International Women’s Day 2018 Feature: A life-changing photograph

By Mark Sutcliffe

In May 1975, Diane Palmason picked up a copy of the Ottawa Citizen and flipped to the sports section. The photo on the front page showed Eleanor Thomas, the first woman to cross the finish line at the inaugural Ottawa Marathon.

“That picture changed my life,” says Palmason.

Palmason set her mind to running the Ottawa Marathon the next year. And she didn’t stop there. She ran Ottawa almost every year until 1985. Over the last 40 years, Palmason has completed 78 marathons, has set countless Masters and age group records, and is a member of the Canadian Road Running Hall of Fame.

It’s a passion she never expected to cultivate. As a high school track athlete in the 1950s, Palmason had been taught that women shouldn’t run long distances. Until 1960, the farthest women could race in the Olympics was 200 metres.

“I loved to run,” she says. “And I always thought I could run farther with the boys, but I wasn’t allowed to.”

Although she was strong enough at track to represent Canada at the 1954 Commonwealth Games, Palmason always suspected she would do better at longer distances. But since that opportunity didn’t exist for women, she gave up running when she went to university, and then had four children in seven years.

“In the 1950s, it was, ‘Okay, women, go back into the kitchen,’” she says. “There just was not a culture of rebelling and saying we’re going to do this anyway. That didn’t start until the 1960s. And by that time I had four kids, and I had other things on my mind.”

She did run occasionally, but she says in those days it wasn’t considered acceptable to run outside. So she often ran in circles around her house.

“Or I would wait until it was dark and then I would get the dog and put her on leash and run on the streets. If a car came along, I would stop. Once it passed, I would start again.”

Everything changed when she saw the photo.

“I had grown up with the impression that girls don’t do that. Women don’t run more than 220 yards. Here was this woman who had just run 26 miles.”

Palmason remembers thinking, “Oh, I want to do that.” She says, “It was just like that. It was highly irrational, in many ways.”

That’s especially true because she was recovering from back surgery, and her doctor was not excited about the prospect of her running long distances.

“He said, ‘Forget it, you’re not going to be able to run,’” she says. “Needless to say, I didn’t pay much attention to him.”

As she prepared for her first marathon in 1976, her first call was to Thomas.

“I phoned Eleanor and I said, ‘You don’t know me, but I saw your picture in the paper,’” says Palmason. “‘I’ve never run a marathon. I’ve never run any road race. What do I wear? What happens if I have to go to the bathroom?’ She was immensely patient and helpful.”

Over the next few years, Palmason won various trophies and awards for her performances in Ottawa, including trips to other marathons. But in those days there, weren’t big cash prizes for the winners, let alone Masters athletes.

“I have a wooden thing that’s a clock for being the first Masters woman in 1979,” she says. “Only the clock doesn’t work. And from 1981, I have something that’s kind of like a desk set. Over in one corner, there’s a figurine of a woman running in a style that would have gotten her once around the track, but not to the finish line of a marathon.”

That changed in 1985. Palmason wasn’t planning to run Ottawa that year until a few weeks before the event when she ran into one of the organizers.

“She said, ‘You’re not registered this year,’” says Palmason. ““I said, ‘No, I don’t think I’m going to run it.’ And she said, ‘Well, there’s $3,000 for the first Canadian woman.’”

Palmason had been training for a 1,500-metre race. So she asked friends for advice. One told her to forget the marathon – advice that she once again ignored. Another told her to get lots of rest. She ran the race and won the cash prize.

Palmason ended up setting a number of world records, including some that she still holds to this day. She took up coaching – running became a vocation as well as an avocation, she says. And it all started with a photo from the first Ottawa Marathon.

“I was literally in the right place at the right time,” she says.

Excerpted from Canada’s Magnificent Marathon: 40 Years Running in Ottawa