International Runners Committee (IRC)
Background: 1974 – 1977
Many factors contributed to my becoming an activist in the movement towards rights for women runners. To trace those factors, I reflect on the stories of my running experiences leading up to the creation of the International Runners Committee.
1974 Women’s International Marathon, Waldniel, West Germany:
Although I’d won Boston the year before, injuries didn’t allow me to return to Boston in 1974. Instead, I set my sites
on the first women’s international championship marathon in Waldniel, West Germany in the fall. There had been a US National Championship Marathon previously that I had not participated in due to a scheduling conflict, where I was needed for my club participation in another women’s championship team competition. When the time came to prepare for the Waldniel race, I was not chosen to be a member of the USA team, for having missed that national marathon. It didn’t really matter because our hosts in Germany counted me as part of the USA team anyway. Since I did not have a US uniform, I simply wore a plain red-shirt and shorts. I placed fifth overall and first American.
As an early advocate of woman distance runners, Dr. Ernest Van Aaken hosted this first women’s international marathon. He had been arguing the case for women since the fifties, when he fought for a German national championships in 800-meters in 1954, and doubting journalists accused him of creating “Zatopeks in pigtails,” recommending ambulances and stretchers on hand for the finish. That particular reporter did an “about-face” speaking of the “beauty and grace of the winner flying easily across the finish line” (in Dr. Van Aaken’s words). It took him another 15 years to implement the women’s 1500m in the German federation program. In 1973, he held his country’s first women’s marathon. He writes extensively about women, the “enduring sex,” in his book the Van Aaken Method, a translation published by Runners World in 1976, for which my husband wrote the introduction, and included pictures of Joan Ullyot and I with Dr. Van Aaken. Joan wrote about him in Runners’ World magazine articles and in her 1976 book, Women’s Running.
Late 1974 — Western Hemisphere Marathon 2:43 WR
Running the Women’s International Marathon in Waldniel, West Germany, was my first-ever trip to Europe. After the marathon, I traveled from Germany towards Tunisia where my husband Tom and I would stay with friends. They were members of Tom’s training group at home, the Santa Monica Track Club, and the husband, who was Tunisian, spent several months of the year in Tunis. His wife was working on an article for Runners’ World on the Tunisian Olympian, Mohammed Gammoudi, whom I looked forward to meeting.
En route, we traveled through Germany, where I won a 10K race the week after the marathon. The following week, while traveling through Italy, I won a 15K in Florence, breaking a women’s world record in 52.15 as I finished the race seventh overall amongst the men, trailing right behind my very surprised husband. In fact, fifth, sixth and seventh were all identical times. I found it an interesting race, because men showed they definitely did not want me to pass them, and would speed up to recapture the lead only to fade away eventually (which is how I ended up in fourth). Afterwards, there was one man who emerged from the crowd to tell me “I have always said that the day I am beaten by a woman is the day I stop running, but today I have learned something.” I still cherish that man’s comments to this day!
When we met Gammoudi in Tunis, I felt quite honored to join him in a training run on the military base where he and his teammates ran. I respectfully wore long pants, as running shorts on women was completely unacceptable. Our
conversations took place in three languages, translated from Arabic to French to English and in reverse, so there was a lag time between questions and answers. When I was asked how the pace was, and asked to give my answer in a percentage of effort, I said it was easy, maybe 50%, I recognized the response in gasps before the translation. Those men did not expect a woman who could hold pace with them I suppose.
Upon returning home from my first European experience, I held a new found confidence that I could run with the “best of them.” And I don’t mean the men from Tunis, or even the men of Florence, but I did mean the women in Waldniel. So that day in December of 1974, as I warmed up with our friend Bruce Dern for the Western Hemisphere Marathon in Culver City, we talked about how others were projecting records for my performance and my nervous anticipation. He told me he loved his ability to pick winners (he is the one who sponsored my trip to Germany when I did not “make” the team) and that I should not pay any attention to the pressure, just run my own pace, my own race. I calmly went to the starting line, calmly set my pace, calmly shut out the bystanders, and crossed the finish line in a new world record of 2:43:55.
1975: Second WR 2:38, Eugene, Oregon
Nearly a year later, I chose again to bypass the national women’s marathon championships due to time off for injuries and the fact that my training had not been what it should be. Buying more time to train, I chose to run a later marathon, the inaugural NIKE-Oregon Track Club Marathon in Eugene, that would serve as a sort of dress rehearsal for the men’s Olympic Marathon Trials in the coming year.
