Now that the Boston Marathon is behind me by at least a week, I can reflect on what was a magical weekend. As the saying goes, you may leave Boston, but it never leaves you, and I do carry a piece of Boston in my heart.
This year was the 50th anniversary of Bobbi Gibb’s trek through the 1966 Boston Marathon as the very first woman to ever finish, and she did so three years consecutively, 1966, ’67 & ’68!
Boston 2016 celebrated her and 50 years of women running for all of us following in Bobbi’s footsteps. Amby Burfoot’s book, “The First Ladies of Running,” came out just in time for the festivities to tell the stories of 22 women runners who, as Amby says, were unstoppable. “Got that right!”
The First Ladies were treated like the royal family all weekend long, as we appeared at receptions, banquets, ceremonies, including the BAA Champions’ Breakfast and the BAA Marathon Milestones. Sara Mae Berman, who followed Bobbi as the subsequent three-time winner in Boston for 1969, ’70 and ’71, hosted several of us, First Ladies, in her large, rambling house in Cambridge. What fun we had, like a best friends reunion!
It was my honor to be named a keynote speaker at the Team in Training Inspiration Luncheon, hosted by the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. In truth, every TNT runner is a story of inspiration in their own right. They run as double-goal athletes, because they are not just running for their best time; they’re running for a greater good, running for the cause.
Here’s what I told them, as I connected the dots for all my personal connections between Boston Marathon history, Team in Training, and some of my dearest friends from Hawaii to Boston:
Boston is Where Dreams Come True
In 1966, a young woman named Bobbi Gibb asked to enter the Boston Marathon and was told no, there is no women’s division. She questioned why. And she ran anyway, without a number.
Her dream came true at Boston. More than once.
In 1966, I was a senior in high school in Los Angeles. A new PE teacher on campus, named Dixie Griffin, observed that while we had a boys’ track team, we did not have a girls’ track team. She questioned why. And she started one anyway. I failed at all other sports, but I liked to run. I joined her team.
In late 1972, I had just won the first marathon I ever tried. I had been inspired to try because my teammate Cheryl Bridges ran marathons and I witnessed her world record, the first sub-2:50 ever run by a woman. A friend of mine from Yale said “You should go to Boston. They just opened a women’s division for the first time.” I said YES. Why not?!
In 1973, I won Boston and my life changed forever. Thank you to Dixie Griffin for introducing me to track. Thank you to Bobbi Gibb for opening the door to Boston. Humongous thanks to my lifelong coach, Laszlo Tabori, for believing in me, for training me hard, and preparing me for anything. He made everything possible. And a dream came true for me in Boston.
Twelve wins out of fifteen marathons in my competitive years, including two world records and being the first to break 2:40, I am grateful and satisfied that I achieved more than I set out to do when I joined my high school track team. That’s for certain. However, I also realized as the number one woman marathoner in the world for a period of three years, there was an injustice – because I was a woman, I could not run in the Olympic Games. Women were limited to the one mile run as the longest distance allowed. As President of the International Runners Committee, we lobbied and sued until at last we had a marathon for the first time in 1984, but had to drag through the courts before all the women’s distance races were included. Through it all, I finally had the opportunity to join scores of women able for the first time to go to an Olympic Trials in May of 1984.
On April 16, 1984 at Boston, I qualified for the first ever women’s Olympic Trials Marathon – just in time because it was the last day possible to qualify. I finished against all odds, given I was recovering from injuries that required surgery, and ran two failed prior attempts to qualify, plus finished Boston in a heavy rainstorm, in the grips of hypothermia, where I completely blacked out. The only thought in my mind as I fought to finish was this mantra, “I deserve to finish, I deserve to finish.” This was combined with exhaustion of working on the women distance runners’ lawsuit, which ironically enough began in court on that fateful day, April 16, 1984. It could not have been a more dramatic day in my life. Or so I thought.
But my dream came true in Boston again. I was going to the Olympic Trials, the first ever. I was past my prime as an athlete. I was sick and injured, but it WAS my Olympics experience nonetheless.
