Running Talk with Eleanor Thomas

In 1975, Eleanor Thomas was the women’s winner at the first Ottawa Marathon. 40 years later, we asked Eleanor how she came to run the first Ottawa Marathon, what kind of equipment she ran in back in the day, and why she continues to lace up her running shoes. Thanks to Eleanor for taking the time to chat with us and for being such a great ambassador for Ottawa running!

1. Let’s start at the beginning. How did you come to register and run in the first Ottawa Marathon? Had you always been a runner?

Eleanor Thomas: Until I was 26 years old, I had never even considered running. I was trying to find a way to quit smoking. I realized one fine day that quitting things was hard but starting things was easy. I decided to start getting fit and healthy. That’s when I took up running, following the points system set out in Ken Cooper’s book, Aerobics. When you feel your lungs and your whole body getting healthier every day, well, losing tobacco comes more easily.

I had been running for four years or so when I heard rumours that a marathon was being planned for 1975 in Ottawa. My husband and some of the people I used to run with on Sundays were considering giving it a try. I thought, well, why not? We all started training, and as soon as the event was announced, we signed up.

2. Can you take us back to the experience of running (and winning) the first Ottawa Marathon? What was that day like?

Eleanor: Compared to today, the event was very low-key. It started on the Carleton campus, headed along Colonel By Drive and out the Western Parkway to Woodroffe Avenue, and back. It was a hot day, but it was very dry. There were water stations here and there, but not as many as in a modern marathon. One or two spots had orange slices. Gels were unheard of. I did not drink any water at all on the course and I would not have considered eating anything while I was running because I was afraid of getting a cramp. Nowadays, like most runners, I take water at every chance I get on a hot day.

Thomas at the first Ottawa Marathon

Thomas at the first Ottawa Marathon

Really, the concept of winning never entered my head. The idea was to get to the finish line in a reasonable time. In later years, female runners became much more competitive and thought in terms of coming first or finishing ahead of someone else, but not in 1975.

3. Boston only officially started letting women runners register in 1972. And in Ottawa in 1975, you were one of 3 women out of 146 entries. So it sounds like marathon events were still fairly new territory for women at the time. Were people surprised that you wanted to run a marathon?

Eleanor: Marathon events were new territory for everybody, men and women. Most people had no idea what a marathon was, and when they found out they were often totally incredulous. They were surprised that anyone could or would run 26 miles. It is true, though, that some were astonished that women could do this. I remember overhearing someone say as I ran past, “My God, look! That’s a woman!” At first, some race organizers were skeptical. One year, I was told by the organizers of the Round the Bay Race in Hamilton that women were not welcome. By the next year that had changed, and quickly races began not only welcoming women, but encouraging them to sign up.

4. Today thousands of runners, with almost equal numbers men and women, sign up for the marathon and half marathon events. Why do you think these long-distance running events have become so popular?

Eleanor: Let’s face it, running is a terrific activity, and big races just pulse with atmosphere. Men and women love the vibes in a big race, and a long, hard race like a marathon or half-marathon gives the extra dimension of shared challenge. In Ottawa, the community support has been beyond belief, and that certainly adds to the attraction. I think that everyone in the city has a relative, friend, or neighbour running, which increases the interest. And in the Ottawa race, it’s all about the runners. The support for each and every person running in the races is as good as it gets. What’s not to like?

5. You have continued to run seriously, running the Ottawa Marathon in 2010 and 2009. I imagine both the gear and the organization of races are quite different. Can you tell us about some of the differences between running and training today and 40 years ago?

Eleanor: Really, I ran my last marathon in 1983, before I got too busy with family and career to train for marathons. But I continued to run regularly on a low-key basis. Twenty-six years later, the 2009 marathon was scheduled for May 24th, which happened to be my 65th birthday. I decided to train for one more marathon to celebrate this landmark. I was disappointed with my time, which was over 5 hours. I had to run the race with a cast on my arm, owing to an unfortunate accident the month before, which slowed me down. I entered the race again in 2010 to break 5 hours, did so, and hung up my racing shoes.

One of the biggest differences between 1975 and now was the gear we wore to train and race. My first running shoes were leather. I shudder to think what they weighed. We wore old shorts and cotton T-shirts, sometimes with the sleeves torn off. As the weather got cooler, we added layers of cotton. In winter out came the grey cotton/polyester fleece sweat pants and sweatshirts, with nylon jackets and overpants. Breathable? Not at all. Wicking? Nope. Fast drying? No. That quickly changed as merchants realized that there was a growing market for lightweight, comfortable clothing for fitness activities. And nowadays, it even looks good.

6. Why do you keep running? What do you love about it? And what do you love about running in Ottawa?

Eleanor: Running makes me feel good, keeps me fit, and clears my mind, which is why I love it. As for Ottawa, running here is wonderful because of the long miles of recreational trails all around the city. I usually run beside the Canal these days, down to the National Arts Centre or up to Hog’s Back, but there are beautiful routes everywhere. Even in winter many of the paths are cleared quickly, and the sidewalks and roadways are usually passable. If you’re going to run, you might as well do it in Ottawa.