How a 13-year-old Canadian girl ran the world’s fastest marathon
Imagine a record-setting distance runner. This marathoner you envisage should be a history maker. The fastest in the world, by a long margin. Concentrate. Got a picture in mind?
Is she four-feet-10 inches tall? Is she 13 years old? Is she Canadian? Is her name Maureen Wilton?
May 6, 1967. Three hours 15 minutes and 23 seconds. Maureen Wilton, now Maureen Mancuso, ran the fastest 42.2 kilometres by a female. She knocked more than four minutes off the previous world record. She is the only Canadian ever to own a marathon world best. It would be hard to prove, but they say Mancuso that day ran the longest distance any Canadian woman had ever run, period. She was also the youngest record holder. In fact, she was too young for the record keepers in that day and age.
You can be forgiven for not knowing Mancuso’s story, because her incredible run happened almost 50 years ago. But what if you had been there, back in the Summer of Love? Did Canadians celebrate her achievement? Did young Maureen get to ride Yonge Street on the back deck of a convertible, waving to adoring fans? Was she showered with rewards, our very own world beater?
She was not.
Mancuso got bupkes.
Muted mention in the media. No prize money. Not even an assembly at her school. Her coach was scolded by athletics officials. Her mom and dad were accused of putting their child in harm’s way.
Seen through modern eyes, the reaction to Mancuso’s marathon was cruel and cold. It left a marvelous young athlete feeling confused, and almost furtive about her accomplishment. It is hard to overstate how different the response to her run would be in today’s world, where tens of thousands of people — more women than men — show up for weekend marathons. At the very least, the women who run by the blockful today, owe some of their endurance sisterhood to a quiet act of defiance by that very young woman, back in Canada’s summer of Expo.
It feels strange now, the skepticism that shrouded marathon running 50 years ago. And it is downright gruesome to revisit the sexism that was so pervasive in athletics then. Taken together, those two attitudes make Mancuso’s breakthrough even more unlikely.
There was nothing in the air back then that would seem to encourage or prompt a diminutive young girl from Willowdale, Ont., to set out to obliterate a world marathon record…and yet.
So, how did it happen?
It started, as it turns out, in 1964, with Maureen’s oldest brother Gord Wilton, who was in high school. The Wiltons were sitting down to dinner one school night, when Gord showed off ribbons that he had won during an athletics day at school.
When Mancuso tells the story, she slows her voice down a notch to show the child-like envy the ribbons stirred… she says she and her middle brother Dan Wilton were both looking at the ribbons, thinking, “how did you get those?” Mancuso says the dinner conversation moved from running to track clubs. Seeing the interest sparked in their kids, Mancuso’s mom and dad did some research, and found a local track club, which Mancuso and her brother Dan joined.
In hindsight, the club coach, Sy Mah, was an admirably independent thinker. It wasn’t his methods that were revolutionary, so much as his eye for ability, regardless of age or gender. Mah was also the gym and track coach at Earl Haig Secondary School.
“I think his daughter Brenda was probably the only girl on the track team. So she used to go and practise with the high school boys,” says Mancuso. “Brenda was one year older than me. And then I joined the team, so then it was two girls and it sort of grew from there.”
Mancuso, 10 years old at this point, fell for track, hard. She loved running laps. During track season, Maureen competed in miles, and half miles. In the spring road races, the distances were usually not much more than a mile. Cross-country races went two-and-a-half to five miles, rarely more than five miles. Mancuso ran a seven-mile race once. But never longer. She showed promise. Even though she was so young, she earned a spot at a high-performance training camp in Edmonton where she met the legendary athlete and coach Harry Jerome.
Mancuso is not one to swagger, so you have to listen for the understatement when she describes the result of being sent to this elite camp:
“They give you an evaluation at the end, and what they said basically was that I just kept going and going and going. So that was the good thing about me. One of my positive things in running is that I am really good at distance because I could just keep going. So my speed wasn’t as good, but my distance was there for sure. The longer the race, the better my chances. So there were people that could beat me at the mile, they were incredible over half a mile or so, but the longer it got, the closer I got and then, I passed them. I guess.”
The time commitment was serious. Mancuso trained every night. Five nights a week, and she usually raced every weekend.