Apt613’s interview with Mark Sutcliffe first aired on CHUO 89.1fm on Tuesday, November 22. You can listen to it online here.
It’s cold. It’s snowy. The last thing on most people’s minds is getting their next good run in. But Mark Sutcliffe is not most people.
“I absolutely hate winter. But I love running in the winter. I’d rather be running in the winter than standing still in the winter.”
The columnist, broadcaster, volunteer, entrepreneur and marathon enthusiast can also add ‘member of the Order of Ottawa’ to his list of titles. He was given the award in a ceremony last week, in recognition of more than 30 years of service to the city, helping Ottawa flourish as a place of opportunity, diversity and equality.
“It means a lot. Awards are not a big deal for me, but this is very special. Ottawa is my hometown, and it’s also the city that my dad chose when he moved to Canada. And it’s the city that my grandparents on my mother’s side chose when they moved to Canada. And so, I think of them. When you pack up and move to another city and start fresh, you’re hoping that it’s going to be a place that will be safe and healthy and prosperous, and one that will give you and your children, and your grandchildren, opportunity. I think it would be special for them to think of the fact that their son and grandson is receiving such a big honour from the community that they chose to move to.”
Sutcliffe got into running 18 years ago, not to start doing races, but simply to get into shape.
“It wasn’t a passion. It wasn’t a way of life. It was just looking for a basic level of exercise. I started running outside a little bit, and started to like it a little bit more, and it grew from there.”
Since then, Mark has completed more than 20 marathons, and like for many in Ottawa, he’s become hooked on running.
“When I did that first marathon in 2004, the Ottawa Marathon, that’s when I realized that this is a pretty big part of my life now, and I’m kind of hooked on this. For me, I was not athletic when I was a kid. I didn’t play a lot of sports. To me, a marathon was this superhuman accomplishment. I didn’t think it was something that anybody could do. There’s something really powerful about doing something that you once thought was impossible, and proving to yourself you can do it. A marathon is tough, and I never thought of myself as tough, so it changes the way that you tackle all of the other goals in your life.”
For Mark, one of those goals was to qualify for the Boston Marathon. That journey to qualify became the subject of his latest book, titled Long Road to Boston: The Pursuit of the World’s Most Coveted Marathon. The book was released in early October this year. It’s a rare book about running that will also appeal to anyone who has struggled to achieve something.
“It is a book about running, but I think it’s more than that. I know some of my friends and colleagues, who are not runners, have told me that it’s really just about having a goal, and striving for a goal that you thought was impossible, and managing to pull it off. That’s the kind of story it is.”
Anyone who has that ‘runner friend’ has probably heard them say that qualifying for Boston is the ultimate goal. But why is that race coveted more than any other?
“I think it’s two things. The first is that it’s the oldest marathon in the world. There are many, many great marathons, like the Ottawa Marathon, New York City, Chicago, most of them are in the range of 40 to 50 years old. The Boston Marathon is 120 years old. It’s been run every years since 1897. So there’s an incredible history to the event. I think the other element is that there is this threshold, this target that you have to meet. A qualifying time to get in. Any time you tell people you’re not allowed in unless you meet this criteria, it immediately creates this feeling like ‘OK, I gotta prove myself worthy.’ You have to run another marathon in a fast time just to get in.”
Mark’s journey to qualify brought many challenges, including lowered qualifying times (meaning at age 45 he had to get faster as he was getting older), a change in diet and training, and doing anything to control all the variables he could to achieve the needed time. After three failed attempts, he qualified for Boston at a race in Pennsylvania.
There are many would-be runners who never actually start, because they don’t believe it’s something they can ever be good at. Sutcliffe believes it’s something worth trying.
“First of all, I think anybody can do it. Obviously there are some people who have some physical limitations of some kind that makes it difficult for them to run, but way more people could run a 10K or a half-marathon, or even a marathon, than think they could. It’s a very accessible sport. It’s very low-maintenance. You need a pair of running shoes, you don’t need to book a court time or have a gym membership. You’re just exercising the minute you walk out your door, and you get a lot of bang for your buck in terms of working up a sweat and burning some calories. If you get to a point where you do like it, it’s a very efficient and rewarding and healthy thing to do, both physically and mentally.”
Healthy? Sure. But in the winter, how rewarding can running be?
“You’re cold for a couple of minutes, and then you’re producing heat. The cool air can be quite satisfying. Of course it can be challenging on the really cold days, but I try to look at it as another test of toughness. I’ve had some great runs in the bitter cold.”
If you’re looking to go for a brisk run this winter, Sutcliffe has a few tips.
“The simplest tip is to dress like it is ten degrees warmer that it is. People tend to overdress when it starts getting cooler. I notice a lot of people when it starts to be below ten degrees, they start putting on jackets and pants, and then you see them running and they have the jacket tied around their waist. You have to build in that factor of ten degrees so you aren’t overdressed when you’re running. But when it’s cold, it’s all about layering, and covering up as much of your face and ears as you can. The main things to pay attention to are your head, your hands and your feet when it’s super cold.”