On Monday, nearly half of the 35,000 runners participating in the Boston Marathon will be women. There will be 396 women named Jennifer alone. There will be 238 Sarahs, and 188 Amys. The fastest among these runners will finish in under two and a half hours.
Given all that, it’s hard to remember that not so long ago, to be a woman running Boston was something of a revolutionary act. On April 17, 1972, just 42 years ago, Nina Kuscsik won the first officially sanctioned women’s race. She was one of nine women to enter, and she finished in 3:10:26.
For Kucsik and the other racers, it was a struggle just to get to the starting line. Five years earlier, Syracuse University journalism student Kathrine Switzer defied regulations and registered for the race using her initials. (Other women ran the course without numbers.) A little past mile four, a race official leapt onto the course and, according to Switzer, shouted “Get the hell out of my race and give me those numbers!” He tried to push her off the road, but Switzer kept running, thanks in part to the interference set by her very large boyfriend from Syracuse. A photograph of the confrontation quickly became an iconic depiction of the women’s rights movement. Switzer finished in 4 hours and 20 minutes that year. (In 1975, she ran Boston again, this time with the BAA’s blessing, and set a personal best of 2:51:37.)
Now, it seems quaint to remember that women were excluded from competitive marathon running in part out of a fear that their bodies couldn’t handle the strain. Women like Switzer and Kucsik proved that wrong. So have countless others in the marathons since. Last year, Rita Jeptoo finished in 2 hours and 25 minutes. With her body far from destroyed, she’ll be back again for this year’s race.
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