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Kerry MacKelvie and the enduring nature of cross-country running
2020-10-10

It's been a pretty good month of October, so far, for local high-school cross-country runners.

Shortly after the announcement, about a week ago, that the sport would be allowed a form of Return to Play within the structure of SDSSAA guidelines this fall, the release of a schedule was unveiled, one that features a pair of preliminary races, leading into a city championship on October 28th.

It might not resemble anything close to normal, but at least these athletes will get to the starting line - which is more than could be said for highly accomplished Sudbury native Kerry MacKelvie. There was no pandemic to be overcome as she took the leap of faith, in the late 1980s, adding cross-country to her multi-sport career at Lockerby Composite School, one in which she also starred in the middle distance track events.

"I didn't even start with cross-country until grade 11 - and promptly broke my ankle, before I could even race," said the 46 year-old long-time British Columbia resident earlier this week. "But even that season, I have such good memories of the team really rallying around me in so many ways."

"I would go to the meets and they would be carrying me around, a big cast on my leg. I was really inspired by the whole team aspect of cross-country, the fact that it's such a shared experience."

Naturally quick, even from her earliest days, MacKelvie excelled initially in the sprints, enjoying the carefree nature of MacLeod Public School track and field competitions, long before she would really make a name for herself as a 400/800/1500 metre runner in high-school.

'That's always exciting for a young child, when you are naturally good at something," she reminisced. "I remember going to track meets at Laurentian, eating hot dogs and popsicles at the track, and absolutely loving the whole experience."

Yet as Lockerby schoolmates pushed and prodded her to join the fall running crew that would take to the local trails, there was a different phenomenon in play, one which continued to touch MacKelvie through ten years of post-secondary training and racing at either Queen's University or UBC.

"It definitely took some convincing to get me out there," she suggested. "But there was something different with cross-country. No matter how you are doing, personally, in the race, it does matter to the other people. You could be the last counter on the team, but it really does matter how many people you displace."

"That was interesting to me, to discover that inter-dependency of teammates. I think the feeling of celebration and accomplishment is bigger, because it's shared."

For as breath-taking as is the western coast scenery to which MacKelvie wakes up to, each and every morning, there has always been a soft spot for her training grounds back home. "I have great memories of running the Laurentian trails; that's such a beautiful course," she said. "It's such a technical course, running over rock - it's so rugged, and the hills are really hard."

"I loved that. I was so thankful for living right near Laurentian, doing training there all the time, competing there."

Still, memories fade, just a smidge, as she recalls her final year of high-school, but her first ever appearance at the provincial secondary school cross-country championships. "I don't have a really strong memory of winning the cities in 1991, but I think I must have," she stated with a laugh.

(in fact, records maintained by Peter Hocking confirmed that she did indeed finish first at SDSSAA, forty seconds ahead of Sheila Aitken and a minute faster than teammate Tonya Dunn)

"But going to OFSAA, for the first time in cross-country, that year, was a huge experience. I had been to OFSAA track many times by this time, so I was prepared for the overall size of the event. But I had never been in a big cross-country race before, nothing even close to the 300 or so runners that were there in my race."

"It was mind-blowing, but really exciting, to be part of something like that. We were shaking the ground as we ran. It was unforgettable, to be in that thunder of hundreds of runners, feeling like a stick in the river, riding the current along."

Truth be told, Kerry MacKelvie was far more than simply an athlete in the crowd, a stick in the current, if you will.

Her university career would be highlighted by a national title in the 1000m indoor track event, running for the University of British Columbia Thunderbirds in the winter of 2000. In 2016, she competed at the American Masters Games in Vancouver, capturing a bronze medal in the 800m distance.

In 2018, she finished first in the same race at the Canadian Masters Championship, and last year, she qualified as a member of the B.C. team for the Masters Cross-Country meet in Abbotsford. Maintaining her training throughout her adult life, but returning to competition in around 2013 or so after a hiatus of roughly a decade, MacKelvie is appreciating her current success even more than her accomplishments as a teen.

"Exposure to the masters track community changed my life, honestly," she said. "Winning the bronze medal in Vancouver was the most exciting thing since I had won CI's. It's super fun, there are great challenges, and I'm having success."

Still, as she looks back, MacKelvie recognizes an enduring quality to her passion for running, one which shone through as former teammate Darren Jermyn both teased her and supported her, racing in Abbotsford. There's a special kinship that she sensed, reaching out to coach Dick Moss some six to seven years ago, her vision fixated on a possible crack at a masters track and field world record in the relay.

Then she thinks of just how innocently it all started.

"In high-school, we didn't train, exactly, for cross-country," she recalled. "All I remember doing is going out to the field at Lockerby, running a couple of times around the field, and then we might go and run and do a little loop around Paris and Regent and come back to the school."

"I don't remember over-thinking my races in high school, which was good," she continued. "The more time I have spent with the sport, the more I got further and further away from that spirit of just going for it. I do over-think it now."

"I wish, in some ways, I was more like I was in high school, where I could just jump into a race, barely do a warm-up, maybe have forgotten the right shoes, but just go out and run. That was the beauty of being young and new to the sport."

That was the beauty of SDSSAA cross-country, from 1989 to 1991, in the eyes of Kerry MacKelvie.

Further Update: Beyond her regular run workouts, these days, MacKelvie and her husband, Shane O'Brien, have also kept busy with a pandemic related endeavour. With Covid-19 forcing the closure of an art gallery that O'Brien owns, the tandem decided to put that space to good use, completing various healthy living workouts on the site.

Taking it a step further, MacKelvie and O'Brien decided to share their efforts on a new youtube channel (Top of the Hill Fitness), with an aim to motivate others who have encountered trouble finding a place, and inspiration, to workout.

The back drop also allows the couple to feature a different artist with each workout, targetting largely the masters running demographic. To access the on-line workouts, simply login to https://www.youtube.com/channel/UC_XuKDnv5HPBI1Z6Fs_qDww/videos.

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