Canadian cross-country running in the ’80s: Part III

In this post, I’d like to tell you a bit about some of Canada’s great female cross-country runners of the 1980s. Most of them were my teammates at World Cross-Country Championships at least once, although some of them I missed in the years I was injured. I’m not trying to give a comprehensive list of everyone who competed for Canada in the 1980s—that would be too long—but I hope to include the most outstanding runners, especially the ones I was personally connected with.

Canadian Women in Rome 1982

Canadian Women's Team at the IAAF Cross-Country Champs in Rome, 1982

I think everyone’s tired of quizzes, so I’ll just tell you who’s in this photo. Back row: Nancy Rooks (me), Sara Neil, Lynn Kanuka. Front row: Anne Marie Malone, Alison Wiley, Tracy Kelly.

*(For answers to the last quiz, please go to the bottom of this post.)

One of the fascinating things about cross country as a sub-sport of running is that it brings together endurance runners with diverse specialties and talents.

Thus, some of Canada’s greatest cross-country runners were the speedy middle-distance specialists: people like Lynn Kanuka, Debbie Bowker, Cindy O’Krane, Alison Wiley and Leah Pells.

Lynn was a versatile athlete whose list of accomplishments is almost as long as the distance in which she still holds the Canadian record: the 1,500m at 4:00.27, set way back in 1985! Lynn won a bronze medal in the 1984 Olympics, a bronze at the World Cross-Country in 1989, a gold at the 1986 Commonwealth Games and numerous other medals in less major championships. Late in her career, she also successfully competed on the roads at the longer 10K distance. She ran a Canadian best of 31:45 when she won the hilly L’Eggs Mini-Marathon 10K in 1989, a time that was bested by Angela Chalmers on the much easier Sun Run course several years later.

Lynn continues to be very active in running and fitness in her roles as a SportMedBC RunWalk coach, her personal coaching and her promotion of the StreetStrider outdoor elliptical machine. You can read her blog at .

Debbie Bowker competed many times for Canada in international meets (including the 1988 Olympic Games) with medal peformances in both the 1,500m and 3,000m events.

I’ve already written about Alison Wiley’s incredible second place finish in the Gateshead World Cross-Country meet. Later that year, Alison ran the 3,000m for Canada at the World Championships in Helsinki. Unfortunately, despite showing such outstanding promise in both cross country and track, Alison had to quit running after a few years because of severe Achilles injuries. I know that recently she has re-emerged as a successful (though recreational) masters triathlete.

Brenda Shackleton was another athlete who, like Alison, showed exceptional talent at a young age. I’m not sure of her reasons, (she may have suffered from injuries too), but she didn’t continue with her running career. I do know that she now goes by a different name, and is crazy about horses.

Leah Pells is most famous for her 4th place finish in the 1,500m at the 1996 Atlanta  Olympics. Leah also had one year of outstanding masters running, setting numerous Canadian records in the 40-44 age group, before she decided to switch to recreational running. She has shared her love of the sport by coaching runners and writing a weekly column about running for a local newspaper.

Cindy O’Krane continued running well right up into the masters category. We were on Ekiden teams together in Japan in the early 2000s, when we were both pretty near “Golden Age” to be on a National Team!

At the other end of the spectrum from the speedy track runners, some of Canada’s top cross-country competitors were the super strong & tough endurance types. Silvia Ruegger comes to mind. I often competed against Sylvia in university cross-country races. I could usually beat her because I had more speed, but I knew I was in trouble if it was a muddy course, when Silvia could crush me. Silvia used her strength and endurance to go on to excel at the marathon distance. Along with Lynn, she holds one of the oldest national records on the books: her Canadian marathon record of 2:28:36 was set in 1985.

Anne Marie Malone was another runner whose endurance served her well in cross country. Like Silvia, Anne Marie competed in the inaugural Olympic women’s marathon in 1984. Anne Marie was my main training partner in 1983—84 when we were both preparing for the Olympic marathon trials.

Lucy Smith was a feared cross-country competitor, known for her toughness. She has continued to excel as an athlete, probably becoming even more well known as a triathlete than she is as a runner. Though she is now a masters athlete, she can still swim, bike and run with the young ‘uns. Lucy is also in demand as a motivational speaker. You can read her wonderful blog Run for Joy , which includes descriptions of her awesome athletic adventures and trips.

I was on a couple of cross-country teams with Sara Neil and Lizanne Bussières. One of the main things I remember about Sara is that she couldn’t understand “Scottish” when we went to Glasgow in 1978. Sara went on to become a top-level Canadian cyclist. Lizanne also cycled competitively, and was an excellent marathoner as well, but she chose to back off from competing at a high level to earn her medical degree.

The third group of cross-country runners were the 10,000m specialists; Sue Lee and me. Sue’s greatest performance was her 8th place finish at the 1988 Olympics, where she set a new Canadian record of 31:50.51.

I always liked the 10,000m because it required a high level of both endurance and speed, meaning my workouts included everything from 200m sprints to hard one-hour runs. Racing a 6,000m cross-country course was quite similar to the endurance demands of the 10,000m, though the former was slightly more anaerobic. My best cross-country performances usually came on hilly courses that had a good solid surface. I lacked the leg strength essential on muddy, wet or rough courses, but being light and super fit I was an aerobic monster on hills. The course at Gateshead was ideal for me.

*Answers to last post’s quiz: The people in the photo (left to right) are: Nancy Rooks, Lynn Kanuka, Alison Wiley, Wendy Van Mierlo, Anne Marie Malone, Thelma Wright*(manager) and Lizanne Bussières.

The top four Canadian finishers at Gateshead were Alison Wiley (2nd), Nancy Rooks (12th), Anne Marie Malone (16th) and Lynn Kanuka (23rd).

*Thelma Wright was more than an incredibly energetic, enthusiastic and efficient team manager. She was one of Canada’s very best runners in the 1970s—a pioneer of women’s distance running. She won a bronze medal in the World Cross-Country in 1970 and also won bronze in the 1,500m at both the 1970 and 1974 Commonwealth Games. Unfortunately, at that time there were no longer distances for women to run at any major Games.


About nancytinarirunswrites

I used to be known as a competitive runner, but now I have a new life as a professional writer and editor. I'm even more obsessive about reading, writing, and editing than I was about running. Running has had a huge influence on my life, though, and runner's high does fuel creativity. Maybe that's why this blog evolved into being 95% about running, but through blogging I'm also learning about writing and online communication. I'm fascinated by how the Internet has changed work, learning, and relationships. I love to connect in new and random ways!
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2 Responses to Canadian cross-country running in the ’80s: Part III

  1. Margaret says:

    I ran track and cross country in college with Wendy Van Mierlo. I remember the year she went to the World X-C meet. I know she got married after college. A few of our former team mates and I have been wondering how she is doing.

    • nancytinarirunswrites says:

      Hi Margaret,
      I haven’t seen Wendy for a very long time. I remember a memorable dinner I had with her in Victoria the night before a Trials race. The waiter couldn’t believe how many times we asked the bread bowl to be refilled! We were starving and couldn’t wait for our pasta dinners. We ate everything, though, even after countless baskets of bread.

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