By Lynne Bermel
“I’ll see you next Tuesday.” Those were Emilie Mondor’s parting words to coach Ken Parker as she pulled out of his driveway, having just finished a 29K training run on the gravel trails along the Ottawa River.
They may have been the last words she ever spoke.
About an hour and a half later, she lost control of her small car on highway 417 near Hawkesbury. She had been on her way to her high school reunion and to visit her family in Mascouche, just north of Montreal. She sustained life-threatening injuries and was rushed to the Ottawa Civic hospital, where she died a few hours later.
“We chatted about the upcoming Philadelphia Distance run, “said Ken, who had biked alongside her that morning, as he had done once a week since she moved to the Ottawa area this summer to train for her marathon debut in New York on November 5th.
“I had printed off some pace charts for her. She said she felt great and I told her that I was going to have to cut down her rest time to a minute in next Tuesday’s workout in Rockliffe Park because she was running the loops too quickly.”
Emilie had wanted those pace times because she planned to break the Canadian half marathon record in Philly - even though she’d never raced the distance in her life.
“That was so Emilie,” says Ken. “It wasn’t bravado. It was knowing herself. She had complete confidence in her ability to race and the willingness to put herself on the line. She always set her sights high. She wasn’t going down there to muddle through it.”
“I’m numb,” says Ken, who found out about the crash early Sunday morning while surfing the Internet for the latest stories for Runners Web. “At first I thought it was a bad joke, or a mistake. Then the calls started coming in, first from the head of the New York Road Racers Association and then others.
“Emilie loved to run more than anyone I know,” he says. “Some people have the ability to hurt but they just don’t have the engine to do it. Emilie had both. She had a very special gift and she lived up to it. She reined in every last ounce of energy from her body every time she raced. She held nothing back.”
How can life be that fragile? How can someone with so much talent, so much passion and so much potential be taken away at the age of 25? How is it that someone who has faced – and triumphed over – adversity after adversity, be given such an untimely death?
It must be cold comfort to Nicole and François Mondor, Emilie’s parents, to be told it’s God’s will.
Emilie spent the first year of her life in the hospital, hooked up to a breathing apparatus. She was born two months premature with an underdeveloped trachea. The risk of infection in her tiny body was high; the doctors weren’t sure if she’d survive.
One morning, Nicole was summoned to the hospital. Emilie had pulled out all the plugs and cables. “My mom always told that story,” Emilie told the Runners Web recently. “She said I was a fighter, right out of the womb.”
Emilie grew into a gangly teenager who loved all sports. She started focusing on running in 1997 after she won the national junior title and qualified for the IAAF World Cross Country Championships. There, she finished 10th, which is still one of the best-ever finishes for a Canadian.
She developed into one of the world’s top distance runners and in 2003, became the first Canadian woman to break 15 minutes for 5K (14:59:68).
She made her first Olympic team in Athens in 2004, finishing 17th in the 5K among a highly competitive field. She was also the top North American finisher. She went on to win several major road races, beating top African and North American runners in the process.
Then the wheels came off.
In 2004, she contracted a rare medical condition that prevented her bones from absorbing calcium. It left her sidelined with osteoporosis and five stress fractures. “Mentally, I was at the breaking point. I had put so much of my heart into running and nothing was working,” she said.
Finally, a doctor in Laval suggested she try Forteo, a new drug on the market. “I was ready to give up, but my Mom said ‘let’s give it one last try’.” It cost her family $10,000 for the 18-month treatment but it turned her life around.
That was less than eight months ago.
In May, after only three weeks of training, she made a surprise appearance at the Sporting Life 10K in Toronto where she finished second. Her time was 32:26, her second fastest ever. “It’s the happiest I’ve been in along time,” she told a reporter.
Emilie in the Nordion 10K - Photo: RunnersWeb.com
She came back three weeks later, surging for third in 32:17 on the tougher Nordion 10K course in Ottawa. It would be the second fastest 10K time in North America in 2006. “Next year, I’m going for the course record,” she told Manny Rodrigues, elite athlete coordinator with her characteristic enthusiasm.
