Home > Runs & Races

How the Muskoka Marathon became one of Ontario’s only races during COVID-19

When events everywhere were cancelled due to COVID-19, Jed Corbeil and Curt Dunlop decided to organize a race of their own

Photo by: Charles Blackmore

This year hasn’t seen many races, but one of the few that was able to go ahead in Ontario was the Muskoka Marathon in Bracebridge, which took place on October 3 and 4. This was the first running of the event, and race directors Jed Corbeil and Curt Dunlop only came up with the idea to start it when they saw so many other runs getting cancelled. The pair worked on the event for months, knowing full well that at any moment their plans could come crashing down if the pandemic worsened or COVID-19 restrictions grew tighter, but it eventually went off without a hitch, and the two-day, four-race event was a massive success. It was such a success, in fact, that Corbeil and Dunlop have already begun planning the 2021 event, which is slated for October 2 and 3.  

Photo: Shannon Corbeil

“This year, I turned 40 and wanted to set a big goal for myself,” Corbeil says. He decided to run the Athens Marathon in Greece, but, like so many other races, it was cancelled. Looking for anything to replace the event, Corbeil approached Dunlop, his longtime friend and business partner, and asked if he would be open to organizing a low-key, COVID-friendly event. The pair have worked together for years, and they run three Bracebridge businesses: a restaurant called the Griffin Pub, an events company they say is unnamed but “under the Griffin umbrella” and the Muskoka Natural Food Market. After Corbeil’s run in Greece was cancelled, they added race directing to their list of jobs. 

RELATED: Branna MacDougall smashes Canadian U23 half-marathon record in debut

“Neither of us had ever organized a race before, so we weren’t sure what to expect,” Corbeil says. Adding COVID-19 into the mix only made planning the event more difficult. They knew that social distancing had to be their primary concern for the run, so they implemented an hours-long wave start format. “Having the race that way made it last a long time,” Corbeil says. “It was a long couple of days. We had runners leaving at 2 p.m. and we’d started at 7 a.m.” They offered 5K, 10K, half- and full marathon options, with the shorter races on one day and the longer two on another. 

There were no pre- or post-race festivities, and very few runners per event (the capacity for each run was 75 people), but Corbeil and Dunlop say they have received a lot of positive feedback. “There was no waiting around,” Dunlop says. “No waiting in lines for registration or the porta-potties. People have said they really enjoyed that.” 

Branna MacDougall after her win in the half-marathon. Photo: Charles Blackmore

The races themselves also turned out to be incredibly successful, with many runners posting great results – the most noteworthy belonging to former Queen’s University standout Branna MacDougall, who ran to a Canadian U23 half-marathon record of 1:11:42. The Muskoka race was MacDougall’s debut at the half, and she won the race by five minutes. “To see someone run that fast was pretty amazing,” Corbeil says.

RELATED: The interesting COVID-19 workaround of the Sierre-Zinal race

Beside that record-breaking performance, 37 of the 75 runners entered in the marathon ran qualifying times for the Boston Marathon. “We started working on getting the course certified in the spring,” Corbeil says. They had the course measured officially, then put their race through the BQ machine. After starting the process in May, the course was made an official Boston qualifier in September, just a month before the race. 

“So many people held off early on,” Dunlop says. “They waited to sign up, but when we got it certified, they all wanted in. By then it was sold out.” Luckily for these runners, the Muskoka Marathon is coming back, although Corbeil and Dunlop are still anticipating a small race. “We’re selling it with low numbers for now,” Dunlop says. “If we become more confident that we can execute with bigger numbers, we’ll open it up to more, but for now, it’ll stay small.” 

Runners brave the wet conditions on race day. Photo: Scott Turnbull

Based on the feedback they’ve received so far, Corbeil and Dunlop say they are confident that they can make this an annual event, and although it could take a while, they believe they can eventually attract thousands of participants each year. 

To find out more about the Muskoka Marathon, click here.

RELATED: Halifax Road Hammers take advantage of in-person Valley Harvest Marathon