Athletics Community Clubs

What powers a woman’s life in sport

Small choices, chance opportunities, supportive teammates, and a one-of-a-kind coach help prolong a passion.

The Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team in January 2020. (Photo: Ken Parker)

By Charlotte van Walraven

In Grade 3, my teacher asked if anyone wanted to join the school’s cross-country running team.

Up until then, I had been an active child in an active family who skated on the Rideau Canal, hiked in Gatineau Park, cycled along the Ottawa River Parkway, and played soccer at local parks.

I had never been in a real race, but I remembered watching my mother finish her first marathon a few years before. I knew that if she could run in a race, then I could, too. Putting up my hand to volunteer to run cross-country changed the course of my life.

On that first race day, I lined up at the start line with more than 100 other 8-year-old girls, and waited for the start gun. I wasn’t warmed up, had received no coaching, and had no idea how to run a race. I floated cluelessly through the course and crossed the finish line in a mass of other equally inexperienced girls.

As I walked back to my school’s miniature tarp-village set up near the finish line, it dawned on me that not only could I sign up for cross-country the following year, but I wanted to.  My results weren’t stellar, but in that moment, with the cool October breeze nipping my cheeks and the shouts of young runners cheering on their teammates peppering the air, it didn’t seem to matter — I was hooked.

Since that first race, sport has been an essential and irreplaceable part of my life. Elementary school races turned to middle school races, which led to high school and club competitions, and a career as a university varsity athlete. It was hard; there were plenty of injuries and disappointments and times when I felt frustrated and lonely. But I never once considered quitting, partly because the sweetness of one victory could erase the bitterness of many defeats, and partly because I could not imagine a life without sports.

Once I finished school, there was no predetermined next step in sport, yet I wasn’t ready to give it up. As it turns out, I am far from alone in my desire to pursue competitive sport as an adult. I discovered this when I found the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team (OACRT).

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The OACRT is a team full of women with successful careers, loving families, academic aspirations, as well as a desire to stay healthy and fit, and run fast while doing it.

My teammate Lynda Gingras started running completely on a whim to combat poor blood circulation. Her first real race was a half marathon at a high school in Saguenay, Que., where she placed 3rd and subsequently committed herself to endurance sport. She says that training for and competing in endurance sport is an incentive for her to take care of herself. “When you know you have a big training session scheduled the next day,” Gingras explains, “you’re going to eat well. You’re going to keep hydrated. You’re going to go to bed on time. Otherwise, you won’t feel good during your training.”

Another OARTC teammate, Barbara Saville, also discovered running as an adult, while she was working out at the old Ottawa Athletic Club facility and saw the OACRT training on the track.

“I looked at them, and they were so fast, and I just thought ‘I bet I could do that,” Saville said. She had one try-out practice, joined immediately after, and quickly got into marathon training. While Saville’s athletic endeavors took a back seat when she had her two sons, she returned to running, despite also having two hip replacements. Why? Because it brings her balance, she says.

“I am just so thankful, that I am healthy and fit enough to go out and do things with my kids,” Saville explains. “Not every parent has that.”

Judy Andrew Peel is a coach with K2J Fitness in Barrhaven and a runner with OACRT, but she remembers a time when running for women barely existed in Canada. As a university athlete with the University of New Brunswick, Peel competed in races where there was no race scheduled for female athletes. Her coach signed the women up for the men’s race, using only their last names and first initials. “I remember seeing the faces of the men from other teams when we showed up at the start line,” she laughs. Though Peel is a coach, herself, she appreciates being led by someone else through workouts.

“I can show up to practice and just run with my friends,” Peel said.

Susan Ibach started running as a kid because her parents frequently ran in local races in Fredericton, N.B., and running in the races herself was less boring than waiting in the car. Her mother continued to run for so long that races had to create new age categories for her. Ibach runs as an adult because it is a portable sport and she travels a lot for work. “No matter what city I’m in, I can always go for a run,” she explains. Ibach likes training with OACRT because there is always someone there who is faster than her. “It gives me something to chase,” she says. She also appreciates that the team is all women. “I work in a male-dominated field. It’s really nice to be in a group of women.”

Jill Murray is a busy mother who’s been part of OACRT for four years. A former University of Ottawa varsity athlete, running will always be an important part of Murray’s life. “Running is non-negotiable,” she says. Murray appreciates that OACRT welcomes her at practice, even when she misses workouts because of family obligations. “I never feel guilty for missing practice,” Murray explains. “I know I can always go back.”

The social aspect of a running was one of the main reasons I went in search of a team to train with, and my teammates feel the same way. We run faster together. We work harder together. We have more fun together. And, most of all, we love our coach.

Ken Parker is a relentless supporter of Ottawa’s women runners.

A champion for women’s running

Growing up in North Bay, Parker was a sprinter in high school, but discovered his passion for distance running when he joined the Air Force. He became interested in coaching, as well.

Once he was settled in Ottawa, Parker helped found both the National Capital Marathon and the Ottawa Lions Track and Field Club. He became involved in women’s running when he convinced the Avon International Women’s Running Circuit to host a running event in Ottawa. In the 1970s, there were no official World or Olympic Championships for the women’s marathon, so the Avon circuit events were the biggest races for female distance runners.

Members of the OACRT stopped outside of coach Ken Parker’s house during a physically distanced run in June 2020, following three months of cancelled practices. (Photo: Ken Parker)

When Parker left the Ottawa Lions to start his own running team, he didn’t initially intend for it to be a women’s team. In fact, the original OACRT team was co-ed. But he found that the women on the team were much more committed to the team, rather than just their individual performance, which better fit Parker’s coaching style. Also, after years of working with the Avon circuit, as well as the competitive running scene in Ottawa, Parker was keenly aware of how often women get told to stop running, and how often they were overlooked in race coverage, athletic support, and opportunities.

“Women needed more support than they were getting,” Parker explained.

All of my teammates consider Parker as one of the reasons they enjoy training with OACRT — his patience, his dedication and enthusiasm, and all his stories from the decades spent contributing to the Ottawa running community and advocating for female athlete opportunity and visibility. I know that I often show up to practice wondering what crazy story Ken will tell us next, but also knowing that he will say just the right thing to keep my stride true.

From my first hesitant steps in the Grade 3 cross country race to my more veteran speed work as a well-coached and supported adult runner, I am grateful to the teachers, the volunteers, the sideline cheerers, the teammates, and the coaches who have help me remain committed to life long sport.

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