In 1966, Roberta ‘Bobbi’ Gibbs was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon (unofficially as she hid out in bushes near the starting line and joined in once the other runners started), but she did so wearing her brother’s hoody so she wouldn’t be noticed.
When Kathrine Switzer ran Boston in 1967, not only did Jock Semple try to forcibly remove her bib number, conventional wisdom at the time suggested running long distances could cause her uterus to fall out.
During long training runs in the late 1970s, Joan Benoit Samuelson, winner of the gold medal at the inaugural women’s marathon at the Los Angeles Summer Olympic in 1984, used to walk and pretend she was looking at flowers when people drove by her.
Women were officially allowed to enter the Boston Marathon in 1972, the same year Title IX legislation—allowing equal access to scholastic athletics for both men and women—was signed into law. Switzer was instrumental in launching the Avon International Running Circuit for women in 1978. The Circuit’s eight-year run included more than 200 events in 27 countries and was a driving force in having the women’s marathon added to the Los Angeles Summer Olympics in 1984.
At the very first New York City Marathon, held in 1970, out of 127 entrants, only one was female, and she was not one of the 55 finishers. These days, female finishers at events significantly outnumber men—according to Running USA, females accounted for 57 percent of finishers in 2016. There are now women’s only events, running groups, clubs and training programs, including those like Girls On The Run, designed to encourage young girls to embrace body positivity and physical fitness.
READ MORE: What it Means to Be a Female Runner Today
With a shift in numbers, has also come a shift in running focus. No doubt, winning races, placing in age groups and striving for PRs are always laud worthy goals for every runner. But Shanna Burnette, a former Division 1 runner at the University of Colorado Boulder and now a mom of three young children, notices more of a community aspect to running and races.
“Everyone works towards a goal, but the lasting friendships and community in achieving that goal has become more important than the goal itself,” says Burnette, who was proud to the point of tears when her young daughter ran her first Spartan race last summer. “I win always be competitive and I will always try to win, but being a part of the community and showing our children what it means to show up, try hard, support each other and always do our best is now my priority.”
Switzer created her new organization, 261 Fearless, with that idea in mind. The goal of the global social running network is to empower women through running, with an emphasis on support and camaraderie.
“My love of running is a feeling every woman can experience.” – American running legend Joan Benoit Samuelson
Between more support systems and many events more geared towards females, women have new opportunities to participate in growing numbers and excel, sometimes in seemingly unlikely arenas. While men may be faster, especially at shorter distances, women are closing the gap.
Courtney Dauwalter was the overall winner, by more than 10 hours, of the Moab 200 Endurance Run in 2017. She also set the American women’s 24-hour track record twice in 2017.
READ MORE: Courtney Dauwalter: Looking for her Limits
In November, Camille Herron was the outright winner at the Tunnel Hill 100 in Vienna, Illinois. She laid down the fastest know time on the course for both men and women, and also set a new women’s 100-mile world record in the process, with a time of 12:42:39.
Maria Shields was in her 40s when she took up running. Now 67, Shields holds the American record for the 60-64 age group in the 100-mile distance. And in 2017, she set a new American record for the 65-60 age group by running 60.64 miles in 12 hours.
Another runner who began running late in life was Harriette Thompson, who passed away last October at the age of 94. Before her death, she set records for being the oldest woman to run a half marathon (when she was 94) and a marathon (when she was 92).
For many girls and women just beginning their running careers, all they’ll know is toeing the line at races filled with other women, girls-only running clubs and strong role models like Emma Coburn, Kara Goucher, Desi Linden and Shalane Flanagan.
And instead of feeling like the female in a sea of guys, their normal will be having a fellow runner there to offer help when needed, like the sportsmanship displayed by 17-year old Ariana Luterman as she helped Chandler Self, 32, who collapsed just before breaking the tape at the finish of the 2017 Dallas Marathon. Or by collegiate competitors at the 2016 ACC Cross Country Championships when Evie Tate, running for Clemson, and Louisville’s Rachel Pease helped Boston College athlete Madeline Adams across the finish line (as seen in the video above).
While it still isn’t an accepted practice in some countries and cultures (organizations like Free to Run are working to change that), more women today than ever before can and are lacing up and running, without giving it a second thought. And that’s a win for everyone.
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