James and John McAlister were friends as well as brothers. Born 18 months apart, the sons of Salvation Army pastors frequently moved from one part of the country to another.
“Because we were so close in age, we were natural play partners,” recalls John. “And because we moved a lot, we had each other for company.”
Being close with shared interests didn't mean they couldn't push each other's buttons, and tussles over who got to play with what favourite Star Wars toy were an inevitable part of growing up.
“James was always a bit bigger than me, so if he ever got me cornered, I was in big trouble,” laughs John, “but I was always faster than him so I usually got away. It was always in fun, though.”
A Promise Made
As they grew older, the brothers remained close. James worked in the environmental services field while John married and worked overseas for The Salvation Army.
In June 2012, James, seriously ill, was admitted to hospital. When he didn't respond to treatment, it was clear to all, including James, that it was just a matter of time before he would pass away. That summer, at his request, James was released into his parents' care with medical support.
John, a passionate trail runner, regularly visited his brother in Kingston, Ont. “He loved spending time with my family,” John says. “He was especially proud of his two nephews. He also kept track of my racing schedule. James knew I had a big race in Haliburton, Ont., coming up in September and that I had been training hard for it. In his bedroom, he had a wall calendar pencilled in with doctor's appointments, birthdays and anniversaries, and he had circled the date of the ultra-marathon in bold ink.”
The weekend before the race, John visited James at his parents' home.
“He was very weak,” John relates, “so I sat with him on the edge of his bed and talked about our life together and how much I loved him.
“I also talked about the upcoming race. I was feeling pretty good about my training—stronger than I had ever been—and I sensed I was going to do well. I told James that I'd run the race in his honour. He smiled back in appreciation.”
Loss and Reconsideration
The family had hoped they would have a few more months with James, but it was not to be.
John's father called him at work the Wednesday morning after his visit to tell him that James had died. All thoughts of the race vanished as John dropped what he was doing to be with his parents. The next couple of days were a blur as John immersed himself in the funeral arrangements.
“The last thing on my mind was the race,” John admits. “But my mother told me how important it was to James (and her) that I run the race no matter what. Now, more than ever, it was important to the whole family that I take part.”
At first, John refused. He had barely slept or eaten, and was emotionally and physically drained. Furthermore, the Haliburton Forest 100 Mile Trail Race consisted of vast stretches of forest, hills and rocky trails and was a serious undertaking.
Although the race was only three days after the death of his brother, John told his parents he'd consider running it.
“I wasn't just running for me anymore. I was running for a brother.”
The Friday before the race, John threw together his race gear and drove to Haliburton Forest, three hours north of Toronto.
But as soon as he pulled out of his driveway, it started to pour, and the heavy rain continued all the way up.
“At one point, the rain was so heavy that I couldn't see the road and I had to pull into a service centre, along with a lot of other cars,” John says.
Rather than camp outside, John spent an uncomfortable night grabbing what sleep he could in the cramped confines of his vehicle.
By six o'clock race day morning, the rain still had not let up and John was certain he was in for a tough race, especially considering the horrible conditions of the muddy trails he would have to run through.
“But the moment I crossed the starting line, I felt stronger than I'd been all week,” he says. “I kept a good pace while the going was good and slowed down when it got dark, especially after I took a tumble down one hill.”
There were times when John was up to his knees in mud but other sections were runnable. A bear blocked his path at one point. Normally cautious, John yelled and waved his hands to scare it away.
Life Stripped Bare
“My energy level stayed high over the 160-kilometre race and I ran well,” says John. “I held on to my lead and won the race in honour of James.”
But John ran with his brother as well as for him.
“I carried a couple of photos of James and me when we were kids,” says John. “Every so often, I'd take them out and look at them. I thought about him a lot.
“I ran alone for almost the entire race, so I had a lot of time to work through my emotions and come to terms with letting James go. There were no distractions. As I got more and more tired, I'd yell out, 'I'm doing this for you, James!'
“That's why I love trail running,” John continues. “It's a place where life is stripped bare and I can see hope in the beauty around me. I can connect with God and what's going on in my life, but I also connect with the idea of God the Creator. By the time I crossed the finish line, I was at peace.”