Skip to content

From the archives

The March of the Cheezie

Our snacks as a history of ourselves

Model Behaviour

A Haida village as seen in a windy city

Beyond the City Limits

Diversity and rural Canada

One Foot in Front of the Other

Round and round an endless track

John Allemang

A Runner’s Journey

Bruce Kidd

Aevo UTP

424 pages, softcover and ebook

The Perfect Medicine: How Running Makes Us Healthier and Happier

Brodie Ramin

Dundurn Press

216 pages, softcover

No one could accuse Bruce Kidd of peaking too soon, not after reading this rich and fascinating memoir of a teenage sports celebrity turned global traveller, educator, activist, historian, political strategist, community builder, creative university administrator, social critic, and perpetual gadfly. It’s hard to believe that the author, a vital, joyfully argumentative man, was named Canada’s Athlete of the Year a full sixty years ago. He is still only in his seventies, working as the University of Toronto’s ombudsperson, conquering the occasional mountain (not just metaphorically), and even now, one hopes, giving complacent, conservative power brokers grief with his distinctive blend of fierce intelligence, boundless energy, long-game persistence, undeniable (if often prickly) humanity, and happy self-confidence that borders on cockiness — a forceful combination of qualities on display throughout A Runner’s Journey.

Kidd effectively left behind the world-class runner’s life after a disastrous, injury-beset performance at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics, where he faced down the shame of being lapped in the 10,000 metres by shifting to an outside lane as the eventual medallists sprinted past and enthusiastically cheering them on. It must be hard to feel grateful, all these decades later, that your life’s course went completely off the rails in an unforgiving half-hour — that the race had suddenly turned into a journey. But Kidd’s unrelenting analytical approach to self-scrutiny is persuasive. That failure (“I was completely numb. I can’t remember another period in my life when I felt so miserable”) transformed the still only twenty-one-year-old’s lap-based, overscheduled, prizewinning existence and prompted the veer from superbly refined ­athlete to passionate and freethinking observer of ­athletics and critic of sports politics — the least lonely of long-distance runners, judging from the impressive array of strong personalities who shared in and shaped his subsequent career.

Unlike most human activities, running allows mere mortals (or hobby joggers, to call on the hard-core racers’ derisive term) to experience the vicarious thrill of proximity to the world’s best. They can wear the kit, follow the regimens, study the science of marginal gains, ascend medal-ceremony podiums (thank God for age groups!). And they can run the same courses in the most celebrated marathons, where they might spot the superstars if they’re lucky and wave to the same cheering fans. (I’ll admit to this basic human weakness, having chased the middle-aged Bruce Kidd on an indoor track at the University of Toronto and pretending, for a moment, that we inhabited the same right‑foot, left‑foot universe.)

But to puncture that puffed-up delusion, one need only read the early chapters of A Runner’s Journey, which will explain how different that young athlete really was — different not just from you and me but from almost any runner on the planet before his time. Think Roger Bannister with a crack-of-dawn Globe and Mail paper route instead of a medical degree, and you begin to get the idea. When Chris Chataway, one of Bannister’s pacers in the first sub-four-minute mile and himself a former world record holder, was asked about Kidd, he replied, “I know of no one like him at all.”

Think Roger Bannister with a crack-of-dawn paper route.

Boris Spremo, 1963; Globe and Mail

Fundamental to Kidd’s uniqueness and the buzz surrounding him was his extreme youth. He beat North America’s best distance runners at the age of seventeen, only three years after he first tried out for his high school track team in East York, in suburban Toronto. When he competed at the Canadian Olympic trials in 1960, as a sixteen-year-old, he used savings from his paper route to buy the plane ticket to Saskatoon. Six months later, after he won the storied Knights of Columbus two-mile race at the Boston Garden — just three seconds short of the world record, to perhaps the loudest ovation ever heard in the meet’s history — a writer for the Boston Herald exclaimed, “It was a performance that defies description, a feat by a teen-ager that must be classified as one of the all-time exploits in track history.”

