Masters champ Finlayson conquers more than just a race at Victoria Marathon

In his first marathon in a decade after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2009, Victoria’s Jim Finlayson came back and smashed records.

“Right now I’m just happy to have done it,” said a rain-soaked Finlayson moments after he strode over the finish line in Victoria on Sunday ot finish fifth overall.

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Finlayson was among 7,989 registered runners in the 39th Goodlife Fitness Victoria Marathon, half-marathon, 8K race, and Thrifty Foods Kids Run who showed up to test their physical and mental grit.

Runners of all ages and body shapes sprinted, jogged, stumbled and walked over the finish line — some couples holding hands, parents and kids running arm in arm, other participants pushing buggies and customized wheelchairs.

Most participants crossed the finish line with expressions of joy, some winded and in pain, some in tears.

For Finlayson, it was a triumph over the adversity of a chronic illness, but it was no less or more than the hurdles cleared by so many other runners Sunday who said they were testing their mettle or overcoming something life had thrown in their path.

“I think in the coming weeks I’ll reflect on things and reassess but for now I’m just happy to be out here and having done this for the first time in a long time,” said Finlayson.

With a time of 2:25:29, Finlayson set a new 45-49 age group record, coming in fifth overall in the marathon. Already a two-time Canadian marathon champion, Finlayson said he wasn’t aiming to smash his personal best or even his personal worst, but knew at age 46 that aiming for the master title or age-group title was at least in his “wheelhouse.”

“It’s been so long since I’ve raced a marathon and I just really didn’t know what to expect,” said Finlayson. “When I started feeling fairly heavy-legged at like 17K I thought I don’t know how much worse this is going to get but it got better.”

Finlayson was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in February 2009. With multiple sclerosis, the insulating covers of nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord are damaged, resulting in symptoms that can include double vision, muscle weakness, and trouble with sensation and co-ordination. Its manifestation takes different forms, either relapsing or progressing and in between, attacks can disappear, though permanent neurological problems often remain.

(In 2004, doctors thought Finlayson’s symptoms were the result of Guillain-Barre syndrome which is a rare disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves, causing weakness and tingling in extremities.)

“I definitely questioned whether I’d ever get back to a competitive level,” said Finlayson.

Finlayson said his episodes usually spike for six weeks at a time.

His first doctor thought the MS diagnosis signalled the end of Finlayson’s competitive running, but after that experts left it to Finlayson to listen to his body and decide. If he has any symptoms today they are mild — headaches, feeling sluggish, night sweats — but they haven’t stopped him.

“I never stopped running,” said Finlayson, adding a lot of doctors don’t have a full understanding of the effect of exercise on MS.

Finlayson ran five-kilometre, 10-kilometre and half-marathon races but found training for full marathons too hard, as the training depleted his body of energy to work and run and live a life. He stepped back from marathons until Sunday.

It was a powerful moment when he passed the fork in the road for the half marathon.

“I had a moment at 13K,” said Finlayson. “I’ve always raced the half here and that’s where it turns back and there’s a marathon sign that says ‘go left’ and that was one of the poignant moments for me, realizing I’m back out here doing this.”

Finlayson looks at his relationship with MS as more of “a dance with the disease rather than trying to fight it or deny it’s there.”

“I try not to put any limitations on myself but I also know that there probably are or will be limitations on me, so I just move as much as I can to the point I can’t go beyond that safely,” said Finlayson.

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