Everyone runs for their own reasons, but too often the people who set world records are the runners being recognized. In actual fact, it’s the middle of the pack runners, even the back of the pack people—the runners who do it day in, day out, despite obstacles and hardships, setbacks and medical situations, and who continue to get out and run—who are the real stars. It’s easy to run when you’re great at it. When it comes naturally, when you beat everyone, and when Lululemon gives you free clothes.
The most popular two runners at my club in Toronto are neither the fastest or the most buzzworthy on Instagram. But make no mistake, they’re warriors. They’ve both run marathons, and hoof it outside throughout the worst of our winters. But their stories aren’t one of shoe sponsorships and elite bibs; rather, they’re stories of perseverance, kindness, and strength.
“I started running mostly to lose weight in 2013 when I was 63—there was 70 pounds more of me in those days and I had bad discipline,” says Peter Symons, who took a 5K to the Marathon course I taught at BlackToe Running, and had his cardiologist notice he was experiencing “skipping heartbeats.” Peter says the doctor wasn’t too worried. “You’ve done nothing for 63 years, the doctor told me, and so you surprised the hell out of your heart—but there’s nothing structurally wrong with you.”
The cardiologist told Peter to wait five or six years before running a marathon and Peter did that, running the marathon in 2019 and then, at 72, completing Boston.
“The reason I love the running community is it doesn’t matter how young or how old or how slow or how fast you are, as long as you do your best you’re embraced by the whole community. I’d never seen a group like it, so tolerant and inclusive, it’s remarkable.”
Samantha Johnson, pictured above, was a student wrestler and played rugby so her pre-running toughness is ingrained. But that was before she had cancer, then had cancer again, and had part of her pelvic bone and abdominal wall removed. After she ran the Mississauga Marathon this May, Johnson signed up for the half marathon in Toronto, and another marathon in California this December.
“After the cancer, I had to figure out if I could run again, and what that looks like, and I didn’t want it to define me and I kept pushing through,” says Johnson, who met her partner, multiple time Boston Marathon finisher Doug Kells, at BlackToe Running, where at least a dozen runners have showed up for training and left with a partner for life.
“I can’t run as fast as Kathleen [Lawrence, a popular BlackToe runner recently named a female elite], but we had similar running style, so we would talk about some of the same issues we had, like tight calves, and we put in similar efforts and are willing to work hard and go to levels of pain that we probably shouldn’t, and I think whether you run a two hour, four hour or seven hour 10K or half marathon, it’s all challenging in a different way.”
The challenge of the run and the camaraderie of the training group; the shared effort in the workouts and jubilation and despair, which all runners experience in equal measures, are all part of the running experience. And there’s nothing better than rooting on our Canadian elites like Malindi Elmore and Ben Presser and whoever the fastest runner is amongst the people that you know, wherever you are. But too often it’s the people who don’t show up in the newspaper stories with the real journeys that deserve recounting. These are the runners who should inspire each of us to not only achieve our very best, but to do it graciously. Both Peter and Samantha famously cheer on their fellow runners and both of them are quick to pick up the next round. They give more than they take from our sport of running. And think about that. Because that’s a personal best. It’s not a finishing time. It’s your life.
“I refused to buy the fast shoes at first because I thought they’re only meant for fast people, but I had to retrain my mind so that ‘fast’ doesn’t mean whatever magic number people say. I was feeling slow so I didn’t want the fast shoes, but now I’ll tell you: Put me in the fast shoes and do whatever you can,” says Samantha Johnson, with a laugh. “I keep telling Doug, I’m missing part of my pelvic bone and abdominal wall and don’t have the same stability that everyone has, but I do whatever it takes to make myself a better runner.
I run because I get stronger with whatever I have.”