In this episode we bring you Part 2 of our heroes of the marathon series -stories of people who set records, defied conventional wisdom, and helped shaped our sport into what it is today.
Women’s marathoning has come a long way in a relatively short amount of time considering women weren’t allowed into races until the 1970s. There are hundreds of women who deserve to be featured in a podcast like this but for the sake of time we will be discussing five women who have made history and inspired millions.
Women’s Marathon History
To the best of our knowledge a woman named Stamatis Rovithi became the first woman to run a marathon when she covered the proposed Olympic course from Marathon to Athens Greece in 1896. Later that year, at the first modern Olympic marathon, a woman named Melpomene snuck into the race. Race organizers had previously denied her the opportunity to compete so she warmed up for the race out of sight and when the starter’s gun sounded began to run along the side of the course.
Eventually she fell behind the men, but as she continued on (stopping for a glass of water along the way) she started passing male runners who dropped out of the race in exhaustion. She arrived at the stadium about an hour and a half after Spiridon Louis won the race. Barred from entry into the now empty stadium, she ran her final lap around the outside of the building, finishing in approximately four and a half hours.
Despite strong resistance women slipped onto marathon courses for the next seventy plus years before they were officially allowed to run in 1972. Women were allowed to participate in track and field events in 1928 but the 800 meters was deemed too strenuous and not allowed again until 1960.
Violet Piercy of Great Britain was the first woman to be officially timed in the marathon, when she clocked a time of 3:40:22 in a British race on October 3, 1926. Due largely to the lack of women’s marathon competition, that time stood as an unofficial world record for thirty-seven years.
On December 16, 1963, American Merry Lepper ran a time of 3:37:07 to improve slightly on Piercy’s record. Still, no highly competitive times were recorded simply because there was not sanctioned women’s competition in the race.
On August 31, 1971 Adrienne Beames of Australia became the first woman to run a sub-three-hour marathon, smashing that barrier with a time of 2:46:30.
In 1972 the Boston Marathon officially allowed women to run and the first winner was Nina Kuscsik in 3:10:26. She had first unofficially run Boston in 1969 and went on to PR with a time of 2:50:22 and set a 50 mile record. Now in her late 70’s she has finished 80 marathons and ultras in her life.
On October 28, 1973, the first all women’s marathon was held in West Germany. It was a success and the following year the Women’s International Marathon Championship was held in West Germany. Forty women from seven countries competed in the event and two years later it was even more popular. Pressure mounted to have the women’s marathon as an event at the Olympic Games.
At the time there were two main reasons that women were excluded from the marathon:
- First experts claimed that women’s health would be damaged by long-distance running. This theory was proved false not only by medical studies, but also by the success of women marathoners during the 1970s.
- Second, the Olympic Charter stated that to be included in the Games, a women’s sport must be widely practiced in at least twenty-five countries on at least two continents and women’s marathoning was not popular enough to include.
As women participating in marathons gained popularity in the late 70’s the theory that women’s marathoning was not popular enough to become an Olympic sport was dramatically disproved. After a long battle the committee approved adding the women’s marathon to the 1984 games in Los Angeles.
Heroes of the Marathon
Bobbi Gibb was born in the United States in 1942 and grew up around Boston, MA. She loved to run as a child saying, “I loved the sense of running, one foot in front of the other, on this earth. When I run, I feel alive and part of the universe.” She later started running longer distances with a long distance runner named William Bingay (her first husband). Bobbi studied at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, Tufts University, the University of California, and the New England School of Law. Her running consisted of a daily eight mile commute to school in white leather Red Cross nurse’s shoes (because there weren’t any women’s specific running gear at the time). She trained for two years to run the Boston Marathon, covering forty miles one day. On another beach run in California she accidently strayed into Mexico and was briefly detained by US Border Patrol.
When she applied to enter the Boston Marathon at age 23, director Will Cloney informed her that women were not physiologically capable of running marathons and couldn’t run more than one and a half miles competitively. On race day in 1966 she wore her brother’s clothes over a black bathing suit and hid in the bushes until about half the pack of male runners had started and then jumped into the race. The other runners and crowd were very supportive and the press started to follow her progress. Like many runners of the day she didn’t drink any water or take in any fuel during the race. The governor of Massachusetts was even at the finish line to shake her hand when she finished with a time of 3:21:40 (ahead of 290 men). Her feat would make front page news the next day and she went on to run Boston again in 1967 (the same year Kathrine Switzer had an offical bib number). In 1996 she was officially recognized as having won the race in 1966-1968 during a time when women weren’t officially allowed to enter (until 1972).
