Scientist, long-distance runner and Collingwood local, Alicia Tone Virtanen, will run for all women this fall.
On Sept. 10, Virtanen will embark on a 31-km trail run along the Bruce Trail in solidarity with the 3,100 Canadian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year.
She’s calling it ‘Run for Her’ and 100 per cent of funds raised will go to Ovarian Cancer Canada (OCC), a national charity that champions the health and well-being of individuals with and at-risk for ovarian cancer, while advancing research.
Virtanen has always enjoyed challenging her limits, and the 31-km loop will be the longest distance she has ever run consecutively.
“I am really excited to put myself through the wringer,” said Virtanen. “I am excited to push myself.”
Moreover, she is excited to do it for a cause so near and dear to her heart.
The 41-year-old from Collingwood completed her PhD at the University of Toronto and Post Doctoral training at the BC Cancer Agency before working at the Princess Margaret Cancer Centre for seven years. In 2019, she transitioned to the nonprofit sector and became the scientific advisor and program manager of OvCAN, OCC’s national research initiative that works to identify new treatments for women with ovarian cancer.
Also in 2019, she unexpectedly fell in love with running. At the time, it gave her the courage to leave academia and jump into a new career. It also gave her a healthy outlet where she could push her limits.
The new-found love soon led her to complete her first half-marathon in the spring of 2020. Because of COVID-19 it was a solo effort, so she decided to give it a different purpose instead.
“When I come up with a challenge for myself I like to add something to it, just to make it bigger or more meaningful for me,” she said.
Every day, Virtanen works alongside scientists, oncologists, patient partners and colleagues who go the extra kilometre to improve the lives of women living with ovarian cancer, and she wanted to do her part to give back.
She decided to raise money and was astonished by the response. In less than three weeks she was able to raise $1,800 for the cause.
The following year, wanting to push herself even further, she took on a new challenge. This time, she set out to run 5 km, every five hours, until she reached 50 km. She started at noon on a Friday and concluded the following Sunday at 9 a.m.
Once again, she added a fundraising element to her personal challenge, and once again she was pleasantly surprised by the response. Several women, and even a few men, joined her for 5-km stints day and night, and she raised almost $4,000 by the time she completed it.
She was humbled, and knew she needed to continue the momentum.
“This was all going to be a solo adventure at first, but with all of these people donating to the cause and wanting to run with me I thought, maybe I can leverage this and make it even bigger,” she said.
September is ovarian cancer awareness month and the 31 km — her longest distance yet — she will run for Run for Her represents the 3,100 Canadian women diagnosed with ovarian cancer every year.
This year, she also has extended an invitation to anyone who would like to join her to raise awareness and funds. Participants can contribute by donating a $31 registration fee and join for as much or as little of the run as they would like.
Her goal is to raise $5,000 this year.
So far, an additional 10 runners have signed up, with a local social club, Girl Time Inc., contributing with a relay team of up to five more women.
Several other businesses have gotten involved in whatever way they can, with Loo McNulty Design creating a logo pro bono, Low Down introducing a feature cocktail and donating $1 from each cocktail sold to Run for Her, and a dozen other businesses contributing to a raffle prize valued over $3,000.
Others in the community have volunteered their time as support crew, or offered to set up unofficial water stations along the route.
“It’s crazy, it makes me so emotional,” said Virtanen.
She wants to make the event an annual affair, growing it bigger and bigger every year. Most importantly, she said Run for Her is not a race, but simply a challenge. She has always loved pushing herself and wants to encourage other women to do so as well, whatever that challenge looks like for them.
“I once heard an ultra runner say ‘suffering is a gift,’ so I am excited to choose to suffer. On purpose,” she said. “The fact that I can choose to suffer to do something good for them, that’s what drives me.”
For more information or to make a donation, visit Run for Her’s fundraising page.