Did you get a chance to watch the U.S. Olympic marathon trials this past Saturday? I was glued to the TV coverage and also followed the action on Facebook and Twitter. What a treat to watch the savvy race strategy unfold, like Desiree Linden holding back until it counted and at mile 26 motored by pre-race favorite Shalane Flanagan to finish second. Kara Goucher showed guts fighting to the finish despite knowing she would likely take the unenviable fourth place. Yes, I teared up watching eventual champion Amy Cragg urge her struggling teammate Flanagan to dig deep and keep moving during those final miles. Flanagan collapsed into her arms after crossing the line to earn the last spot for Team USA.
Girls who watched on TV, online, or along the Los Angeles streets most likely were unaware of the battles fought to allow women to compete in long distance events or the efforts made to get the first women’s Olympic marathon in 1984. Honoring the women who paved the way for athletes like Amy, Desi, Shalane, and Kara is the subject of FIRST LADIES OF RUNNING (Rodale Press, April 2016) by noted Runner’s World editor-at-large and accomplished runner, Amby Burfoot. I received a review copy this weekend, aha, perfect timing for the trials and this Olympic year.
Readers may be familiar with Kathrine Switzer’s 1967 Boston Marathon where the race director tried to remove her from the street during the race or Joan Benoit’s historic Olympic marathon victory in 1984, but equally important are the 20 additional women profiled. Each trailblazer and role model forged the path for the thousands of girls and women who participate today not only in their school programs, but road races across the country.
Just like many girls who run today, most of the women in these captivating essays recount their first foray into the sport during their teenage years. During the 50s, 60s, and 70s and even into the 80s these women encountered numerous obstacles such as girls and women not being allowed to enter races, no girl’s track or cross country teams, and a paucity of financial support. Can you imagine wanting to run a race but having to start on the sidewalk or hide behind a bush before jumping in with all the men on the street?
Olympians Mary Decker Slaney, Francie Larrieu Smith, and Grete Waitz are recognizable and significant contributors in the sport. Equally important are the women breaking down barriers who might be less known, like Julia Chase (first official female road racer, 1961); Merry Lepper (first woman to run a marathon, 1963); Nina Kuscsik (first official women’s winner of the Boston Marathon, 1972); and Marilyn Bevans (first national-class black female marathoner). Fans of Shalane Flanagan will want to turn to the essay on Cheryl Bridges (hint: like mother, like daughter). Hard core elites might sniff at seeing Oprah Winfrey featured, but without a doubt, her 1994 Marine Corps Marathon (4:29:20) propelled a movement in sports unlike any other. She inspired girls and women who are not elites or even top age groupers, but willing to put in the effort and deserving of the rewards that come with personal accomplishments like finishing a marathon.
FIRST LADIES OF RUNNING includes an Afterward: Where They Are Now, an Appendix of additional women pioneers, and a Timeline of women’s running history from 1958-1994. This is an outstanding contribution to the world of sporty girl books and just in time for April, a revered month in the world of sports, when men and now thousands of women will run together in our country’s revered footrace: the Boston Marathon.