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As young people and new immigrants join the sport – bringing their communities with them to cheer along – race registration is surging across Canada

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Members of BlackToe Running Club exercise at Exhibition Place, one of the venues where, this coming October, runners will test their endurance in the TCS Toronto Waterfront Marathon.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

There’s not a cloud in the sky on this February morning, and Abdul Hussein is running along Lake Ontario, smiling at other runners who meet his glance, grin and wave, as they move in the opposite direction.

Last fall, the 17-year-old completed the half marathon at the TCS Toronto Waterfront Marathon. This year, he’s ready for more: the full 42.2-kilometre marathon.

“The running community is special because you’re welcomed with love and genuine connection by all sorts of people, no matter who you are,” Mr. Hussein says at the end of his 10-km run. He wears basketball shorts and a cotton Crescent School sweatshirt, from the private high school he attends on a scholarship near his home in Toronto’s Regent Park.

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'Without a goal, life can lead to unfortunate roads,' says Abdul Hussein, an Eritrean refugee who runs in Toronto.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

An Eritrean refugee, Mr. Hussein was 6 when he came to Canada with his brother, sister and mother, and began running with help from the Kickback Program, a Regent Park-based non-profit that offers running shoes and professional mentorship to young people in the community.

At his race last October, he surprised himself because he never imagined he could run 21 km. For Mr. Hussein, who wants to study engineering after high school, the marathon is both a plan and a promise to himself to keep crossing challenging physical and professional finish lines.

“Without a goal, life can lead to unfortunate roads,” Mr. Hussein says. “Cheap dopamine is all over, especially in Regent, but earning things and seeing results from hard work is something different. The marathon is going to re-emphasize that I never back down from a challenge. With hard work, I can do anything.”

This year is poised to see more Canadians participating in marathons than any previous year, likely surpassing the 30,993 finishers in 2014 (the current record).

Today, even with fewer marathons offered – 44 this year compared with 55 in 2014, according to Frank Stebner, a marathon statistician in Vancouver – races are bigger and buzzier, and the face of the running community is changing.

It’s younger people and new immigrants, such as Mr. Hussein, who are at least partly responsible for the uptick in marathoners. While races don’t collect ethnic demographics at registration, directors across the country say their events have become more diverse.

As these individuals turn to running, they’re bringing their communities with them, changing the face of an activity that’s long been associated with a white, middle- to upper-class male demographic.

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Canada’s current record for marathon finishers is 30,993 in 2014, and this year could break that, even though there are fewer marathons than a decade ago.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

BMO Vancouver Marathon race director Eric Chene says his registration sold out last month with 8,000 participants, up 20 per cent compared with last year.

May’s Servus Calgary Marathon has already surpassed its record-high 2014 numbers and, to celebrate its birthday, is introducing a 60-km run – nearly a marathon and a half marathon combined – which sold out in early March.

And in cities across the rest of the country, from Winnipeg to Quebec City to Halifax, registration is consistently up this year over last.

Nor is this only a Canada-wide phenomenon. The TCS London Marathon last April had 578,000 applicants for 50,000 marathon spots, and in Amsterdam, the TCS Marathon is seeing an increase in applications of more than 300 per cent.

“Locally, 25- to 30-year-olds are running the marathon, which I hadn’t seen since I’ve been in the industry, and marathoners are now more representative of our city. It’s a lot more diverse,” says Mr. Chene, who on May 5 anticipates the single largest Canadian marathon turnout in four decades. Mr. Chene says energetic running group leaders in Vancouver have brought their communities into the sport, and in particular two local Chinese running clubs have brought him thousands of new participants.

“We’ve always said marathoning is for everyone, but postrace surveys have indicated finishers are historically upper middle class,” Mr. Chene says. “Running is a low-barrier sport to enter; you don’t have to be a runner growing up to lace up your shoes, and it’s inspiring for the future of our sport that so many new Canadians are taking on the marathon.”

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Marathon running was 'cringey white' when Ravi Singh started a decade ago, but he says that is changing.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

Ravi Singh, a first-generation Canadian whose Trinidadian parents are of Indian descent, was lost when he finished graduate school, not sure what to do next. Looking for direction, he started to run.

