Monday, November 7, 2016

V 6 N. 82 Diane Palmason, Canadian Legend

Diane Palmason
Canadian Distance Running Royalty
Diane Palmason at home in Comox, BC
     Amby Burfoot recently wrote a book titled “The First Ladies of Running”.  He covers the lives of twenty of the pioneers of women’s running, and narrowing that list down to twenty must have presented some interesting decisions to Amby and his editor.  I’m not writing to question or debate the selection process ,  only to add another name to the list of might have beens.   That name is Diane Palmason.   Diane is a Canadian runner whose career goes back to before women were allowed to run anything longer than 220 yards in competition on the North American continent.  As a sixteen year old, Diane represented Canada in the 1954 Empire/Commonwealth Games held in Vancouver.  These were  the games where the first of many Miracle Miles would be run, that one being the  famous Bannister-Landy mile.   Diane witnessed the race from the stands that day.  Her games were already over as she had been eliminated in the heats of the 220.    At sixteen the Montreal based  runner was  seeing   the end of her running career rapidly approaching  and would  go on to university, get a teaching degree, marry and have four children, settling in on the far North Shore of the St. Lawrence River.   Twenty-two years would roll by until Diane seriously returned to the running scene.

     But let’s turn back the clock a bit to when Diane’s running career truly began.  Like Grace Butcher whom I wrote about recently,  Diane found she could run fast at an early age, and she liked it.  At the age of 5 or 6 she started running at a  Sunday School picnic in her first home town of Calgary. By the time she was ten, the family was living in Montreal.  This was 1950.  Her first coach was Myrtle Cook McGowan the former World Record holder for 100 meters in 1928.   At the 1928 Olympics, Myrtle had been disqualified after two false starts in the 100  meters final, but later in the 4x100 she anchored the Canadian team to a gold medal over the Americans, easily holding off Betty Robinson who had won the 100m.  The Canadians set the world record that day in 48.4 seconds.

                            Myrtle Cook Edging Betty Robinson Seen Celebrating A Bit Early in the 4x100M

The following note is from Sports-Reference website.
 In April 1929 Cook moved to Montréal and began a pioneering career as a sports columnist for the Montréal Daily Star, and she wrote for that paper for 44 years. 
One Of Myrtle Cook McGowan's Regular Columns With Her By Line.
She later organized the Montréal Major Ladies' Softball League, the Montréal Major Ladies' Hockey League, and formed a branch of the Canadian Ladies' Athletic Club and became its athletic director. During World War II she was the track coach for the Canadian Armed Services in the Montréal area.  When she died in 1985, she was celebrated as the grande dame of Canadian women’s sports.
Personal Best: 100 – 12.0 (1928).
Diane's written invitation from Myrtle Cook McGowan to join the Mercury Athletic Club
dated May 31, 1951
The Picture Taken By Myrtle Cook McGowan 
Myrtle Cook McGowan was Diane’s coach and one might also say, her publicist.  Diane recalls running the 50, 75 , and broad jump in a meet and Myrtle taking her picture in the starting blocks  which ended up on the front page of the Sports Section of the Montreal Daily Star
Diane was part of an all girls track team the Mercury Athletics Club.  They trained at the Mount Royal High School track.  She also did figure skating, and at the age of ten won her first trophy  for a one mile skating race.  If there had been speedskating  for girls that would have become Diane’s sport.  By the time she was 11 she was 5’7”.   Hereditary factor?  Her mother had done some sport as a paddler in the Winnipeg Canoe Club in the 1920s.  Her dad was Icelandic.  His work was farming.
By the age of 14 Diane was making in roads into the sport and coming in contact with some American coaches of national reputation such as Brutus Hamilton, Ken Doherty, and Fred Wilt.   She made it to the Canadian Olympic Trials in 1952 as a relay runner.  She was considered to be too young to compete in 220 yard races.  Excuse me?  Did I hear that right?  She would have  to get a waiver to run in races longer than 100 yards.  Guess the Canadians were a bit prudish in protecting their women.  Diane mentions that  once that she was told that races longer than 220 yards were not good for young ladies’ reproductive systems.  In that case she questions why men should be permitted to run races over hurdles for the same reason.   Diane  was second in the Province of Quebec to Rosella Thorne, a ‘classic black sprinter’. 

