Running like a girl

Running and Racing: Christopher Goss
August 26, 2002

"You run like a girl!" For the last couple of years, this defiant play on the classic schoolyard putdown has been making the rounds on the warm-up T-shirts of girls' high school cross country teams.

I like the way these young ladies have seized the stereotype of arm-flailing women incapable of running long distances and have thrown it back in our faces — particularly those of us who can no longer keep pace with these hardworking harriers.

The participation of women in athletics is a regrettably short and recent chapter in our history books. Almost inexplicable to our enlightened modern minds is the fact that women's distance running has an even shorter history.

In 1928 women gained the opportunity to run in the Olympics. Their "distance race" in those games was 800 meters, two laps around your local high school track. To the shock of the Amsterdam crowd, a couple of the women collapsed after finishing the race. This was the proof the already reluctant Olympic Committee needed to eliminate such folly. The women's 800-meter run would not appear again in the Olympic Games until 1960.

Throughout most of the century, the prevailing opinion of physical educators continued to mirror that of one genius who declared that women "are not physically fit for the excitement and strain that this competition affords." The governing body of track and field in the United States, the AAU, did not allow women to run more than 800 meters until 1968 when the limit was raised to 5 miles.

Men in suits have always been able to convince themselves that dumb things are true, but it is still hard to understand why there was so much vehement opposition to the entry of women to distance running. In order to complete one of the first marathons by a women in 1963, Merry Lepper had to punch an official who tried to remove her from the race.

While it wasn't the first time a woman made the trek from Hopkinton to Boston — that was accomplished unofficially a year earlier by Roberta Gibbs — Kathrine Switzer gets most of the credit for figuratively and literally knocking down the marathon barrier for women. She, too, had to get physical with race officials when race director Jock Semple tried to rip off her bib number and force her from the course. Photographers captured the incident for the next morning's papers. As with other historical catalysts, this little light on the unfounded restriction of women runners was enough to precipitate the change needed to open the starting line to all runners.

While the idea of women running long distances in the same races as men became increasingly more accepted during the 1970s, change still came slowly.

It wasn't until 1984 that women had their chance to run the Olympic Marathon. If any doubters remained, Joan Benoit showed them the women distance runners were indeed as tough as men — and maybe tougher. Seventeen days before the U.S. Olympic trials, she had orthoscopic surgery on her knee. Although she struggled over the final 6 miles, she still won the race and duplicated her victory later that summer in Los Angeles by winning the gold medal.

The barriers smashed by Switzer and Benoit, along with the performances of Francie Larrieu, Grete Waitz, Ingrid Kristiansen and others, forever dispelled the notion that women were too delicate for such rigorous endeavors. (Had fathers been present during childbirth over the first three-quarters of a century, they would have known this already.) The participation in marathons and road races swelled, as the pool of participants doubled. High schools and colleges moved quickly to create women's cross country teams.

By the beginning of the 1990s, running had become a sport that embraced men and women equally. In 1998, I ran with 20,000 of my running friends in the first Rock 'N' Roll Marathon. It was the first time that a major marathon had more women starting than men. I was proud to be a part of the event, just as I was proud of my father who had coached one of the first high school women to run in Indiana so many years before.

When I see those "You Run Like A Girl" T-shirts, I wonder how many of those high school runners know how different their running world is from those of women just three decades before. It is encouraging that the tide has turned enough that some of them may not have any idea. As with any liberty won through hard work, determination and bravery, though, it is important to remember the battles fought to earn that right. The next time I see one of those shirts, I am going to make sure the runner knows about the trailblazers who made her running possible.

That is, if I can catch up to her.

Carpe viam. 

Carpe viam.