Book Rec: First Ladies of Running

Just wanted to pop in and recommend a collection of fascinating stories about the history of women’s running. I bought First Ladies of Running by Amby Burfoot several months ago. After a rocky few months of not reading as much as I used to (losing my two-hour daily commute really threw a wrench in a lot of my productivity), I’m getting back into it – even if all I can do for the day is read for the 10-15 minutes I’m on the subway.

Those of you well-versed in the history of running as a sport are probably aware that there was a time not long ago when women weren’t allowed to run races longer than a half mile. That’s TWO LAPS around a track. Women running longer distances – let alone marathons – was not only unheard of in this country, it was not permitted. I’m not just saying that race officials discouraged women runners, I mean they one time literally joined arms to stop a woman from crossing a finish line. That actually happened. In this country. Not too long ago.

If that’s shocking to you, read this book.

Burfoot profiles 22 women who challenged and slowly helped change archaic rules, even if they had to endure mockery, being hit with debris from passing motorists, and being yanked off race courses.

I’m going to be lazy and just retype these examples from the back of the book:

  • In 1961, when Julia Chase edged to the start of a Connecticut 5-miler, officials tried to push her off the road.
  • In the mid-1960s, Indianapolis high schooler Cheryl Bridges was told not to run anywhere near the boys’ track team because she might “distract” them.
  • In 1967, Kathrine Switzer was assaulted midrace by a furious Boston Marathon race organizer.

Not all men were violently opposed to ladies who dared to move their legs too briskly. It seems there was a large group of men, with a few exceptions, who were on board with women runners: men runners. Most men runners were totes cool with ladies running alongside them.

One thing that seemed to happen again and again in many of these stories was someone – usually a reporter – asking a woman who just finished a race “But why are you running?” I don’t think many people at the time could fully comprehend that women ran for the same reason men did: because they liked it. Maybe that’s why most men runners were supportive. They understood why people ran. They didn’t need to question it. They got it.

Some of the reviews I read remind readers that the book isn’t a total and complete history of women runners. It’s very U.S.-centric, and apparently leaves out many women who ran distances longer than 26.2 miles. Maybe just think of it as a “starter” book about the history of women’s running. I’m sure there are other books that might cover whatever this one doesn’t.

The last woman profiled is Oprah, who is the only women who didn’t exactly “fight” to be able to run. However, Burfoot included her because apparently Oprah’s 1994 Marine Corps Marathon ignited a women’s running boom, opening the floodgates for thousands of “regular” women to tackle the sport. I had no idea about this, and enjoyed reading about how hard Oprah worked to run a sub-4:30 marathon at age 40.

It’s an easy read, and I don’t think you need to be a runner or even a woman in order to fully appreciate it.

And much like stories of women who fought for the right to vote, these stories make me appreciate even more the time period in which I’m fortunate enough to live. Countless women fought like hell so that I could put on a sports bra and a pair of shorts and go run for an hour in Central Park with having to worry about being pelted with garbage, yelled at, made fun of, pushed off the road, or told I’m not enough of a human being to do things that other human beings get to do. I am very, very lucky, and I have so many courageous women to thank. I’ll probably never get to meet most of them, but I’m so grateful they existed.


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