Matt Shepard with infamous race director, Laz Lakes at the finish of 2019 Outrun Rare Backyard Ultra. (Courtesy Matt Shepard)

The average person who takes a week-long vacation from their day job might use the time off to relax and unwind, but a north-central Alberta man has different ideas. 

On July 1, ultramarathoner Matt ‘Shep’ Shepard will put his body to the ultimate test by seeing just how far he can run over the course of six days. 

The Valleyview, Alta. resident will run as far as possible between 9 a.m. on July 1 and 9 a.m. on July 7 at the Legion Track in Grande Priaire. 

His goal is to break the Canadian record of 870 kilometres originally set by David Bennet all the way back in March of 1891. 

Shepard describes the feat in one word: insane.

“Many people have broken that record since that time, just not in Canada so the 600 mile goalpost is where the elite of the elite runners are sitting,” he said. 

“That’s where I’m setting my sites and I believe I’ll absolutely cross that along the way.”

Shepard, who has been an avid runner for more than a decade, says his goal is to run 1,000 kilometres during the 144-hour stretch, which will include an aggressive first couple of days to start strong. 

“I know from past races that day two will be a struggle for me but I know I can get by on a little less sleep, so I think my plan is to go in and try to skip sleeping on the first night and run straight through for the first 41 hours,” he said. 

“Once the sun is up, it should be pretty easy to maintain and it will allow me to pack a lot of extra mileage to start things off.”

To break the record, Shepard will have to complete 2,500 laps around the 400-metre track. He will be wearing a special monitor to track his distance and a timing system will be set up on the track throughout the six day period to verify his results. 

He will also have support from his team to ensure he has the right amount of nutrition and physical care in case of an injury. 

“You’re almost always battling with something, whether it’s a tightness that starts to creep up or an upset stomach,” Shep said. 

“You’re eating constantly during the race too so there’s a lot to think about as to whether I’m hydrating enough, am I on pace, am I eating enough, you have to time your breaks and know when you’re going to sleep.”

Shepard encourages others in the community to cheer him on, but wants people to keep their distance. The Legion Track in Grande Prairie will still be open to other runners, but they’re encouraged to run in the opposite direction on the outside lanes. 

Canadian six-day record attempt 

In order to be eligible to break the Canadian six-day distance record, runners must compete in a race accredited by the Association of Canadian Ultra Marathoners (ACU). 

Shepard was originally set to compete at Six Days in the Dome this July in Milwaukee on a 440-metre track, but COVID-19 set him back. 

"I’m sitting at my peak physical fitness level so we just thought let’s pull the trigger and make a race of our own,” he said 

Shepard's coach, Travis-Schiller Brown with Personal Peak Endurance Coaching in Calgary, agreed and knew he couldn’t let his client’s hard work go to waste. 

“So with Shep’s creativity he decided to set up his own race, he did all the leg work, found a track and timing and set it all up,” Schiller-Brown said. 

“He likes taking a bad situation and turning it into a really good opportunity.”

Matt Shepard running loops inside Tall Timber Coffee shop during the Quarantine Backyard Ultra on April 4. (Courtesy Matt Shepard)

Together they called the race Six Days in The North and soon found a couple more brave souls willing to take on the challenge as Canadian records are only eligible if there are at least three participants in a race. 

Shepard will be joined alongside fellow Personal Peak athlete Derek Yip, 38, of Calgary who has completed the Canadian Death Race and the Lost Soul 100-kilometre race. 

Also attempting the six day challenge will be 37-year-old Keeley Milne from Medicine Hat who just won the Lone Wolf Virtual “last person standing” race last month. 

Shep’s Journey 

The 33-year-old has been running for more than a decade and began his fitness journey after joining the U.S. military straight out of high school. 

Shepard, who is originally from Washington, had a dream of moving his way through the ranks and one day joining the special forces. When he arrived for his first day of basic training, there was only one problem. He was overweight, and exceptionally unfit. 

“I knew I had to get myself in shape. I fell in love with running and it just snowballed from there,” he said. 

“I started with five kilometres and worked my way up to marathons — I never competed, I just loved to challenge my body.”

Over the next four years, Shepard continued to pursue his dream, but an unfortunate accident put his career on hold. With no chance of making it to special forces, he moved to Alaska to start a life of adventure and put his medic training to good use. 

It was there that he first learned about ultrarunning. 

“I just really enjoy going slower over longer durations so I felt I had a knack for those multi-day distances and really got into a good flow,” Shepard said. 

“A lot of my running is meditative, you just kind of let your mind slow down to find that special space — it’s a difficult space to describe, but it’s very relaxing.”

Not long after that, Shepard met his future wife on a vacation to Puerto Rico — a Canadian from Alberta just finishing university. 

The pair made it work between Alaska and Alberta for two years before getting married and settling in Valleyview, Alta. 

Shepard began to get comfortable with his new oil patch job. His passion for fitness continued as well as he began teaching spin classes, personal training and rebuilding his body to be the ultimate runner. 

Unfortunately, Shepard came home one day to his hardest trial yet. 

His wife was suddenly leaving him and moving to Albania. Shepard said he was never told why or given closure, but he decided to pick himself up and continue his passions. 

As a result, he often compares running to the hardships he struggles with in his day-to-day life. 

“If you go into one of those dark spaces where you start doubting yourself, you have to bring yourself out of that during a race,” Shep said. 

“Sometimes you’ll get to the complete opposite where you’re just in this huge high and you end up burning yourself out, so it’s really about finding that balance.”

Matt Shepard will begin attempting to break a six-day distance running record on Canada Day. (Courtesy Matt Shepard)

Shepard soon found his rhythm and is no stranger to long distances. He competed the Sinister 7 100-mile race in 2018 and the 2019 Outrun Backyard Ultra in Millarville, Alta. where he was the last man standing after running 214 kilometres over the course of 32 hours. 

His victory in Millarville earned him a golden ticket to the Big Dog’s Backyard Ultra in Bedford County, Tenn. that fall where he timed out after 28 hours. 

Over the next few months, Shepard began training even more to complete his first six-day race. 

His coach, Schiller-Brown says Shepard’s hard work is a testament to the kind of person he is. 

“Shep is in the habit of making his own luck. He is the driver of his own destiny. He is the one that can make it happen. And make it happen he is.”

Six Days in The North will be livestreamed  starting Wednesday morning on the Personal Peak Endurance YouTube page.