How could that kind of praise not go to one’s head? But Kidd, then as now, was different, one of the most level-headed athletes ever to put victory laps in their proper perspective. His preparation for the tumult of a high-level race on the Garden’s makeshift indoor track was to write his SAT college admissions test in the morning and then tour Harvard’s campus (as part of its recruitment campaign, the university had also pressured the race director — who initially rejected Kidd, saying he was too young — to let him ­compete). Then Kidd met with a philosophy professor to discuss their shared interest in the works of Bertrand Russell. The elderly faculty member explained that he had brought pencils and paper to Russell while he was imprisoned for pacifism in the First World War. “It was electrifying,” Kidd recalls. That was a giddier reaction than his disciplined response to the arena’s sustained cheering later that day, when he was too focused on the small, tight space around him to take in the screaming as he sprinted along the boards. “If you hear the crowd,” he told himself with a v­eteran’s mantra, “you’re not concentrating.” Equally indifferent to the wooing by Ivy League schools, he followed his innate nationalist inclinations and opted for a program in politics and economics at the University of Toronto, a decision that allowed him, not unselfishly, to pick and choose his own races and compete internationally whenever he felt like it — ­including at the 1962 Commonwealth Games in Perth, where he found time to visit state legislators and complete a class assignment on Australian federalism, monitor the Cuban Missile Crisis from afar, drink beer and wine for the first time in his regimented life, and win his six-mile race.

Books about runners are mostly about running — which has perhaps become the most self-regarding of modern mass sports — but clearly Kidd’s passions and priorities ranged much more widely, even in his earliest years. His family were diehard social democrats, and at a young age Kidd was imbibing the principles of the Co‑operative Commonwealth Federation around the dinner table, haunting campaign committee rooms (where he could devour the doughnuts and pop he wasn’t permitted in his nutritionally strict home), and explaining to anyone who would listen “the CCF’s promise of a redistributive tax system.” Nothing could be more Bruce Kidd than that conversational icebreaker, and it’s no surprise that he has always viewed sports through the lens of us-and-them politics.

Kidd’s mother ran a wartime daycare centre, wrote children’s books, and taught early childhood education with the expertise of a parent of five. His father had a nomadic life in adult education, which at one point took him on a side trip from Paris to the 1952 Helsinki Olympics, where he shot fifteen hours of footage for the newly launched CBC television network. A precocious nine-year-old (it should go without saying), Bruce watched the rough cuts and was fascinated by the display of internationalist ideals in the grim atmosphere of the all-pervasive Cold War. At a time when it was deemed appropriate to house the teams from capitalist and Communist countries in separate athletes’ villages, he delighted in seeing the Jamaican 4 x 400-metre relay runners hoist the Czech marathon gold medallist Emil Zátopek on their shoulders and carry him around the stadium. It’s no surprise that years later Kidd, who helped lead the boycott against apartheid-era South African participation in sport, served as an outspoken advocate for sending Canadian athletes to the 1980 Moscow Olympics and defying the U.S. position — acting on his conviction that while a boycott would have no effect on Soviet policy, unlike the successful South African sports protests, “people-to-people intercultural communication fostered by the Olympics could slow down the resumption of Cold War ­tensions.” More controversially, he chaired a “fact-finding” tour of the Soviet Union that led one embassy official to say, “You sound like Pravda.” But to Kidd, exasperated opposition was equal to a compliment: as a young baseball player, he delighted in trash-talking the other team’s ­players and irritating them to distraction. That brash, provocative bench-jockey style never quite left him in his activist years.

