In 1975, at the inaugural Ottawa Marathon, a small group of runners, including Howard Cohen, raided an ice cream bar vendor just off the race course. They had become so hypoglycemic that the urge for sugar became too strong to resist the fuel. Marathon aid stations (among other aspects of Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, like mass participation) were nowhere near what they are today. “It was a hot day, needless to say,” he notes.
That year marked the start of one of the lengthiest streaks among any race in Canada.
Since the Canadian capital’s inaugural marathon, which he says was very informal with few runners knowing what they were doing, Cohen, an Ottawa physician, has never missed the race. Through the heat that threatened to cancel the marathon entirely in 2016, to a snowstorm one year, to completing 42.2K with canes due to a torn hamstring injury, Cohen has always found a way to make it to the start line and finish. “The first one was just about getting through it, then I got the [running] bug and kept it going,” he says.
A lot can happen over 43 consecutive editions of what is now known as the Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon. The event has grown exponentially since its humble beginnings in the mid 1970s to become Canada’s largest marathon. Cohen has been there through it all and recalls significant years like in 1982 when he ran a course lifetime best (2:43:57) and another year, for instance, when he finished in a driving snow storm with only shorts and a tank top on. This past year, in which he finished in 5:09:27, had the highest number of Boston Marathon qualifiers among any race in the country.
For the first 25 or so years, Cohen hadn’t really thought of the race streak’s significance. It wasn’t until around 1993 or 1994 that the Ottawa runner realized the ongoing and ever-growing feat. That said, Cohen isn’t the only runner to have completed every Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon. John Stoddart has completed every marathon while Bill Williams has completed a distance at every Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, opting for the half-marathon in recent years.
The closest Cohen came to missing a race? In the early- to mid-1990s, during the winter, Cohen was cross-country skiing, a passion of his, and “completely severed” his hamstring. Rather than skipping the spring race, Cohen walked the entire 42.2K, with the help of canes. When Cohen was at 38K, he stopped at an aid station stocked with pizza and beer. Soon after stopping for the refreshments, he realized race officials were waiting for him at the finish line so he “straggled in.”
He says that a marathon cut-off time, which is currently seven hours, was established in proceeding years.
With race memorabilia dating back to 1975, Cohen must have a massive collection, right? Not exactly. Rather, Cohen says, he donates much of the souvenirs, medals, race T-shirts, badges, plaques and the like, to charity. “To me, it’s more about the memories and the camaraderie,” he says.
Though he has a four-decade-plus tradition going, he has few pre-race superstitions – favourite restaurant, post-race meal or kit (proof is he raced in the marathon T-shirt in 2017) – that he follows. Instead, Cohen says he performs a “personal inventory” on race morning – basically a checklist of evaluating weather, his fitness, recent sleep patterns and the like – before heading to the start line.
Cohen will be 68 by the time the 2018 Scotiabank Ottawa Marathon rolls around on May 28.