By Martin Cleary
When Ian Donald was in Grade 7 at Broadview Public School, he knew he could win his race at the 2003 Ottawa- Carleton District School Board (OCDSB) cross-country championships.
But his primary objective was to finally catch the Bunny.
Well, it only made sense. If he caught or passed former elite national team steeplechase runner Alain Boucher (then 40), who wore a bunny costume to guide the runners over the course, there was a grander prize to celebrate than a simple ribbon. Boucher’s dangling carrot was a pizza party for that student-athlete’s team, if he was caught.
Donald came excruciatingly close, but no pizza, and Boucher kept his wallet in his pocket.
But after 27 years of shepherding thousands of Grade 3 to Grade 8 students in regional and board cross-country championships while dressed in a bunny outfit, Boucher ran his final races in October as the much-loved, furry creature.
Boucher, 54, and his wife Michelle, who both convened the OCDSB cross-country meets for almost two decades, are retiring as teachers in June. But that only comes after co-convening the OCDSB track and field meets.
“I chased him with a vengeance,” said Donald, now 26, recalling the race. “There was the ego thing about beating a teacher and the promise of pizza,” he laughed. “My coach, Sam Vejvoda, told me you’re not racing the other kids, you’re going to race after Alain Boucher, the Bunny. It was exciting.”
Donald, now a coach himself with the Toronto Olympic Club, twice threatened to catch the Bunny, but he was twice denied.
“Al’s impact has stuck with me,” said Donald, the 2005 OFSAA midget (Grade 9) cross-country champion. “He brought so much fun to a meet and racing him ignited something in me to race older guys.”
A Grade 7–8 teacher at Sir Robert Borden High School, Boucher was recruited in 1991 to co-convene because he was a high-profile runner. New busing regulations made it difficult for all runners to have enough time to preview the course.
Co-convenor Bryan Dumouchel had a solution: he jokingly asked Boucher to dress like a bunny to lead the students. A crazy idea, but it worked, and it quickly became a highlight of the cross-country season for hundreds of kids.
“I rented my first costume,” Boucher said, thinking back to ’91. “It was big and heavy. I must have lost 10 lb. that day,” said Boucher, who compiled more than 500 boys and girls’ regional and board races, but never finished one, always pulling off course with 30 metres left, to let the tops students break the tape.
For future years, his mother-in-law, Louise Cournoyer, made him five different costumes to suit the weather on race day.
Being the Bunny brought him playful taunts from those in the running community, while former runners, whose children were now competing, wanted a picture with this Pied Piper of the overland races.
“It became a tradition and expected by the coaches, parents and the kids. It was kind of weird knowing it was the last time,” said Boucher, who used his trademark mental toughness to get through his final 2017 races as he recovered from plantar fasciitis.
“I had so much fun doing it. When Michelle sent out the results saying this was my last year, she added ‘I don’t know who enjoyed it more, him or the kids.’”
Martin Cleary has been covering athletics in Ottawa for over 40 years. The Golden Shoe Awards are CR‘s annual year-end recap and the 2017 edition originally appeared in the January-February 2018 print issue.