In 1996, I pulled myself out of running retirement to run the 100th Anniversary and was so happy to participate in the best way I knew how. Running. All the living champions returned to Boston to participate, running or not. It was a glorious time. It was the biggest field Boston ever experienced, at the time. That would change.
In 2013, I celebrated my 40th Anniversary at Boston. Several of my friends purposely qualified for the Boston Marathon that year, in order to join me in celebration. A few of them ran for Team in Training. I had been coaching Jeaney Garcia for years, I just began coaching Michele Tritt, and although I was not his coach, we have a mutual friend from Honolulu in Kit Smith who has run many times in honor of the daughter he lost to Leukemia. He is an inspiration to all of us. Kit’s daughter, Patty was 19 years-old and in college when she succumbed to leukemia. Her diaries were memorialized in a book her father, an accomplished sports writer, published. He maintains the most positive attitude I have ever seen. And he continues to run marathons and run for the cause.
On this day, I had the honor of shooting the starting gun for the women’s race. And I was shuttled with a police escort back to the finish line in time for the first finishers. I was even able to gain access to stand right on the finish line to greet each of my runners as they raced in. And because we were staying on Copley Plaza, I could escort them each back and forth to the hotel from the finish. It was on our way back to the finish line for my final runner to come in, my best friend Jeaney, when we heard and felt the two blasts. Kaboom, kaboom. Like a sonic boom and an earthquake (at least it seemed so to this Californian). You all know what took place. We were separated by two bomb blasts near the finish line and it took hours to reunite and to know that each other was safe. We cried and hugged when we finally found each other. Others were not so fortunate. We grieved for a long, long time. I had no idea in 1984 that, in my experience, Boston could ever hold more drama. I had no idea drama could be so tragic.
In 2014, most of us returned to Boston, perhaps for closure (if there is ever such a thing). I’ve looked up the definition of “closure.” The dictionary says it’s a feeling of finality or resolution, especially after a traumatic experience. A letting-go of what once was. A complete acceptance of what has happened and an honoring of the transition away from what’s finished to something new.
Jeaney ran for TNT again. She could’ve taken the free pass to return and run on her own, as offered to all of those who did not get to finish in 2013. But she chose to fundraise all over again. She was honoring LLS, she was honoring Kit Smith, and she respected the fact that she might be taking the spot of someone else would have raised funds for a cause. She did it because it was the right thing to do. She did it because she is the most positive person on the planet and I am enriched because of our deep friendship and unconditional love.
She did it because she believed dreams do come true in Boston.
While we waited for Jeaney at the finish line again, I witnessed the most gratifying finish by the first American in over 30 years to win Boston. Meb. That’s all I need to say. Just one name. Meb. A huge sigh of relief came over the city of Boston when Meb crossed the finish line. I even got a big hug at the finish from Meb. I cried and for the first time, I was absolutely speechless, muttering my words and shedding tears of joy. All was right with the world again. Boston Strong. Take back the roads. Take back our race. Everyone was saying these words. And I do believe the runners outnumbered the record number I mentioned that ran at the 100th Boston. Everyone wanted to participate and support. Boston Strong.
For me, for my entourage, we didn’t quite find closure until Jeaney crossed her finish line. And then she did. And allow me to read the conclusion she wrote to a heart-warming article that was published in Marathon & Beyond magazine.
“I followed the advice of the champions at the breakfast I went to before the race. I made the Boston Marathon the best experience possible, making friends and memories that I’ll never forget. I used to run to get the fastest time, but as Amby Burfoot refreshingly reminded me: been there, done that. My coach and best friend, Jacqueline Hansen, has been with me over many years and many hurdles, including the 1996 Olympic Trials Marathon where I came up short on time and injured but somehow finished. I suffered more than I had in childbirth and felt almost as proud. Jacqueline always said I was in sub 2:50-shape for a good portion of my fastest years, but unfortunately, I did not prove it in races often enough.
“At 52-years-old, I now know that I can prove that every race is a great race, no matter your time. Jacqueline continues to remind me to just run what I can, where and when I can. I will always run for the survivors, the fighters, the taken. I deserve to finish, as Jacqueline the champion said. We all deserve to finish.”
