The power of a smile … OK, and the power of running

As the (nearly 100-year old) song goes,

When you’re smiling, when you’re smiling,
The whole world smiles with you.

Last week our community, and especially our very large running community, lost someone whose smile was legend.  He was my former student and friend, and he was friend to countless people spanning the generations who had encountered him through his long-time cheese stall at the popular Boyce Farmer’s Market and through his running clinics at the Running Room over many years.  For all those runners, and there were literally hundreds, Mark’s smile and gentle but convincing encouragement were what they credited for getting them across the finish line, providing a sense of personal accomplishment they had not thought possible.


Mark Kirby died of cancer last week, just a few weeks short of his 50th birthday.  His body finally said “enough” after 4 years of fighting the cancer.  When the cancer left him unable to run, he instead attended every race to support all the other runners, serving as the race photographer, and helping and encouraging in every way possible.  Just his presence and his smile gave people who knew him (pretty well everyone) that extra spark to want to give their all.  Seeing him taking photos along a race route gave you extra energy.

Mark wasn’t rich by way of making tons of money, but he was rich in other ways.  He wasn’t famous because he developed some new medical advance to save the world (although he certainly was a valuable subject for testing several new experimental drugs in the past few years).  And Mark wasn’t an elite runner making his career out of conducting running clinics.  He took a “learn to run” clinic himself in 2007 and fell in love with everything about it: the challenge, the sense of personal fulfillment, and especially the sense of community.

The Running Room has a business model that probably wouldn’t catch on in every culture.  The establishments sell all manner of running gear, and they entice new customers by offering running clinics that meet one evening and one weekend morning for a set period of time leading up to a target race.  It may be a Learn to Run Clinic, a 5K clinic, or a 10K, Half Marathon, or Marathon.  It may be a local race or a destination race.  And, get this, the clinic leader is a volunteer even though the runners pay to sign up for a clinic.  As well, the clinic leader is just as committed to doing the target race as the participants.  This model was just made for someone like Mark.  Between 2007 and 2017, when his diagnosis became clear and he could no longer run, he ran countless 10Ks, half marathons, and 13 marathons in several different cities, all with his clinic group at the time.  All with that famous smile, and all with nothing but words of encouragement for others while he worked to complete his own goal.

Mark loved puns.  It could be a bit unnerving; he could think of a pun for just about anything you happened to be doing or saying.  He loved puns that people shared with him, and he really loved his own puns!  In 2018, when Mark was having to leave the province for treatments that would require him to stay there for several weeks, the running community decided to raise money to help with the costs of the travel and the stay.  They held a Bad Pun Fun Run to raise money, and 125 crazy runners went out in the dark on one of the coldest November days any of us could remember, and ran for Mark.


They started a Facebook group called Bad Pun Fun Run for Mark Kirby so that people could share puns with him to help keep his spirits high.  This group has 412 members, and the number of posts – of puns – is in the 1000s.  Some are even funny! 😉  I’ve even posted a fair number myself.  At the moment the group page is filled with posts of fond and heartfelt memories, but my guess is that the pun posts will continue and Mark’s smile will continue to radiate for all who knew him.

Within a few hours of the word getting out of Mark’s passing, a few people tied sneakers with notes of condolence on a the pedestrian bridge near the Running Room.  Before long, 170 pairs of sneakers with notes lined the railings of the bridge.


One person posted a suggestion that people wear one of the race shirts they wore to one of the races they had done with Mark to the family visitation a few days hence.  The large, socially-distanced group paying their respects were setting a new standard in funeral parlour attire, with perhaps 75% of the visitors wearing race shirts from many different races.

Mark Kirby has left a lasting legacy through the power of a warm, ever-present smile and generosity of spirit.  The world needs more people like Mark.


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38 Responses to The power of a smile … OK, and the power of running

  1. Pingback: Yearend review: just who the heck reads blog posts anyway, and what do they really like?! | Robby Robin's Journey

  2. dgomaj says:

    Incredibly beautiful post!

  3. fgsjr2015 says:

    “The power of a smile … ”

    Following the June 6 killings of four members of a family for being Muslim, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau suggested to Canadians that “the next time you see a woman in a hijab or a [Muslim] family out for a stroll, give them a smile.” I feel that doing so can be a healthy and powerful, yet relatively effortless, potential response by caring individuals to acts of hate targeted at other identifiable-group members of society. One might also wear anti-hate symbolism, e.g. a colored ribbon or shirt.

