It was April 21, 1980, and Jacqueline Gareau looked poised to become the first and only Canadian woman to ever win the Boston Marathon.The legendary runner Kathrine Switzer, who was physically tackled by an official when she tried to run the 1967 race before it was open to women, was watching from a golf cart on the sidelines. At mile 22, Switzer locked eyes with Gareau and held up one finger: You’re in first place.Indeed, the 27-year-old French Canadian clocked in at 2 hours, 34 minutes and 28 seconds, making her the fastest woman ever to run the Boston Marathon up to that point.But Gareau didn’t get her moment of glory. Fellow competitor Rosie Ruiz usurped her at the last moment, beating her time by more than two minutes. Ruiz, not Gareau, got to break the tape and don the laurels. In reality, as witness testimony and video evidence later revealed, Ruiz didn’t come out of nowhere. She came out of the crowd of spectators. She had skipped a large part of the race, having traversed most the distance by subway. She was stripped of her title, leaving Gareau, belatedly, the victor.Ruiz, who died this week at 66, always maintained her innocence. Gareau went on to win many more marathons and qualify for the 1984 Olympic team — the first Games in which the 42-kilometre race was open to women. Her fastest marathon time, 2:29:37, stood as a Canadian record for five years.Now 66, Gareau works as a massage therapist and lives in rural Ste-Adèle, Que., where she makes plenty of time to bike, swim, cross-country ski — and, despite recurring knee problems and surgeries, even race the occasional 10K. The National Post caught up with her to chat about how her life was affected by the woman who has long been painted as her nemesis.Q: Rosie Ruiz was a big part of your story — what were you thinking and feeling when you heard about her death? A: I felt some sadness. It’s sad, the way it happened for her — I’m sure it affects you, when you do something like that. She never admitted it. Maybe it would have been better if she had. But maybe she believes that she really did (run the whole marathon).I put a post on my wall on Facebook because, you know, (Ruiz) was part of my life. I didn’t talk about what she did in Boston. It was mostly about her life: She studied music. She had a family. She took care of a kid — I don’t know if it was her kid or her husband’s kid. But she had lots of love. She was a great person in some aspects of her life. Everybody makes mistakes. Why she never apologized — that belongs to her. Maybe she was not completely right in her mind. I’m just hoping that she’s forgiven herself. Hoping that, in some kind of way, that she was okay. I forgave her completely. It’s not a big thing for me.
Q: I wondered about that. If, in a way, your running career was oddly helped by this. People felt very defensive on your behalf.A: I had lots of empathy. You know, I know lots of people who won Boston who are not remembered like this! Also, it’s good for people to know that cheating is not very fun. It’s a good message for school kids — you should never cheat, because you won’t get a good feeling of satisfaction.Q: I want to take us back a little bit to 1980. What do you think people forget about what women’s sport was like back then?A: You know, this incident could have happened on the men’s side, too. They didn’t have the (race timing) chip. But even with the chip, there can be hackers! But yes, at the beginning women were not very accepted. It came with the years. It had to start somewhere. Even in the Olympics (in 1984), the first marathon for women was the first year I did it. It was very, very late. There was not equality at all.Q: The very first Olympic women’s marathon team! That’s awesome. When you look back at the proudest moments of your sporting career where does Boston fall? Was that the proudest moment?A: Of course, winning Boston was a big thing. And also, doing my best time in Boston in ’83. I was second to Joan Benoit, but I had my best time.And I remember nearly six months before the (1984) Olympics, I wanted to experience the course. And that was a great day for me physically and mentally. I was so strong. I beat a girl that was supposed to be very much faster than me (to win the 1984 Los Angeles Marathon). With marathon, you never know when you’re going to be so strong. I ended up doing some surges at the end that I never thought I was capable of. But I practised that in training, through visualization. I remember feeling so strong the morning of the race. And it was a pretty good time, considering it was a little bit hot. And because of that I became one of the favourites (to win the Olympics). But then the Olympics didn’t go well because I got injured.Back at that time, we were not so well followed. I was training a lot by myself. That’s hard for an athlete. We like to push too much. At the end of my career, I had two surgeries two years in a row. And that was tough. I ended up winning (a Montreal Marathon), because I prepared so much mentally. Physically I was okay, but not perfect at all. The mental part can do a lot if you prepare very, very well.Q: How was the transition out of that? Was it hard to move on and leave your competitive career behind?A: You know, I started running to help myself stop smoking! That was my first reason. And then I end up loving it. When I started, I didn’t even know about racing competition. So in in some ways, I’m still doing it with that passion. I don’t feel that separation (from competition) too much.But when I was 38, I got pregnant. Surprise! At 39 and a half, I had my son. And that was a change in my life. Afterwards, I was entering masters (competitions). My husband was telling me, “It’s good. Let’s go. You can do it.” My heart didn’t really want it, but I still did it. And six months after the birth, I went to Carolina and ran the 10K in 34-something (minutes). I was 40 — that’s a good time! But I wasn’t feeling great. I had almost a postpartum depression. Because I was not doing something that my heart wanted. It’s difficult to stop competing. That’s probably why I kept doing it, but I shouldn’t have done it. You have to listen to yourself to keep your balance.Q: Did you rediscover a love of running a little bit later in your life when your son was older? You mentioned that you’re doing a 10K race this weekend! A: I always love running. What I didn’t want (anymore) was to go compete. To run a 34-minute 10K right after giving birth, I probably did too much. And I got kind of tired. That’s not good. It’s not balanced. Back then I was performance-oriented.Q: Competitive sports have gotten much more professionalized, even at the amateur level, in a way that’s so intense. Not too many elite athletes train in large part on their own, like you did. What kind of advice might you give to young girls who are coming up in sport now, or even to young athletes who are still in their competitive years? What have you learned that you would like to pass on? A: It’s good to have a coach, because I could have run faster without any injuries if I did that, probably. It was not my style. It is good to be cautious and have a training schedule, even if you do it with yourself. I was doing probably too much most of the time. I had some people helping me, but never staying with me for too long. I was a little bit of a wild horse; that’s what they called me!And be careful with the diet. It’s not necessary (to be too strict). Sometimes (runners) go on a fad diet just to lost weight. It’s not necessary. You should be cautious with nutrition. Just run and eat without excess. Every time I got some problem, it I was because something was a little bit out of balance. And it’s the same thing — to be well in your heart, you need to be well balanced. If you have some emotions sabotaging you, if you find you’re not sleeping well, you’re too nervous. That’s a sign that you’re imbalanced. So just always be vigilant. That’s probably the most important thing.