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Jacqueline Gareau: The Boston Marathon, the Rosie Ruiz scandal and a lifetime of running

Jacqueline Gareau winning the women's race at the 1980 Boston Marathlon in a time of 2:34:28 Credit: Courtesy of Jacqueline Gareau
Jacqueline Gareau winning the women’s race at the 1980 Boston Marathlon in a time of 2:34:28
Credit: Courtesy of Jacqueline Gareau

In 1980, a relatively unknown Canadian marathoner named Jacqueline Gareau pulled off a storybook underdog victory. The 27-year-old hospital worker ran 100-mile weeks on her spare time through a Montreal winter and entered Boston on the suggestion of a friend. No one even considered the diminutive Quebecoise runner to contend, much less dominate the race. The officials wouldn’t even let her start at the front with the elites.

Gareau worked her way into the lead, gapped the field and cruised to victory. But when she arrived on Boylston St. the tape had been already broken. Another unknown runner named Rosie Ruiz was awarded the laurel wreath and crowned champion as Gareau, confused and dejected, crossed the finish line. What should have been Gareau’s coming out party as a new star on the burgeoning women’s elite distance running scene relegated her to a footnote in the “Rosie Ruiz year” of the Boston Marathon. Today, everyone knows the name Rosie Ruiz. It’s become synonymous with cheating. Sadly, few remember who the real champion was that day.

Thirty-five years later, the Boston Athletic Association invited Gareau to attend and run in the 2015 Boston Marathon. We spoke to her about her career and legacy as a great Canadian runner and Boston Marathon champion.

When was the last Boston Marathon you ran?

The 25th anniversary [of my win] they had me come and I was in a convertible car, waving to the crowd through the course. I wasn’t trained enough for the marathon. And then, at the end, they had me cross the last 100m and celebrate like I had won the race. I had missed this because of the controversy with Rosie Ruiz cheating. So they did all that stuff, with the Canadian anthem and laurel wreath and medal.

The 30th anniversary I said “I think I can run,” and I ran OK. I don’t remember the time. That was my last one.

Take me back to your win 35 years ago. What are the memories that stick out from that experience?

I remember feeling no pressure. At the beginning I didn’t really check the competition. I was new to that kind of sport. I had only competed in Canada before – well, I did New York in the fall – but I wasn’t there to check the other competitors. I was there to improve my time and do what I had in mind.

My goal was to break 2:35 because every time I ran I was improving – 2:47 in Ottawa, 2:40 in Montreal, 2:39 in New York. Then, in April, I wanted to do Ottawa but a friend brought me to Boston.

So, I started that way. I just went there and said that’s what I want to do.

There was a journalist who said “You know, Jacqueline, you have a chance to win that race.” He told me I would get the floral wreath if I won and I said that would look nice, but unfortunately I never got it right away. It took a week. I didn’t have a good start because some organizers pushed me to the back. I don’t know why, but they said my number didn’t belong in the front.

You didn’t start at the front?

No, I had to zig-zag a lot to get through the crowd of runners. By four miles I was first and I kept first until, I thought, the end. But didn’t break the tape. Near the end of the race – I don’t remember where it was, maybe three kilometres from the finish – I heard someone shouting “Second woman” but I didn’t believe them.

I knew I was first. Katherine Switzer was in the press truck and she was always telling me I was first, so I went to the podium, wondering a little bit why I didn’t break the tape. At that point I still thought I had won, until I saw they were interviewing Bill Rodgers and Rosie Ruiz.

Today, everyone knows the name “Rosie Ruiz.” But very few people talk about what it must have been like for you, the actual winner. At the time, people still thought she was the winner. How long did that take to get cleared up?

During interviews she didn’t answer questions very well. She didn’t know about training. She had a cotton shirt and it wasn’t worn and barely wet and, when you run in the heat, you’re all white-faced. So it didn’t make sense at first. And then the interviewers came to me said “We don’t believe she ran.”

When did the Boston Marathon organizers get a hold of you and formally award you the win?

About a week later. I was back in Montreal after the marathon. I was busy with interviews, calling my work at the hospital. It was so busy the hospital decided to do kind of a press conference.

Did you ever talk to Rosie Ruiz?

Yes, I met her at a 10K in Miami that summer. She came after the race to me and presented herself and said “why did you do that?” She said that she won. She was interviewed and she said she was sorry for me; I don’t know. It’s her life.

You look back at your career, what was your greatest achievement?

I can say the Boston Marathon is probably my greatest victory. And being fifth at the world championship in Helsinki in ’83. I made the Olympic team but unfortunately my body wasn’t following me that day. All those things are important for me in a way.

What is it that you do to mentally prepare for a race?

Through all the training I visualize. I try to repeat the training on the same kind of course and at the end I try to visualize. Also, if it’s hilly I will try to make it that way. I visualize how I feel and being loose and letting it hang, kind of, you know? I go from start to finish, how I want to feel and how I will feel.

There’s been a period over the last 30 years where there weren’t very many good female Canadian marathon runners. We now have a couple talented runners under 2:30. Why do you think it is that at the time you were running so well and what were you doing differently that people stopped doing for about 30 years?

It’s difficult to understand because I think if you have the talent and you do the right training this is what you obtain. I wonder if people maybe train too hard or they don’t train enough with the right pacing.

If a coach gives you something, ask “do I feel tired today? Should I do that? Does it feel right for me?” We should listen to our body more. I also built up a lot of endurance before I got speed and now everybody does speed before. I wonder if it’s not too tough on us sometimes. I wonder if we should spend longer building a good foundation, a good base, training the Lydiard way. That’s how I trained.

After your career ended, you continued running and are still running today. How important do you think that is?

I don’t need to be winning. I race because it makes it a little exciting but I’m not looking out for those adrenaline shots all the time. I like my peaceful life and I like to go outside and enjoy nature. I like to move. I like to go out. I don’t run to race, I race because I run.

At that time I was scheduling everything. It was more serious. But now it’s like when I began: with passion, with love. It feels good to do it. I love to bike, I love to cross-country ski. That’s how it started and that’s how I do it now.