“I hadn’t intended to make a feminist statement,” said Gibb. “I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential.”
She was denied a place in medical school but went on to practice law, studied neuroscience, and work as an artist creating sculpture and painting. She also wrote a memoir called “Wind in the Fire: a Personal Journey”, has been given many honors over the years and is a sought after speaker. At age 73 she continues to run an hour several times each week and has one son.
Kathrine Switzer was born in 1947 in Germany on a US Army base. The family returned to the United States in 1949 and she attended Lynchburg College and Syracuse University studying journalism and English Literature earning a master’s degree. During her college years she ran long distance, often with the men’s cross country team.
In 1967 she entered the Boston Marathon as K.V. Switzer and was given bib number 261. At 2 miles into the race official Jock Semple tried to physically remove her but was blocked by her Syracuse teammates. She finished in 4:20, nearly a full hour after Roberta Gibb. Switzer and many other women runners petitioned the Boston Athletic Association to allow women to participate in the marathon. In 1972 women were officially allowed to run Boston. She says,
“I knew if I quit, nobody would ever believe that women had the capability to run 26 plus miles. If I quit, everybody would say it was a publicity stunt. If I quit, it would set women’s sports back, way back, instead of forward. If I quit, I’d never run Boston. If I quit, Jock Semple and all those like him would win. My fear and humiliation turned to anger.”
She went on to win the 1974 NYC Marathon in 3:07:29 and her PR is 2:51:37 set in Boston in 1975. She became a television commentator for marathons, continues to be active in journalism, and wrote two books. She ran the 2017 Boston Marathon to celebrate the 50th anniversary of her historic marathon and her bib number was retired. She is currently married to Roger Robinson. You can hear more of her story on episode #211.
Grete Anderson Waitz
Grete Waitz was born in Norway in 1953 and showed potential in running early on setting national junior titles. She ran in the 1972 Olympics in Munich competing in the 1500 meters and also competed in distances up to 5,000 meters at many other championships.
She was invited to run the NYC Marathon by race director Fred Lebow in 1978 and in her first marathon got first place and took two minutes off the women’s world record. In 1979 she was the first woman to run under 2:30. She went on to win the NYC Marathon nine times. She also won the Stockholm Marathon and the London Marathon twice with her PB of 2:24:54 coming in 1986.
She competed at many other different distances on the track, road races, and cross country and took the silver medal in the first women’s Olympic Marathon in 1984. She completed her last marathon in NYC in 1992 with her friend Fred Lebow. Grete helped organize corporate races, coached, did charity work, was a popular motivational speaker, and was the author of several books. She died of cancer in 2011 at age 57 and was buried with government honor in Norway. She has been recognized in many ways since that time around the world. She was survived by her husband and there is a New York Road Runner’s race called “Grete’s Great Gallop 10k” in her honor.
Joan Benoit Samuelson
Joan Benoit was born in 1957 in the United States and is a long time resident of Maine. She began running to help recover from a broken leg suffered while slaloming. She attended Bowdoin College and North Carolina State earning all American honors. Joan won the Boston Marathon in 1979, setting an American and course record of 2:35:15. Despite undergoing Achilles tendon surgery she won the Boston Marathon again in 1983, this time breaking the world record.
In March 1984, Benoit injured her knee severely during a 20-mile training run, forcing her to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery just 17 days before the United States Olympic Marathon Trials were scheduled. However, she recovered from the surgery much more quickly than expected and showed up at the trials as the woman to beat. She is best known for winning gold in the first women’s Olympic Marathon in Los Angeles in 1984 with a time of 2:24:52 at the age of 27. She took the lead three miles into the race and held on strong finishing almost four minutes ahead of second place finisher Grete Waitz.
