Silvia Ruegger made history in 1984 when she finished eighth in the first-ever women’s Olympic marathon. She blazed a trail a year later, setting the Canadian women’s marathon record of 2 hours 28 minutes 36 seconds.
Driving her, she says, was a fire to prove women were more than capable of hacking those 42.2 kilometres – before the 1984 Los Angeles Games, the furthest Olympic distance was 1,500 metres. “A door had opened, not just for us, but for women,” she said.
Yet, more than 27 years later, her record is still intact. Why, is something of a mystery. With surging participation rates for women in recreational marathon races, plus huge leaps in training and nutritional methods since the days when Ruegger was logging lonely hours around country roads near Guelph, Ont., surely someone could have toppled her standard by now?
The reason, say top coaches and athletes, has to do with unreliable shoe company sponsorships, babies, and the drudgery of hundreds upon hundreds of training kilometres.
On Sunday, two Canadians, Lanni Marchant and Krista DuChene, will take a crack at Ruegger’s Canadian record in the Scotiabank Toronto Waterfront Marathon. Both women have recently clocked times that are tantalizingly close to breaking the 2:30 barrier.
And Marchant, a 28-year-old native of London, Ont, said this may signal a resurgence for competitive women’s marathoning in Canada, which hasn’t had a representative in the Olympics since 1996.
“If you get a cluster going after it, it kind of snowballs. And I think we’re having the same thing happen on the girls’ side now, for some reason it took a little longer.”
As of yet, most elite female distance runners have decided their efforts might be better spent elsewhere.
“When you get up over 5,000 metres [for women’s distance races] in Canada, the ranks are very, very thin,” said Dave Scott-Thomas, coach of Reid Coolsaet and Eric Gillis, two of three Canadian men who competed in the Olympic marathon in London.
“The joke is, women are just more intelligent than men. They don’t want to just say, well, I’m going to run 200-plus kilometres a week, month after month.”
Scott-Thomas said misguided training techniques are one reason both the Canadian women’s and men’s marathon records (which has stood since 1975) have been so long-standing. In the 1980s and 1990s, he said, coaches were putting too much emphasis on speed training and not enough on mileage. Until as recently as eight years ago, men and women marathoners were logging about 150 kilometres a week. Today many go well over 200 kilometres, which is more in line with the practices of the dominant East African runners. (Ruegger says she trained more than 200 kilometres weekly).
But sociological reasons are also driving the lack of depth in the women’s field. Serious marathon training is a tenuous lifestyle at best. Top marathoners log well over 160 kilometres a week week, and must add significant rest and recovery time to that.
Only the very top-tier athletes command enough sponsorship and government subsidies to pay the bills. Developing athletes must also hold down jobs, or rely on parents and spouses for financial support. And while the prize purses for marathons are substantially larger than for shorter road races, elite marathoners can really only race twice a year.
“As successful as our guys have become, it’s a long, long path. And you live like a monk a lot of the time,” Scott-Thomas said. “Right now we haven’t created enough attractive situations and situations with enough support and structure where women have taken to it.”
In the United States, shoe companies have stepped in to ease some of those financial strains by creating training centres for professional distance runners. The most famous examples are the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project in Michigan and the Nike Oregon Project in Portland, Ore. Housing, high-tech equipment such as underwater treadmills, and health care is provided for the runners, so all they have to do is worry about training and recovery.
But even those solutions aren’t always the best fit for women, said Amy Begley, a professional distance runner and a U.S. Olympian in the 10,000-metre event at the 2008 Summer Olympics.
“I think men, it’s okay socially for them to live in a house of eight guys in three or four rooms, and you can just be the bachelor and go out and train,” said Begley, who trained at one time with the Nike Oregon Project. “Whereas for women, we have been taught not to rely on that, and to have your own career, to have your own money.”
That’s one reason you see a dramatic drop-off of distance runners after they finish college athletics, Begley said. Most elite marathoners don’t reach their peak until their late 20s and early 30s, just when athletes are making decisions about starting careers and families.
Pregnancy can derail a runner’s training and income. Most shoe sponsorship contracts are performance-based, meaning athletes can suddenly find themselves without an income after an injury or pregnancy. Begley said she knows elite distance runners who have had substantial shoe sponsorship contracts suspended for the duration of their pregnancies and maternity leaves, meaning that they aren’t paid until after they resume racing.
“By the time you get pregnant, and have the baby, and get back to running, that’s two to three years before you get back at it,” she said.
Some women marathoners have made it work. World record holder Paula Radcliffe of Britain (2:15:25) made a comeback after giving birth to her first child. DuChene, the 35-year-old mother of three who will challenge Ruegger’s record, had her personal best time at the 2011 Rotterdam Marathon when her daughter was just a year old. But the Brantford, Ont., native, who is up at 5 a.m. to cross-train and logs around 160 kilometres a week, has said she is lucky because her husband’s job pays well.
Marchant, the other Canadian angling for the record, still struggles with the idea of turning her life over to running professionally. Ironically, the former collegiate middle-distance runner ran her first marathon in Ottawa in May, 2011 as a “graduation gift” to herself after finishing law school, because she figured her new career wouldn’t leave time for running. But after clocking a respectable 2:49 without seriously training, she shaved four minutes off her time in Chicago, then had her breakthrough in Rotterdam (2:31:51).
The result was bittersweet: the day before the race, the law firm in Chattanooga, Tenn., where she had been working, fired her, saying running had become a distraction.
“My first reaction was to send out résumés, trying to find a new job,” Marchant said. “It was everyone else who said, ‘Look at the writing on the wall. Maybe you should be running. Run now, be a lawyer later.’ That was something I struggled with, and I still feel odd being in the courthouse and being a part-time attorney. It’s just trying to switch my brain over and think, it’s okay to be a runner right now.”
It’s a lifestyle only made possible because her hometown coach, Dave Mills of the London Western Track and Field Club, is coaching her pro bono. She pays the bills by working part-time at a law firm, and living in the nanny suite of a friend in Chattanooga.
“I figure, I’m already broke, so what’s another couple years of being broke?” she laughed. “I lived like a poor college student for nine years.”
Both Marchant and DuChene have qualified for the world marathon championships in Moscow next year, and haven’t ruled out trying to qualify for the 2016 Rio Olympics. For now, Marchant says it’s a thrill to have Ruegger’s record within reach.
“She’s been a hero of mine,” Marchant said. “Even when I’m having the worst attitude about running, and I’m in a funk, or hurt, you just read through any of the interviews that she’s done and it’s like: ‘You’re doing this because you love it.’”