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