Noonday March 2022
Miles to Go Before I Sleep: Women and Running
Suzanne Wilson Crable
I started running when I was a camp counselor at Christ Church Camp training to take the lifeguard test. There was a trail around the perimeter of the main camp that I ran with two guys imported from Britain, one an archery champion and the other a former police officer. They were, as you might imagine, much taller than I but we stayed together for the two miles throughout the summer. That might have alerted me to well-hidden talent. But I was always a little clumsy, ballet, nope, could not remember the sequence, same with yoga (except I am usually not expected to remember). Swimming, downhill skiing, and hiking: all the longer distances, the better. In high school and college in the 1970’s, women were just beginning to be able to officially participate in races longer than 800 meters. Bob Roncker coached the track and cross-country teams at Walnut Hills but there was no women’s cross country. One of my college roommates tried the cross-country team and came back limping and sore for days and that was the end of that. A couple of years later in February of 1981, my senior year of college with a big paper to write, my friend convinced me to start running then was miffed when I was faster than she. One of the cross-country runners, a guy, took me out for a run and, unbeknownst to me, was trying to lose me to put me in my place and was annoyed that I finished the run with him. End of that possible romantic relationship and set me on the path I travel still today. But my image of myself was a bookworm, not an athlete. Running became for me, like many other women, my salvation and positive addiction. By 1985, when I married this guy I met through running, my father said at my wedding, “Who knew she was really a jock?” or something to that effect. I’ll talk about my experiences but only as it represents the past few decades of running history.
Famously, the iconic image of Kathrine Switzer being grabbed by Jock Semple when he discovered “K. Switzer” was a woman and running with a number in the 1967 Boston Marathon brought the world’s attention to women’s interest in running marathons and their ability to do so. Her entrance in the race eclipsed the first woman to run Boston, Roberta (Bobbi) Gibb, who in 1966 who ran it without a number. Bobbi Gibb is now recognized by the Boston Athletic Association as the female winner in 1966, 1967, and 1968. Many men were supportive of women running distance and Jock Semple’s behavior did not persist long into the 1970’s. However, in the early 1980’s, guys would practically kill themselves not to have a woman finish ahead of them.
There weren’t all that many women running in Cincinnati, but our numbers grew. I went to Bob Roncker’s Running Spot to buy shoes in August of 1981 and saw a flier for a women’s running group called Friends A-Foot. I went to the first group run and I am still friends with the founder. She was raped on a run, but she did not let the rapist win. Her response was to create the group so that women would have partners (usually other women, guys got too belligerent if someone yelled at us) to be as safe as possible. We found much more than safety in numbers, as runners find to this day; we had epic run brunches after long runs with unthinkable amounts of calories spent then consumed. We went on road trips to races together, we went to weddings, baby showers, divorces, deaths, and all that life entails over the past forty years. By the mid to late 1990’s, there were so many women running that a formal group didn’t seem necessary. Children growing up and careers cut into the time a lot of us had for running. I went back to running after each pregnancy and was stopped only by perimenopause for a few years but, let me tell you, post menopause running is great. Only a few of us still run and, up until COVID, we walked every Sunday morning. Quite a few marriages dissolved, or partners changed in the Clifton Track Club and Friends A-Foot as the running revealed to women their need to make a change for themselves. My children became blasé about my running marathons although my oldest comes out to cheer me on. Running a half marathon or a marathon has become a bucket list item for many people. And, as it goes, one is not enough. I have friends who have run a marathon on every continent, run all the “majors” (Boston, New York, Tokyo, London, Chicago, Berlin), run one in every state, and some ran and won ultramarathons. And then there are triathlons. The overwhelming response from members of the training group I run with today was that they just love to run.
Run Repeat gathers statistics about marathon running worldwide. The finish times for runners from the United States are among the six slowest world-wide but we have the most gender equal numbers with 57% men and 43% women. When I ran my first Boston Marathon in 1983, there were 555 women finishers compared to 6,302 when I ran in 2003. Marathon times in general are getting slower; is this because of people like me that are old and comparatively slow but still finishing marathons? Or is it the bucket list people (really, no disrespect, it’s always hard to run a marathon)? An interesting statistic is that women are beginning to dominate the fastest times for ultramarathons. We are in it for the long run! Desiree Linden won Boston in 2018 (the first American woman to win in 33 years) and last year set the record, not the women’s record, THE record, for the 50K (31+ miles) in 2:59:54. To provide some context, my personal record for the marathon is not shabby, 3:00:42, but she ran 5+ more miles! I enjoy following these hotshot runners on Twitter. Camille Herron has records for women for many ultramarathon distances including fastest marathon in a superhero costume (Spiderwoman), go figure! On February 19 she broke her own world record for 100 miles in her first race as a Master (40 and over) and set a new world record for Master women for 50 miles, 12:41:11. She likes tacos and beer and falls down occasionally on the run. The trajectory of women and distance is that we get closer to men’s times the longer the race. Men are faster in the 5K, in 26.2 mile marathons 11.1% faster, 100 miles .25% faster, and once we get to over 195 miles they are only .06% faster. That’s a lot of tacos, beer, and falls.
