Since 2016, the Shovel Runners have been sharing their passion for Canadian military history with Canada Army Run participants by displaying historical equipment and participating in the run while wearing historic uniforms and kit.
Although they didn’t participate in last year’s virtual event, the Shovel Runners are back for the 2021 Canada Army Run: Virtual. This year’s Shovel Runners team includes Colin Schlachta, who started this in 2017 as a civilian and is now a 2Lt at 33 CBGHQ as a Public Affairs Officer; Paul Saunders, who is ex-British Army and Royal Air Force; and Matt Mitchell, a civilian who is passionate about Canadian Army history.
For this year’s Canada Army Run: Virtual route, Schlachta has outlined a 15-kilometre route around the Kars area in Ontario, where the Swords and Poughshares Museum is located. This museum is focused on the Citizen Soldier (the Militiaman and Reservist) at peace and war.
Schlachta says the idea of the Shovel Runners all started when he was cheering his brother on at the Canada Army Run about 10 to 15 years ago, and he saw the event displayed a Canadian Army present but not a Canadian Army past.
“I thought there was an opportunity to show this but didn’t pursue it at the time,” he said. “Fast forward a number of years, and by 2016, I was involved with the Army Ball already, and through that, I was able to propose the idea of involving historic re-enactors/collectors to the Saturday registration day. It would help represent the historic aspect of the Army alongside the current Army at the Canada Army Run.”
That went over very well, and in 2017, Schlachta proposed the idea of incorporating a running team that symbolically represented the historical theme of the event. That year, a team of three did the 15-kilometre Vimy Challenge run in First World War uniforms, helmets and web equipment.
“This managed to attract positive attention in the event and by the media, and enabled the history of the Army to get presented to people in ways it couldn’t before,” said Schlachta. “The group has been present ever since, except last year.”
Schlachta says the group members change every year, as some are on deployments or have work or family commitments, but they are generally a mix of Reservists and civilians from across Ontario and West Quebec. The largest turnout was in 2019, when 10 runners came to Canada Army Run to symbolically represent Canadian Army units involved with the D-Day Landings. That year, Schlachta trained in Normandy, France, during the 75th anniversary commemorations of the D-Day Landings.
Schlachta says the “Shovel Runner” title stems from speaking to many Second World War veterans who on more than one occasion told him that the most important piece of kit they carried was not their rifle, but their shovel.
“Once things started flying around them, the safest place to be was in the ground, so their shovel was the tool they used to get through their challenges in the war,” he said. “The Shovel Runners help provide today’s soldiers in need the tools they are looking for to overcome the challenges they face, like the shovel was as a tool for Second World War vets.”
Since 2016, the Shovel Runners have been presenting Canadian Army history and heritage to the public through historic military vehicles, uniforms and equipment on the Saturday of the event. On the race Sunday, they take part in the Army Run wearing historic uniforms and kit that reflect the history of the event.
“In my case, it tends to be wearing old Army leather boots that have hobnails and heel irons, but every member needs to wear whatever kind of boots they are most comfortable in,” said Schlachta. “The effect among the other runners is positive because most people have never seen what Canadians soldiers looked like 80 to 100 years ago. Also, if runners are feeling tired, all they need to do is look at us, and their troubles don’t seem as severe. Admiration would be a word to use, because there has been a lot of respect sent our way from the public regarding being able to complete the run with the extra weight and clothing.”