Toenails or not, Kalyn Head won’t stop

Kalyn Head is down 4 toenails so far. But that’s good, she says. “They won’t fall off when I’m running.”

Photo by Grace Kennedy

Kalyn Head is down 4 toenails so far. But that’s good, she says. “They won’t fall off when I’m running.”

Last year, Head, 23, lost all her toenails in a 100km ultramarathon around Chilliwack for her champagne birthday on July 23. Unable to put her shoes back on after the first 80km, she ran the final 20km on pavement in her bare feet. This year, Head is planning to do it again—hopefully without the mangled feet—and she’s raising thousands for the Special Olympics in the process.

Head only started running 5 years ago. She kicked off her new hobby with “a couple of halfs” (half-marathons) and then a full marathon on her 20th birthday. She loved that marathon so much she started organizing annual 5km Fun Runs to raise money for local organizations with her friends instead of birthday parties—her friends, she said, “were pretty upset… but good sports about it.” In 2019, she decided to run a half-marathon each month for a full year. She ended up doing even more, completing 14 half-marathons and 2 full marathons.

Then, in 2020, Head was about to have her champagne birthday—turning 23 years old on July 23. She knew she wanted to do something big. She decided on a 100km ultramarathon.

“I actually only decided I was going to do it when the pandemic hit,” Head said. “I realized I wasn’t going to be able to do the Fun Run, and I was like, ‘Well, there’s got to be some other way to raise money.’” She hoped to raise $500 for Chilliwack Community Services. She raised that much in 1 day. Then she increased her goal to $5,000—and ended up donating just under $6,000 for the local organization.

While the fundraising money came in, Head trained for the 10 loops she would be running around Fairfield Island. When July 23 finally came, she realized she hadn’t trained enough. “I made some pretty crucial mistakes,” Head said. “I wore normal socks, not anything moisture wicking… I also never stopped. I thought that if I stopped, I wouldn’t be able to get my momentum back.” Head started her run at midnight on her birthday, and ran non-stop for 80km.

“I finally had to stop, and I took off my socks and saw that my toes had blistered so badly underneath that it had lifted all my toenails off,” she said. “I tried to put my shoes back on and it was just so painful that I couldn’t get them on.” She tried to run in her Birkenstock sandals for a while, but eventually finished the last 20km in her bare feet.

This year, Head is a little more prepared for her now-annual birthday ultramarathon. She started training in January along the Vedder Trail and bought better socks, bigger shoes, and a special lubricating gel to stop her toes from rubbing.

The fundraiser has also grown to $10,000 this year (a total she has already exceeded) and will benefit the Special Olympics, where Head has coached athletes for the last 6 years. She has also changed her route to avoid the boring slog she set out for herself last year. Starting at midnight on Friday, July 23, Head will leave her home in Rosedale. Instead of a loop, she will run to the North Parallel Road that connects Chilliwack and Abbotsford—”I’ve done it a couple times in training now, and it’s okay, although the cars go pretty fast”—and finish at Abbotsford’s Exhibition Park.

Some of her friends will join her for portions of the run, and Head has purchased medals for them like she did with her Fun Runs. At the end, some of the athletes she helps coach will cheer her on to the finish line.

“It’s pretty emotional. I ugly cried pretty bad last year,” Head said. This year, she’s just excited to show her athletes it can be done. “We talk a lot about setting goals for yourself and just believing in yourself… just showing that it’s hard, but you can still do it.”

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