As athletes know, the body cannot operate without a strong heart. The heart powers the muscles, the heart powers the brain, and the heart allows us to run. Without a strong beating heart, runners cannot do what we do best; we cannot compete, run personal bests and feel the freedom and passion of running or racing.
Although all Canadian runners rely on their heart, they also rely on another heart. By this, I do not mean another person’s arteries or atrium, but instead they rely on the heart and sole of Canadian distance running, Alan Brookes.
Alan Brookes was a history professor at the University of Guelph, when in 1983 Vic Matthews asked him to assist in organizing a local running event – the Billy Taylor Memorial Jog-a-long. From here, things snowballed.
In 2015, he sat down with Ciele Athletics and mapped out the journey from 1983 to now. Brookes mentions that he turned the jog-a-long event into the Billy Taylor 15K and 5K; then in 1984 proceeded to create the Timex Race Series.
In 1986, Brookes began working on the Toronto Wang Marathon and then the next year, quite teaching to become full time. This move allowed him to set up the Coors Light Series in 1990 – a series which evolved into the GMC Running Series, then the Great Canadian Bagel Running Series, and finally in 1999, the races became known as the Canadian Running Series.
In 2000, the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM) was added to the existing half marathon and 5K, and with that – the jewel of the Canadian Running Series was born.
Just like the long road athletes take to make it to the elite ranks, Brookes has taken the long road into building STWM and the whole Canadian Running Series into what they are now: world class events.
This year is a particularly important milestone for STWM as the race turns 30. When I asked Brookes about what this meant to him, considering the work he has put into race directing since 1983 he said: “It’s been a long, exciting, enormously rewarding journey. So many unforgettable moments, so many friends, so very many inspirational experiences, so much love. Our world has changed so much, and it feels like we have grown up together. So many milestones. Like that line says, ‘it’s only impossible until you do it!’ And maybe the biggest thing I’ve learned is that you can’t do it on your own.”
Although the 2019 edition of STWM will be one of the best in the race’s history, it is impossible to forget the 2018 edition. As Brookes puts it – it was “super special.” For those of you who do not know, last year Cameron Levins (better known as Cam), broke the Canadian record – a record which stood for over forty years.
Increasing the quality of Canadian distance running has long been a goal of Brookes, he is proud that “in our STWM lifetime we’ve claimed Canadian All-comers records for men and women, the Canadian women’s with Lanni, and last year, the last one with Cam, the Canadian men’s. So this year, with Road to Tokyo, it feels like a bit of a victory lap.” Having said this when I asked about the prospects in this year’s race, Brookes exclaimed that he is “beyond excited.”
STWM has been a training ground, a stepping-stone, and a platform for Canadian athletes to launch themselves into global marathons, the world championships and even the Olympics. Its most memorable moments include Levins’ Canadian, Reid Coolsaet almost winning the race, Lanni Marchant setting the record, Ed Witlock’s masterful, and Eric Gillis sneaking under the Olympic standard – by one second. This year, there are many storylines once again. When I asked Brookes about what he is most excited about, he fairly could not give me one answer: “The essence of sport, I think, is really the thrill of head-to-head competition. So I’m excited to see Evan go up against Rory and Tristan, and am salivating over Kinsey vs Malindi, and Baby Police vs Benson Kipruto, “the Rubber Match”. STWM 2016 and 2017, Philemon takes our title. 2018, Benson takes it away from him. Spring 2019 and Philemon 6th in Boston, Benson 10th.”
Brookes continued to say that for “STWM 2019, the stage is set… BOOM, BOOM, BOOM!”
Although many of the Canadian debutantes excite Brookes, Reid Coolsaet and Dylan Wykes are also returning to the race is a prospect Brookes is thrilled about their return: it’s so emotional and meaningful to have Reid and Dylan in the race to hand the torch to the likes of Evan [Esselink], Tristan [Woodfine], Trevor [Hofbouer] and Rory [Linkletter]. They have been just outstanding ambassadors for the marathon [and running in general] in Canada, and have inspired so many. And maybe experience can show the young pretenders a thing or two on October 20th.”
When I asked him about the legacy of these Reid, Dylan and others Brookes gave them all the credit: “I think on the women’s side and more recently the men’s, the first-gen group inspired us all – Lanni [Marchant] and Krista [Krista Duchene]; Reid, Gilly [Eric Gillis], Dylan, and Rob [Rob Watson]. They showed us the way, they showed us what was possible. The showed us how to break records, how to run/train with the East Africans, and how to come 10th in an Olympic Marathon.”
Brookes added: “And thanks to our partnerships with Scotiabank and Athletics Canada, over the past decade, our high-performance distance stars have had something to train for: a goal race and a championships, not just one shot every 4 years [like the American Olympic qualifying system].”
So? Who does Brookes think will make the Tokyo 2020 team?
He didn’t really say: “Tune in on October 20th , and we’ll all find out in real time. That’s the beauty of the marathon… who knows what can happen on any given day? As this year’s hashtag says #itsyourmoment GO grab it!”
“If you can’t be passionate and love what you do, find something else,” Brookes told me at the outset of our interview.
Brookes is certainly passionate. According to Lanni Marchant, former Canadian marathon record holder, Brookes is single handily responsible for the development of Canadian distance running – especially through the Canadian Running Series. Marchant claimed that this series has created the breeding ground for Canadian athletes, providing them with the ability to access international quality races, with decent prize money, right at home.
Brookes also sponsored athletes to attend the World Cross Country Championships in Aarhus Denmark this year – a gesture that enabled Canada to send full squads of athletes in each division.
As my closing question, I asked Brooks what is next for STWM? What is his vision for the race? In response, Brookes said that it is “to continue to see more community ownership, more of Toronto being part of the STWM experience, spectating, cheering, running, fundraising, celebrating fitness ad Toronto, sharing and caring — bringing the city alive and putting it more and more on the worlds stage as a reflection of our amazing, exciting, diverse, inclusive, super-cool city. The most successful, the best big-city marathons ARE a meaningful part of the city, and that city’s life. I think we’ve come a long way, but there’s still kilometres to go before we rest…”
He added, “Should I retire after this one? Who knows…”
Until his retirement, and most likely after, the heart will continue to beat.
Thanks for reading.
This is my firth article in my STWM preview series. The first was on Dylan Wykes and Reid Coolsaet returning to the race, the second on Rory Linkletter, third on Evan Esselink, and fourth on Malindi Elmore.
One more article to come!