Niverville Runner Challenges Himself to Finish Actif Epica


1 Sports Rec Niverville Runner Challenges Himself To Finish Actif Epica Pic
Joao is greeted by his family at the end of the race Joao Luis Holowka

For his birthday, João Luiz Holowka decided to give himself an unusual gift: the chance to spend a weekend running over 150 kilometres across southern Manitoba in a gruelling outdoor race. 

“It was my gift to myself, to celebrate my birthday,” he says. “To celebrate my health and everything I have in my life.”

On the evening of Friday, February 16, the Niverville resident set out from the small town of Ridgeville, Manitoba and kept moving for the next day and a half until he arrived, on foot, at The Forks in Winnipeg around 8:30 a.m. on Sunday, February 18.

The next day, he turned 46.

Holowka was participating in an outdoor event called Actif Epica. Following the historic Crow Wing Trail, Actif Epica is an ultra-endurance event that aims to promote health benefits associated with sport and outdoor winter activities. Participants can choose to run or cycle one of two distances, 120 kilometres or 162 kilometres, and there’s a 200-kilometre option for cyclists only.

The race is intense. Participants have up to 35 hours to complete their course, and stop only briefly at check-in stations in towns along the route, with no pause for sleep. 

But while the distance may seem daunting, Actif Epica’s real claim to fame is its challenging conditions. The trail crosses relatively flat terrain, but racers face rugged, ice- and snow-covered trails, bone-chilling temperatures, and gusting winds across open prairie.

Adding to the challenge is the fact that Actif Epica is a self-supporting race, meaning that participants must carry everything they need with them, leaving nothing behind and picking up anything new between the start and finish lines.

“My backpack was just under 20 pounds,” says Holowka. “You have to carry food, clothes, everything. It was brutal. Those 20 pounds felt like a lot more by the end.”

Holowka adds that although the physical aspect of the race is incredibly difficult, he finds the mental challenge even harder.

“You doubt yourself, you think you’re not going to make it, you’re going to die out there,” he recalls. “You can’t let those negative thoughts in. So you think about one step at a time, thinking about all the things you have in your life, all your blessings.”

Holowka says that while he ran, he reminded himself that not only did he participate voluntarily, but there was an end in sight.

“You remember that there are millions of people who are suffering, without a choice, and for me the pain will be done tomorrow, but for them it’s for life. I run because other people can’t, and to remind myself of how blessed I am.”

At a particularly challenging moment, Holowka was given a morale boost that he says helped him more than any physical rest could have.

“As you get toward the stop in Niverville, you’re just a bit more than halfway, and it’s one of the hardest points. When I got there, there’s this group of people coming toward us.”

Greeting him just before he reached the check-in at the Niverville Arena was a group of about 20 people—his family and friends, there to cheer him on.

“For them it was probably 30 to 60 minutes out of their day to cheer on this crazy guy, but for me it was everything I needed to keep going.” And so he kept going for the equivalent of another full marathon.

Despite what most people assume when they hear about his ultra-marathon experience, Holowka doesn’t have a long history of running. 

“I started three years ago with a five-kilometre,” he admits. “After a couple of those, I thought, okay, I wonder what the ten-kilometre is like… so I did a couple of ten-kilometre runs. Then I thought about the fact that a half-marathon is just two ten-kilometre races. Then the same thing with the full marathon.” 

For him, each new goal means a chance to see what else he can do. Holowka thrives on the challenge of pushing himself, and encourages those around him to find their own version of a 162-kilometre race.

“Those challenges, they’re never really about running. Running is just the vehicle that takes me to that next level, but it could be anything that challenges you. There are a lot of times in life that you have emotional, physical, and mental challenges that you think you can’t handle, but the body and mind are so much stronger than you think. Sometimes it takes something like running to expose your potential.”

The runner says he isn’t sure if he will tackle the Actif Epica race again next year, but he has no regrets about doing it this year. Maybe, he says, next year will bring a new challenge.

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