Mark Sutcliffe: My Running Life Pilgrimage, challenge, destination, fundraiser, inspiration. The Ottawa Marathon.

Pilgrimage, challenge, destination, fundraiser, inspiration. The Ottawa Marathon.

Sutcliffe, seen at his first Ottawa Marathon in 2004.

I can still remember the roar of the crowd at the finish line. On May 30, 2004, I was running along the Rideau Canal in Ottawa, striving to complete my first marathon.

I heard the voice of the finish line announcer exhorting the crowd to cheer on the runners in the final metres of the race. “Here they come,” he shouted. “Let’s make some noise!”

So close, and yet so far. Unfortunately, I wasn’t one of the runners being celebrated by the boisterous finish-line welcome committee. I was on the other side of the canal, heading away from the finish, not toward it. While some people were in the final strides of their journey, I was barely halfway there, with more than 20 kilometres left in my race.

A couple of hours later, I finally arrived, not just at the finish line but at the threshold of a career in marathon running. I had run the Ottawa half-marathon the year before, but this was new territory. You never forget the moment you answer the question you’ve been asking yourself through months of training: Can I actually do it?

Since then, Ottawa Race Weekend has become an annual crescendo on my calendar, inextricably intertwined with the cycles of my training and my life. In every year but one, I’ve participated as a runner, pace bunny, broadcaster or volunteer. The only exception was in May 2009, when my wife was eight months, three weeks and six days pregnant. I figured it wouldn’t be wise if I spent the morning unreachable on the marathon course, so I brought my cell phone to the finish line and watched for hours as other runners completed their passages. Less than 24 hours later, we were on our way to the delivery room.

For thousands of runners like me, Ottawa has become an annual pilgrimage, challenge, destination, fundraiser, inspiration. The Ottawa Marathon has as rich and deep a history as almost any other long-distance event in Canada. From roughly 12 dozen participants in 1975, it has grown into one of the biggest annual running festivals in North America, renowned for its picturesque and historic course that crosses a provincial border, its warm hospitality and its meticulous organization and attention to detail.

In 2013, to mark the 40th edition of the race, I wrote a book called Canada’s Magnificent Marathon, in which some of the great moments of both elite and ordinary runners are profiled. The race has always achieved a special blend of competitive racing and amateur achievement.

Now, the 45th Ottawa Marathon is approaching and the running community is only growing and getting stronger. I’m hopeful and confident that the best is yet to come, for me, for the event and for the thousands of participants who look forward to it every year. Unlike that morning in 2004, I relish the thought that there are still many miles to travel before the finish line.