Kelowna's Melanie Bos competes in the White River 50-mile endurance race last summer in Washington.

Running for Life

Kelowna's Melanie and Garry Norkum have never met but share a common passion for running and the freedom and satisfaction it brings them

Some people celebrate their birthdays with cake and presents, others by attending parties, and still others by taking in a show or concert.

For Kelowna’s Melanie Bos, the occasion of her 40th birthday called for a much more challenging and unconventional celebration.

On January 19 and 20, Bos spent almost 27 consecutive hours on her feet, navigating 24,000 feet of elevation at the Hurt 100, a 100-mile endurance race through the backcountry of Honolulu, Hawaii.

Clearly, covering all varieties of terrain, crossing rivers, and running through the night with the aid of headlamp isn’t everyone’s idea of a good time. But for Bos, one of North America’s top ultra runners, it was the ideal gift.

“I had never done 100 miles before, the longest I had ever been out was 9 1/2 hours, so in that way it was a pretty special accomplishment for me,” said Bos, an occupational therapist and mother of three. “It was a very technical race and has only a 35 to 40 per cent finish rate, so for me to finish was really nice. When I got to within about an hour of the end and realized I was going to make it, I was almost in tears. I was excited and happy…one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

After 26 hours and 50 minutes on the course, Bos finished second among all women and 10th overall.

It was yet another in a long list of impressive results Bos has logged in ultra runs over the last seven years.

An ultra race is defined as anything longer than the traditional marathon with the most common distances being 50 and 100 kilometres, as well as 50 and 100-mile runs.

Among her many exploits was a 6-hour 34-minute clocking at the Whistler 50 (miles) Ultra last year, the fifth fastest time ever for a Canadian woman.

In 2012, she also won the Scorched Sole 50-mile race in Kelowna, and earlier this year set a course record at Lord Hill, a 50 k trail run in Snohomish, Wash.

Add in trips to the IAU world ultra runners championship in Ireland in 2011 where she was the top Canadian woman, plus a stop at the 100 K World Championship ultra road race last spring in Italy, and you get the picture—running is not only a passion but a lifestyle for Bos.

“Mostly I run because I love to be out in nature, and I love the sense of freedom and happiness I get from it,” Bos said. “Exercising, the sense of being healthy and strong…that’s really important to me. Even if I wasn’t able to race, I would still run, I’d be out there with my dog enjoying it. I hope I can always run.”

Because of the considerable physical and mental demands and the time commitment required to train for ultra running events—she averages 150 kilometres of running per week—Bos has had to be mindful when it comes to striking the right mix between family life, friends, her career and running.

“You really have to be organized, but I find a way to make it all work,” she explained. “Running is great because I can do it from my own door. You don’t have to go to gyms or wait in line…you just go, so that makes it a lot more manageable. You need that balance with family, work and training, and you have to respect all those parts of your life and give them all the time they deserve.”

Former competitive ultra runner Ryne Melcher has been working as Bos’ coach for the last year. He says the 40-year-old Kelowna athlete has all the right tools and the right attitude—both mentally and physically—to thrive at a sport that requires the kind of commitment most people can barely fathom.

“Melanie is a very focused and driven individual,” said Melcher. “She picks her battles, tries not to do everything at once and that serves her very well. She finds ways to juggle everything in her life without neglecting any part of it.

“She had found a way to run at the top level in her sport,” Melcher added, “It’s almost like she’s getting stronger, and if she continues to train with same kind of intensity, I think she has a lot more good years ahead of her.”

Bos has been through her share of peaks and valleys—literally and figuratively—during her seven years as an ultra runner.

At the 100 k world ultra last year in Italy, for instance, Bos received the scare of her running life when, after finishing second among Canadian women, she landed in hospital. A combination of a virus, dehydration and elevation resulted in acute renal (kidney) failure.

While the incident taught her some valuable lessons about her own limitations, in the long run it did little to derail her passion for running.

“Those are times you learn from, you start to really respect what can happen to your body,” she said. “One moment you’re on fire, feeling in unstoppable, then the next you realize how drastically things can change. Initially when I got back into training I wondered if this was for me, do I want to put myself at risk like that. But then once I got back into training and started having success, I realized that day was just a perfect storm of factors.  I was right back into it.”

