Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon – June 2nd 2019

Runners: Helen McGurrin, Kelly McGurrin, Julie Michel

Support team: Brian McGurrin 

We three running ladies decided that we’d try a different race in 2019. We’ve all run the Ottawa Race Weekend numerous times as well as another favourite race, the Spacecoast Half Marathon in Florida held in November. A bucket list run we’d considered for a few years was the Niagara Falls Women’s Half Marathon and we finally made the plan to complete it. 

What’s not to love? It’s a relatively small race, with just over 1,000 participants (compare that with the 10,000 to 12,000 who participate in the Ottawa Race Weekend Half Marathon), great swag including a bottle of Niagara wine, an abundance of porta potties decorated with bouquets of flowers, a scenic route, and on and on. And the destination is the majestic Niagara Falls which we’d not visited in a long time. 

Another appealing feature was the special guest, Kathrine Switzer. Her story is a compelling one: the first woman to run the renowned Boston Marathon in 1967 under the moniker K. Switzer, at a time when women were not permitted to run this race or any long distance races. The race officials, upon hearing that a woman was running, attempted to intercept her and physically extract her from the course. But her boyfriend along with a number of other runners, surrounded and protected her. She completed the race in spite of spectators and journalists heckling and harassing her, and made history in the process. She was 20 years old and a member of the Syracuse University running club. She loved to run long distances and felt it was unfair that women were excluded when she knew that obviously we were more than capable. She defiantly informed her detractors that she’d still be running when she was 80 years old. It would be 5 whole years before women were permitted to run the Boston Marathon in 1972. Kathrine is 72 years young today and still a runner, activist, author, and founder of “261 Fearless” a global non-profit organization established to empower women through sport and healthy living. 

We had the opportunity to meet Kathrine at the race expo the day before the run. Helen had a story to tell her. Her unofficial coach, friend, and running mentor Louis Comerton had met Kathrine in 2011 at another race. He purchased her book “Marathon Woman” and asked her to dedicate it to my mom Helen, who’d only just started running in the previous year at age 70. Kathrine obliged and wrote: “Helen! You inspire us!  70 & showing it’s never too late to be what you might have been!  Go For It!”. On this race expo day, Kathrine added a note in the same book: ”I’m in awe of you – Thanks for helping me run Boston in 2017!” And she told Helen that the fact she started running at 70 helped motivate Kathrine to run the Boston Marathon in 2017, when she herself was 70, on the 50th anniversary of her historic race in 1967. 

Now 79, Helen has completed marathons in Florida, Paris, and Washington DC and countless half marathons mostly in Ottawa and Florida. She is scheduled to run the Chicago Marathon this October. Kathrine was riveted by Helen’s story and actually turned her around to face the crowd at the race expo, and did an impromptu speech about mom, saying to conclude: “…Watch out out world! And I just wanna say, it’s never too late to start running, and Helen is proof positive of this. I’m really proud of you Helen!” My dad Brian was quite choked up, as we all were. It was a pretty special moment and I figured that alone was worth the price of admission!


Picture 1: Julie, Kathrine Switzer, Kelly and Helen at NFWHM race expo June 1st 2019

The next day was run day. An 8am start saw us standing in a drizzle of rain, wind gusts to 40km/h, and a temperature of 14C. Not the greatest feeling starting a long run with wet feet. But within about 20 minutes we warmed up, the rain tapered off, and just to our right was the majestic sight of Niagara Falls. The route was spectacular, alongside the falls and the Niagara River on a parkway reserved for the 1100 runners, all but 17 were women (they don’t ban the men from participating!). All in all good conditions for a race and both mom and I bettered our times from the Ottawa Race Weekend Half Marathon which we’d run the previous Sunday. While not a first half marathon for us, it was the first time we’d run two half marathons only one week apart. 

Kathrine Switzer was very present on race day, saying encouraging words to all at the start line, high-fiving runners at the 7km mark, and there to greet us all at the finish line. It was a wonderful experience!


Picture 2: Helen smiling and looking strong through the finish of a 21.1km run!

Running has been a gift for all three of us and of note all three running ladies in this story (Helen, Kelly and Julie) are cancer survivors. The pleasure and the therapeutic value that running has given us all cannot even be expressed in words; it’s pure emotion and endorphins. 

I’ll close with an inspiring quote from Kathrine Switzer’s web site: “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”

Article submitted by Kelly McGurrin