I asked the question on my training group, The Performance Project, Facebook page, “Why do you run?”
In reading about women and running then listening to my teammates from The Performance Project, the possibility of being a part of a community threads through many of the responses. Another Mother Runner is an online space with training information and ways to connect to another person in your physical community. Women routinely note the time spent with other women that they might never have met otherwise. Groups within our training group form by pace, not by age or gender. I am old enough to be everyone’s mother in the group I coach. These young women grew up easily being able to choose to do sports in high school, for better or for worse. Some stayed away from any kind of athletics because of early participation, some always wanted to but never had support. Several women mentioned that, like me, they did that marathon because someone told them they couldn’t.
Over 20 women responded to my question within about 12 hours. We love to talk about why we run. And we love to run. There is great support for each woman’s answer, a far cry from what we see on other online discussions. The interesting thing is, because of my pace, I haven’t met most of these women and still they responded. The introduction of the Flying Pig Marathon to the city of Cincinnati was inspirational to many of the respondents. They watched those of us that ran the first few years of the race and were inspired to test themselves. And to find themselves again, or for the first time. This is a rather select group and, perhaps, not representative of all runners. As might be surmised from the name of our group, most of us are working hard for a particular time or distance goals rather than simply a group to train with. There are a fair number of front-of-the-pack runners as well as the rest of us. Many BQers: Boston Qualifiers, a universally acknowledged standard of achievement. There weren’t any responses that included looking for a life partner as I might have suspected. This quote I enjoyed, “Truthfully, it probably saved my life. . .I run because it is the best drug on the planet, and the best revenge.” There is an almost universal feeling that we strive to run our first marathon to assure ourselves that we can do hard things. For those that aren’t the fastest, their running is, in many ways, more impressive than the front runners. There is a big difference in stamina for those running the marathon distance in 4:30-5 hours than those 3 hour folks.
Women were usually prohibited from running distance races, defined as over 800 meters in the 20th century, by the Amateur Athletics Union and the Olympic Committee, among other organizations. The 800 meter run was reinstated at the Olympics in 1960, the 1500 meter in 1972, the marathon in 1984, before the 10,000 meter in 1988 and the 5,000 in 1996. This is extraordinary. After the Games last year and this year, I am even more disgruntled and disappointed by the Olympics than ever before. There have been some inspirational races: seeing Joan Benoit win in Los Angeles in 1984 was an exclamation point for women. Last year the highlight of the Games for me was watching Molly Seidel win the bronze medal. She’s running Boston this year! Distance running for women was energized by Oprah Winfrey running the 1994 Marine Corps Marathon. The cover of Runner’s World in early 1995 announced: “Oprah Did It, So Can You”, the best-selling cover in the magazine’s history. Oprah said, “Life is a lot like a marathon. If you can finish a marathon, you can do anything you want.” Millions of women felt that need for accomplishment, something that was all their own. Amby Burfoot, Boston Marathon winner and long-time editor of Runner’s World summarized why the pioneer women distance runners ran in the introduction to First Ladies of Running (2016): 1) They ran because they loved to run. 2) They had supportive parents. 3) All were changed by their running. 4) They were smart and successful in other areas of their lives. 5) They didn’t run as a form of protest, they simply wanted to run.
