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Long & special journey

Manitoba Marathon has grown into landmark event

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The Manitoba Marathon has come a long way, baby!

Not only have its participants in the full 26.2 miles, half-marathon, relays and super runs logged several million miles since the first edition was held back in 1979, but the race that started as an idea in a River Heights kitchen among five fundraising enthusiasts has become as important a date on Manitoba's calendar as Christmas, Halloween and Mother's Day.

This year's race is shaping up to be biggest ever with more than 14,500 runners expected to take part, shattering the previous high of 13,914 set two years ago.

"We'd be excited if it was just around 15,000," said Shirley Lumb, executive director of the Manitoba Marathon Foundation.

That's a far cry from the inaugural run when just 4,000 people lined up at the start line to run from Polo Park to Headingley and back. (Less than half of them finished the far-from-ideal route, which had almost zero coverage from trees on a hot day.)

"It's quite a change from then to now. At the beginning, they ran it because it was a new event but they hadn't really trained for it. Now people are seriously ready for their events, for the most part. They know what they're doing," Lumb said.

So do the race organizers, evidently, as the Manitoba Marathon has quietly become the third-largest race of its kind in Canada, trailing only marathons in Ottawa and Victoria.

"It has become one of the premier marathon events in the country. We don't have the draws that Toronto, Vancouver and Ottawa have. They have a lot of participants that come in from far away, we don't have that many. It's the support from Manitobans that allows us to grow," Lumb said.

It may not have huge out-of-town numbers but every year a number of different countries are represented on the course, including the U.S., Germany, England, France and Japan.

And because it's a flat course, it's an ideal one to run to try to qualify for the granddaddy of them all, the Boston Marathon. Last year, 16 runners did so, up from 10 in 2009. Lumb says a handful of participants use the local race to qualify for other major marathons, too, such as New York and Chicago.

Despite the never-ending changes over the years, the one constant has been the cause -- to raise money for people with intellectual disabilities. Going in to this year's race, the fundraising total sits at nearly $5 million.

Even with a record field, marathon officials aren't leaving future participation up to chance. That's why they started the 2.6-mile Super Run, to give kids a reason to take part in the big day, too. Just as importantly, marathon organizers helped start school programs to nurture the long-distance runners of tomorrow.

"We want to make sure we have a future. Those kids will be running in five or 10 years at the Manitoba Marathon," Lumb says.

"We know a lot of kids run in elementary and junior high school but it falls off a little bit in high school. We hope we've planted the seed that running is a good option to look after your health and be fit. It doesn't take a lot, you don't need a lot of equipment -- just a pair of running shoes and your own determination."

Sam Fabro, one of a small group of the big thinkers in 1978, credits former broadcaster and sports writer John Robertson with being the driving force behind the marathon.

"We met in Helen Steinkopf's kitchen. They had a child (with an intellectual disability) and they were involved in helping out what's now called Community Living," he said.

The idea was to raise money to get people with intellectual disabilities out of institutions and into group homes. They decided to abandon a previous fundraiser -- a Canoe-a-thon -- and aim for a more inclusive event, one with greater fundraising potential.

"It was a little germ and we made it grow," he said.

Fabro, who ran six miles in the second edition, was never a marathoner. On Sunday, he'll sit in a lawn chair on his lawn or in his living room on South Drive and give the runners a wave as they go by.

"We have to give credit to John. He thought people who were mentally challenged needed help. The human element was the main thing. There was a cause and everyone gathered together and put it across, that's the Winnipeg way. It's something that won't go away now, it's here to stay. People who have participated all these years, it's a badge for them and they deserve credit," he said.

Fabro admitted to having some doubts in the early days, though.

"When we were doing our soul-searching, I thought, 'God, I hope we don't have any casualties. There's the odd person who's not fit and they could get into trouble,'" he said.

His worst fear almost came true during the first marathon. It was a hot day and a combination of the late start time -- 8 a.m. -- and the almost complete lack of shade along the route, caused a number of people to require medical treatment.

"We nearly lost a doctor who ran and hadn't trained. He was taken to a hospital himself," he said.

In addition to all the runners, the Manitoba Marathon couldn't take place without the army of more than 2,000 volunteers. That includes a medical team of more than 300.

"If you took every participant, we estimate each one brings about four others to the table in terms of volunteering or family members coming out to watch. We're starting to get really big. Actually, we are getting really big. It's quite amazing, really," Lumb said.

Ken Friesen, owner of Stride Ahead Sports, one of the marathon's sponsors, said he and his staff man a water station at the entrance to St. Vital Park. (Two staff members aren't helping out. One of them, Mike Booth, is a four-time winner of the full marathon. "We're going to let him run," Friesen joked.)

"It's an exciting station. The full, the half and the relay all go through there. It's a key spot. Our staff knows a lot of the runners. It's a good place to cheer them on as they're digging a little deeper to finish up," he said.

His store, as well as several others in town, put on running clinics every year to help people reach their goal of not only finishing the race, but doing so in a certain time.

"It's possible to not train very well and finish it but you'd be in a world of pain while you're at it. To enjoy the race, training is very important. You should be in decent shape and then train at least six months," he said.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 18, 2011 C4

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