The first organized run, in 2017, was a “Hula run” where participants ran wearing Hawaii-themed clothing. 45 people participated, and Stefanile and Whitbread felt confident that they could get more people involved.
Over the years, UpRiver Running has organized many events, and participation grew organically as their reputation grew by word of mouth. “COVID changed things, but the last time we held races [pre-COVID] we had people from the U.S. and Winnipeg,” says Whitbread. “We were starting to draw people from outside of town, which is pretty awesome,” he adds.
This year, the annual fall race, their biggest event of the year, is on October 2, and 248 people have registered to run. The 10K is the most popular, with 138 registrants, and there are also 25K and 50K runs.
Trail running can be a bit of a “shift” from road running, explains Stefanile. Road running tends to be focused on improving your time, while trail running is about “just enjoying the experience.”
“You can run a 10K in Thunder Bay, and you can run [a 10K] in Minnesota, but the trail’s completely different. So you’re less focused on time, more focused on running by feel, enjoying the experience. There’s obviously more technical skills to trail running, you’re not just running on a flat surface, there’s obstacles, there’s traction issues, you gotta go uphill, you gotta go downhill. It’s a lot more exciting,” says Whitbread.
Thunder Bay has lots of trails to choose from, both in and outside the city. Beginners can just run at their favourite, or closest, hiking trail. “The go-to playground in our region here is Trowbridge Forest,” Stefanile says.
There is an extensive network of trails connecting Centennial Park to Trowbridge Park and beyond, where Blacksheep Mountain Bike Club has developed new trails and maps. Some of the trails are designated for biking only, so runners should check the club’s website, where they have an interactive map showing trails for a variety of activities.
Whitbread says the youngest participant in their races has been 10 years old, and there have been some in their mid-70s. The races are very popular with women between the ages of 25 and 45. “Women in that age group are really good at coming together to do things,” Whitbread explains. Many sign up for races together, or make a point of going for a run together every week. “The trail running community in Thunder Bay is really supportive and inclusive,” he says. It’s an amazing community to be a part of.”
Next year, Stefanile and Whitbread plan to launch a pilot project for youth in the city. “It’s a running program, promoting resilience in youth by creating connection through running,” says Stefanile. The two hope to address mental health challenges, provide mentorship and training, and create connection among youth through the running program.
Whitbread says the mental health benefits of running outweigh the physical benefits of running. “It’s more than just getting exercise and sweating outside,” Stefanile says. “Running has become a way to change my lifestyle, take control of my health, regain mental health and connect with a whole big community of like-minded individuals.”
“We look at it like it’s a moving meditation, almost,” Whitbread adds.
One of the best things about 2020 were the friendships made on UpRiver Running’s guided group runs, says Stefanile. “People from different walks of life connected through a guided group run,” he says. “Since then, some have become running partners, running friends, training partners. By offering those events, it really helps us grow the running community by growing connections between people.”