Fifty years ago today (September 19) the inaugural women’s race took place at the New York City Marathon, with Beth Bonner winning in 2hr 55min 22sec – a world record.
It was the first big city marathon involvement for women – officially. A landmark in the long process of women being allowed to compete officially over long distances. A process that, it could be argued, began before the first of the modern Olympic Games. Or, perhaps, to the time of the ancient Games…
Women present at the ancient Games, even as spectators, faced the threat of execution. But women in ancient Greece held their own festival to honour the goddess Hera every five years. One athletic event was held – a foot race. Over a short distance. Not that the men were running huge distances themselves at that time.
History does not record which audacious females chose to test their powers of running endurance in the intervening millennia to 1896, when the first modern Olympics took place in Athens. But this Games marked the first clear page in the story of women and the marathon.
Accounts differ and historians disagree. But there were reports of a local woman, Stamata Revithi, who had attempted to enter the 1896 Olympic marathon only to be turned down, ostensibly because her entry had missed the deadline.
The day after – or according to some versions, the day before, or even the same day of the marathon – she set off to run the same route on her own, having got the local Mayor to testify at what time she had left, and having arranged for others to do the same for her at the other end.
After five-and-a-half hours she had reached the approach to the Panathenaic Stadium but was prevented from entering by Greek Army officers.
No-one knows what became of her afterwards.
There was also a report of another woman, known as Melpomene – after the Greek muse – running the 40 kilometres course of the Olympic marathon as a “test run” some time before the Games, and finishing in four and a half hours.
Some historians believe Revithi and Melpomene were the same person. True or not, it would be 88 years before women would be allowed to run the Olympic marathon.
Violet Piercy of Britain was the first woman to be officially timed in the marathon, when she clocked a time of 3:40:22 in London on October 3 1926.
Due largely to the lack of women’s marathon competition, that time stood as an unofficial world record for 37 years until, on December 16, 1963, American runner Merry Lepper ran a time of 3:37:07 in Culver City.
The oldest annual marathon in the world, the Boston Marathon, did not officially allow women runners until the year after the New York newcomer – that event began in 1970 – had established itself. But over the years some women runners had managed to get themselves involved.
In 1966, Roberta Gibb hid behind a bush at the start before joining the field and finishing in an unofficial time of 3:21.25. She was the first woman known to complete the arduous, hilly Boston course. Gibb had been inspired to run by the return of her race entry with a note saying that women were not physically capable of running a marathon.
“I hadn’t intended to make a feminist statement,” said Gibb. “I was running against the distance [not the men] and I was measuring myself with my own potential.”
At the following year’s Boston Marathon the issue of women’s participation hit the headlines with images of an enraged race official, Jock Semple, attempting to prevent the slight, track-suited figure of Kathrine Switzer – a 21-year-old member of Syracuse University who had entered as K V Switzer – from continuing in the race.
Semple repeatedly assaulted Switzer during the race in an attempt to remove her bib number and prevent her from continuing to compete.
In her memoir, she wrote: “Instinctively I jerked my head around quickly and looked square into the most vicious face I’d ever seen. A big man, a huge man, with bared teeth was set to pounce, and before I could react he grabbed my shoulder and flung me back, screaming, “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!”
Eventually Switzer’s boyfriend Tom Miller, a hammer thrower and ex-football player, shoved Semple to the ground and Switzer ran on to finish in 4hr 20min. Meanwhile, as the attention focused on Switzer, Gibb managed to complete all but the last few steps of the course, being forced off at the finish, where her time would have been around 3:27.17.
“I think it’s time to change the rules,” said Switzer. “They are archaic.”
The furore, at a time when the issue of women’s liberation was one that was becoming relevant all the way across society, hastened the changing of attitudes and rules.
In the late sixties the women’s world record was reduced by four different women, being reduced in May 1971 to 3:01:42 by Bonner in a race held in Philadelphia.
Just over four months later came the opportunity for Bonner to better her time at that New York race of 1971.
In the six years that followed, Nina Kuscsik and Miki Gorman won the title twice, with other wins going to Kim Merritt and, in 1974, to Switzer, who ran 3:07:29.
(In 2017, Switzer, then 70, ran the New York Marathon for the first time since 1974 and finished in 4:48:21.)
But as the 1978 running of the New York Marathon loomed ahead, a change of heart from a Norwegian track athlete altered the course of the event’s, and women’s marathon running history. That athlete was Grete Waitz, who died in 2011.
In March this year, Waitz’s widower and former coach Jack spoke to the World Athletics President Sebastian Coe to mark the donation of a pair of his late wife’s running shoes to the Museum of World Athletics.
In 1978 Waitz, 24, won the women’s world cross-country title in Glasgow and then competed at the European Championships in Prague, where she added a 3,000 metres bronze to the 1500m bronze she had won at the 1974 edition in Rome.
Winning the bronze in Prague “was very big in Norway”, according to her husband Jack, who said that Waitz had decided at that point she wanted to retire.
