More Fun Than a PhD: Bringing a Big City Style Race Weekend to Small Town Ontario

    Sheryl's math professor husband Eric measures the BQ certified course for the Whole Health Mudcat Marathon.

    When you think big race weekend in Canada, Dunnville perhaps doesn’t immediately come to mind, but Sheryl Sawyer is dreaming big as the Whole Health Mudcat Marathon Weekend (WHMMW) brings seven races to the town of 6,000 over May 12-13th.

    It’s a lofty goal for a little town and relatively new race director Sawyer, who previously spent years as a fundraising professional before returning to school to complete a BA and MA in Linguistics. Currently, she’s on leave from a PhD program in the Cognitive Science of Linguistics but has no immediate plans to return, proclaiming that, “Race directing is a lot more fun than writing my dissertation.”

    Festivities kick off Friday with the 1K Family Fun Run – there’s also the Mudkitten 1K on Saturday – and the Fishy 5K, the latter of which is part of the Mighty Mudcat Challenge, which offers participants who complete a Saturday race in addition to the Fishy 5K an additional medal on top of their two finishers medals, which Sheryl describes as, “a stylized anchor, meant to reflect the maritime history of Dunnville’s Grand River and Lake Erie.”

    Saturday features the full and half marathon which Sheryl promises to be very scenic, taking runners “along a stretch of Lake Erie coastline before turning inland and running through some farmland on their way to the Grand River,” before they eventually hug the river shoreline all the way into Dunnville to be greeted at a shared finish line with “food, fun and beer for those of legal age.”

    Sheryl’s math professor husband Eric measures the BQ certified course for the Whole Health Mudcat Marathon.

    Saturday will also include the running of the Riverfront 5K and 10K. According to Sheryl, all routes are “pancake flat” and she’s expecting fast times. Considering that the full marathon race is a Boston Qualifier and both the full and half are qualifiers supporting entry to the New York City Marathon, this is good news for runners.

    Previously, the town was home to the now defunct Dunnville 5K, for which Sheryl was the volunteer race director before the event outgrew itself.

    It was Sheryl’s personal goal to “bring big city race amenities to small town Ontario” along with a challenge from local Chamber of Commerce President Don Zynomirski to bring a full marathon to Dunnville that planted the seeds of the WHMMW.

    To make the leap from a single 5K to a full blown race weekend, Sheryl reached out to several race directors, including Michelle Kempton of the Maritime Race Weekend, who invited Sheryl to shadow her last September.

    There’s also Esther and Gord Pauls, directors of the Road2Hope Marathon in Hamilton. Sheryl says she “probably annoys Esther with another question every week and she’s always gracious in helping me through the knots involved in putting this thing on.”

    The Road Runners Club of America also offers a Race Director Certification Program through a series of online learning modules and tests. It just so happened that Sheryl was the 200th person to complete the program and only the second in Canada.

    Sheryl’s team is small, but she’s “humbled to see how many people are coming together to wish every success upon the Whole Health Mudcat Marathon Weekend.”

    She mentions her main sponsor Whole Health Pharmaceutical Partners donating their resident graphic designer and marketer Kaitlin Johnson to build the branding of the race. The race’s main charitable partner, the Dunnville Youth Impact Centre, also allowed Sheryl to enlist their Executive Director Bonnie Laman, whose attention to detail complements Sheryl’s focus on the big picture, as her Assistant Race Director.

    Sheryl promises a scenic race on a pancake flat course for all participants. Photo Credit: Edison Yao

    Finally, it didn’t hurt that Sheryl’s husband Eric happens to be a math professor who “painstakingly measured every millimetre of the course for submission for certification by Athletics Canada.”

    It doesn’t mean that Sheryl isn’t nervous about the big day(s).  There are the usual concerns about forecasting numbers, especially for a first time event, as well as the challenge of accommodations in little Dunnville. Thankfully, neighbouring Hamilton, Welland, St. Catherine’s and Simcoe are all only a short drive away from the start on race day.

    Her most important concern is that everyone participating has a safe and successful race day and she and her team have put several contingency plans into place to ensure that happens. There’s also the matter of the weather, which has affected this year’s Vancouver First Half Marathon and last year’s Ottawa Race Weekend, but again the best Sheryl or any race director can do is prepare through contingency plans.

    That nervousness is ultimately outweighed by the excitement and Sheryl’s drive to build something that will have a lasting impact on her beloved Dunnville and all who take part in the WHMMW. “I do see Dunnville as a hidden gem, which some have referred to as ‘Muskoka South,’ with so much natural beauty and outdoor recreation,” Sheryl says, adding, “I hope visitors will see why we like it so much here and come back and visit long after race day.”

    Summing up her responsibilities, Sheryl says, “I see my main role as race director as providing a safe and enjoyable runner experience.” In accordance with that philosophy, Sheryl’s biggest reward will be seeing everyone finish their race.  “There are so many beautiful stories of people running for various reasons,” she says. “I think I’m going to be ridiculously proud of and happy for every single runner that chooses to face their own reasons to run and does so under the big fishy banner!”

    – Ravi Singh (@ravimatsingh)


    1. This is going to be a great event not only for Haldimand county, but also for southern Ontario because of the attraction and beauty of the Grand River and Lake Erie

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