Justin Pfefferle (left) and Ariel Buckley will be running Around the Bay this weekend on team Roughcats.

Sask. ex-pat bringing Roughrider pride to historic road race

Justin Pfefferle has never been to Hamilton, Ont. before — but he feels like he knows the city.

Pfefferle, who grew up in Saskatoon, is heading to Hamilton this weekend to run in the historic Around the Bay Road Race with friend and teammate Ariel Buckley, who’s from the city.

“We often joke that we’re from the same city because when we talk about our respective hometowns, it feels like we grew up in the same place. There’s something about the working class and university vibes,” Pfefferle says. “And we’re both really proud of where we’re from.”

The pair are competing in the 2x15km relay under the team name Roughcats — a nod to their respective CFL teams, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and Hamilton Tiger Cats.

For Pfefferle, who still has vivid memories of the Roughriders defeating the Tiger Cats at the 1989 Grey Cup when he was seven years old, the cities are arch enemies.

Ariel Buckley (left) and Justin Pfefferle will be running Around the Bay this weekend on team Roughcats.
Ariel Buckley (left) and Justin Pfefferle will be running Around the Bay this weekend on team Roughcats.

“But both of us like the idea that these two cities are coming together for the purposes of this race,” Pfefferle says.

Not too long ago, Pfefferle would never have imagined being excited for an upcoming road race.

Now 39, Pfefferle had run with Saskatoon’s Century Track Club as a teen and ran track for the University of Saskatchewan Huskies for two years before giving up the sport to focus on his studies. While pursuing his graduate degree in English literature, he broke his fibula during a bout of university tomfoolery and it seemed he would never return to running. He went on to get his Ph.D in English literature at McGill University in Montreal and then launched his career as a professor and teacher.

But on Christmas Day 2019 — more than 15 years after his injury — Pfefferle inexplicably decided to see if he could still run.

“For years I just thought ‘This foot is never going to let me do it again.’” Pfefferle recalls. “But then I started feeling ‘I think I can do this.’ And so I did … And there was something about the realization that I could that made me want to keep doing it.”

That first run was a 20-minute jaunt along the side of a highway and Pfefferle’s ankle felt fine. He kept running, gradually stretching out the distance he covered, and when the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world into lockdown a few months later, running became an integral part of his life.

“It was the way that I dealt with the psychological grind of confinement, and I also had time so it was an opportunity,” Pfefferle says. “I thought, ‘OK, this is a project and I’m going to start training for something.’”

Pfefferle started with a virtual five-kilometre race and then tackled a virtual marathon. He ran his second marathon, the P’tit Train du Nord Marathon, this past fall, running 2:55 to qualify for the Boston Marathon. And when in-person classes resumed at Montreal’s Dawson College where he teaches, Pfefferle stepped up to co-coach the school’s first cross country team and is now coaching student athletes as they train for spring road races and track events. Many, like him, discovered running during the pandemic and they constantly remind him to be grateful for his health and ability to run.

“With the pandemic, nobody had it tougher than 15 to 18 year olds,” Pfefferle says. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that they were really cheated out of some incredibly important years of social development and fun and all the stuff that makes being a teenager so memorable … but now they are part of a running team.”

Pfefferle’s A-race for the spring season is the half marathon at the Saskatchewan Marathon weekend and he hopes Around the Bay can be a good tune-up run. But, more importantly, he knows it will be a great deal of fun.

“When you’re a runner, you see parts of the city or parts of the world in ways that you wouldn’t get to see otherwise,’ he says. “And I can’t think of a neater experience than getting to see my friend’s hometown from the vantage point of being a runner.”