Maureen Mancuso's journey as a running pioneer

Courtesy of Maureen Wilton Mancuso

Maureen Wilton Mancuso poses for a photo to receive her marathon trophy. Coach Sy Mah stands behind the 13-year-old.

Maureen Mancuso would rather look ahead, not back.

She seems hardly concerned her marathon record in 1967 has been largely ignored, or that she was the subject of ridicule and rejection at the time.

She doesn't waste much time wondering "what if" or poring over the two scrapbooks compiled by her mother from Maureen's days as a teen running sensation.

These days, the 58-year-old Canadian is more excited about a new job as a dog trainer and preparing for her next half marathon than fretting about what was and wasn't said 45 years ago.

Still, she knows times have changed. If she accomplished today what she accomplished then, her fame would be global.

On May 6, 1967, 13-year old Maureen Wilton, a 4-foot-10, 80-pound twig who was all heart, lungs and legs, set the women's world record in the marathon, running 3:15:23 in Toronto.

Courtesy of Maureen Wilton Mancuso

Maureen Wilton Mancuso stands with her parents following her record-setting marathon.

Her feat came after just two weeks of training for her first 26.2-miler, in an era when women were discouraged from running long distances.

Four months later, her record was broken by a West German. Four years later -- with an urge to try other things in life and years before women's running scholarships -- Wilton dropped out of competitive running.

Though she helped open doors and eyes, proving that long-distance running wasn't harmful to young women, she and her feat faded from view.

"I was 17 and basically disappeared from the face of the earth," she said with a laugh.

She hasn't been inducted into any hall of fame, including Canada's Sports Hall of Fame or the Canadian Road Running Hall of Fame. For nearly 40 years, she lived the happy life she wanted -- getting married, having a career and raising children -- without anyone wanting to know her story.

When she eventually returned to running in her 50s and joined the Longboat Roadrunners Club in Toronto, Mancuso said she occasionally heard people talk about the long-ago record while wondering what had happened to the little girl who set it.

She never volunteered that she was the girl, and they didn't know until 2010.

"They didn't have any clue," Mancuso said. "They were still looking for me, but I was actually in their club."

In the beginning

Mancuso took up running at 10 after an older brother showed off the running medals he had won at school. Her parents enrolled her in the North York Running Club run by a local teacher named Sy Mah. At the time, she was the club's third member.

The club grew and Mah took his young boys and girls all over Canada and the U.S. to compete. Maureen loved the camaraderie, the competition and Mah, whom she recalls as a man with a good sense of humor who encouraged girls to run long distances when others didn't.

Mah saw Mancuso had speed and endurance and, after she nearly beat a top Canadian 18-year-old in a 1½-mile race at Toronto's High Park in April 1967, he suggested she run the marathon.

He believed she not only could prepare for it in two weeks, but that she could break the world record of 3:19:33 set by New Zealand's Mildred Sampson in 1964.

Courtesy of Maureen Wilton Mancuso

Maureen Wilton Mancuso, right, poses with fellow marathon pioneer Kathrine Switzer at the GoodLife half marathon in 2010.

"He said, 'So, do you want to run a marathon?' And I said, 'What's a marathon?' And he said, 'It's a long run.' And I said, 'How long?' And he told me and I said, 'Oh, that is a long run. All right. How fast do I have to go?' And he said, 'Seven minutes and 30 seconds [per mile] to get you the record.' To me, that was slow because we were used to running between five and 5:30 per mile."

Over the next two weeks, Mah announced his intention that Wilton would run the Canadian Eastern Championship Marathon, a multiple-loop course around Toronto's York University. Meanwhile, he put his would-be record-breaker through a program that emphasized intervals -- multiple 220s, 440s and miles -- with occasional long runs.

At the time, many in the running establishment believed such a distance would be harmful to her. Mah purposely had her focus on a conservative pace.

Through 21st century vision, the concerns seem archaic, but at the time, Mancuso said critics were vocal.

"They all were [critical]," she recalls. "Like, 'What are you doing? What are you people doing? Oh, your uterus is going to fall out. She's never going to be able to have children.'"

On race day, Mancuso says she felt conspicuous. While there were only 30 runners entered, club members, family, friends and some spectators had shown up to watch the little girl go for the record.

The course was a flat, five-mile loop, with the final loop extended to reach the 26.2-mile distance. Her coach ran with her for the first few laps, then took a bathroom break and never caught up again. Her brother and two others joined her for the final portion of the race, and her mother was positioned on the loop to let her know how she was doing against the clock.

She felt confident because she was "very pace-driven."

"You could tell me to run a 440 in 90 seconds and I would do it, and you could tell me to run one in 82 and I could do it," she said.

Once the race began, she felt strong and stuck to the plan. She discovered, though, that running a marathon was like nothing she'd ever done.

"I found it really a long race, and I don't mean tired-wise," Mancuso said. "It was like, 'Let's get this done.' I was used to half an hour, a five-mile race. ... It's not that I was tired, it was like, 'OK, let's get the race over with now so we can carry on with our day.'"