“I run to refresh my body and soul. I run because it brings me life. I run to be the best version of myself. I remember those who can’t run and what they would give to have this gift. There is no such thing as a bad run because every day is a blessing, and I am proud of every run I do. And as it proclaims on the back of my TNT singlet, I run for those who cannot run for themselves.”
Boston 2016, a story in pictures
Day One: Welcome Reception
Day Two: TNT Inspiration Luncheon & Evening of Marathon Milestones
Day Three: Champions’ Breakfast, First Ladies Seminar & AMAA Banquet
Day Four: Patriots Day is Marathon Day
One of the many things I love about my good friend, Deborah Hafford, is how she has her finger on the pulse of women’s — je ne sais quoi — multi-faceted women’s issues, be it sports, business, social or other issues.
Deborah shared a NY Times article with me in which runner Lauren Fleshman makes this observation: “Women have never been more marketable in sports than they are now, from U.S. soccer to Serena. Forty-plus years since Title IX means we have our first generation of supportive parents and coaches who grew up with the idea of female athletes not being horrifying. People are training girls harder than ever.” This interesting observation brought to mind a related statement I heard recently from soccer star, Abby Wombach.
In an NPR article about Abby Wombach‘s retirement, she is portrayed as: “the youngest of seven, who says when she (Abby) was a little girl, she knew she had to be loud and tough to stand out. Her mom put her on a boys’ soccer team at 9 to challenge her.”
In this interview, her mother, Judy Wombach, said “And come to find out, many of the young women that were on the U.S. national team played boys during their early years. I did something right and didn’t know I did it.”
From an insightful English blog, “Run Young 50” , writer Katie Holmes states that “American women love to run marathons. In 2014, 43% of marathon finishers in US races were women, the highest percentage of any country in the world. In the UK the figure is 34%. And American women love half marathons even more than marathons. They outnumber male competitors at the distance, making up 61% of finishers in 2014.”
A cursory look into statistics of USA running indicates this trend to be true. For example, in the Running USA 2015 State of the Sport, one particular statistic shows “Females account for 10.7 million finishers nationwide and continue to represent 57% from event fields. Males in 2014 represented over 8 million finishers in U.S. races.”
Writer Katie Holmes further points out that “fifty years ago there was virtually no opportunity for women to take part in endurance running, let alone run a marathon. Women were prohibited from running further than 200 metres at the Olympics from 1928 until 1960 when the 800 metres was reintroduced to the Olympics. It took another 12 years before the 1500 metres featured in the programme and the women’s marathon was not added until 1984 . . .” She kindly gave my book a very positive review, and pointed to the work of all the early women running pioneers with credit for laying the groundwork leading to this tremendous growth of women’s athletics.
I am not a statistician, but I’ve seen enough anecdotal evidence in my observations to verify this growing trend of women gaining ground in sports overall. Of course, we had a lot of ground to catch up in the first place. Looking back over time, it seems so antiquated that, for instance, one early advocate, Nina Kuscsik, had to stage a sit-in at the start of the 1971 New York City Marathon to protest the separate start times of the men’s and women’s races. It seems so odd now that certain running magazine columnists ever gave argument as to why women did not deserve equal awards at races. (Believe it or not, he was serious.) It doesn’t seem reasonable that we had to go to court to gain the right to even run as far or ski jump as far as the men. . . . but that’s another entire blog story (elsewhere on this site).
And as far as Lauren Fleshman’s statement about supportive versus non-supportive parents of potentially athletic young girls . . . . I will assume she was speaking in generalities. I for one took up running and immersed myself in training in spite of my disapproving parent-guardians, and the rebelliousness of it all probably played a role in my decision. So that argument about the parents could go either way. In fact, in my job as a Coaching Education Director and as an Athletic Director, I’ve witnessed plenty of cases with negative experiences in sports for children of all-too-supportive parents (aka: helicopter parents hovering). But I digress. Let’s close optimistically with the increased and growing trend of women represented in sports. Perhaps women do hold up half-the-sky or as Sheryl Sandberg recommends, they are “Leaning In.” Simply put, as Deborah states, something is happening here.