Women Who Go the Distance
Today is the Boston Marathon, the oldest annual 26-miler; the "granddaddy" of road races. In just a few hours, hundreds of bodies will whiz through the city, pounding the pavement right outside my window. Without feeling side cramps, pulled hamstrings, or the throbbing of achy joints, the marathon is, from a spectator's vantage point (and perhaps from an ecstatically adrenaline-jacked runner's standpoint, too), a rather exhilarating, life-affirming, freeing experience. And yet, the opportunity to feel such freedom and exhilaration wasn't always afforded to everyone. In last week's Boston Globe article, I was surprised to learn that it wasn't until 1972 that women were permitted to run in the Boston Marathon. Up until then, women were told that they weren't physiologically able to run 26 miles, and therefore, weren't invited. But in the late '60s, women like Roberta Gibb and Kathrine Switzer were breaking barriers, defying the notion that they would endanger their health by running the distance. They both ran the Boston marathon, but did so invisibly--they entered the race by passing as men. Gibb altered her appearance with a hooded sweatshirt to look male, while Switzer used only her initials on the entry form to make her name unknown and thus, her gender ambiguous. These women needed to play by the rules in order to break them; they needed to go unnoticed in order to gain entry. It's interesting how passing as something you're not is often such an effective strategy for finding a way in. And yet, when their female identities were discovered mid-race and met with fury, I wonder: did the outrage and hostility boost their momentum? Or did it make them wish that they could have kept their gender a secret until crossing the finish line?
Gibb and Switzer were not the first women to run with the boys. In the late 1920s, Canadian Jewish Olympian, Bobbie Rosenfeld -- who won a gold medal for the 400 meter relay in the first Olympic games to admit women to the track and field competition -- agreed to run an exhibition race in her hometown of Barrie, Canada. When she arrived at the race, the judges informed her that no other "girl racers" had registered. Unlike the discriminatory policy of the Boston Marathon, the judges asked Bobbie if she would be willing to run against the boys. She agreed, and she won. Her prize? A lamp shade and a yard of moire ribbon.
In her book First Marathons, Gail Waesche Kislevitz writes: "When you come to understand the mind and soul of a runner, you'll realize that it's not about the miles logged, the races won or lost. It's the passion that drives us. Passion is running and running is passion. They are inseparable. And if you have passion, whether it's to run around the block or around the town, you have the power to go the distance." Today, on the 25th anniversary of women being explicitly allowed to race, I am happy that I can look outside and see hundreds of women going the distance with passion and with pride. I am grateful for Gibb, Switzer, and Rosenfeld, whose courageous trailblazing strides have given today's women the opportunity to run freely as their true, dignified selves.