Fort McMurray woman running 200 kilometres to showcase beauty of Wood Buffalo region

After the pandemic cancelled her ultra-marathon plans, a Fort McMurray woman is testing her physical limits with a 200-kilometre run in an effort to showcase the Wood Buffalo region. 

Jessica Leska, 36, is starting the run south of Fort McMurray on Friday.   

Leska initially wanted to run in the 2021 Iditarod in Alaska, a 350-mile (563 km) winter race, but it wasn’t feasible for her to attend due to COVID-19.

So she started planning her own ultra-marathon. 

In April, she started preparing for an ultra-marathon to Fort Smith, N.W.T., but her plans were thwarted as the winter road between Fort Chipewyan, Alta., and Fort Smith wasn’t built this winter because of COVID-19. 

Unperturbed, Leska shortened her run, instead opting to run to Fort Chipewyan. 

But the winter road to Fort Chipewyan had several construction problems, and is experiencing a shorter-than-average season. Leska didn’t want to risk interfering with supply trucks bringing goods into the community and decided to change her route.

Now she has a new plan: run from her home in Fort McMurray and loop through snowmobile trails in the boreal forest for 200 kilometres, camping in between days.

“One of my main goals is just to be able to show people our own backyard is just as stunning as any other adventure you could go on,” Leska said.

“I didn’t really appreciate it until I started trail running. And now that I know what we have, I want other people to see it too.” 

During the run she will be followed by Shaw Spotlight and Thomas Hopkins Photography to capture the trip and make a short documentary. 

Leska has been training for an ultra-marathon for months but said she doesn’t run as much as people might think. She said the most she ran in her training was about 80 kilometres in a week. 

“I know that when I get out there I’m just going to be able to grind it out because I just have that in me.”

While running the 200-kilometre route, she’ll also be pulling a sled carrying all her food, supplies and equipment for the four-day trek. 

She’ll be running from Fort McMurray to Anzac, then heading to Maqua Provincial Park and then home. She’s marked out an 200-kilometre path through the forest.

Leska said she’ll need to eat about 4,000 calories a day. She will use snow as her water source. 

She has some concerns about bears, but said her bigger worry is the mild weather — something she hasn’t been training for. 

“I’ve been training for the coldest weather, and now suddenly it’s going to be extremely mild,” she said. “It’s actually worse.” 

Jessica Leska has been training for the run for months. (Submitted by Jessica Leska)

Leska hasn’t been preparing alone. Months ago she reached out to the Fort McMurray Search and Rescue Society to find out how she can do the run safely.

President Ron Lamoureux said Leska has been able to go out with the society to see the routes, and get some help with gear. 

Lamoureux said he was a bit surprised by Leska’s plan when he first heard about it. 

“It was sort of like, ‘You do know it’s still winter, right?’ ” he said.

He said at least three members have helped her prepare for the trip, including showing her what to wear and how to prepare a shelter. 

Leska said she would love to make the run an annual event and have other runners participate, though she’ll first have to see how how her run goes.

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