The Edmonton Marathon has hit a personal best. What that means, though, will likely always set us apart from Boston
Illustration by Jason Lin
J ohn McGee was unlikely to ever run again, let alone lead the resurrection of what’s now the Edmonton Marathon, the city’s biggest annual race. He ran his first 42.2-kilometre course in 1976 in Ottawa, where he lived then, as part of a quest of self-reinvention. He was around 70 pounds overweight when he started training for the race and “quite disgusted with the way I looked,” recalls the now-70-year-old lawyer.
By most runners’ standards, it was disastrous. Though he’d managed to get in shape, McGee hit “the wall,” his body exhausted its stored energy and gave up. He alternated between jogging and walking to end up second-last.
Many runners say that; few mean it. McGee moved to Edmonton and was convinced by friends to try the local marathon. After doing some research, he devised a plan to follow 20 minutes of running with two minutes of walking. “And it worked!” – no wall. But just as he got hooked, the race hit its own wall in 1992, succumbing to financial struggles. With some friends, he took on its revival, taking the next year to organize the event’s 1994 comeback.
Ever since, the Edmonton Marathon has been on its own quest of reinvention and self-improvement, trying on different themes and courses. Last year, however, the race may have finally hit its stride. Relocating downtown is one reason. Bigger than that, though, is its local-first resolve.
“The mandate of the [Edmonton] Marathon is that it’s inclusive,” says John Stanton, one of McGee’s friends who helped restart the race. He’s also the founder and CEO of The Running Room, which took over as event organizer in 2003. “It’s focused on the weekend athlete and it’s their Olympic moment. The last hundred yards, there’s a feeling of empowerment, elation.”
Getting that feeling isn’t easy. Long-distance running – marathons, half-marathons, even 10K or 5K distances – both attracts and repulses. “It’s one of those sports that’s really hard to get into,” says Tom McGrath, who was the first hometown male marathon finisher in 2014 and missed out on first place overall by just 65 seconds. He was also the fastest Canadian in Boston in April 2014. “I didn’t love it when I first started and I haven’t met many people who did.”
Danielle Bourgeois, a local lawyer who was Edmonton’s first female finisher last year (also top woman soon after at the BMO Okanagan Marathon), has similar feelings. “Leading up to a race, I start getting nervous and I’m like, ‘Why do I do this to myself?'”
Attempts to overcome that internal conflict have made our marquee marathon seem like an exercise in experimentation. Before last year’s move to the Shaw Conference Centre, bringing the start/finish line to the heart of the city, the route originated at Northlands Park. It once ran through the Edmonton International Fringe Theatre Festival, per McGee’s vision of the race as the Edmonton Festival Marathon; it has crossed the High Level Bridge; it has set off from the Butterdome as an evening run (it was 36 C that year); it has started and stopped at Commonwealth Stadium in extremely strong winds. At times, 4,000 runners turned up.
This suggests that the marathon has taken nearly 25 years to arrive at its proper starting line, where the potential audience now includes those who live in the city’s highest-density neighbourhood. But will they line the streets? “I think Edmontonians could do a better job of supporting the [marathon],” says Bourgeois, ready to run again this year. “I go on Facebook after the race and see people complaining: ‘I was late for breakfast because of the marathon.’ Are you kidding me? Those are the kinds of events that attract people to our city.”
To a point. Of last year’s 3,500 participants across the marathon, half- and shorter events, 66 per cent were Edmontonians; a quarter were other Albertans; seven per cent came from other provinces; and just two per cent were from outside Canada. To compare, foreign racers made up more than 15 per cent of the 35,671 entrants in Boston in 2014, some of whom were Edmontonians who qualified with times at the local marathon. Stanton, with an entrepreneur’s enthusiasm, dreams of 10,000 to 20,000 racing here one day, which would likely demand greater international interest. Race director Tom Keogh, in contrast, shows more cautious optimism. “There’s no reason we can’t get past the 5,000 mark. You’re talking less than half of one per cent of people participating” from the greater Edmonton area – or a third of what the Scotiabank Calgary Marathon drew in May. This year, Keogh expects 3,750.
With a meagre prize purse of $25,000 – some of which pays for travel and accommodations for elite runners – and a fluctuating rank among Athletics Alberta‘s best road races (slipping from third to fourth in 2014), it instead sells itself to the city by promoting healthy lifestyles.
Ironically, perhaps, that’s what it’s becoming known for internationally. Last year’s winner, Latvian Arturs Bareikis, spent three days in Edmonton. Reflecting on them, he never mentions attractions like the Art Gallery of Alberta, Whyte Avenue or the North Saskatchewan River valley. He talks about people. He liked seeing families streetside on race day (though he wished there had been more) and loved helping with the kids’ 1K fun run the day before he ran. “It’s a great event,” he says of the marathon, “because you realize it’s not just about racing, but giving back to community.”
Edmonton Tourism uses the race to reach out to people like Bareikis, including it as an added benefit for the athletically inclined visitor, even if it doesn’t generate as much revenue as other races. The money isn’t the point, suggests communications manager Rene Williams. Sporting events leave legacies, she says – sometimes tangible, like a stadium, and sometimes not, like feelings. Perhaps they’re empowerment and elation, as Stanton puts it, or it’s more permanent. “You learn to love it,” says McGrath of long-distance running. “It becomes part of your life.”
Capitalizing on that is likely the Edmonton Marathon’s clearest, if not fastest, path to growth. Ask any runner: those “legacy” feelings stick. John McGee once ran daily. With a recently replaced hip, he can’t anymore. “I miss it every day. I find myself driving along and seeing a runner and wanting to stop and say, ‘I was once one of you.’
“I never had a day I didn’t enjoy it,” he adds, like someone who knows “the wall” can be overcome.