Race Profile: The Waterloo Marathon, a popular race that puts community first

The St. John Ambulance fundraiser thrives thanks to volunteers, charm and, yes, therapy dogs

Over two decades ago, the first runners hit the streets in Waterloo for the first annual Waterloo Marathon, a benefit for the fine folks at St. John Ambulance. The race is back this spring, scheduled for April 28 at Bechtel Park.

Tony Lea was looking for a major fundraiser to purchase vehicles for the volunteer-led organization that provides a number of medical services including first-aid training. It took 18 months to plan, organize and get the route and the facilities in addition to getting the race named as a Boston Marathon qualifier. Originally, the run was dubbed Blood, Sweat, and Cheers.

It was a journey, let’s say.

“It also gave us the opportunity to market, promote and communicate to people about St. John Ambulance,” says Lea, an organization with a mission "to enhance health, safety and quality of life."

He is currently raising funds to support the work of the St. John Ambulance Home Caregiver Support Program, one of many programs administered by the SJA. 

The course features a classic southern Ontario landscape. The hills are mild, the scenery is charmingly rural, and the event is very well organized. And, needless to say, there are ample medical services available.

There is even a small cash prize available, which helps to ensure some of the area’s top distance runners are in attendance.

The course begins at Bechtel Park, and there is an indoor soccer stadium on site for a good warm-up, to change and even a shower if you desire.

Exiting the park, the full marathon loop heads out to the countryside and towards the famous Kissing Bridge. The well-designed course winds through a slice of Mennonite country where, according to Lea, they can often be found along the route passing out cookies to participants.

Recently, the event has adopted the name of one of its most famous runners. The Waterloo Marathon now includes the Ed Whitlock Half Marathon.

The late, great Whitlock was, of course, one of the most well-known runners in Ontario who ran and competed throughout this life well into his 80s. He was, for example, the first person over 70 years old to run a marathon in less than three hours. He also set an age-class world record in the half-marathon during the Waterloo race, one of some three dozen such accomplishments.

“We were so happy when the family okayed our request,” says Lea. “He was such a wonderful person and a tremendous athlete.”

Honouring Whitlock is just one way the Waterloo Marathon promotes. It’s not the biggest race in the area, and there won’t be an international field, but that’s what makes it special. Runners don’t start in corrals, they are side-by-side with their fellow fleet-footed friends and the organizers do their best to keep that congenial atmosphere throughout the day. Don’t be surprised, for example, if you happen upon some Scottish pipers while out on the course.

In addition to professional chip timing, race photographers, water stations every 3 km, prizing for overall and age group winners, first aid and free event parking, other unique perks of entry include a technical T-shirt, handmade clay medallion, a free massage and even, wait for it, pet therapy dogs — another example of the work of St. John Ambulance, but also just a pretty great pick-me-up.

The race also welcomes visually impaired, disabled, injured and ill athletes. The Waterloo Marathon partners with Ontario Blind Sports, Achilles Canada, and United in Stride. There is even a category for high school relay teams.

It really is an inclusive and community-minded event.

And, if you happen to find yourself pulling up the rear at the end of a long day, it could be Lea who jogs up alongside to offer words of encouragement to get you to the finish line. It’s all part of the charm of this special event.

“We have a good community here, and we like to keep it that way,” says Lea.

Register here before March 15 to receive your free technical T-shirt and save $10 on entry fees. Check out our Get Out There race review from the 2016 event below.





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