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The Forgotten History of Female Distance Running

Yay! We’ve arrived in March, Women’s History Month, a month dedicated to honoring female leaders. When I think of inspirational women in life, many of them are athletes, specifically runners. To kick off this month of education and appreciation, I feel the need to discuss the often-overlooked history of long-distance female runners. When I run, I notice a clear difference in my mental health, as it allows me to feel powerful and confident in accomplishing my goals. But that feeling of acceptance in female running hasn’t always been the case. For years, women fought for the right to run and compete in races.

1928 Olympic Games: The Forgotten Truth

For much of the 20th century, women were excluded from competing in races longer than 800 meters. This was due to the societal belief that  strenuous running affected a woman’s fertility and reproductive health, as well as their femininity.

Although women made their first appearance in the 1928 Olympic Games, the 800-meter event created controversy. Germany’s Lina Radke won the race by taking the lead on the back straight on the final lap, beating the world record with a time of 2:16.9! However, instead of the world celebrating the new world record of the women’s 800-meter race, news sources spun the results of the race into a different direction. Reporters from the race exaggerated Radke’s and other competitors collapses at the end of the race. Unfortunately, the International Olympic Committee believed these false statements spawned by the media and removed the 800-meter event until 1960.

This sexist attitude towards female running continued even after 1960 when more female Olympic events were added to the games. Particularly in the US in 1961, the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) banned women from competing in road races. However, the restrictions placed on female runners didn’t stop many courageous women from racing unofficially.

1967 Boston Marathon: Kathrine Switzer "runs like a boy"

This video shares more about Kathrine Swizter's experience in the Boston Marathon.

Frustrated by the endless restrictions AAU placed on female competitors in road races and marathons, Kathrine Switzer approached the situation differently. In 1967, a student at Syracuse University, Switzer began training unofficially with the Men’s Cross Country Team. But in the back of her mind, Switzer couldn’t shake the thought of entering the Boston Marathon, an event that her coach often talked about. Although Briggs seemed skeptical at first, he helped Swizter flourish in her training. After Switzer and Briggs completed a 31-mile training run just three weeks before the marathon, both knew what to do.

Switzer entered the Boston Marathon the next day, signing her name as “K.V. Switzer.” Switzer knew the AAU restricted women from entering the marathon, which is why she used the more ambiguous name “K.V.” to guarantee her position on the starting line. On April 19th, 1967, Switzer, Briggs, her boyfriend Big Tom Miller, and another Cross Country team member John Leonard toed the start line to the Boston Marathon. As Switzer’s pack received support from other competitors on their warm up, they ran confidently when the gun fired.

But shortly into the race around mile four, a news flatbed truck drove on the course to follow the pack and began photographing the group. Suddenly, a Boston Marathon Official, Jock Semple, jumped into the racecourse, yelling at Switzer to drop out of the race and take off the racing number, attempting to push her off the course. In fear, Switzer picked up her pace, sprinting past the news truck, but the hostility followed. Semple tracked Switzer down a few minutes later and continued his harassment, causing the pack to feel the pressure of potential arrest. But Switzer refused to give up. With the continuous support of her running group, Switzer finished the Boston Marathon in four hours and 20 minutes. Other female runners felt inspired by Switzer and entered in other long-distance races, advocating for female inclusion.

"The reason there are no intercollegiate sports for women at big universities, no scholarships, prize money, or any races longer than 800 meters is because women don’t have the opportunities to prove they want those things."

Direct quote from Kathrine Switzer's memoir Marathon Woman.

1972-2022: Progress made, but never complete

Finally, in 1972, the Boston Marathon officially recognized female competitors. This caused many other athletic associations to follow with the passing of Title IX. Global progress occurred when the International Olympic Committee added the women’s marathon to its program in 1984. Although the running world has progressed since the 1928 Olympics, as I discussed earlier, female runners still face challenges within the industry.

One notable issue is the lack of medical research conducted on female athletes and runners. Many coaches give their female runners the extreme training schedules and diets they give to their male runners. However, coaches acting this way disregard the uniqueness of the female body. They neglect learning more about how a woman’s hormone cycle impacts athletic training and performance. As a result, great young female athletes like Melody Fairchild and Mary Cain lost their periods, developed eating disorders, injured themselves, and lost confidence.

When we compare female distance running to men’s distance running, we must recognize the recency of female running. Female distance running still carries the potential to be improved! I hope the future leads to more awareness about the female body and how runners can strengthen themselves inside and out, regardless of their ability, age, and size.

Campbell Ray

Tulane '25

Campbell is a freshman at Tulane University interested in studying Business and Political Economy. When not in class, Campbell loves running, rock climbing, and singing Taylor Swift!
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