This year, I had the pleasure of celebrating International Women’s Day in the presence of some wonderful high school students at Dunn School in beautiul Los Olivos, California. I was the guest speaker at the request of Athletic Director Tim Weir, and hosted by their Dean of Leadership, Barbara Haig and Head of School, Michael Beck. It’s a small school, nestled in some of the most beautiful country the Central Coast has to offer. Everyone was so welcoming and I was delighted. Joining me on the two to three hour journey was my best friend, Jeaney Garcia. I owe her thanks on multiple levels, from reviewing my speech, matching it with great slides, prepping and setting up.
For me, the theme of the day was familiar territory. After all, I was at my peak in my running career about the time of the initial International Women’s Year. It was arguably the defining moment which launched the era for me as an activist. Here is what I was able to tell them. The students were great listeners and asked terrific questions, and I must say, these were all students, but not all are athletes.
The United Nations proclaimed the year 1975 to be “International Women’s Year.” President Gerald Ford established a commission for its observance in the US; and events were held over the next two years. In 1977, more than 130,000 women attended state conferences across the country.
President Jimmy Carter appointed Bella Abzug to preside over the culminating event in Houston, Texas, which attracted more than 2000 delegates. A torch relay originated in Seneca Falls, New York, with 3000 women carrying the flame to Houston. Texas Congresswoman and Houston native Barbara Jordan delivered the keynote speech. Dignitaries in attendance included Lady Bird Johnson, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, Coretta Scott King and Billy Jean King.
The conference opened with a clear sense of purpose, and much fanfare, although they were not a lawmaking body and they could only propose nonbinding recommendations. The goal was to arrive at a national plan of action to help remove sex barriers and better utilize women’s contributions. These were submitted to the President of the United States and Congress.
These lofty goals are what attracted me, with my best friend, to the conference. I was the world record holder in the marathon and Leal-Ann was the reigning national women’s marathon champion of 1977. We went seeking support for our cause on behalf of all women runners. Our objective was gaining Olympic inclusion for all distance-running events. (You see, the longest distance allowed at the time for women was only one mile, or the metric mile, 1500 meters.)
Twenty-six major topics were considered by the delegates, including the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), abortion, lesbian rights, child care, minority women, homemakers, battered women, education, rape victims, 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 I had rights to run at all, and perhaps was being somewhat selfish to ask for more.
What I could not anticipate at the time were the future influences and activism of several women I met that week in 1977, and here are two prime examples.
She was the amazing marathon runner, who picked up the torch relay in the state of Alabama where Phyllis Schlafly (of the Stop ERA movement) had urged Alabama women not to support this feminist organization event. There was a 16-mile stretch left vacant of runners that Peggy was asked to cover all by herself. She did and she saved the torch relay from being stopped in its tracks. She got her picture on the cover of Time magazine! We are still good friends, and went to the last Olympic Trials for Track and Field together, which of course includes all our women’s distance events and we celebrate that fact.
She was representing the Road Runners Club of America (RRCA) as the liaison to the US Department for the International Women’s Year Torch Relay that started in September in Seneca Falls, New York and finished in Houston, Texas in late November.
She coordinated all the running clubs, women and logistics. She was enthralled with the presence of Bella Abzug, Gloria Steinhem, and Coretta Scott King wandering in and out of the offices where she was stationed. She told the story later that “she met Jacqueline Hansen and Leal-Ann Reinhart who were there to lobby for the inclusion of a women’s marathon in the Olympics and that she wanted the RRCA to be a force in that effort!”
Henley started a nation-wide series of women-only long distance races, and eventually became the president of the RRCA. She was a member, with Leal-Ann and me, in the International Runners Committee as we lobbied and eventually brought an international class action lawsuit against the Olympic Committee.
HOW DID I GET TO THIS POINT?
Like all of you, I went to high school. Like some of you, I went out for sports. Like an even smaller number of you, I ended up in track and field. I was fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time. A new PE teacher at my high school specialized in track and field and was a woman ahead of her time. She saw the inequity of sports offered boys, which were not available to girls. She asked WHY? More importantly, she was asking WHY NOT? Dixie Griffin started the first girls track team at my school. I was pretty bad at all other sports, and was always last or sometimes never picked for any team. But the beauty of track and field is that you don’t get cut from the team. You just pick your event. I discovered I loved to run. I didn’t find immediate success, in part because there were limited opportunities for girls and women to run. The longest distance permitted was 440 yards (we now use metrics, so 400-meters), and soon after, 800 meters. 400 is only a quarter-mile and 800 is a half-mile. It took until I was in college that the mile or 1500m was introduced into the Olympic Games.
Once again, I was in the right place at the right time to discover the coach who would make all the difference in my life forever. I was in college, without a team or a coach, but I was befriended by another woman runner, Judy Graham, who I met on a random run. She invited me to join her club and meet her coach. Together, we trained as middle distance runners. Our Coach was Laszlo Tabori, a Hungarian Olympian who once held the world record and was the third man in the world to ever run the mile under four-minutes. We had the best coach. I love the mile, I still do, but I wasn’t the best miler by far and I was never going to be an Olympian miler that’s for certain. However, one day I watched my first marathon. One of my teammates, Cheryl Bridges, was running and she was good at this event. I watched her break the world record for women and become the first woman to go under 2:50 (two-hours and 50 minutes for 26.2 miles). I wanted to be like her! And a year later, I tried it.
I did not exactly train for this, but no matter, I finished and I won. It was the hardest thing I’d ever done, I hurt all over, I said “never again,” but it was also the most gratifying experience and I began to think of what I’d do “next time.” I was hooked. My next goal was the Boston Marathon. This time, I was better prepared and guess what? I won. It changed my life. It launched my career as a marathoner. I improved ten-minutes each of my first five marathons, including two world records. I won 12 out of my first 15 marathons. I found my event.
The only problem was that I was number one in the world for three years, during which an Olympic Games came and went without my event. Remember, we were still officially limited to the 1500m. This is why I became an activist.
By 1979, I was one of three co-founders for the International Runners Committee, to lobby for all the distance events for women to be included in the Olympic Games. We were made up of 13 movers and shakers in the running community around the world. To make a very long story short, I want you to know that we were successful in lobbying the marathon into the Olympic Games, which came to Los Angeles in 1984. The 5000 and 10,000-meter races wound up in an international class-action lawsuit consisting of over 70 women from nearly 30 countries. Although we technically did not win in court, running out of time before the LA Games began, within 30-days, the IOC announced the inclusion of those events in the next Games.
In conclusion, I’ll share with you something I want you to remember. It’s something I said on my 40th anniversary of winning the Boston Marathon. It was April 2013, and I had the honor of shooting the starting gun for the women’s race. In my short speech as they lined up, I said that I wished I were standing beside them to run, but I asked them to remember one thing. “Take nothing for granted, and just remember that a lot of women before you fought really hard for their right to run, so go out there and give it everything you’ve got and have a great race.” It was particularly poignant because front-row-center was a young woman named Shalane Flanagan. She was our top-ranked American female marathoner at the time. Remember I said a teammate of mine was the first woman to break 2:50 and she inspired me to run my first marathon? Well, she is Shalane’s mother. Shalane knows the story. After I said those words, Shalane looked up, gave me two thumbs up, I shot the starting gun, and they were off.
My advice to you is to respect the past, live in the moment and envision your future.