Sport exists in splendid isolation for many athletes, particularly as specialized training becomes even more all-encompassing and professionalized and salaries go through the roof. But even in Kidd’s day, NHL teams shied away from taking on educated, free-speaking players. He recounts arguments at banquets with Maple Leaf stars, such as Bob Pulford, who mocked him for competing as an unpaid amateur. Kidd’s response? He fought back, deriding ice-bound gods as athletic peons who were brutalized by a mindless authoritarian culture and voicing the same unforgiving polemics he would later employ as a rebellious professor. Throughout his career, he would describe his intense, antagonistic reaction to sport’s unquestioned norms as “critical support”— the kind of unasked-for assistance that was more feared than welcomed by the athletic establishment.

Reading through the more autobiographical vignettes in A Runner’s Journey, it’s easy to see how Kidd’s integrated philosophy of sport and society developed. When he was in grade 10, for example, his father took the entire family on a winter-long trip to Jamaica, where he had been invited to develop extension-education programs. The young man joined in the research visits to plantations, prisons, sports clubs, and bauxite plants; witnessed the future prime minister Norman Manley calling for independence in a public-square debate; and made his first lonely attempts at distance running around a local cricket pitch.

Eight years later, in 1965, as Kidd was rebounding from his Tokyo defeat and a failure to win an expected Rhodes Scholarship (arguably another blessing in disguise), he postponed plans for law school or grad school in favour of a trip to India, where his father was again working on an adult education project. But, Kidd being Kidd, this was no gap year of self-indulgence. Channelling his love of sport, he won the Canadian franchise for the World Student Games and quickly assembled a small team through mail‑in applications; there was no time or money for trials.

Kidd flew to London with his young companions (including his fourteen-year-old brother), picked up a Land Rover on what sounds like a sponsorship deal (celebrity had its perks, even then), and headed off on the Grand Tour route to the University of Rajasthan, where he was booked to teach political science. He attended the World Student Games in Budapest along the way, incorporating a run‑in with Primo Nebiolo, later the corrupt czar of the track world; ran laps around the ancient Panathenaic Stadium, in Greece; and chilled out on a Turkish beach while waiting for the India-Pakistan War to subside. Arriving in Jaipur, he discovered that he would be teaching basic English instead of politics, chatted with Indira Gandhi on her first official day as prime minister, studied and wrote about development projects, lectured at the National Institute of Sport, attended track competitions throughout the region, and essentially modelled the sports-politics ethos of A Runner’s Journey across the subcontinent.

You get the idea. Kidd doesn’t just go on vacation or quietly study or join a track club and head out for a peaceful jog. His memoir can be extremely wearying at times, because he is so busy and so completely engaged, always on the lookout for the next great cause and the most convincing argument, fighting the good fight wherever he can find it — which for him seems to be pretty well everywhere he goes. But that’s also what makes this book so consistently stimulating and so unlike most other sports memoirs. When Kidd found his way to graduate school in 1967 — after stints in community-based sports programs with the Ontario government — it was at the University of Chicago’s school of education. There he collaborated with Black community health councils (his formal assignment, soon discarded, was to train volunteers on how to run meetings); worked alongside Jesse Jackson to improve local economic conditions through Operation Breadbasket; became an active supporter of the Olympic Project for Human Rights, an organization of Black athletes that proposed sports boycotts as a weapon in the fight for racial justice; and joined his new wife, Varda Burstyn, whom he’d met in a queue to see Gordon Lightfoot (a rare intimate detail for this public-life, sports-centred account), in her volunteer work at the Medical Committee for Human Rights. Burstyn managed an emergency medical centre during the police riots at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, while Kidd ferried the injured and terrified protesters through the tear-gassed streets.

All the while, he kept up his running, training with the “highly progressive” University of Chicago Track Club, where the dumb-jock stereotype was a thing of the past. He also picked up easy work for the Canadian Press, covering the Maple Leafs or the Canadiens when they were in town. Kidd’s Chicago was a place where you could hang out with famous political activists and talk hockey with Jean Béliveau.

