Dave Buchner runs the six-hour event at The Dark ultra in 2023.

Six hours underground

Dave Buchner has run enough winter marathons and ultras to know how challenging they are. They tend to be lonely affairs, with biting winds and unpredictable footing. So when he saw a social media ad for a winter ultra in an underground mine, he signed up. “Should be easier than running a winter marathon,” the 62-year-old figured.

Buchner is a former Saskatoon resident who moved to Lethbridge, Alta. about a year ago. He was one of roughly 65 runners to line up at the inaugural The Dark ultra at the Bellevue Underground Mine in southern Alberta earlier this month. Organized by Sinister Sports — best known for its Sinister 7 and Death Race series — the race had participants run up and down a 250-metre long stretch of mine shaft for six, 12 or 24 hours.

“It is quite a different experience running alone outside in the winter trying to cover a marathon distance,” says Buchner, who competed in the six-hour event. “I expected this to be a totally new, totally different run, and I was really looking forward to running with fellow crazies that were intrigued enough to enter this sort of a challenge.”

Brian Gallant, owner and director of Sinister Sports, says The Dark was born after Sinister team members floated the idea of a looped ultra. “It felt a little bit hollow just to do a loop race on the track considering our notoriety in being sinister,” Gallant says. “We had to have some kind of novelty to it.”

Dave Buchner runs the six-hour event at The Dark ultra in 2023.
Dave Buchner runs the six-hour event at The Dark ultra in 2023.

So Sinister Sports reached out to the non-profit organization that maintains the Bellevue Underground Mine and a new partnership was formed.

“Logistically, it was the most simple race you could ever plan because everyone was within 300 meters,” says Sinister Sports assistant director Avery Parkinson. “And we really didn’t have to worry about the weather; snow, rain or whatever, you’re underground so it doesn’t matter.”

The race took place about 50 metres underground, where the temperature is consistently 0 to 2C regardless of time of year. The 250-m stretch that runners traversed was about four metres wide with a roughly 1 per cent grade. While normally pitch black, race organizers strung lights along the course. It wasn’t bright exactly, but runners didn’t need to wear headlamps.

“I wore a waist light for a while, but after some time, realized that my eyes had adjusted,” Buchner said. He did trip over a few rocks — and came home with a couple of bruised toes to prove it — but, after multiple laps, soon learned where to watch his step.

Dave Buchner's finisher's award for completing the inaugural The Dark ultra.
Dave Buchner’s finisher’s award for completing the inaugural The Dark ultra.

“The condition of the course changed as the race went along,” Buchner says. “The footing is rough, kind of gravelly, but smoothed after hours of runners packing it down. In some places it developed a bit of a sheen that made it easier to see in certain spaces.”

Though Buchner expected the mine to start smelling like a gym locker room, the shaft was well ventilated, with a breeze blowing through from where runners would enter and exit the course to access the aid tent, which was located above ground. The food at the tent was so top notch that it was sometimes hard to keep running instead of leaving the course every 500 metres for a burger. Or hashbrowns. Or perogies.

Buchner started the race in light winter gear but changed into a long sleeve technical shirt with a light jacket after he became drenched in sweat within an hour. Some participants ran in shorts and singlets.

“Runners that were doing the race together were able to chat and there seemed to be a general camaraderie among the racers,” Buchner says. “I knew some of the other racers, and when getting lapped, would make comments as they went by. You don’t get to see the race leaders in a normal point-to-point race. I got lapped a lot of times by the speedies and offered my encouragement.”

Dave Buchner's Brooks Adrenaline road shoes were covered in coal after the race. "My shoes looked like they had been in a fire after I was finished," he says.
Dave Buchner’s Brooks Adrenaline road shoes were covered in coal after the race. “My shoes looked like they had been in a fire after I was finished,” he says.

Buchner had been battling a cold leading into the race and wasn’t fully recovered when he started to run so set a goal of running 42.2 kilometres in six hours. “Once my Fitbit said 42.2 I shut my watch off and finished my last lap … If I was feeling better I probably would have gone further, but that’s just the way it goes sometimes,” he said.

Despite not feeling his best, Buchner’s 42.5 kilometres (85 laps) was enough to win the men’s six-hour division and marked his 63rd race of at least 42.2 kilometres.

Buchner is not sure what his next race is, but he’s determined to keep running as many marathons and ultras as he is old. If he wants to conquer The Dark again he’s in luck; Sinister Sports says the event will be back on the calendar for 2024.