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When You Run, You Change The World: Alan Brookes Tells the Story of the Toronto Waterfront Marathon

In 1987, Alan Brookes was a runner and professor at the University of Guelph when he decided to give up his academic career, move to Toronto and enter the world of race organizing. He now directs the Canada Running Series, an annual circuit of road races that culminates in the world-class Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon (STWM) taking place this October 20, and doubling as the 2019 Canadian marathon championships and Olympic marathon trials. We spoke with Alan about STWM’s rich history and community presence.

Parvati Magazine: The Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon turns 30 this year. How has this race changed over the years?

Alan Brookes: From Day 1, we used to say, “We are runners in business, not business people into running.” Our mission is building community through running, with the twin pillars of organization and innovation. Yes, we brought [1984 Olympic marathon champion] Joan Benoit Samuelson in to win the first two editions of the Coors Light Toronto Half-Marathon in 1990 and 91 (what became STWM in 2000). But we also had a charity component from the beginning. It was the YMCA Community Fund at first, then the Marville Koffler Breast Centre at Mount Sinai Hospital, before I brought the concept of the “Charity Challenge” from London Marathon in 2003. Scotiabank has so magnificently embraced it that our 300-plus charities participating in our Scotia races in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver now raise about $6 million a year.

We have always wanted to provide an opportunity for Toronto (and later our other Canadian cities) to show their identity to the world. STWM is of course the grand finale and showpiece, with 25,000 runners from 76 countries last year and a livestream broadcast watched in 142 countries! All these numbers seem astonishing, given the scale at which we started. But the principles have remained the same.

Parvati Magazine: You offer a race that appeals to runners of all kinds, from those trying out their first 5k to elites looking for a shot at Olympic glory. What does a “Couch to 5k” runner have in common with a 2:06 marathoner?

Alan Brookes: We are passionately committed to provide a great experience for three types of runners: high-performance runners, community runners, and healthy lifestyle fitness runners. Of course, it takes a lot more effort. But at the end of the day, running is putting one foot in front of the other, whether it’s at three minutes per kilometer or eight. It’s a shared experience that brings us together. That’s the easy part!

Parvati Magazine: Why do you think running and charities go so well together?

Alan Brookes: Both require strong, passionate, relentless, long-term commitment, step by step, to set goals and work carefully and persistently towards them.

Parvati Magazine: What are you doing this year to green the marathon?

Alan Brookes: We were the first-ever event in Toronto to receive Gold level certification by the Council for Responsible Sport. Our races are bottle-free, and registration is paperless. Our cups are composted. All leftover food is donated to Second Harvest. We’re always looking to improve our green plans and are working to implement new measures and improve existing efforts at our events.

Parvati Magazine: The Toronto Waterfront Marathon has seen many thrilling moments over the years, from Eric Gillis’s Olympian-by-a-second sprint to the finish in 2011 to Cam Levins’s debut last year obliterating a 43-year-old Canadian record. What memories stand out most for you?

Alan Brookes: As well as those, plus Lanni Marchant and Krista Duchene’s record-breaking day in 2013, plus John Kelai in 2007 running the first sub-2:10 in Canada outside of the Montreal Olympics, plus Fauja Singh setting his age group world records and bringing the Sikh community to us… I have to say Ed [Whitlock]. Ed and I and STWM grew up together. With his 2:59:10 in 2003 [the first person over 70 to run a sub-3-hour marathon], Ed put us on the world stage. His mantra was “Don’t limit yourself!”

Parvati Magazine: There’s still time for people to sign up and participate in STWM, whether as a runner or as a volunteer or spectator. Why is it a Sunday morning well spent?

Alan Brookes: It’s the love, caring and sharing of the running community. Come out and feel the experience with us. Watch remarkable efforts from thousands of “ordinary” people, as well as the specially-talented. Be inspired, but know that it’s attainable. And with your volunteering or cheering you are changing your life and others, one breath, one heartbeat at a time. A good friend and founder of Run Dem Crew in London, Charlie Dark, says, “When we run, we push down with our feet, we shake the earth and we change the world.”

Alan Brookes, PhD, is the President and Race Director of Canada Running Series (CRS) and Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. A former 2:34 marathoner, he is a tireless champion of Canadian distance runners. CRS attracts some 64,000 participants including Canadian Olympians and international stars, and raises $6 million a year for more than 300 charities.



Image credit: Todd Fraser