How a 13-year-old Canadian girl ran the world’s fastest marathon

How a 13-year-old Canadian girl ran the world’s fastest marathon


'I am really good at distance because I could just keep going': Maureen Mancuso on her near 50-year-old historic run

by David Giddens, CBC Sports
Canadian marathoner Maureen Mancuso ran the fastest 42.2 kilometres by a female. Canadian marathoner Maureen Mancuso ran the fastest 42.2 kilometres by a female.

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.

 
Mancuso's parents  found a local track club, which she joined with her brother Dan. Mancuso's parents found a local track club, which she joined with her brother Dan.

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.

CBC Sports: Just to be clear, that was six days a week?

Mancuso: Yes. We’d take the day off before a race.

CBC Sports: That was your tapering? You’d take one day off before a race?

Mancuso: [Laughs] Yeah, You’d be lost. Wouldn’t know what to do.

CBC Sports: It would be interesting to see what you would have done under more modern coaching techniques.

Mancuso: Sy? He was incredible. Here’s how the marathon part came into it. Because that was untouched til then. Like, nobody was doing it. So when you go into that, Sy, my coach, came to me and talked about running marathon. I didn't know what it was. He said to me, ‘well, it is a really long race.’ I said, ‘well, how far?’ And he told me 26 miles…and I said well, that is a long race.

 
Mancuso needed a benchmark to even think about breaking the record. Mancuso needed a benchmark to even think about breaking the record.

What will it take?

Mancuso asked how fast she would need to run, per mile. Mah had done the math required to break the world record, and he told her that 7:30-pace miles would do it. Mancuso at that point was running 5:15 to 5:30 miles — 5:05 when she needed to.

Considering their marathon plan of attack, weighty “what if” questions still loom for Mancuso. As in, “what if we actually knew how to train back then?”

“So, you know how they have the charts today? You can put in the data, and if you are running a mile in this time, you can project what your marathon time should be,” she says.

“That’s what we were lacking. So the coaches just took the world-record time and said ‘Ok, you have to run 7:30 per mile,’ which is way slower than what it should have been if it were done today. But we didn’t have anything to gauge it by. We just picked a figure. Really, that's where it went. That's why I had so much left at the end. Because it was so much slower than my natural tempo...than what I could have done. I could have run 6:30 miles, but we just did not know what we were doing.” 

If Mancuso and her coaches didn’t know what they were doing, the Amateur Athletics Union (AAU) was starting to get an inkling, and it was not in favour. People began to question her parents’ wisdom in even letting their daughter run longer distances.

But her mom and dad were fine with it. Mancuso was clearly the picture of health, she loved track, there was no injury trouble. So coach Mah kept upping her mileage, clocking her times, and talking to the AAU and sport committees about Mancuso’s potential. Nobody would give an official blessing for the run.

Remember, this is still 17 years before Joan Benoit’s debut Olympic gold. So at this stage, women were not allowed to compete in marathons. Neither were minors, for that matter. So it was a bit of a stalemate, except that coach Mah kept going back to the committees and letting them know Mancuso was good to run.

Mancuso, left, competed in a field that included 28 males.  Mancuso, left, competed in a field that included 28 males.

May 1967 rolled around. It was the Eastern Canadian Marathon Championships. The event was scheduled for a looping route around York University, on the northern edge of Toronto, covering the streets of Keele, Finch, Jane, and Steeles. The area was far from developed back then, so really, the run was set among the school and barren fields.

Twenty eight males signed up. Mah went back to the AAU one last time and made the case for Mancuso to compete. Again, a non-answer. Mancuso remembers that the best her coach could wrestle from the governing bodies was “they sort of okayed it without giving it their blessing.”

So without an explicit refusal, coach Mah, who didn’t lack for chutzpah or thoughtfulness, invited American Kathrine Switzer to the race. Mancuso, if she could get to the start line, would have at least one woman for company. Two weeks earlier, Switzer had made history herself, as the first woman to register, wear a number, and run the Boston Marathon.