In 1985 Samuelson won the Chicago Marathon with an American record time of 2:21:21 (her PR). A decade later in 1998 Samuelson founded the TD Bank 10K as a way to give back to the sport which has given her so much and to benefit children’s charity. On October 10, 2010, she ran 2:47:50 for 43rd place at the Chicago Marathon—the site of her American record a quarter century earlier— and recording the fastest-ever performance by a woman over 52. She says,
“For me, running is now about storytelling. As long as I’m passionate about the sport and as long as I’m capable of running, I’ll stay with it.”
She and her husband have two children and she continues to work as a coach, motivational speaker, and sports commentator. Now at age 60 she wants to be the first woman in her 60’s to run sub-3:00 in the marathon.
Paula Radcliffe was born in England in 1973. She took up running at age seven and was influenced by her father who was a marathoner. Despite suffering from asthma and anemia she ran cross country while in school. At age ten she accompanied her father to watch Ingrid Kristiansen run in the London Marathon and that inspired her to become an athlete. She attended Loughborough University and got a degree in modern European studies while competing in track. Despite foot and ankle injury she continued to do well at the 5,000m distance.
Paula made the move up to the marathon distance in 2002 and won the London Marathon. She set the current women’s world marathon record at the 2003 London marathon with a time of 2:15:25.
She also won the NYC Marathon in 2004 and the London Marathon in 2005. She suffered from injury over the years and took a break from running to focus on rehab and have her first baby. She returned to competition and won the NYC Marathon in 2007 and 2008. Injury continued to plague her and she took 19 months off to heal and have her second child. Her final professional marathon was in London in 2017.
Throughout her career she competed in the 3,000 meters to the marathon and personal bests include 14:29 at 5,000m, 30:01 at 10,000m, 1:05:40 in the half marathon and 2:15:25 for the marathon world record (which has stood for sixteen years). She represented Great Britain in the Olympics four times and has received numerous awards over the years. She has been an outspoken voice against doping, has written two books, is a BBC commentator, and currently resides with her family in Monte Carlo.
Paula Radcliffe is a good person to end with because she shows just how far women’s marathon running has come in just a short time. When Abebe Bikila, who we talked about in part 1, set the world record at the 1960 Olympic marathon his time was 2:15:16. Did anyone imagine that a woman could run that fast too? Just 43 years later in 2003 Paula ran 2:15.25! Her time was only 10 minutes slower than the men’s record at the time.
Cited in an article in the Guardian, Hugh Brasher, the London Marathon’s elite director describes “the Paula effect” upon female runners in his country.
“After her world record, you could hardly buy a pair of women’s running shoes because most shops had sold out . . . Paula made something that was slightly eccentric for women to do entirely normal.”
Since I was born in 1978 it’s easy for me to not even think about the wide variety of running, racing and gear that’s available to women. But looking back at women’s marathon history is a good reminder for us not to take running, racing and the opportunities we have today for granted. It seems crazy that it wasn’t until the 70’s that women were actually allowed to run in marathons. Unfortunately there are still people who have the mistaken notion that long distance running is damaging to women. I remember a Facebook question that we got about three years ago from a listener whose mother was trying to dissuade her from running because she was afraid it would affect her uterus. In some parts of the world there are still mindset shifts taking place.
Things like women’s specific running clothes, shoes and sports bras weren’t available just over 40 years ago. For example: The first commercially available sports bra was the “Free Swing Tennis Bra” introduced by Glamorise Foundations in 1975. The first general exercise bra, initially called a “jockbra”, was invented in 1977 (it was literally two jock straps sewn together). Lisa Lindahl and her friend Polly Smith were trying to come up with a supportive bra for runners when as a joke Lisa’s husband put a jockstrap around his chest and said, “Here’s your jockbra ladies.” Today sports bras are a 7 billion dollar industry worldwide.
Even though running shoes or trainers have been around since the late 1860’s the first women’s sports shoes were not invented until the 1920’s and basically look like torture devices. It was during the 1920’s that women were first widely allowed to participate in sport but the big dilemma was, “wouldn’t it detract from their femininity?” Enter the high heel “athletic” shoe (pictured here).
It wasn’t until 1976 that companies would begin to manufacture women’s specific running shoes.
It’s also remarkable how these ladies continue to inspire! We just heard news that Kathrine Switzer is running the London Marathon for the first time in 2018. “Now aged 71, she will be coming to run the London Marathon for the first time in the same year that the UK celebrates the suffragettes who 100 years ago helped convince Parliament to agree that women should be allowed to vote”.
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