by Amby Burfoot

Go to any 5K, half-marathon, or marathon, and take a look around. You'll see a complete cross-section of  humanity: men and women, teenagers and septuageniarians, lean-as-a-greyhound speedsters and others who are round as an apple.

Roughly half the runners will be females. Some will be leggy teens with ribbons in their ponytails. Some will be strong and muscled--women in their 20s and 30s who look like they just stepped out of a Cross-Fit class or a triathlon-training session. You'll see pregnant women enjoying a relaxed aerobic stroll, and new mothers pushing their running strollers. They'll be chatting with leaner, gray-haired women who run with a crisp, efficient stride.

It's hard to imagine that running didn't always look this way. But it didn't. For running's first 2700 years, dating back to the ancient Olympic Games, women were completely excluded. They couldn't run in any official races at all. Consider a few events from the 1950s and 1960s.

* In the mid 1950s, an Ohio farm girl named Grace Butcher dreamed about running the mile, like her heroes Glenn Cunningham and Wes Santee. Her dream died on the vine.  Women were prohibited from running any track distance longer than 200 meters.

* In the early 1960s, Smith College runner Julia Chase wanted to run the Manchester (Connecticut) Thanksgiving Day 5 mile like her mentors John Kelley and George Terry. Her entry was refused. The rules forbid her participation, she was told.

* Five years later, Roberta Gibb mailed the Boston Marathon to request an entry application. She had grown up outside Boston, and watched the marathon several times with her father, feeling a strong kinship to the graceful rhythm of the runners. However, Boston Marathon officials rejected her request. Women were incapable of running 26.2 miles, she was told, and barred from entering marathons.

Fortunately, Butcher, Chase, and Gibb refused to give in. They persisted, eventually achieved their running ambitions, and opened the doors for all who would follow in their footsteps.

The progress came slow, and sometimes painfully. The old men who controlled the sport of running--members of the International Olympic Committee and the U.S.'s Amateur Athletic Union--insisted on sticking to bygone regulations and unproven health concerns.

At times, the rule-makers actually pushed the clock backward rather than forward. The first Women's Olympic 800-meter race was held in Amsterdam in 1928. It should have advanced women's running. Instead, it shuttered progress for another three decades.

In that pivotal race in 1928, one finisher collapsed briefly to the track. Several others looked tired and bedraggled after the all-out, two-lap effort. (No one pointed out that this is also true of men who run a hard 800.) Newspaper sportswriters, all men of course, expressed horror over the sight of the sweaty women. One paper actually used a primitive form of "photoshop" to scare readers with the sight of the women's contorted faces.

The IOC promptly banned the women's 800 until making an announcement in 1958 that the event would appear again in the 1960 Rome Olympics. At last Grace Butcher and others had a chance to display their endurance. The 1960 U.S. Olympic Track Trials in Abilene, Texas, in July 1960, stand as an absolutely crucial event in the history of women's running. For the first time, women who had no talent in the sprints were given a chance to test themselves in a middle-distance race.

Olympic officials continued to drag their heels when it came to giving women runners full parity with men. The women's 1500 meters was not added until 1972. The marathon came in 1984, after a particularly inspired campaign by many running groups, but women were not allowed to run the 10,000 until 1988, the 5000 until 1996, and the 3000-meter steeplechase until 2008.

After the 1960 Track Trials, pioneer women runners turned naturally to cross-country and road races, held in public parks and on public roads. Still, progress came slowly. Each runner had to wage a solitary battle in her own region. Luckily, these women were made of strong stuff. They might have gotten rejected time and again, but that didn't stop them. They kept returning to the races.

It wasn't just that they received little encouragement. It was far worse than that. They were widely ridiculed and routinely warned about permanent physical damage. Running might prevent healthy pregnancies, they were informed. It would surely turn you masculine, overly muscled, and unattractive.

How wrong could a group of so-called "experts" be? I began my running career in the mid-1960s, and met many of the women pioneers. The Boston Marathon and other east-coast races quickly introduced me to Bobbi Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, Sara Mae Berman, Nina Kuscsik, Charlotte Lettis, and others like them. Anyone could see that they were bright, engaging, and vibrantly good-looking.

I met the West Coast runners less often, but find their stories among the most amazing in this book.  Take a look:

* Doris Brown Heritage took a red-eye flight from Seattle to New York City for the 1976 NYC Marathon, the first through all five boroughs. I've never heard of another elite runner doing this. The next morning, she finished second to Miki Gorman, and apologized for being a little tired.

* Judy Ikenberry began her track career in the above-mentioned 1960 Olympic Track Trials 800. She was 17 at the time, raw and wild. Fourteen years later, having gravitated all the way up to the marathon distance (an unusually big jump), she won the first National AAU Women's Marathon Championship.

