Driven by passion, Alan Brookes has been instrumental in creating world class running events in Toronto and building the city’s running community. In this interview the veteran race director and founder of the Canada Running Series shares his most memorable running moments and talks about the highs and lows of organizing road races.
Kim: When did you start running?
I started running in 1980 right after I took up a position as a History professor at the University of Guelph. Guelph was, and continues to be, an amazing place to run, because it has so many great trails.
I played soccer in high school and through university back when I was in England, but all through grad school [5 years] it became too difficult to pursue between finding a team and committing to practice a couple of times a week. I was turning 30 and in poor shape so I started running. It was so easy. You can go anywhere, anytime. I really got hooked. At the time, the late Vic Matthews was the cross country coach at the University of Guelph. I started going out on his mega-easy day which was my eye-balls-out-wanting-to-die day and then gradually it sort of built up.
Eventually, I would go out with Vic and the cross country team at 5:15 p.m. every day after classes. It was always great the first few weeks of term. You could hammer the young ones like Dave Scott-Thomas because they’d had a summer of debauchery and maybe not a lot of running. Then after the first few weeks, they got fit and it was payback time. You ended up chasing them the rest of the year. I trained with Vic and the team as sort of a groupie and helped with some of the slower groups.
Kim: What type of runner did you consider yourself to be at that time?
I never saw myself as an elite runner by any stretch of the imagination. I always had a day job since I was never going to win anything, but I got my marathon time down to 2:34:40. I ran about 100 km a week and would have a 10 week build up for a marathon where I would crank it up to 130 km and do doubles on Tuesdays and Thursdays. Then I went through the cycle of adding hills once a week, then twice a week, then substituting one hill workout for the track as I moved from the strength phase to the sharpening phase. My best 10k ended up being 33:48.
Kim: What was your most memorable race?
The Ottawa marathon in 1981 was my first marathon. It was always a great race and still continues to be. At the time, I had a really good mentor, a nice guy called Bob Robinson. He helped me a lot with the training, but I eventually dropped him during the race. I ran 2:44 at my debut that day and he ran a 2:45 PB; so two happy guys! I learned that day that
“it’s a lot more fun to beat people you know than people you don’t know!”
You always remember the first time you run a marathon and dropping my training buddy at 30k on Parliament hill and cruising along the canal continues to be memorable.
Kim: How did you get into the organizing part of racing?
In 1983 the Guelph Red Cross society asked Vic if he would help with the Bill Taylor memorial ‘jog along’ for the Wellington County Red Cross Society. Vic accepted and asked me if I’d help. We eventually transformed that into the Bill Taylor 15km road race. Following that experience, in 1984 I went to what was then the Ontario Track and Field Association, it’s now Athletics Ontario, with the idea of having a provincial road race circuit. They said it was a fantastic idea and I could do it if I was willing to do do all the work. I knocked on a few doors and had the good fortune of Paul Sager at Timex answering one, as they were just about to introduce their sports watch in Canada. Everyone wore Casio’s back then, and it drove the Timex guys nuts. So I created the Timex Running Series. It eventually went national and continued until 2015.
In 1986, I got a three year contract with the Ontario Track and Field Association to be the race director of the Toronto Marathon and got Wang computers on board as a sponsor so it became the Toronto Wang marathon.
Kim: You were organizing all these races on the side, when did it become a full-time gig?
At that point, I was running 100 km a week, organizing these races, and teaching as an associate professor of History at the University of Guelph. Vic and I had also opened a running store in Guelph called “Runners’ Choice”, and in 1986 I opened a Runners’ Choice in College Park, Toronto. Altogether it was a bit much. In 1987, I decided to chuck the teaching with my tenure, dental plan, eyeglass plan and move to Toronto to take over as race director of the Spring Run-Off in High Park as well as working on the marathon.
“This year will be my 31st year as race director of Toronto’s oldest continuous race.”
Then, when Eaton’s went under and stopped their spring 10k, I jumped in and got that date, the first Sunday of May, and started the Caledon Springs 10k.
In 1990, out of nowhere this guy I knew at Q107 asked if I would organize a series of 6 road races. He was getting really worried that the radio market was fragmenting and had this brilliant promotional idea. He also went to Molson to get a bunch of money in exchange for some extra radio spots so it was rock, beer, and a healthy lifestyle: a marriage made in The Six!
Kim: When did the CRS come to be what it is today?
I explored expanding the series and in 1999 we added the races in Montreal and Vancouver and it evolved into the Canada Running Series that we have today with the 8 races. As we’ve built our CRS team to 15 full-time professional event organizers it’s become easier, however race directing is still challenging. I joked last year that it’s been 30 years of me getting permits from the City of Toronto and I wasn’t sure if I was going to get a gold watch or a ride to the airport.