“I never thought I had much talent, “she told Runners Web this summer. “What talent I have is my mind. I can endure more pain than most people.”
She looked like she was unstoppable until this June when she was hit again with another set back. This time it was achilles tendonitis in both legs. It forced her to withdraw from the first-ever Runners Web 5K just before the gun went off. It also stopped short her plans of defending her 5K title at the Canadian Track and Field Championships on August 4th.
She spent the next few weeks recovering with alternating workouts, moving her training base to Ottawa and changing her focus. She decided to switch gears and concentrate on the marathon since her body seemed to be able to handle the longer runs rather than intense speed sessions.
Ken’s partnership with Emilie had actually started the month before at the Nordion 10k news conference. “I went up to Emilie and asked her if she’d be interested in racing in the Runners Web 5k," says Ken. "I figured she would probably tell me that she had other racing commitments that weekend or there wasn’t any appearance money. I was pleasantly surprised when she said “Yes, I want to support women’s running.”
She decided to move to the Ottawa area after “falling in love with the city” (her words) during the Nordion weekend. In June, she bought a condo in Gatineau right across from Jacques Cartier Park so she could do her drills and flexibility exercises on the soft grass and run along the marathon route right from her house.
“Typical Emilie, she slept on an air mattress in her living room for the first days until her furniture arrived from Montreal. I discovered in working with her that once she makes up her mind…boom, that’s it.”
Athletics Canada wanted her to train with someone inside the organization, like national marathon coach Hugh Cameron in Toronto. . "I told her if she wanted to follow Hugh's program while living in Ottawa, I would help her do that because my concern was to do the best for her,” says Ken. But Emilie would have none of it. “She was very determined.”
“I found an immediate connection with her. Many people had warned me that she would be tough to coach. I found the opposite. “ He was concerned that she would find the workouts with the Ottawa Athletic Club Racing Team – who are top local competitors but not at Emilie’s level – wouldn’t work. “But it worked beautifully. Emilie went at her pace and seemed to enjoy the whole environment, giving me “high fives” at the end of the workout and cheering on the other girls.”
Emilie found training with Ken the team a refreshing change from her former training base in Mammoth Lakes, California. She described that as a highly charged environment. There, she had to train every day with the women she was also racing against and where the workouts were centered around top US marathoner, Deena Kastor. “Emilie needed someone to hold her back more than she needed someone to push her,” says Ken.
So after so many tough breaks, it finally seemed that life had gotten back on track for Emilie.
Only last week she told her friend fellow distance runner, Achraf Tadili, that she was in the best shape of her life and the happiest she’d been in a long time.
“Without a doubt, she would have made it to Beijing in the marathon,” says Ken. “In fact, she said to me, ‘When I go to Beijing, I’ll take you with me.’ Notice it was not “if” but “when.”
”She was so young. Eight years after Beijing, she would have only been 35. Despite the fact that she’d raced competitively for 9 years, she hadn’t put in the volume that you need for the marathon. It takes time for people to adapt to the distances. I’m convinced she would have made three successive Olympic teams.”
“When Emilie first mentioned racing New York, I thought, no, it’s too early. But as I worked with her over the course of the summer, I found that she was able to adapt much faster than I thought. And she enjoyed the training. She would tell me all the time how much she loved it.”
Is life fair? No, Emilie Mondor died much too early. And she suffered more physical and emotional pain in her short 25 years than many of us will ever see.
But if she taught us anything, it’s to never give up. To focus on the positive, no matter how bad it gets. And to share the joy and love of running.
Emilie, you touched so many during your short life. We will miss you but never forget you.
Postscript: The RunnersWeb5K.com Race for Women which made its debut this past June will be renamed "Emilie's Run - The Emilie Mondor Memorial 5K Race for Women" to honour Emilie's running legacy.