Like a turkey trot to Thanksgiving or a resolution run to New Year’s Day, races can be synonymous with cultural celebrations. The same can be said for the Achilles St. Patrick’s Day 5K and its association with the green-themed day, particularly for Toronto runners.
This March 17, the event celebrates its 20th edition in support of Achilles Canada, whose mission is eliminate barriers to sport and enable anyone with a disability to participate in running. To date, $2.9 million has been raised through the race’s third party fundraising program. Talking to those closest to the race makes clear the fun-spirited nature of the event clear.
For the past 19 years, the Achilles’ St Patrick’s Day 5K has served as a kick-off to spring running, growing from 400-some runners to more than 2,100 at its peak.
The race’s origins however date back much farther.
When amputee Dick Traum completed the 1976 New York City Marathon, becoming the first disabled runner with a prosthetic leg to complete the marathon, his story reached far and wide. A 1977 Runner’s World article featuring Traum ended up in British Columbia spurring perhaps the most famous run in history. At the time, a young man named Terry Fox was battling osteosarcoma. The night before the operation to remove his right leg, Fox’s high school basketball coach showed him the Runner’s World article. “If he can do it, why can’t I?” Fox must have mused.
Years later, of course, Fox would become a national hero for his attempt to run across Canada with a prosthetic leg. In the summer of 1981, Fox died, but not before the 22-year-old covered an incredible sum of 5,373 kilometres during his run. That summer, Traum was asked to be a part of the first-ever Terry Fox Run. Inspired by the sheer number of disabled people who took part in the fundraising event in Canada, Traum returned home to New York where then-New York City Marathon director Fred Lebow encouraged him to recruit disabled runners for the marathon. So, Traum, a business entrepreneur by trade and current CEO of Achilles International, formed the Achilles Track Club in 1983.
Fast forward 17 years. A new race was coming to Toronto. In 2000, the Achilles team rechristened the St. Patrick’s Day 5K from Running Room Canada and it was held for the first – and only – time around St. Lawrence Market, a bustling complex east of downtown Toronto. Participation hit 497 that year, and close to doubled the following year to 817.
“I think what’s most important about the Achilles St. Patrick’s Day 5K is it encourages anyone with a disability to integrate with able-bodied runners,” Traum says, looking back. The following year was notable for two reasons. Steam Whistle Brewing partnered with the race and continues to host the thousands who come out in support. The brewery also provides one of the most bizarre and unique prizes to the race winners: their weight in beer.
The second defining feature was that the start and finish line moved to Bremner Boulevard, outside of Steam Whistle Brewing and at the base of the CN Tower. And although the race is billed as more of a fun run than competitive, make no mistake, you can run fast on the out-and-back course. Some fast names sit atop the record books, including Josh Bolton (15:15) and Martha MacDonald (17:25). Halfway through the 2000s, Matt Leduc won the race for the first time. Leduc is the winningest runner in the event’s history having won five times including three in a row (2014-2016).
Duff McLaren, unofficial race historian and jack of all trades in helping organize the race, speaks highly of 2007. One highlight stands out. “A kinesiologist teacher brought 500 of his students,” he says, adding that the teacher said, “the kids have to run a race to know what to expect from runners [one day].” Runners, after all, are one-of-a-kind. “This was also the year that we had a wall of Lucky Charms cereal,” he says. Cereal: a sure-fire way to a runner’s heart.
McLaren is the vice president of Achilles Canada and has run the race once—in 2000—as his organizing duties trump participation. “I went down to see if I could act as a guide,” he says. It turns out that McLaren was the first guide to do the race, and Richard Holloway, whom McLaren guided, was the race’s first visually-impaired runner. “As an able-bodied athlete we take for granted everything running involves,” he says. “As a guide, you appreciate how unique being a visually impaired athlete is.”
In 2008, the race returned to its current home at Roundhouse Park. That year, race president Brian McLean recalls what he considers one of the race’s great moments. Jody Mitic, a former Canadian Forces member who lost both of his legs in a landmine explosion, ran 5K for the first time using prosthetic legs. He and more than 100 others ran and walked the race raising more than $100,000 in support of St. John’s Rehab.
In the early 2010s, Rhonda-Marie Parke, who is legally blind, began her string of regular appearances—although 2019 could be her last. During a 2018 fundraiser for Achilles, which included running 505 kilometres across Tennessee, she suffered two stress fractures and is at risk of ending her running career if she chooses to race shortly after ankle surgery. “I’ll be running the Achilles 5K with my team and family as a celebration of all that a decade of running has given me,” she says. “It will most likely mark my last running event for quite some time, maybe forever. Achilles Canada has always been family. I’m grateful for their efforts to change the general mindset on inclusion.”
Achilles Canada, which offers weekly run clinics for disabled athletes, provided Parke the resources to begin running. “I never thought, being legally blind, that I would be able to run,” Parke says. “They [Achilles Canada] worked with me to learn not only how to run, but how to be guided on a run.”
Closer to the current day, those who ran in 2017 are likely still thawing. Temperatures dipped to as low as -15 C. “Many of the runners huddled in the entrance to the parking garage waiting for the gun to go off,” recalls Kim Umback, an Achilles Canada member who has raced just about every year since 2008.
That same year, a new fundraising record was set as the race raised $320,000 for charitable organizations. Individually, former Senator and Canadian Foundation for Physically Disabled Person chair Vim Kochhar raised $62,000 for Ryerson’s scholarship program for students with disabilities. CFPDP currently sponsors the race, as do HomEquity Bank, Steam Whistle, Lumency and CNIB Phone It Forward.
Now for 2019, this year’s race is approaching quickly. On March 17, despite being around for 19 years, the event will have another first backed by popular demand: a 10K.
This year’s 5K/10K luckily coincides, to the day, with St. Patrick’s Day. So, run for the inclusion of athletes of all abilities, be a part of the race’s rich history, and enjoy a cold beverage or warm Irish stew to kick off your St. Patrick’s Day.
To make a difference this spring, go to achillesstpatricksday5k.ca.