Tuesday, January 17, 2017

V 7 N. 4 When a Canadian Woman Was World's Best Marathoner

                 How Could a Thirteen Year Old Girl Set a World's Best in the Marathon in 1967?
Maureen Wilton  May 6, 1967

One of the youngest ever world running record holders, Maureen Wilton  of Willowdale, Ontario was a 13 year old Canadian girl who put all of two weeks of rather questionable training  into running  her first marathon.  She was not new to the sport of running but to long distance she was  a neophyte.  A member of the  North York Track Club in 1967, she  had been training since the age of nine.  But nothing prior to her effort on May 6, 1967 gave much indication that a world's best time was about to be recorded.  Women were still fighting for a place on the roads with men, and I'm not referring to being allowed to drive cars in Saudi Arabia, but to compete in races of the same distance that men ran every weekend.  Today even with the  majority of marathoners being women, the under 60 age crowd are probably not even aware that this was an issue fifty years ago.  Now it's rare that we  see a man on the cover of a running magazine.  I won't go into that in this piece.   Never the less women were not welcome on the roads in 1967.  Less than a month earlier, Kathryn Switzer had been able against the will of the organizers to run in and complete the Boston Marathon.  Jock Semple, race director and  never one to mince words or actions, tried to 'man handle'  Kathryn off the course, but in that famous photo, the men around her kept Jock at bay and Kathryn on course.  Bobbi Gibb won that race at Boston in 3:27.17 as well as 1966 and 68,  and Switzer was second in 4:20.02.
Bobbi Gibb winning Boston in 1966

Gibb post race

In 1967 Switzer getting mugged by Jock Semple race director at Boston

Years Later Forgive and not Forget

Maureen's Wilton's  story was brought to my attention last week at a running club workout when Jamie Kantor told me that there had been a story on the CBC that day  about a young Canadian woman setting a world best for the marathon back in 1967.    I was intrigued by the story, and couldn't think who that might have been.  I thought Jamie might have been confusing Jaqueline Gareau who came along years later in 1979-80.  So I looked up the CBC story when I got home.  You can see it for yourself by clicking on  "Maureen Wilton" at the bottom of this page.  This is not the first time this story has been written, but for some reason it has  filtered through the pages of various running magazines over the last twenty years, and its significance each time has  been forgotten.   A google search will bring out some of those other stories.
Maureen and Her Parents after the Race
What is truly unique is that two stories came out of this one event, because Maureen Wilton's coach was Sy Mah.  Mah would run  his first marathon that same day as Maureen   and run 523 more marathons in his lifetime which in 1988 was a world record.   I mentioned that Maureen's training was questionable.  One story says Sy had Maureen running repeat 220s and 440s and some distance runs, in the two weeks prior to her attempt.  Sy only broached the subject of running the marathon to Maureen after she had done well in a 1.5 mile race.  She had never heard of the marathon, didn't know how long it was, and had no idea of what it would be like to go that far.  However she did have some serious talent  at shorter distances, probably a near five minute mile capability,  and a good sense of pace.  She mentions in one interview that she could hit a 440 on demand at the pace her coach dictated.  Mah had calculated that Maureen could break the record of 3:19.33 held by Millie Simpson of New Zealand set in Auklannd on July 21, 1964,  by running a 7:30 per mile pace. But by the end of the run with a mile to go, Maureen's mother who was keeping track of her time felt that they had messed up the timing and that Maureen was behind the record pace. Mom informed  Maureen, and she picked it up and ran a 6:00 last mile finishing in 3:15.23.  Kathryn Switzer came up to the race 2 weeks after her Boston adventure, but was never in it against the Wilton.  Not many people can pick up the pace like that at the end of their first marathon.  The 4'10"  80 pounder had gone into the stratosphere of distance running and barely realized it.  It is not noted in the stories, but I don't think Maureen ran another marathon.  She dialed back and hit the cross country circuit and represented Canada on some national teams and was out of running at age 17.   A few months after her marathon, the record was no longer hers as Anni Pede-Erdkamp of Germany cranked a 3:07.26.  Pede-Erdkamp a twenty-seven year old set her record at Waldniel, Germany.
Maureen getting her award after the race and Sy Mah in Yellow Shirt

There was some criticism of Maureen's parents at even letting their daughter run such a distance.  The old prolapsed uterus argument  was the main source of outcries, which have long since been proven not to be an issue.  Even today a number of sanctioning bodies discourage long distance running by teens and certainly younger children.  There are other concerns regarding growth plates being damaged on developing children's bones which are a legitimate concern.

