Photo credits: Ian Hunter
Every April in Ottawa, runners line up at the start of a very special 5K to honour one of their own. There are runners of every stripe, from very-first-timers to elite athletes from all corners of the globe. When the gun sounds, each will be carried along by the indomitable spirit of the one for whom the race is named. Émilie Mondor never got to be in Émilie’s Run, but her legacy lives on in the annual race for women – and in the efforts of Bushtukah, the race’s sponsor and champion of women’s fitness in Ottawa.
Ken Parker is a former marathoner and co-founder of Ottawa’s National Capital Marathon. After witnessing first-hand the injustice faced by women in the running world, Ken was compelled to do something about it. In 2005, he started the RunnersWeb 5K Race for Women Only after championing the Avon Women’s Running Series for years. “I wanted to have a race where women could take the responsibility of setting a pace and making the moves and not following some male runner,” Ken says. “And the reward of getting to actually break the finish line tape.”
It was at a press conference for the Ottawa Race Weekend where he first met Émilie Mondor, who had not long before become the first Canadian woman to run a sub-15 minute 5K. Ken asked if she would be interested in participating in this new race for women, even though they had very little in the way of prize money, or even expenses. “She said, I have something on that date, but I’ll change it because I want to come and support it,” Ken recalls.
It was a big boon, as Ken could now bill the race around a recent Canadian Olympic Team member. But when she arrived to race, Ken, by now an experienced coach with the Ottawa Athletic Club, could see something wasn’t right. “I noticed she wasn’t running properly so I asked her what happened. She said she’d had a bit of an injury, but I know you’ve promoted this race around me so I’m going to run it. I said, no, you’re not.”
Ken eventually managed to convince her to take care of herself first. “But she said she was going to come back the next year and put the record so far out of sight nobody will ever touch it,” he says.
It was his first taste of Émilie’s unique brand of determination that would come to define their relationship. “We kept in touch and we would get to talking about the marathon,” Ken says. “But I didn’t realize until later she was interviewing me for a coaching job.”
Émilie moved to Ottawa and was training under Ken for her first marathon, when she tragically lost her life in a car accident while returning home to Mascouche, Quebec to attend a high school reunion. Stunned by the sudden loss, Ken wanted to do something to honour her memory. “I didn’t have to think about it,” Ken says. “When I learned she was gone I immediately started working on changing the name to Émilie’s Run. Even though she had never run it.”
These days, the race is put on by Run Ottawa in partnership with Bushtukah, whose dedication to women’s fitness, evidenced in their SWEET program, makes them a perfect fit. SWEET stands for Sporty Women Empowering & Encouraging Together, and was started 12 years ago as a night for women to meet, hear from a motivational speaker, and speak to invited experts about all manner of activity, from running and cycling to orienteering and even roller derby. It has since expanded to events all year round, a Facebook group and an army of SWEET ambassadors, all with the same goal: to get women out and active.
“It’s a lot of work,” says program director Judy Piel. “But if someone gets up the next morning and says, ‘Because I went to SWEET last night, I’m gonna go for a walk or I’m gonna try and go for a run’, then it’s all worth it.”
It’s the same passion that draws them to a race like Émilie’s Run. “It’s a great event and we’re happy to support it because it’s so important to have a quality event where the focus is just on running – for all women,” Judy says. “While it features an elite competition among women, it’s open to everyone, so it’s a good mixture of both.”
Just how Émilie would have it.
“When Émilie would run with our track club,” Ken remembers, “she’d go out and do the loop – faster than anyone – then she’d jog backwards cheering on all the other women. They all just loved her.”
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