“I needed a challenge I could own and prove to myself that I was capable of doing something that everyone around me didn’t think I could do,” says the Toronto resident, who ran his first marathon in 2014.

The sport, however, was “cringey white,” Mr. Singh says.

“I was the only one who looked like me, of South Asian descent, and even my family, they all thought I was nuts,” says Mr. Singh, adding that he also didn’t see himself reflected in the running magazines. Around 2020, he says – just before the pandemic – things started to change.

“People of colour wanted to show that this space is for us, too,” Mr. Singh says. He eventually ran a 5K with his father, who saw the cardiovascular benefits of the sport after suffering a 2002 heart attack.

Mr. Singh exemplifies how a single enthusiastic runner can be a lightning rod for his community. “I got to be the example for my family of how you could do this, and I think anyone of South Asian descent, African descent, who maybe didn’t grow up in families who run and just saw a lot of white folks running, began to see the younger generation taking running into our own communities.”

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Members of iRun Fitness, a club of about 300 in Vancouver, enjoy a day out in Burnaby's Deer Lake Park. Of the 20 members heading for the BMO Vancouver Marathon this year, 10 will be marathon first-timers.Tijana Martin/The Globe and Mail

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'Running changed my life – not only my physical body, but even my thinking and in some small way I think I also helped change the sport,' says club founder Dennis Wang.Tijana Martin/ The Globe and Mail

Speed was never Dennis Wang’s goal when he started running marathons. Mr. Wang felt lonely when he arrived in British Columbia from northern China, and he began running on his work lunch break. Soon, other expatriates joined him. They shared tips, organized group runs and volunteered at local races, all while setting an example for the next generation. Now, he’s a running club leader in Vancouver and says that each time a leader from a minority community falls in love with running, they share what they learn with their network.

“We encourage newcomers to run,” says Mr. Wang, founder of iRun Fitness in Vancouver, a running club with 300 members, including 20 people running the BMO Vancouver Marathon. Ten of them will be attempting a marathon for the first time.

“Running changed my life – not only my physical body, but even my thinking, and in some small way I think I also helped change the sport,” he says. “Twenty years ago, I didn’t see many runners from the Chinese community, but now there’s hundreds of us, and that makes it easier for the next newcomer to think that the marathon is something they can try.”

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Allison Hill, owner of a Toronto beauty salon, says running helped her to change her mindset about what Black women can achieve.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

As a kid, Allison Hill was repelled by sports. “I associated fitness with looking a certain way to gain approval, be liked or be accepted, and there was this conflict within me around why I was exercising,” says Ms. Hill, a Black beauty salon owner on the east side of Toronto. “I lost my mother and realized how important keeping your mind strong is and that led me into new spaces like spin classes, where unfortunately I didn’t see people that looked like me,” says Ms. Hill, whose tagline for her hair salon – ‘Good Energy, Good Hair’ – encompasses her beliefs.

“A lot of the institutions where we seek out fitness don’t come from a Black woman’s perspective so aren’t building environments I can relate to,” she says. As she experimented with running after activities such as spinning left her feeling ignored, she increased her stamina and felt inspired by the Kickback program, which, like Mr. Hussein, she joined. She says she found the experience transformative: The narrative in her mind started to change as she grew stronger and began to train.

“Before the marathon, I didn’t know my thoughts were so negative; I didn’t see my aversion to fear or doubt. Running, I could hear the negative voice in my head and wondered if it was driving other areas in my life.”

The awakening was powerful. “Once I started figuring that out, I started being very deliberate in hearing those voices and answering them. Running gave me the voice to change my internal dialogue – and that’s what I started sharing about running with other Black women.”

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Chantal Jackson and other Hill Run Club members do yoga at Ms. Hill's salon.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

Ms. Hill ran her first marathon in 2022; today, the running club she started in 2020, Hill Run Club, has 400 members. The group not only trains together but also acts as a personal and professional support system. In addition to leading group runs, Ms. Hill holds yoga sessions, encourages networking and shares her experiences with marathon running, answering questions about bras, carb-loading, the dreaded “wall” many runners hit at 30 km in a marathon, pelvic floor exercises, carbon-plate sneakers and navigating race day.

“The marathon changed my mind about what’s possible,” says Ms. Hill, who last year ran the iconic marathon in Chicago and this year wants to get as many Black women as possible across October’s TCS Toronto Waterfront Marathon finish line.