Maureen's daughter Carolyn became a runner and was good enough to get a scholarship to run at West Alabama University.  That was an opportunity not available to Maureen when she was old enough to attend university.  Amazingly Maureen had never told her daughter about her running career until Carolyn was well into her career.    Maureen eventually earned  her way through her studies into a career in the financial world, and now at 58 years  has taken on a whole new career in dog training.

Regarding Maureen's life after a world best, her family went to their lake cottage after the race and were surprised when they came home to see the overwhelmingly negative press coverage about her accomplishment.  Even the track and field establishment was down on her achievement.  Since then Maureen is yet to be considered for a Hall of Fame nomination anywhere in her native land.  She has been soundly applauded at some recent events when Kathryn Switzer came to Canada and told the story to a packed audience at a pre-race event and then introduced Maureen who was sitting next to her totally unrecognized.   Maureen Wilton , now Maureen Mancuso was finally acknowledged and given a heartfelt ovation from her fellow runners.
Sy Mah in Olander Park, Toledo, Ohio

Sy Mah  would move on from Toronto to be an assistant professor of physical education at the University of Toledo.  He was very instrumental in the running community in Northwest Ohio in the 1970s and 80s until his untimely death in 1988.  Today his statue stands in Olander  Park where many road races took place in Toledo and the annual   Glass City Marathon.  His name is on the mugs given to all finishers.

See the CBC story which put me on to this post.
Maureen Wilton  by David Giddens, CBC Sports

Don't remember Maureen, but sure knew Sy Mah well. He moved to Toledo, and was main force behind Toledo RRC when I started racing weekly, in about 1970. Believe he was teaching at Toledo University, as I remember visiting him at his apartment on campus. Sy was definitely more interested in road racing and marathoning than track. Sy was locally famous  for the number of marathons (524) he finished.
Bruce  Kritzler


I am of the strong opinion that male runners should not attempt marathoning until they are 18 years old.
Perhaps even 21 Year old.

To heck with records!

Just because you can do it, does not mean that it is good for your short term health or for your long term
development as a runner.

Comments encouraged. Especially from our readers and contributors with coaching backgrounds.

John Bork

I share your concern about young kids running marathons.  I looked up the current world best for 13 year old girls and it is now  2 hr. 44 min.     Thirteen year old boys  is 2hr. 43 minutes.  Also of note is that the girls' record was set in 1987, the boys' record in 1977.  This indicates that nobody is trying to beat the record  and putting  their kids' health at stake anymore.  At least not on a grand scale. The records are listed down to 4 year olds.  Remember in the late sixties early seventies there were groups of parents trying really hard to have their kids doing long distance stuff.  Even Runners' World put out some pamphlet books on a group called PaMaKids who were promoting family togetherness through distance running.   There are probably still a few parents promoting such activitiy. Fortunately they are few and far between.  But child abuse is rampant in many forms in our country and throughout the world, certainly not just through sport.  For 15 years  I worked in the field of very serious child abuse, and if there was a common thread in those cases, most parents never felt that what they were doing to their children was out of the ordinary.   It would probably be very hard to prosecute a parent for training a kid to run a marathon  today, even knowing that the child's health and well being might be at risk.  Look at how controversial the vaccination question is.   That said I recently saw a film from India about a little boy training to run marathons. He had run 48 marathons by the age of 4 when the HBO film was made.   He was clearly being exploited, because the coach of this slum kid was obviously doing a lot of self promotion and making  money off the child.  Someone murdered the coach.  I hesitate to say 'fortunately murdered' but the thought did come to mind.    See   Marathon Boy trailer.    Of interest, that child is no longer running marathons, and someone has looked out for him, and he is getting an education in a boarding school which would certainly have been out of his family's reach had he not had that notorious past.    In other ways less flagrant but still exploitative we see in every grandstand and every performance hall children being driven by aggressive parents to the brink of exhaustion to excel in various activities.  Psychological abuse is no less devastating than physical abuse.  Any college coach today can tell you stories of exploitative parents they have had to deal with.   This is not only sport but spelling bees, dance, piano, theater etc.   The parent clearly driving the child to thrive where the parent has failed..or excelled.    In some societies it is seen as the only way out  of poverty such as baseball in the Caribbean and South American countries as well as soccer.  In their own way the East Germans and Soviet Bloc promoted their societal beliefs  in the 70s, and there are still vestiges of that past in Russia today.