She got to go as part of the Quebec 4x100 relay team.  She did not run fast enough to be considered for selection, but she got to experience running against some of Canada's top women sprinters.   She wasn't quite ready, and it was a tough pill to swallow, but she stayed with the sport.   
Then in 1954, the year of the Empire/Commonwealth Games in Vancouver,  Diane was invited  to a training camp  in Toronto to receive  special coaching instruction from Hamilton and Doherty.  Kids were brought in from all ten provinces.   One of the little known stories that came out of that gathering was an account of Wes Santee being spooked by elephants.   At the end of the training camp, there was a track meet organized during the Canadian National Exhibiition.  The CNE  is something like a big state fair in the US.  It is huge.  On the infield of the track there was a circus to be held later in the day and there were a lot of performers,  acrobats, clowns, trapeze artists, and jugglers wandering around the infield.   A number of name runners had been invited for special events including Santee in the mile. On one of the laps during the race he came of a turn and was confronted by three elephants that had gotten loose and he had to make a quick detour.  He still finished the race, but in a slow 4:25.   
Account of the Elephants on the Track


      Diane remembers that Bob Richards was there and gave a pole vaulting clinic as he was then the reigning Olympic champion.  For part of the class he gave his speech  while walking on his hands to demonstrate the strength needed to be a vaulter in those days.    
From this meet, Diane was invited to move on to Vancouver for final selection to the Canadian team for the Empire/Commonwealth Games.  This time she made it as a 220 yard sprinter, but again it was not without controversy due to her age of 16.  Still considered too young to compete, the officials argued that she couldn't compete in those 'long' races around one turn.  But her coach Myrtle Cook argued on her behalf that she could, because there was no rule against competing in 'international competions' at that age, only in Canadian competitions.  Diane made it as the number two 220 yard sprinter for the Canadians finishing second to Gerry Bemistor.  She was less successful in the 100 and finished 7th in the trials.  And so she made the team and stayed in Vancouver for the month leading up to the meet.  She was the youngest person on the Canadian track and field team.   Again Myrtle came to her rescue and served as a chaperone for Diane.  At the Games she ran a PB in the 220 but was eliminated in the semis by the Australian Marjorie Jackson-Nelson.
Diane on the Canadian National Team at the Empire/Commonwealth Games 1954
In her memories about those Games of course was witnessing the epic Bannister-Landy mile  duel and then the near tragedy of Jim Peters collapsing on the last lap of the Marathon.  Those events happened within minutes of each other.

After the 1954 Empire Commonwealth Games, she came home and continued to train in 1955 at Molson Stadium on the McGill University campus.  It was then she discovered she could stay with the boys at 440 yards.  Perhaps an indication that her strength might be in the longer races.   In the fall of 1955 she matriculated to Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, and that was it for Track and Field.  She received a B.A. in History and Poly Psy.  Got a scholarship to McGill and a degree in Sociology.  She then moved up to the north shore of the St. Lawrence  to the town of Port Cartier and taught  Kindergarten  to high school in Algebra, trigonometry, and Phys. Ed. in the English community,  eventually ending up with a husband and four children and moving through a series of towns including Port Cartier, Buckingham, and Toronto.   While she was teaching physical education the Canadian Air Force 5Bx and 10BX exercise routines were popular.  In 1970 one of the tests of fitness in the Aerobics workouts of Ken Cooper  was to see how far one could run in 12 minutes.  She covered 6 laps on the track.  She would occasionally jog at night with her dog to get out of the house and relax away from the kids.  But if she saw someone on the sidewalk, she would slow down to a walk, so people would not think she was crazy out running on her own.    In 1975 she had a spinal fusion and was told that running was no longer  an option.  A year later she would compete in her first road race, the National Capital Marathon. No build up with 5ks 10ks or half marathons.   This sounds typical of Diane.  In fact this marathon in 1976, her first road race, was just the beginning of a long and incredible distance running career that would lead Diane to competing internationally and holding every Canadian Masters record from 50 meters to 80 kilometres at one time or another in her racing history.    She worked out with the Ottawa Kinsman Harriers.  Her husband at the time wanted her to crew his sailboat in a regatta.  She had other intentions.  Prior to that first Marathon she did win an Ottawa Businessmen’s Olympics 1500 race at around 6:00.  She phoned in about six weeks before the marathon to get registered and two weeks before the race  did her first 20 miler.  In that first marathon she went out at 9:00 pace and finished in 3hrs. 54 minutes.    That Fall she ran the Skylon Marathon (Buffalo/Niagara Falls ) in 3 hrs. 22 min.  She was on her way.  By 1979 she was racing in Hannover, Germany in the World Masters Championships finishing second to Miki Gorman in the marathon,  and in 1980 she won the Penn Relays 800 in 2:20.9 at age 42.  That was her first race on the track race since the 1954 Commonwealth Games.  Diane's son Craig, already a good athlete (50.1 in 400m IH) helped coach Diane in the late 70s/early 80s.  He taught her the sprint drills brought to Canada from Poland by Gerard Mach which everyone uses now.  Then she started getting really good running a 2hr. 46.21 in the Twin Cities Marathon in 1984 at age 46 . This was also a Canadian national record.  She got her first World Records at 400 and 800 metres.   Other victories included the Bonne Belle 10Km in New York in 1988.   She also turned in a 37:19 10,000 on the track and has run 78 marathons over the years. 

