Gerald ‘Jerry’ Wayne Friesen - Macleans.ca

Gerald ‘Jerry’ Wayne Friesen

He started running at an early age. ‘Wind, snow or sleet—nothing would stop him,’ his mother Joan recalls.

by
Gerald ‘Jerry’ Wayne Friesen
Illustration by Ian Phillips

Gerald ‘jerry’ Wayne Friesen was born at West Lincoln Memorial Hospital in Grimsby, Ont., on July 15, 1960. His older brother, Randy, had a hand in naming his newborn sibling, known for the rest of his life as Jerry. “There used to be a show called Uncle Jerry’s Club,” says Randy. “I liked the show, and the story was that I said we should call him Jerry.” Raised on a farm on the Niagara Escarpment between Grimsby and Beamsville, Jerry spent his childhood happily surrounded by horses, cows and pigs. “We spent a lot of time outdoors,” says Randy. “We had ponies and later on, when we got older, we had motorcycles and snowmobiles.”

His parents, Joan and Ben, also grew grapes, pears and apples on their 23-acre fruit farm. According to Joan, Jerry’s strong work ethic dates to a young age. “He started on the farm with me when he was two weeks old,” she says. “I carried him in my arms to pick fruit, and I carried him out in the trailer with a playpen. When he was 12, he started working on his uncle’s dairy farm next door.” Jerry also inherited his parents’ green thumb. In 1974, his produce won the grand champion title at the Beamsville fair, an accomplishment that made the front page of the Toronto Star.

As a teenager, Jerry took up long-distance running—mostly out of necessity. “He started running because he could run down the mountain without us having to drive him someplace,” says Joan. “Wind, snow, or sleet—nothing would stop him.” A lifelong athlete, Jerry also dabbled in football and track and field. He took up boxing at age 19 under the tutelage of coach Jim Neill. He wasn’t naturally athletic, Randy says, but made up for it with determination. Jerry won a provincial championship title within a year, and went on to compete nationally, narrowly missing a chance to compete at the Commonwealth Games in 1982.

Jerry graduated from Grimsby Secondary School in 1978 and started working as a labourer for the town’s parks and recreation department soon after, eventually moving up to various managerial positions. His wife, Jody, also attended Grimsby Secondary, but the two didn’t meet until years later when Jody saw Jerry’s photo in a University of Guelph Gryphons football fan book (one of Jerry’s friends was a team quarterback). “I thought he was cute,” she says with a laugh. The couple married on Christmas Eve 1985 and had three children: Lindsay, Rachel and Brett. Jerry was an involved parent, and took pride in coaching his girls’ soccer teams. “He loved watching them play,” says Jody. “If he couldn’t coach because he was too busy, he would sponsor a team.”

Over the years, the running bug never left him. On the day his eldest daughter Lindsay was born in 1989, Jerry walked into the hospital room with an announcement: “He said, ‘I took over the Peachbud,’ ” Jody says of the annual Tim Hortons-sponsored charity race, now in its 32nd year. “That was the start of it. He loved organizing races.” A flurry of other races followed over the years, raising tens of thousands of dollars for several charities.

Jerry quit the parks and recreation department in 2001, after 21 years, to focus on InStride, a running promotions company he founded in 1999. Jody, a self-described fair-weather runner, joined her husband at the many running events he organized around the world. His favourite time to run was in the morning—the earlier, the better. “It didn’t matter what time it was,” says Jody. “If he had to be somewhere at 5:00, he would get up at 3:00.”

In 2008, running began to take its toll; Jerry underwent hip resurfacing surgery and was sidelined from racing for two years. Jody recalls that when he returned home from his first run earlier this spring, he was exhilarated: “He came through the door and said, ‘That was the best 5K ever.’ ” By 51, Jerry had organized more than 100 races. His last scheduled one for the year was the Nov. 12 Tim Hortons Casablanca Classic. To commemorate Remembrance Day, he encouraged runners to wear poppies, and invited the colour guard from Grimsby’s Royal Canadian Legion to kick off the festivities.

Just after 6 a.m. on Nov. 2, Jerry laced up his shoes, waving goodbye to Jody as he headed out the side door. A few minutes into his run, less than a kilometre from his house, Jerry collapsed and died. He was 51. The Tim Hortons Casablanca Classic carried on without him on Nov. 12, a small Remembrance Day ceremony taking place under a handmade red-lettered sign stretched across the start/finish line: “Run on, Jerry, run on.”