Kale Garner had everything going for him when he died running a half-marathon
The runners were streaming past, seemingly by the hundreds now, in a rampaging kaleidoscope of colours. Kelly Bowden’s focus flitted from one to another to another as she tried desperately to pick out her friend in the teal T-shirt.
She’d worn a bright florescent yellow jacket to make it easier for Kale Garner to find her, too, there among the throng of spectators near the finish line of Sunday’s Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. But they never connected.
Bowden was crestfallen. Her “very close” friend had been there for her when she completed her first marathon five years ago, and now she wanted to help Garner celebrate his first half-marathon finish.
Before departing, she met another acquaintance from the race, who said someone, a young-looking man, had collapsed about 300 metres from the finish line in the 21-kilometre event.
“I said, ‘Oh my God, that’s horrible,’ ” she recalls. “Then, when I was in the car on the way home, I instantly put on (news station AM) 680 because I wanted to hear what happened. That’s when I heard it was a 27-year-old male that had passed away.
“In the back of my head, I was thinking, 27-years-old . . . No, it couldn’t be Kale. There’s no way. When I got home, I looked online and searched his bib number and I saw he didn’t finish the race. My heart sank.
“I had tried to call him on the car ride home.”
Garner, fit and with no known underlying health problems, had already been pronounced dead at St. Michael’s hospital.
If living a life can be seen as analogous to any kind of race, then Kale Garner was constantly at full sprint.
“He loved life and lived life every second, every moment,” says David (Tobe) Day, a former housemate in Bradford before Garner moved into downtown Toronto recently to pursue his goal of becoming a financial planner.
“Just a fun, big-hearted, life-of-the-party guy, able to cheer up any room with a joke,” says Mike Marshall, who shared that house with his two pals.
The type of guy who, when given the chance to sing karaoke, might belt out Alanis Morissette’s “Ironic” because he thought it would be funny.
Or who, when working at an event for older women at the Cardinal Golf Club in Newmarket — where he was part of the hospitality department for more than a decade — would take off his a shirt and wear just a red tie, to get a rise out of them.
He was, according to his pals, a handsome charmer, “a lady’s man” who never lacked for female accompaniment. A guy who effortlessly excelled at any sport while still managing to be a ridiculously good student.
“He was the type of guy who would take the shrink wrap off his text book the night before an exam and still get 100 per cent,” says Jordan Mann, a friend since Grade 1. “He was just one of those naturally smart, genius people.”
Every life, of course, includes the stuff of record. Raised in Holland Landing, a political science major at Brock University followed by acing George Brown’s post-graduate financial planning program. There was the long-time employment at the Cardinal Golf Club followed by what the women there call his “big-boy” job as an assistant at Assante Wealth Management in Toronto’s west end. Not to mention all those games of hockey and golf, two of his greatest passions.
But it’s not the resume that his friends remember. Not when asked to recall the life of someone who should still be living it. To them, Garner was much more than an unidentified 27-year-old runner who died in a half-marathon.
But he was indeed a runner.
“When we’d visit him downtown, you’d go into his apartment and there’d be clothes soaked in the bathroom,” says Day. “He’d say, ‘I just ran 16 k or 12 k.’ He was really excited to do different marathons and training for them.
“He was so active. That’s why it was so mind-boggling that he collapsed like that. It really doesn’t make much sense.’
Young athletes have died suddenly and unexpectedly before. Highly-touted NHL prospect Alexei Cherepanov died during a game in Russia when he was just 18. Joe Kennedy, who had last pitched for the Blue Jays, was 28 when he died at his parents’ home. Marathoner Ryan Shay was also 28 when he died during Olympic trials. Denver Broncos running back Damien Nash was only 24 when he died after a charity basketball game.
In each of the recent marathons in Chicago and Montreal, a man in his 30s died. The percentage of deaths, however, is miniscule. There were, for example, about 22,000 runners in the various distances of the Toronto event.
Usually, those types of deaths are linked with a cardiac issue.
