I take running for granted. Sometimes I go out and run without even considering how lucky I am that I’m fit and healthy and able to run; that I have the time and means to run while my children are well looked after; that I have safe spaces nearby at my convenience. And sometimes I do remember these things and that I’m lucky and I take a moment to feel happy I have this outlet.
After watching the inspiring women’s marches all over the nation and on every continent this Saturday, it occurred to me there is another way I take running for granted. Women running and racing is a relatively new concept – and the reason we can get out there today and enter the same races and the same distances as men is partly thanks to pioneering female runners who fought hard to make running an accessible sport for men AND women.
There are SO many badass women runners I could include on this list, but here are five amazing female athletes you should know about.
One of the most well-known female runners is the iconic Katherine Switzer. If you have ever run, or considered running a marathon, you partially have Switzer to thank for that freedom of choice. In 1967, when the Boston Marathon was still definitely a men-only race (after all, running a marathon distance as a woman might mean your uterus would fall out…or something). Katherine Switzer lined up at the starting line with an official bib, having registered using her first initial to disguise her gender. Race manager Jock Semple, infuriated when he saw a woman wearing an official number, infamously tried to forcibly remove her from the course, so outraged that a woman would be running the marathon. Switzer got out of his grasp and finished the race in 4 hours and 20 minutes.
Joan Benoit Samuelson
It wasn’t until 1980 that the ACSM released an official statement that a “healthy, trained female athlete” should be able to run the marathon distance without adverse effects. This was a huge step toward a growing goal in the female running world to have the marathon included as an event in the Summer Olympics.
Four years later, that dream was realized when the 1984 Summer Olympics hosted by Los Angeles debuted the first ever women’s marathon event. American Joan Benoit made history by winning the event for the first time, in 2:24:52.
As an Aussie, I have to include Cathy Freeman in my list of inspiring female runners. I was a teenager when Freeman was at her racing peak and I remember watching her with such pride for my country that such an awesome woman was an Australian ambassador on the world stage. Freeman has an energy about her that is magnetic and it was so much fun to watch her run.
In 1990, Freeman became the first Aboriginal Australian Commonwealth Games gold medallist with her win in the women’s 4 x 100m relay. She was 16 years old at the time. The next few years she ran in several international events, including the 1992 Olympic Games, the 1993 World Championships, and the 1994 Commonwealth games. In 1996 all of Australia watched as Cathy Freeman took the silver medal in the 400m in the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games. I remember watching four years later, in my new home of New York City, as she competed in the same event in the 2000 Olympics held in Sydney, this time taking gold and becoming the second ever indigenous Australian to win an Olympic gold medal.
She ran her victory lap after that win holding both the Australian flag and the Aboriginal flag. I remember watching that lap with the flags flying and getting goosebumps at the history being made.
In every race there is a male winner and a female winner and almost unfailingly, the fastest time is that of the male winner. (This is a great read about the sexism – still – about the “winner” of a race, written by my bad ass and fast AF friend Allie). In 2002, though, ultra runner Pam Reed made history by being the first woman to win outright the Badwater Ultramarathon, a 135 mile race, known as “the world’s toughest foot race.” It starts in California’s Death Valley and ends at the trailhead of Mt Whitney, with runner’s climbing over 8,360 feet in elevation over the course. The following year, Reed won the race again.
Middle distance runner Alysia Montano holds a special place for me in any list of badass women runners. I am a big proponent of running while pregnant (obviously as long as it’s not contraindicated and you feel good doing it). Montano is widely recognized for her 800 meter race in the USTAF Championships in 2014…when she was 34 weeks pregnant.
Yes we can, ladies. Yes, we can.