On May 6, 1967, Maureen Wilton, a 13-year-old girl from a suburb of Toronto, Canada, attempted to break the women’s marathon world record of 3:19 at a small race a few miles from her home. Under the guidance of her track coach, Sy Mah, she had already become one of Canada’s best female distance runners in races up to five miles—the farthest distance race organizers would allow women to run. Seeing Wilton’s potential to break barriers in the marathon, Mah battled the Canadian Amateur Athletic Union to allow her to race 26.2 miles. The organization refused to officially recognize her as a competitor. Her name was left off the marathon section of the official program. Still, she lined up on a dusty road that Saturday to complete five laps of a roughly 5-mile course with 28 men and one other woman—Kathrine Switzer, who joined the race two weeks after her own iconic Boston Marathon finish. Do we even know if she ran the whole way Mighty Moe: The True Story Of a 13-Year-Old Women’s Revolutionary, out now.
Maureen looked small standing in the grass on the side of the cracked asphalt road, like a loitering kid who’d snuck into an event for adults. Newspapers regularly commented on her size when they reported on her races around Canada and the United States.
They called her “little” and “tiny.” She was—even at 13—still a petite four foot eight and eighty pounds. But if size is just a comparison from one thing to another, then what the reporters observed when Maureen raced against girls and boys nearly her own age was nothing compared to the whir of activity around her now.
Here on Steeles Avenue, just north of the new brick buildings at York University, ten minutes from home, Maureen had never looked smaller. Twenty-eight grown men stretched and jogged and chatted along the road. They looked like billowing trees in a storm. Maureen stood at the edge of the motion, reluctant to enter the fray.
“You have to go now,” her mother, Margaret, pleaded firmly. “The race is about to start.”
Nerves burbled in Maureen’s stomach. Not for the race—the race she could handle. But for the idea of approaching these men. She knew some of them; they ran with her coach, Sy, on weeknights at the track. The ones she didn’t know looked friendly enough in their cotton T-shirts and scrunched-down socks. But she worried what they would think when she approached, in her maroon shorts and singlet—a uniform that all but announced her intention to run with them.
What will they say? Maureen wondered.
“You need to go. Now,” her mom said. “They are about to start.”
Maureen pulled off her baggy sweatpants—the same ones she hated people to see her wear on training runs—and trudged toward the crowd. As the men continued to stretch and jostle and crack jokes, their lanky limbs whirled as if caught by a gust of wind peeling down the road. They were warmed up.
As she shuffled closer to them, Maureen felt like she’d entered a restricted room during an important meeting. Like when you accidentally open the wrong door and everyone turns their head toward you and the whole space falls dead silent. She walked right next to the men, the top of her brown hair barely reaching their torsos. They parted ways to let her through. Some of them looked confused.
Maybe this girl is mistaken? Shouldn’t she be with the other girls?
The other girls were off to the side. There were a few dozen of them, waiting for their own race—a five-mile women’s open that would start once the main event kicked off: The Eastern Centennial Canadian Marathon Championships.
Only one other female approached the starting line—Kathrine Switzer. But Maureen didn’t even notice. She was wrapped up in her own thoughts and fears. She worried what everyone might think. Not just the people here, but people everywhere. She felt so small. Little.
“Runners, take your mark,” a man yelled from the side of the road. Sy approached and took his spot next to Maureen. He was racing as well. He wore shorts and a T-shirt, His usual black glasses perched on his nose.
The group took a collective breath. Maureen’s muscles clenched. She looked straight ahead. To the left, she could see the cluster of brick buildings. To the right, unkempt grass and farmland. The road wasn’t closed, but even at 11:59 a.m. on a Saturday, there were no cars. The men dissolved in her peripheral vision. This felt familiar—the quiet tension in the moments before the pistol fires.
Twenty-eight men, a young woman from Syracuse University, and a thirteen-year-old girl from just up the road began to amble west. Only one of them was trying to break a world record.
This pace is soooooo slow, Maureen thought after the first mile.
The easy effort felt like a warm-up. She settled into a running rhythm near a group of men at the middle of the pack. Sy ran next to her. He expected to stay by her side through the whole race, helping her keep on track. This was Maureen’s first marathon. But it was Sy’s first marathon, too. He also was confident he could keep up because, one mile in, this speed felt easy to him.
Seven minutes and thirty seconds.
She needed to hit this pace perfectly at each mile marker. Like a metronome.
That’s a fast clip for a beginner. But Maureen felt, gliding on muscular legs that had completed thousands of miles in training, like she could do this forever.
