‘We Run Faster With Others’: How Guelph’s Running Community Changes Lives

by Chris Tiessen; photography by oliverstreet.photo

(This article is to be published in print in the upcoming ‘The Livable City’ magazine, a publication of The Guelph Chamber of Commerce.)

Dean Palmer is one of the kindest people you will ever meet. He’s also perhaps our area’s most skilled corporate photographers. And he runs.

In fact, like so many folks in Guelph, Dean runs a lot. And while it isn’t his full-time gig (he’s much too busy shooting for national running magazines, or New Balance, or local universities, or large corporations, or non-profits), it still consumes him. And he’s darned good at it too.

Professional photographer & amateur runner Dean Palmer in his work space

A multi-time finisher of the Boston Marathon (which he ran the year before and after the infamous finish line bombing), the Houston Marathon (which got Dean into running in the first place when his sister presented him with a registration card for his fortieth birthday) and a number of other marathons and races (Hamilton’s Boxing Day 10-Miler remains a favourite annual run for the lanky Morrissey-lookalike), Dean is quick to confirm the deep import of running in his life.

As he states bluntly: ‘Running saved my life — it helped me with depression and helped fix my marriage. It’s an amazing thing, really.’

An amazing thing, indeed. And one that Guelphites hardly take lightly. Travel along Watson, Victoria or Arkell Rds on any given weekend morning — no matter how early and no matter the weather — and you’re bound to see local runners tearing up the pavement. Go for a hike in the trails across from Starkey Hill and watch incredulously as Guelph’s runners (including Olympic long distance runners Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis) storm past at a blistering pace — oftentimes twenty or thirty kilometres into a ‘training’ run! And the best part: they’re breathing normally, chatting away, and are always good for a wave and ‘hello’. So kind. So community-minded.

Which brings me back to Dean, and the moment he discovered a Guelph truth: that our city is made stronger — more livable — by its running community. And that in Guelph, at least, running is community.

I’ll let Dean explain.

‘A few years back,’ he begins once we’ve settled in his living room with fresh-brewed Americanos, ‘I decided to pursue a new personal best time in the marathon. And so I began concentrating on getting faster over short distances which, theoretically, makes you faster over longer distances.’

Specifically, Dean wanted to achieve a sub-nineteen minute 5k. (An impressive time, indeed, although, as Dean notes, Eric and Reid regularly run fifteen minute 5k times at the tail end of marathons!)

Dean continues: ‘I came close a few times, and even ran a 19:01 — which, although I ended up winning the Masters class, was so utterly disappointing. And that’s when the Speed River New Balance Track & Field Club [Guelph’s elite running club coached by the wildly-eccentric, brillianty well-read and internationally-acclaimed Dave Scott-Thomas and featuring multiple world-class athletes] invited me to speak at their weekly lunch series themed around ‘Breakthroughs’.’

Specifically, the club wanted Dean to talk about his attempts at the sub-nineteen minute 5k, and what it meant to Dean to fall so narrowly short.

‘And so I presented to this group of elite athletes — all world-class runners — and we laughed. And wept. And commiserated in our defeats and our successes.’

And then this group of world caliber runners — sponsored athletes; record holders; Olympians — did something that Dean (that any of us) would ever expect. They invited Dean to their next competitive meet, and featured him as the last race of the night, and paced him to a sub-nineteen minute time.

As Dean notes: ‘It was as though I’d been called up from the minors to play the third period of an NHL game. I was absolutely floored.’ Floored that these elite athletes would care enough to help Dean reach his goal by guiding him around the University track to a personal best. Floored that Dave Scott-Thomas was there coaching Dean the entire run. Floored that members of the Speed River New Balance team were strategically placed around the track yelling our Dean’s split times. Floored that Guelph’s running community had come together to hand Dean his dream.

As he finishes his story, I ask him for a takeaway. His simple, resonant reply:

‘We run faster with others.’

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