The 1990s: The Ottawa marathon becomes a running festival for all

The 90s ushered in a new era of marathoning. With celebrities like Oprah Winfrey taking up the sport, running a marathon was no longer merely for elite athletes; it was something anyone could do. And more and more, the Ottawa marathon wasn’t just seeing runners who were focused on finishing in under 3 hours or 2:30—it was increasingly attracting runners looking to just finish it.  

A race for the young at heart

Mavis Lindgren is a case in point. Although the octogenarian from California participated in the Ottawa marathon seven times during the nineties, she wasn’t running it to win. In fact, it generally took her seven or eight hours to complete the 42.2 kilometres. Nicknamed “Amazing Mavis,” she didn’t even start running until she was 70, however, she ended up completing 75 marathons before hanging up her running shoes at the age of 91. She became so well known in the marathoning community, NIKE even had special “Air Mavis” shoes made for her.

But Amazing Mavis wasn’t the only senior citizen that made the Ottawa marathon an annual event during the nineties. Legendary Ottawa runner Wally Herman was also an annual fixture. Although he didn’t run his first marathon until he was 50, he ended up finishing 730 marathons and ultramarathons before he passed away in January 2023. 

“The first one I thought, ‘I’ll do one and that’s it, I’ll get it out of my system’,” he explained in an interview in 2008. “But then you’re hooked.” 

In 1994, Herman also ran the Ottawa marathon with his son, Richard. It was the inaugural marathon for Richard—and number 438 for the elder Herman. 

New distances added to the mix

The 10K race was added to the lineup in 1986, but in 1998, the 5K and half-marathon were also added. The year after, the first 2K race was held. And for some runners, participating in just one event during race weekend wasn’t enough of a challenge. 

In the late eighties and throughout the nineties, it became increasingly common for a handful runners to take part in both the marathon and the 10K. Ottawa’s Barbara McCuaig was one of them. In 1993, she managed a daring doubleheader. That year, she was the third woman across the finish line in the marathon, but just 14 hours earlier, she’d struggled to finish in the 10K in seventh place. After the marathon, she declared it would be the last time she’d run back-to-back distance races.

Fast forward to today, Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend now offers three challenges, featuring the Ottawa 59.2 km Challenge which includes the 2k, 5k, and 10k on Saturday and the marathon on Sunday.

Running in all kinds of weather

Predictable weather has never been a given on race weekend—and the nineties definitely saw some extremes. In 1996, the weather was the big story. It was the coldest marathon on record, with the weather feeling more like mid-March. At the start of the race, it was just one degree, with snow squalls, north winds of 25-35 kilometres an hour, a wind chill factor of minus 8. 

The Ottawa marathon also saw some unseasonably hot weather. Just three years before, in 1993, it was 15 degrees when the race started and a sweltering 28 degrees by the end.  That year, Newfoundland’s Noeleen Wadden was the women’s winner. She overcame the hot temperatures to finish in a time of 2:52:31, making up for the fact that she wasn’t able to finish the race in 1991. 

Jean Lagarde was certainly familiar with running in weather extremes—and overcoming them. The runner from St-Sauveur, Quebec won the Ottawa marathon in both the coldest and hottest years during the nineties. The first time he won the race, in 1993, he hadn’t even planned to run. He had merely travelled to Ottawa with a friend who was running the 10K the night before, and then decided to register last minute. Despite this, Lagarde went on to be a regular fixture on the podium, winning the Ottawa marathon for the next three years in a row.  

Starting lasting traditions

The Ottawa marathon has had plenty of traditions over the years—like Tom Lawson’s “Russian shoe.” Although Lawson ran the marathon three times in the mid-eighties, he began to bring the shoe to the sidelines in 1994. It is a framed running shoe, nailed to a piece of wood that looks like a road. Lawson still plants himself on the side of the course, where he encourages runners to rub the shoe’s toe for good luck. 

The idea came after he participated in the New York marathon years before. The day after the race, he went with friends to see an art exhibition at the Guggenheim called “Russian Avant-Garde Art.” His friend made him the shoe after it, and Lawson started to take it to races where it was signed by such famous runners as Bill Rogers, Frank Shorter, and Kathryn Switzer, before starting the tradition of bringing the shoe to Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. Keep an eye out for Tom and the shoe, as they will be making their traditional appearance at the 50th anniversary on May 26.

An ambitious vision for the future

In the early eighties, some 4,000 runners were taking part in the Ottawa marathon each year. But by the mid-nineties, that number had plummeted to around 750. In a column in the Ottawa Citizen in 1993, reporter Wayne Scanlan even predicted that the marathon would fold in the next year or so. 

When Jim Robinson took over as race director in 1997, he was determined to turn things around. In an interview at the time, he said his goal was to boost the marathon’s numbers to 1,500 to 2,000 runners—and to have 10,000 participants taking part in the race weekend by 2001. And his vision wasn’t far off. By 2001, the weekend was attracting more than 13,000 runners, with 2,000 signing up for the marathon alone. 

Fun facts from the 1990s:

  • Participants in the 1990 marathon were provided more than 140,000 cups of water and 20,000 sponges along the route. After the race, they drank 80,000 cups of Coca-Cola and ate about 3,000 apples, oranges and bananas.
  • Legendary Paralympian Andre Viger won the 1993 wheelchair race in course record time
  • In 1993, the entrance fee for the marathon was only $27.
  • Chip timing was introduced for the very first time during the race weekend in 1998.
  • In 1990, more than 1,200 volunteers helped out with the race, including 140 medical staff. 

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!