November 30, 2023

Furniture Bank

Swing Your Furniture Bank

Sea of Santas run through Niagara-on-the-Lake

Simcoe Park was awash in a sea of red and white Sunday morning as hundreds of running enthusiasts gathered for the second annual Niagara-on-the-Lake Santa 5K

Simcoe Park was awash in a sea of red and white Sunday morning as hundreds of running enthusiasts gathered for the second annual Niagara-on-the-Lake Santa 5K. There were tall Santas, short Santas, young Santas, old Santas, even a few canine Santas participating in the pre-Christmas race.

“We’re up about 25 per cent from last year’s race,” said Jessica Brake, organizer of the event for VR Pro. “We have just over 300 registered for our three events. This is one of our most popular events of the year. Our Hamilton-Burlington one had almost 800 Santas last week.”

Most of the people in Simcoe Park were there to run, but many others came just to experience the spectacle of so many Santas all in one place. There was no denying Christmas was almost here after a visit to the popular tourist respite. 

This year’s run was sponsored by Niagara-on-the-Lake Realty. Sales representative and local resident Caroline Polgrabia and her 12-year-old son Jayden ran in the event last year. When she discovered there wasn’t a charity linked to this year’s run, she jumped at the chance to suggest the NOTL Youth Campus as this year’s beneficiary.

“Last year it was the Niagara Furniture Bank, and they’re no longer operating,” Polgrabia explained. “I went to our brokerage and mentioned the youth campus. They immediately said yes, they’d love to be the title sponsor. So I got to bring my personal love of the youth campus to the event.”

Ten dollars from each registration was directed to the youth campus, which guaranteed at least $3,000 according to the pre-race registration numbers. But others stepped up with larger donations once they heard about the race. 

“We passed the $5,000 mark last night,” said an excited Polgrabia. “We received tons of exceptional donations across the board, some $250 donations, even one for $500. We’re launching our programs on Jan. 16 and this will allow us to pay for courses for the kids. We’re going to be running a babysitting course, first aid, and the (St. John Ambulance) Home Alone course as well.”

Caroline and Jayden ran again this year, with Jayden finishing third in the 10 to 14 age group, and 34th out of all of the Santas who ran the 5K live (there was also a virtual option). Jayden’s 10-year-old sister Kaitlyn also ran this year, taking part in the inaugural 1K Elf Race. 

Sixteen-year-old Governor Simcoe Secondary School student Fenway Breckels was first across the 5K finish line. He completed the race with a top time of 16:43, 22 seconds faster than Eric Labelle of Oakville, who came in second. Breckels shaved more than a minute off his 2021 time in the same race. 

“The course last year was a little slippery,” he told The Local, “so that slowed me down a little bit. But I’ve been training a lot, and I’m older and stronger. I’m really happy with all the improvements I made.”

Breckels competes in cross country and track and field events for Governor Simcoe, and runs with the Thorold Elite Track Club. The avid runner laces his shoes up at least six days a week. And after the race, he was still running. The NOTL Local spotted Breckels hoofing it through Simcoe Park on his way to the Irish Harp for the medal celebrations.

Richard Butlin was the first NOTL resident to finish the race. The 66-year-old completed the run in 20:22. He was followed closely by his good friend and running partner, 61-year-old Karen Gardiner of St. Catharines, who was the first female to cross the 5K finish line. She also held that distinction in 2021.

Butlin says he and his wife, Carol, who also ran Sunday, run together a lot. “We are members of the St. Catharines triathlon club Edge. We’re actually both training for the world duathlon championships in Spain in April. My time today is great for me at this time in the season.”

“I had a race plan for today,” said Gardiner, a triathlete like the Butlins “I wanted to be close to 20 minutes, but that fell apart pretty quickly. I didn’t do my typical race prep, as this is more of a fun event.”

But not all the runners were there to compete. For many it was a family affair. 

Andrew Barton of St. Catharines took up running during the pandemic. On Sunday, he was joined by his wife Elysha and their young

daughter Ella. 

“This is a great community event to re-engage with after COVID,” said Barton. “We tried to get Ella here for the Elf Run, and we were also trying to get family here to watch her while we run, but neither happened, so I’m running very slowly with her today at the back of the pack. We’re looking forward to it.”

Benjamin Gaudreau of Port Robinson led all competitors in the 1K Elf Race. 

“I’m not a runner,” the Lionel Messi fan told The Local. “I play soccer. I just ran as hard as I could so I could get home to watch the World Cup game.”

That World Cup game was on the televisions at the Irish Harp, where the Santas gathered post-race for hot chocolate and breakfast sandwiches served by host Jovie Joki. It was quite a spectacle seeing so many red and white suits making their way up King Street. 

Originally scheduled for late November, Brake explained the event was moved to this past weekend by popular demand. 

“We heard from some runners that they preferred a date closer to Christmas,” Brake said. “It was a great way to get their families out. It’s something they hope to do year after year. We like it earlier to avoid the snow and ice, but we heard from the runners that it was better closer to Christmas.”

Creating a new tradition in NOTL, VR Pro promises to run the race again next December. Whether a runner or not, it’s not a bad way to get into the holiday spirit.