    I decided to do just that as my own rebellious response to the (as anticipated) acts of racial/religious intolerance that soon followed Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential election victory. Anti-Trump demonstrators’ catchy slogan was “Love Trumps Hate”. Not much for the non-family ‘love’ part (except maybe for dark chocolate truffle ice cream), I would do the next best thing by offering a smile.

    But when offering a smile, one should do so promptly. In my first attempt, with a passing woman wearing a Muslim head scarf, I hesitated long enough (likely for fear of possibly offending her modesty) for her to catch my blank stare and quickly look away. Bitterly ironic, the opposite of my intended friendly gesture was therefor likely perceived by her.

    I made sure to not repeat the mistake, however, as I passed a middle-aged Black woman along the sidewalk. To me, she had a lined expression of one who’d endured a hard life. I gave her a smile, and her seemingly tired face lit up with her own smile, as though mine was the last thing she’d expected to receive. We always greet one another, since then, and converse when awaiting the bus.

    In the current climate of heated emotions and even violent intolerance, I feel it’s not enough to just not think/act hateful; we also need to display kindness, perhaps through a sincere smile.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      What good advice and great examples, FGS Jr. I agree that there’s nothing easier and more powerful than a smile. That’s one of the biggest drawbacks of having everyone wearing masks these past 18 months. I like to think that we’ve learned to send and interpret smiles through our eyes!

  4. somekindof50 says:

    Sounds like a wonderful man – very inspiring. Such a shame we lose such wonderful people early.

  5. Roy McCarthy says:

    Nice tribute Jane, and typical of the running community in how they reacted to Mark’s passing.

  6. debscarey says:

    Jane, he sounds like a wonderful man. What a lovely memorial – both the shoes on the bridge and your eloquent post.

  7. So very, very sorry! Too young! The sneakers tribute is touching.

  8. A lovely tribute, and I’m very sorry for the loss of your friend. The world needs more people like him.

  9. So sorry for the loss, his smile is so innocent in this picture. May his soul rest in peace 🙏.

  10. Very powerful, thanks for sharing.

  11. Very sorry to read about the loss of your friend. He sounds like he made the most of what he was given. May we all be like Mark.


  12. Kristel says:

    Jane, this a wonderful post about a very special person. A few of us will dedicate our June 24th run to Mark on what would have been his 50th birthday. A friend alway say while running a race, you run the first third with your head, the middle third with your heart, and the last third for those that can no longer run. In PEI, I ran my half for Mark. 💕

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks for reaffirming my sentiments, Kristel. A very special person indeed. I really like the idea of running on Mark’s birthday (NOT 50 miles though!), I’ll do that, too, but just 5K. I love your friend’s expression; I’m going to remember that. Keep running and reading, Kristel! 💕🏃

  13. dfolstad58 says:

    Dear Jane, I am sorry for your loss and Mark clearly touched people’s lives. What a rich man he truly was! Thank for posting this heartfelt tribute – Mark’s life and example is an inspiration.

  14. annemariewatson says:

    My deepest sympathy at the loss of someone so dear.

  15. BernieLynne says:

    What a legacy he left but far too soon. Cancer is so unfair. I am sorry for your loss of a friend and while the community lost a friend they won’t ever forget him. I am 100% certain there is already a race being planned in his memory. We had a runner here in Saskatoon who was quite well known and his statue is in a prominent spot and changes its running attire regularly. I have always assumed it’s the running community that keeps him it rogues and scarves or decked out in a bright singlet.

  16. Thank you for sharing this lovely tribute to a person I wish I’d had the pleasure of meeting. I have made a point over the past two years to, when I find myself saying something nice about someone, to then call/email that someone and repeat what I’d said TO them. I want them to enjoy knowing that someone respects and values them. Too often we are hard on ourselves and only see our own faults. People need to know that their efforts were effective and appreciated. It sounds like this man would have known that he was valued by so many. I truly hope so.

  17. So sorry for the loss of Mark, Jane. He sounds like such a lovely person.

  18. Inkplume says:

    He sounds like he was a wonderful person. I’m so sorry for your community’s loss.

    • Jane Fritz says:

      Thanks, Linda. The strength of the impact of one low-key running buddy shows the power of kindness. Mark made people feel better about themselves just by being himself.

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