- Fraser Valley Current
- Why is this Langley dead-end so popular with professional runners?
Why is this Langley dead-end so popular with professional runners?
Stepping out of my car, I wandered around the parking lot, looking for the entrance of the trail.
I peeked around the port-a-potty. I walked to the bank of the Fraser River. I crouched below the fence of a farm. Nothing. There was no trail in sight.
It was a sunny, summer morning and I had come to Glen Valley to workout with professional marathoner Leslie Sexton. We share the same coach, and she wanted some company ahead of her race at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon.
I got there first and had never run at Glen Valley before, a spot that is located on the bank of the Fraser River between Langley and Abbotsford. But I heard through the running grapevine that the park was a well-known workout location for professional runners.
Our workout was three-by-nine kilometres, meaning we would run 9 km three times with a short jog in between each rep. The pace? A little more than three minutes and 30 seconds per kilometre—an effort that is equivalent to a two hour and 28 minute marathon.
As I laced up my hot-pink Nikes and splashed sunscreen on my arms, I assumed there would be a paved sidewalk for runners, or a short trail at the very least.
When we finished warming up and walked towards the edge of a set of train tracks, I quickly realized that my conception of the terrain was wrong.
We would run on the road.
Glen Valley origins
Glen Valley Regional Park is known for many things—farm animals, fishing, and Fraser River views—but in recent years, the quiet stretch of land between Langley and Abbotsford has become synonymous with something else: professional runners.
“It’s perfect,” said Natasha Wodak, Olympian and former Canadian record holder. Wodak has trained at Glen Valley since the beginning of the pandemic.
“You go around the first corner and it’s straight for 5.3 or 5.4 kilometres and then dead ends.”
As a professional road runner in Greater Vancouver, it can be challenging to find a stretch of road without cars, bikes, or other pedestrians. But from the Two Bit Bar nature preserve in Langley, River Road runs parallel to the Fraser River and dead ends just after Bradner Road in Abbotsford.
The dead end might seem like a nuisance to runners who prefer to run in a continuous loop and despise sharp turns, but it’s also the secret to Glen Valley’s success.
The stretch hardly has any traffic—aside from the occasional cow.
“It’s really hard to find a place where there’s no stop signs, not a lot of traffic, pancake flat, footing is good,” Wodak said. “It goes along the river so there are some trees, so it’s never really windy there either.”
During the pandemic, Wodak, like many runners, couldn’t find races to enter.
She took it upon herself to create her own 10-km road race, and a group of officials marked the course to make it a formal course.
“We paid to get [the Glen Valley course] certified, and it’s certified [by BC Athletics]. There are pins in the ground for the half marathon and 10K,” Wodak said.
“I ran 32:32 [for 10km] or something like that. It was fast.”
The road’s dead end breaks up a runner’s rhythm, but it’s also made Wodak become a better technical runner in the process.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s a problem, but the only thing is there’s a hairpin turn. But now I’ve become really good at hairpin turns which helps me out in races.”
In an average 12-week marathon build, Wodak will train at Glen Valley two or three times a month. It’s a site she doesn’t plan on leaving anytime soon.
“We do all my big marathon sessions out there.”
Others, like Sexton, have followed in Wodak’s footsteps—literally.
Our feet pounded the pavement in lockstep.
Sexton and I finished our first 9km rep in 32:03, a pace of roughly three minutes and 33 seconds per kilometre.
I ran competitively for the University of Victoria during my undergrad for five years, and just wrapped up a year of varsity running for the University of British Columbia.
Although I consider myself a long-distance runner, I’m still dabbling with the half marathon and marathon distances. I ran my first-ever half marathon—which is 21km—in February and finished with a time of just over one hour and seven minutes—which is like running a lap of the track in 76 seconds for 52 straight loops.
After a four-and-a-half-minute jog back to the train tracks, we geared up for the second rep.
There’s something trance-like that results from running beside someone, picking up their cadence, and listening to the sound of their breathing.
I spaced out, barely noticing a group of cows on a nearby farm and realized I started my watch late.
After finishing the second rep, I peeled off and my breathing laboured. The heat drained me mentally and physically, but Leslie continued to look unphased.
She ran towards the train tracks, gearing up for the third and final rep.
I put my hands on my knees, contemplating whether I’d be able to run that pace for another 9km.
More runners on the scene
Sexton and Wodak are far from the first marathoners to make Glen Valley a permanent training spot.
Richard Lee first started running at the regional park roughly 25 years ago.
Lee, who was a national-level runner himself, enjoyed weekend drives to the country for long runs outside of the city during his professional running days. He coached his partner, Susan, to two Olympic games in 1984 and 1988. In the late 90s he took a break from competitive coaching, and worked as an engineer.
But his passion for running never faded.
He would still go for runs at lunch in Glen Valley.
So, when a few marathoners coaxed Lee to coach them in the early 2000s, he jumped at the chance to hold workouts in the valley, where the conditions are more optimal for training.
“It’s a dead end, so you don’t get a lot of traffic,” Lee said. “When you’re looking for a fast course, you want good pavement, flat, and sheltered from the wind.”
Today, Lee is the head coach of the BC Endurance Project, an elite running team based in Vancouver. He coaches marathoners Justin Kent, who has represented Canada internationally twice; and Ben Preisner, who ran for Canada in the marathon at the Tokyo Olympics and (like Sexton) competed in the marathon at the World Athletics Championships in Oregon this summer.
In an average training block, Lee said, he takes athletes to Glen Valley every two weeks.
He’s also changed the course. Depending on the type of workout, he’ll have his athletes run a 5km loop south of the Glen Valley Regional Park beginning at Lefeuvre Road.
“I can set up a table for them to grab their bottles every 5km. If you’re trying to run a little quicker, the pavement’s definitely better there, and doing out-and-backs is not quite as natural as going around the block.”
End of the road
Jogging back to the start of the course, Sexton looked over at me.
“Are you going to do another one?” she asked.
“Nuh-uh…” I muttered. “I don’t think so.”
I’m not one who likes to give up early. But I couldn’t see how I would be of any help in that last rep, aside from giving her practice on how to drop someone in a race.
Deciding to call it a successful day after two reps and 24 km of running (including warmup), I walked back to my car.
Sitting in my car, with my left foot stretching out the driver-side door into the sunshine, I gulped down my first of two water bottles.
In the distance I noticed Sexron going strong.
She pumped her arms and rounded the first turn.
And all was quiet in the parking lot—save for a small gust of wind, softly bristling a nearby patch of trees.