Royal Ottawa Foundation hits a runner's high with record-breaking Run for Women

More than 5,000 people register in Ottawa for virtual walk or run in support of women's mental health
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You could say the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health has set a new personal best after raising more than half a million dollars through Run for Women, hosted by Shoppers Drug Mart.

As of Sunday, the figure had reached $546,597 and was still growing. 

It only took a little sifting through social media posts to realize how many participants have been touched by the cause of women’s mental health, based on their personal experiences or their exposure to family members, friends or colleagues living with mental illness.

“The event really inspires so many people,” said Mitchell Bellman, president and CEO of the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, a charitable foundation that supports patient care and research at the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre.

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Ottawa massage therapist Kelly Salvador (Kinetic Edge Health Group/Recover RX on Carling Avenue) was one of the volunteer Ottawa captains in Shoppers Drug Mart's 2020 Virtual Run for Women in support of women's mental health services at The Royal. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Bellman lauded Shoppers Drug Mart for elevating the issue of mental health to a national level with its Run for Women virtual walk and run, held in 18 cities across the country. Just a quick brag: Ottawa has the highest participation rate. 

“So many other health care causes have received so much attention over the years but mental health really has not had a national event like this,” said Bellman. “There's been no Run for the Cure equivalent for mental health, until now.”

The coronavirus pandemic, he added, has negatively impacted people’s mental health, whether by creating feelings of isolation, fear of catching the virus and dying, or a deep sense of loss from, say, not being able to attend a loved one’s funeral.

“There’s all this anxiety built up in the community, and this event gives people an outlet to do something about it, to be able to raise money across the country to support those programs that help people," said Bellman.

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Carleton University president and mental health advocate Benoit-Antoine Bacon was a participant and Ottawa co-captain in the 2020 Virtual Run for Women in support of women's mental health services at The Royal. Photo by Caroline Phillips

To date, the annual run has raised more than $1.5 million in Ottawa for women's mental health.

The magnanimous move by Shoppers Drug Mart to launch the fundraiser in 2013 was an important development for the Foundation, said Tracey Welsh, director of community building for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health.

"The day Shoppers Drug Mart called up The Royal, it was like we’d won the lottery."

The event saw a 35 per cent jump in the number of individuals who signed up in Ottawa this year. Among the 5,006 people out supporting the cause were Olympic figure skater Elizabeth Manley, Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon, DIFD co-founder Stephanie Richardson and federal cabinet minister Catherine McKenna

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Carleton University president Benoit-Antoine Bacon was an Ottawa co-captain fin the 2020 Virtual Run for Women in support of women's mental health services at The Royal. Photo by Caroline Phillips

Bacon, who holds a PhD in neuropsychology, took on a leadership role as a volunteer co-captain with Shannon Noonan, head of the therapy dog program at Carleton University. He’s been helping to normalize conversations around mental health and recovery from substance use. The former marathon runner was up at sunrise Saturday to complete his Run for Women kilometres.

Liza Mrak, executive vice-president of Mark Motors Group – which was also a sponsor – co-chaired Ottawa's 2020 Run for Women with Leigh Harris, a former board chair of the Royal Ottawa Foundation. Mrak is now two-for-two, having co-chaired the successful charity breakfast for the Boys and Girls Club of Ottawa less than two weeks ago.

The 8th annual Run for Women was originally scheduled for June but got postponed after the pandemic first hit and wreaked havoc on every fundraising event in town. 

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From left, Tracey Welsh, from the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, with Ottawa Run for Women event co-chairs Leigh Harris and Lisa Mrak, outside the Audi City Ottawa downtown dealership at Lansdowne on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020. Photo by Caroline Phillips

The new race format adhered to COVID physical distancing restrictions and was welcomed by many for its flexible and laid-back approach. The event stretched over 10 days, ending Sunday. Participants had the option of completing 5K or 10K but could also split up their distance over multiple days, if they wished.

Organizers could not have asked for better weather for running or walking outdoors, with many choosing scenic paths in the woods or along the water. On Sunday, mental health advocate Barbara Crook and her fellow fly-fishing friends, better known as the Salmon Sisters, hit the trails in Gatineau Park before grabbing lunch on the outdoor patio of the Chelsea Pub.

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From left, Barbara Crook and her fellow fly-fishing "salmon sisters" Bente McAlister, Lynda Shields, Bev Anderson, Andrea MacLean (director of communications for the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health) and Beverley Davis grabbed lunch together at the Chelsea Pub in Chelsea, Que. after hitting the trails in Gatineau Park as part of 2020 Virtual Run for Women. Photo by Caroline Phillips
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Mitchell Bellman, president and CEO of the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health, with Joanne Bezzubetz, president and CEO of the Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre, walking along the Rideau Canal on Sunday, Sept. 27, 2020, as part of the 2020 Virtual Run for Women, presented by Shoppers Drug Mart. Photo by Caroline Phillips

There's a reason the expression "Walking is the best medicine" has been around for more than 2,000 years. It's true. People have been turning to exercise during the pandemic as a way of managing their health and wellness.

Royal Ottawa Mental Health Centre president and CEO Joanne Bezzubetz knows firsthand, as a seasoned triathlete, the benefits of sport and physical activity on mental health. 

“Anyone who goes walking and running feels better afterward,” said Bezzubetz. “The evidence is there, the science is proven. The body creates endorphins when you exercise. But, besides that, it’s very hard to go out for a walk and stay in a bad mood."

The Royal Ottawa Foundation recruited 220 volunteer captains this year for the event, with a special shout out going to Gillian Dawson for rounding up the largest team in the country, with 272 participants. Dawson is a public servant and long-time volunteer with The Royal. She's also been a team captain for Run for Women every year. 

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From left, Tracey Welsh from the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health and long-time volunteer Gillian Dawson, far right, participated in Run for Women on Friday, Sept. 25, 2020, leaving from Westboro and heading toward the Ottawa River. Photo by Caroline Phillips

“The Royal is very near and dear to my heart,” said Dawson, who was running in support of working moms struggling to balance their jobs and home life, and for women suffering from feelings of inadequacy and from symptoms of burnout.

Organizers were also successful this year in getting more government employees involved. More than 1,000 of the people who registered were on public service-led teams.

Contributing to this year's success was Shoppers Drug Mart’s commitment to pass along the entire $40 registration fee to the cause. The Canadian drug store retailer also provided all the swag bags, which were stuffed with useful items and available for pickup at any Running Room store, at no cost, or through mail delivery.

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Shoppers Drug Mart provided the swag bags for the Run for Women fundraiser for women's mental health services at The Royal. Photo by Caroline Phillips

— caroline@obj.ca