First winner of Watford/Alvinston Road Race remembered

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Bill Dolbear’s daughter, Lisa Fleming, presented a memorial award in honour of her father, to the oldest runner, Hylke Vanderwal, age 85 in 2023.

The first winner of the Watford/Alvinston Road Race has passed away, just a couple of weeks before he was planning to run it again.

Hylke VanderWall, whose name is synonymous with the race, died Friday.

In 1958, six guys were playing poker at the Watford Armoury Lounge and started talking about their running skills. They decided the 10 mile trek, about the same distance from Alvinston to Watford. Bill Dolbear, one of the men at the card game, asked VanderWal to run in his place.

The Dutch immigrant already had made a name for himself as a runner. Soon, the men, along with VanderWal, would be hoofing it down Highway 79 beginning the Victoria Day tradition.

VanderWall won that 9.5 mile race in a time of 49.54.

“Hylke carried on to run the race every year since – 65 years of running our race. He loved to regale the volunteers or fellow runners with stories of road races gone by. He has been awarded the oldest runner award for the past several years; last year running it at 85 years of age,” wrote one of the race’s organizers, Heather Ruth Letkeman in a social media post.

“We were excited to receive Hylke’s registration three weeks ago as he had clear plans to run the race again this year at the age of 86. Sadly, we received word this morning that Hylke passed away suddenly last night,” she said.

In an interview with The Independent last year – during the race’s 50th anniversary – VanderWal said he also won the race in its third and seventh year.

VanderWal started running as a young boy when his family first immigrated to Canada. He attended Forest High School and would run from his home on Jericho Road to school.

He would later represent Canada in track at the junior level before graduating from the University of Nebraska at Kearney. He was the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Steeplechase champion in 1962 and the helped the University of Nebraska Antelope finish third as a team, the
school’s highest finish ever.

Hylke VanderWal represented Canada at the junior level

VanderWal held several college records including the indoor 800 metre run with a time of 1:53.6 minutes and the outdoor 1,500 metre run with 3:52.6 minutes.

He also competed at the trials for the British Empire Games in 1962. He set a record in San Francisco at the Cow Palace, running the one mile steeplechase finishing the race at 4:25.05 at the Golden Gate indoor track meet in 1964. He hitched hiked to San Francisco from Ontario to compete.

He was also named the Master Athlete of the Year in Saskatchewan in 2010.

“Anything I got in my head, I did,” said VanderWal. “I just love running .”

Letkeman offered condolences to the VanderWal family adding the runner “will go down in Watford history as the only person to run the race 65 times, a record we are sure will never be beaten.”

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