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A feature interview with ultrarunner Karen Holland following her epic Bruce Trail FKT

Last weekend, ultra runner Karen Holland of Kimberley, Ont. set a new Bruce Trail fastest known time (FKT) at eight days, 22 hours and 51 minutes eclipsing the overall mark set just by Kip Arlidge of Sundridge, Ont. by more than four hours and Chantal Demers’s women’s mark by more than three days. 

Holland, 34, began her journey on Sept. 3 in Tobermory and finished it up on Sept. 12 in Niagara, 900 kilometres later — an impressive feat to say the least. 

Before Arlidge nabbed the FKT, another local runner Harrison Pockler set the time to beat back in September 2020. 

Attempting a nine-day, 900-km run takes a community. Holland needs runners to pace her on the trails, support vehicles, and many other tasks. What is interesting and pretty fantastic about Holland’s successful attempt is the community and crew surrounding her and assisting her was made up of a slew of talented runners including the past FKT holders including the past four in Arlidge, Demers, Pockler and Adam Burnett who set his own mark in 2017. That’s special. 

An outline of the gear Holland used on the adventure as well as other information is available here. The ran in the Arc’teryx Norvan SL 2 trail running shoes, which Get Out There reviewed this past summer. 

Holland has years of ultra running experience including many 50 and 100-mile races. She is also raising money for the Bruce Trail Conservancy in conjunction with her FKT and her Gofundme page is at $7,700 and counting towards her goal of $10,000. 

“My hope is to create awareness and encourage people to get out and explore this incredible trail that is right in our Ontario backyard,” Holland wrote. “Donate today and ensure that the precious Niagara escarpment can be enjoyed for years to come!”

Holland sat down with Molly Hurford to answer a few questions about her adventure.

How did you come up with the idea to go after this FKT?

The previous women’s record holder Chantal Demers had put it in my head about five years ago. But I continued to tell myself I did not have the time to build a plan towards a multi-day adventure like this. I had always been focused on single day races. But somewhat due to COVID, with travel being restricted, I wasn’t able to race as much, and I had more time to spend exploring my backyard—the Bruce Trail—realizing how cool it was. The idea was born based on being able to explore the trail and knowing what I was up against, and with no racing on the radar, I had the time and space to prepare and plan for it.

What was the most challenging aspect of the journey?

Based on having limited multi-day experience, I knew that something was going to go wrong with my body. I just didn’t know what. So I feel like every day it was a bit of a triage, and trying to be in tune with my body to see what was going wrong, and how I could remedy it or recover as fast as possible. But I think by day five, I was retaining so much water and my legs got super swollen was a result. I had never had that happen to my body before.

What did it mean to you and say about the running community that the other recent FKT holders were on-hand to run with you?

I was quite surprised by the outpouring support from the FKT runners before, after and during. I think it is a small but mighty community. One of my crew was even the women's holder and it was incredible to have support and backing from somebody who has been through it. Having the other runners who did the Bruce Trail in the last couple years join in to run on some of the days was incredible as well. It’s so cool that they’re so happy and willing to support someone else’s journey.

What were some unforeseen things that happened along the way?

We did see a bear. But we were quite loud and rowdy, so I think he panicked when he heard us coming. There was also a tornado warning and a pretty intense thunderstorm we had to deal with! Other unforeseen circumstances were more internal: You rely on your body to continue to carry you forward. You can have the best crew, you can have the best weather, you can have the best nutrition, but if your body doesn't hold up, that’s it. And it mentally gets to you if you're not moving forward. So the major unforeseen stuff was the stuff that started to happen in my body that I didn't know how to manage.

What was the highlight?

I never felt that the highlight would be the ending. I feel like it's almost the low point because it's done: What now? Now the recovery actually starts. But as for one highlight, I can’t think of one. I’m reminiscing a lot about it already with people who were there for parts, remembering things like when we saw the bear or a rainbow or a storm, and that brings me back to that moment in time on the trail.I can't pick out one piece because I feel like it was just one amazing rollercoaster of a ride.

And what was going through your head when you finally finished and got the FKT?

It didn’t really resonate until I was at home and reading about it on Canadian Running, and thought, ‘Oh, that's me.’ But really, the FKT was never the focus. I wanted a goal, and the goal
just happened to be someone else's time. But essentially, I was racing myself. I wanted to have the best time possible for me.

Now what?

I guess now I’m thinking about Western States in 2022. That's been a long time in the making. I got in after six years in the lottery, and had to defer the last two years, so I’m really looking forward to starting the build for that once I recover from this! I have to find some good leg speed and turnover, which is terrifying after this adventure, but if I'm able to carry my fitness and the mental state that it took to do the Bruce Trail, hopefully something good will come of it.

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