A series on the athletes in your neighbourhood
STORY BY Joe Pack
PHOTOS BY Eric Patrick Hong
Nancy Wells, 71, Brunswick Avenue’s world-ranked marathoner
One of the world’s top septuagenarian marathon runners has lived on Brunswick Avenue for 30 years, though she had to leave Toronto to find her place.
That’s because, in her age category, at 71, Nancy Wells must race internationally to find a peer.
“She reminds me of [Canadian] Ed Whitlock,” says Mike Moran, the communications director of the Longboat Roadrunners running club, which Nancy belongs to. Whitlock was a Canadian running legend, the first marathoner over 70 years old to complete a race in under three hours. “She really has no competition.”
Before she ever ran competitively, she had her eye on the far distance. “I spent all my life trying to get out of Toronto. I hated it growing up,” Wells says over tea at Brunswick and Bloor’s By The Way Café. “It was white, Anglo-Saxon. There was only one French restaurant. It was dull.”
The McGill grad wasn’t yet a runner in 1972 when she bolted to Switzerland for three years, where she married and later split with a New Zealander. In 1982, she travelled around the world, reaching Hawaii, New Zealand, Bali, Hong Kong and Australia, where she discovered the sport by happenstance.
“Some friends asked me out for a run, and after a mile, they dropped to the sand while I stood there saying, ‘That’s it? That was nothing!’” she says.
She kept on moving.
“I tried magic mushrooms when I was in Bali,” she says. “I’m a pretty grounded person, so I can try something once and know I don’t have to do it again. I got up the next morning and thought, I’ve heard you can get high running. In my cut-off jeans, I ran on the beach with the waves pounding in and thought I’d died and gone to heaven.”
Now she holds three Canadian records and five Ontario ones; she has the dates written down on a scrap piece of paper in her pocket. Last year, she celebrated her 70th birthday by setting a Canadian record, which put her in the world’s 90th percentile (age-graded) for a half-marathon.
As much as Wells loves to run, the retired neurophysiologist knows when to stop.
“Nancy does what none of the rest of us do, which is she’ll sit out a race if she’s at all hurt,” says Moran. “That’s why she’s so successful. She doesn’t let a small problem become a big one.”
“I don’t spend six hours a day training; I have another life,” Nancy says. “I go to plays, play bridge and drink wine. I could be [a] better [runner] than I am but I don’t want that life.”
She did want that life for a while, she admits, when she was in her 40s and trained incessantly. That was when she accomplished her career highlight.
“I was at the World Masters Games in Eugene, Oregon, when I was about 40,” she says. “It was 40 degrees Celsius outside and people were dropping like flies. I finished fourth in the world with a time of three hours, 18 minutes. I woke up in a medical tent hearing a doctor say, ‘Get that IV in!’ I had a near-death, out-of-body experience of seeing myself on the bed.”
The West End runner, who’s raced in South Africa, Italy and Finland, and hopes to compete in Spain next year, teases me for the four-kilometre “jogs” I used to compete in and is wondering how she’ll recycle all the medals in her house.
“How I feel is my number-one motivation for running, not winning races. I’m disappointed when I can’t run, not when I can’t race,” she says.
Nancy has begun to envision the end of her racing career, but it seems slowing down will take more than a near-death experience.
“I hope to be good about it when [I can no longer run],” she says. “I keep thinking it’s happening. I was once run over by a truck while taking home groceries, and the first thing I said when I was being taken away on the stretcher was, ‘Will I run again?’ It’s an addiction, but it’s far better than drugs or alcohol or working yourself to death.”
This story series was paid for by Lassonde, to highlight the accomplishments of local athletes. The company had no input on the content of the article.
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