Canadian Consulting Engineer

Marathon Pursuits

"It's a great chance to gossip and tell lies and talk about anything under the sun," says Ralph Haas, P.Eng. Believe it or not, the Norman W. McLeod Engineering Professor and distinguished professor e...

December 1, 2000  Canadian Consulting Engineer

“It’s a great chance to gossip and tell lies and talk about anything under the sun,” says Ralph Haas, P.Eng. Believe it or not, the Norman W. McLeod Engineering Professor and distinguished professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo is not talking about engineering conferences. Haas started running 30 years ago, and although he’s slowing down, he still jogs farther in a few weeks than most of us do in a year.

Like many engineers, Haas’ career involved a lot of sedentary work. When he was in his mid-30s, he decided to take up jogging, but this has become much more than a way of staying fit. Since he runs with a club, it’s also a social activity, and to challenge himself physically, he started entering 10 and 25 kilometre races. While pursuing a career that has included 30 years of university teaching, writing 12 books and over 300 technical papers, and being a founding member of ITX Stanley (now Stantec Consulting), Haas has managed to run in “dozens and dozens” of races. He has completed more than 20 marathons and several “ultra-marathons” of up to 100 kilometres.

Because running is important to Haas, he makes time for it, turning lunch hours into training time, or getting up at 6 a.m. to jog if a noon-hour meeting gets in the way. Even travelling for work becomes a help rather than a hindrance. “I have piggybacked some famous runs on business trips,” he says. Combining work with work-out, he co-chaired the Transportation Research Board’s Fourth International Conference in Durban, South Africa, and took part in the Comrades ultra marathon, a prestigious 87.3-kilometre event with 15,000 runners going from Durban to Pietermaritzburg. About 500,000 spectators lined the route and Nelson Mandela presented awards to the winners. “I didn’t get a prize,” Haas laughs, “but during the running you get to meet a lot of people from all over the world.”

This famous race aside, he tends to run marathons that offer more in terms of scenery than publicity. “Boston is too much of a zoo,” he says. A few summers ago he went to Baffin Island for the 100-kilometre Midnight Sun marathon, and he has enjoyed the events held in Dallas, Minneapolis and Ottawa. Ottawa also holds a special place in his running life, since it was in the nation’s capital that he first finished in under three hours. “That was the high point, the first time I ran a sub-three hour marathon in my mid-50s. It’s a real barrier, that three hours,” he explains, adding that not many recreational runners ever break it.

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For Haas, another of the benefits is just getting outside to enjoy the changing seasons and see the wildlife. And he’s been fortunate in that aside from a touch of tendinitis in one knee, he hasn’t suffered from the multitude of chronic injuries common to runners. The only downside is the training required to prepare for marathons, which he admits can be somewhat tedious.

A civil engineer, Haas became a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999 for his research in the field of pavement engineering. “That was a total surprise,” he says, pointing out that very few engineers are inducted into the Order. “When I got the letter I thought it was a mistake.” He says his election to the Canadian Academy of Engineers, with only 250 members from all disciplines, was also a great honour. Seeing his students go on to distinguished careers of their own is also very rewarding.

And somehow, between teaching graduate students and travelling the world to give lectures, participating in conferences and consulting on projects, he finds time to run 80 kilometres a week …or maybe all that running is what helps him maintain such a full career now that he’s “retired.”Sophie Kneisel

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