Ultrarunner, trail running mentor, and entrepreneur Magi Scallion grew up in the mountain hamlet of Wentworth, in Nova Scotia, a province in Canada’s southeastern corner. The Appalachian Mountains extend into the peninsula, which is riddled with river valleys and lakes adjacent to the rugged and sandy seacoast.
One of four kids, Scallion was raised with her siblings by both parents at the end of a dirt road, where they owned a mix of private land and crown land. Her parents were outdoorsy and very physically active, so the best way to bond was to go outside with them.
“My family prioritized their own physical well-being and they got out for a run every day and they got exercise. If you wanted quality alone time with the parents, you had to go biking or running with them. So, I got into running when I was about 10 years old. I wanted my dad to buy me a pair of running shoes, so that I could go running with him. He said, ‘I can only buy you a pair if you show commitment,’” recalled Scallion.
Scallion is founder and former race director of the Golden Ultra, and owner and trail running guide of Retreat Golden, which provides trail running retreats combined with a range of luxurious amenities, whether that’s a retreat in British Columbia’s wine country or a helicopter-bumped hut-to-hut adventure.
Clearly, that first long-term commitment to run with her dad stuck: four days a week that August, she ran with her dad. Did her dad fulfill his end of the deal?
“My dad was thrifty and a jokester. He had bought a pair of Brooks racing flats and that’s what he gave me — they were a men’s size 10. I ran in those for four years. They were way too big for a few years, but I grew into them. Fortunately, the dog ate them when I was in the seventh grade, and I had to get a real pair,” Scallion laughed.
She continued to run and joined track and cross-country in high school, while her dad competed in triathlons, and her mom ran road races.
“Every weekend, we were at a race. Either we were racing or we were pit crew. There was motivation to do running racing, so that I didn’t have to pick up the wet wetsuit off the beach,” she said. These days, her mom — who still lives in the home she grew up in — has had two hip replacements and is an active walker. Her dad passed on in 2003.
Scallion graduated high school and attended Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, on an academic scholarship, where she competed on varsity on the cross-country ski and cross-country running teams.
“At Queen’s, I had a team for the first time in my life. I had grown up in a small province, and in high school, I was the only distance runner in track and cross-country. That was really the first time I’d ever been in a sport environment where the success of the team was put ahead of the success of the individual. It was such a great learning experience and time,” she said.
The cross-country team finished second place at nationals in her fourth year, and the team remains close friends today.
In her fourth year, she also moved west to Canmore, Alberta, to lengthen her ski season. By the time she graduated in 2004, she had picked up contract work as an event organizer for various running races during the off-season.
“I had a long history of organizing events that started in high school — often music festivals. There’s a great music culture in Nova Scotia, and the work taught me a lot about entrepreneurship, giving volunteers meaningful work, and team management,” she said.
Post-graduation, she competed in the 2005 World Mountain Running Championships. She was soon was hired on at the Canmore Nordic Centre Provincial Park as the events and marketing supervisor, to “make the process as easy and as fun as possible for people to organize events,” she shared. One of the projects she helped initiate was a trail planning process for the park to adopt mountain bike singletrack and an official trail system.
Within a decade, she launched the Golden Ultra, in 2015, located in Golden, British Columbia, where she had moved two years prior. Golden is west of Canmore, on the other side of the Rocky Mountains, next to the Columbia Mountains.
At the time, the event was the first of its kind in Golden, and the biggest event that the town had ever hosted. “I’d gone to a few ultramarathons and I had seen the courses throughout Western Canada and thought, Wow, Golden has such amazing trails. We could put on an amazing ultramarathon with a great course. People would really love running here because the trails are so great,” she said.
The launch was incredible, she remembered: “It was exciting, awesome, and so much fun to launch Golden Ultra. To be able to organize an event the way you want to do it and have it work out well was amazing.”
The event included a vertical race on Friday, an ultramarathon on Saturday, and a mid-distance event on Sunday. In total, 180 runners registered. There was also financial hardship: she invested $30,000 of her life savings that was not recouped in order to get the event off the ground. But it picked up steam. In 2016, there were 300 registrants. The race doubled in numbers again in 2017, to nearly 650 runners.
A pivotal event, the race also influenced the trajectory of the local community and sport. Several registrants relocated to Golden post-event. The first year, a dozen locals registered, and by 2019, more than 50 locals participated.
“When I first moved to Golden and I was out running, if I saw another runner, I’d say ‘hi’ and ask if they wanted to run because it was so rare to see another trail runner. Now, trail runners are all over the place,” she said.