I must say that in retrospect, I experienced what sports psychologists call a “peak performance,” although the term “sports psychology” did not exist at the time. I compared it to the sensation of coming out of anesthesia, with a sense of no time passing. Simultaneously, I could also recall every specific detail of every mile en route. The sensation was almost an out-of-body experience. I know that I ran an average of 6:02 per mile, with the slowest mile being 6:08 and the last 10K run at 5:55 miles. I ran those negative splits, and was completely aware and in control the minute I heard my 20-mile split and picked up the pace to finish. This was a unique experience unlike any of my previous races. How I wished I could patent that feeling and pull it out of my repertoire on call.
Crossing the finish line eleventh overall in 2:38.19, I became the first woman in running history to break the 2:40 mark. Men’s winner, Jon Anderson said “there are plenty of men who would be happy with a time like that.” At least I had my wits about me and as I talked to the press there and at home later, I used every opportunity to take a stand on the need for a women’s Olympic Marathon.
1977: International Year of the Woman
If I was influenced by the turbulent sixties to question authority, I was further influenced by the seventies feminist movement. The United Nations proclaimed 1975 the International Women’s Year. As a result, in the US President Gerald Ford established a commission for its observance and events were held over the following two years. In 1977, state conferences held across the country, which over 130,000 women attended. President Jimmy Carter appointed Bella Abzug to preside over the final culminating event in Houston, Texas, attended by more than 2,000 delegates. Houston native and Texas congresswoman, Barbara Jordan, delivered the keynote speech. A torch relay originated in Seneca, New York and was carried by 3,000 women en route to Houston. Dignitaries in attendance included Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Coretta Scott King and Billy Jean King.
According to the Handbook of Texas, “the conference opened with a clear sense of purpose as well as much fanfare…..” and “Although the National Women’s Conference was not a lawmaking body and could only propose nonbinding recommendations, it was directed to arrive at a national plan of action to help remove sex barriers and better utilize women’s contributions…….to be submitted to the president and Congress….” It was these lofty goals which attracted me and best friend Leal-Ann Reinhart to the conference. We went seeking help for our cause.
“Twenty-six major topics were considered by the delegates, including the ERA, abortion, lesbian rights, child care, minority women, homemakers, battered women, education, rape, health, and a cabinet-level women’s department.” The enormity and importance of these issues empowered me and at the same time humbled me to the point that I felt fortunate that I had rights at all to run, and perhaps was being somewhat selfish to ask for more.
What I could not anticipate at the time, I learned years, indeed decades later. I had met a few key women in Houston that week in 1977: Peggy Kokernot, Henley Gibble, and Mary Cullen. From making those acquaintances, I could not have imagined their future influences and activism.
On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the RRCA (Road Runners Club of America), writer Jim Ferstle interviewed Henley Gabeau (formerly Gibble):
“In 1977, Jeff Darman (then RRCA president.) asked me to be the RRCA contact and liaison to the U.S. State Department for the International Women’s Year Women’s Torch Relay that started in September in Seneca Falls, N.Y., and finished in Houston, Texas, in late November,” said Gabeau.
“I was to coordinate all of the running clubs, women, and logistics of the RRCA participation, and other stuff. It was a time when Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinem and Coretta Scott King would amble in and out of the office as I sat with a phone glued to my ear in awe of these women.
“I was sent to Houston to organize the last week, where I met Jacqueline Hansen and Leal-Ann Reinhart (Jacqueline was the former world record holder in the marathon and Leal-Ann the 1977 U.S. marathon champion), who were there to lobby for the inclusion of a women’s marathon in the Olympics,” recounted Gabeau.
“It was that meeting that sent me back to Jeff Darman in the fall of 1977 with a mission: To have the RRCA be a force in that effort.”
“Darman promptly appointed Gabeau chairwoman of the RRCA’s Women’s Distance Committee.”
Henley became a tireless advocate for women distance runners, hosting speaking events and the RRCA Women’s Distance Festival of races across the nation. She and I joined efforts in the International Runners Committee soon after, in 1979.
Peggy Kokernot was the amazing young woman who picked up the torch relay, in the state of Alabama where Phyllis Schlafly, of the “Stop ERA” movement, had convinced all Alabama women not to support this feminist organization event. There was a 16-mile stretch left vacant of runners that marathoner Peggy was asked to cover, which she did and saved the torch relay from being stopped in its tracks. Her picture on the cover of TIME magazine, combined with her winning the Houston Marathon shortly after the convention, and the strength she found after experiencing the conference opened opportunities she never dreamed of, according to her mother, Edith Grinell, in an interview by Jo Freeman, “The Last Mile – 1977.”
In retrospect, I am pleasantly surprised at the effect this event had not only for me, for each of my friends. The seeds were sown, and the years ahead were full of action. This “child of the sixties” had become a “feminist of the seventies.”
(More on the development of the IRC – to be continued)