Notable in First Ladies of Running is the inclusion of only one Black woman. The author was aware of this but, since the main focus was on distance running and very few of the marathoners were Black, only Marilyn Bevans was profiled. She was the second woman overall in the 1977 Boston Marathon and won the Baltimore Marathon twice. The National Black Marathoners Association tracks the history of Black Americans in distance running as well as sponsoring training programs nationwide. I was delighted to find that my friend Frances Gilbert of the Avondale Running Club was elected to their Hall of Fame. She serves on the Board of Directors of Pig Works, the parent company of the Flying Pig Marathon and Queen Bee Half. I am embarrassed that I didn’t know she is a Big Deal and I don’t remember how we met and like one another so much. I usually always ran their race “Feet in the Streets” to raise money for supporting young runners. Somehow, track events are the domain of most Black American women runners with distance events left to African and white women. Change is coming. The Queen Bee Half Marathon and 4 miler seems to be marketing itself to Black women in Cincinnati and may result in inspiring more Black women marathoners in future Flying Pig Marathons. The winter 2022 issue of Women’s Running features “Power Women of the Year” spotlighting the change makers in the sport. From highlighting abuse to support for elite runners that become mothers, the diverse selection of women is working to expand the base of running for women. “Having a child does not limit our ability to achieve. I can be a champion and a mother,” says Olympic runner Alysia Montano who founded the non-profit &Mother. Her New York Times op-ed in 2019, Nike Told Me to Dream Crazy, Until I Wanted a Baby sparked a movement to support women combining motherhood and career in sport and beyond. Allyson Felix, the 200 and 400 meter Olympic runner with more medals than any other athlete over the course of five Olympics, culminating in a bronze medal in the 400 meters and a gold in the 4X 400 relay in the 2020 Olympics. She was on the gold medal-winning 4X400 meter teams in 2008, 2012, 2016, and 2020. In 2018 when she was pregnant with her first child she developed pre-eclampsia and had a premature baby, an all-too-common scenario for Black women, and experienced another typical occurrence, lack of maternity leave from Nike, as did Alysia Montano. This resulted in Allyson appearing before the U.S. House of Representatives advocating for better health care for Black women due to their much higher rates of maternal mortality compared to white women in the US. My worlds collide!
There are other dangerous sides to running for women, as I recognized from belonging to Friends A-Foot. We did whatever we could to raise women’s awareness of safety issues while on the roads. I was on the Bob Braun show in 1982, in my running shorts, talking about the importance of running with a friend and, as headphones and Walkmans appeared and the tragic death of Maria Olberding in 1994, staying aware of your surroundings. One of the darkest moments came recently with the murder of 10K world record holder Agnes Tirop of Kenya last October by her husband. This was just a month after she set the world record. Just as I was moving out of my “competitive career,” African women runners began dominating every distance race. They were, and are, so fast! Her murder revealed to the world what the women knew; their husbands and coaches usually took all their earnings from running in the marquee races around the world. Agnes’s friends Viola Cheptoo and Mary Wacera Ngugi are organizing women runners in Kenya to demand government oversight of the training camps to ensure their safe training and home lives. Men control women from the training camps through to their professional running careers. One would think that the male Kenyan runners would also speak out against the abuse but that is not the case thus far. Mary Wacera Ngugi says, “They feel we are attacking them, but we are not.” It will be a major cultural change that is set in motion, but change comes slowly, hopefully before another talented runner is harmed in any way.
American women are also subject to abuse by male coaches, though not on the level of the Kenyan women. In the fall of 2019, Mary Cain revealed that she suffered verbal abuse from her coach Alberto Salazar at the Nike Oregon Project. Under his coaching she claims she was “weighed in front of her teammates, withheld food, and berated [her] because he thought her breasts and bottom had become too big,” and castigated in front of her teammates. She was in her late teens when our breasts and bottoms “become too big.” Salazar was a top marathon runner in the 1980’s winning the New York City Marathon three times and Boston once. He began coaching and, throughout the 2000’s, came under scrutiny for various unsavory and, in my opinion as a former coach cruel, methods of coaching that included performance enhancing techniques such as increasing testosterone and emotional and sexual misconduct. He was banned from coaching in the United States by the US Olympic Committee as they found him guilty of sexual assault of (at least) two elite female runners in the Nike Oregon Project. He was never one of my favorites of the stars of distance running in the 1980’s. I found him to be cocky and out only for the win. There’s a difference between that and a drive to improve the sport and run fast just for the sake of running fast. He applied that to coaching women, berating them, urging them to lose weight, and having them take testosterone and thyroid medication they did not need. The Nike Oregon Project, designed to bring US distance runners to world records without the expected success, closed. His style of coaching was reminiscent of those Russian figure skating coaches in this year’s winter Olympics: no care for the woman, just hone her body, just groom the talent, and destroy all of it in the end. Enough about that style of coaching!