On the other side of the coin, Bos has experienced moments of exhilaration and near-euphoria that, for her, only running can elicit.

Such was the case as she approached the finish of the Hurt 100 in Hawaii.

“I felt like I could have floated back down the mountain,” she said. “At that moment, I said ‘Yeah, people can do whatever they want to do’. People can do amazing things.”

And Bos continues to try to push new boundaries with her running and this summer plans to  compete in her first stage race: The Transrockies Run, a 186-kilometre endurance race held over six days through the high country near Denver, Colorado.

“I still have the desire and hunger to try new things,” said Bos. “It keeps life interesting.”

Bos will be offering a presentation and discussion on her experience at the Hurt 100 Saturday, June 1 at 7 p.m. at Wild Mountain, 469 Bernard Ave.

* * *

Not pneumonia, not a bad back, not even the birth of his children.

Absolutely nothing has deterred Garry Norkum from going for a run each and every day for the past 30-plus years.

After all, the 59-year-old from Lake Country made a bet with a friend in Toronto back in October 1982 over who would ultimately run for the most consecutive days.

While his buddy’s streak ended more than five years ago due to a bike mishap and broken collarbone, Norkum has just kept on running.

This Sunday, when he lines up at the start of the Vancouver Half Marathon, it will be his 10,806th straight day of running a minimum of two miles—and most often three miles or more.

“I’m not sure exactly what it is, but I think it’s a mental thing where I just don’t want to stop, I don’t want the streak to end,” said Norkum, the owner of Cyclepath bike shop in Kelowna. “If I missed a day I can imagine I’d be pretty depressed and I’m not sure I want to experience that. I think I’m almost be afraid to stop.”

In addition to the psychological satisfaction he derives from running, Norkum said the physical benefits are obvious—even if there were times he questioned whether he should bother making his way out the door in a pair of running shoes.

There was the time his back hurt so intensely he needed a pair of hockey sticks to help boost himself out of bed. Still, he kept on running to ensure the streak would remain in tact.

Colds, flus, pneumonia—no sickness of any description has stood in the way of his three-decade long pursuit.

“Once you get rolling and the body gets warmed up, it’s not that bad, you don’t run fast and you just work your way through it,” Norkum said. “Besides, you know it’s good for you physically. And mentally, it’s a good time for me to clear my head, to think, to work through some issues. It’s just part of my everyday life.”

Then there were the days he managed to squeeze in running time on the births of each his three children; the last of which his wife, Joan, is hesitant to let him forget about.

“She went into labour at home about 6 a.m. and woke me up to get ready to head out to the hospital,” he said. “My response: ‘Do I have time to go running?’ She said a few choice words before telling to me to get dressed and get in the car. My son was born at 8 a.m.,  so good thing I delayed my run to later in the afternoon.”

In addition to his shorter daily jogs, Norkum has run in six full marathons and close to 40 half marathons over the last 30 years.

Of the estimated 55,000 kilometres he has run in his lifetime, no one stretch of road has been more memorable or meaningful than the 42 kilometre (26.2 miles) he covered at his first New York City Marathon in 2010.

“The city, the weather that day, the crowds, the atmosphere…I would have liked to have been half an hour faster, but it was like nothing I’ve ever experienced,” he said. “It was more than 20 years since my previous marathon and I’d have to say that was my number one highlight. It was an amazing day.”

While Norkum has, on occasion, considered taking a day off, he always finds a way to steer clear of the temptation.

A few years ago, with his enthusiasm waning, Norkum read Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall, a story of ultra marathons and endurance running which focuses on a native North American tribe in Mexico.

“It’s an incredible story, those are the kinds of things that can really inspire you,” Norkum said. “Running marathons is one thing, but the ultra marathons, that’s a whole other level. That book kind of rejuvenated me and made me enjoy my runs. It made me go out in a different frame of mind and re-energized me.”

To the best of his knowledge, there is only one person in Canada who has a longer daily running streak going than Norkum. Rick Rayman, from Toronto, has reportedly run each and every day for the past 34 1/2 years.

And while Norkum has no definite plans to try and chase down Rayman’s record of longevity, neither does he have any intention of ending his own streak.

“I have no plans to quit running. I enjoy it and I feel like I’ll try run as long as I’m able too.”