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Martin Parnell tries to match his 15-year-old PBs

Spoiler: he didn't do it. But he did BQ

For 15 years, Martin Parnell, 62, has been a runner with a purpose. He took up running in his 40s after losing his wife to cancer, and went on to set five Guinness World Records. (He also ran 250 marathons in one year in 2010, to raise money for Right To Play, though it did not count as an official world record.) Speed was never the point–making a contribution and encouraging others to be active are the values that have inspired Parnell’s running goals and projects for 15 years. Most recently, we reported on his involvement with the Marathon of Afghanistan and the opportunity it provides for women to run in defiance of cultural norms.

Filmmaker Kate McKenzie and Martin Parnell in Afghanistan. Photo: The Secret Marathon

Parnell  was troubled by society’s notion that we slow down as we age (and the ageism that older runners sometimes experience), so he came up with a very audacious goal for 2018: to train his body into matching the personal bests he set 15 years earlier, at age 47. He targeted four distances: the 5K, 10K, half-marathon and marathon, in that order. He called the challenge “62 beats 47.” And he made a film about it, entitled “Ageless Athlete,” in co-operation with Telus Media.

Parnell went about preparing for this goal under coach Malc Kent’s close supervision and guidance. Kent travelled with him to his target races, the first three in Alberta and the final one being the California International Marathon in Sacramento in December 2018. After Parnell failed to achieve the results he was after in the 5K and the 10K, Kent was honest with him about what he thought his chances were in his two remaining races: he would need a miracle to achieve his half-marathon goal of 1:30. But his chances of reaching his marathon goal of 3:22 were better, since he’d be running at a slower pace and still had some time to train.

Ultimately Parnell was not able to achieve the results he desired, in any of his races. Conditions at the half-marathon were poor–it was icy underfoot from the start, and it began to snow heavily during the race. Parnell ended up dropping out. At CIM, he knew by 30K that he would struggle to finish, let alone make his goal time. (He did finish, but he did not make his goal time.)

Malc Kent performing outdoor gait analysis with marathon runner Martin Parnell. Photo: Malc Kent
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But Parnell is always upbeat, never giving in to discouragement. After the marathon, Kent says that if he were to run another one in four months’ time, he’d probably do better, and Parnell is immediately uplifted. He cites one of Nelson Mandela’s sayings: “I never lose. I either win or I learn.” And he sets a new goal: to qualify for Boston with a 3:50. “And no matter what happens,” he says, “I am gonna keep going.”

On August 18, Parnell ran the Servus Edmonton Marathon in 3:46:23, qualifying for Boston 2020 with three minutes and 37 seconds to spare. (This year’s cutoff was 1:39.) Parnell raced Boston in 2004, 2008 and 2010, and says “It’s going to be great to get back there in 2020.”