The Woman and the Bay

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by Christopher Redford

Hamilton’s Around the Bay Road Race, established in 1894, is the oldest road race in North America, three years older than the Boston Marathon. The race remained closed to women for 85 years, until Tersilla Komac came along. Born in Castelfranco Veneto, north of Venice, Tersilla had no time for running in Italy. She was too busy working on the farm. Coming to Canada in 1954 at the age of 22, she married Emil Komac and set about raising three children in Burlington. 

Tersilla Komac on her bicycle in Castelfranco Veneto, Italy, surrounded by siblings, circa 1950

In the early 1970s, Tersilla was suffering the painful (but temporary) effects of Bell’s Palsy, a condition affecting the facial nerve. Sleeping was difficult, so she took to walking to exhaust herself. Seeing runners going past, she thought: “I’m going to start running too. Maybe it will make me even more tired.” At first, Tersilla ran alone, increasing her distance until she was running 15 miles each day except Sunday. She joined a group of men called “The Magnificent Seven” who ran out of the Burlington YMCA, and began to run races with them. After an early race in Burlington, organizers apologized for having no trophy for her, explaining that no woman had ever entered before. 

Her running friends ran the Around the Bay Road Race annually, so in 1975 Tersilla decided to run it too. Women were not allowed to register in the race, but she just showed up at the start and ran along with all the men anyway. (She would later say, “once it started, they couldn’t stop me,” and she would use the same strategy when she ran the Boston Marathon.) Hamilton police would not halt traffic for her, as they did for male runners, suggesting she had no place among them. Race officials were angry to see her finish. In 1976, running mate Gord McComb successfully registered Tersilla as simply “T. Komac,” procuring an official number tied to her name. Despite being the inaugural woman to run The Bay, she again crossed the finish line to no fanfare.

In 1979, the Around the Bay race officially opened to women, but family commitments prevented Tersilla from running the event a third time. She has been quoted as saying: “It doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman. Everyone should have the same rights. Things just take a while sometimes for the right thing to happen. Eventually, though, it usually does.” 

At the 100th anniversary of the race, Tersilla was given an honourary First Woman trophy, and a bib with the number 1975. A special plaque, produced by Hamilton Museums and Heritage Presentation, will be installed at the 12.5K mark of the Around the Bay course, on the straightaway along Beach Boulevard. It will be seen by all who run the oldest road race in North America every year—a number that, today, is equally split between men and women.

 


Christopher Redford is the Heritage Presentation Coordinator, Tourism
and Culture Division, for the City of Hamilton.
 

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