Jason Kinsella loves his unicycle.
Not many people have ridden one, much less owned one, but Jason has. It’s symbolic of his approach to running, racing, and life in general. Just embrace the unknown and figure it out as you go.
The 42 year old, who is married and has been living in Edmonton for most of his adult life has had a significant amount of success since getting the running bug in his mid-30’s, competing in a variety of ultra running events. In fact, in 2016 he even won the Tahoe 200 mile endurance race in a time of just over 59 hours. Another time, at the Iron Legs 50 mile event in Calgary saw Jason come in first place 35 minutes ahead of the next closest finisher. Remarkable considering Jason didn’t participate in his first adventure race until 2013.
“I was working at Flaman at the time and a bunch of guys asked me if I wanted to do a Spartan. I entered the 5k and ended up 2nd in my heat and I was like, Hey this isn’t so bad! Not long after, I was on my way to a work thing and read in a running magazine about ultras. I was just like, ‘What’s this Deathrace thing?'”
Many people that discover running progress from leisurely runs in their neighborhood or maybe sign up for a 5 or 10k, then a half-marathon, and then maybe graduate to a full marathon or ultra. Not so with Jason. He did that first 5km Spartan and BAM! Straight into a 125km ultra. This early interest in long distance events made 2014 a busy year. After dropping out of the Blackfoot ultra with a strained calf, he went on to impressive finishes in the highly-technical River Valley Revenge here in Edmonton, The Sinister 7 in Blairmore, AB, and the aforementioned Canadian Deathrace in Grand Cache, AB before blowing off the Ironhorse Ultra in St. Paul.
“My wife said to me, ‘You can’t finish off the year like that,’ so she sent me down the Grizzly in Canmore and after finishing the 50k thought to myself, ‘I’m officially hooked!'”
Jason’s focus since that point has always been on ultra-level distances. Ultramarathons are generally defined as any distance over the traditional marathon length of 42.2 km and are typically held on more technical terrain versus pavement. People always think about the difference in distance, but comparing the two disciplines is like comparing apples to oranges as they are just so different. Running vests for food or supplies are crucial, hiking poles are very common, and racers typically utilize a different type of running shoe just to name a few. Both disciplines are gruelling but the approach to the race and the strategy are unique.
“Yeah you can be fully-trained and just blow up [in a marathon],” Jason says. I ran the Edmonton Marathon and didn’t know anything about them and got caught up in the fact that there were people everywhere! In an ultra you’re all by yourself after 5 minutes. Well, the next thing I know, I’m passing these elite marathoners, I didn’t know who they were. So of course like 10k later they all just blow past me. I went out way too hard and after 30 km I was just like, ‘What’s happening to my body?? The pavement is just unending.'”
Asked if he would ever want to attempt a Boston Marathon, Jason’s answer is quick one. “Oh no, I would never go to Boston! That many feet around me would be terrifying!”
In fact, Jason has gravitated towards even more longer distances and more self-sustained races. Take the Arrowhead as an example, a 135-mile race in International Falls, Minnesota that he participated in early 2020. Not only is it a self-sustained race following the Arrowhead State Trail where racers can kicksled, ski, run, or pedal, but to add to the challenge, it goes down in the heart of winter through densely-forested sections of northern Minnesota. Did I mention that International Falls is nicknamed Frostbite Falls? Yeah, it routinely registers the coldest temperatures in the lower 48 states and requires participants to finish the race with 15lbs of emergency gear and 3000 calories of rations. That last fact brings me to my next point…in order to finish the race with that much food and gear, racers need a sled.
“It’s called a pulk. 3 weeks after they told me I was in, I’m reading the requirements, and it says you have to be totally sustained for 218km, no help at all. At an aid station, if my wife so much as touched me, even to give me a hug, I’d be DNF’d. You need a sleeping bag rated for -30 C, pots, food, fuel, and I thought, Oh shit! What have I done?!”
Pulks are used for winter snow camping, ski mountaineering, back country hunting, and in Jason’s case, ultramarathon racing. Users are attached by a harness and pull the polyethylene sleds filled with all the necessary gear through the snow. Even though the sleds are tough and are designed to handle abrasion from rocks, Jason has had a few mishaps.
“On my first couple of tries, I caught a root and ripped the bottom out of it. I bought a new one that was a little more rigid. I was training with it but that was the year we didn’t have any snow, so I bought a garden wagon, put some weight in it and went for a run. I looked like a weirdo running around dragging this wagon behind me. It was after starting all that training I realized how hard this was going to be.”
Despite the challenges, Jason persevered to a 3rd place overall finish in the run category in a time of 36 hours and 54 minutes. An impressive feat not without its difficulties and struggles. It’s even more impressive if you consider that he was a rookie to this sort of racing and to the specific terrain and conditions of the area.
“When I started the race, I realized how different the conditions were going to be. It’s really humid there with all the lakes. I was over dressed, so when I got to the first aid station at 63 kms, my fingers had pruned really bad and hurt. My jacket was also soaking wet but it was too early in the race to change it so I just had to deal with it. You wanna go, you just want to run but you’re dragging this 25 kilo sled and it’s just digging into this snowmobile trail… Every. Single. Step. So when I ended up finishing I had trench foot because my feet were so wet and I did a bit of damage to them. I went 218km and once I was done I said to myself, ‘That’s it! No more pulking!’ But a month later I started to get the bug again.”
Because of COVID, there hasn’t been much opportunity for races over the last year but Jason still has some local goals in his sights.
“I tried to do the golden triangle again this year. It’s a 350km snowmobile trail that connects Whitecourt to Fox Creek to Swan Hills and back to Whitecourt. This was my second attempt, but even though I was prepared, the snow was horrible this year…as in there wasn’t any. Previously, on my first attempt I ended up straining my shin and it felt like a knife was scraping up against my leg with each step so I pulled the pin.”
For many, the question at hand when hearing about the long distances, the solitude, and the effort required is a resounding, Why?? The answer is simple. The effort, pain, the struggle and the perseverance is always the price to pay for something that isn’t easily obtained.
“At a certain point, something primitive takes over and you don’t care. You’re just like, ‘Eat!, Move!’ The worries and the stress, they all just melt away and you become a part of your surroundings. It’s difficult to describe and it sounds hokey but I find myself chasing it now. I find that I crave that almost complete disconnect, but yet total connect, you know? It’s so freeing and I’ve tried to explain it to people but I just say, ‘It’s ok, you’ll figure it out”
That’s right, just like jumping on a unicycle.
To read more about Jason’s bio and the charity he chose to support for The Streets Initiative, please visit https://thestreetsinitiative.org/