Eighth annual Limberlost Challenge has record turnout

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If you’ve never heard of The Limberlost Challenge, you’re likely not alone – many in Muskoka are still unaware of its namesake and location, the Limberlost Forest Reserve, let alone the race itself. But for those who know and love it, it has become a favoured event in the trail running circuit.

Held last Saturday, July 8, the eighth annual Limberlost Challenge offered 600 trail runners three distances to test their mettle – 14km, 28km or 56km. The routes are as scenic – Limberlost is a wilderness paradise – as they are gruelling. Road running it’s not.

“It’s a technical trail, so it’s challenging,” says Rob Horton, Limberlost Challenge’s registration co-ordinator and co-organizer. “The trail goes around a number of lakes and has a wide variety of challenges – steep climbs, descents, rocky areas, and soft forest floor with pine needles. There are quite a number of boardwalk bridges over streams and wetland areas. A lot is done to maintain the trail and keep it in good condition for the race.”

More than 50 volunteers run the race, with support from Limberlost for preparation of the course. Race director, Neil Jefferson, Horton, and Lowell Grieb are the main organizers on a committee rounded out by Katherine Andrews, Dennis Crone and Gloria Schimmel. A local, amateur ham radio group helps with communication across the course – its location isn’t fully serviced by cell phone towers. The SportLab provides medical support and a healthy post-race meal.

The Limberlost Challenge is part of OUTrace – the Ontario Ultra & Trail Race Series. The 56k loop earns the label of ultra-running – races longer than a marathon but less than 100 miles. Of the 600 racers, 95 registered for the 56k, 148 for the 28k and 356 for the 14k, which went off in three waves to help eliminate congestion on the single-track portions of the trail.

Horton thinks the race’s growing popularity – this is the first year it has sold out – is due in part to the location, but also to the structure of the event itself. “The people that come to our race appreciate the forest reserve – it’s a beautiful place to run – but also the organization of the event and the great meal afterward. It’s exciting to see the event grow, and I think it’s one of the best running races in Ontario. People can’t tell us enough how much they love it.”

Jefferson notes that about 20 per cent of Limberlost Challenge participants have never been on trails before, and that trail running is a fast-growing sport, in part due to the challenge involved. “It requires your concentration. You can’t look around and enjoy the scenery as much – the surface changes rapidly. It’s a challenge. (This race) has a reputation in the series as being the most difficult.”

Limberlost Challenge participants get to enjoy scenic views like this one when they're not focused on the trail ahead (Photo: Jack Page)

Limberlost Challenge participants get to enjoy scenic views like this one when they’re not focused on the trail ahead (Photo: Jack Page)

The Limberlost Challenge began when race director Neil Jefferson and his friend Dave Gibson tried running at the Limberlost Forest Reserve for the first time in 2009. “We were in a Sunday morning running group and Dave said he’d heard about this place out on Limberlost Road that was open to the public and thought we might like to run out there,” recalls Jefferson. “We went about once a week for a month and I got to thinking it would be a good place to host a race.”

With both OUTrace and the Limberlost Forest Reserve on board, they ran the first event in July 2010 with about 290 participants. Gibson stayed on for a few years as co-race director and a volunteer, with Jefferson taking the reins on his own, increasingly with Horton’s help, in more recent years. “It’s a ton of work but very rewarding.”

Ninety-two percent of this year’s 600 racers weren’t local, travelling from more than 40 kilometres away for the race. The average distance travelled by the racers to get to the event was 307 kilometres. Many of them arrived from southern Ontario with the farthest hailing from New Zealand and Glasgow, Scotland.

The racers have embraced the event as have the owners of the reserve, says Jefferson. “The owners have done an amazing amount of work on the trails. They do that every year – they are 100 per cent accepting of the event. That’s what they are all about. They have a property open to the public year round and this is what it’s meant for, for people to go out walking and running and showshoeing and skiing. It’s pretty rare that you have a privately owned property that is free to the public.”

The Limberlost Challenge also raised about $10,000 for Trails Youth Initiatives, which provides outdoor experiences for inner city youth. The event has raised more than $50,000 for the organization to date.

Get full results from the race here.

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