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Runners from a program overseen by coach Dave Scott-Thomas train in Guelph on Apr. 11, 2012. Building on the success of a dynamic local track club recognized as the best in Canada (including two London 2012 marathoners), their goal is foster a sense of community, create some useful economic spin-offs and build an urban brand based on competitive success and physical well-being. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)
Runners from a program overseen by coach Dave Scott-Thomas train in Guelph on Apr. 11, 2012. Building on the success of a dynamic local track club recognized as the best in Canada (including two London 2012 marathoners), their goal is foster a sense of community, create some useful economic spin-offs and build an urban brand based on competitive success and physical well-being. (Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail/Moe Doiron/The Globe and Mail)

Athletics

Building a community of runners in Guelph Add to ...

When the campus police arrived on the scene of a disturbance at the University of Guelph’s ancient cinder running track, they didn’t expect to find an ecstatic middle-aged man breathlessly clutching a $200 bottle of potent Islay whisky.

It was shortly after midnight on a chilly February evening and Dave Scott-Thomas had just completed a celebratory race around the Alumni Stadium oval. If the squad car’s arrival hadn’t scattered the crowd he was in the middle of high-fiving, the 47-year-old track coach would have been leading a toast to the success of a remarkable civic achievement – a million dollars raised in a 10-day blitz to fund a track that will focus Guelph’s determination to be one of the world’s great running cities.

The brief one-way conversation, he recalls, went like this.

Police officer: “We’re driving by, see these two idiots running around the track, figure it’s some kids screwing around. But it’s just you, coach. Got the money? Okay, carry on.”

In Guelph, such track-based giddiness is accepted as the community norm.

“The loneliness of the long-distance runner is a myth,” said Bruce Kidd, a former Olympic runner and professor of kinesiology and physical education at the University of Toronto. “The outpouring of generosity to build the new facility is a sign of how closely it’s connected to the broader community.”

As the rapidly sprawling city of 120,000 an hour’s drive west of Toronto wrestles with identity issues – and tries to damp down the ugly image of the recent robo-call scandal – running has emerged as a powerful source of unity and pride.

The university-based Speed River Track and Field Club is home to Olympics-bound marathoners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, but it’s also a force of intense local engagement under Mr. Scott-Thomas’s leadership. School-age runners are mentored by 1,500-metre Olympian Taylor Milne, whose strolls through the downtown streets are punctuated by an endless chorus of “Hi, Taylor.”

That easy collegiality builds on a tiny gesture Mr. Scott-Thomas instituted a few years ago. “We told our runners, ‘If you see someone running, say “hi.”’ You pass me on the street, I pass you, and it’s not that head-down, cocoon sort of stuff.”

This increased gregariousness may be hard to measure as an urban good, but it attracted Art Kilgour, a graphic designer who moved into the city five years ago.

“There’s just so much activity on the street, so much public use of space,” he said. “And that makes the city feel really vibrant and secure.”

Guelph’s leaders are toying with the idea of branding the city as the running capital of Canada, inspired by counterparts such as Eugene, Ore., known as Track Town, U.S.A.

“It’s an attractive idea, but they don’t know how to achieve it,” said John Marsden, a renovator and coach of the Guelph Victors running club. “We’re providing them with the means to go about it and to accelerate the process with the new track facility.”

The new track will be open to all Guelph runners – Mr. Scott-Thomas sees it as “our pub, a place where you can go and be communal. There’s a sense that everyone can do this, that elite athletes aren’t these inaccessible arena-rock stars.”

Soybean geneticist and runner Istvan Rajcan was so inspired by the support he’s received from Guelph’s elite competitors that he joined in the fundraising: The university researcher sent an urgent appeal to his contacts in the seed industry and got back $20,000 in donations.

“I’ve met so many people in different lines of work, from different parts of town,” said Prof. Rajcan, who fled civil war in Serbia to study in Guelph. “Running has been a bonding experience for me.”

Guelph became a go-to host for the national cross-country championships, thanks to a winding course in the university’s arboretum constructed by local runners (and enthusiastically adopted by dog-walkers). The new eight-lane track will be used to attract hotel-filling international meets as part of the city’s sports-tourism initiative.

“This facility will help us own a niche tourism market,” said Sue Trerise, a business development specialist with the City of Guelph. “We can tell people Guelph is a great place to run and that brings in lots of business. And beyond that, we can use this as a lifestyle piece to appeal to companies whose employees appreciate a good, healthy lifestyle.”

The running culture in Guelph is already extensive. Summer races along downtown streets draw on a creative partnership with the Guelph Symphony – a soloist plays at the 1-kilometre mark, a duo at 2 km, a trio at 3 km.

Running groups are a big part of the push for a trail network that unifies Guelph by connecting the downtown with its rapidly expanding fringe – one way of negating urban-suburban rivalries that have fractured cities like Toronto.

When Mr. Marsden speaks to service groups in his capacity as Victors coach, he talks about why the community should be persuading high-level female runners to stick with the sport, and the city.

“Our women are smart enough to realize that it’s career-sacrificing to stay in a running program,” he said. “So what we’re trying to do is to bring together a coalition of businesses to help women through the early stages of their career while still allowing them to train full-time.”

Community-building is much talked about in abstractions, but knitting together a disparate city takes the work of ground-level thinkers like Mr. Marsden and Mr. Scott-Thomas.

“Cities want to brand themselves and then drive toward that, but I think they’ve got it backward,” said the Speed River coach. “What you should do is find that intuitive thing you’re passionate and energetic about, and then build to that.”

It’s been a slow build. When Mr. Scott-Thomas started, he had three athletes, a program ticketed for closure and an outmoded track without a steeplechase water pit. He somehow managed to make Guelph a steeplechase centre – but the 50-kilometre commutes to the nearest pit will end once the new track is completed.

Whatever kind of luxuries lie in store, Guelph’s runners plan to stick with their grassroots attitude, at least to judge from their next communal project: heaping local manure into bags for an annual fundraiser.

“Even if you’re an Olympian, it doesn’t matter,” varsity-team captain Rob Jackson said. “You still go out there and shovel manure just like everyone else.”

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