By Martin Cleary
More than 30,000 runners, walkers and volunteers will move energetically through the streets of Ottawa and Gatineau on the weekend in pursuit of a wide variety of goals.
Canada’s top two endurance runners Cam Levins and Mohammed Ahmed will battle for a national championship and $5,000 in the 10-kilometre race presented by Otto’s Ottawa on Saturday.
The 49th World Athletics Elite Label Tartan Ottawa International Marathon will feature nine talented Ethiopian runners, 11 Japanese athletes hoping to qualify for their 2024 Olympic trials race on Oct. 15, as well as 2:16 marathoner Lee Wesselius, the running veterinarian from Kemptville, ON.
Ottawa’s Rejeanne Fairhead, 96, will be lacing up her walking shoes in an attempt to better her Canadian 95+ age-group record in the Ottawa 5K presented by ASICS Runkeeper.
But maybe the most intriguing part of Ottawa Race Weekend will be this: Who will win the Golden Bunny Ears and the coveted bag of carrots?
Just like the elite runners who will be chasing thousands of dollars in prize money and following the lead of designated pacers, the everyday runner also has the option to be guided to the various finish lines by a selfless group of volunteers called Pace Bunnies.
Wearing bunny ears on the side of their ball cap and carrying an elevated sign with a specific time on it, the Pace Bunnies will do their best to follow a correct running pace and bring home their followers to their designated time.
The Pace Bunny coming closest to matching his or her time in the 10-kilometre race, the 21.1-kilometre half-marathon or the full 42.195-kilometre marathon will be crowned with the Golden Bunny Ears for the 2024 Ottawa Race Weekend and can munch on a bag of carrots in the meantime.
For the past 16 years, minus the COVID-19 cancelled races of 2020 and 2021, Mark Wigmore has been at the heart of the Pace Bunny movement as the chief organizer and as a participant.
Six months ago, he started recruiting volunteers for this year’s races to help runners at all levels achieve their goals of a fast time. There will be 60 Pace Bunnies spread throughout the three main races bringing solid encouragement and direction to their runners.
The Pace Bunnies will be spaced every five to 10 minutes from the 40- to the 75-minute mark for the 10-kilometre race, from 1:30 to 3:15 for the half-marathon and from 3:00 to 6:00 for the marathon.
“I have people come from Montreal and a huge Toronto contingent. People come and give up their weekends to run our race,” Wigmore said in a phone interview. “It’s good for our own training and it’s joyful.
“We’re helping other people to get their goals, whether it’s breaking four hours or reaching a Boston (Marathon) qualifying time.”
Over the years, the friendly competition for the Golden Ears and the bag of carrots has been intense with Pace Bunnies posting finish times close to or equal to the designated time on their small sign.
Wigmore provided some interesting Pace Bunny stats from the 2022 Ottawa Race Weekend.
There were 12 sign-carrying runners with ears in the 10-kilometre race and the entire dozen finished within a minute of their specific times, while 11 were within 30 seconds and eight within 10 seconds.
For the half-marathon, 12 of the 14 Pace Bunnies were within one minute of their desired finish time, while 10 were within 30 seconds and seven finished within 10 seconds.
The gruelling marathon saw 13 of 19 bunnies complete the distance within one minute of their target, while 10 came within 30 seconds and five were only 10 seconds off their magic number.
“Pretty impressive,” Wigmore, 64, added in an email, “and we have had even better years in the past.”
On Sunday, Wigmore will be carrying the 2:00 (two-hour) sign in the half marathon and aims to bring his followers home on time. In the past, he has been the leader for marathoners in the 3:35 to 4:30 groups.
As a way to prepare for his Sunday volunteer role, he’ll put on the costume of Misquah Moose to stir the hearts of the young runners completing the final leg of the Kids’ Marathon on Saturday afternoon.
“A lot of people get so much out of this. It’s the joy. People keep coming back. I’ve got people who have been Pace Bunnies for 10 to 15 years,” explained Wigmore, who became a Pace Bunny in 2006 and the main organizer of the human hares in 2009.
“I think the runners benefit from this. It’s great for the runners to knock off consistent times and great for the spectators to know when to look for someone.”
Wigmore ran his first marathon in 1979 and returned to it in the early 2000s, after a 20-year absence. Pacing in a marathon is similar to running in a marathon, but you have to check your watch constantly and watch the kilometre indicators on the side of the road to keep everyone on time.
“It’s a bit mental, but in a good way,” he added. “The idea is for the Pace Bunny to run that time comfortably, hit the target times consistently and communicate with the group.
“It’s physical. It’s not easy. It’s not about going as fast as you can, but as fast as you can to a certain time.”
While the elite runners are paced up front by the speedy ‘rabbits,’ Wigmore enjoys being in the thick of the throng, ushering his brave runners to their new frontier.
“I love crossing the finish line and the final stretch is awesome in Ottawa, coming off the Pretoria Bridge (onto the Queen Elizabeth Driveway),” he said enthusiastically.
“You know you are helping people to their goal. I’ve got as much reward or more pacing the 4:30 group (in the marathon) as I have the 3:40s, who are more self motivated and in control. If they’re a first-time marathoner and they hit their goal, it’s an incredible thing to see.”
OTTAWA RACE WEEKEND SCHEDULE
Start line – Ottawa City Hall, 110 Laurier Ave. W.
Ottawa Kids Marathon, 2 p.m.
Ottawa 2K presented by ASICS Runkeeper, 3 p.m.
Ottawa 5K presented by ASICS Runkeeper, 4 p.m.
Ottawa 10K presented by Otto’s Ottawa, 6:30 p.m.
Start line – Ottawa City Hall, 110 Laurier Ave. W.
World Athletics Elite Label Tartan Ottawa International Marathon, 7 a.m.
Ottawa Half-Marathon presented by Desjardins, 9 a.m.
FUN FACTS, FIGURES
· Ottawa Race Weekend is “the biggest multi-distance race event in Canada” and has the largest marathon, which turns 50 in 2024, in the country.
· The weekend of racing injects about $14 million into the Ottawa economy.
· There are 10 medical stations along the course, a mobile medical team on bicycles, and 250 medical volunteers, including emergency-room doctors and nurses plus paramedics.
· About 39,000 visitors will descend on Ottawa for the weekend of racing and about 200,000 spectators will cheer the runners along the courses.
· There will be more than 200 participating teams raising money for 73 official charities in the Desjardins Charity Challenge, which started in 2015 and has raised more than $5 million. This year’s goal is $1.5 million and more than $965,000 had been raised as of Friday.
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 OttawaSportsPages.ca.
Martin can be reached by e-mail at email@example.com and on Twitter @martincleary.
HELP SHINE A LIGHT ON LOCAL SPORT! The Ottawa Sports Pages has proudly provided a voice for local sport for over 10 years, but we need your help to continue another 10 and beyond. Please donate to the Ottawa Sports Pages Fund today.