• Sheryl S

A race is born!

Updated: Jan 26, 2018

From a newborn community 5k to a full Boston-qualifying race weekend

With just over 100 days to go until the second annual Whole Health Mudcat Marathon Weekend, it seems a good time for some history on how this crazy journey began. From a germ of an idea for a community 5k to a full-fledged race weekend including a Boston-qualifying full marathon, it’s been quite a journey!

The germ of a good idea

Sometime in 2013, my good friend, Bonnie Laman, Executive Director of the Dunnville Youth Impact Centre, was inspired by her insane running friends (me and my husband, Dr. Eric Sawyer, known to friends and family as Ric), to amp up the Centre’s existing casual 5k walk/run/ride fundraiser in an attempt to attract more serious runners. Not a runner herself, Bonnie asked my advice. I agreed to help out, then didn’t hear anything for months. A few months before the race, when I asked how the planning was going, Bonnie told me that her planning committee was reluctant to move forward on such a complex project until ‘maybe next year’. My husband responded with a great line: “Somebody has to be the one to pull the elephant over the finish line”, indicating that a committee needs a strong leader in order to create something new and big the first time. To Bonnie’s credit, she did – she pulled that damned elephant across the line! My contribution was only in the final stages, advising race details from a runner perspective.

In 2015, I took on a little bit bigger role (on leave from the PhD I eventually abandoned) and met Phil Hauser of Hauser’s Pharmacy, who was excited to become a supporter of the race. Together, Bonnie and I again tugged that elephant to the finish line of another successful race.

The fish suit and the pharmacist – I insisted we needed a fishy race mascot, given that the Grand River is full of catfish called mudcats, there was a 50 foot mudcat statue in town, and that the Dunnville area was generally known by its fishy moniker, as evidenced by the statue, the hockey teams, the bowling alley and an award-winning festival weekend in June – the Mudcat Festival. While wearing the resulting fish suit, I was out taking promotional photos one day, and wandered into Hauser’s Pharmacy. I met the owner, Phil Hauser, and took some campy photos of “Muddy” investigating some fish oil pills! On the spot, Hauser’s Pharmacy became a supporter of the race – and has remained so until present day. We are very blessed to have such a strong community supporter and it’s largely due to a serendipitous meeting in a fish suit!

For the 2016 race, I took control. The committee was incredibly hard-working and helpful, but as non-runners, they had to be coaxed to see my vision in order to take this little community race to the next level. My first step was to visit Phil Hauser to ask him to consider becoming the title sponsor. He agreed, and the ‘Hauser’s Pharmacy Dunnville 5k Run for Youth’ was born.

Challenged to go big – a Boston-qualifying marathon

During the planning phases for the Hauser’s Pharmacy Dunnville 5k Run for Youth, Don Zynomirski, who was the new Dunnville Chamber of Commerce President, challenged me: “Why can’t this race grow into a Boston-qualifying marathon here in Dunnville? And why not immediately?” I reflected on why my husband and I were driving or flying to races all over the place while we lived in countryside that was perfect for training; quiet country roads, river and lakeside views, charming rural vistas, pure clean air. Why not share these amazing resources with other runners?

I approached the Youth Impact Centre and asked them if I could take over the race as a private contractor, with race proceeds still going to the Centre. I knew that radically changing and growing the race would not pass the approval of the existing committee – it was simply too risky. They agreed to turn the race over to me and my new company, River Runner Events – and I began a full year of an incredible learning curve. I became a certified race director through the Road Runners of America, only the second Canadian ever to do so, and the 200th in their history. They wrote a lovely little article about it here.

Our title sponsor is a newborn of sorts, too. Phil Hauser is one of the founding members of the Whole Health Pharmacy Partners, a new chain of independent pharmacies operating under the Whole Health Pharmacy Partners banner, growing through Ontario and nationally. Hauser's Pharmacy is the flagship store of this new partnership and is still our title sponsor. For that we are sooo grateful!

What I love about races

While planning the race, I decided to incorporate as many elements as I could that made races pleasant for me personally: gorgeous medals, nice tech shirts, a beautiful course, beer at the finish line! Every detail that I could think of, from oatmeal at the marathon start at Knight's Beach Resort, to a community pasta dinner, to shuttle vans for runners who had to park at the arena - we tried very hard to do as much for the runners as possible. We're aware that we didn't do it all perfectly, but we gave it our best shot and learned a million lessons along the way on how to do it better next time.

Showing off Haldimand County

The most important objective for me, though, was to show off Haldimand County and put it on the map as a running destination. Together with my husband, who became certified to measure races in the planning process, we mapped out a course that took in as many elements of a lovely course as we could.

Successful beyond wildest dreams!

Our first year went incredibly well! We built it, and they came! Over 1,400 people registered in seven events – we made sure there was a race for everyone from the kids’ 1k Mudkitten race to the full Boston-qualifying marathon. With small glitches that every race director will expect, it was an unqualified success: we managed to donate almost $12,000 to charity, runners were nearly unanimous in their praise, and nearly the entire community was grateful for the spotlight turned on our little rural county and the visitors we brought in. Nearly 80% of runners came from outside Haldimand County – and only 2% of the runners in the full marathon were local – we had become a running destination!

Heading into our second year, we’re fully on track to offer the same amazing race experience to our participants: gorgeous courses, stunning medals, quality course management and post-race experience. We’ve learned a few things from those glitches and are committed to working through those things that didn’t quite work. We had some unexpected traffic snags, we snafu’d the race awards ceremony, and we learned that we (my husband and I) have a different definition of a “flat course” than some of our racers! We are also committed to keeping a tradition we started the first year: firefighters, police, paramedics and currently serving military members run for free - just send an email to with your service details plus tell us what race(s) you'd like to run and we'll send you back a unique entry coupon code, with our thanks for your service!

Year 2, here we go

Our community partners are fantastic, from providing generous sponsorships to an enthusiastic volunteer army. It truly does take a village to raise a newborn marathon race – and we’re blessed here in Haldimand County to have the best village you could ever ask for. We’re excited to see how our second year will unfold. With our shared values, talents and hard work, we’re sure the 2018 race will be even better than the first. We can’t wait to show off our lovely riverside home – please join us in May 2018 for our second edition of “First class races, small town love”! Who's in?

Race weekend to benefit Dunnville Youth Impact
Centre and Cayuga Food bank.
a race the grand series. 
Check out our race JUST UP the river: Grand Caledonia half & 5k