The women of the Ottawa Marathon

The year 2024 marks 50 years of the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon, and in honour of International Women’s Day we are celebrating some of the Canadian women runners who have crossed the finish line of Canada’s most prestigious road race, setting the pace for today’s female runners.

In the early years of the national capital marathon, women runners were few and far between. Only three women ran in the inaugural Ottawa Marathon in 1975. 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.

In 1976, Diane Palmason, Canadian Master Athletics Hall of Fame inductee, was inspired to run the Ottawa Marathon after seeing a photo on the front page of the Ottawa Citizen of Eleanor Thomas crossing the finish line in 1975. “That picture changed my life,” says Palmason. 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.”

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. Palmason completed 77 marathons and set countless Masters and age group records. 

Legendary Canadian marathoner Jacqueline Gareau also got her start at the Ottawa Marathon. She ran the race for the first time in 1978, took second place female, and placed first the following year with a time of 2:47:58. In 1980 Gareau went on to win first place at the Boston Marathon in 2:34:28.

Silvia Ruegger leads at the 1984 Ottawa Marathon

The first ever Olympic marathon event may have taken place in 1896, but it wasn’t until 1984 that the Olympics hosted a women’s marathon. Silvia Ruegger was the first Canadian woman to compete in the inaugural Olympic event. Ruegger had never run a marathon until the 1984 National Capital Marathon (today the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon), which was an Olympic qualifying event.

Ruegger came in first in the National Capital Marathon and went on to compete at the Olympics where she finished in the top ten. Ruegger would continue competing in the marathon, coming in first and setting the Canadian women’s record at the 1985 Houston Marathon, with a time of 2:28:36. Ruegger held the Canadian record for 28 years and has been recognized in running history as an icon and trailblazer for women in the sport.

The women’s Canadian Marathon record stood until 2013 when, after debuting at Ottawa in 2011, Lanni Marchant broke Ruegger’s record by 36 seconds in Toronto. Marchant also became the first Canadian woman to compete in the 10,000m and the marathon distance at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio. Marchant’s marathon record held strong for six years until Rachel Cliff, the 2018 first place Canadian female of the Ottawa 10K, set a new time of 2:26:56 in 2019 in Japan. 

Kinsey Middleton, who grew up in the U.S. and is a dual citizen, took top prize at the 2022 Tartan Ottawa International Marathon with a time of 2:30:09. She was the first Canadian woman to do so since 2007. 

Malindi Elmore made her first appearance at the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon in 2023. Elmore began her marathon distance career in Houston in 2019, and she proceeded to break the Canadian record in 2020, running her personal best of 2:24:50, on the same course where Ruegger had first set it 32 years previously. Elmore was 9th in the 2021 Olympic Games Marathon, the second highest-ever placing for a Canadian woman. She is also the defending Canadian Marathon Champion.

Today, we are proud that women represent more than half of all of our Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend participants, and honoured that Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend and the Tartan Ottawa International Marathon serves as a venue for women, from first-timers to the world’s best, to achieve new goals.

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!