“When all these Black women come together and not worry about ‘performance,’ you see who people really are, and it feels different – it gives you permission to show up as your true self, which has been so important with running. There’s no way for that not to seep into other aspects of your life.”

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Runners can spend months building the stamina needed for a full marathon, a 42.2 kilometre race, and even veterans need to keep at it through the season.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

Your turn: How to train for a marathon

The No. 1 trick is consistency. It’s not about how fast you go, or even how far, at first, but how many months in a row you can run.

Start by establishing your baseline: The first week, just jog around your block three times. It’s fine if you walk. Do that for a month, incrementally going for a little longer every other time. Now you’re in training!

After six weeks, let’s say you’re averaging eight kilometres a workout. Reid Coolsaet, two-time Canadian Olympian and current running coach, says only increase your distance around 10 per cent every two weeks.

If you are eyeing a marathon in the fall – when Quebec City, Victoria, Toronto, Montreal, Hamilton, Niagara Falls and Regina, among many Canadian cities, hold races – you want your distance up to around 35K in practice three weeks before your race. (If it’s your first time, you might attempt the whole 42.2K distance first in practice, but it’s not mandatory, and you can expect extra race day adrenalin).

The best way to stay honest with your training is to participate in multiple events, at increasing distances. There are many 5K, 10K and half-marathon runs. Even Olympians do this to work on their speed. So every two months, buy a race bib and lace up your shoes. This will connect you to the community, help alleviate race nerves and, yes, build up endurance and speed.

After completing a few shorter races and training for six months, finding a community and remaining consistent, you’re ready to join the number of Canadians completing a 2024 marathon. One note: Your feet can swell a whole half size over the course of 42.2K, so remember that when choosing your shoes.

Spotlight on great Canadian running clubs

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Abdul Hussein runs with the support of the Kickback Program in Regent Park, the Toronto neighbourhood where he studies at a private high school.Laura Proctor/The Globe and Mail

The Kickback Run Club, Toronto

What started out as a non-profit organization around Toronto’s Regent Park giving running shoes to students has grown into a much larger initiative that also provides professional mentorship. Last year, Kickback took 10 people to the Los Angeles Marathon, and the group currently has 40 parents and kids, including Abdul Hussein, training for October’s TCS Toronto Waterfront Marathon.

“Training for my half marathon, my whole thing was, ‘How am I going to do this?’ I wasn’t sure. But you could feel the Kickback energy. I want to inspire other kids with my marathon,” Mr. Hussein says.

Students such as Mr. Hussein join Kickback for sneakers and after-school programming; they leave with mentors like Quinton Jacobs and Jamal Burger, who help them run marathons and, more importantly, touch up résumés, make professional connections and get jobs.

LaPower Running Club, Vancouver

With 2,000 active participants, this primarily Chinese running club regularly fields the largest team at the BMO Vancouver Marathon. Established in 2014, LaPower also hosts its own annual event, the Burnaby Lake Run, which last year welcomed more than 700 racers from around the world. LaPower – along with iRun Fitness, which is based in Deer Lake, B.C., with members primarily from northern China – has changed the area’s running demographics.

A run for reconciliation

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Tributes cover a fence at the former Kamloops residential school in 2021, after the Tk’emlúps te Secwépemc First Nation said there might be scores of unmarked graves on the site.Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

Tréchelle Bunn started in Birtle, Man., after reading about the discovery of 215 possible unmarked graves on the grounds of the former Kamloops Indian Residential School.

“It began in 2021 as a healing walk for my elders and evolved from something my grandfather, a survivor, said – that he always wanted to go home and run away,” says Ms. Bunn, whose half marathon now starts in Birtle and concludes in her own community of Birdtail Sioux Dakota Nation. The run, on Sept. 28, attracts people from all over the world and offers a robust virtual experience, where people who can’t make it to Manitoba can still run on that day, raise money and receive a medal.

Ms. Bunn says her intention is to make Indigenous and non-Indigenous Canadians consider the past. “We hear non-Indigenous runners saying it’s their first time hearing a survivor share their stories in person and aunties and uncles – survivors – say it’s their first time back to a residential school, willingly walking away on their own terms.”

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