* Cheryl Bridges grew up in Indianapolis, where the board of education decided she could run on the high-school campus, as long as she stayed far away from the boys, so as not to distract them with her flowing blonde hair. After moving to California, she set a marathon world record in 1971. Her daughter, Shalane Flanagan, won an Olympic bronze medal in the 10,000 meters in Beijing in 2008, and has run a far faster time than her mother ever achieved. But Shalane has never held a marathon world record like her mom.

After my competitive racing days, I had the good luck to land an editorial job at Runner's World and to continue following the women pioneers. I watched Grete Waitz, Patti Catalano, and Joan Benoit raise the women's running torch yet higher, and wrote frequently about their brilliant performances. Francie Larrieu and Mary Decker seemed to show up at every National Track Championships and Olympic Trials.

I was sitting in the press section of the Los Angeles Olympic Stadium on August 5, 1984, when Benoit ran onto the track well ahead of her marathon rivals. This was the long-awaited day--coming 88 years after the first Olympic Marathon for men--and emotions ran high. Looking up and down the media row, I saw many fighting to hold back the tears. I didn't bother fighting; it was futile.

However, Joan didn't launch the women's running boom. The real tidal wave of women's running didn't get started until the mid-1990s. What happened then?

So now we must talk about Oprah Winfrey. Oprah ran her marathon 10 years after Joan's. In other words, her race happened well outside the timeline I have used to organize this book.

But I was there to watch Oprah run her 1994 Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. In fact, I ran the last 23 miles with her. And I can assure you, it was the most courageous marathon I have ever seen. So I have no hesitation about including Oprah with the pioneer women runners.

To begin with, Oprah came from the wrong ethnic group and background--she was African American, and not raised with sports. Few black women, beyond Marilyn Bevans, ran long distance races. What's more, Oprah had a weight problem that was visible every day on national TV and every week at supermarket checkout counters.

But she was about to turn 40, and she wanted to do something epic--something that would challenge every fiber of her being. She decided to train for a marathon. And once she made the commitment, she stuck with it to the very end. Just like all the other women runners in this book.

When Oprah succeeded, we put her on the cover of Runner's World magazine in early 1995 with the headline, "Oprah Did It, So Can You." Maybe it's just a coincidence, but that's when thousands, and then millions, of women began running.

People often ask me to summarize the shared qualities of the pioneer women runners. That's not a fair question--not to me, and especially not to them. They broke through the gender barrier in good part because they were fiercely independent, each a unique individual. They don't fall into pat categories.

Still, if forced, I would probably come up with these five qualities. They don't apply to all the pioneer runners, but they do apply to many.

1--First and foremost, the pioneer women ran because they loved to run. They told me dozens of insightful childhood stories that made clear their early attraction to running. It was an activity that gave them great pleasure--a soul satisfying, physical pleasure--and they couldn't understand why anyone would want to deny them such joy.

2--They had supportive parents. This wasn't universally true, of course. Several came from troubled family backgrounds. But most of the pioneers' parents imbued their daughters with strong values, particularly a fierce work ethic. They said: "If you work hard at something, and stick with it, you can accomplish great things."

3--All were changed by their running. Not just in terms of strength and endurance, but emotionally as well. Again and again, I heard variations on this theme: "Before I started running, I was very shy and insecure. Running gave me a sense of self, and a voice to express that self."

4--They were smart and successful in other areas of their lives. An astonishing number of the 1960s runners, in particular, had MDs, PhDs, and other advanced degrees. They became doctors, veterinarians, college teachers, and impressive business and community leaders. They were either born leaders, or they learned that they could lead and influence.

5--They didn't run as a form of protest. They weren't trying to overthrow some regime, even the odious early bosses of the AAU. (This changed somewhat in the 1970s.) They just wanted the right to test themselves freely in competitions with other runners. Some never protested the discrimination; they lined up quietly on sidewalks and behind bushes. Others took on the burden because it represented the only way forward for themselves, their sisters, and their daughters.

The First Ladies changed the running world, unleashing a pent-up demand that eventually turned to floodgates. They never intended to force themselves onto the male-dominated sports pages, or into the male-centric business world. Those things just happened. As a result, women's running might had an impact beyond track meets and road races. To quote a popular phrase: If they can run 10Ks and marathons, "Who says women can't run the world."

I feel incredibly fortunate that I grew up in running with the First Ladies. I was able to witness their accomplishments at close range, and to call many of them good friends. They made running a more exciting, rewarding, and inspiring sport for everyone.

I hope this book will give many others a chance to learn about the First Ladies.


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