Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

A day with dads

Whether it is the start of a new tradition or in memory of a lost family member, running and Father's Day go hand in hand

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As the Sunday-morning drizzle gave way to a swell of pelting rain, families huddled by the Manitoba Marathon finish line to cheer runners through their final steps.

They cheered, and they clapped. They popped umbrellas open to guard against the spitting wet, as they waited for some loved one to come cruising into the University of Manitoba track.

There, as close to the finish line as she could get, six-year-old Kendra Rochon clutched a handmade sign against her chest. Its bright colours beamed through the morning's grey, big looping letters beaming toward the finish line to say: "We are so proud of you."

A moment later, Mitch Rochon and his daughter, Bailee, rounded into view. They crossed the finish line, spotted Kendra's sign, and tumbled toward it with beaming grins and slightly shaky legs. They had just run the half-marathon together and finished only a step apart -- a Father's Day gift, of sorts. The first time they'd run 26 miles together, though quite probably not the last.

"I think it will be a tradition," Mitch Rochon said after greeting his wife, Dawn, and younger daughter with a hug. "It's special. It's something that you do together, so you're very proud of that. And coming at the end of the line, and the rest of my family cheering me on, it's great."

It was Mitch's fifth half-marathon; for 15-year-old Bailee, her first. It wasn't always easy, the teen grinned, but she was proud to say she didn't walk a step. Dad's encouragement helped at least a little bit with that. "He pushed me, so it was fun," she said. "He was good motivation."

Well, that's what dads are for. And on this Father's Day marathon, the stories of fathers are woven throughout the course: dads volunteering at the finish lines; dads carrying toddlers on their shoulders along the 2.6-mile Super Run jaunt; dads waiting on the grass, tending wide-eyed toddlers with sunny balloons, telling them their mother will be running down the home stretch "soon."

And there were memories of fathers, too.

As the morning spluttered toward noon, Scott Smoke and his friends relaxed in the wake of their relay race. Their bright orange shirts were damp with rain, but the image printed on the back beamed out clear as day: It was a photo of Smoke's father, Rick, snapped in mid-stride. In the photo, he's wearing an old Manitoba Marathon bib reading No. 385. Rick Smoke loved to run, you see. He finished about two dozen marathons in his time.

Now he's gone, died suddenly last year. In the wake of his passing, Scott Smoke decided to take up the run. Last year, he and his friends entered the Winnipeg Police Service half-marathon. This year, they put together two Manitoba Marathon relay teams -- Run for Rick, they called them -- and Scott wore his father's necklace all the way. "Hopefully it's something we can do every year," Smoke said. "It makes it a little more special that it's on Father's Day."

In memory or alive, these are the family ties this Manitoba Marathon hoped to tap into. This is part of why organizers first chose the day.

Marathons are not often held in the sultry days of middle June. Usually, they're scheduled in April or September. They're scheduled in the spring or the fall, or even in the long winter months -- at least, in parts of the world where winter doesn't know snow. By June, the sun can risk glaring too hot, leaving runners to sizzle in their sweat. Coaxing them to burn up, burn out, to melt into the shimmering pavement.

Still, in 1977, when a cadre of local community boosters started planning for Manitoba to have a marathon of its own, Father's Day seemed a perfect fit.

There were no other big events on the running calendar then, no Boston or New York-level race with which they'd have to compete. It would allow Manitobans enough time to train, after the snow melted away. And hey, at the time the Association for Community Living already ran a popular Canoeathon on that date, something they thought could make a nice companion activity to the fledgling marathon.

Mostly, recalled marathon co-founder Dale Kendel, the date just seemed to click with the four-F mandate they envisioned: fitness, family, fundraising and fun.

"With all those ingredients, Father's Day made sense," said Kendel, who was then director of the Association for Community Living. "It became this fixture date that you could say, 'It's the Father's Day marathon,' and everybody knew what date it was going to be. You didn't have to go into your calendars and say, 'Oh, what is it, the third Sunday in June?' It's Father's Day, and people just get ready for it."

So it was that, during one of their earliest meetings, marathon founder John Robertson said 'Let's go with Father's Day.' Those words soon became law. "The next thing we know, it's announced we're doing the marathon on Father's Day," Kendel said. "He was on CBC, so he announced it on TV. Then he wrote an article in the newspaper, and then he was on radio doing interviews. So we were committed right? And it's a great fit. It meets so many of the criteria. It's there."

It was there, it is there, and every year that family connection grows stronger.

The Manitoba Marathon is 36 years old now, passed from parent to child like a torch or a relay baton. This year's winner, Winnipeg's own Brian Walker, was just a kid in the 1980s when he started running the Super Run with his own dad, Tim Walker. Brian's twin brother runs too, and his uncle, Bob Walker, holds the record for the fastest Manitoban even to run this event, finishing in 2:19:06 back in 1981.

In years to come, the marathon torch will pass on to the third generation. Brian Walker is a father himself now, and running is at the heart of his young family's life: Walker's wife, Darolyn, won the half-marathon in 2013 and placed second just one year before. This year, she cheered from the sidelines, following Walker along the course with their toddler son, Braedan, and 11-week-old daughter in tow.

The kids were decked out in shirts that read Go Daddy Go, with a sketch of a running shoe. Maybe someday, they'll be winning marathons too. "It's a real family thing with us," Walker said. "Every Father's Day, this is sort of what we do, whether it's the relay, or the half or the full. I don't really remember a Father's Day where the marathon hasn't been part of the day. You get up at 4:30 a.m., and you come out, and everyone runs. It's just a fun event to be part of."

For every torch passed at this Father's Day marathon, even more are being lit.

As the morning drizzle swelled into a pelting rain, Ray McCoy and his son, Kyle, 18, retreated under a spreading tree. They looked an athletic pair. Ray is a longtime triathlete; Kyle hopes to snag a spot on the University of Manitoba Bisons track team. On Sunday, his young legs propelled him across the finish line almost two minutes faster than his dad. Then he turned to wait: He knew his father was close behind. He could make out his shape even from almost a mile away.

"It was my Father's Day gift to him," Kyle said. "Part of it, at least."

This was the younger McCoy's first marathon, though his father has run about eight before. Since Kyle started getting into long-distance running, the duo switched their training focus to that, spending long hours running around Winnipeg with music pumping through their headphones. "It's funny: A lot of our communication is non-verbal," Ray said of the connection that running has grown. "It's almost like a sixth sense that we develop running together. It's fun."

Now, all that work culminated in a Father's Day marathon run, a gift of sorts to father, from son. Both fell short of the goals they had set, as they battled the bristling chill and the slopping wet, but they started and finished it together. And for the first time, that was enough.

As for the rest of Father's Day? "I'm thinking the couch," Ray said with a grin. "And drying off."

melissa.martin@freepress.mb.ca

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 16, 2014 B4

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