Things you didn’t know about the Ottawa International Marathon

The Ottawa Marathon turns 50 in 2024, and there’s no better way to celebrate than to be a part of Canada’s largest and most historic spring marathon, which will take place on May 26. Through the years, the marathon has seen everything from warm temperatures to course records and Olympic dreams, not to mention all the Boston qualifiers. But there’s a lot you might not know about Canada’s capital city marathon. 

1975: Only 3 women ran the first Ottawa Marathon

Ottawa has always been one of Canada’s premier running cities, and on May 25, 1975, a 42.2 km route was designed, starting and finishing at Carleton University. The race’s beginnings were modest, with only 146 runners finishing the inaugural marathon. Compared to recent registration numbers (30,000 plus), it’s next to nothing, but in 1975, it was already Canada’s biggest marathon.

The race was called the National Capital Marathon and was won “by accident” by Quebec middle-distance runner Mehdi Jaouhar, who entered the race with his roommate. Only three of the 146 finishers were women.

1976: The Ottawa Marathon champion had lunch with the Queen

This year was a special one for athletics in Canada, as the country hosted the 1976 Summer Olympics (still the only Summer Olympics our nation has hosted to date). The marathon quadrupled in size from the previous year, and the stakes and competition rose accordingly. The race was selected as the location for the 1976 Olympic Trials for the Canadian marathon team, attracting some of Canada’s top marathoners.

Toronto’s Wayne Yetman set a new course record of 2:16:32, earning a spot on the Canadian Olympic team for Montreal. Also included in his Olympic moment was lunch with Queen Elizabeth. Eleanor Thomas won the women’s marathon for the second year in a row, yet she didn’t take in any water or electrolytes on the course. Thomas was a smoker at the time, and famously said “quitting smoking was harder than running a marathon.”

1983: Man in Motion Rick Hansen raced the Ottawa Marathon

In preparation for his famous Man in Motion World Tour, Rick Hansen won the inaugural wheelchair division at the Ottawa Marathon in 1983. Previously, wheelchair athletes competed in the open field. Hansen was the pioneer of the wheelchair division in Canada after winning gold, silver and bronze medals at the 1980 Paralympic Games. He became the first Canadian Para athlete to win the wheelchair division at the 1982 Boston Marathon.

Between 1985 and 1987, Hansen wheeled more than 40,000 kilometers around the world through 34 countries to raise awareness about people with disabilities. The world tour started and ended on the Port Mann Bridge in Vancouver.

1986: The marathon almost ended

After a major decline in numbers in 1984 and 1985, race organizers and the board of directors voted to cancel the event. The marathon faced new competition with the Montreal Marathon earlier in the spring, and Ottawa was having trouble attracting sponsors. However, after the cancellation announcement new sponsors emerged and organizers were able to move forward and add a 10K race.

The first Ottawa 10K attracted just fewer than 1,000 participants, but by 1988, that number doubled and continues to grow today as the premier event on Saturday of Ottawa Race Weekend.

4: Montreal’s Jean Lagarde won 4 straight marathons between 1993 and 1996

Lagarde had come to Ottawa to cheer on his friend in the marathon, but when he got there, the friend persuaded him to sign up. Lagarde thought, “Why not?” By eight kilometres, Lagarde was out front and on his own, and he held on to win his first of four straight Ottawa Marathons. Lagarde trained for the marathon by running 35 km every Sunday.

Lagarde’s best time in Ottawa was in 1994, when he ran 2:19:00. He also holds another impressive record, winning both the warmest and the coldest Ottawa Marathon to date (25 C and 1 C). Keep in mind that the date of the marathon at the time was the second week of May. He is still the only man to win four consecutive Ottawa Marathons.

Russian-Canadian runner Lioudmila Kortchaguina has also won the marathon four times, holding the record for the most women’s titles. She has raced the Ottawa Marathon more than 20 times, and she was the last Canadian woman to win (in 2007) until Kinsey Middleton won in 2022.

1995: The race weekend had an inline skating race

To boost registration numbers and add a Canadian twist to Ottawa Race Weekend, organizers held the inaugural inline skating 8K at the 1995 Ottawa Marathon. Hundreds of participants signed up with their skates, gloves and helmets to skate a timed portion of the course.

The inline 8K race didn’t last long; it was canceled the next year due to frosty conditions.

1998: Ottawa was the first Canadian marathon to have pace bunnies

Where did pace bunnies come from? Well, the Chicago Marathon was the first race to implement pace bunnies in North America. After Hilda Beauregard of Ottawa participated in the 1997 Chicago Marathon, she noticed that the race had provided pace bunnies in the mass field to help runners achieve their goal times. The runner brought the idea back to Ottawa, and the 1998 Ottawa Marathon became the first Canadian marathon to use pace bunnies.

Every year since, pace bunnies have been a regular component of the marathon, wearing caps with rabbit ears while holding marked signs with the projected finishing time, helping runners hit their goals.

1996: There was a blizzard during the marathon

Though temperatures are typically warm for the Ottawa Marathon, which is in late May, there was snow for the 1996 race. Four thousand runners experienced below-zero temperatures and 35 km/h winds, with snow squalls. The 1996 race still stands as the coldest marathon in the event’s history.

2010: Paralympian Rick Ball achieved a single-leg amputee marathon world record in Ottawa 

At the 2010 Ottawa Marathon, Rick Ball of Orillia, Ont., became the first single-leg amputee athlete to run a sub-three-hour marathon. Ball clocked 2:57:48 to break the world record. He held onto that record for seven years, until it was broken in 2017 by Lebanon’s Eitan Hermon at the 2017 Vienna Marathon, who finished in 2:56.53.

49 years of Ottawa Marathons

Ottawa’s Howard Cohen has completed his local race every year since the inaugural marathon in 1975. The retired physician has never missed a race, overcoming various challenges such as the 30 C heat threat that almost canceled the marathon in 2016, enduring a snowstorm in 1996, and even completing the 42.2K race with canes due to a torn hamstring injury.

Cohen has consistently found a way to make it to the start line and cross the finish. At 73, he has participated in the event virtually for the past four years, with his last in-person race dating back to 2019. Cohen was the first runner to register for the 2024 Tartan Ottawa International Marathon virtually, which will mark his remarkable 50th race.

posted Friday December 29th
by Marley Dickinson