HIGH ACHIEVERS: Stay-Safe Edition
Keeping Local Sport Spirit High During the Pandemic
By Martin Cleary
When Dr. James Dickson ran, people took notice. He wasn’t the leader of the pack or the winner of the race. But if you poured over the results, you’d find him there, quite often first in his age group.
Maybe it was his eye-catching beard, which transitioned from brown to majestic silver over the years. Or maybe it was his lithe, flowing frame that gobbled up kilometre after kilometre or the sheer determination on his Scottish face.
Dickson, a family doctor for 46 years in Ottawa, was ahead of his time, caring about his health and fitness long before the 1970s running boom. It was that belief that carried him into his 11th decade before he passed away April 19 at 92.
When Dickson moved from Glasgow with wife Lucila and Christine, the first of their five children, they landed in St. Mary’s Bay, Newfoundland, in 1957. A former university cross-country runner, he was noticed by curious bay residents.
“Running wasn’t a thing back then,” said Ellen, the youngest in the family. “He was running on the side of the road and people would pull over in their cars and asked if he needed help or did his car break down.”
When Dickson moved his family to Ottawa in 1968, he was spotted again. But this time, it was by another runner, who asked him if he would like to train for a marathon. Absolutely absurd, out of the question as he was approaching 50.
But he started to rack up the kilometres and was focused on running the inaugural National Capital Marathon in 1975. But Dickson, who made house calls, had to deliver a baby the night before, which kept him from the start line.
A year later, the Ottawa marathon was the 1976 Olympic trials race and Dickson was in that field. He didn’t stride with the speedsters, but he did start a fascinating athletic career that would touch many sports and people.
He survived 25 marathons, including the 1977 and 1978 Boston Marathons, and was a regular participant in Ottawa’s marathon. He desperately wanted to break three hours, but had to settle for a personal-best time of 3:01.
It was at the 1978 National Capital Marathon, where he was noticed yet again. As Dickson motored to the finish, a spectator said: “That’s my doctor.” He quickly took a picture, which he still has today.
“He thought my dad was worthy enough. It speaks to who he (Dickson) is,” said Ellen, who like other members of her family have been inspired by their dad to participate in triathlons, duathlons and other athletic activities.
Besides the Ottawa marathon, Graham Beasley Triathlon and Rattle Me Bones race, Dickson also loved the Winterlude Triathlon (skating, cross-country skiing and running) and the Smiths Falls Classic Triathlon, Duathlon and Relay.
At age 80, Dickson charged into the second and last transition zone of the Winterlude Triathlon to take off his nordic ski boots and put on his running shoes. Volunteer Harold Piel noticed him bouncing on one foot to put on a shoe.
Piel offered to help him, but Dickson declined, fearing he would be disqualified for outside help. But Piel said he was a volunteer and could defend his actions to the organizers. Dickson thought it out and accepted the help.
Before the next year’s race, Piel found out Dickson’s bib number and where he would be located in the transition zone. Piel put a VIP chair in Dickson’s spot for him to sit and exchange his boots for shoes.
An open lawn chair in the transition zone was a blessing for Dickson, but it raised the ire of some competitors. But once they learned it was for an 81-year-old, they immediately understood and respected the move.
Dickson turned 86 in 2014, which was a challenging year for him as he not only retired, somewhat reluctantly, as a doctor, but also as a competitive athlete. His hearing was declining, which affected his in-race cycling.
But in his final sprint duathlon at the Smiths Falls Classic, he was noticed one last time. It was a classic. Dickson and Ellen were planning to compete separately until the former received a big pre-race welcome from fellow competitors.
Dickson’s ‘groupies,’ as Ellen playfully called them, shook his hands and showered him with praise. Ellen decided to race with and not against her dad. It was a joyful occasion and they crossed the finish line hand in hand.
“He was a favourite with the race community. Dad was kind and the people were kind,” Ellen said. “I didn’t know it was going to be his last (multi-sport) race. But it was absolutely worth it. I loved being with him.”
Dickson, who had an incredible memory and could recite appropriate poetry lines at the drop of a hat, taught his children many lessons: open your home to people, be kind, be fit and if you’re down, take a walk.
After Dickson stopped running, swimming, cycling, skating and skiing, he took to walking. But he never stopped going to his favourite events, where he would continue supporting and cheering on the members of his family.
Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 48 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 “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org and on Twitter @martincleary.