The larger part of A Runner’s Journey is devoted to the post-running life, when the sports-politics balance gets tilted toward activism more than performance. But Kidd’s recollections of his early development and training on cinder surfaces in a forgotten world of strict amateurism will still resonate with obsessive distance nerds, running-shop gearheads, and flat-course PB chasers in an era of Nike Zoom Vaporflys, high‑tech Mondo tracks, and Diamond League windfalls. In his glory days, Kidd’s older teammates referred to him as “monster,” because of his appetite for longer distances, and they were amazed that he would run the daily dose of newly fashionable repeat intervals (forty consecutive 400-metre laps, or twenty 800s, or eight mile repeats with a brief intervening rest) at race pace and in competitive style, right down to the elbows-up battles that the fractious, strategic teenager loved. His legendary volunteer coach in Toronto, Fred Foot, sensed not just his boundless appetite for hard work but also his cunning, cerebral appreciation of tactics, to the point where Foot would illustrate manoeuvres by suddenly accelerating his car to simulate the mid-race surging of the champion Soviet runner Vladimir Kuts, weaving in and out of highway traffic (for once, the preternaturally composed Kidd was shaken up). Any activity, clearly, was an opportunity for learning, and there were no days off. Even on his solitary Sundays, Kidd ran contentedly along the lakeside boardwalk in Toronto’s Beach neighbourhood (which also produced the not dissimilar prodigy Glenn Gould), making for a serene image beautifully captured on the cover of A Runner’s Journey.

That photo is a still from the National Film Board’s Runner, by the young director Don Owen; the film, issued in 1962, is an official testament to the celebrity the high schooler had by then achieved. As Kidd notes in his anachronistic professorial voice, that race in Boston “catapulted me into the narratives of representation and Canadian nationalism.” He loved the carnival atmosphere of the big U.S. indoor meets where the arena organist would play “The Maple Leaf Forever” as his name was announced and the jostling runners got splashed by the ringside fans’ spilled beer. But back home, off the track, he was uncomfortable being a symbol for a country’s aspirations: “I had trained and run for private goals,” he writes, “for myself, my coach, and my club, for the love of running and the ambition to be the best.” Canada could look elsewhere for its simplistic heroes; Kidd preferred to be his own person, not so much anti-social or aloof as fiercely independent.

At first, Kidd resisted Owen’s request, but fortunately for anyone who has seen this jazz-scored miniature masterpiece, he decided to spend a weekend with the director and his family in Montreal while competing in the 1961 Canadian championships. True to his nature, he came away excited by the myriad transformations of Québécois society and felt that he wanted to share in this spirit of change. Back in Toronto, the filmmaker arranged to capture the runner’s facial tensions by attaching him to the bumper of a station wagon, which then sped around the East York track well beyond the agreed-upon two laps, until Owen was satisfied by the perfect pained grimace. “Since I was tied to the car, I had to run for my life,” Kidd writes. “He got the shot he wanted.” He quickly glosses over one extraordinary detail. The film’s voiceover narrative was a moody, eccentric poem composed in his honour by W. H. Auden, based on Kidd’s own description of the runner’s life and modelled on an improbable combination of the alliterative pagan epic Beowulf and the grandiose victory odes of the ancient Greek poet Pindar: the crowning glory to an athlete’s career, were he not still a teenager and preparing to start university.

And so Kidd ran and ran and ran. The application of biomechanics and physiology to distance running was a thing of the future; there was no concept of recovery days, and perhaps all this training at such a young age led to his setback at the Tokyo Games. But he wouldn’t have it any other way. “I quickly realized that I was happiest when I had something concrete to do,” he writes of his high school days, which started with his 5 a.m. paper route and ended with a post-workout concert or debate at the University of Toronto, where he trained alongside his older teammates, before a long streetcar ride home to a warmed-up dinner and a foot-soak in a bucket of hot water. When he lost the odd race, critics cackled that he was putting his career at risk by running too fast, too often, too young. His father, with an opinionated streak that appears to be genetic, quickly responded, “Being content with mediocrity would be a much greater risk!” Kidd, looking back, wonders if he was an early exemplar of Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule of greatness. Tellingly, and with perhaps the slightest twinkle in his eye, he refers to the expat Canadian writer as “a U of T track alum from the 1980s.”