He added: “Then a friend of hers who had tried to do the New York Marathon the previous year said to her ‘why not go to New York and run a marathon before you retire?’”
So that is what Waitz did. And she set a world record of 2:32.30.
“We never talked tactics,” Jack Waitz said. “She had no idea about the marathon. I told her on the day that she should just stay behind all the girls and it’s going to be slow for you but it’s going to hurt.
“And of course she didn’t listen and she took off. She was really, really in pain over the last 10-12 kilometres and she broke the record and ran 2:32.
“She was stormed by the US media. She was used to this in races in Europe but this was different. But she was so angry at me that I had talked her into this. So she threw her shoes at me and said: ‘That’s it, never again.’”
A resolution she stuck to – until the following year, when she won in New York again in another world record of 2:27:33. And the following year, when she won in New York again in another world record of 2:25:42.
After giving the 1981 running a miss, she returned in 1982 for the first of five more successive victories, and added a ninth title in 1988.
Those first three world records of Waitz’s were recognised by the international governing body for athletics, then still known as the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF).
The Association of Road Racing Statisticians (ARRS) did not give them its imprimatur as a measurement of the New York course after Allison Roe of New Zealand had won the 1981 women’s race in 2:25:28 showed it was 151 metres short – they assumed a similar shortfall in the previous three years, although such was the margin of Waitz’s advance in the record, which before her debut stood at 2:34:47 that she was clearly the rightful holder of the new marks.
In 1983 Waitz ticked both the boxes as she won the London Marathon in a world record of 2:25:28. Later that year she won the women’s marathon at the first IAAF World Championships in Helsinki.
A year later Waitz took part in the first Olympic women’s marathon race in Los Angeles, earning silver in 2:26:18 behind home runner Joan Benoit, who clocked 2:24:52.
Waitz completed her last marathon on November 1, 1992 and, inevitably, it was in the New York Race. On this occasion she accompanied her long-time friend Fred Lebow, the NYC Marathon founder, in celebration of his 60th birthday after he had recently been diagnosed with brain cancer. They crossed the line together in 5:32:35.
Coe said: “I put her contribution in our sport alongside athletes like Fanny Blankers Koen and Irena Szewinska and Wyomia Tyus.
“What she did to globalise distance running for women was absolutely inseparable from our history.”
Waitz’s husband said: “I’m proud about her contribution to women’s running. And I’d like to mention that we started this run in Norway, the Grete Waitz Run. At that time no woman took part in road races in Norway.
“In connection to the unveiling of her statue in Oslo in 1984 we started a road race and to our big surprise we got 2,000 women to come to run.
“In 1994 in the tenth year of that running we had 47,000 women running for eight kilometres in the streets of Oslo. The whole situation in a way was changed. Women dared to go out and run and dared to go out and run in road races.
“So she has contributed a lot to national marathoning but also the fact that women stated to run here in Norway. I think she has had a tremendous impact.”
By the time women marathon runners were welcomed into the Olympics they had already established their strong presence in the annual big city marathons, inspired by figures such as Waitz.
The first London Marathon in 1981 was open to men and women, and Joyce Smith won the first of two titles in her native capital in 2:29:57, recognised by ARRS as the world record.
Waitz herself added a second London title in 1986, either side of which were two wins from fellow countrywoman Ingrid Kristiansen, who reduced the world record to 2:21:06 in 1985.
As one great Norwegian runner moved towards the close of her career, a second was taking her legacy further down the road.
For all Waitz’s triumphs elsewhere, she will always be primarily associated with the New York Marathon because of her unique record there.
Kristiansen kept the Norwegian flag flying on the east coast as she won the title in 1989, the year after Waitz’s last New York win.
And throughout the 1990s the event that had taken only a year to realise the good sense in allowing women to take part rather than having to hide in bushes or surround themselves with unofficial bodyguards reaped the benefit of a succession of outstanding wins from the rising stars of the roads.
In 1991, shortly after she had won the world 10,000 metres title in the steamy heat of Tokyo, Britain’s Liz McColgan chose New York to make her first marathon appearance – and won in 2:27:23, breaking the record for a debut by more than three minutes.
Five years later McColgan won the London Marathon and finished runner-up in the same event in 1997, when she ran her career best of 2:26:52, and 1998.
In 1994 and 1995 there were New York victories for Tegla Loroupe of Kenya, who went on to take the world record from Kristiansen with a time of 2:20:47 in 1998 before lowering the mark to 2:20:43 the following year.
In 2004 Paula Radcliffe, who had already reduced the world record to 2:15:25 with her 2003 win in London, secured the first of three New York wins, adding the others in 2007 and 2008.
Kenya’s Mary Keitany matched Radcliffe’s New York record with three successive wins from 2014 to 2016 before adding a fourth victory in 2018.
Since that historic first women’s race in New York half a century ago a succession of great champions have followed the course in and around Central Park.
In terms of women’s marathon running, the event has played a central role – and that role is due to continue as the field gathers for the 50th marathon running on November 7, a stat reflecting the 2012 cancellation due to Hurricane Sandy.