Perley's marathon man inspiring others to cross the finish line

By Alistair Steele, originally published May 27 2022.

Wally Herman's running career almost defies belief.

He finished 730 marathons and ultramarathons in 99 countries, racking up nearly enough kilometres to circle the globe.

He became the first runner to compete in every Canadian province and territory, and the first to cross a finish line in every U.S. state.

He ran the inaugural Antarctic Ice Marathon in 1995 (6:07:21) and finished the Nunavut Midnight Sun race three times, including a 100-kilometre ultra that took him nearly 20 hours to complete.

In 1984, he competed in a six-day, 560-kilometre race in Colorado. He ran the Boston Marathon 13 times and the Ottawa Marathon 34 times.

But perhaps most astounding: Herman didn't start running until he was 50, packing it all into just 37 years.

Meticulous records

Now 96 and living at Ottawa's Perley Health, Herman's running days are behind him. (His final event was a local walkathon in 2012.)

The modest notebook in which he kept a precise, hand-written account of his athletic achievements is now in the possession of his eldest son, Robert Herman.

I think it's a real inspiration. His story's incredible.
- Courtney Rock, Perley Health Foundation

"He kept meticulous records, but he never learned to use a computer," Herman said of his father. "I can't believe that he did so much in 37 years."

Wally Herman was born in Winnipeg on Nov. 11, 1925, and raised in Manitoba's capital. In 1944, at the age of 18, he enlisted in the Royal Canadian Navy and served as a telegraph operator aboard a corvette in the North Atlantic until the end of the Second World War.

After obtaining a Master's degree from Oxford University, Herman settled in Ottawa where he took a job with the Department of Industry, Trade and Commerce. 

A serious travel bug

Thanks to a small inheritance, Herman was able to retire in his mid-50s. That's when his running went "ballistic," according to his son.

Though the family home on Rideau Garden Drive was near plenty of excellent running routes, Herman soon developed a serious travel bug. 

"He would see a Voyageur bus go by and his heart would jump out of his chest because he wanted to be on that bus, going to God knows where," Robert Herman recalled.

Sometimes, Herman would string together several marathons on a single round trip ticket. When a U.S. airline began offering unlimited flights for an annual fee, he leapt at the deal.

"They really lost money on him!" Robert Herman laughed. "He enjoyed the travel as much as he enjoyed the running."

Running through the alphabet

His "obsession," according to his son, was to complete a marathon in a country beginning with each letter of the alphabet except X, a record he achieved and kept for decades.

Where there was no organized race, Herman would create his own, carefully measuring out 42.2 kilometres around high school tracks, along seafront promenades and once, among the columns of St. Peter's Square in Vatican City.

He would routinely run four marathons in a month, and once managed five. Another time, Herman ran nearly 180 kilometres, or more than four marathons, in 24 hours.

"It became a lifestyle for him," Robert Herman said, though it was a somewhat ascetic one. 

"You wouldn't believe the crappy footwear he ran in. He would repair his runners with Shoe Goo. He would never throw them out."

By the time he finally hung up those shoes, Herman had achieved legendary status among hardcore distance runners worldwide. According to his longtime friend John Wallace, Herman's passion for international running soon caught on.

"Wally started long before anyone considered running 'country marathons,'" said John Wallace, president of the elite Country Club of runners who have raced in at least 30 countries. "The Country Club considers Wally to be one of the primary pioneers in our sport."

Wallace would eventually eclipse his friend's record by running in 100 countries, but said Herman accepted it with typical good grace.

"All he said was, 'I knew the day would come and I am glad that it is you!'" Wallace recalled.

'He never boasted'

According to Robert Herman, his father was never one to dwell on his running successes.

"His humility was what stood out. He never boasted," Herman said. "It was a private achievement that he kept to himself, for the most part."

As proof of that personal trait, there are very few photos of Herman running, particularly in the early years.

Wally Herman's wife of 64 years, Marie-Thérèse, died in 2016. Herman, who now has dementia, moved into Perley Health in 2019.

"The staff at the Perley find him one of their most low-maintenance patients because he's always so charming and so polite," Robert Herman said. "His capacity for good cheer, and even the odd pun, is still there. He's full of good vibes and good feelings."

Wally Herman has also become something of an inspiration to Perley Health's own team of runners who are participating in this year's Ottawa Race Weekend events, both virtually and in person.

The team of more than 100 staff members, volunteers, families and others is hoping to raise $75,000 to help improve the quality of care at Perley Health. By Wednesday, they were just $10,000 shy of their goal.

'A real inspiration'

"For all of us, you have that one resident who you think of when you're doing something like this, and Wally's it for many," said Courtney Rock, director of development for the Perley Health Foundation

"I think it's a real inspiration. His story's incredible."

Rock, who's running a virtual 5K, said Herman, who still likes to walk the halls and participate in fitness classes at Perley, will benefit directly from the money that's raised

"When you're raising money, it's nice to be able to connect it to the people you're doing it for," she said.

Speaking to Canadian Running in 2016, Wally Herman said it was precisely those human connections that made his own race worth running.

"I got caught up in it. You're with this crowd and you feed off them. It inspired me. You feel a sense of satisfaction," he said.

"It was a wonderful journey that helped make me a better person, especially in my relationships with others."