‘On the lead­ing edge of the run­ning boom’

In 1975, 146 run­ners ran the first Ottawa Marathon. As one or­ga­nizer says, that’s ‘pretty puny’ com­pared to the 4,000 who will run the race this week­end, BRUCE WARD writes.

Ottawa Citizen - - ARTS & LIFE -

Not long af­ter Jim Robin­son took over as gen­eral man­ager of the Ottawa Race Week­end, or­ga­niz­ers were de­bat­ing whether to add a half-marathon event.

“I re­mem­ber some dis­cus­sion at a board meet­ing, ‘ We can’t have a half, it wouldn’t be suc­cess­ful.’ But it has turned out to be by far the most suc­cess­ful event of the week­end. “In the half, we’re sold out at 10,300, but we prob­a­bly could have done 12,000 eas­ily this year.”

When Robin­son took the job 13 years ago, there were about 4,000 par­tic­i­pants in to­tal, with 600 in the marathon.

“We’re at 35,000 now and our marathon is over 4,000,” he said.

Clearly, the race week­end has evolved in spec­tac­u­lar fash­ion over its 35-year his­tory. But it was a re­mark­able suc­cess from the beginning, when Ken Parker, Bill Wil­liams and a few other true be­liev­ers felt it was time Ottawa had its own marathon.

Parker kept meet­ing the same Ottawa run­ners at races in other cities. Why not have an Ottawa marathon? they fig­ured. So in the late sum­mer of 1974, they met with then coun­cil­lor Garry Guzzo and mem­bers of the parks and recre­ation depart­ment. With the city’s ap­proval, but no fund­ing, Parker and the oth­ers set to work.

The first marathon was held May 25, 1975, partly to co­in­cide with the Tulip Fes­ti­val. There were 146 run­ners, in­clud­ing three women.

“By to­day’s stan­dards, that’s pretty puny,” Parker said. “There are more noon­time jog­gers along the Rideau Canal. At the time, that made it the big­gest marathon in Canada.”

Looking back, sev­eral high­lights stand out in Parker’s mind.

“In 1976, we had the Olympic tri­als and that was the choice of Canada’s top marathon­ers. They were asked where they wanted to hold the tri­als and they said Ottawa.”

In 1978, the Com­mon­wealth tri­als were held dur­ing race week­end, and in 1984 the Olympic tri­als re­turned.

“There has been a lot of his­tory. It ex­ploded be­cause we were on the lead­ing edge of the run­ning boom.”

Parker ran the marathon ev­ery year from 1975 to 1981. He re­calls that 1981 was a no­table year. “We had over 300 fin­ish­ers un­der three hours in 1981, that’s with no Kenyans and maybe one or two Amer­i­cans. That’s an out­stand­ing per­cent­age. I think we had in the 4,500 to 4,800 range of starters.”

Parker him­self turned in a time of two hours, 42 min­utes in 1981, plac­ing 138th in the stand­ings. SEE a gallery of 35 years of race pho­tos.

“Ev­ery year from the first year, I’d run faster and my plac­ing would be worse,” he laughed. That re­flects how much the level of com­pe­ti­tion kept ris­ing.

Race week­end is also re­mark­able as an early adapter of high-tech meth­ods.

“We were the first race in the world to use an on­line com­puter sys­tem. We had an on­line sys­tem from the first year on, for regis­tra­tion and do­ing re­sults scor­ing. We started us­ing lap­tops at the fin­ish line as soon as lap­tops came into be­ing.”

Among Parker’s most cher­ished mem­o­ries is the 1978 marathon, which turned into a horse race be­tween Brian Maxwell and Paul Ban­non from Toronto.

“Ban­non had a big lead on the West­ern Park­way and Maxwell caught him at the Château Lau­rier — this is when we started and fin­ished at Car­leton Uni­ver­sity. They ran lock­step down the Rideau Canal to the uni­ver­sity. In a sprint fin­ish, Ban­non won by 0.2 sec­onds, which at the time was the clos­est marathon fin­ish ever recorded any­where.

“Ban­non col­lapsed and had to be taken to the med­i­cal tent, and Maxwell got a beer and did me­dia in­ter­views for half an hour.

“Then in 1984, Sil­via Rueg­ger ran the world’s de­but record for the women’s marathon. She had been Canada’s top fe­male crosscoun­try run­ner for a num­ber of years. She en­tered late on a Satur­day af­ter­noon with no fan­fare and ran with the sea­soned marathon­ers for about 35K and then just took off.”

Rueg­ger went on to com­pete at the Olympics in Los An­ge­les that year.

Or­ga­niz­ers even­tu­ally added a 10K event so that novice run­ners would have a man­age­able goal, said Parker.

“Our phi­los­o­phy was not to en­cour­age peo­ple who were not ready to run a marathon. We re­al­ized there were a lot of peo­ple who trained for the marathon and got in­jured be­cause, re­ally, they shouldn’t be run­ning a marathon. But they could run a shorter dis­tance. The 10K on Satur­day night was an in­stant suc­cess and took off.”

Parker be­lieves the char­ac­ter of the race has changed since the early days.

“If you were to take out the in­ter­na­tional run­ners the race can now af­ford … and looked at the Cana­dian con­tent, the race wouldn’t be close to what it was in the late 1970s through to 1984.

“For some rea­son, marathon­ing in Canada from a per­for­mance per­spec­tive seemed to take a real dip. I think it’s com­ing back now.

“For the masses, race week­end has be­come more of a par­tic­i­pa­tory event. The fo­cus isn’t re­ally on run­ning. To break three hours used to be the recre­ational run­ner’s goal, a real di­vid­ing line. I re­mem­ber one year some­body ran 2:59:59 and they were ec­static. It was like their per­sonal Olympics.

“Peo­ple trained more se­ri­ously. It’s be­come a par­tic­ipa- tion fundrais­ing ven­ture. It’s like a bar that be­comes the place to be seen. Race week­end is the place to be if you’re at all a run­ner, and ev­ery­body wants to be there and take part.”

Looking ahead, Jim Robin­son fore­sees the half marathon ex­pand­ing to 15,000 run­ners.

“Even though a marathon is twice the dis­tance, it is four times the work to train for and run,” he said. “Do­ing the half is such a chal­lenge in it­self, but it’s so man­age­able. The train­ing time is man­age­able and run­ning it and com­plet­ing it is man­age­able.”

What­ever the fu­ture holds, this edi­tion of race week­end prom­ises to be what it al­ways is: an an­nual marvel.

DREW GRAGG, THE OTTAWA CI­TI­ZEN

At the 1982 Ottawa Marathon, Jean Lau­ri­ault of Hull fin­ished with a splash, cour­tesy of some race vol­un­teers.

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