Celebrating International Women’s Day

For International Women’s Day, I’d like to celebrate two women who blazed a trail for women’s running in Canada: Jacqueline Gareau and Silvia Ruegger. These excerpts are from Canada’s Magnificent Marathon, a commemorative book written for the 40th anniversary of the Ottawa Marathon.

Jacqueline Gareau, 1979

Jacqueline Gareau, 1979

Jacqueline Gareau: “I loved to run long”

She was named the top Canadian marathoner of the 20th century. She won the Ottawa Marathon in 1979. And she prevailed in one of the most famous Boston Marathons of all time. But Jacqueline Gareau started entering long-distance races not because she wanted to compete, but simply because she loved to run.

“I was running with friends, doing three hours and feeling fresh,” she says. “I was running just because I loved to run long. And someone said, ‘Why don’t you run a marathon?’”

That was in 1977, not long after Gareau had taken up the sport and just three years before she won Boston in historic fashion. Gareau had been working as a respiratory technician in a Montreal hospital in the mid-1970s when a colleague suggested she join him for a run.

“I saw all these people smoking and getting sick and dying with a cigarette in their mouths,” she says. “I decided to stop smoking. And he said, ‘Why don’t we go for a jog?’

“I went for a 20-minute run and I barely stopped. After that I just kept running.”

Within a few months, she was regularly ascending Mont Royal as part of hour-long runs and thinking, “Wow, I feel so good,” she says.

“I just kept running because running felt good to me,” she says. “I loved running long distances.”

In her first marathon in 1977, she finished in three hours and 44 minutes. That’s a respectable time, but it didn’t foreshadow a career as a champion. Gareau, though, was determined to improve with each race. And within a few marathons, she had established herself as one of the fastest long-distance runners in Canada.

“It was fun,” she says. “I wasn’t checking much who else was there and who should I keep an eye on. I was just doing it to do the best I could do. That was my target.”

She finished second in Ottawa in 1978, in three hours and seven minutes. The next year, she won the race in just under two hours and 48 minutes.

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

Gareau planned to run Ottawa again in 1980, but a friend suggested she run Boston instead. That friend ended up becoming her husband.

“I think he had his eye on me at the time,” she says.

It was a historic decision. In Boston, Gareau won one of the most controversial and infamous marathons in history. She was declared the winner three days after the race when it was discovered that the first woman across the finish line had not run the entire course.

The woman who cheated denied Gareau the thrill of breaking the tape as the winner, but the astonishing turn of events gave her a special place in running lore. She is regularly welcomed back to Boston for special anniversaries and ceremonies.

Gareau went on win seven other marathons, and represented Canada at the Olympics in 1984. She also captured the grueling Mount Washington Road Race three times.

She still runs regularly and still enjoys long distances, but runs marathons only occasionally, saying she likes to save her strength for the physical demands of her job as a massage therapist.

“I enter races because I like the people,” she says. “I don’t want to do it too much. But I end up every season doing too much because it’s hard to stop.”

As for her 1979 win in Ottawa, one of the breakthrough performances on the way to a legendary career, she says, “I have very good memories of the Ottawa Marathon. It’s a great course and it’s very well-organized.”

Silvia Ruegger, 1984

Silvia Ruegger, 1984

Silvia Ruegger: A noteworthy debut

On September 11, 1976, just a few weeks after the Summer Olympics in Montreal, 15-year-old Silvia Ruegger wrote herself a note and tucked it under the loose floorboards of her family’s farmhouse in rural Ontario.

Ruegger carefully concealed the hole with masking tape and pulled a carpet across the spot. She never removed the note from its hiding place to look at it again, but it fueled her ambition for the next eight years.

The note set out an audacious goal: to run for Canada at the Olympics. And in May 1984, in

Ottawa, she fulfilled the first part of that objective. Ruegger ran the first marathon of her life, the Olympic qualifying race, and won, earning a ticket to the Summer Games in Los Angeles.

“Just crossing the finish line was the dream come true,” says Ruegger.

Ruegger had never planned to be a distance runner, because there was no Olympic marathon for women. In late 1983, after recovering from a series of injuries that had stalled her track career for more than two years, she ran a 10k race in San Diego and heard from a reporter about the plans to add a women’s marathon to the Olympics the following summer.

“Wow, there’s going to be a women’s marathon,” she remembers thinking. “When I heard that, I knew I had to be there.”

But Ruegger had only a few months to prepare for the qualifying race in Ottawa, which would be her first marathon. She contacted running coach Hugh Cameron and convinced him to help her.

They met for the first time on January 7, 1984. To this day she wonders why Cameron didn’t tell her to aim for the Olympic marathon in four years rather than try for the qualifying event in just four months. But he put together the program that prepared her for Ottawa.

In fact, the training schedule he created went all the way up to the Olympic Marathon in August.

Against a strong field of Olympic hopefuls in Ottawa, Ruegger executed her race plan perfectly. She broke away at 30 kilometres and led the race the rest of the way. Her time was the fastest ever for a debut marathon by a woman.

When she crossed the finish line, one of her first thoughts was of her mother. When Ruegger trained on country roads as a teenager, her mother got up every morning to follow her in the car.

“You don’t have streetlights in the country,” says Ruegger. “I would get up needing to run before school. And she would get behind me and drive with the headlights on because that was the only light I had.

“For her to do that at that time was amazing,” she says. “Women’s running was not encouraged at the time. She took more flak than I did. People said, ‘You’re encouraging her.’ But she saw the passion and wanted to do whatever she could to help me. She was ’way ahead of her time.”

In Los Angeles, Ruegger finished eighth in only her second marathon, and set a Canadian record.

On the night she packed for the Summer Olympics, Ruegger’s mother asked her if she remembered the note she wrote to herself.

“I was shocked that she knew about it,” says Ruegger. “She said she had found it, probably a few years after I wrote it. She said she thought, ‘There is a girl who has some pretty high goals.’ And she put the note back in the floor exactly as she had found it.”

Ruegger says when she wrote the note, she never expected to be a marathon runner. But she’s grateful the doors opened for her at just the right time.

“When I had that dream to be an Olympian I had no idea how it was going to happen,” she says.

“I was injured for a long time, and never gave up on my dream. Delay does not mean denial.

“And when people ask me about the most exciting moments in my career, of course I always think of the Olympics. But for me, Ottawa was really special. It’s where my dream came true.”


This year’s Ottawa Marathon is set for Sunday, May 26, as part of Canada’s largest race weekend: Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend. There’s a race for everyone! Find out more at runottawa.ca.