On June 4, 2022, Calantha Elsby set out to nab the unsupported female Maitland Trail FKT as her first ultramarathon attempt. Despite making rookie mistakes, she still set the record. Here’s what she learned and why she doesn’t feel the need to go back to prove she could do better.
Location: Ontario, Quebec
Distance: 33.7 miles
Elevation gain: 2200 feet
Photo: A small footbridge leads you through the lush greenery of the Maitland Trail.
What a relief to wake up to a cool, spring morning after an unusual heat wave the week before. I’d been talking about running the Maitland Trail end to end for my first 50km for years now. I’d even recently started to tell a few select friends I was going after the FKT attempt. “The slowest fastest known time,” I’d nervously laugh. So anything–chance, luck, divine intervention–to keep me from eating my words was going to be appreciated.
The Maitland Trail is a rare gem on the Southwestern Ontario , Canada landscape, which is wanting for long distance trail systems. Following along the Maitland River, the 52 km linear trail connects Auburn to Goderich via forests, fields and footpaths.
I chose to run the trail east to west (Auburn to Goderich), as Goderich would offer more opportunities to refuel when I finished and to catch a taxi back to my car. I parked under the Auburn bridge and headed off at 7:55am on well-rested legs. My weather good fortune led me to expect a faster than predicted finish time. But the Maitland Trail was not going to give up the FKT that easily.
I’d even recently started to tell a few select friends I was going after the FKT attempt. “The slowest fastest known time,” I’d nervously laugh.
The trail starts with some runnable double track winding through dense, shady forest along the river’s edge. It opens up into a couple kilometres of farmfield, which I suspect is a challenge any time of year. Tractor ruts, young crops, and last year’s corn stalks made for awkward footing, but the cool morning breeze and sense of gratitude toward the farmer for allowing the trail to cross their land kept the stoke high. I was really going to do it!
I had been an inactive child who had self-selected out of sport, opting for books in quiet corners rather than sweating it out on the soccer field. By late adolescence, I was still more interested in music, art and literature than running around a track. I came to trail running later in life, not until my mid-thirties, after first discovering backpacking and then fastpacking. I was now 38 and this was the first year I’d ever really trained for anything. The FKT attempt would be the first time I’d ever run an ultra distance.
Ten kilometres in, I was still feeling great, stretching out the legs on some rural gravel roads. Dense, spring vegetation welcomed me back to the trail at around kilometre 12, making it difficult to see roots and rocks. The trail quickly narrows to single track, bordered by lush ferns and accented with gnarly cedar roots. My unnaturally large feet in a pair of Hokas and my lack of agility was a poor combination for technical terrain and I slowed considerably. This was a training run for my goal race in September, so a shattered knee was best avoided.
By kilometre 25, things started to fall apart. I was struck with a headache, cramps, and radiating back and leg pain. (Post-analysis: This was likely due to dehydration, a lesson I’d learn a few times over.) But it was such a beautiful day, I ignored it and kept the positive vibes flowing.
The route profile is somewhat unassuming. With only about 800m of elevation gain, it seems like a flat 50. But the hills you encounter are steep and lean-on-your-knees punchy. The downhills aren’t any different.
By kilometre 25, things started to fall apart. I was struck with a headache, cramps, and radiating back and leg pain.
I’d run out of water by kilometre 35 and my cool spring day started to feel more like a hot summer afternoon. I’d only carried 1.5L of water (no electrolytes) because evidently I didn’t know anything about proper hydration or my personal hydration needs. I had a Salomon water filter and a 250mL soft flask just in case. I filled up what I could from a thin stream, but that was the last of the available water, as it’s at this point the trail takes you away from the river along a ridgeline.
By kilometre 40, I was walking more than running. Hobbling, really. Cramping behind the ribs was making it difficult to run. But somehow, mentally and emotionally, I stayed in good spirits. Seven hours 19 minutes 55 seconds after I started, I reached the shores of Lake Huron–the end point of the Maitland Trail–and was relieved to find a water fountain right where I needed one. Eyes burning, back aching, head pounding, I had done it! I had set the overall FKT.
While I didn’t have my best day, I don’t feel the need to go back to prove I can do better. I’m happy to own the mid-pack space. I took the opportunity to set the FKT on this trail because I hoped it would provoke competition and motivate more gifted and experienced runners to take it on. I know you’re out there.
Update: As of October 2022, Peter Meades took the overall FKT on the Maitland Trail, but Calantha still holds the women’s overall. It’s waiting for you!