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HIGH ACHIEVERS: Coun. Theresa Kavanagh balances political work with love of endurance sports

Bay Ward Councillor Theresa Kavanagh on the NCC trail. Photo: Judy Dudley

 By Martin Cleary

Theresa Kavanagh is a morning person. That’s her special time to cross-country ski, run or cycle. It’s the perfect counterbalance to her job as the Ottawa city councillor for Bay Ward 7.

When 63-year-old Kavanagh proudly moves through her neighbourhood skating, striding or peddling, she does it not only for the health benefits, but also to satisfy her competitive spirit for endurance competitions, which started about 23 years ago.

That love of challenging herself made its first appearance when she became the first girl on the Barton Secondary School cross-country running team in Hamilton. But it was a short-lived experience.

Over the next quarter century, Kavanagh limited herself to riding her bike as a form of transportation rather than a race against others. But once her two athletic boys reached high school, she declared it was her time to be an athlete.

If you were to delve into her athletic achievements, you’d be amazed by her diversity over the past 23 years. She has participated in cross-country ski, open-water swim and road races as well as triathlons.

Kavanagh’s latest achievement was the recent virtual Gatineau Loppet, a competition she first entered in 1999 and has now completed 14 races in 13 years. In 2013, she did back-to-back 51-km classical and 55-km skate races over two days.

Unlike previous years when she was part of the mass start of energetic skiers ready to charge into Gatineau Park, Kavanagh’s 2021 virtual Gatineau Loppet was a solo effort, starting and finishing in Britannia Park, only steps from her house.

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“It was great to ski the loppet and not have to worry about the (time) cutoff,” Kavanagh said in a Zoom interview. Starting in Britannia Park, she headed east to Deschenes Rapids Lookout, west to Andrew Haydon Park, east to her starting point and did that four times plus the final two kilometres in the park for 50 kilometres.

Instead of having three days in mid February to participate in various Gatineau Loppet races, the COVID-19 pandemic forced organizers to stage it virtually. Skiers registered and picked their time and course to race the clock over 16 days.

“It was great conditions. I picked the perfect day and I was able to stop for bathroom (and food) breaks. It worked out very well,” said Kavanagh, one of 1,500 Gatineau Loppet virtual racers. Kavanagh skied six hours, one minute, 47 seconds, which she timed on her GPS system.

Two weeks earlier, she completed 45 kilometres with husband Alex Cullen in the virtual Canadian Ski Marathon on another west-end Ottawa course, starting and finishing in Britannia Park.

On the day she skied her virtual Gatineau Loppet, she was somewhat tired and decided to stay close to home on the Britannia Park course, which had its advantages and disadvantages.

“What slowed me down was talking to people, who would say ‘hi.’ But it was the perfect COVID solution because you could be socially distanced and you were outdoors,” she added. She was careful to ski around people on the trails.

Kavanagh used the skate style of skiing as opposed to the classical style to finish her first Gatineau Loppet 50-kilometre race since 2014. And she admitted the last 12 kilometres was somewhat challenging.

“I think I was getting bored. I thought to myself ‘I’ve got to do that loop again.’ So for my last loop, I did the long loop first and the shorter loop second. I love these trails so much,” she said.

“It was nice to have control over the situation with the virtual loppet. But the real one is a bigger challenge because you just can’t stop and go to your house,” she said with a laugh.

Kavanagh was inspired by her two sons to try cross-country skiing, and she learned how to do it from scratch. But when she started running, she took lessons through a Running Room program. Once she started, she couldn’t stop.

She’s a fearless runner, entering races from five kilometres to marathons, and also running a marathon as the closing leg for Ironman competitions in Louisville, Kentucky, and Lake Placid, New York.

Competing in local races is high on her agenda as she has participated in almost 30 different events. Her favourites are the Ottawa Race Weekend, 19 years; Canada Day Road Races, 14; and the skate-ski-run Winterlude Triathlon, 10.

Kavanagh also combined her endurance events to win six Rudy Awards, which require athletes to finish five major events: the Winterlude Triathlon, Gatineau Loppet or Canadian Ski Marathon, the Rideau Lakes Cycle Tour, a marathon and an Ironman in one year.

Since 1999, Kavanagh has finished close to 140 races, including three Boston Marathons – 2006 in 4:01:51; 2007 in 4:14:03; and 2015 in 4:54:47.

“I love the outdoors,” Kavanagh said. “It’s the way to enjoy your community and helps me understand my community. It’s an opportunity to explore. It feels good after to use your body and keep it going.

“I was never that much of an athlete all of those years. But once I got into it…” There was and continues to be no stopping her.

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 50 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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