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Running past hard times

Posted: Tuesday, May 12, 2009 | 10:31 AM

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The guy in the store where running shoes are sold had a simple message.

“People run even when they’re stressed,” he said. Then he punched the cash register and rang up $169 for a new pair of Mizunos while gleefully handing over a box full of hope.

Business is good.

“Maybe people run because they’re stressed,” replied the customer. “In times like these, maybe it’s a way to get by.”

Running events are myriad in this country and even in a period of recession they seem to be flourishing. The Vancouver Sun 10-kilometre race boasted 55,000 entrants in April. Early this month, 12,000 folks ran or shuffled in Sporting Life’s annual dash down one of the busiest streets in Canada’s largest city. From the Bridge City Boogie in Saskatoon, to the Blue Nose International Marathon in Halifax, people are still running, in literally thousands of races spanning the country and in record numbers.

“Corporate support is down,” said the organizer of the Mississauga Marathon featuring 12,000 runners over the course of its weekend events including a marathon, a half-marathon, a 10K and a 2K family fun run.

“But there are more runners than ever before,” he continued. “That’s more than offset things and the money we can raise. In tough times it’s not big business that makes the difference but the individual.”

Indeed, the National Capital Race Weekend in Ottawa has lost its title sponsor, ING, but the gun will sound near Parliament Hill nonetheless and runners will traverse the shores of the Rideau Canal in search of fellowship and in aid of a worthy cause … and they’ll do it en masse.

Bill Rodgers, a four-time winner of both the Boston and New York Marathons and an American running legend, was at the start line of the Mississauga Marathon to address the competitors just prior to the race beginning. Rodgers had only recently returned to the road following surgery for prostate cancer last year. At 61, he started and completed his first Boston Marathon in a decade last month in a time of 4:06:49 - light years from the days when he held the World Marathon Record in the 1970s.

“It was tough but I made it,” he told the runners in Mississauga. “Now you too are in the race and everything is on your side including the weather.”

And so it was that the pack got on course and found a little warmth on a blustery day as it wound its way to the shores of Lake Ontario. Along the route, runners were buoyed by the efforts of 1,200 volunteers of every age who handed out water and energy drinks at regular intervals.

Bongo bands and horn blowers provided the rhythm.

Rounding one corner, a familiar neighbour appeared with a couple of buckets of bananas. He was distributing them to his four and six-year old kids who were in turn passing them on to the exhausted runners. “You look great … keep going!” They shouted encouragement in tiny but confident voices.

Later the neighbour explained why he had been there. “I think it’s healthy for my kids to see people struggle and to compete,” he figured. “I want them not to be intimidated by something that’s difficult.”

In the end, the Mississauga Marathon raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for a health-care facility, a cancer-research unit and the local YMCA. At the awards ceremony, the prizes were handed out. Modest cash payouts went to the elite victors. There were cameras from the marathon’s sponsor and gift certificates at the running store for the age-group champions.

But then again, it wasn’t the lure of a monetary reward that drove people to the streets of Mississauga in record numbers on that day. Nor is it such a prospect that drives the running boom across the country in this difficult economic period. It continues to be a major force in the lasting success of charitable work coast to coast to coast.

No, it seems to be something else altogether.

Perhaps it’s the knowledge that getting past these hard times is possible if we all hunker down and stay in the race.

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