By the early 1980’s Diane was using her skills to get involved in the administrative side of the sport and public fitness working for the Canadian Medical Association as an editor of their journal, also serving the  Jewish Community Centre, interning with the Canadian Track and Field Association  working for the Ottawa Athletic Club.  By 1986 she was manager for the Womens’ Program for Sport Canada and became in involved in Women’s Rights in Sport and the Canadian Association for Advancement of Women in Sport.  By 1990 she realized she was burning out from so many activities and decided to limit herself to coaching.  She earned her Canadian coaching certification, then moved to Colorado with her second husband Ernie Black.  Ernie had always worked as a geologist with mining companies and Diane began operating Women’s Running Camps from 1993 until 2001 and continued to train and run for herself as well.  She got her US coaching certification in Provo, UT.   Diane and  Ernie  were mainstays in the Colorado running community during  those  years.  Her company was called 'Running Unlimited'. In one of those eight years one of Diane's protogees Katie Kilbane won  the Masters 40+  1500 and Diane won the 50+ 1500.  In 2003 when signed up to run the 400 and 800 at the US Masters meet, an official confronted her about being a Canadian and not being eligible to run  in that meet.  Diane replied that she had dual citizenship and was eligible.  The US official blurted back, "If you run in this meet I'll see you never run again in an international meet."  Diane called the official's bluff and was so infuriated that she set two Age Group world records in the 400 and 800.  
In 1984 Diane was the first woman in the Helsinki Marathon and won this trophy depicting Lasse Viren
She modestly mentioned that the top Finnish women were all running in the L.A. Olympics and were not present for this race.

    One of Diane's toughest competitions was in 1987 participating in the Ultimate Runner competition in Jackson, Michigan.  This event was run for several years, then ran out of crazies willing to participate.  It moved down to North Carolina for awhile and like the 24 hour relays that we've reported on, it faded from view.   The Ultimate Runner was a one day event that consisted of a 10Km road race, a 400 meter sprint and a 100 meter sprint on the the track, followed by a one mile race and finally a full marathon.  Diane won the Masters division of this event when she was 49 years old.  Her times were:  10Km 41:29, 400m 75.9, 100m 15.8, Mile 6:03.8, Marathon 3:20:38.  Any one of those times would be considered very strong on its own for a 49 years old mother of four.  
   To be closer to Diane's mom who was in senior care in Sidney, BC, she and Ernie moved to Blaine, Washington in 2001 and continued running and coaching in nearby Bellingham.  In 2008, they  finally moved back to Canada following her daughter up to Vancouver Island where she became a member of the Comox Valley Road Runners which is where I first met Diane.   In talking over the old days, we discovered that we both ran our first marathon in that same  Ottawa National Capitol Marathon back in 1976.   Diane is a stickler for details.  When the Comox Valley club got together to run a mile to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of Bannister's 4 minute mile, Diane was there to measure the extra nine meters on the track and break it down into 440 yard intervals to give accurate splits. 
It was only this Spring that Diane lost Ernie to a tough struggle with Parkinsons Disease.  Today Diane still runs regularly but non-competitively.  Her latest project is writing a book about her great grandmother  (lang amma) who migrated to Canada alone from Iceland in 1883.  Certainly this pioneering spirit of her great grandmother   is an indicator of the strength Diane has shown over all these years of motherhood, work, racing, caregiving  and being an ambassador of our sport.  


Susan Abuasba said...

Another great article and very inspiring. I can totally relate now with the age group yet I can't even imagine the times she was running. It makes you wonder also the many talented female athletes that couldn't achieve their potential because of the silly rules and ideology imposed on them.

Suzanne DeCur said...

Loved this article about an amazing athlete I've never heard of....a 2:46 marathon at age 46? Incredible.

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