Mary Cain, whose story revealed the abuse by Salazar, started her own coaching project as her body is recovering from the damage done by his tactics. In a recent interview in Women’s Running magazine, she discussed her past and how she hopes to shape the future of elite female runners. After her talent was squandered by bad coaching leading to injuries with long-term consequences, her non-profit Atalanta NYC employs professional female runners. They are given a salary and expected to volunteer in community service projects as well as train at a competitive level. They are employees, not dependent on the whims of corporate sponsorship or unsupportive coaches. Running, with its addictive properties, can lead to eating disorders in distance runners, especially those competing in high school and college. We might start running to lose weight and lose sight of being healthy. Women need specialized coaching as our bodies are, news flash, very different from men’s. We menstruate, we get pregnant and have babies, we breastfeed. Male coaches may not be comfortable with how our bodies impact our running and racing. (I could talk to very few people about how my period managed to shift to begin the day before many marathons I ran. One year at Boston, I ran with Anaprox in my pocket for possible debilitating cramps.) I have spoken to several new mothers about running and breastfeeding as there is a balance to be achieved for both to work. The Olympic Committee in Tokyo last year was not going to allow one of the American marathoner team members, Aliphine Tiliamuk, to bring her 5 month-old breastfeeding baby with her to the Olympic Village. After great outcry, they relented. Aliphine is a lovely person, crocheting hats for charity, but it was too soon after childbirth for her to run at the level required in the Olympics, despite spite her best efforts. Molly Seidel won a bronze medal at that Olympics, startling the world and personifying an approach to training and racing that is filled with joy, humor, and endurance.
And this brings us back to “Why do we run?” I will quote from my teammates as they say it all. I’ve had the privilege of winning races, but most won’t have that thrill and still they run. We have babies, we get injured, we still run. I’m quoting some of the most poignant answers to why we run.
- I started as it was my addiction from quitting smoking. I have not picked a cigarette up in about 15 years
- Running makes me feel strong, accomplished, and powerful. It shows me how my body can overcome anything as long as I have the power to overcome your mind saying I can’t. It also gives me community, lifelong friends, and accountability.
- . Oh and Runners are the BEST people on the planet!! Nice inclusive always caring. I don’t care if your a sub 4 min mile or a 20 min mile it does not matter. We all cheer each other on and makes us feel empowered and accomplished! I love the physical and mental workout it gives us perspective in life! Running is a gift to be with all you amazing people !! Love you guys!!
- It freed me of my reliance on anxiety and depression medications and gave me (a then heavy smoker and drinker) an outlet that made me feel accomplished, strong and alive. Admittedly, I actually only started running long distances out of spite, because a different friend laughed in disbelief the day i annouced i had completed my first 5k. So I told him, I’d show him, I was going to run marathons. Several dozen halves and several years later, crossing the finish line of my first full I can be seen in photos turning around to give him a special salute.
- . I will run for the rest of my life even if it is only a jog or shuffle, it is better for you than drugs.
- I continue to run because I am stronger and happier and have a better relationship with my body than I ever did as a classical ballet dancer. I feel strong, happy, healthy, and have created lifelong friendship that are there for me through every up and down.
- So what have I gained from running and why am I still out here doing it: many things, the friends and all people I have met through the years. Running has helped keep anxiety under control. Running has given me confidence
- Running often mimics life: there’s good days and bad days, and then there’s those rare great days that are truly magical — they fill you with immense gratitude, remind you what you’re capable of, & keep you coming back for more.
Whenever I obnoxiously throw into conversation that I run, I usually get, “I hate running,” “I tried but I just don’t like it,” “Don’t your knees hurt?” And after I have a bad fall, just heads shaking. So don’t run, I say, find what you love and do that. I don’t think I’d like Orange Theory, or boxing, or climbing, we’re all different. Those of us that love to run, and run outside, will do a lot to keep doing it. The important thing is to take care of our bodies and our minds. The important thing is to be unlimited in our accessibility and comfort with our exercise of choice. The important thing is for everyone to be free to run if we want to: long may we run.
Many thanks to the women of The Performance Project, Friends A-Foot, and Coffee Please Runners for sharing their love of running.
Burfoot, Amby. First Ladies of Running: 22 Inspiring Profiles of the rebels, rule breakers, and visionaries who changed the sport forever. Rodale, 2016.
Lin, Jennifer & Susan Warner. Sole Sisters: Stories of Women and Running. Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2006.
Women’s Running, Winter 2022.