(That was a complete shmozzle, too. She signed up as "K.V. Switzer" to escape the attention of Jock Semple, the rabid Boston-is-for-men-only organizer. When Semple learned, too late, that there was a female runner in his race, he ambushed Switzer, grabbed her jersey, and tried to physically throw her off the course. At which point, Switzer’s 235-pound boyfriend, running mate and national hammer thrower tackled Semple and left him a groaning heap of laundry on the road, while she dashed for the finish).

Switzer was there for Mancuso, ready to pace her to the record. But marathon recovery is not a quick business, and with Boston fatigue still in her legs, she finished far behind.

CBC Radio’s The Sunday Edition reunited Switzer and Mancuso back in 2009.

LISTEN | Mancuso discusses her achievement with CBC Radio.
Mancuso's time created controversy. Mancuso's time created controversy.

Memories bittersweet

Mancuso has bittersweet memories from the starting line. While the men were ready to go, awaiting the gun, she was still hanging back with her mom, surreptitious on the sideline.

“I just remember feeling weird about it because of all the controversy. And then it was basically, well everybody's on the line, and mom said ‘get in there.’ I remember how she said it, my mother: ‘Just get in there.’ It was kind of an odd situation. So anyway that's what we did. I just remember feeling apprehensive about  getting in it because of all the controversy.

CBC Sports: So you weren’t concerned because of the physical ordeal you were about to undergo, but because there were people who were disapproving?

Mancuso: Honestly? The people that I see, the shape they are in coming to marathons now? Way more dangerous than what I did… way more. Pushing their bodies to the point I think of what they're capable of…I just ran it. There was no wall-hitting, you know, there was none of that. When you're doing all that track and lap stuff, the race was just like, warm-up speed.

Running well

Looking at pictures of Mancuso in full flight that day, there’s no doubt she was running well within her comfort level. The marathon was, in fact, almost too easy for her. For the duration, she was reported as beaming, and frequently saying, “gee, this is great.”

Two minutes after the race, a doctor declared that her heart rate had already returned to normal, and added, “she appeared less tired than most men in the race.”

How much did Mancuso have left in the tank at the finish? For some reason, with a mile to go, her mom shouted from the sideline that there had been a timing mistake and that she needed to go faster or miss the record. With 25 miles under her belt, having already raced further than any Canadian woman in history, Mancuso dropped the hammer, and ran the last mile in six minutes flat.

The previous world marathon record had been set three years earlier by New Zealander Mildred Sampson. Mancuso crushed that time by four minutes and 10 seconds.

CBC Sports: So what was the reaction when you shredded the record?

Mancuso: How did the media react? Well, we actually went to the cottage. We did the run and then we packed up and went up north right away. And then we came back and found out that it was all over the world and there was all this controversy. There was just one paper that was saying ‘why are all these people going against her, and why is no one congratulating?’ Oh, and Lloyd Percival sent me flowers. I still have the vase.

 
Mancuso's performance also sparked national headlines. Mancuso's performance also sparked national headlines.

Controversy created headlines

It must have been demoralizing for the young Maureen, getting back into Toronto and seeing the newspaper clippings.

“Little Maureen Wilton, 13 years old and 80 pounds, has started a giant controversy by setting the world’s best time for the unofficial women’s marathon…track officials are saying the exertion will harm such a young girl.”

“Maureen’s feat won’t receive official recognition because women and even young boys are not recognized in marathon competition.”

“[Jim] Bistry’s marathon win overshadowed by bid of 13-year-old girl” must have stung. Maureen  shatters a record, and reads it reduced to an anonymous ‘bid.’

“Women’s marathon won’t catch on despite Maureen’s surprise race,” deserves recognition for exceptional failure to divine the future.

Mah got calls from news agencies all over the world. One asked if Maureen was a male in disguise.

