UPDATE: It was a close race, but official times indicated Fenway Breckels was actually was the winner, edging Jessey out by six-tenths of a second. See the official results: https://runsignup.com/race/results/?raceId=123138#resultSetId-295224;perpage:100. Breckles’ time was 17:55, Jessey’s 17:54:9.
Santas from all over descended on Niagara-on-the-Lake Sunday, with runners representing Aurora, Caledon, Mississauga, Oshawa, and Toronto among other places.
Alas, not one of the 209 participants in the first NOTL Santa five-kilometre race claimed to have come all the way from the North Pole.
Of course, there were many competitors whose trip to the starting line at Simcoe Park was much shorter. Karan Gardiner of St. Catharines joined Richard and Carol Butlin in a warm-up run down King Street from the Butlins’ Old Town home to the park.
It was a chance for the trio to prepare for the icy conditions of the 5-km route that took competitors down Byron Street to the path along Fort George, then onto the Niagara River Parkway, past Riverbend Inn to the turnaround just short of East and West Line, then back to the park.
“It was hard work,” Carol told The Local after crossing the finish line. “It was more like cross-country than a road race, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.”
Gardiner concurred. “The route was challenging because of the snow and ice. We ran on the side of the trail to try and get a little traction in the grass. I certainly didn’t run a PB (personal best) but it was really fun to be out there. It’s nice to be in a live race again. A little bit of normalcy.”
The sold-out run organized by Kelly Arnott of VP Pro Inc. almost didn’t happen because of new COVID restrictions that capped outdoor gatherings at 25 people beginning midnight Sunday morning. Arnott was on the phone Friday with Lord Mayor Betty Disero, who told her she had already begun a meeting to figure out how the changes would affect the run.
Deeming the race an outdoor sporting event, not a gathering, the go-ahead was given for the 9:45 a.m. start time, while an announcer reminded runners to keep their masks on or maintain a safe distance of two metres from other participants. Arnott said all runners had to be double vaccinated as well.
The fight for bragging rights as the top finisher came down to a neck-and-neck finish between 27-year-old Waterdown native Jessey The Elf (yes, that is his legal name, and he has the pointy ears to prove it) and 15-year-old Governor Simcoe student Fenway Breckels. Jessey edged the youngster by a 10th of a second, coming in at 15:54.9.
“It was a really good race,” said Jessey, who is a mainstay at Santa races, having won six or seven prior to Sunday’s. “He ran with me the whole way. He’s got a big future ahead of him. It was a beautiful course along the Niagara River, too. Niagara-
on-the-Lake was a perfect host. And a lot of locals were out on the route cheering us on.”
Arnott was also quick to credit the support of local businesses for opening their doors, as well as for their contributions to the race kits handed out to the participants.
“Everybody was so lovely to deal with,” Arnott said Monday. “The Irish Harp just took this event on, too. It’s
actually the best town I’ve
ever worked with. It was just such a great place to be, and we’re planning to come back next year.”
Following the race, participants gathered at the Irish Harp, where Jessey and Fenway received their awards, as did other winners in various age groups. The sight of
dozens of Santas walking through the town was the latest attraction in the Queen and King Street area. The Irish Harp Pub was the official host restaurant, serving coffee and breakfast sandwiches to all race participants after the event.
At 62, Jim McCord of NOTL was second in his age category, coming in at 30:20.6, despite the encumbrance of the loose-fitting Santa suit.
“It was warm, but you know something, it puts you in the spirit,” he told The Local.
He ran with his wife Susan, and though they both blamed the icy conditions for slowing them down quite a bit, they were quite happy to be out running with other like-minded trotters.
At the finish line, runners were greeted by a red, crushed velvet-clad Santa Claus, otherwise known as Matt Cuthbert, executive director of the Niagara Furniture Bank. The St. Catharines-based charity that collects furniture donations for the needy was the recipient of more than $400 raised by participants.
“There’s nothing like 250 Santas running in Niagara-on-the-Lake,” Cuthbert said. “We are happy to be a part of it as the selected
charity. Over the last two years we’ve really seen an increase in the number of people living in poverty. Every little bit helps.”
Cuthbert, a powerlifter who says his body is just not built for running, also arranged for food donations to another charity, Community Crew, via a collection barrel in the park.
Arnott has already chosen a date for the 2022 return of the Santa 5K Race to NOTL.
“Nov. 25,” Arnott confirmed. “We’d like to come at a time when the businesses really want more people around. That’s what we can do, we can bring people from all over to come and stay for the weekend. We’re hoping we can get even more people next year, maybe 2,000 runners. That would be great.”