“Distance running by women was thought to be un-ladylike, a violation of natural law. The common wisdom held that a woman was not physiologically capable of running mile after mile; that she wouldn’t be able to bear children; that her uterus would fall out; that she might grow a mustache; that she was a man, or wanted to be one.” – The New York Times
The above quote is a reflection of a skewed belief system that existed well into the 60’s. In my opinion, it was another ruse to keep women “in their place” as submissive domestic slaves and child-bearing agents. It was an overt attempt to belittle the strength and abilities of women to succeed in any way independent of men.
I grew up in the era that touted these ridiculous notions. Although I had a hidden desire to run as I watched the Olympic men compete in their marathon, I had few female role models to encourage me to move my body over long distances.
But in 1967, twenty-year-old college student Katherine Switzer became the first woman to “officially” challenge those notions when she signed up for the Boston Marathon without telling the race officials she was a woman. Switzer was not being devious, the race application simply did not ask those who entered to state their sex. They assumed everyone knew only men would and could enter this race.
There had been several women who ran the marathon without numbers before Switzer, but none drew national attention in the way she did. As the press discovered a woman running with #261 pinned to her sweatshirt, they quickly surrounded her and began shooting photographs.Race official Jock Semple jumped off a truck, ran after Switzer and attempted to knock her off the course while he shouted “Get the hell out of my race and give me that number!” Switzer kept running. Semple made a second attempt and Switzer’s burly boyfriend gave him an elbow and sent him flying. Switzer finished the marathon and the photo of an enraged Semple attacking her went to press.
Women were not allowed to officially enter the Boston Marathon until 1972, four years after Switzer’s heroic finish and the year I started high school. This was the year Title IX came into existence; created to allow equal opportunity for female college athletes. And this was the year I began to run.
Running for me became a lifeline. When I put on my Nike’s and sped out the door I felt a freedom I had never felt in my life. I was the one who was now in control of my physical body. I was the one who could overcome the doubts of others and my own doubts about my self-worth and stomp them into the ground. When the noise in my head became too loud and the visions of my ugly childhood began to play, I could run faster and farther and longer until they faded with the resultant flood of endorphins.
When I ran, I felt strong. I felt happy. I felt accomplished. I had finally discovered something I could do well and nothing in the world was going to take that away from me.
So I ran, and I ran and I ran.
When I look back now I realize in ways I was running through my past. I was not running away, but I utilized running to help me deal with the pain and move through it. I still continue to do that to this day.
Last weekend I ran my first half-marathon at Avenue of the Giants in Northern California. I had trained for this run for a period of four months with the goal to run the entire 13.1 miles and cross the finish line as close to the three-hour mark as possible. I wasn’t out to break any records nor to win any prizes.
I was there as a 54-year-old woman who can glance back in my lifetime to a period when women were not allowed to officially compete in a run longer than a mile. I was there as a testament that no matter the difficulties, no matter the hurdles nor the negative odds one might face in this life, it is within one’s power to move right through them and cross the line victorious.
And I didn’t even lose one single internal organ in the process… 🙂