Racing More Canadians should run the marathon in Canada

More Canadians should run the marathon in Canada

Ottawa Marathon May 24 2015  © Photo by Francois Laplante / Rémi Theriault
Ottawa Marathon
May 24 2015
© Photo by Francois Laplante / Rémi Theriault

The Boston Marathon attracts 26,612 marathon runners. In New York, 49,365 run the marathon. In Chicago, the number of marathon runners is 37,395. At all of these events, which are hard to get into, people come from all over the world to race 42.2 kilometres. These runs are bucket list races and considered among the holy grail of running. I’ve done Boston as has iRun founder Mark Sutcliffe and both of us count it as a highlight of our running careers — even if we both bonked our races and missed our goal time.

It’s an experience. It’s expensive. It’s crowded. It’s great.

There is, however, a disconnect between the participation at these races at the marathon distance and the number of marathon runners we have lining up at home. From Vancouver to Halifax, Ottawa to Calgary, Mississauga to Saskatchewan, our marquee races have difficulty attracting 5,000 marathon runners. We have less people than America, sure. But it still doesn’t make sense. Toronto and Chicago have comparable populations and Ottawa can draw from the GTA and Quebec to its starting line.

Last year, 14,355 people ran the half marathon in Ottawa; 5,814 ran the marathon. Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend kicks off May 26. We need more people joining me on their marathon starting line.

“Canadians tend to run one marathon in this country, then head out of the country for their next one and I don’t think we look at ourselves as a destination,” says John Halverson, race director of the Tamarack Ottawa Marathon. “In Canada, there’s snow on the ground in April and maybe it’s tougher to train, but 1,200 Canadians just ran the Boston Marathon, which is fantastic, but strange when you consider the country’s largest marathons struggles to attract 6,000 runners.”

So what can be done? Of course we lack the population and our events, running or otherwise, don’t have the same kind of oomph as the American bonanzas — the Junos don’t look like the Grammys and the Grey Cup isn’t the Super Bowl. We just don’t have as much stuff, to quote 30 Rock, and unlike Boston during marathon weekend, our cities do not transform. And if you’ve ever been to the LA Marathon or seen San Francisco’s Bay to Breakers, you’ll know what that feels like. It takes money to turn a town into marathon land. And our top races do the best they can (I’ve been to most of them and they’re terrific), but it’s hard without the sponsorship dollars to create an extravaganza — which is what many of these races have become.
For better or worse, extravaganza seems to be what’s attracting people to the marathon.

“Canadian races can certainly achieve the same quality as these American events — we may not see the same size, but the quality can be rivalled. I just think in Canada, as a sport, we haven’t created the heroes or told the stories that inspires generations and communities around the marathon the way they do in the US,” says Charlene Krepiakevich, executive director of the Vancouver Marathon. “Running as a sport is very small in the Canadian sport world and all of us in the running industry need to do a better job at getting our stories heard.”

There are fantastic Canadian running stories. Krista DuChene’s epic tale of finishing a race on a broken leg is beyond impressive, and that she does what she does while raising her three kids is beyond belief. Eric Gillis is an approachable Olympian — when he beat the Olympic cut-off by 1 second in Toronto it was a moment that Hollywood couldn’t produce in a script. Natasha Wodak and Lanni Marchant are not only super fast Canadian runners, but they’re active on social media, friendly at race expos and positive role models. We have Jean-Paul Bedard. Kip Kangogo. Rock ‘n’ Roll Rob Watson. Ed!

If these folks were Americans, they’d be leaving races in limousines.

Krepiakevich now offers steep student discounts at her races and she’s trying to create interest in the sport with the young and also attract people who play sports but haven’t thought about the marathon: soccer players; field hockey athletes. Their internal data says young people like running short distances. But have they tried running the marathon?  If you can do the half, you just need nine more kilometres in practice to be ready for the marathon. It’s hard. Absolutely. But Canadians are universally known to be bad ass. It can absolutely be done.

In the meantime, iRun is linking up with Sportstats and offering programs for many of their races — the Vancouver Marathon, Ottawa Race Weekend, Saskatchewan Marathon, Mississauga, Manitoba and Toronto, to start — to offer half marathoners a marathon training program immediately following their event. When you claim your result on Sportstats, that very screen will take you into a ten week program to get you to the marathon.

You’ve already bought the shoes.

We need more Canadian marathon runners. And we need more Canadians to run the marathon at home. Right now, the Vancouver Marathon is about 100 runners away from reaching their 5,000 runner maximum and selling out their marathon event. I think they can do it, as the event is still two weeks away. The race sponsor is Saucony, and Saucony also wants to see the marathon sell out this year in Vancouver. So one of the next 100 people to sign up for the marathon, will receive a pair of Ride 9s, which are launching at the event.

Let’s get Vancouver to sell out its marathon. And let’s get Ottawa, Manitoba, Toronto and Calgary to do the same. Because it’s awesome to cross something off your bucket list in Manhattan. But it could mean so much more doing it right at home.


  1. Because a marathon is so much work to train for, and it takes a lot of time and hassle to attend one (my biggest beef is no kit pickup on race day) people figure on doing destination races once they’ve done one or two at home. Same amount of hassle, and get to see another city.

  2. The difference between big US marathons and Canadian races is that the US races are embraced by the non-running public, who see them as showcasing their city. In Canada, non-runners only see a marathon as a set of road closures that are going to make their trip to the mall longer.

  3. It would be great to see iRun/Sportstats publish a list of all major Canadian marathons and the race dates. When you search online for marathon lists, you mainly get American or international races!

  4. Sadly I agree with David. Certainly this is the way in Toronto, anytime you have a large community event.

  5. It is hard to develop marquee races when marathons compete against each other. For example, Mississauga and Toronto are held on the same day (May 1) approximately 20km apart.

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