In 1977, a 13-year-old kid named Adrian “Punky” Baird entered a marathon one week after running through what was supposed to have been a 55K charity walk.
“I was pretty naïve,” says Baird. “But the key thing was nobody told you what you could or couldn’t do, or how bad it was going to be.
“Now you plan for the worst. Back then we had no idea.”
When running a marathon, ignorance may not quite be bliss. In Baird’s case, it was quite painful. Still, there’s something special about running headlong and somewhat unaware into a new experience. And in the 1970s, long before there were dozens of books, countless online training programs and thousands of other runners to turn to for guidance, most of the small number of people who attempted a marathon had little idea what they were in for.
Over the course of the past year, in researching a book about the history of the Ottawa Marathon, I’ve talked with scores of runners who have completed the event since it was founded in 1975. I was especially intrigued and inspired by the pioneering spirit of the athletes who decided to try the marathon in the early days of the event, when less was known about long-distance running and no one foresaw events with tens of thousands of participants.
Even today, when many events are sold out, marathoners are an exclusive group. In North America, with a population of 350 million, there are fewer than half a million marathon finishers a year (and that includes some people who are counted more than once because they cross two or more finish lines).
But unless you choose to train alone, the loneliness of the long-distance runner is a thing of the past. In the 1970s, however, marathoners were almost as rare as astronauts.
When you think of the New York City Marathon, you might picture the sea of 50,000 runners crossing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge. But in 1970 only 55 people crossed the finish line in Central Park. The first Ottawa Marathon had 146 participants, and it was the largest marathon in Canada that year.
“We just said, ‘Let’s see if we can run that far,’” says Eleanor Thomas, who was the first woman across the finish line in Ottawa in 1975. “We just trained and did it. And nobody had a clue what training actually was.”
Like so many runners today, the few non-elites that ran marathons in the 1970s did it for a love of running. But the objective was neither as fashionable nor as manageable as it is today. Not only was there scant information to turn to, the running shoes and apparel were a far cry from the modern gear we wear now. No wick-away fabrics, no specially designed footwear to cushion the impact of thousands of pounding steps.
And while many of the events were well-organized, they were hardly the sophisticated, professional operations of today. Almost all of them were put together entirely by volunteers, many of whom spent hours setting up the course and then changed into shorts and ran the race themselves – or stood at the finish line for hours recording runners’ times on a clipboard.
The marathon wasn’t new in the 1970s; the race has been around since the 1890s, when it was created as part of the first modern Olympics. And events like the Boston Marathon and the Around the Bay Road Race in Hamilton are more than a century old.
But the foundation of the popular sport we know today was built by those pioneers who organized and ran marathons in the 1970s. Like Punky Baird, they didn’t know what to expect. But they inspired a generation of passionate runners and developed the outstanding events that all of us enjoy today.
Mark Sutcliffe is the founder of iRun and the author of Why I Run: The Remarkable Journey of the Ordinary Runner. His new book, Canada’s Magnificent Marathon, commemorating the Ottawa Marathon is available to pre-order at 40% off and will be available to purchase at the Tamarack Ottawa Race Weekend Expo.