BANFF – Melissa’s Road Race, the biggest race in Banff National Park, reaches its 40th anniversary Saturday (Sept. 28) and for Melissa Borden Viallon, for whom the race is named after, the timing worked perfectly for her return to be part of the social event of the year.
The annual tradition, which offers five-kilometre, 10-km and half-marathon races through the streets of Banff, sold out with 4,500 participants signed up, including longtime runner Jim Fry, who hasn’t missed a single Mel’s race, along with 53 runners named Melissa. Only one is the original.
It was 31 years ago when Borden Viallon last ran the Banff race before relocating to Lyon, France. Timing worked out for her and her family return to Banff in celebration of her father, Bob Borden’s life and his love for the popular mountain town destination.
“We felt that participating in the race would be a wonderful way to commemorate him and his affection for this special corner of the planet,” wrote Borden Viallon in an email from her home in Lyon. “My husband, François, and I last ran in the race in 1988. It has been a long time, which makes our return all the more exciting.”
Borden Viallon, for whom Melissa’s Missteak is also named after, and her family have been a part of the Banff culture for over six decades and the restaurant was one of the family's investments in the town.
She added it was management’s idea to launch the race in order to attract tourism to Banff during its off-season.
One runner it brought into town back in 1979 – and every year since – is Fry, who remembers the event having 50-60 runners in its inaugural year.
“Back in the late ‘70s there was very few running races around – you could count ‘em on one hand,” Fry said. “Ron [Adlington, Deb Boutilier, and Bunny Julius] started this race up and … it became more of a tradition for myself and a couple other runners to return every year, and now, I will have ended up doing 40.”
The Calgary ironman hasn’t missed one Mel's race. Even after breaking a femur in 2006, he used a wheelchair to complete the race. The next year, the recovering runner used crutches to cross the finish line.
“Up until this year, Mary White and I were the last two to run every race … she was going to, but she had a conflict with a relative visiting,” Fry said. “To do 40 years and to have no breaks, it’s a fairly good achievement.”
Through its four decades, the historic event has become a “destination festival” with participants enjoying the mountain town and their own special traditions each year.
It’s one of the reasons why Banff Marathon organizers saved the event from the brink of death.
“I had a funny conversation once at my family dinner table,” said Paul Regensburg, the event's director. “Myself, my father, mother and brother, we had all run it at some point, which just shows the kind of history it has. It’s probably Alberta’s sort of sentimental race.”
In 2017, Melissa's organizers at the time stated that that year would be the last, and complained about all the red tape surrounding it. That’s when Banff Marathon stepped up and took over.
“We didn’t want to see the event die,” Regensburg said. “The fact that people thought it was dead and then revived it, builds excitement around the event again and got people coming back.”
The 40th anniversary year sold out six months ago, said Regensburg, and people are excited as ever to return for the 40th.
He added a call out is in place for all returning racers to bring their oldest Melissa’s long-sleeved shirts to the event.
“Mel’s is almost world famous for its long-sleeve shirts,” Regensburg said. “Our end goal is to get a shirt from 1979 to 2019 and every shirt in between and get a picture. It’s a fun contest to see if we can pull it off or not.”
Borden Viallon adds a bit to that international shirt fame when she rocks her Melissa’s attire in France.
“Proud as I’ve always been of the event, I make a point to walk around Lyon in my retro Melissa’s T-shirts and leggings, feeling the spirit of the race from afar,” wrote Borden Viallon.
For more information, or to volunteer for Melissa’s Road Race, visit www.melissasroadrace.ca.
Check www.banff.ca for road closures during Saturday’s race.