If there is a Cinderella day for a long-distance runner, Martin Parnell slipped on the glass slippers on Friday. Or rather, at least his 22nd pair of running shoes in 2010.
Mr. Parnell, 55, a semi-retired engineer from Cochrane, Alta., completed his 250th marathon of 2010 right on schedule. Even though the thermometer never budged warmer than -25C, he and his accompanying group of runners started on time, finished on time - and had a great time.
The road was long, 10,550 kilometres to be exact, but the final 42.2 km on Friday felt more like a family reunion than the last chapter of the longest of endurance tests.
"To be honest, I am burned out," he said. "It's been tough but a fabulous year. But what a way to end. This is stunning."
Runners joined him Friday for six hours as he ran 14 three-kilometre loops along the Bow River, near the Spray Lakes Sports Centre in Cochrane. The town cleared snow from the loop for the occasion.
At 9 a.m., Mr. Parnell counted down with a group of runners bundled up against the -31C cold. The ice fog swirling off the Bow caused frost to form on scarves and facemasks but nobody stopped.
"This is just as exciting as the first race," he said.
Mr. Parnell ran marathons in Boston, Las Vegas and Vancouver, but most of his marathons were unofficial, logged in southern Alberta during a dreary summer. His goal was to raise $250,000 for the charitable organization Right to Play.
On a bike trip through Africa a few years ago, Mr. Parnell saw the kids playing soccer with a rolled-up wad of rags. The image stuck in his mind, and last year he decided to run the marathons to raise awareness and funds.
"There were many days on the path through Calgary in the rain and snow that were depressing as hell, but that's when I focused on the kids," he said. "I don't mean just the kids in Africa that initiated my journey. I visited 12,000 students at 60 schools this year across Canada, telling them about the children in Africa that rolled rags to create soccer balls. Their enthusiasm to help less fortunate kids worldwide was infectious."
During the day, Mr. Parnell dipped into the local sports complex for breaks or to gather more runners and friends. At 12:30 p.m. local time, a bunch of half-marathoners joined in, then at 1:30 the 10-km group showed up.
By the time he counted down for the last time just after 2 p.m., hundreds of people were ready to join him for the last five kilometres.
Before heading out for the last few loops, Mr. Parnell visited with his wife Sue, who until then was the glue holding the machine together.
"I was fine with it all until we started talking about the last five kilometres and the finish line," she said. "Now I'm choking tears back. Suddenly, it's sudden."
Her husband munched on a burger and laughed. "I'm in the moment having way too much fun," he said. "It will hit me when it's done."
He winced as he stood to stretch for the final loop. "And," he said, "I'm ready to be done."
Children from Calgary and Cochrane schools joined him at the front of the bulging pack of runners for the final lap. It was a perfect ending for Mr. Parnell as the crowd roared at the finish.
"It was about kids from day one and it had to finish with them. It just had to," he said, showing little sign of having run six hours in frigid weather.
Asked when he would be ready to run again, he replied with a laugh. "Not tomorrow. But when I do, it will be fantastic. It's crazy but I still love to run."
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