For more than 24 hours, long-distance racer ran laps inside Alberta town’s coffee shop

Matthew Shepard bundled up on Saturday morning for a run that would end up consuming his entire weekend.

The 32-year-old, who lives in Valleyview, Alta., joined more than 2,000 runners from 57 countries in the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a free virtual race hosted by the coaching company Personal Peak.

Live streaming themselves on treadmills and on near-empty residential streets, participants covered 6.7 kilometres per hour until they could not continue. One man became a fan favourite for running loops of his living room. He ran for 20 hours in his Dubai apartment.

“We ended up really blowing away the expectations of what we were trying to do here,” said Canadian ultrarunner Dave Proctor in a Monday interview with CBC’s Radio Active.

Proctor dreamed up the event two weeks ago after cancelling plans to race across Canada this summer. He hopped on the treadmill in his basement to participate in the ultra himself, running 31 hours and covering more than 200 kilometres.

Like Proctor, Shepard also was looking forward to a spring and summer full of running. 

The former Alaska resident even quit his job last year to train and coach full-time.

His ultimate goal is finishing the Barkley Marathons, a notoriously difficult Tennessee race that involves searching for book pages in the woods.

With the Barkley Marathons cancelled, and just about every other major race now cancelled or postponed, Shepard was eager to compete in some form.

When he started running at 7 a.m. on Saturday, the temperature in Valleyview was just shy of -30 C and the wind, he recalled, “was just whipping.”

After a day running in extreme cold and wind, Matthew Shepard moved indoors for the rest of his ultramarathon. (Submitted by Matthew Shepard)

It became warmer as the day went on, but when the temperature plunged again after sunset, Shepard figured he should stop running.

He feared his body temperature would drop too much and did not want to push himself to the point of hospitalization, especially during a pandemic.

His crew had other plans. 

They pushed tables together and set up a tiny race route inside the Tall Timber Coffee Corporation, a cafe in town.

The coffee shop’s owner, Travis Werklund, was happy to lend Shepard the space since he had temporarily closed the cafe due to COVID-19 a few weeks ago.

Shepard ran around the 25-metre perimeter of the cafe, alternating direction every 500 metres. 

By hour 32, the constant turns were starting to take a toll on his ankles and knees, so he took off his shoes and started running in socks. Without shoes on, he could take slightly smaller steps, relieving a little knee pain.

Delirium and sleep deprivation also took a toll on the runner, affecting his ability to communicate.

“I would try to have conversations with my crew, but sometimes my thoughts would dissolve into gibberish or if they would say a word, sometimes I wouldn’t understand it,” he said.

Xeata Daugherty, left, Matthew Shepard, centre, and Travis Werklund stand in the temporarily closed Tall Timber Coffee Corporation in Valleyview. (Submitted by Matthew Shepard)

“I felt like I had to keep him occupied somehow,” said Xeata Daugherty, who fed him Japanese omelettes, candy, chips and pizza throughout the race. She stopped only once to take a two-hour nap.

After thousands of laps of the coffee shop, Shepard dropped out of the race shortly after midnight on Monday morning. Running had become too painful at that point.

His final total: 41 hours of running, covering 275 kilometres.

After he stopped, Shepard answered questions and thanked viewers on YouTube before crashing on a couch at the cafe.

“Don’t judge me but I still have not taken a shower,” he confessed Monday afternoon.

The final two runners were Michael Wardian of the U.S. and Radek Brunner of the Czech Republic.

Wardian ended up as the winner, earning the coveted “golden” toilet paper roll after running for 63 hours.