It was a strange feeling for her. In typical races, the tension doesn’t cease after the starting gun goes off. Your legs fire off the line. You can’t relax, your muscles burn. You begin to breathe hard. You can’t speak or smile or wave. Maureen was doing all three in the first miles. She’d never felt so wistful and at ease during a competition before. She was just happy to be away from the starting line, away from the tension. She was doing what she loved to do. She was running. Albeit running really, really slowly. For her, that is.
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That’s what she kept thinking, repeating the time in her mind as she jaunted through the first mile, then the second, then the third, like clockwork. Except Maureen didn’t need a clock. She didn’t need someone at each mile marker to tell her how fast her pace was. She could feel it, within a few steps one way or the other.
In practice, Sy could tell her to run 400 meters in seventy-five seconds. She usually missed that time by less than a second. She knew that with the smallest adjustment in how hard her foot struck the ground or how quickly the breath sucked into her lungs and blew out her nose, she could change her pace.
Mile four: seven minutes and thirty seconds.
Mile five: seven minutes and thirty seconds.
This was easy. It was fun. Maureen was next to her coach on a deserted two-lane road just a short distance from her house. It was a weekend day in May and she was going to the lake cottage soon.
“Gee,” she said to the crowd standing near the refreshment stand at the end of the first lap. “This is great!”
The pressure peeled away like an onion. This felt like no race she’d ever run before. There weren’t any girls to chase after, except the one she didn’t know (Kathrine fell far behind Maureen from the start). No burning, aching lungs, desperately trying to motor her to a finish line.
At the end of each of the 5-mile laps, she stopped and crouched behind a canvas tent staked into the ground. It served as a little bathroom for runners. Maureen thought this was funny, that in the middle of a race, when nature came knocking, she had time to pee and was still hitting her goal pace each mile.
The distance floated by with cheers from friends and parents. This felt so easy, Maureen began to wonder what the big deal was. Why did she have to feel so uncomfortable at the start line of this race? Why did she have to feel like she didn’t belong? Why did anyone want to stop her from running a marathon when it felt this effortless and this fun?
Complete a few more miles, and Maureen Wilton would be the first woman in Canada to finish a marathon. Continue at the current pace, and she’d be the fastest woman in the world to ever do it. History is funny. Those who make it often don’t know they’re making it in the moment. Maureen certainly didn’t.
But here’s the thing about marathons. They aren’t easy. They exist because of a battle, a battle fought thousands of years ago, and in some ways, that’s exactly what they are. You fight with your body, asking it to do probably more than it has ever done before. Often, it fights back. Sy didn’t want to show it, but this run was hurting him more than any other run he’d done in his life. His muscles ached. His feet had several painful hot spots.
He’d run with Maureen for fifteen miles. He wasn’t sure how much longer he could last.
“I have to hit the head,” he told her. “Keep going. I’ll catch up.”
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How could this look so easy for her?, he thought.
He knew the answer, of course. Under his guidance, he’d been training for three years. Her body was primed to devour this kind of distance. She’d put in hard work so that this would feel effortless.
When he ducked into the canvas tent, he knew he wouldn’t ever catch up. He emerged and Maureen was gone. His muscles were seizing and he started to move like the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz without the oil, jerking forward in an unnatural shuffle. At mile twenty, having no idea where Maureen was, he slumped to the curb.
Why do all these people have to be here? he thought.
I don’t want to run anymore. I can’t make another lap. It would kill me. He pulled off his left shoe. The cotton sock was soaking from both sweat and a clear viscous goop. A massive blister had formed on the sole of his foot and popped a few miles back. Now he had a flaming red patch of skin that seared every time he took a step.
His favorite motto to inspire his athletes was, "Never say die." Yet here he was, splayed on the side of the road saying “die” and grappling with the fact that, until this moment, he truly didn’t understand what a marathon was. He had never run this far before in his life.
Sure, he knew the basics of it—the stuff anyone can find out if they read the papers or running magazines that Sy devotedly subscribed to. He knew that because it is so long and so tremendously difficult, there is honor in simply finishing, no matter how fast. In 1967, not many people in the world had done it.
That appealed to Sy. He didn’t consider himself a fast runner; he called himself a “duffer,” an idiot newcomer. He felt incompetent. Sometimes when he was with his friends, the adult men who ran and won local races around southern Canada, Sy felt like he didn’t belong.
But sitting on the side of the road with one more lap to go in the hardest run of his life, Sy wasn’t faring much worse than most of those other men—however experienced they were. A few had already called it quits. The refreshment stand and a seat in the grass were just too tempting compared to the thought of continuing another lap, alone. A forty-five-year-old runner collapsed into a ditch on the side of the road, screaming in agony.
