Getting “Chicked” – A History of Women’s Running
It is easy to take running for granted.
We often complain about bad workouts and slow race times without taking the time to think about just how privileged we are to have a strong pair of legs beneath us, capable of pounding the pavement for mile after mile.
As a woman runner, one thing that I know I often take for granted is the freedom to run without social persecution.
In ancient Greece, women were forbidden to compete in the Olympic Games. In fact, married women were forbidden even from spectating at these athletic events under the penalty of death.
Even in the modern Olympic Games, founded by Pierre de Coubertin and starting in Athens in the year 1896, the role of women was very limited in the beginning. In the first several games, as in ancient Greece, women were not allowed to compete in track and field events.
In 1928, at the Olympic games held in Amsterdam, women were allowed to compete in running events for the first time. After the 800-meter event, The International Olympic Committee ruled that the collapse of women at the finish meant that the distance was too difficult a strain on the female body and banned the event until the 1960 games. Later, film captured at the 1928 games surfaced, showing that only one woman truly fell at the finish and was up and on her feet again after only 3.2 seconds.
Even through the 1960s and into the 70s, American women were taught that running was a man’s sport. One friend I’ve made as a professional runner is a woman who was one of America’s finest pioneers of the sport and the first American woman to break 4:40 in the mile.
One night before a race, I stayed the night at her house and listened to her stories of running in Seattle in the 60s when both men and women would throw things at her as she was running and even physically push her off of trails. This was a very tough time for women in the sport, but then the 80’s happened.
In 1984, at the Los Angeles Olympics, the inaugural women’s marathon took place and American Joan Benoit Samuelson claimed the gold medal in stunning fashion, breaking away from the chase pack just over 4 miles into the 26.2 mile race. When Joanie sailed across the finish line alone and in first place, distance running for American women was never the same.
Women runners today
Today, we reap the benefits of women like Joanie, and women like Katherine Switzer, who defied the rules of the Boston Athletic Association in 1967 and completed the Boston Marathon under the guise of K. Switzer, since women were not allowed to run. Every run that you complete is a celebration of these women and their progress for the sport of distance running.
The most remarkable result of this wave of acceptance for women’s running is the science that shows that over longer and longer ultra-marathon distances, women are not only able to compete with men, they are beating them.
In 1997, a study at the University of Cape Town tested a hypothesis that women ultramarathon runners have greater fatigue resistance than do equally trained men whose performances are superior up to the marathon distance. At about the 90k distance is where women begin to exceed men in performance.
All of this is not to prompt us to burn our bras and put down men. On the contrary, men can be wonderful training partners and friends. The purpose of this article is to remind you that lacing up your shoes for a run is a wonderful privilege, no matter how fast or slow you feel. Running is a freedom to be cherished and appreciated, yes, even when it results in blisters and chafing.
1. Cheuvront SN, Carter R, DeRuisseau KC, et al. Running performance differences between men and women. Sports Med, 2005; 35(12):1017-1024
2. Bam J, Noakes TD, Juritz J, et al. Could women outrun men in ultramarathon races? Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 1997; 29(2):244-247