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Charlotte, Alan Brookes helped prop up road racing community during pandemic

TORONTO — Charlotte Brookes will be stationed in the command centre when the starter's pistol sounds on the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 10K race Sunday. She expects there will be tears.

TORONTO — Charlotte Brookes will be stationed in the command centre when the starter's pistol sounds on the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon 10K race Sunday.

She expects there will be tears.

Sunday marks the largest road race in Canada since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and marks a triumphant live return — finally — of a running community that Charlotte and her dad Alan Brookes have helped keep propped up for the past 20 months. 

"I'm tearing up (even now)," Brookes laughed, during a Zoom interview this week. "We had our big event team training last week (on Zoom), and I was asked to do the intro, and I start off with 'We're so happy you’re . . . oh God.' I started crying. Of course, I had to record for people who couldn't make it. And I'm like, 'How do we edit me crying?' 

"I will have a moment (Sunday) where I'll cry probably."

Five thousand runners will line up Sunday for the STWM 10K race, which is the official Canadian 10K championship this year. Normally held as Tamarack Race Weekend in Ottawa, that race in May was cancelled due to the pandemic and the two races combined efforts, along with Athletics Canada, to host Sunday's event.

Five thousand more runners have registered to complete it virtually. 

The popular fall fixture on Canada's road racing scene will have just a 10K distance this year in keeping with COVID-19 protocols. Runners will start in groups of 100. 

"When we looked at what that might look like, and having runners physically distance . . . we thought how many people could we do this with?" said Charlotte, the national event director for the Canada Running Series.

With the groups of 100 leaving in 50 waves, the first runners will take off at 8 a.m. and the last at 11:30.

Evan Dunfee will be among them, two months after racing to Olympic bronze in the 50K race walk. Dunfee has a friendly competition going with brother Adam. Evan — whose Canadian 10K race walk record is 38 minutes 39.72 seconds — will walk. Adam will run.

It's the camaraderie among the road race community that Dunfee — who'll be easy to spot Sunday with his red hair and hip-swivelling gait — has really missed.

"I'm not one of the runners who takes off and is never seen again until you turn the corner at 5K," said the 31-year-old from Richmond, B.C. "So, I get a little bit more time to interact with people (during the race), chat with people, cheer people on.

"That big (emotional) moment for me will be the little interactions I have with people, hearing the 'why,' the reason they're out there, doing that thing on that day. That's always what gets me, their motivation, and all their different goals. It will be special."

Natasha Wodak is another elite athlete to watch. The 39-year-old from Vancouver, who was 13th in the Tokyo Olympic marathon, can't wait to toe the start line alongside hundreds of other runners. 

"I haven't done a road race in Canada since two falls ago, and it's been such a struggle for all of our race directors and all of the elite athletes and I think in particular the general public of runners, they missed out the most, because I still had some opportunities to race obviously," she said. 

"This is really great for the thousands and thousands of runners that have kept going during the pandemic, running on their own, doing it all alone and to finally be able to race again, be a part of the running community, is just so awesome."

The global pandemic erased the world marathon schedule for more than a year, and like so many businesses, the road racing community had to shift gears. Alan Brookes, the executive race director and president of Canada Running Series, joked that the popular drinking game was to drink every time someone said "pivot." 

But those first few weeks, he added, "were terrible." 

"There were tears on the team, including Charlotte," Alan said. "It was the unknown, it was just boom. the world is blown up."

Canada Running Series went virtual, giving runners the opportunity to complete distances of popular races within a time period, and still receiving the cherished swag bags and finishing medals. Charlotte pointed to the wall behind her computer where a good dozen medals hung — from virtual races she had done.

One virtual event, the TTC Challenge, had runners complete the length of the Toronto Transit System subway line within a month. The event sold out in eight days.

"The positive feedback we got from people . . . everyone was saying it was the first time they felt like they were back in person a little bit, it was a really cool way to re-explore the city," Charlotte said.

Wodak and Dunfee said race directors went out of their way to create opportunities including a virtual 10K championship — with prize money — for elite runners with no races available in their preparation for Tokyo.

"I lined up for the 10k virtual road race championships, and I put my whole racing kit on, and I was nervous," Wodak said. "I did it properly, because I felt like we wanted to bring our A game just as much as Alan Brookes and the other race directors were bringing their A game to make sure we still had these opportunities."

Charlotte said the vaccine rollout provided the turning point early this past summer, when they could finally see light at the end of the tunnel. They got the green light in mid-July for an in-person event.

In the meantime, the virtual races permitted Canada Running Series to retain its full-time staff of about 20 employees throughout the pandemic. Alan Brookes said their sponsors stuck by them. And the virtual races maintained the much-needed fundraising component that the STWM is well-known for.

The Brookes are hoping to raise $3 million on Sunday for the 151 charities represented in the Charity Challenge. 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 15, 2021.

Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press