When we started in the 80s they used to give us one lane coned up in traffic and pretend like nothing was happening. It was a real tug of war to get City staff to even do that. The police would take me aside and tell me not to worry, that as soon as the race started, they would shut down the whole road and tell staff they had to do it for safety reasons! But there are definitely times where every yard is the longest yard. For example, when we have to renew a sponsorship contracts or deal with the City approvals.
Kim: Is it because you are a runner that you were able to achieve all this? Because of your passion?
Absolutely and I think that’s what makes a difference in everything you do. It’s the passion you bring to it.
“When we started out we used to advertise that we were runners in business and not business people into running.”
To grow, we’ve had to become much better business people, but we’re still runners at heart. “Running’s not what we do; it’s who we ARE!” Besides that, I would say that the biggest thing I’ve seen over the last 30 years is that our sport has really become professionalized. The running boom has grown enormously, and our fellow runners expect a quality race. They expect a safe race with a safe, exciting course. We’ve grown from 1 person to 15 and have race organizers from all over the world seeking our advice.
Kim: Is the running boom a fad or is it going to last since running has become more accessible?
I think it’s growing exponentially and taking all kinds of different forms. When I started there were only road races and cross-country. Now it’s phenomenal, there are trail races, ultras, mud runs, spartan runs. It’s exploded! There will always be a place for traditional road races like Toronto Waterfront, New York, or the Boston marathon but we are really challenged every year.
“Our mission at CRS is to build community through running with the twin pillars of organizing and innovation.”
We’re challenged all the time to be innovative, fresh, and exciting to maintain our attraction in a congested marketplace, and I think we all want a lot more now – -a full “running experience”.
Kim: Did you keep running throughout those years?
I’d say I was a competitive club runner in the 80s and a recreational runner in the 90s. I kept running until I developed osteoporosis in my knees in 2000. Now I swim and bike. The amazing thing is that even though my own personal running career is finished my relationship with running is not because I’ve had the enormous good fortune to continue to be a part of it through my job while making friends from all over the world.
Kim: As a runner, how important do you think it is to be part of a team/club or be involved in the running community?
I think the most important thing about running is that it’s the most democratic of things. When we all get our shorts and kit on, you don’t know if it’s the president of ScotiaBank or someone in-between jobs. We are all in it together. By the same token, it gives the option of running on your own, running with a group, running competitively, running for a cause, running to make the Olympics or running to stay alive.
Running embraces so many kinds of people for so many different kinds of reasons. We are all the same when we put our kit on. Some people like to be badass and kick-ass, and for others it’s about a cause and supporting each other.
For example, I hear Matt Galloway has gotten the bug recently and says it’s his special time. And he has this amazingly stressful job doing all these challenging interviews and being up at 4 a.m. I don’t know how he does it. So he runs alone and leaves his phone at home. Whereas, when you look at clubs like RunTo Beer, who we are partnered with, it’s all about being social.
“That’s the amazing thing; it can be about so many different things. It’s what you make it.”
Kim: Any advice for people starting to run?
Enjoy it! That’s the key. You’ve got to love the training. Make sure you have a lot of easy days. Training with a heart rate monitor is really smart. I ran in Barbados where it was 28 degrees and at about 10k I had to let the group go because my heart rate was going up. Then I passed everyone that was in the group in the second half because the heart rate monitor forces you to run for your effort and not your pace. I think it’s a very useful tool when running to get better. But when you start out, run for fun. When I moved to Toronto in 1987, I thought it would be pretty cool to see how many different streets I could run on in the first 12 months I was here. I recorded it in my log book, so the whole time I ran different routes.
“When you are starting out, start with the joy, start enjoying your running.”
And if you go on to be a race director, it still has to be fun despite the battles, and if it’s not, go find something else.
About Kim Bergeron, Writer
Kim Bergeron – Kim started running during the harsh winters of Quebec City to clear her mind from complex law studies. Her hobby evolved to a passion when she started racing in Toronto in 2012; progressing from a half-marathon to marathon. She loves meeting runners and discovering their motivation and passion for the sport. She writes about all things running atpaceandmind.com. Follow her on instagram at: @kiminphotos.
About Koray Salih, Photographer
Koray Salih – Koray’s passion of running and photography are a match made in heaven. He spends race day either running, or capturing the essence of elites driving hard, teammates and friends achieving goals and family and friends celebrating. You’ll find him in one of those places. You can follow Koray’s adventures on Instagram @coreofyoureye or koraysalih.com
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