than he ran the Great North Run. That was it, he was hooked. He joined a running club in northeast England and continued running marathons with the goal of breaking the three hour time. Just before he immigrated to Canada with his wife, he ran the Woodhall Spa marathon in Lincolnshire in 2:44:00.
When Leonard arrived in B.C. he got a job tree planting in the Kootenays. A few months later he found a teaching gig at the Prince Rupert Secondary School. That was where he met Chuck McTaverish, a colleague — and a runner. The two teamed up with another man and they formed Rupert Runners. They organized the Glory Days race, the half marathon and the Skeena River Relay and gave runners a reason to train.
The challenge with the North Coast was the lack of races. Leonard travelled to do marathons in Vancouver, Calgary and Seattle, where he nailed a personal best of 2:42:00.
“After Seattle in ‘91, I knew I would never run any faster. Everything had just come together perfectly,” he said and he laid his competitive edge in marathons to rest.
As one goal was achieved, another was born. One of Leonard’s friends who used to join him for Sunday morning runs, talked him into trying an ultra. An ultramarathon is a race longer than the traditional 42km distance. The races are usually anywhere between 50km and 160km.
In 1995, Leonard ran the 50km in the Elk/Beaver race in Victoria. The race course is a 10km loop around Elk Beaver Lake on a trail. He finished third and then watched the people in the 100km finish their race.
“The 50km was pretty hard, the thought of doing it twice just didn’t compute,” he said. He heard that the winner of the 100km was named to the Canadian national team for the ultramarathon world championships. “I wondered if I could do that. I didn’t really think that I could.”
He began training to accomplish the loosely fathomable feat. His Sunday morning runs extended out to the North Pacific Cannery and back. The next year, he won an 80km race in Burnaby. Another six weeks later he ran the 100km in Victoria and placed second.
Leonard was named one of six on the Canadian national team and he travelled to Holland for his first world championship. The race was a 10km loop around a flat town called Winschoten with uneven cobblestone streets. The residents broke out their barbeques and cheered on the runners with a special cheer for the Canadians, who they have a fondness for after Canadian troops liberated their nation in World War Two.
“That really helped get you through,” he said.
He came second in the Canadian team with a time of 8:10.56 and he qualified for the next world championship in Japan. He went on to compete in France and Belgium over the next few years.
Leonard’s passion for running carried over into his job. At the Prince Rupert Middle School he used to coach the cross-country team. Their practices involved runs up Mount Hays.
For beginning runners, his advice is to find a running partner. “It can get you out of the house even if it’s pouring with rain you have much more chance of doing it if you’ve arranged to meet somebody to go running with,” he said.
At 67-years-old Leonard still runs. He has passed the Rupert Runners off to a young energetic executive and feels that it’s in “good hands.” He won’t be running this year in the relay, he’s spending his summer with his family in the Kootenays. But, his new goal is to run the half marathon in Suderland, North England, on his 70th Birthday.
“You have to have a goal,” he said.