At least one newspaper saw the injustice:

"The best our sports officials can do for Maureen Wilton was throw up a chorus of dissent. What a disappointment it must be for her to read that her feat was “without purpose;” “like pushing peanuts up hill with your nose;” “a ridiculous effort” and “may mean physical damage in future years.”

That “damage in future years” was surely dog-whistle code for “fragile lady parts.” It’s hard to get over the leering tone of the era. The Toronto Star’s “The other female runner, attractive Kathy Switzer,” and another paper’s headline “Run, Baby, Run” pointed out that “the pretty, bright brunette” was also, as it happens, one of the only women in North America who could mile in five minutes flat.

Mancuso, 63, isn't bitter about the sexism over her world record. Mancuso, 63, isn't bitter about the sexism over her world record.

Now 63, Mancuso has a “roll with it” attitude. She doesn’t gloss over the sexism, but seems to see it in the context of a sport whose best days were yet to come.

“If you look at the marathon nowadays compared to then, I mean this was supposed to be the Eastern Canadian Championships,” she says. “And I think there were 30 men in it, and myself and Kathrine Switzer. And that was it. Even when we would run the cross-country championships…they were supposed to be big races, but there were five, maybe six people in the field."

So Mancuso kept running, kept winning races, and now she was getting to be 14, 15,16-years-old. She’s running alongside teammate Abby Hoffman. At 15, Mancuso is on the National Cross Country team, running in the worlds in Glasgow. But the path to a future? It just didn’t exist. There weren’t any significant athletic scholarships to win, much less any pro money:

CBC Sports: Do you ever mull over the history that you helped make? Many more women run endurance than men now.

Mancuso: Well I think you have to attribute that to Kathrine Switzer, but I will say that the media played a big part in its growth because they reported our races every weekend.

CBC Sports: Speaking of reporting on your races, the thing that surprises is that the marathon was never your favourite event.

Mancuso: Yeah. honestly, the marathon wasn’t my thing. I preferred the track races, cross country.  Something a little shorter. Even though I was better at the longer. I went back to running a little bit after John Chipman (producer at CBC’s Sunday Edition) got Katherine and I together. I was actually just starting to get back into road running, and I joined the Longboat club. So I did a couple of runs with them but there was one I did that was all on the track, and I was like: Yessss. They're killers. But they are the best. You see everything that's happening…the dynamics of the race, you can play. I just like it.

 

Mancuso’s love of track comes out in subtle ways now, but there’s no mistaking it.

Joining her for an easy trail run recently, it was sweet to see that she still takes the inside edge on every bend in the trail. Fun run or not, Maureen can’t stop herself from dropping into lane one.

Circumstances are getting in the way of serious competition for Mancuso now. Races are almost always on weekends, when she is usually busy. But that doesn’t keep her from running. And her form is still obviously solid.

It's nearly 50 years later and Mancuso still has a nice easy stride.
 

What about the will to compete? Has 50 years dimmed that flame?

“I am not past competing against somebody and wanting to do my best,” says Mancuso. “But I am more wanting to do my best than putting somebody else behind me. But I still go after them. So I guess...”

Mancuso hesitates before telling one last quick story.

“I was running this run in Burlington, not so long ago. The Robbie Burns. And I guess nobody expected it, but the last hundred yards to the finish line, I went into a full out sprint and the guy that I was catching up to, heard me coming and he was like, ‘I don't think so!’ And so we battled it out hard as we could to the line, and then we just sat laughing at the end. The crowd caught on, and they were laughing along with us...the pair of us charging along saying ‘Oh no you don’t!,’" Mancuso  laughs, again.

And then she says goodbye.

She's training an energetic young shepherd-rottweiler at this moment.  And it’s time to get her out for a run.

(All photos courtesy Maureen Mancuso)

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Submission Policy

Note: The CBC does not necessarily endorse any of the views posted. By submitting your comments, you acknowledge that CBC has the right to reproduce, broadcast and publicize those comments or any part thereof in any manner whatsoever. Please note that comments are moderated and published according to our submission guidelines.