Maureen started noticing the carnage, too. After lap one, her metronomelike pace never wavering, she came through near the refreshment stand in sixteenth place.
By the end of lap two, she’d moved into fourteenth. The field of runners had stretched out enough that most ran alone or in small groups of two or three. The ambitious runners at the start began slowing down in the third lap, their bodies giving them a hard lesson in reality.
When Maureen came through the starting area for the fourth lap, her teammates hopped onto the street and ran with her to keep her company. They passed four more men over the next five miles. Coming into the final lap, Maureen had moved up to eighth place. Somewhere behind her, the men who were allowed to run this race because of their strong bodies and masculine minds hobbled forward. The girl who wasn’t supposed to be able to do this smiled to her friends and waved. She only had one five-mile lap to go.
Margaret Wilton squinted at the face of her mechanical Bulova watch. It had blue stones encrusted around a stretchy band. The hands twitched across the watch face, as if they were just as nervous as Margaret.
Maureen’s running late, she thought to herself. She squinted south down Keele Street, then back at her watch. She was worried. She’d camped herself on the curb, just before the final left turn—precisely a mile from the finish line.
Sure, it would be amazing to watch her daughter lean breathlessly past the timekeeper to claim a world’s best time, but Margaret felt like she had a job to do. She wanted to be the one to tell Maureen her final pace, to break the news—good or bad—on whether a world’s best time would be possible.
She’d be a comforting face in the closing stage of the longest run of Maureen’s life. Because that’s what moms are for. Not to watch the finish from the side of the road. But to help when it matters most.
Five men passed Margaret in different states of despair. The leader, Jim Beisty, looked pained yet determined. Minutes behind him, a college-aged kid named Jim Rea streaked by, looking stronger than anyone should after twenty-five miles of running. The others looked like zombies. You couldn’t say they were running a marathon as much as shuffling through it.
But where was Maureen? What would she look like? Margaret thought.
The race had started at noon. Maureen needed to cross the finish line by 3:19 p.m. She needed to reach Margaret by 3:11 p.m. The tiny hands on the watch’s face crept ahead.
Maureen didn’t wear a watch, but she could feel herself locked in on the pace. It never crossed her mind that she could be off. Course marshals and teammates and parents frequently yelled out the time. She’d been right on the nose at mile twenty, and it felt like she hadn’t slowed since. Around mile twenty-five, running north on Keele Street, up a little hill, Maureen saw her mom. Margaret checked her watch again. Then looked up furtively.
“You’re too slow, you’re not going to make it!” Margaret yelled as Maureen hustled by.
The news hit Maureen like a slap. She turned her head, midstride. “What do you mean I am too slow?” she yelled, already too far away to hear a response. She was frustrated. Annoyed. She didn’t understand. She thought she’d hit each and every mile at the right pace.
A little voice inside her head punctured her thoughts. Maybe you were wrong? Maybe you were too slow? The twenty-fifth mile of a marathon is a disorienting place. Willpower tends to fade and you’re a lot more likely to heed the temptation of that little voice. It’ll ask you to ease off, slow down. Take a breather. Why bother when you can’t beat the time you wanted anyway?
Unless you’re fiercely competitive. Then you ignore the voice and try anyway. Maureen changed gears. She accelerated like you would in a sports car on an empty freeway. If she was gliding before, now she flew. Faster and faster her legs churned, up to a six-minute-per-mile pace. If she wasn’t going to break a world’s best time, she could at least prove she was capable of finishing a marathon.
She took a left on Steeles Avenue. She could see the little white poster on the wood stake that read marathon finish. Her hair whipped higher as her elbows punched the air by her neck. She sprinted.
Her brother Gord, who had been standing on the side of the road with a quarter mile to go, jumped in beside her, keeping by her side, stride for stride, willing her forward.
As she bolted to the finish line, Maureen didn’t know two things. First, whether she had run fast enough to break Mildred Sampson’s mark of three hours and nineteen minutes. Second, that no Canadian woman before her had ever completed a marathon.
She knew only one thing. There was a finish line a few feet away, and she was going to burst across it using every ounce of energy she had left. She careened forward then slowed to a stop. She took deep breaths.
“Did she break the record?” someone yelled.
“Do we even know if she ran the whole way?”
Learn about the aftermath of the race, and Wilton's place in running history, in MIGHTY MOE: THE TRUE STORY OF A THIRTEEN YEAR OLD WOMEN'S RUNNING REVOLUTIONARY. Copyright 2019 by Rachel Swaby and Kit Fox. Reprinted with permission from Farrar Straus Giroux Books for Young Readers. All Rights Reserved.