Former Gaels Cross-Country Star Branna MacDougall wins debut marathon in Muskoka

Running a 2:33:40, the Kingston native now sits 26th of all time among Canadian female marathoners

Branna MacDougall, pictured, had an incredible marathon debut on Oct. 3.
Credit: 
Supplied by Branna MacDougall

On Oct. 3, former Queen’s Cross-Country athlete Branna MacDougall, ran and won her debut marathon in Bracebridge, Ontario, finishing the 42-kilometer race in just 2 hours, 33 minutes, and 40 seconds.

With that finish, only 25 other female Canadians in history have ever run a marathon faster.

Following her statement performance at the Muskoka Marathon last week, The Journal caught up with MacDougall to discuss her incredible debut as well as her unyielding—and, at times, paradoxical—passion for running.

“I don’t know, […] I don’t think it’s quite normal for an elementary school kid to go for a run on [a] Saturday morning,” MacDougall said in an interview, describing her unusual start with the sport.

“I was really bad at any kind of team sports and anything to do with hand-eye coordination.”

 Although running has always been a part of her life, MacDougall’s love affair with the sport started out small.

Like any other activity, it began as an outlet for her adolescent whimsy. Then, when she started high school, MacDougall joined Physi-Kult, a Kingston-based running club owned and operated by former Queen’s Cross Country head coach Steve Boyd. 

Nearly ten years later, MacDougall is still running for Physi-Kult, with Boyd still her coach. 

Since then, she’s done nothing but excel in the sport, regularly competing for championship positions at the secondary and post-secondary level. Her accolades include the OUA MVP award in 2017, first place at the 2017 OUA championships and third place at the 2019 U Sports championships, and a U Sports National Team title in 2019.

After she stopped competing as a varsity athlete in 2020, MacDougall continued her brand of excellence on two feet. Prior to her performance at this year’s Muskoka Marathon, she ran her debut half-marathon at the same venue last year, at which she broke Canada’s under-23 record for the event by three whole minutes, finishing with a time of 1:11:42.

Over a year later, she still holds the record, and ranks ninth all-time among Canadian women for her finishing time for the half-marathon.

Despite all this—and a laundry list more of other running related accolades—MacDougall nonetheless acknowledges that her relationship with running is anything but simple.  Injuries, expectations, pressure to perform—all of it is part and parcel of being a runner at the highest level, and it’s certainly tested her relationship with the sport at times.

“I don’t know, it’s almost like this toxic relationship […] it can put you into a lot of lows,” she explained.

“But at the same time, it’s also in my mind one of the most beautiful and simple things you can do.”

Therein lies MacDougall’s paradoxical relationship with running: on one hand, she considers it a form of meditation—a part of her daily routine as unchangeable as brushing her teeth—but on the other, it’s also the source of some of her biggest anxieties.

She’s equally perplexed by the dynamic. 

“It’s so weird […] the actual act of running makes everything so much better in my life, but then a lot of the things surrounding running have caused me a lot of anxiety, a lot of stress,” she said.

“Especially since I’ve been competing at a high level since such a young age, it’s a difficult thing to learn how to navigate.”

But, as MacDougall later remarked, her navigation of this relationship is continuously improving. Not only has she taken greater strides to achieve a sense of balance in her life, but she also firmly believes that her new field of competition is conducive to a positive mindset where varsity athletics sometimes wasn’t.

“There’s a lot of pressure still […] [but] it just feels different." 

Speaking to her performance at the Muskoka Marathon, MacDougall noted her preparation was somewhat hasty leading up to it. In fact, she didn’t even know she was going to compete until the end of August.

Average training periods for marathons usually range between four and six months. Prior to her “tapering” period—her gradual decrease in training meant to prepare her body leading up to the event—MacDougall only had a solid four weeks of training under her belt.

Yet, on Oct. 3, after she laced up her runners, she did anything but disappoint.

According to MacDougall, one of her fellow clubmates paced her for the first 30 kilometers, allowing her to stay on perfect time for the first three quarters of the race. Despite experiencing a slight dip in speed shortly thereafter, she was able to return to her previous pace and finish the race strong.

Although a race to remember, MacDougall admitted some parts of her trek are slightly fuzzy in retrospect.

“Honestly, I don’t remember a lot from the last 10 [kilometers]. I’ve never been in that much pain in my life.”

Reflecting on the wider experience, however, MacDougall clearly remembers the help and support she received from her close friends and family members—and won’t forget it anytime soon.

“My roommates and a few of my friends came out to cheer […] My parents and Steve [Boyd] were driving in a car and cheering for me,” she said.

“It was just really fun.”

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