Marathon runner Bill Nielsen operated under the belief that it is easier to ask forgiveness than seek permission, quietly and secretly blazing new trails where he and fellow runners could race and train.
Metre by metre, those trails laid the foundations of the walking and hiking network in the City of Lacombe, cut and groomed by the hand of a retiree who, although small in stature, leaves a legacy far beyond his Central Alberta neighbourhood.
“He was in so much hot water all the time,” said Linda Nielsen of her husband, who died on Friday of pancreatic cancer after a head-on battle with Parkinson’s disease. He was 73.
Nielsen’s trail building project was generally about six months ahead of local officials, reaching 20 km altogether.
At one point, he had to negotiate an agreement with a private developer because each was moving the ribbons the other had set out to mark a route, said Linda.
When officials from what was then the Town of Lacombe finally caught up with Nielsen and challenged him, he changed gears and joined the parks and recreation board, serving for eight years in total, including a stint as chair.
Every metre of those trails has since been incorporated in city’s trail system, his wife said.
Egged on by his son, Bill Jr., Nielsen ran his first marathon at the age of 40 — and swore after nearly collapsing toward the end that he would never run another.
Five years later, he ran his fastest time ever, finishing in two hours and 48 minutes — six minutes ahead of his son.
He said during a speech in 2008 that he had learned to run as a matter of necessity:
“We had no place to play in the centre of (Montreal); our playgrounds were big department stores, roof tops and McGill campus. We would get chased out of all these places by the security guards, so you had to run fast because if they caught you, they would turn you over to the police. I learned to run fast.”
Nielsen completed his 50th marathon in 1997.
“I said, that was easy, I can do 100,” he said in an interview with the Advocate.
He was two-thirds of the way there, with 35 marathons to go, when he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s.
But there was no quit in him. Instead of shutting down, he forged ahead, convinced that running and training would fend off the effects of the disease.
He ran his last 10 marathons over the space of one year, reaching his goal in the Woody’s RV World Marathon in Red Deer in May 2008, at the age of 68. Nielsen had helped found the Red Deer marathon in the late-1990s and had been its chair for eight years.
A fellow runner once described Nielsen’s gait during his last marathons as so awkward, it was hard to watch.
He was wearing the toes out of his left shoes at an extraordinary speed because the left leg was dragging due to his Parkinson’s, so he would need a new pair of shoes for each marathon, said Linda.
A running store provided him with new shoes for each of his last five marathons.
He had to stop running shortly after Woody’s, but joined fellow runners by riding with them on a bicycle, said Bill Jr.
Named Alberta Volunteer of the Year in 1998, Nielsen is to be inducted posthumously in June to the Wood Buffalo Sports Hall of Fame in Fort McMurray, where he lived and worked before retiring to Lacombe in 1996.
Linda will accept the award on his behalf, along with his two daughters, Karen and Tracy.
Linda is now looking for a place where the many mementoes of Nielsen’s exploits, including all of his medals and 11 scrapbooks, can be displayed in public.
Nielsen was diagnosed with cancer early in December, while he and Linda were at their winter home in Mesa, Arizona.
He spent the last month of his life at the Red Deer Hospice, where he was visited by streams of people, including the many runners he had inspired. He would not allow anyone to be turned away, said Linda.
A memorial service is set for 11 a.m. on Saturday at the Lacombe Memorial Centre — a project Nielsen worked on firsthand as a member of its planning committee.