Longer careers are fuelling an unprecedented running boom for women in Canada
The Woodlands Half Marathon in Texas is hardly known for generating eye-popping finish times. It happens in March—long before most top runners come into peak fitness—so it’s the kind of race elites use to get in shape, away from the critical judgment of public message boards.
That is probably why nobody was prepared to witness Rachel Cliff smash Lanni Marchant’s Canadian half marathon record of 1:10:47 by nearly 40 seconds at the race’s 2018 edition. Cliff’s 1:10:08 made headlines across the country. Fans and competitors wondered if the Vancouver, BC resident could eventually become the first Canadian woman to eclipse the 70-minute barrier, and how her new fitness might translate to the marathon. Ironically, it seemed like the person least enchanted by her new record was Cliff herself.
“I knew it would get broken again pretty quickly,” she said, now two years removed from the race. “I knew the level of talent that we have in Canada.”
Cliff was right—her record was broken three times in the next two years. Her foresight was informed by an emerging trend—one whose floodgates, barely opened in 2018, are now ripped off its hinges: Canadian women are running faster than ever. Four of the five women’s national distance records (from the 1,500 metres to the marathon) have been re-written in the past calendar year. Six of the top eight Canadian half marathoners of all time registered their personal best in 2019 or later. Malindi Elmore, a 39-year-old mother of two, ran more than two minutes faster than any other Canadian female marathoner in history in early 2020.
Cliff, who also held the national marathon record before Elmore, traded in her place in history for newfound inspiration. “Losing a record to Malindi, who has a family and two kids, is such an uplifting thing,” said Cliff. “It shows that women are supported to chase this sport longer now. For me, it’s motivating.”
Women having longer running careers, like Elmore, is a probable driver of Canada’s running renaissance. Top athletes like Elmore, Lyndsay Tessier, Emily Setlack and Natasha Wodak are all over 35 years old, and have made it obvious that women can achieve their best results well past their early thirties and even after giving childbirth. We did not always think that way.
When Jacqueline Gareau chased and broke the Canadian marathon record multiple times in the early 1980s, her adversity transcended 42.2 kilometres. Gareau, now 67, grew up in the farmlands of Quebec’s Laurentides region, where kids skated and played broomball (a knockoff version of hockey) for fun. As they progressed towards adolescence, gender roles splintered—the boys became expected to help their fathers with outdoor and menial tasks, while the girls would generally be confined to house duties with their mothers. Gareau, however, preferred the outdoors and was athletic. So, to the dismay of her parents, she started running.
“My mom would tell me,” said Gareau, “‘Jacqueline, stop that. It’s not good for you. You’re going to ruin your body doing that.’ People didn’t know women could run long.”
Gareau was 23 when the 1976 Olympics came to Montreal. The Olympians made her believe that she could also one day excel in distance events, even though the women still were not allowed to race anything longer than 1,500 metres.
In the next few years, Gareau became inspired by Grete Waitz, the rising star marathoner from Norway who went on to win the New York City Marathon nine times. When she was 27, Gareau broke the national record for the first time, in a time of 2:30:58, in Japan. Despite getting little to no funding or recognition from even local press, she continued to flourish. She won races in Montreal, Ottawa, New York and, most famously, the 1983 Boston marathon, where she set her personal best time of 2:29:27.
At just 30 years old, she had lowered the Canadian marathon record by nearly six minutes. But soon, injuries struck, from a hallux valgus issue to plantar fasciitis. Gareau now thinks that rushing into high mileage in her twenties limited her from reaching her full potential. “We did not have that foresight back then,” she says. “Now, women don’t rush to perform early, and they peak better,” says Gareau. “We only have to look at how Malindi Elmore ran at her age to know what women can do later in their careers. I think with that technique, I would have run faster.”
But in Gareau’s era, there was little incentive for women to chase long running careers. Trent Stellingwerff, an applied sport researcher at Canadian Sport Institute Pacific, says socioeconomic opportunity, and not physiological limitations, probably led women to leave the sport earlier, historically, than men. “If women were funded and sponsored less than men to run,” says Stellingwerff, “then there was likely less incentive to compete in running for as long as men,” whose wife Hilary ran the 1,500m at her second of two Olympic Games at age 35.
Stellingwerff suggests that as professional athlete funding equalizes between genders, women are staying in the sport for longer and reach more of their potential. And that’s good news, because, according to Stellingwerff, research does not show a difference between the age of peak performance between women and men.
It’s that in mind that fuels rising stars like 31-year-old Cliff and 29-year-old Andrea Seccafien. A 2016 Olympian in the 5,000m, Seccafien set a new Canadian half-marathon record in February 2020. Her time of 69:38 suggests great marathon potential, but the Guelph, Ont. native who trains in Australia is in no hurry to move up in distance. “People used to think you run out of time for the marathon,” she said, acknowledging that a focus on the 42.2K marks the final phase to a distance runner’s Olympic career, “but now I don’t feel pressured to move up right away. It’s not like there is an expectation placed on women to stop running at a certain age anymore. I might have five more years in this sport or more.”
Whereas Gareau had Waitz as a role model, Seccafien had to look no further than her compatriots to find incentive to keep running faster. When 38-year-old Natasha Wodak set a new national half marathon record and became the first Canadian woman to run under the 70-minute barrier earlier this year, it lit a fire under Seccafien. “When Natasha broke 70 minutes, I was like ‘I can definitely do this,’” she said. “I wasn’t sure if I could run faster, but seeing Natasha do it made it feel more attainable.”
This game of national record leapfrog is making Rachel Cliff talk about her race in Texas in 2018 as if it were a distant memory. But, she knows better than to throw in the towel. If she follows the trend, faster times are likely in her future.
“Women are in a good place now,” said Cliff. “We have mostly equal funding, some of our women are encouraged to seek out training groups all over the world, and our careers are as long as men’s. If our culture can continue to make women feel supported and enjoy it for as long as they like, the rest will keep taking care of itself.”
This article appears in iRun’s first issue of 2020. Read the entire issue here.