Scallion added, “I also had friends I ran with and they said they’d never do the ultra distance at the Golden Ultra, and then when they volunteered and saw the people running it, they realized, If they can run 60 kilometers, I can run 60 kilometers. And they did. When I look back, those are some of the cooler things about the event that I’m proud of.”
A natural teacher, Scallion also started teaching marketing and entrepreneurship at College of the Rockies, in Cranbrook, British Columbia, from 2016 to 2020, until the COVID-19 pandemic transitioned the curriculum online, and she decided to retire. She applied a targeted marketing strategy to the Golden Ultra in order to engage more women to register in the race.
“I wanted the Golden Ultra to appeal to women. I strongly believed I wanted to market the race toward women, because I observed women like to travel in groups, and they’re fairly loyal to good experiences. Obviously as an event director, you want people to come back year after year and you want them to bring all their friends,” said Scallion.
And it worked. Using imagery and language on the website, she targeted a female audience. She also offered a pre-race retreat that was approachable and friendly for women, where they could run sections of the course and meet people.
“Typically, we had more than half women participating in the event — like 65% — so it was a huge success,” said Scallion. She added, “I had so much fun organizing the retreat that I wanted to do it again and again.”
So she did. Scallion launched Retreat Golden, in 2016, to create and host a range of supported trail running retreats that help trail runners — particularly, women — make connections and get to know each other. The retreats are hosted in comfortable settings that simultaneously support athletes as they push their comfort zone — as much or as little as they want.
At her pilot retreat, she hired Elinor Fish, the founder of Run Wild Retreats + Wellness, to offer coaching on run form and mindfulness, as well as a yoga instructor to lead sessions. Typically, women from their 30s to 50s register for the retreats, but they are open to all genders and ages.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Scallion was struggling in an abusive relationship and needed to retire from being a race director in order to heal. She approached the TransRockies Race Series to purchase the Golden Ultranipika in mid-February 2020.
Today, Scallion still lives in Golden and offers targeted retreats, which she runs with a strong trail guide, who is also a yoga instructor. She’s also a certified interpretive guide, which helps her share more about the history, wildlife, flora, and fauna of the areas through which they run.
“I like to bring people here, because I love the area and the mountains are amazing, but I also love to educate and tell stories on the area beyond the peaks,” she says.
For 2022, Scallion is only hosting the June retreat in Golden and the Esplanade Traverse in July, which includes a helicopter dropoff and pickup to the remote hut system in the Esplanade Range of British Columbia — one of the few organized helicopter-supported trail running events in the world.
She’s also offering a fall retreat in Nipika, British Columbia. She narrowed down to those few retreats due to balancing a fairly new full-time job doing trail planning and design for the trails and outdoor recreation division of McElhannay, an engineering company based in Western Canada.
“Most of our projects are in Alberta and British Columbia, and now I’m working on a major project in Nova Scotia, and we’re doing a trail plan for the Faroe Islands,” which are an archipelago of 18 mountainous islands adjacent to Iceland in the northeast Atlantic Ocean, “so the company is local and global,” she explained.
“It’s super rewarding, because I get to be on trails all over and talk with people about their vision for the trail system — to learn what they want and help implement that: the big picture. The 30,000-foot aspect with big-sky thinking of what the trails can look like, and also what is needed so that a trail does not erode. So the practical, on-the-ground detail of the design and sustainable components, too,” Scallion explained.
The trails are tailored to all types of recreation including motorized and non-motorized users, everyone from snowmobilers to dirt bikers and from hikers to mountain bikers. Often the projects are on behalf of a local recreational club or a land manager that needs additional, new trails or they need to do trail work to prevent further damage.
These days, Scallion is struggling with aches and pains, she said — but she did accomplish a near-40-kilometer run on her 40th birthday. To help, she started a regular strength routine to help balance her muscles and range of motion.
Ultimately, her motivation boils down to time spent with others on trails, whether she’s hosting a retreat to show the spectacular Canadian Rockies to newcomers, organizing a race, or helping local communities build the trails of their dreams.
As Scallion said, “I like eating good food and doing yoga and taking care of myself and running — but I mostly enjoy spending time with awesome people on the trails. I love going running in the mountains with friends. Some dear people have come on multiple retreats, and I love meeting new people. Knowing that, I have confidence I will stay strong this year.”
Call for Comments
Calling all Magi Scallion stories! Leave a comment to share a story about Magi, running the Golden Ultra, or participating in a Retreat Golden event.