The birth of Canada’s “Magnificent Marathon”: The 1970’s

The Tartan Ottawa International Marathon may be one of the biggest marathons in Canada, but when it began 49 years ago, it started small. Very small. And it looked nothing like the event it is today. In 1975, there were no bands, no pace bunnies or big name sponsors. Runners didn’t wear heart rate monitors or water belts. It was just a group of 146 runners, wearing hand-drawn numbers on cloth bibs, ready to take on the challenge of running 42.2 kilometres. 

Back on May 25, 1975, that small group of runners couldn’t have known that it would be the beginning of a half century of racing in Canada’s capital—or that this small marathon would evolve into one of the biggest races in the country. 

A place to show their merit

The first runner across the finish line at the inaugural marathon in 1975 hadn’t even planned to take part in the race. Mehdi Jaouhar was convinced by his roommate to run—and Jaouhar never actually ended up running another marathon after. But many of the other winners in the seventies went on to make big names for themselves in the marathoning world. Names like Jerome Drayton, Wayne Yetman and Mike Dyon. 

When Dyon won the race in 1977, it was his first marathon—but he had said at the time that he “came to win.” He outran what was the largest field ever assembled for a marathon in Canada—1,250 participants. And it wasn’t Dyon’s last Ottawa marathon; he went on to win in 1981 and again 1983. He also went on to become president of Brooks Canada and a leader in Canada’s running community.

In 1978, Brian Maxwell was the first across the finish line in what was the closest race in the history of the Ottawa Marathon. He beat Paul Bannon by a single stride—and the race was covered by newspapers around the world. Both men went on to represent Canada internationally. Maxwell also found success in the business world, inventing the Powerbar with his wife, Jennifer Biddulph.

Where were all the women? 

Today, more than half of all Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend participants are female. But that wasn’t the case back in 1975. Only three women ran the marathon that inaugural year. Ottawa’s Eleanor Thomas was one of them. She’d only been running for four years at the time, but went on to win the women’s event in both 1975 and 1976.

“In those days, there were men who didn’t want a woman to finish in front of them,” says Thomas. “They’d get in races with me. It was really quite hilarious at times.” 

She remembers one male runner even tried to prevent her from finishing ahead of him by passing her and then slowing down right in front of her. But as more women took up the sport, Thomas says that male runners “got over it.”

Another female pioneer—and Canadian Master Athletics Hall of Fame inducteeDiane Palmason, was inspired to run the 1976 marathon after seeing a photo on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen of Eleanor Thomas crossing the finish line in 1975. During that 1976 race, Palmason’s 12-year-old son cycled beside her to make sure that she kept a 9-minute mile pace. If she hit the mile mark too quickly, she would stop and walk until the 9 minutes were up. But that marathon was just the beginning for Palmason—she went on to run 77 more marathons over the years. 

Legendary Canadian marathoner Jacqueline Gareau also got her start in Ottawa. She ran the race for the first time in 1978, finishing second, and went on to take home top prize the following year. 

“Ottawa was the best race in Canada,” says Gareau. “Everyone from Montreal wanted to do it.” 

And they still do. At the time of publishing, the second largest group of participants registered for the 50th anniversary race in May 2024 is from Montreal.

A marathon for all ages

As the popularity of marathoning began to increase in the late seventies, the Ottawa Marathon also started to attract much younger runners. In 1977, Adrian “Punky” Baird ran the race for the first time when he was just 13 years old as a member of the East Ottawa Lions Club. He ran again in 1978, but never ran another marathon after that.  

“I was pretty naïve,” says Baird. “But the key was that nobody told you what you could, or couldn’t, do or how bad it was going to be.”

In 1979, 9-year-old Alan Forster ran the Ottawa marathon with his father. He went on to finish the race ahead of his dad—and completed another three marathons before his 11th birthday.  

“It was interesting for people to see a little kid there,” remembers Forster. “When you are a kid, you’re a kid, and it didn’t seem like a big deal. But it was always sort of ‘weird’ that I was doing it.”

Another father-son combo in those early years was legendary marathoner Ed Whitlock and his 14-year-old son Clive. They competed together in 1976, winning the father-son competition in a time of 2:52:00, and ran together again in 1977. In 1978, Ed switched up partners, running alongside his 18-year-old son, Neil. In 1979, Ed ran alone, finishing in a personal best of 2:33:00. 

But like many other runners, Ed’s appearances at the Ottawa marathon would continue into the 1980s. 

Next month, we’ll take a look back at the Ottawa Marathon during the 1980s.

Fun facts from the 70s: 

    • In 1975, the marathon route started and ended on the campus of Carleton University.
    • By1976,  the number of participants had more than tripled—to 500—and by 1979, 2932 people ran the race.
    • Arthur Taylor set the Canadian Masters marathon record in In 1977, in a time of 2:27:17—a record that still stands to this day. 
    • Legendary marathoner Jerome Drayton won the  1979 race by such a wide margin he called the race “boring.”

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!