As the race progressed, her mother kept telling her she was on pace, and she was energized by the cheering. Then, suddenly, her mom shouted a warning.

"With one mile to go my mother said, 'There was something wrong with my watch. You're not going to get it,'" she said. "I looked at her like, 'Are you kidding me? One mile to go and you're telling me your watch was wrong and I'm off pace?' So that's why I ran the last mile in six minutes."

When she crossed the finish line, she thought she'd fallen short, but a few moments later her friends told her she'd set the record.

"It kind of took away from that cross-the-finish-line excitement," she said.

That night the Wilton family traveled to their cottage in the Mississauga area north of Toronto, where they spent several days hiking and water skiing and away from newspapers.

When they returned they discovered few stories had been written about the record and all were negative.

Margaret Lloyd, head of the women's committee of the Canadian AAU, told reporters it was "a ridiculous effort."

"I'm surprised her parents would allow it," she said. "I've talked to many doctors and my conclusion is that nobody knows yet what may happen in the future when a child this age is older. The damage may show."

Added Geoff Dyson, a Canadian track official and former British Olympic coach: "As far as I'm concerned, it's like pushing peanuts up a hill with your nose. She did it, but so what?"

Mancuso was crushed. Runners in general had been supportive, but many officials weren't and the stories reflected their views.

"I figured I'd been shafted," she said.

The legend

Charlotte Lettis Richardson has never met Mancuso, but she knows her story.

As a promising young runner in Massachusetts in the 1970s, she too was running long distances and having to occasionally register as "C. Lettis" to get past the ban on women in long races.

"I think we all sort of knew [of her], but it was sort of underground, if you know what I mean, sort of word of mouth," said Richardson, who produced a film in 2005 called "Run Like a Girl" about the evolution of women's distance running. "It wasn't big news at the time. I don't remember it being in the papers or anything like that. But I think we were all aware that there was this little girl that had set a record in the marathon."

Richardson, a longtime track coach in Portland, Ore., who also ran on U.S. national teams and for Nike, says women such as Mancuso were the pioneers who led the way for others.

Health concerns eventually fell away, Title IX brought opportunities and the Olympics added longer women's races, including the 1,500 meters in 1972 and the marathon in 1984.

Richardson puts Mancuso in the category of early distance star Doris Brown Heritage, Kathrine Switzer (the first registered woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1967), Bobbi Gibb (the first woman to run Boston a year earlier) and early '70s marathoner Jacqueline Hansen.

"I didn't know Maureen, a 13-year-old running the marathon, but a lot of us knew each other and felt like we were out there in the battlefield," Richardson said.

Mancuso doesn't have to look far to see how circumstances have improved for female distance runners.

Her daughter, Carolyn, 22, fell in love with running in the third grade and joined a running club. After high school she received a running scholarship to the University of West Alabama.

Carolyn said it's hard for her to imagine what it was like for her mother in the '60s.

She recalls her mother telling her she once won a race but the trophy was given to the boy who finished second "because she was a girl."

Mancuso, however, didn't tell her daughter about her exploits until she was in the fourth grade. Carolyn, after one of her races, asked her grandmother if her mom had ever been a runner.

"My mother looks at me and says, 'You haven't told her?' And I said, 'Why would I tell her that?'" Maureen recalls saying.

Over the next few years, Carolyn wanted to know everything.

Maureen recalls one day, just before her daughter was in high school, when "we blew the dust off the scrapbooks" and went over every page. They looked at the letter from the Canadian government in 1967, congratulating her for her record on the nation's centennial and another that welcomed her to the Canadian women's cross country team.

"It was a really nice day to share that with Carolyn," Maureen said.

Says her daughter: "I thought it was cool. I wanted to be her."

Story retold

In 2009, a story by Mark Sutcliffe in iRun Magazine told Mancuso's story for the first time in decades. The next year, John Chipman of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation produced a radio documentary about Mancuso and, as part of the project, reunited Mancuso and Switzer.

In 1967, shortly after Switzer's famous run in Boston, Mah invited her to come to Canada to run with Mancuso in her marathon-record attempt. Though Switzer was in no condition to run another 26.2 miles, she came and hobbled through it, finishing more than an hour after Mancuso. As Switzer told Sutcliffe, she remembered Mancuso as "just a little stick."

By 2010, Maureen had returned to running and was entered in Toronto's GoodLife half marathon. Switzer, still an active marathoner who had been a broadcaster and a champion for the inclusion of the marathon in the Olympics, was invited as the guest speaker at the prerace dinner.

The two did a radio interview and later ran together. But it was Switzer's speech at the prerace dinner that made the biggest impact on Maureen, 43 years after she received nothing but negativity after breaking a world record.

"She told the story of how she'd run in Boston, and she said she got the call from Sy Mah a few weeks later to come and run with me," Mancuso said. "And then she told the story of the record, and she really built it up good.

"And then she said, 'And that 13-year-old girl is sitting at the table in front.' And I stood up and they went crazy. It was unbelievable. It was like I felt I got my day after all. They clapped and clapped. It made me feel really good.

"She was like, 'I told you they'd go nuts.'"

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