In Maureen Wilton's case, it was fortunate that her experience was a one and done.  She was clearly a natural and her effort probably not much more than the equivalent of a long hike on a family outing.

Still begging the question , when is it time to run a first marathon for a young person?  So much indivduality in this query.   If you're training for the mile and using a Lydiard system to train, you're going to run at least a 20 miler on occasion as part of the endurance building phase.  Some kids mature physically much earlier than others.  Some kids have tender joints and others don't.  Really hard to put a specific age on the question.  Some atheltes have very little natural talent and might see a marathon as simply a personal challenge to try to complete.  It might not have any bearing on their future performances, yet for others at any age it could be a devastating event.

  Interesting debate.   I know in late 90’s a high school coach in Salem ore took his boys distance runners to do the LA marathon.   I heard through the track coaching grapevine that the marathon wiped out the boys track season.   The parents were upset and the coach was relieved of his coaching duties.  

Mike Waters


I agree with you and John.  I took up distance running in grad school at the age of 24 and did not run a marathon until 28.  I don't think kids want to run a marathon, and it is usually the parents, who are pushing them.  If the kid really likes running, I think the parent should curb his/her exuberance  and limit his running to maybe 20 miles per week and certainly not a marathon.  It seems as if some of the best runners come out of age group swimmers or soccer players.  I remember growing up with no parent involvement in my athletic endeavors, mainly baseball and basketball and only on a club basis.  I still think this is a good model.  Of course, the kids are better at everything sport today, but I thoroughly enjoyed my athletic upbringing and later morphing into a distance runner (still not very good compared to college trained runners).

Don Betowski

To Once Upon a Time in the Vest

After coaching all ages of kids for fifty (50) years, I read with interest the Mo Wilton story and her marathon run at age thirteen (13). I can appreciate all of this since my club, the Kettering Striders, was one of the earliest running clubs in the US for young girls and from the beginning I trained them the same as if they were boys. In the late 60's, girls running anything was a cause for questions and much tsk tsking among the general population. I took girls from my PE classes in Kettering, Ohio and had them running round the school grounds and up and down the hills in a neighborhood pasture. None of them seemed to complain nor suffer any damage from the regimen I put them through. That first season I took them to one cross country race and a couple of road races. It was so unusual that our local paper ran an action picture with the caption: " What is this ? It is a girl running "   Though the girls usually ran races in X-C up to two miles, they did participate in a half-marathon once each year with some as young as ten (10) completing the distance. When properly trained, kids can complete and enjoy the longer races. I cannot comment on how old one must be to run a marathon as we just didn't do it.........maybe too much of a good thing !  Remember something else folks: Not everyone is competitive at the same point in their lives. Ideally, it would be best if your most competitive peak came between the ages of twenty five (25) and thirty (30) but that doesn't always happen. Sometimes it may happen when the runner is thirteen (13) and when people see this boy/girl run, they immediately start with the " just think how good he/ or she will be when" (fill in what you usually hear) . All you can really do is say Bonnie/Robbie is a good runner and let it go at that !        Steve Price 1-20-17

Hi George,

I further comment to you as I read the comments and was a bit put off that all of this was thrown on the parents!! If ONLY I had listened to my father who really pushed me to try other sports and be involved in other sports. Instead I insisted on running and racewalking only. I remember we were encouraged not to go ice skating in case we injured ourselves. I don't know if it was a direct - you can't go ice skating - or encouraged and then of course...anything my coach said was golden and anything my father said wasn't because what did he know about the sport? Perhaps if I did try my hand at other sports I would have disciplined my body muscles to be a better runner or race walker and especially, have enjoyed the sport and not have the pressure of getting University scholarships looming over my head. If my father had forced me not to run XC or T&F and eventually even indoor T&F I probably would have resented him. God Bless that man. He couldn't win.
I agree with what was  said above. Sometimes the peak for an athlete comes early. Sometimes it comes late. Sometimes it never comes. They should focus on the reward of self discipline and hard work than the records. I was most proud of my PR's than winning first place. I remember the last USATF Jr Nationals I won. My time was the slowest I ever walked in competition and yet I still won. It felt so hollow. Winning and records isn't everything.

1 comment:

Susan said...

I can clearly recall the debates around the impact long distance running had on us "girls" in the 1970's. Fortunately scholarships were available however for other T&F sports such as race walking it was extremely limited. The pressure to pick a sport because of scholarships or to be the "pioneer" probably saw more young women, such as Maureen, step out too early. And the achievements these young pioneer's made should not be ignored.

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