The 1980s: Ottawa’s marathon hits its stride

The 1980s was the beginning of many memorable trends—from the Rubik’s cube to Pac-Man to the Sony Walkman. But the eighties were also a time of growth for the Ottawa marathon as the popularity of running in general skyrocketed. 

While only 146 runners had laced up their sneakers and hit the streets of Ottawa in the inaugural race, by 1980, the Ottawa marathon attracted more than 4,000 runners. The race was also drawing an increasingly competitive field of runners from across North America. In 1981, around 20 per cent of the almost 3,500 finishers completed the course in under three hours.

Dorothy Goertzen female winner of the 1987 marathon (2:40:59).

Attracting the best of the best

In the early eighties, Mike Dyon was the man to beat. Having won the 1977 Ottawa marathon, he went on to take home top prize again in 1981 and 1983. But as the decade progressed, runners like Bruce Wainman, Peter Maher and Gord Christie started to move up the ranks. By the late eighties, Christie proved impossible to beat, winning in 1988, 1989 and then again in 1990.

The 1984 race attracted Canada’s best marathoners as Ottawa hosted the Olympic Qualifier. Silvia Ruegger was the top woman that year, setting a new course record that stood for 21 years. With that win, Ruegger went on to represent Canada in the first-ever Olympic women’s marathon in Los Angeles, placing 8th. 

But Ruegger wasn’t the only record setter at the 1984 Ottawa marathon. The men’s winner, David Edge, smashed the course record by almost 3 minutes, finishing in a time of 2:13:19 and Iremeli Ruponen set a new female Masters record, finishing in 2:47:44.

A race for all runners 

The Ottawa marathon also attracted more diverse participants in the eighties, including those with disabilities. Although Ottawa’s Lou Mulvihill had been the first wheelchair competitor to finish the marathon in 1979, a special trophy was created for wheelchair winners in 1983. 

1989 wheelchair marathon winners Andre Beaudoin and Josie Cichockyj. 

The “Man in Motion,” Rick Hansen, took home the prize that year. He had been the first wheelchair athlete across the finish line at the 1982 Boston Marathon—and went on to win a total 19 marathons—but he remembers the 1983 Ottawa marathon as being a particularly significant event. 

“The fact that the marathon in my nation’s capital was opening its doors to wheelchair athletes had huge symbolism,” says Hansen. “Sport is a mirror for how society views itself, for its values.”

The race also welcomed more and more runners with visual impairments. In 1983, Ottawa’s Jacques Pilon became the first blind runner to finish the Ottawa marathon in under three hours. To train for the race, he recalls having to run up and down the 273 steps at the YMCA as well as running the ramps of Ottawa’s Civic Centre.

Tragic endings

The finish line at the Ottawa marathon can often be a dramatic scene. In 1982, runner Paul Bush collapsed just metres from the finish line and was rushed to the hospital. But a few weeks later, the race organizers restaged the finish for him so he could complete the race. Bush never ran another marathon, but went on to participate in many 10K races.  

Unfortunately, other stories didn’t have such a happy ending. In 1985, Mervin Smith, a 47-year-old Toronto man, collapsed at the 35-kilometre mark of the race after suffering a heart attack. Although the on-site medical staff reached the runner within minutes of his collapse and began CPR, Smith sadly died later at hospital. 

A family affair 

From its inception, the Ottawa marathon has been an event for the whole family—and this continued throughout the eighties. In 1981, Raymond Metcalfe and his daughters, Abbigail (9), Ailsa (11) and Yvette (13) all ran the marathon. The father from Deep River, Ontario, told the girls they could only participate if they were able to work up to a 32 km run by the week before the marathon—and the girls did it. They trained every day after school to meet his condition.

But the Ottawa marathon also attracted some high performance families around this time. Identical twins, Sylvaine and Patricia Puntous, placed 2nd and 3rd  in the 1981 race. The Montreal duo not only ran the entire race together, they crossed the finish line at the same time, finishing in a time of 2:48:59. The Puntous sisters went on to be two of Canada’s best triathletes, winning both the 1983 and 1984 Hawaii Ironman Triathlon. 

Hats off to the organizers 

Ken Parker was part of a group of runners who started the marathon back in 1975. For the first six years, he not only organized the event, but also took part in it. But after the 1981 race, Parker decided the demands of both were too much. 

“I’d be running around frantically until about ten minutes before the race, then I’d strip off my sweats and warm up for a couple minutes and wait for the gun,” he explains. “Then, once I was finished running, I went back to work on the event.”

Parker stayed on as race director until 1986. He passed the baton once the marathon began to hit its stride, attracting increasing numbers of runners, sponsorship deals and prestige.

Doctor Howard Cohen, who ran every Ottawa marathon until 2020, credits organizers like Ken Parker with creating an event that appeals to runners of all levels. And that might be the secret to why the race, now called the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon, is still going strong some 50 years later. 

Fun facts

  • In 1982, both the men’s and women’s title were won by Americans for the first time. Greg Leroy was the first man across the finish line, winning by more than five minutes, and Margo Elson was the top woman. 
  • The 1982 race was the hottest on record, with a high of 23°C—a record that wasn’t broken until 1991. 
  • The race was renamed the “Labatt’s Lite National Capital Marathon” in 1983 and got a $3,700 digital clock—the first of its kind in Canada.
  • The 1986 race almost didn’t happen, as the board of directors voted to cancel the event due to declining numbers and the lack of sponsorship.
  • In 1986, the 10K race was added, attracting 855 participants.
  • In 1988, Margarita Galicia became the first and only Mexican to win the marathon.
  • Hull’s Bernard Voyer, the runner-up in 1988, was disqualified after accepting a drink from a non-designated water station. 

The 50th anniversary of the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon is going to be Canada’s biggest running party of 2024! Register now for Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend, May 25-26!