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New West resident recognized for decades of dedication to track and field

Builder’s Award: Ken Elmer recognized for work on Harry Jerome Track Classic and Vancouver Sun Run - and so much more.
New Westminster's Ken Elmer, left, with Diane and Doug Clement, co-founders of Achilles Track and Field Society, at a recent Builder's Award celebration.

“It’s been my life.”

That’s how New Westminster resident Ken Elmer sums up his involved in track and field, a sport that’s taken him to the Olympics as an athlete and has seen him organize prominent events like the Harry Jerome Track Classic and the Vancouver Sun Run.

The Achilles Track and Field Society recently presented Elmer with one of its 2024 Builder’s Awards, in recognition for his decades of contributions to track and field.

“It was awesome,” he said about receiving the award.

Elmer’s credits include being the: organizer and event director of the Vancouver Sun Run from 1985 to 1995; creator and organizer of the Times Colonist 10K from 1989 to 1994; and creator and organizer of the Port Alberni International Track Classic from 1993 to 2003. Along with countless other meets, he was also the event organizer of the Harry Jerome Track Classic from 1983 to 2003.

“It's been my life,” he said. “It's been my life ever since high school.”

Elmer was born on East Pender Street in Vancouver – a block away from what’s now the home to the PNE’s wooden roller coaster. But back then, it wasn’t the site of a fair – it was a big golf course.

“When I was four or five, all of a sudden these big diggers and trucks and cranes started digging away the golf course. I was pretty excited seeing all that stuff as a little guy,” he recalled. “It turned out what they were doing was building Empire Stadium.”

In 1954, Vancouver hosted the British Empire and Commonwealth Games.

Elmer would it on his porch with his mom and listen to the cheers from the crowds – including those who filled the stands on Aug. 7, 1954 – the day of the Miracle Mile. That was the landmark race in which Roger Bannister and John Landy both ran a mile in under four minutes.

“Absolutely, we heard it,” Elmer told the Record. “The crowd was electric.”

In the 4 X 400 yards, the final event of that meet, Great Britain finished with a time of 3:11.4, with Canada just a couple of yards out of first place at 3:11.7.

“A hell of a race,” said Elmer, who, again, heard the crowd’s cheers from his porch. “And it turned out, my future coach, the guy that trained me all the way through my running years and when I ran in the Olympics in 1972, Doug Clement, he ran the second leg on that relay.”

Elmer attended Killarney from Grade 7 to 9, but his interest in track really flourished when his family moved to Vancouver Island, after his father was transferred from the Woodward’s in Vancouver to its department store in Port Alberni.

“I didn't want to go there, of course. All my friends were at Killarney,” he said. “But it turned out to be the best thing I could do, because in Port Alberni you either went and drank beer at the gravel pit, or you played soccer, basketball and ran the track team. So for three years, I ran on the track team and never lost a race over there.”

He later attended the University of British Columbia and ran with the university’s team. In 1973, he ran a mile in 3:58.5.

“I think I was the first university student to break four minutes and qualify for the Olympics and the Pan American Games and the Commonwealth Games,” he recalled.

A middle-distance runner, Elmer would go on to compete at: the 1972 Olympic Games Munich (1500metre); 1973 Pan Pacific Games in Toronto (800m/1500m); the 1974 British Commonwealth Games in Christchurch, New Zealand (1500m); and the 1975 Pan American Games in Mexico City (800m/1500m).

“I ran in Europe every year, because it was a lot of fun,” he said.

Giving back

Elmer, who went on to become a school teacher at McKechnie Elementary School in Vancouver, helped out when Achilles resumed outdoor meets in 1983.

“Ken’s stated goal was to create a British Columbia international track series that featured Canada’s best against the World,” said a statement from Achilles about his award. “Leveraging his international athlete connections and ability to recruit many volunteers to his organizing committees, he greatly succeeded.”

With Elmer at the helm, the Harry Jerome Track Classic filled the stands at Swangard Stadium in Burnaby, and occasionally other venues if Swangard wasn’t available. Achilles stated he put together Jerome track meets that featured many outstanding world-class athletes including Eamon Coghlan, Cathy Freeman, Carl Lewis, Peter Rono, Mary Decker Slaney, Dailey Thompson and John Walker, as well as Canadian superstars including Lynn Williams/Kanuka, Donovan Bailey, Bruni Surin, Charmiane Crooks, Atlee Mahorn and Graeme Fell.

“Swangard is a perfect track and field stadium,” he said. “It's in the woods there at Central Park. You can look out at the mountains. It's like you're running in a forest almost. It's really a special place.”

According to Achilles, Elmer’s role in organizing the Vancouver Sun Run, with his volunteer committee, was also important to the society.

“He eventually negotiated that Achilles was paid up to $75,000 based on the number of entrants. This ensured that Achilles had the resources to run and attract international stars to the Harry Jerome outdoor summer track meet,” said the society’s statement. “This crucial financial support from the Vancouver Sun endured until 2022.”

During his running days, Elmer had competed in a meet in a tiny town in Norway that attracted 1,500 spectators. He sought to bring track and field meets to various towns in B.C.

According to Achilles, Elmer was instrumental in about 30 international track meets being held across British Columbia.

“Realizing the importance of showcasing the sport to other BC centres, Ken took the Achilles show on the road to New Westminster, Prince George, Abbotsford and Kelowna. And Victoria and Port Alberni (Ken’s home town) used the draw of athletes coming to The Jerome and the support of Achilles to stage their own track meets the week following,” said the society’s statement. “Overall, Ken was vital to the success of Achilles, by bringing high-level international and Canadian athletes to The Jerome, and during his tenure having it recognized worldwide as the top meet in Canada.”

When Elmer was organizing track meets and the Vancouver Sun Run, more than 150 elite, out-of-town athletes from Kenya, Mexico, Nigeria, Jamaica and other nations stayed with his family at their Queen’s Park home through the years. He credits his wife Janet for being integral to his ability to plan events, by hosting visiting athletes and overseeing the thousands of registrations and hundreds of cheques from participants in the Vancouver Sun Run in the years before online registration.

The Achilles Builders Award was created in 2022 to recognize and celebrate exceptional volunteers who have made a significant volunteer contribution to the activities of the society in organizing and hosting athletic events over an extended time. At a Feb. 27 celebration, Doug and Diane Clement presented Elmer, Dennis Hoy and Marek Jedrzejek with this year’s Achilles Builders Awards.