It’s easy to be entranced by the vivid stories from Kidd’s brief running career and lose sight of the fact that he sped through the rest of his off-track life with the same indomitable will to win the innumerable challenges he so eagerly took on. The stories of helping to organize the South Africa boycott (success, eventually); or bring the Olympic Games to Toronto (fail, no thanks to his sports-hating antagonists on the left); or reorganize the study and practice of sport at the university level on feminist principles (a work in progress); or campaign for the essential athletic right of gender self-identity (signs of victory if, like Kidd, you are willing to skirt the issue’s broader complications and consequences) — they all come freighted with ideological and impersonal language that can’t quite match the zestful enthusiasm of the racing years. But if you can accept the occasional brief lecture on human rights, delivered from Kidd’s superior moral and intellectual position, the actual accounts of how he and his colleagues set about effecting change in ultra-conservative sports environments, whose outmoded leaders still like to claim that sports and politics don’t mix, are dependably fascinating for connoisseurs of bureaucratic machinations. And for activists who don’t mind diluting the purity of their principles with some real-world experience of getting things done, they’re highly useful.

While Kidd’s long and instructive journey begins with running, Brodie Ramin’s inspirational guide to a better life, The Perfect Medicine, portrays the sport as an ideal destination and goal — not unreasonably, since he is a primary care physician and addictions specialist in Ottawa determined to heal the pains and anxieties of our troubled sedentary world. Health and happiness are of more concern to him as a doctor than race times or injustice, but only just. Like Kidd, Ramin recognizes the social inequities that undermine community health, and, like any jogger who first sets out to overcome the basic state of human inertia, he rapidly becomes obsessed with chasing the clock and hearing the cheers.

With his scientific training, Ramin is well placed to explain how and why evolution designed us to be fleet-footed and perpetually active — with deft descriptions of our primeval development into brain-powered uprightness. It’s amazing to realize how much of the evolved body’s locomotive genius we take for granted in our everyday bipedal meanderings. Even more compelling are his well-researched arguments — more like evangelizing, given his clinical enthusiasm — for the endless numbers of benefits running provides, whether it’s alleviating depression, staving off cancer and arthritis, unclogging arteries, enhancing ­cognitive ­function, reducing risks of dementia, broadening social networks, extending a productive life, or improving just about every other ­indicator of well-being known to medicine.

It’s one thing for a doctor to prescribe — even a doctor like Ramin, who practises what he preaches. (This self-help guide includes a chronicle of the author’s own self-helping, as he progresses from his first tentative jog to a painful but successful completion of the Berlin Marathon.) It’s quite another thing for patients to follow such good advice, particularly those of us who are older, more unfit, unable to spend hours on the road in high-end running costumes, and otherwise imperfectly designed for marathon doses of the perfect medicine. As an addictions expert, Ramin must realize that his idea of perfection can best be achieved through a dedication to a regimen that is itself necessarily addictive. That bar is set too high for most people, though energetic practitioners like him are useful models for what’s possible with complete dedication.

Ramin knows this in practice and tries to cajole his patients into accessible (and medically validated) everyday activities, such as walking and stair climbing and gardening, that require much less rigour and specialization than he imposes on himself. Which is just as well: not everyone pursuing a healthier, happier life will find it in an app-regulated, peer-pressured world of constant measurement against an ever-elusive goal of self-improvement. We can’t all be seventeen-year-old Bruce Kidd — but then neither could he, in time, when all was said and done. As W. H. Auden wrote with the sad, ­knowing wisdom of age and acceptance, “Fate forbids mortals to be at their best always.”

John Allemang has his stopwatch ready for the Paris Games.