Sunday, June 16, 2024

HIGH ACHIEVERS: Ottawa running icon Phil Marsh retiring to his Field of Dreams in Bridgetown, N.S.

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By Martin Cleary

The 50th Tartan Ottawa International Marathon will mean something different to each of the dedicated, endurance runners in Sunday’s sold-out race.

For Ottawa running icon Phil Marsh, it will be his final Ottawa Race Weekend marathon and his swan song as a marathoner. He knows the race will be more difficult from an emotional perspective than from the physical sense of completing the 42.195-kilometre course.

But it also should be an uplifting occasion as he will serve as one of three guides for Jon Dunkerley, a visually-impaired runner who competed in sprint events at the 2008 and 2012 Paralympics, in his debut marathon.

Marsh’s 10th Ottawa marathon also is his final road race in Ottawa as he approaches retirement on June 10 as Running Room’s regional manager and event manager for Eastern Ontario. He will then move to Bridgetown, Nova Scotia, where he has accepted a volunteer position to start and develop track and field and active sport programs at the Bridgetown Regional Outdoor Sports Hub.

On June 2, Marsh will end his successful 25-year association with the Ottawa running community as a running/triathlon coach and an event organizer with a retirement party.

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“I was the finish-line announcer for the Ottawa Race Weekend for 13 years,” Marsh said in a phone interview this week. “Now, I’m going to run. I’ll enjoy the crowd. It will be a terribly emotional weekend, my last chance to see everyone.”

When Marsh, 60, ran his previous nine Ottawa marathons, he did it as much for others as he did it to test his own fitness and speed. He volunteered seven times as a pace bunny to help the every-day runner achieve a time goal. Twice, he was a side-by-side guide for a visually-impaired runner.

For his grand finale, Marsh will team with Dunkerley – the younger brother of five-time Paralympic medallist Jason Dunkerley, who will run the Race Weekend 10k – and guide Jon through his first marathon.

“He and I have run the half-marathon at Run for REACH and in Montreal. He wanted to do something big by raising money for CHEO because his young son spent some time there,” Marsh explained.

While Jason Dunkerley was a remarkable middle-distance track runner, who ran the 2018 Boston Marathon with visually-impaired guide runner Stuart McGregor in 3:13:58, Jon Dunkerley dedicated himself to being a sprinter in para athletics and a para triathlete before retiring in 2021.

Jon Dunkerley, 43, started training for the Ottawa marathon in November and is using the race as a partial fund raiser for CHEO. His young son Luca has spent time during his first year in CHEO for a medical issue and is being monitored.

Dunkerley has raised $1,900 to this point and said he will donate half of the final total to the CHEO Foundation and give the other half to the person who comes closest to predicting his finishing time.

Originally, he thought he could run a time around three hours, 37 minutes, but with Sunday’s predicted warm weather, all time expectations are off.

“I will still give my best effort, but as far as a time, I’m not concerned with that goal,” said Dunkerley.

Marsh moved to Ottawa in 1999 from London, ON., where he was a club track and field coach and a personal trainer.

Phil Marsh (right) and John Stanton. Photo provided

“I was terrified to leave London,” Marsh admitted. “John Stanton (Running Room founder and bestselling Canadian author) told me to go because I’ll get a lot more done in Ottawa. I have made so many friends that are now family.”

He quickly fit into the Ottawa running community, coaching thousands of runners at all levels through various Running Room programs and helping them achieve various goals.

His coaching resume includes working with Paralympics Ontario and Special Olympics track and field coaches. He has spent 20 years guiding blind runners through their races.

Marsh also was host and creator of The Running Show with Coach Phil, which was Canada’s first weekly radio running program on the Team 1200. He also was named a United Way Community Builder and a recipient of the Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal.

In the days following his final marathon and farewell party, Marsh will head East to start his retirement in Bridgetown, investing his time, knowledge and energy into developing track and field and active fitness programs in the small north-central Annapolis Valley community of about 970 people.

When Ottawa runner Kate Orlando told Marsh several years ago about a coaching opportunity in Bridgetown, he was immediately interested. He learned about this new venture before the COVID-19 pandemic, which put everything on hold.

There’s a rich track and field history in the community as former coach Charlie Scarrow had developed a couple of Olympic athletes on a dirt track. But after the town had committed to building a modern sports hub, Scarrow, who was named the Nova Scotia coach of the year in 2006, passed away in 2014.

In 2020, the Bridgetown Regional Outdoor Sports Hub was officially opened with an eight-lane running track and long jump/triple jump runways and pits, a steeplechase water jump, an artificial turf and junior-size soccer fields as well as tennis and pickleball courts and LED lighting. The hub is built on the site of the former Bridgetown Regional High School and was a municipal, provincial, federal and community project.

The County of Annapolis is now a prime recreational, sport training and event venue surrounded by North Mountain, the Annapolis River and the Trans Canada Trail.

Last November, Marsh attended Orlando’s wedding in Bridgetown and met her aunt, who was on the hub’s board of directors.

“I talked to her and thought this is a neat opportunity,” said Marsh, who is eager to begin developing track and field and sports programs, after no one else stepped forward in the past. “They had no money to bring in a coach.

Jon Dunkerley (front) and Phil Marsh (right) will team up in Marsh’s final Ottawa Race Weekend before retirement. Photo provided

“This is my Field of Dreams.”

Marsh, who bought a retirement home in the area two years ago, is excited about introducing some fund raising events and future programs to add another level of excitement to the hub.

This is a perfect example of Marsh’s motto of “sport builds communities.”

“I told the board that I want to make Bridgetown one of the most active communities in Canada in the next three years,” Marsh said.

“The foundation has been built and there are a lot of people who are passionate. My hope is to expand that vision and organize events.”

Marsh has a long list of Ottawa achievements and memories from the past quarter century, but two stand out above the rest.

During a 6 a.m. Tuesday run many winters ago, Marsh and former Canadian politician Stockwell Day talked about having a National Health and Fitness Day to get Canadians more active. That conversation and the work of their small group of people saw the passing of a bill in 2014 for National Health and Fitness Day to be held on the first Saturday in June.

The original group organized that national fitness day for its first 10 years before passing it to Participation.

Marsh also holds Harvest House, which helps men suffering from addictions achieve lasting sobriety and return to their communities, close to his heart.

He originally felt intimidated speaking to a group of rough and tough men and hearing their horrific stories. But he talked about the value of running and introduced a program at the Ramsayville Road site, which was accepted and complimented other Harvest House programs.

Eight men enjoyed the program so much they registered for the Ottawa marathon one year and completed the demanding race. Marsh ran the final two kilometres to the finish line with each runner.

Marsh has touched the lives of thousands of people in the Ottawa running community and will be missed.

“I have run with Phil off and on for years,” Jon Dunkerley said. “It’s the end of an era. The running community will definitely lose a valuable asset, when he moves down East.”

Martin Cleary has written about amateur sports for 51 years. A past Canadian sportswriter of the year and Ottawa Sports Awards Lifetime Achievement in Sport Media honouree, Martin retired from full-time work at the Ottawa Citizen in 2012, but continued to write a bi-weekly “High Achievers” column for the Citizen/Sun.

When the pandemic struck, Martin created the High Achievers “Stay-Safe Edition” to provide some positive news during tough times, via his Twitter account at first and now here at

Martin can be reached by e-mail at and on Twitter @martincleary.

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