Dr. Andy Wielgosz, a spokesman for the Heart and Stroke Foundation, says catastrophic heart problems leading to death among young athletes is actually quite rare and that makes it difficult to generalize about causes.
As possible causes he cites undetected conditions, such as cardiomyopathy or problems with the electrical system in the heart or cardiomyopathy.
Wielgosz notes that only two or three marathoners die during races every year amid the hundreds of thousands who participate. “There’s a lower risk among runners because they are fit and lead healthier lifestyles then general public at large.”
The evening before his race, Garner excitedly exchanged text messages with Angela Shryane, his office manager at Assante, where he’d been working for six months — and had taken up running seriously with his co-workers. He and Shryane were going to run together on Sunday. This would be Shryane’s eighth half-marathon, and she would help pace him during the race.
“We were running 10 and ones, which means we’d run for 10 minutes and walk for one,” recounts a distraught Shryane.
They thought they’d come in at around two hours and 15 minutes, a respectable but not really competitive time.
“He was running very, very strong . . . I was looking forward to his excitement about crossing the finish line. I couldn’t wait for that. He was healthy, he was fit.”
Shryane recalls Garner telling her at about the 10- or 12-kilometre mark about he felt “pretty good.” And nothing hinted at a deviation from that.
“There was no, ‘I’m going to push through this.’ Or ‘I’m feeling a pain in my chest.’ Nothing like that . . . There was nothing abnormal at all about our running that day.”
As the two runners turned north on Bay St. towards the finish line at King St., more than 20 kilometres into the race, Garner was just behind Shryane.
As they neared Wellington St., Shryane spotted her boyfriend in the crowd and turned back slightly to wave to him. That’s when she saw Garner on the ground.
Shryane said a race official came to the downed runner’s aid immediately. A doctor also quickly emerged from the spectators and began performing CPR. She recalls another two race officials appearing on the scene quickly, one wearing a red medic jacket, along with two police officers. Police say they received an emergency call at 11:15 from a cellphone saying a runner had collapsed.
“They pulled me away,” she recalls. “They said, ‘There’s a doctor with him right now.’ He came from the spectators.
“I went into shock. There were wonderful people, strangers from behind the barriers and they were hugging me. I was obviously very, very distressed. I kept saying, ‘Is he okay? Is he okay? Is he okay?’ ”
A paramedic team arrived, Shryane says, “very quickly.” According to race officials, Garner had no vital signs when he was taken from the course.
“They worked on him and then they took him away,” says Shryane, who with no choice because of how the runners are funneled, moved towards the finish line.
“I finished. I had to go and get my bag. I walked across the finish line.”
It’s still not clear what caused Garner’s death. When his family and friends gathered for a funeral on Friday, they were still waiting for a coroner’s report.
“We don’t know any answers, to be honest,” says Kale’s 29-year-old sister, Jill. “Just unknown causes. It’s still under investigation. He was a healthy guy who had been training. It’s just a shock.”
Garner spent Thanksgiving weekend with his two sisters and father — his mother passed away in car accident 10 years ago — at the family cottage near Minden, Ont. There was talk about future plans and, of course, the usual raucous game of Risk, a family tradition.
“(Kale) was in such a good place in his life,” says Jill. “He was so happy. He was really, really looking forward to running this race. He was excited for the experience.
“He was always giving himself challenges and goals and then striving to achieve those goals.”
The Red Hat Society women, the ones who enjoyed Garner’s shirtless, red-tie appearance a year and a half ago, are getting ready for the Red Hats Holiday Festival in early November. The ladies, all 50-plus and many divorced, widowed or single, had made a special request that the handsome young man return for the festivities.
So organizer Liz Carlisle had something special planned. She wasn’t going to let on that Garner, always willing to help out at the club, was there. Then, at the appropriate moment, he was going to bound out of a large gift box, ready to charm as he always did.
“It wasn’t a phony charm,” Carlisle says through tears. “He was just an all-around nice guy. He reminded them of their sons or grandchildren.
“I don’t think I’ll tell anyone he was going to be coming. It would be too upsetting.”